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Our Renewable Future

January 21, 2015

Or, What I’ve Learned in 12 Years Writing about Energy

(7000 words, about 25 minutes reading time)

Folks who pay attention to energy and climate issues are regularly treated to two competing depictions of society’s energy options.* On one hand, the fossil fuel industry claims that its products deliver unique economic benefits, and that giving up coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources like solar and wind will entail sacrifice and suffering (this gives a flavor of their argument). Saving the climate may not be worth the trouble, they say, unless we can find affordable ways to capture and sequester carbon as we continue burning fossil fuels.

On the other hand, at least some renewable energy proponents tell us there is plenty of wind and sun, the fuel is free, and the only thing standing between us and a climate-protected world of plentiful, sustainable, “green” energy, jobs, and economic growth is the political clout of the coal, oil, and gas industries (here is a taste of that line of thought).

Which message is right? Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts.

If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, “How we use energy is as important as how we get it.”


1. Unburnable Fossils and Intermittent Electricity


Electricity pylons

Let’s start with the claim that giving up coal, oil, and gas will hurl us back to the Stone Age. It’s true that fossil fuels have offered extraordinary economic benefits. The cheap, concentrated, and portable energy stored in these remarkable substances opened the way, during the past couple of centuries, for industrial expansion on a scale previously inconceivable. Why not just continue burning fossil fuels, then? Over the long term that is simply not an option, for two decisive reasons.

First, burning fossil fuels is changing the climate to such a degree, and at such a pace, that economic as well as ecological ruin may ensue within the lifetimes of today’s schoolchildren. The science is in: either we go cold turkey on our coal, oil, and gas addictions, or we risk raising the planet’s temperature to a level incompatible with the continued existence of civilization.

Second, these are depleting, non-renewable sources of energy. We have harvested them using the low-hanging fruit principle, which means that further increments of extraction will entail rising costs (for example, the oil industry’s costs for exploration and production have recently been soaring at nearly 11 percent per year) as well as worsening environmental risks. This problem has been sneaking up on us over the last ten years, as sputtering conventional oil and natural gas production set the stage for the Great Recession and the expensive (and environmentally destructive) practices of “fracking” and tar sands mining. Despite the recent plunge in oil prices the fossil fuel party is indeed over. Sooner or later the stark reality of declining fossil energy availability will rivet everyone’s attention: we are overwhelmingly dependent on these fuels for nearly everything we eat, consume, use, and trade, and—as Americans started to learn in the 1970s as a result of a couple nasty oil shocks—the withdrawal symptoms are killer.

So while fossil fuel promoters are right in saying that coal, oil, and gas are essential to our current economy, what they omit mentioning is actually more crucial if we care how our world will look more than a few years into the future.

Well then, are the most enthusiastic of the solar and wind boosters correct in claiming that renewable energy sources are ready to substitute for coal, oil, and gas quickly enough and in sufficient quantity to keep the global economy growing? There’s a hitch here, which critics are only too quick to point out. We’ve designed our energy consumption patterns to take advantage of controllable inputs. Need more power? If you’re relying on coal for energy, just shovel more fuel into the boiler. But solar and wind are different: they are available on Nature’s terms, not ours. Sometimes the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, sometimes not. Energy geeks have a vocabulary to describe this—they say solar and wind power are intermittent, variable, stochastic, or chaotic.

Variability of wind generation in Germany for 2012 (source: European Energy Exchange)

There are ways of buffering this variability: we can store energy from renewable sources with batteries or flywheels, or pump water uphill so as to recapture its potential energy later when it flows back downstream; or we can build a massive super-grid with robustly redundant generating capacity so that, when sun and wind aren’t available in one region, another region can cover demand throughout the entire interconnected system. But these strategies cost money and energy, and add layers of complexity and vulnerability to what is already the largest machine ever built (i.e., the power grid).

Crucially, a recent study by Weissbach et al. compared the full-lifecycle energy economics of various types of power plants and found that once the intermittency of solar and wind energy is buffered by storage technologies, these sources become far less efficient than coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants; indeed, once storage is added, solar and wind fall “below the economical threshold” of long-term viability, regardless of the falling dollar price of panels and turbines themselves. The problem lies in the fact that the amount of energy embodied in the full generation-storage system cannot be repaid, with a substantial energy profit, by that system over its lifetime. Recent operational studies of solar PV systems in Spain and Australia have come to similar conclusions.

Another way to deal with variability is demand management, which can take a variety of forms (I’ll be discussing some of those later in a fair amount of detail). These all, by definition, mean changing the ways we use energy. But for the moment let’s stay with the subject of energy supply.

Early increments of solar and wind power are easy and cheap to integrate into the existing electricity distribution system because power from gas-fired peaking plants can quickly (literally, by the minute) be ramped up or down to accommodate these new, small, variable inputs while also matching changing overall demand levels. In this case, the price of wind and solar energy gets counted as just the immediate cost of building, installing, and maintaining turbines and panels. And, as the New York Times recently noted, the price of electricity from renewables (counted this way) is now often competitive with electricity from fossil fuels. On this basis, solar and wind are disruptive technologies: they’re getting cheaper while fossil fuels can only grow costlier. This one clear economic advantage of renewable energy—free “fuel” in the forms of sunlight and wind—is decisive, as Germany is now seeing with falling wholesale electricity prices (though retail prices are rising due to feed-in tariffs that require the utility industry to pay above-market prices for renewable electricity).

But as electricity from variable renewables makes up a larger and larger proportion of all power generated, the requirements for energy storage technologies, capacity redundancy, and grid upgrades will inevitably climb; indeed, beyond a certain point, the scale of needed investment is likely to explode. Grid managers tend to say that the inflection point arrives when solar and wind power provide about 30 percent of total electricity demand, though one computer model suggests it could be put off until 80 percent market penetration is achieved. (For two contrasting views on the question of how expensive and difficult intermittency makes the renewables transition—from renewable energy optimists Jacobson and Delucchi on one hand, and from “The Simpler Way” advocate Ted Trainer on the other—see a highly informative peer-reviewed exchange here, here, and here.) The looming need for investment in storage and grid upgrades is part of the reason some electric utility companies are starting to wage war against renewables (another part is that net metering puts utilities at a disadvantage relative to solar homeowners; still another is simply that fossil fuel interests hate competition from solar and wind on general principle). As solar panels get cheaper, more homes and businesses install them; this imposes intermittency-smoothing costs on utility companies, which then raise retail prices to ratepayers. The latter then have even more of an incentive to install self-contained, battery-backed solar and abandon the grid altogether, leading to a utility “death spiral.”

Yet renewable energy technologies currently require fossil fuels for their construction and deployment, so in effect they are functioning as a parasite on the back of the older energy infrastructure. The question is, can they survive the death of their host?


2. The Liquid Fuels Substitution Quandary


Ethanol plant in field

So far, we’ve talked only about electricity. The power generation sector arguably represents the easiest phase of the overall energy transition (since alternative technologies do exist, even if they’re problematic)—but only about 22 percent of global energy is consumed in the form of electrical power; in the US the figure is 33 percent. Our biggest single energy source is oil, which fuels nearly all transportation. Transport is central to trade, which in turn is the beating heart of the global market economy. Oil also fuels the agricultural sector, and eating is fairly important to most of us. Of the three main fossil fuels, oil is showing the most immediate signs of depletion, and renewable options for replacing it are fairly dismal.

It is possible to electrify much of our transportation, and electric cars are now decorating showrooms. But they have a minuscule market share and, at the current growth rate, will take many decades to oust conventional gasoline-fueled automobiles (some analysts believe that growth rate will soon increase dramatically). In any case, batteries do not do well in large, heavy vehicles. The reason has to do with energy density: an electric battery typically is able to store and deliver only about 0.1 to 0.5 megajoules of energy per kilogram; thus, compared to gasoline or diesel (at 44 to 48 MJ/kg), it is very heavy in relation to its energy output. Some breakthroughs in battery storage density and price appear to be on the horizon, but even with these improvements the problem remains: the theoretical maximum energy storage for batteries (about 5 MJ/kg) is still far below the energy density of oil. Neither long-haul trucking nor container shipping is ever likely to be electrified on any significant scale, and electric airliners are simply a non-starter.

Energy storage density by weight (horizontal axis) and volume (vertical axis) for selected media. A hypothetical ideal energy storage medium would appear in the upper right-hand corner of the graph. (Source: Pascal Mickelson)

The promise of biofuels as a direct substitute for petroleum was widely touted a decade ago, but we hear much less on that score these days. It turns out that enormous subsidies are needed because the processes for producing these fuels are highly energy intensive. This goes for second-generation cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel from algae as well. Research into synthetic biology pathways to biofuel production remains in its infancy.

Hydrogen offers a medium for storing energy in a way that can be used to power vehicles (among other things), and Toyota is about to release its first commercial hydrogen-powered car. But if we produce hydrogen with renewable energy, that means making H2 from water using solar or wind-based electricity; unfortunately, this is an expensive way to go about it (most commercially produced hydrogen is currently made from natural gas, because the gas-reforming process is inherently more efficient and therefore almost always cheaper than electrolysis, regardless of the electricity source).

These problems lead some energy analysts to propose a cheaper alternative to oil: why not transition the transport fleet to burn compressed natural gas, which government and industry tell us is abundant and climate-friendly? Unfortunately this is no solution at all over the long term. Globally, natural gas may be available in quantity for several more decades, but optimistic forecasts of “100 years” of abundant US domestic gas supplies are proving to be unfounded, and methane leakage from production and transmission infrastructure may end up making gas even worse for the climate than oil.


3. How much energy will we have?


Phone charging

The question is inescapable: will our renewable future offer less mobility? If so, this in itself would have enormous implications for the economy and for daily life. Another question arising from all of the above: will the quantity of energy available in our renewable-energy future match energy demand forecasts based on consumption trends in recent decades? There are too many variables to permit a remotely accurate estimate of how much less energy we might have to work with (we simply don’t know how quickly renewable energy technology will evolve, or how much capital investment will materialize). However, it’s good to keep in mind the fact that the energy transition of the 19th and 20th centuries was additive: we just kept piling new energy sources on top of existing ones (we started with firewood, then added coal, oil, hydropower, natural gas, and nuclear); further, it was driven by economic opportunity. In contrast, the energy transition of the 21st century will entail the replacement of our existing primary energy sources, and it may largely be driven either by government policy or by crisis (fuel scarcity, climate-induced weather disasters, or economic decline).

The additive history of energy sources (source: David Hughes)

Even supply forecasts from renewable energy optimists who tell us that intermittency is affordably solvable typically assume we will have less available electrical energy, once the shift away from fossil fuels is complete, than the International Energy Agency estimates that we would otherwise want (for example, analysis by Lund and Mathieson projects energy consumption levels in 2030 in Denmark to be only 11 percent higher than 2004 demand, with no further increase between 2030 and 2050, whereas IEA forecasts assume continued demand growth through mid-century). However, if (as the Weissbach study suggests) intermittency is in fact a serious economic burden for solar and wind power over the long term, then we need to entertain the likelihood that energy supplies available at the end of the century may be smaller—maybe considerably smaller—than they are now.

At the same time, the qualities of our energy supply will differ from what we are used to. As explained earlier, solar and wind are intermittent, unlike fossil energy supplies. Further, while planet Earth is blessed with lots of wind and sunlight, these are diffuse energy sources that need collecting and concentrating if they’re to operate heavy machinery. During the coming energy transition, we will be shifting from energy sources with a small geographic footprint (e.g., a natural gas well) toward ones with larger footprints (wind and solar farms collecting ambient sources of energy). True, we can cut the effective footprint of solar by using existing rooftops, and wind turbines can share space with food crops. Nevertheless, there will be unavoidable costs, inefficiencies, and environmental impacts resulting from the increasing geographical extent of energy collection activities.

The potency of fossil fuels derives from the fact that Nature did all the prior work of taking energy from sunlight, storing it in chemical bonds within plants, then gathering those ancient plants and transforming and concentrating their chemical energy, using enormous heat and pressure, over millions of years. Renewable energy technologies represent attempts to gather and concentrate ambient energy in present time, substituting built capital for Nature’s free gifts.

Moreover, while electrical power is easily transported via the grid, this doesn’t change the fact that sunlight, hydropower, biomass, and wind are more available in some places than others. Long-distance electricity transmission entails infrastructure costs and energy losses, while transporting biomass more than a hundred miles or so typically erases the crucial energy profitability of its use.


4. A Possible Outcome of Current Energy Trends


Solar panel

The price of renewable energy is falling while the cost of producing fossil fuels is rising. The crossover point, where fossil fuels cease to be cost competitive, could come soon—perhaps in the next decade.

What happens then? As batteries get cheaper, electric cars could become the industry standard; reduced gasoline demand would likely force the price of oil below its marginal production cost. If falling demand periodically outpaced declining supply (and vice versa), the result would be increasingly volatile petroleum prices, which would be bad for everyone. Meanwhile as more businesses and homes installed cost-competitive solar-and-battery systems, conventional utilities could go bankrupt.

The result: we would have green energy technology, but not the energy means to maintain and reproduce it over the long run (since every aspect of the renewable energy deployment process currently relies on fossil fuels —particularly oil— because of their unique energy density characteristics).

During the transition, what proportion of the world’s people would be able to afford the up-front investment required for entry into the renewable energy club? It’s likely that many (including poor people in rich countries) would not, especially given current trends toward increasing economic inequality; for these folks, conventional fossil-based grid power would likewise become unaffordable, or simply unavailable.

What if renewable energy optimists are right in saying that solar and wind are disruptive technologies against which fossil fuels cannot ultimately compete, but renewables critics are correct in arguing that solar and wind are inherently incapable of powering industrial societies as currently configured, absent a support infrastructure (mines, smelters, forges, ships, trucks, and so on) running on fossil fuels?


