Ilargi: Renewables Are Dead

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Yves here. This post takes up a theme we’ve argued: that the only way to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions is radical conservation. No other approach could make enough of a difference quickly enough. Ilargi makes a more radical version of the argument that reduced energy use is ultimately the only remedy.

By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor at Automatic Earth. Originally published at Automatic Earth

If I’ve said once that those among us who tout renewable energy should pay more attention to the 2nd law of Thermodynamics, I must have said it a hundred times. But I hardly ever get the impression that people understand why. And it seems so obvious. A quote I often use from Herman Daly and Ken Townsend, when I talk about energy, really says it all:

“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatium as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”

Using energy produces waste. Using more energy produces more waste. It doesn’t matter -much- what kind of energy is used, or what kind of waste is produced. The energy WE use produces waste, in a medium of which WE cannot survive. The only way to escape this is to use less energy. And because we have used such an enormous amount of energy the past 100 years, we must use a whole lot less in the next 100.

We use about 100 times more energy per person, and a whole lot more in the west, than our own labor can produce. We use the equivalent of what 500 billion people can produce without the aid of fossil fuel-powered machines. We won’t solve this problem with wind turbines or solar panels. There really is one way only: cut down on energy use.

Because it’s exceedingly rare to see this discussed, even among physicists, who should know better since they know thermodynamics, it’s good to hear it from someone else. An article in Forbes today discusses a May 3 article in German magazine Der Spiegel on the problems with the Energiewende, the country’s drastic turn towards renewables.

The Forbes article is written by Michael Shellenberger, President of Environmental Progress and Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment.” (sigh..) Let’s take a walk through it:

The Reason Renewables Can’t Power Modern Civilization Is Because They Were Never Meant To

Over the last decade, journalists have held up Germany’s renewables energy transition, the Energiewende, as an environmental model for the world. “Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset,” thanks to the Energiewende, wrote a New York Times reporter in 2014. With Germany as inspiration, the United Nations and World Bank poured billions into renewables like wind, solar, and hydro in developing nations like Kenya.

Oh well, perhaps we shouldn’t expect journalists and politicians to understand the world they live in. They’re mostly into feel-good items, that’s a job requirement.

But then, last year, Germany was forced to acknowledge that it had to delay its phase-out of coal, and would not meet its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction commitments. It announced plans to bulldoze an ancient church and forest in order to get at the coal underneath it. After renewables investors and advocates, including Al Gore and Greenpeace, criticized Germany, journalists came to the country’s defense.

“Germany has fallen short of its emission targets in part because its targets were so ambitious,” one of them argued last summer. “If the rest of the world made just half Germany’s effort, the future for our planet would look less bleak,” she wrote. “So Germany, don’t give up. And also: Thank you.” But Germany didn’t just fall short of its climate targets. Its emissions have flat-lined since 2009.

The stage is set: everybody’s favorite renewables producer has fallen flat on its face. And don’t forget, Angela Merkel, the Mutti behind the Energiewende, is a physicist by training. Thermodynamics must have been a class she missed.

Now comes a major article in the country’s largest newsweekly magazine, Der Spiegel, titled, “A Botched Job in Germany” (“Murks in Germany”). The magazine’s cover shows broken wind turbines and incomplete electrical transmission towers against a dark silhouette of Berlin. “The Energiewende — the biggest political project since reunification — threatens to fail,” write Der Spiegel’s Frank Dohmen, Alexander Jung, Stefan Schultz, Gerald Traufetter in their a 5,700-word investigative story (the article can be read in English here).

Germany has already spent $180 billion on its switch to renewables, only to find it doesn’t work. And much much more will be needed. But for what exactly?

Over the past five years alone, the Energiewende has cost Germany €32 billion ($36 billion) annually, and opposition to renewables is growing in the German countryside. “The politicians fear citizen resistance” Der Spiegel reports. “There is hardly a wind energy project that is not fought.” In response, politicians sometimes order “electrical lines be buried underground but that is many times more expensive and takes years longer.”

As a result, the deployment of renewables and related transmission lines is slowing rapidly. Less than half as many wind turbines (743) were installed in 2018 as were installed in 2017, and just 30 kilometers of new transmission were added in 2017. Solar and wind advocates say cheaper solar panels and wind turbines will make the future growth in renewables cheaper than past growth but there are reasons to believe the opposite will be the case. Der Spiegel cites a recent estimate that it would cost Germany “€3.4 trillion ($3.8 trillion),” or seven times more than it spent from 2000 to 2025, to increase solar and wind three to five-hold by 2050.

A total expenditure of some $150 billion per year, every year from 2025 to 2050. On a rapidly failing project. Note: the numbers are “flexible”: just above, it says “Over the past five years alone, the Energiewende has cost Germany €32 billion ($36 billion)” , and seven times that is much more than $150 billion annually. Later in the article, the author says “Germans, who will have spent $580 billion on renewables by 2025 ..” General rule of thumb: it will cost much more than any estimate will tell you.

Between 2000 and 2018, Germany grew renewables from 7% to 39% of its electricity. And as much of Germany’s renewable electricity comes from biomass, which scientists view as polluting and environmentally degrading, as from solar.

Of the 7,700 new kilometers of transmission lines needed, only 8% has been built, while large-scale electricity storage remains inefficient and expensive. “A large part of the energy used is lost,” the reporters note of a much-hyped hydrogen gas project, “and the efficiency is below 40%… No viable business model can be developed from this.”

Meanwhile, the 20-year subsidies granted to wind, solar, and biogas since 2000 will start coming to an end next year. “The wind power boom is over,” Der Spiegel concludes.

Think Mutti Merkel has read this?

.The earliest and most sophisticated 20th Century case for renewables came from a German who is widely considered the most influential philosopher of the 20th Century, Martin Heidegger. In his 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger condemned the view of nature as a mere resource for human consumption. The use of “modern technology,” he wrote, “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such..

But then starting around the year 2000, renewables started to gain a high-tech luster. Governments and private investors poured $2 trillion into solar and wind and related infrastructure, creating the impression that renewables were profitable aside from subsidies. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk proclaimed that a rich, high-energy civilization could be powered by cheap solar panels and electric cars.

Journalists reported breathlessly on the cost declines in batteries, imagining a tipping point at which conventional electricity utilities would be “disrupted.” But no amount of marketing could change the poor physics of resource-intensive and land-intensive renewables. Solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants, and wind farms take 700 times more land than natural gas wells, to produce the same amount of energy.

Note: these issues only arise when you talk about large-scale projects, but then those are the only ones even considered.

Efforts to export the Energiewende to developing nations may prove even more devastating. The new wind farm in Kenya, inspired and financed by Germany and other well-meaning Western nations, is located on a major flight path of migratory birds. Scientists say it will kill hundreds of endangered eagles. “It’s one of the three worst sites for a wind farm that I’ve seen in Africa in terms of its potential to kill threatened birds,” a biologist explained.

We are incapable of seeing an ecosystem as a whole and functioning entity, because we have never learned to look at things that way. So we see a landscape as containing an X-amount of animals and plant life, and can’t figure out why we must be careful with its balance. Landscapes to us look, first, empty, unless there’s -lots of- human activity.

Heidegger, like much of the conservation movement, would have hated what the Energiewende has become: an excuse for the destruction of natural landscapes and local communities. Opposition to renewables comes from the country peoples that Heidegger idolized as more authentic and “grounded” than urbane cosmopolitan elites who fetishize their solar roofs and Teslas as signs of virtue.

Germans, who will have spent $580 billion on renewables by 2025, express great pride in the Energiewende. “It’s our gift to the world,” a renewables advocate told The Times. Tragically, many Germans appear to have believed that the billions they spent on renewables would redeem them. “Germans would then at last feel that they have gone from being world-destroyers in the 20th century to world-saviors in the 21st,” noted a reporter.

Germany to save the world. Yeah, they would love that. Better find another project for that, though. Germany has an enormous car industry, and electric cars, as this article should by now have shown, won’t save the environment. They can’t. Only not driving a car can.

Shellenberger then finishes with a nice, almost philosophical conclusion, which is also his headline:

Many Germans will, like Der Spiegel, claim the renewables transition was merely “botched,” but it wasn’t. The transition to renewables was doomed because modern industrial people, no matter how Romantic they are, do not want to return to pre-modern life. The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could.

The reason why anyone ever thought renewables could power modern civilization is the same that Angela Merkel thought that: we all learn from failing education systems and have a very poor understanding of even the most basic principles of physics, including by physicists. We want to feel good more than we want reality.

Schools, universities, media and politics are all geared towards believing in growth and progress, in unlimited quantities. Because we all want to believe that there will be energy in unlimited quantities, it’s in our genes.

But look at it this way: in Nate Hagens’ presentation Earth vs. The Amoeba, which I posted a few days ago, there’s a slide that says fossil fuels provide us with a labor subsidy of the equivalent of some 500 billion people, 100 people (energy slaves) for each of us in the global workforce, and many more in the west. Is there anyone amongst you who thinks wind and solar could ever do the same, even in the most ideal conditions imaginable?

If not, it would seem to be time to reconsider a few things. First of all: stop advocating renewables, start advocating the use of less energy. I’m not saying it will be much use, I have this deep-seated fear that we, as a species, won’t be able to stop until nature itself stops us. What you don’t use, someone else can and will. But renewables are now dead. So there. Thanks for making that clear, Mutti, even if you didn’t mean to.

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  1. JBird4049

    I got the fact that we cannot count on renewables for all our civilization’s energy especially as we set up, but I don’t understand how they are dead as they will be a large part of whatever we do.

    Unless it’s that the hyperbole of ‘renewables will solve everything!’ is dead?

    1. Svante Arrhenius

      It makes for a snappy headline, click-bait and lively comments? Sometimes PV makes sense; even now it’s simply applicable in numerous applications as if becomes more efficient & affordable less damaging to the environment and better integrated. Same with the other technologies. The basic premise seems sound, but obfuscatory pleonasm reigns supreme, contentious content sells?

    2. Joe Well

      I had the exact same question.

      So much of our energy consumption is just necessary, including for animal livestock, all the commuting and travel that could be replaced with telecommuting, heating buildings to 70 degrees Fahrenheit for people who want to wear shorts and T-shirts in January and then cooling them to 68 degrees Fahrenheit for people who want to wear sweaters in July, manufacturing and shipping goods that will break in a week, single-family homes for people who would rather live in an urban apartment if they were affordable…radical reductions in consumption would go hand in hand with radical improvements in quality of life. But we need to get the top 1% out of the driver’s seat, particularly the fossil fuel industry.

  2. Very

    Articles like the above is a big reason the Spiegel lost more than half it’s subscribers during the last few years. Sad to see how a once newspaper of note became a rag so fast.

    As for Energiewende, that story isn’t over by a long shot. Quite the opposite, it’s believers seem more than ready to double down.
    Ban all cars, stop all coal power by 2020, zero net emission by 2030, taxes for CO2 production. No problem ….

    Personally, I’ll be voting green to next opportunity. I’d hope they have the balls to shut it all down if they come to power. That will be a sight to see. Just for extra fun, we should spread around some weapons so it’s more fun when the light goes out.

    1. salvo

      if you’re alluding to the german green, they have long become a mainstream party, don’t expect from them anything else than as in any other mainstream party, preserving their own privileges at the expense of anyone else, esp. the natural world. They certainly won’t save us from capitalism and its destruction of nature

    2. GM

      Ban all cars, stop all coal power by 2020, zero net emission by 2030, taxes for CO2 production. No problem

      Without an-order-of-magnitude global population reduction and an immediate, again global, transition to a steady-state economy, none of this will make any difference.

      1. Joe Well

        When the average person in the First World has a global warming footprint 100X that of someone in the poorest countries, wouldn’t sudden population reduction mean killing off most of the population of the First World? Please, explain this to me.

        1. Lathechuck

          Fortunately, it is not necessary to actively kill the rich, for they have largely abandoned the inconvenience of reproducing. Unfortunately, the rich who believe that economic growth can and must continue, respond by inviting poor, fertile, foreigners into their country, assuming that they will behave like docile children, and provide comfort for the elite in place of the children they did not have. Good luck with that.

