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Is Green Energy Green?


I was a young teen in the late 1970’s when the U.S. experienced the oil embargo. I remember people lined up at gas stations running out of gas because we were short of gasoline. Jimmy Carter was president at the time, and he urged energy conservation. This episode as a teen set the trajectory for my ultimate career as an energy efficiency engineer. I was convinced that we would eventually run out of oil, coal, and natural gas. We needed to get serious about finding ways to use renewable fuels.


After college, my first job in 1987 was managing energy for a U.S. Air Force Base to achieve energy savings goals that were set in 1985 as Ronald Reagan continued the spirit of Jimmy Carter’s energy conservation programs. The U.S. Air Force had regulations that said that summer cooling temperatures could be no lower than 78 F, and winter heating temperature set points could be no higher than 65 F. We had goals to reduce energy use by at least 1% each year based on a 1985 baseline. We did well with our program and managed to convert much of our coal central heat plant fuel to renewable wood-chips.


After that experience, I worked with Honeywell in their guaranteed energy savings programs for their clients; and eventually started and grew a successful energy efficiency company. I sold my company in 2013 and resigned in 2014 leaving the energy conservation business as a burned-out engineer and entrepreneur. I felt me and others in our industry had done well at our energy conservation projects. I thought that our industry was making a positive difference. I realized then that we were duped.

Let me be clear. I am still a conservationist, efficiency expert, and an avid environmentalist. But, our current grand direction is wrong.


Somehow, the political activists hijacked the environmental movement. Maybe, they had always been in charge. I am an engineer. I used my engineering skills to design innovative solutions for my customers that reduced their energy bills and increased the performance of building comfort systems. The direction we are taking has elements of truth and many elements of deception. Others have pointed these out, but their voices are stifled by the politically powerful.


Carbon dioxide

In the movie “Inconvenient Truth”, Al Gore points to a hockey stick that shows carbon dioxide is rising at unprecedented levels. Gore claims that this increase is caused by human beings burning fossil fuels, and we need to stop, or the earth will become inhabitable for human beings. If you were to have seen the entire history of the chart being shown by Al Gore, you would have realized that carbon dioxide levels have been much higher in the earth’s past. When they were much higher in the past, the earth’s climate was not as hot as Al Gore predicted it would be in our future.


Modeling the future climate is complicated; and the effect carbon dioxide has on temperature in our atmosphere is not settled science, no matter what you’ve been led to believe. The fact is that the amount of carbon on this earth will not change. We have the same amount of carbon today as we had in the deep past. The only difference is how much carbon is combined with oxygen and then put into our atmosphere vs being trapped in the ground. A tree that decays on its own, or a tree that burns will release the same amount of carbon dioxide into the air. Coal, oil, and natural gas. The source of carbon-based fuels were the carbon sinks of the past. The carbon from these carbon sinks will enter the atmosphere through natural fires, human burning, or off-gassing. As carbon-dioxide is more plentiful, the CO2 hungry plants will multiply and consume more CO2. Since we have been on this planet for a short time, we are still figuring out exactly how this entire cycle works. If the same amount of grant money from the government would fund research disproving climate change, the message will change.


Hydrogen

Hydrogen is one of the most abundant molecules on this planet in the form of water (H2O) . To burn hydrogen in cars or any other process, the H2 molecule must be separated from the O molecule. When hydrogen is burned, O2 is combined with two molecules of H2 to create 2 H2O (more water). It takes energy to separate the H2 molecule from H2O. This process can be done in a few different ways. The most common method is using electricity in the process of electrolysis. It takes 48 kWh of electricity to create 1 kg of hydrogen. If hydrogen is used in a fuel cell, it will generate 33 kWh of electricity.


Simple math indicates that for every 1 kg of hydrogen fuel consumed, it will lose 15 kWh of electricity. This means that you are better off charging your electric car with whatever electricity is being generated than you are converting that electricity into hydrogen, and then back into energy. This is a polluting process, not a clean one.


Solar & Wind

The most popular forms of renewable energy are solar and wind. The skeptics have already pointed out the fact that wind and solar can only make energy when the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing. I won’t belabor this point. Most novices believe that this problem can be overcome with batteries. This is true to a point, but not for a long-term solution.


Let me explain. Batteries, wind generators, and solar panels do not last forever. The materials that it takes to build these machines consume a lot of natural resources. These natural resources take energy to extract, and ship to manufacturers.


Manufactures consume energy turning these natural resources into wind generators, solar panels, and batteries. Batteries are expected to last 10-years; large commercial wind generators last 15-years, and solar panels last 20-years. These terms seem like a very long time. They are not.


Because the energy generation density of wind and solar is sparce, it takes much more material to replace wind and solar than it does to replace a coal, gas, or nuclear power plant. Because wind and solar are intermittent, baseload generators must be available when the wind and sun is not. This means that the amount of materials needed for this large infrastructure is doubled. This double amount of infrastructure being mined, transported, and manufactured on a regular basis makes this fuel source non-renewable.


The added cost of materials, infrastructure, and inefficiency is showing up in California’s electricity grid as California strives to achieve 100% renewable energy. They have achieved 30%, and their electricity rates have doubled. This increase is a direct reflection of the amount of resources required to support their claimed “renewable energy” infrastructure.


