Some months ago I decided to be a vegan. I didn’t do it for any ethical or environmental reasons. I simply noticed that all of the fittest women are currently attracted to vegan men. So I figured that if I wanted to succeed in the dating stakes, I’d better dispense with eating meat. As a side benefit, of course, the current system of taxes, tariffs and subsidies favours a vegan diet; so I get to save money too.
So far, so good; but the trouble is that I continue to eat meat. I enjoy a chicken stew at least once a week, I regularly consume fish and two or three times a year I get to enjoy a fried breakfast. “Then you can’t be a vegan,” I hear you complain. But you are wrong. I am a vegan because I offset my meat purchases with additional vegetable purchases. In this way, I pay someone else to pretend that they consumed my meat while I pretend that I ate their vegetables. Ergo, despite eating meat, I am in fact a vegan.
Does this sound like nonsense to you?
It is quite preposterous for me to claim that I am a vegan despite eating meat; even if I pay for more vegetables than I consume. This, however, is precisely the greenwash nonsense that companies like Apple and Google trot out when they claim to operate on 100 percent renewable energy.
By “energy” they actually mean electricity; and by electricity they mean only the power they use directly, not the much greater quantities of electricity used in their supply and manufacturing chains. But that aside, even the electricity they consume is no more renewable than my diet is vegan. We simply do not have separate electricity grids for renewable, nuclear and fossil fuel power. It all gets lumped into one grid, and we get no choice as to where the electrons entering our homes and businesses happened to get generated. Like the rest of us, companies that claim to be 100 percent renewable have to use coal, gas and nuclear power when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. No amount of additional payments for the PR benefit of greenwash changes this fact.
Apple and Google would be entirely different – and even more frustrating – businesses if they truly were 100 percent dependent upon renewable electricity. No more downloading apps to your phone during the night and no more Internet searches when the wind isn’t blowing. This is how intermittency impacts in practice. Go beyond individual companies, and we quickly see that industrial society simply could not function on renewable electricity alone. Shopping would be a nightmare as payment systems flickered on and off. Food would go to waste because fridges and freezers would switch on and off. Banking transactions would have to be queued up for when the computers started up. Utilities like water and sewage would become unreliable as electric pumping stations failed. Moreover, the constant unpredictable losses of power would cause massive damage to electrical equipment, greatly lowering its lifespan.
Some form of yet-to-be-invented storage technology or new carbon free electricity would resolve these issues. But none currently exists. Pumped hydro remains by far the most effective form of storage; orders of magnitude cheaper and more energy dense than lithium ion batteries. However, there are simply not enough places to store all of the electricity that we would need to generate from intermittent sources to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
It is, of course, very easy to operate a 100 percent renewable energy economy. This is what humans have done for almost all of the 200,000 that we have walked this planet. But that isn’t what those who fantasise about solar and wind power really want. Rather like a pseudo-vegan who wants to bask in the virtue-status of not consuming animal products while continuing to eat meat, those who would claim to be 100 percent renewable are merely claiming the impossibility of living a fossil fuel lifestyle without the fossil fuels.
As you made it to the end…
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