Energy Delusions: The Receding Horizons of Renewable Energy
By Nicholas T. Dahlheim
To confess, I’ve been burned out lately with the way energy policy and the future of the industrial economy are discussed. Something has always nagged at me—that the technophilia so prevalent in institutions of higher learning and that is so seductive to non-profits, the business community, and the broader political system guided as they are by the Myth of Progress is unwarranted and perhaps counterproductive to the world confronting chronic and acute environmental problems. And I’ve needed to take time off not only to reflect on the problematics of technolphilia but also to make such reflection consonant with my own biorhythms and those of Mother Nature.
Nowhere, perhaps, do the Myth of Progress and unawareness of biorhythms more inhibit critical thinking than they do with respect to the prospects for renewable energy to save the global industrial civilization from the inevitable decline that Peak Oil and Climate Change will thrust upon it. Well-meaning persons of great education and technical skill believe that mass construction of giant wind turbines or installation of solar panels on the rooftops of homes and businesses can supplant modern society’s dependence upon bountiful, inexpensive stocks of fossil fuel-based energy. Similarly, others believe that fossil fuel generation can be dramatically cleaned-up through gargantuan carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects; and that new extraction techniques can prolong the lives of aging mines and dying fields. A global energy system organized around wind, solar, geothermal, and perhaps some residual fossil fuel production (provided it were aided by carbon capture and sequestration) can provide energy to engage in useful economic activities. Yet, the earnest advocates of a “green” economy based upon the exploitation of such “clean” and “renewable” energy sources fail to recognize the enormous hidden energy subsidies fossil fuels provide to maintain the complexity of the interconnected global industrial economy that renewable resources—at any scale and operating at peak efficiency—can never replace.
Put simply, renewable energy drawn from intermittent sun and wind (supplemented by squeezing out additional fossil fuel energy reserves using more energy and capital intensive methods) will not supply the current economy with sufficient resources to maintain its high-level of integration and connectivity. A renewable energy economy, provided that it is constructed with the greatest of care and haste as well as with full knowledge of its inherent limits, will only be able to support a more decentralized artisan economy. The industrialized global economy featuring mass-produced consumer goods (ie—a large numbers of flashy new electronic gizmos) will become a relic of the past, and socio-economic arrangements of new kinds will emerge in the wake of the global economy’s disintegration. Community leaders, scientists, engineers, political figures, and educators need to prepare for an economic environment of far greater uncertainty than many have previously imagined. Essentially, the limits of Peak Oil and Climate Change will constrain even the ability of the best renewable energy technologies to sustain much less grow the industrial economy. The net energy production, measured in terms of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI), of renewable energy technologies is much lower than for most conventional fossil fuel sources over the lifecycles of the respective projects (using accepted Life Cycle Analysis methods). And lower net energy production for the globalized economy as a whole, including all of the relevant stakeholders; will prove insufficient to pay for the social and economic costs of maintaining a complex society. Thus, the global economy will unravel to the point that lower complexity will allow only for economies of smaller scale to exploit the reduced net energy surplus available to an economy dominated by renewable energy.
The oil, coal, and gas representing solar energy stored up for millions of years represented a one time bequeathal to the humans who would exploit that resource so heavily in transforming the world’s economy towards industrial production. The energy densities of gas, coal, and oil are significantly higher than all other non-nuclear energy, with the energy density of crude oil approximately 37 MJ/L. Renewable sources like wind and solar draw energy from diffuse sources and consequently have estimated energy densities far less than those of fossil fuels. Large wind farms and concentrated solar power stations, even when operating at peak efficiency, still are subject not only to the diffuse nature of their energy sources but also their intermittency. A major wind farm, for instance, without access to backup generation from natural gas power plants, cannot meet the needs of the electrical grid in a modern economy. Solar power is subject to similar limits. Furthermore, giant wind turbines require the manufacture of high-grade steel—itself a process dependent upon cheap fossil fuels. Large wind turbines also transform the mechanical energy of the wind into electrical power through the use of magnets made of rare earth elements that are themselves mined from low-grade ores, using copious amounts of fossil fuels in the process.
Finally, the decline of the availability of cheap fossil fuels will also diminish the time horizons and scalability of renewable energy technology such that the continued profligacy of oil use for, say, private automobile transport in the United States, greatly reduces the ability of the economy as a whole to transition effectively towards a future of scarce fossil fuel inputs.
Intermittent, variable energy sources like wind and solar captured by highly complex power systems themselves dependent upon fossil fuels for their manufacture and maintenance thus cannot supply the centralized manufacturing processes vital to the interconnected, globalized industrial economy.