Renewable energy isn’t a shortcut to reversing global warming

Denmark has distinguished itself as the country moving the fastest toward the eventual replacement of fossil fuels. Its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 is laudable, but the assumption that this path will reverse global warming while otherwise continuing business as usual, is unrealistic.

At first glance, Denmark has made remarkable strides. The country’s intention to totally eliminate fossil fuels by the midpoint of the 21st century appears to be realistic. Already, Denmark is the world leader in wind energy and it intends to also exclude all use of nuclear power. At the start of 2015, the country’s energy agency, Energistyrelsen, said renewable energy sources account for 25 percent of Denmark’s total energy consumption, and more than 40 percent of its electricity comes from renewable sources.

Danish countryside (photo by "Old Dane")

Danish countryside (photo by “Old Dane”)

The Danish government acknowledges that continuing consumption patterns based on “cheap and easy access to coal, oil and natural gas” is a “road [that] is not an option.” True enough. But the switch to renewable energy is promoted as cost-free. The Danish government says:

“Business … stands a great chance to move into the heavy league of successful super green companies. For instance, the energy efficiency measures a company makes are often paid back within [a] few years. Onwards, the savings on the energy bill can be unleashed to strengthen the core business of the company. Likewise, there is an enormous global market for green technology, services and systems. This market is only going to grow once more governments follow in the carbon-light footsteps of Denmark.

But of course such a strategy would come at a great cost to Danish society? The answer is a resounding no. … [T]he transition is relatively cheap, and business competitiveness not harmed. The government’s estimates are a price tag of approximately 10 euro pr. household pr. month at the highest (2020), a price tag that will only slowly increase to this level. In the opinion of the Danish government this is a reasonable insurance policy against unexpected increases in fossil fuel costs and a solid investment in Denmark’s future energy security.”

Enthusiasm for renewable commitment

An expected rising efficiency of renewable energy sources will ultimately lead to lower costs, more than offsetting the investments in renewable-energy infrastructure and reversing the present-day higher costs, the government says. So no change in consumption patterns after all. This enthusiasm is shared by environmental institutions that have become large nongovernmental organizations. Greenpeace, for example, issued a brief paper in October 2014 that reads like a press release. In this paper, “Denmark’s commitment to 100% renewable energy,” Greenpeace agreed that no changes in consumption will be required. It wrote:

“Denmark’s emissions reductions have not affected the economy negatively. The decoupling of economic growth from energy consumption is partially due to Danish companies being subsidised for using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency, which in turn increases their creativity and prompts energy savings. Job creation is an explicit objective of the Danish Climate Plan, and because Denmark has invested heavily in research and promotion of renewable energy, energy-efficient technologies and renewable heat supply systems, the climate and energy system has already created thousands of jobs. The full transition to 100 per cent renewable energy is expected to generate at least 30[,000] to 40,000 new jobs in a country of 5.5 million people.”

Moreover, this will come easy, Greenpeace says:

“Although Denmark’s roadmap to fossil fuel independence and 100 per cent renewable energy is specific to the Danish context, many of the recommendations are relevant and applicable to other nations around the world. One finding may be of particular interest: The costs of phasing out fossil fuels are expected to be almost equivalent to or only marginally more expensive than a ‘business as usual’ scenario.”

Too good to be true? Unfortunately, yes. That global warming and the accelerating damage to the global environment can be reversed without cost — and without any alteration to the high-impact consumerism of the global North’s advanced capitalist countries — echoes the unrealistic conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued last year. The IPCC concluded the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century. Nothing more than a statistical blip!

In actuality, the IPCC assertion that we can remain on the path of endless growth is a fantasy argument that we can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too.

Bioenergy not necessarily a savings on greenhouse gases

When we look past the cheerleading for a bright renewable future, two problems immediately pop up: Renewable energy is not necessarily clean nor without contributions to global warming, and the limits that living on a finite planet with finite resources presents are all the more acute in an economic system that requires endless growth.

Denmark’s phaseout of oil, gas and coal is dependent on wind power and biomass, and to a lesser degree on solar energy. But just because energy from biomass is classified as renewable, that doesn’t make it sustainable or environmentally friendly. Denmark is the biggest per capita user of bioenergy, with Germany and Britain significant users as well. But the primary source of bioenergy is wood, and much of this wood must be imported. British plans for expanding bioenergy, if brought to fruition, could consume nine times more wood than can be supplied internally. Denmark is already a heavy importer of wood pellets.

Increased logging is surely not a route to reducing global warming. A paper by the British watchdog group Biofuelwatch reports:

“Increased demand for bioenergy is already resulting in the more intensive logging including very destructive whole tree harvesting or brash removal and replacement of forest and other ecosystems with monocultures. Expansion of industrial tree plantations for bioenergy is expected to lead to further land grabbing and land conflicts. At the same time, communities affected by biomass power stations are exposed to increased air pollution (particulates, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, dioxins etc.) and thus public health risks. Meanwhile, a growing number of scientific studies show that burning wood for energy commonly results in a carbon debt of decades or even centuries compared with fossil fuels that might otherwise have been burnt.”

