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Is Renewable Energy a Myth? Yes, But There's Still Hope

We are generally made to understand that we as humans are using energy _incorrectly_. Dirty energy from unsustainable sources: coal, oil, natural gas. Whereas, if we as humans were to trade up for another energy source, or combination of sources...
November 22, 2011, 5:58pm

We are generally made to understand that we as humans are using energy incorrectly. Dirty energy from unsustainable sources: coal, oil, natural gas. Whereas, if we as humans were to trade up for another energy source, or combination of sources — solar, wind, tidal, etc — we can eventually hit some kind of sustainability statis. Like, we can think and will our way out of this planet-destroying, war-fueling energy box. It’s a comforting outlook, but a column out today in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists points out something obvious, but convieniently ignored: ain’t nothing for free, especially energy.

Bluntly, renewable energy, all of it, depends on non-renewable things. “You need raw materials, real estate, and other things that will run out one day,” writes Dawn Stover, a contributing editor at the Bulletin. “You need stuff that has to be mined, drilled, transported, and bulldozed — not simply harvested or farmed.” An inconvienient truth, but if we want to keep living at all like we do now, pretty much impossible to get around.

Some examples: solar power requires photovoltaic panels (silicon, cadmium) and a whole lot of water; geothermal power uses groundwater faster than rain can replenish it; wind turbines need a whole lot of concrete and steel and rare Earth metals; hydropower kills entire ecosystems. You get the idea. All of these things require land and materials for transmission systems as well, consuming yet more resources and subdividing natural systems.

Stover writes:

Renewable technologies are often less damaging to the climate and create fewer toxic wastes than conventional energy sources. But meeting the world’s total energy demands in 2030 with renewable energy alone would take an estimated 3.8 million wind turbines (each with twice the capacity of today’s largest machines), 720,000 wave devices, 5,350 geothermal plants, 900 hydroelectric plants, 490,000 tidal turbines, 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems, 40,000 solar photovoltaic plants, and 49,000 concentrated solar power systems. That’s a heckuva lot of neodymium.

A recent commentary in Nature paints an even more grim picture:

In our report, the California’s Energy Future Committee looked at the big picture, asking which technical strategies will achieve an energy system with near-zero emissions yet still meet society’s needs. We estimated how much more efficient buildings, industry and transportation could become, and how quickly cars, buses, trains and heat production could be electrified. We looked at how to supply that electricity from near-zero-emissions sources: nuclear power, fuel-based power plants used with carbon capture and storage technology, and renewable energy. We also worried about emissions from ‘load balancing’, in which generators are used to meet peak loads or fill in for intermittent power from solar or wind sources. We assessed how much biomass might be sustainably available to meet the remaining demand for fuel, and how much it could help to cut emissions. We counted everything, but only once. It was hard, but it was honest.

Having done the maths, what did we discover? If California could very quickly replace cars, appliances, boilers, buildings and power plants with today’s state-of-the art technology, replace and expand current electricity generation with non-emitting sources and produce as much biofuel as possible by 2050, the state could reduce emissions a lot — by perhaps 60% below 1990 levels. But it would have to replace or retrofit every building to very high efficiency standards. Electricity would have to replace natural gas for home and commercial heating. All buses and trains, virtually all cars, and some trucks would be electric or hybrid. And the state’s entire electricity-generation capacity would have to be doubled, while simultaneously being replaced with emissions-free generation. Low-emissions fuels would have to be made from California’s waste biomass plus some fuel crops grown on marginal lands without irrigation or fertilizer.

You could say that we’re pretty much boned. We’ve dug our hole very deeply and most likely don’t have the wherewithal to get out, even assuming some kind of economic and political breakthrough that allowed us to put anything like the above in place. Jane Long concludes in the Nature piece that it will take a whole new sort of technology, something currently just past the horizon. It’s that same sort of mentality I started in by talking about: we can think our way out of this situation.

Granted, humans have been able to think our way out of pretty awful situations. Just look at the past 100 years of medicine. Or, uh, I dunno, literacy? We’ve thought ourselves into a lot more problems, of course. Like building all of the very many things that might not actually do us much good and kinda got us into this energy/global warming/climate destruction mess anyhow. Cars aside, just consider all of the convenience-oriented (“time-saving”) stuff we all have in our houses now suckling at the electrical grid. And beyond that, you know, for every penicillin discovery, there’s a new weapon of mass destruction born. Calling technology a doubled-edged sword is optimistic.

There’s another view, besides techno-optimism. (What does Ray Kurzweil think about all of this?) That would be that technology is not going to save us in some amazing spectacular countdown clock hail mary. We radically re-evaluate our values as humans. We use less energy, probably a whole lot less. Not just remembering to turn out lights after you leave a room, but rethinking how we live as a species, and what’s actually important. Or, well, we’re probably just boned.

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Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.