          1. Joe Well

            For population reduction to make a major difference before the 2030s would require not just a lower birth rate or reductions in immigration but mass death. Which is why population control in the context of meeting short-term climate change goals freaks me out.

    3. Quentin

      Der Spiegel has lost about 25 percent paid circulation since 2004: about 1,100,000 to 750,000. How does that compare with other print publications? We can also ask ourselves of the magazine was so great anyways?

      Simple Simon says: the first priority for saving the environment is to use LESS energy, especially fossil fuels. Is that so hard for people to wrap their heads around? Sometimes Simple Simon is right, not matter how simple his statement might be: you’re really going to tell me that reducing energy consumption is NOT the first priority. If so, good luck with that. No I can’t prove it, you can’t disprove it. It thrives in the realm of common sense.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      A link is not an argument, and your data does not prove your point. This is from the Der Spiegel article:

      The scientist association ESYS has formulated recommendations on how politics, business and society can achieve the goal.

      According to ESYS, Germany has to increase the capacity of solar and wind turbines five to threefold, making synthetic fuels a pillar of the energy system, and introducing a CO2 price across all sectors. According to ESYS forecast, such a system conversion costs two percent of the gross domestic product annually. Currently this would be around 70 billion euros.

      Depending on the scenario, spending will total between 2 and 3.4 trillion euros by 2050; other forecasts vary between 500 million and 2 trillion euros. Either way, the second part of the energy transition will be expensive and exhausting, a project as elaborate as reunification.

      It also discuses at great length a point you choose to brush past: the inefficiency of a lot of this production, including sitting idle or being phased out.

      1. Peter

        This post takes up a theme we’ve argued: that the only way to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions is radical conservation. No other approach could make enough of a difference quickly enough.

        What most folks from promoting so called “green energy” or renewables always seem to downplay is the production cost and environental foorprint of the producton of “Green”, the lifetime of the products and problems with their disposal (wind turbines 10 years anyone?) and the hype that we can replace all our energy use with renewables.
        Looking for technological fixes to sustain our high level of energy use is not working, as all technology has alway a negative side.
        From solar to nuclear to hydro to e-vehicles, and anyone downplaying that is lying to him/herself.

        1. Svante

          What percent of Monel water-walls last that long in a 144′ high Foster Wheeler bituminous fired power station boiler? The spent fuel in Berwick, the Army War college hypothesized would be weaponized in 2023? Why do some technologies set folks off, while our military burns HOW much fuel, to go take other’s oil and poppies? As much as Ireland? Geothermal loses efficacy, fracked wells give out (or blow out), what’s the half-life of our Ozzie & Harriet lifestyle, driving RAM 1600s?

      2. salvo

        I was referring to the sentence which claims that “Germany” has found out that the switch to renewables does not work, which does not seem to be the case, at least from what I’ve been reading here in Germany

      3. salvo

        usually here in germany, voices claiming that “Renewables are dead” and/or “the switch to renewables does not work” come from the right-wing of politics.

        I’ve reread the definition of “Energiewende” as it has been politically devised

        the sustainable supply of energy and electricity to the economy and society, such as electricity and heat from sustainable, renewable or regenerative sources (renewable energies). The energy turnaround aims to reduce the share of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, coal and the share of nuclear energy in Germany in favor of renewable energies. Renewable energies include in particular energies from wind and water power (eg wind turbines, wave and flow energy of the sea), from geothermal energy (geothermal energy) or from solar radiation (solar energy) as well as from renewable raw materials or biomass (eg. Energy from wood, vegetable oil, biogas). The energy transition is based on increasing energy efficiency, reducing energy consumption and further expanding renewable energies to meet demand. The goal of the Federal Government is to reduce primary energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020 compared with 2008 and to halve it by 2050.

        despise the problems associated with such a vast project there is certainly not a consensus here in Germany that “renewables are dead” and/or the switch to them does not work, on the contrary, as I wrote above most of such claims come usually from right-wingers (afd, fdp, parts of cdu/csu)

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          The energy turnaround aims to reduce the share of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, coal …

          If that was the goal, then the Energiewende has been a failure. Fossil fuel consumption in Germany has actually risen slightly since 2009, which explains exactly why CO2 emissions in Germany have risen slightly since 2009. Those numbers were supposed to go DOWN. Not up.

          And as an added “bonus”, electricity prices in Germany have doubled since the Energiewende was launched. Twice the electric bill for zero environmental improvement? Regardless of people’s emotional feelings and the state of “consensus” (or lack thereof) on the Energiewende, it has been a technical failure.

          1. salvo

            well, as I wrote, it’s a matter of perspective and/or interest whether the “Energiewende” has been a failure or not, there are many “experts” who claim otherwise. In any case the fact that CO2 emissions have gone up slightly cannot be attributed to a the switch to renewables having been a failure. In fact emissions have absolutely been reduced in all sectors other than transport, and this rise is to be attributed entirely onto political decisions in favour of the powerful German automobile industry to the detriment of all other means, esp. railroad.
            There is no question that beside the switch to renewables a radical transformation of the trasnsport sector is required if one really want to have a chance to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate disruption

      4. Watt4Bob

        …making synthetic fuels a pillar of the energy system…

        IG Farben and BASF enriched themselves by selling Herman Goering on the possibility that they could supply the German military with synthetic fuel, and synthetic rubber created from coal.

        Auschwitz concentration camp was built to supply low-cost slave labor for production of Buna, synthetic rubber. IIRC, they had plans to add synthetic fuel production, an immense project, but did not complete that plan before wars end.

        A deep look into the situation reveals the fact that IG Farben/BASF cabal was well aware that the notion of being able to create enough synthetic fuel and rubber was an unrealistic pipe-dream, but a very profitable dream that Hitler’s military could not resist believing in.

        My point is, we’ve been this way before, and we keep making the same mistakes, we continue to believe in the possibility of exponential growth, and will go to great lengths, including following deluded, greedy, and dishonest leadership through the gates of hell, if they promise us we can have our cake and eat it too.

  3. Charles 2

    I cannot recommend enough the late David Mackay opus, to get a sober and quantitatively argued discussions on humanity energy future.
    Spoiler alert : you need massive amounts of nuclear energy to keep the industrial civilization engine running.
    The highly toxic ultimate nuclear wastes are not actually the problem rather than the solution : they are so concentrated (I.e. energy per mass of toxic waste is so high) that we can even thermodynamically afford to dispose them in space once the technology is ready in one century or two.
    There is no reserve problem as uranium will be eventually recovered from oceans, and ocean uranium is replenished by rock weathering.
    If humanity was solely made of engineers, I wouldn’t freak a single minute about its future. Unfortunately, it also has bankers, politicians, clerics and other kind of sociopaths, so I worry, because the power to build is of the same nature than the power to destroy.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      David MacKays work is entirely out of date now, just look at his projections for photovoltaics – he simply did not take account of scale issues with cost, or for that matter, Moores Law. He was also wrong about wind energy costs. And to top all that, he assumed a steady drop in the cost of delivering nuclear power, which has turned out to be wildly inaccurate, costs have rocketed as the Gen IV reactors have turned out to be costly white elephants.

      1. Pym of Nantucket

        Thanks for that. It is surprising how confounding semi-log graphs are to some. The PV cost curve is disruptive no matter how you look at it. On its trajectory comes a point when simply ignoring PV will put you out of business.

        I agree with RI in that the only way to contain greenhouse gases means creating a different flavor of entropy in larger quantities. That said, we are millions of years before the Earth is reduced to a puddle of uniformly mixed isothermal mush, so one mustn’t take the 2nd law too far in providing details of HOW we will destroy ourselves. In short: yes we can prevent global warming while producing more energy, but of course, at some point our species needs to start punting entropy into space, but that is not the short term problem.

        1. Tobin Paz

          It is surprising how confounding semi-log graphs are to some.

          Like expecting infinite growth on a finite planet.

      2. John Wright

        It is concerning to me when I see “Moore’s Law” mentioned as if it were a physical law.

        There is a far more functional way to refer to the semiconductor industry’s ability to seemingly always pack ever more functionality into a square mm of semiconductor material.

        The CEO of Mentor Graphics, Wally Rhines, recasts “Moore’s Law” as “the learning curve of the semiconductor industry”, which gives a better idea that diminishing returns will also constrain this “law”‘s beneficial effects in the future.

        1. Lathechuck

          “Moore’s Law” is about making computing circuits smaller, faster, and more efficient, and has nothing to do with making PV cells more efficient, and even less to do with making better batteries.

    2. Tyronius

      The breakthrough is coming, in the form of better electricity storage. Batteries are the bottleneck and solutions are already finding their way out of the lab and into the marketplace. This will accelerate going forward.

      One obvious tactic would be to mandate two way plugs for all electric cars, so they can contribute to grid balancing. More electric cars on the grid would, for example, solve California’s excess solar power problem every day by simply charging while people are at work. Then they can not only transport their owners home but help power their homes when they get there.

      1. kimyo

        energy vault’s concrete block storage system has several notable advantages over batteries:
        1) it can be deployed today
        2) it’s dead simple
        3) it is much more scalable than any current battery technology
        4) it doesn’t require scarce and enviromentally costly raw materials like lithium and cobalt
        5) it has a much longer lifetime than any current battery technology

        a further huge plus is that these systems could provide a way to break the current 3 grids into thousands of microgrids. incoming power from the national/neighboring grids would be linked only to the local micro-grid’s energy vault. the local micro-grid itself would have no direct connection to the national grid, instead it would be powered by a combination of local sources (like wood as they use in burlington vt) and the energy vault.

        if we want resilience, we want to decentralize the grid. such an approach will also serve to force us to live within our means.

      2. GM

        The breakthrough is coming, in the form of better electricity storage

        Did you read the part about knowledge of basic physics in the original post?

        Fantasies about energy storage also eventually all come down to lack of such knowledge.

        We know very well how energy could be stored and what the fundamental physical limitations to that are.

        There is no conceivable such method that is simultaneously scalable, efficient, and safe. Actually, there isn’t even one that is just scalable.

        1. Joe

          I have never before felt the need to comment. However, as a trained physicist it is the author that has failed to grasp the second law. The fundamental failure comes from the implicit assumption that our planet is a closed system. I am not arguing against conservation but the improper evocation of the second law diminishes the piece.

          1. GM

            The planet is not a closed system but the energy fluxes through its surface are very diffuse

      3. Chris Smith

        Never bet the farm on a breakthrough. It may never come for a variety of reasons. First and foremost it may not be possible (i.e no breakthrough will occur to create a perpetual motion machine). Second, it may not be achievable prior to the exhaustion of resources on hand to make it work (i.e. electric cars being constrained but the sum total of extant cobalt on the planet).

        Instead, we need to plan as though no breakthrough is going to occur. If a breakthrough occurs, then we can change the plan.

      4. Synoia

        A good addition to Electric Cars would be to incorporate solar panels on it’s roof, and park it in the sun.

        With an air gap between the panels and the car’s roof, to assist in cooling.

        1. John Wright

          Let’s assume an EV has a 1 square meter solar panel on the vehicle’s roof.

          As I remember, at mid-day about 1KW of solar energy illuminates about a square meter (about 9 sq feet).

          If this solar energy is converted into electrical energy at about 25% efficiency, then in one hour, 0.25Kw-h of energy could be stored in the vehicle’s battery.

          On a Chevy Bolt EV, it takes about 1KW-h to go 4 miles, so 0.25KW-h = about one mile range in the energy captured.

          With 12 hours of variable intensity sunlight, perhaps a total of 6hours x 0.25kw-h could be added to the EV’s battery.

          This would be about 1.5KW-h of stored energy or about 6 miles of range per day.

          An EV owner relying on car rooftop solar energy captured would need to be quite aware they are limited to short trips.

            1. Odysseus

              Deployable panels mounted on the car would destroy aerodynamic efficiency as well as be useless dead weight to haul around.

