Renewables Alone Won’t Save Us

Renewables Alone Won’t Save Us

A permanent high-energy economy powered by renewables is not a plausible or even desirable goal (David Huang / Flickr)

At the heart of America’s mainstream climate movement lies a contradiction.

On the one hand, the movement raises alarms about the looming eco-dystopia that grows more menacing by the day. In just the past two months, supercharged wildfires and hurricanes have laid waste to vulnerable communities from the West Coast through the Sunbelt to the Caribbean. From the austerity-strangled countryside of Puerto Rico to agricultural workers’ communities in Florida to Santa Rosa’s trailer parks, millions of Americans face an increasingly grim future. The Trump administration has piled on, treating many of those disaster victims with open contempt while at the same time doing worse than nothing about the greenhouse emissions that are feeding climate chaos.       

On the other hand, the mainstream climate movement holds out visions of a cornucopian future free of greenhouse emissions. These visions are undergirded by a series of academic studies purporting to show how America and the world could meet 100 percent of unrestrained future energy demand with solar, wind, and other “green” generation. The most widely cited are a pair of reports published in 2015 by a team led by Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University, but there have been many others.

On a basic level, the goal laid out by such studies—and embraced by the likes of Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and other icons of the mainstream climate movement—is appropriate. There’s no question that America needs to convert to fully renewable energy as quickly as possible. This image of green abundance has also been an effective mobilizing tool, as the sunny signs at the massive People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. this past April attested.

But the assumptions underlying this vision are deeply flawed—none more so than the idea that renewable generation can be revved up to meet 100 percent of unconstrained energy demand, in a country that already uses more energy per capita than almost any other on earth.

To make things worse, the 100 percent-renewable vision is merging with a broader, even more spurious claim that has become especially popular among climate “leaders” in the Trump era: the private sector, we are told, has taken the initiative on climate, and market forces will inevitably achieve the green-energy dream and solve the climate crisis on their own. In this dream, anything’s possible; Jacobson has even argued that tens of thousands of wind turbines installed offshore could tame major hurricanes.

The flaws in this approach go deeper than just technological feasibility—they confront us with some of the fundamental problems of capitalism today. Any drive to develop enough wind, water, and solar capacity to supply as much energy as America wants to buy will not only perpetuate ecological and social injustice but will also be doomed to fail. 

100 percent of demand?

Since Jacobson first started promoting his 100-percent vision in 2009, it has become dogma among liberals and mainstream climate activists. Serious energy scholars who publish analyses exposing the idea’s serious weaknesses risk being condemned as stooges of the oil industry or even as climate deniers. Just last week, Jacobson went so far as to file a $10 million lawsuit against former NOAA scientist Christopher Clack and twenty coauthors, whose critical evaluation of his work was published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in June.

Despite strong differences on the possibility of a 100-percent wind, water, and solar energy system, the Jacobson and Clack teams share one important assumption. They both seek to satisfy all future demand for energy solely through industrial production, technological improvements, efficiency, and markets, without any strict regulatory limits on the total quantity of energy consumed in production and consumption. The 100-percenters believe such a scenario is achievable almost entirely through wind, water, and solar generation, while Clack and other critics conclude that it is not, but they all agree on the ultimate goal: a permanent high-energy economy.

There’s nothing wrong with the “100-percent renewable” part of their shared goal; it’s with the “100 percent of demand” assumption that both groups go dangerously off the rails. At least in affluent countries, the challenge is not only to shift the source of our energy but to transform society so that it operates on far less end-use energy while assuring sufficiency for all. That would bring a 100-percent-renewable energy system within closer reach and avoid the outrageous technological feats and gambles required by high-energy dogma. It would also have the advantage of being possible.

Critical evaluations of the 100-percent dream didn’t start with Clack et al. For example, there was a January 2015 paper by Peter Loftus and colleagues that examined seventeen “decarbonization scenarios” and found that they lacked the rigor “to be reliable guides for policymaking.” Then earlier this year, a study by a group of Australian researchers led by B.P. Heard rated the feasibility of twenty-four published studies that describe 100-percent renewable scenarios on the scales of regions, nations, or the world.

