What “transition” are the Germans up to exactly?

19 02 2020

Jonathon Rutherford pointed me to this fantastic article…. Last night the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent had a piece on energy transition, making the broad argument that Germany is succeeding by comparison to Miserable old Australia. Much has been written about Germany’s Energiewende, but the real situation is a good deal more messy than the doco portrayed as shown in this piece by Jean Marc Jancovici (written in 2017, but still applicable). It will be fascinating indeed to see how the German transition, involving the planned phase out of coal by 2038 pans out, especially if it is combined with the nuclear phase out. Make no mistake though, Germany is closing down unviable mines, just like Britain had to 70 years past its Peak Coal…. As Jancovici shows, the transition to date – which, despite massive renewable investment has achieved literally no carbon reduction – has been very expensive. While the German electorate seems more willing to stomach the costs than Australia, there might be limits! I say this, of course, as somebody who, like Jonathon, wants such a transition; but doubts it can be done within the growth-consumer etc framework taken for granted and desired everywhere collapsing first…

Jean Marc Jancovic

250 to 300 billion euros, which is more than the cost of rebuilding from scratch all the French nuclear power plants, is what Germany has invested from 1996 to 2014 to increase by 22% the fraction of renewable electricity into the gross production of the country (that went from 4% to 27%). For this price tag our neighbors did not decrease their energy imports, did not accelerate the decrease of their CO2 emissions per capita, that remain 80% higher to those of a French, increased the stress on the European grid (which is not less useful when electricity production is “decentralized”, all the opposite), and it is debatable whether it allowed to create industrial champions and jobs by millions. If net exports are taken into account – they rose from zero to an average 6% of the annual production, and mostly happen when the wind blows or the sun shines – the fraction of renewable electricity in the domestic consumption is probably closer to 20%. Analysis below.

***

Seen from France, our German neighbors definitely combine all virtues: their public spending is under control, their exports are at the highest, the unemployement low, and on top of that housing affordable and mid-sized companies thriving like nowhere else. With such a series of accomplishments, why on Earth should we act differently from them on any subject? And, in particular, when it comes to energy, the French press is generally eager to underline that they have chosen the right path, when we remain blinded by our radioactive foolishness.

As usual, facts and figures may fit with the mainstream opinion in the paper… or not. In order to allow the reader to conclude his way, I have gathered below some figures that are published by bodies that are neither antinuclear nor pronuclear, neither anti-renewables nor pro-renewables, but only in charge of counting electrons depending on where they have been generated. Let’s start!

Where do the German electrons come from?

Anyone saying that German electricity is more and more renewable will indeed answer correctly. Without any doubt, renewable electricity increases in Germany.

German electricity generation coming from renewable sources since 1996, in GWh 
(1 GWh = 1 million kWh ; the electricity consumption of Germany is roughly 600 billion kWh – hence 600.000 GWh – per year).

In 12 years (1996 to 2012) the renewable production has been multiplied by 7.

Data from AGEE-Stat, Federal Ministry of Environment, Germany.

From there, anyone will conclude that if renewables increase, the rest decreases. True again!

Breakdown of German electricity generation in 1991.

Renewables amount to 4% of the total, with 3% for hydroelectricity (which amounts to 12% in France).

Data from TSP data portal TSP data portal

Breakdown of German electricity generation in 2014.

Renewables now amount to over 27% of the total, but only half of them is composed of intermittent modes (solar and wind).

Data from ENTSOE

But there is something else that is obvious when looking at the graphs above: in 2011 as in 1991, most of the electricity generation comes from fossil fuels, coal (including lignite) being the first primary energy used, and, furthermore, the amount of kWh coming from coal, oil and gas is about the same today as what it was 20 years ago. If the name of the game is to decrease CO2 emissions, then no significant progress has been made in two decades.

Breakdown of the German electricity generation from 1980 to 2014

One will easily see that the total coming from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is roughly constant over the period, with a little less coal, a little more gas, and almost no oil anymore.

One will also notice that nuclear has begun to decrease in 2006 (thus before Fukushima), and that the “new renewables” (biomass, solar and wind) increase came on top of the rest until 2006.

Data from TSP data portal

A zoom at the monthly production for the last years (since 2005) confirms the rise of the “new renewables” (biomass, wind, solar) in a total that remains globally unchanged. Something else which is clearly visible is that fossil fuels account for the dominant share in the winter increase (France is thus not the only country with an increased consumption in winter).

Monthly electricity production in Germany from January 2005 to May 2015, with a breakdown showing fossil fuels (oilgas and most of all coal), nuclear, hydroelectricity, and “new renewables” (all renewables except hydro).

The sharp decrease of nuclear after Fukushima (March 2011) is clear, but a close look indicates that shortly after it came back to its historical trend, that is a slow decline that begun in 2006.

Data from ENTSOE

What is absolutely certain is therefore that renewable electricity has significantly increased in Germany, and that’s definitely what is focusing the attention of the French press. But… the available data indicates that before 2006 this renewable supply came on top of the rest (with no impact on CO2 emissions), and after 2006 they mostly substituted nuclear (with no more decrease of the CO2 emissions!).

If that is so, then the overall “non fossil” generation (nuclear and renewables alltogether) must be about stable. And it is indeed what is happening!

Historical monthly “non fossil” electricity generation in Germany from January 2005 to May 2015, in GWh.

This production totals renewables (including hydro) and nuclear. The trend is almost flat, and we will see below that the increase of the last two years is almost fully exported.

Author’s calculations on primary data from ENTSOE

As the global production is otherwise almost stable, it means that the share of “non fossil” must be about constant (on average), which is confirmed by figures.

Monthly share of “non fossil” electricity generation in Germany from January 2005 to May 2015.

Author’s calculations on primary data from ENTSOE

Another element that confirms that renewables substitute nuclear, and not fossil fuels, is to observe the historical energy imports of Germany and France (which has far less renewables in its electricity generation, but far more nuclear).

Reconstitution of German imports by energy, in billion constant dollars since 1981.

There is no obvious difference with France (below): the trends are exactely the same for oil and gas, and the amounts of the same magnitude. One will notice that Germany imports coal (almost 50% of its consumption).

Author’s calculations on primary data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

Energy imports in France, in billion constant dollars since 1981.

It resembles a lot to Germany!

