Critical Questions to Ask About Alternative Energy
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May 27, 2003, 1400 PDT (FTW)
-- Before we instantly accept alternative energy lifeboats that will let us keep
our current lifestyles, don't you think it wise to see
if they float?
Here are nine questions that you must ask
of yourself, and anyone who claims that they have
found a perfect alternative to oil. After answering
these questions, you may have a better idea about
whether you want to jump (or throw your family)
into something that might sink in short order.
Deluding yourself that the energy problem has been
solved only guarantees that the crisis will hit you and
the planet much harder in the end.
The end of the Age of Oil is a life and
death game. Can you afford to be cavalier about
it? Do not think of prudent,
but ultimately temporary, steps that should be
taken to soften the blow as solutions.
These questions have been arranged by order of
importance and by the order in which they will enable
you to quickly evaluate an alternative energy source.
If you can't get the right answer to the first one, you
need not go any further.
After answering all nine questions, you will see
- from a scientific place, rather than an emotional one
- that there is no effective replacement for what hydrocarbon
energy provides today.
1. How Much Energy is Returned for the Energy Invested
Have all energy costs been taken into account?
This is where too many alternative energy sources fall
flat after the simplest examination.
Commercial hydrogen offers one clear example of
how it takes more energy to produce the fuel than can
be obtained from burning it. The current feedstock from
which hydrogen is produced is natural gas. The natural
gas is then treated with steam. Steam is water that is
boiled using more natural gas, oil, or coal, either in
the form of direct fuel or to generate electricity which
is used to boil the water. Common sense dictates that
this cannot be a solution because it still relies on
Converting water to hydrogen is
done through electrolysis. Scientist David Pimentel has
established that it takes 1.3 billion kWh (Kilowatt
hours) of electricity to produce the equivalent
of 1 billion kWh of hydrogen. (BioScience, Vol.
44, No. 8, September 1994.)
Even a small positive EROEI,
if obtainable, is not a solution because fossil fuels
on the whole return many times the energy invested,
not just a fraction. That's why we use them.
Ethanol is another case in
point. Some research has shown a negative EROEI for
ethanol. Newer research from Oregon shows a slightly
positive return. Ethanol is, at best, a slightly beneficial
temporary alternative - not a substitute.
Claims that cars can run on vegetable oil never
take into account the amount of energy necessary to generate
the vegetable oil (farming, vegetable transport, extraction,
Devices that recycle plastic into oil don't mention
the fact that plastic is oil, and that a great
deal of energy was used to make it into plastic in the
Similarly, the new technology of thermal depolymerization
is not a legitimate alternative energy source. This process
transforms carbon-based wastes back into hydrocarbon
fuel. This technology is useful, and may help us on the
downside of the Hubbert curve, but it will never replace
fossil fuels. Why? Because the wastes
were produced by the use of fossil fuels.
Even using turkey offal, one must account for 1)
the feed, 2) what fertilized the feed (natural gas),
3) how the feed was planted, 4) harvested, 5) irrigated
(oil and gas), and 5) how the turkey got to market (oil).
Thermal depolymerization should be more properly viewed
as a form of recycling. But this process will never have
the net energy of the original fossil fuels. As fossil
fuels dwindle, so will the source material.
Any alternative energy source claiming
to be a solution to the coming oil and gas shortages
must have documented “open book” EROEI policies. If it
doesn't, then it has something to hide.
2. Have the claims been verified by an independent third party?
In real life, it is called “the proof is in the
pudding.” In scientific circles, it is called peer review,
and it usually involves having your research published
in a peer-reviewed journal. It is an often-frustrating
process, but peer-reviewed articles ensure the validity
When assessing the validity of an alternative energy
source, look for articles published in peer- reviewed
scientific journals, or critiques authored by scientists
or engineers trained in the field of study. Ultimately,
this is the only way to validate claims.
An inventor may insist that he/she has been shunned
by the scientific community, or
state that there is a conspiracy within the scientific
community against his/her ideas. That is just too bad.
Don't succumb out of sympathy or wishful thinking.
FTW's research has been suppressed but all we have
ever asked for is a fair and open review of the evidence.
This is the first test of credibility.
The ultimate proof is in a working demonstration,
outside of the control of the person selling the idea,
so that the results can be verified by a person or body
with no financial interest in the outcome.
3. Can I see the alternative energy being used?
Be very careful here. Seeing is
not always believing. There are many cases of
con men with engines that only appear to run on alternative
energy. There are also more than a few legitimate inventors
who think they are running a legitimate experiment.
Even if the inventor does produce an engine that
runs on alternative energy, don't sign on until the next
question is answered very clearly.
4. Can you trace it back to the original energy source?
There are only four original sources of energy
on this planet: the sun, gravitational forces, earth's
interior, or nuclear power. All energy derived from organic
sources can be traced back to sunlight. It is the same
for renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Gravitational
forces generate hydroelectric power and tidal power.
Geothermal power is generated from the earth's interior.
The earth's interior is hot due to the residual heat
generated from the accretion of the planet and the heat
of trace radioactive minerals. This internal heat powers
all of the earth's tectonic processes. Nuclear energy
is generated from either the breakdown of unstable elements
(in the case of fission) or the fusing of two elements
into one (in the case of fusion).
If an inventor claims an original source of energy
other than these four, or if no original source of energy
is apparent, treat the invention with skepticism. He
or she may be the next Galileo giving us scalar energy,
and upsetting the known laws of the universe, but the
invention must still be proven, demonstrated, checked,
and most importantly, made available.
