Energy Madness

An important goal of any government should be to ensure sufficient energy for human flourishing that is inexpensive, reliable, safe, and secure.   Without energy we cannot eat, we cannot move, we cannot stay warm or cool, and we cannot protect ourselves from the extremes of weather or a myriad of potential harms facing us in this contemporary world.  There is no more important responsibility for a government than to make sure we have the energy we need to survive and prosper.

Without apparent regard for this obligation, the new administration in Washington intends to replace our reliance on fossil fuels with so-called renewable energy.  Of the three dozen actions taken during the first week following the inauguration, five were related to this objective. The actions are justified as necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  This follows from an assumption that carbon dioxide causes dangerous climate change or global warming which they call an existential threat.  The political opposition draws their arguments from different assumptions.

The Existential Threat Fallacy

Because Earth is a dynamic planet, the climate changes both from natural forces and from human activities.  Historical and geological records demonstrate this unequivocally.  Climatologists disagree about the relative impact of natural and human causes. The Earth’s most recent warming trend began in the middle of the 19th Century, following The Little Ice Age, a period of global cooling that drove the Norse settlers out of Greenland in the late 15th Century.  The rate of warming in the late 1800s, before increased burning of fossil fuels, is not significantly different from the rate of warming in the late 1900s.

There are many ways that humans affect how the climate changes that have nothing to do with carbon dioxide emissions. The most obvious of these is the altering of the earth’s surface through agriculture and urbanization.  This changes how heat and light are absorbed, reflected, or radiated back into the atmosphere and into space.  Human activities generate dust and aerosols that block sunlight preventing a portion of it from reaching the surface, a cooling effect.

Climate models have difficulty accounting for natural causes of climate change seen in the scientific record.  Model predictions depend upon assumptions and consequent calculations, garbage in, garbage out. Over the several decades of their development and refinement, the climate models significantly overestimated global warming when compared to actual warming as measured by instruments and satellites.  Satellite measurements of global temperature change over the past four decades show the most recent month of January was only a little more than one-tenth of a degree Celsius warmer than the thirty-year average monthly temperature.  Until satellites were used to measure atmospheric temperature, there was no way to directly measure global climate change.

The assumption that climate change or global warming is an existential threat is not supported by these models or by scientific evidence.  This fallacious assumption ignores the ability of humans and all life to adapt to changes that inevitably occur.  We have no way of knowing how the global climate might change if humans had no influence.  There is no agreement about a preferred global climate, even if humans could somehow achieve such a utopian condition.  Canada might prefer a warmer climate, while India might not.  Regardless, nothing humans can do with current or anticipated technology could possibly achieve an internationally negotiated ideal global climate.  Efforts to achieve such a condition would incur enormous economic costs with immeasurable, even unpredictable consequences.

The Carbon Dioxide Obsession

A complete misunderstanding of the properties and effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to unwarranted political policy objectives.  The surface of the Earth is warmed by sunlight.  This warmth is radiated into the atmosphere as infrared electromagnetic radiation (heat).  In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide absorbs seven distinct wavelengths of infrared radiation causing a heating of the air.  When present, water vapor also absorbs infrared at six of the seven wavelengths absorbed by carbon dioxide and several additional wavelengths as well.  The amount of water in the atmosphere as water vapor (absolute humidity), clouds, ice, and precipitation changes with weather conditions.  The absolute humidity of air can range from near zero percent to as much as four percent of the atmosphere depending upon the environment and its weather.  The amount of carbon dioxide also varies but averages around 0.04 percent depending upon the surface environment and altitude.  To illustrate this point, consider an average sample of air containing 10,000 molecules at 298K (77 degrees Fahrenheit) at 50 percent relative humidity.  In this randomly selected sample, there might be 7,733 molecules of nitrogen, 2,074 molecules of oxygen, 96 molecules of water vapor, 93 molecules of argon, and only 4 molecules of carbon dioxide.  You’d need a bunch of samples of air before you’d find a single molecule of any other gas.  In humid conditions such as over the tropical oceans, you’d find more water molecules and perhaps fewer carbon dioxide molecules.  In cold deserts or other extremely dry regions, an average sample of air might contain very few water molecules, but slightly more carbon dioxide molecules.  Over much of the surface of the Earth, water vapor absorbs most of the infrared (heat).  Carbon dioxide significantly contributes to heating the atmosphere only when the weather is cold and dry, low relative humidity. Clouds may trap some of the absorbed heat by preventing convection.  In the absence of clouds and humidity, most of the heat is radiated toward the upper layers of the atmosphere and into space, causing the surface to get relatively cold.  Ironically, the presence of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere has a global cooling effect because the heat it absorbs is mostly radiated into space.

