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

2 02 2020

Posted on February 1, 2020 by energyskeptic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





WHO wants change………??

14 08 2019

Hot on the heels of David Attenborough’s climate show, along comes this great article by Tim Watkins……..


Goldsmiths kebab

We learned yesterday that a British university had made a small contribution to addressing a climate emergency that its spokespeople argue is going to kill us all just 12 years from now.  As Katherine Sellgren at the BBC reports:

“A university is banning the sale of [beef] burgers to try to fight global warming.

“Goldsmiths, University of London, is removing all beef products from sale – and charging a 10p levy on bottled water and single-use plastic cups.

“It plans to install more solar panels across its New Cross campus, in south-east London, and switch to a 100% clean energy supplier as soon as possible.

“It will spend money on its allotment and identify other areas where planting could help to absorb carbon dioxide.”

Banning beef burgers and deploying a handful of solar panels (made in China in coal-powered factories and shipped to the UK on oil-powered ships; where their addition to the Grid will increase the risk of power cuts) is little more than a gesture which, in any case, involves no real sacrifice for those making the decision.  Indeed, this was called out by an interviewer on the BBC Radio4 Today programme, who pointed out that the meaningful changes suggested by the IPCC, such as refurbishing buildings to make them energy efficient would make a much bigger impact than a burger ban.  And so a Student Union representative was asked whether they would support such a major refurbishment… even if it meant that students at the college might have to pay additional tuition fees.  The predictable response was, “Oh no.  Students want free education.”

This, of course, gets to the nub of the problem with addressing the growing environmental catastrophe.  Three-quarters of us (outside the USA) accept the science.  Two-thirds of us agree that “something must be done.”  Less than half of us are prepared to vote for anyone who promises to do something.  And less than ten percent of us are prepared to make meaningful sacrifices to lower our carbon footprints – and those who are, are seldom those who can most afford to do so.  As John Michael Greer points out:

“For years now, since that brief period when I was a very minor star in the peak oil movement, I’ve noted a curious dynamic in the climate change-centered end of environmentalism. Almost always, the people I met at peak oil events who were concerned about peak oil and the fate of industrial society more generally, rather than climate change or such other mediacentric causes as the plight of large cute animals, were ready and willing to make extensive changes in their own lives, in addition to whatever political activism they might engage in. Almost always, the people I met who were exclusively concerned with anthropogenic climate change were not.

“I can be even more precise. With vanishingly few exceptions, the people I met who were solely concerned with anthropogenic climate change insisted loudly that what needed to happen was that someone else, somewhere else, had to stop using so much carbon.”

The predictable result is that a host of climate change media stars with carbon footprints the size of small countries descend upon conferences around the planet – most recently the Google event on Sicily – to lecture the rest of us on why we must change our lifestyles to combat climate change; just before they leap back on board their carbon-belching private jets and luxury yachts to be whisked away to the next jolly.

The difference today, however, is that the people aren’t buying it any more.  In part, this is due to the hypocrisy of these media stars.  In large part, however, the people have wised up to the fact that while all of the costs of combatting climate change always seem to land on the shoulders of the poor; all of the benefits go to the same elite that the climate change media stars belong to.  As Greer notes:

“Some of what else is going on came to the surface a few years ago in Washington State when a group of environmental activists launched an initiative that would have slapped a fee on carbon. As such things go, it was a well-designed initiative, and one of the best things about it was that it was revenue-neutral:  that is, the money taken in by the carbon fee flowed right back out through direct payments to citizens, so that rising energy prices due to the carbon fee wouldn’t clobber the economy or hurt the poor.

“That, in turn, made it unacceptable to the Democratic Party in Washington State, and they refused to back the initiative, dooming it to defeat. Shortly thereafter they floated their own carbon fee initiative, which was anything but revenue neutral.  Rather, it was set up to funnel all the money from the carbon fee into a slush fund managed by a board the public wouldn’t get to elect, which would hand out the funds to support an assortment of social justice causes that were also helpfully sheltered from public oversight. Unsurprisingly, the second initiative also lost heavily—few Washington State voters were willing to trust their breathtakingly corrupt political establishment with yet another massive source of graft at public expense.”

This is the same phenomenon that caused what should have been a relatively simple increase in the tax on diesel fuel in France to erupt into widespread protest on a scale not seen since the heady days of 1968.  It is also why an Australian Labor Party manifesto that promised radical action on the environment, and that was apparently supported by the majority of Australians, resulted in a “miracle victory” for the pro-fossil fuel Liberal/National coalition at last May’s general election.

