A question too obvious…

25 04 2018

Every now and again someone poses a question so obvious that you wonder why nobody asked it before.  When that happens, it is usually because it reveals an unconscious narrative that you have been following.  It is precisely because it jars with what you thought you knew that it is so unsettling.  And, of course, most people will seek some means of avoiding the ramifications of the question; such as questioning the motives of the person asking it.

So it is that Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” Michael Shellenberger poses just such an apparently innocuous question:

“If solar and wind are so cheap, why are they making electricity so expensive?”

Image result for grid renewables

There are clearly merits to this question.  The spiralling cost of electricity played a major role in the recent Australian election.  In Britain, even the neoliberal Tory government has been obliged to introduce legislation to cap energy prices; while the Labour opposition threatens to dispense with the private energy market altogether.  Across the USA prices are spiralling ever upward, making Trump’s pro-fossil fuel stance popular for large numbers of Americans:

“Over the last year, the media have published story after story after story about the declining price of solar panels and wind turbines.  People who read these stories are understandably left with the impression that the more solar and wind energy we produce, the lower electricity prices will become.

“And yet that’s not what’s happening. In fact, it’s the opposite.

“Between 2009 and 2017, the price of solar per watt declined by 75 percent while the price of wind declined by 50 percent.  And yet — during the same period — the price of electricity in places that deployed significant quantities of renewables increased dramatically.”

According to Shellenberger, countries and states that have led the green energy charge have also led the charge to higher electricity prices.  Denmark has seen a 100 percent price increase, Germany 51 percent and California 24 percent.  At face value, these electricity price increases flatly contradict the narrative that we – and especially our governments – have been sold: that ever cheaper renewable energy technologies are the solution to our energy security and climate change problems.

Since the price of coal and gas has also fallen, we cannot point to fossil fuels as the cause of increasing energy prices.  That is, rushing to replace “dirty” fossil fuel power stations with even more “cheap” wind turbines and solar panels is unlikely to halt the rise in energy prices.

This brings us back to the apparently cheap renewables.  Could there be something about them that has caused prices to rise?

Once again, challenging the narrative helps expose the problem.  As with the term “renewable” itself, the problem is with our failure to examine the whole picture.  While to all intents and purposes, sunlight and wind are inexhaustible sources of energy, the technologies that harness and convert that energy into useful electrical energy are not – both are highly dependent on oil-based global supply chains.  In the same way, while the cost of manufacturing and deploying wind turbines and solar panels has dropped sharply in the past 20 years, the opposite is true of the deliverable electricity they generate.

For all the talk about this or that organisation, city or country generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewables, the reality is that the majority of their (and our) electricity is generated from gas together with smaller volumes of nuclear and coal.  Just because a company like Apple or Google pays extra for us to pretendthat it doesn’t use fossil fuels does not change the reality that without fossil fuels those companies would be out of business.  And that isn’t going to change unless someone can find a way of making the sun shine at night and the wind to blow 24/7/365.

The economic problem that Shellenberger points to is simply that the value of renewable electricity is in inverse proportion to its availability.  That is, when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, additional electricity is at a premium.  When the sun is blazing and the wind is blowing on the other hand, there is often more electricity than is needed.  The result is that the value of that electricity falls.  In both circumstances, however, the monetary costs fall on the fossil fuel and nuclear generators that provide baseload and back-up capacity.  When there is insufficient renewable electricity, they have to be paid more to increase their output.  When there is too much renewable electricity, they have to be paid more to curtail their output.  Those additional monetary costs are then added to the energy bills of their consumers.

In these circumstances, the falling cost of the renewable electricity technology is almost irrelevant.  According to Shellenberger:

“Part of the problem is that many reporters don’t understand electricity. They think of electricity as a commodity when it is, in fact, a service — like eating at a restaurant.

“The price we pay for the luxury of eating out isn’t just the cost of the ingredients most of which, like solar panels and wind turbines, has declined for decades.

“Rather, the price of services like eating out and electricity reflect the cost not only of a few ingredients but also their preparation and delivery.”

Even if the price of renewable technologies fell to zero, the cost of supplying electricity to end users would continue to rise.  Indeed, paradoxically, if the cost fell to zero, the price would spiral out of control precisely because of the impact on the wider system required to move that renewable electricity from where it is generated to where and when it is required.  In short, and in the absence of cheap and reliable storage and back-up technologies that have yet to be invented, the more renewable electricity generating technologies we deploy, the higher our electricity bills are going to rise.