          1. Henry

            While not very practical or I imagine reliable, it is not impossible:

            On the other hand for most people I think it would be much more reasonable putting solar over wherever the car is parked and that would be more than adequate for daily commutes in most environments. Except for weeks where it snows everyday I can easily run my Bolt off of the solar I generate although I admit for vacation travel I still rely on my old vw camper and while solar doesn’t run it, the solar on the roof does power all my needs wherever I am camped indefinitely.

            Looking at the thermodynamics of oil is pretty ugly when you start to take into consideration the energy needed to find the oil, drill, pump it out of the ground, transport it, refine it, transport it again. Then to build and maintain all the infrastructure and energy needed for all the support people, including the military to defend/acquire the resources, that doesn’t even consider dealing with the environmental damage, it makes solar on the roof to power an electric car almost seem reasonable, though I’m sure even that doesn’t even come close to the reduction energy use from using public transportation or better designed communities where walking or bicycling are practical.

      5. Lathechuck

        Use the battery of an electric car to balance the grid? Then who’s responsible when it’s worn out? There’s only a finite amount of charge that can go in and out of a battery before it dies. Whether it’s a small number of deep discharges, or a large number of shallow cycles, sooner or later, it’s done. Who pays to replace it, the driver, or the utility?

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          And what happens when the utility drains your car battery in the middle of the night to deal with unexpectedly cold temperatures in January (when everybody’s heat pumps and even “emergency heat” resistors are running full blast)?

          Bye, honey!! I’m off to work! … %$@$# … Um, no I’m not. The battery is empty! Well! I guess I’ll wait for four hours until the solar arrays can recharge it… %$@$# … I sure hope the panels aren’t covered with snow.

    3. fajensen

      Spoiler alert : you need massive amounts of nuclear energy to keep the industrial civilization engine running

      No, you don’t. There is a lot of the “industrial civilisation engine” that can be immediately pruned away, with everyone and everything being much better off for it! That is the place to start.

      The only advantages I see with nuclear power is that it will save some nature based on the observation that on average one nuclear plant will cook off every 40 years, thus creating abandoned areas where nature will be able to thrive. But, we could also do that in a friendlier way!

      The timescales needed to handle nuclear power lifecycles safely and economically are something we simply cannot manage with the civilisation that we currently have.

      It is truly ridiculous: If the Roman Empire had managed to deploy the number and the types of nuclear power plants we currently use, assuming our ancestors survived the immediate pollution released by the Fall of Rome and loss of maintenance, we people living 2000 years later would still be cleaning up some of their messes and having active exclusion zones in Europe. Probably there would be an entire religion or at least a branch of the Catholic Church established around this work. Religion is so far the only human system we know that can run for centuries.

      So, when our industrial civilisation fails or even if it degrades temporarily, lets say some fuck-wit gets his war with Iran and it goes a bit overboard, maybe someone pops an EMP-weapon off on the instigators, then all those actively cooled waste pools and nuclear plants we already have in place will go under-maintained and they will eventually release some of their content.

      If massive amounts of nuclear power is in use at such a time, then possibly enough material is released to put a certain stop to the next human attempt at an industrial civilisation.

      This is mainly why I think that nuclear power is a very bad idea poorly executed, with all kinds of grim externalities that can only be hand-waved away, because dealing with them are ruinously expensive.

      Regarding Engineers. I know engineers very well. Engineers won’t save us!

      It as been observed that Stupidity is uniformly distributed in any population , which means that Engineers as a group are exactly as stupid as other kinds of people are. In fact, we need Diversity to ensure that everyone are not stupid in the same way, at the same time, so the stupid can suddenly agree and decide something without negotiations :).

      1. Ignacio

        Regarding Engineers. I know engineers very well. Engineers won’t save us!

        It as been observed that Stupidity is uniformly distributed in any population , which means that Engineers as a group are exactly as stupid as other kinds of people are. In fact, we need Diversity to ensure that everyone are not stupid in the same way, at the same time, so the stupid can suddenly agree and decide something without negotiations :).

        I would have made a similar commentary. Gremialism won’t save us and engineers, as any other professional, have their own blind sides. This is not to say that we don’t need good engineers to fight climate change.

      2. Susan the other`

        Diversity to ensure that we all are not stupid in the same way at the same time; to ensure against the stupid suddenly all agreeing on something… that’s a keeper.

      3. SRH

        There is a lot of the “industrial civilisation engine” that can be immediately pruned away, with everyone and everything being much better off for it

        Please elaborate. I’m not convinced.

    4. a different chris

      >If humanity was solely made of engineers, I wouldn’t freak a single minute about its future.

      Man, you must not know hardly any engineers. For every problem we “solve” we seem to make two more. Launching nuke waste into space — yeah, only one or two will come back down on our heads, no big deal? Engineering is not science, engineering is an approximation of science. Science describes how you launch a rocket. Engineering is making rockets, using science, so only 1 out of 1000 fails.

      But that’s too big a number. Anyway, that’s enough wasting my time dealing with one of the dumber ideas ever.

      So my next question: what does “keeping the industrial civilization engine running” actually really have to do with human life? Progress for the sake of progress?

      1. polecat

        Progress for the sake of progress .. is nother less than Progressive Planned Obsolescence !

      2. charles 2

        yeah, only one or two will come back down on our heads, no big deal?

        no big deal indeed :

        a) CASTOR waste containers are incredibly solid, the explosion of the rocket would only scratch the paint, and it would splash harmlessly in the ocean after being slowed by a parachute.
        b) In the very unlikely case it lands harshly, the waste is vitrified : no gas, no liquid, no combustion so no aerosol or gas going in the atmosphere or being mixed with groundwater. It is just picked by robot sweepers for repackaging.
        c) the idea is not to use today’s rocket technology but the next century’s. Not one in a thousand reliability of early twentieth century air travel but more one in a million twenty-first century air travel.

        what does “keeping the industrial civilization engine running” actually really have to do with human life?

        Very good question. My answer is the following : ensuring human life is preserved in extreme natural scenarios (super volcano, asteroid impact, etc…) will require technology. The human race has encountered several severe genetic bottlenecks in the last million years. We are a fragile lucky bunch. On a very long term perspective, all life on earth will disappear, up to the last molecule of DNA. I consider it the duty of the human race to preserve as much as possible of terrestrial life natural wonders because it is quite safe to assume that no other species can pick up the slack (I don’t believe in a God to pick up the slack either). Right now, the only thing we have to show for are Voyager probes, which is not much. To go further than that, humanity needs a big scale industrial society.

    5. roadrider

      This is insanity. Nuclear fission waste products ARE very definitely the problem (well, one of the many insoluble problems with nuclear energy generation) and NOT the solution. What you propose involves spent fuel reprocessing which carries an enormous nuclear weapons proliferation risk which you seem to ignore. It also has proven to be unprofitable and produce unacceptable levels of emissions from the reprocessing plants where its been tried (France).

      The idea that we can build enough nuclear plants fast enough to solve climate change is ridiculous. We’ve never been able to build these plants quickly and many have been abandoned during construction due to cost factors. Trying to build these on a crash program seems like a recipe for disaster as corners are sure to be cut on safety as they are even now without crash programs.

      Your premise seems to be that we should be seeking to preserve the energy wasteful society we have now instead of improving efficiency which seems to be the point of the article (although I disagree with the gloomy forecast the author makes about renewable energy sources).

      Finally, I have little confidence in engineers. They are good (OK, great) at engineering but typically fail to understand that factors other than engineering (like, you know, greed, politics, stupidity) often negate what engineering can accomplish and in many cases (like Boeing) compromise good engineering to the point where disaster occurs.

  4. Zamfir

    Ok, I don’t understand the point of this argument. Changing to renewables is expensive and has plenty of difficulties. Technical, political, social, economic difficulties. Yes, all true.

    But then, the same applies to any alternative. Reducing energy consumption is also expensive, with plenty of technical, political, social and economic difficulties. Especially if you want to aim for 75% or 90%, let alone 100% reduction.

    Reduction gets harder with every extra percent. That is why it is very, very important to have clean energy sources – so we don’t have to push reduction to the breaking point.

    Beyond that, the article makes an appeal to physics that seems just wrong, unless I completely misunderstand its point. Every use of energy produces waste heat, that is true. But solar, wind and biomass all derive their energy from sunlight. That sunlight is going to fall on the planet anyway, and will turn into heat in any case. If we use that energy in between, we do not add extra waste heat, and it does not violate the second law of thermodynamics.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, he’s saying (not as clearly as he could) that renewable energy still has excessive environmental costs in terms of waste and environmental destruction….which also equals habitat loss and therefore more damage to the biosphere. “Renewables” still require factories, construction, installation, infrastructure, use of scarce and environmentally nasty critical materials. They aren’t as green as proponents pretend, just greener and less CO2 emitting that fossil fuels.

      1. vlade

        Indeed. But as I write below, the mix of the “waste” matters. Ignoring that, and saying that the only solution is to remove waste entirely is IMO silly, unless the proposed solution is a massive population reduction.

      2. Zamfir

        In response to Yves abotut he ecological impact of renewable:

        My objection is that all of that applies to the alternatives as well. The Forbes article is written by Schellenberger, whose agency used to be a strong advocate of nuclear energy – which obviously has its own debates.

        Energy reduction could be nicer, but beyond the first steps it will involve tearing down still-working factories and buildings (waste!), to be replaced by more efficient versions. The more efficient versions are often more expensive. That expense comes partially from more materials, more equipment to capture waste streams, higher-specced and more complicated equipment with its own upstream ecological challenges. Not dissimilar to the renewable energy issues. One has to look case by case whether energy reduction or renewable energy is actually the better ecological choice.

        The again, perhaps Ilargi is arguing for lower production and consumption, instead of increased efficiency. If so, why all the references to the money that Germany is spending? If a single percent of GDP is already enough to declare renewables dead, then reduced consumption goes right out. After all, we need a path towards 100% greenhouse gas reduction. If any significant part of that going to come from reduced consumption, it won’t be just a few percent of GDP.

        I am not quite sure why, but this article really hit a nerve with me. To me, it is getting uncomfortably close to a kind of green nihilism, where nothing will ever be good enough so we might just as well stop trying.

        1. Olga

          Yes, it hits a nerve with me, too… and I like your term “green nihilism.” How appropriate. And how wrong the author is! Ilargi declares renewables dead just as most of the Independent System Operators (ISOs) – that’s the folks who run your grid – are all embarking on serious efforts to integrate renewables into the existing grid. Considering how conservative most of them are and how entrenched the current system is – that’s quite an acknowledgment.
          (They are not doing it ‘cuz they really want to, but because of the proliferation of renewable projects/facilities around the country and because for end-users, buying renewable power makes economic sense. In other words, that genie is out of the bottle – and no amount of screaming “dead” will change that.)
          Also, before penning another piece like this, it may be helpful to consult data gathered by the Energy Information Administration. Its recent Annual Energy Outlook 2019 states, in part: “(1) The power sector experiences a notable shift in fuels used to generate electricity, driven in part by historically low natural gas prices. Increased natural gas-fired electricity generation; larger shares of intermittent renewables; and additional retirements of less economic coal and nuclear plants occur during the projection period. (2) Increasing energy efficiency across end-use sectors keeps U.S. energy consumption relatively flat, even as the U.S. economy continues to expand.”
          There are many problems with the article – not the least of which is a goofy, click-bait headline. The topic of energy production is too complex to be dispensed with in short pieces such as this one. For one, it gives us a false choice – it certainly is not “use renewables” or “decrease energy use.” By now, I’d hope it is obvious to most that we need to do both – to start with. And illogic seems to rule here, as the author points to Germany not achieving its renewable goals. Well, if that is hard, just think how much harder a drastic reduction in energy use would be!
          For one, it should also be clear to most, if not all, that a drastic reduction in the use of energy cannot be achieved without a complete change to the economic system we live in. Good luck with that! The socialist countries were much more sustainable in their energy use – but people bolted, seduced by the riches of the west. (Mind you, I agree that lowering energy use is a good thing, but putting that into practice would require a change in human consciousness – which I simply do not see occurring any time soon. And – let’s not forget – an average person in Africa uses a lot less energy than a westerner, so calling for reductions would have to be strictly targeted.)
          To keep this short, let’s just say that to mitigate climate change, we’ll need to do some of everything – renewables, reductions, (economic) re-direction. But most of all, we need an educated public debate about the issue of energy use to help societies reach a fuller understanding of the problem and potential solutions. Maybe we can even develop consensus and then a plan… But click-bait headlines and “green nihilism” will not help us.

