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Wind and solar power are still dependent on fossil fuels


Blowin’ in the Wind

by Jerry Silberman

Question: How much of the energy we use comes from fossil fuels?
The Right Question: How much of the energy we use is dependent on fossil fuels?

Last month we identified the sources of energy that make our high-technology civilization possible. 

What it really comes down to is fossilized sunlight, energy initially captured by photosynthesis, and fashioned into coal, oil and natural gas over many millions of years. Thinking about human culture as a system for capturing energy to support increasing populations of our kind on the planet, there have been two changes that stand out in our several-hundred-thousand-year history as true watershed moments. The first was agriculture, developed independently in several parts of the world between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago. The second was the exploitation of fossil fuels, initially through steam engines, just over 300 years ago. 

In the preceding 12 millennia, human population crept up at a very slow rate, with only arithmetic increases based on incremental changes in technology and the expansion of the territory dedicated to agriculture. The surplus energy available from agriculture changed only very slightly for thousands of years. Global population several times dropped from one century to the next. Dozens of generations of people lived such that their lifestyle would have been very familiar to their great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. It took 10,000 years for human population to reach one half-billion, shortly before 1700. 

With the fossil fuel revolution, all hell broke loose. The incredible quantities of energy available allowed exponential increases in population and consumption. Global population doubled from 3 billion to 6 billion in just 40 years, from 1960 to 2000, as energy from fossil fuels also doubled.

So exactly what part of our current energy consumption comes from fossil fuels, and how do we use them?

Two charts generated and updated regularly by the Energy Information Administration can provide us some important background and context.

We can see that renewable energy from wind and solar are 2.4 percent of our total energy use, and 6 percent of our electricity use. Together, wind, solar and hydro—the renewable technologies used for electricity—generate 12 percent of our electricity. The rest comes mostly from natural gas and coal. 

We can see that our transportation system is 95 percent dependent on fossil fuels. In the case of freight transportation, not broken out in this chart, it is virtually 100 percent. 

Unfortunately, most of the modern renewable energy technologies are completely dependent on fossil fuel energy subsidies, and, without them, they are nearly impossible to carry out. 

Consider the fossil fuel needed to construct a modern, 1.5 megawatt capacity wind turbine. The materials needed for these turbines often originate on two or three continents and are moved to their assembly point in ships, trucks and trains. The efficiency of the turbine depends on highly technical electronic controls. Rare metals sourced from around the globe are crucial. Large amounts of steel and concrete are needed, and the manufacture of concrete requires burning fossil fuel and releases substantial carbon dioxide from the concrete itself. Finally, the turbine must be transported to its final location and erected. 

Often, the size of components requires specially built rail cars and trucks. Then, there are the diesel-powered cranes and other heavy equipment used in the installation. Electric-powered technology for most of these construction processes is nonexistent. 

Much the same could be said for photovoltaic arrays. To achieve the recent improvements in the capture of energy, more very-scarce resources are used, and the electronics are equally complex. While not as physically massive as wind turbines, their complexity means they require a great deal of maintenance. 

Since both of these sources of energy are intermittent, even for the electricity they supply, they must be integrated into a grid that has fossil fuel capacity—mainly gas and coal-fired generators—to keep the electricity flowing even when it is dark or calm. 

Could a reliable electric generation system be based on wind and photovoltaic energy? Could such a system generate electricity to power sectors of society that are completely nonelectrified at present? 

Stay tuned for the next two columns.

Jerry Silberman is a retired union organizer who now devotes his time to negotiating a resilient future for all of us.  


  1. A typical wind turbine repays the energy footprint that goes into manufacturing it in six months or less, according to the Department of Energy. The overwhelming majority of wind turbines also do not use rare earth metals. The only ones that do are direct drive turbines, which make up just a fraction of the 52,000 wind turbines currently installed in the US. The rest are made of the same materials as any other power plant– concrete and steel.

    Wind energy only marginally increases total power system variability, as most changes in wind energy output are cancelled out by opposite changes in electricity demand or other sources of supply. A large power plant can shut down abruptly at any time, forcing operators to keep large quantities of fast-acting, expensive reserves ready 24/7. Wind changes tend to be gradual and predictable, making them far less costly to accommodate using less expensive slower-acting reserves. When wind turbines are spread over large areas, their output becomes far more constant and even easier to accommodate. Wind reliably provides more 35 percent of Iowa’s electricity, over 30 percent in South Dakota, more than 20 percent of the electricity in Oklahoma, Kansas and North Dakota, and more than 10 percent of the electricity needs in 14 states. At certain points in time, the main Colorado and Texas power systems have obtained more than 60 percent and 50 percent of their electricity from wind energy.

    I reality, all sources of US energy receive federal incentives, and wind has received a fraction of them historically. Conventional fuels have received $500 billion and counting in government incentives over the last century, and fossil fuels received five times more than wind during their startup phase. Since 1950 wind has received less than 3% of all federal energy incentives.

    Wind is not reliant on federal incentives to work. In many parts of the country, like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas or Iowa, it’s the cheapest source of new electricity generation, even accounting for government incentives, according to Wall Street investment firm Lazard. Wind’s main incentive is also scheduled to phase out by 2020. No other major US energy source has agreed to phase out its incentives in a similar manner.

    -Greg Alvarez, American Wind Energy Association

  2. As a salesman for wind energy, Mr. Alvarez cherry picks people with the same commitment and the issues he will address, and takes advantage of the average reader’s lack of understanding of how the electricity grid works. Our electricity grid manages electric distribution over several states and from many dozens of generating stations. The variability in electric demand in a region is far greater than the capacity of any one plant, so even if there were an unplanned, total shut down of one station, there result would not be visible to the consumer. Introducing 20% of generating capacity where you can forecast, but not control, how much energy is being produced changes the entire picture. This is the bottleneck being encountered by countries that are approaching 20% reliance on wind (and/or photovoltaic.) Grids in the US have very little storage capacity, because it is much more expensive than generating on demand.
    Mr. Alvarez also claims that, magically, the wind will always blow when we need the power. And the weather report for a week from today is guaranteed not to change?

    The figures for wind he gives for states are capacity, not actual generation, which is often only 25-50% of capacity. In addition, each of those states is part of a multi-state grid.
    For more understanding of how the grids work, here is the very informative website of the grid which supplies our region.

    It is true that every form of energy has received subsidies; it is also true that those subsidies resolve, ultimately to energy consumed. They also roll downhill. When the price of oil is subsidized by government giveaways in the Gulf of Mexico, or military operations to make sure Iraq’s oil comes our way, they affect the cost of renewable energy resources, which depend on them. Before 2008, the price of wind spiked with oil prices.
    There is certainly a place for wind power in our future, but that will be in the context of significantly reduced electricity consumption, and much greater awareness of where and how that electricity becomes available.
    For those interested in digging deeper, here are a couple places to start.

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