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.

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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.





Rethinking Renewable Mandates

1 08 2019

Posted on July 31, 2019, another terrific post by Gail Tverberg

Powering the world’s economy with wind, water and solar, and perhaps a little wood sounds like a good idea until a person looks at the details. The economy can use small amounts of wind, water and solar, but adding these types of energy in large quantities is not necessarily beneficial to the system.

While a change to renewables may, in theory, help save world ecosystems, it will also tend to make the electric grid increasingly unstable. To prevent grid failure, electrical systems will need to pay substantial subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear electricity providers that can offer backup generation when intermittent generation is not available. Modelers have tended to overlook these difficulties. As a result, the models they provide offer an unrealistically favorable view of the benefit (energy payback) of wind and solar.

If the approach of mandating wind, water, and solar were carried far enough, it might have the unfortunate effect of saving the world’s ecosystem by wiping out most of the people living within the ecosystem. It is almost certain that this was not the intended impact when legislators initially passed the mandates.

[1] History suggests that in the past, wind and water never provided a very large percentage of total energy supply.

Figure 1. Annual energy consumption per person (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70. Figure by Tony Wrigley, Cambridge University.

Figure 1 shows that before and during the Industrial Revolution, wind and water energy provided 1% to 3% of total energy consumption.

For an energy source to work well, it needs to be able to produce an adequate “return” for the effort that is put into gathering it and putting it to use. Wind and water seemed to produce an adequate return for a few specialized tasks that could be done intermittently and that didn’t require heat energy.

When I visited Holland a few years ago, I saw windmills from the 17th and 18th centuries. These windmills pumped water out of low areas in Holland, when needed. A family would live inside each windmill. The family would regulate the level of pumping desired by adding or removing cloths over the blades of the windmill. To earn much of their income, they would also till a nearby plot of land.

This overall arrangement seems to have provided adequate income for the family. We might conclude, from the inability of wind and water energy to spread farther than 1% -3% of total energy consumption, that the energy return from the windmills was not very high. It was adequate for the arrangement I described, but it didn’t provide enough extra energy to encourage greatly expanded use of the devices.

[2] At the time of the Industrial Revolution, coal worked vastly better for most tasks of the economy than did wind or water.

Economic historian Tony Wrigley, in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, discusses the differences between an organic economy (one whose energy sources are human labor, energy from draft animals such as oxen and horses, and wind and water energy) and an energy-rich economy (one that also has the benefit of coal and perhaps other energy sources). Wrigley notes the following benefits of a coal-based energy-rich economy during the period shown in Figure 1:

  • Deforestation could be reduced. Before coal was added, there was huge demand for wood for heating homes and businesses, cooking food, and for making charcoal, with which metals could be smelted. When coal became available, it was inexpensive enough that it reduced the use of wood, benefiting the environment.
  • The quantity of metals and tools was greatly increased using coal. As long as the source of heat for making metals was charcoal from trees, the total quantity of metals that could be produced was capped at a very low level.
  • Roads to mines were greatly improved, to accommodate coal movement. These better roads benefitted the rest of the economy as well.
  • Farming became a much more productive endeavor. The crop yield from cereal crops, net of the amount fed to draft animals, nearly tripled between 1600 and 1800.
  • The Malthusian limit on population could be avoided. England’s population grew from 4.2 million to 16.7 million between 1600 and 1850. Without the addition of coal to make the economy energy-rich, the population would have been capped by the low food output from the organic economy.

[3] Today’s wind, water, and solar are not part of what Wrigley called the organic economy. Instead, they are utterly dependent on the fossil fuel system.

The name renewables reflects the fact that wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams do not burn fossil fuels in their capture of energy from the environment.

Modern hydroelectric dams are constructed with concrete and steel. They are built and repaired using fossil fuels. Wind turbines and solar panels use somewhat different materials, but these too are available only thanks to the use of fossil fuels. If we have difficulty with the fossil fuel system, we will not be able to maintain and repair any of these devices or the electricity transmission system used for distributing the energy that they capture.

[4] With the 7.7 billion people in the world today, adequate energy supplies are an absolute requirement if we do not want population to fall to a very low level. 

There is a myth that the world can get along without fossil fuels. Wrigley writes that in a purely organic economy, the vast majority of roads were deeply rutted dirt roads that could not be traversed by wheeled vehicles. This made overland transport very difficult. Canals were used to provide water transport at that time, but we have virtually no canals available today that would serve the same purpose.

It is true that buildings for homes and businesses can be built with wood, but such buildings tend to burn down frequently. Buildings of stone or brick can also be used. But with only the use of human and animal labor, and having few roads that would accommodate wheeled carts, brick or stone homes tend to be very labor-intensive. So, except for the very wealthy, most homes will be made of wood or of other locally available materials such as sod.

Wrigley’s analysis shows that before coal was added to the economy, human labor productivity was very low. If, today, we were to try to operate the world economy using only human labor, draft animals, and wind and water energy, we likely could not grow food for very many people. World population in 1650 was only about 550 million, or about 7% of today’s population. It would not be possible to provide for the basic needs of today’s population with an organic economy as described by Wrigley.

(Note that organic here has a different meaning than in “organic agriculture.” Today’s organic agriculture is also powered by fossil fuel energy. Organic agriculture brings soil amendments by truck, irrigates land and makes “organic sprays” for fruit, all using fossil fuels.)