In the grossly unequal economies that we have spent the best part of forty years creating, unless the response to the environmental crisis begins at the very top, it isn’t going to begin at all.  And while this may cast ordinary people in the role of Luddites standing in the way of the progress that we supposedly need; the people may actually have a better understanding of the problem than the media celebrities. 

A new documentary Planet of the Humans by Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs – hardly right-wing climate change deniers – set out to understand how fossil fuel lobbyists and corrupt politicians had thwarted the increasingly urgent transition to a carbon neutral future.  What they found, however – and what the documentary details – is an equally corrupt “green energy” lobby that has no real solutions to the predicament we are in.  As Michael Donnelly at Counterpunch explains:

“The basic conclusion is that we have been following corporate foundation-financed, Democratic Party-tied misleadership and that is why we are where we are.

“The bottom line is that there are: Too many Clever Apes; consuming too much; too rapidly. And ALL efforts on addressing the climate costs are reduced to illusions/delusions designed to keep our over-sized human footprint and out-of-control consumption chugging along without any consumer sacrifices or loss of consumption-based profits…

“Forget all you have heard about how ‘Renewable Energy’ is our salvation. It is all a myth that is very lucrative for some. Feel-good stuff like electric cars, etc. Such vehicles are actually powered by coal, natural gas… or dead salmon in the Northwest.”

Donnelly goes on to list some of the documentary’s “inconvenient truths” such as that the top beneficiaries of solar energy subsidies in the USA turn out to be every leftist’s favourite cartoon villains the Koch Brothers…

“None of these technologies existed, nor could they exist, without fossil fuels. The grid cannot even operate without fossil fuel-derived steam-generated baseloads – in the spring when hydro is surging, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) cuts off wind power (and still has to pay its providers after a lawsuit), yet has to keep the Boardman Coal plant (Oregon’s top carbon polluter) running in order to balance the baseload. Even eCon Musk’s famed battery plant in Nevada is powered by…fracked natural gas. The huge bird and desert-destroying Ivanpah Solar array in California also has fracked natural gas as an essential ingredient.”

Worse still, the documentary catches leading stars of the bright green movement admitting in Clintonesque fashion that they have one message for the plebs and an entirely different one for the people who matter:

Planet examines a range of policy influencers/professional environmentalists/opportunists, etc. and even lets them hang themselves. It not only takes on the obvious bad guys like the Kochs, it lets folks like McKibben, Al Gore, Richard Branson, Robert Kennedy, Jr, who are ostensibly on ‘our’ side, hang themselves by showing clips of them speaking to environmentalists and then clips of them speaking to industry about all the profits to be made.

“McKibben is shown twice praising Biomass (they gave him every chance to condemn it), interspersed with a scene of a mountaintop removal operation in his home state of Vermont – for a wind farm!

“Robert Kennedy, Jr. informs his fellow millionaires of all the profits to be made on ‘green’ energy. Al Gore basically admits it’s all about diversion and profits. Branson, like eCon Musk, of course, is solely in it for the money.

“Fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg got down to it and basically bought the Sierra Club with tens of millions in donations tied to the Club promoting one of his cash cows, Fracked Natural Gas, as the ‘Bridge Fuel to a Green Energy future!’”

None of this comes as a surprise to those of us who regard climate change as merely one element of a broader three E’s – Energy, Environment, Economy – predicament that is itself driven by having roughly 6.5 billion too many humans on Planet Earth.  What is different, however, is that the realisation that the green techno-utopian celebrity crowd are con artists has begun to seep into the consciousness of the leftward end of the body politic in recent months.  As Donnelly notes, despite Moore and Gibbs fearing the reaction of people in the broader environmental movement:

“’Planet of the Humans’ premiered at the gloriously community-restored State Theatre July 31st at the 15th Traverse City, MI Film Festival with three sold-out/standing ovation showings followed by Q & A’s with the creators.”

Greer observes a similar shift at the leftward end of the US media:

“What sets this year’s conference apart from earlier examples of the same sorry type is that this time, the other end of the political spectrum has finally decided to start calling out absurd climate change hypocrisy for what it is. Here’s the redoubtable Rex Murphy of the National Post, for example, giving the Sicily conference and its brightly burnished celebrity attendees a good sound thrashing. You can find other examples easily enough if you step out of the airtight bubble of mainstream popular culture—and these days, the bubble is not quite as airtight as it once was and some of the criticism is starting to slip through.”