A Partnership for Policy Integrity study published in April 2014 found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 [U.S.] states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

Even the wind (energy) has toxicity

Wind energy has its environmental issues as well. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Turbine magnets using neodymium are more expensive than those using ceramic, but are also more efficient. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that an additional 380 metric tons of neodymium would be necessary if the United States is to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. That’s just one country.

Most rare earths are mined in China because the mines are so environmentally destructive they had been shut down elsewhere. Production has been re-started in other countries, lessening demand on Chinese exports, but increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste. Renee Cho, a blogger for Columbia University’s Earth Institute, provides a sobering picture of this:

“All rare earth metals contain radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium, which can contaminate air, water, soil and groundwater. Metals such as arsenic, barium, copper, aluminum, lead and beryllium may be released during mining into the air or water, and can be toxic to human health. Moreover, the refinement process for rare earth metals uses toxic acids and results in polluted wastewater that must be properly disposed of. The Chinese Society of Rare Earths estimated that the refinement of one ton of rare earth metals results in 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater and one ton of radioactive residue.”

Just because it’s renewable, doesn’t mean its environmentally friendly. As Almuth Ernsting, a founder of Biofuelwatch, summarized in a Truthout article:

“Defining methane-spewing mega-dams, biofuels, which are accelerating deforestation and other ecosystem destruction, or logging forests for bioenergy as ‘renewable’ helps policy makers boost renewables statistics, while helping to further destabilize planetary support systems. As long as energy sources that are as carbon-intensive and destructive as fossil fuels are classed as ‘renewable,’ boosting renewable energy around the world risks doing more harm than good.”

Increased efficiency in energy usage hasn’t resulted in decreases in greenhouse-gas emissions. A study by 10 scientists led by Josep G. Canadell found that the growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing. The growth rate in anthropogenic carbon dioxide was higher in the 2000s than in the 1990s. Not only has economic growth contributed to this rate increase, but the carbon intensity of gross world product began to increase during the decade of the 2000s. Adding to this sobering picture, the efficiency of natural carbon sinks (such as forests and oceans that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) is declining.

The study said a growing global economy, an increase in the carbon emissions required to produce each unit of economic activity, and a decreasing efficiency of carbon sinks on land and in oceans have combined to produce unprecedented increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Beyond renewables, fundamental change is necessary

The conclusion necessary to be drawn isn’t that we shouldn’t switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources as quickly as reasonably possible. Of course that should be done. But it is a delusion to believe that doing so in itself is a magic wand to wish away the growing crises of global warming, environmental degradation and resource depletion. There is no alternative to drastically reducing consumption of energy and material goods, an impossibility under capitalism, and bringing into existence a sustainable economic system.

All incentives in capitalism are for endless growth; it can’t function without it. Because of this expansionary imperative, that production is for private profit rather than human need and that enterprises are able to externalize environmental costs, decreases in energy prices are an incentive to increase energy usage, which is what has been happening. An economy that must expand will do so — introducing efficiencies can slow down the increase in energy consumption and resource depletion, but an ever expanding economy will ultimately use more energy, more resources.

A former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer, says that economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease. In addition, energy usage due to transportation is increased from the movement of production to countries around the globe. Raw materials and component parts are shipped from all over the world to an assembly point, then the finished products are transported back.

This enormous contribution to global warming is another product of capitalism, specifically the dynamic of relentless competition that induces corporations to move production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest regulation, and to stretch supply lines around the world. These competitive “innovations” must be copied by competitors, thus increasing this tendency. (And are a catalyst for “free trade” agreements that incentivize the expansion of trans-national rootlessness.) As the depletion of natural resources accelerates, an inevitable byproduct of competitive pressures and the never-ending scramble for bigger profits, more energy and capital will be required to extract resources more difficult to exploit.

Carrying on with business as usual, with changes to the mix of energy production, is an illusion that “green capitalism” will save the world. Liberals and social democrats, in their own way, can be as unrealistic as conservatives. Conservatives correctly see that measures to combat global warming will come with a cost, so they screech that global warming doesn’t exist, despite the enormity of the evidence all around us. Liberals and social democrats readily acknowledge the real danger of global warming but, no more willing to tamper with the machinery of capitalism than conservatives, promise that the changes will be cost-free.

The changes won’t be. But the cost of doing nothing, of letting a runaway global warming take hold — the very path humanity is treading — will be much higher. The limits of the planet, of nature, will assert themselves. Yielding to natural limits now will come with much disruption, but having limits imposed on us in the future will surely be much worse.

