Gail Tverberg: US Energy Sources and Uses Show Limits of Renewable Energy Strategies

Yves here. In this post, Tverberg contends that renewable energy sources are not the remedy for global warming that its proponents hope they will be. Too often, “clean” energy sources have not been properly costed out in resource, and sometimes even in carbon terms.

Bear in mind that the post is written in a deductive manner, in that Tverberg first sets forth information on energy consumption and production trends, and then turns to the what this means for “clean” sources of energy. Her analysis supports an argument we’ve made, that the only viable way to reduce carbon emissions meaningfully, particularly in the near term, is conservation.

By Gail Tverberg, an actuary interested in finite world issues – oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Originally published at Our Finite World

On August 6, I wrote a post called Making Sense of the US Oil Story, in which I looked at US oil. In this post, I would like to look at other sources of US energy. Of course, the energy source we hear most about is natural gas. We continue to be a net natural gas importer, even as our own production rises.


US natural gas production leveled off in 2013, because of the low level of US natural gas prices. In 2013, there was growth in gas production in Pennsylvania in the Marcellus, but many other states, including Texas, saw decreases in production. In early 2014, natural gas prices have been higher, so natural gas production is rising again, roughly at a 4% annual rate.

The US-Canada-Mexican natural gas system is more or less a closed system (at least until LNG exports come online in the next few years) so whatever natural gas is produced, is used. Because of this, natural gas prices rise or fall so that demand matches supply. Natural gas producers have found this pricing situation objectionable because natural gas prices tend to settle at a low level, relative to the cost of production. This is the reason for the big push for natural gas exports. The hope, from producers’ point of view, is that exports will push US natural gas prices higher, making more natural gas production economic.

The Coal/Natural Gas Switch

If natural gas is cheap and plentiful, it tends to switch with coal for electricity production. We can see this in electricity consumption–natural gas was particularly cheap in 2012:


Coal use increased further in early 2014, because of the cold winter and higher natural gas prices. In Figure 2, there is a slight downward trend in the sum of coal and natural gas’s share of electricity, as renewables add their (rather small) effect.

If we look at total consumption of coal and natural gas (Figure 3), we find it also tends to be quite stable. Increases in natural gas consumption more or less correspond to decreases in coal consumption. New natural gas power plants should be more efficient than old coal power plants in producing electricity, putting downward pressure on total coal plus natural gas consumption. Also, we are using more efficient lighting, refrigerators, and monitors for computers, holding down electricity usage, and thus both coal and gas usage. Better insulation is also helpful in reducing home heating needs (whether by electricity or natural gas).


Another factor in the lower electricity usage (and thus lower coal and natural gas usage) is fewer household formations since 2007. Young people who continue to live with their parents don’t add as much electricity usage as ones who set up their own households do. Low household formations are related to a lack of good-paying jobs.

Coal Production/Consumption

US coal production hit its maximum level in 1998, with production tending to decline since then. US coal consumption has been dropping faster than production, so that exports (difference between production and consumption) have been rising (Figure 4).


In 2012, about 16% of coal produced was exported. This percentage dropped to about 10% in 2013, with greater US coal usage.

Coal tends to cause pollution of several types, including higher carbon dioxide levels. It also tends to be less expensive that most other fuels, so world demand remains high. Worldwide, coal use continues to grow.

Nuclear and Hydroelectric

Hydroelectric is the original extender of fossil fuels. Hydroelectricity using concrete and metals became feasible in the 1800s, when we began using coal to provide the heat necessary to make metals and concrete in quantity. The first hydroelectric power plants were put in place in the US in the 1880s.  As recently as 1940, hydroelectric provided 40% of the United States’ electrical generation.

Nuclear electric power was the next major extender of fossil fuels. The first nuclear power was added to the US energy mix in 1957, according to EIA data. The big ramp up in nuclear began in the 1970s and 1980s. Similar to hydroelectricity, nuclear requires fossil fuels to build and maintain its plants making electricity.

If we look at the US distribution of fuels, we see that in recent years, nuclear has been a much bigger source of energy than hydroelectricity.


The above comparison includes all types of energy, not just electricity. The grouping GeoBiomass is a BP grouping including geothermal and various forms of wood and other biomass energy, including sources such as landfill gas and other energy from waste. Note that GeoBiomass, Biofuels, and Solar+Wind are hard to see on Figure 5, because of their small quantities.

If we look at hydro and nuclear separately for recent years (Figure 6, below), we see that nuclear has tended to grow, while hydro has tended to fall, although both now seem to be  on close to a plateau. Hydro tends to be more variable than nuclear because it depends on rainfall and snow pack, things that vary from year to year and month to month.


The reason why hydro has tended to decrease in quantity over time is that it takes maintenance (using fossil fuels) to keep the aging power plants in operation and silt removed from near the dams. Most of the good locations for dams are already taken, so not much new capacity has been added.

Nuclear power plant electricity production has grown even since the 1986 Chernobyl accident because the United States has continued to expand the capacity of existing nuclear facilities. I do not expect this trend to continue, for a variety of reasons. Not all such capacity expansions have worked out well. The capacity expansion of the San Onofre plant in California in 2010 experienced premature wear and is now being decommissioned. Many of the nuclear plants built in the 1970s are reaching  the ends of their useful lives. Unless we add a large number of new nuclear plants in the next few years, it seems likely that US generation of nuclear electricity will be falling over the next 20 years.

Other Energy Types

It is easier to see other energy types if we look at them as a percentage of US total energy consumption. The following is a graph of “renewables” as a percentage of US energy consumption, using EIA data:


A person can see that over the long haul, hydroelectric has tended to shrink as a percentage of energy consumption, as energy needs grew and hydroelectric failed to keep up.

The GeoBiomass category is BP’s catch-all category, mentioned above.1 It (theoretically) includes everything from the wood we burn in our fireplaces to the charcoal briquettes we use to cook food outdoors, to home heating with wood or briquettes to the burning of sawdust or wood pieces in power plants. It also includes geothermal, which is about 6% as large as hydroelectric, and is increasing gradually over time. Based on EIA data, biomass isn’t growing either in absolute amount or as a percentage of total energy consumed.

Biofuels are liquid fuels made from biomass used to extend oil consumption. In the US, the major biofuel is ethanol, made from corn. It is used to extend gasoline, generally up to 10%.  A chart of production and consumption shows that US biofuel production “topped out,” once it hit the 10% of gasoline “blendwall”.


Biofuels now amount to 5.7% of US petroleum (crude oil plus natural gas liquids) consumption. In recent years, the US is a slight exporter of biofuels.

Corn ethanol currently takes about 40% of US corn production, according to the USDA (Figure 9). Greater corn plantings would put pressure on land usage for other crops.


If someone figures out how to make cellulosic ethanol cheaply (perhaps from wood), it presumably will cut into the market for corn ethanol, unless the blend wall is raised to 15%. Without additional ethanol coming from a source such as cellulosic ethanol, such an increase in the maximum blending percentage would likely be problematic.

Wind and Solar PV

Wind and Solar PV are sources of US electricity, so really need to be compared in that context. If we compare nuclear, hydroelectric, and all renewable electricity other than hydro (including electricity from wood, sawdust, and waste, and from geothermal, in addition to wind and solar) we see that in total, all other renewables are approximately equal to hydro electricity in quantity:


If we look at the pieces of other renewables separately, we see the following:


Wind energy has indeed grown in quantity. Solar/PV is growing, but from a very small base. The remainder, which includes geothermal, wood and various waste products, is growing a bit.

A major issue with wind and solar is that we badly need a “solution” to our energy problem, so these are “pushed,” whether they are really helpful or not. Some issues involved:

(a) Cost effectiveness. Studies (such as by Brookings Institution, Weissbach et al., Graham Palmer) show that wind and solar PV are not cost-effective for reducing carbon emissions. If we want to reduce carbon emissions, conservation or switching from coal to natural gas would be more cost effective.

(b) Peak supply or peak affordability (demand in economists’ language)? The peak oil “story” often seems to be that because of inadequate supply, oil and other fossil fuel prices will rise, and substitutes will suddenly become competitive. This story is used to support a switch to wind and solar PV and high priced biofuels, since the expected high prices of fossil fuels will supposedly support the high cost of renewables.

Unfortunately, the story is wrong. High prices of any fuel tend to lead to recession because wages don’t rise to match the high prices. Also, a country using the high-priced fuel tends to become less competitive compared to countries that don’t use the high-priced fuel. The net effect is that prices don’t rise very much. Instead, manufacturing moves to countries that use less-expensive fuels. Oil prices may fall so low (relative to the cost of oil production) that oil producers sell their land and increase dividends to shareholders instead; in fact, this seems to be happening already.

(c) Hoped for long-term life. If fossil fuels have problems, can “renewables” have long life-spans in spite of those problems? Not that I can see. It takes fossil fuels to maintain the electric grid and to produce any modern renewable, such as wind, or solar PV or wave energy. Wind turbines need frequent replacement of parts, and solar PV needs new “inverters.” Wood and biomass will have long lives, if not overused, but these won’t keep the electric grid operating.

(d) Apples to oranges cost comparisons. There are a few situations where wind and solar PV are used to substitute for oil–for example, on islands, where oil is used to operate electricity generation. In these cases, wind and solar PV are likely already competitive, without subsidies. In these situations, per capita use of electricity can be expected to be very low, because exports made with such high-priced electricity will be non-competitive in the world market-place.

The confusion comes elsewhere, where substitution is for natural gas, coal, or nuclear energy. Here, the savings to an electric company is primarily a savings in fuel cost, that is, the cost of the natural gas, or coal or uranium. The plant’s manpower needs and its cost of electric grid maintenance will be the same (or higher). There may be costs associated with monitoring the new sources of electricity added to the grid or additional balancing costs, and these need to be considered as well.