Ironically, the green energy snake oil salesmen have probably brought this reaction down upon their own heads.  By backing increasingly urgent messages about our imminent extinction to sell us billions of dollars’ worth of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting devices; they have caused people to ask serious questions about why – if the emergency is so urgent – these people are not adopting lifestyles in line with their warnings; and why – if green energy technologies are the solution – governments around the planet have failed to adopt them in meaningful quantities.

The issue here is not with the seriousness of the crisis, but with the way just one solution is on offer; and it just happens to be the one that makes the rich even richer and the poor even poorer.  As Greer puts it:

“It’s as though your house was on fire and someone pounded on your door, insisting that you had to sign a contract giving him your property so he could fight the fire. You shouldn’t sign the contract, and the reasons he brandishes to try to talk you into signing it are bogus, but that doesn’t change the fact that your house really is on fire.”

The BBC too, seemingly, is beginning to grasp some of this cultural shift; and thus is prepared to kebab the “feel good” Goldsmiths story as little more than a futile gesture at someone else’s expense.  Gone are the joyous days of spring, when climate campaigners had the support of most of the media.  From here on in, even those outlets on “our” side are going to be casting a critical eye over environmental policies that will very likely be found wanting.

The stark reality, of course, is that as we slide ever further along the downslope of the industrial age, and as our ability to repair the damage wrought by the global weirding of our climate, higher education itself will be going away.  The lifestyles we are going to be living – whether we choose to adopt them ourselves or whether mother nature forces them upon us – are going to be far less consumptive, far more localised, and far more focused on the production of basic necessities… like food.  And in the near future, those Goldsmiths folk may well find themselves pining for one of those burgers they just banned.





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.





The monster that is industrial agriculture….

31 07 2019

It’s No Wonder Folks Think Cows are Bad…
30 July 2019
 
This was the light bulb that came on after listening to a couple podcasts where there was some discussion over cow size, and it’s attribution to the current agricultural system today. It’s funny how the more I think about these things, the more I see how a lot of the dots start connecting with each other. 
I’ve talked about the environmental concerns that people have over cattle grazing. I’ve also heard quite a bit about concerns regarding the fact that grains are commonly fed to cattle, particularly to those that are being finished during the last few months of their lives. There’s also quite the lamenting about how much cows eat, how much they defecate, the methane they emit, generally the amount of stuff that is put into them to meet consumer demand for beef and milk.
 
What’s ironic is that while many people are busy pointing out how cows are bad with this issue and this issue, very few have pointed out how the modern cow has gotten so big compared to what cows were like over 100 years ago. And fewer still—have connected the dots in reasoning out why the majority of North American 21st century cows have an average body weight of 1600 pounds (720 kg), why they’re eating and pooping so much, and why they’re even being fed grain in the first place.
 
If we look back to the cattle that populated the West back over 100 years ago, they were quite a bit smaller. They average cow size then was only around 800 to 1000 pounds. Those were truly some “rangy” cattle; they didn’t need grain and thrived on forage only.
 
But why the significant change in cow size? And why do we have “modernized” cows now that basically can’t be as productive without that little extra supplemental grain every so often?

I may not have all the pieces of the puzzle in hand to explain this, but I will do my best.A Brief History of the Shift of North American Beef ProductionA lot of things happened that shifted agriculture from the organic, animal-powered, manual labour, subsistence agricultural model to one that we have today. The only thing that comes to mind was the discovery of fossil fuels, and I’m not just talking about coal. Some marketing genius saw the future use of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal extraction) booming to the point that we’ve become so incredibly and heavily reliant on it today it ain’t even funny.
 
I mean, look at all the things that were invented just so that farmers could buy into using (and purchasing) more fossil fuels: the “iron horse” or now known as the tractor, and the various implements associated with it, including the now-rare moldboard plow; the discovery of four “essential” nutrients plants need to grow (NPKS—nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur), and the Law of the Minimum to go along with it; the conversion of ammonium nitrate from being used in bombs during the Second World War to being used as nitrogen fertilizer for farmers (now illegal in most countries because of the ease of use in terrorist activities); and the markets and marketing that has grown up around all that comes with growing annual crops. I probably missed a few items there, but that’s the gist of it.
 
