Life is matter organized with inputs of free, available energy. Therefore, energy is the glue of all living systems, systems which may be ecological communities (including those which are very artificial subsets of Nature), the Land, and Commons-components. However, inappropriate and/or excessive transformation of energy results in life systems becoming unglued and unhealthy. Real and sustainable enhancement of each of the assets of commonwealth depends on: ethical transformation of energy, i.e., renewable energy.
Essentially, the term renewable energy is an oxymoron since: “Energy cannot be created or destroyed” (the 1st Law of Thermodynamics) and “As energy is transformed it tends toward uselessness” (the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics). Nevertheless, “renewable energy”can be viewed–by anyone living on the Great Plains (or anywhere else on the Earth) –as ethical transformation of energy in a low-input/-throughput, steady-state human economic system. Moreover, “renewable energy” sources capture their energy from existing flows of energy, from on-going natural processes, such as sunshine, wind, flowing water, biological processes (e.g., photosynthesis, etc. into biomass), and geothermal heat flows.
Following this line of reasoning, the most common definition of renewable energy is that it is from an energy resource that is replaced rapidly by a natural process such as power generated from the sun or from the wind. Most renewable forms of energy, other than geothermal (from magma) and tidal power, ultimately come from the Sun.
If we consider renewable energy to be ethical transformation of energy in ecological community, we can make some broad generalizations:
1. Nuclear energy and dirty fossil energy (especially coal, peat, shale, tar sands, heavy & extreme oils) are no-brainers. They are not renewable energy! They have too many red-flags of unintended consequences and negative externalities. They should be avoided!
2. We cannot get energy for nothing; it takes energy to get energy. Moreover, there are always unintended consequences and some negative externalities which come with actions taken to transform energy. Therefore, we must always be cautious and tentative when converting energy, whether it is high-quality relatively non-renewable fossil energy, or nuclear energy, or whether it is relatively diffuse, lower-quality renewable energy.
3. Everything runs on moderate – to high-quality energy that cannot be recycled; therefore, choose energy resources wisely. [We are beginning to get a positive energy return on investment from transformation of what are currently considered to be renewable energies (windtricity, photovoltaics), even though they are generally diffuse and relatively low- quality energies. However, the research, development, utilization, and maintenance of these “renewable” energy systems take inputs or embodied high-quality energy such as various forms of fossil energy … My analysis of this situation always take me to a need for livelihoods and lifestyles which are “simple, small, and slow”.]
4. Nevertheless, heating and cooling using geothermal systems (ground source heat pumps, or magma heat sources), hydroelectric units, windtricity, photovoltaic systems can be relatively suitable renewable energy sources, so long as there is real net energy in the transformation … without too much fossil fuel or nuclear energy invested in them, and without too much ecological (including psychological, socio-political, and economic) destruction.
5. However, the best renewable energy process is photosynthesis in natural ecosystems as well as through appropriate applied agroecology, along with low-input human systems involving appropriate landscaping, insulation, dog-runs, and other passive solar heating/cooling strategies … clothes lines, solar dryers and cookers (and more walking and bicycling). Natural photosynthetic systems, in which humans are in relative concert with Nature, are relatively resilient, self-sustaining/perpetual.
It is of unethical hubris to believe that humans can do better holistically, profoundly, resiliently, and sustainably than the 4+ BILLION years of evolution of photosynthesizing Nature. We need to wean ourselves from high-input/-throughput systems which are disruptive of healthy ecological communities across the Great Plains and elsewhere, and rapidly but smoothly transition to protection of and judicious use of net primary productivity in relatively natural systems.
And this limits us to human systems which are simple, small and slow!
Dr. Paul Martin has been a friend and supporter of Ogallala Commons for 2 decades, serving on the Board of Directors from 2013-2019. He is a life-long educator & activist for sustainability, having made numerous trips to work with small farmers and rural communities in Nicaragua and Honduras over the past 15 years.