If we want to maintain the electric grid so we can continue to have electricity for a variety of purposes, the “correct” credit for intermittent renewables is the savings to the power companies–which is likely to be close to the savings in fuel costs, or about 3 cents per kWh on the mainland United States. This is far less than the “net metering” benefit (offering a benefit equal to the retail cost of electricity) that is often used for grid-tied solar PV. It is also generally less than the “wholesale time of day” cost of electricity, often used for wind.

Germany is known for its encouragement of wind and solar PV, using liberal funding for the renewables. This approach has adverse ramifications, including high electricity costs, less grid stability, closure of some traditional natural gas power plants, and rising carbon dioxide emissions. A recent article called Germany’s Electricity Market Out of Balance by the Institute for Energy Research summarizes these issues.


It would be great if we had a solution for our non-oil energy issues, but we really don’t. The closest we can perhaps come is scaling up natural gas consumption some, and reducing coal’s current portion of the electricity mix. We currently have a large amount of coal consumption relative to natural gas consumption (Figure 3), so we ourselves have good use for rising natural gas production, if it should actually take place.

The “catch” in scaling up natural gas consumption is a price “catch.” If the price of natural gas price rises too high relative to coal, then electricity production starts switching back to coal. If, on the other hand, natural gas prices don’t rise very much, not much of an increase in production is likely to be available. Producers would like to export (a lot of) natural gas to Europe, as a way of jacking-up US natural gas prices. This seems like a pipe dream. See my article The Absurdity of US Natural Gas Exports.

Nuclear is a big question mark. If the United States starts taking much nuclear off line, it will leave a big hole in electricity generation, especially in the Eastern part of the US. Germany and recently Belgium are starting to experience the effect of taking nuclear off line. It is hard to see how wind and solar PV can play a very big role in offsetting the nuclear loss.

Politicians need to have a “solution” they can call an energy savior, but it is hard to see that renewables will play more than a small role. Biofuels seem to have “topped out” for now. Wind and solar PV are still growing, but it is hard to justify subsidies for them, as part of the electric grid system. Solar PV does have uses off grid, if citizens want their own source of electricity, with their own inverters and back-up batteries. There are also business uses of this type–for example, to operate equipment in a remote location.

I have not tried to cover all of the various smaller items. There may also be growth possibilities for items that I have not discussed, such as solar thermal for heating hot water, particularly in warm parts of the United States.


[1] I have used BP’s GeoBiomass grouping for convenience, but I am adding together EIA data amounts. What is included in the “biomass” portion of GeoBiomass seems to vary from agency to agency (BP, EIA, IEA), because of different definitions of what is included. For example, is animal dung burned as fuel included? Is fuel that is gathered by a family, rather than purchased, included? I am using EIA data for US renewables in Figure 7, since its long-term data series is probably as good as any for the US.

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  1. trinity river

    Yves or anyone: Could you compare the U.S. use of renewable energy to Europe’s or rather Germany’s? I know Germany is moving as fast as it can away from nuclear energy.

  2. John

    Solar, wind and others green energy can solve the energy problems provided consumers make an attempt to curtail C02 emitting activities. How about riding the bike versus hopping into the car? Or swap the incandescent bulbs for low watt LEDs? We will save megatons of greenhouse producing particulates and gases from getting into the atmosphere.

    The other issue is entrepreneurs are leading the effort for green solutions. Normally this OK, but when someone invents something they want a Bill Gates salary. Lead times are great. By the time an invention hits the market it takes decades to saturate the market. That is why government must step up and take the lead in green investments to lower the bar for entry.

    Contrary to what the author states we have the technology now to significantly reduce fossil fuel use. It is just that it will costs trillions to deploy and consumers must be willing to alter their lifestyle a bit.

    1. rusti

      Contrary to what the author states we have the technology now to significantly reduce fossil fuel use. It is just that it will costs trillions to deploy and consumers must be willing to alter their lifestyle a bit.

      This part seems does seem to be tough. People will change their driving behavior if they’re presented with feedback about how to do it effectively, and I’ve wondered how widely this could be extrapolated for other aspects of life. Solar panel inverter vendors all package simple web interfaces to show power generation and I know some people who check theirs obsessively and hunt for energy saving possibilities at home so they can become net energy contributors to the grid.

      Maybe I just keep strange company, but I think carrots can prove more effective than sticks, in the same way that the trillions of dollars in infrastructure overhaul should be an opportunity to fix the economy rather than a burden.

      1. beene

        “Contrary to what the author states we have the technology now to significantly reduce fossil fuel use. It is just that it will costs trillions to deploy and consumers must be willing to alter their lifestyle a bit.”

        I am installing solar panels and feeding what I do not use back into the national grid. When finished the system will pay for itself in about three years. The only down side to solar panels on your roof shingles. If lucky with life time shingles and panels that last 30 years both should need replacing at about the same time.

        1. beene

          I should have added in the above post that the electricity sent into the national grid is income in some states. The system I’m installing lets me use the national grid at night when my system will not be producing any.

    2. trish

      “Solar, wind and others green energy can solve…”
      green energy can contribute to solving. green energy – an array, a constantly improved fine-tuned “basket” of all available (the best fit for location, subsidizing for availability, development and use actually about the environment not profit to avoid harm, ie corn biofuel) together with real govt leadership (a huge public campaign for cutting consumption combined with strict limits on fossil fuel burning -real ones not paltry ones dictated by industry) to truly cut consumption. We haven’t even made an attempt.

      Again, our policy needs to be about the environment, sustainability, not about profits. Is it going to happen? Our government is currently run by industry, is industry in many ways, so I don’t feel optimistic.
      The public mindset overall is one that has developed in this industry-run consumption-is-profit culture. created by corporations to a degree. americans and their god-given right to consume big and it’s all about markets stuff.
      That can’t be addressed until you take away the power of the corporations.

      And to JLCG there is a huge middle ground between our gross consumption of stuff and packaging of stuff and use of unnecessarily large vehicles and forcing 80-yr-olds to hop on their bikes. (That’s the kind of messaging the oil companies like).
      It’s a focussed campaign on an array of alt. energy and meaningful cuts to consumption.

  3. JLCG

    Conservation is austerity.
    We have a whole panoply of countries where consumption is less that in the USA. We might very well choose one of those countries as model and work and live according to that model. What is impossible is to live with our comforts with less energy consumption. I am eighty years old, can I jump on a bike and go to the grocery store?
    We are ensnared in our civilization and we might as well await calmly the end.

    1. rusti

      I am eighty years old, can I jump on a bike and go to the grocery store? We are ensnared in our civilization and we might as well await calmly the end.

      Huh, you sure gave up easily. I think a lot of those things you think are comforts are actually isolating.

      My 74-year-old neighbor has a daily routine that involves him taking daytime buses that are free for senior citizens, which actually winds up being an enjoyable social event for all the other seniors taking the same buses. His quality of life is better than it would be if he were driving his own car around and he has a smaller carbon footprint to boot.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      Economic austerity is not the same as conservation and in many ways the opposite. Economic austerity requires a preliminary cycle of unsustainable growth. It is an artificial and pathological adjustment to it. Global warming, in so far as it is brought about by an off-shoot of unsustainable growth – man made pollution in uncontrollable quantities, is a natural adjustment to it which is also destructive. Binge…Hangover. Conservation, on the other hand, means a system designed such that cycles of excess and disruption are reduced or eliminated.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Note that Global Warming, while it may be destructive to us, is -unlike Austerity- part of a healing process to the environment. Austerity is branded as healing (tough medicine) but in reality has nothing to do with medicine of any sort and everything to do with raw theft in the form of asset stripping.

    3. jrs

      Yes considering happiness indexes are often higher in those countries we probably should look at countries where people are actually much happier with much less consumption.

  4. Fiver

    I read the linked piece, and as Yves noted in an earlier, very similar piece, the author appears to invest energy, at times, with the total value for boosting output, when claiming for example that ‘economists’ tend to ignore energy’s unique quality (that being, it’s energy). Investment and capital and talent and education and quality institutions and new ides also boost output. She speaks of investment as capital, but energy seems to also be capital, or something near to it. It causes me to believe she is just not interested in interests on the ground with respect to how she bases her case.

    This piece in essence assumes an inevitable collapse due to unavoidably increasing costs of fossil fuels and other forms of energy. Energy use now is roughly 10% of GDP for the world. Let’s say it’s the same for the States. OK:

    The argument is that the US economy is already crippled by repeated oil shocks (1973-74, 1976, 1989, 2001, 2008), this being the source of pervasive, accelerating indebtedness that will hasten the collapse. I just don’t accept this argument. None of this took place in a political or policy vacuum. The simple fact is we’ve seen the longest application of bad policy since the siege at Stonehenge with respect to energy in the US and its supervised global economy. There is nothing of necessity tied to the costs of energy required to account for the much-heralded and scandalous state of ‘decline’ in the US, Europe, Japan and elsewhere. It’s neoliberalism and neo-imperialism that you can blame for that, as there were options available every step of the way to do a far better job of serving the public interest than what actually transpired. A society trained 24/7 to consume can be untrained.

    Nobody doubts there are limits to our resources, but that does not mean we couldn’t double or triple energy prices and still have an excellent standard of living in much of the world – we have had the capacity to create stable, thriving, fair, interesting, diverse, creative, innovative communities and have done so – it takes a commitment to reducing the footprints, to stopping the multi-varied poisoning of the oceans, air and soils, forests and crops (bye-bye bees) or lakes, rivers, groundwater, and of course, the emissions themselves, as damage from those emissions has not abated in the least given the overall trend for lower cost, meaning mostly coal. What’s missing is a sane set of policies the US can approach the globe with in meetings around a selection of capitals the question of how to move the global population as a whole to that point where we know our policies have ensured all who need are safe, well fed, getting good health care, counselling or other psychological treatment, educational or training opportunities, small business or artistic bent, whatever was needed etc.

