“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. H. L. Menken
If you ask most of those people who acknowledge climate change as a serious problem my bet is that they would say that solving the climate crisis is all about transforming the energy system away from fossil fuels and replacing fossil fuel based energy with renewable technologies like wind turbines and solar panels. They probably also believe that the main problem in making this transition is the influence of the carbon lobby among politicians and policy makers. If only the misleading power of climate deniers could be broken policy could be changed, wind, solar and marine energy could take the place of coal, oil and gas, and all would be well!
Sadly it’s not as simple as that – though when one reads the latest report of “Oil Change International”, a report endorsed by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch and 350.org – then you would think it is that simple.
The report that I am referring to is all about criticising the idea that the development of “natural” gas is “a bridge to a low carbon future”. This is a thoroughly worthy aim – not only for reasons of climate mitigation but also to take the pressure off all those communities where gas fields are being developed using fracking which threatens to pollute the water, the soils, the atmosphere and their health. The problem that I have with this report is not the opposition to, and the arguments against, natural gas – it is that this report does not have a single word to say about energy conservation and it is thus effectively a puff piece for the renewables industry – or as it is disingenuously called, “clean” energy.
No mention of Energy Saving
That’s important because the need for energy saving is a far greater priority for dealing with climate change than the development of renewables. What’s more there is a strong argument that renewables will never be able to 100% power the economy unless developed economies are scaled down considerably, or degrow. However, you would never learn that from this report, which is what makes it so misleading.
This brings me to the absolutely crucial question of how to contextualise todays problems and Menken’s quote: “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. If you treat climate change as a stand alone problem brought about by using the wrong energy sources, then it seems obvious that you change the sources of energy and basta, you can then continue as before. When there is resistance to that by vested interests then that is the chief problem.
Climate change – a stand alone problem or part of wider crisis of the limits to growth?
But there is another way of seeing the issues in which climate change is one of a number of problems in a much bigger complex of issues called either “the limits to economic growth”, or “economic overshoot of the carrying capacity of the planet” or “going beyond tipping points in the earth system.”
The first theorists of the bigger problems were concerned not just with climate change but more broadly a problem of wastes and pollution from economic activity AND a problem of depletion of renewable and non-renewable resources. (You can deplete renewable resources too if you harvest more than a sustainable yield – which is happening, for example, with fish stocks )….. In their report for the Club of Rome, published in 1972 a group of system scientists predicted that the global economy would hit the limits to growth in the first two decades of the 21st century. In their model climate change is a pollution crisis, possibly the main one, but not the only one. At the same time the depletion of fossil fuels and minerals is part of the depletion crisis.
Now the point here is that if you do not take into account the wider issues, including the depletion crisis, you get a completely false picture of what is possible. And this is what is the main problem with the Oil Change International report as I shall show in the rest of this article…
The main arguments of Oil Change International
But before I go further let me however summarise the Oil Change International Report with an extended quote where they summarise the main points of their report. The report cites five compelling reasons why gas is not a bridge to a safe climate:
Open Quote 1.
“Gas Breaks the Carbon Budget: The economically recoverable oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently producing and under-construction extraction projects would take the world far beyond safe climate limits. Further development of untapped gas reserves, including new shale wells, is inconsistent with the climate goals in the Paris Agreement. Even if global coal use were phased out overnight, already-developed reserves of oil and gas would push the world above 1.5°C of warming. There’s simply no room for more gas.
2. Coal-to-Gas Switching Doesn’t Cut It: Climate goals require the energy sector to be decarbonized by mid-century. This means that both coal and gas must be phased out. Replacing coal plants with new gas plants will not cut emissions by nearly enough, even if methane leakage is kept to a minimum. Current plans for gas production growth drastically overshoot climate safe models and are a bridge to climate disaster.
3. Low-Cost Renewables Can Displace Coal and Gas: The dramatic and ongoing cost declines for wind and solar disrupt the business model for gas in the power sector. Wind and solar are The dramatic and ongoing cost declines already cheaper to build and operate than coal and gas in most markets. Cost is clearly not a prohibitive factor to adding renewable generation capacity, whether to replace fossil fuel capacity or to meet rising demand.
4. Gas Is Not Essential for Grid Reliability: Wind and solar require balancing, but gas is not the only, nor the best, resource available for doing so. Battery storage is fast becoming competitive with gas plants designed for this purpose (known as “peakers”). Wind and solar plants that are coupled with battery storage are also becoming a competitive “dispatchable” source of energy. Managing high levels of wind and solar on the grid requires optimizing a wide range of technologies and solutions, including battery storage, demand response, and transmission. There is no reason to favor gas as the primary solution.