[5] Wind, water and solar only provided about 11% of the world’s total energy consumption for the year 2018. Trying to ramp up the 11% production to come anywhere close to 100% of total energy consumption seems like an impossible task.

Figure 2. World Energy Consumption by Fuel, based on data of 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Let’s look at what it would take to ramp up the current renewables percentage from 11% to 100%. The average growth rate over the past five years of the combined group that might be considered renewable (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar) has been 5.8%. Maintaining such a high growth rate in the future is likely to be difficult because new locations for hydroelectric dams are hard to find and because biomass supply is limited. Let’s suppose that despite these difficulties, this 5.8% growth rate can be maintained going forward.

To increase the quantity from 2018’s low level of renewable supply to the 2018 total energy supply at a 5.8% growth rate would take 39 years. If population grows between 2018 and 2057, even more energy supply would likely be required. Based on this analysis, increasing the use of renewables from a 11% base to close to a 100% level does not look like an approach that has any reasonable chance of fixing our energy problems in a timeframe shorter than “generations.”

The situation is not quite as bad if we look at the task of producing an amount of electricity equal to the world’s current total electricity generation with renewables (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar); renewables in this case provided 26% of the world’s electricity supply in 2018.

Figure 3. World electricity production by type, based on data from 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

The catch with replacing electricity (Figure 3) but not energy supplies is the fact that electricity is only a portion of the world’s energy supply. Different calculations give different percentages, with electricity varying between 19% to 43% of total energy consumption.1 Either way, substituting wind, water and solar in electricity production alone does not seem to be sufficient to make the desired reduction in carbon emissions.

[6] A major drawback of wind and solar energy is its variability from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season. Water energy has season-to-season variability as well, with spring or wet seasons providing the most electricity.

Back when modelers first looked at the variability of electricity produced by wind, solar and water, they hoped that as an increasing quantity of these electricity sources were added, the variability would tend to offset. This happens a little, but not nearly as much as one would like. Instead, the variability becomes an increasing problem as more is added to the electric grid.

When an area first adds a small percentage of wind and/or solar electricity to the electric grid (perhaps 10%), the electrical system’s usual operating reserves are able to handle the variability. These were put in place to handle small fluctuations in supply or demand, such as a major coal plant needing to be taken off line for repairs, or a major industrial client reducing its demand.

But once the quantity of wind and/or solar increases materially, different strategies are needed. At times, production of wind and/or solar may need to be curtailed, to prevent overburdening the electric grid. Batteries are likely to be needed to help ease the abrupt transition that occurs when the sun goes down at the end of the day while electricity demand is still high. These same batteries can also help ease abrupt transitions in wind supply during wind storms.

Apart from brief intermittencies, there is an even more serious problem with seasonal fluctuations in supply that do not match up with seasonal fluctuations in demand. For example, in winter, electricity from solar panels is likely to be low. This may not be a problem in a warm country, but if a country is cold and using electricity for heat, it could be a major issue.

The only real way of handling seasonal intermittencies is by having fossil fuel or nuclear plants available for backup. (Battery backup does not seem to be feasible for such huge quantities for such long periods.) These back-up plants cannot sit idle all year to provide these services. They need trained staff who are willing and able to work all year. Unfortunately, the pricing system does not provide enough funds to adequately compensate these backup systems for those times when their services are not specifically required by the grid. Somehow, they need to be paid for the service of standing by, to offset the inevitable seasonal variability of wind, solar and water.

[7] The pricing system for electricity tends to produce rates that are too low for those electricity providers offering backup services to the electric grid.

As a little background, the economy is a self-organizing system that operates through the laws of physics. Under normal conditions (without mandates or subsidies) it sends signals through prices and profitability regarding which types of energy supply will “work” in the economy and which kinds will simply produce too much distortion or create problems for the system.

If legislators mandate that intermittent wind and solar will be allowed to “go first,” this mandate is by itself a substantial subsidy. Allowing wind and solar to go first tends to send prices too low for other producers because it tends to reduce prices below what those producers with high fixed costs require.2

If energy officials decide to add wind and solar to the electric grid when the grid does not really need these supplies, this action will also tend to push other suppliers off the grid through low rates. Nuclear power plants, which have already been built and are adding zero CO2 to the atmosphere, are particularly at risk because of the low rates. The Ohio legislature recently passed a $1.1 billion bailout for two nuclear power plants because of this issue.

If a mandate produces a market distortion, it is quite possible (in fact, likely) that the distortion will get worse and worse, as more wind and solar is added to the grid. With more mandated (inefficient) electricity, customers will find themselves needing to subsidize essentially all electricity providers if they want to continue to have electricity.

The physics-based economic system without mandates and subsidies provides incentives to efficient electricity providers and disincentives to inefficient electricity suppliers. But once legislators start tinkering with the system, they are likely to find a system dominated by very inefficient production. As the costs of handling intermittency explode and the pricing system gets increasingly distorted, customers are likely to become more and more unhappy.

[8] Modelers of how the system might work did not understand how a system with significant wind and solar would work. Instead, they modeled the most benign initial situation, in which the operating reserves would handle variability, and curtailment of supply would not be an issue. 