        2. Krystyn Walnetka

          Should I be a nihilist or optimist when I am on my deathbed? Or is what you see as nihilism actually a radical acceptance that scares the poop out of you? To me it is radical acceptance of the state of the world. In my small, Robert Frank, neoiberal town, they are tearing down forests business as usual. To me, they are the nihilists.

          Industrial society is like a smoker who does not have cancer “yet” and it still enjoying the hits of nicotine. They quit only when the cancerous mass is found in their lung after being urged to go to the doctor by people who care only after they started coughing up blood. And still they do not quit and you will see them smoking right after they get out of chemo.

          So again who is the nihilist here? The people who do nothing or the people who see it might be too late and we need to do everything possible? I did not read that article and come off with the feeling I needed to stop trying, it made me realize I (and we) have to do more.

          I learned that a species cannot live in its’ own waste and about systems balance in fricking 7th grade biology when we took care of a fishtank ecosystem. And I learned about thermodynamics a few years later. You think the only increase in waste will be generated by the creation of renewables? It takes HUMAN energy to get those materials out of the ground which creates heat, humans need to eat, which creates waste.

          We are out of balance with the ecosystem and fossil fuels, all technology, was used as a lever to tip that balance. I am not a nihilist, I am a realist.

          1. aletheia33

            thank you K.W. i agree. i’m surprised by readers’ resistance expressed above to acknowledging the basic point of the piece. i didn’t realize that here at NC so many were so attached to the renewables-can-fix-this (what yes i will call) bullshit. i’m no fan of heidegger and his deutsche volk bullshit either. but it often does seem to me that the vast majority of those concerned about the climate emergency are determined to cling to the fantasy of saving the planet while not having to give up much of their current lifestyle.

            as i begin to try to think about how people could learn how to live with less of the material comfort and convenience than fossil fuels give us, i see how difficult that task is. yet few seem to be even considering exactly what, and how much of it, we are actually going to have to give up and how we are going to adapt to that.

            i’ve recently come to think that people who have become disabled and adapted to it well, sometimes even thereby becoming guiding lights for others, as a minority seem to, may have much to teach the rest of us about how to do that.

            humans are extremely good at adaptation. facing the actual situation squarely is not nihilism, as you say K.W. it is simply the prerequisite for devising action that has the best likelihood, when realistically assessed, of achieving not a cherished fantasy of continuing “freedom” from labor but adaptation to the necessity of more and different kinds of labor.

            to take it a bit further: could a lifestyle that is more submissive to the reality of limited human capability and limited resources actually be more rewarding than the insanity of the current soul-destroying or body-destroying or bullshit 40+ hours of labor alternating with briefer stretches of exhaustion/netflix? with parents having insufficient time and energy for raising their children? with children being raised by the purveyors of smartphones and social media?

            if so, then we have something perhaps even more worth fighting and hoping for than keeping what we now have going with renewables. that would be not nihilism but simply taking a wider perspective of the sources of human well-being.

          2. Zamfir

            Krystyn says: ” I did not read that article and come off with the feeling I needed to stop trying, it made me realize I (and we) have to do more.”

            Horses for courses, I guess. The article doens’t work for me, but it might work well for you and others.

            As I see it, energy reduction and renewables are mostly complements to each other. More savings = easier to build a renewable grid. Especially if the savings include increased flexibility. And in reverse, more renewables = the most difficult reductions can be avoided.

          3. Chris Smith

            Indeed! Our current civilization is not sustainable. And we can’t even get most people to admit merely that it might not be sustainable.

            I had an argument a year ago with a former friend who was worried that current experiments in AI were going to lead to a Skynet apocalypse. I jokingly reassured him that we would run out of energy and materials before that happened. He went apoplectic at the mere suggestion (and a joking one at that) that industrial civilization is not sustainable. I then sent him an article about how the world was running out of sand and why this is a very serious problem (at this point I admit that I was egging him on for my own amusement). No microchips for Skynet, no neo-brutalist architecture for Skynet to build. We don’t speak anymore.

        3. Joe Well

          Why isn’t the alternative riding bicycles, telecommuting, eating a locally grown plant-based diet, living in passively designed apartment blocks, having fewer children (though we’re already moving in that direction) etc. etc.?

          1. Grebo

            The article is saying give up on renewables. Its alternative is to reduce energy use. By how much it doesn’t say.

            Since the answer cannot be ‘to zero’ any alternative must include energy sources.

            A more useful article would estimate how much energy we can can safely produce and suggest the best ways to reduce our use to that level.

          2. Yves Smith Post author

            Many people live too far from where they work to commute on bikes. And please tell me how biking to get to the airport or train with luggage works.

            Passive designed apartment blocks requires new construction, which has an environmental impact (clearing land, foundations, bringing in utilities, making and hauling in materials). The C)2 cost of building a new house is estimated to = ten years of running one on current (not green) tech.

            Tell me how many places in the US where you can live with suitable diversity of produce to eat plant-based food locally all year round.

            1. Joe Well

              >>Many people live too far from where they work to commute on bikes. And please tell me how biking to get to the airport or train with luggage works.

              In the case of revolutionary carbon reduction, that would have to change. Many more people telecommuting and many more people living closer to their workplaces (which would free up the roads for those who absolutely need them), and vastly reduced air or train travel. All of which would require sacrifices, but it beats the alternative of climate disaster.

              I am seriously confused. You seem to be in favor of drastic carbon reductions and yet envision a society that is still dominated by car, plane travel, and sprawl.

              >>Passive designed apartment blocks requires new construction, which has an environmental impact

              Most buildings need to be massively renovated every 40 years or less, and at minimum that would be the time to retrofit them to be passive. So the alternative to passive buildings is not even the status quo but just another renovation that is still carbon-intensive. Also, we would have to look at the math comparing the carbon footprint of single-family homes to new passive construction. But again, we’re going to need sacrifices in the form of smaller living spaces. Politically, I think this is doable because most younger people are already living in straitened economic circumstances and older people are headed to the rest home anyway.

              Again, I am wondering what radical conservation would look like? I suppose we could live in our existing houses and just bundle up in winter?

            2. jcmcdonal

              People don’t get to live too far away from work that they can’t bike. Expect a lot of abandoned buildings. That of course comes after the general market and currency collapses.

              Certainly there will be no flying. Travel entirely seems questionable in an energy limited world – mostly for traders I’d expect. Or just carry what fits in a backpack/saddle bag.

              Building new buildings is of course stupid if you want to reduce energy usage… But will be driven by where people can functionally live. If cars aren’t viable, I literally can’t live outside biking distance to work. I have no idea how a path is maintained for me to get to work, or what work is in this environment (assuming lots of white collar work in the future?), or what happens during the winter when there are 6 feet of snow over a lengthy biking distance.

              Suffice to say fossil fuels will keep being burned because TINA. We don’t have any idea on how to purposefully shrink an economy without outright devastation and the human cost will always be in our faces.

            3. John Tebbutt

              So you’re saying that we can’t change our lifestyles AND that carbon neutral technologies won’t support those lifestyles. What I’m not hearing is a better idea. Seems like all you and the OP can suggest is to stick with fossil fuels and hope for the best?
              How is that helpful?

              1. Yves Smith Post author

                Don’t straw man me. I was VERY clear on what my recommendation is. We need a radical reduction in energy use (conservation) if we are to have any hope of preserving something better than Little Homes on the Prairie lifestyles….charitably assuming that the sixth great extinction doesn’t end human what passes for human civilization.

                You have just made clear you are part of the problem. You cling to a “renewables will save us” fantasy because you don’t want to change your lifestyle.

                Sometime there are only bad choices and this is one of them.

      3. Michael

        My problem with the article is that it mixes the Second Law of Thermodynamics with current political and technical realities of our existence.

        Similar to Zimfir I would point out that much energy obtained from the sun is not utilized efficiently as it might be, say in deserts, etc. There was an article published in Scientific American back in 2008 that showed that with proper DC power lines one could power all of the United States from Southwestern US using 2008 level of solar efficiency. Additionally, there were articles showing that one could power all of Europe with properly situated solar in the Sahara Desert.

        Yes, there are problems with DC power lines, and even more important there are the political issues of buying energy from people who you cannot subjugate, but technologically it does not break the Second Law of Thermodynamics, assuming you can manufacture this technology in a sustainable manner. To this last point, yes, we do not currently have the expertise to do so, but then we’ve only been developing solar technologies on an industrial scale for the last 20 years.

        I agree we need to cut energy consumption, but to do so at a level similar to about .4 hp per person in the short term, will have the consequence of either demolishing all of civilization, or require that we depopulate the the planet of about five billion people.

      4. Synoia

        Yes, but in the case of Solar, and it’s land use, there a millions of roofs to use. When they are all used then one could consider panels over roads and railway tracks.

        Just stating a huge area is required for solar ignores current practices.

        1. Lepton1

          We are building a new home. We will put about 6kw of solar panels on the roof. We are going all electric, induction stove, heat pump for heating and AC, heat pump for hot water, a charging station for the electric car, air dry our clothes. We will use no gas. Averaged over a year, we will be energy neutral or maybe a slight energy producer.

          We live in an urban area where we can walk or bike to many places. If we have to drive most destinations are less than ten miles away.

          My point is to say that this is possible. Of course, there is a huge amount of energy invested in building this house, but it will last 100 years or more. Because of better insulation it will need less energy.

          I agree with the general idea of the article that we need to reduce and be more efficient, but the article is too pessimistic.

          SUNPOWER solar cells
          Mitsubishi multipoint heat pump for HVAC.
          Sanden heat pump water heater. Interesting technology widely deployed in Japan. It uses CO2 as the working fluid instead of some sort of CFC.

          1. Anders K

            My question for you – is your house scalable, both ecologically (I agree that a 100 year duration seems ecologically sound, but is there parts of it that would not scale) and economically (i.e. can people in general afford it) ?

            When you say “a huge amount of energy” coupled with “last 100 years or more” – how much energy does creating it cost, offset at some different intervals (75 years for pessimists sake, 100 years and 125 or so) ? How much energy do we need to produce just to keep the population housed?

            I am honestly interested, because such a “base load” is uusally what is ignored when we talk about sustainable, green technologies (wind power having to be replaced quite often at our current level of using it, and the impact the newish vertical turbine blades can have, etc).

            The energy budget is needed for us to see how much energy we need to produce, and what means to produce it we have, including maintaing our energy production (one of my worst fears is that we end up a permanent energy deficit, and that people skimp on the production upkeep, leading to a death spiral).

            I have a sneaking suspicion (or delusion, if you’re more optimistic) that we will not get a budget that is possible to keep to with the current human load and not using either fossil fuels or nuclear energy, especially if each country wishes to remain self-sufficient with regards to energy. Larger countries and associations (EU/USA/China/Australia) is more likely to be able to do larger projects (e.g. the “put lots of solar panels in someone elses desert and get the energy from it” part that seems prevalent when discussions of load-replacing solar renewables come up).

            I find the talk about “green nihlism” somewhat troubling, what with the overlap of the “rich people nihilism” (I have my secret bunker with geothermal energy so let the world burn). That said, of course it is much easier to sustain humanity on a similar level of energy usage if one reduces the number of people. If, however, this process is going to be very fast – say, on the order of 30 years or less, there are no nice or humane alternatives.
            War and/or disease (whether engineered or not, in either case) are the only ways this has been done before, and not without side-effects (compare how some discuss how the Black Plague improved the bargaining power of labour, for instance).

            I doubt, however, that anyone is actually thinking through a plan to reduce humanity by, say, 80 to 90%. That’s not saying people won’t attempt it, or that some people would like to see the “others” disappear, but just that they have very vague ideas about what that would mean.

