Questionable Renewable Energy Dreams: Where Do We Go from Here?
by Jan Lundberg   
24 November 2014
Image A Tale of Three Studies • Oil Grows in Instability and Danger As It Goes Away Geologically • Cars Are Renewable?
It was the summer that Al Gore had NASA's James Hansen testify in the Senate that human-caused global warming had begun: in August 1988 I founded Fossil Fuels Policy Action, a nonprofit institute, in Washington. We would be a clearing house for energy data & policy, with an eye to replacing fossil energy with renewable energy. Two all-consuming questions became our focus: why is the U.S. not conserving energy, and what can make it happen? This immediately morphed us from more passive "assessment" to more active advocacy, within our basic mission.

In a matter of months our solution became our raison-d'être: a Conservation Revolution. Our conclusion about the dire state of the world was seemingly affirmed by Worldwatch's 1992 initiative which followed our public announcement and publications with their very similar Environmental Revolution. It all seemed like a very big deal then, for activists and dreamers can get a bit carried away. Funding and competition for funds can come into play as well. None of us would have anticipated that nearly a quarter of a century later, now with grey hair and somewhat tired voices, we are still fighting for such a revolution or at least some meaningful, trend-altering reforms.

Prior to forming Fossil Fuels Policy Action, I had scoured the inside-the-beltway environmental establishment for a job, to put my well-known oil industry analytical skills to use for Mother Earth. It was early 1988. The only job I got was a temporary post at Renew America, formerly the Solar Lobby. What I learned from the many greenies I met around town was that they were positioning themselves for green business, in both senses of the word. Their intentions were good, but I felt somewhat repulsed by a mere industry shift. The greener establishment I glimpsed would not bring about much of a change in the nation's overall direction. Yet, I was happy enough to form a group that fit in with them, because I found some reforms exciting, and I had to create my own job under a new banner in order to participate.

Photo courtesy Truthout/Richard Brand - Flickr

My misgivings about the value and promise of a green industrial class sprang mostly from my innate, radical nature-loving. Soon after starting Fossil Fuels Policy Action, I became aware that major environmental groups were taking donations from the natural gas lobby, the American Gas Association. I had known the AGA, so I paid a visit and went out for drinks with my key contacts from my days at Lundberg Survey where I had published alternative fuels price reports for gas utilities. I left the bar knowing that Fossil Fuels Policy Action was now in line for a convenient donation: to trumpet natural gas as a "bridge fuel" for a renewable energy future. I wanted that future and was working for it, but I began to suspect it was purely utopian if the renewable energy were imagined to be on a scale to substitute for fossil fuels. I had just been sent the book Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades to review, so I learned about the net-energy issues with alternative energy.

Instead of taking the AGA's money, I decided it was more fun to reject the donation publicly by publishing a newsletter on the competition between natural gas and heating oil, exposing the environmental groups' taking fossil fuel money. My corporate friend Nelson Hay of the AGA called me up after seeing our newsletter, and bellowed, "Are you on acid, Jan?!" And a prominent D.C. environmentalist chided me in a letter that said only, "It's all dirty money anyway."

Renewable energy should be the real deal, and not something to justify dependence on slightly cleaner fossil fuels. Today, the question has become, "How can renewable energy systems be seen for what they are and are not?" Where do we go from here, when the consumer economy with its cheap-oil built infrastructure has little future after conventional oil extraction peaked globally in 2005? One clue is that Fossil Fuels Policy Action eventually became Culture Change.

A Tale of Three Studies: Bursting Renewable Energy's Mental Bubble


Renewable energy is great, right? But what if it is mostly misused, and appears increasingly to be a false promise for preventing more oil spills like BP's in the Gulf of Mexico and for saving the Earth's unravelling climate? After a thorough and dispassionate look, at the end of this section we nail the "double Achilles Heel" of large-scale renewable energy: storage of energy during intermittency, and low net-energy return on energy invested.

Just as some of us question the wonders of "clean" natural gas -- increasingly derived from toxic fracking -- some go further, beyond embracing renewable energy, to promote and practice energy-consumption curtailment as the best form of conservation. But this usually falls on deaf ears. One reason is that there is no sexy, high-tech, start-up, dollar-signs-in-the-eyes attraction to cutting back on energy use in general. Rather, "clean tech," which is often not about cutting energy consumption, is the hot buzz word for investors and careerists -- even though curtailing energy use is the fastest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mercury, smog, acid rain, and nuke-energy risks.

