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Exploring the Gap Between Business-as-Usual and Utter Doom

September 19, 2016

mind-the-gap-blog

Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but everybody does it. As long as we’ve had language—for tens of thousands of years, at last estimate—we’ve been able to formulate the question, “What will tomorrow bring?” The answers have ranged from idyllic to hellish, though the reality has been, more often than not, “a lot like today.”

Since the Industrial Revolution, the dominant method employed by forecasters has been to extrapolate recent trends forward in time—trends which, due to the availability during this period of cheap, abundant energy, have been mostly in the directions of economic growth and technological progress. With the advent of coal, oil, and natural gas, industrial societies were able to build a middle class, create jobs, extract and process raw materials in ever-greater amounts, make a cascading array of consumer products, and transport people and goods in quantities, and at speeds and distances, never previously imaginable. Sanitation and health care improved dramatically, lowering the human death rate and helping spur the greatest population expansion in the history of our species.

For planners, it seemed eminently sensible to align a ruler with these upward-sloping lines on graphs and extend them out a few more inches, indicating years or decades of yet more growth and progress (yes, I know, the process was more complicated that this—but not much). The method produced moderately accurate forecasts. Moreover, forecasters were applauded, as most people would very much like to think that growth and progress can indeed be maintained for the foreseeable future, since failure to do so would imply shattered dreams and expectations.

However, during the past 40 years experts who study ecology, climate, population, resource depletion, and debt dynamics have pointed out that recent growth trends simply cannot go on much longer; instead, a reckoning with natural limits will almost certainly occur during the course of this century. Followers of each relevant discipline have pointed out dire consequences that will ensue if policy makers do not implement certain course corrections, such as population stabilization and decline, rapid carbon emissions reductions, and habitat conservation on a vast scale.

In the main—that is, aside from the adoption of a few important but non-transformative environmental regulations—society has failed to correct course, and so dire and multivalent consequences should now be expected. If the more conservative estimates of planetary limits are approximately correct, we should anticipate a future that is profoundly challenging; one characterized by societal disintegration and ecosystem failure. In the very worst case, the extinction of most animal and plant species, including humans, is conceivable. And the downward slide will begin soon, if it has not already done so.

The enormous gap between these outcomes—business-as-usual growth and progress on one hand, and limits-induced collapse on the other—has always constituted a disputed yet vital space. The goal of those who say we can’t maintain business-as-usual has never been to promote collapse, but rather to suggest things we could do to alter current behavior and trends so that a crash will be more moderate and survivable. In effect, they have been exploring the gap, looking for landing points on the way up or down the growth escalator; or seeking to close the gap, lessening the boom so that the bust isn’t as severe.

Recent years have seen policy makers continuing to pursue growth above all other priorities. At the same time, the news and entertainment media (nourished by pro-growth advertising revenues) have sought to shelter the masses from exposure to the dangerous truth that rapid expansion of population and consumption on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster.

Unfortunately, many of those who are aware of limits have either chosen to avoid the question altogether or made a concerted effort to soften their message in order to gain traction with power-holders; thus some PR-savvy environmentalists now promise endless “green growth” that can somehow be achieved through an elusive “decoupling” of social benefits, on one hand, from population growth, energy use, and materials consumption on the other.  Of course, those who are aware of limits are somewhat rare; the majority of those who are concerned about the climate crisis or other environmental issues don’t see these as manifestations of a deeper systemic pattern of “overshoot.”

Meanwhile, however, the warning signs that industrial civilization is rapidly approaching non-negotiable planetary limits now flash red. Each of the last 16 months has established an all-time global temperature record. The oil industry appears to have entered a terminal crisis due to its requirement for ever-higher levels of investment in order to find, produce, refine, and deliver ever-lower-quality resources. Plant and animal species are disappearing at a thousand times the normal extinction rate. And global debt levels have soared since the 2008 financial crisis, setting the stage for an even greater financial convulsion whenever the next cyclical recession hits.

Those who study limits have grown more numerous and they now comb the evidence more skillfully and meticulously. Some have emerged to announce publicly that there is now effectively nothing that world leaders can do to prevent civilization collapse, mass suffering and die-off, and ecosystem ruin. Humanity, they say, has squandered its opportunities for course correction; now the worst-case scenario is guaranteed.

