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The Race For The “Holy Grail” Of Renewables

Energy storage is becoming an…

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The Darker Side of Renewable Energy

Based on the sound of the name renewable, a person might think that using only “renewable” energy is ideal–something we should all strive to use exclusively. But there are lots of energy sources that might be called “renewable,” and lots of applications for renewable energy. Clearly not all are equally good. Perhaps we should examine the “Renewables are our savior,” belief a little more closely.

World fuel consumption
Figure 1. World fuel consumption based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

1. Renewables that we have today won’t replace the quantity of today’s fossil fuels, in any reasonable timeframe.

Figure 1, above shows the distribution of fuels used since 1965.

Other renewables, which includes wind, solar, geothermal and other categories of new renewables, in total amounts to 1.6% of world energy supply in 2011, according to BP. The light blue line is not very visible on Figure 1. (The blue line that is visible at the top is “Nuclear.”)

Biofuels, which would include ethanol and other types of biofuels, such as palm oil, amounts to 0.5% of world energy supply. Its orange line is not very visible on the chart either.

Hydroelectric, shown in purple, has been around a long time–since 1880 in the United States. It amounts to 6.4% of world energy supply. Its quantity is not growing very much, because most of the good locations have already been dammed.

In total, the three categories amount to 8.5% of world energy supply. If growth continues at today’s rate, it will be a very long time before renewable energy supply can be expected to amount to more than 10% or 15% of world energy supply. We very clearly cannot operate all the equipment we have today on this quantity of energy. In fact, it is doubtful that we can even cover the basics (food, water, and heat to keep from freezing) for 7 billion people, with this quantity of energy.

2. If there is a huge collapse scenario, there is a possibility that those who are in possession of renewable energy technologies will be able to use these technologies to their own benefit, when others do not have such options.

There are many ways that today’s technologies may benefit a few hundred thousand or a few million people who happen to have use of them, for perhaps a few decades. A person who has a solar panel and backup battery may be able to operate an electric light, when no one else has one. A person living near a large hydroelectric plant may expect to have electricity, when other parts of the country do not. A person with a solar thermal hot water heater may be able to have hot water, when others do not.

There are of course limits to this. If the solar panel depends on battery backup, the battery may wear out pretty quickly. We know from the Second Law of Thermodynamics that everything degrades over time. This includes solar panels, hydroelectric plants, transmission wires, and even the solar thermal hot water heater. So at most, the benefit of today’s technology is only likely to last for a few generations, unless we are able to repeat making new units.

There is considerable misunderstanding regarding the availability of electricity from solar PV panels on roofs of houses. Usually, these are operated with an inverter (to produce alternating current) and connected to the electric grid. These units cannot be used if there is an electrical outage in the area. With some rewiring, the panels might be used on a stand-alone basis. On such a basis, their use would be much more limited. They could only be used for devices taking direct current, and only when the sun is shining (unless backup batteries are available).

3. Renewables can’t be expected to operate on a “stand-alone” basis, in any reasonable timeframe. 

Each energy source is quite specialized. In the past, human and animal labor played an important role in growing crops. Charcoal made from wood was used in making a very limited amount of metals and glass. It was possible to use traditional sources of “renewable energy” to power society, in large part because only a small amount of non-human and non-animal energy was used in total. World population was 1 billion or less, not 7 billion. The standard of living was quite low.
In India today, the crops are grown primarily with human and animal labor, two sources which could be considered “renewable”.

Related article: Clarifying the Clean Energy Innovation v Deployment Debate

 Workers harvesting rice in India
Figure 2. Workers harvesting rice in India. Photo taken by author while visiting India in October 2012.

Even with this low standard of living, there is a substantial fossil fuel contribution that would be difficult to eliminate. The hand tools that workers use are sickles, which are made using coal.  India uses nitrogen fertilizer made using fossil fuel (natural gas or coal) as well as  irrigation pumps (manufactured using fossil fuel, and fueled by diesel or electricity). Only the electricity component would be fairly easy to eliminate with today’s renewable energy (if scaled up sufficiently).

Some seem to believe that renewables can power the world on a stand-alone basis. The tiny quantity of renewable energy currently available is, in and of itself, a huge limitation in making this happen. Furthermore, today’s solar PV panels and wind turbines are made and transported using fossil fuels, and most of our transportation industry uses petroleum. In theory, we could develop new devices that use only electricity, or create enough biofuels to make a complete closed loop (devices made and transported only with renewables). In practice, we have trillions of dollars of cars, trucks, airplanes, and construction machinery built to use oil. Because of this, a complete changeover to renewables is at best decades away.