A near spate of exposés on "renewable" energy appeared recently. We first put out the word on two of them via Facebook and emails: What's Wrong with Renewable Energy? by Kim Hill, drawn partly from Ozzie Zehner's book Green Illusions, and Abundant Clean Renewables? Think Again! in, November 16, 2014, by Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch.

In these studies, as in many an article on (formerly and, the widely ignored but fatal issues involving the renewable energy technofix for peak oil and overpopulation are presented in disturbing, documented detail. The discussion is not about decentralized, small-scale energy systems for a home or farm. Passive solar and mills for grinding grain, powered with the wind or flowing water, are especially benign. Rather, the issue is large-scale systems designed to be part of the electric grid.

Ernsting asks, "Can we really put our hopes for stabilizing the climate into trying to simply replace the energy sources in a growth-focused economic and social model that was built on fossil fuels? Or do we need a far more fundamental transition towards a low-energy economy and society?" She sees the rise of wind power and solar power as serving the corporate agenda rather than human needs. She examines Germany's real energy mix, which puts solar and wind in perspective. Most "renewable" energy in Germany is from biofuels, biogas and wood pellets, none of which are innocent of causing serious environmental impacts. These three prime renewable energy supplies, and dependency on them, means that the "24,000 wind turbines and 1.4 million solar panels have scarcely made a dent in Germany's fossil fuel burning and carbon emissions."

Same for Denmark, Ernsting reports: "wind energy in Denmark accounted for just 3.8 percent of Denmark's total energy use in 2010" because electricity generation is only one aspect of energy. Again, in Denmark it is bioenergy generating far more energy than wind. Norway is a similar situation, except hydroelectric dams are the favored alternative energy. This means a set of problems for Norway that Norwegian companies are exporting, to the detriment of foreign lands.

What if the windy UK put wind turbines all over its coasts? Fifteen offshore wind turbines installed on every kilometer of the UK coastline would supply just 13 percent of the country's average daily energy use. "Generating that 13 percent of UK energy... would require wind turbines made of 20 million tons of steel and concrete - more than all the steel that went into U.S. shipbuilding during World War II. Steel manufacturing is heavily dependent on coal, not just as a fuel for the furnaces but because it is needed to enrich the raw material, iron ore, with carbon to make it stable. And concrete is hardly 'carbon neutral' either - cement (a key component) accounts for 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions."

Almuth Ernsting

Then there's solar PV panels. They are up to four times as energy- and carbon-intensive to produce as wind turbines: "Aluminum - used to mount and construct solar panels - is about as carbon and energy-intensive as steel. Silicon needs to be smelted at 2,000 degrees Celsius and materials used to replace silicon have an even higher environmental footprint. Then there's an array of highly toxic and corrosive chemicals used during manufacturing. Yet with regards to pollution, building wind and marine turbines is likely worse than making solar panels, because efficient and lasting turbine magnets rely on rare earth mining and refining. One 5-megawatt turbine requires a ton of rare earths, the mining and refining of which will leave behind 75 cubic meters of toxic acidic waste water and one ton of radioactive sludge." (Ernsting, Truthout)

Zehner gives environmentalists 10 reasons to question "renewable" energy:

(1) Solar panels and wind turbines aren’t made out of nothing. They are made out of metals, plastics, chemicals. These products have been mined out of the ground, transported, processed, manufactured. Each stage leaves behind a trail of devastation...
(2) The majority of electricity that is generated by renewables is used in manufacturing, mining, and other industries that are destroying the planet. Even if the generation of electricity were harmless, the consumption certainly isn’t.
(3) The aim of converting from conventional power generation to renewables is to maintain the very system that is killing the living world, killing us all, at a rate of 200 species per day. Taking carbon emissions out of the equation doesn’t make it sustainable. This system needs to not be sustained, but stopped.
(4) Humans, and all living beings, get our energy from plants and animals. There is no living creature that needs electricity for survival. Only the industrial system needs electricity to survive, and food and habitat for everyone are being sacrificed to feed it.
(5) Wind turbines and solar panels generate little, if any, net energy (energy returned on energy invested). The amount of energy used in the mining, manufacturing, research and development, transport, installation, maintenance and disposal of these technologies is almost as much—or in some cases more than—they ever produce.
(6) Renewable energy subsidies take taxpayer money and give it directly to corporations. Investing in renewables is highly profitable. General Electric, BP, Samsung, and Mitsubishi all profit from renewables, and invest these profits in their other business activities.
(7) More renewables doesn’t mean less conventional power, or less carbon emissions. The amount of energy being generated by renewables has been increasing, but so has the amount of energy generated by fossil fuels. No coal or gas plants have been taken off line as a result of renewables.
(8) Only 20% of energy used globally is in the form of electricity.
(9) Solar panels and wind turbines last around 20-30 years, then need to be replaced. The production process, of extracting, polluting, and exploiting, is not something that happens once, but is continuous and expanding.
(10) The emissions reductions that renewables intend to achieve could be easily accomplished by improving the efficiency of existing coal plants, at a much lower cost. This shows that the whole renewables industry is nothing but an exercise in profiteering with no benefits for anyone other than the investors.
Ernsting's and Zehner's articles are hard-hitting, short pieces and easy to read. They throw ice water on professional technofixers in the environmental movement (i.e., almost anyone getting significant funding), and dash the hopes of "progressive consumers" looking for greener ways to maintain their First World, privileged lifestyles -- if they will pay attention.

My own brief "elevator speech" on the renewable-energy technofix is that

• renewable energy systems depend on the larger fossil fuels infrastructure
• they have much lower net-energy yield than cheaply produced oil always had
• they offer electrical power only (save biofuels) and not any chemicals or materials that fossil fuels give
• renewable energy systems for replacing fossil fuels are not scalable to meet the alleged needs for energy consumption now or projected
• large renewable energy systems eat up agricultural land -- as does the soil-depleting, heavily subsidized, energy-inefficient biofuels industry. Hydroelectric power poses problems too, concerning ecologically damaging dams with their siltation that shortens the lifetime of the dams' water supply for power as well as irrigation.
These concerns have been voiced by the few for many years. The facts are obscured and suppressed, as a deluded nation and entire civilization jumped on the runaway oil train to economic collapse, following the peak of cheaply extracted oil in 2005. The virtuous belief in renewable energy for a greener future justified the delusion. Collapse-denial is perhaps more pervasive than denial of anthropogenic global warming, in part because the environmental establishment and mainstream media shrink from open discussion on the shortcomings of renewable energy as a viable substitute for the volume of oil and its many products in the consumer economy.

Hence, collapse and the eventual adjusting of the population size to ecological carrying capacity -- over-shot several decades ago -- also belong off the typical enviro group's table and off the reporter's beat. Politicians refuse to touch any of this. The almost palpable silver bullet for technological avoidance of resource-limits keeps most of us going as relatively comfortable or willing players in the struggling consumer economy.

When one questions "renewable" energy, it can appear he or she is singing the praises of the petroleum industries. No; deep-green environmentalists and proponents of simple living are not shills for the oil, gas or coal industries. Yes; it is unfair that subsidies for fossil fuels are so huge, and it is a tragedy for the climate. But this does not mean that subsidies for centralized renewable-energy systems will solve the energy crisis or prevent climate collapse.

In 2005 the U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a report on peak oil. Known informally as the Hirsch Report, it found that two decades' infrastructure-transformation completion are needed before peak oil hits, to avoid major disruption to the nation. The report found, "the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented." Maximized renewable energy efforts cannot change this, and would have had to come on like gangbusters by 1985 along with other major shifts. 1

based on U.S. Bureau of Census data

Make no mistake, renewable energy systems have almost entirely been put into place to perpetuate endless growth on a finite planet.

Also worthwhile reading for understanding the true and limited potential of "renewable" energy technology systems on a large scale is Eight Pitfalls in Evaluating Green Energy Solutions by Gail Tverberg. She gets into her subject with:
"Does the recent climate accord between US and China mean that many countries will now forge ahead with renewables and other green solutions? I think that there are more pitfalls than many realize." She concluded,

Historical based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy, IEA groupings

"Expectations for wind and solar PV need to be reduced. Solar PV and offshore wind are both likely net energy sinks because of storage and balancing needs, if they are added to the electric grid in more than very small amounts. Onshore wind is less bad, but it needs to be evaluated closely in each particular location. The need for large subsidies should be a red flag that costs are likely to be high, both short and long term. Another consideration is that wind is likely to have a short lifespan if oil supplies are interrupted, because of its frequent need for replacement parts from around the world."