            If the timescale of human depopulation is longer than 30 years, it might be possible to do through cultural or maybe even religious means, but it would require concerted effort, a realistic outlook what it would take to convince people to not have children while some people people have as many children as they’d like (the powerful and stupid, I would guess). One possible solution is the neo-feudalism (the powerful, having the Divine Mandate or whatever, are apart from the plebs who should just serve and die), but if that’s all they’ve got, I expect a lot more chaos and destruction as despair sets in.

            1. Wukchumni


              The idea that you can have your fortress sectioned off from whatever wicked this way comes is a fairy tale not to come true. We could have perhaps 50-100 water refugees homesteading by our river property here if the shift hit the fan, and with all of those people defecating in close quarters, meet my old friend Typhus.

              That said, its fun to imagine, and we have enough head and drop in several locations on the river, where a small hydroelectric Pelton wheel could be set up (it’s illegal to do such a thing now, but if there was no law…) powering the all cats and no cattle ranch.

  5. VietnamVet

    Besides fossil fuels, the only other sources of energy are solar, nuclear and geophysical. Most of the chaos today is due to hoarding and seeking control over the last remaining cheap energy sources plus the lack of future planning. Conservation delays the inevitable and mitigates climate change. The world was solar powered until 1830s when coal started the industrial age. But, for homo sapiens to survive, multi-national corporations must be broken up, wealth shared, the commons and family farms restored. Universal education is the humane way to downsize the human population. What is left of civilization will have to be powered by electricity, humans and work animals.

    The only wild card is if a nuclear system is developed that is safe that outputs abundant energy with available affordable resources. That decades old dream has yet to become reality.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      … Plus you’ll need some kind of authoritarian world government with coercive power over societies who cheat.

      And those ‘cheaters’ would include 5 billion (mostly) brown people who will say: we’ve only just arrived at modernity. And now you know-it-all honky imperialists are back again, telling us we can’t have it now, cuz rain forests, coral, polar bears etc. Get stuffed!

      And I suspect you of all people, sir, don’t need any persuading re what happens when whitey tries to enforce his ideology on others on their home turf. No matter how elevated his motives…

      1. a different chris

        Hmm but China
        1) has that kind of government
        2) has a good chunk of that 5 billion
        3) seems ahead of us in vision, if behind in current conditions

        …and has already started trying to de-populate with One Child. So despite your hack at honky imperialists, you sound like you see the world thru their lenses? (Mostly) Brown people are not capable of being environmentalists because they want flat-screen TVs?

      2. ObjectiveFunction

        Guys, I lately attended a conference where well educated ministers of a certain former pillar of the Non Aligned Movement promoted *palm oil* as a biofuel (with Huge Tracts’a Land®, presently rainforest, being controlled by all major political dynasties) solution to AGW, leaving we attendees speechless.

        It doesn’t matter whether we’re all human at the end of the day (which we absolutely are); their elites are no better than ours when it comes to putting short term gain ahead of long term survival.

        You can scold all you like from your keyboards, it doesn’t change the shared foibles of our fragmented humanity. And I don’t have to like it to bring it forward as a, well, challenge.

    2. Svante

      Yeah, it occurs to some of us that integration of “new” technolgies in production, conservation and distribution of energy; as we incorporate best practices as utilized elsewhere (LRV, along with EV in cities, comes to mind as something the rest of the planet copied from us?) Our current lifestyle was marketed to us as a way to indenture, divide, isolate… basically, it’s extractive and we’re the product? Live BETTER, for less… comrade!

  6. Tom_Doak

    One of my favorite articles about conservation was written a few years ago by David Owen for The New Yorker. It was ostensibly about the history of refrigeration, but it pointed out that as refrigerators became more energy efficient, people were just eager to buy bigger refrigerators, and even to have two or three in their homes:

    The Efficiency Dilemma

    Has any society since the Industrial Age voluntarily reduced their energy use? I’d love to believe it will happen, but I think the only way it will really happen is a huge crash such that people can’t afford to use energy as they have in the modern era.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      There is some – small – evidence that this paradox is reversing – i.e. energy saving appliances are finally starting to actually save energy. But the general principle applies – unless you strictly enforce actual reductions of energy (rather than just fit more energy efficient appliances), you will not reduce usage. Its hard to see how this can happen without steadily and consistently increasing the price of all forms of energy, which is of course very difficult to do politically.

      1. Joe Well

        In Dominican Republic, with one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the Western Hemisphere, they have some of the most expensive electricity in the world because it mostly has to be imported (very little hydro, coal, or anything else on the island) and their government has enough sense to want to reduce its energy dependence.

        They make it politically palatable with progressive electric rates. The very first few kwH are almost free, then the next tier costs more, and on, and on, so that in an oppressively hot and humid climate the only ones wasting electricity with A/C are government buildings (which are exempt from all this), a few big shopping malls, and of course, foreign tourists. And no A/C means that locals have tended to build houses in the shade and position windows to catch the breeze, while tourist buildings are concrete blocks in direct sunlight.

        Can our First World elites achieve the same level of common sense?

  7. vlade

    Reduction in use is something that IMO must be part and parcel of any strategy. But that alone will not work, unless you plan doing Thanos (depopulate the Earth – and not just by 50%) too.

    While there’s a point in the article, IMO it’s the wrong one. Yes, energy (and not just energy) produces waste. We should reduce that waste, sure. But we should not forget we can also choose (and are chosing) what waste mix we produce.

    That’s the reality. b) we have to accept that there are consequences of us just existing. b) but those aren’t given, we choose (and our collective choices matter) the consequences.

    Unfortunately, I’ve met only a very few people in my life who were comfortable taking responsibility for their choices and resulting consequences.

  8. PlutoniumKun

    I find this article somewhat confusing and it indulges in much cherry-picking.

    First off – the basic overall point is of course true – renewables cannot allow ‘business as usual’, in fact its doubtful if any power source can do that. Rapid and systematic reduction in energy usage is essential for human survival. This is not necessarily the same as reducing standards of living – the typical Swede or Swiss or Japanese gets on fine with using perhaps half or less the energy of the typical North American, but ultimately it will mean individual sacrifices, or at least the perception of such if you want to get Zen about it.

    But renewables are an absolutely essential part of any future mix, and bringing in the Second Law of Thermodynamics is just an attempt to sound smart about it without actually contributing anything useful to the debate. Also, raising the ‘cost’ of Germany’s transition to renewables is pointless, without comparing those costs to other forms of energy (the figures quoted were total costs, not net increase over other projected power sources). Now that cheap coal is unacceptable and most of the available rivers are dammed, all the alternatives – natural gas, nuclear, renewables, are expensive, and will get increasingly so. All are problematic on one way or another – just listing off the issues with renewables (which everyone who studies energy usage are well aware of) is not presenting an argument, its grandstanding. Ilargi doesn’t mention, for example, that the Germans invested tens of billions in nuclear, but just ended up with a failed program (pebble bed reactors) and a share in a disastrously expensive one (the EPR). Even their coal plants are super expensive due to political pressures to maintain uneconomic mines and plants. And then add in the costs of Nordsee and the other pipelines…

    1. heresy101

      This article is written by someone that doesn’t understand energy. Average electricity usage is dropping (see the EIA) but population is increasing (except China, Japan, and a few European countries). If you want population to drop, support Trump and his war criminals (Bolton & Pompeo) as they are in the process of killing a billion or so in the Middle East.

      Renewables are having a huge impact and will grow more important over the next ten years, a major factor will be offshore wind turbines. 5,000 16MW turbines can provide 50% of California’s energy and there are many more than 5,000 turbines on land already; so that is not an impossible amount.

      In response to the pontificating on how renewables are nothing-burgers, here are a couple of recent actions:
      1) Warren Buffet gets the impact of renewables on his Pacificorp (bought in 2005).
      PacifiCorp ratepayers could save nearly $250 million if the utility shut four coal-fired units in Wyoming by 2022 and replaced them with other resources, including solar, battery storage, a natural gas-fired plant and wholesale market purchases
      2. A 262MW combustion turbine has been rejected in Oxnard and will be replaced with solar and storage.
      3) Electric truck charging on I5.

      As California goes 100% green, maybe we should use Trump’s policies on our borders to keep the “sky is falling crowd” out.

  9. Ignacio

    If we look at how total energy consumption has evolved in the EU between 2000-2015. The picture is that consumption increased up to 2007 and decreased thereafter. So it went with the boom and boost economy. In 2016 and 2017 primary consumption increased slightly. During this time the amount of renewable energy produced has increased by one order of magnitude (from 14 to 150 MTOEs) to reach a share of 17,5% (approx) in 2017 wich is getting close to the 20% objective for 2020.

    My opinion is that this approach has a limit and we are getting closer to the limit and, as the author says, what is needed is a change in direction towards less consumption. Energy efficiency by itself wont do the trick although it will help to increase renewable share.

    What bothers me is that there are lots of simple rules that if implemented, would help to reduce energy consumption by a lot (at least in Spain that I know better but surely in many other countries). Some of these mean some kind of sacrifice (nothing terrible should I say) so authorities are reluctant to implement those. Although as a collective we have increased our awareness on environmental problems we are yet to enter the second phase when we realise that sacrifices have to be done.

    1. vlade

      When I lived in New Zealand more than a decade ago, there was actually a law that all commercial building had to have lights on even if entirely empty. I never understood it, and was flabbergasted. Then, a cable that transfers power between the South and the North islands was damaged, so the North had energy problem. The law (IIRC) was dropped pretty quick. Not sure what the situation is now.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      There is an enormous amount of low hanging fruit when it comes to energy usage – I’m quite sure we can drop energy use by a third or a half without seriously impacting peoples lifestyles – very often its particular political issues that stop them being implemented (in particular in agriculture and construction). Some specific policies are having very good long term impacts – in particular energy labelling.

      I know in Ireland, energy labelling has made it almost impossible to sell houses less than ‘A’ rated, which has had a very significant impact in how the industry approaches their design and marketing, and indeed peoples decisions before selling their existing houses (its now common for people to insulate their houses before a sale to increase the rating). It also has made a significant difference when people are buying appliances now they can visibly and easily see if it is well designed or not.

      1. Adam Eran

        Germans also build to conserving, “passivhaus” standards – so buildings are at least energy neutral, if not energy positive. I’ve seen nothing of the German effort to conserve mentioned above…and it’s there…

        I’ve also read that the Europeans and Japanese consume roughly half the energy per dollar of GDP that the U.S. consumes…not a terrible lifestyle sacrifice, but the French, for one, think clothes driers are an indication that the U.S. is insane.

        1. Joe Well

          Clothes driers, which have the added benefit of destroying the clothes faster, are also virtually unknown in Latin America except for commercial uses.

          1. aletheia33

            in the absence of a clothes dryer, who is going to hang up the clothes to dry?
            including all the children’s clothes?
            the clothes of the elderly and disabled?
            the clothes of people with 2 jobs?

            as has often been pointed out, the work of keeping bodies, clothing, homes, cities, public and private toilets, etc. clean doesn’t do itself.
            this kind of work has never been respected or fairly compensated.
            if i’m wrong about that, i hope someone will correct me.

            i would be curious to see a poll of this commentariat of who has chosen to hang up clothes to dry, for the enjoyment of it, or not, and in what domestic scenarios.

            1. jrs

              historically it was entirely class based. We complain about inequality a lot, but we don’t notice some inequalities that don’t exist anymore, that have gone away, like inequality of cleanliness (excluding the homeless).

              Historically cleanliness was a class marker, the well off were clean, the working class was dirty. Well off families had servants, and working class women though they had plenty of housework, weren’t able to keep everyone clean (and yes it’s always been women).

              I’ve done it just for me, but I usually use the dryer, I could switch in summer. Availability of outside place to hang clothes is limited if you rent. Hanging up clothes to dry inside does not work in winter, it’s just not warm enough, unless you are willing to wait days for clothes to get dry. It does work in summer.