5. Googling Questions


Solar thermal collector

The combined quantity and quality issues of our renewable energy future are sufficiently daunting that Google engineers who, in 2007, embarked on an ambitious, well-funded project to solve the world’s climate and energy problems, effectively gave up. It seems that money, brainpower, and a willingness to think outside the box weren’t enough. “We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change,” write Ross Koningstein and David Fork, key members of the RE<C project team. “We now know that to be a false hope.”

The Google team defined “success” as identifying a renewable energy system that could compete economically with coal and could also be deployed fast enough to stave off the worst climate change impacts. The team concluded that renewable energy isn’t up to that job. In their article, Koningstein and Fork put on a brave face, hoping that some currently unknown energy source will appear at the last minute to save the day. But putting one’s faith in a currently non-existent energy source seems less realistic than working for dramatic improvements to solar and wind technologies. A completely new source would require decades for development, testing, and deployment. Realistically, our choice of replacements for fossil fuels is limited to energy sources that can be harnessed with current technology, even if they can’t keep the industrial growth engine humming.

In inquiring whether renewable energy can solve the climate crisis at essentially no net economic cost, Koningstein and Fork may have been posing the wrong question. They were, in effect, asking whether renewables can support our current growth-based industrial economy while saving the environment. They might more profitably have inquired what kind of economy renewable energy can support. We humans got by on renewable sources of energy for millennia, achieving high levels of civilization and culture using wind, sun, water, wood, and animal power alone (though earlier civilizations often faced depletion dilemmas with regard to resources other than fossil fuels). The depletion/climate drawbacks of fossil fuels ensure that, as the century progresses, we will indeed return to a renewables-based economy of some sort, running on hydropower, solar, wind, and a suite of other, more marginal renewable sources including biomass, geothermal, wave, microhydro, and tidal power.

We always adapt our energy sources, as much as we can, to suit the ways we want to use energy. It is therefore understandable that most people would like somehow to make solar and wind act just like fossil fuels, which have shaped our current consumption patterns. But that leads us back to the problems of energy storage, capacity redundancy, grid redesign, transport electrification, and so on. Weissbach’s study suggests that the costs of enabling solar and wind to act like fossil fuels are so great as to virtually cancel out these renewables’ very real benefits. Reluctantly but increasingly, we may have to adapt the ways we use energy to suit the quantities and inherent qualities of the energy available to us.

Fossil fuels shaped our current infrastructure of mines, smelters, forges, factories, pipelines, grids, farms, highways, airports, pumps, shopping malls, suburbs, warehouses, furnaces, office buildings, houses, and more. We built the modern world with the assumption that we would always have more energy with similar characteristics to maintain, operate, and replace this staggering and still-growing array of machines, structures, and support systems. Where it is absolutely essential to maintain these systems in their current form, we will certainly make every effort to adapt our new energy sources to the job (using batteries, for example); where systems can themselves be adapted to using less energy or energy that is intermittently available, we will adapt those systems. But in many instances it may be unaffordable to adapt either the energy source or the usage system; in those cases, we will simply do without services we had become accustomed to.

This may be the renewable future that awaits us. To prepare for that likelihood, we need to build large numbers of solar panels and wind turbines while also beginning a process of industrial-economic triage.

Reconfiguring civilization to operate on less energy and on energy with different characteristics is a big job—one that, paradoxically, may itself require a substantial amount of energy. If the necessity of expending energy on a civilization rebuild coincides with a reduction in available energy, that would again mean that our renewable future will not be an extension of the expansive economic thrust of the 20th century. We may be headed into lean times.

Granted, there is a lot of uncertainty here. Some countries are better placed to harvest ambient natural energy sources than others. Some academic studies paint an over-optimistic picture of renewables, because they focus only on electricity and ignore or understate the costs of variability mitigation; other studies arrive at unfairly pessimistic assessments of renewables because they use obsolete price data. It’s hard to portray our renewable future in a way that one analyst or another will not dispute, at least in terms of detail. Nevertheless, most energy experts would probably agree with the general outline of renewable energy’s potential that I’ve traced here.

I consider myself a renewable energy advocate: after all, I work for an organization called Post Carbon Institute. I have no interest in discouraging the energy transition—quite the contrary. But I’ve concluded that many of us, like Koningstein and Fork, have been asking the wrong questions of renewables. We’ve been demanding that they continue to power a growth-based consumer economy that is inherently unsustainable for a variety of reasons (the most obvious one being that we live on a small planet with finite resources). The fact that renewables can’t do that shouldn’t actually be surprising.

What are the right questions? The first, already noted, is: What kind of society can up-to-date renewable energy sources power? The second, which is just as important: How do we go about becoming that sort of society?

As we’ll see, once we begin to frame the picture this way, it turns out to be anything but bleak.


6. A Couple of Key Concepts


Wind turbines

Our degree of success in this all-encompassing transition will partly depend on our ability to master a couple of simple energy concepts. The first is energy returned on energy invested (EROI or EROEI). It takes energy to get energy: for example, energy is needed to drill an oil well or build a solar panel. The historic economic bonanza resulting from society’s use of fossil fuels partly ensued from the fact that, in the 20th century, only trivial amounts of energy were required for drilling or mining as compared to the gush of energy yielded. High EROEI ratios (in the range of 20:1 to 50:1 or more) for society’s energy-obtaining efforts meant that relatively little capital and labor were needed in order to supply all the energy that society could use. As a result, many people could be freed up from basic energy-producing activities (like farming), their labor being substituted by fuel-fed machines. Channeled into manufacturing and managerial jobs, these people found ways to use abundant, cheap energy to produce more goods and services. The middle class mushroomed, as did cities and suburbs. In the process, we discovered an unintended consequence of having an abundance of cheap “energy slaves” in the forms of tons of coal, barrels of oil, and cubic feet of natural gas: as manufacturing and other sectors of the economy became mechanized, many pre-industrial professions disappeared.

The EROEI ratios for fossil fuels are declining because the best-quality resources are being used up; meanwhile, the energy return figures of most renewable energy sources are relatively low compared to fossil fuels in their heyday (and this is especially true when buffering technologies—such as storage equipment, redundant capacity, and grid expansions—are accounted for).

Characteristics of energy resources (source: David Murphy). “Net Energy Ratio” in this chart is essentially the same as EROEI.

The practical result of declining overall societal EROEI will be the need to devote proportionally more capital and labor to energy production processes. This is likely to translate, for example, to the requirement for more farm labor, and to fewer opportunities in professions not centered on directly productive activities: we’ll need more people making or growing things, and fewer people marketing, advertising, financing, regulating, and litigating them. For folks who think we have way too much marketing, advertising, financialization, regulation, and litigation in our current society, this may not seem like such a bad thing; prospects are likewise favorable for those who desire more control over their time, labor, and sources of sustenance (food and energy).

A second essential energy concept has to do with the difference between embodied and operational energy. When we contemplate the energy required by an automobile, for example, we are likely to think only of the gasoline in its tank. However, a substantial amount of energy was expended in the car’s construction, in the mining of ores from which its metal components were made, in the making of the mining equipment, and so on. Further, enormous amounts of energy were spent in building the infrastructure that enables us to use the car—the systems of roads and highways, the networks of service stations, refineries, pipelines, and oil wells. The car’s gasoline supplies operational energy, but much more energy is embodied in the car itself and its support systems. This latter energy expenditure is easily overlooked.

The energy glut of the 20th century enabled us to embody energy in a mind-numbing array of buildings, infrastructure, machines, gadgets, and packaging. Middle-class families got used to buying and discarding enormous quantities of manufactured goods representing generous portions of previously expended energy. If we have less energy available to us in our renewable future, this will impact more than the operation of our machines and the lighting and heating of our buildings. It will also translate to a shrinking flow of manufactured goods that embody past energy expenditure, and a reduced ability to construct high energy-input structures. We might find we need to purchase fewer items of clothing and furniture, and fewer electronic devices, and inhabit smaller spaces. We might also use old goods longer, and re-use and re-purpose whatever can be repaired. We might need to get used to buying more basic foods again, rather than highly processed and excessively packaged food products. Exactly how far these trends might proceed is impossible to say: we are almost surely headed toward a simpler society, but no one knows ultimately how simple. Nevertheless, it’s fair to assume that this overall shift would constitute the end of consumerism (i.e., our current economic model that depends on ever-increasing consumption of consumer goods and services).  Here again, there are more than a few people who believe that advanced industrial nations consume excessively, and that some simplification of rich- and middle-class lifestyles would be a good thing.


7. Transitioning Nine Sectors


Electric car charging

When we start applying these energy principles to the systems that surround us and support our daily existence, the implications really start to get interesting. Let’s take a quick tour:

Food: Fossil fuels are currently used at every stage of growing, transporting, processing, packaging, preparing, and storing food. As those inputs are removed from food systems, it will be necessary to bring growers and consumers closer together, and to replace petrochemical-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides with agro-ecological farming methods that rely on crop rotation, intercropping, companion planting, mulching, composting, beneficial insects, and promotion of microbial activity in soils. As mentioned earlier, we will need many more farmers, especially ones with extensive practical, local ecological knowledge.

Water: Enormous amounts of energy are used in extracting, moving, and treating water; conversely, water is used in most energy production processes. We face converging water crises arising from aging infrastructure and climate change-related droughts and floods. All this suggests we must become far more water thrifty, find ways to reduce the energy used in water management, use intermittent energy sources for pumping water, and use water reservoirs for storing energy.

Resource extraction (mining, forestry, fishing): Currently, extractive industries rely almost entirely on petroleum-based fuels. Since, as we have seen, there are no good and comprehensive substitutes for these fuels, we will have to reduce resource extraction rates, reuse and recycle materials wherever possible, and employ more muscle power where possible in those extractive processes that must continue (such as forestry).

Building construction: Cement, iron, and road-building materials embody substantial amounts of energy, while large construction equipment (cranes, booms, bulldozers) requires concentrated energy for its operation. We must shift to using natural, locally available building materials, and more labor-intensive construction methods, while dramatically reducing the rate of new construction. The amount of enclosed space per person (home, work, shopping) will shrink.

Building operations: We’ve gotten used to actively heating, cooling, ventilating, and lighting our buildings with cheap, on-demand energy. We will need to maximize our passive capture of ambient, variable, solar energy using south-facing glazing, superinsulation, and thermal mass. Whatever active energy use is still required will employ efficient heat pumps and low-energy LED lighting, powered mostly by solar cells and wind turbines with minimal storage and redundancy (so as to maximize EROEI).

Manufacturing: Our current system is globalized (relying on oil-based transport systems); consumes natural gas, electricity, and oil in manufacturing processes; and uses materials that embody large amounts of energy and that are often made from fossil fuels (i.e., plastics). Lots of energy is used also in dealing with substantial flows of waste in the forms of packaging and discarded products. The economy has been fine-tuned to maximize consumption. We must shift to shortened supply chains, more localized manufacture of goods (shipping information, not products), materials with low embodied energy, and minimal packaging, while increasing our products’ reuse and repair potential. This will be, in effect, an economy fine-tuned to minimize consumption.

Health care: The high dollar cost of modern health care is a rough indication of its energy intensity. As the energy transition gains momentum, it will be necessary to identify low-energy sanitation and care options, and prioritize prevention and local disaster response preparedness. Eventually, high-energy diagnostics and extreme end-of-life interventions may simply become unaffordable. Treatment of chronic conditions may rely increasingly on herbs and other traditional therapies (in instances where their efficacy can be verified) as the pharmaceutical industry gradually loses its capability to mobilize billions of dollars to develop new, targeted drugs.

Transportation: The energy transition will require us to prioritize transport modes according to operational and embodied energy efficiency: whereas automobile and truck traffic have been richly subsidized through road building in the last seven decades, governments should instead devote funds toward electrified rail networks for both freight and passenger travel. We must also design economic and urban systems so as to reduce the need for motorized transportation—for example, by planning communities so that most essential services are within walking distance.


Source: Shrinkthatfootprint.com (data from DEFRA, EIA, EPA, Chester & Horvath)


Finance: It would appear that comparatively little energy is needed to run financial systems, as a few taps on a computer keyboard can create millions of dollars instantly and move them around the globe. Nevertheless, the energy transition has enormous implications for finance: heightened debt levels imply an increased ability to consume now with the requirement to pay later. In effect, a high-finance society stimulates consumption, whereas we need to reduce consumption. Transition strategies should therefore include goals such as the cancelation of much existing debt and reduction of the size and role of the financial system. Increasingly, we must direct investment capital toward projects that will tangibly benefit communities, rather than leaving capital investment primarily in the hands of profit-seeking individuals and corporations.

You may have noticed that suggestions in each of these categories are far from new. Organized efforts to reduce both operational and embodied energy consumption throughout society started in the 1970s, at the time of the first oil price shocks. Today there are many NGOs and university programs devoted to research on energy efficiency, and to life cycle analysis (which seeks to identify and quantify energy consumption and environmental impacts of products and industrial processes, from “cradle to grave”). Industrial ecology, biomimicry, “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing, local food, voluntary simplicity, permaculture, and green building are just a few of the strategies have emerged in the last few decades to guide us toward a more energy-thrifty future. Most major cities now have bicycle advocacy groups, farmers markets, and energy efficiency programs. These all represent steps in the right direction.

Yet what is being done so far barely scratches the surface of what’s needed. There could be only one meaningful indication of success in all these efforts, and that would be a decline in society’s overall energy use. So far, we have seen energy declines primarily in times of severe economic recession—hardly ever purely as a result efficiency programs. What we need is not just to trim energy use here and there so as to save money, but to reconfigure entire systems to dramatically slash consumption while making much of the remaining energy consumption amenable to intermittent inputs.

Another insight that comes from scanning energy reduction strategies in various societal sectors is that efforts already underway along these lines often have side benefits. There are tangible psychological, social, and cultural payoffs associated with local food and voluntary simplicity programs, and health improvements can follow from natural, energy-efficient dwellings, walking, bicycling, and gardening. A successful energy transition will require that we find ways to maximize and celebrate these benefits, while honestly acknowledging the full human and environmental costs of our decades-long, fossil-fueled joyride.

