What’s wrong with renewable energy?

burning wind turbine

Ten things environmentalists need to know about renewable energy:

1.    Solar panels and wind turbines aren’t made out of nothing. They are made out of metals, plastics, chemicals. These products have been mined out of the ground, transported, processed, manufactured. Each stage leaves behind a trail of devastation: habitat destruction, water contamination, colonization, toxic waste, slave labour, greenhouse gas emissions, wars, and corporate profits. Renewables can never replace fossil fuel infrastructure, as they are entirely dependent on it for their existence.

2.    The majority of electricity that is generated by renewables is used in manufacturing, mining, and other industries that are destroying the planet. Even if the generation of electricity were harmless, the consumption certainly isn’t. Every electrical device, in the process of production, leaves behind the same trail of devastation. Living communities—forests, rivers, oceans—become dead commodities.

3.    The aim of converting from conventional power generation to renewables is to maintain the very system that is killing the living world, killing us all, at a rate of 200 species per day. Taking carbon emissions out of the equation doesn’t make it sustainable. This system needs to not be sustained, but stopped.

4.    Humans, and all living beings, get our energy from plants and animals. Only the industrial system needs electricity to survive, and food and habitat for everyone are being sacrificed to feed it. Farmland and forests are being taken over, not just by the infrastructure itself, but by the mines, processing and waste dumping that it entails. Ensuring energy security for industry requires undermining energy security for living beings (that’s us).

5.    Wind turbines and solar panels generate little, if any, net energy (energy returned on energy invested). The amount of energy used in the mining, manufacturing, research and development, transport, installation, maintenance and disposal of these technologies is almost as much—or in some cases more than—they ever produce. Renewables have been described as a laundering scheme: dirty energy goes in, clean energy comes out. (Although this is really beside the point, as no matter how much energy they generate, it doesn’t justify the destruction of the living world.)

6.    Renewable energy subsidies take taxpayer money and give it directly to corporations. Investing in renewables is highly profitable. General Electric, BP, Samsung, and Mitsubishi all profit from renewables, and invest these profits in their other business activities. When environmentalists accept the word of corporations on what is good for the environment, something has gone seriously wrong.

7.    More renewables doesn’t mean less conventional power, or less carbon emissions. It just means more power is being generated overall. Very few coal and gas plants have been taken off line as a result of renewables.

8.    Only 20% of energy used globally is in the form of electricity. The rest is oil and gas. Even if all the world’s electricity could be produced without carbon emissions (which it can’t), it would only reduce total emissions by 20%. And even that would have little impact, as the amount of energy being used globally is increasing exponentially.

9.    Solar panels and wind turbines last around 20-30 years, then need to be disposed of and replaced. The production process, of extracting, polluting, and exploiting, is not something that happens once, but is continuous and expanding.

10.    The emissions reductions that renewables intend to achieve could be easily accomplished by improving the efficiency of existing coal plants, at a much lower cost. This shows that the whole renewables industry is nothing but an exercise in profiteering with no benefits for anyone other than the investors.

Edit 27 June: Further Reading

http://theenergycollective.com/gail-tverberg/330446/ten-reasons-intermittent-renewables-wind-and-solar-pv-are-problem

http://thebulletin.org/myth-renewable-energy

http://docs.wind-watch.org/ProblemWithWind.pdf

Zehner, Ozzie, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism http://www.greenillusions.org/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1350811/In-China-true-cost-Britains-clean-green-wind-power-experiment-Pollution-disastrous-scale.html#ixzz32e4D227e

30 responses to this post.

  1. So what is the solution?

    Reply

    • Posted by Ben on June 26, 2014 at 9:42 am

      Use less electricity.

      Reply

    • Posted by shastatodd on July 22, 2014 at 1:20 am

      the solution to unlimited growth on a finite planet is about 6 billion fewer people all using about 10% of current consumption.

      Reply

      • is that your solution? Are you limiting your own consumption right now? I want to hear what people are actually ‘doing’ about this crisis … we are all part of the problem so we all must play a role in the solutions.

      • Posted by shastatodd on August 15, 2014 at 2:54 am

        i have seen this “mess” coming since carter talked about limits to growth some 35 years ago.

        after 20 years on this 1.5 acres, i now have:
        6000 sq ft of permaculture (growing nitrogen for the garden),
        23 fruit/nut trees,
        5000 sq ft of gardens,
        500 sq ft greenhouse,
        9 bin composting system,
        solar hot water,
        6.5 kW of battery based, grid-tied solar electric (zero energy since 2004),
        2500 gallons of back up water and
        a second well pump.
        i did most all of the work myself.
        in addition, i stopped traveling by air 3 years ago. i drive a tiny 50 mpg non-hybrid car and have been a veggie/vegan for 37 years.
        i am trying to live on less than 7 tons of carbon a year… and it is tough! our home’s energy use, including winter heating & extreme frugality is still 14 kWh/day. (with 7.2 billion people… a sustainable, per-person emission rate is calculated to be 1 ton/year – yikes!)

        that is what i have done. will this make any difference? unlikely… but it is fun and i enjoy the simple, yet high quality life it affords.

