No, I don’t hate “renewables”

20 07 2019

Another masterpiece from Tim who keeps churning out great stuff on his website……

During a conversation with a friend yesterday I was asked why I was so hostile toward “renewables” – or as I prefer to call them, non-renewablerenewable energy-harvesting technologies.  My answer was that I am not opposed to these technologies, but rather to the role afforded to them by the Bright Green techno-utopian crowd, who continue to churn out propaganda to the effect that humankind can continue to metastasise across the universe without stopping for breath simply by replacing the energy we derive from fossil fuels with energy we harvest with wind and tide turbines, solar panels and geothermal pumps.  These, I explained to my friend, will unquestionably play a role in our future; but to nowhere near the extent claimed by the proponents of green capitalism, ecosocialism or the green new deal.

It would seem that I was not alone in being asked why I was so disapproving of “renewables.”  On the same day, American essayist John Michael Greer addressed the same question on his Ecosophia blog:

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m wholly in favor of renewables; they’re what we’ll have left when fossil fuels are gone; but anyone who thinks that the absurdly extravagant energy use that props up a modern lifestyle can be powered by PV cells simply hasn’t done the math. Yet you’ll hear plenty of well-intentioned people these days insisting that if we only invest in solar PV we can stop using fossil fuels and still keep our current lifestyles.”

Greer also explains why so many techno-utopians have such a starry-eyed view of “renewables” like solar panels:

“The result of [decades of development] can be summed up quite readily: the only people who think that an energy-intensive modern lifestyle can be supported entirely on solar PV are those who’ve never tried it. You can get a modest amount of electrical power intermittently from PV cells; if you cover your roof with PV cells and have a grid tie-in that credits you at a subsidized rate, you can have all the benefits of fossil fuel-generated electricity and still convince yourself that you’re not dependent on fossil fuels; but if you go off-grid, you’ll quickly learn the hard limits of solar PV.”

Greer is not alone in having to spell this out.  The first article I read yesterday morning was a new post from Tim Morgan on his Surplus Energy Economics blog, where he makes the case that even if we were not facing a climate emergency, our dependence upon fossil fuels still dooms our civilisation to an imminent collapse:

“Far from ensuring ‘business as usual’, continued reliance on fossil fuel energy would have devastating economic consequences. As is explained here, the world economy is already suffering from these effects, and these have prompted the adoption of successively riskier forms of financial manipulation in a failed effort to sustain economic ‘normality’.”

The reason is what Morgan refers to as the rapidly-rising “energy cost of energy” (ECoE) – a calculation related to Net Energy and Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI).  Put simply, industrial civilisation has devoured each fossil fuel beginning with the cheapest and easiest deposits and then falling back on ever harder and more expensive deposits as these run out.  The result is that the amount of surplus energy left over to grow the economy after we have invested in energy for the future and in the maintenance and repair of the infrastructure we have already developed gets smaller and harder to obtain with each passing month.

Morgan sets out four factors which determine the Energy Cost of Energy:

  • Geographical reach – as local deposits are exhausted, we are obliged to go further afield for replacements.
  • Economies of scale – as our infrastructure develops, we rationalise it in order to keep costs to a minimum; for example, having a handful of giant oil refineries rather than a large number of small ones. Unfortunately, this is a one-off gain, after which the cost of maintenance and repair results in diminishing returns.
  • Depletion – most of the world’s oil and coal deposits are now in decline, after providing the basis for the development of industrial civilisation. Without replacement, depletion dooms us to some form of degrowth.
  • Technology – the development of technologies that provide a greater return for the energy invested can offset some of the rising ECoE, but like economies of scale, they come with diminishing returns and are ultimately limited by the laws of thermodynamics:

“To be sure, advances in technology can mitigate the rise in ECoEs, but technology is limited by the physical properties of the resource. Advances in techniques have reduced the cost of shale liquids extraction to levels well below the past cost of extracting those same resources, but have not turned America’s tight sands into the economic equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s al Ghawar, or other giant discoveries of the past.

