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“We continue to be amazed at how many commentators, otherwise very thoughtful and well-informed, seem to think that humans will find technological solutions, such as super-efficient appliances and mag-lev light rail, to cure the impending energy shortfall. That won’t happen, and our Ponzi money system is why.”
Ted Glick, in “Making a Renewable Energy Revolution,” Future Hope, March 2, 2014, writes:
A climate revolutionary is someone who works for a rapid and just transition away from oil, coal, gas and nukes to an economy powered primarily by wind, solar and geothermal energy, with energy sources increasingly decentralized and community-based, with society-wide energy conservation and energy efficiency, and with a conscious plan to ensure that this transition is done in a way which creates living wage jobs both for the currently unemployed and for workers in the fossil fuel industry who lose their jobs because of the shift to renewables. There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of activists in the United States who I believe are in general agreement with this perspective. They are part of the numerous local, state, regional and national groups which prioritize the climate issue in some way.
Don’t get us wrong. We admire Ted Glick.
We have been bullish on transitioning the world back to solar energy since the late 1960s, when we bought our first solar cells and started tinkering with wind generators. By the early 70s, when we started Global Village Institute as ‘Global Village Technology,’ we were constructing concentrating arrays using Fresnel lenses and exotic gallium arsenide silicon chips and bending our own windmill blades on self-made presses, as our copies of Soft Energy Paths and The Mother Earth News grew dog-eared. In the 80s we enjoyed a steady diet of encouragement from Barry Commoner, Bill Mollison and Denis Hayes and hoped fervently that the world would beat the last remaining blades of fossil sunlight into solar plowshares.
A half-century later, we are likely seeing the end of that dream, not for want of desire, but from simple arithmetic. Industrial scale renewable energy will inevitably decline. Don’t mistake this prediction as saying we are at peak renewables. Quite the contrary. Perhaps even the nascent industry has a good ways to go, borne on the wings of capital flight from fossil and nuclear, and much good can yet be accomplished. But as a share of overall energy production, renewables are still in the trough that they slid into at mid-Nineteenth Century. On a straight-line chart, they could climb out of that slump by mid- to late-Twenty-First Century. What we won’t have, though, is the technological civilization Ted Glick takes for granted. The renewable energy source with the biggest market share will be firewood.
How long the solar and wind farm phenomena persist will depend on how long our current ‘extend and pretend’ debt-based global economic paradigm can be sustained. Maybe another month. Maybe half a century. But when that is done, we will be back once more to something approaching fully solar. You can take that to the bank.
Lets run a few numbers to demonstrate.
Energy keeps our economy running. Energy is also what we use to obtain more energy. The more energy we use to obtain more energy, the less we have for anything else. That dilemma was most recently explained in superlative detail by Steve Kopits in a talk at Columbia University in February.
The trend is already clear: the energy of the future will have lower energy return on energy invested — EROEI — than the energy of the past. Apart from some rare abiogenic sources, all fossil fuels are biofuels — from plants and animals that grew and harvested sunlight over millions of years. All renewables derive from the current energy flux (sunlight, wind, tides, plant growth, or heat from the earth) in real time. Renewables have low EROEI compared to high-carbon fuels such as coal and oil. In some cases — the Alberta Tar Sands, many shale oil plays, new nuclear — the EROEI may even be net minus. What is being purchased with greater nature-debt is time.
Jeff Vail, in a 2009 post, offered these two examples:
Basic data: 1.2 MW array installed 2009 in Los Angeles, cost $16.5 million up front (ignoring rebates/tax credits/incentives), projected financial return of $550,000 per year. At the rough California rate of $.15 per KWh, that’s about 4 GWh per year (conservative).
Price-Estimated-EROEI Calculation: The $16.5 million up-front is, at $0.09/KWh (here using national average, as there’s no reason to think that manufacturers would use primarily California peaking power to build this system), an input of 183 GWh through installation (I’m ignoring the relatively small maintenance costs here, which will also make the figure more conservative). If we assume a life-span of 40 years, then the energy output of this system is 160 GWh. That’s a price-estimated EROEI of 0.87:1.
