Beware — the death of fossil fuels will kill everything

Forging the base ring for a giant wind turbine in a Spanish foundry. That’s a giant ingot of tool steel. Memo to Greens: The manufacturing required to produce your wind turbines cannot be done with wind turbines. It needs mining, drilling, smelting and milling, all of which depend on coal, oil and gas, but if we stop looking for that stuff it will run out.

Dr John Constable, Energy Editor of the Global Warming Policy Forum, took part in a debate at the Financial Times Energy Transitions Summit, opposing the motion that “Fossil Fuels are Doomed”. He did not succeed, but nevertheless gave an extraordinary new view of the symbiotic relationship between the fossil fuels our society now depends on and the renewable fuels we aspire to. He urges caution in mandating a too-rapid renunciation of fossil fuels, going as far as to argue that they actually create the renewable forms of energy — and proves it. Here’s his full speech, from the GWPF. – RT

Energy transitions are intrinsically slow and the incoming energy system is necessarily and unavoidably created by the previous one.

Think of the history. The transition from the organically fuelled economy of the late Medieval period to the mineral based economy of the twentieth century took something like five hundred years in Europe and North America, and even today has not yet reached the whole world.

Of course, the next transition might be quicker, but it won’t happen within a decade, or two. If fossil fuels are “doomed” it is in a time frame well beyond the investment horizon.

And that will be true even assuming that the policy-induced transition to renewables is actually viable. In fact, not all of us think it will succeed, and for my own part I suspect renewables really are doomed, on physical grounds, and that the axe of thermodynamic reality is already falling. Time will tell.

Smelting, forging, turning, milling. Industrial-level manufacturing facilities don’t run on solar panels. Anywhere.

But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose renewables are indeed the long term future. Nonetheless, they will have to be created out of the fossil economy, and that will take decades at the least.

Renewable energy output is still small in volume, and the technologies have such a low energy return that they are a very long way from being autocatalytic, self-reinforcing.

Never mind the fact that they cannot support or maintain the wider economy, they aren’t even yet able to create, support and maintain themselves. Modern renewables are a dependent output of the conventional energy system.
Some people look at a wind turbine and claim to see the future. I see one of the achievements of the fossil-fuelled present. Here is a machine that can take a low grade, high entropy, chaotic energy source like the wind and make it into just about usable electricity.

Remarkable in a way. But the truth is that in spite of two decades of coerced resource input from fossil-fuelled wealth, renewables and their systems are still relatively unproductive; low load factor generators with short lives, greatly expanded but underutilised networks, and numerous complex and expensive system management tools, from computer controlled demand to batteries as big as the Ritz. Without fossil fuels this elaborate edifice would never have been created, and without the ongoing support of fossil fuels it would come crashing to the ground.

Lot of concrete in that floor.

How quickly could that change? The history suggests slowly at best. Coal converters became autocatalytic quite rapidly, but the resulting energy transition was still slow. Even with primitive mining techniques and at poor thermal efficiencies coal yielded a high energy return that quickly produced technologies that improved the steam engines themselves and opened the way for other fuels. And by quickly, we mean just over 150 years, from the Newcomen engines of the early eighteenth century to the mature high pressure Trevithick engines of the latter half of the nineteenth, and the Parsons turbines that are with us today, driven by a variety of fuels, coal still amongst them.

Energy transitions are unavoidably slow. When the incoming energy source and its conversion devices are autocatalytic, yes, there will be progress but it will still take time for significant levels of self-reproducing deployment. And renewables aren’t yet autocatalytic.

So there is a hazard in driving fossil fuels prematurely from the economy. If we were to cut the throat of the fossil fuel sector at this instant the modern economy would disappear taking the renewables sector with it. Modern renewables rely, as we all do, on the timely provision of complex material structures that can be generated only by conventional energy, and mostly by fossil fuels. Cut the umbilical cord too soon and the foetus dies.

If there is a viable climate policy in the long term it will be just one more complex and timely state of matter created by the fossil economy. Gas, oil, even coal are with us for the long term; they remain essential to current prosperity and social progress, and, paradoxical as it may seem, they alone can deliver whatever kind of low carbon, self-reproducing and climate friendly economy lies ahead. We just have to be patient.

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19 Thoughts on “Beware — the death of fossil fuels will kill everything

  1. Andy on 21/06/2018 at 3:26 pm said:

    If we could crack Thorium or Nuclear Fusion we would have to use all this wind and solar malarky

  2. Andy on 21/06/2018 at 5:57 pm said:

    Correction to above, we would *not* have to…

    Not that wind and solar have any instrinsic value anyway, other than to its suppliers

  3. KillerBean on 22/06/2018 at 2:26 am said:

    Sorry to post this in an unrelated thread but, honestly you couldn’t make it up.

  4. Andy on 22/06/2018 at 8:02 am said:

    That BBC story is hilarious but misleading
    It should really say “carbon pollution shortage”

  5. Richard Treadgold on 22/06/2018 at 9:26 am said:

    Ha haa! To both of you! Yes, it’s a pity for the food and beer supply and all, but due entirely to bad management and some inability to peer forward a few weeks. Rather a signature of some aspects of British commerce and industry recently. But my eye caught a story on the same page about Mt Kilimanjaro, which is again threatened by climate change and once again forecast to lose all of its snow in 25 years (just this time accompanied by another 24 ice-clad equatorial mountains). How many times can the BBC repeat this without it occurring? They think we have no memory?