Tverberg's eight pitfalls are:
(1) Green solutions tend to push us from one set of resources that are a problem today (fossil fuels) to other resources that are likely to be problems in the longer term.
(2) Green solutions that use rare minerals are likely not very scalable because of quantity limits and low recycling rates.
Gail Tverberg,
(3) High-cost energy sources are the opposite of the “gift that keeps on giving.” Instead, they often represent the “subsidy that keeps on taking.”
(4) Green technology (including renewables) can only be add-ons to the fossil fuel system.
(5) We can’t expect oil prices to keep rising because of affordability issues.
(6) It is often difficult to get the finances for an electrical system that uses intermittent renewables to work out well.
(7) Adding intermittent renewables to the electric grid makes the operation of the grid more complex and more difficult to manage. We run the risk of more blackouts and eventual failure of the grid.
(8) A person needs to be very careful in looking at studies that claim to show favorable performance for intermittent renewables.

Solar and wind power share a twin Achilles Heel: storage of energy during intermittency, and low net-energy return on energy invested. In The Catch-22 of Energy Storage by John Morgan of the Energy Collective, his research found

Several recent analyses of the inputs to our energy systems indicate that, against expectations, energy storage cannot solve the problem of intermittency of wind or solar power. Not for reasons of technical performance, cost, or storage capacity, but for something more intractable: there is not enough surplus energy left over after construction of the generators and the storage system to power our present civilization.

The problem is analysed in an important paper by Weißbach et al in terms of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI – the ratio of the energy produced over the life of a power plant to the energy that was required to build it. It takes energy to make a power plant – to manufacture its components, mine the fuel, and so on. The power plant needs to make at least this much energy to break even. A break-even powerplant has an EROEI of 1. But such a plant would pointless, as there is no energy surplus to do the useful things we use energy for.


There is a minimum EROEI, greater than 1, that is required for an energy source to be able to run society. An energy system must produce a surplus large enough to sustain things like food production, hospitals, and universities to train the engineers to build the plant, transport, construction, and all the elements of the civilization in which it is embedded...

Although renewable energy doesn't live off sun alone -- it needs metals, semiconductors, ceramics and more -- standby Ugo Bardi's recent investigation in Renewable energy: does it need critically rare materials? did not find a major problem with rare-metals supply for solar or other renewable energy systems.

By now a more alert consumer of energy news can keep renewable energy developments in a big-picture perspective. We hear how Germany can be a solar success, so why can't the U.S.; we hear Denmark has built more windmills, and that renewable energy is getting cheaper and more efficient. These claims bypass or hide so much of the whole story that we miss the fact that we are witnessing a bubble created for the purpose of stoking investment and more subsidies.

An example of trumpeting solar power's slow triumph over petroleum -- despite the disparate kinds of energy involved, and total absence of discussion on the need to immediately slash energy use in general -- is Bloomberg's Oct. 29, 2014 report While You Were Getting Worked Up Over Oil Prices, This Just Happened to Solar, by Tom Randall:

After years of struggling against cheap natural gas prices and variable subsidies, solar electricity is on track to be as cheap or cheaper than average electricity-bill prices in 47 U.S. states -- in 2016, according to a Deutsche Bank report published this week. That’s assuming the U.S. maintains its 30 percent tax credit on system costs, which is set to expire that same year...
Yet, the report reveals the amazing expectations of major analysts: "Solar will be the world’s biggest single source of electricity by 2050, according to a recent estimate by the International Energy Agency. Currently, it’s responsible for just a fraction of one percent." [emphasis added.] It's as if petroleum's role in solar panels and the grid is negligible, or that solar panels can magically supply farm chemicals to grow the food that petroleum has been doing.

Oil Grows in Instability and Danger As It Goes Away Geologically

Falling oil prices of late, to four-year lows, are not only bad news: these are deceptively low prices. Because of direct and hidden subsidies, the real cost of oil to consumers is a few times the nominal price, i.e., a few hundred dollars per barrel. This true high price has for several years pinched off growth of the economy, and made people struggle when buying not just oil products but anything with a significant imbedded-energy cost such as food and manufactured products. Still, low oil prices are bad news for the environment, such as enabling more transport-sector pollution. If it mattered more, low oil prices that hurt renewable energy investment would be tragic. This report with its Tale of Three Studies, and further information below, puts the matter into perspective.