5. New Gas Infrastructure Locks In Emissions: Multibillion-dollar gas infrastructure built today is designed to operate for decades to come. Given the barriers to closing down infrastructure ahead of its expected economic lifespan, it is critical to stop building new infrastructure, the full lifetime emissions of which will not fit within Paris-aligned carbon budgets.”
End of Quote
Intermittancy and Grid Reliability
In the rest of this article I shall concentrate on the arguments deployed to justify point (4). Please note before going further that I do agree that gas is probably not essential for grid reliability for “developed economies” if they degrow sufficiently– but this is not what the Oil Change International report is saying. There is nothing in their claims for what renewables could do that suggests the need for any form of shrinking economy. On the contrary this piece conveys a strong impression that “business as usual”, but with an energy system powered differently, is all that we need. Green technology – or so called “clean” technology – can save us apparently on its own.
Not only that – the report is full of “good news” about falling costs for wind and solar which are projected into a future where they outcompete fossil fuels. What is needed then are “portfolios” of renewable energy, a change in energy market arrangements and policy to prevent the investment in gas powered electricity generation which would lock in fossil fuel use – and lock out renewables.
Part of the necessary package that is mentioned for intermittent renewables includes longer transmission lines to access power generated from afar, as well as adjusting power demand to when there is power supply – but the main technology highlighted are grid scale batteries.
The future for batteries in a minerals scarce economic future
It is batteries that get all the attention. Batteries with four hour capacity are mentioned. Wow! Four hours. It is claimed that these are becoming cheaper with time – and an impressive graph is shown that falls from $170 per mega watt hour to just over $ 60 per mwh between 2019 and 2040.
You will note that this is all in the future so it is based on the assumptions that are not spelled out – assumptions which maybe the authors are not even aware that they have making.
One of these assumptions is that the minerals necessary for a massive expansion of production of batteries will be there – probably by ripping up large parts of Africa and South America in a new mining boom to sustain the next round of “green consumerism”.
All this is presumably going to happen at the same time as there is a huge ramp up in electric cars. That’s because the OCI report sees the future as being electrical and calls for “balanced, reliable, and low-cost combinations of renewables, energy storage, flexible load, and other complementary resources, while also electrifying buildings and transportation.” So there will have to be a lot of batteries.
The current EU target is to ramp up production of Electric Vehicles 200 times by 2030. But, here’s the thing – this would lead to an increased demand for production inputs of cobalt, lithium and nickel and copper to build the electrical vehicles. However at 100 times the demand world cobalt resources would be exhausted in 8 months, lithium in 5 years, nickel in 4 months and copper in 5 months.
Simon Michaeux, a geologist based in Finland has commented that “Most of the proposals to roll out a new electrical technology on a ubiquitous scale before 2030 [are] unlikely to go as planned”. That’s because the mineral resources needed are not there in sufficient quantities. What’s more, if this is the strategy, then, as Michaux puts it “the question of what mineral deposits are available is likely to be eclipsed by the question of “who gets access to those deposits.”
Another way of putting that is that there will be more wars in places like the Congo and elsewhere – and perhaps we should remember that it is now impossible to control the spread of Ebola in Northern Kivu in the Congo because of the turmoil. A great result that – which more competitition for the minerals necessary for “green” technology will make even worse. It might help to control demand though – if someone with Ebola gets on a plane to a developed world city and is not noticed until they have infected a lot of people who are in contact with a lot of other people….
Intermittency problems on a daily basis are different from intermittency on a seasonal basis
That’s not all. The assumption that 4 hour batteries would be sufficient to balance intermittency is laughable. There are different durations of the intermittency problem of renewable electricity – this is the gap between supply and demand caused by changing wind and solar power while demand for power fluctuates too. There is a need to buffer the gap between supply and demand minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day – but there is a different kind of duration of intermittency which is the gap between supply and demand on a seasonal basis. A German study, using real data for Germany for 2014, found that if you switched around demand you could smooth intermittency and the need for energy storage within a month by only 11%. Put in another way, 89% of the need for energy storage in Germany in 2014 was for longer periods – mostly storage between seasons. And there is no cheap solution for that. So-called pumped hydro and compressed air are more economic options but the places available to build them are limited.
