How clean is ‘clean energy’? Renewables cannot solve the global crisis
By Saral Sarkar
Published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.
In this second contribution to our symposium, ‘Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy’, ecosocialist scholar Saral Sarkar dissects the challenges posed by renewable energy in the context of the environmental crisis of capitalism.
How ‘renewable’, really, are renewable energies?
While we model their feasibility in different ways through scientific studies, do these studies account for the full range of extensive industrial inputs and natural resources required to sustain a renewable energy infrastructure? Do they account for how extensive enough such an infrastructure would need to be to sustain an ever expanding global economy and population, driven by consumerism?
If not, then the answers may involve a much more radical downsizing of business-as-usual than many of us are envisaging.
Aspects and causes of the crisis
The climate crisis is only one aspect of the global crisis. Yet, generally speaking, Western governments, media, politicians, NGOs, and publicists have been trying to make us believe that it is the only dangerous and the only global crisis.
It appears that for them all other crises in the world are only partial or regional problems of secondary importance. But this is a patently reductionist and superficial view of the present global crisis. Consequently, the policies that are being pursued for solving the climate crisis are wrong.
The aforementioned agents of worldwide climate politics plus the UN pressurized nearly all states of the world to sign up to the Paris accord (2015). But no similar global effort is being made to address, let alone solve, the global ecology crisis, the various, seemingly unending civil wars and uprisings in the world, the terrorist attacks of various kinds, increase in crime rates almost everywhere, the unemployment-and-poverty problem in all poor and “developing” countries, and the massive refugee-migrant crises in many parts of the world — in short, the globally growing failed and failing states crisis.
To my mind, this is the right description of the critical state of the world today. The climate crisis is only one part of it, and as a crisis, it is of recent origin. It is, of course, also a major, but not a basic (i.e. deeper), cause of the global crisis.
To justify why I do not consider the climate crisis to be a basic cause of the global crisis, I would like to refer to the present situation in Mexico and Venezuela. They are very advanced candidates for the title “failed state”.
In Mexico, in short, the main cause of this situation is widespread drug-related crimes; in Venezuela it is the totally wrong economic policy of successive governments of a petro-socialist state.
Or take for instance the two cases of South Sudan and Central African Republic. People there are not suffering from any climate-change-related drought or flooding.
Dubious politics of climate politicians
Let us first examine the understanding that climate change is at present the greatest danger to mankind and that, therefore, it should be addressed as the most important task of governments.
Most government leaders and party politicians admit that climate change is a big danger, but they are not prepared to make an all-out effort to avert or mitigate it. Their topmost policy-priority is continuous economic growth.
For stabilizing global warming below two degrees Celsius in the near future, they think it would suffice if the world economy could gradually be made to run on an energy mix of various sources, including some so-called renewables, and that, according to IPCC chief economist Edenhofer,* would not cost the world more than 0.06 percent growth.
But radical climate NGOs and activist groups maintain that the economies of highly industrialized countries such as Germany could run 100% on the basis of ‘renewable energies’. And they say that a rapid replacement of fossil-carbon and nuclear energy industries through renewable energy industries would create many new jobs, thus becoming the main pillar of green growth. They have more or less concrete ideas for the transition, even very detailed action plans for a quick transition to 100% ‘renewables’.
I can here take just one example, only Bill McKibben’s action plan entitled A World at War.(1)
In it he calls for a “war” effort — although “war” is here only a metaphor — as huge as the American military and industrial mobilization for World War II. In naming his enemy, however, McKibben makes the initial big error in analysis. He thinks it is climate change. He imagines this enemy is committing a huge aggression against us. Once he calls it an “enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics.”
Isn’t it absurd? Any person with some common sense knows that climate change is only the result of global warming. But even global warming cannot be the “enemy”. We know today that it is man-made. For a moment, McKibben also recognized his error. He himself mentions in a half-sentence “our insatiable desires as consumers,” but he does not spell it out as the ultimate cause of the malady.