In the march toward our energy future, the PR war between the fossil fuel industry and renewables advocates gets much of the attention. But it will be our effectiveness in the hard work of dramatically reducing and reconfiguring energy consumption—sector by sector, farm by farm, building by building, household by household, community by community—that will largely determine our overall success in what is likely to be history’s most difficult and crucially important economic shift.


8. Neither Utopia Nor Extinction


Rusty bike part

This is all politically charged. Some renewable energy advocates (particularly in the US) soft-pedal the “use less” message because we still inhabit an economy in which jobs and profits depend on stoking consumption, not cutting it. “Less” also implies “fewer”: if the amount of energy available contracts but human population continues growing, that will translate to an even sharper per capita hit. This suggests we need to start reducing population, and doing so quickly—but economists hate population decline because it compromises GDP and results in smaller generational cohorts of young workers supporting larger cohorts of retirees. Here is yet another message that just doesn’t sell. A contraction of energy, population, and the economy has only two things going for it: necessity and inevitability.

From a political standpoint, some solar and wind advocates apparently believe it makes good strategic sense to claim that a renewable future will deliver comfort, convenience, jobs, and growth—an extension of the oil-fueled 20th century, but now energized by wind and solar electrons. Regardless of whether it’s true, it is a message that appeals to a broad swath of the public. Yet most serious renewable energy scientists and analysts acknowledge that the energy transition will require changes throughout society. This latter attitude is especially prevalent in Europe, which now has practical experience integrating larger percentages of solar and wind power into electricity markets. Here in the US, though, it is common to find passionate but poorly informed climate activists who loudly proclaim that the transition can be easily and fully accomplished at no net cost. Again, this may be an effective message for rallying troops, but it ends up denying oxygen to energy conservation efforts, which are just as important.

I have good friends in the renewable energy industry who say that emphasizing the intermittency challenges of solar and wind amounts to giving more ammunition to the fossil fuel lobby. Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”; in a similar spirit, some solar and wind boosters might say that a little exaggeration of renewable energy’s potential, uttered in defense of the Earth, is no sin. After all, fossil fuel interests are not bound by the need for strict veracity: they continually make absurd claims that the world has centuries’ worth of coal and gas, and decades of oil. It’s not a fair or equal fight: the size and resources of the fossil fuel industry vastly outweigh those of the renewables camp. And there could hardly be more at stake: this is war for the survival of our current civilization-supporting climate regime. Nevertheless, we will ultimately have to deal with the reality of what solar and wind can actually provide, and we will do so far more successfully if we plan and prepare ahead of time.

There are a lot of smart, dedicated people working hard to solve the problems with renewables—that is, to make it cheaper and easier for these energy sources to mimic the 24/7 reliability of fossil fuels through improvements in energy storage and related technologies. None of what I have said in this essay is meant to discourage them from that important work. The more progress they make, the better for all of us. But they’ll have more chance of success in the long run if society starts investing significant effort into adapting its energy usage to lower consumption levels, more variable sources, and more localized, distributed inputs.

The problem is, the gap between our current way of life and one that can be sustained with future energy supplies is likely to be significant. If energy declines, so will economic activity, and that will create severe political and geopolitical strains; arguably some of those are already becoming apparent. We may be headed into a crucial bottleneck; if so, our decisions now will have enormous repercussions. We therefore need an honest view of the constraints and opportunities ahead.

At this point I must address a few words to “collapsitarians” or “doomers,” who say that only utter ruin, perhaps extinction, awaits us, and that renewables won’t work at all. They may be correct in thinking that the trajectory of society this century will be comparable to the collapse of historic civilizations. However, even if that is the case, there is still a wide range of possible futures. The prospects for humanity, and the fates of many other species, hang on our actions.

What’s needed now is neither fatalism nor utopianism, but a suite of practical pathways for families and communities that lead to a real and sustainable renewable future—parachutes that will get us from a 17,000-watt society to a 2,000-watt society. We need public messages that emphasize the personal and community benefits of energy conservation, and visions of an attractive future where human needs are met with a fraction of the operational and embodied energy that industrial nations currently use. We need detailed transition plans for each major sector of the economy. We need inspiring examples, engaging stories, and opportunities for learning in depth. The transition to our real renewable future deserves a prominent, persistent place at the center of public conversation.

The Transition Network, The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, The Simplicity Institute, and many other organizations have already begun pioneering this work, and deserve support and attention. However, more framing and analysis of the issues, along the lines of this essay but in much greater depth, could also help. My organization, Post Carbon Institute, is embarking on a collaborative project to provide this. If you don’t hear much from me for a while, it’s because I’m working on it. Stay tuned.


*For the sake of simplicity, I have omitted discussion of nuclear power from this essay. There are those who say that nuclear power will, or should, play a prominent role in our energy future. I disagree with this view. Globally, nuclear power—unlike solar and wind—is contracting, not growing (China provides one of only a few exceptions to this observation). Nations are turning away from nuclear power due to the high levels of required investment—which, in virtually every case, must be underwritten by government. They are doing so also because of the high perceived risk of accidents—especially since the commencement of the ongoing catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan. Nuclear boosters advocate new fuels (thorium) or technologies (fast breeder reactors) to address these concerns. But many years of trials will be needed before these alternatives are ready to be deployed at scale; and it is unclear, even then, whether they will live up to claims and expectations.

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Images via shutterstock: Solar cityPower lines, Ethanol plant in field, Phone charging, Photovoltaic panel, Solar thermal collectors, Wind turbines, Electric car: Olga Besnard / Shutterstock.com, Bike part. Reproduced with permission.

  • Landbeyond

    Richard is always so rational and practical in his approach. Meanwhile, Obama, in his State of the Union Address, while stating that: “…climate
    change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”, also says:

    “… our economy is growing … The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong. … with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production … we’ve seen the fastest economic growth in over a decade … thanks to a growing economy, the recovery is touching more and more lives … Maintaining the conditions for growth and competitiveness. This is where America needs to go.”

    How many, including in the media and among economists, will question that attitude, or see any contradiction? It does not bode well.

  • claude saint-jarre

    Hello. I wonder why the magnegas solution is so ignored. See: http://www.magnegas.com … and please read and see the videos.

  • peakchoicedotorg

    Very courageous, thanks.

    First we thought the Earth was flat, then we thought it was round, now we pretend it’s constantly getting bigger, or we can go colonize Mars. Avoiding the worst case scenarios would require us to remember the Earth is abundant and finite.

  • Robert Hargraves

    I recommend Post Carbon Institute look carefully at the potential of new nuclear power, not just for electricity but also for synthesizing carbon-neutral vehicle fuels. THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal is a book that, similar to this essay, discussed the global energy overview, but it also proposes an achievable solution. Most recently, a new nuclear power plant design has been announced that allows power plant construction on a scale that can solve our energy/climate/poverty crises by mid-century.

  • orbit7er

    Green Transit Rail, shuttles, bicycles and walkable communities has way more potential to save both oil and greenhouse emissions in a short period than is realized by Auto-blinded Americans.
    There is a misconception that most Americans are “rural” In fact even according to the Federal Highway Administration 79% of Americans already live in urbanized areas. Brookings in May, 2011 studied the top 100 Metro areas in the US and found amazingly enough that ALREADY with existing anemic Rail and bus service in the US that 70% of working age Americans only live 3/4th mile from a transit stop! And this is after the transit massacre in the wake of the 2008 crash in which transit services were cut mostly to pay Wall Street derivatives all over the US.

    See http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2011/05/12-jobs-and-transit

    HOWEVER due to the horrible frequencies and lack of connections of existing Green Transit only 30% could reach a job in less than 90 minutes even during Peak service hours.
    Major Rail transit systems all over the US are simply wasting the capital resources invested in tracks, trains and stations by not running for most of the time. Here in New Jersey we have Rail Lines like the Boonton line which run no trains whatsoever all weekend, savage cuts to Hoboken a major transit hub which makes it impossible to get there in less than 2 hours on the weekends,etc. This is true also for the MARC in Maryland, VARail and many other Rail systems which run almost zero weekend service and scant “off-peak” service.
    This could be readily fixed within months or a year by simply restoring the Public Transit Federal operating subsidy which existed for decades until Reagan.
    The example of how quickly this could be turned around even without major investments in new LightRail, Rail, streetcars or High Speed Rail is when the US elite decided to redirect resources from Auto Addiction to the War effort in WW II. In just 3 years from 1942-45 US
    intracity rail ridership, bus ridership, and local transit increased by 4 times!
    After restoring reasonable Rail frequencies the next step would be to institute shuttle buses or safe bikepaths and sidewalks from Rail stations to ultimate destinations. Along with increasing frequencies we can leverage a local / express model of service as used in the NYC subways and also in Japan’s Rail system. Before NJ Transit axed my Rail lines Hoboken service to funnel almost every Rail rider to a single point of failure in the Midtown tunnels,
    I could take an express train which skipped most local stops to Hoboken and then transfer to the frequent local service PATH train and get to Hoboken in only 52 minutes (versus 2 hours on weekends now!) and to midtown Manhattan in 1 hour 17 minutes – the same time as the
    vaunted Midtown Direct service!
    In many cases Local/Express service could be run without an investment in new tracks. But in other cases all that is required is building Rail sidings which allow the local to pull over while the Express rushes past in a few key stations.
    Finally of course is restoring existing tracks of which there are 233,000 miles in the US or upgrading these to allow passenger service. Along with that new Rails could be placed down strategic highway medians as was done for VARail to Manassas, Virginia.
    For New Jersey/ New York the obvious place to do that is along I287/87 which crosses
    11 major Rail lines with existing Rail stations already a mile or less from the Interstate and
    then going across the Hudson to MetroNorth/Amtrak in New York.

  • Kaslo

    Solar electrolysis aka the artificial leaf could dramatically decrease costs to produce hydrogen. And doesn’t take that much water, and can include waste water. See Daniel Nocera’s work.

  • John Hardesty


    A really good job. I enjoyed reading your summary analysis and the articles you linked. You are absolutely right that wearing rose-colored glasses will not work; to have any chance, we have to face reality, unpleasant as that is.

    My one helpful criticism, as a political economist, would be that consumerism is not a system itself. It is the 20th century manifestation of the capitalist economic system. The internal dynamics of capitalism—with its structural need for unending accumulation and enabled by the power of fossil fuels—called forth the consumerist revolution. I think you are absolutely right in asserting
    that it is not simply the fossil fuel industries that stand in the way of change. Unfortunately, the stumbling block is the enormous power of the entire global corporate capitalist system. This, to me, is the most unpleasant reality
    of them all. I believe you can find the best basic understanding of consumerism’s dynamics in Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital (Monthly Review Press 1966).

  • Brian Sanderson

    You write:

    “This suggests we need to start reducing population, and doing so
    quickly—but economists hate population decline because it compromises
    GDP and results in smaller generational cohorts of young workers
    supporting larger cohorts of retirees.”

    Actually, the evidence contradicts these objections that are made by economists:

    (1) It is per capita GDP that is relevant to real people. This does not decline with declining population. It does decline if population increases and there is no compensating increase in resources or the effectiveness with which resources are used. Furthermore, GDP is a poor metric because it does not discriminate between economic activity that is beneficial (healthy food production) and economic activity that is quite to the contrary (people on expensive life support after car accidents). An empirical argument can be made that while much of the economic growth of “developed” nations could be characterized as beneficial in the mid twentieth century, the economic growth in the last 20 to 30 years has included a lot more bad stuff.

    (2) The argument for boosting population to create more “young” workers has resulted in outrageously high real unemployment of young people…

    One should always ask the question: Whose interests is this economist representing?

    Economics is not an objective science. It’s a game of manipulation.

  • sunweb

    A challenge with data: I don’t share you view of a renewable future. It is a one time shot. They are an extension of the fossil fuel supply system and the global industrial infrastructure. There
    is a massive infrastructure of mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating,
    installation, transportation and the associated environmental assaults.
    There would be no sun or wind capturing devices with out this
    infrastructure. This infrastructure is not green, sustainable, or
    renewable. The making of these devices
    inadvertently but directly supports fracking, tar sands and deep ocean drilling
    because of the need for this infrastructure.

    In addition, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is very marginal for
    all solar devices. It takes years if ever to repay the energy it took to make,
    install, and maintenance these devices.
    I have research references for this statement.

    This essay has diagrams and pictures of how we get copper,
    aluminum, glass, black chrome – the chemicals, heavy machinery, and industrial
    processes that are necessary to make the devices to capture the energy of the
    sun and wind.

    And this:

    New scientific studies show it
    takes years to payback the energy used in solar electric devices. EROI (Energy
    Returned on Energy Invested) says it takes energy – mining, drilling, refining,
    transporting, installing, maintenance, and replacement parts – to make the
    devices necessary to capture solar energy.
    Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution:
    The Energy Return on Investment by Prieto, Pedro A., Hall, Charles 2013.
    Energy in Australia: Peak Oil,Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth, By Graham Palmer. 2014. SpringerBriefs.

    And on wind: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2014/11/prove-this-wrong.html

  • ashermiller

    Just wondering if you actually read the essay…

  • sbean

    Richard, the sentiment that “the withdrawal symptoms are killer” is one of those pitfalls of projecting the past into the future. It would be more accurate (and helpful) to say that they “were killer” so that we might understand that the future can be different.

  • sunweb

    ashermiller and richard – I apologize. I only scanned it because I have read him supporting “renewables” in the past. Sorry.

  • Denis Frith

    This comprehensive discussion of the energy supply issue provides seemingly sound insight into the problems that society will have to deal with. That is not so! It treats energy as a commodity when the reality is that energy is always a property of materials. The use of the term ‘renewable’ energy conveys a fallacious impression to those in society who do not understand that energy flow is an irreversible process, just like time. Energy flow does positive work on systems made of materials while friction does negative work on these systems, so causing them to irrevocably age. So energy flow produces waste material. Climate change is just one unintended consequence of energy flow in technological systems. What happens to the materials should also be taken into account in any rational consideration of sound policies for adapting to the on going decline in availability of natural resources.

