The transition to renewable energy is failing

Renewable energy does not replace fossil fuel energy, but adds to it.

Despite all renewable energy investments and installations, actual global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This is largely due to economic growth: while supplies of renewable energy have increased in recent years, world energy consumption has increased even more, with the difference being provided by fossil fuels. The bigger the world economy grows, the more difficult it is for renewable energy additions to reverse the trend by actually replacing energy from fossil fuels, rather than simply adding it.

The idea of ​​voluntarily curbing economic growth to minimize climate change and facilitate the substitution of fossil fuels is political anathema not only in rich countries, whose people have become accustomed to consuming at extraordinarily high rates, but even more so in countries poorer countries that have been promised the opportunity to “develop”.

After all, it is rich countries that have been responsible for the vast majority of past emissions (which are currently driving climate change); in fact, these countries got rich largely from industrial activity of which carbon emissions were a by-product. It is now the world’s poorest nations that are bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change caused by the world’s wealthiest nations. It is neither sustainable nor just to perpetuate the exploitation of land, resources and labor in less industrialized countries, as well as historically exploited communities in rich countries, to maintain both the lifestyles and the expectations of further growth of the wealthy minority.

From the point of view of people in less industrialized nations, it is natural to want to consume more, which seems right. But that translates into higher global economic growth and a more difficult time to replace fossil fuels with renewables globally. China exemplifies this conundrum: Over the past three decades, the world’s most populous nation has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but in the process it has become the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal.

The materials dilemma

Furthermore, our growing need for minerals and metals poses a huge challenge to society’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The World Bank, the IEA, the IMF and McKinsey and Company have all issued reports in the past two years warning of this growing problem. Huge quantities of minerals and metals will be needed not only for the production of solar panels and wind turbines, but also for batteries, electric vehicles and new industrial equipment that runs on electricity instead of carbon-based fuels.

Some of these materials are already showing signs of growing scarcity: according to the World Economic Forum, the average cost of copper production has increased by more than 300% in recent years, while the quality of copper ore has decreased by 30%.

Optimistic assessments of the materials challenge suggest that there are sufficient global reserves for a one-time build of all the new devices and infrastructure needed (assuming some replacements, with, for example, lithium for batteries eventually being replaced by more abundant elements such as iron). But what is society to do when first generation devices and infrastructure age and require replacement?

Circular economy: a mirage?

Hence the rather sudden and widespread interest in creating a circular economy in which everything is recycled to infinity. Unfortunately, as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen discovered in his pioneering work on entropy, recycling is always incomplete and always costs energy. Materials typically degrade during each cycle of use, and some material is wasted in the recycling process.

A preliminary French analysis of the energy transition that assumed maximum possible recycling found that a materials supply crisis could be delayed by up to three centuries. But will the circular economy (itself a huge undertaking and a distant goal) arrive in time to buy industrial civilization that extra 300 years? Or will we run out of critical materials in just the next few decades in our frantic effort to build as many renewable energy devices as possible in the shortest time possible?

The latter outcome seems more likely if the pessimistic resource estimates turn out to be accurate. Simon Michaux of the Geological Survey of Finland notes that “[g]local reserves are not large enough to supply enough metals to build the renewable non-fossil fuel industrial system… Mineral discovery is declining for many metals. The grade of ore processed for many of the industrial metals has declined over time, resulting in declines in the yield of ore processing. This has the implication of increasing mining energy consumption per unit of metal.

Steel prices are already on the rise, and supplies of lithium could prove to be a bottleneck to rapidly ramping battery production. Sand is also becoming scarce: only certain types of material are useful for making cement (which anchors wind turbines) or silicon (which is essential for solar panels). More sand is consumed each year than any other material besides water, and some climate scientists have identified it as a key sustainability challenge this century. Predictably, as deposits run out, sand is increasingly becoming a geopolitical flashpoint, with China recently embarrassing shipments of sand to Taiwan with the intention of crippling Taiwan’s ability to produce devices. semiconductor such as cell phones.

