24 November 2014

Abundant Clean Renewables? Think Again!

Although “renewable” energy is growing faster than ever before, it is neither carbon neutral, “clean” nor sustainable. We need to transform into low-energy societies that meet human – not corporate – needs.

Renewable energy is growing faster than ever before. Sure, some countries are lagging behind, but others are setting widely praised records.

Germany has installed over 24,000 wind turbines and 1.4 million solar panels, and renewables generate 31 percent of the country’s electricity on average – and as much as 74 percent on particularly windy or sunny days. According to the German government, 371,400 jobs have been created by renewable energy. Norway generates 99 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. Denmark already generates 43 percent of electricity from renewables and aims to phase out fossil fuel burning by 2050.

Many view such news as rays of hope in a rapidly destabilizing climate. We all need some good news – but is renewables expansion really the good news people like to think? Can we really put our hopes for stabilizing the climate into trying to simply replace the energy sources in a growth-focused economic and social model that was built on fossil fuels? Or do we need a far more fundamental transition towards a low-energy economy and society?

Here’s the first problem with celebratory headlines over renewables: Record renewable energy hasn’t stopped record fossil fuel burning, including record levels of coal burning. Coal use is growing so fast that the International Energy Authority expects it to surpass oil as the world’s top energy source by 2017.

Perhaps the 1,500 gigawatts of electricity produced from renewables worldwide have prevented a further 1,500 gigawatts of fossil fuel power stations? Nobody can tell. It’s just as possible that renewables have simply added 1,500 gigawatts of electricity to the global economy, fueled economic growth and ever-greater industrial resource use. In which case, far from limiting carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, renewables may simply have increased them because, as discussed below, no form of large-scale energy is carbon neutral.

Germany’s Energy Transition illustrates the problem: Wind turbines and solar panels have certainly become a widespread feature of Germany’s landscape. Yet if we look at Germany’s total energy use (including heating and transport), rather than just at electricity, energy classed as renewable accounts for just 11.5 percent. The majority, 87.8 percent, of Germany’s energy continues to come from fossil fuels and nuclear power (with waste incineration accounting for the difference of 0.7 percent). Coal consumption, which had been falling until 2008, has been rising again since then. Germany remains the European Union’s (EU) top coal consumerNet electricity exports are being blamed for the rise in coal burning and carbon dioxide emissions, yet they account for just 5 percent of Germany’s electricity – and electricity accounts for less than half of the country’s energy use.

The picture looks even worse when one examines the mix of energy classed as renewable in Germany: Solar photovoltaic (PV) makes up 11.5 percent of renewables, wind, 16.8 percent. The bulk of it – 62 percent – comes from bioenergy, much of which is far from low carbon or sustainable. It includes biofuels, many of them made from imported soya and palm oil that are being expanded at the expense of tropical forests and peatlands and that destroy the livelihoods of small farmers, indigenous and other forest dependent peoples worldwide. It includes biogas made from 820,000 hectares of corn monocultures in Germany – a key driver for biodiversity loss in the country. And it includes wood pellets linked to forest degradation across Central Europe. On closer examination, therefore, 24,000 wind turbines and 1.4 million solar panels have scarcely made a dent in Germany’s fossil fuel burning and carbon emissions.

Norway’s situation is unique in that virtually all of the country’s electricity is generated from hydro dams, which were gradually expanded over the course of more than a century. Fossil fuels (mostly oil) still surpass renewable energy in Norway’s overall energy mix (with electricity accounting for less than half of the total), though only marginally so, and Norway’s economy remains heavily dependent on oil and gas exports.

Norway’s own hydro dams – many of them small-scale – have raised little controversy but the same cannot be said for Norway’s efforts to export this model to other countries. The Norwegian government and the state-owned energy company Statkraft have been at the forefront of financing controversial dams and associated infrastructure in Laos, India, Malaysian Borneo and elsewhere. One example is Statkraft’s joint venture investment in a new dam in Laos that has displaced 4,800 people and is causing flooding, erosion, and loss of fisheries and land on which people relied for growing rice.

Another example is Norwegian aid for transmission lines for mega-dams in Sarawak, a Malaysian province in Borneo which has seen vast areas of tropical rainforest – and the livelihoods of millions of indigenous peoples – sacrificed for palm oil, logging and also hydro power. One dam alone displaced 10,000 people and at least 10 more dams are planned, despite ongoing resistance from indigenous peoples. Far from being climate-friendly, hydro dams worldwide are associated with large methane emissions – with one study suggesting they are responsible for 25 percent of all human-caused methane emissions and over 4 percent of global warming. The disastrous consequences of Norway’s global hydro power investment illustrates the dangers of the simplistic view that anything classed as renewable energy must be climate-friendly and merits support.