  • Wreck

    Robert, I totally agree. Perhaps the “new nuclear power plant design” that you refer to is the molten salt reactor proposed by Transatomic Power [www.transatomicpower.com], which seems to be a further improvement over integrated fast reactors [IFRs]. Both reactor types can use spent nuclear fuel [aka nuclear waste] by converting it to usable energy. Thorium as nuclear fuel is another area of vast potential, as you said. As Dr. Heinberg mentions above, China seems to be the only country pushing those advanced reactor designs. The problem with Dr. Heinberg’s anti-nuclear perception is that it offers no way to solve the problem of existing spent nuclear fuel, nor does he support the Megatons to Megawatts program of converting nuclear warheads into fuel for nuclear reactors.

  • Antiehypocrite

    This article is utter rubbish.

    Renewable energy is NEVER going to work on any level.

    Suggesting we reduce energy consumption is nonsense. You reduce energy consumption you reduce growth and that leads to a deflationary death spiral which will collapse the global economy.

    Of course if that happens the financial system goes and along with it all energy production and the supply chain.

    How do you manufacture solar panels and windmills when the supply chain is collapsed and the economy is gone? Where do you get spare parts from?

    There is no way to shrink and maintain anything but a very primitive economy.

    Of course this would also mean billions die. Because without oil and gas the industrial farming system that feeds 7 billion people will collapse. No more chemical inputs means that the land cannot produce anything because we have killed the soil with this toxic green revolution

    You are so totally lost on what is coming that you are not even worth reading.

  • capn daddy

    You are so totally entrapped in your own rhetoric, Auntie, that you did not carefully read what was said. The propositon here does not reject, but actually endorses a number of your observations. Take off your gloves and put on your thinking cap.

  • charlesjustice

    Good summary of all the essentials Richard. And as you point out a main concern should be reframing the issues. Economic Growth is essentially seen as “Heaven on Earth”. Advocating reduced consumption is a non-starter for economists, because the whole point of economics now is to ensure continued growth. Where is a writer like Jonathan Smith, who could point out the absurdities of neo-classical economics in a new “Gulliver’s Travels”? There is a “divider effect” that’s the inverse of the multiplier effect. As consumption and globalization decrease we get decreased economic efficiency from scaling down and running into “discontinuities”. This kind of economic contraction could lead to severe social instability.

    We have to turn the whole picture around and realize that what we need to do is to reverse the marketization of everything and replace it with something that does not require fossil fuels. That something is human organization. If we enlarge commons arrangements over common resources we can reverse marketization of and replace it with forms of local control. The effects of economic contraction can be adapted to if we are prepared to re-vision the kind of society we want, and make a plausible and persuasive case for it. This will include, by necessity, more representative forms of government at all levels, and a concentrated focus on eliminating inequality. We also need to re-interpret our history and our uniqueness as a species. (I’m working on that part)

  • sbean

    “This is likely to translate, for example, to the requirement for more farm labor, and to fewer opportunities in professions not centered on directly productive activities: we’ll need more people making or growing things, and fewer people marketing, advertising, financing, regulating, and litigating them.”

    The most direct route to that transition would be to eliminate the profit motive which guides us in other directions. The global cultural/societal use of money and the erroneous belief in the concept of exchange provides inherent perverse incentives. The alternative is to end the global use of money and exchange and live like all other species which rely on natural transfers (not exchange as we project it in our minds). A critical mass of people–including people who understand the situation as you’ve laid it out, Richard–could decide to end money use and the rest of us would have to go along (by definition of critical mass).

  • Jason

    So a draw down on consumption to a steady state economy where the goal of life is development and not physical growth or material accumulation…. i am not all that hopeful we can achieve this without a horrendously large social conflict inside and most likely between nations, we will be lucky to avoid nuclear war once the energy tide begins to truly recede… also this is assuming we can manage the rate of decline, I believe one of the main arguments in the “the party’s over” is the potential for the decline rates to exceed capacity to adapt leaving us “up shit creek without a paddle”. Given the uncertainty and the social unrest this would make the planned transition and necessary investment a highly risky affair hence it might not be at the adequate scale resulting in further conflicts until we reach an inflection point where we collapse uncontrollably down the side of the prosperity mountain until we land at a scale of consumption that can be maintained. Since 99% of our local communities have no redundancy or resilience hard times would then become the norm…..this would be a permanent shift in living patterns and then we will see the destruction of the Natural world in all its glory, in low fish stocks, polluted river and waterways, poor soils , lack of forests and animals etc etc ….

  • ajaxthegreat

    Amen to that. I couldn’t have said it better myself. We need to have fewer kids yesterday if we wish to have any hope of survival. We need to leave room for Nature, lest it not leave room for us.

  • Kevin_Carson

    You’re assuming that existing energy intensiveness is necessary, that the energy input requirements for a given level of output are inelastic, and that supply chains cannot be shortened — when in fact most large-scale corporate production is extremely wasteful precisely BECAUSE OF state subsidies that make it artificially cheap to toss in additional energy inputs and build artificially large inefficient factories with artificially long inefficient supply and distribution chains. Corporate capitalism has pursued a model of extensive growth based on adding more inputs, rather than intensive growth based on using existing ones more efficiently, because one of the main functions of the state is to give big business preferential access to stolen and enclosed natural resources.

    Absent state subsidies and other market distortions, an economy of smaller-scale manufacturing closer to the point of consumption would be far more energy-efficient AND far more efficient in terms of general productivity. Our economy is dominated by bloated, wasteful corporate dinosaurs not because that’s the most efficient way of doing things, but because they’ve leeched onto the government tit.

  • Robert Hargraves

    And another MSR, which I am associated with, is ThorCon, described in some detail at thorconpower.com .

  • Mambarino

    Brilliant essay, Richard, casting a clear light on the state of play and clarifying issues in what has become an increasingly contentious topic.

  • Mambarino

    Antiehypocrite, you seem to be too invested in a doomer perspective. There is not enough clarity on any of the discussed issued yet to justify the adoption of viewpoints as vehement as yours.

  • Mambarino
  • peakchoicedotorg

    There’s too many variables for ANY prediction to be guaranteed.

    The collapse narratives seem reasonable, but collapse can take many forms. Collapse of the British Empire wasn’t seen as catastrophe back in Britain. Other collapses have been far worse.

    Climbing down an icy, steep mountain requires great skill.

  • peakchoicedotorg

    Meanwhile, there are over a trillion dollars in new and wider highways being planned and built across the country, with very little opposition or scrutiny.

    Obama’s highway budget was higher than GW Bush’s highway budget, yet the environmental groups did not substantially challenge this.


  • peakchoicedotorg

    Cancer is not a good thing.

    Thorium also can be used to make atomic bombs.

  • peakchoicedotorg

    Megatons to Megawatts has ended as a program. The Russian warhead materials that were available have already been used up.

    The only thing that can detoxify irradiated (so called “spent”) nuclear fuel is time, lots of time.

    The idea of China building nuclear reactors does not make me feel warm and fuzzy. If and when they melt down here on the west coast of the US we will experience some of the fallout.

    Just before Fukushima, a delegation from NRC and FERC visited China and was shocked at the lack of quality control for their new nukes.

    And as for molten salt, that’s not a good material to have in close proximity to water cooling pipes.

    I prefer my nuke to have a 150 million kilometer (93 million mile) evacuation zone. No closer, please. Fission is not a good way to boil water.

  • Mambarino

    But with that skill, the descent can be achieved. And some of us are really smart apes! Don’t judge all of us by the current gang of fools running things!

  • peakchoicedotorg

    Our ability to cooperate and share food is what enabled us to survive from the days of Australopithecus. If we’re going to survive the mess we’ve all made that’s what we will have to tap into. I have stopped wondering whether we will succeed or not, it’s not productive. However, we do have to admit that we’ve largely ignored the warnings for a half century (or more), and our ability to mitigate is less than it was then.

    Why do they make still more gigantic planes, still heavier bombs and, at the same time, prefabricated houses for reconstruction? Why should millions be spent daily on the war and yet there’s not a penny available for medical services, artists or for poor people?
    Why do some people have to starve, while there are surpluses rotting in other parts of the world? Oh, why are people so crazy?
    I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone, are guilty of the war. Oh no, the little man is just as guilty, otherwise the peoples of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There’s in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated, and grown will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.
    — Anne Frank, May 3, 1944

    “Most of the shrinking numbers of middle class citizens in overdeveloped countries will continue to throw their lot in with the declining comfort and remaining privileges the system provides. The fact that the majority of the Japanese people were against nuclear power but nevertheless voted in a government committed to restarting the nuclear program is a good example of the pattern.”
    — David Holmgren, co-originator of permaculture, “Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future,” http://holmgren.com.au

  • skintnick

    Always good to get Richard’s balanced view, and imho worth his effort to pull the broad perspective of PCI together into an overview from time to time, for all sorts of reasons.

    In my mind throughout was “it’s cold here in Wales and I’m burning a lot of mains gas to keep my house warm and when will the discussion of electricity expand to consider domestic heating [and cooling]?” Perhaps the unwritten implication is that we just have to tolerate the unpleasant extremes of climate however we can?

  • skintnick

    Oh, and by way of throwing my hat in the ring, my own pet theory is that much of the problem lies in our system of money. From involvement in the Transition Movement I’ve become interested
    in local/complimentary currencies which come in many forms; Bernard
    Lietaer, perhaps the authority in this field, has worked on
    modelling an ecosystem of currencies to compliment fiat, which can
    provide the balance of efficiency and resilience which is required
    for sustainability in the natural world. I cannot recommend highly
    enough this recent presentation –
    http://bit.ly/180O3lY – the first part is a bit geeky but there’s a lot of interesting food for thought right
    through to the Q&As. Charles Eisenstein is another inspiring author who in the book Sacred
    Economics describes the required economic ‘descent’ rather beautifully.

    Both these authors speak of negative interest (demurrage) as having
    the potential to reverse our money system’s discounting of the
    future which is responsible for so much environmental destruction.
    More recently I’ve started to try to understand the work of
    Professor Miles Kimball who introduced me to the obstructive Zero-Lower-Bound in interest rates. He postulates, if I understand
    correctly, that just a few months with rates -3 or -4% would have
    completely resolved the 2008 crisis.

    The main point is that debt-based money predisposes financiers to discount the future, hence where we are now. Demurrage reverses the equation and, as Lietaer describes, pre-programs society to favour investment for the long-term over the quick buck.

  • skintnick

    Gary Alexander, author of eGaia, is proposing exactly this. Charles Eisenstein is also a proponent. The task of explaining money to people – what it is, how it works, how we can adapt with or without it – is rather huge, especially with the grip that vested interests have on politics, economics and the media.

  • Robert Hargraves

    Since you played the “cancer card” I need to emphasize that low levels of ionizing radiation do not induce cancer. Here’s the background on the erroneous common knowledge we have been told of for 50 years. Article will be on radiation effects.org shortly.

    No reason to fear low dose radiation

    the LNT model
    why it is a problem
    why it was adopted
    why it persists
    how it can be overcome

a group of professionals from Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information (SARI) Please see the end of the article for the list of authors.

    January 20, 2015

    Discussion of the LNT Model: The linear no-threshold (LNT) model was adopted in the 1950s for radiation safety. It assumes an excess risk of cancers from even the smallest amount of radiation exposure due to DNA damage. Though the model seems logical, it is not correct because it ignores the fact that our bodies have very powerful defenses against all damages that occur. In fact, there is considerable naturally-occurring DNA damage in our bodies even without any radiation exposure. Although a small amount of radiation produces a small amount of damage, it stimulates the activities of our defenses, including production of antioxidants, DNA repair, damage removal, and improved immune responses. As a result, there is less naturally- occurring damage, and therefore fewer diseases including fewer cancers.

    Why the LNT model should not be used: Much of the evidence claimed as support for the LNT model has collapsed due to updates to the data and discovery of faults in the data or analysis. For example, the most recent atomic bomb survivor data, historically quoted as the main evidence for the LNT model, no longer agrees with the model. This has been recognized in the latest published debate on the health effects of low-dose radiation where these data were not used to support the LNT model, unlike in previous such debates. Moreover, there has been considerable additional evidence showing that the LNT model is not valid and even that a small amount of radiation has beneficial health effects.

    Why the use of the LNT model is a major problem: The use of the LNT model has resulted in tremendous public harm because of actions taken by governments, professionals, political activists, and the public based on unfounded fears and concerns regarding low-dose radiation. Some examples of public harm are as follows –

    •Casualties in Fukushima: Urgent evacuation of the Fukushima area and its prolongation following the 2011 nuclear power plant accidents caused more than 1000 deaths with no recognizable benefit. More than 100,000 people remain displaced, either by government mandate or by fear of low-level radiation exposure. There were no casualties due to radiation from these major accidents in the Fukushima nuclear power plants demonstrating the safety of nuclear power.

    •Suppression of nuclear energy: The use of nuclear energy to produce electricity, though it has proven to be the safest in terms of number of fatalities per amount of energy produced, has been suppressed due to trumped up low-dose radiation-induced cancer concerns. This has resulted in real casualties from other non-nuclear energy sources. For example, a recent natural gas explosion in local supply lines in Harlem, NY killed 8 people and injured 70. If the neighborhood had utilized energy from nuclear power plants for heating and cooking rather than from natural gas, these casualties would have been avoided.

    •Suppression of research on cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.: There is considerable evidence supporting the use of low-dose radiation to prevent cancers and other major diseases like Alzheimer’s. The use of the LNT model unnecessarily inhibits testing such ideas. According to a conservative estimate, about 10% of the current deaths from cancer can be prevented using low-dose radiation. Thus, considering the annual worldwide cancer death toll of 7.6 million, the LNT model is probably responsible for causing over 2,000 preventable cancer deaths every day worldwide.