    It is not too late to change this at all, but time is short. Gail’s is a prescription to go ahead and invest in oil, gas or coal and you’re going to make a lot of money right up to an energy-driven collapse, whereas we will have ruined ourselves and environment utterly well before then if we keep on with the burning of immense amounts of fossil fuels.

    I choose to think about a change in policy – a lot of policy.

  5. Syzygy

    Totally agree Fiver. Making electricity is easy.. making renewables ‘profitable’ in the neoliberal model is not. ‘Profitable’ in the neoliberal sense includes the capacity for exerting political control, virtual monopolies and restriction of energy sources/infrastructure. Replacement with renewable energy requires democratic or national ownership of an HVDC grid, linking all the different sources of micro generation, solar, wind, tidal wave, geothermal etc. Natural storage can easily be achieved by low tech solutions e.g. pumping sea water on board defunct ocean going liners with excess electricity and releasing during peak demand.

    The problem is political will and corporate control. 6 hours of sunlight falling on the world’s deserts provides enough energy for annual global demand – and there are so many other non-fossil sources.

    Addendum – desalination of water can be a waste product of concentrated solar (if site positioned next to sea). Water shortages are also down to political will.

    1. MtnLife

      Making renewables profitable is easy if we stop externalizing environmental and health costs associated with fossil fuels and nuclear. Natural gas would be pretty expensive if they had to clean up the aquifers since I can’t even remotely fathom what cleaning an aquifer would actually cost if it were even possible. Do our nuclear electricity costs cover the spent fuel storage for the next couple millennia?
      HVDC with micro generation? Unless I’m interpreting it wrong, that sounds wasteful and inefficient. HVDC hooked up to an array of concentrated solar molten salt reactors in Death Valley or linked to a massive wind farm hundreds of miles off the coast sounds more appropriate. Or did you mean making a grid for all the other sub-grids instead of random interlinks we have now (makes a little more sense)? Because as long as there is something resembling civilization near your source of generation 3 phase is just more efficient and useful. HVDC is great for long distance transmission between sub-grids or other *large* sources of power and despite its efficiency, power is still best utilized as close to the source as possible (doesn’t mean people won’t want to ship it elsewhere for profit).
      I’ve been curious as to why they don’t use a focused solar array to boil off the seawater and drink it after it goes through the turbine. Win-win. There are a also a lot of non-invasive hydro methods that, while being less efficient, would have zero impact on fish or waterway navigation.

  6. Ben Johannson

    (a) Cost effectiveness.

    These estimates are based on assumed and, I would argue, unrealistic prices for carbon, natural gas and nuclear power.

    (b) Peak supply or peak affordability (demand in economists’ language)? The peak oil “story” often seems to be that because of inadequate supply, oil and other fossil fuel prices will rise, and substitutes will suddenly become competitive.

    Peak Oil means peak production from conventional sources. Anything else read into it is from Gail’s head.

    (c) Hoped for long-term life. If fossil fuels have problems, can “renewables” have long life-spans in spite of those problems? Not that I can see. It takes fossil fuels to maintain the electric grid and to produce any modern renewable, such as wind, or solar PV or wave energy.

    That’s because we choose to rely on fossil fuels to maintain the energy grid. Notice the assertion, that if she can’t conceptualize alternatives they must not be feasible.

    Germany is known for its encouragement of wind and solar PV, using liberal funding for the renewables. This approach has adverse ramifications, including high electricity costs, less grid stability, closure of some traditional natural gas power plants, and rising carbon dioxide emissions. A recent article called Germany’s Electricity Market Out of Balance by the Institute for Energy Research summarizes these issues.

    IER’s CEO is closely affiliated with Cato and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, both of which are owned by the fossil fuels industry.

    1. Patrick Walker

      Actually, she is very correct. The belief that “renewables” can replace fossil fuels seamless is pie-in-the-sky thinking and a desire to maintain lifestyle expectations without any form of sacrifice. All costs are borne by others.

      In Germany, demand tends to peak at night … when the sun isn’t shining. Last year, Germany built over a dozen coal-fired plants. Why? Because the sun doesn’t shine at night and wind, while it continues to blow, is also solar-driven. Burning something is the only alternative in these cases, whether it be natural gas, coal or uranium.

      The rise of renewables has caused serious problems on the German electric grid (which is why I’m glad my local utility never bought into feed-in tariff craziness that Hydro One in Ontario did). For that, we can blame “environmentalists.” They go off all the time thinking that it’s pure greed that keeps the existing order in place. That is, the public demanded something that was a unreasonable because those advocating major change did not understand how things actually work. The modern population thinks that supplying electricity to end users is easy and just a matter of running long metal wires and flipping a switch.

      The only solution to human energy needs is to reduce the need for it. But that’s not what people want to hear. Costs are to be borne exclusively by others. Look at how negatively Americans reacted when Carter told them to put on a sweater and turn down the thermostat…

      1. Ben Johannson

        Actually, she is very correct. The belief that “renewables” can replace fossil fuels seamless is pie-in-the-sky thinking and a desire to maintain lifestyle expectations without any form of sacrifice

        I dismiss this line of argument in that Gail never makes it, nor is it a realistic summary of arguments for renewable energy. Furthermore this is exactly why blog discussions are usually a waste of time, in that people rarely respond to what was actually written. They simply type out their inner monologue which isn’t a conversation at all.

      2. Fiver

        I absolutely agree US consumption levels must fall, and very substantially, as part of the solution. But it is also true that renewables, particularly solar and solar/hydrogen could and would be able to provide most of our energy needs combined with consumption reduction within 15 years of the start of a program matching the seriousness of the crisis.

        It is foolish, dangerous BS to think it can be done without radical changes in US domestic and foreign policy. The author assumes we are permanently stupid. She may turn out to be right on that one, but it is by no means determined. I recommend adopting these changes prior to the economic/social collapse she believes imminent due to fossil fuel shortages, but the greater threat is that we sacrifice the global environment, and thus a far more final collapse, by pursuing the set of policies we now see, i.e., locking in all the cleanest oil for political reasons (Iran, Iraq, etc) while ramping up insane, short-term fracking practices for oil and gas, extremely dirty and toxic tar sands and of course, coal, which is super-abundant, can be turned in liquid fuels and petrochemicals, and guaranteed to decimate the remaining environment.

        There is no doubt whatever we could create a far more eco-friendly and people-friendly civilization that could readily go global and avert this looming catastrophe. But it means, first of all, taking back control of decision-making from giant private and deep State interests, interests that have utterly failed the public interest for so long far too many people believe it to be the natural scheme of things.

      3. washunate

        Patrick, unless you are saying that electricity consumption should fall to zero, your comment doesn’t make any sense. The discussion is about how to produce the electricity that needs to be produced. How much is a completely unrelated issue.

  7. ChrisNotts

    This article repeats a common claim that is possibly incorrect, that gas is better than coal from a global warming perspective. This is definitely true if you only consider the emissions at the power station itself, but as the rest of the article discusses the entire system cost of wind/PV, the author should also consider the entire system warming caused by gas use.

    The issue with natural gas is that it’s basically methane, which in the short-term is a potent greenhouse gas. In the long term it is broken down in the atmosphere, but as there are feedback loops in the climate system, short-term warming can cause persistent long-term warming. According to Wikipedia:

    “The newest IPCC study determined that methane in the Earth’s atmosphere is an important greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of 34 compared to CO2 over a 100-year period (although accepted figures probably represent an underestimate[55][56]). This means that a methane emission will have 34 times the effect on temperature of a carbon dioxide emission of the same mass over the following 100 years. And methane has 33 times the effect when accounted for aerosol interactions.[57]

    Methane has a large effect for a brief period (a net lifetime of 8.4 years in the atmosphere), whereas carbon dioxide has a small effect for a long period (over 100 years). Because of this difference in effect and time period, the global warming potential of methane over a 20-year time period is 72.”

    This means that you don’t need large leakage of natural gas either from the fields themselves after the wells are drilled, or from the gas transportation infrastructure, for gas to be *worse* than coal from a global warming perspective, at least for the next century. My understanding is that losses of 2% – 3% would be enough to tip the scales.

    The industry itself generally claims a number of less than 1%, whereas independent studies over some areas (e.g. areas with gas fracking) have estimated a number more in the region of 5% – 6% from the fields themselves. Depending on that number, natural gas might not be that great.

    1. Crazy Horse

      More current studies place the Greenhouse potency of methane at 70-80 times that of C02. As in its underestimated predictions about Arctic ocean ice loss, the IPCC has erred strongly on the side of conservatism.

      You are absolute right about the necessity of subjecting any energy system to full use cycle analysis before reaching any conclusions. “Clean natural gas” & “clean coal” are simply marketing slogans and anybody who takes them at face value is an excellent candidate for one of the rental income “investment grade” derivative securities that your friendly bankster would love to sell you.

      The short list of costs that are not accounted for and thus are passed on to the public and the planet in a NG based energy system must include:

      1- Atmospheric emissions during the drilling process including flaring of unwanted gas.
      2- Long term leakage to the surface induced by drilling and fracking.
      3- Emissions from drilling equipment and trucks servicing the wells and hauling fracking fluid.
      4- Long term or permanent aquifer damage.
      5- Leakage after the well is depleted and no longer economic. In the case of a fracked well this may be in only four or five years.
      6- Pipeline leakage throughout the system. With myriad older secondary lines this can become a substantial contributor to emissions and energy loss.
      7- Emissions during combustion. Cleaner than burning coal or oil, but not by an order of magnitude.
      8- Energy burned at compressor stations needed to keep the lines pressurized and the gas flowing. This can absorb 10% of the total energy that leaves the well head.
      9- Waste heat energy loss at electrical generating stations.
      10- Loss to the atmosphere at every refueling event when used as a transportation fuel.