Author’s calculations on primary data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

One might argue that we should also take into account the exports associated with domestic industries in renewable energies: wind turbines, solar panels, or biogas production units. But… for solar panels Germany is a heavy importer, as Europe. We have imported for more than 110 billion dollars of imported solar cells from 2008 to 2014, and Germany accounted for almost half of the total. For wind turbines China is also becoming a tough competitor on the international market. It is not clear whether the cumulated exports have outbalanced by far the cumulated imports!

What about money?

Another hot topic regarding the German “transition” is its cost. First, let’s recall that the “transition”, for the time being, is a change for 22% of the electricity production (but Germans also use oil products, gas and coal – the latter for their industry). Discussing money allows for a number of possibilities, and the first item that is discussed here is investments. These are absolutely indispensable to increase capacities, and one thing is sure: capacities have increased!500

Installed capacities for various renewable modes in Germany since 1996, in MW.

The total amounts to 93.000 MW, or 93 GW.

Source: AGEE-Stat, Federal Ministry of Environment, Germany.

Germans therefore had 93 GW (or 93 000 MW) of installed capacities for renewable electricity at the end of 2014, that is more than the French installed capacity in nuclear power plants, that will amount to 65 GW when Flamanville is completed. One might therefore conclude that Germany produces more renewable electricity than France nuclear. Actually, it is not the case: Germany produced roughly 160 TWh (160 billion kWh) of renewable electricity in 2014, when the French nuclear output was about 3 times more. The reason is that the load factor for the new renewable capacities in Germany is between 60% and 10%, when for nuclear the values are rather between 70% and 80%. Furthermore, the german load factor (for renewables) is rapidly decreasing for the moment.

Load factor for each renewable capacity in Germany.

This factor corresponds to the fraction of the year during which the capacity shoud operate at full load to produce what it really produces in a year.

For example, if this factor is 20%, it means that the annual output would be obtained with the capacity operating at full load during 20% of the year, and nothing the rest of the time. What really happens, of course, is that during the year the output of a given installation constantly varies between zero and full load, and when an average is done over a large number of installations and a long time (one year), then we get this famous load factor.

The higher it is, and the more electricity you get out of a given capacity.

The curve “total” gives the average factor for all renewable capacities in Germany. It has been divided by 2 since 1996, because solar (which contribued a lot to new capacities) has a much lower load factor than any other renewable capacity.

Author’s calculations on primary data from (BP Statistical Review, European Wind Association, AGEE Stat).

As a consequence, to produce as much as 8 GW of nuclear (one third of the German capacity) with a 80% or 90% load factor, it is necessary to have – in Germany – 40 GW of wind turbines, that have a load factor below 20% (as low as 14% for bad years), and even more if losses due to storage are taken into account. With photovoltaic, 65 GW are necssary (without losses due to storage). In both cases, it is more than what has already been installed in Germany.

To benefit from the production of these new capacities, investments are necessary. One should of course invest in the production units themselves (wind turbines, solar panels, etc), but also in the grid. It is obviously necessary to connect the additional sources, but also to reinforce the power transmission lines, or add some new. Indeed, the new capacities (in the Northern part of the country for wind) are located far from the regions of high consumption (which are rather in the South).

Besides, for a same annual production, the installed capacity increases when the load factor decreases. The low load factor of solar and wind lead to a high installed capacity… that will sometimes lead to a very high instant power that has to be evacuated, including through exports (see below).

The question is: how much will it cost? Figures for this part are hard to find, because the operators of low and high voltage power lines do not separate, in their financial reporting, what pertains to the “transition” from the rest. The graphs below give some hints from which we will derive an order of magnitude.

Billion euros invested yearly into the transportation network in Germany.

Source: European Parliament

One can see a strong increase after 2011, 2 years after Germany voted a “Law on the Expansion of Energy Lines”. But in 2016 Transport operators (transport is the part of the grid that operates over 90.000 volts) had completed only a third of the new lines to be built (source: same as above).

Billion euros invested yearly into the distribution network in Germany (distribution is the part of the grid that operates below 90.000 volts).

Source: European Parliament

If we sum up what is invested into the grid, both low and high voltage, we come up with something in the range of 8 billions per year, that is about what is now invested into production means. But no breakdown is available between what is just regular maintenance, and what is linked to the increase in the total power installed.

The commentary in the European report that goes with the chart on soaring investment in the transport network from 2011 suggests that there is a part of the investments that “remain to be done”. We will therefore assume, as a first approach, that investments in the grid (in the broad sense) are, or will eventually be, about 50% of what goes into production units over the period.

If we make the a additional hypothesis that unitary costs for solar, wind and biomass decrease by respectively 5%, 2% and 2% per year, and if we accept that for the period pre-2004 it was also necessary to put half of an euro into the grid when one euro was invested into new capacities, then Germany has already invested more than 250 billion euros into its “transition”.

Yearly investments, in billion euros, that Germany has made into adding new renewable capacities.

These amounts include both the sources (solar panels, wind turbines) and the rest of the electric system (grid). This amount does not include the amounts, far less important, invested into renewable heat.

Author’s calculations on primary data from BP Statistical Review, European Wind Association, AGEE Stat.

The graph below provides an estimate directly given by the German Ministry of the Economy. One can see that the order of magnitude is the same for the “production” part, with a higher peak around 2010.

Investments in renewable electricity production unites in Germany, in billion euros.

Source: Renewable Energies Information Portal

And what about a “completed” transition? If Germany was to turn to renewables all its present electricity production, it should “convert” an additional 320 TWh, or 2 times what has already been done. We can assume that the unitary cost of wind turbines and solar panels is not bound to be divided by something significant anymore (among other reasons, we might suggest that the production of turbines or panels will increasingly suffer from the growing scarcity of raw materials, that will apply here as elsewhere).

We can also assume that the unitary costs of the investments in the grid required to absorb new capacities increase with the installed capacity of intermittent sources. In other words, the integration cost of the last MW to be connected is supposed to be higher than the integration cost of any MW that came before. In practical terms, we will assume that for any euro invested into additionnal capacities, al capacities, we must put one euro into the grid “at large”: low and high voltage power lines, transformers, storage devices.

We will at last assume that the share of each mode remains the same.

With these hypotheses, we need to add:

  • 90 GW of wind turbines, and
  • 120 GW of solar, and
  • 20 GW of biomass

for a total cost of 750 billion euros, grid reinforcement included.