      • awesome! If 10 people are inspired by your efforts and see that you are living a happy wholesome existence and decide to give it a try then you have made a difference, because what generally happens in society is most people follow and you are an exception – a leader.

  2. A previous post has some thoughts on how to make your own non-electrical devices: http://wp.me/pNbv8-U

    Reply

  3. Hello. I have posted this on the Generation Alpha facebook page which has started some debate. Interested in this being a post on our new blog but with some links re evidence for a couple points. Is this possible? The url for blog (first post in next couple days) is http://www.GenerationAlpha.org. Our email is generationalpha.facebook@gmail.com. Cheers.

    Reply

  4. Hi Kim, the info on alternative devices is great. I live off the grid myself and have many moments where I question what exactly do I need electricity for (after a week of rain and thus no power). I have spent several days a year relying on zeer pots and candles and my wood oven. I would love to see all of humanity simplify their lives and live with less to need less energy BUT its not going to happen over night. So we need to hear the realistic tangible solutions and not so much dismissing of technologies that are a pathway to a more sustainable way of life.

    Reply

  5. Anwers Q1- Once produced both solar and wind renewable energy is supplied for periods up to 30 years . The power supplied is much greater than the power used in its construction. Hence there is a win. Q2. The majority of energy produced by solar is used by individuals to reduce their dependence on centralised controlled power systems. This takes power from the monopolies and empowers the individual. Q3 the aim of converting to renewables is to reduce CO2 / methane pollution causing Global Warming and at same time empower decentralization of the current power structure. Q4 Mining relies on customers which use power. Renewable will eventually kill off carbon mining.Q5 – useless ranting. Q6. cynicism. Q7 true Q8 cynicism Q9 true but pointless statement Q10. Crap… this whole exercise appears to be little more than a PR exercise from a global warming denying coal dust loving troll.

    Reply

  6. Hope ya don’t mind, but I formatted this blog into a PDF pamphlet, wanted to check in with you before posting it to my blog…

    Reply

  7. Posted by Simon on June 27, 2014 at 7:27 am

    Vague assertions cut no ice. Where are the figures ?

    Reply

  8. Posted by Simon on June 27, 2014 at 7:58 am

    Personally I’ve lived without electricity , and I didn’t use computers either, but everyone else’s use of cars ( far worse) ,and devices only increased. It’s good to have a debate about these things, as state and international policies are the only way we’re going to have a large effect on energy production. Biodiversity protection seems best approached in a variety of ways : mass public pressure ,enabled by the internet, has frequent success, and creating a convincing argument that can bring on board enough people to ,in turn ,convince politicians and businesses to alter their course is a crucial part.
    PS: I’ve had to abandon cooking over fire and using candles ( which is paraffin anyway) for the sake of my lungs, and I’ve found solar power to be wonderful, both on a handheld level ,and a larger system that can run a laptop and lights, etc , and the amount of oil used to produce them is surely a fraction of the kilos of candles one might use. Anyway, dropping electricity comes way behind dropping private car use, unnecessary consumption, etc, and ,of course, hydrocarbon burning power stations must be made efficient as a first step, but when replacing them ,why not use the energy and resources to build something that doesn’t need a constant supply forever afterwards ?
    Solar is not only PV either, mirrors can be used to heat water to drive turbines, or directly heat spaces, etc. Further, plastics can be made from natural cellulose, and metals should all be recycled as a matter of course, along with everything else.
    Also, electricity can be used to produce combustibles, including hydrogen ,which only leaves water as an exhaust, and the future will bring new possibilities ,as is constantly happening now ( fungi instead of polystyrene is now a reality for instance),.
    A key point is the number of users. One can have a modest human population with modest energy use, with a modest environmental impact, as was the case for most of human history, but an ever increasing population is eventually unsustainable even if they live nude without shelter, eating only leaves ( consider locusts for example ). likewise ,a relative few can cause devastation, even without industrial means ( the UK and Spain cut down their forests to build navy’s 500 years ago with less than 2% of the current populations, and US wildlife was slaughtered by ‘pioneers’ before telephones or cars were invented).

    Reply

  9. The amount of lies and misinformation in this post is staggering.

    I will leave you with this simple web page, which is my techie-green answer for you back-to-the-earth luddite:

    http://www.caiso.com/Pages/TodaysOutlook.aspx#Renewables

    Reply

    • Stefan,

      Your post shows how much power is being generated by solar and wind (and other “renewables”) in California. That’s nice. In what way does it address or refute *any* of the points in the post above? All it shows is that renewables currently provide ~25% of electricity use in California. So?