      Measuring the actual impact of NG as an energy source involves a lot more than sticking a meter in a tailpipe. Because of the multiple factors which must be taken into account it is much more difficult than evaluating a coal-based system.

  8. David Wright

    Compared to renewables, the author claims it would be better to switch to natural gas from coal but does not discuss the extensive literature on the impacts of natural gas leaks on climate change. When the measured leak rates are added in natural gas does not provide any significant benefit – The author also repeats utility talking points claiming the only cost benefit for wind and solar is a reduction in the variable fuel cost without providing any analysis. Much work is currently being done to quantify the total ‘market benefits’ of solar. The total benefits are closer to residential and commercial retail rates as opposed to the variable fuel cost which is currently predominantly coal. The authors claim that countries which invest in ‘higher cost’ renewables lose competitiveness is clearly false as no country produces more renewable energy thal Germany on a per country basis and they are an economic and export powerhouse. They also export wind turbines and solar goods. It will take both investments in renewables and conservation to meet our climate goals.

    1. optimader

      “Compared to renewables, the author claims it would be better to switch to natural gas from coal but does not discuss the extensive literature on the impacts of natural gas leaks on climate change. When the measured leak rates are added in natural gas does not provide any significant benefit – ”


      NG leaks are solvable engineering challenges with existing technology. The composition of coal combustion by products? not so much

      1. David Wright

        I think the coal industry would disagree as they are busy building systems for capturing and sequestering carbon on utility scale plants. Leaks are economic costs which will provide little to no $ benefit to the owner and so it will be avoided. Not to mention once the well is no longer economic the owner will walk leaving no one to maintain the well.

        1. optimader

          “Leaks are economic costs which will provide little to no $ benefit to the owner and so it will be avoided. Not to mention once the well is no longer economic the owner will walk leaving no one to maintain the well.”

          There is an entire offgas scrubbing technology industry that provides systems w/no economic benefit to the industries that are mandated to use them. Control and management of NG leaks can be similarly codified and absorbed as a cost.

          1. David Wright

            Yes you are right, you can codify anything you want assuming you have the political/financial power. The more difficult task will be to cost effectively monitor, identify, and maintain natural gas wells and the natural gas distribution system so that it does not leak at rate which effectively makes natural gas more like coal with respect to global warming. Controlling point source emissions from large sources (“offgas scrubbing technology industry”) is not comparable to monitoring and maintaining the entire natural gas system. Anyway, wouldn’t it be better to build wind and solar resources which generate zero emissions while producing energy and thereby skip the need for new regulations?

            1. optimader

              “The more difficult task will be to cost effectively monitor, identify, and maintain natural gas wells and the natural gas distribution system so that it does not leak at rate”
              If by NG distribution you are suggesting expanded use as a transportation fuel, that’s a challenge of another dimension. For that, GTL using NG as a feedstock preserving existing liquid fuel infrastructure I think is a realistic future scenario.

              I’ll read that S.Am link..

              1. David Wright

                No I am talking about the existing 2 million miles of pipelines currently in the U.S. used for gathering and distributing natural gas around the country now. The following propublica article from 2012 talks about our liquid and gas pipelines. It will give you an idea of some of the challenges to legislating leaks out of existence

                Enjoy and I look forward to future energy discussions on NC!

                1. optimader

                  The article is conflating some sort of equivalence between NG pipelines, oil pipelines and the proposed bitumen pipeline(keystone XL). Not even in the same ballpark relative to risk/technical challenges/operational history (a lot in one case virtually zero in the other) etc etc

                  “…One such measure is the widespread installation of automatic or remote-controlled shutoff valves, which can quickly stop the flow of gas or oil in an emergency. These valves could help avoid a situation like that after the Kalamazoo River spill, which took operators 17 hours from the initial rupture to find and manually shut off. Operators use these valves already on most new pipelines, but argue that replacing all valves would not be cost-effective and false alarms would unnecessarily shut down fuel supplies. The CRS estimates that even if automatic valves were only required on pipelines in highly populated areas, replacing manual valves with automatic ones could cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars.”

                  Again, this is conflating oil with NGL. But the interesting takeaway to me is if the upgrade described is only “hundreds of millions”, that sounds like a no brainer investment to me.

        2. Crazy Horse

          “Busy building utility scale coal C02 sequester systems”, David? Strange that I haven’t heard of it here in Wyoming, the ” Energy State.” where we produce 40% of the nation’s coal. Ten years ago I attended an energy conference at Jackson Hole involving the Sec, Gen. of the IPCC along with a whole flock of coal lobbyists. Then Governor Freudenthal called for a 12 billion dollar per year “Manhattan Project” to develop carbon sequestration for the state’s coal industry. During the question session I asked him how long it would take to convert 50% of the nation’s coal generation to carbon sequestration if his program were funded instantly. His answer: ” I have no idea.” Bush junior cancelled the only US demonstration project shortly thereafter to make more room in the budget for Homeland Insecurity.

          Here in Wyoming we have solved the problem by electing a new governor who is very popular with the industry as he gives speeches about the virtues of his dis-belief in science and fund-raises for a legal challenge to bar the EPA from regulating emissions.

  9. wbgonne

    It must be done. Whether we like it or not, we must stop burning fossil fuels. So let’s stop whining about how difficult it is and start doing it. Unfortunately, human ingenuity never seems adequate when there is a pot of money in the way. Once we commit to the proper course — the Green Party has an excellent plan — we can accomplish what needs to be done. Handwringing is defending the status quo, and the status quo is a death march. Run that through the calculator.

  10. Globus Pallidus XI

    An interesting and useful article. It’s a pleasure to read something on the topic that is not just more ‘if only we could chant about green technology and magic pixie dust all would be well’ empty words.

    However, the main event here is population growth, which in the United States has been controlled by the rich in order to drive wages down. Post-1970 immigration policy has increased the population of the United States by about 80 million over what it would have been, and if any sort of immigration ‘reform’ passes congress (or is simply rammed down our throats by executive fiat) than this will accelerate. Remember: it is not the fraction of the population that is foreign-born, it is the total long-term increase in population created by a specific policy.

    Certainly the nation can adapt and develop new sources of energy, learn to do more with less etc., but the bottom line is that outside of a laboratory this is a very slow and difficult process – but adding more people is easy. Energy consumption per capita in the Untied States is well down from its peak in 1970 (yes even with the SUV craze), it’s just that adding in more people has cancelled out that increase in efficiency. We have already used up a lot of the low-hanging fruit in terms of making things more efficient: additional gains in conservation will be harder and harder. It’s an uneven contest and for nations without an open frontier rapid population growth always wins.

  11. jal

    If you burn all your available energy biking to work and spend your time having a stinking rest on the tab of your employer, you will discover that you can save your energy and stay home.

    Humans reduce potential energy faster than what “Mother Earth” can make it available.

  12. Eeyores enigma

    Never has humanity evolved from a cheap almost free, supper high density energy source to an extremely expensive, much lower density, non-portable energy source.

    Many technocopians are very cavalier about increasing prices when it is exactly that which is causing the global system to studder and lock up, not to mention the ever increasing number of billions of people falling into poverty and hunger.

    I have been building EVs for about 30 years. I have had 2 off grid solar setups and a wind turbine for almost 10 years now.

    1. wbgonne

      Never before has humanity imperiled the biosphere in which we all live. I think we’ll either adjust our energy consumption/supply or we’ll suffer self-annihilation. It’s a tough choice but I vote for changing our energy usage.

    2. Fiver

      It is not the cost of energy that has so deformed the US and global economies, it is the capture of everything capable of representing the public interest by giant corporations which demonstrably have systematically blocked any serious effort anywhere aimed at intelligent planning, footprint-reducing incentives, mandating technological change or otherwise making real a plethora of good ideas, all the while concerned only with what will keep the current powerful interests and those elite classes which support them in place and stuffed to the gills with claims on all future production. Numerous other countries have already built fine, livable cities and countries using only a fraction of the energy consumed in the US and Canada per capita, but are now threatened by insane US geopolitical corporate policy.

      Can we all have everything we want? Of course not. The ‘American Dream’ was rendered idiotic the moment the US started to rely on imported resources of all kinds and had to compete with the rest of the world’s people for those resources. Still, everyone on this planet can have a full and happy life without destroying the planetary biosphere if only we jettison our addiction to an endless stream of new, individually-owned-used-discarded ‘stuff’ the great bulk of which we do not need and in the end, cannot afford.

  13. Brooklin Bridge

    Implicit in this article seem to be that:
    * renewables suffer an intrinsic problem that too many people like the idea. Huh?
    * renewables suffer an intrinsic problem that people won’t spend more for electricity because the economy is fuc*ed up and so they don’t have the money to spend in the first place. Huh?
    * renewables suffer an intrinsic problem that there is some universal law that we must use carbon based fuels to repair infrastructure and make inverters? Huh? (Perhaps we are using renewable energy to repair infrastructure for coal plants and so they– the carbon based fuels – have an intrinsic advantage?)
    *renewables suffer an intrinsic problem that we shouldn’t give them subsidies (and I guess that means we should continue giving subsidies to the carbon based fuel barons?) Huh?
    *renewables suffer an intrinsic problem that we should be focusing on energy conservation and apparently this is intrinsically incompatible with using renewables (but isn’t incompatible with using carbon based fuels?) Huh?
    *renewables suffer the intrinsic problem that they require continuing technological innovation to address issues such as energy storage for local night time demand and there is again some universal law saying we should invest that money instead on continuing technological innovation to drill for oil and gas in ever more volatile and dangerous (to the environment) places. Ugg!

