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Tiptoeing Through the Renewable Energy Minefield

June 13, 2016

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I spent the last year working with co-author David Fridley and Post Carbon Institute staff on a just-published book, Our Renewable Future. The process was a pleasure: everyone involved (including the twenty or so experts we interviewed or consulted) was delightful to work with, and I personally learned an enormous amount along the way. But we also encountered a prickly challenge in striking a tone that would inform but not alienate the book’s potential audience.

As just about everyone knows, there are gaping chasms separating the worldviews of fossil fuel promoters, nuclear power advocates, and renewable energy supporters. But crucially, even among those who disdain fossils and nukes, there is a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between those who say that solar and wind power have unstoppable momentum and will eventually bring with them lower energy prices and millions of jobs, and those who say these intermittent energy sources are inherently incapable of sustaining modern industrial societies and can make headway only with massive government subsidies.

We didn’t set out to support or undermine either of the latter two messages. Instead, we wanted to see for ourselves what renewable energy sources are capable of doing, and how the transition toward them is going. We did start with two assumptions of our own (based on prior research and analysis), about which we are perfectly frank: one way or another fossil fuels are on their way out, and nuclear power is not a realistic substitute. That leaves renewable solar and wind, for better or worse, as society’s primary future energy sources.

In our work on this project, we used only the best publicly available data and we explored as much of the relevant peer-reviewed literature as we could identify. But that required sorting and evaluation: Which data are important? And which studies are more credible and useful? Some researchers claim that solar PV electricity has an energy return on the energy invested in producing it (EROEI) of about 20:1, roughly on par with electricity from some fossil sources, while others peg that return figure at less than 3:1. This wide divergence in results of course has enormous implications for the ultimate economic viability of solar technology. Some studies say a full transition to renewable energy will be cheap and easy, while others say it will be extremely difficult or practically impossible. We tried to get at the assumptions that give rise to these competing claims, assertions, and findings, and that lead either to renewables euphoria or gloom. We wanted to judge for ourselves whether those assumptions are realistic.

That’s not the same as simply seeking a middle ground between optimism and pessimism. Renewable energy is a complicated subject, and a fact-based, robust assessment of it should be honest and informative; its aim should be to start new and deeper conversations, not merely to shout down either criticism or boosterism.

Unfortunately, the debate is already quite polarized and politicized. As a result, realism and nuance may not have much of a constituency.

This is especially the case because our ultimate conclusion was that, while renewable energy can indeed power industrial societies, there is probably no credible future scenario in which humanity will maintain current levels of energy use (on either a per capita or total basis). Therefore current levels of resource extraction, industrial production, and consumption are unlikely to be sustained—much less can they perpetually grow. Further, getting to an optimal all-renewable energy future will require hard work, investment, adaptation, and innovation on a nearly unprecedented scale. We will be changing more than our energy sources; we’ll be transforming both the ways we use energy and the amounts we use. Our ultimate success will depend on our ability to dramatically reduce energy demand in industrialized nations, shorten supply chains, electrify as much usage as possible, and adapt to economic stasis at a lower overall level of energy and materials throughput. Absent widespread informed popular support, the political roadblocks to such a project will be overwhelming.

That’s not what most people want to hear. And therefore, frankly, we need some help getting this analysis out to the sorts of people who might benefit from it. Post Carbon Institute’s communications and media outreach capabilities are limited. Meanwhile the need for the energy transition is urgent, and the longer it is delayed, the less desirable the outcome will be. It is no exaggeration to say that the transition from climate-damaging and depleting fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is the central cause of our times. And it will demand action from each and every one of us.

You can help by visiting the Our Renewable Future website, familiarizing yourself with the issue, sharing your thoughts, and spreading the word with friends, family, colleagues, and allies.

 

Use discount code 4RENEW for 20% off your purchase of the printed book.

Buy the Book

Photo credit: Mny-Jhee/Shutterstock.com.

  • Lewis Gannett

    Thank you for this report.