Any gas in the atmosphere that absorbs infrared is called a greenhouse gas for reasons that are quite unrelated to greenhouses.  Greenhouses warm because the heated air cannot escape.  The glass structure prevents loss of heat by convection (the movement of heated air from one location to another).  Greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere because their molecules absorb infrared energy which causes them to move faster.  We describe the average speed of molecules in a gas as the temperature of the gas.  The structure of molecules determines whether they absorb infrared or visible light and at what wavelengths.  Water molecules are bent at a tetrahedral angle (108 degrees).  This optimizes infrared absorption at more than a dozen distinct wavelengths.  Carbon dioxide molecules are linear and only absorb infrared when bent or asymmetrically stretched during collisions with other molecules.  This partly explains why carbon dioxide is not nearly as important a greenhouse gas as water vapor.  The more important reason why it is not an important greenhouse gas is because there is not very much of it in the atmosphere.  In most of the air, heat is absorbed by water vapor not carbon dioxide.  Clouds also block heat from escaping into space, but clouds also prevent light from getting to the surface.  Immeasurable changes in humidity and cloud cover overwhelm the warming influence of carbon dioxide.  This is one of the reasons why climatologists do not know which contributes more to climate change, natural or anthropogenic forcings.  Measuring global changes in cloud cover and absolute humidity are quite beyond current science.

Those politicians who obsess about carbon dioxide ignore the beneficial consequences of increasing concentrations of this life-giving gas.  It is plant food.  In fact, all food contains carbon that comes from atmospheric carbon dioxide.  As we’ve measured increases in the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere over the past 60 years, we’ve also observed tremendous increases in agricultural productivity.  Besides more food production to feed the population, carbon dioxide does contribute slightly to global warming which is arguably a net benefit to life.  For humans, warming is better than cooling.  No one knows if the Earth would be warming, cooling, or staying the same temperature if humans or other creatures and plants did not exist.  Maybe our carbon dioxide emissions are preventing the continental ice sheets from returning.

As for concern about changes in sea level, the oceans have been rising for about at least twelve thousand years, and they will continue to rise until the Earth enters the next glacial period.  Nothing humans can do will prevent this.  The rate of rise of sea level as measured by tide gauges and satellites is not changing significantly.  On the other hand, land levels also change and will continue to do so.  The Atlantic Ocean is expanding, and the Pacific Ocean is closing.  Even their levels are different.  The Great Lakes in the U.S. are rising at measurable amounts per year due to isostatic rebound.  This is from the retreat of the glaciers and ice sheets of the past glacial period that ended about 12 thousand years ago.

Other alarmists warn us about the acidification of the oceans.  They argue that increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes carbon dioxide to be absorbed into the oceans forming carbonic acid.  They forget or ignore several factors.  A warming ocean loses carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as just one small error in their thinking.  Even ocean water that is saturated with carbon dioxide would not be acidic for a variety of reason including the presence of natural buffering solutes present in large quantities.  Also, carbonic acid is but one moiety involved in a complex equilibrium system involving carbonate and bicarbonate ions, among numerous others.  Ocean water pH varies greatly at depth and in different marine environments but is almost always alkaline or basic not acidic.  Far more carbon dioxide and other substances are added to the oceans from volcanic sources on the sea floor all around the world.  Most reports of reefs dying or threatened are a result of pollution from human activities, sewage outflow, or other maladies both natural and man-made.  Reefs are quite adaptable and usually recover given time and proper conditions.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide is not the problem.