27 comments on “Renewable energy isn’t a shortcut to reversing global warming

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    It seems to me that the genie is already out of the bottle. The immense lifestyle changes required at the individual and collective levels to reduce our carbon emissions and footprint are daunting. In America, the land of size ups and ever faster food, how many are willing to truly return to a localized, cooperative based way of life? Then there’s the corporate juggernauts who are absolutely not going to dismantle the globalized production and shipping infrastructure they have erected. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, just realistic about the enormity of the problem and the possible solutions. Then again, it only takes a small spark and a little bit of breeze to start a mighty forest fire.

    • I wish it weren’t so, but what you write is all too realistic. It is impossible to overstate the enormity of the task, and I would wager that enormity is part of what drives some advocates to promote the idea of a cost-free future. Those willing to face full reality have no choice but to sound the alarms, and hope that a spark does catch.

      • xraymike79 says:

        I’m afraid the only conflagration that will occur will be in the dying forests desiccated by climate change.

        We’ve created a bubble civilization from a very energy-dense, but highly polluting fuel source. Billions of us would not be here without our carbon-based economy and way of life. Decarbonizing at our current state of extreme overshoot would require that all First World nations live at the level of the most impoverished in the Third World.

        Dennis Meadows:
        “Forget the details. The basic formula for CO2 pollution consists of four elements. First, the number of people on Earth. Multiplied by the capital per person, so how many cars, houses and cows per man, to come to Earth’s standard of living. This in turn multiplied by a factor of energy use per unit of capital, ie, how much energy it takes to produce cars, build houses and to supply or to feed cows. And finally multiply that by the amount of energy derived from fossil sources…If you want the CO2 burden to decline, the overall result of this multiplication must decline. But what do we do? We try to reduce the share of fossil energy as we use more alternative sources like wind and solar. Then we work to make our energy use more efficient, insulate homes, optimise engines and all that. We work only on the technical aspects, but we neglect the population factor completely and believe that our standard of living is getting better, or at least stays the same. We ignore population and the social elements in the equation, and focus totally on just trying to solve the problem from the technical side. So we will fail, because growth of population and living standards are much greater than we would save through efficiency and alternative energy. Therefore, the CO2 emissions will continue to rise. There is no solution to the climate change problem as long as we do not address the social factors that count.”

        • Danny Brashear says:

          One way Anthropologist use to decide how advanced a civilization was is to estimate how much free time the individuals had to do things like create art. Your formula assumes that capital is an accurate measure of ones standard of living. I myself have found that working more time to buy more toys is less satisfying than working less and spending more time doing what I enjoy albeit with fewer toys. My quality of life is higher if I am fishing for weeks in a canoe than a few days in a brand new bass boat. If people had more time for leisure, then it would not matter if they took a long train ride to Alaska rather than a short flight. You are realistic in pointing out that we will have to live on much less to achieve the target of 2 degrees, however I think that if we were initiate a “Manhattan Project” to redesign our society, we would be amazed at how well we could live on a very minimal carbon footprint. So much of what we do is because it has been done that way before. Just as the lay out of our streets are dictated by the surveys done centuries ago, we are doing many things that really do not make sense anymore. The tools that we have now like computers and the internet have changed everything and we need to look at how our society is designed from the ground up in order to make best use of our technology. Pleasure is what needs to replace the capital in your equation. True, capital does bring pleasure but we cannot assume that it is an accurate measure of happiness.

          • Capital is surely not an accurate measure of happiness. Those billionaires desperate to throw more heaps of money on their piles can’t be happy — there is always somebody else with more billions. That’s the insoluble problem of greed: Too much is never enough, and the corporate culture screams at us that greed is the only human motivation. Most of the hours we spend working are to enrich corporate executives and financiers, not even so we can buy more useless gadgets.

          • xraymike79 says:

            I don’t think I mentioned anything equating happiness to capital. Capital or money is simply a token of energy exchange and has no intrinsic value on its own. Without the constant input of primary energy, a civilization’s economy ceases to function as it once did. Money = energy.

            So what you are saying is that we need to find happiness in a much less energy intensive way of living. If this is to be realized, then food production, work, entertainment, etc will all have to be done on a local level. Say goodbye to globalized trade, monoculture industrial farming, international plane flights, suburban sprawl, etc. A simpler life does sound appealing and certainly is needed if we are to live within the ecological constraints of the planet, but is it really possible at this point in modern capitalist industrial civilization? If America chose to go on a crash energy diet, would other countries follow? And what about all the high tech, energy intensive systems of national defense whose weaponry requires constant R & D in order to stay ahead of other nations? Did you know that the U.S. military is the single largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world and their carbon emissions are not included in America’s CO2 statistics?

            I think you’ll find that without some sort of strictly enforced international law banning fossil fuels, CO2 levels will continue to rise. Developing nations such as India and China will not willingly give up fossil fuels in order to downscale to a more primitive, simpler life. They certainly won’t voluntarily throw in the towel on the arms race. Any nation that did give up fossil fuels would be at an immediate disadvantage and would be eaten alive by other fossil fuel-burning nations.