What about the much-heralded renewable transition of Denmark? There coal use is falling and around 21 percent of total energy is sourced from renewables. Denmark holds the world record for wind energy capacity compared to population size. Unlike many other countries where wind energy is firmly controlled by large energy companies, Denmark has seen strong support for locally owned wind energy cooperatives, widely considered an inspiring example of clean, community-controlled energy. Nonetheless, wind energy in Denmark accounted for just 3.8 percent of Denmark’s total energy use in 2010.

Bioenergy accounts for a far greater percentage of Denmark’s “renewable energy” than does wind – and indeed for a greater share in the country’s overall energy mix than is the case in any other European country. As in Germany, Denmark’s bioenergy includes biofuels for transport, which studies show tend to be worse for the climate than equivalent quantities of oil once all the direct and indirect emissions from deforestation, peatland destruction and other land use change associated with them are accounted for. And it includes wood pellets, with Denmark being the EU’s, and likely the world’s, second biggest pellet importer after the United Kingdom. Most of those pellets come from the Baltic states and Russia, from countries where clear-cutting of highly biodiverse forests is rampant. Studies show that burning wood from whole trees can be worse for the climate than burning coal over a period of decades or even centuries.

Thus, on closer inspection, many of the “great renewable energy successes” don’t look so great after all.

Clearly, the current catch-all definition of “renewables” is a key problem: Defining methane-spewing mega-dams, biofuels, which are accelerating deforestation and other ecosystem destruction, or logging forests for bioenergy as “renewable” helps policy makers boost renewables statistics, while helping to further destabilize planetary support systems. As long as energy sources that are as carbon-intensive and destructive as fossil fuels are classed as “renewable,” boosting renewable energy around the world risks doing more harm than good.

A saner definition of “renewable energy” clearly is vital but would it open the door toward 100 percent clean and plentiful energy? Comparing the rate of wind energy expansion in Denmark and wind and solar power expansion in Germany with the tiny contribution they make to both countries’ total energy supply indicates otherwise.

Wind and solar power require far less land per unit of energy than biomass or biofuels, but the area of land needed to replace fossil fuel power stations with, say, wind turbines is vast nonetheless. According to a former scientific advisor to the UK government, for example, 15 offshore wind turbines installed on every kilometer of the UK coastline would supply just 13 percent of the country’s average daily energy use. And offshore turbines are more efficient than onshore ones.

Researchers agree that the life-cycle impacts of wind and solar power on the climate and environment are definitely smaller than those of fossil fuels, as long as turbines and panels are sensibly sited (not, for example, on deep peat). But this doesn’t mean that the impacts are benign. Generating that 13 percent of UK energy from offshore wind would require wind turbines made of 20 million tons of steel and concrete - more than all the steel that went into US shipbuilding during World War II. Steel manufacturing is heavily dependent on coal, not just as a fuel for the furnaces but because it is needed to enrich the raw material, iron ore, with carbon to make it stable. And concrete is hardly “carbon neutral” either – cement (a key component) accounts for 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Solar PV panels are up to four times as energy and carbon-intensive to produce as wind turbines: Aluminum – used to mount and construct solar panels – is about as carbon and energy-intensive as steel. Silicon needs to be smelted at 2,000 degrees Celsius and materials used to replace silicon have an even higher environmental footprint. Then there’s an array of highly toxic and corrosive chemicals used during manufacturing. Yet with regards to pollution, building wind and marine turbines is likely worse than making solar panels, because efficient and lasting turbine magnets rely on rare earth mining and refining. One 5-megawatt turbine requires a ton of rare earths, the mining and refining of which will leave behind 75 cubic meters of toxic acidic waste water and one ton of radioactive sludge. Two-thirds of the world’s rare earths are refined in one town in China, where people have become environmental refugees and virtually all who remain suffer from ill health associated with toxic chemicals and radiation. In the quest for “clean energy” rare earths mines are being sought and opened around the globe. The only US rare earths mine, Molycorp’s in California, has been reopened, after having been shut down due to a long history of repeated spills of toxic and radioactive waste. Since reopening, the operators have already been fined for spilling yet more hazardous waste.

