Muddled Thinking: preventing wasting energy is just as important as clean renewable energy

I have devoted several essays on this web log to my views on what is a clean renewable source of energy and what is a dirty renewable energy source. A clean source is one that creates very few emissions and pollutants in its life cycle and a dirty source is one that creates many pollutants in its lifecycle and use.

When it comes to renewable electricity then the technical definitions adopted by states have an effect of encouraging the use of renewable electricity which falls within the definition rather than one which has been examined on its whole life cycle. A state may generally subsidise what it defines as renewable power, whether it is clean or dirty.

We saw some muddled thinking on this on energy generally when the UK wanted to subsidise wood pellets and in fact, as the European Union pointed out, wanted to offer far too generous subsidies which would mean UK taxpayers paying for dirty energy.

In the United States the Environmental Protection Agency defines renewable power as “electricity generated by fuel sources that restore themselves over a short period of time and do not diminish.” This definition is providing some problems in Ohio.

Ohio wants to classify waste gas from new steel blast furnaces as renewable. At the moment the steel makers are required to burn off these waste gases because they are dangerous. If they were burnt to make steam to drive turbines the energy would be useful, it would prevent emissions being created (because it would require less fossil fuel to be burnt) and would create a cleaner and safer environment. However, the utilisation of waste gases hardly meets, at present the definition of the Environmental protection Agency for renewable power.

This illustrates the present muddled thinking about renewable energy of all descriptions and that muddled thinking causes nations to put subsidies into the wrong things. Steel blast furnaces waste energy in two ways – they burn off gases which could be used to create electricity and they dump waste heat which could be used in district heating systems.

I expect that Ohio and the EPA will either change the definition or the basis of subsidy to encourage the prevention of fuel and energy being wasted. I hope so, because prevention of energy being wasted is just as important a principle and does as much environmental good as renewable energy. Wasting energy is simply using energy unnecessarily; the fact that you need to use energy in blast furnaces does not mean you should waste the by products of the process or not recycle the energy. Recycling energy is always overlooked in the grand scheme of policies that governments dream up.

It is important to clear the muddled thinking on this point.

6 Responses

  1. Isn’t the way you use “renewable energy source” just a misnomer?

    Generally speaking, our only source of energy is the sun. We use historically stored energy in the form of coal, gas, oil etc or we use current radiation energy and its by-product…. wind.

    None of these are truly renewable. It’s just that the sun has been, and will be, heating us for some time. Eventually it will ‘go out’

    Unless we ‘create’ a new means of generating energy we, and all other life, will die out on this planet.

    Currently, there are two ways of genuinely ‘creating’ energy:
    (1) by breaking the strong atomic bond in nuclear fission; or,
    (2) fusing atomic nuclei in fusion.
    Both methods give off enormous amounts of energy which are and will forever be limitless.

    The advantage of fusion is that it uses non-radioactive elements but we have not yet managed to initiate fusion. On the other hand, fission can be initiated simply by juxtaposing ‘heavy’ elements just below the critical mass. The amount of energy generated is enormous and almost self perpetuating because the fission reactors ‘breed’ more nuclear fuel. Thorium has been touted as the safe fissile fuel but probably needs 10 years and £10B. But thats not a lot different to the cost of all the planned windmills.

    The beauty of nuclear is that it might soon be miniaturised to power lorries, vans, trains etc. It already powers ships.

    Therefore, wouldn’t it make much more sense to spend money on developing genuine “renewable sources” rather than just finding ever more convoluted and inefficient means of recycling the sun’s radiation or wind?

    Nuclear power stations are not a free ride. They need above average control and security but there are no emissions and the pollutants can be contained and limited to a very small area. Perhaps eventually sent into space! There is little visual impact, no dirty coal mining, fracking or drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Aren’t we just foolish not to be going ‘hell for leather’ on nuclear power generation because that is, in fact, the nearest we have to a truly “renewable energy source”?

    • You are right Chris. “Renewable” is simply used as a relative adjective, not an absolute one. Sunlight is relatively renewable compared with coal. The same applies to my classification of “dirty” and “clean” energy: neither are absolute terms. You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs or energy without leaving some pollution somewhere. As for nuclear the issue here is safety, but that is another debate entirely. First make it safe, and then develop it.


  2. Sorry, but I don’t understand why you seem to think nuclear is not safe. ‘Safe’ is also not an absolute concept either. Otherwise you wouldn’t fly in airplanes.The Wright brothers didn’t give up because humans aren’t safe in a plane.

    We undertake safety take measures, we have ‘backup’ and ‘fail safe’ engineering. Accidents will happen but we plan for them and as we gain experience technology gets safer. There were many parliamentarians in the 19th century who tried to ban motor vehicles because they feared new technology. They were wrong and so are those who want to avoid nuclear.

    Also, you can make energy without pollution using thorium as the fissile material or by fusion. That was part of my point.

    Current nuclear reactors use more risky radioactive material but is is not the only way to create energy. However, unless we develop nuclear technology using radioactive materials, safer thorium based fission will never happen because someone with money has to have faith in its development and all this current unjustified fear of nuclear will kill off thorium too.

    Unfortunately, nuclear power generation has become a victim of luddite thinking, fear and technical ignorance within the ‘green’ movement. In my view, nuclear power generation combines cleanliness with the opportunity to provide all the power we need for a technological and overpopulated planet. Solar can never provide sufficient quantities if we want to have cars and similar means of transport or live in cold climates.

  3. Energy and the environment are topics of such importance today that it is easy to feel like a fool when you don’t know even the basics. Renewable Energy Made Easy lives up to its name, making the subject easy to handle by dividing the book up into manageable sections. For me, I found the text a little simplistic at first. Recycle, Reduce, Reuse makes me feel like I am in fifth grade again. However, after the beginning he gets into a lot of interesting information about the actual technology making these changes in energy possible.I wanted to see more diagrams/pictures of all the technology that the author talked about. I did enjoy, though, the case studies towards the end of the book that helped to give a clearer picture of how these technologies will be used by companies today. While the author is, of course, pro alternative energy, I didn’t feel like he glossed over the many difficulties of making alternative energy work effectively and integrating it into our economy.This is definitely a good book for those looking to get a basic grasp of renewable energy and especially for people looking for an in to more complicated material.

  4. If you are looking into various forms of alternative energy, this book covers it all, even a few you may have not thought about. A clear non-engineering discription of each method is provided along with the pros and cons. Diagrams along with examples and photos are provided as well.This book will act as a valuable tool to both novice and professionals.A very cost effective investment!

  5. I used this book as a primary text for a course on “Energy & the Environment” where we dealt with all current and future methods of energy production and their effect on the environment.This book is by far the best and easiest to read, whilst still containing accurate and complete information and data (though most of the data is based on the UK). It contains relevant formulas and mathematical information but is not too technical as to leave the reader jumping through numbers.I’ve given this book 5 stars, because I couldn’t find any flaw in it. It’s a MUST have for any one interested in renewable energy.

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