Renewable energies, a placebo for climate change


Our collective belief that renewables are the cure for fossil fuels may well turn out to be more of a placebo than a real cure. Jack Santa Barbara explains why.

Comment: New Zealand’s plan to tackle climate change has not embraced the rhetoric of the “Green New Deal”, but it has certainly embraced the mythology about renewable energy. Renewable energies are at the heart of Green New Deal (GND) approaches around the world. But like a placebo, GND may turn out to be more of a sugar pill than we realize.

Placebos are designed not to affect physical symptoms, but to trigger psychological reactions that provide short-term relief.

Our collective belief that renewables are the cure for fossil fuels may well turn out to be more of a placebo than a real cure. Here’s why.

Stories we love to believe

We like what seem like relatively easy solutions, especially if they involve innovative technologies. This is what has worked over the past century, and what we expect. We often accept myth over reality when myth has appeal and reality is disruptive.

At the start of the fossil fuel era 100 years ago, history was about a wonderful new energy resource and all it could do for humanity. Warnings about the risks associated with climate impact have been issued, but ignored.

We risk making a similar collective error again. Understanding the whole story is a lesson to be taken to heart.

Limited essential materials

Renewable energy sources are actually not renewable the way we generally think. Yes, there is more sun and wind available than we can use. These are the renewable bits.

But to concentrate and use these huge but diffuse sources of energy, it takes large amounts of raw materials, including fossil fuels.

These raw materials are limited in supply and non-renewable.

Geologists have estimated that the available supply of many of the minerals needed by wind turbines and solar panels is insufficient to build an alternative “renewable” energy infrastructure beyond one or two generations of these devices.

Technical infrastructure (solar panels, inverters, batteries, etc.) all have limited lifespans, after which they must be replaced. But there are not sufficient supplies to ensure these replacements.

Some materials can be recycled, thus extending their availability, and innovation will likely extend the durability of these devices. But recycling is never 100% and the extent of innovation is uncertain. And implementing innovations typically takes decades.

Calling these technologies “renewable” is a serious misuse of language, conveying sustainability and false hopes, which they simply cannot deliver.

Production-related emissions

Solar and wind are the most advanced “renewable” technologies and are likely to play an important role in GND programs. But building the technical infrastructure, extracting the necessary minerals, transporting them, manufacturing the devices, installing and maintaining them, will all require fossil fuels.

Calculations of the amount of fossil fuels required for this massive transition indicate that these emissions alone would push global temperatures well beyond the internationally agreed danger zone of 2 degrees. And we should be doing it while reducing emissions in other areas.

These calculations take into account the enormity of the task. Remember that fossil fuels continue to provide well over 85% of global energy consumption. Consider that it would take the equivalent of thousands of nuclear power plants to replace that level of fossil fuels in the short time we have.

And we would have to repeat this replacement of physical infrastructure every few decades – with increasingly scarce raw materials and energy essential to the task.

Less excess energy

Another characteristic of “renewables” that is generally overlooked is their relatively small net energy surplus compared to fossil fuels. Net surplus energy is a basic engineering term that expresses the energy actually available to society for doing work, other than producing more energy.

The net energy surplus from renewables is considerably lower than historical fossil fuel levels.

The implications for our complex industrial society are enormous. This means that much more of our economic activity in the future will involve the production of energy than before. Many things that we now take for granted will no longer be possible. Great Simplification will be inevitable.

Consider this. Over the past century, we have built our complex global society with a net fossil fuel energy surplus of nearly 100: 1. Only one unit of energy input was needed to produce an additional 100 units of output to use – almost magic.

Simulations of a 100% renewable energy system, incorporating their lower net energy surplus, redundancies and storage required for such an energy system, show a net energy surplus of only 5: 1.

And even if we were to build such a massive system, its lifespan would only be a few generations at best, due to the availability of raw materials.

Our way forward

The current trajectory we find ourselves on with GND thinking is very likely to turn out to be a placebo solution to our energy crisis. It may make us feel better for a while, but not really treat our actual condition – which could be terminal unless we take proper treatment.

Here are some ideas of what proper treatment might involve.

Accept reality rather than fairy tales

We live on a finite planet with finite resources. Fortunately, our finite planet has an abundance of renewable resources that can enrich and sustain us, if we manage them wisely.

The only realistic Green New Deal is one that is actually green, rather than shiny glass and metal. Relying on the things that grow for our food, fuel and fiber is what we have done in the past and it will be our future.

Understanding that a true green future is the only sustainable one is probably the most important transition we can make – a mental and emotional transition.

Embrace a low energy future

The era of fossil fuels must end soon if we are to avoid climate chaos, and so-called “renewables” fall short of the magic they provide.

Learning to live with less energy may be less difficult than we fear. We are currently wasting huge amounts of energy because it is so cheap and neglected.

Paying more attention to how we use energy will help. Gradually, becoming more conservation conscious will help.

Taking a “well-being by joule” perspective will help us think about priorities for our energy use – which use gives us the most well-being?

Truly renewable energy

Before fossil fuels, we relied on biomass, human and animal energy. Along the way, we’ve designed a lot of low-tech devices (meaning that don’t require fossil fuels or other high energy inputs) to help us get things done.

We can salvage and rearrange many of these low-tech devices to deliver what we need. Different from the push button devices we rely on now, but nonetheless capable of providing a comfortable and enjoyable existence.

Yes, we’ll probably have to forgo some convenience and speed of getting things done. But we will be rewarded with a slower pace of life, a cleaner environment and the satisfaction of craftsmanship, both as producers and consumers.

We may not want to emulate the African Bushman way of life, but we can take note of the great amount of free time that their simple means allow.

A focus on well-being rather than profit

We have all been caught in the explosive frenzy that fossil fuels have provided for the past 100 years. Continuous “progress” and innovation, more and more every year, new whistles and bells; we even now have “smart toilets” to sit on and contemplate our future.

The profit motive has caused much of this excess, to the detriment of what really gives us satisfaction and well-being in life. Products and services are marketed to us to provide the short-term success of a sugar placebo, but without meeting our needs for meaningful work and social engagement, and free time to enjoy friends and family.

“Renewable” energy technologies are the myth we are being sold to replace our dependence on fossil fuels. Adopting a slower, simpler, well-being society is more in line with the biophysical realities that we now understand very well. Let’s not ignore them for 100 years.

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