Sunday, March 18, 2018

The troubling realities of our energy transition

I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world's energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.

Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.

The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.

I hadn't included hydroelectricity in my list, I told the group, which would add another 2.5 percent to the renewable energy category. But hydro, I explained, would be growing only very slowly since most of the world's best dam sites have been taken.

The category "Biofuels and waste," which makes up 9.7 percent of the world total, includes small slivers of what we Americans call biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), I said, but mostly represents the deforestation of the planet through the use of wood for daily fuel in many poor countries, hardly a sustainable practice that warrants vast expansion. (This percentage has been roughly the same since 1973 though the absolute consumption has more than doubled as population has climbed sharply.) The burden for renewable energy expansion, I concluded, would therefore remain on the six categories I mentioned at the outset of my presentation.

As if to underline this worrisome state of affairs, the MIT Technology Review just days later published a piece with a rather longish title: "At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system."

In my presentation I had explained to my listeners that renewable energy is not currently displacing fossil fuel capacity, but rather supplementing it. In fact, I related, the U.S. government's own Department of Energy with no sense of alarm whatsoever projects that world fossil fuel consumption will actually rise through 2050. This would represent a climate catastrophe, I told my audience, and cannot be allowed to happen.

And yet, the MIT piece affirms that this is our destination on our current trajectory. The author writes that "even after decades of warnings, policy debates, and clean-energy campaigns—the world has barely even begun to confront the problem."

All this merely serves to elicit the question: What would it take to do what scientists think we need to do to reduce greenhouse gases?

The MIT piece suggests that a total mobilization of society akin to what happened in World War II would have to occur and be maintained for decades to accomplish the energy transition we need to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Few people alive today were alive back then. A somewhat larger group has parents who lived through World War II and so have some inkling of what such a mobilization would involve. It's hard enough to imagine this group agreeing that their household consumption should be curtailed significantly for decades (through taxes, higher prices and perhaps even rationing) to make way for huge societal investments in vast new wind and solar deployments; electricity storage for all that renewable electricity; mass transit; deep energy retrofits for buildings; energy-efficient vehicles; and even revised diets that are less meat-intensive and thereby less energy-intensive. Even harder to image is the much larger group with a more tenuous or nonexistent connection to the World War II experience embracing such a path.

The trouble with waiting, of course, is that climate change does not wait for us, and also that it shows up with multi-decadal lags. The effects of greenhouse gases emitted decades ago are only now registering on the world's thermometers. That means that when climate conditions finally become so destructive as to move the public and the politicians to do something big enough to make a difference, it will likely be too late to avoid catastrophic climate change.

One scientist cited by the MIT piece believes that a rise of more than 2 degrees C in global temperature is all but inevitable and that human society would be "lucky" to avoid a rise of 4 degrees by 2100.

But since each increment of temperature rise will inflict more damage, the scientist says, we would be wise to seek to limit temperature rise as much as we are able (even though the odds are now overwhelmingly against staying below a 2 degree rise). No longer are we faced with prevention so much as mitigation and management. That's still something, and it provides a way forward that doesn't rely on an increasingly unrealistic goal.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Joe said...

Absolutely right on. Only one thing will now curtail carbon emissions enough to save the climate from the most extreme warming, worldwide economic collapse.

Our best friend in that regard is the economic incompetence of Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Trump is so ignorant of climate science that he would also sacrifice the climate through any means possible, including burning lots of coal to support our economy.

It looks like we are stuck with watching a tug-o-war between the effects of Trump's incompetence and his ignorance on the functioning of the world economy (leaving his effect on the prospects of nuclear war to one side for now). I'm hoping incompetence will win out, and soon.

ewaf88 said...

With the cost of oil extractions rising it might be that market forces will lead to less polluting fossil fuel use.

However we are in a mess - one which was predicted way back in the 1950s and was mentioned in a film promoting nuclear energy.

I think Woody Allen also mentioned Global warming in his 1973 film sleeper.

Just imagine if we'd started adjusting our economies to wean ourselves off fossil fuels back in the 70s. Not only would our planet be a lot cleaner I'm sure the population would be lower too.

Trump may well be studied by future historians and labelled the biggest fool of all time

Steve said...

It is facts such as the ones presented that tend to confirm for me that we are destined to experience overshoot and collapse. We just can't seem to help ourselves. In fact, with all the techno-cornucopian narratives that help to reduce our mass cognitive dissonance, it seems we are--instead of mitigating and managing the pending crises--helping to hasten the collapse. And apart from a marginal minority of people even aware of these dilemmas, it seems to me that the vast majority of people either aren't even aware or really don't care. In all likelihood it will take a catastrophic calamity to shift behaviour towards sustainable practices (for the few that might come through the other side of our 'transition') or it will be a long and slow emergency/decline as James Howard Kunstler and John Michael Greer have suggested. My guess is that we will witness periodic crises taking us down a long, inevitable fall towards a world few of us alive today would recognize apart from some of our most dire post-apocalyptic fiction...

