Sunday, April 26, 2015

Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society

We live in a fantasy world.  We have blind faith that we’ll be able to sustainably feed nine or ten billion people in 2050, a wish-based belief.  We have blind faith that technology will vaporize all challenges that appear in our path over the coming centuries.  Economic growth will continue forever.  We’ll celebrate a glorious victory over climate change by switching to safe, clean renewable energy, in a smooth and painless manner.  Our high standard of living will keep getting better and better as we zoom toward utopia.  The best is yet to come!

Australian professor Ted Trainer is not entranced by blind faith, and he explained his heresy in Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  Attempting to transition to a future powered only by renewable energy, while maintaining our current mode of high waste living, would be the opposite of smooth and painless.  Indeed, it’s impossible, he says.  Renewables simply can’t produce as much energy as we currently get from burning enormous amounts of sequestered carbon (fossil fuel).

In modern societies, electric power is highly reliable for both households and industries.  Power companies generate electricity, feed it into their distribution grid, and send it to consumers.  Excess electricity cannot be stored, and insufficient electricity leads to brownouts.  So, utilities must be very careful to generate electricity at levels that closely match the swings in demand.  Today’s centralized power systems are designed to do a good job of this, but they are not designed to reliably distribute electricity generated by decentralized sources, like wind farms or solar facilities.

Coal-powered plants can run at full capacity all the time, and they can be built anywhere.  Solar and wind facilities can run at full capacity only during ideal conditions.  For example, a solar thermal plant can run at peak on a hot summer day, but its average annual production is just twenty-five percent of peak.  The capacity of solar and wind facilities is highly dependent on location.  They cannot be built anywhere, and the ideal locations are chosen first.  The potential for future expansion is limited.

Photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly into electricity.  They produce little or no energy at dawn, dusk, night, or during cloudy periods.  For large-scale generation, solar thermal is better, because it generates heat, which can be stored for use during off-peak periods.  Ideal locations for solar thermal are deserts, like the Sahara, or the U.S. southwest.  The drawback is that ideal locations are typically distant from population centers, and significant energy is lost when power is sent thousands of kilometers away.  Even in ideal locations, output during summer is five times higher than winter.

Wind power is even less consistent.  Wind velocity varies from year to year, from season to season, and from minute to minute.  For 54 days in 2002, a wind farm in Denmark had zero production.  A farm in Australia was nearly windless for five straight days.  Winds can suddenly go calm over a wide region.  Ideal locations are on hills and ridges.

This hard-to-predict variability is a serious obstacle to a renewable energy future.  Neither wind nor solar can produce electricity sufficient to meet current demand, in a dependable manner.  To provide dependable power, backup capacity is needed.  One mode of backup is to use the surplus power, generated during peak hours, to pump water uphill into reservoirs, where it can later be used to generate hydroelectric power.  For most regions, this is not an option.

Surplus electricity can also be used to generate hydrogen, to be stored for later use.  Storing energy in hydrogen is highly inefficient, expensive, and problematic.  Putting one unit of hydrogen energy into a fuel cell requires at least four units of wind or solar energy.  Hydrogen atoms are tiny, which makes them especially prone to leakage.  A big tanker truck can only carry 288 kilograms (634 pounds) of hydrogen.  Hydrogen does not make economic sense.

Backup electricity can also be generated by burning sequestered carbon, but this would result in undesirable greenhouse gas emissions.  In a renewable energy future, for each megawatt of wind or solar capacity, systems would also need almost a megawatt of backup.  The backup systems would be expensive, and they would be idle much of the time.  They cannot be quickly cranked up to respond to demand surges, or to supply shortfalls due to clouds or calms.

A number of well-paid respectable-looking nutjobs are preaching that the cure for climate change is nuclear energy.  But eighty percent of the energy used today is not electricity.  Trainer concluded, “If all electricity was generated by nuclear reactors, carbon dioxide emissions might be reduced by thirty percent.”  Uranium is nonrenewable, the supply is finite, and the top quality ores are gone.  All facets of the nuclear industry are designed and operated by accident-prone tropical primates.  Meanwhile, spent fuel remains intensely toxic for more than a million years, and we have yet to discover how to safely store it.  A more mature option would be to focus intense attention on how we live and think.

The variability of wind and solar generation is a huge challenge to a renewable energy future.  A far greater challenge — the death blow — is the issue of liquid fuels.  Liquid fuels are used to power cars, trucks, trains, planes, ships, wars, and our food system.  Under perfect conditions, renewable energy might be able to generate ten percent of the energy currently produced by petroleum.  Options include ethanol, methanol, and hydrogen fuel cells.  Trainer discusses the serious drawbacks.