Zero-carbon, clean energy? Well, no. And yet, there are no large-scale energy sources with lower carbon emissions and less harmful environmental impacts than wind and solar power. As one scientist argues from the perspective of thermodynamics: “To talk about ‘renewable energy’ or ‘sustainable energy’ is an oxymoron, as is ‘sustainable mining’ or ‘sustainable development.’ The more energy we use, the less sustainable is humanity.”

We certainly need to swiftly end fossil fuel burning and the destruction of ecosystems and that will require us to rely on the least harmful energy sources such as wind and solar power. But the myth of plentiful “clean” energy stops us from focusing on the far deeper changes needed – a transformation toward a low-energy society. A depressing conclusion? Not necessarily. As UK climate change campaigner and author George Marshall has pointed out, we could cut flights (and probably all transport emissions) and slash energy used for home heating by 80 percent overnight by going back to the way people used to live as short a time ago as 1972, provided we used home insulation and efficient boiler technology developed since then. Instead, 40 years of efficiency gains have been wiped out by ever-greater consumption. Yet UK “personal satisfaction” surveys show that people’s sense of satisfaction or happiness peaked in 1970. Once people’s basic needs for energy are met, rising energy use remains vital for corporate profits and economic growth, but not for people’s quality of life.

Most readers will have never lived in a low-energy society. Imagining what such a society might look like and how to move toward the transformation required to get there, and to overcome the corporate interests that depend on profits from ever rising energy use, must be priorities for anyone aware of the seriousness of climate change. Daunting no doubt, but once we’ve abandoned faith in plentiful “clean” energy, we can finally make a start.

Please tell us your thoughts and reactions in the comments section below. Thanks. 

Originally published in Truthout here. Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.


Almuth Ernsting helped to found Biofuelwatch in 2006. She has researched and published about a wide range of issues related to bioenergy, including the climate, social and biodiversity impacts of biofuels and wood-based biomass, public health impacts of biomass and biofuel power stations and the science and policy debate related to proposed use of biomass for geoengineering, especially biochar and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage.

Rachel Smolker is a co director of Biofuelwatch and an organizer with Energy Justice Network. She has researched, written and organized on the impacts of biofuels, bioenergy and biochar on land use, forests, biodiversity, food, people and the climate. She works at all levels, from community organizing to international UN Convention negotiation processes. She is a member of the Climate Justice Now network and has worked to oppose market-based solutions to climate change and other “false solutions.” She contributes regularly to Huffington Post and to Global Justice Ecology project’s “New Voices on Climate Change. She is the daughter of one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund and participated in a protest against that organization because of the key role EDF played in advocating market-based solutions to climate change. Rachel has a Ph.D. in ecology/biology from the University of Michigan and worked previously as a field biologist, gaining firsthand experience with the complex balance between the needs of people and the ecological systems they depend upon. She is author of To Touch A Wild Dolphin (Doubleday 2001) and lives in Vermont.

pintada says:

Nice summary.

David Hojo says:

The implied mechanisms behind unsustainable systems have more to do with the energy production industry is seems (and you suggest as much). I perceived the indirect implications of the article as surrounding population and our use of energy. Rather than dance around that concept by analyzing how we shift our sources of energy, or the language used for energy production, we (myself including) really need to directly address the use. Unsustainable population growth coupled with what I would describe as energy intensive technology addiction (extremism? Maybe.). You infer this though you do so indirectly or tangentially. By simply showing that the renewable sector is neither sustainable or necessarily desirable does not help suggest the inevitable “power down.” Worse, it gives the carbon intensive sector fodder to suggest that renewable energies are just a scam.

mary says:

This article is spot on.
We keep expanding out technology with the idea that it will better our society, but not unless every human on earth, not only has access to that technology, but is also knowledgeable and capable in creating it for themselves. Otherwise the same problems exist. We are so out of touch with the reality of how things actually get accomplished. If you drive one miles, how much gas did that take? Did you dill for that oil? Did you refine it? Did you obtain all the permits necessary to drill where you drilled? Did you create the machinery to drill? Where did you get the steel from? Did yo i get i t from the same place you got the steel you used to make th r car h out drove? All these things had to happen in order for any one person to get in there car and drive anywhere. And we did not do any of that. If we had to, wed stop driving and just walk everywhere.