Various modelers attempted to figure out whether the return from wind and solar would be adequate, to justify all of the costs of supporting it. Their models were very simple: Energy Out compared to Energy In, over the lifetime of a device. Or, they would calculate Energy Payback Periods. But the situation they modeled did not correspond well to the real world. They tended to model a situation that was close to the best possible situation, one in which variability, batteries and backup electricity providers were not considerations. Thus, these models tended to give a far too optimistic estimates of the expected benefit of intermittent wind and solar devices.

Furthermore, another type of model, the Levelized Cost of Electricity model, also provides distorted results because it does not consider the subsidies needed for backup providers if the system is to work. The modelers likely also leave out the need for backup batteries.

In the engineering world, I am told that computer models of expected costs and income are not considered to be nearly enough. Real-world tests of proposed new designs are first tested on a small scale and then at progressively larger scales, to see whether they will work in practice. The idea of pushing “renewables” sounded so good that no one thought about the idea of testing the plan before it was put into practice.

Unfortunately, the real-world tests that Germany and other countries have tried have shown that intermittent renewables are a very expensive way to produce electricity when all costs are considered. Neighboring countries become unhappy when excess electricity is simply dumped on the grid. Total CO2 emissions don’t necessarily go down either.

[9] Long distance transmission lines are part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

Early models suggested that long-distance transmission lines might be used to smooth out variability, but this has not worked well in practice. This happens partly because wind conditions tend to be similar over wide areas, and partly because a broad East-West mixture is needed to even-out the rapid ramp-down problem in the evening, when families are still cooking dinner and the sun goes down.

Also, long distance transmission lines tend to take many years to permit and install, partly because many landowners do not want them crossing their property. In some cases, the lines need to be buried underground. Reports indicate that an underground 230 kV line costs 10 to 15 times what a comparable overhead line costs. The life expectancy of underground cables seems to be shorter, as well.

Once long-distance transmission lines are in place, maintenance is very fossil fuel dependent. If storms are in the area, repairs are often needed. If roads are not available in the area, helicopters may need to be used to help make the repairs.

An issue that most people are not aware of is the fact that above ground long-distance transmission lines often cause fires, especially when they pass through hot, dry areas. The Northern California utility PG&E filed for bankruptcy because of fires caused by its transmission lines. Furthermore, at least one of Venezuela’s major outages seems to have been related to sparks from transmission lines from its largest hydroelectric plant causing fires. These fire costs should also be part of any analysis of whether a transition to renewables makes sense, either in terms of cost or of energy returns.

[10] If wind turbines and solar panels are truly providing a major net benefit to the economy, they should not need subsidies, even the subsidy of going first.

To make wind and solar electricity producers able to compete with other electricity providers without the subsidy of going first, these providers need a substantial amount of battery backup. For example, wind turbines and solar panels might be required to provide enough backup batteries (perhaps 8 to 12 hours’ worth) so that they can compete with other grid members, without the subsidy of going first. If it really makes sense to use such intermittent energy, these providers should be able to still make a profit even with battery usage. They should also be able to pay taxes on the income they receive, to pay for the government services that they are receiving and hopefully pay some extra taxes to help out the rest of the system.

In Item [2] above, I mentioned that when coal mines were added in England, roads to the mines were substantially improved, befitting the economy as a whole. A true source of energy (one whose investment cost is not too high relative to it output) is supposed to be generating “surplus energy” that assists the economy as a whole. We can observe an impact of this type in the improved roads that benefited England’s economy as a whole. Any so-called energy provider that cannot even pay its own fair share of taxes acts more like a leech, sucking energy and resources from others, than a provider of surplus energy to the rest of the economy.

Recommendations

In my opinion, it is time to eliminate renewable energy mandates. There will be some instances where renewable energy will make sense, but this will be obvious to everyone involved. For example, an island with its electricity generation from oil may want to use some wind or solar generation to try to reduce its total costs. This cost saving occurs because of the high price of oil as fuel to make electricity.

Regulators, in locations where substantial wind and/or solar has already been installed, need to be aware of the likely need to provide subsidies to backup providers, in order to keep the electrical system operating. Otherwise, the grid will likely fail from lack of adequate backup electricity supply.

Intermittent electricity, because of its tendency to drive other providers to bankruptcy, will tend to make the grid fail more quickly than it would otherwise. The big danger ahead seems to be bankruptcy of electricity providers and of fossil fuel producers, rather than running out of a fuel such as oil or natural gas. For this reason, I see little reason for the belief by many that electricity will “last longer” than oil. It is a question of which group is most affected by bankruptcies first.

I do not see any real reason to use subsidies to encourage the use of electric cars. The problem we have today with oil prices is that they are too low for oil producers. If we want to keep oil production from collapsing, we need to keep oil demand up. We do this by encouraging the production of cars that are as inexpensive as possible. Generally, this will mean producing cars that operate using petroleum products.

(I recognize that my view is the opposite one from what many Peak Oilers have. But I see the limit ahead as being one of too low prices for producers, rather than too high prices for consumers. The CO2 issue tends to disappear as parts of the system collapse.)

Notes:

[1] BP bases its count on the equivalent fossil fuel energy needed to create the electricity; IEA counts the heat energy of the resulting electrical output. Using BP’s way of counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to 43% of total energy consumption. Using the International Energy Agency’s approach to counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to only about 19% of world energy consumption.