It is precisely because the most desirable crude oil fields are rapidly depleting and new discoveries have trended downward for decades, it is alarming that oil dependence is at its height. More accurately it is at a brief plateau, from a long-range historical perspective. Renewable energy systems and conservation have not emancipated modern society from oil, and are not on track to do so except in conditional scenarios that ignore far too much, such as population size. The dwindling supply of oil with no equivalent energy-substitution means that the rising vulnerability to oil shock and the end of plentiful supplies extends to a breaking point on the relatively near horizon. There are "Things to Know As Collapse Becomes Hip" 2

The White House & Tar Sands,

Exuberance for continued profligate energy consumption flows not only from knee-jerk faith in technology for "renewable" energy. Claims that the U.S. has regained the role of top producer of oil worldwide obscure energy reality for the unsuspecting public, even though the U.S. is not a significant petroleum exporter and is still a gross importer of oil. To help discredit the hoopla, Matt Mushalik recently showed in Crude Oil Peak and that US Oil Dependency on Middle East has Hardly Changed Since 2007. Obviously, renewable energy did not manage to enable a different trend.

Although unconventional forms of petroleum in the Americas do not offer a ride up Consumerland Peak, they are extremely dangerous. The chart here on Fossil Fuels Emissions shows the relative potential for tar sands emissions, described as conservative by the makers of the chart.

A new Huffington Post article republished on is myth-busting: in Challenging (Crude) Convention, three researchers found that "US shale-oil production is likely to peak in 2017-18." The article warns, "It is imperative, then, that American policy makers and people recognize that the fracking-enabled spike in US crude oil production most likely represents only a temporary reprieve from the declining production levels experienced from 1970 to 2005."

The authors' findings and warnings about the very capital-intensive, short-lived U.S. oil bonanza lead us to a cautionary pronouncement on "renewable" energy as well: without the continuously greased oil infrastructure for the entire corporate global economy, "renewable" energy for the grid is similarly constrained, for the reasons explained above, as it fails to deliver the wide-eyed dreams held by many environmentalists and investors.

The article's authors Daniel Davis, David Hughes, and Mark Lewis seemed to miss that point, mentioning that "The quality and efficiency of solar power and wind turbines continues to improve and we should encourage further development." Primarily for climate concerns, the authors support those technologies to get industrial society beyond the internal combustion engine. The authors invoke the Paris UN climate conference in 2015 for the "need to accelerate investment and research into alternative means of energy creation."

This stance made the most sense decades ago when inefficiency reinged, but without the older stance of curtailing energy use for simple living, climate protection and resilience for modern society are extremely doubtful. The authors say, "it would be prudent to begin more aggressively investing in creative new means of powering the economy." But, considering what we know about energy-alternatives, would it not be more responsible (and cheaper) to anticipate oil-related collapse and pursue rapid curtailment of energy consumption? To set sails, ride more bicycles, go car-free, depave, grow food locally, and share appliances between families? Shower with a friend to save water?

The large renewable energy systems cannot be a realistic centerpiece of climate protection. Nor do they offer a way out of petrocollapse. People are happy to embrace a silver bullet to solve the energy and climate dilemmas, but changing their lifestyles is too inconvenient and psychologically threatening. What would fellow yuppie colleagues at the office say if one showed up on a bicycle and had downsized the home? This poses no social-acceptance problem in most of the world, but for the U.S. -- land of Happy Motoring and the American Dream of the two-car garage -- consumers cling to technological progress to further insulate them from Mother Nature and her terrifying animals and storms.

Meanwhile in bike-friendly northern Europe, "the Crisis" (post 2008 meltdown) is, with hoped-for able leadership and non-austerity compassion, supposed to abate. It is fervently wished for, so that middle class consumer equality -- cars, jet vacations, restaurant bliss and the like -- can get back on track. But even without the petroleum-rich Russian Bear's being upset over Ukraine, and even without wars in the Middle East, growth as we know it is history. Stability as we know it is also history. It does not help that simple living -- closer to nature and one's local economy, brought about by energy curtailment -- is so equated with "doom and gloom."

Cars Are Renewable?

courtesy Sheerness Imports for Dealers

A key article related to addressing the notion of "clean, renewable" energy's saving the consumer lifestyle is the recent Tesla, Leaf: Unclean at Any Speed? by Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions. Zehner was a car buff, an electric one at that, but he has found that "clean cars" and therefore cars in general have no long-term future.

The title harkens back to Ralph Nader's seminal consumerist study published in 1965: Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. The two cars Nader gained fame for attacking were the Volkswagon Bug and General Motors' Corvair compact. The book was shocking at the time. The world had only begun to suspect the post-World War II corporate world of major fraud, thanks to the earlier book in 1960 by Vance Packard, The Waste Makers which introduced us to manufacturers' hidden strategy of planned obsolescence for products.

The "Tesla, Leaf" study's author, Ozzie Zehner, deflects car lovers' emotional wrath against his non-technofix position by opening with "I was once an electric car enthusiast. I even built one! But in my new IEEE cover feature, I ask, 'Are electric among the cleanest transportation options, or among the dirtiest?' Unclean at Any Speed considers the entire life cycle of electric cars, especially their manufacturing impacts..." (Zehner is a University of California at Berkeley visiting scholar.)

Additional points we frequently make to car enthusiasts who think electric or some non-petroleum propulsion will save the day:

• The approximate one million animals a day slaughtered on U.S. roads have no reason to cheer. The animals are forgotten consistently.
• In the U.S. the human death toll from crashes is 25,000 a year. Injuries are much higher, as is the death & injury toll from the sedentary lifestyle of driving.
• A car company exemplifies the opposite of local economic self-reliance because almost all the money for a new car purchase leaves the community.
• Why contribute to urban sprawl, as cars require space needed for growing food and leaving some room for wildlife? Pavement, tarmac and asphalt rooftops add to the urban heat island effect.
• Roads fragment wildlife habitat and drive away top predators. Roads allow access for clear-cutters of forests, and contribute to population growth through migration. Roads cause much erosion resulting in siltation of salmon-spawning streams.
• Ultimately the car is an entropy heap. Toxic, unsightly waste, slightly recyclable.
by Andy Singer
• The actual speed of the American motorist is approximately 5 (five) miles per hour, when all the time associated with the vehicle's purchase cost and upkeep is considered. (source: Ivan Illich's book Energy and Equity, 1974, part of his series on alternatives to industrial society)
• Think also of the billions of tires and tons of plastic from Big Oil. And are brake dust, tire dust what children and animals deserve to breathe?
• Get your exercise on a bicycle and don't threaten others with a killing machine.


Launch of the Sail Transport Network, reported by our organization in 2000

Apart from passive solar installations -- e.g., black-painted water tanks on roofs for warming water -- and sail power for truly clean transport on the water, renewable energy systems on an industrial scale for the grid have delivered neither the quantity of energy nor done so in a truly clean-source fashion to significantly cut fossil fuel consumption. Instead, renewable energy output has, in effect, been used to shore up growth of the corporate global economy's precarious petroleum infrastructure. Renewable energy systems have gotten almost nowhere without massive imbedded energy from the petroleum industry. Given the actual carbon footprint of renewable energy systems, it is not surprising there has been no decrease in overall carbon emissions with the advent of solar panels, wind turbines, and other "renewables."

Alternatives to industrial society have been in the making from Day One, when Luddites destroyed factory machines over two centuries ago in England, to protect their village way of life for their survival. The 1960s saw a rejection of Plastic Society, the War Machine, and a move to go Back to the Land. The "Appropriate Tech" movement of the 1970s followed, exemplified by The Farm in Tennessee that was the nation's biggest commune. Today there are remnants of the Back to the Land movement, along with a sail transport movement back to the sea.

Appropriate Tech has gone out of style, as renewable energy was forced to "grow up," cut the long hair, put on a suit and tie, and try to power the global corporate economy. When Appropriate Tech was twisted and betrayed to "mature" into large-scale "renewable" energy systems, it was a lot like organic food gardens and homesteads giving way to agribusiness "organic" large-scale farms that deplete topsoil and ship product very long distances with oil. But as long as there is ample oil -- subsidized so as to look affordable, during the peak-oil plateau -- little will change in the corporate global economy. This is despite renewable energy systems which have become part of business-as-usual for the totally unsustainable consumer economy.

