The myth of renewable energy

26 08 2013

https://damnthematrix.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/1e628-image002.jpgDawn Stover is a science writer based in the US Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Conservation, Popular Science, New Scientist, The New York Times, and other publications. One of her articles is included in the 2010 Best American Science and Nature Writing, and another article was awarded a special citation by the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism.

“Clean.” “Green.” What do those words mean? When President Obama talks about “clean energy,” some people think of “clean coal” and low-carbon nuclear power, while others envision shiny solar panels and wind turbines. And when politicians tout “green jobs,” they might just as easily be talking about employment at General Motors as at Greenpeace. “Clean” and “green” are wide open to interpretation and misappropriation; that’s why they’re so often mentioned in quotation marks. Not so for renewable energy, however.

Somehow, people across the entire enviro-political spectrum seem to have reached a tacit, near-unanimous agreement about what renewable means: It’s an energy category that includes solar, wind, water, biomass, and geothermal power. As the US Energy Department explains it to kids: “Renewable energy comes from things that won’t run out — wind, water, sunlight, plants, and more. These are things we can reuse over and over again. … Non-renewable energy comes from things that will run out one day — oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium.”

Renewable energy sounds so much more natural and believable than a perpetual-motion machine, but there’s one big problem: Unless you’re planning to live without electricity and motorized transportation, you need more than just wind, water, sunlight, and plants for energy. You need raw materials, real estate, and other things that will run out one day. You need stuff that has to be mined, drilled, transported, and bulldozed — not simply harvested or farmed. You need non-renewable resources:

Solar power. While sunlight is renewable — for at least another four billion years — photovoltaic panels are not. Nor is desert groundwater, used in steam turbines at some solar-thermal installations. Even after being redesigned to use air-cooled condensers that will reduce its water consumption by 90 percent, California’s Blythe Solar Power Project, which will be the world’s largest when it opens in 2013, will require an estimated 600 acre-feet of groundwater annually for washing mirrors, replenishing feedwater, and cooling auxiliary equipment.

Geothermal power. These projects also depend on groundwater — replenished by rain, yes, but not as quickly as it boils off in turbines. At the world’s largest geothermal power plant, the Geysers in California, for example, production peaked in the late 1980s and then the project literally began running out of steam.

Wind power. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the 5,700 turbines installed in the United States in 2009 required approximately 36,000 miles of steel rebar and 1.7 million cubic yards of concrete (enough to pave a four-foot-wide, 7,630-mile-long sidewalk). The generator of a two-megawatt wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium — rare earth metals that are rare because they’re found in scattered deposits, rather than in concentrated ores, and are difficult to extract.

Biomass. In developed countries, biomass is envisioned as a win-win way to produce energy while thinning wildfire-prone forests or anchoring soil with perennial switchgrass plantings. But expanding energy crops will mean less land for food production, recreation, and wildlife habitat. In many parts of the world where biomass is already used extensively to heat homes and cook meals, this renewable energy is responsible for severe deforestation and air pollution.

Hydropower. Using currents, waves, and tidal energy to produce electricity is still experimental, but hydroelectric power from dams is a proved technology. It already supplies about 16 percent of the world’s electricity, far more than all other renewable sources combined. Maybe that’s why some states with renewable portfolio standards don’t count hydropower as a renewable energy source; it’s so common now, it just doesn’t fit the category formerly known as “alternative” energy. Still, that’s not to say that hydropower is more renewable than solar or wind power. The amount of concrete and steel in a wind-tower foundation is nothing compared with Grand Coulee or Three Gorges, and dams have an unfortunate habit of hoarding sediment and making fish, well, non-renewable.

All of these technologies also require electricity transmission from rural areas to population centers. Wilderness is not renewable once roads and power-line corridors fragment it. And while proponents would have you believe that a renewable energy project churns out free electricity forever, the life expectancy of a solar panel or wind turbine is actually shorter than that of a conventional power plant. Even dams are typically designed to last only about 50 years. So what, exactly, makes renewable energy different from coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power?

Renewable technologies are often less damaging to the climate and create fewer toxic wastes than conventional energy sources. But meeting the world’s total energy demands in 2030 with renewable energy alone would take an estimated 3.8 million wind turbines (each with twice the capacity of today’s largest machines), 720,000 wave devices, 5,350 geothermal plants, 900 hydroelectric plants, 490,000 tidal turbines, 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems, 40,000 solar photovoltaic plants, and 49,000 concentrated solar power systems. That’s a heckuva lot of neodymium.

Unfortunately, “renewable energy” is a meaningless term with no established standards. Like an emperor parading around without clothes, it gets a free pass, because nobody dares to confront an inconvenient truth: None of our current energy technologies are truly renewable, at least not in the way they are currently being deployed. We haven’t discovered any form of energy that is completely clean and recyclable, and the notion that such an energy source can ever be found is a mirage.