[2] In some locations, “utility pricing” is used. In these cases, pricing is set in a way needed to provide a fair return to all providers. With utility pricing, intermittent renewables would not be expected to cause low prices for backup producers.





No really, how sustainable are we?

28 02 2016

 

This is a most interesting piece I found on the interweb, written by Paul Chefurka almost three years ago.  Paul is happy for this article to be reproduced in full, no questions asked, and as I feel it needs to be widely read, the more internet presence it has the better, and now you DTM readers can share it too…

Paul, who is Canadian, has an interesting website chockablock full of insightful stuff you may also want to read.

Enjoy…….

 

Ever since the writing of Thomas Malthus in the early 1800s, and especially since Paul Ehrlich’s publication of “The Population Bomb”  in 1968, there has been a lot of learned skull-scratching over what the sustainable human population of Planet Earth might “really” be over the long haul.


This question is intrinsically tied to the issue of ecological overshoot so ably described by William R. Catton Jr. in his 1980 book “Overshoot:The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change”.  How much have we already pushed our population and consumption levels above the long-term carrying capacity of the planet?

This article outlines my current thoughts on carrying capacity and overshoot, and presents six estimates for the size of a sustainable human population.

Carrying Capacity

Carrying capacity” is a well-known ecological term that has an obvious and fairly intuitive meaning: “The maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment.” 

Unfortunately that definition becomes more nebulous and controversial the closer you look at it, especially when we are talking about the planetary carrying capacity for human beings. Ecologists will claim that our numbers have already well surpassed the planet’s carrying capacity, while others (notably economists and politicians…) claim we are nowhere near it yet!

This confusion may arise because we tend to confuse two very different understandings of the phrase “carrying capacity”.  For this discussion I will call these the “subjective” view and the “objective” views of carrying capacity.

The subjective view is carrying capacity as seen by a member of the species in question. Rather than coming from a rational, analytical assessment of the overall situation, it is an experiential judgment.  As such it tends to be limited to the population of one’s own species, as well as having a short time horizon – the current situation counts a lot more than some future possibility.  The main thing that matters in this view is how many of one’s own species will be able to survive to reproduce. As long as that number continues to rise, we assume all is well – that we have not yet reached the carrying capacity of our environment.

From this subjective point of view humanity has not even reached, let alone surpassed the Earth’s overall carrying capacity – after all, our population is still growing.  It’s tempting to ascribe this view mainly to neoclassical economists and politicians, but truthfully most of us tend to see things this way.  In fact, all species, including humans, have this orientation, whether it is conscious or not.

Species tend to keep growing until outside factors such as disease, predators, food or other resource scarcity – or climate change – intervene.  These factors define the “objective” carrying capacity of the environment.  This objective view of carrying capacity is the view of an observer who adopts a position outside the species in question.It’s the typical viewpoint of an ecologist looking at the reindeer on St. Matthew Island, or at the impact of humanity on other species and its own resource base.

This is the view that is usually assumed by ecologists when they use the naked phrase “carrying capacity”, and it is an assessment that can only be arrived at through analysis and deductive reasoning.  It’s the view I hold, and its implications for our future are anything but comforting.

When a species bumps up against the limits posed by the environment’s objective carrying capacity, its population begins to decline. Humanity is now at the uncomfortable point when objective observers have detected our overshoot condition, but the population as a whole has not recognized it yet. As we push harder against the limits of the planet’s objective carrying capacity, things are beginning to go wrong.  More and more ordinary people are recognizing the problem as its symptoms become more obvious to casual onlookers.The problem is, of course, that we’ve already been above the planet’s carrying capacity for quite a while.

One typical rejoinder to this line of argument is that humans have “expanded our carrying capacity” through technological innovation.  “Look at the Green Revolution!  Malthus was just plain wrong.  There are no limits to human ingenuity!”  When we say things like this, we are of course speaking from a subjective viewpoint. From this experiential, human-centric point of view, we have indeed made it possible for our environment to support ever more of us. This is the only view that matters at the biological, evolutionary level, so it is hardly surprising that most of our fellow species-members are content with it.


The problem with that view is that every objective indicator of overshoot is flashing red.  From the climate change and ocean acidification that flows from our smokestacks and tailpipes, through the deforestation and desertification that accompany our expansion of human agriculture and living space, to the extinctions of non-human species happening in the natural world, the planet is urgently signaling an overload condition.

Humans have an underlying urge towards growth, an immense intellectual capacity for innovation, and a biological inability to step outside our chauvinistic, anthropocentric perspective.  This combination has made it inevitable that we would land ourselves and the rest of the biosphere in the current insoluble global ecological predicament.

 

Overshoot

When a population surpasses its carrying capacity it enters a condition known as overshoot.  Because the carrying capacity is defined as the maximum population that an environment can maintain indefinitely, overshoot must by definition be temporary.  Populations always decline to (or below) the carrying capacity.  How long they stay in overshoot depends on how many stored resources there are to support their inflated numbers.  Resources may be food, but they may also be any resource that helps maintain their numbers.  For humans one of the primary resources is energy, whether it is tapped as flows (sunlight, wind, biomass) or stocks (coal, oil, gas, uranium etc.).  A species usually enters overshoot when it taps a particularly rich but exhaustible stock of a resource.  Like fossil fuels, for instance…

Population growth in the animal kingdom tends to follow a logistic curve.  This is an S-shaped curve that starts off low when the species is first introduced to an ecosystem, at some later point rises very fast as the population becomes established, and then finally levels off as the population saturates its niche.