              1. jrs

                this isn’t just about dryers, which might be doable for some, suggestions yesterday was we shouldn’t have clothes WASHERS, we should use a washtub … because it “worked” in the old days.

                and that’s like, hmm, you do realize women’s work has always been a 60 hour work week right? And cleanliness was not equally distributed in the population even so ..

            2. Grebo

              I hang my clothes up. I have a dryer (came with the house) but have never used it. It’s just me though, and I have a small wardrobe.

              The difference in effort seems small to me, regardless.

              On the other hand, not having a washer would be a major pain.

            3. Joe Well

              When I lived in Latam, I (adult single man) usually hung up my clothes. When I was little in the US, I would accompany my mother to the clothesline in summer and I always thought it was the closest thing to fun housework.

              Seriously, compared with dusting, vaccuming, washing floors, washing curtains, etc. hanging clothes is fairly meditative. I don’t get your point. *Washing* clothes by hand is hard work, but washing machines can be very energy efficient. It’s the pollution from clothing fibers that’s the real problem.

        2. Ignacio

          Many efforts are being done in this sense and the “carbon neutral houses” is a declared objective not just in Germany but the UE. This applies to new houses but refurbishing is an effort being applied to many buildings around Europe. In Madrid, for instance, many residential buildings buildt during the 60s and 70s, considered “energy wrecks” are being refurbished to reduce residential energy consumption. The results of these efforts will be felt in the near future but refurbishing itself implies energy consumption. For this reason, the process does not result in inmediate visible gains but mid term cummulative gains. How effective is this policy is yet to be seen.

    3. Scylla

      Yes. Consider how much the industrial economy would change if planned obsolescence was outlawed and everything was built to maximize longevity. This is not so hard. My parents recently sent a chest freezer to the scrap yard that was manufactured in 1953…. it operated for 65 years! If we made better goods, we would have to make far fewer goods.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        We can learn from the Japanese idea of ‘mono no aware.’

        From Wikipedia:

        Mono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera”, is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.

        When one is empathetic towards, for example, a plastic coffee cup, one doesn’t casually throw it away after one use.

        And the concept can be applied to life in general. In Chado (tea ceremony), there is a saying, ichi go, ichi e – each encounter in life can never be repeated again, it’s unique.

        For example, marriage. It could be a 50 year encounter, and is not casually thrown away.

        But we go through marriages almost like we use plastic birth control devices…thrown away after one use.

      2. Lepton1

        Probably they should have gotten rid of it earlier. It feels good to keep some things going, but old freezers and refrigerators were very wasteful. Same with old water heaters and furnaces.

        I hope they decommissioned it first to recover the CFC gas rather that let it escape into the air.

  10. GM

    Laws of thermodynamics indeed.

    The thing about renewables that people can’t grasp even though it is so blindingly obvious is that there are two significant energy fluxes on the surface of the planet — the energy that the planet radiates as it gradually cools down over the eons, and the energy that comes from the Sun.

    The latter is large in absolute terms but also very diffuse (both as direct solar, and as its largest derivative, wind). Which means gigantic infrastructure is needed to harvest it. Which in turn means huge costs in economic terms, and even though huge costs in economic terms should not really matter at all on their own because it is only physics that has any meaning in the real world, in this case the costs are huge because the net energy returns are small. The only part of that flux that it is efficient to capture is the one that gets concentrated by the planet in the form of hydro. But that is fundamentally limited by geography to a few places in the world. And even then nobody has any clue what to do with the sediment build up behind dam walls.

    Geothermal is much smaller and actually has a tendency to deplete if overused (people will stick pipes in the ground and then watch the temperature gradients disappear with time).

    And that’s it in terms of renewables.

    It is not at all that complicated.

    But again, we have educational systems that fail to teach students the most basic facts about the world they live in…

    1. Peter

      Geothermal is much smaller and actually has a tendency to deplete if overused (people will stick pipes in the ground and then watch the temperature gradients disappear with time).

      I attended a course for Geothermal installations several years ago, with about 25 other contractors. After the course the almost uniform sentiment was: at those costs, and the expected lifetime of the equipment the environmental footprint was actually larger than with a NG powered heating system.

      The course had been set up by a distributor but the almost unanimous declaration by the contractors including me was to actually no longer persue the sales of such systems to home owners.

      The economic data (maximum saving of 30% vs. high installation, maintenance and replacement cost) were not convincing at all as to the benfits.

      1. Susan the other`

        I thought heat exchange systems were sort of self-perpetuating as the earth is warmer at 20 feet than at the surface. Or cooler. I thought it was a consistent 50 degrees. Not so? For individual houses? Whereas geothermal could eventually be tapped out. Still, we’ve got a few super volcanoes that could be carefully defused and turned into electricity. ‘Carefully’ being the key word here. The bigger question would be, What changes will we create in the biosphere or the magnetic field, etc? Nobody looks that far down the road.

        1. Adam Eran

          There’s a distinction between using the cooler soil to assist something like a heat pump, and actually harvesting the heat in the much deeper subsurface to power electricity-generating turbines. The former is economic, the latter is what the commenter says is ultimately unsustainable (unless you’re in Iceland, maybe).

          …Speaking of local conditions’ influence: there’s a nice account of a Columbian experiment put together to harvest the energy of light, tropical rainforest winds and solar cooking in Gaviotas. Such systems are very much local solutions, adapted to the conditions available.

        2. polecat

          “Super volcanos could be carefully defused” ……. really ??
          That kinda smacks of hubris to my mind, as we don’t fully have a handle on all the geophysical aspects of how ‘hot spot’ volcanic systems operate … just like spewing particulates & aerosols into the atmosphere as a supposed way to ‘retard’ the effects of the climate changing .. the unintended consequences of such actions could be disastrous all on their own !

          But hey, no worries … us apes bearing keyboards will make it all work … somehow ! /s

          1. Susan the other`

            I agree, it sounds pretty hairy. But that is exactly what the US Airforce is looking at. Or maybe with NASA. Really. They aren’t giving us real-time updates on their latest thinking… naturally.

  11. Wukchumni

    Humanity did without liquid fossil fuels for 69.850 of it’s last 70,000 years, and i’m the 6th generation of 8 that has never known any different way of living.

    It’s a powerful drug, oil.

    We were driving through the unforgiving desert en route to Vegas-adjacent in the 95 degree heat last week, with long distances of bleak and no sign of water and scant cover possibilities from the Sun, you’d bake to a crisp.
    The idea of the Toyota breaking down and leaving us stranded never even crossed our minds though.

    Any Roman Emperor’s silly little quadriga with 4 horsepower paled in comparison to what everybody has in their stable now.

    Oil also doubles as money, which will make it all that much harder to displace from our lives. The only avenue I see us getting there is via Mother Nature deciding that it’s time for a devastating set of circumstances beyond our ability to recover from any semblance of the lives lived under the old aegis.

    1. Charger01

      Humanity did without liquid fossil fuels for 69.850 of it’s last 70,000 years, and i’m the 6th generation of 8 that has never known any different way of living

      Correct- most of humanity was killed by the ripe old age of 40, if disease didn’t get you first. Fossil fuels make our lives much easier.

      1. Kurtismayfield

        You are confusing medians with averages. The average life expectancy was brought down by disease and high infant mortality rates.. but if you survived to adulthood in pre industrial society you lived a normal lifespan. We can conquer the threats to infants, and conquer diseases, with very low tech solutions.

    2. Susan the other`

      “Oil also doubles as money” – just what I was mulling. Thinking that we’d have to start with money to change the system. Making money obey the laws of thermodynamics! This implies that eventually the value of money dissipates; it’s the natural course of events. We need to slow the pace. How do we peg money to sustainability without crashing the party? A whole new economic theory.

      1. Adam Eran

        See Herman Daly’s work (e.g. Beyond Growth) for that economic theory change.

        Meanwhile, Venezuela says they’re going to produce oil-backed currency…;-)

    3. aletheia33

      thank you, wukchumi.

      i love it when people refer to pre-industrial ways of life as you do here, it brings a healthy perspective.

      and i agree that our attachment to/dependency on our current way of life is addictive. such that our addiction to it makes us unable to even consider or imagine any other, healthier, or more satisfying way of life.

  12. Synoia

    Any solution rewuires a civilization where every city state is self sufficient, similar to the planet circa 1745.

    Complete with the population of 1745.

    The question is not what will happen, but when will the collapse start.

  13. Amit Chokshi

    Is nuclear then an option or best alternative assuming no Boeing approach to it? Serious question.

    1. Felonious Monk

      Nuclear generation produces no greenhouse gases once it’s built, but there is a lot of concrete and steel in a reactor.
      A few problems:
      – Failure is not an option, but it is an outcome. See Fukushima, Chernobyl.
      – Nobody knows what to do with the waste except bury it and pray.
      – Uranium is not in infinite supply.

      Meanwhile, clean fusion energy has been right around the corner for the past fifty years. And still is!

      1. Antifa

        Thorium reactors don’t melt down; all they can do in a disaster scenario is cool down and go inert. China is building lots of them, even though they can’t produce weapons of any kind.

        Thorium itself is as infinite as the crust of the earth is. It’s everywhere.

        And, thorium reactors eat any and all radioactive waste you don’t want to leave laying around forever.

        1. Anders K

          Thorium reactors have not been commercially proven *yet* either. This is important, because if our solution is going to be “build thousands of X type of reactor”, we do not want to get the kind of reactor wrong.
          EDIT: Could not find where China is building “lots” of Thorium reactors, but did find reference to at least two experimental reactors.

          If we start building reactors Soon, they will most likely not be Thorium reactors. I would hope that if we are going full speed ahead on the nuclear train to the future, that some time is spent on the design part – because we will need more streamlined reactors (preferably a bit more efficient than the ones built in the fifties) with much fewer nuclear engineers needed to staff them (a temporary workaround is to have a central control “pool” of engineers with remote control, but that has quite a bit of issues with it).

          Thorium can certainly be a part of a nuclear solution in the future, and it certainly would not hurt to throw a few hundred million USD on researching it more (since the cost of going fully nuclear generation is likely to be in the trillions, investing a few percentage in researching alternatives makes sense) – but they can not be a part of a solution that is to be implemented tomorrow.

      2. Paul Boisvert

        Well, Felonious, failure kind of IS an option–as it is when it is the outcome in any social enterprise. For example, what if the annual average deaths from nuclear power “failures” were 1 million people, with an additional 15 million people injured and maimed each year. One might think that would not be an option, and that we should instead opt for a system in which there was an average annual death rate of only 200 people, with another 200 people injured and maimed.

        But in fact the former average death/injury rates above are underestimates for…driving cars worldwide. Nobody seems to think that driving cars is not an option for travel. While the latter average rates are substantial overestimates for the ACTUAL ones for nuclear energy over the last 60 years, including Chernobyl and Fukushima. Why are those rates not an option, but the ones for driving cars cause precisely zero concern?

        And fossil fuels, whose CO2 emissions have failed to decrease in Germany for 10 years largely due to its reduction of emissionless nuclear power during that time, also kill (by causing lung diseases due to particulate emissions) close to a million people (and sicken or injure many more) annually worldwide. Why isn’t nuclear a better option than that, one might ask…?

        I’m all in favor of reducing energy usage by 30-50%, especially in the West. And yes, nuclear has some environmental impact, as do all energy systems. But the RELATIVE safety of nuclear is not a problem; you’re a lot more likely to get killed or injured by your neighbor’s dog than you are by your neighboring nuke plant.

  14. Peter

    A reality check:

    The amount of energy we can extract, compared to the energy we are using to extract it, is decreasing “across the spectrum — unconventional oils, nuclear and renewables return less energy in generation than conventional oils, whose production has peaked — and societies need to abandon fossil fuels because of their impact on the climate,” the paper states.

    The shift to renewables might help solve the climate challenge, but for the foreseeable future will not generate the same levels of energy as cheap, conventional oil.
    In this low EROI future, we simply have to accept the hard fact that we will not be able to sustain current levels of economic growth. “Meeting current or growing levels of energy need in the next few decades with low-carbon solutions will be extremely difficult, if not impossible,” the paper finds. The economic transition must involve efforts “to lower total energy use.”
    But capitalist markets will not be capable of facilitating the required changes — governments will need to step up, and institutions will need to actively shape markets to fit the goals of human survival. Right now, the prospects for this look slim.