Adam Antatheist said...

" make way for huge societal investments in vast new wind and solar deployments; electricity storage for all that renewable electricity..."

9,999 in 10,000 of the general public [including many energy aficionados] are totally unaware that electricity from 'green energy' [wind and solar pv] is insanely expensive compared to electricity from nuclear power.

And the tragedy of it all is - it can so easily be demonstrated by simple arithmetic an 11 year-old can do:

But first of all, the duplicity of wind farm and solar park operators [in the UK] has to taken into account, because initial claims of 'Homes Powered' are not followed up by mention of the deterioration in output of these technologies with each year of operation.

The 950 MW, £1,800 million Moray East Offshore Windfarm [MEOW], on its website, states it is: "...capable of providing power for the average needs of over 950, 000 UK homes. (assuming 3,300kwhr p.a)...", which gives a capacity factor [cf] of 37.67%. But wind turbine performance degrades by 1.6% p.a., so in the final year of its 25 year lifespan it will be powering 645,069 UK homes. The average cf over the 25 years works out at 31.25%.

The 3,200 MW, £18,000 million Hinkley Point C [HPC] nuclear power plant will have an average 90% cf over its 60 year design life.

Here are the sums:
90% cf ÷ 31.25% cf = 2.88
60 year design life ÷ 25 year lifespan = 2.4
2.88 x 2.4 = 6.912
6.912 x 3,200 MW = 22,118 MW

It takes 22,118 MW of the very latest 9.5 MW wind turbines to sputter out the same amount of intermittent, grid-degrading electricity as the 24/7, grid-friendly electricity generated by HPC.

At £1,800 million for 950 MW:
Cost of 22,118 MW = (22,118 MW ÷ 950 MW) x £1,800 million = £41,908 million.

Capital cost of HPC: £18,000 million.
Capital cost of 22,118 MW of offshore wind [23.28 MEOWs]: £41,908 million.


Adding together the 'Significant Costs' - capital; O & M; fuel; decommissioning:
HPC's tots up to £34 billion.
22,118 MW of offshore wind tots up to £76 billion.

A perceptive question from any true environmentalist might be:

How do all of these extra costs for offshore wind accrue? And the answer is:

A vast amount of wasted resources - 20X more metals and 10X more concrete than nuclear to deliver the same amount of electricity.

A vast amount of wasted energy - in mining, processing and transporting materials [not forgetting all that extra environmental, ecosystem and species destruction].

A vast amount of wasted labour - the 'green-jobs' delusion.

Anonymous said...

Even worldwide economic collapse won’t save the climate from the most extreme warming. This is a topic that has already been covered elsewhere. Economic collapse will lead to additional climate pollution - not less.

The refusal to admit to the climate crisis, and the baked-in-results (4C+) that cannot be avoided under any conceivable circumstances, and what this actually means for global food production (collapse) has created widespread blindness (and endless hopium) to this global crisis. We do not have years or even months left to “solve climate change”. We cannot solve it. Ever. We can only now prepare for the effects. Which we’re also failing to do.

We are already experiencing both overshoot and collapse - just examine the state of many failed nations now. There is a direct link to climate, population and resource collapse. More “energy” in these locations (from any source) does not actually solve anything, it will contribute to collapse. It only gets worse from here. It will never get better, it cannot.

The world does not need more energy, it ‘needs’ to require less, but this is the exact opposite direction of the global community. It’s not even on the table for discussion and never will be. Ultimately, it means our every effort to maintain or improve civilization and society will contribute towards our collapse. We are all going in exactly the opposite direction required, despite all the rhetoric and misleading claims.

You cannot “expend more” or “create more” or “use more” (energy, people, resources) and reasonably expect that this will somehow magically lead to any kind of a solution or energy balance, all of these efforts are only continually making the situation worse and worse.

Climate chaos, i.e., “collapse of civilization” is now utterly irrevocable under any scenario, even a WWWII type mobilization, because we cannot solve what we cannot actually fix, and this is human over-consumption, population, global energy imbalance, climate inertia and greenhouse gas pollution in the water and atmosphere, all caused by our civilization down to the smallest activity.

Many more effects should be mentioned such as resource collapse, sea level rise, ocean dead zones, glacier disappearance and on and on. All are indicators of massive overshoot, energy imbalance, pollution and environmental destruction - and not a single one is “fixable”.