In effect, the gap between anticipated outcomes has become bigger and more politically contested than ever. That means it is now even harder to explore the gap or to narrow it. Which is a tragedy, because it’s only by grasping opportunities that lie within the gap that we are likely to find shelter from the approaching storm.

cover_ORF_FINAL_w-border-featPerhaps I can illustrate the current challenges of gap exploring with an example from my own work. Recently I collaborated with co-author and energy expert David Fridley on a yearlong research project whose findings are summarized in our new book, Our Renewable Future. We examined the potential transition to a mostly wind-and-solar energy economy with the goal of being ruthlessly honest. We looked at prior analysis from grid operators and fuel suppliers as well as from wind and solar engineers. Further, we studied not just energy supply requirements, but also needed changes in the ways energy is currently used so as to fit with new sources. We viewed the project (though we didn’t use this exact terminology) as critical gap-exploring work: society’s transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable alternatives will be key to averting the worst of climate change, and it will have to occur in any case due to the ongoing depletion of economically recoverable oil, coal, and natural gas resources. What are the prospects for this transition? What are the potential roadblocks?

We concluded that, while in theory it may be possible to build enough solar and wind supply capacity to substitute for current fossil energy sources, much of current energy usage infrastructure (for transportation, agriculture, and industrial processes) will be difficult and expensive to adapt to using renewable electricity. In the face of these and other related challenges, we suggest that it likely won’t be possible to maintain a consumption-oriented growth economy in the post-fossil future, and that we would all be better off aiming to transition to a simpler and more localized conserver economy.

The response to our book has been a little underwhelming. Few readers (or potential readers) seem to want to engage with the issues our analysis raises. Some have responded by insisting that solar and wind power can’t possibly prevent the wholesale collapse of our economy and planetary life support systems. They are convinced that renewables can’t meaningfully replace fossil fuels and therefore dismiss our vision for a “100 percent renewable energy future” as overly optimistic. Meanwhile, others say the shift to renewables is an unstoppable juggernaut and that any doubt about their capabilities amounts to defeatism or worse.

The latter attitude was epitomized in a recent essay by science historian and Merchants of Doubt author Naomi Oreskes. In it she equates critical comments about solar and wind power with climate denialism. Oreskes builds her case on reports by Stanford environmental engineer Mark Jacobson, who merely shows how (again, in theory), given enough investment, supplies of renewable electricity could be ramped up to match current and projected total energy usage levels. Jacobson either ignores, or quickly glosses over, most of the issues raised in Our Renewable Future. In his view, the only thing standing in the way of a renewably-powered but otherwise business-as-usual future is political will on the part of policy makers.

On the other side of the divide are those who dismiss renewable energy sources entirely—such as actuary and energy writer Gail Tverberg, who claims that building solar and wind capacity actually makes societies worse off than they already are. Her critiques of renewables appear to be based almost entirely on literature from fossil fuel and utility companies; she doesn’t seem to cite much data from solar and wind engineers. Her criticisms have some merit—but not nearly as much as they would have if they reflected a more balanced survey of the subject.

The reality that David Fridley and I encountered is complicated and nuanced. On the plus side, solar and wind technologies do produce a significant net surplus of energy (that is, energy over and above the amount that must be invested in building and installing panels and turbines). Further, a lot of current energy usage can be electrified and made substantially more efficient. But key aspects of our current industrial system (including cement production, the chemicals industry, shipping, and aviation) will be difficult to maintain without cheap fossil-fuel inputs; during the transition, these sectors may have to be downsized, perhaps quite dramatically. The adaptations required in how society uses energy will be transformative for the entire economy and for the ways ordinary people live. We won’t know exactly what a post-fossil industrial economy will like until we get busy addressing a list of questions. (Here are just three: How much investment capital are we willing and able to muster for this purpose? Can the economy continue to function in the face of much higher costs for industrial processes? What happens to the financial system if GDP growth is no longer possible?)

We’ll never find out if we refuse to budge from where we are. Indeed, if we don’t make the effort to push the transition forward quickly, there simply won’t be a post-fossil economy; society will shudder and falter until it lies in ruins.

Given that business-as-usual airports, shopping malls, skyscrapers, and container ships have a vanishingly small likelihood of remaining useful or replicable much longer, what we really ought to be doing is to explore structures that are sustainable—and that implies identifying simpler pathways for meeting basic human needs. Since maintaining and adapting current levels of transport will be a big, likely insurmountable challenge, we might start by aiming to shorten supply chains and localize economies.

