I have often heard greens discuss energy gains associated with alternative energy sources, to the exclusion of other resource costs. The idea of energy gain can be very meaningful. For example, nuclear fusion is only now approaching the point of an energy gain. Of course, making fusion an economic source of energy requires much more efficiency than a simple energy gain. Yet the narrative for certain “green” technologies is that energy gains are all that matters. This thinking is fundamentally flawed, to put it kindly. Here is the full embodiment of the idea, as described by Anthony Watts:

US researchers have carried out an environmental lifecycle assessment of 2-megawatt wind turbines mooted for a large wind farm in the US Pacific Northwest. Writing in the International Journal of Sustainable Manufacturing, they conclude that in terms of cumulative energy payback, or the time to produce the amount of energy required of production and installation, a wind turbine with a working life of 20 years will offer a net benefit within five to eight months of being brought online.   

The reaction at Coyoteblog is amusing. As noted there, the total resource costs of manufacturing and installing the energy production and distribution facilities are just as real in any “green” sense as the energy expended. This is to say nothing of some of the other shortfalls in assumptions mentioned at the link, as well as the avian death toll. The “payback” measure used by the wind farm researchers constitutes naivete at best and propaganda in pursuit of rents at worst.

I’m convinced that the environmentally-concerned public has the best intentions, but there is a deep misunderstanding at play: the notion that the state must intervene to facilitate the adoption of “sustainable” technologies, never mind that these technologies often require massive subsidies to be economically viable. A nice quote on this point from Coyoteblog:

Environmentalists seem to all feel that capitalism is the enemy of sustainability, but in fact capitalism is the greatest system to promote sustainability that has ever been devised. Every single resource has a price that reflects its relative scarcity as compared to demand. Scarcer resources have higher prices that automatically promote conservation and seeking of substitutes. So an analysis of an investment’s ability to return its cost is in effect a sustainability analysis.