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Meanwhile back in the real world

Image: Portland General Electric

In a society where the “right” not to be offended takes precedence over factual evidence, it is all too easy to believe that we are well on the way to a 100 percent renewable energy future.  This, after all, is what all of those happy clappy green-tech articles that get shared around on social media have been telling us for more than a decade.  It is what we want to believe.

Well, much as I hate to hurt anyone’s feelings (not really) the reality of our predicament is a little more upsetting.  For while it is true that we have made a Herculean effort to ramp up the production of wind, solar and tidal electricity, it has barely dented our global energy mix.  As Barry Saxifrage explains in an analysis of the BP Statistical Review of World Energy:

“In 25 of the last 26 years, we burned more fossil fuels than the year before.

“The only year in the last quarter century with a decrease was 2009. That was caused by a sharp global recession. And within a year, that rare respite was wiped out by a massive surge that followed.”

The proportion of fossil fuels in our energy mix has barely fallen, according to Saxifrage.  In 1995, fossil fuels made up 87 percent of our energy.  By 2015, this had fallen to 86 percent.  And even this may overstate the case, since the reported decline in coal use may be exaggerated:

“Here are four maddeningly compelling reasons to be skeptical of a coal downturn:

  • Data: Our atmosphere shows no sign of it.
  • History: China has huge under-reporting problems.
  • Human nature: Growing pressure to under-report and no way to catch it.
  • Money: New coal plant construction is booming worldwide.”

One reason for the failure to make inroads into global fossil fuel consumption is that the massive deployment of modern renewables (as opposed to wood burning and hydroelectric) has taken place largely in government policy documents and the futurist imaginations of green-tech journalists, rather than in the real world.  As energy expert Kurt Cobb explains:

“I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world’s energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.

“Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.

“The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.”

Insofar as modern renewables replace – rather than add to – our energy consumption, they displace the coal used in electricity generation.  However, electricity accounts for just 20 percent of global energy.  Transport, temperature control, agriculture and heavy industry account for the remaining 80 percent.  Moreover, a large part of their energy requirements can only be met with fossil fuels.  For example, high-temperature industrial processes like the manufacture of concrete or (ironically) silicon-based photovoltaic solar panels depend upon temperatures that are too high to be generated with modern renewables.

A big problem rests with the technology itself.  As with overoptimistic green-tech journalism, models that purport to show the feasibility of 100 percent renewable energy systems reside primarily inside their author’s heads, where uncomfortable objections (like the cost of intermittency to the wider economy) do not have to be entertained.  As a recent Science Direct paper by Clara F. Heuberger and Niall Mac Dowell explains:

“Problems can arise if models are used in a wider decision-making context, as evidence for investments, policies, or shaping of public opinion. Here, models should exhibit a certain level of mathematical rigor, data accuracy and ‘up-to-dateness,’ and transparency. It has been recognized that some energy system models inadequately consider essential system operability requirements, for example, with respect to the power and transmission system.  It is hence questionable if such scenarios propose realizable pathways…

“Given sufficient investment, an expanded transmission and distribution network can increase system resilience and facilitate a higher penetration of intermittent renewable power generation due to the spatially and temporally distributed nature of wind and solar resources.  However, the required transmission grid expansion or storage capacity requirements could be significant in terms of size and cost. In addition, if system security and quality of supply are not to be compromised, dispatchable back-up capacity remains an essential component of the energy mix.”

Similar issues are reported by Benjamin Sovacool, who sought anecdotal evidence from key stakeholders in the energy systems of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – countries that are among the world leaders in new renewable development and deployment:

“Those interviewed were selected to represent the diverse array of stakeholders involved with electricity mobility, including electricity supply technology and infrastructure, policy and practice, and included experts from national government ministries, agencies, and departments; local government ministries, agencies, and departments; universities and research institutes; electricity suppliers and utilities; and other private sector companies.

“We find that those interviewed identified no less than 40 distinct electricity challenges facing the Nordic region. The integration of renewables was by far the most frequently mentioned (14.5%) of the expert sample. Five other challenges were also mentioned the most frequently by respondents: electrification of transport and other sectors (10.6%), managing intermittency (8.8%), carbon intensity (8.4%), supporting local grids (8.4%), and adequate capacity (8.4%). Interestingly, items such as energy efficiency, consumer awareness, industry, energy security, and public opposition were mentioned by only 1.8% (or less).”

Once again, the public understanding of new renewables is at odds with the major challenges expressed by those charged with delivering an energy transition that most likely will never happen.  This makes renewable energy a serious but currently excluded political issue.  Because both politicians and the public at large believe something that is simply untrue: that a 100 percent carbon-free energy system is possible and that we are a long way down the path to achieving it.

The horns of our true dilemma are, first, that for environmental reasons we have to decarbonise; and second, that the increasing cost of extracting fossil fuels will force us to in any case.  That is a problem because our current private and public debt load requires continuous economic growth that is itself closely coupled to energy growth.  Without the ability to raise new capital (i.e take on new debt) and without a reasonably healthy “real economy” there is simply no way that we can hope even to achieve a 50:50 balance of carbon-free and fossil fuel energy mix.

The political question that follows from this is: what is Plan B?

My tentative answer to this is that perhaps we should cease trying to address climate change and resource depletion on the supply side and instead begin to construct some realistic models of the kind of society we will be able to operate at a much lower level of energy consumption.  I suspect that the reason this “solution” is seldom even entertained is that, at our current technological level, at best it would involve a major drop in living standards… particularly for western elites.  And that prospect upsets a lot of feelings.

As you made it to the end…

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