“Physics does tend to have the last word.”

Morgan argues that by focusing solely on financial matters, mainstream economics misses the central role of surplus energy in the economy:

“According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – world trend ECoE rose from 2.9% in 1990 to 4.1% in 2000. This increase was more than enough to stop Western prosperity growth in its tracks.

“Unfortunately, a policy establishment accustomed to seeing all economic developments in purely financial terms was at a loss to explain this phenomenon, though it did give it a name – “secular stagnation”.

“Predictably, in the absence of an understanding of the energy basis of the economy, recourse was made to financial policies in order to ‘fix’ this slowdown in growth.

“The first such initiative was credit adventurism. It involved making debt easier to obtain than ever before. This approach was congenial to a contemporary mind-set which saw ‘deregulation’ as a cure for all ills.”

The inevitable result was the financial crash in 2008, when unrepayable debt threatened to unwind the entire global financial system.  And while the financial crisis has been temporarily offset by more of the same medicine – quantitative easing and interest rate cuts – it has been the continued expansion of emerging markets that has actually kept the system limping along:

“World average prosperity per capita has declined only marginally since 2007, essentially because deterioration in the West has been offset by continued progress in the emerging market (EM) economies. This, though, is nearing its point of inflexion, with clear evidence now showing that the Chinese economy, in particular, is in very big trouble.

“As you’d expect, these trends in underlying prosperity have started showing up in ‘real world’ indicators, with trade in goods, and sales of everything from cars and smartphones to computer chips and industrial components, now turning down. As the economy of ‘stuff’ weakens, a logical consequence is likely to be a deterioration in demand for the energy and other commodities used in the supply of “stuff”.

“Simply stated, the economy has now started to shrink, and there are limits to how long we can hide this from ourselves by spending ever larger amounts of borrowed money.”

The question this raises is not simply, can we replace fossil fuels with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (Morgan refers to them as “secondary applications of primary energy from fossil fuels”) but can we deploy them at an ECoE that allows us to avoid the collapse of industrial civilisation?  Morgan argues not.  The techno-utopian bad habit of applying Moore’s Law to every technology has allowed economists and politicians to assume that the cost of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies will keep halving even as the energy they generate continues to double.  However:

“[W]e need to guard against the extrapolatory fallacy which says that, because the ECoE of renewables has declined by x% over y number of years, it will fall by a further x% over the next y. The problem with this is that it ignores the limits imposed by the laws of physics.”

More alarming, however, is the high ECoE of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies; despite their becoming cheaper than some fossil fuel deposits:

“…there can be no assurance that the ECoE of a renewables-based energy system can ever be low enough to sustain prosperity. Back in the ‘golden age’ of prosperity growth (in the decades immediately following 1945), global ECoE was between 1% and 2%. With renewables, the best that we can hope for might be an ECoE stable at perhaps 8%, far above the levels at which prosperity deteriorates in the West, and ceases growing in the emerging economies.”

At this point, no doubt, some readers at least will be asking Morgan why he dislikes “renewables” so much.  And his answer is the same as Greer’s and my own:

“These cautions do not, it must be stressed, undermine the case for transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. After all, once we understand the energy processes which drive the economy, we know where continued dependency on ever-costlier fossil fuels would lead.

“There can, of course, be no guarantees around a successful transition to renewable forms of energy. The slogan “sustainable development” has been adopted by the policy establishment because it seems to promise the public that we can tackle environmental risk without inflicting economic hardship, or even significant inconvenience.”

Morgan’s broad point here is that there is a false dichotomy between addressing environmental concerns and maintaining economic growth.  The economy is toast irrespective of whether we address environment crises or not.  There is not enough fossil fuel energy to prevent he system from imploding – the only real question to be answered is whether we continue with business as usual until we crash and burn or whether we take at least some mitigating actions to preserve a few of the beneficial aspects of the last 250 years of economic development.  After all, having clean drinking water, enough food to ward off starvation and some basic health care would make the coming collapse easier than it otherwise might be.