Social innovation will probably play a more important role in this adaptive and transformative process than the invention of new machines. Yes, we need research and development in hundreds of technical areas, including ways of building and maintaining roads without asphalt or concrete; ways of producing essential pharmaceuticals without fossil fuels; and ways of building solar panels and wind turbines using a minimum of fuels and rare, exotic materials. But in fact we already have lower-tech ways of solving a lot of problems. We know how to build wooden sailing ships; we know how to construct highly energy-efficient houses using local, natural materials; we know how to grow food without fossil inputs and distribute it locally. Why don’t we use these methods more? Because they’re not as fast or convenient, they can’t operate at the same scale, they’re not as profitable, and they don’t fit with our vision of “progress”.

That’s where social innovation comes in. In order for the transition to occur as smoothly as possible, we’ll need to change our expectations about speed, convenience, affordability, and entitlement. We’ll need to share what we have rather than competing for increasingly scarce resources. We’ll need to conserve, reuse, and repair. There will be no room for planned obsolescence, or for growing disparities between rich and poor. Cooperation will be our salvation. So, too, will be recognizing that there are limits—both to the planet’s capacity to support our numbers and activities, and to the role of technology in “fixing” these crises. But just because we can no longer continue to grow population, consumption, and complexity does not mean we can no longer grow happiness, well-being, or prosperity.

However, we’ll be making these behavioral and attitudinal shifts in the context of periodically profound disruptions to the economy and the environment. That’s why a very big part of our gap-closing work will consist of building community resilience. That word resilience is now frequently invoked by large philanthropic foundations and by military planners who see climate disruptions on the horizon. Yet often their visions of resilience seem to consist mostly of building walls to protect business districts in coastal cities from rising seas, or designing combat equipment to withstand harsher weather. For most communities, though, meaningful resilience-building efforts are likely to be more grassroots and less bureaucratic. Improving resilience will consist of assessing specific vulnerabilities, and then building buffers (such as inventories of essential supplies), enhancing barriers (for example, by creating more resistance to flooding through wetlands restoration), or increasing redundancies (by diversifying local food sources through support of young farmers). It will also mean strengthening social cohesion and trust by encouraging participation in community organizations and cultural events.

At Post Carbon Institute we’ve been looking into how to build community resilience for several years. We’ve published a series of books on strengthening local food systems, starting local renewable energy projects, and keeping investment capital circulating within communities rather than letting it flow to distant financial centers. We also host a robust, daily updated website, www.resilience.org, that provides readers with thoughtful essays and descriptions of best practices gleaned from gap-closing projects around the world. There are other projects in the wings, including a video series for college students studying sustainability and resilience, and a Community Resilience Reader.

We would like to do a great deal more, but we’ve found that funding for exploring or narrowing the gap is relatively puny compared to what’s available for business-as-usual projects. Want to build a highway for commuters; an LNG export terminal; or a new housing complex comprised of structures designed to last a mere 50 years, to use exorbitant amounts of energy for heating and cooling, and to employ building materials that have the highest possible amounts of embodied energy? No problem! How many millions do you need? But for a local food hub, a Transition Town effort, a marketplace for locally produced wares, a cooperative enterprise incubator, or a tool library, there’s spare change at best.

Even some otherwise smart and knowledgeable funders of nonprofits shy away from gap work in favor of continued support for big, conventional environmental organizations that attempt to slow the tide of environmental destruction or offer the promise of a clean energy future that won’t require profound shifts in how we live. These are evidently considered a safer bet, though their high-profile efforts to battle fossil fuel and mining interests may offer little tangible help to ordinary people as the energy transition accelerates due to the thermodynamic failure of the global oil industry.

The many thousands of people working at gap-closing and resilience-building efforts deserve more attention and support, and not just because they are practical and caring individuals—as most of them are. They are, after all, providing society with the equivalent of fire insurance and seat belts at a time when metaphoric and literal fires and crashes are certain to become far more frequent and severe. It’s the amount and quality of work that can be accomplished within the gap that will determine who survives, and how many survive, as boom turns to bust.

When it comes to forecasting the future, count me among the pessimists. I’m convinced that the consequences of decades of obsession with maintaining business-as-usual will be catastrophic. And those consequences could be upon us sooner than even some of my fellow pessimists assume.

