A 100 Percent Renewable Energy Transition: Wishful Thinking or Imperative Goal?
It comes as no surprise that a global transition to 100 percent renewable energy has been challenged by the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries on multiple grounds, including the alleged lack of backup power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, or that the land requirements are far too large to ever be implemented on a scale that could supply comparable energy now provided by fossil fuels and nuclear power.
Both these claims have been convincingly rebutted by proponents of a 100 percent renewable transition (for example, Mark Jacobson’s Stanford group). However, similar challenges have come from those identifying themselves as “green”, with the primitivist extreme, even calling for the collapse of industrial civilization (for instance, Derrick Jensen).
A recent challenge from the “green” camp can be found in Stan Cox’s article, “100 Percent Wishful Thinking: The Green-Energy Cornucopia” (September 9, 2017). The basic message of Cox’s website, Green Social Thought, is “Produce less. Distribute it fairly. Create a greener world for all.”
Kudos to the last two imperatives. But, like much of the degrowth discourse (Schwartzman, 2012), the first one lacks clarity about what should be produced less, and it begs the question: Is there a need to produce more of some things, too?
There are two critical questions addressed in Cox’s article that should be of general interest:
1) Is a 100 percent global renewable energy transition technically possible in a short time frame (20 to 30 years) while providing comparable levels of energy to society as now?
2) Even assuming such a transition can be accomplished technically, could it be realized within the constraints of market capitalism as we know it?
Cox gives a negative answer to both questions, but bases his views on very problematic critiques focusing largely on the technical aspects of the Jacobson group studies.
I agree with Cox in his skepticism with regard to the achievability of a robust, global, 100% renewable transition unfolding in the next few decades—but only if fossil capital and its military protectors continue to have a powerful role in determining climate and energy policy especially in the U.S.
The military industrial (fossil fuel nuclear state terror and surveillance) complex—MIC, for short—is the main obstacle to making this rapid shift to 100% renewable energy possible, with ongoing perpetual wars driven by its imperial agenda, the vicious cycle of conflict between state terror, and its non-state terrorist antagonists, as I have long argued in my papers (most recently in “Beyond eco-catastrophism: the conditions for solar communism,” in Socialist Register 2017).
Hence, a path towards the dissolution of the MIC must open up soon to have any remaining chance to keep warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal by 2100, coupled with bringing down the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below 350 parts per million (PPM). A global green New Deal is such a path, as recently argued by Felix FitzRoy in “How the renewable energy transition could usher in an economic revolution.”
The real existing political economy of capitalism is the obstacle, and not the alleged technical problems cited by Cox, which are misleadingly used as ammunition against the feasibility of the imperative need to facilitate a rapid 100% global renewable wind/solar energy transition. This transition would of course include the radical phase-out of fossil fuels starting in the very near future, starting with those with the highest GHG footprint—namely, coal, natural gas (methane leakage to the atmosphere), and non-conventional petroleum (e.g., tar sands).
“at least in affluent countries, it would be better simply to transform society so that it operates on far less end-use energy while assuring sufficiency for all. That would bring a 100% renewable energy system within closer reach and avoid the outrageous technological feats and gambles required by high-energy dogma. It would also have the advantage of being possible.”
This position is further described as the need for “a regulated, low-energy economy”. This goal is similar to what has been championed by others, namely Ted Trainer of the Simplicity Institute whose views I have critiqued (here and here), as well as Derrick Jensen (e.g., 2012) both arguing that the world must radically reduce its consumption of energy. Cox quotes Loftus et al. (2015) saying “They concluded that it would be “premature and highly risky to ‘bet the planet’” on the achievement of scenarios like those [e.g., Jacobson group’s 100 percent renewable plan].
Actually, it would be their alternative, a shift to a low-energy global economy which would be a suicidal choice for humanity, a transition that would condemn most of the world to a future of energy poverty even worse than at present and forgo the chance of creating the clean energy capacity to bring the atmospheric carbon dioxide level down below 350 ppm (it is now 400 ppm). As apparently first demonstrated by Vaclav Smil, there is a robust relationship between energy consumption per person and life expectancy (see graph on www.solarUtopia.org) with most of the world’s population below the world standard high life expectancy.