Nick H-B says:

Well I’ve already found a factual inconsistency after 2 minutes:

“And it includes wood pellets, with Denmark being the EU’s, and likely the world’s, second biggest pellet importer after the United Kingdom. Most of those pellets come from the Baltic states and Russia, from countries where clear-cutting of highly biodiverse forests is rampant.”

Whereas the source actually says:

Main Suppliers of Wood Pellets to EU
(1,000 MT)
United States 2,766
Canada 1,921
Russia 702
Ukraine 165
Belarus 116
Other 375

Since Denmark’s demand is 2,312 it cannot possibly get ‘most’ of its pellets from ‘Baltic states and Russia’.

Thanks for this analysis and debunking of the beneficence of “green” energy. It’s time to give up magical thinking about techno-fixes and get serious about ending all harm to the planet, whether the obvious (burning of fossil fuels) or that repackaged as “sustainable” (mining metals and other materials, and using fossil fuels to assemble them into solar panels and wind turbines). While reducing electricity and other fuel consumption will slow the rate of inflicted damage, ultimately all industrial activity needs to stop for us to achieve sustainability.

Deep Green Resistance just added a new page on this topic to our website, drawing similar conclusions as this piece: Green Technology & Renewable Energy. Worth a read if you’re interested in this subject.

Des Pensable says:

I think the argument here is very good and quite correct. There is definitely a wide spread belief that if the world switches too renewable energy then all is good. It is a false belief as the continual growth economic model used by the is false. There are physical limits to how many people the world can sustain and its already been exceeded. Currently the world is growing at the cost to the ecosystems which are the life support system on Earth.
The sustainable size is 2 billion, the current size is 7 billion with estimates of 12 billion by 2050. With about 1/3 people going to bed without an evening meal now… in 2050 if there is that many 2/3 will be without an evening meal. Is that really a world that we want our children to live in. WE need a complete new economic model based upon social values and sustainability. At present there is no incentive to move in that direction. After a significant Global Warming induces catastrophe there maybe. Only time will tell.

A. R. E. D. says:

Great article and mostly right on, including the comments!

Bottom line is there are too many of us and too many of those wanting to live a comfortable, easy life. When we began to settle in one spot, becoming farmers and storing food, we began to change the way we lived and how we affected our resources, hence the planet. The issues we face today have been a long time a’brewing. Our sedentary, more in place life styles gave us the opportunities to “develop” techniques and machines to make life much easier, thus we were able to live longer, have more children, and in turn grew in greater numbers. Any living being that grows to too great a number will have a negative impact on the place in which it lives, especially if it lives permanently in the same areas.

And, those greater numbers have kept wanting better, more comfortable live styles – constantly wanting more of everything. Even 50 years ago we had a lesser impact on this planet, because we did not have as much stuff, did not travel as much, nor did we produce/manufacture as much, and corporations were just beginning to get a stranglehold on the way our economy functions. I have lived on this planet for 78 years and I have seen changes that astound me, and I am not talking about technological changes such as TV, computers, I-phones, cell phones, etc. I am talking about how we live, eat, and shop, how we treat our environment, and how we have expanded our commercial and private dwellings and our roads, highways, and freeways into what used to be farm and forest lands. We have covered much of this planet with buildings and concrete and other forms of pavement and in the process of doing that, along with the hungry quest for such things as more wood to build with, and cheaper materials with which to build and feed us, we have all but destroyed much of what used to be pristine forests, prairies, and jungles. And of course then there is the whole food issue, which I won’t even delve into here. Much of this has been done under the name of “progress.” I cringe every time I hear that word. From where I sit, the term progress simply means destruction in the name of humans wanting more of everything. So, the bottom line is: First, there are too many of us, we need to curtail our reproduction, in a big way. Secondly, we absolutely must stop buying things just because we want them and can….that would stop much of the manufacturing problems. Thirdly we must do what Mary (above) says, make our own of most things. Grow your own food, make your own material and clothing, make your tools, and on and on. That would drastically change everything. You would have less time to be running around in your car, less time to be spending money on things you don’t need, thus you would need less money, and in the process you would begin to realize that all you really need is a warm shelter – not a McMansion – some warm clothing – not designer jeans, et al – and good wholesome food – not processed food, already cooked for you food, or GMO food. And, one of the things this would create in turn is better communities; communities that worked together and supported one another and had stronger ties to one another so there would be less loneliness, less crime, less homelessness, less hunger, less disengagement, and a much better sense of belonging and connection to the real world, not the world that has been manufactured by corporations in an effort make billions off of the general populace for the benefit of the few. And, it is up to us, each individual – we are the ones who are supporting all of the issues at hand today. When was the last time you didn’t buy something you didn’t need? When was the last time you grew your own food? When was the last time you walked or rode your bike (providing you could do either) to visit someone or go to the grocery store for something you couldn’t grow? When was the last time you said no, I won’t support a corporation another moment? When was the last time you stopped and questioned yourself about what you really need in order to live your life? When was the last time you stopped and took a deep breath of fresh air and saw the stars??? When were you last truly in tune with nature?