This may, of course, be considered (at least among the affluent liberal classes) to be a price worth paying to reduce our carbon emissions (although there is little evidence that this is happening).  But it has potentially explosive political consequences.  As the UK government’s energy policy reviewer, Dieter Helm pointed out:

“It is not particularly difficult to set out what an efficient energy system might look like which meets the twin objectives of the climate change targets and security of supply. There would, however, remain a binding constraint: the willingness and ability to pay for it. There have to be sufficient resources available, and there has in a democracy to be a majority who are both willing to pay and willing to force the population as a whole to pay. This constraint featured prominently in the last three general elections, and it has not gone away.” (My emphasis)

Energy poverty and discontent is a growing phenomenon across Western states, as stagnating real wages leave millions of families struggling to cover the cost of basics like food and energy that have risen in price far faster than official inflation.  This has already translated into the disruptive politics of Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of the European far right and far left parties.  In acknowledging this constraint, Helm points to the true depths of our current trilemma – we have simultaneous crises in our environment, our energy and resource base and our economy.

Thus far, “solutions” put forward to address any one arm of the trilemma – economic growth, renewable energy, hydraulic fracturing – impact negatively on the other arms; ultimately rendering the policy undeliverable.  Until we can drop our illusory narratives, grasp the full implications of the trilemma, and begin to develop policy accordingly, like the rising price of supposedly cheaper renewable electricity, things can only go from bad to worse.

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Abundant Clean Renewables? Think Again!

7 12 2014

Although “renewable” energy is growing faster than ever before, it is neither carbon neutral, “clean” nor sustainable. We need to transform into low-energy societies that meet human – not corporate – needs.

Found at generation Alpha

Renewable energy is growing faster than ever before. Sure, some countries are lagging behind, but others are setting widely praised records.

Germany has installed over 24,000 wind turbines and 1.4 million solar panels, and renewables generate 31 percent of the country’s electricity on average – and as much as 74 percent on particularly windy or sunny days. According to the German government, 371,400 jobs have been created by renewable energy. Norway generates 99 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. Denmark already generates 43 percent of electricity from renewables and aims to phase out fossil fuel burning by 2050.

Many view such news as rays of hope in a rapidly destabilizing climate. We all need some good news – but is renewables expansion really the good news people like to think? Can we really put our hopes for stabilizing the climate into trying to simply replace the energy sources in a growth-focused economic and social model that was built on fossil fuels? Or do we need a far more fundamental transition towards a low-energy economy and society?

Here’s the first problem with celebratory headlines over renewables: Record renewable energy hasn’t stopped record fossil fuel burning, including record levels of coal burning. Coal use is growing so fast that the International Energy Authority expects it to surpass oil as the world’s top energy source by 2017.

Perhaps the 1,500 gigawatts of electricity produced from renewables worldwide have prevented a further 1,500 gigawatts of fossil fuel power stations? Nobody can tell. It’s just as possible that renewables have simply added 1,500 gigawatts of electricity to the global economy, fueled economic growth and ever-greater industrial resource use. In which case, far from limiting carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, renewables may simply have increased them because, as discussed below, no form of large-scale energy is carbon neutral.

Germany’s Energy Transition illustrates the problem: Wind turbines and solar panels have certainly become a widespread feature of Germany’s landscape. Yet if we look at Germany’s total energy use (including heating and transport), rather than just at electricity, energy classed as renewable accounts for just 11.5 percent. The majority, 87.8 percent, of Germany’s energy continues to come from fossil fuels and nuclear power (with waste incineration accounting for the difference of 0.7 percent). Coal consumption, which had been falling until 2008, has been rising again since then. Germany remains the European Union’s (EU) top coal consumerNet electricity exports are being blamed for the rise in coal burning and carbon dioxide emissions, yet they account for just 5 percent of Germany’s electricity – and electricity accounts for less than half of the country’s energy use.

The picture looks even worse when one examines the mix of energy classed as renewable in Germany: Solar photovoltaic (PV) makes up 11.5 percent of renewables, wind, 16.8 percent. The bulk of it – 62 percent – comes from bioenergy, much of which is far from low carbon or sustainable. It includes biofuels, many of them made from imported soya and palm oil that are being expanded at the expense of tropical forests and peatlands and that destroy the livelihoods of small farmers, indigenous and other forest dependent peoples worldwide. It includes biogas made from 820,000 hectares of corn monocultures in Germany – a key driver for biodiversity loss in the country. And it includes wood pellets linked to forest degradation across Central Europe. On closer examination, therefore, 24,000 wind turbines and 1.4 million solar panels have scarcely made a dent in Germany’s fossil fuel burning and carbon emissions.