    The future ain’t that bright any more.
    No, we need not dispair with nihilistic approach, we just have to realize that the abundance we lived with will not be available any more to most of those who could enjoy it, and will no longer be available to those who never could.
    We have all to change in lowering severly our demands and expectations.

    As pensioners on a fixed income – we really have not much choice, and we still live comfortably within the means after reducing our never exorbitant demands further.

  15. Wukchumni


    Our hydropower plants in town are about the oldest hydro electric efforts in the state, using a series of flumes to capture some of the water barreling down the east fork of the Kaweah River, from its headwaters in Mineral King.

    The original flume was made from Giant Sequoia slabs, which came from trees felled in the Atwell Grove, and a good choice-in that Sequoia wood takes a long time to break down. It’s all been replaced by steel/concrete now.

    It was online around 1905, and here’s a 1923 photo of the powerhouse:

    SoCal Edison runs it, and the electricity filters into the grid and away it goes, but I wonder if it could be configured to just serve the 2,000 of us here?

    1. Susan the other`

      It stands to reason that if we are going to have this much rain and flooding into the future and snowpack as well, we should figure a way to do hydropower again. On localized scales. Lots of rural towns used to have their own power company. On their own little river in their bucolic little valley. I mean, one serious question is, How much electricity is enough? Cook, wash, TV – whatever.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      See this review of Mark Jacobson’s 139-country 100% WWS plan:

      Key quote is the following:
      I’ve been complaining about how renewable energy studies tend to underestimate the massive amounts of storage that will be needed to support high levels of intermittent renewables penetration, yet J2018’s global storage requirements for cases A and B amount to more than 15,000 terawatt-hours, an astronomical number.

      That’s one of the major problems with Jacobson’s plan. 15000 TWh exceeds what the world actually has on hand by over a factor of a THOUSAND. Another major problem is his proposal to boost the number of turbines in the world’s hydroelectric fleet by a factor of ten, which is both impractical and dangerous. Many dams have no physical room for additional turbines. Others would cause massive downstream flooding if operated at 10X their previous maximum flow rate. And all other purposes of dams would be swept aside for the single goal of keeping the lights on… Drinking water, flood control, and river ecosystem management be damned.

      Meijer presents a fairly decent (if rather melodramatic) summary of the downsides of renewable power generation, including the significant environmental impacts, but he neglects the downsides of the massive energy storage systems that must accompany an energy system that runs mostly on intermittent renewable power. The failings of the 100% renewable energy dream are even worse than he portrays.

  16. Medbh

    From a conservation standpoint, how much would our current energy use need to decrease in order to maintain a liveable climate? I’ve seen some helpful graphics that compare the costs and savings associated with using different types of energy sources, but haven’t seen anything similar from the perspective of conservation (for transportation, heating, cooling, electronics, manufacturing, etc.). Does anyone have any recommended resources that address this issue?

  17. The Rev Kev

    When I look around I see so much energy wastage. I see roads signs with digital displays where an ordinary tin sign would do just as well. I see so many functions of everday life that are starting to use electrical power as well as wifi bandwidth because “progress”. PlutoniumKun is right. We could drop energy use by a third to a half and we would not really miss it.
    One thing I note. This article was talking about all these massive projects and I feel that this is because we still have this idea that the only way to deal with energy, communications, sewerage, etc. is by the use of the distributive model. At least that is what I call it. But I think that the future lies in making homes and buildings independent where they can generate their own power and process their own sewerage and recycle their own water. That would go a long way into building resilience into peoples lives. And we know how to do that all already.

  18. TG

    “We use about 100 times more energy per person, and a whole lot more in the west, than our own labor can produce. We use the equivalent of what 500 billion people can produce without the aid of fossil fuel-powered machines. We won’t solve this problem with wind turbines or solar panels. There really is one way only: cut down on energy use.”

    Sorry, I have heard this argument before, and it it false.

    Imagine someone living in a Stone Age-tribe. The amount of nominal industrial energy they use is near zero: but the total energy inputs that their lifestyle requires is massive, really more than a moderate-day Canadian. It’s just that most of it is derived from the sun etc. But that only works with a very low population density! As population densities rise, even the most miserably poor existence requires massive industrial inputs: chemical fertilizers, irrigation and water treatment systems, etc. Assuming that things don’t fall apart, India is scheduled to use more total energy than the United States before too long: and still have a physical standard of living below late medieval Europe!

    The problem is population growth. If the global population HAD BEEN ALLOWED to stabilize at just 2 or 3 billion, most of this would be a non-issue. Look at Canada: it has a higher per-capita energy consumption than the United States, but with only 25 million people and abundant resources, Canada was an example of man living in harmony with nature. We can’t have that: the Canadian government has the specific policy of boosting the population past 100 million (because cheap labor), and I guarantee that it won’t matter how poor the average Canadian gets, the environmental impact of Canada will go up.

    Amateurs talk conservation. Professionals talk demographics.

    1. Peter

      Amateurs talk conservation. Professionals talk demographics.

      And those who think talk both plus some technological solutions.

      1. Keith Newman

        I agree with Peter: the solution involves conservation, demography, some technology, less consumption.
        In Canada (37 million currently) our elites want a country with 100 million people. Population increase means more growth and higher profits the lazy way – no need for ingenuity, research and development, value added products, etc. Digging resources out of the ground and exporting them is enough.
        So how do we go from what we are now to the low consumption country we should be? We need more than talk. Knowing what the solution is does not mean it will happen when powerful business interests don’t want it. Only broad political organising toward a common environmental cause, a very difficult task, could do it.
        I’m sure someone must have worked out how many humans at what level of energy consumption is sustainable on Earth. Does anyone know of such a thing?

      2. Cal2

        Amateurs talk demographics without mentioning fertility rates and the effects of people moving from a low energy usage life to an American lifestyle.

        Americans have done a good job of liming our population growth to practically zero. All our population increase is because of immigration from mostly the third world.

        IOW, a Mexican corn farmer and his family live about as close to sustainability as is humanly possible. Put them in a New York high rise, a California ranch house with a ten year old SUV or two parked outside, or even a “Transit Oriented Development” and that family will use a huge amount more energy.

        1. JBird4049

          And many of those corn farmers are in the United States because the government subsidized very cheap corn drove under all the farming communities in Mexico. No farms, no farmers, no customers, no local small businesses and all the unemployed get jobs in the United States.

          So federal subsidies are driving up unemployment, driving down wages, driving up energy use, and creating more climate change.

    2. JEHR

      Canada’s population is more than 37 million. The government’s motive is not cheap labour but the input of immigrants to make Canada grow and prosper as immigrants have done in the past. It seems the right thing to do to ask immigrants to our country as they have already been born and deserve to live in peace and safety when wars, famines and other disasters make their lives miserable and unbearable.

      The quotation that jumped out at me: “an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.” Those waste products (plastics, etc.) are becoming the worst pollutants on earth. When a person considers what it means to live small and not use so much energy, life no longer looks so inviting. Just asking people to live in a smaller home would be difficult without asking for a reduction in all the other things that use energy.

  19. Alternate Delegate

    Energy conservation will be forced on us soon anyway, because the fossil fuel companies have been misstating accessible resources. The survival of our society will then depend on whether those resources decline by 3% a year or by 6% a year. A half-life of 23 years is much more survivable than a half-life of 11 years. What will we do with the time available?

    Angela Merkel and Erwin Schroedinger both understood thermodynamics, but the author of this piece clearly does not. For example, one of the uses of energy is to clean up “waste”. The author doesn’t understand that, or the fact that this whole discussion is already about energy budgets and the associated battery problems. In particular, the discussion is about the energy budgets from renewables contrasted with those from fossil fuels. (The only alternative to that is nuclear energy, which I see no point in discussing, and some geothermal.) The factor of 100 that keeps getting thrown around is incorrect.

    Yes, we will use a lot less energy in the future. If we are alive to use it at all. The more renewable energy and battery capacity we have built out on the way into the transition, the better our chances of survival will be. The Germans are doing the right things, and they are wrestling with the right problems.

  20. upstater

    There is very little use of pump storage in the US, which would dovetail well with renewables and provide baseload capacity and reactive power. If one considers Pennsylvania or West Virginia, for instance, there is reasonably good wind production potential and significant water resources in areas amenable for pump storage. Same is true with much of the Great Lakes, Appalachians and upper Midwest.

    While there is a large footprint for the pump storage reservoirs, just take a flight over PA or WV to understand what a ginormous footprint fracking and mountain-top removal strip mining has on the environment.

    Here in NY State, Cuomo pushed through a “clean energy” plan that hands over $7.8B to Exelon Corporation to keep 3 Fukushima-type and one newer nuclear plants running through 2030. These plants would have closed otherwise. There is a LOT of low-hanging fruit for reducing consumption. Simply sending 30 LED bulbs to each residential customer in NY State would roughly equal the production of the 4 nuclear plants we’ve put on ratepayer life-support.

    I think the PR notion that renewables are dead is a concession to keep business-as-usual. Renewables are often distributed and cuts out the huge producers. Prop 127 was defeated in Arizona (330 days of clear skies annually) last year primarily by tens of millions in spending by Arizona “Public” Service. Their “solution” is more gas fired generation and utility-scale solar. It all goes into the rate base and and customers or on the hook for 30 years.

  21. Summer

    Conservation should always have been emphasized before including renewables as part of energy production. Much energy waste has been included in totals about energy needs.

     On another note, I read articles like this and it’s disturbing to me not only because of what it says about  the state of the environment,  but also because people are reduced to units of labor. He says, ” “We are incapable of seeing an ecosystem as a whole and functioning entity, because we have never learned to look at things that way.”
    And the constant reduction of people to units of labor producing goods hasn’t helped to change the way the ecosystem is viewed.

    I often see breakdowns about the costs of the kinds of projects, but not much detail about how the prices being charged are determined.

    It’s a bit like discussion around the ACA. Lots of talk about costs, but little about prices.

  22. Susan the other`

    Could we do human sails – like para gliding only as an assist when you are walking? Kites can pull you right off the ground. Why no tuk-tuks? More boots with spring loaded heels please; forget that tyrannical schedule; sleep more, eat less, read during the day; only buy what you can repair easily; corner stores; gardens; chickens; doctor house calls; meat in the winter, salad in the summer… maybe two huskies and a little sled in the winter? We get few practical suggestions. Because we have become cogs in this dysfunctional machine.

  23. Jack

    Leigh Philips had been talking about this for ages, that nuclear alone cannot solve the problem. It has to be a mix with nuclear or something as reliable for base load. As for Illargi, I wouldnt believe his tone, he’s an austerity ecologist.

    1. Cal2

      “It has to be a mix with nuclear or something as reliable…”Well if you say so…..

      Bet your not voting for Biden, still paying off that useless nuclear engineering degree? The railway telegraph school alums meet at Roundtable on Thursdays…

      Nuclear is not reliable. If it were, the operators could buy liability insurance on the open market.
      Instead, we taxpayers assume most of the potential trillion dollar risk through the Price Anderson Act.

      Figure in the diesel used to mine uranium, the costs of mining it, the processing, health effects of that, the guarding, storing, transporting under armed guard, loading, decommissioning, storage, transport, guarding, deep mine burying…maybe some day in the future, and Nuclear is a loser.

      No terrorist is ever going to fly an aircraft into our solar panels or our solar hot water panels, nor are they going to bomb the back-up power supply for them, because there is none needed.

      1. Anders K

        Hrm. While I certainly like talking about externalities, and agree that nuclear is not carrying them all, what about the externalities of rare-earth extraction for PVs? Or, more to the point, of coal? Who is going to pay for cleaning up after the fracking bonanza (it’s not gonna be the fracking companies, with the real profits extracted elsewhere in the value chain) ?

        What is the liability premium of coal plants for irradiating and poisoning people?
        No one picks up the tab – which once again means that everyone does, but some people get the jackpot of dealing with the tumours.