But then, to backup intermittence with no more coal and gas power plants (and no possibility to rely on the “dirty” plants of the neighboring countries!), such a system would require a storage capacity of 100 to 200 GW (such as pumping stations), when Germany has only 4 so far, for an investment of 500 to 1000 billion euros, for example with new dams in the German Alps, and plenty of pipes to carry water up and down from the Baltic Sea (with batteries the investment would be even higher and the lifetime much shorter).

As such a way to store electricity generates losses of 30% of the incoming electricity (the yield of a pumping station is 75%, and transporting electricity from the turbines to the storage and vice-versa adds 5% at least), it means that the installed capacity has to be increased by 20% to 40% – depending on the share used without storage – for an additionnal 250 billion euros, grid included.

The total bill should therefore amount to something close to a year of GDP, that is over 2000 billion euros. Furthermore, assuming biomass units keep the same load factor and have a yield between 30% and 45% (smaller units have a smaller yield), that any land devoted to biomass production can produce 5 tonnes oil equivalent per year of raw energy, then 20% to 25% of the country (8 to 10 million hectares) would be devoted to biomass production for electricity generation. Easier said than done!

If we try to summarize, at this point we can conclude that:

  • From 1996 to 2014, Germany has increased by 140 billion kWh (or 140 TWh) its renewable electricity, and in this total:
    • a little more than 60 TWh is an increase of electricity production (which contradicts the idea sometimes put forward that “when everyone has a solar panel on his roof and a wind turbine in the field next door, then the population becomes conscious of the true value of electricity and uses less”), that will mostly be exported at “sacrified” prices since the global consumption is decreasing,

Electricity generation in France since 1985, in billion kWh.

From 1995 to 2014 it increased by 12%.

Source BP Statistical Review, 2015

Electricity generation in Germany since 1985, in billion kWh.

From 1995 to 2014 it increased by 14% (a little more than in France). Besides the global aspect is very similar (the stability during the 80’s and the early 90’s is the reflect of the reunification, because of the poor efficiency of former East Germany).

Source: BP Statistical Review, 2015

  • Roughly 60 TWh has been used to partially offset nuclear, that decreased from 160 to 100 TWh,
  • Fossil fuels decreased by only 12 TWh, which is not significant over the period (the change of the shares of gas and coal in the total fossil is not linked to the penetration of renewables),
  • Germany has invested 300 billion euros (over 10% of its annual GDP), and should multiply this amount by 7 at least to become 100% renewable in electricity. This investment should be repeated for a large part in 25 year, that is the lifetime of wind turbines or solar panels (nuclear power plants last 60 to 80 years). Over 60 years, a “100% renewable electricity” plan would therefore require 15 to 30 times more capital than producing the same electricity with nuclear power plants (not accounting for the cost of capital).
  • This “transition”, so far, has had no discernable impact on the energy trade balance. Becoming fully renewable for electricity will avoid gas imports for electricity generation (now amounting to 160 TWh per year, or 16 billion cubic meters, for roughly 4 billion euros), but no more, since oil (which represents by far the dominant part) is almost absent from electricity generation, and coal is mostly domestic,
  • This “transition”, so far, had had no effects on CO2 emissions, and to have one it will be necessary to phase out coal, when, for the time being, our German friends are planning to add more capacities (and lignite production has been increasing for several years),

Monthly electricity generation coming from lignite in Germany since 2006, in GWh.

Not really going down!

Source: ENTSOE

Let’s recall that lignite, apart from CO2 emissions, is produced from open pit mines, that lead to a complete destruction of the environment over tens of square kilometers, heaps of ashes, water pollution, population displacement, etc, and that lignite power plants are no more virtuous than nuclear ones regarding heat losses.

A lignite mine in Germany, with a digging machine at the center of the picture.

The size of the bulldozer, at the bottom of the excavator, gives an idea of the size of the digging machine! And besides the landscape is not precisely environmentally friendly…

Photo: Alf van Beem, Wikipedia Commons

A lignite power plant in Germany (Neurath; roughly 4000 MW of installed capacity).

The difference with a nuclear power plant is not that obvious! The “answer” is in the presence of chimneys (to evacuate fumes), that do not exist for nuclear power plants, in a water treatment plant (not necessary with nuclear), and in the train terminal used to carry lignite (50 000 tonnes per day at full capacity, when a nuclear power plant will use 10 kg of U235 to provide the same thermal energy).

  • and, at last, it is absolutely certain that some jobs have been created, but if we offset those that have been destroyed elsewhere, because the end consumer cannot spend his money twice, the total is most certainly below the numbers boasted by the German government (which, like all governments, counts what is created in the sector sustained, but cautiously avoids to look at the perverse effects that might happen elsewhere for the same reason!).

Let’s now take a lookat what happened for the end consumer. The amount per kWh has indeed increased, but not only because of renewables. Gas and coal also played a role, because the price of the fuel represents 50% to 70% of the full production cost with coal and gas fired power plants.

Price per kWh for the individual cosumer in Germany, 1998 to 2012.

The increase is clear, but the main contributor is “production+distribution”, which includes transportation costs, but also the purchasing price of fossil fuels used with coal and gas power plants. One will notice that the red bar increases during the 2000-2009 period, when the price of imported gas and coal rises fast, and decreases when the price of imported gas and coal decrease (2009-2011).

Source : BDEW

Spot prices of gas in several regions of the world (Henry Hub relates to the US) and of oil, all expressed in dollars per million British Thermal Unit 
(1 million BTU ≈ 0,3 MWh).

CIF means Charged Insurance and Freight, that is the full cost with transportation and insurance.

The price of gas in Europe evolves just as the red bar in the previous graph over the period 2000 – 2012.

Source: BP Statistical Review, 2015

Spot prices of coal in several regions of the world.

Over the period 2000 – 2012, the price of coal in Europe has also evolved as the red bar in the graph giving the price per electrical kWh for the end consumer.

Source: BP Statistical Review, 2015

We might now suggest an additional conclusion: if electricity prices have increased for the individual, it is not only because of renewables, but because there remains an important fraction coming from fossil fuels!

Where do the German electrons go?

That’s a funny question: if Germans produce electricity, it is to use it, ins’t it? Well, that partially true, but also partially false. European countries are interconnected, and electricity can go from one country to another. Statistics show that imports and exports have greatly increased at the borders of Germany lately.

Monthly balance of electricity echanges (with the rest of Europe) at the border of Germany, in GWh.

One will easily notice that the magnitude increases until 2007, and remains at the same level since then. Besides, Germans used to export little amounts before 2005, and now export more, mainly in the winter.