Humans have been pushing the envelope of our logistic curve for much of our history. Our population rose very slowly over the last couple of hundred thousand years, as we gradually developed the skills we needed in order to deal with our varied and changeable environment,particularly language, writing and arithmetic. As we developed and disseminated those skills our ability to modify our environment grew, and so did our growth rate.

If we had not discovered the stored energy stocks of fossil fuels, our logistic growth curve would probably have flattened out some time ago, and we would be well on our way to achieving a balance with the energy flows in the world around us, much like all other species do.  Our numbers would have settled down to oscillate around a much lower level than today, similar to what they probably did with hunter-gatherer populations tens of thousands of years ago.

Unfortunately, our discovery of the energy potential of coal created what mathematicians and systems theorists call a “bifurcation point” or what is better known in some cases as a tipping point. This is a point at which a system diverges from one path onto another because of some influence on events.  The unfortunate fact of the matter is that bifurcation points are generally irreversible.  Once past such a point, the system can’t go back to a point before it.

Given the impact that fossil fuels had on the development of world civilization, their discovery was clearly such a fork in the road.  Rather than flattening out politely as other species’ growth curves tend to do, ours kept on rising.  And rising, and rising. 

What is a sustainable population level?

Now we come to the heart of the matter.  Okay, we all accept that the human race is in overshoot.  But how deep into overshoot are we?  What is the carrying capacity of our planet?  The answers to these questions,after all, define a sustainable population.

Not surprisingly, the answers are quite hard to tease out.  Various numbers have been put forward, each with its set of stated and unstated assumptions –not the least of which is the assumed standard of living (or consumption profile) of the average person.  For those familiar with Ehrlich and Holdren’s I=PAT equation, if “I” represents the environmental impact of a sustainable population, then for any population value “P” there is a corresponding value for “AT”, the level of Activity and Technology that can be sustained for that population level.  In other words, the higher our standard of living climbs, the lower our population level must fall in order to be sustainable. This is discussed further in an earlier article on Thermodynamic Footprints.

To get some feel for the enormous range of uncertainty in sustainability estimates we’ll look at six assessments, each of which leads to a very different outcome.  We’ll start with the most optimistic one, and work our way down the scale.

The Ecological Footprint Assessment

The concept of the Ecological Footprint was developed in 1992 by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

The ecological footprint is a measure of human demand on the Earth’s ecosystems. It is a standardized measure of demand for natural capital that may be contrasted with the planet’s ecological capacity to regenerate. It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a human population consumes, and to assimilate associated waste. As it is usually published, the value is an estimate of how many planet Earths it would take to support humanity with everyone following their current lifestyle.

It has a number of fairly glaring flaws that cause it to be hyper-optimistic. The “ecological footprint” is basically for renewable resources only. It includes a theoretical but underestimated factor for non-renewable resources.  It does not take into account the unfolding effects of climate change, ocean acidification or biodiversity loss (i.e. species extinctions).  It is intuitively clear that no number of “extra planets” would compensate for such degradation.

Still, the estimate as of the end of 2012 is that our overall ecological footprint is about “1.7 planets”.  In other words, there is at least 1.7 times too much human activity for the long-term health of this single, lonely planet.  To put it yet another way, we are 70% into overshoot.

It would probably be fair to say that by this accounting method the sustainable population would be (7 / 1.7) or about four billion people at our current average level of affluence.  As you will see, other assessments make this estimate seem like a happy fantasy.

The Fossil Fuel Assessment

The main accelerator of human activity over the last 150 to 200 years has been our exploitation of the planet’s stocks of fossil fuel.  Before 1800 there was very little fossil fuel in general use, with most energy being derived from the flows represented by wood, wind, water, animal and human power. The following graph demonstrates the precipitous rise in fossil fuel use since then, and especially since 1950.


Graphic by Gail Tverberg

This information was the basis for my earlier Thermodynamic Footprint analysis.  That article investigated the influence of technological energy (87% of which comes from fossil fuel stocks) on human planetary impact, in terms of how much it multiplies the effect of each “naked ape”. The following graph illustrates the multiplier at different points in history:


Fossil fuels have powered the increase in all aspects of civilization, including population growth.  The “Green Revolution” in agriculture that was kicked off by Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug in the late 1940s was largely a fossil fuel phenomenon, relying on mechanization, powered irrigation and synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels. This enormous increase in food production supported a swift rise in population numbers, in a classic ecological feedback loop: more food (supply) => more people (demand) => more food => more people etc…

Over the core decades of the Green Revolution from 1950 to 1980 the world population almost doubled, from fewer than 2.5 billion to over 4.5 billion.  The average population growth over those three decades was 2% per year.  Compare that to 0.5% from 1800 to 1900; 1.00% from 1900 to 1950; and 1.5% from 1980 until now:

This analysis makes it tempting to conclude that a sustainable population might look similar to the situation in 1800, before the Green Revolution, and before the global adoption of fossil fuels: about 1 billion people living on about 5% of today’s global average energy consumption, all of it derived from renewable energy flows.

