During a conversation with a friend yesterday I was asked why I was so hostile toward “renewables” – or as I prefer to call them, non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies. My answer was that I am not opposed to these technologies, but rather to the role afforded to them by the Bright Green techno-utopian crowd, who continue to churn out propaganda to the effect that humankind can continue to metastasise across the universe without stopping for breath simply by replacing the energy we derive from fossil fuels with energy we harvest with wind and tide turbines, solar panels and geothermal pumps. These, I explained to my friend, will unquestionably play a role in our future; but to nowhere near the extent claimed by the proponents of green capitalism, ecosocialism or the green new deal.
It would seem that I was not alone in being asked why I was so disapproving of “renewables.” On the same day, American essayist John Michael Greer addressed the same question on his Ecosophia blog:
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m wholly in favor of renewables; they’re what we’ll have left when fossil fuels are gone; but anyone who thinks that the absurdly extravagant energy use that props up a modern lifestyle can be powered by PV cells simply hasn’t done the math. Yet you’ll hear plenty of well-intentioned people these days insisting that if we only invest in solar PV we can stop using fossil fuels and still keep our current lifestyles.”
Greer also explains why so many techno-utopians have such a starry-eyed view of “renewables” like solar panels:
“The result of [decades of development] can be summed up quite readily: the only people who think that an energy-intensive modern lifestyle can be supported entirely on solar PV are those who’ve never tried it. You can get a modest amount of electrical power intermittently from PV cells; if you cover your roof with PV cells and have a grid tie-in that credits you at a subsidized rate, you can have all the benefits of fossil fuel-generated electricity and still convince yourself that you’re not dependent on fossil fuels; but if you go off-grid, you’ll quickly learn the hard limits of solar PV.”
Greer is not alone in having to spell this out. The first article I read yesterday morning was a new post from Tim Morgan on his Surplus Energy Economics blog, where he makes the case that even if we were not facing a climate emergency, our dependence upon fossil fuels still dooms our civilisation to an imminent collapse:
“Far from ensuring ‘business as usual’, continued reliance on fossil fuel energy would have devastating economic consequences. As is explained here, the world economy is already suffering from these effects, and these have prompted the adoption of successively riskier forms of financial manipulation in a failed effort to sustain economic ‘normality’.”
The reason is what Morgan refers to as the rapidly-rising “energy cost of energy” (ECoE) – a calculation related to Net Energy and Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI). Put simply, industrial civilisation has devoured each fossil fuel beginning with the cheapest and easiest deposits and then falling back on ever harder and more expensive deposits as these run out. The result is that the amount of surplus energy left over to grow the economy after we have invested in energy for the future and in the maintenance and repair of the infrastructure we have already developed gets smaller and harder to obtain with each passing month.
Morgan sets out four factors which determine the Energy Cost of Energy:
- Geographical reach – as local deposits are exhausted, we are obliged to go further afield for replacements.
- Economies of scale – as our infrastructure develops, we rationalise it in order to keep costs to a minimum; for example, having a handful of giant oil refineries rather than a large number of small ones. Unfortunately, this is a one-off gain, after which the cost of maintenance and repair results in diminishing returns.
- Depletion – most of the world’s oil and coal deposits are now in decline, after providing the basis for the development of industrial civilisation. Without replacement, depletion dooms us to some form of degrowth.
- Technology – the development of technologies that provide a greater return for the energy invested can offset some of the rising ECoE, but like economies of scale, they come with diminishing returns and are ultimately limited by the laws of thermodynamics:
“To be sure, advances in technology can mitigate the rise in ECoEs, but technology is limited by the physical properties of the resource. Advances in techniques have reduced the cost of shale liquids extraction to levels well below the past cost of extracting those same resources, but have not turned America’s tight sands into the economic equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s al Ghawar, or other giant discoveries of the past.
“Physics does tend to have the last word.”
Morgan argues that by focusing solely on financial matters, mainstream economics misses the central role of surplus energy in the economy:
“According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – world trend ECoE rose from 2.9% in 1990 to 4.1% in 2000. This increase was more than enough to stop Western prosperity growth in its tracks.
“Unfortunately, a policy establishment accustomed to seeing all economic developments in purely financial terms was at a loss to explain this phenomenon, though it did give it a name – “secular stagnation”.
“Predictably, in the absence of an understanding of the energy basis of the economy, recourse was made to financial policies in order to ‘fix’ this slowdown in growth.
“The first such initiative was credit adventurism. It involved making debt easier to obtain than ever before. This approach was congenial to a contemporary mind-set which saw ‘deregulation’ as a cure for all ills.”
The inevitable result was the financial crash in 2008, when unrepayable debt threatened to unwind the entire global financial system. And while the financial crisis has been temporarily offset by more of the same medicine – quantitative easing and interest rate cuts – it has been the continued expansion of emerging markets that has actually kept the system limping along:
“World average prosperity per capita has declined only marginally since 2007, essentially because deterioration in the West has been offset by continued progress in the emerging market (EM) economies. This, though, is nearing its point of inflexion, with clear evidence now showing that the Chinese economy, in particular, is in very big trouble.