  14. optimader

    ” Her analysis supports an argument we’ve made, that the only viable way to reduce carbon emissions meaningfully, particularly in the near term, is conservation.”

    the argument I make is conservation and improved efficiency
    “Energy conservation refers to reducing energy consumption through using less of an energy service. Energy conservation differs from efficient energy use, which refers to using less energy for a constant service.[1]”

  15. Gabriel

    We carefully watch what we carefully measure. Maybe one approach to minimizing energy use is simply an accounting one – keep track of the non-renewables used in the US.

    More precisely, subtract the value of non-renewable energy and metals extraction [both are interrelated] from the GDP numbers. Use the smaller figure as the one to go by.

    Furthermore, publish both numbers so that we can compare them – no doubt some will be surprised, and perhaps dismayed, by the difference or by the size of non-renewables use.

    I expect there will be a big to-do over such an accounting proposal, like the arguments about the meaning and accuracy of the various unemployment figures.

  16. Steven

    The big problem with this post is of course its complete neglect of ‘externalities’, the costs of fossil fuel derived energy not paid by its producers. A few obvious examples: the cost in lives and dollars of obtaining ‘cheap’ oil this country no longer possesses from the Middle East and elsewhere around the world to power our transportation system; the costs of cleaning water supplies damaged by fracking, the costs of safely disposing the waste products of nuclear reactors some of which to remain toxic to all forms of life with which we are familiar for the earth’s expected lifespan.

    Yves may well be correct in asserting that conservation is the most cost-effective approach to our growing energy needs. But those who argue that it must involve some form of ‘austerity’, riding a bike (20 miles?) rather than driving a car (sure! you bet! in the middle of a New England winter!) or some other form of doing penance are not – at least in my experience.

    I live in the southwest (Tucson) in a home built in the 1950s when electricity was (almost) too cheap to meter. It is a nice, comfortable home with about 2000 square feet of living space. But it was NOT built with energy conservation in mind. Nor was our city. Using public transportation right now is for many of us an absolute last resort. I drive a GM Volt. (Can’t remember the last time I filled the tank but I think it was Jan or Feb.) Since I started driving electric, I’ve started driving MORE not less (probably not something to brag about but right now I don’t have to pay for my sins at the pump.)

    And I power it all with 10 year old PV panels none of which are above the actual living area of the house. Oh, and we got rid of our swamp cooler when we installed a 19 SEER heat pump 9 years ago. The thermostat is set for 76 during the day and 74 at night – maybe a little cooler in the winter. I installed the last part of my PV system last year to cover the electricity used by the Volt. I am on track to becoming a net energy producer for our local utility, a fact I’ll be able to document when that utility pays me the whopping 2 – 3 cents Gail seems to think is “correct” (interesting considering it has had to pay as much as $.35 a kilowatt hour to purchase power from the regional grid to accommodate the 15% shortfall in peak demand generating capacity it selected for business reasons).

    1. optimader

      “The big problem with this post is of course its complete neglect of ‘externalities’, the costs of fossil fuel derived energy not paid by its producers.”
      All energy sources have externalities, including you 10yo PV panels and your Chevy volt. IMO, externalities is a very fertile subject, little touched on , but understand, every manufactured product has externalities.

      1. Steven

        “All energy sources have externalities” – yes indeed, they do. I know for example the production process for PV is not environmentally clean. But even without a degree in chemistry or physics, I am pretty confident the byproducts won’t linger for 4 billion years like those from nuclear fission. The more interesting question is Energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). 10 years ago I worked with a guy who had a PhD in physics. He told me that as far as he knew PV would not yield the energy it took to produce the system. I suspected his knowledge (of the technology) was dated and went ahead anyhow figuring it would be a good investment of the fossil fuels required. Anyhow I’d like to know what the EROEI on PV and other renewables is now.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          When the oil and automotive industry artificially made internal combustion engines the ONLY practical/available means of day to day transportation and the major means of land shipping, absolutely amazing advances in the technology of those engines and the superstructure needed to maintain them materialized as if out of thin air. When competition from foreign auto manufacturers came on the scene in the 1970’s and ’80s, the same thing happened to gas efficiency and mechanical durability despite the insistence by American manufacturers that such was impossible according to the laws of physics. To say this would not happen if solar, wind, ocean movement, and other clean technologies were made de rigeur, begs credulity.

          1. Steven

            I believe that may have already happened or at least started to happen in the world of PV. This is all just the product of a very fallible memory but it seems I read the state of the art in commercially available PV is now about 30% efficiency in the conversion of sunlight to electricity. As I recall my panels are about 10% efficient.

    2. Paul Niemi

      Getting to your point of energy independence required a lot of investment. And it will for anyone else to match it. Now when calculating the cost, I would ask about the depreciation of the assets. For example, how much is the Volt depreciating? What is the maintenance and depreciation on the PV systems? I think this can work if the components are made to last. This is for comparison. For example, extra insulation in houses doesn’t necessarily depreciate nor require periodic maintenance.

      1. optimader

        Cost of “externalities” over service life.
        I am confident my 1955 Austin Healey will compare favorably to a Chevy Volt.

        1. skippy

          Just downsized from a Q7 3.0TDI to a C200 CDI, difference – [???]… less than half the total inputs of the Q7 over the service life of the vehicle. 25,000km or one year servicing intervals, excellent econometrics for improving driving styles, 5.4L/100km avg, etc.

          skippy… hay… one car family of 6

          1. optimader

            You have six justifications for a purpose sized vehicle. The frosted-haired chick peering over the dashboard piloting her Tahoe on the daily commute might not (” I like it because I can sit up high and see stuff!”…ugh.. shoot me)

            The C Class is not offered in CDI form in the US yet, it would be a great car. Americans haven’t clued into the diesel cars too much, with advent of improved emission control w/ particulate traps and bluetec (and the price of gas) that will change over time.

            Frankly, here in the US I would advocate a VW Golf TDI at +42mpg before a hybrid.

            In any case, my next daily driver will be a diesel, with what is imported here now, the choice renders to a A6 which delivers 38mpg highway.

            I was using a BMW 1M hatchback turbodiesel in Europe, again not imported to the States. Very nice driving appliance in a BMW sort of way, great fuel efficiency.

            Q7…appallingly inefficient. If anything should have a TDI diesel shoved in it , this is it.

            1. skippy

              Yeah the Q7 was better than a Land Rover, Land Cruiser et al, 800km turn around runs out to the bush and back. Did try out a 118d m-class and A4 Quattro S-line 2.0TDI tho’ found C200 to be best in class and price, crazy things are going on in the Euro car manufacturing world [how could Holden and soon to be others, compete with the quality and price]. Were bloody awash in pre-owned, demonstrator and new prestige cars down under, its nuts.

              skippy… yep the new turbodiesel’s are a thing to behold, good low – mid range torque, all in a small fuel efficient engine.

      2. Steven

        “Getting to your point of energy independence required a lot of investment.” Yes, it did. And I made it before I purchased the 50 inch TV I recently acquired. As for the depreciation of the assets, I have no plans to move so I really could care less. But that might be a consideration for someone who does and would have to at least recover the cost of the PV system in the increased resale value of the property. The energy cost of a home are something I understand appraisers and / or loan originators are now allowed to take into consideration. I did have to replace two panels of the system I installed 10 years ago. But the panels were under a 20 year warranty and the vender (Shell, now out of the business) sent the replacements free. My only cost was the labor, $190. My inverter was warrantied for 5 years but it has been running for 11.

        As for the Volt, at this point I have no intention of selling it. So again depreciation is irrelevant for me. GM cut the retail price $5k about 6 months after I bought it but for the same reason that didn’t bother me a lot. Again the more interesting question is how well it will hold up (and given GM’s history, “interesting” may be understating the case). But in theory (practice?) electric motors are supposed to last much longer with much less maintenance than gas engines. I believe Consumer Reports estimated the break-even period for the higher cost of the Volt (LEAF?) to be about 5 years. Think of buying a car like buying a home.

        @optimader – As far as I know the “externalities” of my Volt have cost no one their life.

        1. Steven

          “Blood for Oil” aside, you are probably on to something with your 1955 Austin Healey. I read that replacing just about any car before its time is a net waste of energy regardless of what you replace it with – Prius, Volt, other. I drove an un-air conditioned 1977 Ford van from 1976 until 2007 (in Tucson) because I couldn’t see parking $20,000 in a work parking lot under the Tucson sun all day. But I have become old and corrupt since replacing the van with a Prius. As for the Volt, IMHO you are better off giving your money to GM than to Wall Street. What you get in return will always be worth something.

          1. optimader

            IMO a Whole Cost Analysis/EROEI conceptually beg the discipline of Control Volume (skip the math)
            ((consider all the inputs and outputs)

            In that vein..
            ” As far as I know the “externalities” of my Volt have cost no one their life.”
            your Chevy volt is loaded with petroleum derived content if you are rigorous in defining inputs and outputs (including end of life recycling).
            I do have a link somewhere that was a credible but conservative whole cost analysis for the fully loaded cost of a gallon of gasoline, and that was ~$12.00 gallon. (included directly accountable MIC thrown at the middle east. This was probably 8 years ago?

            A couple points I’ll make
            I do admire your personal effort, but keep in mind your “personal economics” vs a EROEI analysis can have vastly different assumptions and justifications. To illustrate, a “free” or deeply discounted scrap 10yo PV system can functionally be very inefficient (not justify it’s manufacture) but make sense for an enduser if you only have to recover installation and maintenance.

            Regarding making a hypothetical equivalence of the environmental impact of large scale PV production to nuke power generation. I would compare both on a best available technology basis. Surely the presently deployed Uranium Cycle reactors are not BAT. By the same token, presently deployed commercial PV production technology is hardly a benign process. It has it’s own darkside interms of potential to introduce chemical mutagens in the local manufacturing environment if executed irresponsibly, (probably like every PV mfg operation in China I will asume).
            Both should be reviewed w/ consideration of potential for further development and refinement in mind.

