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Green Valium for the masses

Image: Net Doktor

So-called ‘green energy’ is shaping up to be a wannabee Ponzi scheme reminiscent of the US fracking bubble.  It began with crowd-funded nonsense such as the idea that putting solar panels on the road so that cars and trucks can drive over them might be a good investment.  Since then, we have seen millions of dollars, euros and pounds squandered on supposedly viable electricity generating technologies that have absolutely no prospect of delivering a return on investment.

Don’t get me wrong, I think renewable energy technologies are a great way of saving some of the fossil carbon fuels we would otherwise burn.  It is just that the technologies that we already have – horizontal wind turbines (especially offshore), rooftop solar, solar farms and solar concentrators, tidal turbines and hydroelectric turbines – are far better than any of the proposed alternatives on both output and cost grounds.

My beef is with the rip-off merchants who are currently syphoning vast sums of money away from the deployment of genuine renewable technologies and, especially, an uncritical media that seeks to ‘greenwash’ whatever crowd-funding scam or grant/subsidy-farming pseudo-green technology comes along.

To give just two examples of this kind of nonsense reporting from this week alone – the idea that in future our clothing will generate electricity, and the idea that it is possible to have a solar-powered motorhome.  At first glance, these technologies sound great.  After all, even if you aren’t particularly bothered about the environment, which of us is going to turn down free energy?  The trouble is that more than a first glance reveals the obvious problems with both.

We already have electric cars on our roads, so we can already glimpse the probable flaw in the suggestion that a large motorhome can be powered by solar panels.  Using a 3.5kW charger plugged into mains electricity, it takes more than 19 hours to charge a 90kW battery of the kind used by Tesla.  For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, there are very few places on earth that offer a consistent 19 hours of bright sunshine at any time of year – certainly none that do it all year round.  Might this suggest that the motorhome is not actually solar-powered?  Well, yes.  It turns out that the vehicle has an 80 kW motor and a 228 Ah battery pack of sodium-nickel-chloride cells that boasts a range of up to 174 miles (280 km) per charge (that’s before you add the weight of people, luggage and furniture).  The solar panels, meanwhile, deliver a peak output of 3kW – not enough to recharge the vehicle – still less to power it as it is driving – but sufficient to keep the fridge running and to charge a phone or two.  Far from being a solar-powered vehicle, the electric motorhome is a fairly bog-standard EV with some solar panels slapped on to help lower the cost of recharging (in a similar manner to the way rooftop solar panels help cut your electricity bill).  Because of its low range – particularly when loaded – it is unlikely to replace internal combustion engine (ICE) motorhomes any time soon.  So while it is certainly a niche idea worth pursuing on a (very) small scale, it does not warrant the lurid headlines and social media green virtue signalling that followed what was, in effect, part of the company’s search for new investors.

It is hard to say even this about the carbon nanotube fibres that, apparently, will be allowing us to generate electricity from our clothing in the near future.  Indeed, if humanity has reached the point that we need the tiny amounts of electricity that might be generated as the fibres in our clothing stretch and contract as we move around, we might reasonably concede that industrial civilisation as we have known it is done.  In reality, of course, the electricity-generating clothing story was spun (forgive the pun) by green media outlets.  There never was a proposal to develop electricity-generating clothes.  If there is to be any use to electricity-generating fibres, it will be at a commercial scale; and only then if the cost of the fibres can be lowered significantly.  As Ray Baughman, the study’s author concedes:

“If our twistron harvesters could be made less expensively, they might ultimately be able to harvest the enormous amount of energy available from ocean waves.  However, at present these harvesters are most suitable for powering [tiny] sensors and sensor communications.”

This is a well-worn economic blind spot for green energy enthusiasts – cost (in both energy and money) really does matter.  As the world switches out of fossil carbon for its electricity, it will be forced to live on the narrowest of margins.  That a technology may be theoretically possible or that it might be made to work if given sufficient money and resources is not the point.  All that matters is which technologies offer the biggest bang for our buck.  Thus far, conventional hydro, solar, wind, wave and tidal generation have the lead.  But so far no combination of them can wean us off fossil fuels.

This is the real message that the green energy media should be promoting.  Because, to be candid here, humanity is in a spot of bother.  The British experience – of running out of coal, gas and oil and not having a viable alternative – is beginning to occur around the planet.  Unless and until a genuinely revolutionary technology happens along to fill the growing gap (which the UK, ‘green’ California and ‘green’ Germany make up with imports) it would be better not to waste money on obvious non-starter technologies.  But there again, without the kind of advertising revenue that comes from the kind of scammers who promote such things as solar roads, chrome plated Savonius generators, or solar-powered vans, the greenwash media would be out of business.

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