Anyway, he demanded of the then US government (and its future successors) that it should initiate and organize a huge industrial mobilization to get “a hell of a lot of factories” built in order to turn out “thousands of acres of solar panels, wind turbines the length of football fields, and millions and millions of electric cars and buses.” David Roberts(2) made it vivid:
“Well, have a look at Solar City’s gigafactory, … .It will be the biggest solar manufacturing facility … covering 27 acres, capable of cranking out 10,000 solar panels a day — a gigawatt’s worth in a year. At the height of its transition to WWS [wind, water, solar], the US would have to build around 30 gigafactories a year devoted to solar panels, and another 15 a year for wind turbines. That’s 45 of the biggest factories ever built, every year. That is [even for an American] a mind-boggling pace of building…”
Imagine now the huge amount of shit this gigantic effort would simultaneously produce: the environmental pollution, resource depletion, and waste that has to be dumped somewhere.
We may allow McKibben his war metaphor in the name of poetic license. But if a general makes a wrong analysis of the war situation or, said in the jargon of applied medical science, if the diagnosis is wrong, the strategy or the prescribed medicine may do more harm than good.
McKibben’s prescription, the huge dose of the wrong medicine — i.e. a huge mobilization for the “Third World War” that climate change, he imagines, is waging against us — is actually uncalled-for.
Insight: There can be a much lighter and more effective medicine to cure the severe illness based on his more correct diagnosis, namely his half-sentence “our insatiable desires as consumers”.
Any adherent of the old left (old socialism) of any kind would speak of the capitalists’ insatiable desire for profit and capital accumulation as the main cause of our troubles. She would call upon us to wage class struggle. But McKibben and climate activists like him are not old-leftists. They are not willing to fight against capitalism, but only against climate change.
And this he wants to do, like all past and present old-leftists, by technological means. Blinded by technological optimism, such people believe that a 100% transition to “renewable” energies is possible. They say we need more technology, not less; they assert we could overcome all crises and problems of mankind by means of technology. I already heard in 1984 that the intermittency-and-storage problem of renewable energies can be easily solved, namely by means of batteries and liquid hydrogen.
Critique of technological solutions
Such activists are suffering from some illusions. They appear not to know the most inexorable of all the laws of physics, namely the Second Law of Thermodynamics (AKA the Entropy Law that also applies to matter).
In reality, so-called renewable energies are neither renewable nor clean. One makes this mistake due to a logical error that must be rectified. We have to differentiate between sources of energy and equipments needed to convert them into electricity and heat.
Sunshine, wind, and flowing water are sources that will still be there after Homo sapiens has disappeared from the surface of the earth and will still supply useful energies to the next hominid species– e.g. as driver of sailing boats and as supplier of warmth. So they indeed are renewable and also clean.
But the equipments needed to generate electricity from these sources are made of materials that are nonrenewable. And the energy used to produce these material things comes till today for the most part from fossil-carbon and nuclear fuels, both of which are nonrenewable and dirty.
So how can solar, wind and hydro-electricity be called renewable and clean? And how can electric cars be preferable to combustion engine cars if the batteries made of nonrenewable materials store nonrenewable and unclean electricity?
Moreover, these so-called renewable energies are not viable, although they are feasible. Suppose tomorrow, accepting the demand of the movements, all states decide to leave all the still unextracted fossil and nuclear fuels in the ground. How will then the said equipments be manufactured/built?
And the equipments that have already been manufactured/built and are supplying electricity have a lifespan of 20–30 years. When they are no longer working and must be replaced, the second generation thereof cannot be manufactured/built, because then, we shall not have any fossil or nuclear energy to be used. Either the fossil-carbon and nuclear fission materials are exhausted or our governments have decided to leave them in the ground.
To make the point clear, let me quote an impatient discussant, who, using the pseudonym “foodstuff”, put the following questions to protagonists of the so-called renewable energies:
“I still want to know if the following can be done:
1. Mine the raw materials using equipment powered by solar panels.
2. Transport and convert metal ores, e.g. bauxite-aluminum, using equipment run by solar panels and in a factory built using the energy from solar panels.
3. Make the finished panels in a factory run by solar panels, including building and maintaining the factory.
4. Transport, install and maintain the solar panels using equipment running on solar panels.
All this is presently being done [mainly] with the energy from fossil fuels. How will it be done when they are gone?”(3)
Protagonists of 100% “renewable energies” say: we must use a large part of the generated renewable energies for producing the equipment needed for producing the second generation of equipment for producing renewable energies. And so it will go on and on.
Here comes the crucial question of EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested or energy balance). Assuming that the first generation equipments do produce some net energy, i.e. EROEI is positive, how large is the amount of this net energy?