      Reply

  10. Thanks for this article.

    It really annoys me that when I post something like this people immediately suggest that the author is a fossil fuel industry stooge or in favour of nuclear power.

    Why is it that there’s this black and white thinking?

    Many people behave as if they think renewable energy is suddenly going to solve the environmental crisis we face.

    It’s magical thinking.

    Reply

  11. Posted by jp on June 27, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Nothing here was an actual argument against expanding renewable power. Who’s behind this story?

    Reply

  12. Great post. I’m in the PostCarbon camp — time for 50 million farmers, there are no “renewable” solutions to replace fossil fuels. Ever. At energyskeptic I have a summary of why alternative energy can’t replace fossil fuels at:
    Energy Overview. Oil is butter-fried-steak wrapped in bacon, alternative energy lettuce and also:
    David Fridley, LBNL scientist, on why alternative energy won’t save us

    Reply

  13. shastatodd – My awareness started in 1968 looking at the Miami skyline and realizing civilization asked too much of humans. 1972 Limits to Growth confirmed my social/psychological/anthropological thoughts with an awareness of resources. We have an orchard/garden, underground root cellar, greenhouse with glass, all buildings are passive, old time cylinder wells – we have many parallels to your experience. I have many essays on my blog about solar and wind capturing devices: Solar and wind capturing devices are not alternative energy sources. For the physical devices – for wind, photovoltaices, solar hot water, hot air panels – the sun and wind are there, are green, are sustained. The devices that are used to capture the sun and wind’s energy are an extension of the fossil fuel supply system.

    There is a massive infrastructure of mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating, installation, transportation and the associated environmental assaults. There would be no sun or wind capturing devices with out this infrastructure. This infrastructure is not green, sustainable, or renewable. The making of these devices inadvertently but directly supports fracking, tar sands and deep ocean drilling because of the need for this infrastructure.

    In addition, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is very marginal for all solar devices. It takes years if ever to repay the energy it took to make, install, and maintenance these devices.

    I invite anyone cheerleading for solar to view these essays.
    This essay has diagrams and pictures of how we get copper, aluminum, glass, black chrome – the chemicals, heavy machinery, and industrial processes that are necessary to make the devices to capture the energy of the sun and wind.
    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/12/machines-making-machines-making.html

    and this one has similar information and includes research on ERoEI
    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2014/03/reality-again.html

    And even if you could get around the environmental degradation, the low ERoEI and could amass enough extra energy to reproduce the capturing devices and their equipment, then how about the rest of the STUFF of high tech, high energy society?

    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/10/to-make-light-bulb.html
    and
    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-small-fan.html

    Reply

  14. It would be elegant if wind and solar energy capturing devices could actually maintain a modicum of the wonderfully rich lifestyles many of us live. I believe this is a false dream and that BAU (business as usual) is not sustainable or “green” nor really desirable for the future of the earth or even our species.

    I have researched the energy requirements and the CO2 emissions for just the rebar and concrete used for the base of a 2.5 megawatt wind energy capturing device (wind turbine). There are charts and pictures. It is sobering.
    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2014/11/prove-this-wrong.html

    Reply

  15. The question that come to my mind regularly is : where have we gone wrong? as the human species, it might have been a very long time ago when building huge monument, cutting all forest (Egypte) , naval armada again cutting down trees (spain etc) Europe changing from Celtics to roman christian (from little villages without majeur structure to cities and heavy needs with the start of pollution) following multiple wars and industrialisation (the beginning of the end) coal pollution (various cancers etc) petrol, chemical, insane amount of vehicles, a turn to digital!! and now trying to change everything to electric because it s GOOD but as well because it pays and it keep the world market happy with a new product and a profitable future!
    Now what do we do? what can we do ?

    I believe that mother nature will take this decision for us as we are not capable as a race to make a stand and change our way drastically.
    The only way would be to stop the world economics and this is not gonna happen

    good luck to u all

    Reply

  16. […] > Stories of creative ecology: What’s wrong with renewable energy? […]

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  17. […] Originally published June 25, 2014 on Stories of Creative Ecology […]

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  18. […] Originally published June 25, 2014 on Stories of Creative Ecology […]

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  19. […] World conservation and First World consumerism. Currently, under the banner of environment, the NPIC [Non-Profit Industrial Complex] is pushing hard to sell the illusion that in order to “solve” our climate crisis, we simply have to switch from fossil fuel […]

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  20. The sting is definitely left until the tail of this article.
    “The emissions reductions that renewables intend to achieve could be easily accomplished by improving the efficiency of existing coal plants, at a much lower cost. ”
    Ok… Point taken… but are you deep green or do you have black edges, Kim Hill?