It’s tempting (largely because it seems vaguely achievable), but unfortunately that number may still be too high.  Even in 1800 the signs of human overshoot were clear, if not well recognized:  there was already widespread deforestation through Europe and the Middle East; and desertification had set into the previously lush agricultural zones of North Africa and the Middle East.

Not to mention that if we did start over with “just” one billion people, an annual growth rate of a mere 0.5% would put the population back over seven billion in just 400 years.  Unless the growth rate can be kept down very close to zero, such a situation is decidedly unsustainable.

 

The Population Density Assessment

There is another way to approach the question.  If we assume that the human species was sustainable at some point in the past, what point might we choose and what conditions contributed to our apparent sustainability at that time?

I use a very strict definition of sustainability.  It reads something like this: “Sustainability is the ability of a species to survive in perpetuity without damaging the planetary ecosystem in the process.”  This principle applies only to a species’ own actions, rather than uncontrollable external forces like Milankovitch cycles, asteroid impacts, plate tectonics, etc.

In order to find a population that I was fairly confident met my definition of sustainability, I had to look well back in history – in fact back into Paleolithic times.  The sustainability conditions I chose were: a very low population density and very low energy use, with both maintained over multiple thousands of years. I also assumed the populace would each use about as much energy as a typical hunter-gatherer: about twice the daily amount of energy a person obtains from the food they eat.

There are about 150 million square kilometers, or 60 million square miles of land on Planet Earth.  However, two thirds of that area is covered by snow, mountains or deserts, or has little or no topsoil.  This leaves about 50 million square kilometers (20 million square miles) that is habitable by humans without high levels of technology.


A typical population density for a non-energy-assisted society of hunter-forager-gardeners is between 1 person per square mile and 1 person per square kilometer. Because humans living this way had settled the entire planet by the time agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago, this number pegs a reasonable upper boundary for a sustainable world population in the range of 20 to 50 million people.

I settled on the average of these two numbers, 35 million people.  That was because it matches known hunter-forager population densities, and because those densities were maintained with virtually zero population growth (less than 0.01% per year)during the 67,000 years from the time of the Toba super-volcano eruption in 75,000 BC until 8,000 BC (Agriculture Day on Planet Earth).

If we were to spread our current population of 7 billion evenly over 50 million square kilometers, we would have an average density of 150 per square kilometer.  Based just on that number, and without even considering our modern energy-driven activities, our current population is at least 250 times too big to be sustainable. To put it another way, we are now 25,000% into overshoot based on our raw population numbers alone.

As I said above, we also need to take the population’s standard of living into account. Our use of technological energy gives each of us the average planetary impact of about 20 hunter-foragers.  What would the sustainable population be if each person kept their current lifestyle, which is given as an average current Thermodynamic Footprint (TF) of 20?

We can find the sustainable world population number for any level of human activity by using the I = PAT equation mentioned above.

  • We decided above that the maximum hunter-forager population we could accept as sustainable would be 35 million people, each with a Thermodynamic Footprint of 1.
  • First, we set I (the allowable total impact for our sustainable population) to 35, representing those 35 million hunter-foragers.
  • Next, we set AT to be the TF representing the desired average lifestyle for our population.  In this case that number is 20.
  • We can now solve the equation for P.  Using simple algebra, we know that I = P x AT is equivalent to P = I / AT.  Using that form of the equation we substitute in our values, and we find that P = 35 / 20.  In this case P = 1.75.

This number tells us that if we want to keep the average level of per-capita consumption we enjoy in today’s world, we would enter an overshoot situation above a global population of about 1.75 million people. By this measure our current population of 7 billion is about 4,000 times too big and active for long-term sustainability. In other words, by this measure we are we are now 400,000% into overshoot.

Using the same technique we can calculate that achieving a sustainable population with an American lifestyle (TF = 78) would permit a world population of only 650,000 people – clearly not enough to sustain a modern global civilization.

For the sake of comparison, it is estimated that the historical world population just after the dawn of agriculture in 8,000 BC was about five million, and in Year 1 was about 200 million.  We crossed the upper threshold of planetary sustainability in about 2000 BC, and have been in deepening overshoot for the last 4,000 years.

The Ecological Assessments

As a species, human beings share much in common with other large mammals.  We breathe, eat, move around to find food and mates, socialize, reproduce and die like all other mammalian species.  Our intellect and culture, those qualities that make us uniquely human, are recent additions to our essential primate nature, at least in evolutionary terms.

Consequently it makes sense to compare our species’ performance to that of other, similar species – species that we know for sure are sustainable.  I was fortunate to find the work of American marine biologist Dr. Charles W. Fowler, who has a deep interest in sustainability and the ecological conundrum posed by human beings.  The following three assessments are drawn from Dr. Fowler’s work.

 

First assessment

In 2003, Dr. Fowler and Larry Hobbs co-wrote a paper titled, Is humanity sustainable?”  that was published by the Royal Society.  In it, they compared a variety of ecological measures across 31 species including humans. The measures included biomass consumption, energy consumption, CO2 production, geographical range size, and population size.