Data from ENTSOE

As the above graph shows, exports mostly take place in the winter (and imports in the spring). It happens that it is also in the winter that there is more wind, as the graph below shows.

Monthly wind production in GWh from January 2005.

The output is highly variable depending on the year, but it always happens in December of January.

Data from ENTSOE

It is therefore normal to wonder wether there is not a link between wind and exports. And it might well be the case!

Monthly exchanges (vertical axis, positive values mean net imports and negative ones net exports) depending on the monthly wind production in Germany, from January 2005 to May 2015.

The dots clearly show that when wind production increases, exports also increase. It suggests that increased exports are directely or indirectely linked to an increase in wind production.

Author’s calculations on primary data from ENTSOE

This link between the German electricity production coming from “new renewables” and German electricity exports is also found when looking at the hourly production and exports.

German hourly production coming from solar and wind combined, in MWh (horizontal axis), vs,  for the same hour, German electricity exports in MWh (vertical axis), for the year 2013.

This cloud of points clearly shows that hourly exports increase with the hourly production coming from wind+solar.

Source: Author on data from Paul-Frederik Bach

This is, incidentally, exactly the situation in Denmark, which, even more spectacularly, manages the intermittency of its production with imports (not necessarily carbon-free) and dispatchable modes (namely fossil fuels, Denmark is a flat country with no dams!).

Danish Electricity supply in November 2017

Source: Paul-Frederik Bach

If exports have increased along with the increase of the amount of renewable electricity produced, then it might be instructive to look at the fraction of “non fossil electricity” that remains in Germany once deducted the exports that appeared since the beginning of the EnergieWende.

Non fossil electricity (renewable+nuclear) once additional exports (since the beginning of the EnergieWende) are deducted.

Surprise: what remains for Germany is about constant for the last 10 years. In other words, the fraction of renewables that does not replace nuclear is exported (and does not replace any fossil production, which is consistent with what is mentionned above).

Author’s calculations on data from ENTSOE

As production increases when the wind blows, but not consumption, a last effect generated by the 10% of electricity coming from wind is a significant decrease in spot price of electricity when wind increases.

Hourly spot price of electricity on the German market depending on the hourly wind production for 2013.

Obviously, the more wind there is, the lower the price is, with the apparition of nil or even negative prices over 10 GWh per hour. As there was roughly 30 GW of installed capacity in Germany in 2013, it means that when one third of wind turbines operate at fiull power, nil or negative prices appear (and then the producer pays the consumer to take the electricity, because the cost of stopping everything is even higher).

When there is no wind the average price is 50 euros per MWh, and when the installed capacity is operating at almost full power (24 GW) the average price per MWh falls below 20 euros.

Data from pfbach.dk

If we come back to the initial question, our dear neighbors certainly do something that is meaningful for them, but what they do not do for certain is trying to phase out fossil fuels as fast as possible. A simple reminder of the emissions per capita on each side of the Rhine will show that the “good guys” are not necessarily where the press finds them!500

Per capita CO2 emissions coming from fuel combustion in France, from 1965 onwards (in tonnes). This graph is made assuming the emission factor is constant for each fuel.

Coal contributes for a little below 1 tonne per person and per year (4 times less than in 1965), gas for about 1,5 tonne, and oil for 4 tonnes, for a total of roughly 6 tonnes in 2014.

Author’s calculations on data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

Per capita CO2 emissions coming from fuel combustion in Germany, from 1965 onwards (in tonnes). This graph is made assuming the emission factor is constant for each fuel.

Oil contributes a little more than in France, but gas is 50% higher, and coal 5 times higher, for a total of over 10 tonnes.

Since 1980 he evolution for oil is very similar to what it is for France, but the “transition” is still to come regarding coal and gas… and obviously the “EnergieWende” didn’t have any kind of “CO2 avoided” effect that is often boasted in governmental or even academic publications.

Author’s calculations on data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

If we look at Germany’s overall CO2 emissions, we can see that those arising from coal and gas – which are the two fossil fuels used for electricity generation, oil being marginal – have only decreased by 40 million tons in 20 years.

Fossil CO2 emissions in Germany from 1965, discriminated by fuel (this graph is made assuming the emission factor is constant for each fuel).

Emissions from coal have dropped by 40 million tonnes since 1996 (but this also includes the effect of improving the energy efficiency in the industry after the reunification), and those from gas have hardly changed.

Calculation: Jancovici on BP Statistical Review data, 2017

But that does not prevent our German friends from claiming more than 100 million tonnes of avoided emissions thanks to these renewable energies!

Avoided emissions claimed by the German Ministry of the Economy.

While electricity consumption is not increasing, it is extraordinary to find avoided emissions – thanks to renewable electricity – that amount to 3 times the real decrease in emissions from coal and gas, all uses combined! The “politically correct” that replaces a correct calculation (or an efficient action…) is also effective on the other side of the Rhine…

Source: Renewable Energies Information Portal

Of course, one can only wish that our Germans friends do succeed, in a short delay, to get rid of fossil fuels, in electricity generation and elsewhere. But, on the ground of the available data, a preliminary conclusion is that they have achieved nothing significant in that direction for the last 15 years. If they eventually succeed to get rid of fossil fuels in the 10 to 20 years to come, and if the population is ready to pay 10 times more (that is 3000 billion euros instead of 300) to avoid the inconvenients of nuclear, real or supposed, there is nothing to object. It is a respectable choice, only it is not the only one which is possible!

But if the Germans where to stop in midstream, that is with renewables that have substituted only nuclear, without replacing fossil fuels, then they will have spent their money on something else than the European objective (phasing out fossil fuels), and lost a precious time, which is the most serious damage in the present case, as Europe is running against time regarding its energy supply.





The Make Believe Future

6 02 2020

Put simply, there is not enough Planet Earth left

for us to grow our way to sustainability

Another brilliant post from Tim at Consciousness of Sheep…

US President John F. Kennedy began the political fad of setting targets for the future US President John F. Kennedy began the political fad of setting targets for the future when, on 25 May 1961, he persuaded the Congress to agree to the goal of landing men on the moon by the end of the decade. On 12 September 1962 he made his more famous public speech at Rice University:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

Notice that Kennedy referred to going to the moon as hard; not once did he use the word “impossible.” Even in 1962, all of the technologies required already existed. For sure they needed refining and developing. Certainly there would be hardships – including several tragic deaths – along the way. But success largely depended upon the political, organisational and economic requirements of the project rather than the creation of novel technologies.