The Heard group concluded that among the research papers they evaluated (which included several with Jacobson as lead author), none “provides convincing evidence that these basic feasibility criteria can be met.” They found a wide range of technical flaws in the proposed systems: deeply unrealistic assumptions of efficiency; failure to account for the intermittent nature of wind and solar energy without ecologically destructive levels of biomass burning or wildly unrealistic estimates of hydroelectric output; lack of resilience to future extreme weather events; and failure to expand transmission networks or prevent fluctuations in voltage and frequency. This all adds up, writes the Heard team, to a “fragile” system that will fail to deliver the promised output of electricity when it is demanded.

In their PNAS publication—the one now facing a lawsuit—Clack and colleagues critically examined two papers from 2015, including Jacobson et al’s widely hailed “roadmap” for plentiful, 100-percent renewable energy in all fifty United States. In addition to what they describe as “modeling errors,” much of the Clack critique is aimed at the Jacobson group’s assumed ubiquitous deployment of technologies that either don’t yet exist or have only been lightly tested and can’t be scaled up to the massive scales envisioned (including, for example, an entire nationwide air fleet run entirely on batteries or hydrogen, and wind farms covering 6 percent of the entire land surface of the forty-eight contiguous states.)

But even if it were physically possible to achieve all of those scale-ups, and even if Congress found a way to repeal and replace Murphy’s Law, the full-blown 100-percent dream could not be realized. In a series of papers published since 2010 (for example, a 2016 paper in Energy Policy), Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery of Monash University in Australia have identified several crucial factors that will limit the total global output of renewable electricity. For example, renewable technologies exploit the windiest or sunniest locations first, and, as they expand, they move into less and less productive territory. Losses of energy during conversion, storage and transmission will severely shrink the net energy available to society.

Finally, write Moriarty and Honnery, all production of wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and especially hydroelectric energy has an ecological impact on the landscapes where it occurs. So if we are to halt our degradation and destruction of the Earth’s natural ecosystems—the ones that we humans depend on too—it will be necessary to declare large areas off-limits to the energy sector.

Much of this is evident in the mainstream 100-percent studies themselves. The world envisioned in those scenarios, one focused on maintaining current profligate consumption levels, will not be a green and pleasant one. Herculean quantities of physical and mental labor power will have been expended, boundless physical resources (including vast tonnages of fossil fuels) will have been consumed, and countless entire ecosystems across the Earth’s surface will have been sacrificed to generate more electricity so that McMansions and glassed-in office towers can be kept chilled to the point of discomfort in the summertime while millions of people around the world continue to die from heating their homes and cooking their food with firewood. All of that would make for a pretty grim world.

Unintentionally, then, these studies show in stark terms why rich countries need to start planning to live in the renewable but lower-energy world envisioned by Moriarty and Honnery rather than the high-energy world that the 100-percent-of-demand studies take as their goal.

Our Unequal Energy Economy

If we take the high-energy road and zero in single-mindedly on acquiring enough energy to keep driving, flying, and overproducing as much as we want, there’s no reason to expect that other problems, including enormous distortions in economic and political power and quality of life, along with racial and ethnic oppression, will have been solved. In fact, scenarios that purport to meet all current or future global energy demand with renewable sources are implicitly accepting current distortions in access to resources among and within countries. That’s because “demand” in this context does not reflect want or need but rather ability to buy.

Billions of people around the world need more energy than they can afford, while billions of others can buy far more energy than is required to meet their needs. Global 100-percent renewable scenarios are based on these distortions; as a result, they typically aim to satisfy a worldwide per capita energy consumption that’s about one-eighth of what Americans consume.

Implicitly admitting the impossibility taking the American high-energy lifestyle global (which would require increasing another eightfold the already unrealistic renewable-energy capacity they are hoping to build), the 100-percent scenarios would leave in place huge gaps in consumption between affluent and poor communities, both among and within countries.

Remedying those gaps and achieving climate justice will require affluent nations to slash energy consumption deeply. Projecting out to 2030, with a slightly optimistic 30 percent decrease in global emissions compared to “business as usual,” a 2009 study led by Princeton environmental scientists showed that, among the Earth’s 8 billion-plus people, there will still be more than 2 billion with annual carbon dioxide emissions of between 5 and 30 tons; among them are a majority of the global North’s population, along with affluent residents of other nations. Then there will be 2 to 3 billion more whose resource consumption would remain insufficient to maintain a decent quality of life, with emissions less than one ton apiece per year.