Civilization itself is the faulty ‘valve’ that is irrepairable prior to global collapse. We die from starvation first as the global food system fails in a warming world, and dehydration as water resources are depleted. Then lack of medical care, exposure and civil violence. Massive population reduction is the irrevocable future, along with world-wide destabilization, refugees and totalitarian reactionary responses - all which will fail to solve anything, precisely because the global energy imbalance will remain unchecked. What 'resources' are left will be viciously fought over.

The climate crisis isn’t a crisis - it is in fact an extinction level event for all species (certainly all mammals) on the planet. It was precipitated by civilization itself, which over-consumed, overproduced and overpopulated the planet while terraforming the planet, polluting both the atmosphere and oceans and driving the Earth’s habitat into destruction through chemical and physical changes non-conducive to life. ~Survival Acres~

Robin Datta said...

Some more details from Robert Callaghan:

Anonymous said...

Oh well, at least climate and environment are things that we can work together on, no matter where we live. This is in contrast to the current arms race where each new day sees yet another horrible weapon for doing the other side in.

We really need to take a hard look at ourselves across the board. Climate should be a relatively easy challenge. We have many reasons to reduce fossil fuel dependency, including our need to reduce world conflict and cut off revenue to evil petro-empires. Climate is just one reason for going with home-grown clean energy. Some countries are making excellent progress on this!

Robert Callaghan said...

Climate Change = Earthquakes + Volcanoes + Tsuanmis

Stefan Rahmstorf says our emissions must go down 100% in 20 years to stay under 2° C.
James Hansen says 2° C = DISASTER
Kevin Anderson says we have a 5% chance of success for staying below 2° C.
We have a 95% chance of failing to stay below the disaster zone.

*Energy Prospects*

UC Davis Peer Reviewed Study: It Will Take 131 Years to Replace Oil with Alternatives (Malyshkina, 2010)

At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system

University of Chicago Peer Reviewed Study: predicts world economy unlikely to stop relying on fossil fuels (Covert, 2016)

Solar and Wind produced less than one percent of total world energy in 2016 – IEA WEO 2017

Fossil Fuel Share of Global Energy since 1990 – BP 2017

Renewable energy ‘simply won’t work’: Top Google engineers

Top scientists show why powering US using 100 percent renewable energy is a delusional fantasy

IEA Sees No Peak Oil Demand ‘Any Time Soon’

The Curse of Energy Efficiency

Anonymous said...

As biased an account as I've seen deleting RE like hydro, etc because it doesn't fit his scare tactics.
For instance BP's annual report has just come out and says RE is competitive with FFs.
But the fact is, it is cheaper and locally made makes local jobs.
And more important is it can be done in homes, buildings for $.06/kwh now retail. No utility can beat that, even the heavily FF subsidized ones.
In the US RE just passed nuke at 20% and in just 4 yrs will pass coal in total generation and pass NG in 8-10 yrs because, wait for it, it costs less.
It ignores big business will install wind, solar, even battery in any country for free that can pay $.05/kwh when produced.
That will drive the market very fast in the world.
Most of new world, US, generation is RE and growing at 40%/yr.
So if one excludes a lot of RE then claim little RE, it just looks like another hit job.

Anonymous said...

I read your article at Although your conclusions may be broadly true, the IEA way of calculating these percentages are misleading. The figures are for "primary energy", which means that electricity from wind is compared to the heat energy of coal, for example. So the fraction of electricity generated fro these sources are substantially higher than the figures you apply and present as facts. I recommend some of DNV-GL's open reports for more accurate information on this subject.

Kurt Cobb said...

Electricity is only part of the story. Electricity represents only 18.5 percent of total energy consumption worldwide according to the IEA. It would be misleading to leave out liquid, gaseous and solid fuels (derived almost completely from oil, natural gas and coal, all fossil fuels) which heat our homes, commercial spaces and industrial processes and power our transportation network and make up the rest except for that part of "biofuels and waste" represented by the burning of wood and other biomass or its conversion (quite small) into biodiesel and ethanol. I don't see how we can ignore the largest part of our energy consumption if we are going to create a renewable energy society.

While it is true that renewable energy production comes primarily in the form of electricity, even in this sector the percentage generated by renewable resources remains surprisingly small: 16 percent hydro, 7 percent nonhydro renewables and waste. Coal remains the largest fuel source for electric generation at 39 percent. And, these are all percentages of the 18.5 percent . So 16 percent of 18.5 percent for hydro or 3 percent and 7 percent for nonhydro renewables and waste of 18.5 percent or 1.3 percent. (Difference in hydro totals versus the IEA number cited in my piece is probably a rounding error. Nonhydro renewables should be comparable to the IEA number cited above, again differing methods of calculation may cause slightly different results.)

Captain Nemo said...

Great article! A good summary and highly informative.