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Nine Critical Questions to Ask About Alternative Energy

© Copyright 2003, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.

May 27, 2003, 1400 PDT (FTW) -- Before we instantly accept alternative energy lifeboats that will let us keep our current lifestyles, don't you think it wise to see if they float?

Here are nine questions that you must ask of yourself, and anyone who claims that they have found a perfect alternative to oil. After answering these questions, you may have a better idea about whether you want to jump (or throw your family) into something that might sink in short order.

Deluding yourself that the energy problem has been solved only guarantees that the crisis will hit you and the planet much harder in the end.

The end of the Age of Oil is a life and death game. Can you afford to be cavalier about it? Do not think of prudent, but ultimately temporary, steps that should be taken to soften the blow as solutions.

These questions have been arranged by order of importance and by the order in which they will enable you to quickly evaluate an alternative energy source. If you can't get the right answer to the first one, you need not go any further.

After answering all nine questions, you will see - from a scientific place, rather than an emotional one - that there is no effective replacement for what hydrocarbon energy provides today.

1. How Much Energy is Returned for the Energy Invested (EROEI)?

Have all energy costs been taken into account? This is where too many alternative energy sources fall flat after the simplest examination.

Commercial hydrogen offers one clear example of how it takes more energy to produce the fuel than can be obtained from burning it. The current feedstock from which hydrogen is produced is natural gas. The natural gas is then treated with steam. Steam is water that is boiled using more natural gas, oil, or coal, either in the form of direct fuel or to generate electricity which is used to boil the water. Common sense dictates that this cannot be a solution because it still relies on fossil fuels.

Converting water to hydrogen is done through electrolysis. Scientist David Pimentel has established that it takes 1.3 billion kWh (Kilowatt hours) of electricity to produce the equivalent of 1 billion kWh of hydrogen.  (BioScience, Vol. 44, No. 8, September 1994.)

Even a small positive EROEI, if obtainable, is not a solution because fossil fuels on the whole return many times the energy invested, not just a fraction. That's why we use them.

Ethanol is another case in point. Some research has shown a negative EROEI for ethanol. Newer research from Oregon shows a slightly positive return. Ethanol is, at best, a slightly beneficial temporary alternative - not a substitute.

Claims that cars can run on vegetable oil never take into account the amount of energy necessary to generate the vegetable oil (farming, vegetable transport, extraction, etc.).

Devices that recycle plastic into oil don't mention the fact that plastic is oil, and that a great deal of energy was used to make it into plastic in the first place.

Similarly, the new technology of thermal depolymerization is not a legitimate alternative energy source. This process transforms carbon-based wastes back into hydrocarbon fuel. This technology is useful, and may help us on the downside of the Hubbert curve, but it will never replace fossil fuels. Why? Because the wastes were produced by the use of fossil fuels.

Even using turkey offal, one must account for 1) the feed, 2) what fertilized the feed (natural gas), 3) how the feed was planted, 4) harvested, 5) irrigated (oil and gas), and 5) how the turkey got to market (oil). Thermal depolymerization should be more properly viewed as a form of recycling. But this process will never have the net energy of the original fossil fuels. As fossil fuels dwindle, so will the source material.

Any alternative energy source claiming to be a solution to the coming oil and gas shortages must have documented “open book” EROEI policies. If it doesn't, then it has something to hide.

2. Have the claims been verified by an independent third party?

In real life, it is called “the proof is in the pudding.” In scientific circles, it is called peer review, and it usually involves having your research published in a peer-reviewed journal. It is an often-frustrating process, but peer-reviewed articles ensure the validity of science.

When assessing the validity of an alternative energy source, look for articles published in peer- reviewed scientific journals, or critiques authored by scientists or engineers trained in the field of study. Ultimately, this is the only way to validate claims.

An inventor may insist that he/she has been shunned by the scientific community, or state that there is a conspiracy within the scientific community against his/her ideas. That is just too bad. Don't succumb out of sympathy or wishful thinking.

FTW's research has been suppressed but all we have ever asked for is a fair and open review of the evidence. This is the first test of credibility.

The ultimate proof is in a working demonstration, outside of the control of the person selling the idea, so that the results can be verified by a person or body with no financial interest in the outcome.

3. Can I see the alternative energy being used?

Be very careful here. Seeing is not always believing. There are many cases of con men with engines that only appear to run on alternative energy. There are also more than a few legitimate inventors who think they are running a legitimate experiment.

Even if the inventor does produce an engine that runs on alternative energy, don't sign on until the next question is answered very clearly.

4. Can you trace it back to the original energy source?

There are only four original sources of energy on this planet: the sun, gravitational forces, earth's interior, or nuclear power. All energy derived from organic sources can be traced back to sunlight. It is the same for renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Gravitational forces generate hydroelectric power and tidal power. Geothermal power is generated from the earth's interior. The earth's interior is hot due to the residual heat generated from the accretion of the planet and the heat of trace radioactive minerals. This internal heat powers all of the earth's tectonic processes. Nuclear energy is generated from either the breakdown of unstable elements (in the case of fission) or the fusing of two elements into one (in the case of fusion).

