How much energy is out there?

Posted on July 3, 2013 at 10:41 am,

This is the latest in a series of posts critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today, we’re in the middle of the chapter on the Environment, looking at what he says about energy. Grudem doesn’t deal with the closely-related issue of Climate Change in this section, so we’ll be leaving that for another post. Grudem’s aim in this section is to claim that humanity is not running out of energy, and that almost all sources of energy are incredibly abundant. Let’s look at each energy source in turn:

Wind

Grudem points out that wind power capacity has been rapidly growing. However, he repeats some rather misleading myths about wind energy. Firstly, he says that wind capacity is not a good measure because wind is not reliable. Then he claims that wind power is not dependable because the wind does not blow all the time.Then he says that wind power will never produce a large proportion of our energy, because you need lots of wind turbines over a large area in order to produce a significant amount, and that destroys the beauty of the landscape.

In response to the first two claims, no source of energy operates 100% of the time – every power plant spends some of its time offline. It should also be noted that, whilst the wind is variable over a small area, wind turbines across a larger area tend to average out. Given that the German states of Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommem all managed to generate over 46% of their energy from wind turbines in 2011, it’s quite clear that wind can be a very large source of energy in at least some parts of the world.

As for Grudem’s claim that wind turbines destroy the beauty of the landscape, that completely contradicts the principles he set out at the start of the chapter – where he argued that human need should trump environmental concerns pretty much every time. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge that most landscapes have already been shaped by humanity. The English countryside as we know it today is a creation of the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th Centuries. There is evidence to suggest that the Amazon rainforest was effectively a massive orchard for the people who lived there before the Europeans came. Similar stories could be told in almost every inhabited part of the world. And, of course, wind turbines are themselves rather elegant pieces of design.

Hydroelectric

Grudem simply notes that most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed, so there is little chance of a major increase in the world’s hydroelectric power generation. This does, of course, ignore the possibility of increasing the amount of micro-hydro power. Medieval England was powered by water wheels in rivers without the need for dams. Similar micro-generation could plausibly increase the world’s hydro-power generation, and would come without any of the negative effects associated with large dams.

Oil

Grudem begins by claiming that we will never run out of oil. Firstly, he points out that we have massive amounts of unused oil. Then he says that we keep finding new sources. Then he points out that things like tar sands and shale oil become more feasible when the oil price rises. He does believe that the US should try to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by developing more alternative sources of energy and developing its own supplies of oil. Though he doesn’t explain why he thinks that.

What Grudem has missed here (apart, of course, from climate change) is that the amount of oil we can use depends more on how easy it is to get out of the ground than on how much of it there is. Experts believe that production of oil from conventional sources has peaked. Yes, there is still a lot of oil in the ground. But we’ve already used most of the bits that are easy to get at. It will be increasingly difficult, and expensive, to keep production levels up. Yes, we can extract unconventional oil, like tar sands and shale oil. But it takes longer to do it, and costs more, than using conventional oil. Plus, ignoring oil spills, extracting unconventional oil damages the local environment far more than conventional oil production.

What he’s also missed is that there is reason to believe that our estimates of future oil production are over-optimistic.

Coal and Natural Gas

Grudem doesn’t really say much about either of these fossil fuels, except to say that coal is still very abundant and gas burns very cleanly. He doesn’t mention that coal causes significant air pollution (in addition to its carbon emissions), and is harmful to human health. Or that coal mining is a major cause of death. In 2007, Time Magazine estimated that, in China, 20,000 people die in coal mining accidents every year.

Nuclear

Grudem really likes the idea of nuclear energy. He mentions the issue of nuclear waste, pointing out that the total amount of nuclear waste produced is (physically speaking) quite small. He doesn’t, however, mention that it will remain toxic and dangerous for millions of years – making it the longest-lasting pollutant that humanity has ever produced. He denounces opposition to nuclear power as “irrational”. He doesn’t mention that nuclear power is, once you strip out the subsidy, the most expensive form of energy generation currently in use. Or that it’s the only form of energy generation that always requires government support, because commercial insurers won’t insure against the possibility of a nuclear accident.

Solar

In this section, Grudem claims that wind and solar are still not competitive with fossil fuels in terms of cost , which is no longer true – Wind is now slightly cheaper than coal. He is enthusiastic about the potential for solar, pointing out that it is the most abundant source of energy, although obviously it cannot be generated at night.

Other energy sources

There are a variety of power sources that Grudem doesn’t mention. The most significant of these are geothermal (which gives Iceland 100% of its electricity), wave, and biomass. These three technologies have the potential to generate significant amounts of energy. Although the first two are limited by geography. Two and a half of them generate no carbon emissions (biomass via anerobic digestion and biomass by burning wood can both be made carbon neutral).

Conclusions

Grudem concludes that there are abundant sources of energy, and so energy efficiency measures are a waste of time, unless they are solely to save money. He claims that increasing our energy use decreases the amount of time we have to spend on travel or menial labour. This claim is somewhat dubious. Motorised transport has invented the daily commute, which uses up an enormous amount of our time. Together with air travel, it means that people are more likely to spend time away from home, whether they are travelling across the country or across the world. In addition, technological development based on increased energy use has transformed many skilled jobs into de facto menial labour. The effect of increased energy usage has had both positive and negative effects on our way of life.

He also claims that we have likely underestimated the scale of energy resources available and the ability of human ingenuity in getting more out of them. He claims that this is all more evidence that God has provided us with a planet with overabundant resources.

Looking at Grudem’s analysis of individual energy sources, he seems overly pessimistic about the prospects from renewables and overly optimistic about those from fossil fuel sources and nuclear. Looking at his conclusions, they are pretty much what you’d expect given his theology as stated in the opening to the chapter, and his view on climate change (which we’ll deal with in the next post in this series). He doesn’t really make any substantial points on politics or theology here, except to repeat the charges that advocates of nuclear power often throw at its opponents.

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