            The solutions seem to be very simple and straightforward on the drawing board, but in reality they are not really feasible.

  2. Consumerism needs to be stopped in its track, not only for the vast damage it does to the biosphere, but for its role in wasting scare unrenewable resources and the immeasurable damage it does to social engagement and community life.

    • One way we could help stop “consumerism” is to stop serving as vectors for the word “consumer.”

      Our problem is corporate capitalism, not human nature/”consumerism.” (If that latter were the problem, why bother worrying?) To muddle this point is to serve the runaway overclass’s deadly agenda.

      • An interesting link. I’ll highlight this passage from it:

        “The whole ‘consumer’ vocabulary has been a subtle but crucial means of disarming the public by indoctrinating it into accepting the idea that people are by nature just as greedy, insatiable, and stupid with resources as are capitalists, that capitalists do no more than answer to ‘consumers.’ It’s an insidious lie, and you help perpetuate it every time you use this rotten label. Product-users and citizens of the world, unite! Cast off the dogmas and make a progressive and sustainable world, before it’s too late!”

        What you have written is true, but also incomplete. Consumption of corporate products is a hamster wheel of futility, and a poor compensation for having no control over our lives, the insecurity of life under late capitalism and frequent exhaustion from overwork on our jobs. Consumption isn’t really a human choice; it is foisted on us, you are correct. And our collective (latent) power is not as consumers but as workers — the point of production, whether and assembly line in a factory or at the computer in a white-collar office is where our lives can be changed, not in boycotting this or that product in our capacity as consumers.

        But it is not so simple to say let’s do away with the term “consumer” and all will become clear. The entire capitalist apparatus depends on us buying stuff; the economy of a typical advanced capitalist country is 60 to 70 percent household consumption. In other words, the economy as currently organized collapses completely without that, but also that most jobs are also dependent on it as well. So we do have to engage with people on this level, while also advancing the argument that, ultimately, the problem is our economic system and not individual behavior.

        That we should not be bamboozled by the word “consumerism” I agree with, but that the word is so commonly adopted means that we have to contend with it. It is indeed so (quoting a certain well-known philosopher) that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class that is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” It will take a good deal of patience, rather than a dismissive attitude, if we are to bring about understanding of these points.

  3. Well written piece. I’m just finishing up rereading William Catton’s “Overshoot”, and I can only conclude that we are all “cargoists” now. There’s a kind of pervasive, almost neurotic zeal one finds even in the most unlikely quarters these days that hopes and wishes that the confluence of realities coming to a head are somehow soluble with more of the same thinking that has historically been responsible for causing our present dilemma.

    • From the University of Illinois Press summary of Overshoot:

      “Catton suggests that we cannot stop this wave – for we have already overshot the Earth’s capacity to support so huge a load. He contradicts those scientists, engineers, and technocrats who continue to write optimistically about energy alternatives. Catton asserts that the technological panaceas proposed by those who would harvest from the seas, harness the winds, and farm the deserts are ignoring the fundamental premise that ‘the principals of ecology apply to all living things.’ These principles tell us that, within a finite system, economic expansion is not irreversible and population growth cannot continue indefinitely.”

      Simple mathematics. You can’t expand infinitely in a finite space. No technology can change that.

  4. xraymike79 says:

    “As long as the culture is at this level of depravity, the world is in real danger.”

  5. Hi all,

    Great to see a discussion among socialists which takes seriously the scale of the challenge, and the need for simpler non-affluent lifestyles as a key ingredient of a future eco-socialist alternative. I would say the scale of the required, contraction, de-growth and reorganization (all, as you say, impossible within globalised capitalism) is probably even more drastic when one is thinking globally, and in terms of fair shares. Thought I would share a couple of things.

    A great piece here by eco-socialist Saral Sarkar which briefly outlines 11 theses for a reconceived frugal eco-socialism.

    And second, the big question all of the discussion raises is – how to get there? Below is a link to the transition strategy which I, and a few others, think makes the most sense, as outlined by Ted Trainer – Australian eco-anarchist/socialist theorist.

    Keep it up!

  6. Also just to say, having read the article a bit closer, that an even stronger case on the limits to renewables can be put. Ted Trainer has been researching in this field for a long time. Below is a link to a very short summary of his case which basically suggests that attempting to run consumer-capitalist society on 100% renewables, while technically feasibly, will be basically unaffordable and thus, non-viable. Saral Sarkar (who I linked to above) has made similar arguments about the limits of renewables. And the energy issues, are just one aspect of the general Limits to Growth evidence…

    • Thanks, Johnny, for the interesting links. The last of these, to the analysis by Ted Trainer, is sobering indeed. Let me note a couple of paragraphs. First,

      “Because input from wind and sun can fluctuate wildly, from zero to full on, you need a) very large capacity to capture the surpluses for those usually short periods when they are very high, and you need b) very large storage capacity to hold enough to generate through those sometimes long periods when there is little or no sun or wind. For instance Connolly et al, (2014) found that to be able to provide 96% of Irish electricity demand from wind the amount of pumping capacity needed would have to be 2.7 times the country’s entire power generating capacity, and the amount of storage would have to be equivalent to 6 days of power demand.  The capital cost of that much storage would be utterly impossible.  And Ireland is probably the best wind region in the inhabited world.”