Almost all of the carbon ever burned as coal, oil, natural gas, wood, or animal dung is still here on the Earth.  It is just changed in form.  Some is now carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Some of it is in our bodies and the bodies of other living things, like trees for instance.  Some of the carbon is now dissolved in the oceans in various forms such as carbonate, bicarbonate, and other ionic and molecular forms.  Some of it is in rocks, such as limestone, or in soils in various substances.  Any of this carbon can be captured and converted to any useful form we may need.  All it takes is energy and know how.  This is why we will never run out of hydrocarbon fuels.  It is possible to convert carbon dioxide and water back to hydrocarbon fuels, just as happens in nature through photosynthesis.

The answer to all this obsessive nonsense about carbon dioxide is to remind those so inflicted that humans are incredibly adaptive.  If the seas rise, we can move inland as our ancestors did.  Sea level was about 300 feet lower than today when the earliest humans came to North America.  If it gets warmer, we can install more air conditioners and plant different crops.  If we run out of coal, oil, or natural gas, we can recapture the carbon and carbon dioxide and convert it back to any hydrocarbon we need.  We can also turn to nuclear energy in addition to other viable energy options yet unimagined.

Texas Illustrates the Point

This past week the State of Texas reminded us of what happens when governments fail to meet their energy responsibilities.  What happened in Texas could happen anywhere.  This was a case of officials deciding that so-called renewable energy from wind turbines and solar panels could replace the more conventional so-called non-renewable energy stored in hydrocarbon fuels such as coal and natural gas.  Pardon the use of euphemisms. The strategically chosen words “renewable” and “non-renewable” are gross misnomers that mislead us into false, even dangerous government actions.  What happened in Texas, like most catastrophes, resulted from several contributing factors.  I’ve identified about a dozen.

  1. It got extremely cold, so cold conditions worsened beyond what planners and government officials anticipated in their worst-case scenarios, and demand for electricity exceeded supply.
  1. Pipelines could not deliver sufficient quantities of natural gas and oil to power plants to meet the increasing demand because of the cold temperatures and also because of lack of electricity to run the pumps.
  1. One of the four nuclear power plants supplying electricity to the Texas power grid shut down for reasons most likely related to the extreme weather.
  1. Some natural gas power plants were offline because of normally scheduled maintenance that is typically planned at this time of year when the demand for electricity is usually relatively low.
  1. Wind wasn’t blowing and some wind turbines froze because they were not designed for this extreme cold weather in Texas.
  1. Solar Panels were either covered with snow or cloud cover prevented sufficient solar energy conversion to electricity during the daylight hours.
  1. Electricity demand exceeded supply resulting in managed or rolling blackouts being inadequate.
  1. Grid management policies artificially prioritize the purchasing of electricity from solar and wind sources and resale of that electricity to consumers.
  1. Governmental regulations and subsidies favor investments in this “renewable” energy over traditional sources such as coal, natural gas, and nuclear.
  1. The Texas grid and energy infrastructure are not properly winterized for this extreme weather.
  1. The Texas grid is not directly connected to other regional electricity grids, but those grids such as in Oklahoma and in the Midwest were also threatened by the severe weather conditions.
  1. Political virtue signaling to green energy activists over the past several decades created the circumstance in which the entire system was not prepared for the extreme weather.

Power plants, wind farms, and solar arrays convert chemical energy from fuels, mechanical energy from wind, and solar energy from the sun into electricity.  This electricity enters the electric grid where it is sold to consumers from the corporations that own and operate electricity production facilities and the electricity grid.  These are government regulated corporations.  They share and acquire their electricity through a market, and like any corporation that wants to survive, they want to pay the lowest possible price for the electricity they sell to their consumers.  Because of government regulations and subsidies, it has become highly profitable to construct large numbers of wind turbines and solar arrays in places like Texas.  Because of government subsidies (paid for by taxpayers) power corporations can purchase the electricity from these sources at relatively low cost (even negative cost in some circumstances).  The corporations are spending a larger and larger proportion of their capital to purchase electricity from so-called renewable electricity supplies.  Consequently, these corporations are investing a smaller proportion of their capital to build and maintain more conventional power plants that depend on hydrocarbon or nuclear fuels.  When the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, almost everyone is happy.  When a bad winter storm comes along, its cloudy and the solar arrays are covered with snow and ice.  That same inconvenient weather might give us unreliable wind and the turbines stop turning and producing electricity.  Unfortunately, those same turbines might even freeze.