  6. Andy on 22/06/2018 at 1:56 pm said:

    I’m a Pom so warm flat beer is fine with me. Don’t need none of that stinkin’ carbon pollution in my beer thank you very much

  7. Stephanie Hawking on 23/06/2018 at 2:59 pm said:

    Global Warming Policy Foundation.


    The global community of scientists including experts publishing 60,000 papers a year.

    Building on science that started with Fourier in 1824:

  8. Andy on 23/06/2018 at 3:25 pm said:

    Why are they publishing 60,000 papers a year if the science is settled?

    Sounds like a never ending gravy train

  9. Andy on 23/06/2018 at 3:47 pm said:

    Bridges to somewhere: why National’s climate U-turn is such a big deal

    Climate change is not a partisan issue, and the need to take big steps to reduce emissions is urgent. So the opposition support for a Climate Change Commission is very welcome, writes climate scientist James Renwick.

    In climate policy-land, things are all go here in New Zealand. The coalition government has got its Zero Carbon Bill out for public consultation, no new offshore oil exploration permits will be issued, and the Climate Change Commission is being set up. And now the leader of the opposition National Party, Simon Bridges, has come out in support of the Climate Change Commission and is looking for cross-party agreement on climate policy.

    Everybody agrees. All the scientists, all the politicians. Everybody

    We need to shut down the entire economy and live in cars, drinking warm flat beer and watching Netflix on our phones huddled in blankets.

  10. Stephanie Hawking on 23/06/2018 at 4:37 pm said:

    Why are they publishing 60,000 papers a year if the science is settled?

    Only climate deniers claim to know everything about climate science.

    Sounds like a never ending gravy train

    Scams or conspiracies of this size could exist only in addled minds.

  11. Maggy Wassilieff on 23/06/2018 at 9:50 pm said:

    Scams or conspiracies of this size could exist only in addled minds.

    Some folks have put too much faith in lousy climate models.

  12. Andy on 24/06/2018 at 9:56 am said:

    “Only climate deniers claim to know everything about climate science”

    I don’t know anyone that claims to know everything about climate science and I don’t know of anyone that denies that climate exists

    Nevertheless, one wonders what these 60000 papers cover. Perhaps climate change and transgender communities in South Sudan, or climate change and rare lichens in the Scottish Highlands?

    All fascinating material I’m sure

  13. Stephanie Hawking on 25/06/2018 at 12:49 am said:

    Climate deniers* must know everything about climate science to be so sure that the experts – maybe 60,000 – are wrong.
    A person who rejects the proposition that climate change caused by human activity is occurring.

    Only people who prefer loony sites to science think the climate models are “lousy”.

    In any case global warming has been measured. Models are useful for understanding why. Earth would not have warmed without more man-made CO2 and other greenhouse gases enhancing the greenhouse effect.

    And James Hansen was right.

    Antarctica is losing more ice than earlier believed.

    And of course even the reactionary politicians realise the game is up.

    Goodness there’s been plenty of simple explanations.

    Kate Marvel

  14. Andy on 25/06/2018 at 8:00 am said:

    Funny how Stephanie lectures us about science and then links to a bunch of blogs and other assorted activist sites

  15. Andy on 25/06/2018 at 8:40 am said:

    The scientific and policy literature on climate change increasingly recognizes the
    vulnerabilities of indigenous communities and their capacities for resilience. The
    role of gender in defining how indigenous peoples experience climate change in the
    United States is a research area that deserves more attention. Advancing climate
    change threatens the continuance of many indigenous cultural systems that are
    based on reciprocal relationships with local plants, animals, and ecosystems. These
    reciprocal relationships, and the responsibilities associated with them, are gendered
    in many indigenous communities. American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native
    Hawaiians experience colonization based on intersecting layers of oppression in
    which race and gender are major determinants.

    “Indigenous peoples”, “oppression”, “climate change”


  16. Andy on 25/06/2018 at 10:27 am said:

    If New Zealand is planning on transitioning to a low carbon economy shutting down the economy then you’d think some people might be spending some time investigating how this might be done rather than studying intersectional gender theory and climate change

    Maybe our cross dressing dentist has some ideas

  17. Brett Keane on 25/06/2018 at 10:27 am said:
    We archive hundreds of honest ie non-CAGW climate papers every year. They seem to be increasing in number of late. As the scam becomes more obvious.
    Researchers such as Joe Bastardi above, who uses his vast weather records, notice the return of the cool phase of the AMO now. You know, the one that caused prophecies of an ice age disaster back then by the same group now in a lather and a cold sweat. AMO cooling plus Quiet Sun means likely food shortages. Sensible people would be organising for that. I’d prefer warming, but either way, more CO2 is beneficial for food production, and we will probably need more plastic-house growing.

  18. Mack on 25/06/2018 at 7:50 pm said:

    “And of course even the reactionary politicians realise the game is up” says Stephanie.
    …..”reactionary politicians” ? Steph.? ….”reactionary”?. Now there’s a good old Soviet Union style, commie brainfart from the past. …”.reactionary”….whenever you hear somebody say, “reactionary”, you know you’re talking to a true, dyed in the wool, hammer and sickle-head….either that or Stephanie is merely a graduate of a “Political Science” degree here in NZ. Which is it, Steph ?.

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