            1. Steven

              Can’t argue with “consider all the inputs and outputs”. That’s the basis of “externalities”, sustainability, etc. As far as the petroleum derived content of my Volt, I prefer to think it came from oh, I don’t know, a well drilled in a national park somewhere or, worst case, a one about to blow out in the Gulf of Mexico – but NOT from the Middle East. And even if it did, it is a one-time event. After that original transgression, my day to day life is without sin (at least of the oil variety).

              I don’t get your point here: “your “personal economics” vs a EROEI analysis can have vastly different assumptions and justifications”. My “personal economics” is based upon an observation by the Nobel Prize winning chemist Frederick Soddy: “life in its physical
              aspect is fundamentally a struggle for energy” (“Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt”, CHAPTER III, THE BASIS OF NATIONAL ECONOMICS). This really isn’t about how much it costs me for installation and maintenance so much as what it should cost me if those famous free markets were controlled by ‘Control Volume’ and the laws governing the physical universe.

              As for Best Available Technology (BAT) as far as I’ve been able to determine anything other than Uranium Cycle reactors right now is what we in the software industry used to call vaporware.

              P.S. I hope I don’t sound hostile! I really do appreciate your thoughtful comment.

              1. optimader

                no offense taken Steve
                “As far as the …– but NOT from the Middle East.”
                You can think of the petroleum industry as a big bathtub with a lot of spigots pouring in and one big one big one coming out. Once it’s out of the ground it is a commodity without borders.

                The petroleum derived fuel content of your Volt can be considered a one time event at the beginning of use at end of use or distributed over the service life.

                “I don’t get your point here: your “personal economics” vs a EROEI analysis”
                I may have not been clear, my point was if you acquired a legacy PV kit at a deeply discounted price –one does not reflect original purchase price, essentially someone else subsidized it for you and EROEI really isn’t relevant and it’s use may well make financial sense.

                “As for Best Available Technology (BAT) as far as I’ve been able to determine anything other than Uranium Cycle reactors right now…”
                I said presently deployed U cycle reactors. In terms of efficient use of fuel and safety, many (including me) consider the pressurized water reactor to be obsolete, inefficient and inherently dangerous technology.. There are more efficient designs and better fuel choices, but that’s a different thread I think.
                To be sure, any future direction in utility scale energy production that isn’t status quo requires development.

          2. Paul Niemi

            Steven, I laughed at the “old and corrupt.” I am not old and corrupt, but my friends would probably take issue with that, with considerable levity. I’m waiting for photo-voltaic interlocking roofing tiles. That way the system does two jobs for one price: generate electricity, and keep the rain out. Everyone has to have roofing, but it may only be feasible on new houses with the correct roof pitch and facing the right direction.

    3. Fiver

      Steve asserts:

      “Yves may well be correct in asserting that conservation is the most cost-effective approach to our growing energy needs. But those who argue that it must involve some form of ‘austerity’, riding a bike (20 miles?) rather than driving a car (sure! you bet! in the middle of a New England winter!) or some other form of doing penance are not – at least in my experience.”

      The conflation of ‘austerity’ and ‘conservation’ typically comes in the form of the insistence that anything done to mitigate energy use will lead to ‘lower growth’, and that ‘lower growth’ implies ‘austerity’. The only place this is ‘true’ is in the mythology of American exceptionalism and minds of American (or Canadian) exceptionalists, where infinite indulgence of consuming behaviours are seen as a ‘right’.

      Your Arizona PV set-up is unlikely to get that New England driver to work in the winter – but a car-pool could. But the larger issue is global – if we cannot develop solutions that will work for everyone, there is zero chance that we will avoid disaster, and that perforce means the US must engage in a massive internal wealth re-distribution process as part of the larger goal of bringing the total US energy/resource consumption footprint down substantially while raising it appropriately elsewhere. Again, this doesn’t mean ‘austerity’ – just smarter.

      1. optimader

        “Again, this doesn’t mean ‘austerity’ – just smarter.”

        I was going to go there but didn’t want to get sucked into it, I’m glad you did.

        The thing is social policy wise, (most) people are not interested in austerity, or conservation, unless it is someone else who’s lifestyle is “degraded”.
        People will accept improved efficiency if it is instantaneously lifestyle transparent. the opportunity is part of the population may have the discipline to consume less energy by not subconsciously increasing usage of the more efficient device/system. (Steve alludes to this phenomena –Drives his Volt more miles than he use to previously drive).

        If conservation translates to a perceived lower standard of living? DOA policy initiative.

        (most) People will only elect to conserve when their back is up against the wall, then it is matter of personal resource allocation (drive to the mall or buy smartphone minutes?).

        Extracting social benefit from improving efficiency (providing the same benefit for less energy) is tough enough. The advent of high efficiency lighting? That means I can leave the lights on or use more of them!
        Improvements of vehicle fuel efficiency over the last decade? That allows me to scale up Ito an SUV rather than modestly proportioned transportation! Although there are notable small vehicle choices, in aggregate the personal vehicle fleet proportions have steadily grown with improved vehicle efficiency.

      2. Steven

        (I probably have too much time on my hands so I’ll get sucked in.) “Your Arizona PV set-up is unlikely to get that New England driver to work in the winter – but a car-pool could.” Different strokes for different folks (though I can’t help but wonder what covering some of the wide open spaces out here with PV and thermal solar could do for you all up there in the Frozen North). But you would probably be better off cramming some windmills down the throats of Martha’s Vineyard residents.

        Anyhow my point is really just a variation of yours ‘conserving (even PV electricity – think 19 SEER heat pump) doesn’t mean doing without. It can even mean wasting more if you want it to.

        1. Steven

          Besides, with respect to renewables, it is about cash-flow. If I can lead an energy profligate lifestyle without drawing down the earth’s capital of non-renewable fossil fuels, why not?

        2. optimader

          ” Different strokes for different folks”
          again, do what works for your “personal economy” and as accommodated by local geography.

          Photovoltaic roof panels, I wont be signing up here in the Midwest quite yet.

  17. Banger

    I categorically reject this argument because it is based on false assumptions, besides, she cites a Brookings study a gaggle of pro-oligarch “scholars” if there ever was such a thing.

    First, our political economy favors carbon energy producers by not figuring anything resembling true costs of using the current fuel mix.


    Second, the author assumes that all technologies available are or will be used despite the obvious fact that major corporations spend a lot of money trying to eliminate or discourage innovation in energy production and conservation–for example, localized energy production and better transmission lines would create efficiencies but because it is in the interest of big utility companies and energy producers to keep the current system intact there is no funding to study those possibilities.

    It’s all about TINA and TINA is bunk.

    1. Fiver

      But be clear: we absolutely will run out of cheap energy and cheap anything else (water, first up) if we do not radically transform the situation over the next few years – that including a very substantial reduction in consumption particularly in the US/Canada, but also within the upper 30% of consumers broadly in the developed world. Gail is wrong to essentially dismiss environmental damage due to the entire fossil fuel product cycle(s) because prohibitive energy costs will collapse the economy first, though it surely will crash sooner if, as it appears, the US in anticipation of future crises runs completely amok attempting to establish control of access to all critical resources now. Only US policy prevents plentiful supplies of quality oil for the next 30 years at least. Which raises the question: why would the world superpower shut down good oil (Iraq, Iran, Libya – Russia?) in order to crank up dirty, damaging oil – fracked shale, heavy oil and tar sands?

      1. Adam Eran

        “why would the world superpower shut down good oil…to crank up dirty, damaging oil”?
        Greg Palast suggests the war in Iraq was to keep their (good) oil in the ground so prices would stay high, making the already-under-lease hard-to-produce oil economic to produce. Unless the price stays above $70/bbl, it makes no sense to frack, or drill deep offshore, etc. The trouble was Saddam was contracting with French and Russian drilling firms to develop what is uncontroversially the second largest deposit of oil in the world (after the Saudis).

        Note: Part of the invasion was to throw out these French and Russian drilling contracts. I’m told by an attorney who should know that this is illegal, even under U.S. law.

  18. Oregoncharles

    It’s been established for a long time that conservation is far and away the most cost-effective way of reducing fossil fuel use. By reducing overall energy use, it also gives renewables a larger share.

    But it has the same disadvantage she assigns to most renewables: it’s dependent on fossil fuel use. Plus, it has a large restraint of its own: severe diminishing returns. You only get to pump up efficiency once. Say we can double the productivity of energy (a lot, but probably doable). Once you’ve reached or approached that number, there simply isn’t any more. Of course, the same is true for some renewables: hydro is already largely topped out, and biofuels are severely limited by the amount of vegetation produced annually.

    On the other hand, there is, in principle, much more than enough solar energy striking the earth to power our economy. Her point about the dependence on fossil fuels to maintain or build PVs and the grid is misleading: most of that is, or could be, in the form of electricity (e.g., engines could be converted; and lubricants can be grown. So can fiber. Steelmaking can be done with electricity, too.) so the project could be bootstrapped, especially if we’ve greatly improved efficiency. However, that requires a Manhattan Project level of effort and organization. It isn’t compatible with our present economic and political structure.

    1. wbgonne

      “However, that requires a Manhattan Project level of effort and organization. It isn’t compatible with our present economic and political structure.”

      Bulls-eye! We can do it and we must do it but we aren’t doing it because we don’t feel like it. Our arrogance is exceeded only by our stupidity. Unfortunately for us, the natural world won’t accept our delusions, which is something we are about to learn the very hard way.

  19. Paul Tioxon

    This is another in a decades long hit job by one dimensional thinking under the category of bend over, grab your ankles and kiss your ass good bye, we’re doomed. Yawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn! No, we are no longer able to reproduce the society that was built on cheap, 19 cents a gallon gas, heating oil and somethings will disappear as part of mass consumer culture. Like multi car ownership and the upkeep of roads for people to go out at 1AM for a ride to clear their heads or get a pack of smokes. Stop smoking and talk a walk around the block or ranch or hillside or whatever. Like unending piles of trash of throw away glass bottle containers, plastic crap and card board packaging inside of plastic packaging with yet another tube or bottle of something inside. The monumental waste of this society is legendary around the world and even here.