To reduce your risk, scale down

During the fossil fuel era, the global economy depended on ever-increasing rates of extraction and burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. The era of renewables (if indeed it emerges) will be founded on the large-scale extraction of minerals and metals for panels, turbines, batteries and other infrastructure, which will require periodic replacement.

These two economic eras imply different risks: the fossil fuel regime risked depletion and pollution (particularly carbon air pollution leading to climate change); similarly, the renewable energy regime will risk depletion (from mining of minerals and metals) and pollution (from abandonment of old panels, turbines and batteries and various manufacturing processes), but with less vulnerability to climate change. The only way to reduce the risk entirely would be to substantially reduce the scale of society’s use of energy and materials, but very few politicians or climate advocacy organizations are exploring this possibility.

Climate change is hampering efforts to combat climate change

However daunting, the financial, political and material challenges to the energy transition do not exhaust the list of potential obstacles. Climate change itself is also hindering the energy transition, which, of course, is being worked on avoid climate change.

During the summer of 2022, China experienced its most intense heat wave in six decades. It hit a wide region, from central Sichuan province to coastal Jiangsu, with temperatures often exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and reaching a record 113 degrees in Chongqing on Aug. 18. At the same time, a drought-induced energy crisis forced Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., the world’s leading battery maker, to close its manufacturing facilities in China’s Sichuan province. Supplies of critical parts to Tesla and Toyota have been temporarily halted.

Meanwhile, an equally grim story unfolded in Germany, as a record drought reduced water flow in the Rhine River to levels that crippled European trade, disrupted shipments of diesel and coal and threatened the operation of hydroelectric plants. and nuclear.

A study published in February 2022 in the journal Water found that droughts (which are becoming more frequent and severe with climate change) could create challenges for US hydropower in Montana, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, California, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, French nuclear power plants that rely on the Rhône River for cooling water have had to shut down repeatedly. If reactors eject too hot water downstream, aquatic life is swept away. Thus, during the scorching summer of 2022, Électricité de France (EDF) shut down the reactors not only along the Rhône but also on a second major river in the south, the Garonne. Overall, France’s nuclear power generation was cut by nearly 50% during the summer of 2022. Similar shutdowns due to drought and heat occurred in 2018 and 2019.

Heavy rains and flooding can also pose risks to both hydroelectric and nuclear power, which together currently provide about four times as much low-carbon electricity globally as wind and solar combined. In March 2019, severe flooding in southern and western Africa following Cyclone Idai damaged two major hydroelectric power stations in Malawi, cutting off power to parts of the country for several days.

Wind turbines and solar panels are also dependent on weather conditions and are therefore also vulnerable to extremes. Cold, overcast days with virtually no wind create problems for regions heavily dependent on renewable energy. Freak storms can damage solar panels and high temperatures reduce the efficiency of the panels. Hurricanes and storm surges can cripple offshore wind farms.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewables faces an uphill battle. However, this step is an essential stop-gap strategy for keeping electrical grids up and running, at least on a minimal scale, as civilization inevitably moves away from a dwindling supply of oil and gas. The world has become so dependent on the electrical grid for communications, finance and the preservation of technical, scientific and cultural knowledge that if the grids were to go down permanently and soon, it is likely that billions of people would die and the survivors would be culturally indigent. In essence, we need renewables for a controlled soft landing. But the stark reality is that, for now and for the foreseeable future, the energy transition is not going well and has little prospect overall.

We need a realistic plan for energy reduction, instead of crazy dreams of eternal consumer abundance by means other than fossil fuels. Currently, the politically entrenched insistence on continued economic growth is discouraging truth-telling and serious planning about how to live well with less.

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Earth | Food | Life (EFL) explores the critical and often interconnected issues facing climate/environment, food/agriculture and nature/animal rights, and advocates for action; in particular, as responsible citizens, voters and consumers they can help set society on an ethical path to sustainability that respects the rights of all the species that call this planet home. EFL emphasizes the idea that everything is connected, so every decision matters.

Photo credit: AleSpa/Wikimedia Commons

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