Let us remember, hundreds of millions of households and enterprises producing consumer goods will first consume electricity from this source. Will there be anything left for investing in production of all the equipments, i.e. producing and reproducing everything necessary for running an industrial economy?
There is no certainty in this question. Many experts who tried to measure it expressed doubt that the EROEI of solar energy technology is positive. Why is the matter so uncertain?
The gross ER (energy return) part of the question is easy to answer, and correctly, if you have a good meter attached to the solar panel. But how do you measure the EI (energy invested) part of the question? What the experts do is actually guesstimating. Here bias starts playing a role. So I answer the question in a different, and I think more convincing, way:
Since almost all raw materials and energy that are until today used to produce the required equipments are nonrenewable, the old mines and wells of the same gradually get exhausted. Miners must then go to ever remoter and ever more difficult places to extract them out of new mines/wells. That means, energy invested (EI) in fuels and minerals progressively increases. That means EI — not only for energy equipments but also for any industrial product — continuously increases.
Remember, we are not talking of prices and money costs which depend on many variable factors, but of EI, of energy cost of a product. For example, money cost of production of solar panels would fall further, and hence also their price, if production is transferred from China to, say, Bangladesh, where wages are lower than in China.
In case of minerals such as copper and nickel we are digging deeper and deeper and going to ever hotter and icy-colder deserts and polar regions. The copper mine of Chuquicamata in Chile’s Atacama desert is in the meantime so deep that the big heavy trucks that bring the ore to the surface can only be seen like toys down below.
For oil, we are since long boring in deep seabed. Recently, geologists have found a mountain containing huge quantities of extremely rare cadmium telluride, the material that can greatly increase the efficiency of solar cells. But it stands at a depth of 1,000 meters down in the Atlantic Ocean.
If that is the objective situation, no small innovation improving the ER side can, I think, in the long run offset the trend of rising energy costs (EI). For such small innovations cannot overcome the two cosmological constants involved here, namely 1. the intensity of solar radiation reaching the surface of the earth at any particular place, and 2. the fact that the sun does not shine in the night.(4)
Conclusion–Perspective on a Future Sustainable Society
I hope now it has become clear to my readers that “renewable energies” cannot play any role in solving the multifaceted global crisis of today and that, on the contrary, investing in these technologies is a waste of time, effort, energy and, most important of all, scarce resources.
If scientists and engineers were honest, they should say that the only really renewable and clean sources of energy, apart from our own physical energy, are wood and other biomass products for fire, wind for sailing boats and wind mills, and flowing water in rivers and streams for water mills — the last two only for generating kinetic energy. And, if we are prepared to exploit other living beings, then also the muscle power of domestic animals.
Humanity has lived for thousands of years with only such energies. In a not so distant future, we may well have to be satisfied with that. But that would be impossible with over 9 billion of us. Let me quote here an impossibility theorem that I formulated some time ago:
It is impossible to fulfill the continuously growing “needs”, demands, wishes, aspirations and ambitions of a continuously growing world population while our resource base is continuously dwindling and the ability of nature to absorb man-made pollution is continuously diminishing. It is a lunatic idea that in a finite world infinite growth is possible.
Our top-priority political tasks today and for a transition period of uncertain duration would therefore be
a) to start a massive campaign for a population control program with the long-term goal of bringing down the world population of homo sapiens to, say, two billions;
b) a campaign for reducing consumption simultaneously with a campaign against the growth ideology;
c) propagating alternative conceptions of peaceful human societies (my own preference is an eco-socialist society);
d) a campaign to let forests and the number of wild animals expand.
These are very broadly defined tasks. Details need to be worked out, which however can only be done if many people show interest.
Notes and References
* Edenhofer, Ottmar & Michael Jacob (2017) Klimapolitik. Ziele, Konflikte, Lösungen. Munich: C. H. Beck, P. 52.
1. McKibben, Bill (2016): A World at War
2. Roberts, David (2016): Climate Justice Policy and the Metaphor of War
3. “foodstuff”, comment as part of the discussion on Ugo Bardi’s article. See:
Bardi, Ugo (2016)”But what’s the REAL energy return of photovoltaic energy?” in Cassandra’s Legacy (online).
4. This presentation on the EROEI of solar energy technologies is based on
Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1978): “Technology Assessment. The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energy”