Norway’s situation is unique in that virtually all of the country’s electricity is generated from hydro dams, which were gradually expanded over the course of more than a century. Fossil fuels (mostly oil) still surpass renewable energy in Norway’s overall energy mix (with electricity accounting for less than half of the total), though only marginally so, and Norway’s economy remains heavily dependent on oil and gas exports.

Norway’s own hydro dams – many of them small-scale – have raised little controversy but the same cannot be said for Norway’s efforts to export this model to other countries. The Norwegian government and the state-owned energy company Statkraft have been at the forefront of financing controversial dams and associated infrastructure in Laos, India, Malaysian Borneo and elsewhere. One example is Statkraft’s joint venture investment in a new dam in Laos that has displaced 4,800 people and is causing flooding, erosion, and loss of fisheries and land on which people relied for growing rice.

Another example is Norwegian aid for transmission lines for mega-dams in Sarawak, a Malaysian province in Borneo which has seen vast areas of tropical rainforest – and the livelihoods of millions of indigenous peoples – sacrificed for palm oil, logging and also hydro power. One dam alone displaced 10,000 people and at least 10 more dams are planned, despite ongoing resistance from indigenous peoples. Far from being climate-friendly, hydro dams worldwide are associated with large methane emissions – with one study suggesting they are responsible for 25 percent of all human-caused methane emissions and over 4 percent of global warming. The disastrous consequences of Norway’s global hydro power investment illustrates the dangers of the simplistic view that anything classed as renewable energy must be climate-friendly and merits support.

What about the much-heralded renewable transition of Denmark? There coal use is falling and around 21 percent of total energy is sourced from renewables. Denmark holds the world record for wind energy capacity compared to population size. Unlike many other countries where wind energy is firmly controlled by large energy companies, Denmark has seen strong support for locally owned wind energy cooperatives, widely considered an inspiring example of clean, community-controlled energy. Nonetheless, wind energy in Denmark accounted for just 3.8 percent of Denmark’s total energy use in 2010.

Bioenergy accounts for a far greater percentage of Denmark’s “renewable energy” than does wind – and indeed for a greater share in the country’s overall energy mix than is the case in any other European country. As in Germany, Denmark’s bioenergy includes biofuels for transport, which studies show tend to be worse for the climate than equivalent quantities of oil once all the direct and indirect emissions from deforestation, peatland destruction and other land use change associated with them are accounted for. And it includes wood pellets, with Denmark being the EU’s, and likely the world’s, second biggest pellet importer after the United Kingdom. Most of those pellets come from the Baltic states and Russia, from countries where clear-cutting of highly biodiverse forests is rampant. Studies show that burning wood from whole trees can be worse for the climate than burning coal over a period of decades or even centuries.

Thus, on closer inspection, many of the “great renewable energy successes” don’t look so great after all.

Clearly, the current catch-all definition of “renewables” is a key problem: Defining methane-spewing mega-dams, biofuels, which are accelerating deforestation and other ecosystem destruction, or logging forests for bioenergy as “renewable” helps policy makers boost renewables statistics, while helping to further destabilize planetary support systems. As long as energy sources that are as carbon-intensive and destructive as fossil fuels are classed as “renewable,” boosting renewable energy around the world risks doing more harm than good.

A saner definition of “renewable energy” clearly is vital but would it open the door toward 100 percent clean and plentiful energy? Comparing the rate of wind energy expansion in Denmark and wind and solar power expansion in Germany with the tiny contribution they make to both countries’ total energy supply indicates otherwise.

Wind and solar power require far less land per unit of energy than biomass or biofuels, but the area of land needed to replace fossil fuel power stations with, say, wind turbines is vast nonetheless. According to a former scientific advisor to the UK government, for example, 15 offshore wind turbines installed on every kilometer of the UK coastline would supply just 13 percent of the country’s average daily energy use. And offshore turbines are more efficient than onshore ones.