Nuclear Energy

I call nuclear energy my “climate change truth detector”. If CO2 is causing global warming, the most efficient, and effective way to generate electricity with no CO2 emissions is with nuclear power. Nuclear power has challenges, and it is also not renewable energy. It takes energy to enrich uranium to be able to use in a nuclear reactor. It takes energy to mine, transport, and process uranium ore. While nuclear power may be carbon-neutral in the generation of electricity, the nuclear power process does emit carbon-dioxide in the creation, mining, transportation, and uranium enrichment processes.


Electric Cars

A quiet electric car moving down the street with no exhaust looks very environmentally friendly. It’s not. Just like the batteries and materials to construct wind and solar energy, electric cars require a large amount of natura resources. The concern about going 100% to electric vehicles is that our current highway infrastructure will not support the added weight of the heavier vehicles like semi-trucks. This weight is a direct representation of the amount of natural resources required to build an electric vehicle. If people dispose of their vehicles every 3-years which seems to be the current trend, this constant recycling, mining, and manufacturing of more natural resources will negatively impact the environment.


The other challenge with electric cars is timing. Most electricity is generated by carbon emitting energy sources in the U.S. This will not change in the foreseeable future regardless of the promises and mandates given by state politicians. An electricity generating plant has an average efficiency of 33% when converting fossil fuels into electricity. The average efficiency of a battery charging and discharging is approximately 85%. There is loss in the transmission lines of electricity from the power plant to a charging station of approximately 5%. This means that your car will be burning more fossil fuel to use electricity than it would if it burned gasoline. The amount of fossil fuel will be 1 / (85% x 95% x 33%) or 3.75 the amount of fossil fuel energy generating the electrical power. When renewable energy generation reaches 30% to 40% of the electricity grid, this fossil fuel consumption will be reduced, but will not go away.


The added infrastructure of electric charging stations will be a redundant cost to gas stations. This redundant cost is unavoidable as we transition over, but it creates added costs, added resources, and added energy to manufacture the added equipment. In addition to public charging stations, this same added cost will be invested in charging stations in homes.


Oil, Gas, and Coal

In the 1970’s we were told that we would run out of oil, coal, and natural gas by the year 2015. Here we are in the year 2023, and we know about more oil, coal, and natural gas reserves than we had imagined in the 1970’s. With our green energy initiatives, we plan to leave these resources in the ground for fear of exacerbating global warming. It seems reasonable to believe that at some point, we will run out of these natural resources. The current estimates for running out of fossil fuels: Oil - 50 years; Natural gas - 53 years; and coal up 114 years. These durations are predicted based on not converting to other sources of energy. If we decide to avoid using fossil fuels due to carbon emissions, it makes sense to keep these resources in the ground. However, it should be clear that this fuel source is not as unrenewable as we had previously thought.


Energy Conservation

This will sound old fashioned, but the best way to reduce energy use and its negative impact on the environment is to not use energy when it is not needed. This is basic. Carpooling, turning off lights, turning off appliances when not in use, and not making unnecessary trips in a vehicle. With green-energy, there is this odd perspective that we can use as much electricity as we want, because the energy is “clean”. Hopefully, you understand that this is not the case when you understand the massive amounts of energy and impact on our environment that happen with any energy source.


Replacement Frequency - Consumerism

Something that most people do not consider is the impact that consumerism has on the environment. In the U.S., we think our economy is a consumer economy. We don’t make anything any longer, we simply buy things. We buy new cars after we get tired of our old car. We fill out houses full of knickknacks that quickly make their way to landfills as a new fashion trend changes. With the advent of overnight shipping, we have become addicted to buying more and more stuff from online retailers. Each time we buy a new thing, and through out an old thing, we are impacting energy use and the environment in a negative way.


Climate Change

Yes, the climate is changing. Yes, we are having an impact on climate and the environment. The climate on planet earth has always changed and it will continue to change. This change can and will occur with manmade or natural events. This means that we adapt to whatever change happens without pointing fingers at some boogie man. If we decimate our economy to address a self-imposed emergency, we will not have the financial resources to adapt like we should.


So What?

I have always been and will continue to be a proponent of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy sources. The reason I am publishing this blog post is to simply set the record straight on the practicality of the use of our valuable natural resources. The political right believes that fossil fuels are the lowest cost and easiest fuels to consume given our current energy infrastructure. The political left is pushing hard to convert to wind and solar energy thinking that this will be a clean energy utopia. Neither perspective is true. As it turns out, all energy sources we know of will have some negative impact on the environment. It is also clear that energy use has a positive impact on our collective economies. It is unwise to believe that one of these sources of energy has any better or worse impact on our atmosphere or our environment.


If it were up to me, I would advocate making the transition to wind and solar to 30% of the capacity of the electrical grid, building nuclear power to handle 60% of the electrical grid, and utilizing natural gas power plants to handle the remaining 10%. The conversion from gasoline to electric cars can be a practical idea if the transition is 50-years to 100-years; instead of the 10-years being targeted by states like California. This longer period gives infrastructure the time to properly develop to support this new technology in a cost-efficient manner.


I do support an eventual transition to lower carbon emitting energy sources. However, this is NOT the immediate emergency that you’re being told by the alarmists.

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