Many farmers got sucked right into the popularity of having a tractor with a whole lot of implements to go with it and the ease of applying fertilizers so much that the amount of grain that was being produced was becoming far beyond what most people could even eat. With quite the glut of grain, someone else had to come up with a solution. The best solution was to start feeding all that excess grain to animals, primarily pigs, chickens, and cattle.
 
While it was pretty easy to change diets of monogastrics like pigs and chickens to be eating grain in a confinement operation, with the cows of the 1950s, it wasn’t so easy. It’s really hard to convert a ruminant that thrives on grass to one that can gain well on grain and not get so butterball fat so quickly.
 
That’s what was happening to those smaller-type feeder cattle back then. They would be pushed on, I would guess an 80% grain-based diet prior to slaughter. The resulting amount of fat that the packers needed to trim off would’ve been incredible, so much that the meat packers really didn’t like it.  Even today, if there’s a beef carcass that runs through the commercial meat packer facility and has a lot of excessive extra-muscular fat (and even intramuscular fat)—or, more fat than meat—it gets docked in price quite heavily. That’s not good for the feedlot’s bottom line.
 
The conundrum though, is that what the meat packers and feedlots want is not what the beef cow-calf producer wants. Let me explain: where the packers want a good sized, fairly lean carcass that doesn’t have much fat to trim off, and came from a feedlot where those cattle kept that lean muscling throughout the finishing period, the cow-calf producers would sooner have an animal that gains easily on just forage with little to no grain supplement, isn’t generally so big, and has no trouble being bred back on time to have another calf the following year.
 
So, on one end of the spectrum there’s the meat-producing machine the meat packers want. On the other end is the easy-fleshing, maternal, smaller, fertile bovine that doesn’t need the grain nor to be so big and muscly. Somehow, these stubborn cow-calf guys needed to be convinced that they need to change their cows to satisfy the meat packers… not only that, but for the growing companies that were making their big bucks on fossil fuels.
 
In my view — and I may not get this totally right, so forgive me if I get some things out of whack — there were a few key strategies at play to get the beef cow-calf producers to succumb to the modernized beef market demand and give up their grass-based, small-sized, easy-fleshing cows.
 
One primary strategy was to target consumers and convince them—mainly the housewives—that lean beef was far superior to the fatty, heavily-marbled stuff; the assistance with that was the “science” that was behind demonizing saturated fat, or just animal fats in general as being “unhealthy” and the cause of all sorts of nasty metabolic diseases. (Sadly, many people still believe in this today…)

The second was to force reduced market prices on small-sized weaned calves. Any cow-calf producer would suffer and start to re-examine what kind of cattle he’s running if and when he was to sell a bunch of calves and find that almost all of them went for a lot less than those bigger, much more muscly cattle. He wouldn’t be too happy, let me tell you. That in itself would force him to start changing his herd to where he would be focusing quite heavily on pounds of calf weaned, just so he can “ring the bell at the sale barn” and come home with a decent cheque.  
 
The third, mainly as a result of the second, was to heavily promote the hell out of the “continental” European breeds that were being imported into Canada and the United States in the 1970s. Breeds like CharolaisSimmental, and Limousin were those big, muscly, lean type of cattle that the packers were looking for. They were marketed such that they would give producers calves that would bring them the most money. Conveniently so, though, the promotions never really mentioned that these big animals needed to have some supplemental grain to keep them in shape… 
  
Since then, the packers and feedlots haven’t let up on their demand for large cattle that gained well with not a whole lot of extra-muscular fat to trim off—the United States Department of Agriculture actually formed a grading standard to tell producers and packers what kind of “muscle-to-fat ratio” was desirable. As a result, cow size has increased dramatically since then. Producers have done well to convince themselves that focusing on weight, and to get as big of calves as possible sold through the auction to the feedlot is the best way to go. This is certainly still something that’s alive and well today.
 
So far I’ve only focused on beef production. What about dairy production?The Big, Modern, Dairy Cow. The dairy cows haven’t stayed small either. The average size of a dairy cow (predominantly Holsteins) today is much the same as what the average size of a modern beef cow is. The story that goes with seeing an increase in cow size for dairy cows is pretty parallel with beef cattle, except that it wasn’t this need to convince any cow-calf guys to get bigger, not-so-grass-based cows. The explanation is a bit simpler than that.

With a higher demand by consumers for more dairy products, dairy farmers needed cows to produce more milk. I think I’m safe to say that the larger the cow that was also genetically selected for the highest milk production possible, generally the heavier milker she would expected to be. Holstein-Freisian cattle are the heaviest (and most popular) milk-producing breed in the world to date. And they’re not small cattle either. They may not have much for muscle, but they are certainly tall…

With dairy cattle, though, the selection must be for milk production, not size as in muscling ability. Some of the poorest milk-producing cows out there, like Charolais, are the best, well-muscled animals. In other words, if you’re going to be selecting for milk production, you might as well kiss the genetics for muscling good-bye.
 
Undeniably, the modern dairy cow has also been selected over time to be needing grain in order to not just produce milk, but also meet her body’s metabolic needs. She’s been basically turned into a fossil-fuel guzzling (indirectly, mind you), milk-producing genetic freak of a machine.  
 
As for the modern-day big beefy girls, sadly, they’re not much different. So, Why are Cows & Cattle Fed Grain?? I’ve spent some time showing how commercially raised cows today have become so big and even grain-needy today. Now, it’s time to show you the why.
 
It’s actually pretty simple. Much of the cattle today have been selected for higher productivity—more meat, more milk—and as a result, their nutritional requirements have increased. These animals actually need more nutrition than their ancestors did just under 100 years ago. Their metabolisms have changed such that they can’t meet their body needs and be as fertile, milk-producing and/or muscling on just grass or forage, without some kind of extra supplement to meet their needs in terms of energy (carbohydrates), proteins (mainly non-protein nitrogen and amino acids), as well as minerals and vitamins, otherwise they will literally “fall apart.”
 
By “fall apart” I mean they lose weight, and aren’t as milky, reproductive, nor meat-producing as a farmer would hope for. If they are not properly fed, they can die of malnutrition. It’s that bad.
 
You know, sadly it’s become an established norm to feed cows grain or some alfalfa cubes or range pellets, even just a few pounds per head every second or third day, “just to keep ‘em friendly.” Not many people have stopped to think why it’s so normal to give cattle that extra supplement while they’re out on pasture, or even that they have to add grain to the diet during the winter months.
 
I know that if I told them that they weren’t allowed to feed their cattle any kind of grain or pelleted supplement, they’d look at me like I was crazy, and then they’d give me a good talking-to as to why those cows *need* to be fed some grain… let me guess, so that those animals don’t go downhill on you, right?
 
It’s no secret that the majority of cows and cattle today are fed grain of some amount. It’s no secret either that the bigger the cow, the more she’ll eat. But I don’t think that’s near as much of a concern as just the fact that the petroleum industry has forced producers’ hands time and time again to have big cows that can’t be productive without eating some grain every now and then.
 
It’s no wonder people think cows are so bad. We’ve turned them into fossil-fuel consuming, milk/meat-outputting machines, not the genuinely beneficial, grass-based, pasture-raised ruminant herbivores that they really should be. And that’s a right shame. ​​​





Not so good news

16 04 2019

This is Tim Watkins at his best I think….. I wish I had time to write well researched articles like this, but I have a flailing mower arriving today, the double glazed windows at the end of the month, and the front wall to build in preparation of this event. Never a dull moment around here.

Put simply, if you cannot turn on your lights, operate your business or recharge your electric car, because there is no electricity, it is little comfort to learn that on a good day the grid is capable of supplying more electricity than you might need.

From the truly amazing Consciousness of Sheep website…

Protesters today intend bringing central London to a standstill by blockading several major arterial roads into the capital.  For once, this has nothing to do with Brexit.  Instead, it concerns the increasingly urgent call for government to “do something” about climate change.  Exactly what that “something” is that must be done is a little less clear, since current environmental concerns are almost always pared down to concern about the carbon dioxide emitted by cars and power stations.  Although how exactly this relates to the mass die-off of species resulting from industrial agriculture and deforestation, or growing oceanic dead zones and plastic islands, is far from clear.

Protesting environmental concerns involves a high degree of denial and self-deception; as it is based on two gross errors.  The first is the irrational belief that governments have the means to respond to the predicament we find ourselves in.  As a corrective to this, just look at the dog’s breakfast that the current British government has managed to make out of what is a simple (by comparison) trade negotiation.  Anyone who seriously thinks these clowns are going to do anything positive (save for by accident) for the environment is displaying almost clinical levels of delusion.   The second error is in believing the often unspoken conspiracy theory that insists that the only thing standing between us and the promised zero-carbon future is corrupt politicians and their corporate backers, who insist on putting the needs of the fossil fuel industry ahead of life on planet earth.