The problem, however, is that even with the Herculean efforts to deploy non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies in the decades since the oil crisis in 1973, they still only account for four percent of our primary energy.  As Morgan cautions, it is too easy for westerners to assume that our total energy consumption is entirely in the gas and electricity we use at home and in the fuel we put in the tanks of our vehicles.  In reality this is but a tiny fraction of our energy use (and carbon footprint) with most of our energy embodied within all of the goods and services we consume.  Not only does fossil fuel account for more than 85 percent of the world’s primary energy, but both BP and the International Energy Agency reports for 2018 show that fossil fuel consumption is growing at a faster rate than non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies are being installed.

Nor is there a green new deal route out of this problem.  As a recent letter to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, authored by Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Prof Richard Herrington et al., warns:

“To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry…

“There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.

“Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars: If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.

“Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.

“Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.”

Put simply, there is not enough Planet Earth left for us to grow our way to sustainability.  The only option open to us is to rapidly shrink our activities and our population back to something that can be sustained without further depleting the planet we depend upon.  Continue with business as usual and Mother Nature is going to do to us what we did to the dodo and the passenger pigeon.  Begin taking some radical action – which still allows the use of some resources and fossil fuels – to switch from an economy of desires to one of needs and at least a fewhumans might survive what is coming.

The final problem, though, is that very few people – including many of those who protest government inaction on the environment – are prepared to make the sacrifices required.  Nor are our corporations and institutions prepared to forego their power and profits for the greater good.  And that leaves us with political structures that will inevitably favour business as usual.

So no, I don’t hate “renewables” – I just regard those who blithely claim that we can deploy and use them to replace fossil fuels without breaking a sweat to be as morally bankrupt as any climate change denying politician you care to mention.  There is a crash on the horizon, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the fourteenth century.  When the energy cost of securing energy – whether fossil fuel, nuclear or renewable – exceeds the energy cost of sustaining the system; our ability to take mitigating action will be over.  Exactly when this is going to happen is a matter of speculation (we should avoid mistaking inevitability for imminence).  Nevertheless, the window for taking action is closing fast; and promising Bright Green utopias as we slide over the cliff edge is not helping anybody.



16 responses

20 07 2019
Hugh Spencer

Thanks for posting this – saves me making detailed comment along the same lines. As one who lives off-grid, I’m too aware of the limitations of solar power. But our culture cannot, it seems, comprehend the reality that BAU will not continue. I’m very surprised that Vaclav Smils analysis of energy density isn’t mentioned – he lays the physical realities out very clearly.

20 07 2019

There is a public relations problem in talking down the viability of renewables without providing wider context, for the average person quickly deduces that the writer must be pro-fossil fuels or pro-nuclear or something. Because what else is there?

This stems from the whole of society being trained (even by the environmental movement) to only think of energy as a do-or-die pitched battle between supply alternatives. End of story.

20 07 2019
Brandon Young

There seem to be 3 implicit assumptions in this and other arguments against renewables.

1. We must have economic growth

2, Sustaining that growth depends on using the same amount of energy we use now

3. That a reduction in consumption of goods and services necessarily means a loss of prosperity.

I think each of these presumptions is unnecessary, and absolutely not true when available methods of system reform are taken into account. We can certainly transition to a system that does not depend on growth and does not require degrowth either. We can certainly add mechanisms that systematically reduce the overall energy intensity of goods and services. And we can certainly add mechanisms that increase prosperity while reducing the consumption of goods and services that actually lead to lower prosperity.

I will respond if anyone wants to debate these presumptions, but it might be a good exercise for people to question and contemplate them, and find reasons that either support them or prove them wrong.

These presumptions create a futile circular argument, something like: we cannot fix the system because we cannot fix the system.

20 07 2019

No Brandon we cannot continue with economic growth. Growth has given us increasing greenhouse gases , plastic by the ocean full, land clearing to burn, extinctions unlimited and a mass cull of humanity inevitable.