Annette says:

Hello people. I suppose this article which seems to be well researched, is just re-inforced by my own resolve, but it is only looking at part of what is being done and needs to be done. I think we all agree here that time is running out to make deliberate moves in any particular direction – but I am no Guy McPherson to believe that we really have the power to completely snuff out life. Somehow we have got to cut the Earth a bit of slack.

To A.R.E.D. – I have questioned all my life and for the past few years, since I realised how much on the climate tipping point we are, I have thought of very little else – especially in the last year when the personal impacts of the added heat are so wearying. I am over 50 years old and I can remember a better way to live on the planet. As I got older and saw what was changing around me I felt less and less at ease. You can see our balance with “resources” going wrong – like one can feel a crash coming on when one is half asleep at the wheel. What a generation to be part of… What a life.

My father is 87 and is spending his savings on patenting a device (which he invented abour 50 years ago) to get power from ocean waves – low size, low tech, close to shore and made using locally available materials and manufacture. There are amazing inventions out there, from lamps that run on algae and absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide to the “sky cool” silica-based, super sun-reflective paint developed by the CSIRO in Australia, as well as all the variations of solar wind and geothermal. The problem is not with lack of technology. There are things like my father’s invention out there that you have never heard of… It is, as Almuth and Rachel point out in the article and everyone here seems to agree, a matter of lifestyle, consumption, bad governance and corporate pressure.

In Australia, one of our regions has a refund price on packaging; another region tried to follow suit and their government was sued by Coca Cola to stop the scheme. My family and I live on recycled food, collected for animals but too good to waste. So much of it is highly over-wrapped in plastic as there is such a fetish for hygiene and perfect shape amongst food buyers. The retail system, recreation, medicine, education, economics, transport, politics; everything is designed to be as formulaic as possible. I don’t think the people on this page fall for all of this, but what do YOU take as a necessity?

So, it’s got to stop. The alternative economists will tell us that when the global economy crashes, the infrastructure we have in place will just gradually degrade. Maybe that is how it must be. Perhaps there will be pockets of learning and high tech survival in the chaos like there were during Europe’s dark ages after the fall of Rome. I don’t know that I care, I just want the crash to come ASAP, so that the Earth is relieved of this relentless corporate degradation. Most of our population will be knocked out, but perhaps pockets will survive and learn from the experience. What, in part, we are doing here is informing the world as to the cause of the coming chaos. We are believers in science here, but perhaps the remnants of Humanity will really have to bring in indigenous style prohibitions on “Earth Harm”.

Back to here and now – typing on my computer and drinking my coffee – sourced from the other side of the globe, possibly grown by child or slave labour, chemically treated and from crops that have displaced natural environments and are already being affected by anthropogenic climate change in their reduced yields. Sorry… It would not do all that much good to the Earth if I committed suicide. It is much better for the Earth for me to be doing this writing – talking with people across the globe. It is good for the Earth for me to do what I have done this year, which is two arrestable lock-ons against a huge coal mine under construction in the middle of an old-growth remnant forest. When built, this mine will have the emmissions of a new OECD country for 30 years. I know that I cannot do much by myself, but if I am part of a movement that bankrupts this coalmine, any coalmine, every fossil fuel mine; perhaps that will make a difference.

ben Courtice says:

So do we want to keep building renewable energy, or not?

The article is demonstrably false on the claim that large wind turbines necessarily use a ton of rare earths. See http://yes2renewables.org/2012/03/06/rare-earth-magnets-not-all-new-turbines-are-using-them/

The notion that wind turbines (or solar panels or whatever) use too much energy/materials is also problematic. Typically, the energy used in construction is repaid in the first years if not months of operation; often within ten months in the case of a wind turbine. Some processes (concrete, steel) still create carbon emissions with current technology, but these are tiny compared to the amount of coal/gas/oil not burned as a result of building the turbine.