One cannot eat a picture of a hamburger. One can
only eat the hamburger itself.
5. Does the invention defy the Laws of Thermodynamics?
Most of the other questions in this list can be
tied up into this one question: does the invention defy
the Laws of Thermodynamics? If the answer is yes, then
something is wrong.
What are the Laws of Thermodynamics?
- 1st Law—Energy
can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot
be created or destroyed. The total amount of energy
in the universe remains constant, merely changing from
one form to another.
- 2nd Law—In
all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves
the system, the potential energy of the state will
always be less than that of the initial state. This
is also known as the law of entropy.
- 3rd Law—It
is impossible to cool a body to absolute zero by any
finite process. This is actually more of a postulate
than a law. In any case, it has little application
to our discussion and is presented here merely for
Scientist and author C.P. Snow developed a very
simple and memorable way to remember the three laws:
- You cannot win (that is, you cannot get something for nothing, because
matter and energy are conserved).
- You cannot break even (you cannot return to the same energy state, because
there is always an increase in disorder; entropy always
- You cannot get out of the game (because absolute
zero is unattainable).
6. Does the inventor make extravagant claims?
Does the inventor claim that his/her
invention will generate, for instance, more energy in
one liter than a barrel of oil? Will this invention run
on anything? Did “extra-terrestrials” give the promoter the plan for
this invention? Will this invention “replace all other
energy sources currently utilized by human civilization”?
Claims like these are signals that the invention
should be treated with great skepticism.
7. Does the inventor claim zero pollution?
There is no method of generating energy from a
source that does not produce some form of waste (pollution).
Even wind and solar create waste as a result of the construction
of wind turbines and solar cells (albeit comparatively
little waste generated in the initial construction phase).
Hydrogen fuel cells create waste when the hydrogen is
generated, though it is commonly claimed that they produce
nothing but water. The waste is simply moved out of sight
to a hydrogen generating plant. Hydrogen fuel cells depend
on fossil fuels to generate the free hydrogen, so they
create all the pollutants of burning hydrocarbons; they
simply move them away from the vehicles to a centralized
generating plant. Likewise, horses also produce waste;
just ask anyone who has ever mucked a stable.
8. Can I see blueprints, schematics or a chemical analysis
of how it works?
It will likely take some technical training to
read blueprints or review a chemical analysis. However,
the fact that an inventor would even present such material
for review might be a sign that his/her motives are pure.
Or it might simply be a prop in a very elaborate
9. Infrastructure Requirements -- Does the energy source
require a corporation to produce it? How will it be transported
and used? Will it require new engines, pipelines, and
filling stations? What will these cost? Who will pay
for them and with what? How long will it take to build
While these questions do not tell you if the alternative
energy source is legitimate, they will tell you how practical
it can be for you. If the process is complicated, requiring
specially trained technicians, sophisticated machinery,
and elaborate processing, then major corporations and/or
governments will likely control it. This will leave you
with very little say in the matter. You will simply remain
a consumer paying your bill, or a stockholder collecting
Nuclear fast breeders have excellent net energy
profiles, even better than fossil fuels. But if they
are ever perfected, you can bet that you won't be able
to build one in your garage. They will be owned and managed
by corporations. The waste is dangerous and there isn't
enough uranium to supply the world's energy needs anyway
- not with an exploding population.
A 1999 University of California
study revealed that more than 3,000 gallons of gaseous
hydrogen is necessary to produce the same energy as a
gallon of gasoline. (http://darwin.bio.uci.edu/~sustain/global/sensem/Forrest98.htm).
Compressed hydrogen is highly explosive. Liquid hydrogen
comes close to equaling gasoline's energy but it is so
cold, it fractures the metals used in fuel systems. Where
will people get hydrogen? And if one relies on a zero-point
technology to make it, how much energy will be returned
and where will the new engines come from?
There are a few technologies that do offer useful
net energy profiles (while not approaching fossil fuels),
and are available for home use. Windmills, passive solar
(solar heating) and paddle wheels are examples of such
technology. Methane processing of farm wastes has received
some attention (particularly in traditional Asian cultures),
but it generally involves some advanced machinery and
is potentially dangerous because methane is so highly
An answer to the problem of energy depletion lies
not in developing new energy sources so that we may continue
our destructive, consumer lifestyles. Rather, the answer
lies in developing new lifestyles that strive toward
self-sufficiency and sustainability.
Sources for this sort of information abound on
the Internet and elsewhere. Back copies of Mother
Earth News are packed with designs for energy efficient
homes and organic gardening tips. Likewise, the Whole
Earth Catalogue carries a wealth of sources, depending
on which ones are still open for business. On the Internet,
a Google search for sustainable communities or permaculture
is a good place to start. I recommend Ted Trainer's The
Simpler Way website: http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/.
I won't claim that Ted has the entire answer, but it
makes a good place to start.
Finally, we must all learn that there is no hope
for any of us outside of a community. We must learn to
work with our neighbors in developing sustainable alternatives.
This is very difficult for Americans brought up on rugged
individualism and competition. However, this is how our
ancestors, the first settlers of this country, were able
to survive and thrive. It is also how the Native Americans
before them survived.
Just maybe, along the way, we can discover a quality
of life that we have been missing, and fill the void
that we have been attempting to fill with exploitive