Researchers agree that the life-cycle impacts of wind and solar power on the climate and environment are definitely smaller than those of fossil fuels, as long as turbines and panels are sensibly sited (not, for example, on deep peat). But this doesn’t mean that the impacts are benign. Generating that 13 percent of UK energy from offshore wind would require wind turbines made of 20 million tons of steel and concrete – more than all the steel that went into US shipbuilding during World War II. Steel manufacturing is heavily dependent on coal, not just as a fuel for the furnaces but because it is needed to enrich the raw material, iron ore, with carbon to make it stable. And concrete is hardly “carbon neutral” either – cement (a key component) accounts for 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Solar PV panels are up to four times as energy and carbon-intensive to produce as wind turbines: Aluminum – used to mount and construct solar panels – is about as carbon and energy-intensive as steel. Silicon needs to be smelted at 2,000 degrees Celsius and materials used to replace silicon have an even higher environmental footprint. Then there’s an array of highly toxic and corrosive chemicals used during manufacturing. Yet with regards to pollution, building wind and marine turbines is likely worse than making solar panels, because efficient and lasting turbine magnets rely on rare earth mining and refining. One 5-megawatt turbine requires a ton of rare earths, the mining and refining of which will leave behind 75 cubic meters of toxic acidic waste water and one ton of radioactive sludge. Two-thirds of the world’s rare earths are refined in one town in China, where people have become environmental refugees and virtually all who remain suffer from ill health associated with toxic chemicals and radiation. In the quest for “clean energy” rare earths mines are being sought and opened around the globe. The only US rare earths mine, Molycorp’s in California, has been reopened, after having been shut down due to a long history of repeated spills of toxic and radioactive waste. Since reopening, the operators have already been fined for spilling yet more hazardous waste.

Zero-carbon, clean energy? Well, no. And yet, there are no large-scale energy sources with lower carbon emissions and less harmful environmental impacts than wind and solar power. As one scientist argues from the perspective of thermodynamics: “To talk about ‘renewable energy’ or ‘sustainable energy’ is an oxymoron, as is ‘sustainable mining’ or ‘sustainable development.’ The more energy we use, the less sustainable is humanity.”

We certainly need to swiftly end fossil fuel burning and the destruction of ecosystems and that will require us to rely on the least harmful energy sources such as wind and solar power. But the myth of plentiful “clean” energy stops us from focusing on the far deeper changes needed – a transformation toward a low-energy society. A depressing conclusion? Not necessarily. As UK climate change campaigner and author George Marshall has pointed out, we could cut flights (and probably all transport emissions) and slash energy used for home heating by 80 percent overnight by going back to the way people used to live as short a time ago as 1972, provided we used home insulation and efficient boiler technology developed since then. Instead, 40 years of efficiency gains have been wiped out by ever-greater consumption. Yet UK “personal satisfaction” surveys show that people’s sense of satisfaction or happiness peaked in 1970. Once people’s basic needs for energy are met, rising energy use remains vital for corporate profits and economic growth, but not for people’s quality of life.

Most readers will have never lived in a low-energy society. Imagining what such a society might look like and how to move toward the transformation required to get there, and to overcome the corporate interests that depend on profits from ever rising energy use, must be priorities for anyone aware of the seriousness of climate change. Daunting no doubt, but once we’ve abandoned faith in plentiful “clean” energy, we can finally make a start.

Please tell us your thoughts and reactions in the comments section below. Thanks. 

Originally published in Truthout here. Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

 

Almuth Ernsting helped to found Biofuelwatch in 2006. She has researched and published about a wide range of issues related to bioenergy, including the climate, social and biodiversity impacts of biofuels and wood-based biomass, public health impacts of biomass and biofuel power stations and the science and policy debate related to proposed use of biomass for geoengineering, especially biochar and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage.

Rachel Smolker is a co director of Biofuelwatch and an organizer with Energy Justice Network. She has researched, written and organized on the impacts of biofuels, bioenergy and biochar on land use, forests, biodiversity, food, people and the climate. She works at all levels, from community organizing to international UN Convention negotiation processes. She is a member of the Climate Justice Now network and has worked to oppose market-based solutions to climate change and other “false solutions.” She contributes regularly to Huffington Post and to Global Justice Ecology project’s “New Voices on Climate Change. She is the daughter of one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund and participated in a protest against that organization because of the key role EDF played in advocating market-based solutions to climate change. Rachel has a Ph.D. in ecology/biology from the University of Michigan and worked previously as a field biologist, gaining firsthand experience with the complex balance between the needs of people and the ecological systems they depend upon. She is author of To Touch A Wild Dolphin (Doubleday 2001) and lives in Vermont.