    •Missed diagnoses: Many patients are refusing to have CT scans and doctors are not prescribing them due to radiation dose concerns, resulting in missed diagnoses and potentially harming patient health. Also, CT scans are being performed with poorer image quality to reduce radiation dose, making it harder to diagnose diseases.

    •High costs: Ratcheting up of regulations for the various uses of radiation (medical, industrial, nuclear energy, etc.) has resulted in tremendously increased costs but no benefit.

    Why the LNT model was adopted: The LNT model was initially adopted by the Genetics Panel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR) I Committee in 1956. Its summary report made statements such as: “Even very small amounts of radiation unquestionably have the power to injure the hereditary materials” and “there is no such figure other than zero” (for amount of radiation that is genetically harmless). The full report was published in the New York Times and received huge publicity initiating the fear of low-dose radiation.

    A year later, letters exchanged among the committee members included statements such as: “I, myself, have a hard time keeping a straight face when there is talk about genetic deaths and the tremendous dangers of irradiation”, “Let us be honest with ourselves—we are both interested in genetics research, and for the sake of it, we are willing to stretch a point when necessary”, and “Now, the business of genetic effects of atomic energy has produced a public scare, and a consequent interest in and recognition of importance of genetics. This is to the good, since it will make some people read up on genetics who would not have done so otherwise, and it may lead to the powers-that-be giving money for genetic research which they would not give otherwise.”

    These exchanges are highly informative, as they indicate the true reason for the adoption of the LNT model was not that the smallest amount of radiation is dangerous according to the committee members, but their own self-interest.

    Why the LNT model persists: The fear and concerns due to the LNT model have resulted in considerable financial support for the advisory committees and other individuals and organizations that cater to the concerns. Considering the dubious reason for the initial adoption of the LNT model (i.e., self-interest of committee members), similar motivation for its continuation cannot be ruled out. As evidence, the advisory committees have failed to allay concerns about low-dose radiation even after observing the above-mentioned negative impacts (and no benefit) from the use of the LNT model, and in spite of the evidence for the cancer- preventive effect of low-dose radiation, which they continue to ignore. The LNT model is a cash cow for the vested interests. They will not voluntarily discontinue its use.

    One might ask: if there is compelling evidence against the LNT model and the advisory bodies have ignored it, why don’t scientists point this out, and push the advisory bodies to do the right thing? In fact, many scientists have done this, but their writings get ignored or dismissed by the advisory committees. Such writings also receive little coverage by popular media as they are not sensational, in contrast to the advisory committee reports and articles that claim cancers from the smallest amounts of radiation.

    How the LNT Model can be overcome: Though previous attempts to dislodge the LNT model have failed, the time is ripe for overthrowing it by launching a coordinated effort, in view of the evidence that has recently been published showing the dubious origin of the LNT model and the body of data now existent. Of course, it is not going to be easy, considering the tremendous vested interests that are at work to maintain the status quo.

    If the public comes to know the origin of the LNT model as described above, they would support the overthrow of the model, since they would be incensed that the LNT model was proposed by misguided committee members who did not act only in the interest of public health.

    Among the steps to be considered for overthrowing the LNT model:

    •Legal challenge to the use of the LNT model, since published evidence has shown use of the LNT model has not protected public health but has caused casualties.

    •Advertisements that explain the origin of the LNT model partly as a consequence of self-interest of committee members and not to protect public health, and the casualties it has caused.

    •Public service messages showing evidence for reduction of cancer from low-dose radiation and how many cancer deaths can be prevented if the LNT model is overthrown.

    •Public debates with LNT model supporters.

    Many of these and similar steps would require considerable resources and manpower in order to be successful. Therefore a large amount of support needs to be marshalled prior to launching the effort to overthrow the LNT model.

    Why it is important to overthrow the LNT model: Overthrow of the LNT model would:

    •Enable study of low-dose radiation for prevention of diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, etc. for which there are presently few methods of prevention, but for which evidence indicates low-dose radiation could be effective.

    •Reduce pollution and casualties from the use of fossil fuels as living standards improve worldwide by encouraging the development and use of safer, less-polluting nuclear energy.

    •Reduce or eliminate unjustified large-scale, prolonged evacuations, and their associated casualties and disastrous consequences in case of radiation-related accidents.

    •Reduce the side effects of cancer treatments by enabling study of low-dose radiation to treat cancer, since there is evidence indicating such treatments are effective with minimal adverse side effects.

    •Reduce misdiagnoses due to radiation dose concerns regarding CT scans.

    •Reduce costs for various uses of radiation: medical and industrial uses, nuclear energy, etc.

    One or more of these would be of interest to every member of the public.

    How you can help: (i) Share this article with your contacts in the various social media so that more of them become aware of the need for change and join the campaign to overthrow the LNT model, (ii) Answer the survey and indicate your support for the overthrow of the LNT model, offer your help for the campaign, give your suggestions, etc. Based on the responses to the survey, after sufficient support has been marshalled, the campaign to overthrow the LNT model would be planned and launched.

    Epilogue: The LNT model is probably the most egregious error ever made in the name of science, considering the long period over which it has been used worldwide in spite of there being no valid evidence for it and in spite of the casualties and calamities its use has caused. In view of the dubious origin of the LNT model and its prevalent use, the powerful vested interests that benefit from its use would not voluntarily discontinue its use. A strong and large public opposition based on the best of science against the LNT model would be necessary to enable its overthrow. We hope you will join this effort and express your support for the overthrow of the LNT model by spreading the message and answering the survey. The whole world would benefit in multiple ways because of your actions.


    Mohan Doss, Fox Chase Cancer Center, USA
    Mervyn Cohen, Indiana University, USA
    Leslie Corrice, Publisher: The Hiroshima Syndrome, USA
    Jerry Cuttler, Cuttler & Associates, Canada
    Christopher Davey, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia Ludwik Dobrzynski, National Centre for Nuclear Research, Poland
    Vincent J. Esposito, University of Pittsburgh, USA
    Ludwig E. Feinendegen, Heinrich-Heine University, Germany
    Krzysztof W. Fornalski, Polish Nuclear Society, Poland
    Alan Fellman, Dade Moeller & Associates, Inc., USA
    Leo S. Gomez, Leo S. Gomez Consulting, USA
    Robert Hargraves, Author of “THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal”, USA
    Patricia Lewis, Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine, USA
    Jeffrey Mahn, Sandia National Laboratories (Retired), USA
    Marek K. Janiak, Military Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, Poland
    Mark Miller, Sandia National Laboratories, USA
    Charles W. Pennington, Executive Nuclear Energy Consultant, USA
    Jeffrey S. Philbin, Nuclear Safety Associates, USA
    Chary Rangacharyulu, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
    Bill Sacks, FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (Retired), USA
    Andrzej Strupczewski, National Centre for Nuclear Research, Poland
    Shizuyo Sutou, Shujitsu University, Japan

    DISCLAIMER: This article represents the professional opinions of the above authors, and does not necessarily represent the views of their affiliated institutions.

    Copyright © 2015 by Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information (SARI).


    This article in its entirety may be freely copied and distributed.

  • sbean

    My understanding is that Charles advocates a gift economy, which as I’ve read his writings on isn’t exactly what I’m proposing. I don’t get the sense that he understands that it’s a choice that could be made very soon or that the concept of exchange (which “gift” currently still is closely tied to) is the key lynchpin. Even the term economy is potentially confusing given our modern understanding of it. I’m not familiar with Gary, but I’ll definitely look into his book.

  • http://anovaeconomia.com Christopher Amaral Paterson

    Incredibly rich study. I must be a slow reader. It took me more than 25 minutes to go through the 7000 words just for a first reading. I guess it required me more than 2 very well spent hours !!!.

    It immediately came to my mind a first comment about the expectation implied in the study that change can come from individuals in a bottom up fashion.

    Unfortunately history shows us that is not the case specially when considering change of the economic system, its structure and how democracy is exerted. Not even if “contraction of energy, population, and the
    economy” is a “necessity and inevitability”.

    Vested interests will only be supplanted if a stronger force shows up. And this force can only be forged through a mass movement able to mobilize, incite, march, struggle and radically confront the status quo and its structures.

    It’s more than clear, change won’t come from within the system.

    Well, let me say that I’m not being pessimistic but, realistic. And that I would like to contribute to this fabulous “collaborative project”, perhaps helping to implement ways to foster change.


  • sbean

    Gary’s first edition of eGaia is available online. Very generous of him. I see that he does address the concept of exchange, primarily by contrasting generalized exchange with (not really) balanced exchange. Fortunately (I believe), it’s even simpler than he’s proposed. (Simpler doesn’t imply easy, by the way.) No need for prescriptions of any sort, software, etc., just a thought experiment leading to preparation and then abandonment of what doesn’t serve us well. People will work it out from there (in large part because of the thought and preparations.)

  • Gary Alexander

    Many people are working on the vision of a world that puts people and planet before profit. Yes a very different vision. My contribution, in eGaia, shows how a collaborative culture could provide a modestly comfortable life for all people, while respecting the planet. See my 10 minute video, or free eBook versions of eGaia at: http://earthconnected.net/

  • orbit7er

    Hey thanks for the tip!
    I have been a member of Rail Advocate groups for years (NARP National Association of Rail Passengers, NJARP (New Jersey Association of Rail Passengers) and the Lackawanna Coalition (local purview are my local Rail lines and Green transit around the Morris, Gladstone and Boonton Lines)
    They know a ton about Rail and Transit but they seem afraid to take on the highway lobby head on which is the only way we will survive.

  • peakchoicedotorg

    There is no way to detoxify nuclear waste and no way to store it for millennia. Thorium and U-233 fission creates lots of new nuclear wastes just like U-235 fission.

    If you think low dose radiation is harmless, you could go to Fukushima to help with the so-called cleanup. TEPCO is hiring.


    We are constantly being told about “a permissible amount of radiation.” Who permitted it? Who has any right to permit it?
    — Dr. Albert Schweitzer, On Nuclear War And Peace, p. 176,


    Admiral Hyman Rickover, the pioneer of the nuclear powered submarine program (which served as a prototype of nuclear power reactors), eventually had second thoughts. He told the Congress in 1982 that

    “I think from a long-range standpoint–I’m talking about humanity–the most important thing we could do is start by having an international meeting where we first outlaw nuclear weapons and then we outlaw nuclear reactors, too.

    “Until about two billion years ago it was impossible to have any life on Earth. That is, there was so much radiation on Earth you couldn’t have any life … Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet and probably in the entire system became reduced. That made it possible for some form of life to begin and it started in the seas …. when we use nuclear weapons or nuclear power we are creating something which nature has been eliminating. Now that is the philosophical aspect, whether it’s nuclear power or using radiation for medical purposes or whatever. Of course, some radiation is not bad because it doesn’t last long or has little effect on the surroundings, but every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years. I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it’s important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it.”

    from a hearing held in the Joint Economic Committee, January 28, 1982



    archive of John Gofman’s writings


    John Gofman, M.D., Ph.D., professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California Berkeley, co-discovered the fissionable isotope uranium–233. He worked on the team that chemically separated the first visible quantities of plutonium (in 1943). Journalist Howard Kohn wrote that the Manhattan Project, the World War II nuclear bomb program

    “needed a quantity of plutonium at Los Alamos [the nuclear weapon design center]—not much, but enough to be seen and handled in the bomb labs. At that time plutonium’s existence was known, but no one had seen it, except as an invisible glow of alpha particles. Gofman had figured out two ways to separate plutonium from uranium, and had patented both, but he had never put them to a real test. For country and flag, he was asked to try. Revving up a primitive cyclotron, and his nerve—this was in the realm of unknown danger—Dr. Gofman had sizzled a ton of uranium salt for three weeks and obtained for the War Department a spot of pure liquid plutonium, the size of a teardrop.”

    — Howard Kohn, Who Killed Karen Silkwood, p. 428


    “My particular combination of scientific credentials is very handy in the nuclear controversies, but advanced degrees confer no special expertise in either common sense or morality. That’s why many laymen are better qualitfied to judge nuclear power that are the so-called experts.”

    “People like myself and a lot of the atomic energy scientists in the late fifties deserve Nuremberg trials. At Nuremberg we said those who participate in human experimentation are committing a crime. Scientists like myself who said in 1957, “Maybe Linus Pauling is right about radiation causing cancer, but we don’t really know, and therefore we shouldn’t stop progress,” were saying in essence that it’s all right to experiment. Since we don’t know, let’s go ahead. So we were experimenting on humans, weren’t we? But once you know that your nuclear power plants are going to release radioactivity and kill a certain number of people, you are no longer committing the crime of experimentation–you are committing a higher crime. Scientists who support these nuclear plants–knowing the effects of radiation–don’t deserve trials for experimentation; they deserve trials for murder. . . .”

    “Licensing a nuclear power plant is in my view, licensing random premeditated murder. First of all, when you license a plant, you know what you’re doing–so it’s premeditated. You can’t say, “I didn’t know.” Second, the evidence on radiation-producing cancer is beyond doubt. I’ve worked fifteen years on it [as of 1982], and so have many others. It is not a question any more: radiation produces cancer, and the evidence is good all the way down to the lowest doses.””



    Dr. Alice Stewart, M.D.: “single-celled organisms could not exist until background radiation fell to present levels millennia ago. And it requires just as delicate an environment for us to survive. Yet today, in the arrogance of humankind, we are raising the levels of background radiation and setting back the evolutionary clock.”

    Dr. Stewart did the pioneering research in the 1950s that showed how infants and fetuses are far more vulnerable to ionizing radiation than healthy adults. She was treated very rudely by the medical establishment for many years for daring to suggest pregnant women should not be x-rayed. Now, her documentation is accepted as factual by the scientific establishment, although not incorporated into nuclear “safety” standards for running reactors.


