Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My real problem energy tech with low rate of return on investment

My real problem with energy technologies that generate low rate of return on investment (such as solar cells today) is that if we were all of a sudden to switch to solar PV, then roughly one in every three people would be required to build solar cells and install them.
The inverse of the total return on investment (which is roughly equal to the RROI times the lifetime) is proportional to the percentage of the population required to build and install a certain technology.
Right now, the rate of return on investment for solar cells is really low, and the 'pay back time' is roughly 10 year. Since the plant lifetime is roughly 30 yrs, the total return on investment is roughly 200%. In this case, the net energy was double the amount of electricity generated as what went into building it.
What is a typical return on investment for solar panels?

So, let's imagine that all of the electricity on the globe was generated from these solar cells (with a ROI of 200%.) So, since the building of solar cells uses 1/3 of the electricity that is generated by the solar cell, then this means that 1/3 of the global population must be devoted to the building of the solar cell. This leaves only two thirds of the population to farm, to be doctors, to be artists, to be educators, etc...

So, the real problem with energy technology with low rates of return on investment is that more and more of us will have to take jobs in the energy field.

As the rate of return on investment decreases for electricity generation or oil/natural drilling, then the profits for the oil/natural gas/coal/electricity companies decrease. Why did profits decrease? Because the companies had to pay more people to do the work of what use to take fewer people. As the companies have to hire more people, the profits for the people at the top and bottom decrease. This means that they have less money to spend on vacations, education, art, etc... This means that there are less people employed in these "non-energy" positions. When these people become unemployed, they drive down salaries because an unemployed person is willing to work for less money than a person who is already employed.
Eventually, the salary of everybody (in real dollars, i.e. taking into account inflation) is less than when the energy rate of return on investment was larger.

So, in the short run, increasing energy prices causes employment, but only in the short term (and that's only because of the irreversibility of looking for employment, such as difficulty moving cities, unwillingness to accept certain jobs/salaries, and the time it takes applying for positions.)
In the long term, what happens is that more and more of the population is employed in the energy field, and less people are employed in non-energy fields. This means less artists, less professors, less dancers, less athletes, etc...

In summary, the problem I have with energy technologies with a low rate of return on investment is that more of us have to be building, installing & maintaining the technology. And this means that there will be less people with free time to engage in the arts. We need to remember this when we say that we are willing to pay more for "clean" electricity. This means that we have less money for the arts.

I'm all for clean electricity if it can compete with the high rate of return investment technology that we'd had for the last century, but if it can't, then we need to seriously weigh alternatives:

Clean energy tech and fewer non-energy workers, i.e.  fewer video game developers/hotel clerks/etc...

Dirty energy tech and more non-energy workers.

So, when somebody says, "I'm for clean energy jobs!"     Remember that they are also implying, "I'm for less non-energy jobs!"

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