With all the discussion about the Democrats' Green New Deal, a lot of attention has been given to the notion of replacing fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) with solar power, bio-fuels and wind power. There is just one problem: it’s not physically possible.
All three of these alternative power sources are simply too diffuse; the energy is not concentrated enough to be able to collect it efficiently. The energy required to create, install and maintain the collecting equipment exceeds the energy produced during the life of the equipment. Now there have been studies that support the idea that alternative energy does not actually produce surplus energy and some that refute it, but we can use reason to determine the truth ourselves. As supporters of alternative energy remind us, the sun and wind are free, so the only costs involved in producing solar or wind energy are the costs of collection. Since the price of something is a good proxy for how much labor (energy) went into it, we can deduce by the fact that biofuel, wind and solar energy is much more expensive (without government subsidies) than fossil fuel energy that they require more energy to produce than they create.
It is important to remember that the world’s economy operates on coal, gas and oil. With the energy supplied by fossil fuels, workers are many times more productive (and better compensated) than they were before the Industrial Age. If coal, gas and oil were to disappear tomorrow, the world would not be able to produce and transport enough food to feed our 21st century population with 19th century horse-powered farming and transport; billions would quickly die of starvation.
Biofuels, wind generators and solar panels are created using fossil fuel energy, in factories built using fossil fuel energy, manned by workers who are fed, sheltered and transported using fossil fuel energy. It is the worst kind of “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” logic to think they can replace fossil fuels. And this is before the issues of intermittent supply, energy storage and transmission are factored in, which further increases the cost of alternative energy as well as decreasing the energy provided.
But how about those that argue that improvements and advances in technology will dramatically lower costs? As an experiment, let's assume breakthroughs are made, and alternative energy can be produced at a cost of approximately 75 percent that of fossil fuels and only required 75 megawatt hours of energy to produce equipment that would collect 100 MWhr over their useful life. In order to permanently replace 100 MWhr of fossil fuel generated energy, you would need to build not 100 MWhr but 400 MWhr of alternative energy equipment. So even with amazing technological advances, we will still be running out of room to put all the cornfields, solar farms and wind generators.
Hydro power has always been an efficient (if limited) alternative energy source, and nuclear power has the possibility of someday providing all our energy needs. But the dream of replacing fossil fuels with bio-fuel, solar and wind power is doomed to fail, with nightmarish results.