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Our living standards depend on energy density

By Geoff Carmody - posted Thursday, 27 June 2024

The global history of rising living standards is a history of harnessing more energy-dense, cheaper, power sources.  We’ve gone from one manpower to one horsepower to fossil-fuelled multi-horsepower internal combustion engines to nuclear fission.

Western political ‘promises’ for more renewables (solar, wind, ‘pumped hydro’) reverses that trend.  2030 and 2050 are ‘promised’ deadlines for displacing most, and then all, fossil-fuelled energy.  These promises shift their economies to renewables – the least energy-dense power sources known.

There are two problems.  First, this ‘back to the future’ renewables rush reverses history, threatening falling living standards.  Second, very low energy density requires huge appropriations of space to deliver any power at all. 


The first problem ignores crucial energy density reasons why living standards have grown. 

The second problem is becoming obvious to those directly affected by the renewables generation, battery storage, and new transmission capacity needed.  Those adversely affected currently exclude most inner-city NIMBYs favouring solar and wind, but somewhere else (rooftop solar panels aside).

Understandably, non-urban voters are fast-becoming NIMBYs, too.  They increasingly protest at having large tracts of the land they own fully or partially expropriated for the installation of massive solar panel arrays, huge land-based wind turbine arrays, near-offshore wind turbine arrays (urban NIMBYs whose views are affected are included here), and new, specialised, transmission lines everywhere.

The environment itself is a NIMBY, too.  It may be the most powerless of all NIMBYs.  Increasingly, native forests are being cleared to accommodate massive renewables facilities because that’s easier than going through lengthy appeals processes with owners of existing cleared/used land.

Reminds me of the Vietnam War line:  we had to destroy the village to save it.

The precise measurement of energy density is a blizzard of scientific measures.  Too long to summarise here.  But some general statements convey the point.  Here are some examples (using USA metrics).


Gasoline is one billion times more energy dense than wind and water power.  It’s ten quadrillion times more energy dense than solar power. 

To store the energy contained in 1 gallon of gasoline requires over 55,000 gallons of water to be pumped up 726 feet (assuming 90% recycling process efficiency).

‘Pumped hydro’, using energy un-dense renewables, anyone?

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About the Author

Geoff Carmody is Director, Geoff Carmody & Associates, a former co-founder of Access Economics, and before that was a senior officer in the Commonwealth Treasury. He favours a national consumption-based climate policy, preferably using a carbon tax to put a price on carbon. He has prepared papers entitled Effective climate change policy: the seven Cs. Paper #1: Some design principles for evaluating greenhouse gas abatement policies. Paper #2: Implementing design principles for effective climate change policy. Paper #3: ETS or carbon tax?

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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