If we are to have any chance of preventing runaway greenhouse warming, the emissions of the 2 billion affluent must be lopped off at below 5 tons; in the United States, the reduction would be almost 75 percent. Because such huge reductions cannot be made up for with renewable energy capacity, many of the 2 billion will have to reduce their total energy consumption dramatically. Meanwhile, to ensure sufficiency for all, the world’s 2 to 3 billion low emitters need access to an increased supply of energy. How much of that comes from renewable sources and how much from fossil fuels will depend in large part on how much funding the affluent countries are willing to fork over for infrastructure in countries that lack the wealth to do it all themselves.

Energy Justice

If political prospects for achieving those goals—what we might call “energy justice”—were dim in 2015 when the cautious Paris Agreement landed with a thud, they seem now in 2017 to have vanished altogether. Powerful climate deniers, business interests, Wall Street, and the 1 percent are more securely in the saddle than ever. Changing that reality has to be part of an ecological transformation.

But ironically, with the traditional environmentalist approach in eclipse, we have a stronger incentive than ever to aim for the necessarily radical solution: hard statutory ceilings on fossil-fuel use that decline with time, along with fair sharing of the available pool of energy and with no way for business and the rich to buy their way back to profligacy. Strategies that would take us at least part of the way there have been devised over the past two decades (with one even having been debated in the British Parliament), and the idea of hard ceilings and fair sharing is being carried forward now by the Ireland-based network FEASTA and other groups, mostly in Europe.

Capitalist resistance to such nonmarket restrictions on America’s energy supply will be formidable. We will be told we can’t do it because other high-emitting countries aren’t doing it (the response: if we don’t, they never will). We’ll be told that such limits will cripple economic growth. Yes, some level of economic sacrifice will be inevitable, but by now we are aware that the lion’s share of benefits from growth are always pumped straight to the top of the economic pyramid. That’s where the greatest sacrifices will have to be made when our economy pulls back within critical ecological limits while at the same time building up green-energy infrastructure.

Before all of that can be achieved politically, however, we have to recognize and start discussing seriously the necessity for limits and how to maneuver within them. As a starting point, I suggest that in pushing for necessarily stringent fossil-fuel limits and green-energy conversion, we aim to place most of the resulting economic burden on the United States’ most affluent 33 percent.

The logic is simple: that’s where the money is. The top 33 percent receive two-thirds of U.S. households’ total income, own 94 percent of stocks by value, and have seen their incomes recover fully and then grow further in the years since the Great Recession; meanwhile, incomes of other Americans remain lower on average than they were in 2006. The gap is even wider when it comes to wealth. In 2013, the top fifth of earners held a median net worth some 115 times that of the bottom fifth, and new data shows that the gulf is only growing.

We can hope that millions among the 33 percent will wake up to the necessity for deep transformation. There will inevitably be millions of holdouts as well, but they can and have to be far outnumbered by members of the less affluent 67 percent who are willing to struggle for both climate action and socioeconomic justice.

The goal of a lower-energy world is rarely mentioned in the climate movement, thanks to a widespread belief in the 100 percent-renewable dream and the belief that any talk of tight limits will crush hope and quench enthusiasm at the grassroots. But this desire to shield our hope against hard facts ignores the most relevant question: what are we hoping for?

If our hope is to deploy solar and wind capacity that maintains indefinitely the current throughput of energy in the world’s affluent societies (let alone the rest of the world), then, yes, the situation is hopeless. But there can be other hopes that, although they’re looking dim for now, are at least within reach.

We can hope that greenhouse warming will be limited sufficiently while allowing communities around the world who are currently impoverished and oppressed to thrive; that access to food, water, shelter, safety, culture, nature, and other necessities becomes sufficient for all; and that exploitation of humans and nature be brought to an end.

There’s always hope, as long as we don’t confuse dreams with reality.


Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is co-author, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia. An earlier version of this article was published by Green Social Thought.

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