If an inventor claims an original source of energy other than these four, or if no original source of energy is apparent, treat the invention with skepticism. He or she may be the next Galileo giving us scalar energy, and upsetting the known laws of the universe, but the invention must still be proven, demonstrated, checked, and most importantly, made available.

One cannot eat a picture of a hamburger. One can only eat the hamburger itself.

5. Does the invention defy the Laws of Thermodynamics?

Most of the other questions in this list can be tied up into this one question: does the invention defy the Laws of Thermodynamics? If the answer is yes, then something is wrong.

What are the Laws of Thermodynamics?

  • 1st Law—Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The total amount of energy in the universe remains constant, merely changing from one form to another.
  • 2nd Law—In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state. This is also known as the law of entropy.
  • 3rd Law—It is impossible to cool a body to absolute zero by any finite process. This is actually more of a postulate than a law. In any case, it has little application to our discussion and is presented here merely for thoroughness.

Scientist and author C.P. Snow developed a very simple and memorable way to remember the three laws:

  • You cannot win (that is, you cannot get something for nothing, because matter and energy are conserved).
  • You cannot break even (you cannot return to the same energy state, because there is always an increase in disorder; entropy always increases).
  • You cannot get out of the game (because absolute zero is unattainable).

6. Does the inventor make extravagant claims?

Does the inventor claim that his/her invention will generate, for instance, more energy in one liter than a barrel of oil? Will this invention run on anything? Did “extra-terrestrials” give the promoter the plan for this invention? Will this invention “replace all other energy sources currently utilized by human civilization”?

Claims like these are signals that the invention should be treated with great skepticism.

7. Does the inventor claim zero pollution?

There is no method of generating energy from a source that does not produce some form of waste (pollution). Even wind and solar create waste as a result of the construction of wind turbines and solar cells (albeit comparatively little waste generated in the initial construction phase). Hydrogen fuel cells create waste when the hydrogen is generated, though it is commonly claimed that they produce nothing but water. The waste is simply moved out of sight to a hydrogen generating plant. Hydrogen fuel cells depend on fossil fuels to generate the free hydrogen, so they create all the pollutants of burning hydrocarbons; they simply move them away from the vehicles to a centralized generating plant. Likewise, horses also produce waste; just ask anyone who has ever mucked a stable.

8. Can I see blueprints, schematics or a chemical analysis of how it works?

It will likely take some technical training to read blueprints or review a chemical analysis. However, the fact that an inventor would even present such material for review might be a sign that his/her motives are pure.

Or it might simply be a prop in a very elaborate ruse.

9. Infrastructure Requirements -- Does the energy source require a corporation to produce it? How will it be transported and used? Will it require new engines, pipelines, and filling stations? What will these cost? Who will pay for them and with what? How long will it take to build them?

While these questions do not tell you if the alternative energy source is legitimate, they will tell you how practical it can be for you. If the process is complicated, requiring specially trained technicians, sophisticated machinery, and elaborate processing, then major corporations and/or governments will likely control it. This will leave you with very little say in the matter. You will simply remain a consumer paying your bill, or a stockholder collecting your premiums.

Nuclear fast breeders have excellent net energy profiles, even better than fossil fuels. But if they are ever perfected, you can bet that you won't be able to build one in your garage. They will be owned and managed by corporations. The waste is dangerous and there isn't enough uranium to supply the world's energy needs anyway - not with an exploding population.

A 1999 University of California study revealed that more than 3,000 gallons of gaseous hydrogen is necessary to produce the same energy as a gallon of gasoline. ( Compressed hydrogen is highly explosive. Liquid hydrogen comes close to equaling gasoline's energy but it is so cold, it fractures the metals used in fuel systems.  Where will people get hydrogen? And if one relies on a zero-point technology to make it, how much energy will be returned and where will the new engines come from?

There are a few technologies that do offer useful net energy profiles (while not approaching fossil fuels), and are available for home use. Windmills, passive solar (solar heating) and paddle wheels are examples of such technology. Methane processing of farm wastes has received some attention (particularly in traditional Asian cultures), but it generally involves some advanced machinery and is potentially dangerous because methane is so highly combustible.

An answer to the problem of energy depletion lies not in developing new energy sources so that we may continue our destructive, consumer lifestyles. Rather, the answer lies in developing new lifestyles that strive toward self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Sources for this sort of information abound on the Internet and elsewhere. Back copies of Mother Earth News are packed with designs for energy efficient homes and organic gardening tips. Likewise, the Whole Earth Catalogue carries a wealth of sources, depending on which ones are still open for business. On the Internet, a Google search for sustainable communities or permaculture is a good place to start. I recommend Ted Trainer's The Simpler Way website: I won't claim that Ted has the entire answer, but it makes a good place to start.

Finally, we must all learn that there is no hope for any of us outside of a community. We must learn to work with our neighbors in developing sustainable alternatives. This is very difficult for Americans brought up on rugged individualism and competition. However, this is how our ancestors, the first settlers of this country, were able to survive and thrive. It is also how the Native Americans before them survived.

Just maybe, along the way, we can discover a quality of life that we have been missing, and fill the void that we have been attempting to fill with exploitive consumerism.

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