I find articles like this very frustrating because they are too often cited as evidence that greenies don’t really believe renewables can supply our needs, so we need nuclear/coal/etc.

Of course everyone supporting renewable energy as a climate solution thinks we need to use less energy wherever we can. See http://bze.org.au/buildings for one well researched example.

It’s true that Europe should not be held up as the shining example of what to do, thought. On that, the article has some useful points. Europe needs to go a lot further a lot faster, it only looks good by comparison to a laggard like Australia.

I say careful what we wish for. The world’s largest solar plant is run by NRG a large nuclear, coal, and gas generator, and was built by Bechtel. It uses technology developed for enhanced oil recovery and uses gas to generate energy at night. The question is which way our consent for renewables at-any-cost is being manufactured. To my mind the most dangerous ideas are promulgated by NGO’s who pump slick and not so slick content into the messaging sphere.

ben Courtice says:

^Michael Swifte:
so what do you wish for? To keep getting energy from nukes and gas?

The Ivanpah solar thermal (if that’s the one you mean) does indeed use gas at night. Otherwise, the technology is compatible with energy storage to produce 100% renewable energy night and day, and this is how it is predominantly used in Spain and at the Crescent Dunes facility in the US.

Of course these plants are built by companies like Bechtel. Do you think that renewable energy must wait til after the revolution? Which will be led by you, naturally? Or do you think we should go and commission Earth First! or someone like that to build the plant?

Your disdain for “renewables-at-any-cost” seems more like disdain for any-renewables”.

Mike says:

The problem is not that renewables repay there embodied energy, the problem lies with the fact that manufacturing every single pice of gear emits CO2 that the devices cannot remove, because that’s not what they’re designed to do. You’d be amazed how many people think renewbles actually clean the air up……

We have reached tipping points. We cannot afford to put any more CO2 in the air, NOW… not tomorrow, not next year, NOW.

The changes that lay ahead of us are monumental. We must shut down industry and commerce before it’s too late, close down the banks and cancel all debts, and we must live more simply so we may simply live. IF there is already 10% of electricity generation installed as renewables, then we already have enough to lead a good life with no more needed.

End growth, and that means ending renewables growth.

Jonathan Maddox says:

Unfortunately this article does seem to be mostly accurate, but I still consider it deceptive. The authors plainly have a beef with bioenergy, which is somewhat justified, but they do other renewable energy sources a bit of an injustice by diminishing their real contribution to end-use energy services, relative to that provided by relatively inefficient thermal power generation and internal combustion engines.

Even accurate numbers can still be quite misleading when used as “primary energy” figures. Fuels (bio or fossil) burned to generate power or to run vehicle engines release at least double (ok, in the case of a few of the newest combined-cycle gas-fired power stations a bit less than double, but that’s an uncommon exception), sometimes four or five times as much in the form of heat as they deliver in useful energy to grid or axle, yet with clean renewables like hydro, wind and solar only the delivered electricity is counted as “primary energy”. Some stats bodies count nuclear power in electricity-only terms, others also include the thermal energy that goes up the cooling towers.

So long as primary energy is counted this way, every addition of clean renewable electricity offsets 2-3 times as much primary energy from fossil fuel or biofuels.

Shifting tasks normally performed by direct fuel-burning to electric power frequently improves the energy efficiency of the process too. Modern highly efficient electric heat pumps (reverse cycle air conditioners, or ground-source heat pumps) can shift three or four times as much warmth into or out of a building as would be represented by the electric power they use. Microwave ovens and induction cooktops deliver 90% of the energy used directly into the cooking pot, where gas hobs often let 60% or more escape around the sides of the vessel. Thanks to regenerative braking, electric vehicles, be they trains or battery-electric cars, use only 10-20% as much electric energy as the fuel energy used by equivalent internal combustion engine vehicles — if the electricity is from fossil fuel that’s a 40-60% improvement, if it’s from clean renewable energy then it’s an 80-90% improvement in efficiency.

The authors are absolutely right to point out that improved energy efficiency and/or increased energy supply from renewable sources are incapable of reducing total energy consumption in isolation, because they grow the economy at the same time as making it more efficient. Real reductions in fossil fuel consumption require actual price or policy measures to limit exactly the targeted consumption. Some of the emissions reduction schemes such as the EU carbon market are something of a failure, since price differences between different fossil fuels (eg. gas vs. lignite) are more than enough to compensate for the additional emissions cost of burning the dirtier fuel. Other measures such as the simple scarcity and increasing cost of oil and gas are leading to reduced consumption of those fuels in any case. Renewable energy and efficient consumption can enable an industrial society to continue in its prosperity even as its material consumption declines.