    No degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make safe and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages. To do such a thing is a transgression against life itself, a transgression infinitely more serious than any crime perpetrated by man. The idea that a civilization could sustain itself on such a transgression is an ethical, spiritual, and metaphysical monstrosity. It means conducting the economical affairs of man as if people did not matter at all.
    — E. F. Schumacher “Small is Beautiful”

  • Robert Hargraves

    I’ll answer just the first of your comments, “There is no way to detoxify nuclear waste and no way to store it for millennia. Thorium and U-233 fission creates lots of new nuclear wastes just like U-235 fission.” There’s no need to. The modern high-burnup reactors such as thorium MSRs burn most of the created actinide (heavy metal) elements. The fission products can simply be stored for a few hundred years. After that time the total radioactivity of the actinides and fission products is less than the radioactivity of the natural uranium ore and thorium ore that we started with.

    The people you quote have been misled by the false science started with the BEAR report mentioned above. We’re trying to bring science back to the process of protecting the public.

  • peakchoicedotorg

    Dr. Gofman co-discovered U-233 (which is what the thorium fuel cycle generates) and did more primary health research on radiation than about anyone. He was the first biomedical director of Lawrence Livermore, long before BEIR and was kicked out by Edward Teller for being too honest, an unintended compliment.

    Thorium into uranium fission synthesizes lots of radioisotopes that did not exist on Earth before the discovery of fission. Claims that our descendants will be able to safely store the excrement centuries from now ignore the fact we cannot safely store these things now, when we know what they are and we still have fossil fuels to power our failed containment efforts. The continuous emission of melted fuel cores from Fukushima, uranium tailing spills, the Hanford tank farms, and many other examples show the reality.

  • http://anovaeconomia.com Christopher Amaral Paterson

    The social crisis is not properly a consequence of the environment one. One adds to the other. With information spreading all over the world and more and more people entering the market it is clear that all these people will be pressing for the right of having access to the same, at least, standard way of life. Since this is not possible and confine people in ghettos is not also (just remember the recent need to
    control the Ebola virus spreading to Europe and the US), the immense majority of humans will, at some point, hopefully not too late and before your catastrophic scenarios, join the struggle for a real
    change towards environment protection, social justice and well being.

  • ajaxthegreat

    With all due respect, the term “low-energy world” is not really accurate since we are literally swimming in energy, and that abundant energy is either directly or indirectly derived from the sun. It’s really a question of harnessing that energy, as well as how we use that energy. The term “energy bottleneck” would probably make more sense.

    The single most important question one can ask today: What Would Buckminster Fuller Do?

    And the answer can be found at the following link:


  • Wreck

    My point was that the implementation of Megatons to Megawatts is something I would like to see applied to every nuclear arsenal on Earth, not only the Russian nuclear arsenal. I can’t understand why reasonable people accept nuclear arsenals under the control of several governments, while they refuse to accept nuclear power plants under that same control. Apparently this contradiction is the result of fear-driven minds, for which no counter-argument is possible. It’s a purely emotional issue so neither logic nor rationality apply, sadly.

    Your belief that there is no current solution to the problem of spent nuclear fuel has been refuted by Robert Hargraves plus a large number of knowledgeable folks with serious credentials. What are yours??

    Just a sidebar — my wife is Japanese and joins regular protests at the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco, point being that the hostility towards anything nuclear is very familiar to me.

  • peakchoicedotorg

    Putin isn’t dismantling any more Russian warhead to give the fuel to the USA.

    Megatons to megawatts reduced the proliferation dangers but increased the total amount of radioactivity, since fission products and other reactor creations are much more radioactive than the original fuel.

    I don’t support anyone having nuclear weapons or reactors. It’s unfortunate the disarmament proposals that kennedy and Krushchev were working on in 1963 were blocked by both sides’ militaries, the world would be a cleaner, more peaceful place if they had been successful in calling off the Cold War.

    I don’t know of anyone with greater credentials about the health impacts of nuclear radiation than John Gofman, MD PhD.

    Claiming that it’s just an emotional, fear based response is propaganda, not science.

    Thorium reactors create a lot of new radioactivity that did not exist in the original fuel that cannot be detoxified, some of it is dangerous longer than homo sapiens has existed. No country or corporation has “solved” the problem of nuclear waste, some have contained it better than others but asking your great great great great great grandchildren to handle this is obscene beyond language. The recent failure of the “WIPP” nuclear dump is one of many examples of the failure of the atomic age.

  • Wreck

    Thanks for the link. ThorCon Power seems like it shares a lot of technology with Transatomic Power. Both groups have some background at MIT, so my guess is that they know each other. Perhaps a combined effort would be useful. One difference I notice is that Transatomic has chosen not to focus on thorium, in favor of spent nuclear fuel, in order to diminish the existing stock, and other reasons.

  • Antiehypocrite

    And you are living in a delusional word – either that or you cannot read

    Renewable energy ‘simply won’t work': Top Google engineers



  • Antiehypocrite

    There is no way to shrink energy consumption without collapsing the economy

    Energy is growth. Period.

    If we reduce we don’t grow. And that leads to a deflationary death spiral, which if unchecked, would collapse the global economy.

    Negative growth = massive job losses = massive drops in consumption = more job losses = less consumption = more job losses and so on


  • Antiehypocrite

    No – it says we can live on less energy using renewable energy.

    That is total idiocy.

    I suggest you shift your focus to Gail Tverberg’s articles http://ourfiniteworld.com/

  • Mambarino

    Listen to the latest Radio Ecoshock podcast about the Indian Point reactor. That’s enough to put anyone off nuclear forever

  • Mambarino

    Tverberg is a 70 year old AGW denier.

  • Mambarino

    I suppose you did not see what Heinberg said about those same Google engineers in the article above? I don’t think you even read the article, did you?

  • dlmchale

    It takes time and time is not on our side, sorry Stones. Many would try to create a alternate world that only our thoughts can live in. There just ain’t enough money and if so, it’s locked up in ‘wealth funds’. Unhinging the safety pin is; possibly after the boomers thin out; it recasts the equation. Please stop trying to have the ‘right’ answer, there is none. Study the government’s manual on co-operatives; study how Cuba sustained itself after the ‘fall’. Then go out and build, knowing the rules of engagement; take not for yourself but for the commons. You all knew it, when you played on the playgrounds it’s still the same. “Love one-another”. Much re-invention is required-not the machines, us. Thank you Mr. Heinberg you continue to be a ‘seer’ and ‘communicator’.

  • respectful

    The nuclear industry had its chance and blew it, quite literally. The public does not trust it any more, for obvious reasons. They need to clean up the mess they already have made before building more of these dirty bomb machines. But we all know that’s impossible, as Fukushima and Chernobyl are intractable clusterfucks beyond all human engineering power to fix.

  • sethdayal

    RIchard’s nonsensical lack of reasoning on nuclear energy makes one question his competence in writing on the energy issues at all.

    Even grade school arithmetic would tell you that a $5B/GW cost overruns included of the first of a kind VC Summer project financed by public power at today’s rates when added to the 2 cent a kwh cost of running the plant, is 4 cents a kwh, half the cost of gas plant, with the cost of gas now half its cost of production, and a small fraction of all in wind/solar costs. The project is built with no government subsidy at all. Energy secretary Chu tells us that reactor costs can be expected to drop 60% as similar units are built out. The last 7 Candu’s were built at $2B/GW.

    China’s under construction for 2017 Gen IV, HTGR is promising zero net carbon synfuel at under a buck a gallon, and electricity a penny a kwh.

    Apparently Richard flunked that arithmetic course.

    Fuku is showing no significant damage at all outside the plant – the problem being Japanese hysteria which would require the evacuation of Denver due to high background levels

    Keep in mind that over 7 million folks worldwide die annually from fossil air pollution, a problem France, a nation of poets, nearly eliminated decades ago in 10 years with a almost trivial effort, building nuke power at half the cost of fossil fuels. One has to wonder about the morals and motivation of those who condone the continued slaughter, and the threat of billions more deaths from carbon related disasters, pushing continued use of fossil fuels or worse like Germany that promise wacky already failed wind/solar solutions for 50 years and at a minimum 200 million dead in the future .

    With long term bonds now at 2% and the economy running on embers, with public power in an repeat of FDR’s New Deal, we could easily outdo France with a fossil to nuke conversion in 15 years, at a cost less than the operational cost alone of existing fossil fuel sources saving hundreds of millions of lives, the oceans, and the prospect of billion plus death AGW disaster.

    Only Big Oil and corporate cash, spent buying politicians, not so “green” energy NGO’s like Greenpeace, and Big corporate media with pundits like Heinberg, sustain the tragedy.

  • respectful

    The “doomer” name-calling is merely another form of denial. Since we have identified the direct connection between greenhouse gas emissions and warming, the ecosystem changes have been all but predictable even by the climatologists. Now the massive methane eruptions and other feedbacks in the Arctic will cause accelerated warming. The super-storms and extreme temperatures we have witnessed in recent years foretell of much more severe conditions to come. An increasing investment will have to be made into disaster relief, relocation and recovery, especially in coastal areas where most cities are, that will be flooded by storm surges. Droughts will persist and desertification will advance, causing food and water scarcity. Fires will consume vast areas of land. There’s no doubt that large segments of populations will be decimated and there will be social chaos. Any plan for “transition” will be challenged or nullified by the immediate needs for survival and maintaining order. In truth, we already know that non-linear climate change is upon us, so indeed all bets are off.

  • Ryn

    “No more chemical inputs means that the land cannot produce anything because we have killed the soil with this toxic green revolution”

    You completely lost me here.

  • pmagn


  • Mambarino

    The whole nuke story is full of BS. Listen to this about Indian Point reactor.

  • Mambarino

    You only have to listen to the reality of how these nuke plants are run to know that nuclear is not the way to go

  • ajaxthegreat

    While I mostly agree with the general thrust of this article, I think that the liquids problem that the author importantly brings up can be partially solved by “green crude” produced by algae, which can be done without most of the inherent disadvantages of crop-based biofuels. A good explanation can be found here:


    Another partial solution to the liquids problem is thermal depolymerization, i.e. producing synthetic crude oil from garbage and other wastes. Today’s landifllls would thus become the gold mines of the future.


    Yes, these are only partial solutions, but they will certainly take the edge off of the coming energy bottleneck if used wisely.

  • EVHappy

    Thank you, Richard, for mentioning population levels as being so important. It is impossible to talk about sustainability, energy per Capita, etc. without talking about population levels. It is the most important parameter in the energy / resource equation.

    I think it would help people, who think renewable energy infrastructure is going to solve all our problems, to imagine a world without fossil fuels and go through the mental process of mining, transporting, manufacturing, installing, operating, maintaining, decommissioning all of these systems without the fossil fuel crutch. What, electric trucks, tractors and mining equipment? Electric ships? Electric or hydrogen powered airplanes?

    Complex technology requires resources that produce very large EROEI ratios, just to be maintained. Thus, humans are in the process of powering down and this is going on right before our eyes. This is not just some global economic slump we are in. We are feeling the effects of lower EROEI resources and the resulting higher costs of net energy production.

    Things are not going to turn around for a very long time. The ride down the back side of the fossil fuel bell curve is going to be very painful but balance will be achieved. That balance will be a reality where there are far fewer humans using far less net energy per capita. This is a good thing for the rest of the species that exist on this planet. Cleaner air, water, land is a good thing, even though humans will fight this tooth and nail.

  • Wreck

    I hope you understand that this is basically a religious debate, in the sense that you are never gonna convince me and likewise, I am never gonna convince you. I think it’s best if we leave it at that.

  • HenMountain

    Do you really think we are limited to wind and solar and that we will not have technological advances in energy? And I don’t mean thorium reactors.

  • Antiehypocrite

    Pesticides and fertilizers are made with oil and gas — and they destroy the soil. It would take minimum 3 years of intensive organic inputs to grow anything farmed industrially.

    The soil is effectively dead

  • Antiehypocrite

    I suppose he said they are wrong. And he is an idiot.

  • owikeno

    The Economist argues that renewables are doing great not withstanding the arguements made in this post. http://www.businessinsider.com/energy-is-becoming-cleaner-and-more-plentiful–whatever-the-price-of-oil-2015-1

  • Antiehypocrite

    She is not a denier.

    Rather she understands that AGW is going to stop when the global economy collapses so what is the point in worrying about AGW.

    The global economy is 100% reliant on fossil fuels. And if you cut back on their use the economy withers then collapses.

    i.e. there is no way to stop AGW without collapsing the economy therefore only a fool would attempt to do anything about AGW.

    Tverberg understands that. You apparently do not

  • peakchoicedotorg

    The impacts of ionizing radiation upon cells and DNA is not a religious debate (assuming one believes in physics and biology).

    It is a faith based assumption that creating a nuclear war’s worth of nuclear waste can somehow be managed by our great great great great great grandchildren.

  • Mambarino

    only a fool would attempt to do anything about AGW.

    You may be at the wrong site, champ. I think you’re looking for ZeroHedge. Your comment would fit right in there.

  • TonyPrep

    Yes, we need to ask different questions. But it’s not only, “what kind of society can renewables support,” but also, “what renewables infrastructure is sustainable or, perhaps, can be sustained for long enough that we are able to start planning for a sustainable society”?

    As Richard noted, renewables is built on the back of fossil fuels. Operating and maintaining renewables with only renewables is a big ask. But we would also need to do so without further degrading our environment (e.g. possibly without any further extraction of resources).

    Economic growth is certainly out of the question (though I don’t think Richard mentioned that, surprisingly) and without growth (implied by profit) there would probably be no large corporations – at best just small local artisan businesses. How do we get the big businesses to voluntarily dismantle themselves?

    It’s interesting to think about these matters and, though we’ll never know the future until we’re there, it’ll be interesting to see what PCI comes up with in this project.

  • JamesWimberley

    Taking primary energy consumption as fixed is a mistake. The reason is that waste is a variable, strongly dependent on the energy mix. Currently the US economy wastes 60% of primary energy (see LLNL energy flowcharts). Switch electricity production to renewables and transportation to EV’s, and you would cut waste to 15% or so with no change in final consumption standards. The metric to watch is “useful energy”.
    Electric airplanes may be a long shot – but Airbus have flown one.