At this point, renewables are only “fossil fuel extenders.” They operate within our current fossil fuel system. They cannot be expected to reproduce themselves without the benefit of fossil fuels.

4. Some renewables are economic in today’s world, while others require subsidies.

There are clearly many types of renewable energy that are economic in today’s world. Geothermal is economic in some locations, because there is underground heat that can be used to boil water to create electricity, or to heat homes directly. Solar PV panels, together with back-up batteries, are often the lowest-cost electricity source in remote locations (Figure 3, below). This is why energy companies use them to provide power in remote locations. Solar thermal energy is inexpensive for heating swimming pools and for heating hot water in warmer climates.

Natural gas wells with solar panels
Figure 3. Natural gas wells with solar panels for electricity for monitoring devices at BP tight gas installation in Wamsutter, WY. (2008 photo by author.)

Other renewables require subsidies. We usually think of intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar PV panels, as requiring subsidies. In fact, it is often difficult to tell how much subsidy is truly required. Part of the subsidy comes in the need for upgraded grid transmission; part of the subsidy comes from the need to run fossil fuel back-up stations fewer hours and ramp them up and down more often, making them wear out more quickly; part of the subsidy comes in the form of increased complexity, that makes it more difficult to maintain electricity supply for the long run. There is no obvious reason to believe that intermittent electricity will make the electric grid last longer–if we are increasing the complexity of grid regulation at the same time we are reaching limits of many types, adding more intermittent renewables would seem to increase the likelihood of early failure.

As long as there are renewable energy mandates for renewables, and costs divided among many different payers (most of whom are not reimbursed for their payments), it is hard to tell how much today’s subsidy actually is. Energy return on energy invested (EROEI) calculations of intermittent renewables do not look at the whole system cost, including impacts on other players, so overstate economic benefits and understate energy costs. In the end, we do not have a good measure of how much mandated renewable energy supplies cost us. Also, as we add more intermittent renewables to the electric grid, the cost to other players can be expected to escalate, making the understatement of costs (and overstatement of EROEI) greater over time.

5. High-priced renewables help some of our problems, but make others worse.

Inexpensive renewables–ones that require no subsidy or mandate–are not a problem from a financial point of view. Many of these can help the environment without providing economic challenges.

The ones that tend to be problematic are ones that require subsidies, especially when we have no idea how much the subsidy really is. Figure 4, below, gives my view of how some of the various limits we are reaching act together.

Author’s view of how various limits might work together
Figure 4. Author’s view of how various limits might work together to produce different symptoms.

In my view, the limits we hit first are the limits on the outside of the chart on Figure 4: financial issues and political issues. (I introduce this chart in my post Our Energy Predicament in Charts.) Disease susceptibility enters in, as there are more unemployed and as the government finds it necessary to cut back in financial programs for the poor and unemployed.

If the price of renewable energy is high, it tends to exacerbate the problems on the outside of this chart, even as it reduces CO2 contributions within the country, and reduces local pollution as electricity is made. There may still be pollution issues associated with making the rare earth metals that go into the wind turbines or the solar panels, but these are conveniently in China or another remote location. Making devices themselves also requires fossil fuels–usually coal if the devices are imported from China.

Related article: Using Oil Revenues to Research Alternative Fuels

The way our current financial woes work out can be represented by Figure 5, below:

 Author’s representation of how government financially caught in the middle
Figure 5. Author’s representation of how government financially caught in the middle. Photo credits: Texaspolicy.com, Thetaxhaven.com.au, Usahitman.com, politic365.com, autoevolution.com.

High priced renewables tend to exacerbate the poor financial situation of governments represented in Figure 5 in several ways:
•    Wage earners are even more penniless, thanks to the higher cost of these renewables,
•    Companies tend to move their manufacturing to cheaper locations (often using coal). This both reduces (a) taxes paid by the company to the US government, and (b) wages paid to US workers,
•    The government pays out more benefits to the unemployed workers, and
•    The government pays out more in funds for subsidies.

In the end, when we look at world CO2 emissions, we discover that they have in fact risen relative what would have been expected prior to the Kyoto protocol (signed in 1997), rather than fallen, as the emphasis on renewables grew (Figure 6).

 Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels
Figure 6. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

A major reason for emissions growth shown in Figure 6 seems to be globalization. I wonder, though, if  globalization was pushed forward by the practice of looking at emissions within a country’s own boundaries, while excluding emissions associated with imported manufactured goods. The pushed developed countries toward renewables, at the same time Asia increased market share greatly through its use of coal.

Germany is now the leader in the use of renewable energy. Recent reports say that there are 800,000 German households that cannot pay their electricity bills, because of the high cost renewables add. There are also reports that German natural gas producers want to close back-up plants for wind/solar, unless they too receive subsidies.

6. Even if renewables look to be cheap and non-intermittent, there still can be problems with their use.

Unfortunately, nature doesn’t really provide us with a free lunch. If we use growing plants–such as trees, corn, palm oil trees, or other biomass, we start reaching limits as well. It is very easy to cut down trees more quickly than they regrow. We know from research by Sing Chew that deforestation was already a problem 6,000 years ago, when there were only 20 million humans on earth. Deforestation also leads to soil loss and erosion, which is also a huge problem. Plowing of fields for crops of any kind in fact tends to lead to soil loss.

Hydroelectric, as good an energy source as it is, has its downsides as well. In the early years after its construction, it tends to increase CO2 production in the flooded areas. It tends to interfere with fish migration, and with the normal balance of species. Building large hydroelectric plants can take huge amounts of arable land out of cultivation and displace large populations. It can lead to earthquakes and landslides. One country can sometimes “steal” the water of another, by building a hydroelectric facility.

Our whole ecological system, including animals and our climate system, requires a balance among the various species. We are being warned by scientist today that humans cannot simply commandeer all of the natural resources for our own use. Renewables often use natural resources that other species also have a need for-especially biofuels, wood and biomass. Biologists tell us we are in danger of reaching a tipping point due to overly high use of “net primary productivity” (Barnosky and Haberi).


It truly would be convenient if nature had provided us with a free lunch, in the form of renewables. At best, we were given something that if we use wisely, can add a little to what we have today. Renewables may, in fact, “save” some remnant of humanity, if limits truly become a problem in the near future.

If renewables are truly to provide widespread benefit for the world population as a whole (going beyond the measly 2% for non-hydroelectric renewables), we need to develop renewable energy supplies which are much lower in resource use than the renewables we have today.1 Such lower resource use would have several benefits:

1. It would reduce the pollution impacts of making the renewable generating devices.
2. It would reduce the cost of making alternative energy.
3. It would improve the scalability of such renewables.
4. It would improve the EROEI of such renewables.

There seems to be widespread belief that an EROEI of 3 or 4 or 5 is “good enough” for renewables. The economy is showing signs that our current cost of fuels is already way too high. What we really need to do is bring our energy cost level down. Thus, what we really need is renewable energy sources that will reduce our average energy cost and raise our average EROEI of fuels.


[1] The name renewable unfortunately doesn’t equate to low resource use. In some cases, such as solar and wind, it means “front-ended fossil fuel resource” use. In other cases, such as biofuels, it means “using soil, fresh water, and fossil fuels to provide an oil substitute.”

By. Gail Tverberg

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Leave a comment
  • Alan on March 22 2013 said:
    Not much reliance can be put on backup batteries, which is one of the major problems with energy, it's difficult to store. A average European car battery can store about half a kilowatt-hour.
  • Philip Andrews on March 24 2013 said:
    This is the kind of article oilprice.com excels at.

    I have always appreciated GT's writing. She seems to know what is talking about and makes a great deal of sense.

    I wish there were more writers like her.

    Thank you GT and oilprice.com.
  • David Hrivnak on March 24 2013 said:
    How depressing lets just go into a cave. Seriously electric power from coal and gas have a 120 head start. Wind and solar are growing at better than 50% a year. Last year they represented 28 large coal plant. This is a solid start. At best it will take 50 years to make the conversion. Given that when should we start?
  • Jon Cloke on March 29 2013 said:
    So many issues; where to start - "1) Renewables that we have today won’t replace the quantity of today’s fossil fuels, in any reasonable time-frame." Untrue - renewables have historically developed in the face of absolute hostility from both governments and Big Power (ETSU's treatment of wave power in the UK to 1978 is a good example of this) whereas fossil fuels and nuclear have benefited from substantial subsidies plus the favoured ear of government - extrapolating future possibilities from the rate of historical development of renewables is fraudulent since it makes no allowance at all for political will and climate emergency.

