Are Fossil Fuels the Past, Renewables the Future?

by Marlo Lewis on August 19, 2014

in Blog

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Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously defined war as “the mere continuation of policy [politics] by other means.” An unstated implication of this oft-quoted maxim is that politics is a continuation of war by non-military means.

What is the optimal way to win wars, political or military? Chinese general Sun Tzu said that “supreme excellence” in the art of war “consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Unsurprisingly, throughout history, political combatants often try to inculcate the belief that the future is already written, tomorrow belongs to them, hence, resistance is futile.

This psyops component of warfare explains one of the standard tropes of green rhetoric. Fossil fuels are belittled as outmoded energies destined for history’s dustbin whereas wind, solar, and biofuels — sources requiring Soviet-style production quota and other policy privileges to capture significant market share — are hailed as technologies of tomorrow.

Consider two recent examples.

In a speech to the League of Conservation Voters declaring opposition to a proposed coal export terminal, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber stated:

First, it is time to once and for all to say NO to coal exports from the Pacific Northwest. It is time to say Yes to national and state energy policies that will transform our economy and our communities into a future that can sustain the next generation. . . . The future for Oregon and the West Coast does not lie in 19th century energy sources.

Yesterday, the Illinois Commerce Commission hosted a stakeholder meeting on EPA’s proposed guidelines to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing power plants. Rebecca Stanfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council reportedly characterized “jockeying” by coal and nuclear interests as a “sideshow.” Climatewire (paywall protected) quotes her saying:

This is about leading the energy economy of the future, not about looking in the rearview mirror at the resources that powered the past.

The real “sideshow,” however, is you-are-obsolete rhetoric, which distracts public attention from the merits of competing energy technologies and, thus, from the costs and limitations of renewable energy. Whatever their date of origin, all energy technologies undergo continual modification and innovation. What matters is their value to consumers today and the foreseeable future, not when they first deployed at commercial scale.

Besides, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. It’s not just coal-based power that got its start in the 19th century. So did renewables, especially hydropower and wind.

Gov. Kitzhaber can afford to bash coal because Oregon, endowed with geography and hydrology not occurring in Appalachia and the Midwest, derives 75% of its electricity from zero-carbon hydropower. Hydroelectricity is by far Oregon’s — and the world’s — leading source of renewable power.

Oregon Net Electricity By Source April 2014

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Thomas Edison built the world’s first coal-fired power plant in New York City in 1882. Here’s a woodcut of the “Jumbo” 27-ton dynamos at Edison’s Pearl Street station in lower Manhattan.

Thomas Edison Dynamos Pearl Street Station NYC 1882

Oregon’s first hydroelectric power station, the T.W. Sullivan Dam at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, built in 1888, is of the same general vintage.


Charles F. Brush built the first “automatically operated” wind-powered electric generating turbine, in 1887, in Cleveland, Ohio.


The first solar voltaic power station of megawatt scale was not built until 1982. However, the first scientific breakthrough critical to the technology was French scientist Edmond Bequerel’s discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839. Another key milestone came in 1876 when William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day discovered that a solid material — selenium — “could change light into electricity without heat or moving parts.”

French mathematician Augustin Mouchot built solar concentrators in the 1870s to generate steam, drive engines, and even produce ice. The woodcut below depicts Mouchot’s Solar Generator, unveiled at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, in 1878. “These engines became the predecessors of modern parabolic dish collectors,” writes DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Lab.


Far from biofuel being futuristic, Henry Ford built his first automobile, the 1896 Quadricycle, to run on pure ethanol.








Ethanol has been used as a commercial motor fuel since the 1930s:

Ethanol Fueling Station 1930s







The ethanol market did not take off as early proponents hoped due to issues of cost, portability, and energy density (miles per gallon).

In the perception-is-reality world of political combat, partisans naturally try to spin their agendas into self-fulfilling prophecies, claiming history is on their side. In any age, exposing the emptiness of such boasts (as F. A. Hayek did in The Road to Serfdom, pp. 59-60) is part of a skeptic’s vocation.




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