* * * * *

1. Peak oil study by Robert Hirsch, et al, for the U.S. Dept. of Energy: Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management, early 2005.

2. Things to Know as Collapse Becomes Hip August 24, 2013, by Jan Lundberg, Op-Ed

In "Six Myths About Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question," Erik Lindberg looks at renewable energy's hopeless but hoped-for role for saving the climate and the consumer economy. Scroll down to Myth #3: Renewable Energy Can Replace Fossil Fuels. Nov. 26, 2014

Peak Frack, Hydraulic fracturing of petroleum, in a nutshell.

Why Wind Farms Can Be Relied On For Almost Zero Power, The Energy Collective, November 17, 2014: "In every country aggregate wind farm output often goes close to zero...[so] Wind farms can reliably supply less than 1% of installed capacity"

Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades, a 1986 book and econometric model about peak oil, reviewed by Jan Lundberg in 1988 originally for Population and Environment quarterly journal.

Culture Change operated the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium against new road construction from 1990-2001, publishing the Auto-Free Times magazine and Road Fighters' Alerts.

A conference on energy- and resource-consumption curtailment and simple living was held November 7-9, 2014, by Community Solutions Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Publisher's note:
Although I have publicly switched my work emphasis to sail transport, I have practical reason for continuing to concern myself with industrial/consumer renewable energy systems. Apart from an abiding interest in helping people understand the workings of oil industry supply dynamics, and understand how the entire energy sector is affected, I need to be current on the realities of both "the technofix" for oil dependence and the ballyhooed oil bonanza in the U.S. oil patch, because:

When my colleagues and I are promoting sail transport as truly renewable, clean energy, this almost unique advantage is not enough for some. This is because the consumer economy gets more patience and assumed longevity with every new "optimistic" news report on petroleum or renewables. Oil-intensive consuming will thereby confidently chug along, supposedly, with no end of oil-guzzling conventional shipping. Either oil is mistakenly seen as plentiful for the foreseeable future, or renewable energy is "certainly" stepping in to allow for sustainable consuming and polluting. Yet, some of us see the inevitability of local economics and ocean protection becoming the norm, sooner than many think likely, enabled by a growing global sailing fleet for essential travel and exchange of goods. - Jan Lundberg, independent oil industry analyst and founder, Sail Transport Network

Acknowledgment: the green plug graphic is courtesy in its coverage of "EPA Launches Green Power Resource Library," or
Chart for fossil fuels emissions from The White House & Tar Sands, Aug. 2011

Comments (13)Add Comment
Dear Jan,

This is a good comprehensive summary of energy constraints, limitations of alternate and renewable sources, and the need for greater emphasis on demand reductions (forms of consumption lower in energy use, higher energy efficiencies, continued slowing of population growth, etc).

To prevent or mitigate overshoot and collapse, the pace of transition would need to accelerate, and I recommend four words: Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax.

This would discourage use of the fossil fuels harmful to the global climate (and thereby, longer term, the global economy too). It would make non-carbon fuels relatively more attractive but without subsidy, and with a net overall decline in energy use. The "revenue neutral" part is important to avoid promoting corporate welfare-seeking, or raising the distraction of debating the overall level of government revenue.
Drew Keeling
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November 28, 2014     
Birth control is easy.
Peter Crabb
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The idea that there's a magical substitute for the energy dense fossil fuels is a more popular flavor of denial than climate change denial.

A carbon tax is a distraction at this point.

In Oregon, the Democrats are pushing a carbon tax that would help raise money for highway expansions, and the environmental groups are unlikely to notice the bait and switch.

Few want to admit that fossil fuels enabled the growth of our population from under a billion to over seven billion today.
Mark Robinowitz
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Very interesting commentary. I wish I could add something worth considering!

Fixing the system: The equivalent to gathering every single particle of sand that's on the planet and glueing them together to build a mountain.
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The amount of renewable energy generation should be commensurate with the number and needs of future generations (pun not intended).
Victor Postnikov
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This sounds like it was generated from the Cato Institute in collaboration with the Heritage Foundation.

Can we not stop making the perfect be the enemy of the good? Renewable energy is a piece of the puzzle, not a solution to all of life's problems. If we shoot down every attempt at ameliorating our problems, all we will have left is our problems.

