Fossil fuels vs. Solar energy: the expensive hunt for rotted dinosaurs shifts to the ultimate free lunch

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As much as I love filling up at the pumps – the soothing smell, the spirit of contributing to the economy as the meter shows my cash disappear, the exhilarating sense of danger from knowing that an errant spark will blow me into the next neighborhood – I have to admit a solar powered future does seem considerably more appealing, and if the inertia continues it will arrive in the not too distant future.

The peculiar and somewhat deranged information you’ll find on this website may seem biased towards the petroleum industry. A lot of space is devoted to how it works, where petroleum comes from, what happens to it, who makes money off it, and ultimately how it gets in your gas tank/furnace/air conditioner/recipes/how do I know what you use it for.

That bias has more to do with the purpose of the website – to explain the existing industry in plain language that doesn’t drown people in silly detail and/or with a statistics fire hose. So a lot of the topics tend to be simply descriptive of why the energy industry is the way it is, with the author trying his best to bottle up the more blistering attacks that seem oh so warranted.

That topical focus shouldn’t be taken as a slight against renewable energy. Far from it; the only exciting developments in the energy industry these days centre on new innovations like massive solar farms or Tesla cars, whom I have to admit I have a severe crush on (not Elon Musk, just the cars. Another reason the site is anonymous). And I’m sure you’d agree, those things are a lot more fun to read about than the latest advances in drilling mud that get petroleum engineers re-tweeting on their color- and joy-less networks.

Fossil fuels are on the way out, eventually. I’m not saying that as a Naomi Klein-type fire-breathing dragon that’s out to destroy industries and/or deeply held political beliefs, more as a person who’s spent a lot of years looking for oil and gas, and knows that it’s getting hard to find the good (that is, cheap) stuff, and that a greener future is necessary and inevitable. Don’t be fooled too much by the extravagant tales about how shale oil/gas is going to power the world for the next hundred years; the headlines as usual are some distance from reality (except on this website, where the parallels are eerily similar). The shale revolutions are more of a blip; they have changed the short-term energy landscape but are very expensive and shale output changes total global production by only a few percentage points, not large margins. When the really big oil fields of the world start dying off (almost all of which were found more than 50 years ago), oil prices will head way up and stay there. That is what ultimately will usher in a serious era of renewable energy advancement.

And that will be a very good thing. I don’t know about climate change impacts, 50-year weather forecasts, etc., and find the climate change debate tiresome; the whole topic reeks of cherry-picked statistics used to support predetermined arguments. But I do know that having an endless source of energy from massive solar (or wind) installations is becoming more necessary for our way of life from a pollution and environmental standpoint. Energy is far too important, and the present system is pretty dubious. Burning fossil fuels is undeniably a messy business and it is also unsustainable if the world starts driving cars like us North Americans do. And practically speaking, most of the world’s oil reserves are in the hands of countries that tend not to rank well on the “great places to get away from it all” lists. All that’s really missing to make it happen is a breakthrough in battery technology (to allow us to store power generated by solar and wind for use at times when the sun is not shining/blowing (the sun is not blowing, you know what I mean)), and higher oil prices to kick people out of old habits.

The arguments people get into about solar subsidies, oil and gas subsidies, etc. are silly and counterproductive. It doesn’t take much of a long range vision to see that petroleum use can’t continue growing at the same rates as the past 30 years for too much longer; the resources aren’t there (in any sort of cheap quantities) and growth like that would be too hard on the environment. Government intervention has a long and comedic history of bungling everything it touches, but energy policy is so critical to our existence that the government is hopelessly entwined anyway. The best you can hope for is that the policies or subsidies advance new technologies that will help us transition to power from the sun, with a minimum amount of stupid waste and pork-barreling.

So, be you on the extreme right or the extreme left, don’t wet yourself if companies like Tesla get grants from the government to develop cars and innovative new power delivery/battery systems. It is ironic that Naomi Klein and her very angry supporters are out to destroy capitalism and ‘crony capitalists’ including companies like Tesla on principle, while the Fox News/Atlas Shrugging/tea partying right wing nuts hate companies that take advantage on government subsidies, like Tesla did.

If the planet is going to be “saved” from climate change, or over-pollution as I prefer to think of it, companies like Tesla are the ones that are going to make it happen. Neither tea-partiers nor rabid-anticapitalists are ever going to do anything productive, and they even lack the imagination and decency to climb in the ring and settle things MMA style, which is the only gift they could offer humanity and one for which I would pay dearly to watch. If something makes both lunatic fringes angry, we’re probably on the right track. Let them fight (or encourage them to, imagine the ratings), while the rest of the middle of us get on with keeping the world working as we know it. Maybe a little cleaner though.

Another blog is coming soon about the whole solar story, why it’s contentious so far, and its vast potential. As usual I’ll try to present it as a balanced view, neither overly environmental or business oriented. It just is what it is – solar is an almost free energy source, and I really really like free stuff.

2 Comments

  1. Federal Government cancelled a solar project here in California because it was between two National Monuments. Others are being fought by enviromentalists because of the desert tortoise or bird deaths. Even the enviromentalists don’t want solar. And the Kennedy’s are against a wind farm off Cape Cod. I predict nothing new will ever be built in North America again.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. That is bizarre news, especially considering the fight that gets put up against any conventional energy infrastructure. Seems like some protestors are unaware that they consume energy at all. We will see how widespread is the support for such madness, I’m hoping it’s not as deep as you see.

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