Volume 52, Issue 2: Summer 2018

The limits of renewable energy and the case for degrowth

Photo from Pixabay

The energy transition is the focus of much discussion. To read the accounts in the mainstream media, one gets the impression that renewable energy is being rolled out quickly and is on its way to replacing fossil fuels without much ado, while generating new green jobs. If the claims of Jeremy Rifkin are to be believed, renewable energy will become cheaper and cheaper, on the model of computers and telecommunications.

But what is the current combined share of solar photovoltaic energy and solar thermal energy, wind and tidal energy, and geothermal energy? (I am not including hydroelectric power and biomass here. While they are arguably forms of renewable energy, they are typically looked at separately because, having reached maturity, they have limited potential for expansion, unlike solar and wind power which remain underexploited.) People tend to think it constitutes 5, 10 or even 20 per cent of total energy production. The figure is actually much smaller: a mere 1.5 per cent. That’s the net result of the last 45 years of progress on the energy transition, according to the official figures of the International Energy Agency.

To break it down, from 1973 to 2015:

  • The share of petroleum in the global energy mix decreased from 46 per cent to 32 per cent
  • Coal’s share grew from 25 per cent to 28 per cent
  • Natural gas’s share grew from 16 per cent to 22 per cent
  • Nuclear’s share grew from 1 to 5 per cent
  • Hydroelectricity’s share grew from 2 to 3 per cent
  • The combined share of biofuels, wood and waste decreased from 11 per cent to 10 per cent
  • And renewable energy’s share grew by a factor of 15, from 0.1 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

Between 1990 and 2015, the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix (including nuclear energy in this particular calculation based on data from the BP Statistical Review) declined from 88 per cent to 86 per cent — a marginal decrease of 1 per cent per decade. And more recently, in spite of the significant growth of renewables, in actual quantities, the share of petroleum and gas increased twice as much as renewable electricity between 2011 and 2016.

What accounts for the gap between what people perceive as a rapid transition to renewable energy and the reality of quite meager progress? Part of the explanation lies with the use of relative data expressed as percentages: it’s easy to report big percentage increases when you’re talking about small numbers. Then there’s also the problem of media hype: boasting about achievements while remaining mum about failures. There is a real selection bias for success stories. Another typical media strategy is to publish forecasts of objectives to be achieved at some point in the distant future, which recede from memory as the day of reckoning approaches — no one is likely to recall dated, overly optimistic predictions.

The public discourse on renewables is intended to be reassuring, to bolster confidence in the State and industry, and in the belief that the market system will take us to where we need to go. It shores up the status quo. I take issue with the soothing dominant discourse and make the case for the following contentions:

  • The energy transition is unfolding much too slowly and will not be completed by 2050.
  • The stumbling blocks are greater and more numerous than the resistance of the fossil fuel industry.
  • Peak oil and the slow expansion of renewable energy will result in a decrease in the total quantity of energy available by 2050 or thereabouts.
  • The shortfall will bring about degrowth, which we can define here very briefly as a downscaling of industrial production and other energy-intensive and pollution-generating activities. Degrowth can be imposed by circumstance or it can be planned and depending on how it comes about it will have different implications for social justice.

The scope of the challenge

A successful energy transition can be defined as a 100-per-cent substitution of fossil fuels by renewable energy, including hydropower and biomass, by 2050. This would allow us to stop generating the greenhouse gases that are accelerating climate change. The Paris Agreement is actually a little less ambitious, proposing to reduce emissions by 80 per cent and make up the difference through carbon capture and storage. Since these technologies do not currently work on the desired scale and may never do so, the only truly safe path is to completely abandon fossil fuels.

But this is an enormous challenge. For the energy transition to succeed, this is what would need to happen in the next 32 years:

  • The renewable share of electric power would have to increase from the current 15-20 per cent (including hydropower and biomass energy) to 100 per cent.
  • The share of electricity in the global energy mix would have to increase from the current 18 per cent to 100 per cent.
  • Total energy production would have to double since, at the current growth rate, demand for energy will more than double in the next 32 years.

So if these calculations are correct, the plan would entail increasing the current renewable production by 6x5x2, in other words, by a factor of 60. From a strictly technical perspective, a transition of this scale is undoubtedly feasible. The technology exists, and it works. Whatever technical problems remain can likely be solved in the long run.

