Renewable Energy: There Ain't No Free Lunch

Catch words these days for the favored form of energy include "green," "clean," "renewable," and "sustainable" -- among others. Yet nobody can quite quantify what exactly "green" means.

Examples pointed to by proponents include wind and solar, with a few pointing to hydroelectric power, biomass, and fuel cells. But those examples, and the logic behind them, fail the very definition of renewable (or clean, green, or sustainable for that matter). As the logic goes, there will always be wind, and the sun will always shine (I'll ignore for now that wind, just like hydro power and biomass, is just another form of solar). That logic, however, is short sighted and inaccurate, because to harness that raw energy and convert it to a more useful form, we have to manufacture the means to do so, and that in and of itself is not renewable.

It appears that the hopes and dreams of proponents are for a mythical creature that cannot coexist with physical law, specifically, the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. The First Law, also called conservation of energy, is most familiar especially in its implication that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. We can only convert energy from one form to another, and transport it from one place to another.

Most people have far more familiarity, in terms of actual experience, with the Second Law even though it is a harder law to pin down. Basically, the Second Law dictates the direction of any changes including energy conversions. Without the Second Law, we could collect tailpipe emissions and heat rejected from our radiators and reconstitute gasoline without any net loss of energy (indeed, a truly renewable energy). That process, however, is impossible. The Second Law demands that any energy transfer or conversion is accompanied by increased disorder. It is this natural direction from order to disorder that demands a certain amount of pollution or loss in conjunction with whatever energy source we desire to use: wind, solar, coal, oil or nuclear.

In the case of "renewable" technologies, the manufacturing of the systems is where the majority of the pollution is generated. Unfortunately, that pollution is invisible to the general public. They don't consider the effects of manufacturing when they see a wind turbine turning without a smoke stack, or a solar panel operating seemingly without environmental effect, or a hydrogen fuel cell converting electricity with water and steam appearing to be the only byproducts. This gives a false impression as to the true environmental cost of the technology.