To maintain these deceits, a large volume of propaganda must be put out in order to prove that the zero-carbon future is possible if only the politicians would act in the way the people want.  So it is that we are treated to a barrage of media stories claiming that this town, city, country or industry runs entirely on “green” energy (don’t mention carbon offsetting).  Indeed, left to their own devices, we are told, the green energy industry is already well on the way to building the zero-carbon future we asked for; we just need the politicians to pull their fingers out and we could easily get there in just a few years’ time.  For example, Joshua S Hill at Green Technica tells us that:

“Renewable energy sources now account for around a third of all global power capacity, according to new figures published this week by the International Renewable Energy Agency, which revealed 171 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable capacity was installed in 2018…

“This brings total renewable energy generation capacity up to a whopping 2,351 GW as of the end of 2018, accounting for around a third of the globe’s total installed electricity capacity. Hydropower remains the largest renewable energy source based on installed capacity, with 1,172 GW, followed by wind energy with 564 GW and solar power with 480 GW.”

Stories like these play into the fantasy that we are well on our way to reversing climate change, and that all we need now is some “green new deal” mobilisation to replace the final two-thirds of our energy capacity with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies to finish the job.  If only it was that simple.

Notice the apparently innocuous word “capacity.”  This is perhaps the least important information about electricity.  Far more important is the amount that is actually generated.  The US Energy Information Administration explains the difference:

Electricity generation capacity is the maximum electric output an electricity generator can produce under specific conditions. Nameplate generator capacity is determined by the generator’s manufacturer and indicates the maximum output of electricity a generator can produce without exceeding design thermal limits….

Electricity generation is the amount of electricity a generator produces over a specific period of time. For example, a generator with 1 megawatt (MW) capacity that operates at that capacity consistently for one hour will produce 1 megawatthour (MWh) of electricity. If the generator operates at only half that capacity for one hour, it will produce 0.5 MWh of electricity…

Capacity factor of electricity generation is a measure (expressed as a percent) of how often an electricity generator operates during a specific period of time using a ratio of the actual output to the maximum possible output during that time period.”

In terms of understanding where we are and where we are heading, “electricity generation” is far more important than “capacity”; which only tells us how wind, wave, tide and solar technologies would perform if it were possible (it isn’t) for them to generate electricity all day (and night) every day.  Put simply, if you cannot turn on your lights, operate your business or recharge your electric car, because there is no electricity, it is little comfort to learn that on a good day the grid is capable of supplying more electricity than you might need.  From a planning point of view, knowing the capacity factor for various generating technologies matters because it gives an insight into how efficient they are.  A nuclear or fossil fuel power plant that runs more or less continuously for more than 60 years is likely to require far fewer inputs and far less land area than, say, vast solar farms (which have to be replaced every 10-20 years) that can only generate electricity when the sun is shining.

So where do non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies stand when it comes to electricity generation?  According to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy, in 2017 human civilisation generated 25551.3 Terawatt hours (TW/h) of electricity.  Of this:

  • Non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies provided 2151.5 TW/h (8.4%)
  • Nuclear provided 2635.6 TW/h (10.3%)
  • Hydroelectric dams provided 4059.9 TW/h (15.9%)
  • Fossil fuels provided 16521.7 TW/h (64.7%).

What this tells us is that far more non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting capacity has to be installed than the electricity that it can actually generate – it has a low capacity factor.  Indeed, Hill’s “around a third” figure includes the much larger capacity of hydroelectric dams (which have environmental issues of their own) for which there is little scope for further installation.  Only by adding in nuclear power can we get to a third of electricity generation from low-carbon sources.

Even this, however, misleads us when it comes to environmental impacts.  The implicit assumption is that non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies are still valuable despite their inefficiency because they are replacing fossil fuels.  But this is not why countries like the UK, Saudi Arabia and (for insane reasons) Germany have been deploying them.  In the first two cases, the deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies is primarily to maximise the amount of fossil fuels available for export.  In Germany’s case, renewables that might otherwise have weaned the economy off coal were deployed instead as a replacement for nuclear; leaving the economy overly-dependent upon often dirty (lignite) brown coal; and forcing them to turn to Russian gas as a future substitute for coal.  These states are not, however, where most of the world’s largely fossil fuelled industrial processes take place.  Asia accounts for the majority of global industry, and Asian economies use non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies to supplement fossil fuels rather than to replace them; although Hill does not clarify this when he tells us that:

“Specifically, solar energy dominated in 2018, installing an impressive 94 GW… Asia continued to lead the way with 64 GW — accounting for around 70% of the global expansion last year — thanks to dominant performances from China, India, Japan, and South Korea.”