      And from that, he concludes that it would be unrealistically expensive to generate anywhere near the current level of energy usage through renewables:

      “The crucial question is whether we could afford to pay for all the redundant plant needed to enable supply from renewables despite intermittency. My efforts … to estimate the capital cost of a 100% renewable electricity (not total energy) supply system lead to the (uncertain) conclusion that the capital cost would be at least ten times the present global annual investment in electricity generation.”

      There are serious technical barriers to renewable energy, ones that may or may not ultimately be solved. If not …

  7. Mr. Dolack,

    Your message conforms pretty closely with Paul Street’s post on ZNet two months ago : Nine Years,-To Avert Catastrophe with Revolution.
    So I’m forwarding to you my letter of reply that I sent to Mr. Street, which was posted on my blog in March. Downloadable technical diagrams are available at the blog post, to illustrate the infeasability of frequently switched intermittent electric sources.

    What should we do first? 
    Improve social / economic arrangements,
    or fix earth’s chemistry by eliminating fossil-carbon combustion?

    Earth chemistry first.  Human society later.

    Download PDF of LFTR core diagram

    Paul Street is a frequent contributor to Z-Net, the lefty site that is graced by some pretty impressive folks, including Chomsky.  Mr. Street is not a guy for half-measures.  He’s for getting rid of capitalism in its entirety, and quickly.
    What’s bothering me is the idea gaining adherents that we (all humankind or just starting with USA, isn’t quite clear) must get rid of capitalism first in order to save ourselves from eco-disaster.  Mr. Street is among that school of thought.
    I couldn’t disagree more.  We can’t wait on capitalism’s demise because eco-disaster is too threatening, in my opinion.  Let’s suck it up and devote ourselves to salvaging the situation by displacing fossil fuels with Generation-4 nuclear energy.  Time enough to start chipping away at capitalism after we’ve put civilization’s continuance on firmer footing.  That’s what I wrote to Paul Street anyway.

    Timothy J Maloney
    March 8, 2015

    Paul Street
    c/o  Z Communications
    18 Millfield St.
    Woods Hole, MA 02543

    Re:  Nine Years – to Avert Catastrophe with Revolution
    Dear Mr. Street,
    You’re right, the solution to climate disruption must not be framed in terms of “make do with less”. Even the comfortable citizens of USA would not willingly accept that prescription, to say nothing of people in developing countries. That’s why your good news is so important  “… the technology to save livable ecology without undermining mass life quality and living standards exists and is fully viable”.
    The danger is that humanity won’t recognize the proper technology in time to avert ecological disaster because we will squander 2 to 3 decades on a wild goose chase involving wind, water and solar, per Jacobson and Delucci. 
    Our ecological crossroads can be described as a choice between Plan A – rapid rollout of wind, water, and solar – WWS, enabled by revolutionary action to displace predatory free marketering, versus Plan B, which can operate within the capitalist rubric while aiming solely at fixing earth’s chemistry problem.  Because environmentalism worldwide seems determined to put all its bets on WWS, I here dub Generation-4 nuclear fission as Plan B.
    In my opinion there is a compelling case to be made for plan B precisely because it doesn’t require difficult and unlikely revolutionary action to yank away political /economic power from the fossil-fuel industry.  Plan B can, I will try to persuade, effect a rapid displacement of fossils without having to win a preparatory wrestling match with fossil-capital.
    To begin my persuasion on a positive note I will first praise Plan B before examining the deficiencies of Plan A. Either plan must deal with two user-demands; that is, two forms of energy: 1) Electricity; and 2) Transportation. So four discussions in all.

    Electricity from Plan B:  Gen-4 Nuclear 
    Nuclear fission creates heat which in turn produces hot gas to spin a turbine-generator pair, correctly called a turboalternator.  This is like a coal or natural gas combustion plant, with the only difference being the source of the heat.
    The electrical infrastructure that has been working quite well for the past three-quarters of a century will not need to change.  We can continue to use the same grid (wires and transformers), the same turboalternators (with due regard for the fact that the turbine gas might be something other than steam), and the same plant heat-exchangers (some metallurgical replacements will be necessary, but no conceptual change).
    That’s all there is to it!  Remove the coal combustion chamber at the plant site, put a Gen-4 reactor in its place, and electrified human civilization can go forward.  This will entail no economic fight with the electric utility capitalists. They don’t care where their heat comes from, just so it’s cheap and reliable. And doesn’t cause a waste-disposal headache.  More on that later.