    "2. If there is a huge collapse scenario, there is a possibility that those who are in possession of renewable energy technologies will be able to use these technologies to their own benefit, when others do not have such options." And the difference between that and fossil fuels/nuclear is...? Added to which, your take on the technological limitations of solar/PV panels and systems is plainly written in (deliberate?) ignorance of the almost daily advances being made in those technologies.

    "3. Renewables can’t be expected to operate on a “stand-alone” basis, in any reasonable timeframe." Great argument, except that they already do - check out Costa Rica, for instance, which provides 95% of its power requirements from renewable sources. And as for renewables 'powering all the world', well, yes they can. See this paper: "The amount of wind power plus solar power available in likely developable locations over land outside of Antarctica worldwide to power the world for all purposes exceeds projected world power demand
    by more than an order of magnitude." (Jacobson, M.Z., Delucchi, M.A., Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials. Energy Policy, 2010).

    "4. Some renewables are economic in today’s world, while others require subsidies." This one may actually be true, although this is plainly a political judgment depending on the timescale required to introduce the new technologies - but then, since the fossil fuel industry and nuclear are massively subsidized, why should renewables and alternatives be judged by a different standard? Subsidies should be a value judgement on the social use of a particular technology and not the reward for state capture or political corruption, as they are at the moment...

    "5. High-priced renewables help some of our problems, but make others worse." I hereby make you a challenge - name me a non-renewable technology (gas, fracking, 'clean' coal, nuclear, whatever) which you think would be a better technology choice in terms of climate, pollution or subsidies and I'll explain to you how and why you're wrong. No, really, I feel it to be part of my civic duty to educate people..

    "6. Even if renewables look to be cheap and non-intermittent, there still can be problems with their use." Absolutely; biofuels would be a classic example of this. But do you know what the real problem here is? That politicians, corporations and people like yourself keep trying to represent renewables in terms of their ability to prop up mass consumer capitalism and economic growth as it is, in other words for their potential to maintain the world energy consumption status quo (ignoring the billions that your current system leaves without any supply at all). And that simply isn't going to happen; whether you choose to accept the rationality of renewable/alternative sources, chuck them over in favour of nuclear or just carry on as is, the global climatic disaster is nearly on us and whether we like it or not it is going to force change on us.

    All in all, though, I'd say you got about 1 1/2 out of 6 right here, which I'd say was about a D grade. Stylistically it comes over as a fairly Bernard Inghamesque piece of propaganda paid for by BNFL or Frackers Inc; were you a student of mine, I'd make you go and do this again...

    Hope this helps you!
  • Ernie on March 29 2013 said:
    Clearly written by one with a stake in the fossil fuel game with the pen of a propagandist. One major point that you people never address is that fact that fossil fuels WILL RUN OUT. What happens then when energy demand >> supply? Worldwide bloodshed will, yet the greedy fossil fuel suits don't care. Renewables are the NECESSARY future within the next century or two.

    To start off, your argument that renewables can't fill the energy pie in the future with Figure 1 has an awful assumption. That is if growth rate remained the same as it is today aka. a linear growth. The increased interest, use, and research will accelerate the growth rate. Also, once $/kWh reaches fossil fuels, I anticipate exponential growth, not linear.

    PV does suffer from costs monetarily and required energy input. However, this can be alleviated by taking heat conduction losses that PV panels have and use them for HVAC loads. I've read studies where 70% efficiencies have been found (15% electric + 55% heat approximately). Combining this with battery storage and especially energy efficiency solutions will lower system costs. Smart lighting, insulation, and variable frequency drives can reduce energy use. Deep cycle lead acid batteries can last for a long time as long as excessive discharge/overcharge is avoided by designing the bank for proper autonomy based on the geographic location, shading, etc.

    Your entropy argument is severely flawed and is misinformation because it doesn't recognize that EVERY process (including me typing this) produces loss of energy and entropy. Yeah, we will have to replace panels and turbines, but the oil industry must replace drills that degrade with use, and I have yet to find a combustion process that is 100% efficient. So what's your point here exactly?

    Next, why do you think a solar system can't operate during a grid outage? Because it uses an inverter...that makes no sense. How do people power off-grid homes and appliances today if the inverter didn't work? It is not hard to create a control system that powers inverters with batteries and merely shuts off the circuit connected to the grid in a properly designed AC coupled PV system or one that use modules with AC output via. microinverters, not DC current. Point in case, it can still use the solar and battery energy...the grid is unneeded.