Although largely a Cold War project, the moon landings were widely viewed at the time as a stepping stone on humanity’s journey of discovery to the stars. In hindsight, the years 1969-72 marked the apex of human progress. The oil shocks and economic crises of the 1970s removed the optimism of the previous two decades. Humans were never again to venture out beyond a low Earth orbit. The new space technologies and energy sources that might have bridged the enormous distances between us and our nearest celestial neighbours failed to put in an appearance. Closer to home, other “leading edge” technologies such as commercial supersonic flight were also being mothballed – only the Concorde, heavily subsidised by British and French taxpayers, continued to ferry the rich and famous across the Atlantic.

We have been on a downward trajectory ever since. During the boom years 1953-73, as the economies of the developed and developing states made the switch from coal to oil, energy per capita rose exponentially alongside oil production. Had it not been for the 1973 OPEC embargo, global oil production might have managed a couple more years of exponential growth before the inevitable slowdown began. As it was, 1973 – the year after the final moon landing – marks the point at which energy per capita across the developed economies went into reverse. This sounds technical, but the consequence was that productivity (essentially using more energy or using energy more efficiently to generate more economic value) began to slow. And since productivity growth is what allows wage growth, wages began to fall too. The wage-price inflationary spiral of the 1970s – exacerbated by state currency-printing and capital control policies – was the result of a battle between capital and organised labour over the relative shares of falling productivity growth.

John Michael Greer described the practical consequences when he pointed to the difference in living standards between a semi-skilled manual worker in the 1970s and a semi-skilled worker of today. In those days, a single worker on the average semi-skilled wage could afford to buy a house, support a family, run a car and enjoy annual holidays. Today a single semi-skilled worker would be lucky to avoid homelessness. The consequence of our now falling energy per capita is that productivity has ceased entirely. We now face a series of linked crises in the economy, environment and energy which severely limit our scope for action. Wages in the developed economies have been stagnant since the financial crash in 2008. Wages in the emerging market economies are now also slowing. Outside a handful of niche industries like tech and pharmaceuticals – which survive on the back of huge state subsidies – investment has switched away from technology into a series of derivative financial instruments that have no practical value and add nothing to economic development.

Even things that were once hard, but possible – like landing people on the moon – are now beyond us. But John F. Kennedy’s words continue to echo down the decades to reach the ears of contemporary politicians who mistakenly believe that we only need to set a goal and smart people somewhere else will make it happen. So it is that our political leaders have committed to decarbonising the economy by 2050 despite – unlike the Apollo Project – several of the required technologies and the resources to construct them only existing in the pages of science fiction novels.

More recently, the Prime Minister of the (increasingly un-) United Kingdom – a man who studied classics and, apparently is clueless about climate change – has decided to bring forward to 2035 the ban on new internal combustion engine cars and vans. Worse still, and to the horror of motoring organisations, vehicle manufacturers and grid engineers, he has decided to include hybrid vehicles in the ban. On the same day – and also in response to government climate commitments – the UK air industry announced plans to become “net zero carbon” by 2050. This, apparently, is to be achieved using yet-to-be-invented lean-burn engines which use yet-to-be-invented artificial hydrocarbon fuels manufactured by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide sucked out of the air.

At least electric cars actually exist. The infrastructure required to make the switch is an altogether different matter. As Will Bedingfield at Wired warned last month:

“[A] spectre is haunting the UK’s emissions targets – the spectre of nuclear retirement… By the early 2030s, just one of the UK’s seven nuclear power stations will be operational. Over the last few years, plans to construct three new power stations – Hitachi’s Wylfa Newydd nuclear plants on Anglesey in Wales and Oldbury in Gloucestershire, and Toshiba’s Moorside project in Cumbria – which together could have met 15 per cent of the UK’s future electricity demands, have been scrapped.”

Meanwhile, efforts to fill the gap with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies have stalled, as Phillip Inman at the Guardian explains:

“Britain’s green economy has shrunk since 2014, heightening concerns that the government will miss targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the decade.

“The number of people employed in the “low carbon and renewable energy economy” declined by more than 11,000 to 235,900 between 2014 and 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Green businesses fared little better, seeing their numbers drop from an estimated 93,500 to 88,500 over the same four-year period.”

There are some big offshore wind projects still to come online, but without government subsidies, these may be the last of their kind. In any case, they provide nothing like the generating capacity which will be lost as coal and nuclear plants are decommissioned.

The absolute numbers also hide the technical issues around intermittency and grid frequency which resulted in a nationwide blackout in August last year. National Grid had been relying on combined cycle gas turbine plants, which can rapidly increase and decrease production, to iron out the intermittent generation from wind and solar. However, as the percentage of renewable energy fed into the grid passes two-thirds, it appears that this solution is no longer sufficient. The temporary – and probably unsustainable – fix for this is to pay for gas power plants just to keep the turbines spinning even if the electricity generated is not needed. As Nina Chestney and Noor Zainab Hussain at Reuters report:

“National Grid’s said on Wednesday it had agreed contracts with five parties worth 328 million pounds ($431 million) over a six-year period for services to manage the stability of its electricity system in Britain…

“The key service to be provided is what is known as ‘inertia’ on the grid, which helps to keep the electricity system running at the right frequency… Under the new approach, National Grid said inertia will be achieved without having to provide electricity. This will allow more renewable generation to operate and ensure system stability at lower costs.”

The “lower costs” refers to the difference between this approach and paying for expensive storage. Paying someone to provide additional inertia is not cheaper than not having to do it at all. Even so, inertia balancing is just one of a plethora of the headaches currently stressing grid managers and engineers. As James Sillars at Sky reports:

“The UK’s electricity network needs urgent investment to prepare for an electric vehicle future or risk blackouts, a report for the government has warned.

“The Electric Vehicles Energy Task Force, commissioned by ministers, urges a ‘smart charging’ approach – utilising times of weak demand – along with a power network able to adapt to shifts in electricity use.”

Nor, apparently, is electric vehicle infrastructure easily constructed by energy engineering companies tasked with keeping an increasingly old and frail grid infrastructure operating. When it comes to public charging facilities, delays of several years are not uncommon. As Peter Campbell and Nathalie Thomas at the Financial Times reported last month:

“Britain’s electricity network is ‘not fit for purpose’ and is stifling the rollout of electric vehicle chargers along key trunk roads in the UK, say motorway services operators.