As I wrote on the Feasta blog, “energy storage is mostly needed between seasons and the amount of storage required would be astronomically expensive to achieve without pumped hydro, the cheapest option. Switching the washing machine on when the wind is blowing is one thing – you cannot wait till summer to switch a heater on in winter when there is no wind and it’s the middle of a cold night.” The trouble is that there are not enough locations where pumped hydro infrastructure can be created.
The astronomic cost of batteries if trying to bridge seasonal intermittency
What do I mean when I claim that battery storage is astronomically expensive? Using 2013 data the cost of storing just 24 hours of US electricity is $40.77 trillion dollars (with sodium sulfur batteries); $11.9 trillion (with Lithium ion batteries); $8.3 trillion (with lead acid batteries). For reference purposes US GDP is $18 trillion a year. Of course on a seasonal basis a lot more than one day’s electricity would need to be stored. (Two or three weeks? A Month?) These are figures based on today’s availability of the minerals concerned but, as argued above – there are reasons to doubt that the minerals will be available. See also this article about another option – zinc air batteries.
Developing wind and solar power requires fossil fuel supplies and they are depleting
I have concentrated here on wind and solar as if the chief obstacle to their development will be a shortage of mineral resources. Yet this is part of a much bigger problem – that creating wind and solar equipment requires lots of fossil fuels and fossil fuels are also heading into a period of severe depletion. Consider this passage which gives a flavour of the issues:
“Electricity simply doesn’t substitute for all the uses of fossil fuels, so windmills will never be able to reproduce themselves from the energy they generate — they are simply not sustainable. Consider the life cycle of a wind turbine – giant diesel powered mining trucks and machines dig deep into the earth for iron ore, fossil-fueled ships take the ore to a facility that will use fossil fuels to crush it and permeate it with toxic petro-chemicals to extract the metal from the ore. Then the metal will be taken in a diesel truck or locomotive to a smelter which runs exclusively on fossil fuels 24 x 7 x 365 for up to 22 years (any stoppage causes the lining to shatter so intermittent electricity won’t do). There are over 8,000 parts to a wind turbine which are delivered over global supply chains via petroleum-fueled ships, rail, air, and trucks to the assembly factory. Finally diesel cement trucks arrive at the wind turbine site to pour many tons of concrete and other diesel trucks carry segments of the wind turbine to the site and workers who drove gas or diesel vehicles to the site assemble it.” Source: http://energyskeptic.com/2019/wind/ See also https://www.energycentral.com/c/ec/can-you-make-wind-turbine-without-fossil-fuels
Note that it is not just that wind turbines (and solar panels) depend on a fossil fuel economy, it is also that fossil fuels are in depletion. This is invisible to orthodox theorists who use figures about gross energy supply in their considerations. But part of the supply of oil/gas/coal must be used to generate energy to be used in extracting more oil, gas and coal. Building a rig takes energy, as does drilling with it, as does fracking, as does refining and transferring gross fuel from the extraction site to its place of refinement to its point of sale and use. What the depletion process involves is the necessity of using inferior sources of fossil fuels in more inaccessible places that are more costly to extract. That increasing cost of extraction is not only in money, it is in energy.
What matters is the net energy that the fossil fuel industry transfers to the rest of the economy. And the point is that with depletion the energy cost of energy is rising and delivering a smaller proportion of gross energy to the rest of the economy because a bigger fraction of gross energy must be used in the extraction and refinement and deliery process to supply energy in the first place. It is not gross energy that matters, it is net energy and net energy has been falling since 2000. Tim Morgan, who keeps track of this with a “Surplus Energy Economics Data System” (SEEDS) calculates that the energy cost of energy is as follows – 1980 – 1.7%; 1990 – 2.6%; 2000 – 4.1%; 2010 – 6.7%; 2020E – 10.5% and 2030E – 13.5%. (E stands for estimates – https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/139-the-surplus-energy-economy/ )
Now the advocates of renewable energy tell us that renewables are becoming competitive with fossil fuels and this is true. The energy cost of renewable energy has been falling and will be likely below that of fossil fuels by the 2020s, according to Tim Morgan. However these renewables still supply only a tiny fraction of global energy compared to fossil fuels – 3.6% compared to 85%. As already explained they depend on fossil fuels that are becoming more expensive to deliver and, the Energy Cost of Energy for renewables by 2030 would be unlikely to be better than 10.2%. As Morgan explains – “it is unlikely that the Energy Cost of energy of renewables can fall far enough to restore the efficiencies enjoyed in the early stages of fossil fuel abundance. The overall ECoE of renewables is projected by SEEDS to fall to 10.2% by 2030, but this remains drastically higher than the ECoE of fossil fuels as recently as 2000 (4.1%), let alone back in 1980 (1.7%).”