    Instead of reading this garbage, try reading a real visionary, Hazel Henderson, she has her own website which lead you to more productive initiatives. Net Zero buildings are a policy goal, they are buildings which produce more energy than they consume. The large scale power grid system may be salvageable by doing an analysis of setting up industrial solar power plants which will maintain the base load of electricity from the New Mexico desert, free up the local micro grids from roof tops and turbines to power local usage. Changing the building codes to include roof top electricity and making fuel cells mandatory for housing developers building more than 50 homes to produce 100% of the electricity for their development will accelerate the production of renewables. Please note, Net Zero buildings will be different from energy wasting buildings of today, yes conservation will be the hallmark of new construction under this change.–1eRAcQd0

    First link is about a Spanish Concentrated Solar Plant, provides storage of energy to run turbines even at night.

    Second link is about American CSP, now operational.

    1. Paul P

      The global market system poses a dilemma for conservation, the fastest and cheapest source of energy.
      As conservation kicks in, energy demand goes down, prices fall and other parts of the market system increase energy use or bring new uses online.

      So, unless conservation is implemented as part of a global plan to reduce energy, conservation will not be a solution in any short term. And humanity and other living things no longer have a short term.

      The UN Climate Summit in September will be another occasion for the world to take no action. The People’s Climate Marchers will implore TPTB, once more. It is impossible to be too pessimistic. I hope I am wrong.

      1. Paul Tioxon

        Other parts of the market system? Who says markets will survive? They will go down before we all do! Too many people still analyze based on the internalized messages of capitalism, so deep is the socialization. The conditioning of growing up in America has so acculturated the mass culture, that a period of separation from its stimulus to become a new kind of person with an identity not formed by involuntary and unconscious personality development: TURN ON TUNE IN DROP OUT.

        Leary later explained in his 1983 autobiography Flashbacks:

        “Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.

        1. Cassiodorus

          Yes. The “alternative energy” crowd has put all of its energy into endorsing entrepreneurs with fabulous sales pitches. Save the world! Get your wind farms/ solar panels right cheer! Never mind, of course, that under capitalism “alternative energy” will merely supplement fossil energy.

  20. Clive Jones

    Surprised Tverberg did not quote GOLDMAN: Solar Is On The Way To Dominating The Electricity Market, And The World Has Elon Musk To Thank There is a huge discussion of this article, most negative, at
    One point. A lot of people point to subsidies keeping the solar industry afloat, but fail to highlight the immense subsidies provided to the oil and gas industry – to say nothing of the externalities, such as climate change.
    But I agree – conservation, which has received the short end of the stick since GW Bush’s ascendancy, is really the single most cost-effective way to match future energy demand with supply.

  21. impermanence

    “It would be great if we had a solution for our non-oil energy issues, but we really don’t.”

    There are solutions to all issues.

  22. susan the other

    I understand CO2 and methane blanketing the earth and preventing the planet from cooling. What I haven’t heard about is what happens when (if) we manage to reduce somewhat our nice warm blanket of gasses but we continue to add heat into our atmosphere just naturally, by our own bodies if nothing else. Think about how stifling a crowded room becomes. And nobody ever talks about planting trees. Nobody ever talks about harnessing the slow gravity of our great rivers (doesn’t require all those external costs of metal and cement and maintenance). It also seems that the focus has shifted from toxic pollutants in the air to just CO2. The discussion as become one dimensional. I wish we could do a heat pump between night and day. I wish we could use photosynthesis to cook our food and heat our houses. I wish, I wish. I wish we would take a closer look at how we lived in 1900. But for now, before we have found the courage to change, I wish for spontaneous conservation. It was proven in old research that when a threshold of awareness (maybe 20%) is crossed in monkeys, the whole troop changes behavior! No more shopping. No more joy riding. No elaborate food. Heavy sweaters and sox. No more socialization of the cost of high energy societies.

    1. optimader

      “…what happens when (if) we manage to reduce somewhat our nice warm blanket of gasses but we continue to add heat into our atmosphere just naturally, by our own bodies if nothing else. Think about how stifling a crowded room becomes. …”
      No more cloths! No more sweatshop textile manufacturing!

      “Heavy sweaters and sox.”
      Hey. wait a minute!, Well, ok.. sox maybe…

      “..No elaborate food…”
      Ok, that’s enough from you

      “And nobody ever talks about planting trees…”
      You would not care for Iceland

      Me: “where the heck are all the trees anyway?”
      Fredrik: “the Vikings cut them down for fuel and building houses and boats”
      Me: ” Why not just plant more of ’em?”
      Fredrick: ” well, they take a long time to grow, and anyway, we’ve kinda gotten used to them not being here, they get in the way visually”
      I sh*t you not.

      “I wish we could use photosynthesis to cook our food and heat our houses.”
      Some friends are involved in this company, just moved from New Zealand to Chicago area.

      “…when a threshold of awareness (maybe 20%) is crossed in monkeys, the whole troop changes behavior…”
      Be careful what you wish for emulation wise, monkeys will eat their own feces.

    2. Park Nihrs, La Woebegone River, USA

      Richard Branson talks about planting trees. It pays for the CO2 generated by sending rich people into orbit. Well, not really into orbit – they come back down pretty quickly. Most of them could stay in orbit indefinitely and THAT would reduce our collective carbon footprint.

      As for the hot rooms, people are just displacing other lifeforms. But you knew that already.

      I’m still a thorium + solar + water catalysis optimist, but then I was raised by a post-WWII progressive scientist; it’s probably just my blind spot.

  23. Brooklin Bridge

    Along with energy/resource conservation and population reduction, we should be developing truly clean sources of energy and adapting our infrastructure and society and ideologies to those sources as if our lives depended on it. Because, quite simply, they do. It has been convincingly argued in other posts on NC and elsewhere that we have already gone too far down the rabbit hole to get away with a bridge from here to there made of more cost efficient -feasible- forms of pollution that sweep our inability to deal with global corruption and the inextricable issues of infrastructure incompatibility to clean energy under the rug.

  24. kevinearick

    E-Resonance: Trolls Seeking Trolls

    Obama or Putin, Clinton or Merkel, Buffet or Soros, one automaton , another, or a billion, building toll booths to increase rent relative to busy work income, exploiting natural resources in demographic booms and busts, makes no difference to labor. This too shall pass, as have all accounting ponzis preceding it, all ending in an overcrowded desert of peer pressure stupidity, and death.

    The empire is psychological. The herd surrounds you with recurring anxiety for which you are to pay for non-recurring relief, with more and more of your time, over time, with nothing to show for it but cheap toys. Perversely, the automatons are only comfortable in their assigned boxes, with programmed boxes to ferry them between boxes.

    The gold standard has failed. Competitive currency has failed. Infinite printing has failed. Round and round the empire goes, increasing the efficiency of closed system derivatives with specialization, always solving yesterday’s problems, incorrectly.

    The upper middle class declared war on labor fifty years ago, thinking that its dc computer, which is now replacing the middle class from the bottom up, could replace labor, and the upper middle class is the easiest to replace, because the basis of its economy is arbitrary extortion. Absent labor, empire borders implode. You don’t have to do anything.

    Like its proprietary system, the new world order is collapsing faster than the critters can patch it together. You’ll have that, solving the problem with the problem, the intelligencia of peer pressure perpetuation, upon a willfully ignorant herd. Go right into Syria; keep that Iraqi toll booth operational, at all cost.

    It really doesn’t matter what theory the bankers come up with next; the positive feedback loop between monetary and fiscal policy is just a ground, and any ground will do, unless you want to go to the future, which the majority in a boom is always bred to fear. Always begin by replacing the return line.

    In a closed dc system, everything affects everything because the components are subject to external pressure and temperature, which automatically enter a positive feedback loop around the closed system. You don’t need an EMP. Just adjust your distance.

    Regardless of system, the increasingly ignorant empire must seek increasing return on decreasing risk to feed the ponzi, creating a monolithic crystal, the prism from which it sees the universe, as a reflection of itself, gravity. Making money by replicating the past more efficiently can only result in collapse, but that never stops the critters from cornering the market, on themselves.

    Of course they fear having children after a demographic boom, applying an implicit force behind the curve, because they tax children and their parents into submission as a means to their own propulsion, civil marriage, arbitrary laws creating arbitrary laws. A point, a circle and a vortex are differentiated only by perspective, time created for the purpose.

    The universe is timeless, net, always in the act of creation. Gravity exists only in its past. Labor completed its task long ago, but the empire continues to expend increasing energy on isolation and surveillance, distilling labor out, and itself in, to a bomb, with MAD insurance, growing pomp and circumstance.

    The other day, I bought a $1500 bike for $50, which is only worth $20, to get me from point A to point B, in the future, which will be worth more than $50 relative to the healthcare ponzi. The idea that you cannot burn wood, buy land with timber and well water to build a home, or sell apples for less than $5 a bag, because the morons are burning natural resources like there’s no tomorrow and printing money on the back of the activity, is nonsense.

    The only toll the critters have is probability, in a closed system, repeating the past, all dressed up in the misdirection of artificial complexity, a contract made to be broken. Sidewalk surveys to confirm compliance changes nothing. Sticks, stones and name-calling, from a tyrant in a glass house, perfect.

    The critters are always getting on the train, to leave the worksite, hoping for a better outcome somewhere, anywhere else, and you are supposed to take them there, by law. Build the station, and the train will take care of itself.

    The ivory tower types are always trying to out-gravity gravity, assuming that life is gravity. Whatever the critters touch turns to crap, because their objective is to occupy space, to collect rent. They expect you to sell your time cheaply and buy it back dearly, chasing a mortgage, always creating another line for the purpose.