It should come as no great surprise that in most of the comparisons humans had far greater impact than other species, even to a 99% confidence level.  When it came to population size, Fowler and Hobbs found that there are over two orders of magnitude more humans than one would expect based on a comparison to other species – 190 times more, in fact.  Similarly, our CO2 emissions outdid other species by a factor of 215.

Based on this research, Dr. Fowler concluded that there are about 200 times too many humans on the planet.  This brings up an estimate for a sustainable population of 35 million people.

This is the same as the upper bound established above by examining hunter-gatherer population densities.  The similarity of the results is not too surprising, since the hunter-gatherers of 50,000 years ago were about as close to “naked apes” as humans have been in recent history.

 

Second assessment

In 2008, five years after the publication cited above, Dr. Fowler wrote another paper entitled Maximizing biodiversity, information and sustainability.”  In this paper he examined the sustainability question from the point of view of maximizing biodiversity.  In other words, what is the largest human population that would not reduce planetary biodiversity?

This is, of course, a very stringent test, and one that we probably failed early in our history by extirpating mega-fauna in the wake of our migrations across a number of continents.

In this paper, Dr. Fowler compared 96 different species, and again analyzed them in terms of population, CO2 emissions and consumption patterns.

This time, when the strict test of biodiversity retention was applied, the results were truly shocking, even to me.  According to this measure, humans have overpopulated the Earth by almost 700 times.  In order to preserve maximum biodiversity on Earth, the human population may be no more than 10 million people – each with the consumption of a Paleolithic hunter-forager.

Addendum: Third assessment

After this article was initially written, Dr. Fowler forwarded me a copy of an appendix to his 2009 book, “Systemic Management: Sustainable Human Interactions with Ecosystems and the Biosphere”, published by Oxford University Press.  In it he describes yet one more technique for comparing humans with other mammalian species, this time in terms of observed population densities, total population sizes and ranges.

After carefully comparing us to various species of both herbivores and carnivores of similar body size, he draws this devastating conclusion: the human population is about 1000 times larger than expected. This is in line with the second assessment above, though about 50% more pessimistic.  It puts a sustainable human population at about 7 million.

Urk!

 

Conclusions

As you can see, the estimates for a sustainable human population vary widely – by a factor of 500 from the highest to the lowest.

The Ecological Footprint doesn’t really seem intended as a measure of sustainability.  Its main value is to give people with no exposure to ecology some sense that we are indeed over-exploiting our planet.  (It also has the psychological advantage of feeling achievable with just a little work.)  As a measure of sustainability, it is not helpful.

As I said above, the number suggested by the Thermodynamic Footprint or Fossil Fuel analysis isn’t very helpful either – even a population of one billion people without fossil fuels had already gone into overshoot.

That leaves us with four estimates: two at 35 million, one of 10 million, and one of 7 million.

The central number of 35 million people is confirmed by two analyses using different data and assumptions.  My conclusion is that this is probably the absolutely largest human population that could be considered sustainable.  The realistic but similarly unachievable number is probably more in line with the bottom two estimates, somewhere below 10 million.

I think the lowest two estimates (Fowler 2008, and Fowler 2009) are as unrealistically high as all the others in this case, primarily because human intelligence and problem-solving ability makes our destructive impact on biodiversity a foregone conclusion. After all, we drove other species to extinction 40,000 years ago, when our total population was estimated to be under 1 million.

 

So, what can we do with this information?  It’s obvious that we will not (and probably cannot) voluntarily reduce our population by 99.5% to 99.9%.  Even an involuntary reduction of this magnitude would involve enormous suffering and a very uncertain outcome.  It’s close enough to zero that if Mother Nature blinked, we’d be gone.

In fact, the analysis suggests that Homo sapiens is an inherently unsustainable species.  This outcome seems virtually guaranteed by our neocortex, by the very intelligence that has enabled our rise to unprecedented dominance over our planet’s biosphere.  Is intelligence an evolutionary blind alley?  From the singular perspective of our own species, it quite probably is. If we are to find some greater meaning or deeper future for intelligence in the universe, we may be forced to look beyond ourselves and adopt a cosmic, rather than a human, perspective.

 

Discussion

 

How do we get out of this jam?


How might we get from where we are today to a sustainable world population of 35 million or so?  We should probably discard the notion of “managing” such a population decline.  If we can’t even get our population to simply stop growing, an outright reduction of over 99% is simply not in the cards.  People seem virtually incapable of taking these kinds of decisions in large social groups.  We can decide to stop reproducing, but only as individuals or (perhaps) small groups. Without the essential broad social support, such personal choices will make precious little difference to the final outcome.  Politicians will by and large not even propose an idea like “managed population decline”  – not if they want to gain or remain in power, at any rate.  China’s brave experiment with one-child families notwithstanding, any global population decline will be purely involuntary.

Crash?


A world population decline would (will) be triggered and fed by our civilization’s encounter with limits.  These limits may show up in any area: accelerating climate change, weather extremes,shrinking food supplies, fresh water depletion, shrinking energy supplies,pandemic diseases, breakdowns in the social fabric due to excessive complexity,supply chain breakdowns, electrical grid failures, a breakdown of the international financial system, international hostilities – the list of candidates is endless, and their interactions are far too complex to predict.