  • John Sales

    Respectfully, Richard, your (*) paragraph is dead wrong. Listen to Robert Hargraves – he has more depth and background than any of us on nuclear in general and MSR–LFTR-THORCON in particular. I’m just an energy generalist, but feel strongly that thorium -done right, is the only thing that can save us. You basically back this up in detail in the body of your writing.

    I’m appending some stuff I”ve put together specifically for grade schoolers. Lets face it when it comes to thorium development 99.9% of us are grade schoolers. I started it out with a chart I can’t get to reproduce – here’s the stuff that will: If I’m wrong on any of these points I hope people like you and Hargraves will point it out…but I don’t think I am.










































    *Conservation, Lftrs, Electric Autos, Renewables


    John Sales

  • Mambarino

    People who type in all caps are usually idiots with an axe to grind.

  • Mambarino

    So you didn’t read the article, as I suspected. Go away

  • Antiehypocrite

    Been hearing about thorium for decades.

    Do me a favour and wake me up when it actually works….


  • Antiehypocrite

    Feel free to explain how we could stop AGW.

    And please don’t say with solar panels…. unless you believe they grow on trees and are not made by burning massive amounts of the filthiest coal (lignite)

  • Antiehypocrite

    98% of all farmland uses oil and gas based chemical inputs for fertilizer and pesticide. These kills the soil. If they are unavailable the soil will support no crops — it takes years to repair such soil

  • Matt

    For simplicity you left out nuclear power, but unfortunatetly doing this makes the rest of your article ridiculous. The world power sector could be completely decarbonised in a couple of decades with mass deployment of conventional pressurised water reactors. If we then closed the fuel cycle by introducing recycling with fast reactors the EROI is almost infinite.

  • Kipchoge Spencer

    Would love to see this also published where more eyeballs dwell. Medium? The Atlantic? Harpers?

  • ajaxthegreat

    Looks like somebody has been watching too much “doomer porn”, lol. There is no law of nature that says that we absolutely must either grow or collapse–that’s the mentality of growthism, i.e. capitalism. The problem is how the system was designed, not that it is the only one possible. It’s the paradigm, in other words. And to imply that that is the only alternative betrays a huge lack of imagination, buddy.

  • ajaxthegreat

    Which is probably the most defeatist thing I have ever heard.

  • ajaxthegreat

    Biochar and regenerative farming can revive it.

  • Brian Sanderson

    A dual fluid reactor could use such spent fuel — burning up piles of nasty radioisotopes.


    There are some serious advantages to the dual fluid reactor with respect to safety. In particular dual fluid reactor does not operate at high pressure and is safely self-regulating (none of the meltdown issues of the reactors that we have all come to hate). The dual fluid reactor is also very scalable — can be big or small.

    The dual fluid reactor also operates at a higher temperature (than conventional reactors) which means more efficient conversion to other energy forms. The higher temperature is also useful for synthesizing other types of fuel (to replace petrol, perhaps) and fertilizer.

    So what is the catch? The catch is that such a machine has not been built and may require advancement in the present state-of-the-art of materials science in order to make key components.

    Take home message, it might happen or it might not happen. No one knows.

    It’s always good to keep an eye on possibilities but it’s better to bank on what is already proven.

  • sunweb

    After rereading, I stick with my original thoughts. Solar and wind energy capturing devices are a dead in street totally dependent on the fossil fuel supply system and the global industrial infrastructure. Promoting them in any form is creating false hope and only prolonging the necessary awareness. The work of Hall, Prieto, and Palmer were far harder on solar energy collecting devices than indicated in the essay.
    Most of us will do anything and everything to maintain our present personal level of energy use and the comfort it affords us. We will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to continue on this path. And if we don’t have the energy level we see others have, we will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to attain that level. The proof of this assertion is simple; we are doing it.

    The convergence of so many limiting and endangering issues facing humankind is daunting. We will be lucky to return to the energy level of the Middle Ages. http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/05/new-middle-ages.html

    It is comforting to prefer the noise of delusional magical thinking and pretending that the system of perpetual growth can work forever. There is just too much tied up with it and any unraveling would be far too chaotic and unpredictable. Wrapping our heads around the eventualities of global warming; of overshoot; of the
    desecration of world wildlife; of the acidification of the oceans; of the
    poisoning of pollinators stymies. A world no longer powered by fossil fuels, no
    matter what incarnation, is almost inconceivable and for many terrifying.

  • durham kid

    An inspiring read. I just had an exchange with a troll on another site which was depressing and went on too long – but I did realize something (for the upteenth time) from it that I would ask other posters to comment on:

    When we talk of a radical rearrangement of our economic society that we see as necessary and inevitable -including the blasphemous statement that continuous economic growth is not possible – we are accused of pushing a political agenda, rather than looking at the facts and trying to come up with a solution that results in the best outcome for society in the end. Once we are labelled and vilified, the ability to get a message out is that much harder.

    This is always a very easy thing to do – after all, it is much harder to make a nuanced argument than to rile people up with charges that your freedoms are being taken away, the other side is a bunch of Godless communists, etc.

    So the question is: how do we get people to think and prevent the hijacking of the message by all the dogmatic opportunists out there (I’m thinking of all the right wing nut jobs that seem to be so popular on the radio these days…).

    I anxiously await the responses of the thoughtful folks on this website….thanks!

  • Antiehypocrite

    Yes – but it takes at least 3 years of intensive organic inputs to revive soil farmed with chemical inputs.

  • Antiehypocrite

    Can you explain to me how you would slow or stop AGW?

    If you were all powerful what would you do?

  • Antiehypocrite


    Recall the aftermath of 2008 – growth stopped – we shrank.

    If that was not halted by massive stimulus you would have been out of work — you would have had no money — your family would have starved.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, growth is what creates jobs. If we do not create jobs that means people cannot spend.

    That means more people lose jobs and we get an economic death spiral.

    Do you still think no growth would be a good thing?

  • ajaxthegreat

    With all due respect, it seems you are confusing degrowth and a steady-state economy with failed growth (i.e. recession/depression). It is entirely possible to stop growing or even shrink the economy without crashing it like in 2008–but that of course requires a redesigning of the economy. Much like the difference between an airplane (cannot hover in place without crashing) and a helicopter (which is designed to hover), as Herman Daly so eloquently noted. As for jobs, I think that Buckminster Fuller was right about getting rid of the idea that everyone needs to work for a living.

  • ajaxthegreat

    In a nutshell, I would definitely phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewables ASAP. Of course, we would also need to abandon our inane and insane addiction to growth for the sake of growth, the ideology of the cancer cell which eventually kills its host.

    The best question to ask is, What Would Buckminster Fuller Do? And many of the answers can be found at the following site.


  • Wells

    I’d like to hear a debate over which of the 3 basic EV technologies (all-battery EV, plug-in hybrid EV, hydrogen fuel cell EV) has the most potential to reduce overall fuel/energy consumption.
    The answer is plug-in hybrid, counter-intuitive as that may seem. Adapting electric utility grids to support EV charging can be summed up thus: We may daily recharge 100 Tesla ‘S’ coupes or 1700 plug-in hybrids, whose effective mileage per gallon increases with shorter daily driving distances as more trips become possible without having to drive. Households with plug-in hybrid, plus rooftop PV, gain the means to more closely monitor and reduce energy consumption overall and critically important, survive grid failure with portable power. This is not rocket science.

  • Peter Heil

    This article has completely ignored the nuclear power industry. No greenhouse gases, no carbon footprint, substantially less real estate needed than for bio based energy sources or renewable energy. Many advances have been made in the development and safety of the nuclear industry. It has been proposed to build more, smaller nuclear power plants, all built to the same specifications. Any issues that do show up with one plant can be addressed and the same remedies applied to all similar plants. Europe is very much reliant on the nuclear power industry, but the U S has not built a new plant for decades, and many existing ones are being decommissioned.
    Coal plants are being converted to burn natural gas in enormous quantities, thus quickly using up this limited resource which would be better utilized for the transportation industry and home heating.
    The vast majority of the current US energy policies are very short sighted political nonsense that does not take the long term future into account at all.

  • farmertom2

    I have trouble believing that a 2Kwh existence living mostly as we do is possible.

  • farmertom2

    And the as-yet-unmet challenge of dealing with nuclear waste?

  • Peter Heil

    Decades ago, a solution has been found, a permanent disposal site deep underground in the Yucca Mountains, mandated to be constructed and maintained by the Department of Energy. This has not happened because of politics. Storing high level radioactive waste in a secure location contolled by the government protects the public. But the environmentalists would rather fight this than worry about the bigger hazards with the current energy strategies.
    Biofuels? Millions of pounds of toxic chemicals spread over vast areas of land, contaminating the air, water,and soil to increase the cropland production of corn for ethanol, soybeans for biodiesel.
    Wind farms? What about the large number of birds being killed by the turbine blades, traveling at well over 100 mph at the tips, the oil spills that don’t get cleaned up when shaft seals fail on the gearboxes hundreds of feet above ground level – look at large scale wind farms and you will find turbines with oil streaks running down the sides, the majority of the oil dispersed by the wind.
    Electric and hybrid vehicles? The batteries are constructed of toxic metals and chemicals that need to be mined and refined, producing even more toxic waste.
    Fuel cells, surely that is the answer! But the production of the fuel cells themselves generates more toxic waste, to be buried in landfills, eventually contaminating underground water supplies. And the hydrogen these fuel cells run off of? All large scale hydrogen production is derived from natural gas and other fossil fuels, which again produces toxic waste.
    Maybe nuclear power isn’t such a bad option, once you consider the miniscule amount of waste produced in relation to the huge quantity of energy the nuclear plkants produce. No greenhouse gases, no smog, no pesticides or herbicides, no fossil fuels being consumed, no unit trains carrying coal across the country, no pipelines rupturing and causing environmental disasters, no “Deepwater Horizon” incidents while finding new sources of fuel for the nuke plants. Yes, the waste is highly radioactive and deadly, but the utilities have learned how to control the hazards. All other sources of energy create vastly larger amounts of pollutants, and follow the “dilution is the solution to pollution” philosophy.

  • Oleksii Kolinko

    Guys, do not forget about rapid metals depletion, and everz increasing prices for metals due to rising of oil prices. Now we reached Peak Zinc, and other metals one by one comming soon.

  • Denis Frith

    This discussion is fascinating for its misleading use of terminology and its failure to take into account fundamental physical principles. So it is a mix of sound and unsound arguments.The common use of the term ‘renewable’ energy is to say the least most misleading. Solar and wind power systems are made of irreplaceable materials and have limited lifetimes. Saying they provide ‘renewable’ energy conveys the wrong impression. They can well make a worthwhile contribution to energy supply but only if their worth is soundly judged. Unfortunately, most comment about energy treats it as a commodity. the physical reality is that energy is a property of materials so what happens to those materials when energy is flowing should be taken into account in any rational consideration of what can be done. This includes the fact that when energy flow does (positive) work friction does negative work.The consequences are common knowledge amongst those who drive cars (that wear out) or input energy in riding a bike. At the same time, their hearts use energy to pump blood, largely against friction. Friction is ubiquitous in all operations of systems. Birds (and airliners) can only fly because of friction of the air flow over the wings.

  • Antiehypocrite

    Renewable energy ‘simply won’t work': Top Google engineers



    Two highly qualified Google engineers who have spent years studying and trying to improve renewable energy technology have stated quite bluntly that renewables will never permit the human race to cut CO2 emissions to the levels demanded by climate activists. Whatever the future holds, it is not a renewables-powered civilisation: such a thing is impossible.

    Both men are Stanford PhDs, Ross Koningstein having trained in aerospace engineering and David Fork in applied physics. These
    aren’t guys who fiddle about with websites or data analytics or
    “technology” of that sort: they are real engineers who understand
    difficult maths and physics, and top-bracket even among that distinguished company.

    The duo were employed at Google on the RE<C project, which sought to enhance renewable technology to the point where it could produce energy more cheaply than coal.

    Even if one were to electrify all of transport, industry, heating and so on, so much renewable generation and balancing/storage equipment would be needed to power it that astronomical new requirements for steel, concrete, copper, glass, carbon fibre, neodymium, shipping and haulage etc etc would appear.

    All these things are made using mammoth amounts of energy: far from achieving massive energy savings, which most plans for a
    renewables future rely on implicitly, we would wind up needing far more energy, which would mean even more vast renewables farms – and even more materials and energy to make and maintain them and so on. The scale of the building would be like nothing ever attempted by the human race.

    In reality, well before any such stage was reached, energy would become horrifyingly expensive – which means that everything would become horrifyingly expensive (even the present well-under-one-per-cent renewables level in the UK has pushed up
    utility bills very considerably).

  • Antiehypocrite

    How do you think solar panels are made?

    Oh right — China burns lignite (the filthiest coal) to generate the energy to manufacture them.

    I guess you though they grew on trees?

  • Antiehypocrite

    And you are delusional.

    We either grow — or we collapse

  • ajaxthegreat

    Only because our economy is designed that way, but it doesn’t HAVE to be the case. But as long as the oligarchs remain in power, it will. If that’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy, I don’t know what is.

  • ajaxthegreat

    China isn’t exactly the best role model, by a long shot. That’s one of many reasons why we should be making them right here in the USA. But that would make too much sense.

  • ajaxthegreat

    The good news is that with all of the great strides that renewables and efficiency are making, with nuclear power getting increasingly expensive every year while renewables are getting cheaper every year, nuclear will eventually phase itself out on its own. The so-called “nuclear renaissance” was basically just a flash in the pan from 2007-2010. Dangers aside, nuclear is simply way too centralized and inflexible for it to be a primary or even secondary energy source in our predominantly renewable-energy future. That said, I am neither for nor against nuclear power, and our highest priority should be phasing out fossil fuels as quickly as possible if we wish to avert climate catastrophe.

  • Antiehypocrite

    What part of this don’t you get?