“As you’d expect, these trends in underlying prosperity have started showing up in ‘real world’ indicators, with trade in goods, and sales of everything from cars and smartphones to computer chips and industrial components, now turning down. As the economy of ‘stuff’ weakens, a logical consequence is likely to be a deterioration in demand for the energy and other commodities used in the supply of “stuff”.
“Simply stated, the economy has now started to shrink, and there are limits to how long we can hide this from ourselves by spending ever larger amounts of borrowed money.”
The question this raises is not simply, can we replace fossil fuels with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (Morgan refers to them as “secondary applications of primary energy from fossil fuels”) but can we deploy them at an ECoE that allows us to avoid the collapse of industrial civilisation? Morgan argues not. The techno-utopian bad habit of applying Moore’s Law to every technology has allowed economists and politicians to assume that the cost of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies will keep halving even as the energy they generate continues to double. However:
“[W]e need to guard against the extrapolatory fallacy which says that, because the ECoE of renewables has declined by x% over y number of years, it will fall by a further x% over the next y. The problem with this is that it ignores the limits imposed by the laws of physics.”
More alarming, however, is the high ECoE of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies; despite their becoming cheaper than some fossil fuel deposits:
“…there can be no assurance that the ECoE of a renewables-based energy system can ever be low enough to sustain prosperity. Back in the ‘golden age’ of prosperity growth (in the decades immediately following 1945), global ECoE was between 1% and 2%. With renewables, the best that we can hope for might be an ECoE stable at perhaps 8%, far above the levels at which prosperity deteriorates in the West, and ceases growing in the emerging economies.”
At this point, no doubt, some readers at least will be asking Morgan why he dislikes “renewables” so much. And his answer is the same as Greer’s and my own:
“These cautions do not, it must be stressed, undermine the case for transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. After all, once we understand the energy processes which drive the economy, we know where continued dependency on ever-costlier fossil fuels would lead.
“There can, of course, be no guarantees around a successful transition to renewable forms of energy. The slogan “sustainable development” has been adopted by the policy establishment because it seems to promise the public that we can tackle environmental risk without inflicting economic hardship, or even significant inconvenience.”
Morgan’s broad point here is that there is a false dichotomy between addressing environmental concerns and maintaining economic growth. The economy is toast irrespective of whether we address environment crises or not. There is not enough fossil fuel energy to prevent he system from imploding – the only real question to be answered is whether we continue with business as usual until we crash and burn or whether we take at least some mitigating actions to preserve a few of the beneficial aspects of the last 250 years of economic development. After all, having clean drinking water, enough food to ward off starvation and some basic health care would make the coming collapse easier than it otherwise might be.
The problem, however, is that even with the Herculean efforts to deploy non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies in the decades since the oil crisis in 1973, they still only account for four percent of our primary energy. As Morgan cautions, it is too easy for westerners to assume that our total energy consumption is entirely in the gas and electricity we use at home and in the fuel we put in the tanks of our vehicles. In reality this is but a tiny fraction of our energy use (and carbon footprint) with most of our energy embodied within all of the goods and services we consume. Not only does fossil fuel account for more than 85 percent of the world’s primary energy, but both BP and the International Energy Agency reports for 2018 show that fossil fuel consumption is growing at a faster rate than non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies are being installed.
Nor is there a green new deal route out of this problem. As a recent letter to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, authored by Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Prof Richard Herrington et al., warns:
“To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry…
“There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.
“Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars: If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.
“Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.
“Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.”
Put simply, there is not enough Planet Earth left for us to grow our way to sustainability. The only option open to us is to rapidly shrink our activities and our population back to something that can be sustained without further depleting the planet we depend upon. Continue with business as usual and Mother Nature is going to do to us what we did to the dodo and the passenger pigeon. Begin taking some radical action – which still allows the use of some resources and fossil fuels – to switch from an economy of desires to one of needs and at least a few humans might survive what is coming.
The final problem, though, is that very few people – including many of those who protest government inaction on the environment – are prepared to make the sacrifices required. Nor are our corporations and institutions prepared to forego their power and profits for the greater good. And that leaves us with political structures that will inevitably favour business as usual.
So no, I don’t hate “renewables” – I just regard those who blithely claim that we can deploy and use them to replace fossil fuels without breaking a sweat to be as morally bankrupt as any climate change denying politician you care to mention. There is a crash on the horizon, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the fourteenth century. When the energy cost of securing energy – whether fossil fuel, nuclear or renewable – exceeds the energy cost of sustaining the system; our ability to take mitigating action will be over. Exactly when this is going to happen is a matter of speculation (we should avoid mistaking inevitability for imminence). Nevertheless, the window for taking action is closing fast; and promising Bright Green utopias as we slide over the cliff edge is not helping anybody.
As you made it to the end…
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