  • BsrKr11

    The truth is typically gut wrenching…. a full scale revolution is required but I’m not going to hold my breath given the current crop of leadership being spewed forth by our corporate overlords

  • https://thstlewpg.wordpress.com/ Todd De Ryck

    My opinion is we need to consider all clean energy sources, for example “How to Decarbonize? Look to Sweden” http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2016.1145908 . Also, “Why Sweden says No to replacing nuclear power with wind” http://www.science20.com/news_articles/why_sweden_says_no_to_replacing_nuclear_power_with_wind-174480
    We can see that Germany is struggling with decarbonization “Germany’s Gabriel rejects calls to focus on exit from coal” http://www.reuters.com/article/germany-coal-idUSL8N18Z27Y . Also “Germany’s renewables electricity generation grows in 2015, but coal still dominant” https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=26372
    A report on the current state of global energy consumption http://euanmearns.com/bp-2016-global-energy-production-at-a-glance/
    Finally, “Is the environmental movement inadvertently effectuating Climate Change by opposing Nuclear Energy?” https://www.triumf.info/wiki/pwalden/index.php/Environmentalists_vs._Nuclear_Energy

  • Joris75

    This looks like a lot of good investigative work! Nice.

    FWIW, I believe that weaning humanity off fossil fuels and nuclear fuels at the same, while continuing to meet the needs and aspirations of people around the world and protecting planetary resources, will be an order of magnitude more challenging than focusing on just one of those fuels.

    Consequently, and since it’s evident (IPCC) that we need to be moving away from increasing the burning of fossil fuels with some urgency, I think that it would be highly bona fide to enable the widespread use of nuclear fuels and technologies, to stem and reverse the consumption of fossil fuels.

    Hence, FWIW, I consider support for nuclear power in principle to be a defining feature of any credible, moral approach to stewardship of the planet, and believe much more should be done in advocacy and negotiation to ensure that nuclear plays the role it must, for Peace’s sake.

  • fiddie

    I have heard that the UN’s IPCC defines low-carbon grids as having emissions no higher than 50 grams of CO² per KWh produced. RE backed up by NG or clean coal have nearly 10 times that level of emissions.

    This makes for a quandary on how to actually combat climate change (warming & ocean acidification via GHG). A few nations which have ample energy for society yet still have low emissions are Sweden, Switzerland, & France. Also the provinces of Quebec & Ontario. What they each have in common are hydro and nuclear energy infrastructures which provide ~90% of electricity with nearly zero emissions. For that reason I believe we should all consider building small hydro (which could have more potential capacity than large hydro!) and small modular nuclear. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIbziE-78DI https://theconversation.com/low-carbon-electricity-must-be-fit-for-service-and-nuclear-power-is-8605

  • Pam Bo

    I have been studying a way to build carbon-negative, potentially net-zero buildings with the simple materials of lime, sand, and bio-aggregate over a structure that is most commonly wood frame. With some change in law and building code, these materials could be generally available in most US locations as local within a few hundred miles. In addition to requiring minimal energy to produce, transport, and operate the building, these structures are fireproof, mold resistant, insect-proof, enduring, recyclable, healthy, and potentially inexpensive to build. The obstacles are education, especially regarding building codes and standards which are designed to promote complex petro-chemically based materials–and misinformation that regulates industrial hemp as if it were a narcotic. I am trying to get the officials in my municipality to recognize the wisdom of “hempcrete”. Any ideas for how to escalate the educational process? Endorsements?

  • postcarbon

    Frank, we agree that population is a critical conversation to have and we don’t shy away from talking about population issues at Post Carbon Institute. We tend to not exclusively discuss population but rather see it as a major pillar of unsustainability. This article (and the book Our Renewable Future) is about assessing renewable energy’s role in our future energy mix, and discussing the ways in which how we use energy will become just as (and in many cases, more) important than where we get it. Population plays a role, as it does in everything, but it’s not the focus of this work. If you are interested to see some of our writing on population, take a look at the below articles.

    http://www.postcarbon.org/publications/population-the-multiplier-of-everything-else/
    http://www.postcarbon.org/overdevelopment-overpopulation-overshoot/
    http://www.postcarbon.org/only-less-will-do/
    http://www.postcarbon.org/how-to-shrink-the-economy-without-crashing-it-a-ten-point-plan/
    http://energy-reality.org/energy-fueled-population-growth/

    We’re also working on an animation that talks about population and consumption as two intertwined crises, which innovation and technology alone cannot solve.