Texas reports about thirty-gigawatt-hours of electrical energy potential from its wind turbines.  During the week when the extreme weather occurred, those turbines produced less than one-gigawatt hour of electricity.  At the same time, the electricity requirements in Texas reached nearly seventy-gigawatt-hours, higher than usual because of the cold weather.  Where would Texas purchase the electricity it needed?  If you study the electricity market during that week, you realize the price of electricity to power companies skyrocketed when the demand exceeded the supply.  The cost of electricity went through the proverbial roof, more accurately out of orbit.

Over the years, Texas, like other places, has been shutting down coal fired power plants and not replacing them.  It is not building new gas or nuclear power plants to replace the coal burning power plants, mostly because they use their limited funds to purchase wind turbines and solar arrays.  Governmental over-regulation makes the construction of nuclear power plants a prohibitively expensive, long-term project. In this current crisis, some existing power plants in Texas were under maintenance and unavailable to supply the electricity needed by the state. When the weather is frigid, even gas pipelines experience some difficulties delivering sufficient quantities of fuel when needed, especially if the demand exceeds the capacity to produce electricity.  In very cold weather, coal burning power plants have an advantage because the fuel is located on the property and readily available to produce the needed electricity.  All of these factors conspired in a tragic loss of power.  Industry and commerce shut down.  People died.  All because government failed its most important goal. Corporations responded logically, but perhaps immorally, to the regulations and subsidies of that dysfunctional government.

There is a silver-lining.   Because Texans are a spirited people who care about their prosperity, they will learn from their mistakes.  The question remains, will the rest of the country learn from the Texas energy catastrophe?  The new administration in Washington, D.C., and its embracing of so-called green energy, threatens to nationalize the Texas catastrophe.  For what purpose?

Green Energy is Not Renewable Energy

Energy is the resource for producing the power that heats our homes, feeds our families, turns on our lights, fuels our cars and trucks, and provides all the material and environmental comforts and protections we enjoy. Most people don’t realize that essentially all energy in our lives derives from nuclear energy.  Sunlight comes from nuclear fusion occurring within the sun.  The heat within the earth come from nuclear fission.  Nuclear fusion releases energy because the fused nuclei have less energy than the separate nuclei.   Nuclear fission releases energy when atomic nuclei break apart (decay) and the nuclei of the less massive atoms and particles have less energy than the nuclei of the original atoms.  These are completely natural processes upon which all life depends.  In fusion and fission, the energy that is released can take on many forms such as heat, light, and motion.  There are many ways the energy from this heat, light, and motion can change, be stored, and can be moved from one location to another.  Green plants convert solar energy (sunlight) into chemical energy.  This chemical energy becomes food and fuel.  The food we eat and the fuel we use provides most of the energy we need for life.

There is nothing renewable about solar and wind energy infrastructure.  Propagandists label their preferred green energy as renewable in order to fool us into thinking it is reliable and won’t go away.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Sunlight and wind represent radiant energy and mechanical energy but converting these forms of energy into electricity is expensive and technically complicated.  Many different materials are needed to construct wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries to store the inconsistent electrical energy they produce.  Many of these materials have strategic importance in international trade that is far more complicated than petroleum and uranium used in more conventional electricity generation.