    Go ahead. Replace labor with another monetary and fiscal c-clamp, and expect a different result. Who is dumb enough to avoid the future, and who is dumb enough to profit from the process, is irrelevant.

    Running an economy into the ground is the easy part, but higher education makes it appear to be rocket science. Building a community is work. The empire only has an exit if you choose to give it one. If it doesn’t get itself by increasing rent, it gets itself by increasing rent.

    Public education is all about the politics of civil marriage, and nothing whatsoever about education. Don’t send your kids into that gravity without tools, built in privacy for the purpose. Funny, the cop teaching gang awareness is running the gang. That’s expert systems for you.

    Keep shipping natural resources out, to be squandered, and tourists in, to be fleeced, until all the critters are throwing rocks at empty houses, made of glass. Did you notice that the kids took off with their kids for vacation, and never came back?

    Don’t mistake patience for nicety for stupidity. The only thing nastier than a German is a German with a dog trained to hunt Germans. Print as much code as you like.


  25. thom prentice phd

    Gail Tverberg: US Energy Sources and Uses Show Limits of Renewable Energy Strategies

    Well this is all very nice and neat and interesting and factoidality and so forth and all but what it LEAVES OUT is FAR MORE IMPORTANT THAN WHAT IT INCLUDES.

    Like how does one “COST OUT” HUMAN EXTINCTION FROM GLOBAL WARMING in all these pretty little DEDUCTIVE GRAPHS?


    How does one “COST OUT” “LONG-TERM STORAGE OF SPENT NUKULAR FUELS RODS” or is this (cough, cough) “EXTERNAL” just left to what’s left of the Austerity Reagan/Thatcher/Ayn Rand government?

    OR COST OUT MORE AND MOTE FUKISHIMAS? (I KNEW a reactor could melt down when Austin TX voted to become part of the SOUTH TEXAS NUKULAR PROJECT but NEVER OCCURRED TO ME NOR WERE WE TOLD that the damned NUKULAR POWER PLANT would need FOSSIL-FUEL-GENERATED POWER to keep water circulating in cooling tanks to keep cool-to-the-touch NUKULAR FUEL RODS FROM (cough, cough, gaggggghhh) MELTING DOWN! YOU MEAN THAT THE SPENT FUEL RODS WOULD MELT DOWN???!!!

    What the (seizure noise) does “COST OUT” actually mean? Define terms, like, you know, in high school debate?

    Where is the “TRIPLE BOTTOM LINE” where ALL EXTERNALS” (cough, cough, SIEZURE NOISE) are accounted for in the pretty little graphs?

    This all PRESUMES the WRONG ASSUMPTION that MARKETS actually EXIST in WHAT PASSES FOR (naked) CAPITALISM in the US and the ENTIRE FREE WORLD including Russia and China, India, Israel and Japan. Markets OTHER than for sex, drugs, fresh produce, taco stand tacos, Italian Ice, marijuana etc., that is.

    Let’s see a pretty little graph with multicolored zagged lines and all about the “COSTS” of CONTINUING TO USE THE ATMOSPHERE AS AN OPEN SEWER FOR DUMPING THE TOXIC WASTE in order to PRODUCE PROFITS FOR DIRTY OIL, BANKING, REFINING (KOCH BROTHERS) and OTHER PSYCHOPATHS? (Do note the word produce – the real “PRODUCTION of dirty oil industries is PROFITS!!! Is there a pwetty wittle multicolowed gwaph missing here?)


    And what about “HUMAN LIFE (cough, cough) EXTENDERS?” You know, “EXTENDERS of the species Homo sapiens sapiens? Are there nice economicSpeak terms for “EXTENDERS OF THE SPECIES???!!!


    Have ANY of you people EVER READ “ORIGIN OF THE (seizure sounds, LOTS OF TOURETTES!) SPECIES by Charles Darwin? Dr. Darwin ***NEVER*** wrote about SURVIVAL of the FITTEST ***INDIVIDUAL*** OF A SPECIES; rather, Dr. Darwin wrote of SURVIVAL of the ***FITTEST SPECIES!*** WAKE (BIG TOURETTES, BIG ONE) UP!!!

    Also not factored in is WHAT A PIG GANGSTER CAPITALISM HAS MADE OF AMERICAN HUMANS — since my youth, the US has a mere FIVE PERCENT (5%) of the HUMAN POPULATION OF EARTH but has consumed TWENTY FIVE PERCENT (25%) OF THE ENERGY. HOW ABOUT GRAPHING THAT with all those pretty little multicolorful zig zag lines.

    Oh, by the way, one does ***NOT*** see any ***COST FACTOR*** of ***PURE CRUEL, HARD-HEARTED, STIFF-NECKED, CALLOUS, WICKED, EVIL IMMORALITY*** (cough, gaga TORETTES!) in all this cipherin’ and obfuscatin’.

    Do youguyz ever READ ANYTHING that the commie pinko Pope Francis has said about

    rather than around GREEDY PROFITEERING BY PSYCHOPATHS? (Then again, maybe he didn’t use the word ‘psychopaths’.)

    How about we just CUT US ELECTRICITY AND OTHER ENERGY CONSUMPTION by, say, 50%? THEN ANOTHER 50%? How would THAT look on one of your graphs? fyi Texas was one power plant short of rolling brownouts just last winter, three times over the past several. GRID GOES OUT because it needs all that costly fossil-fuels-based maintenance that is ******NOT****** BEING DONE???!!! Or when the CIA or SEALS use rifles to puncture lubrication systems to DELIBERATELY CAUSE A POWER PLANT OR GRID TO FAIL so the Bush/Cheney/Obama/Hilariouses of the world use it as the NEXT ***FALSE FLAG*** to FURTHER CUT TAXES, RAISE PROFITS, FIGHT MORE NATIONAL SECURITY WARS in YugoVietAfghaNigereZuealaDonetskBejingMalingradInstan AND IMPOSE A STALINIST/NAZI POLICE STATE ON the Homo sapiens sapiens of the US empire? Oh, I joke…..I josh ya…..(TOURETTES BIG TIME.)

    I concur that there are far more fossil fuel problems with wind and solar than the do-gooder enviros and politicians-needing-an-answer will say – perhaps they don’t even know…or they are willfully DELUSIONAL in the same way that ALL THESE PRETTY CHARTS AND GRAPHS ARE DELUSIONAL. (Tourette’s, mild) But, hey, a little bit different is a lot and nothing difficult is ever easy.

    Otherwise it was quite a “fair and balanced” piece of deductive research. Like the way the twin towers were designed was a really fine way to design the twin towers. And Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld ignoring CIA briefings about bin Laden itchin’ and fixin’ to attack was a really fine way to conduct National Security. (NOT!)

  26. John Yard

    Good article by Gail. The reality of the mid-term future will most likely the path she has laid down. So far most renewable energy initiatives have had very modest impact due to scaling problems. Others , such as use of corn for fuel, are actually negative in impact. Those who look forward to a world without material growth can start with themselves.

    1. Fiver

      From my comment to Steve, above:

      The conflation of ‘austerity’ and ‘conservation’ typically comes in the form of the insistence that anything done to mitigate energy use will lead to ‘lower growth’, and that ‘lower growth’ implies ‘austerity’. The only place this is ‘true’ is in the mythology of American exceptionalism and minds of American (or Canadian or other) exceptionalists, where infinite indulgence of consuming behaviours are seen as a ‘right’.

      It takes a spectacular lack of imagination to regard 20th/21st century US consumer society as the best of all possible worlds.

  27. washunate

    This is an intriguing piece, but I just don’t follow the conclusion. Wind and solar electricity generation could replace a significant amount of fossil fuel-based electricity generation.

    I thought about writing a lot on renewable energy, but what’s the point? We face a question of values, of what our shared vision is for the future of our country.

    Within reason, we are not cost-constrained. We are politically constrained. It is a question of distribution of resources. The ‘cost’ of wind and solar energy is that the authoritarians will have to give up some of their power and control over the rest of society. That of course would have some trickle down effects on educated liberals currently enjoying outsized privileges in heavily subsidized areas like medicine, law, academia, banking, and media.

    Of course, some of us wouldn’t mind seeing the pay gap between economists and preschool teachers shrink a tad. That might be a feature, rather than a bug, of reallocating resources in our society.

  28. Adam Eran

    This rather downbeat piece is in line with Yves’ rather pessimistic take on the world. Reminds me of the old joke that economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions…

    Anyway this piece has several significant omissions.

    The biggest omitted topic is conservation. Conservation is economic and being pursued now. It’s a “source” of energy that never runs out. The Germans are asking new buildings be energy neutral (“passivehaus”), so it doesn’t matter that energy demands come at night.
    You can take a look at Amory Lovins’ TED talk that mentions this here:

    One might also take heart in the Obama administration’s embrace of New Urbanism. Building cities to these standards not only empowers transit (sprawl does the opposite), even without transit it reduces vehicle miles travelled by roughly half by simply making pedestrian-friendly mixed-use neighborhoods.

    Personally, my take on sprawl is that it’s a measure to control the population by isolating them and giving them no place to gather (other than the leftover floodplain of sprawl parks or private spaces like the mall).

    Secondly: No mention of the egregious subsidies for petroleum. Everything from the depletion allowance (an income tax write-off) to defending overseas oilfields and shipping lanes is not reflected in the price at the pump. Several commenters talk about externalities, so good on them. The World Resources Institute estimates this subsidy at $300 billion annually in the U.S. Financial Times wrote the industry enjoys $600 billion worldwide in petroleum subsidies.

    Finally, there’s methane from livestock. Meat consumption has increased five-fold since the 1950s, and methane that the cows belch is a potent source of global warming. One (flawed) U.N. report ranks it near human transportation as a cause of climate change. See, for one example.

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