What Cox advocates is limiting greenhouse warming “sufficiently to allow communities around the world who are currently impoverished and oppressed to improve their lives; that access to food, water, shelter, safety, culture, nature, and other necessities becomes sufficient for all” (emphasis added). But unless sufficient global renewable energy capacity is created, above the present level corresponding to 18 trillion watts, most of humanity (of those who will survive ongoing dangerous climate change) will have settle for less than what the privileged elites in the global North get, the best education, nutrition and health care.
In contrast, I have argued for the following imperative: every child born on our planet has the right to the state-of-the- science life expectancy now shared by a few countries in the global North, not simply a “satisfactory” quality of life. The rough minimum necessary for the current highest life expectancy countries (e.g., Spain, Italy, Portugal) is 3.5 kilowatt/person, with energy wasteful United States at 9.2 kilowatt/person. 3.5 kilowatt/person as a global average captures the impact of regional climate on energy consumption, especially for air conditioning in warm climates facing even more warming.
As the global climate warms, the energy demand for the global South, where most of humanity lives, is expected to increase, out-weighing a decrease from lower heating needs in high latitudes of the global North. Of course the U.S. and other energy wasteful countries of the global North need to reduce its energy consumption with significant improvements in quality of life but those countries with the highest life expectancy are already close to the minimum, and will also benefit from a shift to wind/solar power.
Within the near future context for energy transition confronting the ever-mounting threat of catastrophic climate change, the following challenges point to the need for a significantly higher global energy supply than now, even taking into account higher efficiencies possible in a wind/solar energy transition. Incremental energy will be required for the following new challenges facing humanity:
1) Climate mitigation by carbon sequestration from the atmosphere into the soil and crust to bring down the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below the safe level of 350 ppm and maintaining it below this level (the atmospheric carbon dioxide level is now 400 ppm).
2) The clean-up of the biosphere, notably toxic metals and other chemical and radioactive waste from the nuclear weapons, energy, and chemical industries—a heritage of its long-term assault from the MIC, and other industrial wastes such as plastic particles in the ocean, threatening its ecosystems.
3) The repair and expansion of physical infrastructure such as electrified rail, and the creation of green cities globally,
4) Adaptation to ongoing climate change, especially by the global South with its disproportionate impacts, even if warming could be kept to below 1.5 deg C.
All four imperatives will require very significant energy supplies from future wind/solar power, incremental to present uses. Estimates for the energy needed for carbon sequestration from the atmosphere alone correspond to a rough minimum of 4 trillion watts of power capacity. Carbon sequestration from the atmosphere will require a very ambitious program involving a combination of technologies, including the transformation of agriculture to agroecologies, as well reacting carbon dioxide and water with mafic rocks and crust to produce carbonates; this is not “clean coal”, i.e., carbon capture and storage (CCS). This sequestration program will be imperative for the rest of this century and beyond because approximately half of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions go into the ocean and biota, which continuously re-equilibrate with the atmosphere (see http://www.cnsjournal.org/should-we-reject-negative-emissions-technologies-except-for-organic-agriculture/.
We can anticipate significant improvements in energy efficiency but because of growing global population and new energy needs, especially for climate mitigation and adaptation, the optimal global energy consumption with 100% renewable supplies will correspond to a power level likely approaching on the order of 25 trillion watts.
We should recognize the invaluable contribution of the Jacobson research group in their demonstration of the technical feasibility of a 100% global renewable energy transition which would result in a very significant reduction in premature deaths from fossil fuel-derived air pollution. Nevertheless, the Jacobson group’s modeling for 2050 still projects effective energy poverty for much of humanity, e.g., with India ending up with 0.64 kilowatt/person (Jacobson et al., 2017). Their projection for 2050 is 11.84 trillion watts of end-use power. Global consumption would likely need about twice this level to meet the full challenges of energy poverty and additional energy for humanity’s challenges in the 21st Century.
Our own modeling demonstrates that a rapid global wind/solar transition is achievable in some 20 years using current technologies (we used a conservative estimate of a composite wind/solar energy return/energy invested ratio (Footnote 1), which will only improve on the way to completion while eliminating energy poverty, particularly in the global South, and generating the capacity for carbon sequestration from the atmosphere into the soil and crust (Schwartzman and Schwartzman, 2011).
Further, as previous energy transitions, such as human/plant power to coal, this transition must draw on energy resources now available (85% of global consumption from fossil fuels), but the required energy for this path would correspond to a total input of just a few percent of current fossil fuel consumption used per year until fossil fuel consumption is eliminated. This transition is possible because as renewable energy capacity exponentially increases it makes more of itself, finally terminating the use of fossil fuel energy. If this transition starts in the near future, the goal of keeping below 1.5 deg C warming could be realized.