    The idea that stand-alone systems don't work is also silly. You stated: "The tiny quantity of renewable energy currently available is, in and of itself, a huge limitation in making this happen." More sun hits the Earth in a day than we use in a year. Once a renewable economy is in place, energy from the wind and sun can manufacture products. Of course fossil fuels are used now because it's the energy of our time. Wood and whale fat used to be major energy sources too that manufactured the first oil equipment or have you forgotten?

    I don't understand how you can misconstrue increased CO2 emissions on renewables when you said yourself it's due to globalization and increased energy use, and you even said that Asia increased its market share with coal. Well that's where your CO2 increase comes from! Have you seen Beijing smog?

    "Our whole ecological system, including animals and our climate system, requires a balance among the various species." HAHAHAHA saying this as fossil fuels spew methane and sulfur dioxide into the air, causing millions of health deaths, acid rain, and poisoned water. How hypocritical. What are the real costs of these fuels taking into account that all this damage will have to be cleaned up? Biofuels will remain a small part of the pie because of the reasons you mentioned.

    As with every pro fossil fuel writer, your main argument is that is costs too much, and that fossil fuel is resource use in manufacturing. Innovation, a growing market, and policy implmentations will overcome all of these issues...once the special interests stop buying the policy makers or the $/kWh for these drop below fossil fuels. Either will be mark the beginning of the end for such archaic and dirty fuels. There were solar designs in the 1800s, but your boy Rockefeller did a good job of suppressing it.

    If we don't switch soon, there will be worldwide chaos once the last drop of oil is used. Instead of being the reactionary species we always are, we should act now.
  • Phil on April 08 2013 said:
    A wonderful article written with a clarity of thought and perspicacity that is sadly lacking in much of the energy debate today. You are, of course, absolutely right on many of the points you make and it is both sad and depressingly predictable to see some of the responses from the anti-hydrocarbon fantacists who are in denial that they, and the rest of the human race, owe their present lifestyle to cheap and plentiful hydrocarbon fuels that brought us from a low-tech, disease-prone, subsistence agrarian existence to our present state of development. Short of a major breakthrough in fusion or somesuch technology, we will rely on hydrocarbons for the bulk of our energy supply for the rest of this century, at the very least. The smart thing to do, of course, is to shift our emphasis to using natural gas in place of oil and coal, to provide the bulk of our energy for power generation and transportation. That's what governments ought to be promoting and it would be both practical and relatively simple to implement. With vast amounts of natural gas available (not just from shale but also potentially from deep sea gas hydrates when we figure out how to exploit them commercially), this represents the most practical method to provide affordable energy to the world and to mitigate concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. It also avoids us squandering vast amounts of money on quixotic goals that could be better spent on helping poor contries gain a foothold in the world economy, improving their lives and reducing poverty and disease. We still have 1.6 billion people on this planet who have no access to electricity - time to stop constantly berating the energy industry and recognising its enormous contribution to society. Renewables, where they make economic and technical sense, are great and I have no problem with that - they will help us extend the lifespan of our still very extensive hydrocarbon resources but they will not replace hydrocarbons as our primary energy supply anytime soon.
  • Syd on April 12 2013 said:
    "Renewables that we have today won’t replace the quantity of today’s fossil fuels, in any reasonable timeframe....

    "Other renewables, which includes wind, solar, geothermal and other categories of new renewables, in total amounts to 1.6% of world energy supply in 2011, according to BP."

    1.6% sounds hopelessly small, unless you understand compound growth. The growth of wind and solar has been exponential for 5-10 years now, in the 50-100% compound annual growth range. And that's despite being toploaded with high initial prices and subsidies. Now, prices - especially for solar - have plummeted (and continue to) and so have subsidies. Deployment continues at a breathtaking rate (despite continuing political opposition and climate change denial/complacency in economy #1: the USA). But let's return to the math. Even if deployment cools down to just 40% per year on average, it will only take 12.5 years to grow the 1.6% to "107"%, theoretically displacing all the dirty energy and more. That would almost certainly be too fast, because more time may be needed to optimize and "smarten" the world's grids and energy management systems. If we allow 20 years instead, deployment will only have to average 23% per year.

    This is eminently doable.

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