The only genuinely sustainable energy scenario is one in which energy demands do not continue to escalate indefinitely. As a recent commentary by Jane C. S. Long in Nature pointed out, meeting ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gases cannot be accomplished with “piecemeal reductions,” such as increased use of wind power and biofuels. Long did the math for California and discovered that even if the state replaced or retrofitted every building to very high efficiency standards, ran almost all of its cars on electricity, and doubled its electricity-generation capacity while simultaneously replacing it with emissions-free energy sources, California could only reduce emissions by perhaps 60 percent below 1990 levels — far less than its 80 percent target. Long says reaching that target “will take new technology.” Maybe so, but it will also take a new honesty about the limitations of technology. Notably, Long doesn’t mention the biggest obstacle to meeting California’s emissions-reduction goal: The state’s population is expected to grow from today’s 40 million to 60 million by 2050.

There are now seven billion humans on this planet. Until we find a way to reduce our energy consumption and to share Earth’s finite resources more equitably among nations and generations, “renewable” energy might as well be called “miscellaneous.”

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24 responses

26 08 2013
Don

Dawn has put in writing the conclusions I and a few other people have come to. The question that I am asking myself is “what level of technology can we exist with”. the only answer I have come up with so far is none so long as we have the level of population that we have now.

26 08 2013
gbell12

Basic science and maths literacy brings even casual observers to the same conclusion. Unfortunately, those literacies are rare.

For very well done in-depth analysis, see Do The Math, a blog by a UC San Diego physics professor. Particularly good is this post (without much math).

http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/10/sustainable-means-bunkty-to-me/

26 08 2013
mikestasse

Totally agree, Tom Murphy’s blog is one of the very best on the web…… another beauty for me was http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/

26 08 2013
Paul Handover

Mike, a very informative post albeit perhaps not surprising when one thinks about it, as your post encourages one to so do.

However, in embracing the logic of your post, one is immediately faced with a stark question; a very stark question. It is this.

If the present population of 7.1 bn people on this planet is too great for a sustainable global population, let alone the rising energy and material aspirations of millions of persons, how the hell does it play out? Is there any way of finding a sustainable ‘model’ for humans on Planet Earth without the most terrible, the most unimaginable horrors of the years ahead?

Is there any way of this ‘ending’ without tears? (ending as in transitioning)

27 08 2013
David Hamilton

We need a transition to a steady-state economy – an economy that is not hooked on endless growth. For the developed countries, the transition needs to include a period of de-growth to accommodate improvements in the less developed countries. The Centre for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy ( http://steadystate.org/ ), has more. Their front page advertises two books “Enough is Enough” and “Supply Shock”, both of which I recommend, and both of which address the transition to a steady-state economy.

I’d like to add a link to my favorite Tom Murphy blog: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/04/economist-meets-physicist/ which is about a dialogue Tom had with an economist about the impossibility of endless growth. Like all of Tom’s stuff, it is really good. It’s great to see that others here also appreciate him.

27 08 2013
mikestasse

true David……. but to abandon the growth economic system, we have to also abandon debts, and cancel them. IMO, that is the biggest hurdle, because the hyper rich to whom all the debts are owed will be kicking and screaming to such an event…

27 08 2013
Paul Handover

David, you rationally and calmly write of ‘de-growth’ but the reality of that process would be grim; surely?

27 08 2013
David Hamilton

Paul, it will depend on how we manage it. One of the flaws in our current economic system is that it depends on growth – without growth, bad things happen. The accumulation of debt is one of the features that makes a steady-state economy difficult. Essentially we have two choices: have a period of planned and managed de-growth or have a period of unplanned and un-managed de-growth. Current economic ideology regards the economy as something outside ourselves, like a force of nature or a law of physics. The reality, though, is that we humans have created the economy; since we created it, it can be controlled by us. That is ideological anathema to the free marketeers, but that does not make it untrue.

The book “Supply Shock” discusses this better and in more detail than I can here.

27 08 2013
robertscribbler

1. Solar power

A. Most materials are recyclable.
B. Water use in concentrated solar is still less than in comparable FF or nuclear.
C. PV uses about 1/10 the amount of water of conventional systems.

2. GEO T

True.

3. Wind

Rare earth metal substitutes used in increasing number of turbines. Construction materials costs and use similar to that of other major power systems.

4 & 5

Somewhat true as these are higher impact sources.

Overall, they represent far less impact than fossil fuels.

27 08 2013
Frosty

That’s all well and good but why aren’t these people working on an alternate emergency plan which spells our clearly what needs to be done? Surely if they’re that intelligent to realise flaws in plans to create renewable energy based society, then they’re intelligent enough to work out a ‘sustainable’ alternative?
Eagerly awaiting the new plan by the stated physics guru Tom Murphy.

27 08 2013
David Hamilton

Even though physicists can leap over tall buildings in a single bound, etc. etc, I am afraid that you are expecting too much of us to come up with a plan all on our own. Physics can offer a lot – and an energy policy that ignores it is doomed to fail – but implementing a transition to renewables involves more than physics. Economics, finance, engineering, environmental impact assessment, public consultation and communication – all these and more are involved in building such a plan.

