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James Hansen: Renewable Energies are Grossly Inadequate for Our Energy Needs

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Posted on Thu, 25 August 2011 13:07 | 2

“Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

Climate and energy alarmists war with reality. And now and again, the incentives line up for a particular alarmist to blow the whistle on some aspect of the governmental ‘cure’ to their problem. The incendiary Joe Romm, for example, trots out free-market-type arguments against carbon sequestration and nuclear (both too expensive).

Hansen on Cap-and-Trade

NASA scientist and uber-climate-alarmist James Hansen informed the climate policy debate in 2009/2010 with his blistering criticism of CO2 cap-and-trade. “The truth is, the climate course set by Waxman-Markey is a disaster course,” he said. “It is an exceedingly inefficient way to get a small reduction of emissions. It is less than worthless….”

Joe Romm complained against Hansen’s “needlessly (and pointlessly) provocative attacks” as being “filled with right-wing and left-wing myths — and very little understanding of the basics of either this bill or cap-and-trade systems.” But California’s rethink of a state-level cap-and-trade program suggests that Hansen’s concerns of a highly political approach to mitigating carbon-dioxide emissions was on the mark.

Regarding international climate-change action, Hansen also called out

The fraudulence of the Copenhagen [Summit] approach – ‘goals’ for emission reductions, ‘offsets’ that render even iron-clad goals almost meaningless, an ineffectual ‘cap-and-trade’ mechanism – must be exposed. We must rebel against such politics-as-usual.

And now Renewables ….

Most recently, Hansen turned his attention to just what wind and solar in particular could do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reverse out the human influence on climate.

Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit (Hansen, WG3 and Green Kool-aid) has analyzed Hansen in the context of the IPCC’s amateurish pro-renewables report; I simply reproduce significant parts of the Hansen’s July 29, 2011, critique.

James Hansen on Renewable Energy

There is a consensus that renewable energies need to be part of the solution to the energy security and climate matters.  But we must be realistic about their contribution.  So now let’s look at the progress of renewable energies after several years of strong government incentives.

Renewable sources [in 2009] provide 10.7% of the electric energy.  But … almost two-thirds of this is hydroelectric.  Wind has grown to almost 17% of  the renewable energy, so it is approaching 1.8% of U.S. electricity.  Solar power is only 0.2% of the renewable portion or 0.02% of electricity.

[Globally] … in 2008 … renewable energies provide 19% of electricity, but most of the renewable energy is hydroelectric.  Wind provides 1% of global electricity and solar energy less than 0.1%….

Renewables may be small, but they are growing rapidly, exponentially, right? [Data] reveals that growth of electricity in the past two decades in the U.S. has been mainly from fossil fuels….

What about the world as a whole?  The global story is similar to that for the U.S., except there has been growth in large hydro.  Hydropower has contributed more to global growth than all other renewable energies together.  Meanwhile, fossil fuel use has continued to increase.

The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy

The insightful cynic will note: “Now I understand all the fossil fuel ads with windmills and solar panels – fossil fuel moguls know that renewables are no threat to the fossil fuel business.”  The tragedy is that many environmentalists line up on the side of the fossil fuel industry, advocating renewables as if they, plus energy efficiency, would solve the global climate change matter.

Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future?  It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway.  But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.

This Easter Bunny fable is the basis of ‘policy’ thinking of many liberal politicians.  Yet when such people are elected to the executive branch and must make real world decisions, they end up approving expanded off-shore drilling and allowing continued mountaintop removal, long-wall coal mining, hydro-fracking, etc. – maybe even a tar sands pipeline.

Why the inconsistency?

Because they realize that renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future and they have no real plan.  They pay homage to the Easter Bunny fantasy, because it is the easy thing to do in politics.  They are reluctant to explain what is actually needed to phase out our need for fossil fuels.  Reluctance to be honest might seem strange, given that what is needed to solve the problem actually makes sense and is not harmful to most people….

[Amory Lovins]

Note the failure of U.S. energy to follow the ‘soft’ energy path of [Amory] Lovins. Lovins asserts that we could phase out nuclear power, large hydro, coal, oil and gas. But soft renewables are still nearly invisible after 30 years, providing about one third of the thin renewable slice of total energy.