Yet I’m not about to let this pessimism (or is it realism?) get in the way of doing what can still be done in households and communities to avert utter doom. And, while decades of failure in imagination and investment have foreclosed a host of options, I think there are still some feasible alternatives to business-as-usual that would actually provide significant improvements in most people’s daily experience of life.

The gap is where the action is. All else—whether fantasy or nightmare—is a distraction.

Photo credit: Phil McDonald/Shutterstock.com.

  • Free Public Transit

    Eloquent on the problem. Wishy-washy on solutions. Why ignore the two biggest pieces of low-hanging fruit? We can make cities car-free, which will lead the second fruit, falling birth rate. Which is better, a million people installing solar, or a million fewer people. This is war, we should start treating it that way.
    Look at the cities with the fastest falling birth rates — they have good public transportation.

  • Michael Lewis

    Richard I thank you for this very thoughtful reflection. In my view it is a measured and wholly realistic assessment of the psychological, cultural and systemic factors that deflect us from what is most important to focus our attention and intention on at this unprecedented juncture of the human story.

  • GailTverberg

    I would like to point out that Richard Heinberg’s supposition about me is simply false: “Her critiques of renewables appear to be based almost entirely on literature from fossil fuel and utility companies; she doesn’t seem to cite much data from solar and wind engineers.”

    I base my analysis on the physics of the situation. The economy is a dissipative structure. The particular structure of the economy depends on an increasing supply of energy. A substantial decline in energy supply will result in a collapse of the economy. Our economy is subject to collapse, just as many economies that preceded us have become subject to collapse. Such collapses tend to happen when energy resources per capita fall. Economies tend to become increasingly hierarchical prior to collapse, as leaders try to solve problems with increased complexity (more specialization; more training for selected individuals). Economies tend to collapse because the individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy become increasingly unable to afford the output of the economy. For example, young people cannot get good-paying jobs, and start their own families. Demand for new homes and cars falls. As a result, commodity prices fall below the cost of production. Oil and other energy supplies can be expected to fall because of too low energy prices; not because of too high energy prices.

    One of the issues involved with adding intermittent renewables is the amount of generating capacity needed. Intermittent renewables cannot cover all of the electricity needs of the economy. As a result, we need almost two separate set of electricity generating capacity: (1) the intermittent renewable generating capacity and (2) all of the other generating capacity. If the economy is not to collapse, we need to keep enough generating capacity operational so that any shortfall can be met at the time of year when electricity needs peak. This will vary with the location. In cold climates, this will typically be in the winter; in warm climates, this will typically be in the summer. In areas where the peak comes in the summer, solar PV can perhaps shave a little off the amount of fossil fuel, nuclear, and hydroelectric backup that is needed. In areas where the peak is in the winter, the amount of generating capacity that can saved by intermittent renewables is very small, and may even be zero.

    If we need two sets of generating capacity, we have a whole host of problems. One is the high cost of operating essentially two separate systems. The intermittent renewables allow some savings on fuel, but they do not permit savings in many other areas. We need to have trained workers for all of the other units, and the companies operating these units need to be earning a reasonable profit, or they will go out of business. This is true, even if the other units are only needed one or two months out of the year. Transmission costs are likely to be higher, rather than lower, further offsetting fuel savings from intermittent electricity.

    A second issue occurs in areas where competitive pricing is used. If the grid needs to be fully supplied with fossil fuel, nuclear, and hydro, adding intermittent renewables adds varying amounts of oversupply. This depresses prices, by varying amounts. In the spring and fall, and at night, when there is a large oversupply problem, prices may actually turn negative. Peak prices are likely to be lower as well. If we did not really need backup, having large numbers of these companies go out of business would not be a problem. The problem is that we do need them. Separate capacity auctions are being used some places, to try to add back in some of the lost revenue. My impression is that this tends to lead to the development of a lot of new natural gas generating units. These natural gas generating units may or may not actually be functional when very hot/cold weather hits, because they typically have interruptible natural gas supplies. The capacity auction would need to extend to actually supplying natural gas at crisis periods, as well. What kind of price would be needed to build an additional pipeline, if it is only needed 5% of the year?

    I have no idea what literature from fossil fuel and utility companies you think I have read. I don’t remember reading any such literature. I try to figure out the real story. I do not take contributions on my site. I think this makes my analyses more neutral than yours are.

