Renewable Energy: The Real Cost

Bright Green Lies - MonkfishMonkfish

Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About it

By Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keither and Max Wilbert

Monkfish Book Publishing Company (2021)

Book Review

The main premise of this book is that fossil fuels, especially oil, are functionally irreplaceable – that there is no way we can run our present industrialized society on renewable energy alone. A “Bright Green” environmentalist, according to the authors, is one who believes that green technology and design, along with ethical consumerism, will allow our modern, high-energy lifestyle to continue indefinitely.

The bulk of the book examines the massive environmental degradation associated with each of the renewable technologies, alongside major economic obstacles that prevent them from replacing fossil fuels. The authors devote an entire chapter to Germany. Despite spending tens of billions of dollars annually subsidizing renewable energy, the country derives 11.5% of its energy (30% of it biomass from clear cut forests*) from renewables.


Mining and manufacturing processes that produce silicon PVC’s are enormously energy intensive. In addition to producing hundreds of tons of CO2, the process produces large amounts of hexafluoroethane, nitrogentrifluoride and sulfur hexafluoride, greenhouse gasses tens of thousands of times more potent than CO2. They are also turning vast areas of China into wastelands where nothing grows and residents experience high cancer rates.


One Bright Green environmentalist calculates we must build 3.8 million 5MW wind turbines by 2030 to phase out our fossil fuel use by 2050. This will require 1.4 billion tons of steel for the towers and 1.9 million tons of copper for the nacelles.

The world’s largest iron mine is in an area of clear cut Amazon rainforest in Brazil. In addition to displacing hundreds of thousands of indigenous Brazilians, it (like other iron mines around the world) disseminates toxic wastes that cause cancer, birth defects and lung disease in nearby residents. Steel manufacture is the third largest source of green house gases after fossil fuels and electrical generation.

The largest global copper mine is the Rio Tinto Kennicott open pit copper mine near Salt Lake City. In addition to contaminating the region’s groundwater, the mine has contaminated the Great Salt Late with mercury, arsenic and asbestos-related chemicals.

Recycling steel and copper doesn’t significantly reduce the massive amount of energy required (and carbon emissions produced). At present, roughly 80% of steel is already recycled (the rate’s even higher for copper). Steel’s massive carbon footprint stems from the fossil fuel energy required for the 3200 degree F smelting furnaces used.

In addition, expanding US wind energy to produce 20% of the country’s total electricity is estimated to result in the death of 1.4 million birds yearly from collisions with its turbine blades. This doesn’t include bird deaths from habitat destruction or collision with towers and power lines.

Energy Storage

Unlike fossil fuels, which store energy, renewable energy technology requires separate storage infrastructure for days when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

The most efficient storage batteries use 40-year-old lithium based technology. Fifty percent of the world’s lithium comes from high desert basins in Nevada, Tibet, Bolivia and Chile. Lithium mines in Chile’s desert basin have totally wiped out fish and unique desert vegetation, in addition to deprive the area’s subsistence farmers of scarce water resources. Lithium batteries aren’t recycled because it makes no economic sense: It’s complex, hazardous and more expensive than mining lithium.

Other storage technologies explored include

  •  green (produced from hydrolysis) hydrogen fuel cells – which suck up scarce clean water resources and release carcinogenic polytetrafluoroethylene (aka Teflon) to the environment.
  • pumped hydrostorage, which requires large artificial reservoirs similar to those used for hydropower schemes. At present artificial reservoirs are responsible for 23% of all methane emissions linked to human activities.
  • Compressed air – which is only 50% efficient and requires massive investment in CO2-producing infrastructure and freshwater consumption.

The conclusion the authors reach is that serious environmentalists should stop campaigning for corporate interests promoting renewable energy technology. What they recommend instead is

1. Campaigning to stop all environmental destruction caused by so-called green energy projects; oil, gas and coal extraction: urban sprawl; road building; industrial agriculture; deforestation; the destruction of coastal wetlands and peat bogs and the production of nuclear energy and weapons

2. Helping to heal the planet  by promoting natural carbon sequestration

  • through regenerative farming and pastoral management** and
  • restoring wild grasses, forests and seaweed.

3. Campaigning to downsize energy consumption by transitioning from a perpetual growth to a steady state economy.

4. Campaigning to reduce hyper consumption and overpopulation (by liberating women***).

5. Adopting the same attitudes and behaviors required to prepare for the collapse of civilization (which looks increasingly likely). In other words, working to rebuild local communities to be self-sufficient and respectful of all life (including human beings).

*At present Germany imports timber and wood chips from clear cutting operations in the US, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Norway, Belarus, and Ukraine to feed its biofuel industry. Much of this timber is sourced from US Southern wetland forests that are being cleared four times faster than the Amazon.

**The nacelle is the cover housing that houses all of the generating components in a wind turbine, including the generator, gearbox, drive train, and brake assembly.

***Research reveals that increase the carbon content of our soils by 2% would offset 100% of our greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

****Empowering women to pursue secondary and tertiary education is consistently associated with lower fertility rates.

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.