But there are significant practical hurdles and the timeframe is too short. In 2016, Italian researcher Ugo Bardi, member of the Club of Rome, estimated that the development of renewable-energy facilities would have to increase by 20 per cent per year from 2017 to 2022, and then by 10 per cent per year from 2023 to 2050. He now maintains that current investments in renewables represent only a tenth of the necessary outlay. And American climatologist Ken Caldeira has estimated that we would need to develop the equivalent of the energy production of a nuclear power plant every day from 2000 to 2050. At the current rate, the transition will take 363 years.

Why the delays?

The slow pace of the energy transition is commonly blamed on politicians’ lack of vision and the obstructive actions of entrenched interests, such as the fossil fuel industry. Although these are real constraints, they do not suffice to impede the deployment of forms of energy that would truly be more profitable and more convenient. Although renewable energy has clear benefits with respect to reducing greenhouse- gas emissions, they have some inherent limits which can be grouped into three categories:

Physical obstacles – these are problems attendant upon the laws of physics for which there are no technical fixes. One example is the Betz limit, which restricts a wind turbine from capturing more than 59.3 per cent of the kinetic energy in wind, or the huge surfaces required for solar panels.

Technical impediments – this refers to technical problems that have not been solved yet or material constraints that hinder the transition, such as developing enough productive capacity to manufacture the renewable energy equipment and infrastructure or to extract the rare metals that the operation of the equipment requires.

Social constraints – this refers to difficulties with financing equipment and infrastructure as well as the attitudes of various key actors, and changing consumption patterns. The transition impinges on longstanding habits, thus spawning resistance. Shifting subsidy patterns, for instance, will meet with resistance from industry, and reducing private car ownership and use is generally a tough proposition.

Five obstacles to renewable energy

There are five major obstacles to the energy transition, each typically involving some combination of the above-mentioned categories. They are not insuperable but do demand special attention.

The first of these is space. The various forms of renewable energy make greater demands in terms of land use than fossil fuels, which raises issues of appropriation and the industrialization of natural and human habitats. It represents a form of extractivism in relation to habitats. Take for example solar parks or wind farms developed on agricultural land or forests. The populations they displace or disrupt are most often poor or marginalized, particularly Indigenous peoples.

The problem is actually more serious than people care to admit. For one megawatt of power output, solar panels require roughly 2.5 acres of land, if we include the supporting infrastructure, and wind turbines require nearly 50 acres per megawatt. The direct footprint is about 1.5 acres, but the turbines need to be spread out to allow the wind to flow, raising the total land-use requirement substantially (in the case of wind farms, people can continue to live on the land in question, but cohabitation is problematic). Now, considering the growth of world energy consumption, which amounts to 2000 Terawatt hours per year, that adds up to 350,000 two-megawatt wind turbines. Just to meet yearly additional energy needs with wind power would thus require an area the size of the British Isles every year or half of Russia in 50 years.

Space is consequently an unavoidable physical obstacle. It is not an insurmountable technical problem, but it poses a significant social constraint (expropriation and the not-in-my-backyard syndrome).

The second obstacle concerns resources. Fossil fuels produce a large quantity of energy with relatively small facilities. But the various types of renewable energy necessitate extensive installations that require ten times as much metal as fossil fuels to produce the same amount of energy. In addition, batteries and extensive electric power transmission networks are necessary to compensate for the intermittence of the energy produced.

Dependence on a massive amount of material resources (steel, concrete, rare earth metals) often leads to the dispossession and forced labour of vulnerable people, such as the Congolese who produce cobalt in terrible conditions. And it can also be difficult to increase the production of certain metals to meet growing demand. For example, to obtain greater quantities of gallium, you need to increase aluminum production, of which gallium is a by-product. The same problem exists for cobalt and copper, with the added hitch that copper is becoming scarcer.

Classical economics teaches that supplies will not be depleted because price increases and technological innovation will make it possible to use poorer quality ore and thereby maintain production levels. But obtaining poorer quality ore requires more and more invasive and energy-intensive methods. The result is a vicious cycle: to produce more energy, more metals are necessary, and to produce more metals from low-grade ore requires more energy.

Scarcity of resources is not a physical obstacle in the short-term, but it can become one eventually. It is certainly a technical constraint, however, since industry is already competing for control of reserves of critical minerals and racing to develop alternatives that are less energy-intensive. It is also a social constraint because a sustainable future cannot be built on the dispossession of vulnerable populations.

The third obstacle to a renewable energy transition is the problem of intermittency. We are used to having electricity on demand. And since it can’t be stored, it also has to be consumed when it is produced. Wind and solar energy, which are available when the sun shines and the wind blows, don’t meet these two conflicting demands.

