Is the Emphasis on “Green Technology” Misplaced?

Surviving Earth

Directed by Peter Charles Downey (2014)

Film Review

This Australian documentary on climate change, like Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans places heavy emphasis on “stabilizing” global population. The methods it advocates include free contraception for all women who need it and increased education about the benefits of family planning.

The film also dispels the myth that renewable energy (ie a well-integrated combination of concentrated solar thermal, wind, PV solar, and bioenergy) is too intermittent to cover periods of peak energy demand. Now that renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, this is also the main argument fossil fuel lobbyists use against 100% conversion to renewables.

Downey also calls for a significant reduction in energy consumption by the industrial North – for two main reasons. The first relates to the extreme resource intensity required for some green technologies, such as electric vehicles (EVs). As of 2014, there were one billions cars globally. There isn’t enough lithium on the planet for one billion EV batteries, to say nothing of the massive fossil fuel expenditure involved in the manufacture of EVs.

His second argument relates to the declining energy return on investment (EROI) with renewables (and unconventional fossil fuel sources such as fracked gas and oil and tar sands). EROI is defined as the amount of energy you produce for each unit of energy you expending in mining and production. Modern EROIs have steadily declined since a high in 1900 of 100 units per each unit expended (for oil).

Current EROIs summarized below

  • Wind 1:25
  • Saudi oil 1:12
  • Fracked gas 1:10
  • Fracked oil 1:5
  • PV solar 1:5
  • Coal 1:5
  • Tar sands 1:2
  • Biofuel 1:1

According to Downey, a more realistic approach to reducing carbon emissions combines 1) intelligent urban design that moves services closer to residents homes, enabling them to meet most of their needs by bicycle or on foot and 2) free and convenient public transport for long trips.

He blames the steady decline in EROI for the failure of global growth to recover after the 2008 economic collapse. The Club of Rome’s 1973 Limits to Growth predicted economic growth would totally collapse around 2019-2020. A totally new phenomenon in civilized society, economic growth began around 1800 with intensive fossil fuel use. Growth will continue to decline as the EROI of available fuels declines. Eventually it will reach 1:1, and we will resume our reliance on human and animal muscle power.

Downey predicts the growing cost of energy (resulting from declining EROI) will drastically increase the cost of food – to the point local communities will again be forced to be food self-sufficient

 

It’s Here Now: Cheap 100% Renewable Energy

The Switch: How Solar, Storage and New Technology Means Cheap Power for All

Chris Goodall

Profile Books (2016)

Book Review

This book was enormously valuable in rectifying many of my prior misconceptions about renewable energy. First and foremost was my erroneous belief that high production costs would make renewable energy far more expensive than fossil fuels – that the renewable energy revolution would require either a) a major reduction in population or b) major sacrifice in terms of lifestyle choices.

Both turn out to be totally untrue. At this point renewable energy (mainly photo-voltaic solar energy) is already cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the world. By 2040 the cost of producing renewable energy will be so low, fossil fuels will be virtually obsolete.

The first section of Goodall’s book focuses on the mathematical explanation of what he refers to as the “experience curve.” Energy economists use these formulae to explain the rapid decrease in the cost of manufacturing PV cells, solar panels and solar batters. The same process can be used to predict future costs of manufacture. Which is one of the main reasons Wall Street financiers are refusing to invest in new coal and gas-fired power plants. They know the electricity they produce will never compete with the low cost and efficiency of renewable energy.

In the past two decades, the main purpose of new gas-fired power plants has been to address power outages during peak demand periods. Because they only power up 10-50 hours a year, they are extremely inefficient and expensive to operate. In a number of regions, power suppliers using smart technology and creative billing schemes are flattening out peak demand periods by encouraging large energy consumers to shift their energy usage to non-peak periods.

Goodall asserts that six billion of the world’s seven billion population could easily switch to 100% solar energy now because they live in hot sunny regions. The other one billion in Northern Europe and parts of the US (and New Zealand) will need to supplement PV solar with other forms of renewable energy (wind, hydro, biofuel, etc) and develop short and long term storage technology to meet their winter energy needs.

The cost of lithium ion storage batteries is also dropping rapidly, though it lags several years behind decreasing PV production costs. As more and more energy consumers invest in solar storage systems, grid-based energy will continue to increase rapidly – with the cost of maintaining energy transmission infrastructure falling on fewer and fewer shoulders. This will only hasten the switch to renewable technology.