Current economic models mainly serve corporate interests. The result is opportunistic, careless, and seriously incomplete analyses that threaten our ecological viability. Failed energy policy provides a particularly egregious example.
Consider how Big Oil is continuing to build centralized gas-electric power plants, petro-pipelines, export terminals and other large fossil fuel infrastructure hoping to maintain its controlling, asset-situated position in energy production, distribution and management.
Finally, forced to acknowledge the disastrous health and environmental implications of the fossil industry on climate change, Oil is now using its political clout to paint distributed solar as a threat to the national power grid, touting instead carbon capture and storage (CCS) at its power stations as a reasonable means for solving climate effects, thus preserving its centralized, near-monopoly as business per usual.
Captive government agencies have been supporting such distorted energy policy via huge loan guarantees, seemingly unaware that tech fixes like CCS can only further contribute to global pollution. The following discussion illuminates the above problematics via the Entropy principle.
Energy’s indestructibility per the Conservation of Energy Principle allows endless, nondepleting options. However, energy’s peculiar ‘one-wayness’ per the Entropy Law rudely dictates fundamental, physical limitations on energy’s availability and use. Easily recognizable instances of the world’s one-wayness abound. Perfume molecules escape their container and spread out in a room, but never gather back into the bottle of their own accord. Heat always flows from the hotter to the colder body, never the reverse. Once the concentrated energy of coal in the mine is converted to the desirable, high-grade energy of electricity at our houses, we will have lost ninety percent of the coal’s energy. It will have dissipated forever into low-grade heat, an exhaust or waste because its temperature is too low for reuse.
During every energy exchange, elemental occupation of easier to reach, but less ordered or concentrated configurations, occurs. Deployments do not use up the energy involved; rather they diminish its quality/availability. All energy concentrations, such as those stored in fossil fuels, eventually undergo dispersive interactions, thus qualitatively degrade. This unavoidable outcome (that ordered concentrations naturally decay into annoying uselessness) is commonly experienced as pollution.
Nature’s insurmountable constraints on energy use can be formalized mathematically. Specifically, high-quality energy’s unavoidable dispersal to uselessness and the environment’s resulting overall loss of quality (pollution) can be characterized as an entropy increase, dS. The relevant mathematical framing of the entropy law is:
dS > 0 thus dS (earth’s envelope) > – dS (system)
Two ordinary boundary conditions are involved: (i) The system under consideration experiences no external inputs—only on-earth-derived sources of energy such as fossil or nuclear fuels are involved, and (ii) The earth’s interactive envelope (surface, oceans, and atmosphere) serves as a reservoir large enough to passively absorb yet maintain interactions as earth-proximate.
This formal inequality can be read: All earth-powered orderings of local systems (technological fixes, such as CCS) result in greater overall disorder for the earth’s envelope.
Thus, we can expect an overall decline in our surroundings from continued use of fossil fuels—no fix exists. We do have, however, the sun as an outside, restoring gift of energy.
When the earth intercepts solar (outside) energy, its large-scale regenerative cycles (carbon, oxygen, and so on) mitigate entropy’s otherwise inevitable environmental decrements. Since the sun’s input is finite, however, solar energy can only compensate technologically induced environmental decrements provided they are not too large. A tipping point surely exists where entropic dissipations from human technologies exceed the sun’s ability to reverse them. Beyond that point, equilibrium destabilization of the earth necessarily results.
Thus, the Entropy Law’s solar dictate: Solar energy is the earth’s only entropy mitigating, thus potentially sustaining, source of energy.
If this dictate of Physical Law had been fully understood and observed, we might have long since ‘gone solar’ and averted many of today’s environmental problems.
Consider hydrogen-fueled cars as an example of how an entropy-based analysis might expeditiously cull out technological proposals. Aren’t such cars ‘ecological’ since they emit only pure water? An entropy analysis cuts immediately to whether a solar component is involved. If no solar component exists to negate the entropy that attends hydrogen production, storage, and handling, the overall effect is ecological degradation. Note the economy of approach here. Analysis does not need to show precisely how the degradation manifests to declare a technology ecologically deficient.
Unfortunately, energy hacks continue to frame their policies only in accordance with the Conservation Law. Energy return on Energy Investment (EROEI) is the current fad manifesting this policy short coming. It is essentially an efficiency analysis, minor enough that it can be overridden by financial engineering, thus market distortions. Indeed, dominant economic theory still considers the Entropy Law’s inevitable pollution costs as ‘externalities’ (read: ignorables). Thus EROEI is insufficient to fully reach our crucially significant economic and ecological problems.
The National Research Council (NRC), already by 2009, estimated that hidden (entropy) costs amount to hundreds of billions of dollars each year and are causing major distortions in decision-making. Amazingly, this NRC analysis did not even take anthropogenic global warming into account. We now know that the ecological threat of climate change, largely a result of the Entropy Law operating relative to fossil fuels, is so serious that all other issues pale by comparison.