Recycling and industrial ecologies powered by wind/solar power should also greatly reduce the need for mining. For example, recycling rates of the rare earth metals, including neodymium used in wind turbines, is currently very low, less than 1% (Reck and Graedel, 2012). Increasing these rates, as well as implementing alternative technologies, could greatly reduce mining for these and other metals used in modern technologies. Hence we can we anticipate a transition to post-extractivist future, parallel to the wind/solar transition.
As far as the citations of critique of the 100% renewable path, especially of the most comprehensive study (Jacobson et al., 2017), I invite the reader to check out the Jacobson group’s detailed rebuttals of critiques such as Clack et al., at the Stanford website. The 139 countries study (Jacobson et al., 2017) provides in-depth simulations that contradict the allegations in papers cited by Cox. I will only address a few of these highly misleading claims here. Cox says “countless entire ecosystems across the Earth’s surface will have been sacrificed to generate more electricity..if we are to halt our degradation and destruction of the Earth’s natural ecosystems, it will be necessary to declare large areas off-limits to the energy sector.” Jacobson et al. (2017) indicates in their 139 countries paper, by 2050 target date, the land footprint plus spacing area required (in addition to existing installations as of 2015) is 1.2% of these countries’ land area, with most devoted to onshore wind power. Jacobson et al. (2015) conclude from their U.S. modeling:
“The new footprint over land required will be ~0.42% of U.S. land. The spacing area between wind turbines, which can be used for multiple purposes, will be ~1.6% of U.S. land….Table 2 indicates that the total new land footprint required for the plans, averaged over the U.S. is ~0.42% of U.S. land area, mostly for solar PV power plants (rooftop solar does not take up new land). This does not account for the decrease in footprint from eliminating the current energy infrastructure, which includes the footprint for mining, transporting, and refining fossil fuels and uranium and for growing, transporting, and refining biofuels” (p. 2097).
In contrast what is the land area of ecosystems already impacted by fossil fuel use, e.g., in the U.S., which would be prime candidates for restoration in a transition to 100% renewables ? Allred et al.’s (2015) estimate that 3 million hectares of ecosystems (0.4% of U.S. land area, excluding California and Alaska) has been lost from oil/gas development in Central North America (U.S. and Canada) since 2000, and this does not include land losses associated with nearly 300,000 miles of natural gas pipeline across the lower 48 States, nor from fossil fuel power plants/fossil fuel refineries, nor from oil and gas land use east of the Great Plains, nor from the mining of uranium etc.
Thus, we can conclude that a global wind/solar transition especially if implemented in a robust environmental/ecological/health protection regime driven by bottom-up management and control would actually impact less land than the present legacy and infrastructure of fossil fuels/nuclear power.
Cox claims that if implemented a high-energy 100 percent renewable world “would leave in place today’s great distortions in access to energy and other resources…[while] The American economy would carry on uninterrupted with its overproduction, overconsumption, and inequality, while billions of people in poorer regions and countries would not get the access to energy that’s required for a minimally good quality of life.”
If by some stretch of the imagination, a market-driven reproduction of green capital actually delivers a 100 percent renewable infrastructure within the constraints of the MIC, then such a projection is plausible. But given the role of the “Moloch”, aka the MIC, human and nature destroyer, only if this obstacle is overcome in time can a prevention program to avoid climate catastrophe be implemented, with a process of global solarization, demilitarization, transformation of agriculture to agroecologies. This process would create a global regime of cooperation, with the “other world that is still possible” emerging with bottom-up social management of society. I submit this scenario would simultaneously open up the best prospect of global ecosocialist transition. In other words, radical changes in both the political and physical economies are imperative to prevent climate catastrophe, and the changes in the former are the necessary conditions for the latter. All is contingent on the growing strength of multi-dimensional/transnational class struggle, on the convergence of movements for climate/energy/environmental justice and for peace and demilitarization.
 We assumed an EROEI (energy return over energy invested) ratio of 20. This ratio has increased for all three technologies—namely, photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, and wind turbines (especially offshore) and further increases, including revolutionary developments in thin-film photovoltaics and high altitude collection of wind power are very plausible in the coming decade. A very useful critique of arguments for low wind/solar EROEI ratios compared to that of fossil fuels (e.g., Charles Hall) is available at this blog: http://bountifulenergy.blogspot.com/search?q=6+errors