        Nuclear has at least a lot of suspicious people looking at it, trying (and failing, I freely admit) to get it to pay for its costs and prices. Fewer people try to turn a similarly jaundiced eye towards our other ways of power generation.

        One of the advantages of nuclear energy is that it will mean that we will have to keep quite a bit of education going for it to work (not to mention avoiding the social disintegration issue of apparent self-sustainability). This advantage is certainly also one of its disadvantages (complexity vs robustness).

  24. Cal2

    “massive”, “commercialization”, “industry”

    While this article is credible and conservation is laudable and necessary, everything here seems to ignore small scale efforts, I guess because there’s no political power, profit or control of the population when people become more energy independent.

    For example “Solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants”, so, that’s the only choice for generating solar electricity?
    What’s the area of all the flat or south facing commercial and residential roofs in Germany?

    What about building design/remodeling/retrofitting? A dark concrete floor warmed by low angle winter sun obviates a lot of energy use in a home.

    How do Germans heat water? Third world nations have a solar water heater on practically every roof.

    1. Lepton1

      I call BS on the notion that solar requires 450 times more space than nuclear. Maybe they are just considering the reactor building itself. If you consider the security buffer, cooling towers, ancillary buildings, the land for the mines and for enhancement then one plant could easily cover a plot 3 or 4 miles on a side. My quick calculations say that produces an equivalent amount of solar power even considering efficiency, night and cloudy days.

      1. Anders K

        Two things.

        What about the mine for mining the materials, the plant for building the panels and the delivery infrastructure for the solar power? Does that not count “because renewable” ? What about decommisioning solar panels (and replacing them) ?

        Second: there is quite a bit of difference between the efficiency of solar power at different places of Earth.(and between different times of day/year). Nuclear power – ideally – provides for steady power when the people controlling it desires. Predictability of output is an advantage.

        Look, I am for solar power, and renewables in general. I am, however, against treating the cradle-to-grave-cycle of, say, nuclear power plants differently from the renewable kind (this is why I don’t think hydropower is likely to be a solution, the good places are in most places already used).

        While I respect that people don’t like nuclear power (and do understand the trust issues of big corps and governments running them), I get frustrated when the workers who dies from poor working conditions in the industrial production chain for renewables is ignored but Chernobyl isn’t.

  25. Hepativore

    The best way forward remains to expand upon nuclear energy’s role in electricity production as well as move away from light water reactor designs which are legacy models to those that can close the nuclear fuel cycle in addition to providing process heat for making synthetic fuels and district heating. While I realize that nuclear energy is a hot button issue for some people, we must realize how many people per year coal and natural gas kill through their normal operation. There is also the fact that the most damaging cases of disasters caused by energy production were things like the Banqiao dam collapse in China, or the TVA coal slurry flood in Tennessee or all of the underground coal fires that burn world wide. There has never been a single person killed in the US by a civilian-grade reactor and even in Fukushima, there have been only three deaths from people on site. Two of them were workers that were caught outside when the Tsunami hit, and the third was a retirement-age worker who died of a heart attack on the job a few days later and he had a known underlying heart condition. Also, nobody mentions the dozens of workers killed at the natural gas plants in Japan which exploded as a result of the earthquake.

    Yet despite all of this, nuclear is actively shunned by many people while we continue to make use of both fossil fuels and hydroelectric power. Why does nuclear energy get singled out so much? As far as “cost”, before the NRC was the agency placed in charge of nuclear reactor approval or construction in the 1970’s, we did not seem to have any difficulty designing and building nuclear reactor sites in an expedient and cost-effective manner. The reason why things are so expensive now is that the process for building a new nuclear reactor site has become highly politicized rather than for any technical or engineering hurdle. If we could do this before, we can do it again. After all, look at modern-day France.

    Anyway, before this post gets too long, here are some links:

    An analysis on how much subsidies other energy sources get compared to nuclear energy

    A history on nuclear power construction costs

    1. Acacia

      Are you going to include the elevated number of suicides in Japan related to the Fukushima disaster?

      Also, bear in mind:

      — Tens of thousands of tons of radioactive water still leaking at Fukushima Dai-Ichi
      — Tens of thousands of people still displaced from the fallout areas; many will never go home
      — Only 30-40% of the refugees have been compensated, and not fully
      — Japanese govt has tried to minimize liability by adopting a highly controversial 20mS limit, 20x international norms
      — Land value has been lost due to radioactive contamination; eminent domain used to create dump sites on private land
      — Contaminated land is no longer viable for farming and dairy; local agriculture has been ruined
      — Loss of intangible values (culture, community, history)
      — Thousands of people will be working decades to clean up and decommission the crippled reactor

      1. UserFriendly

        Elevated suicide rates? God, the fear of nuclear is SOOOOOOOO much more fatal than actual nuclear radiation.

        Tens of thousands of blah blah blah that isn’t killing anyone.

  26. Hilary Barnes

    Could of course consider reducing human population, but who in any given state is going to vote for that!

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      At some point, Nature is going to take care of that part since we won’t. Granted, it’s no easy task.

  27. juliania

    I have to say I somewhat disagree with the statement that ‘an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products” since that is actually what we on this living earth do – because our waste products have a magical component in that they transform – into topsoil, for example. Hence organic, sustainable farming.

    I cannot say how much of this article devolves from this early statement; but even if indeed renewables are dead, from death comes life in the world as we daily encounter it. (I realize that in an enclosed environment these life-producing elements can be toxic; but where there are other factors such as the basics – earth, water, air, fire – of natural existence, all need not be lost.)

  28. Tom Bradford

    Solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants, and wind farms take 700 times more land than natural gas wells, to produce the same amount of energy.

    A typical statement from the article – true at its own level but also misleading and intended to be dramatic. As has been pointed out above, ‘solar farms’ can share land with existing structures almost invisibly – on rooftops, not just domestic but the acre+ rooftops of schools, hospitals, factories and warehouses. Yes windfarms cover a lot of land, but the 90% of that land that isn’t utilised by the infrastructure is available for grazing, horticulture, orcharding, hot-houses or even wild-life sanctuaries.

    In 1940 Britain faced a national emergency. The response, rationing and a huge switch of resources into the ‘simple’ fight for survival, was dramatic and effective, and my grandparents, who were there, spoke of it – and the sacrifices and inconveniences it involved – late in their lives with pride and even some fondness. Then, of course, the threat was immediate and obvious whereas the threats of global warming are – or were – nebulous and distant. However as those threats become more obvious, immediate and personal, and when even idiots like the President of the United States have to take their heads out of the sand, I believe humanity has the capacity to respond. Of course the longer it’s left the more draconian the response will have to be, but I do believe humanity will not go gentle into that good-night.

  29. OldOwl

    Being both German and a physicist I think I can add a few Wh worth of comments.

    As other commentators already mentioned, everything that’s been written in “Der Spiegel” needs to be taken with more than a grain of salt. In many respects it has become a propaganda outlet for the 1%.

    With regard to the so called “Energiewende” it has in my opinion not failed, but succeeded beyond the expectations of its original authors.
    That’s why it needed to be effectively killed by Merkel to please her masters from the “industrial/financial complex”. During her tenure through small and subtle changes in the rules it so happened that all benefits accrued to the large electricity customers, who now pay much lower prices than before and all costs accrue to the average customer, who pays much more. On a sunny and windy day electricity is almost free for those who can take advantage of the system. Its a textbook case of “disaster capitalism”, without the violence and therefore easy to miss.

    To the main point of invoking the laws of physics to claim that a renewable future is impossible is every so slightly misleading.
    While it is certainly true that our fossil fuel use is unsustainable, especially with the current trajectory of population growth, there is nothing in the laws of nature that prevents mankind from both reducing the energy use, changing the energy mix to renewables and very importantly limiting the population growth. What makes this challenging is that all three issues (and more) need to be taken on at the same time. As others mentioned before there is no silver bullet that let’s us continue as before.

    If we don’t do it Nature will do it for us, and it will not be pretty.

  30. nothing but the truth

    1. in the long term the only way out at the current levels of energy use per capita increase is via fusion.

    2. the real problem is not energy, it is population. we are already in the malthusian endgame. Humanity’s steady state stable population over the centuries would have been around 100-200 million. I don’t think the planet can sustain humans and their food as the only species. That would be absurd.

  31. Acacia

    This article lost me in the first two paragraphs. E.g.:

    … exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs

    Could somebody kindly translate this into plain English?

  32. Richard

    I agree that we need radical conservation of energy, but in combination with renewable energy, not as a substitute. And we need this radical conservation, not as an ad hoc strategy in reaction to the current world situation with regard to climate change and humankind’s relationship to nature as a whole but as a systemic change or shift in our political and economic systems and our American civilization as a whole. We need much more change than the currently existing two major parties are ever likely to provide. We need a real revolution, long term and nonviolent, but way beyond a slogan in somebody’s presidential campaign. And we will need a different political party to push this through. One of the things that concerns me that I see reflected in some of the comments to this post is the apparent belief that if we make the transition to where we need to be in the use of energy without planned changes achieved through intervention through government, maybe through some kind of “collapse” in our political and economic systems humankind will survive somehow, and we’ll just shift to a more decentralized way of life. I don’t see how. Almost all of our production systems are highly centralized and under private control and stretched around the planet. A “collapse” when it comes, will cascade around the planet and be unimaginably horrifying. We have no choice. We need to start pushing for really major change in many different areas, and not just the right presidential candidate. As things stand now, we will be lucky if the Democatic Party manages to push Trump from power, and even if they do, that will not be enough.

  33. Boothroyd

    Overcoming evolutionary hardwired human behavior may be the biggest problem to overcome.

  34. Dan

    The new wind farm in Kenya, inspired and financed by Germany and other well-meaning Western nations, is located on a major flight path of migratory birds.

    The underlying assumption, always prevalent even in most “liberal” circles – hell, even among most Berniecrats – that Western nations are well-meaning in their do-good endeavors, is the crux of the problem. These entities are only interested in profit, expansion, and ultimately control, in service of the aforementioned. Everything else is window dressing. End of story.

    Humanitarian intervention, National defense, and Security are likewise teasers in the interest of power.

    Libya before and after NATO “humanitarian intervention”:

    Gaza after recent Israeli “security” measures – the typical drastically disproportionate Israeli response to a few bottle rocket attacks which themselves were instigated by Israeli aggression – par for the course, paid for with U.S. taxpayer money:

    War and aggression aren’t so great for our environment either.

    Some folks recently celebrated Earth Day. A society that devastates our environment 365 days a year and then has the audacity to celebrate “Earth Day” is pathological indeed.

  35. John Tebbutt

    I find it difficult to read this as anything but a Luddite screed. No serious alternatives are even suggested, let alone elaborated on. The assumption is that the capabilities of renewable tech will remain at current levels. Then there is the outrageously absurd claim that coal fired power stations take up a lot less space than solar farms, conveniently ignoring the vast tracts of land destroyed or repurposed to provide fuel for these plants and the toxic waste from the mines themselves. There are two words the juxtaposition of which is obscene and yet are everyday parlance in the coal industry: mountaintop removal.
    To bring the third law of thermodynamics into the argument is beyond the pale, if not laughable. When we capture energy that bathes the planet and adapt it to our own uses, we are engaging in a process that has succeeded spectacularly since well before our ancestors crawled out of the oceans.
    The author must be aware of the effects technological progress on the efficiency of energy use, therefore the point of the article can only be to provoke, irritate and/or discourage renewable energy advocates, and possibly to promote the enrichment of those in the fossil fuel industry. Quite astonishing.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I hate to tell you, but most “renewable tech” as in wind, hydro and solar, are pretty mature. I was looking at both thin film solar panel and solar farm deals in the early 1990s. And no one has every suggested that there are improvements in the pipeline that would end or even significantly reduce their use of materials that are environmentally destructive to mine. You also hand-wave away that building new infrastructure has very large energy costs.

      And you finally ignore the problems with batteries, which others (who are engineers or otherwise expert) have addressed in this thread. And many are instances they are inherent. Putting energy into a battery and taking it out of a battery each results in a loss of energy.

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