“Electric vehicles currently account for only about 2 per cent of sales in the UK, but a steep rise is expected during the next two years as carmakers strive to meet new stringent CO2 targets and as the country gears up to hit its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Motorway service areas are preparing to increase their charging provisions to meet the jump in demand. But Simon Turl, chairman of operator RoadChef, said his company’s attempts to add charging services have been held up by distribution network operators (DNOs), which own local electricity grids and demand millions of pounds and waits of up to three years, to install new power lines.”

Electric vehicles are, of course, merely one component of the fantasy zero-carbon future. The wider task is truly staggering, as another Sky News report explains:

“A mass recruitment drive involving hundreds of thousands of people is needed by the energy sector if the UK’s 2050 target for zero net emissions is to be met, a new report claims.

“The National Grid says 400,000 skilled tradespeople, engineers and other specialists are required across the industry, with at least 117,000 of them needed in the next 10 years.

“However the report says the sector is facing stiff competition for staff from other areas such as tech and finance, while a looming retirement crunch and not enough young people choosing to study science, technology, engineering and maths, are making matters worse.”

As I pointed out last month:

“An energy transition which requires this number of new skilled workers is simply not going to happen. Nor is the UK in a position to easily afford the £3.75bn per year additional wage bill for the 117,000 new workers in the 2020s; still less the £12.8bn annual wage bill in the 2030s and 2040s. In the event that government continues adding the cost of upgrading the energy grid onto household bills, this amounts to an annual increase of £667 for every household in the UK. At a time when household purchasing power – still lower in real terms than in 2008 – has fallen to the point that tens of thousands of retail jobs are being lost, it is doubtful that the economy can afford the additional cost without being plunged into recession.”

This is where our tendency to believe that since economists are on a par with astrologers and homeopaths, the economy itself doesn’t matter. However – as Henry Ford discovered in the early days of oil-powered vehicles – unless the workers can afford the technologies, the energy revolution simply isn’t going to happen. And at present, American cities have joined the third world while urban British workers shiver in the dark, as a new report from The Prince’s Trust explains:

“The research suggests that young people are skipping meals, selling items that are important to them and not putting the heating on to save money. The research reveals a gap between the confidence levels of the UK’s most and least disadvantaged young people, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds feeling less hopeful about their future prospects…

“The research shows that one in three young people aged 18 and over with an overdraft facility are regularly using it, and one in five (18 per cent) go further into their overdraft each month. Over a fifth (22 per cent) of young people in rented accommodation struggle to pay their rent. Borrowing from family and friends has also been a necessity for some, with one in four young people (26 per cent) admitting they have done this in the past year. However, six in ten young people (62 per cent) are embarrassed to ask others for financial support.”

When John F. Kennedy sold the Apollo Project to the American people, he had the luxury of an expanding economy in which all but the very poorest were experiencing rising standards of living. The energy, materials, technology and the surplus value needed for the moon shot were all available in abundance. None of those prerequisites is true of the proposed energy transition today. The energy cost of energy has risen beyond the point that developed economies can continue to grow; and is fast reaching the point at which the emerging economies which have provided at least some growth for the past decade are beginning to stall. Whereas the 1960s USA had access to the raw resources of a largely untapped planet, today we are squeezing the last accessible dregs out of our exhausted Earth. As a recent letter from scientists at the Natural History Museum warned:

“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. And even if there was, the environmental damage of constructing an entirely new infrastructure would likely destroy what remains of the human habitat anyway. In any case, without further economic growth and in the absence of a radical redistribution of wealth of a kind that would have made Lenin blush, it is hard to imagine increasingly impoverished populations voting for ever more expensive energy bills. There is a reason why Luddites like Trump and Morrison are currently getting away with dismantling environmental laws and regulations – and they are the relatively benign face of a nationalist populism that will get a lot worse if current levels of inequality continue to grow.

The challenge of a zero-carbon civilisation only appears realistic when one of its elements is viewed in isolation. Once it is seen in its complete energetic, material, technological, environmental, economic and political dimensions it is an obvious fiction. There is simply no way in which we get to continue with business as usual simply by swapping one energy technology for another. And attempts at channelling the ghost of John F. Kennedy will not change this.





Beyond Hope

2 02 2020

Four year old article published on Orion…… thought you lot would enjoy it.

THE MOST COMMON WORDS I hear spoken by any environmentalists anywhere are, We’re fucked. Most of these environmentalists are fighting desperately, using whatever tools they have — or rather whatever legal tools they have, which means whatever tools those in power grant them the right to use, which means whatever tools will be ultimately ineffective — to try to protect some piece of ground, to try to stop the manufacture or release of poisons, to try to stop civilized humans from tormenting some group of plants or animals. Sometimes they’re reduced to trying to protect just one tree.

Here’s how John Osborn, an extraordinary activist and friend, sums up his reasons for doing the work: “As things become increasingly chaotic, I want to make sure some doors remain open. If grizzly bears are still alive in twenty, thirty, and forty years, they may still be alive in fifty. If they’re gone in twenty, they’ll be gone forever.”

But no matter what environmentalists do, our best efforts are insufficient. We’re losing badly, on every front. Those in power are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and most people don’t care.

Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.

To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness. One reason my mother stayed with my abusive father was that there were no battered women’s shelters in the ’50s and ’60s, but another was her false hope that he would change. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.

Does anyone really believe that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anyone really believe that Monsanto will stop Monsantoing because we ask nicely? If only we get a Democrat in the White House, things will be okay. If only we pass this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. If only we defeat this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. Nonsense. Things will not be okay. They are already not okay, and they’re getting worse. Rapidly.

But it isn’t only false hopes that keep those who go along enchained. It is hope itself. Hope, we are told, is our beacon in the dark. It is our light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It is the beam of light that makes its way into our prison cells. It is our reason for persevering, our protection against despair (which must be avoided at all costs). How can we continue if we do not have hope?

We’ve all been taught that hope in some future condition — like hope in some future heaven — is and must be our refuge in current sorrow. I’m sure you remember the story of Pandora. She was given a tightly sealed box and was told never to open it. But, being curious, she did, and out flew plagues, sorrow, and mischief, probably not in that order. Too late she clamped down the lid. Only one thing remained in the box: hope. Hope, the story goes, was the only good the casket held among many evils, and it remains to this day mankind’s sole comfort in misfortune. No mention here of action being a comfort in misfortune, or of actually doing something to alleviate or eliminate one’s misfortune.