While, of course, electricity generated from wind, wave, sunlight and tide is energy that might otherwise have come from fossil fuels, the impact should not be exaggerated.  According to the 2019 edition of the BP Energy Outlook, in 2017:

  • Non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies provided 4 percent of global primary energy
  • Nuclear provided 4 percent
  • Hydroelectric 7 percent
  • Gas 23 percent
  • Coal 28 percent
  • Oil 34 percent.

Just our additional energy demand since 2015 has been sufficient to account for all of the non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies deployed to date.  That is, if we had simply accepted 2015 levels of consumption, we need not have deployed these technologies at all.  And, of course, if we had stabilized our energy consumption a couple of decades ago we could have left the bulk of the fossil fuels we now consume in the ground:

World Energy Consumption 2017
Source: Global carbon emissions 2007-17

What is really at issue here is that – to quote the late George H.W. Bush – “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.”  That is, we can have any energy transformation we like, so long as it does not involve any limitation on our continued exploitation and consumption of the planet we live on.  The too-big-too-fail banks must havepermanent economic growth and that, in turn, means that we have no choice other than to keep growing our energy consumption.

The trouble is that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible.  Worse still, as the energy return on investment (aka Net Energy) declines, the increased energy and monetary cost of energy production causes the energy and monetary value available to the wider (non-energy) economy to decline.  In the first two decades of the century, this has caused an intractable financial crisis coupled to a massive decline in prosperity across the developed economy (resulting in the collapse in consumption of the “retail apocalypse”) which is beginning to generate political instability.  In the 2020s the crisis is set to worsen as the energy cost of producing a whole range of mineral resources raises their market price above that which can be sustained in the developed states (where most of the consumption occurs).  The result – whether we like it or not – is that we face a more or less sharp drop in consumption in the next couple of decades.

This raises questions about the purpose to which we deploy non-renewable renewable-energy harvesting technologies.  For several decades, people in the green movement have engaged in private arguments about whether they should spell out the likely localised and de-materialised economies that giving up or running out of accessible fossil fuels necessarily entails.  Since this would be politically toxic, most have chosen to promote the lie that humanity can simply replace coal, gas and oil with some combination of wind, wave, tide and sunlight without economic growth even needing to pause for breath.  This, in turn, has allowed our young people to believe that intransigence is the only thing preventing our political leaders from de-carbonising our economies.

Exactly what our politicians are told about our predicament is a matter of conjecture.  Most, I suspect, are as clueless as the population at large.  Nevertheless the permanent civil services across the planet have produced a raft of reports into the full spectrum of the catastrophe facing us, from the damage we are doing to the environment to the rapidly depleting stocks of key mineral resources and productive agricultural land, and the more imminent collapse in the global financial system.  And the more they become aware of this predicament, the more they realise just exactly what the word “unsustainable” actually means.  One way or another, six out of every seven humans alive today is going to have to go – either by a planned de-growth or via a more or less rapid collapse of our (largely fossil-fuelled) interconnected global life support systems.

With this in mind, there is something truly immoral about perpetuating the myth that we can maintain business as usual simply by swapping non-renewable renewable-energy harvesting technologies for fossil fuels.  This is because maintaining the myth results in precisely the kind of misallocation that we already witnessed in those states that are using renewable electricity to bolster fossil fuel production and consumption.  The more we keep doing this, the harder the crash is going to be when one or other critical component (finance, energy or resources) is no longer widely available.

There is a place for renewable energy in our future; just not the one we were promised.  As we are forced to re-localise and de-grow both our economies and our total population, the use of non-renewable renewable-energy harvesting technologies to maintain critical infrastructure such as health systems, water treatment and sewage disposal, and some key agricultural and industrial processes would make the transition less deadly.  More likely, however, is that we will find the technologies we need to prevent the combination of war, famine and pestilence that otherwise awaits us will have been squandered on powering oil wells, coal mines, electric car chargers, computer datacentres and cryptocurrencies (none of which are edible by the way).

At this stage, all one can say to the climate protestors and to the “green” media that encourage them is, “be careful what you wish for… it might just come true!”