Please stop asking for the perfect. We'll never get it.
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No one is shooting down sail transport, bicycling, permaculture, depaving, sharing appliances, and more. The big picture may be complicated and not blessed with convenient technological answers, but knowing the truth is important. There's nothing wrong with getting people to understand that sustainable consuming is an oxymoron. Decentralized, local use of renewable energy without dependence on the petroleum infrastructure is a big part of the future. It seems this is hard for some to except, considering the exuberance we got used to via overshoot.
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A correction to your article: the post 'what's wrong with renewable energy' was written by me, not Ozzie Zehner.
Kim Hill
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Kim, I corrected the names. I'm sorry about the misunderstanding. I had gathered that "posted by Kim" without your last name on the webpage meant you were simply posting it. And the text was very similar to Ozzie Zehner's work that I had seen and that you referred to. Thank you, and keep up the good work.
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Thanks for this fine expose, Jan.

It occurred to me the other day while thinking about the popular romance with renewables that solar and wind power should be compared with food production.

"Free" solar energy is the driver for photosynthesis and grows all of our crops, without having to build collectors. Using the very same logic that's applied to solar, this means that food has virtually no carbon or climate footprint. Yet we know that it does. Though the energy input may be theoretically free, every step along the way we use fossil fuels to plant it irrigate it, harvest it, transport it, refrigerate it.... that's before we even get to cook it. The result is that in many cases (like a lettuce grown 500 miles away) fossil fuels represents up to 95 percent of the energy content of the food we buy to fuel out bodies.

Delivery of renewable energy devices to us has similar supply chains, all the way from mining of materials to smelting, transporting and repair and maintenance and so forth. The result is that the renewable energy industry, as it is fostered, is utterly depends on fossil fuel inputs. We are light years from developing a self sustaining renewable energy system that is not joined at the hip with the industrial status quo.

With energy, like food, there's no choice but to go small, and go local. The idea of powering industrial society with dilute energy forms is a greater delusion than is climate science denial – albeit perhaps more dangerous.

Chris Harries
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Short version: to echo that just because it isn't perfect doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile I appreciate the push on behavioural change, that is a huge crucial part of becoming more sustainable, but I don't believe we can make it happen so fast that renewables aren't worth it.

Long version: Interesting article and it's good to question my own bias towards renewables so to consider these points seriously.
I really agree that behavioral change is required in a big way and that our current paradigm of city living makes sustainability difficult, that we may need to move towards smaller scale solutions and find alternative technology type ways of reducing energy required, for instance sail transportation as you state. However I don't agree with the conclusion that renewables aren't worth undertaking.

Some of the arguments like problems of embedded energy make sense only if arguing we should move to using no primary energy (like electricity or gas) at all or at least vastly reduced, but I am wary that the tone of the article makes it sound like we shouldn't bother to try and should carry on with fossil fuels (or even in the meantime as we move towards this)

EROI can go positive for solar and wind depending on sensible installation, and this should improve with time (improvements in solar manufacture, use of kite power hopefully). See: Fossils on the other hand are more and more negative on energy returned compared to the chemical energy put in.
Dom Winter
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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 and wind 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.
John Weber
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1. CO2 is acidifying the ocean. If it continues, extinctions will start, and 20% of human protein will be permanently lost! Do you like salmon? If we don't halt this process, you can kiss it goodbye – permanently!

2. To prevent that, stopping the burning of coal & oil is necessary, but not sufficient. Enough power is needed to "engineer" a halt to that acidification. And quickly! Citizens Climate Lobby's project is necessary, but nowhere near fast enough to prevent the extinctions.

3. The only possible source of sufficient energy is nuclear energy.

4. The uranium-fueled reactors that we use now are too dangerous and produce too much long-term radioactive waste. The only solutions are the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR -- which was tested at Oak Ridge National Labs, but was dropped in favor of uranium reactors that could also produce nuclear bombs) or cold fusion (see, started by Robert Godes). LFTR can consume the waste from the uranium reactors, and produces far less waste, and far shorter half-life (300 years, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of years)). LFTR is also far safer, and cannot explode, even if it loses electric power. China and France and India and Australia are investigating the LFTR. Why aren't we? Good question!!!
Mike Vandeman
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