Yet Amory Lovins is the most popular person that I know and has received uncountable awards. He deserves them. But I believe his popularity is in part because he says everything people want to hear.  He even says there is no need to have a tax on carbon.  Thus even fossil fuel companies love him. Fossil fuel companies are happy to support energy efficiency, which places the onus on the public and guarantees fossil fuel dominance far into the future (see Yankee Ticket Prices).

When I saw Amory most recently and queried him, he affirmed that no tax was needed. He said that hundred dollar bills are being left on the ground by companies that ignore energy efficiency. Indeed, there is still great potential in energy efficiency.  However, the full potential of energy efficiency to help rapidly phase down fossil fuel CO2 emissions will be achieved only if there is a substantial rising price on carbon emissions. 

As long as fossil fuel energy is cheap, efficiency encourages more energy use.  For example, solid state lighting is much more efficient, but it encourages more extensive lighting.  That would be o.k., if the energy source were carbon-free.

The Real World

Many well-meaning people proceed under the illusion that ‘soft’ renewable energies (1) will replace fossil fuels if the government tries harder and provides more subsidies. Meanwhile, governmentsspeak greenwash while allowing pursuit of fossil fuels with increasingly destructive technologies (hydrofracking, mountaintop removal, longwall mining, drilling in the deepest ocean, the Arctic and other pristine environments) and development of unconventional fossil fuels.

It will be a tragedy if environmentalists allow the illusion of ‘soft’ energies to postpone demand for real solution of the energy, climate and national security problems. Solar power is just a small part of the solution.  Subsidies yielding even its present tiny contribution may be unsustainable….

Recently I received a mailing on the climate crisis from a large environmental organization.  Their request, letters and e-mails to Congress and the President, mentioned only renewable energies (specifically wind and solar power).

Such a request offends nobody, and it is worthless. Indeed, it is much less than worthless.  If you drink the kool-aid represented in the right part of Fig. 7, you are a big part of the problem.  Sure, I could ignore this and wait for time to make the situation clear to you, but I could say the same thing 10 years ago.  Look at part (a) of Figures 5 and 6; do not be fooled by parts (c), which have a vastly different (smaller) scale.

The problem is that, by drinking the kool-aid, you are also pouring it down the throats of my dear grandchildren and yours.  The tragedy in doing so is much greater than that of Jim Jones’ gullible followers, who forced their children to drink his kool-aid. 
All life will bear the consequences.

By. Robert Bradley Jr

strong>(1) Renewable energy such as windmills and commercial scale solar power are not entirely “soft”, in the view of many people, i.e., they have an environmental footprint.  Also, because of their intermittency, they require dispatchable back-up power, which is commonly provided by gas, thus degrading the ability to reduce carbon emissions.

This article was provided by MasterResource


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  • Anonymous on August 26 2011 said:
    As I point out in my forthcoming energy economics book, and also a long forthcoming article, Amory Lovins once challenged me to an online debate on nuclear energy. I declined, however when he came to this country (Sweden) for something called the Tallberg Forum, I contacted those people and offered to discuss nuclear with him.If he had, I would have cut him off at the knees. Him or anybody else with a different opinion of nuclear than mine, and I would throw in a discussion of oil if that is desired.The reasons that Lovins can get away with his foolishness is that his audiences DONT KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ENERGYECONOMICS. As I recently told a French MIT graduate (PhD) what he regards as hot stuff is really trivial. If I go to Paris in a month or two that gentleman will also receive a challenge from yours truly, and he can bring his executive friends with him to provide him some support. However, with or without those friends, he will take a fall.
  • Anonymous on August 26 2011 said:
    First, your article is not objective at all. Dr. hansen also stressed the need to develop new generation nuclear power plants. He also has stressed that we need to stabilize the human population (at what level?). Dr. Hansen has also wrote that it is unrealistic to stop oil use, but we must end the burning of coal.Also, the unconventional fossil fuels, tar sands and shale rock, must not be burned. Right now there is a proposal to build a pipeline to market Alberta TAR SANDS OIL. Protests (including Dr. Hansen) are being conducted now in Washington DC at the White House until September 3rd. Hundreds habe been arrested already.Dr. Hansen also states unless we place a price on carbon, fossil fuels will continue to be burned. This fee will be refunded to consumers to ease the burden.I think you need to give a complete picture of the topic to be fair. I can continue but perhaps those of you that wish to understand more read his recent book, "Storms of My Grandchidren"

Martin tiller