20 07 2019
Brandon Young

All of that is true, except the first sentence, which presumes the growth we have had is the only kind of growth we can have in the future.

There is another kind of growth. The first step in making a transition to a far more sustainable system is a fundamental change of mindset, from seeing growth as a single thing, to seeing the traditional notion of growth as an obsolete relic from mainstream economics, and coming to the understanding that we can and need to distinguish between constructive and destructive economic activities.

Constructive activities would be those that are measured to serve our collective goals for the system to deliver, Obviously destructive activities are those that drive outcomes away from our goals. The process of determining the goals can be presumed uncontroversial for the sake of this argument.

Once we have the two categories, we can set market incentives that systematically generate expansion of the set of constructive activities, while systematically reducing and eventually eliminating (where possible) the set of destructive activities.

Whether the overall outcome would be net growth or net degrowth when measured by the old monolithic and essentially meaningless calculation of GDP would be neither here nor there. What matters is that the system would deliver the outcomes we need, within the real world constraints that actually apply.

So, I think your assertion that “we cannot continue with economic growth” can only be true if the context is expanded to include another statement, such as “in the absence of effective system reform,” and if you are prepared add the premise that “effective system reform is not possible.”

I already have an argument on my blog that outlines one such model of reform, and how it could be used on a global scale to solve climate change. This model may not be the only possible model that would work, but I think the systems engineering is not only perfectly sound, it also is the absolute optimal way for the system to deliver whatever set of outcomes we want.

I hope it doesn’t come across as unnecessarily combative, but if you want to argue that economic growth must come to an end, you will need to demonstrate that effective system reform is impossible, and that would require showing how the model I propose could not work.

A different kind of growth is possible. Using market incentives to drive the change in outcomes we need is the optimal solution. Even if people have a strong gut feeling that effective reform is not going to be possible, I hope that they can at least put some thought into where that assumption comes from and how it could be just plain ignorant to what is actually possible.

Growth is not the enemy. All living systems depend on growth, and they start to decay and die without it. The economy may not be a living system, but it is in seriously poor health. Destructive growth is the actual problem, but constructive growth can be a big part of the solution.

21 07 2019

Growth is growth. Living systems that outgrow their environment perish. Growth IS the enemy.

21 07 2019

All of those that can back to the land must go back to the land – where possible. Ideally speaking – but society will resist such a move due to mass urbanisation and a will to modernisation. It’s a one-way street. We are talking about group psychology here and everybody (globally) has bought the Western First World dream of unlimited material prosperity. This has been sold to the world for many decades by now – and now everybody wants it – everybody world-wide. How does one explain to the citizens of the world now that they can’t have it? If that’s all they have seen in the cinema and on TV for decades, and if that us what they all aspire to. Perhaps with 10 years of media (cinema, tv, advertising) exposure to the contrary, people will start seeing things differently, but the promotion of unbridled hyper-consumerism confronts people and poor and rich countries alike 24/7 everywhere they go through marketing and advertising. Take for example Smartphones. 10 years ago few people had them. Now most have them, even in poor countries. This phenomenon has just added another layer of energy dependence through technology. How many people will give up their Smartphone? Or their car? Or their washing machine? An why would people stop wanting them if their neighbours have them and look down upon them for not having these things. We will need to factor in human behaviour and human (group and individual) psychology as well as how the momentum has been created in the first place – how do you stop a runaway train?

22 07 2019
Brandon Young

“How does one explain to the citizens of the world now that they can’t have it? … How many people will give up their Smartphone? Or their car? Or their washing machine?”

The consumerist propaganda will continue to massively inflate demand for the foreseeable future, dragging every last dollar out of consumers as they continue to buy all sorts of crap that does nothing at all to raise their quality of life.