    My point is that generally, it would not make sense to add more intermittent electricity generation to the electric grid, even if the cost of new generating nits were zero. They simply add too many negatives, and do not add much in the way of positives. I fail to see how “data from wind and solar engineers” would change this. Are you suggesting that they can figure out how to make these devices at negative cost?

    I believe that there are a few situations where intermittent renewables may play a limited role. Their primary use should be off grid. There, they can be used in applications where intermittency is not a problem, such as desalination. They can also be used in micro grids, with their own battery backup. I do not believe the government should be subsidizing these. There also may be some instances where adding a small/medium amount of wind or solar may make sense. For example, for islands using both oil and hydroelectric, it may make sense to include intermittent renewables on the grid, to reduce the amount of oil consumption. Such decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, looking at all of the benefits and costs involved.

  • getrealbuddy

    Germany Runs Up Against the Limits of Renewables

    Even as Germany adds lots of wind and solar power to the electric grid, the country’s carbon emissions are rising. Will the rest of the world learn from its lesson? After years of declines, Germany’s carbon emissions rose slightly in 2015, largely because the country produces much more electricity than it needs. That’s happening because even if there are times when renewables can supply nearly all of the electricity on the grid, the variability of those sources forces Germany to keep other power plants running. And in Germany, which is phasing out its nuclear plants, those other plants primarily burn dirty coal.

    https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601514/germany-runs-up-against-the-limits-of-renewables/

    Germany’s Expensive Gamble on Renewable Energy : Germany’s electricity prices soar to more than double that of the USA because when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind does not blow they have to operate and pay for a completely separate back up system that is fueled by lignite coal

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/germanys-expensive-gamble-on-renewable-energy-1409106602

    Why Germany’s nuclear phaseout is leading to more coal burning

    Between 2011 and 2015 Germany will open 10.7 GW of new coal fired power stations. This is more new coal coal capacity than was constructed in the entire two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The expected
    annual electricity production of these power stations will far exceed that of existing solar panels and will be approximately the same as that of Germany’s existing solar panels and wind turbines combined. Solar panels and wind turbines however have expected life spans of no more than 25 years. Coal power plants typically last 50 years or longer. At best you could call the recent developments in Germany’s electricity sector contradictory.

    https://carboncounter.wordpress.com/2015/06/06/why-germanys-nuclear-phaseout-is-leading-to-more-coal-burning/

    Blues for the Greenies: Now matter how many greenbacks the government throws at “green” energy, everyone ends up feeling blue. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal updated the story we’ve been covering
    for a long time now about the dismal performance of the Brightsource solar energy array in the California desert: High Tech Solar Projects Fail to Deliver – $2.2 Billion California Project Generates 40% of Expected Electricity

    http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2015/06/more-blues-for-the-greens.php

  • http://www.solarsat.org/ Darel Preble

    Hello,
    Gail responded to your critique of her blog, which referred to one of her rather old blog entries. Please post her response or direct readers to her current (Aug 31, 2016) post on this topic,

    https://ourfiniteworld.com/2016/08/31/intermittent-renewables-cant-favorably-transform-grid-electricity/

    which is spot on. Balanced is not necessarily the right perspective on choosing a renewable energy source. I suggest we want the best one with these requirements: very low CO2 intensity, very high reliability – unlike roof-top solar and windmills – environmentally clean, low cost, and safe.
    Thank you for your work on renewable energy.

  • http://www.natureslogicphotography.com HOLLYBERKOWITZ

    Investing in tools for harvesting free, infinite supplies of Renewable Energy/Efficiency and smarter/greener cities as critical but inalienable flows, cycles, potentials, producers means that any economy can 1) slash operating costs exponentially…. and 2) boost positive productivity exponentially….producing a booming positive economy, public prosperity ….plus filling in the hungry voids and hells caused by deadly fossil fuels of the last cash-driven 150 years of our “Industrial Revolution” and the last cash-driven 35 years of Reaganomics/privatization of public worlds/deregulation of our Rule of Law that we need to protect the innocent and our own futures/ criminal cost- and risk-shifting of criminal costs onto the many unsuspecting now and generations from now……obvious or not, counted in human rates of human cash that crush life and logic on earth….or not….

    Cash-driven fossil fuel fools want to keep US addicted to fossil fuels foolishly to fill private bank accounts now of by for fossil fuel fools now….at all costs….throwing those exploding risks and costs onto their own families/children/selves stupidly…..so they have manufactured Biblical lies through the last 35 years, the last 150 years to sell the immoral for private profit to fill on ly one private bank account of by for only one private self immediately…….causing hell on earth.