    Electricity from Plan A:  WWS
    Wind, water and solar will aggravate the electric utility capitalists because it makes their job more difficult, but more importantly it will violate your maxim of
    “… without undermining … living standards”. That’s referring to the living standards issue of electricity being always available [“always” here taken to mean
    99.9% up-time (only eight hours of lights-out per year) and very few voltage glitches that necessitate computer-restarting]. 
    The Jacobson & Delucci (J&D) study is a frequent touchstone for renewables boosters, as are the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s RE Futures study (NREL – RE Futures), and several others (Budischak & Kempton, etc).  Such references are often accompanied by mention of the progress that Germany has made integrating renewables into its electric grid.  Widespread referencing of these studies gives a false sense of confidence, in my opinion.
    The J&D idea of connecting tens of thousands of intermittent devices to a common grid over geographic areas of thousands of square miles is very unlikely to supply electric energy to all users all the time. This is due to technical reasons that I expound upon in links below. 
    The J&D-type studies consider only the availability of energy, statistically analyzed using historic data for wind and insolation.  They do not give adequate consideration to the deliverability of that energy.  Though they do acknowledge that the electric grid must be enormously expanded in order to provide sufficient transport capability.
    What J&D-type studies do not consider are 1) Frequent-switching stresses on the wind & solar converters; and 2) Oscillatory behavior among multiple small voltage sources, some of which are dc (PV solar panels) and some of which are poor-quality ac (wind generators).  These frequent-switching and oscillatory conditions have never before been experienced because the 20th-century electric age has relied on constant-speed turboalternators almost exclusively.
    There are compelling reasons to expect that the reorganization of our electric system into tens of thousands of on-again /off-again energy sources can never replicate the performance of a few dozens of large turboalternators.  The above links to my blog provide technical discussion.

    Germany’s current renewables installation is not relevant to this grid stability issue because Germany’s wind and solar penetration levels are still so small that they demonstrate only the ability of small intermittent sources to piggyback on large stable sources – turboalternators. The value of 30% renewables is popularly quoted for Germany’s grid but it must be recognized that only 16% of that is actually intermittent (9% wind plus 7% PV solar). The other 14% consists of biomass combustion powering a turboalternator (10%) plus river-run hydro (4%). Biomass and hydro behave almost like stable baseload.  Moreover, biomass is a false friend since it emits CO2 and diverts carbon from its proper destination – back into the soil.
    The German experiment has a long way to go before it gains relevance to Plan A’s prospects.  In 2014 it’s still riding the coat-tails of Germany’s baseload coal, nuclear, and natural gas (respectively 47%, 18%, and 6%).
    Here’s my take.  Although many Left environmentalists anticipate that fossil-fuel capitalists will stand opposed to Plan A, the real opposition will come from 1) The electric utility capitalists because they have the responsibility to keep their grid operating safely; and 2) Consumers, both societal segments, the heavy-user industrialists and us plain folks who just want to watch our TVs.  Not only will electric reliability be degraded, but Plan A will also be more expensive because J&D requires vast overbuilding of WWS capacity in order to make the availability statistics attractive.  I’m pretty sure that Plan A will turn out to be an ingenious experiment that has application for niche markets like islands and remote locations, but incapable of replacing mass amounts of coal and natural gas.
    Another remark: An electricity plan that requires any natural gas, even for fast-starting emergency backup per the NREL’s RE Futures plan (20% gas), is indefensible.  At our current consumption rates for space heating, fertilizer, plastics, fabrics, and medicines, the USA has only a 150-year supply.  That’s if the fracking proponents are correct in their estimate of recoverable reserves (they claim 2000-2500 Trillion Cubic Feet – TCF).  Of course they will turn out to be not correct, like Shell Oil in 2004.
    For a lay person’s explanation of the most promising Gen-4 concept, the Molten-Salt Reactor – MSR, nearly synonymous with the Liquid-Fuel Thorium Reactor – LFTR, you are invited to visit my website  Please inspect the Thorium Nuclear Slideshow download, slides 45 through 58 especially.  I am available for presentation /discussion to any interested group, examining the operating safety, waste handling, sustainability, and estimated cost of LFTR technology.
    Mr. Street, I don’t think the fossil-fuel barons are able to mount much of a defense against Gen-4 nuclear, their successful lobbying in the 1980s against Long Island’s Shoreham plant notwithstanding. The public is much better informed now about the dangers of coal, so less likely to accept the coal industry’s Shoreham-style scaremongering. 
    But the main reason for their impotence against Plan B is that commercial development and initial installations will almost certainly take place in China or India, where their writ doesn’t run.  Once LFTR gets a foothold in Asia, making manifest its reliability and low cost, the utility capitalists will be headlong to abandon the fossil capitalists, as Marx described.*  World-wide communication being what it is, a small fleet of LFTR plants in Asia is bound to break through quickly to the consciousness of the electric utility managers. Once that ball starts rolling the fossil capitalists will have to get out of the way.
    * part III  “The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface”