But the dynamics of supply and demand would be completely transformed when the real costs of the production of goods and services are factored into their prices, as they would be in a system that used pricing signals to control the depletion of finite resources, to preserve and rebuild natural systems, and to deliver the other goals that societies would pursue when finally free to choose economic outcomes.

So, the people would not have to give up anything, but the industrial system would be forced to value the embedded costs in everything it produces. This would naturally lead to far more durable and recyclable goods, with businesses forced to be accountable for the full lifecycle costs of their products. It would also drive enormous savings in the energy intensity of products, which would not only become ever more recyclable, but the amount of energy required to recover the valuable resources within products would be minimised by design.

Profitability of businesses would become directly dependent on how recyclable and energy efficient their products were. The natural outcome would be an increasingly circular economy, and there are literally thousands of technologies already developed to serve the circular economy, just waiting for the right market dynamics, which would be delivered when the world comes to its senses and decides to force the industrial system to use finite resources, energy, and natural systems wisely,

So, there is no need for people to give up things like smart phones and washing machines. If we can open their minds enough to have them demand proper control over the depletion of the real world, then we can have a smart system which delivers prosperity and sustainability, even if it is populated by dumb consumers and businesses that operate on the singular pursuit of the profit motive.

22 07 2019

” If we can open their minds enough to have them demand proper control over the depletion of the real world, then we can have a smart system which delivers prosperity and sustainability,”

Thanks for the reply, Brandon, but I think they key here is that people don’t want to open their minds and the world has not come to its senses for decades – and I think the Smartphone culture has diverted the last bit of attention away completely. Time will tell. I do hold out some hope that the spirit of the age will change, somehow, just in time, but I know it would be a miracle if it happens.

22 07 2019
Brandon Young

Yeah, I don’t think hope is going to get the job done. I think it will take sustained collaboration amongst those who are willing and able to understand the message and the model of change.

The major objective to be achieved by such collaboration is to craft the explanations and arguments so that they appeal to an increasingly larger share of the population. Anyone willing to debate the best way to achieve that is welcome to find me and share their thoughts.


22 07 2019
Chris Harries

One response is being coordinated by a spirited young Hobart person. Australia Remade. An attempt to try to speak to everyone from where they are at.

It risks becoming a lowest common denominator exercise, but it also carries the chance that people will respond better if they aren’t beaten to a pulp for expressing their views.

23 07 2019

You make a good point and I agree. Although I am discouraged by the attitudes I consistently come across, you are right of course. How to craft the message/s and how to frame the arguments are indeed the question. When limits to growth become more palpable and consistently real, staring them in the face on a daily basis, people might sit up and pay attention, best we are ready when that happens.

22 07 2019
Hugh Spencer

Replying to Energyshifts
Couldn’t agree more – and the effective total dislocation from global reality afforded by our burgeoning technology, means that WTSHTF there will be a lot of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.
This article really hits the spot..
But worse – not only have we almost completely de-skillled our population in matters agricultural, we’ve screwed up the soil (and in many places the aquifers) – which will take many years of patient husbandry to recover. Gunna be an innerestin’ future!

20 07 2019

“There is an oxidation event in the theatre and egress is advised”
“The roof structure has been compromised and egress is advised”
And now it is just too late. The Humans are going away.

21 07 2019

I do like Tim’s blog, probably one of the best out there. Such a shame so few will see it before they are no longer able to do so.

22 07 2019

Numbers are growing, but those who express these kind of thought here are still few and far between.

Last night I listened to two hi-tech women representing NASA and a British space agency being interviewed on the BBC – ie people who are well up on science. Their cheerful summary of plans for near-future space exploration blithely presupposed nothing going belly up down here on Earth. There’s water under the surface of both the moon and Mars and this means they won’t need to carry so much water up there for space missions. Further it will be electrolysed to make hydrogen for fuel. Even hydrogen + oxygen for fuel for take-offs.

I guess it’s good that the field of science & technology is becoming more of a female domain but I have to say either we have got it all very badly wrong or they have. Or they just have jobs that require them to turn a blind eye to what’s really going on?

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