One idea often put forward is to store surplus energy in batteries. But these are costly, resourceintensive, and come up against major problems of scale. A lot of ink has been spilled over the giant lithium-ion battery that Tesla activated in Australia in 2017. But it was very expensive and has a limited capacity. At the prevailing price in Australia, a Tesla battery that can store the energy produced by a huge dam such as the Robert-Bourassa complex (LG2) in northern Québec for 24 hours would cost $33 billion. Even in the unlikely case that the price could be reduced tenfold, it would still be very hefty.

In practice, batteries are not used much to manage intermittency. It is usually dealt with by recourse to gas or wood pellet-burning power plants, with all the associated greenhouse gas emissions. We could alter our habits to cope with intermittency — by rationing electricity consumption when the sun isn’t shining, for example — but that would be a slow process and there would be major resistance from commerce and industry.

In sum, intermittency is a physical obstacle tied to the conditions of production. It definitely represents a technical impediment because the technology required to remedy it doesn’t yet exist or is too expensive. And there are serious social constraints involved in modifying behaviour to accommodate the problem.

The fourth limit to renewable energy is non-substitutability. Renewable electricity cannot replace all the uses of liquid fuels. Batteries simply can’t meet the energy needs of heavy machinery, airliners and merchant ships. Certain industrial processes require liquid fuels as raw material such as the manufacture of steel, plastics and fertilizers. For others, like aluminium and cement production, intermittency is a serious stumbling block because stoppages damage the infrastructure.

Some of these obstacles, such as limited battery capacity, are essentially insurmountable. The hope is to find a way around it, but right now it’s not at all clear how. In this instance we can’t really talk about a physical obstacle or a social constraint, but the technical impediment is greater than is generally acknowledged.

The fifth and final limit has to do with financing. With all the financial aid and grant money going to renewables, the industry could eventually take off — if it could just become profitable enough to allow it to invest at a faster pace. Deregulation and calls to tender have lately created cut-throat competition among producers, as a 2018 study by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy confirmed.

Given the poor financial returns and major risks associated with renewables, the energy sector remains cautious. For a successful transition to occur, about $14 trillion in investments in solar and wind energy would be needed by 2030. But spending in the battery sector will not exceed $10 billion, including research and deployment. In other words, there is a grossly inadequate allocation of funds.

What is at issue here is neither a physical obstacle nor a technical impediment; the constraint is entirely a social one. But that doesn’t make it less difficult to overcome than the others.

Where this leaves us

Due to the various constraints outlined above, it seems clear that renewables will not completely replace fossil fuels for existing energy needs. The transition will be partial, perhaps in the range of 30-50 per cent. Given that, in the meantime, the depletion of oil and gas resources will reduce the quantity of fossil fuels available, we may well have to rely on much less energy than is available to us at the current moment. This will put the nail in the coffin of economic growth as we know it.

What also seems clear is that the energy transition would be easier if we set our sights lower and agreed to dial down our level of material consumption. The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. With a 30-per-cent drop in GDP, we would revert to a standard of living equivalent to that enjoyed in 1993, while a 50-per -cent drop would mean a standard of living equivalent to 1977. A 50-per-cent reduction in energy consumption would bring us back to the level prevailing in 1975, while an 80-per-cent reduction would be similar to the 1950s. This is hardly a return to the Middle Ages. Our parents and grandparents didn’t rub sticks together in caves!

What’s crucial to take away from this discussion is that there are no purely technical solutions to the problems we face. To be successful, the energy transition must also be based on a change in needs and habits. For that to happen, we need some critical distance from the dominant discourse around the energy transition, green growth and the circular economy. These concepts are not the path to salvation. On the contrary, they serve to reaffirm faith in industrial capitalism as the system with all the solutions.

The obstacles to the transition to renewable energy reveal the limits of mainstream thinking and the impossibility of never-ending growth. Technological change will not suffice. We need to rethink consumerism and growth, which is all but impossible within the current capitalist framework.

Degrowth may be a more difficult road to travel, but it is more likely to get us where we need to go without planetary climate upheaval and without exacerbating social inequality.

Translated by Andrea Levy.

Philippe Gauthier is a a science journalist, translator and activist in Québec’s degrowth movement. His article in this issue is based on a talk delivered at the Great Transition conference in Montréal on May 20, 2018. He maintains a blog (in French) on energy and the environment: energieetenvironnement.com.