Wind turbines require rare earth minerals for their magnets as well as copper.  Mining of rare earths predominantly occurs in China.  The environmental impact is significant.  According to recent congressional testimony of energy expert Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute, constructing a single 100-MW wind farm requires 30,000 tons of iron, 50,000 tons of concrete, and 900 tons of nonrecyclable plastics made from hydrocarbons. Ironically, concrete is made from cement and cement is made from limestone which is heated to break down the calcium carbonate to produce calcium oxide and carbon dioxide which is released into the atmosphere.  For every ton of cement produced, approximately 900 pounds of carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere directly from the chemical change taking place.  This ignores the carbon dioxide released in producing the electricity needed to heat the limestone.  Worldwide, about eight percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from the production of concrete.  Rare earth elements such as neodymium are necessary to make the magnets in the electrical generators of wind turbines.  Mining these elements requires moving incredible amounts of earth to obtain the raw ore to be refined and separated.  Heavy equipment running on hydrocarbon fuels do this mining.  As much as 160 tons of ore might produce one ton of this element.  The world currently mines about 7,000 tons of neodymium per year.  A world that runs on unreliable energy like wind and solar would require 40 or 50 times as much of this rare earth element.  The copper for electrical wiring of generator coils is an expensive metal to refine requiring vast amounts of energy to heat the ore and separate and purify the metal.  To obtain one ton of copper requires roughly 200 tons of ore to be dug up, moved, crushed, and processed.  The blades are composed of synthetic materials many of which are derived from petroleum.

The quantities of materials such as cement, steel, and glass for constructing solar farms would be 150 percent greater than for wind farms.  Additionally, solar panels require other elements such as aluminum, indium, arsenic, phosphorus, gallium, silicon, and germanium.  Each of these elements are mined at various places around the world and the extraction, transport and processing of the raw ores is energy intensive requiring the burning of fossil fuels.  There are significant environmental and international political challenges unique to the supply and transport of each element.

Since solar panels and wind turbines are unreliable sources of electricity.  A world that relies on these to produce electricity will require massive energy storage capacity, far beyond anything we can scale to in the next few decades.  The best modern batteries use lithium and cobalt among other elements.  Rare earth elements come from massive mines in Inner Mongolia, cobalt comes from the Congo, lithium comes from Chile and Australia.  China controls about ninety percent of the cobalt refining for batteries meaning the ore must be transported from Central Africa to China.  The strategic dependency of these supplies is far more complicated than petroleum or coal of which there is great abundance in North America.

Electric cars run on batteries that get their electricity from the power grid.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, that means more than 80 percent of the energy to charge these batteries comes from coal, oil, or natural gas, and another 15 percent from nuclear and hydro.  Wind and solar provide little electricity to the grid and thereby to charge batteries, single digits of variable and unreliable energy.  If you calculate the energy efficiency of electric vehicles on average, considering production of the electricity for the grid, transmission, storage, and conversion to the energy of motion of the car, you will discover that electric cars are not more energy efficient that gasoline powered cars.  And that calculation ignores the cost of producing the batteries.  In his congressional testimony, Mark Mills describes the materials necessary to produce one single electric car battery weighing 1,000 pounds.  The refined material to fabricate the battery requires the mining, transporting, and processing of 500,000 pounds of material.  An internal combustion engine uses only 25,000 pounds of petroleum over the life of the car.  Less than one half a percent of all vehicles currently on the road are electric.  Just take a wild guess what it will take to achieve the goal stated by the clueless governor of California or the green energy enthusiasts in Washington, D.C. for all vehicles to run on electricity.  For what reason?  The most efficient way to store energy for vehicles is as the chemical energy of liquid fuels.

I haven’t even mentioned how much land is required for solar arrays and wind farms compared to traditional power plants.  Nuclear power plants require the least amount of land, but excessive and irrational fears prevent the expanded use of this safest  source of electricity.

Summary

The current administration in Washington aims to replace reliable hydrocarbon fuels with unreliable green-energy sources.  What drives this irrational desire to return modern civilization to the literal dark ages?  Do the irrational thought leaders expect to gain wealth or power?  Is it because they are tragically wrong out of ignorance of basic science and technology?  Are they financially beholden to special interests or nations that would gain from this international political insanity?

Climate change is not an existential threat.  Humans are not capable of controlling the climate or even deciding what climate to create.  Attempting to prevent climate change ignores natural climate variation and the economic hardships that would result from such an endeavor.  Renewable energy is not renewable.  It’s unreliable and expensive to convert to electricity.  Unreliable energy requires vast resources from other parts of the world that do not share the same interests as the United States, Canada, Western Europe, or other developed or undeveloped nations.  The recent catastrophe in Texas, as well as similar circumstances in California during the dry and hot months of the year, reminds us of the dangers of ignorance and governmental dysfunction.

It’s energy madness!

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
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