Energy reality

A recent posting at Bishop Hill looks at moves both in the US and Australia to rein in the profligate expenditure on climate change with the US Department of Defense being instructed that none of the money sent its way is to be used for climate-related activity and the new Australian government taking an axe to funding for the CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency) and, according to The Guardian:

the Australian Research Council … the Australian Institute for Marine Science and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. Also slashed was funding for postgraduate researchers, for environmental science, clean technologies, water science and Cooperative Research Centres. There have also been huge cuts to R&D and innovation programs, and to virtually every federal renewable energy program.

The posting has attracted a number of comments including an argument that “however much some might dislike the fact, clean tech is the future.”

I took issue with this statement making the point that I don’t really know what “clean tech” actually is and that “clean” itself in the context of climate change / global warming / renewable energy / etcetera is one of those weasel words which means — Humpty-Dumpty like — what the speaker wants it to mean depending on the argument in play at the time.

Like the advertising claim that a disinfectant can kill 99% of known germs on the assumption that “germs”=”evil”, the environmentalists use of the word “clean” implies “good” as opposed to “dirty” which is “bad. Environmentalists live permanently in this black-and-white world where nuance is unheard-of.

If we consider that the incidence of — to take only one example — childhood asthma has increased markedly over the last half-century and more as the air has become “cleaner” one could make a plausible case for saying that “dirty” air has something going for it. It isn’t an argument I would care to support since the London pea-soupers of the early 1950s were hardly health-enhancing events but it is certainly true that since then technology has found ways to make fossil fuels less polluting and the incidence of allergies and childhood asthma has increased.

So talk of “clean-tech” begs the question: how much less polluting do they need to be? In what way are they currently not “clean” enough?

As usual the plea for cleaner energy runs alongside the claim that fossil fuels are “on the way out”. We have for the umpteenth time reached “peak oil / coal / gas”. The only way is down unless we sink massive sums into research now. And meantime we need to concentrate on wind and water and sunshine.The idea that there will be a dwindling number of customers for hydrocarbons any time in the next half-millennium at least or that there is any immediate need to place limits on the use of those fuels on grounds of “cleanliness” is a fallacy as has been proved by numerous experts on numerous occasions. Unless of course the neo-luddites have their way and artificial restrictions are placed on the use of hydrocarbons on the spurious excuse that that will “save the planet”.

Sheikh Yamani’s aphorism (was it all of 40 years ago? how time flies!) that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones and what you might call the ‘oil age’ will end before we run out of oil was almost certainly correct and prophetic and to that extent the argument that research is needed has a certain merit. But there is no way that the move to the next generation of fuels can be forced either by government diktat or by neo-luddite obstructionism. If half the money currently being wasted on climate research or on paying the rich to become richer at the expense of the poorest by hosting wind farms were directed to solving the problem of what we do when current energy sources become depleted or too expensive to exploit then we might (I say again and stress might) make some progress on safe nuclear fusion or thorium or half-a-dozen other technologies as yet undreamt of.

I stress ‘might’ because the history of mankind is evidence that what in these days is called the ‘just in time’ principle is as old as the race itself. Various sayings from ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ to ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ demonstrate well enough that when the time comes that new energy sources are needed, as opposed to simply wanted by the neo-luddites to make them feel warm and cosy inside while the rest of us freeze, then those new energy sources will no doubt appear.

They may well be “renewable” but not in the sense in which the word is used today. An unpredictably intermittent supply of raw material can never be a sound basis on which to build an essential component of a civilised society and wishful thinking will not make it so. And wind and the sun can never ever be anything other than intermittent. The sun at least has the benefit of being predictable up to a point and in certain locations and within that limitation may have applications but wind, which can vary from second to second, is always going to create more problems than it solves.

To describe hydrocarbon fuels as a mature, declining industry is to ignore the simple fact that wind is not mature but obsolete and decayed. Windmills are a 13th century technology which the human race grew out of 200 years ago

So, the only “clean” fuel currently available which can do any/all of the things the environmentalists appear to want is uranium (thorium in however many years, maybe) and they won’t tolerate that either. So until they can point us towards a fuel which will provide cheap, reliable (as in 24/7) energy and one which can safely power transportation (including personal transport and aircraft) they are whistling in the wind.

And we shall have to keep on using the apparently inexhaustible supplies of hydrocarbons that have enabled all of us, environmentalists included, to become healthy and wealthy to a level our great-great grandparents would have believed impossible.

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One Response to Energy reality

  1. But, but, but … Mike, the UN has got this all figured out!

    Even as we type, they have embarked on a ten year initiative (announced approx. 2 years ago so they could drum up all the papers, I guess!): Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL for short). They have just wrapped up a 2-day gathering in New York, where it has evidently been determined that a mere “US$600-800 billion” is all that’s required!

    You can see the cast of thousands (well, not quite!) which follows their listing of “Global Leaders Dialogue” moderators at

    Here’s the IISD’s quasi-official report of the intro to the 2nd day of this gathering:

    The second day of the SE4ALL Forum convened on Thursday, 5 June 2014 at UN Headquarters in New York. The United Nations launched the UN Decade of Sustainable Energy for All 2014-2024, and announced the dedication of the first two years of the Decade to the “Energy-Women-Children-Health” nexus. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) also launched REmap 2030, a renewable energy road map to double the share of renewable energy in the world’s energy mix between 2010 and 2030.

    Read all about it at

    They haven’t established a Working Group, yet. But this is merely the beginning of SE4ALL. I wonder how many years it will take before they decide that they need one 😉

    In the meantime, though, in addition to the ever-present “Innovations in finance” (of which few have ever materialized, to the best of my knowledge) they’ve invented some new buzzwords we need to take on board, including “The energy trilemma”. Now how’s that for catchy, eh?!

    And I’m sure you’ll be as pleased as I was to learn that (thanks to SE4ALL):

    Accelerating sustainable energy deployment through support for innovation: Ethan Zindler, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said US$1.5 trillion in private funding has been invested in clean energy in the past decade, but it needs continued public support. Ashok Sarkar, World Bank, called for more investment to get to the US$300 billion a year in incremental investments needed, particularly the private sector finance that complements development finance and innovative financing instruments. David Rodgers, Global Environment Facility (GEF), described the GEF’s plans for innovative programming, including performance-based financing and incentives, multi-focal area projects with climate benefits, high-impact projects, regional projects and programmes, catalyzing private sector engagement, and small grants and loans.

    Amazing, eh?!

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