    Ironically, a cash-driven fossil fuel industry has limited our counts to mechanical rates of human cash that crush life and logic on earth causing hell on earth……..life and logic that we need to grow a positive economy, to grow heaven on earth instead.

    Our human cash system crushes to divide to count….and counts to divide to conquer to crush the competition, the other, the diverse, the non+same, the non+self…….assuming erroneously in flat, linear, blinding , anaerobic walls and barriers of human cities that the private self needs to push the other down to lift the private self up…..to take from the other to get for the private self ….and that privatized cash profiteering number mountains justify all….but they do not……and they are wrong, very very wrong……wrong scientifically, wrong mathematically, wrong eco+nomically, wrong eco+logically, wrong ego+nomically, wrong morally and often wrong legally…..though still rewriting human books/elecctrons of human history, human science, human law to sell the immoral of by for privatized cash profiteering for only one private self now of by for fewer than only 1%…..at our expense.

    Exxon knew.

    Exxon knew that their carbon emissions as CO2 and Cxyzetcetera would cause “global warming” now, unreal extremes of baking, drowning of life and logic on earth, Climate911 now and our own 6th Extinction now, our own Anthropocene.

    But some just don’t get it….and still limit their counts to mechanical rates of human cash numbers that crush life and logic on earth, causing our Climate Armageddon….blaming my god erroneously.

    Exxon and other cash-driven fossil fuel industry fools have conspired for more than 35 years, more than 150 years to manufacture Biblical lies of virtual illusion and mirage to lure US into fossil fuel addictions as fools.

    Exxon needed US President Ronald Reagan’s “Reaganomics” of 1) privatization and segregation and disintegration of our integrated, vulnerable, fragile, critical public worlds of our cities and wilderness….2) deregulation of our civil Rule of Law that we need to protect the innocent, the voiceless of life and land, international laws and treaties, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, laws of science, laws of science, moral laws of reciprocity….

    Our English word root, “eco-” as in “eco+nomic” and as in “eco+logic” means “house” or “oikos” in Greek….but not every house nurtures those within. Some houses crush and destroy those within.

    Houses that count and value deadly cashflow floods of hatred, division, strife and war crush those within, and crush the ability of nature, of every living cell, seed, seedling, soil, self, whole to reach up toward light of our sun enough to produce abundant riches….plus to produce critical but uncountable, hidden flows, cycles, hidden genetic potentials/genius/logic/smarts, synergy/glowing/light, positive productivity of exponential positive productivity lifting all up to light, to fill in hungry voids of the negative/of deadly cashflow floods, to produce abundant riches to count…..plus to produce the critical but uncountable flows, cycles, potentials, synergy, positive productivity of by for life and logic on earth, clean, nurturing but uncountable, hidden flows and cycles of by for air, O2, water, H2O, rich organic topsoil and soil+makers, life, cells, seeds, seedlings, soils, selves, whole living systems, eco+systems that need nature’s critical but uncountable flows and cycles filtered by every living cell and system on earth, cell or self or globe, human cities, human civilizations ….to keep human cities alive day to day and minute to minute…..obvious to private/obvvious/immediate/cash-driven selves in flat city walls or not…..counted in human rates of cash that crush life and logic or not…..

  • Richard Heinberg

    Thank you, Gail, for commenting on my essay. I don’t think our positions on renewables are all that far apart, but I’d like to zero in on what may be the point where we might disagree.

    The intermittency of wind and solar is clearly a problem, but it’s a problem that grows very significantly as percentages of total electricity supplied by solar and wind increase. At lower levels of solar-wind penetration into the generation mix the task of balancing their intermittency is not as burdensome. For example, in this Scientific American article https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/renewable-energy-intermittency-explained-challenges-solutions-and-opportunities/ Robert Fares writes: “In a study commissioned by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, General Electric calculated how much new reserve capacity will be required as Texas increases the amount of wind energy installed. The report found that an additional 15,000 megawatts of installed wind energy only requires an additional 18 megawatts of new flexible reserve capacity to maintain the stability of the grid. In other words, the spare capacity of one fast-ramping natural gas power plant can compensate for the variability introduced by 5,000 new average-sized wind turbines.”