The great thing is that people are working on such plans, such as those already developed and still under development by Beyond Zero Emissions. Their plans are developed by cross-disciplinary teams consisting mostly of volunteers.

28 08 2013
mikestasse

Are you sure about that David…? From where I sit, to get even remotely close to BZE’s idealistic goals, we need a total upheaval of everything we do.

To start with, where will the money come from? Will we build all that shiny new infrastructure here, or import the lot? Because if we import the lot, then our balance of trade deficit will take a gigantic hit…. and if we build it all here, it will be costly as, because our wages etc are so high (particularly when compared to China’s of course).

On top of that, we will need to lower energy consumption by at least 50%. I personally reckon 80%. To do that will mean dragging ‘the entitled’ kicking and screaming to the end of their dream……

28 08 2013
David Hamilton

I didn’t say it would be easy, Mike – just necessary. As to where the money will come from, I would think that a lot of it will need to come from not spending money on other things. Using 50% less energy (and I agree the figure will need to be in that ball park) will save us money we can spend on further improvements. There is a lot of “shiny new infrastructure” being built now that is a total waste of money, such as the new road projects being built around Australia. Just diverting that money to rail would be a great start.

As for building things here, I had a great discussion the other day with an experienced and successful business person who pointed out the difference between straight cost and economic benefit. For example, it might cost more to, say, have new railway rolling stock built in Australia rather than buy it from China, but the economic benefits from building it here can be shown to be much more than the simple dollar savings by buying from China.

28 08 2013
mikestasse

Well I’m glad we’re on the same page about it not being easy David! Some of the forums I visit make it sound like it’s just a matter of ‘switching’….

Regarding funnelling money from roads to rail, I couldn’t agree more, but with so many conservative state governments in power building freeways to nowhere, and now this idiocy about building bullet trains thirty years too late drives me to despair…. What will it take to make them realise that instead of propping up Holden and Ford, we should be starting a renewables industry, before it’s altogether too late…

28 08 2013
Frosty

I’m aware of your references to the Steady State Economy and support that aim. I’m also happy with BZE’s plan, it’s a goal that may be overly ambitious but in Australia we have a general philosophy of ‘going for gold’ for everything except the important things, sport being a prime example of futile endeavour.

On the one hand people are referring to Tom Murphy who is saying it can’t be done and now you’re referring to BZE’s plan to say it can be done.

I can’t see that we’re going to get anything done by piss-farting around with pointless discussions like this. I daresay we need to aim high and hope for the best. At this stage of the game, what else do we have time for?

People like Tom Murphy and Dawn Stover need to perhaps offer modifications to existing plans or offer a completely alternative plan that has a better chance of working.

I’m fed up with sitting around waiting for SOMETHING to happen. I’d rather be working towards changing our society, even if the planetary life support system crumbles around me and we fail. Better to be busy doing something to save ourselvers than waffling crap and sitting our our butts.

I’d like to see our government take on BZE’s plan as a matter of urgency and if it needs modification as time goes on then so be it.

28 08 2013
mikestasse

Frosty,

Pointless discussion? You mean like the pointless electioneering discussions we are currently bombarded with in all media? I don’t believe I’ve heard BZE’s plan mentioned ONCE since the election campaign started…

I feel your frustration….. but this big switch is as hard as it gets when it comes to change. And all plans start with discussion. Let’s see what discussion my new post will offer up..

Mike

1 09 2013
Frosty

Mike, I see my comment on your new post about The Big Switch didn’t make it up there. Was there a problem with it?

1 09 2013
mikestasse

Not that I’m aware of….. you’re not moderated, so anything you write here should go straight through to the keeper….

1 09 2013
Frosty

Ah, scheisser! I was trying to post links and also stuff about the Over Our Dead Bodies campaign. I see you’ve covered the campaign though!
Sigh, I’ll try again.

1 09 2013
Frosty

Duplicate comment detected; it looks as though you’ve already said that!

After trying twice on two different posts and no appearance.

1 09 2013
Frosty

Computer said NO! Again. The computer can’t handle the truth either by the looks of it.

9 01 2014
Dave Keenan

Rare earth elements such as neodymium and dysprosium are NOT required for wind generators. And they are NOT used in the gearbox. While these metals were cheap they were used to obtain a few percent extra efficiency from the generators by using permanent magnets containing these metals. Wind generators will just go back to using induction machines which require only recyclable steel and copper or aluminium.

The author is allowing the fact that if we don’t limit population NOTHING can be sustainable to obscure the fact that if we do limit population, some energy technologies are far better than others. Wind and solar (both PV and thermal) are by far the best.

9 01 2014
mikestasse

Ooops….. missed that blooper about neodymium and dysprosium in gearboxes! I’ll fix it…

25 05 2014
basic homeopathic remedy

basic homeopathic remedy

The myth of renewable energy | Damn the Matrix

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