by Robert Stayton
Is it a contradiction to burn fossil fuels to build renewable energy? The transition to a solar-based economy will require expending a great deal of energy to build solar and wind energy systems. Because our current energy systems are largely based on fossil fuels, this effort will add significant new usage of fossil fuels, and thereby increase our carbon emissions. Opponents of solar use this fact to say that we should not pursue renewable energy because that makes the climate problem worse. They have it exactly backwards.
Non-renewable fossil fuels should be considered as our means of getting to a sustainable renewable energy system. The finite cache of fossil fuels is our one shot for getting to an energy system that is essentially infinite in time (if maintained). Every kilowatt-hour expended building solar and wind equipment will yield many kilowatt-hours of clean energy over time. We should consider that to be the highest use of fossil fuels, because it yields more energy than it consumes, and because it moves us toward our goal of a sustainable and clean energy system.
All other uses of fossil fuels could be considered wasteful. Why? Because they are wasted relative to the best use that the energy could be put to: building renewable energy systems. Burning fossil fuels to run a toaster or push a car down the road is a once through process: one and done. Building renewable energy is one-to-many: many future kwh produced for each kwh of fossil fuels burned.
Using fossil fuels to build renewables is part of the solution, and should be encouraged. Any fossil fuel energy used otherwise is part of the problem and should be discouraged, and targeted to be replaced with renewable energy. Ramping up solar and wind will temporarily increase our fossil fuel use until those industries become self-sustaining, but this should not be considered an expense, but as an investment that will yield a return. All other uses of fossil fuels should be considered an expense, one that is costing society in many ways. We should therefore view our fossil fuels as capital, and use it as capital for investment, rather than spending it down in ordinary consumption.
From this perspective, there can be no higher use for fossil fuels than to build renewable energy systems.