    Redundant capacity, storage, and demand management (timing electricity usage according to availability) are effective strategies for dealing with intermittency—though each carries a cost, and those costs escalate as the amount of variable renewable electricity fed into the grid increases.

    The most effective long-range strategy would therefore be to very substantially reduce our overall electricity demand (in countries like the US), say, by 75 percent or more, so that a large proportion of overall base load could be supplied by hydro, geothermal, and biomass; then relatively small additions of solar and wind could either be balanced with biogas peaking plants, backed with storage (pumped hydro, batteries, hydrogen), or used in stand-alone systems (along the lines you suggest).

    My point is, renewable energy is probably capable of powering an industrial society—just not the kind of industrial society we happen to have at the moment. Even production of renewable energy infrastructure could theoretically be accomplished using renewable energy (mining, high-heat industrial processes, transportation, installation); it’s just that many of the steps involved would be more expensive than is currently the case, again leading to the conclusion that only a much smaller overall energy would be affordable to build and maintain.

    Of course, getting from current energy demand to a situation where we are using 25 percent or less energy, all of it from renewables, is the real challenge—one made much more difficult by our systemic dependence on economic growth and consumerism, and by failure to deal with the problem of population growth. There may in fact be no politically or economically realistic pathway from where we are to a 100 percent renewable energy future, but such a future is not impossible in principle.

  • GailTverberg

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I think we both agree that it is not possible to add very much intermittent renewables to the grid, without causing a major problem. It is the rest of your comment that I disagree with. You have followed standard “peak oil” reasoning, much of it supported by academic papers, but I find this reasoning to be incorrect.

    One of the issues is the idea that it would be possible to very substantially reduce our electricity demand by, say, 75% or more, without completely collapsing the economy. As I explained in my previous comment, I am looking at the physics of the situation. The economy requires energy. There may be tiny energy efficiency gains we can make very slowly over time, but most of these tend to be lost through Jevons Paradox. The economy is a dissipative structure, just as a hurricane is, and just as ecosystems are. All plants and animals, including humans, are dissipative systems.

    Your idea that we can reduce energy consumption by 75% or more is equivalent to the idea that we could make hurricanes continue to exist when their heat sources have mostly disappeared—say, when they move over cold water or over land. This doesn’t happen. Your idea is also equivalent to the idea that you could reduce the food you give to your dog by 75%, or the food you eat yourself by 75%, with no ill effects. It simply can’t happen.

    The physics connection to the economy is not an easy idea to see, so models have left this out. Engineers have tended to assume that all that is important is the oil or coal or gas in the ground. In fact, the price available for extraction is terribly important in determining whether any type of energy product can be produced. This price is indirectly determined by both wage and debt levels. The economy needs to be growing fairly rapidly to allow wage levels to continue to rise. Rising debt levels can temporarily mask an inadequate rise in wages, but this is a temporary situation.

    Another point of confusion has been whether energy prices can be expected to rise endlessly. Economists, with their poor models of the economy, have not been helpful in clarifying the situation. Aude Illig and Ian Schindler have a new working paper (http://www.tse-fr.eu/sites/default/files/TSE/documents/doc/wp/2016/wp_tse_701.pdf), which indicates that we should expect oil prices tend to first ratchet upward as we reach a peak in oil production. Prices will then ratchet downward, causing production to fall rapidly. Also, I am a co-author of a recent academic paper that discusses the possibility that high prices will be the cap on oil extraction. https://gailtheactuary.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/ke-wang-an-oil-production-forecast-for-china-considering-economic-limits.pdf Both of these papers strongly suggest that the popular view of ever-rising energy prices is wrong.

    Another point of confusion is whether EROEI calculations are useful tools for evaluating intermittent energy. The issue we are dealing with is substituting greater complexity (intermittent renewables plus a larger and more complex electric grid structure) as a workaround for inadequate energy supplies. If we read Joseph Tainter’s book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, we find that growing complexity is often a proximate cause of collapse. Evaluating the impact of this increasing complexity (more debt, more hierarchical organization to create and manage the new structures) is far beyond what EROEI was intended to do. EROEI calculations are designed for the simple case where the output is nearly simultaneous with the input, and the type of output is fairly similar to a fossil fuel.