In 2007, shortly after I grasped the concept and implications of Peak Oil, I wrote my first web article on population decline: Population: The Elephant in the Room.  In it I sketched out the picture of a monolithic population collapse: a straight-line decline from today’s seven billion people to just one billion by the end of this century.


As time has passed I’ve become less confident in this particular dystopian vision.  It now seems to me that human beings may be just a bit tougher than that.  We would fight like demons to stop the slide, though we would potentially do a lot more damage to the environment in the process.  We would try with all our might to cling to civilization and rebuild our former glory.  Different physical, environmental and social situations around the world would result in a great diversity in regional outcomes.  To put it plainly, a simple “slide to oblivion” is not in the cards for any species that could recover from the giant Toba volcanic eruption in just 75,000 years.

Or Tumble?

Still, there are those physical limits I mentioned above.  They are looming ever closer, and it seems a foregone conclusion that we will begin to encounter them for real within the next decade or two. In order to draw a slightly more realistic picture of what might happen at that point, I created the following thought experiment on involuntary population decline. It’s based on the idea that our population will not simply crash, but will oscillate (tumble) down a series of stair-steps: first dropping as we puncture the limits to growth; then falling below them; then partially recovering; only to fall again; partially recover; fall; recover…

I started the scenario with a world population of 8 billion people in 2030. I assumed each full cycle of decline and partial recovery would take six generations, or 200 years.  It would take three generations (100 years) to complete each decline and then three more in recovery, for a total cycle time of 200 years. I assumed each decline would take out 60% of the existing population over its hundred years, while each subsequent rise would add back only half of the lost population.

In ten full cycles – 2,000 years – we would be back to a sustainable population of about 40-50 million. The biggest drop would be in the first 100 years, from 2030 to 2130 when we would lose a net 53 million people per year. Even that is only a loss of 0.9% pa, compared to our net growth today of 1.1%, that’s easily within the realm of the conceivable,and not necessarily catastrophic – at least to begin with.

As a scenario it seems a lot more likely than a single monolithic crash from here to under a billion people.  Here’s what it looks like:


It’s important to remember that this scenario is not a prediction. It’s an attempt to portray a potential path down the population hill that seems a bit more probable than a simple, “Crash! Everybody dies.”

It’s also important to remember that the decline will probably not happen anything like this, either. With climate change getting ready to push humanity down the stairs, and the strong possibility that the overall global temperature will rise by 5 or 6 degrees Celsius even before the end of that first decline cycle, our prospects do not look even this “good” from where I stand.

Rest assured, I’m not trying to present 35 million people as some kind of “population target”. It’s just part of my attempt to frame what we’re doing to the planet, in terms of what some of us see as the planetary ecosphere’s level of tolerance for our abuse.

The other potential implicit in this analysis is that if we did drop from 8 to under 1 billion, we could then enter a population free-fall. As a result, we might keep falling until we hit the bottom of Olduvai Gorge again. My numbers are an attempt to define how many people might stagger away from such a crash landing.  Some people seem to believe that such an event could be manageable.  I don’t share that belief for a moment. These calculations are my way of getting that message out.

I figure if I’m going to draw a line in the sand, I’m going to do it on behalf of all life, not just our way of life.

 

What can we do? 


To be absolutely clear, after ten years of investigating what I affectionately call “The Global Clusterfuck”, I do not think it can be prevented, mitigated or managed in any way.  If and when it happens, it will follow its own dynamic, and the force of events could easily make the Japanese and Andaman tsunamis seem like pleasant days at the beach.

The most effective preparations that we can make will all be done by individuals and small groups.  It will be up to each of us to decide what our skills, resources and motivations call us to do.  It will be different for each of us – even for people in the same neighborhood, let alone people on opposite sides of the world.

I’ve been saying for a couple of years that each of us will do whatever we think is appropriate for the circumstances, in whatever part of the world we can influence. The outcome of our actions is ultimately unforeseeable, because it depends on how the efforts of all 7 billion of us converge, co-operate and compete.  The end result will be quite different from place to place – climate change impacts will vary, resources vary, social structures vary, values and belief systems are different all over the world.The best we can do is to do our best.

Here is my advice: 

  • Stay awake to what’s happening around us.
  • Don’t get hung up by other people’s “shoulds and shouldn’ts”.
  • Occasionally re-examine our personal values.  If they aren’t in alignment with what we think the world needs, change them.
  • Stop blaming people. Others are as much victims of the times as we are – even the CEOs and politicians.
  • Blame, anger and outrage is pointless.  It wastes precious energy that we will need for more useful work.
  • Laugh a lot, at everything – including ourselves.
  • Hold all the world’s various beliefs and “isms” lightly, including our own.
  • Forgive others. Forgive ourselves. For everything.
  • Love everything just as deeply as you can.

That’s what I think might be helpful. If we get all that personal stuff right, then doing the physical stuff about food, water, housing,transportation, energy, politics and the rest of it will come easy – or at least a bit easier. And we will have a lot more fun doing it.

I wish you all the best of luck!
Bodhi Paul Chefurka
May 16, 2013

 





Kevin Anderson on Climate Change and models

31 12 2015

Interview with Professor Kevin Anderson about the Paris Conference and what it will probably achieve, what is still possible, and the problems with the pledges and the assumptions underlying them





The myth of renewable energy

26 08 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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