Ken says:

There’s a reason why alternate/renewable energy sources will not replace fossil fuels, unless there is a significant reduction in population numbers; they aren’t as dense, portable, storable, fungible (easily traded) or transformable.

Global populations cannot continue to grow unless there is a corresponding increase in easily accessible fossil fuel energy.
Global economic growth isn’t possible without a corresponding increase in “cheap” fossil fuel energy. Those days are gone along with most of the low- hanging, energy-rich fossil fruits.

Our ever-growing reliance on fracking and tarsands energy sources tells us we are at the beginning of a long, slow, painful (for a great many folks) descent towards lifestyles that are responsive to the natural rate of replenishment of renewable resource.

Will we rethink our present lifestyles? Or will we simply submit to established authority, actively doing their bidding and passively accepting the wishes of “power-hungry, amoral, manipulative, deceitful, highly prejudiced, dogmatic”, authoritarian leaders?

John P says:

For the last 22 years, I have lived on renewable energy (off grid).
My lifestyle has been low cost, comfortable, and with zero emissions.
I have arranged things so that my daily electrical demand is at 5kwh or less but I go without nothing of value.
In the context of this article, where did I go wrong?

Daniel Ferra says:

Our Current Energy Policies, using Toxic Coal, Poisoning Fracked Natural Gas, Deadly Radiated Nuclear Fuel Rods, are Destroying Our Fragile Eco-Systems an Warming Our Planet.

We Need a Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff

We need a National Feed in Tariff

A California Residential Feed in Tariff would allow homeowners to sell their Renewable Energy to the utility, protecting our communities from Poison Water, Grid Failures, Natural Disasters, Toxic Natural Gas and Oil Fracking. It would also create a new revenue stream for the Hard Working Taxpaying, Voting, Homeowner.

California Energy and Water Consumption an a Ban Fracking song

Sign and Share for a Ca. Residential Feed in Tariff. Go to the youtube site, look six inches below video, click on Show More, then click on blue link to sign the petition.

Attachments area
Preview YouTube video We Need To Ban Fracking.

David Cameron says:

Marvelous post, including comments. I intend to share the gist & link widely.
I have known about the wrongness of the “modern” path most of my life and have largely lived accordingly, often off grid, growing food, building with recycled materials, creating intentional community and sharing, sharing, sharing. But even my closest family & friends are afraid to look this closely at what has been done and the consequences not far down the road. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. We need to gather here in virtual community but also in real communities of compassionate people, to mourn together, to share seeds and recipes, to hold one another and sing, dance and forgive. Occupy! Jubilee! Regenerate! Turn to the sun and plant trees.

David Cameron says:

Anette, please find a young partner for your father to help him do a crowdfunding to put the wave-energy invention out into the commons. You see, spending time & money on getting patents is just playing the old game and can be expected to generate the same results. I’ve an old friend who also invented a remarkable wave-machine at least 30 years ago & has or had 14 patents, but he could never really let go of it and let it fly.
If it really is too late or almost too late, we haven’t the time or carbon-ceiling room to do less than radical engagement.

Klaus Wehrlin says:

I am stumbling a bit on that one:
“Yet with regards to pollution, building wind and marine turbines is likely worse than making solar panels, because efficient and lasting turbine magnets rely on rare earth mining and refining. One 5-megawatt turbine requires a ton of rare earths, the mining and refining of which will leave behind 75 cubic meters of toxic acidic waste water and one ton of radioactive sludge. Two-thirds of the world’s rare earths are refined in one town in China, where people have become environmental refugees and virtually all who remain suffer from ill health associated with toxic chemicals and radiation.”
All electricity is generated with electrical generators, question is what is the difference between a generator driven by a gas turbine, a steam turbine, a water turbine or a wind turbine. Is there necessarily a difference or can certain “undesirable” materials be banned from generator building? Apart from the fact that those rare earth magnets are used in speakers of all descriptions, motors (as used in those ghastly throwaway ink printers) CD DVD and hard drives … you name it. I am sure that the rare earth mine is problematic, but what about the coal or uranium mines, are they any better?

I do agree wholeheartedly, that our economy is not sustainable, nor is our population growth – no growth can be sustainable ever:

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