    One way of “checking our work” is to see whether wind and solar PV can pay a reasonably high level of taxes, because any source of energy that is producing considerable net energy should be able to pay high taxes to support the government—supporting the government is, in fact, the primary use of net energy. Fossil fuel energy has always paid high taxes. My conclusion is that intermittent renewables are, in fact, net energy sinks. Adding them to our energy mix makes no sense, either now or in the future.

  • anotherneighborhoodactivist

    cities car-free lead[s to] falling birth rate.

    Got some data and analysis to support that claim? And remember, correlation ≠ causation.

  • https://www.thatsuckingsound.com thatsuckingsound.com

    Heinberg’s assertions about Gail Tverberg, that “Her critiques of renewables appear to be based almost entirely on literature from fossil fuel and utility companies; she doesn’t seem to cite much data from solar and wind engineers.” seem inaccurate and he does not reply to comment suggesting his assertions are untrue. Common human courtesy and academic honesty will be required in our future even more so than they are now. New vernacular, the ‘gap’, and essay after essay won’t help if the manner you treat your colleagues with is itself counterproductive.

  • http://richardheinberg.com/ Richard Heinberg

    I don’t know what sources Gail uses for her analysis. However, problems of cost, intermittency, EROEI, and materials requirements have been discussed quite robustly in the literature, with some researchers showing very little promise for renewables, others concluding they have great potential. In the EROEI literature, for example, Charles Hall and Pedro Prieto published a study concluding that PV has an energy return ratio of less than 3:1, whereas Marco Raugei and Vasilis Fthenakis have published a study assigning it a value of 19:1–a huge gap. Generally, Gail tends to mention only the most pessimistic studies having to do with renewables. While I am usually in favor of drawing wide EROEI boundaries and taking conservative estimates for raw materials availability (which leads me to conclusions often similar to Gail’s), I do think it’s important, given that many readers may not have fully researched the literature for themselves, to at least mention the range of findings and state reasons why certain ones appear less or more credible. We adopted this approach in OUR RENEWABLE FUTURE (www.ourrenewablefuture.org) and, though it proved time consuming, the result is, I hope, useful to serious and open-minded readers.

  • hugho

    I enjoyed the back and forth between Gail and Richard, two people I highly respect but I was disappointed in Richard’s tone and misstatement about Gails reading.I have no idea what he is talking about regarding literature from the Utilities for example or wind engineers for that matter. The things that utilities and the wind industry care about have little or nothing to do with what Gail writes about. Both industries naturally have their biases which should be obvious, so obvious I wont bother to state them. The conclusions Gail and Richard draw are at odds but civility should rule.Richard’s idea that society could massively drop electricity consumption without catastrophic economic consequences for an industrial society based upon electricity seems odd. Gails assertions that renewable wind and solar will never reliably and economically substitute for fossil energy electricity generation seems incontrovertible precisely for the reasons that she and others have listed. In this argument we need to keep in mind that electricity is not an energy source but just a carrier or energy and it has to be supplied by primary sources. Renewable wind and solar of course supply electricity as well as the other sources such as hydro, nuclear, geothermal, tides etc.The intermittantcy of wind/solar is their achilles heel. More to the point these other sources can hardly exist to be developed or maintained without fossil energy, primarily oil energy and it is the imminent demise of oil energy which should be driving the argument. The world hit peak conventional oil in 2005 and prices for oil did rise but then fell. Gail’s contention that decreasing demand will drive oil prices down is standard economics of course. But as oil extraction costs increase it will be hard for the oil industry as it exists to stay in business as more and more money and energy gets fed back into the petroleum system just to produce and distribute it leaving less and less oil and economic utility fed back into society. It is not just low oil prices killing the oil companies its the fact that those companies need that oil energy to find the oil and it doesn’t matter what the price is as much as what the energy availability is. High prices will help find more expensive oil or switch to synthetic oils but either way the oilsupply will eventually deplete and it could happen far far quicker than the public, the economists and the politicians expect. Increasing energy from fossil sources has driven the exponential rise of the growth of industrial society in all its aspects and depleting energy is going to kill that growth. Remove oil and the model collapses.Remove oil and the other fossil and non fossil sources are in trouble, The low quality oil from unconventional sources has propped up the production figures but it hasn’t helped the profitability of the companies. We come back to Gail’s point that high oil prices kill economies and low prices kill companies. Just look at the stunning plunge in oil company earnings , free cash flow and debt increases in the last few years. Their survival as they currently exist appears to be in doubt.