    From Google’s engineers:

    Even if one were to electrify all of transport, industry, heating and so on, so much renewable generation and balancing/storage equipment would be needed to power it that astronomical new requirements for
    steel, concrete, copper, glass, carbon fibre, neodymium, shipping and haulage etc etc would appear.

    All these things are made using mammoth amounts of energy: far from achieving massive energy savings, which most plans for a
    renewables future rely on implicitly, we would wind up needing far more energy, which would mean even more vast renewables farms – and even more materials and energy to make and maintain them and so on. The scale of the building would be like nothing ever attempted by the human race.

    Let me enlighten you as to why panels are not made in the US – have a look at this http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1565472/thumbs/o-BEIJING-SMOG-facebook.jpg

    That is smog produced by the burning of lignite – the cheapest, and filthiest coal. China is willing to burn this stuff to provide the power to manufacture ‘stuff’ cheaply — they also have workers willing to work for a few hundred dollars per month.

    If you want panels to be made in the US then you must a) have people willing to work for a pittance and b) you must be willing to breathe smog.

    Like I said, solar panels do NOT grow on trees. They are NOT green technology. They are manufactured using massive amounts of fossil fuels.

  • Antiehypocrite

    Ok – let’s examine what happens when growth stops (as it did in 2008)

    Percent of US civilian working age population employed, 1995–2012


    September 2008 – 432,000 jobs lost

    October 2008 – 489,000 jobs lost

    November 2008 – 803,000 jobs lost

    December 2008 – 661,000 jobs lost[2]


    January 2009 – 818,000 jobs lost

    February 2009 – 724,000 jobs lost

    March 2009 – 799,000 jobs lost

    April 2009 – 692,000 jobs lost

    May 2009 – 361,000 jobs lost

    June 2009 – 482,000 jobs lost

    July 2009 – 339,000 jobs lost

    August 2009 – 231,000 jobs lost

    September 2009 – 199,000 jobs lost

    October 2009 – 202,000 jobs lost[3]

    November 2009 – 64,000 jobs created[4]

    December 2009 – 109,000 jobs lost[4]


  • Antiehypocrite

    When growth stopped in 2008 this happened:


    September 2008 – 432,000 jobs lost

    October 2008 – 489,000 jobs lost

    November 2008 – 803,000 jobs lost

    December 2008 – 661,000 jobs lost[2]


    January 2009 – 818,000 jobs lost

    February 2009 – 724,000 jobs lost

    March 2009 – 799,000 jobs lost

    April 2009 – 692,000 jobs lost

    May 2009 – 361,000 jobs lost

    June 2009 – 482,000 jobs lost

    July 2009 – 339,000 jobs lost

    August 2009 – 231,000 jobs lost

    September 2009 – 199,000 jobs lost

    October 2009 – 202,000 jobs lost[3]

    November 2009 – 64,000 jobs created[4]

    December 2009 – 109,000 jobs lost[4]


  • Antiehypocrite

    In case you hadn’t noticed the global economy is powered by fossil fuels — and we have nothing that can replace them.

    The only way to stop AGW is to collapse the economy – completely.

    Are you on board with that?

    I thought not. We do like our cushy lifestyles — we do like having jobs and money — we do like being able to buy food in a grocery store and we love driving around in cars.

    It all comes with a price to pay. And we are apparently willing to pay it.

    But not to worry the global economy will collapse whether we like it or not — and well before AGW really begins to bite:

    THE PERFECT STORM (see p. 59 onwards)

    The economy is a surplus energy equation, not a monetary
    one, and growth in output (and in the global population) since the Industrial Revolution has resulted from the harnessing of ever-greater quantities of energy.

    But the critical relationship between energy production and the energy cost of extraction is now deteriorating so rapidly that the economy as we have known it for more than two centuries is beginning to unravel.


  • ajaxthegreat

    You know, I’m really starting to think that maybe you are just a “concern” troll and shill for the fossil fool industry and/or Big Nuclear. What you say does have the potential to drive some very interesting wedges between people who would otherwise be natural allies. Just sayin’. And regardless of what the doomers claim, nothing is set in stone. Yet. And the link you posted is all the more reason why we need a radical paradigm shift yesterday.

  • ajaxthegreat

    We could make solar panels in the USA, and we actually DO make some of them here, sans smog for the most part. Jobs in the American solar industry are among the fastest-growing ones in this country, and they pay reasonably well. The difference is that less of the revenue goes to profits and more of it goes to the workers, compared with China. The real problem is the oligarchs that demand an outsized share of the profits/wealth.

  • ajaxthegreat

    Funny you mention Stanford. Take a look at what Mark Jacobson and colleagues have found:


    That’s right, 100% renewable energy for the entire PLANET by 2030 is possible, and the only barriers are political and psychological (which means they are entirely psychological). And that was 2009-2011, before the latest technological breakthroughs. So their findings would actually apply a fortiori to the present and near future.


  • ajaxthegreat

    Debunked. See above. Oh yeah, I might as well also debunk Ozzie Zehner while I’m at it:


  • Antiehypocrite

    Did Jacobson invest 850 million and lose the lot on renewable energy?

    Google did.

    There is a reason why renewable energy is not even 0.2% of our total energy supply — IT DOES NOT WORK.


    Think of renewable energy in the same light as god. Most people, in spite of the fact that there is ZERO evidence for god, still believe in a god in some form or other.

    Even very intelligent people are able to throw all logic out the window and believe 1+1 = 5.

    Why? Because they cannot handle the fact that when they die that is it. There is nothing. No virgins, no fairies and honey and milk. Only darkness.

    Renewable energy is another form of god. We all know that we are running up against an energy problem — and we cannot accept that civilization is about to end.

    So we grasp at any nonsense that promises salvation.

    Here’s the reality re: solar panels. They are nothing more than batteries. You burn 20 years of coal to get the energy to make panels that will produce slightly more than the energy that went in to making them over a 20 year period.

    The only reason solar panels exist is because a) the green lobby votes and governments must give them some scraps to appease them and b) governments need to give people hope for the future… it prevents despair.

    Our civilization was built on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels remain by far the largest source of energy. Solar energy and other renewables cannot replace fossil fuels.

    Here – have another look


  • Antiehypocrite

    How’s Solyndra doing?

  • Antiehypocrite

    No. Nuclear energy is an even bigger joke than solar. It should be banned.

    Civilization was built on easy and cheaply extracted resources.

    The problem is that as we finish off the low hanging fruit, what is left takes more effort (energy) to get to… which means there is less energy return to run the economy.

    Which means the economy slows — and eventually dies.

    This research comes from a company that provides energy analysis to investment banks – it was published in the FT.

    If you want to understand what is happening, well worth 15 minutes of your time.

    THE PERFECT STORM (see p. 59 onwards)

    The economy is a surplus energy equation, not a monetary one, and growth in output (and in the global population) since the Industrial
    Revolution has resulted from the harnessing of ever-greater quantities of energy.

    But the critical relationship between energy production and the
    energy cost of extraction is now deteriorating so rapidly that the economy as we have known it for more than two centuries is beginning to unravel.


    There is no way out of this

  • Antiehypocrite

    Hey Look! Here is China’s energy mix – note that the orange section is renewable energy…. can you see the orange part? It’s the tiny sliver at the top of the graph… you might need a magnifying glass:


  • Antiehypocrite

    Hey Look!

    Here is China’s energy mix – note that the orange section is
    renewable energy…. can you see the orange part? It’s the tiny
    sliver at the top of the graph… you might need a magnifying glass:


    I didn’t see thorium on there.

  • Antiehypocrite

    Only because our economy is designed to make sure we are fed, kept warm, housed, etc..

    Of course if you prefer not to have an economy designed to do those things then stop burning fossil fuels.

    You will of course get clean air – but little good that will do you when you are dead.

  • onesecond

    I couldn’t help thinking, that you are simply misled by people who can’t grasp that current energy consumption is incredibly stupid, wasteful and unnecessary. Germany as a heavy industrialized country currently only uses less than half per capita as the US without any drawback on comfort and that is only the beginning. Every home can be energy positive, the renewable energy potential is abundant and the intermittency issue can be solved technically and economically with storage. The reason I am sure of that is, that PV returns energy after half a year and wind energy after a couple of month, therefore PV and windpower production is self-sustainable and can be scaled to receive incredible amounts of energy that is free for other uses. Smart efficient usage through new technology like heat pumps, electric cars etc. and IT is obviously a no brainer, batteries will go through the same steep learning curve as PV. To me it is clear that you, like the people you cited are trapped in an US-centric old and quite frankly stupid energy way of thinking. Sadly to you two basics key points which just come from the physics of things seem inconceivable: Much much lower levels of energy are needed for keeping today’s living standard and staggering amounts of energy can be accessed through renewable energy. Fossil fuels really won’t be needed to produce RE devices which will deliver very cheap surplus energy after a few month. That is just physics.

  • ashermiller

    You are of course right that energy consumption is highly wasteful. But I’d like to hear how you envision renewable sources of energy powering the full lifecycle resource consumption of existing food, building construction, transport (including roads), and extraction of rare earth minerals needed for production of wind and solar technologies.

  • onesecond

    I have already written that in my comment.

  • onesecond

    I think I already wrote that in my comment.

  • Angel Dobrow

    Per usual, many will debate the ‘finer’ details of what does this analysis mean; as a long-time follower of Heinberg’s writings I am (once again) motivated to keep active as a community resilience builder. Years of bad news, sad news and quarreling can wear down one’s resolve to be VOCAL about capitalism’s nasty end product(s). However, the fractures in this dying system are presenting multiple opportunities for us to ignore their divide and conquer messaging, and shift our outrage to engage. Power to the people!

  • Landbeyond

    Bear in mind that Guy McPherson is an ego-tripping liar who misrepresents the opinions of field researchers like Shakhova in order to push his “near-term human extinction” concept to his cult-like followers. Anyone questioning his ill-founded blather is accused of being a denier.

    I prefer realists like Heinberg.

  • EnlightenmentLiberal

    Things are not going to turn around for a very long time. The ride down the back side of the fossil fuel bell curve is going to be very painful but balance will be achieved. That balance will be a reality where there are far fewer humans using far less net energy per capita. This is a good thing for the rest of the species that exist on this planet. Cleaner air, water, land is a good thing, even though humans will fight this tooth and nail.

    You sound like you care about the “well-being” of the environment and non-human species more than actual human beings. It seems like a form of Earth worship. Your seeming position is morally repugnant.

    Further, you postulate that after some painful transition period, the environment and biosphere will be better, in spite of the humans fighting it tooth and nail. This is simply fantastical. Do you see the damage that humans are doing by releasing CO2? If the human race does not change course, it is quite plausible that we will replicate the largest extinction event in Earth history – The Great Dying, the Permian extinction. The air, water, and land will most definitely not be cleaner, not for millions of years as the biosphere recovers from hypothetical non-stop human-caused CO2 production.

    The facts of the matter are that if you give most humans the choice between wrecking the environment and living well, vs being nice to the environment and just die, they are going to wreck the environment. Even if you make the second choice easier, say “live in abject poverty”, most humans are going to wreck the environment. This is an insurmountable fiat problem. The only fix to this solution is lots and lots of CO2-neutral, clean, cheap energy.

    Further still, the facts around the world show that humans in poverty dramatically increase in population, but people in western lifestyles tend to stay near or below the reproduction rate for population steady state. Reducing energy consumption per capita is the best way to wreck the environment, because reducing energy consumption per capita is the best way to drastically increase human population.

    Energy-rich countries tend to be much better on the environment (excluding our dirty energy sources which should be switched to nuclear). It’s the poor countries that are thrashing the environment because they’re poor.


    As others have noted, millions of people die every year from airborne particulate pollution from dirty fuels like coal. All of the estimates from respected health organizations put the death toll from radiation from Chernobyl at 4000. It’s not even in the same ballpark.

    Nuclear is being held to an unreasonable double standard. We accept risks every day of our life. For example, we accept risks when we drive a car. We are not applying reasonable standards of risk to nuclear, when we’re giving a free pass on coal, gas, solar (construction of photovoltaic is a nasty, polluting process), etc.

    Further, the biggest problem is that many people are simply ignorant concerning nuclear. The danger of nuclear waste and nuclear power accidents is ridiculously overblown. It’s because most people don’t understand it, and they’ve given in to the ridiculous fear-mongering in the media and from so-called green organizations. According to this false narrative, nuclear waste is very, very dangerous even in the most minute quantities – far more dangerous than any other kind of (non-nuclear) toxic waste. Whereas, in the real world, nuclear waste is toxic, but our industrial society deals with plenty of similarly dangerous non-nuclear toxic waste that will remain toxic forever. (At least nuclear waste has the decency to become less dangerous over time.)

    We need to have a real conversation based on facts and based on the real risks. The discussion cannot be based on flagrantly false assumptions of the much overblown and purportedly magical dangers of nuclear waste.

    As a starting step, consider the following plan. It looks silly at first glance, and it’s made only semi-seriously, but it just goes to show the ridiculous disconnect from the world depicted by anti-nuclear hysterics, and the real world.

    Take all of our nuclear waste, in the standard containers that we have now, and just dump it in random spots over the ocean. I don’t have the link handy, but IIRC a serious look was done at the effects of this proposal. The resulting calculations show something like approximately 0 human deaths over millions of years. The way to explain those results is this: Even if all of the waste leaked out of the containers, the amount of waste is so small, and the amount of ocean water is so large, that the concentration of nuclear waste would be small enough that it would never pose a health risk. Again, it’s simply not true that the dangerousness of nuclear waste is “infinity”. Nuclear waste is not magic. If you dilute it enough, then it’s no longer dangerous. Again, we need to approach this discussion with facts about reality, not with hysterics. And because there’s so little of it, unlike the waste of coal plants, handling the nuclear waste is trivial.

    And on top of that, we know that there are spots on the ocean floor that have not been disturbed for millions of years. Just put the waste there. The problem is solved.