    Transportation by Plan B: Gen-4 Nuclear
    To undermine the petroleum market we must offer one or more of these alternatives: P) Electric battery propulsion; Q) Synthetic fuel for internal combustion engines; or R) Plentiful hydrogen for fuel-cell propulsion.
    Nuclear fission is compatible with all three of these technologies because it works at night to: P) Charge automobile batteries, or Q) and R) Dissociate water molecules – H2O – to produce hydrogen – H2.  Once elemental H2 is available in a collection vessel, the fission reactor’s 1000°C process heat can combine it with nitrogen from the air – N2 – to make NH3 – ammonia.  N2 + 3(H2) = 2(NH3).  Ammonia is a satisfactory synthetic substitute for gasoline or diesel in an internal combustion engine.  4(NH3) + 3(O2) = 2(N2) + 6(H2O) – with not a CO2 molecule in sight.
    Or, for those who prefer the latest technology, ditch the combustion engine and switch to a fuel-cell running on raw hydrogen.
    Large transport vessels, ships and rail locomotives, can mount their own small modular reactors – SMR.  Like U.S. Navy submarines and Russian ice-breakers.
    With P), Q) and R) fueling cars, trucks, locomotives, and ships, it looks like petroleum fuel’s only remaining market will be airplanes.  That ought to take our opponents down a few notches, and no social revolution required.

    Transportation by Plan A: WWS
    Renewables can do P) Battery-charging; and R) Hydrogen from water; but they can’t do Q) Synthetic ammonia. Wind and PV solar aren’t hot at all, and concentrated thermal solar – CSP – isn’t hot enough. The ammonia chemical reaction needs a temperature of about 1000°C.
    But Plan A’s problem with P) is obvious. We want to charge our car batteries at night so we can go to work in the morning.  Solar’s out.  J&D-type people do say that wind is statistically greater at night than during daytime, but that’s not very reassuring. We need to guarantee that the battery will be ready for the morning commute .  
    Regarding R), the difficulty is that water dissociation is extremely energy intensive. That drawback, combined with the electrical energy required for hydrogen storage compression, is chiefly what renders the entire hydrogen energy cycle so inefficient – about 20%.  Therefore to make any sense at all, hydrogen fuel-cells have got to be supported by great generation capacity, very inexpensive, working 24 / 7.  But J&D’s Plan A acknowledges right off the bat that it already requires a huge overbuild of generating capacity in order to get the statistical situation in its favor.  That’s just to keep everybody’s lights on.   To ask for another additional huge overbuild dedicated to hydrogen production, well… we should probably just admit that Plan A can’t
    do R) any better than it can do P) and Q).

    Where Do We Go from Here?
    The theme that has been running through Left commentary for a while is perceived by me as: “Discredit capitalists so that we virtuous people can pursue Plan A, which will save the ecosystem. Furthermore, because Plan A is sure to work there is no reason to allow nuclear energy to enter our deliberations”.
    My message to my fellow Left environmentalists is twofold. 1) Don’t have so much confidence in Plan A, because it probably won’t work the way you expect.  If you insist on trying to make it work, well, okay – good luck.  But don’t allow your quest to detract from support and funding of Plan B. 
    2) Don’t put the cart before the horse. We have a chemistry problem that is likely to wreak havoc soon. It so happens that we also operate under a social-economic paradigm, neoliberal capitalism, that is gradually harming human potential. But the acute chemistry problem can be fixed without fixing the protracted social problem. So let us set aside the capitalism issue for the time being in order to focus all our attention on carbon chemistry.
    In 1933 H.G. Wells pointed the way in The Shape of Things to Come.  First, stop fighting wars (1950s, Wells’ prediction); second, make your energy supply and transportation systems secure (1978 through early 2000s, per Wells); third, gradually reconfigure your social /educational system (leading to final success in year 2059, per Wells).
    We’re behind schedule. We’ve passed the early 2000’s and we still haven’t secured our energy supply (still fighting wars too). At this rate we won’t be rid of capitalism even by 2159, let alone 2059.
    Timothy J Maloney, PhD

    • Mr. Maloney, yours is the longest comment, by a large margin, ever posted on this blog. You surely have given ample thought to the question of future energy sources.

      Some clarification first. I don’t think any of us, and certainly not me, are arguing that we wait to supersede capitalism before tackling global warming. Quite the opposite. The point is that solving global warming in capitalism is impossible. Thus we must do what we can to mitigate global warming now, and at the same time work for a better world, one that would be decades in the future if it arrives at all. It’s both, not either/or.

      There are indeed limitations to solar and wind, as you ably point out. Indeed, Denmark remains hooked up to the Swedish and Norwegian power systems, and is facing the prospect of subsidizing fossil-fuel plants as a backup when the Sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Danes can also tap into power from Sweden and Norway, and can also export their excess energy to their neighbors. There are technical problems of storage and transportation, and I don’t have the expertise to make a prediction if those will be solved.

