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The renewable road to extinction

When contemporary economists, politicians and journalists proclaimed the imminent arrival of “peak oil demand,” they were hardly espousing a new idea.  In fact, they were merely repeating an idea that was doing the rounds in the 1850s – an idea that was thoroughly debunked.

In those days, it was coal rather than oil demand that was supposedly peaking.  The first phase of British industrialisation was complete.  A new network of steam railways had been constructed.  And the Atlantic was crossed with regularity by a new fleet of steam ships.  The quest for efficiency had begun.

As new and increasingly efficient steam technologies emerged, philosophers of the day began to worry about the impact of peak demand on the British coal industry.  Pretty soon, they argued, the industrial economy’s need for coal would fall.  When then would happen to all of those coal miners who would suddenly be without work?

As we now know, “peak coal demand” was a fantasy.  The British – and later global – demand for coal just kept on growing.  It was actual “peak coal” – the point when coal extraction falls – that was the real threat to the British coal industry; not the technologies that were powered by coal.  In 1913, British coal output reached its peak; setting the stage for the periodic outbreaks of strikes and disputes that marred the UK industrial relations landscape throughout the twentieth century.

In his 1865 book, The Coal Question, mathematician William Stanley Jevons was the first to explain why peak coal demand did not put in an appearance in the nineteenth century.  Jevons observed that the paradoxical consequence of developing increasingly efficient technologies was that people used more of the coal that the technology purported to save.  Why was this so?  Jevons observed that fuel-efficient technology serves to lower the price of the fuel being conserved.  The result is that more people can then afford to burn that fuel.  As a consequence, across the economy as a whole, fuel consumption rises.

The recent “peak oil demand” claims are essentially the same as those made about coal in the mid-nineteenth century.  A new generation of energy-efficient electrical technologies – including, especially, electric cars – will supposedly wean us off our addiction to oil; ushering in a new, bright green, zero-carbon “knowledge economy.”

What makes this fantasy so persuasive to people in the West is the way globalisation has geographically separated extraction, manufacturing and consumption.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the regions of the world that do most of the consuming, can kid ourselves that we have transcended the dirty, carbon-spewing economies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  As we sit in front of our energy-efficient computers or staring into our energy-efficient smartphones, it is easy to believe that our energy consumption has fallen dramatically.  Look for a moment at the energy consumption in the data centres that enable this activity and we begin to see that energy is still a problem.  However, even this pales into insignificance against the energy that was consumed in the process of extracting the minerals needed to build and maintain that infrastructure and those energy-efficient devices; or the energy involved in manufacturing and transporting the finished goods.

The reality is that our carbon/pollution footprints are even greater today than ever.  We have merely offshored our pollution to someone else’s country.

One way we know this is by examining the effect of Western economic crises – such as the one in 2008 – on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere:

Global carbon emissions 2007-17
Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 – my annotation

When the economies of the USA, Europe and Japan succumbed to financial chaos in 2008, the result was an immediate and large fall in global carbon dioxide emissions.  This happened because the drop in consumption in the west led to a fall in demand in the manufacturing and extractive regions of the world.  We experienced something similar between 2014 and 2016 when official statistics told us that the economy was growing at less than one percent.  The carbon emissions figures suggest that rather than economic growth, we actually experienced a minor recession during the period.

From mid-2016, however, the global economy appeared to get back to its usual polluting ways.  As Bob Dudley, Group chief executive of BP laments in the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018:

“Prior to 2017, there had been three successive years of little or no growth in carbon emissions from energy consumption… That progress partially reversed last year. Growth in energy demand picked up as gains in energy efficiency slowed, coal consumption increased for the first time in four years, and carbon emissions from energy consumption grew.”

Dudley attributes the fall in energy consumption and carbon emissions between 2014 and 2016 to energy efficiency.  If so, then the 2017 increase confirms the Jevons paradox.  More likely, however, is that the crash in oil prices – due to falling demand in the West – in mid-2014 had finally caused economic activity to pick up in 2017; resulting in the recent upward trend in oil prices that may well cause the economy to stall once more.

In the same report, Spencer Dale, BP Group chief economist attempts to gloss over the global failure to achieve anything resembling an energy transition:

“Global energy markets in 2017 took a backward step in terms of the transition to a lower carbon energy system: growth in energy demand, coal consumption and carbon emissions all increased. But that should be seen in the context of the exceptional outcomes recorded in the previous three years. Some backsliding was almost inevitable.

“The road to meeting the Paris climate goals is likely to long and challenging, with many twists and turns, forward lurches and backward stumbles. To navigate our progress will require timely, comprehensive and relevant data.”

The trouble is that we are not on the road to meeting the Paris climate goals at all.  Rather, we are on the superhighway that takes us to the destruction of the one biosphere in the universe that we know to be capable of sustaining life.  That superhighway may well be lined with solar panels and wind turbines; but these, too, suffer from the Jevons paradox.

Superficially, of course, the electricity that we have generated using wind turbines and solar panels might otherwise have been generated with coal.  But this misses the deeper point – it is still energy that we have added to our total consumption.  To illustrate this, imagine that we had, at any time in the last couple of decades, simply switched from a growing economy to a sustained economy:

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

If we had maintained our global energy consumption at its 1992 level, we could have removed the equivalent of our entire 2017 coal, hydroelectric and renewables consumption.  If we had switched to a sustainable economy in 1998, we could have saved the equivalent of our current coal and renewables.  Even as recently as 2004 we might have saved almost the equivalent of our 2017 coal consumption.  Note also that renewables – the thin orange sliver beneath coal on the chart – have barely dented out energy mix.  Indeed, had we ceased growing the economy in 2015, we could have saved the energy equivalent of all of our renewables… which is another way of saying that renewable energy makes but a tiny difference in the grand scheme of things (the 2008 financial crisis had a bigger impact).

Worse still; modern renewables like wind turbines and solar panels account for less than three percent of global energy consumption.  Biomass is by far the biggest source of “renewable energy.”  But there is growing concern that biomass is not renewable at all. Biofuels such as the corn ethanol produced in the USA come at the expense of land that will be needed for food in future.  When the fuel inputs involved in growing, transporting and refining the corn are added up, it turns out that bioethanol uses more fossil fuels than it replaces.

Most biofuel is far more primitive, however.  It is the old pre-industrial practice of burning wood; but scaled-up to industrial levels.  Initially, the idea had been that sawdust and wood shavings from the timber industry would be formed into pellets that could be burned in coal power stations such as Drax in the UK.  Since this was wood waste, and since the trees were being replaced, this could be treated as renewable.  Inevitably, as demand for this supposedly “green” energy grew, so supplies of waste timber were quickly exhausted.  Instead, the wood burning power stations turned to virgin forests to feed their insatiable demand:

“Huge areas of hardwood forest in the state of Virginia are being chainsawed to create ‘biomass’ energy in Britain as the government attempts to reach targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in efforts to tackle climate change, an investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches has found…

“The power station giant claims that burning pellets instead of coal reduces carbon emissions by more than 80 percent.  However, Dispatches conducted a simple experiment at a laboratory at the University of Nottingham to compare the carbon dioxide emitted when burning wood pellets, similar to those used by Drax, instead of coal.  It found that to burn an amount of wood pellets that would generate the same amount of electricity as coal it would actually produce roughly eight percent more carbon.

“Biomass is viewed as ‘carbon neutral’ under European rules. This means Drax is not obliged to officially report the carbon emissions coming out of its chimney stack. Dispatches calculated that if Drax were to report on the full extent of its emissions it would show that last year they amounted to 11.7 million tonnes of CO2.”

Once again, we see the Jevons paradox in action, as an energy source that is supposed to curb our energy consumption serves only to increase it.  Indeed, putting a green gloss on what is a highly polluting energy source adds to the problem because lawmakers are persuaded to subsidise it and legislate in its favour.

The truth is – and this is clearly evident in the two charts above – that there are but two ways of cutting carbon emissions.  In 2008, we demonstrated that economic contraction causes energy consumption, and thus carbon emissions to fall.  Similar, although smaller, falls were experienced when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash.  Understanding this helps us understand why politicians sign up to sweeping agreements to reduce carbon emissions while behaving as if climate change was not occurring.  Given the choice between economic collapse today and a global holocaust at some unspecified time in future, they’ll (we’ll) take the economy every time.

What about the second way of cutting carbon emissions?  This is the real killer.  The alternative to reversing the economy is to find some yet-to-be-invented energy source or energy-harnessing technology that can provide us with vastly more energy than fossil fuels, and that is carbon-negative.  Such energy sources exist in the shape of uranium, plutonium and thorium; each of which has an energy density hundreds of thousands of times greater than oil.  But even our best scientific and engineering establishments have no idea how to use that energy potential for anything more than boiling giant pressure cookers to make highly expensive, nineteenth century steam.  Like nuclear fusion, technologies to unleash the full energy potential of nuclear are so far in the future as to be irrelevant.

Meanwhile, wind, solar, tides and waves have so little energy density that they are simply too expensive to concentrate on more than a (relatively) small scale.  Certainly, we have, collectively, made a Herculean effort to de-carbonise our economy through a combination of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency measures.  We have spent billions of dollars and we have produced unsustainable exponential growth in this area.  But it has failed.  Even as we have developed and deployed renewables, we have consumed energy at an even greater rate.

The road we are on involves little more than deploying the green window-dressing of wind and solar while desperately hoping that someone will figure out a way of generating energy that simultaneously sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  It is, to say the least, an incredibly dangerous path to follow; because if no such technology emerges the environmental devastation that follows will be on a par with the extinction of the dinosaurs.  But the alternative path – of collapsing the economy – is far too immediate in its impact for anyone with the power of decision to take it… dinosaurs indeed!

As you made it to the end…

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