The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.

Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.

More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believe — or maybe you would — how many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of hope. But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here’s the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.

I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.

I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don’t like how they’re being treated — and who could blame them? — I will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.

When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free — truly free — to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.

PEOPLE SOMETIMES ASK ME, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” The answer is that life is really, really good. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.

Many people are afraid to feel despair. They fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate our situation really is, they must then be perpetually miserable. They forget that it is possible to feel many things at once. They also forget that despair is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation. Many people probably also fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate things are, they may be forced to do something about it.

Another question people sometimes ask me is, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just party?” Well, the first answer is that I don’t really like to party. The second is that I’m already having a great deal of fun. I love my life. I love life. This is true for most activists I know. We are doing what we love, fighting for what (and whom) we love.

I have no patience for those who use our desperate situation as an excuse for inaction. I’ve learned that if you deprive most of these people of that particular excuse they just find another, then another, then another. The use of this excuse to justify inaction — the use of any excuse to justify inaction — reveals nothing more nor less than an incapacity to love.

At one of my recent talks someone stood up during the Q and A and announced that the only reason people ever become activists is to feel better about themselves. Effectiveness really doesn’t matter, he said, and it’s egotistical to think it does.

I told him I disagreed.

Doesn’t activism make you feel good? he asked.

Of course, I said, but that’s not why I do it. If I only want to feel good, I can just masturbate. But I want to accomplish something in the real world.

Why?

Because I’m in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy streambottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort. You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.

A WONDERFUL THING happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems — you ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itself — and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they — those in power — cannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you’re dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hell — you can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.

And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are. The you who can say yes, the you who can say no. The you who is a part of the land where you live. The you who will fight (or not) to defend your family. The you who will fight (or not) to defend those you love. The you who will fight (or not) to defend the land upon which your life and the lives of those you love depends. The you whose morality is not based on what you have been taught by the culture that is killing the planet, killing you, but on your own animal feelings of love and connection to your family, your friends, your landbase — not to your family as self-identified civilized beings but as animals who require a landbase, animals who are being killed by chemicals, animals who have been formed and deformed to fit the needs of the culture.

When you give up on hope — when you are dead in this way, and by so being are really alive — you make yourself no longer vulnerable to the cooption of rationality and fear that Nazis inflicted on Jews and others, that abusers like my father inflict on their victims, that the dominant culture inflicts on all of us. Or is it rather the case that these exploiters frame physical, social, and emotional circumstances such that victims perceive themselves as having no choice but to inflict this cooption on themselves?

But when you give up on hope, this exploiter/victim relationship is broken. You become like the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear.

And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.

In case you’re wondering, that’s a very good thing.

Derrick Jensen is the author of over twenty books, including Endgame. He is a former Orion columnist and contributor to dozens of publications.





William E. Rees: Don’t Call Me a Pessimist on Climate Change. I Am a Realist

2 02 2020

Posted on February 1, 2020 by energyskeptic

Preface. William E. Rees is professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia. He’s one of my favorite ecological writers and has written about energy, limits to growth, sustainability and other ecological topics for many years.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick JensenPractical PreppingKunstlerCast 253KunstlerCast278Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

***

William E. Rees. 2019. Don’t Call Me a Pessimist on Climate Change. I Am a Realist To see our fate clearly, we must face these hard facts about energy, growth and governance. Part one of two. thetyee.ca

No one wants to be the downer at the party, and some would say that I am an unreformed pessimist. But consider this — pessimism and optimism are mere states of mind that may or may not be anchored in reality. I would prefer to be labeled a realist, someone who sees things as they are, who has a healthy respect for good data and solid analysis (or at least credible theory).

Why is this important? Well, if Greta Thunberg and followers are to inspire more than emotional release about climate change, the world needs to face some hard facts that suggest we are headed toward catastrophe. At the same time, skepticism is the hallmark of good science; realists too must be open to the challenge posed by new facts.

So, today, and in a piece to follow, I present an unpopular but fact-based argument in the form of two “Am I wrong?” queries. If you accept my facts, you will see the massive challenge we face in transforming human assumptions and ways of living on Earth.

I welcome being told what crucial facts I might be missing. Even a realist — perhaps especially a realist in present circumstances — occasionally wants to be proved incorrect.

Question 1: The modern world is deeply addicted to fossil fuels and green energy is no substitute. Am I wrong? The Tyee is supported by readers like you Join us and grow independent media in Canada

We can probably agree that techno-industrial societies are utterly dependent on abundant cheap energy just to maintain themselves — and even more energy to grow. The simple fact is that 84 per cent of the world’s primary energy today is derived from fossil fuels.

It should be no surprise, then, that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the greatest metabolic waste by weight produced by industrial economies. Climate change is a waste management problem!

Cheap fossil energy enabled the world to urbanize, and this process is continuing. The UN expects the urban population to rise to 6.7 billion — 68 per cent of humanity — by 2050. There will be 43 mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants each as early as 2030, mostly in China and other Asian countries.

Building out these and hundreds more large cities will require much of the remaining allowable carbon budget. Moreover, the current and future inhabitants of every modern city depend absolutely on the fossil-fuelled productivity of distant hinterlands and on fossil-fuelled transportation for their daily supplies of all essential resources, including water and food.

Fact: Urban civilization cannot exist without prodigious quantities of dependable energy.

All of which generates a genuine emergency. By 2018, the combustion of fossil fuel alone was pumping37.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Add to this the net carbon emissions from land clearing (soil oxidation) and more vigorous forest fires, and we can see why atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations reached an all-time high of 415 parts per Million in early 2019. This is 48% above pre-industrial levels and concentrations are rising exponentially.

And, of course, everyone with an active brain cell is aware that CO2 is the main human-related driver of global warming and associated climate change.

Cue the techno-optimists’ chorus: “Not to worry, all we have to do is transition to green renewable energy!”

