Alternative Energy Reading List

Why Alternative Energy can’t replace fossil fuels

Book and Article list below

cartoon Alt Energy

Introduction to alternative energy reading list

Scale. Oil is the densest form of energy on the planet next to uranium.  To replace the one cubic mile of oil, which is burned world-wide every year, you’d need to build every year for 50 years: 200 Dams (10,000 total), OR 2,600 Nuclear plants (130,000 total), OR 5,200 coal plants (260,000 total), OR 1,642,000 wind turbines (82,100,000 total), OR 4,562,500,000 rooftop PV (22,812,500,000 total)Biofuels: We consume about 105 exa joules (EJ) per year in the USA.  If you burned every living plant and its roots, you’d have 94 EJ of energy and we could all pretend we lived on Mars.  (Patzek “The Real Biofuel Cycles,” Letter to Science, Science and “The Real Biofuel Cycles,” Online Supporting Material to Science 312, 2006).  Biofuels have negative EROEI and too many other issues to list (Friedemann, “Peak Soil“).

97% of transportation runs on oil.   Large vehicles like tractors and trucks can’t be electrified or run on batteries, because the battery would be too huge – even a 100% efficient battery can only store 3% of the energy that the same volume of oil would deliver.

Solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen, biofuels, and the electric grid all depend on fossil fuels throughout their life cycle, from the mining and crushing of ore, to fabrication, delivery over bitumen and coal-power-crushed concrete highways, to maintenance and operations.  No form of alternative energy produces enough energy to reproduce itself plus deliver energy to society.

In addition, all alternative energy solutions are limited by shortages of minerals.

Most sustainable or alternative energy delivers electricity.  Due to deregulation, the grid is rusting and falling apart, and has lost it’s triple redundancy (triple plating) and is bare bones in most places.  The energy, materials, and time to fix, let alone upgrade and expand the grid so it could handle more electricity from alternative sources is not going to happen before the energy shortages begin.  More and more natural gas peaker plants need to be built to balance the intermittent energy of wind and solar — but natural gas is on the verge of declining (Powers, “Cold, Hungry, and In the Dark: Exploding the Natural Gas Supply Myth).

There are too many other challenges to list.  Each kind of alternative energy has additional issues not mentioned above.

Overview of Alternative & Renewable Energy Resources 


Electric Grid: falling apart




Solar & Wind



A. Friedemann. Hydropower is temporary. Dams silt up, there are limited rivers, and they do harm. 2011.




Wind & Tidal

Muscle Power

  • Steven Vogel, Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle, 2003, W. W. Norton


Other sources of energy cannot deliver sufficient surpluses to replace the potent portable energy we know as gasoline and diesel. It is not generally understood that poorer quality energy sources can be critically dependent upon oil for their extraction, processing and distribution. In other words, oil is the precursor for other sources of energy; gas, coal, nuclear, solar, hydro, because these require oil fuel to create and maintain infrastructure. It also gives them the illusion of being “profitable”.  Feral Metallurgist

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2 Responses to Alternative Energy Reading List

  1. Jeff Strahl says:

    Good stuff. But i feel like delusions are winning the day. Over at Resilience, which used to be Energy Bulletin, the trend is now to promote the notion that not only can alternative energy take over from fossil fuels, but the entire infrastructure can be and is indeed being replaced while the present one decays. Recently, Kevin Carson posted an article there attacking those who see metabolic collapse in our future, e.g. James Kunstler and John Michael Greer, and giving as his example how the cables which are now being used for long distance communication are being replaced by satellites which require few sorces or a support structure. Greer pointed out in response that these satellites in fact require the space program and its huge usage of materials. A couple of days ago came this response by Lakis Polycarpou of City of the Future,
    He admits Carson got this wrong, but then says that most communications don’t require satellites, only transmission towers. And these don’t require a vast support structure? He went on to contend that the vast growth in the number of cell phones in the world prove Carson’s case, as if these don’t require depleting raw materials and vast amounts of energy to produce and maintain. Even sites which used to “get it” seem to be losing it.

  2. Jeff Strahl says:

    Greer has responded to Polycarpou.
    He notes “the nearly visceral inability to think in terms of whole systems that pervades today’s geek culture, and that curious blindness is well represented in Polycarpou’s essay.He argues, for example, that since a small part of Somalia has cell phone service, and cell phone service is more widely available today than grid electricity or clean drinking water, cutting-edge technology ought to be viable in a postpetroleum world.”
    Greer then states:
    “Somalia, even in its present turbulent condition, is part of a global economy fueled by the recklessly rapid extraction of half a billion years of fossil sunlight and equally unsustainable amounts of other irreplaceable natural resources. It speaks well of the resourcefulness of the Somalian people that they’ve been able to tap into some of those resource flows, in the teeth of a global economy that’s so heavily tilted against them; that said, it bears remembering that the cell phone towers in Somalia are not being manufactured in Somalian factories from Somalian resources using Somalian energy sources. A sprawling global industrial network of immensely complex manufacturing facilities and world-spanning supply chains forms the whole system that lies behind those towers, and without that network or some equivalent capable of mobilizing equivalent resources and maintaining comparable facilities, those towers would not exist.”