Shrinking the economy to the scale that renewables can power – degrowth
To summarise, the Oil Change International report is one of those “good news if only…” narratives that assumes the chief problem is that, because of the malign influence of the oil and gas industry, the wrong policy decisions are being taken and that, if governments support “green” energy rather than gas, all will be well. The renewable energy lobby is at work here with help from a clutch of Green NGOs saying what we chiefly need is a policy support for a technology fix.
This is partly true – but only partly. Without coming off natural gas quickly we will indeed fail to reduce carbon emissions fast enough to avert the worst kind of climate crisis (assuming the oil and gas sector can produce the gas in the future which is itself questionable ). It is true we need to further develop renewables – but….and it is a big but, the major priority will remain that we will need to shrink the size of the economy and of consumption and the OCI report does not mention this at all.
There is a need for degrowth and an energy sufficiency agenda to complement the development of renewables. Renewables can power our economies but only if our economies are smaller – but are “Green NGOs” like Oil Change International going to challenge the faith that underpins our society – the faith in “economic growth” ? The faith that technology can see us through and that we can have more more more… or are they going to write PR for the renewable energy companies and ignore the bigger picture, which are the limits to growth issues?
To challenge that prevailing faith which politicians like to promote involves a more complicated story. It is more difficult to tell. It sounds less like good news. Yet although it is a more difficult story it just so happens to be the real story rather than a fairy tale. How much energy do we really need?
So “how much energy do we need”?
There is an article on this in Low Technology Magazine by Kris de Dekker. It is about what he terms “An energy sufficiency agenda”. Writing about Germany, he quotes research stating:
“In principle, public service delivery could bring economies of scale and thus reduce the energy involved in providing many household services: public transport, public bathing houses, community kitchens, laundrettes, libraries, internet cafés, public telephone boxes, and home delivery services are just some examples.
Combining sufficiency with efficiency measures, German researchers calculated that the typical electricity use of a two-person household could be lowered by 75%, without reverting to drastic lifestyle changes such as washing clothes by hand or generating power with exercise machines. Although this only concerns a part of total energy demand, reducing electricity use in the household also leads to reductions in energy use for manufacturing and transportation.
If we assume that similar reductions are possible in other domains, then the German households considered here could do with roughly 800 kgoe per capita per year, four times below the average energy use per head in Europe. This suggests that a modern life is compatible with much lower energy demand, at least when we assume that a reduction of 75% in energy use would be enough to stay within the carrying capacity of the planet.”
Adapting to living with intermittency – demand when there is a supply
That’s not all. Instead of telling us fairy stories about battery power buffering intermittent renewable power supplies it would be far more practical to aim to transition to a society that accepts intermittent power sources. Kris de Dekker again:
“Before the Industrial Revolution, people adjusted their energy demand to a variable energy supply. Our global trade and transport system — which relied on sail boats — operated only when the wind blew, as did the mills that supplied our food and powered many manufacturing processes. The same approach could be very useful today, especially when improved by modern technology. In particular, factories and cargo transportation — such as ships and even trains — could be operated only when renewable energy is available. Adjusting energy demand to supply would make switching to renewable energy much more realistic than it is today.”
Conclusion – the renewable sector is a vested interest too and have a PR narrative
In conclusion, Oil Change International and the organisations that are endorsing its message are misleading us. Perhaps this is not intentional but they have been co-opted by a vested interest – the renewables lobby. They fail to contextualise the climate crisis in the bigger picture that the global economy must degrow, above all in the rich countries.
In this regard it helps, I think, to remember that companies supplying renewable energy systems are also a vested interest. They want state support and have their own story to tell based on responding to climate change – but are also partly dependent on playing down certain disadvantages and problems inherent to renewable power that are frequently not noticed or not mentioned. That’s because if you feel you are involved in a PR battle with the fossil fuel industry it might seem that it is not a good idea to look too closely into the problems. Indeed it feels like handing arguments to the enemy to mention these issues. Of course that is also true of my arguments here. It will not help you make friends among politicians if you make an argument about the inevitability of degrowth because politicians and senior civil servants and journalists are almost without exception true believers in the faith of growth. Unfortunately the necessity for, indeed the inevitability of, degrowth is one of those “inconvenient truths” and you either mention the inconvenient truths or you play down real issues.
Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.
Brian Davey trained as an economist but, aside from a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped form Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of Feasta Climate Working Group and former co-ordinator of the Cap and Share Campaign. He is editor of the Feasta book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, and the author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis.