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 counties 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:
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 have permanent 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!”
As you made it to the end…
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