Wind Example: I’ve had a more difficult time finding a recent wind project where good data (on both cost and actual, as opposed to nameplate, output) is available. As a result, I’ve chosen a 2000 Danish offshore wind project at Middelgrunden. While up-front expenses may be higher off-shore (making the resulting EROEI more accurate for offshore projects than on-shore), I think this is a relatively modern installation (2MW turbines).
Basic data: Cost of $60 million, annual energy output 85 GWh. Price-Estimated-EROEI Calculation: At the US national average rate for electricity ($0.09/KWh), the $60 million up-front energy investment works out to 666 GWh. Using a life-span of 25 years (and assuming zero maintenance, grid, or storage investment, making the result artificially high), the energy output comes to 2125 GWH. That’s a price-estimated-EROEI of 3.2:1.
While it might have been possible to build a Maya-type or Roman-type civilization on an EROEI of 3:1, it is not possible to sustain modern technological complexity on anything much below 5:1. Remember, we put men on the moon and laid internet fiber cables under the oceans when EROEI was 100:1, so even 5:1 is pretty speculative, and would likely require some significant technological leaps that have not occurred despite vast capital being thrown at them, and now seem unlikely (i.e.: “fairy dust”).
One bellweather is air travel. Since Peak Oil was hit globally in 2005, airlines have been operating on the edge of bankruptcy, cutting amenities to allocate more cash to purchasing fuel. It has been reportedthat without the quick and dirty impact of US shale oil in 2012, some airlines would have already gone into receivership.
We continue to be amazed at how many commentators, otherwise very thoughtful and well-informed, seem to think that humans will find technological solutions, such as super-efficient appliances and mag-lev light rail, to cure the impending energy shortfall. That won’t happen, and the Ponzi money/debt system is why, but frankly, we find it difficult to imagine a civilization approaching ours in complexity being able to subsist on daily solar income in much the same style it had on that 500-million year fossil energy trust fund, even if money were magically reformed.
Since 2008 it has become clear that the timing of the crash of our oil-dependent civilization comes around to the fate of a single indicator. It comes down to James Carville’s famous imperative for the Clinton Campaign: “It’s The Economy Stupid!” We can count ourselves lucky, from a climate standpoint, that globalization was still relatively young when the party ran out of ice and had to break up.
All political systems exist to concentrate wealth at the center at the expense of the periphery. So to maintain their complex central operating systems and lavish gifts upon their extremely wealthy and wasteful bazillionaires, London, New York, Stockholm, Moscow and Beijing sucked wealth out of very large moneysheds — Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia. When they can’t do that anymore — because the EROEI crisis has become a financial crisis — the sell orders will start to cascade. Distant trading relationships have a hard time remaining stable. Empire centers have to start maintaining their unsustainably high standards of living by sucking up marginal wealth from smaller, closer areas. This is what happened in ancient Rome and is now happening on the European periphery. That strategy only gets you so far before the local wealth is completely exhausted and there is nothing left to drain.
This is the soft underbelly of industrial scale renewable energy. It is not shortages of rare earths or energy inputs to make solar cells and windmills. It is the ability to finance production when your economic system is in free fall.
Life often presents us with paradoxes, but seldom so blatant or consequential as the following. Read this sentence slowly: Today it is especially difficult for most people to understand our perilous global energy situation, preciselybecause it has never been more important to do so. Got that? No? Okay, let me explain. I must begin by briefly retracing developments in a seemingly unrelated field—climate science.
Richard Heinberg is the author of eleven books including ‘The Party’s Over’, ‘The End of Growth’, and ‘Snake Oil’. He is Senior Fellow-in-Residence of Post Carbon Institute and is widely regarded as one of the …