In fact, there is plenty of superficial support for the notion that green tech is our saviour. We are told repeatedly that the costs of providing renewable energy have fallen so low that it will soon be practically free. Australian professors Andrew Blakers and Matthew Stocks say “Solar photovoltaic and wind power are rapidly getting cheaper and more abundant — so much so that they are on track to entirely supplant fossil fuels worldwide within two decades.” Luckily, the transition won’t even take up much space: UC Berkeley professor Mehran Moalem argues that “an area of the Earth 335 kilometres by 335 kilometres with solar panels… will provide more than 17.4 TW power…. That means 1.2 per cent of the Sahara desert is sufficient to cover all of the energy needs of the world in solar energy.” (Someone should remind Prof. Moalem that, even if such an engineering feat were possible, a single sandstorm would bury the world’s entire energy supply.)

The first problem with such claims is that despite rapid growth in wind and solar generation, the green energy transition is not really happening. The chart below shows that in most recent years (except 2009, following the 2008 global financial crisis), the uptick in global demand for electrical energy exceeded the total output of the world’s entire 30-year accumulation of solar power installations. Between 2017 and 2018, the demand increase outpaced total solar supply by 60 per cent; two years’ demand increase absorbs the entire output of solar and wind power combined.

582px version of EnergyDemandChart.png
The annual increase in demand for electricity exceeds the entire output of photovoltaic electricity installations. Graph courtesy of Pedro Prieto, with permission.

As long as the growth in demand exceeds additions to supply from renewables, the latter cannot displace fossil fuels even in electricity generation — and remember, electricity is still less than 20 per cent of total energy consumption, with the rest being supplied mostly by fossil fuels.

Nor is any green transition likely to be cheap. The cost of land is substantial and, while the price of solar panels and wind turbines have declined dramatically, this is independent of the high costs associatedwith transmission, grid stabilization and systems maintenance. Consistently reliable wind and solar electricity requires integrating these sources into the grid using battery or pumped hydro storage, back-up generation sources (e.g., gas turbines, cruise-ship scale internal combustion engines, etc.) and meeting other challenges that make it more expensive.

Also problematic is the fact that wind/solar energy is not really renewable. In practice, the life expectancy of a wind turbine may be less than 15 years. Solar panels may last a few years longer but with declining efficiency, so both turbines and panels have to be replaced regularly at great financial, energy and environmental cost. Consider that building a typical wind turbine requires 817 energy-intensive tonnes of steel, 2,270 tonnes of concrete and 41 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic. Solar power also requires large quantities of cement, steel and glass as well as various rare earth metals.

World demand for rare-earth elements — and Earth-destroying mining and refining — would rise 300 per cent to 1,000 per cent by 2050 just to meet the Paris goals. Ironically, the mining, transportation, refining and manufacturing of material inputs to the green energy solution would be powered mainly by fossil fuels (and we’d still have to replace all the machinery and equipment currently running on oil and gas with their electricity-powered equivalents, also using fossil fuel). In short, even if the energy transition were occurring as advertised, it would not necessarily be reflected in declining CO2 emissions.

If we divide 2018 into energy segments, oil, coal and natural gas powered the globe for 309 out of 365 days, hydro and nuclear energy gave us 41 days, and non-hydro renewables (solar panels, wind turbines, biomass) a mere 15 days. If the race is towards a decarbonized finish line by 2050, we’re still pretty much stalled at the gate.

Fact: Despite the hype about the green energy revolution and enhanced efficiency, the global community in 2019 remains addicted to fossil energy and no real cure is on the horizon.

As I say, please do tell me I’m wrong.





First 2020 house update

1 02 2020

Another year, another decade…….. will Australia run out of domestic oil this year? Watch this space I guess. I haven’t blogged here in ages, largely sick of repeating myself all the time, and it’s been pretty busy here, trying to get this darn house done so I can get back to some serious food production. Since the bushfires, breaking my ribs, and the erection of the roof starting a building frenzy, the market garden has been thoroughly ignored, and we’re no longer food self sufficient I hate to admit…… In my defense, there’s been real progress all the same. Like running water…!

Setting up the tank pads was more work than anticipated (isn’t it always..?) and after having some great visitors from Queensland, one of whom is a builder, I was thankfully talked out of building another concrete pad and retaining wall, even though I had all the necessary left over blocks to do so. This one only needed to be 600mm high, so didn’t need the high strength of the wall at the other end of the house.The result is a timber one Charles the French wwoofer and I have now built.

A few days later, our new custom made 18,000 litres stainless steel water tanks arrived… they’re custom made because a standard 3 sheet high tank would not fit under the gutters; but because we were buying two, they cut the third sheet in half, putting one of those halves on each tank. The eastern tank even has a firefighting hose attachment in case the fire brigade need our water. We chose SS because we could afford it; it’s fireproof, should outlast us and our kids, and I detest plastic and plastic liners. As it is I’m resigned to using plastic pipes to connect the two tanks together and to the house, there’s no other way…….

The place still looks like a building site…… because it is.

The resulting running water is much appreciated, let me tell you……. Now for running hot water…! Which brings me to the AGA.

AGAs are, I’m reliably informed, loose bits of cast iron flying in tight formation! Having now put one mostly together, I don’t know how I ever managed to shift the last one in one piece without crashing it……. All the parts inside, and trust me, they’re heavy, sit on ‘tripods’ made of threaded rods or trunions that can be turned to adjust the height and level of everything. I discovered, from communicating through a facebook group of AGA aficionados that the top oven adjustment can be reached from the roof of the bottom oven. Better still, this retired AGA engineer told me to remove the original slotted screws and replace them with Allen keyed ones…. it does pay to know someone who knows more than you!

Anyhow, the stove was rebuilt to the stage a wetback could be designed by yours truly. Armed with scrap cardboard, scissors, lots of tape, and four hours (no less!) I carefully made a model of what I wanted Pete the blacksmith to duplicate in stainless steel……. Making a 3D model of a curved and sloping box that had to fit withing constrained positions turned out trickier than I thought. Again! I actually impressed Pete, especially when he brought the beast home and it fitted perfectly.

Pete measuring the mounting tabs before completing all welding……

While in Hobart, I had a win at Tradelink who actually managed to find me 32mm to 25mm adaptors with compression fittings, and even an expensive 25mm Italian made non return flap valve to stop the thermosyphon running backwards when the stove is cold…… Now all I have to do is bore two 50mm holes through the 200mm reinforced concrete block wall behind the AGA to connect it all to the new hot water system, and THAT, my friends I’m not expecting to be a walk in the park…….. but I love a challenge!

The only other major news is that the back wall has been finally waterproofed with bitumen paint so that it can be insulated, and then backfilled. This is the last step in ensuring the house reaches its full thermal performance capability……

Yep……. STILL looks like a building site.