      But your Plan B of nuclear energy strikes me as the most unrealistic of plans. Nuclear energy is a proven disaster — it requires massive subsidies and is, and always will be, highly dangerous. The economics of nuclear power don’t work, can’t work and won’t ever work, no matter the latest design. As far removed from the mid-20th century boast that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter” as possible, nuclear is a boondoggle that has cost hundreds of billions in a variety of never-ending subsidies. And that’s before the environmental risks.

      Absent a dramatic breakthrough in solar or wind energy technology, we’ll be using less energy in the future. Either voluntarily or by having the limits of nature imposed on us.

      • xraymike79 says:

        The only viable solution, one which almost no one is actually working on, is to redefine what happiness means in a future world of fewer and fewer resources. Nearly all are doing just the opposite –trying to find ways to maintain the present set of living arrangements and the economic imperative for continued growth. From the links I provided above, Utah Professor Tim Garrett has shown that civilization’s energy consumption and wealth creation are linearly related at 9.7 milliwatts per 1990 dollar. The environment won’t be “saved” unless we stop our need for continued expansion of energy consumption. Judging from over two decades of failed climate negotiations, the likely hood of that is nil. And what about the upcoming climate negotiations in Paris?….

        “The climate policy mantra—that time is running out for 2° but we can still make it if we act now—is… nonsense.”

        • From your earlier link, Tim Garrett writes, speaking of the period from 1970 to today:

          “[E]nergy consumption and wealth grew equally rapidly, but at variable rates that increased slowly from 1.4% per year to 2.2% per year.”

          The Jevons paradox states that as energy becomes more efficient, energy usage increases, thus negating the advantage from the efficiency. Under our present system, all incentives are to continue this pattern.

          • xraymike79 says:

            Some expert I know on biological and social evolution would also say that decreasing overall energy consumption is not in our genes. At a societal level, the “hive mind” of maximizing energy consumption is in control of our collective consciousness.

        • Good point Mike! So much of the “conversation”, even among those who DO have an iota of a sense of the enormity of converging issues, revolves around the idea that “The Great Problem” – call it a “dilemma” – is merely some sort of engineering problem, in want of a “solution” or some suite of “solutions” that will come about by way of “smart” thinking, materialistic “ingenuity”, and the by now religious mantra “innovation”. Silly primates!

      • Dear Mr. Dolack,

        Thank you for your considered reply to my comment. Loathe to crowd this comment space again, I have sent to you a 5-page letter, care of Z Communications, of which I am a supporter. It has been sent by postal mail and by e-mail, requested to forward to you.

        If you do not receive the letter from ZNet, please visit my blog – Radiation Biohazard! Overblown? – at

        Timothy Maloney

  8. John Weber says:

    I am totally against nuclear. We humans are not mature enough for this energy source, include unintended consequences and we have a real problem.

    As for solar and wind energy collecting devices: All the human-made things in our world have an industrial history. Behind the computer, the T-shirt, the vacuum cleaner is an industrial infrastructure fired by energy (fossil fuels mainly). Each component of our car or refrigerator has an industrial history. Mainly unseen and out of mind, this global industrial infrastructure touches every aspect of our lives. It pervades our daily living from the articles it produces, to its effect on the economy and employment, as well as its effects on the environment.

    Solar energy collecting devices also have an industrial history. It is important to understand the industrial infrastructure and the environmental results for the components of the solar energy collecting devices so we don’t designate them with false labels such as green, renewable or sustainable.

    This is an essay challenging ‘business as usual’. If we teach people that these solar devices are the future of energy without teaching the whole system, we mislead, misinform and create false hopes and beliefs.

    I have provided both charts and videos for the solar cells, modules, aluminum from ore, aluminum from recycling, aluminum extrusion, inverters, batteries and copper.
    Please note each piece of machinery you see in each of the videos has its own
    industrial interconnection and history.

    • That every manufactured item has a history behind, including energy inputs, is something that is easily forgotten by proponents of “green capitalism.” The costs of the raw materials, manufacturing and transport, sometimes via global supply chains, of solar panels and other such equipment is considerable, and so when we add it all up, renewable is not necessarily renewable after all. There are no free lunches.

  9. Brian says:

    95% of wind turbines do not use rare earth magnets.
    95% of solar panels use no rare earths.
    The Tesla S used no rare earths in the motors or batteries.
    Renewable does not need rare earths, nuclear is rare earth ore. Same ore.

    Crop biomass is bad,
    Waste biomass is massilvy carbon negative by eliminating dump methane and using the biochar to double soil productivity.
    Solar, wind backed with hydro and hydrocarbons from recycling our wastes is a 100% renewable solution that indeed can cleanly produce the energy and chemicals we need sustainable for a billion years and cheaper.

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