Clearly, a smooth and painless transition to a renewable energy future that allows us to continue living like crazy is an intoxicating fantasy.  In addition to being impossible, it’s also unsustainable.  The “clean,” high-tech wonderland will continue extracting non-renewable resources for wind turbines, solar panels, transmission lines, roads, tractors, fuel cells, air conditioners, cell phones, and so on.  It will do nothing to wean us from soil mining, water mining, forest mining, and fish mining — or shift population growth into reverse.

The consumer way of life is a dead end path.  While reading, I kept thinking about my four grandparents, all of whom were born into non-electric, car-free households.  They lived good lives.  Food is a genuine need, but unsustainable energy is a devastating addiction — lots of fun at first, but deadly in the long run.

Trainer thought along the same lines.  The big problem is that the dominant culture programs us to be competitive, acquisitive, individualists.  He presented a dreamy vision called The Simpler Way, a joyful utopia of voluntary frugality, stress-free lifestyles, lovely gardens, and small cooperative communities — and we don’t even have to give up modern technology!  Really?

Instead of struggling to continue living like crazy, for as long as possible, by any means necessary, the intelligent option would be to slow down — to really slow down!  That’s the message here.

In 2012, Trainer wrote an updated 22-page summary of his analysis of renewable energy, Can Renewable Energy Sustain Consumer Societies.  In 2011, he helped write a 48-page description of his vision for a happy green future, The Simpler Way Report.

Trainer, Ted, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2007.


henryomad said...

Hello Rick,

Thanks for posting this. I've been trying for years to get good data on renewables, in vain. It's good to know why!

I came across this paper he wrote with some additional thoughts and data:

It says it is updated from time to time, but the original url for it no longer exists.

The source site for that pdf looks interesting too:

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Henry! See the two links at the bottom of the blog post. These are updates to the extinct file you mentioned.

Also, John Weber's blog is excellent.

Icarus62 said...

It seems to me that using wind power is fine if you're building a device with simple materials to do mechanical work (grinding flour, pumping water etc.) but wind turbines for electricity generation are unsustainable and a waste of resources... plus of course their production contributes to trashing the planet.

What Is Sustainable said...

Howdy! Trainer's objective was to discuss how nonrenewable energy cannot be readily replaced with renewable energy.

I agree that old-fashioned windmills had a far lighter footprint.

Matt said...

Just discovered your blog after reading both of your books some years ago - great work! This post especially caught my eye since I've been meaning to read Ted Trainer's work. Where does the below figure come from?

"Today, about eighty percent of the energy we use is liquid fuels, and the rest is electricity."


What Is Sustainable said...

Hello Matt! You caught a mistake! Sorry! The mistake came from page 121:

Nuclear energy generates a lot of carbon dioxide, not from the operation of the reactor, but from the mining of the fuel. Fleming (2006) claims the output to be 1/3 that of coal-fired power stations (although others regard this as perhaps true of coal-fired plant but too high for gas). In any case nuclear reactors only produce electricity so they can make no difference to the carbon emitted by the 80% of the end use that is not in the form of electricity. If all electricity was generated by nuclear reactors, carbon dioxide emissions might he reduced by 30%.

I mistakenly assumed that what was not electricity was liquid fuels. Checking around, it looks like 33% of global energy use is liquid fuels.

The following are my notes on Trainer’s book, the liquid fuel chapter:

Ch 5 — Liquid and Gaseous Fuels Derived From Biomass.

[p. 73] 5.1 Biomass Yields and Quantities. The biggest challenge to a renewable future is liquid and gaseous fuels. Biomass cannot produce more than a tiny portion of today’s demand for liquid fuels. Nor can hydrogen. EROI for liquid fuels is very low. Biomass from crop wastes, timber wastes, and cropland (grain) is insufficient. The primary source will be cellulosic.

[p. 90] 5.18 Negative Feedback Effects. Land for biomass will have to compete for growing demand for cropland. Petroleum will become increasingly scarce and more expensive. Looming water shortages will squeeze biomass production. Growing population will increase demand for fuel. Many are being driven to cities, where per capita energy and resource consumption are much higher. Rapid economic growth in China and India are driving up energy consumption and prices.

[p. 91] 5.19 Conclusions on Liquid Fuels. “Although a large volume of liquid and gaseous fuel could be produced from biomass, this source could replace no more than a very small fraction of present global liquid fuel use.” This cannot be solved by energy conservation or more efficient vehicles. “Extremely radical implications for the future of consumer-capitalist society seem to be inescapable.”

Matt said...


Thanks for looking into this and making the adjustment!


What Is Sustainable said...

The Ecologist ran this story: Renewable energy alone cannot reverse global warming or make a sustainable world. This is an important inconvenient truth that we need to start wrapping our heads around.

What Is Sustainable said...

There's No Tomorrow is a 35 minute animated video about peak energy, exponential growth, alternative energy, perpetual growth, feeding ten billion... but no climate change. It's a great intro to reality, a high-quality production.

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