  • Phil Anderson

    Getting nuclear online at the scale required to fill in the energy gap within the timeline required for the energy transition and arresting climate change is not possible. They are way too expensive and slow to build, and there are not enough safe sites in the world for the number of plants required. Renewable energy can come online faster and at much less cost and is a permanent solution without the potential for catastrophe of nuclear plants. The exorbitant resources expended on nuclear power are resources not spent on renewable energy, and also slows the establishment of renewable energy. Geothermal energy is typically included on the renewable energy mix, and it plus hydroelectric and ocean wave energy are powerful and not intermittent We simply have to recognize the only solution – the renewable energy paradigm – with its complimentary requirement of energy efficient (including durability) technology and efficient, conservative life style (which entails changing the “energy needs and aspirations of people around world” without sacrificing their empowerment by powered labor saving and quality of life enhancement technology). Take a look at this summary of why nuclear power is not a helping factor in the shift of the energy paradigm, and is in fact harmful:
    http://www.greenamerica.org/programs/climate/dirtyenergy/nuclear.cfm

    If you want more detail and scholarly exporation, visit the websites of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Nuclear Information and Research Service. I haven’t yet read Richard and David’s book “Our Renewable Future”, but I presume they will address the realities of nuclear power in detail and in depth.

    http://www.rmi.org/Knowledge-Center/Library/E08-01_NuclearIllusion

    http://allthingsnuclear.org/dlochbaum/nuclear-plant-emergency-preparedness-southern-exposure-2015

    http://www.nirs.org/

  • postcarbon

    Interesting. You might find our upcoming web discussion on buildings/land use of interest:
    http://ourrenewablefuture.org/the-future/#future-buildings-communities

    Since this is a live discussion, you are welcome to raise the question of natural building materials with the panelists.

  • Ron Shook

    Richard & David, Getting caught up on your most recent thinking should be a kick!

  • Ron Shook

    I agree for a complementary reason. Newest generation nuclear has the potential to burn through and render less toxic and far less volume the 100,000 year wastes from the 1st 60 years of nuclear energy. We are not going to be able to keep those wastes safely for anywhere near that time. No more light water reactors, which are the only kind we know how to build. Not going several generations beyond these is criminal.

  • Joris75

    So are you saying which should fight new nuclear plants, and shut existing plants down?

    What I’m saying is that we need to use all technologies at our disposal, including nuclear power. It’s not an “either/or” issue. It’s an “and/and” issue in my view.

    I’m still seeing environmental organisations fighting nuclear power and spreading misinformation, apparently to cause fear and hate of nuclear power. That really has to stop! If a (poor) country is deciding to build a coal plant or a nuclear plant, they should choose a nuclear plant. And financial institutions (World Bank f.e.) should provide them the same loans that they provide if they choose fossil fuels.

    By the way I don’t know where you are getting your information from, but it’s badly wrong! The Chinese are building new nuclear power plants for less than $1.5 per Watt. Their nuclear power program is developing smoothly. They have almost reached the nuclear power cost level achieved by the French and Americans and others 40 years ago. And it looks like they are going to achieve even lower prices going forward. (After all, back when the French and Americans built their fleet of nuclear power plants, the technology was still fairly basic. Modern technology is far better so it is to be expected that the Chinese are pushing the cost of nuclear power lower than it has ever been in human history).

    Note also that the Chinese are implementing a closed fuel cycle. By the end of this century, they aim to have 1500 GW of fast breeder reactors online, so they will not have to do any uranium mining for thousands of years.