    1.
    (Start with some hopium) The renewable energy of the “future” is not necessarily what is on the “market” now, labeled as renewable energy. There are renewable energies which are so low tech that they are hardly used, like basic direct solar cooking devices, small wind turbines, wave pumps and waterwheels. There is so much technology created by people from all walks of life which has never been fully developed or distributed because it cannot thrive within the fossil fuel enabled corporate/industrial complex.
    2.
    Even though we have much greener and simpler renewable energy available than fossil fuel, I very much doubt it will be developed within this “civilisation” , it will take the crash of the industrial complex before that can happen. Get small, grow sustainable, eat local and get innovating; but to do that without stopping the main cause of climate damage is like putting bandaids on wounds while a crazed axe murderer is in the same room.
    3.
    I agree with you that “renewables can never replace fossil fuel infrastructure” and that they will not stop catastrophic climate change from wiping out most species and the vast majority of humans, but to remove fossil fuel enabled damage from the system could. Even if our own attempts at mitigation are pathetic, we can’t tell what the biosphere itself can do to adjust and repair. Leave fossil fuel in the ground.
    4.
    Do you really think that fossil fuel can have any role to play in future energy production or are you just being a Devil’s Advocate? As far as I’m concerned, every lump of coal we burn might be the last straw which breaks the biosphere’s back.
    5.
    You state obvious facts in that “Each stage leaves behind a trail of devastation: habitat destruction, water contamination, colonization, toxic waste, slave labour, greenhouse gas emissions, wars, and corporate profits.” But it doesn’t end there. We have so much metal, other minerals, plastic and silica in use on the surface already that there is no need for more mining. We can recycle all we need to make new products without continuing the toxic cycle.
    6.
    You state that solar panels and wind turbines last around 20 to 30 years and then need replacing. For those of us who, by principle, try to live by using the least damaging pathways, a small, off grid solar or wind system is not a bad option when combined with ascetic abstention. It saves us from burning too much timber or dung. 20 to 30 years is quite long enough to work out whether our children are going to live to reach the age we are now.
    7.
    The “easy” path to the future involves not replacing our population, our houses, our clothes or any non essential goods. We have enough “stuff” to last us all a lifetime. We must bring in rationing of food and water and develop sustainable agricultural systems if we are able to. We will let our industries and infrstructure run down except for the production of basic renewably energised tools for transport and individual survival. In fact, we need to go into the type of wartime style mobilisation that this group are suggesting. http://commondreams.org/…/paris-climate-talks-and-15c…
    8.
    I don’t think we’re going to manage to do it the “easy” way. I think that most humans will keep scrabbling for consumer bliss and will therefore complete the total crash of the planetary biosphere. We have, indeed, left our “renewable revolution” too late. If the fossil fuel industry hadn’t made such a good job of corrupting our politicians, destroying the credibility of our top scientists and subverting innovation in the 1980s, we may have succeeded, but now it seems too little, too late.
    9.
    When the system crashes, and the crash is well underway already, it will not crash evenly in all places. Maybe some humans will even manage to keep a basic, low tech sustainable life somewhere on Earth. I hope that it will be the remnants of the indigenous peoples who manage to survive by their very toughness and flexibility. They will not be sourcing their energy from the grid.
    10.
    Back to coal… There is no such thing as clean coal, clean tar sands or clean fracked unconventional gas. These industries must be shut down immediately. If under a strict mobilisation regime, we use the remnants of our existing conventional oil and gas reserves to transition to lower tech renewables, then it wouldn’t be a bad idea. It’s a bit of hopium for those of us who need it. Personally, I have very little hope and a lot of remorse. I will spend the rest of my days fighting all new fossil fuel projects and trying to personally shut down the coal industry for good. Join me. Every act of civil disobedience might well save another species. We are not likely to know if it works, but we owe it to the world to die in the attempt.

    Reply

  21. It is good that Kim Hill has exposed these aspects of renewable energy.

    In the fourth reason Hill states the following.

    “Humans, and all living beings, get our energy from plants and animals. Only the industrial system needs electricity to survive, and food and habitat for everyone are being sacrificed to feed it.”

    Especially, for humans living in “highly developed” countries, our enormous food system is highly industrialized. The energy we now derive from most of our foods involves an enormous input from other energy supplies, often connected to the extracted fossil fuels that took tens of million of years to form.

    As with many “green” articles the taboo subject of gross overpopulation, of the Earth by humans, was not mentioned. The extraction and use of fossil fuels enabled the exponential rise in our population during the industrial age. The Earth is now grossly overpopulated by our species that has become highly addicted to energy consumption, much of it derived from fossil fuels. If humans have any hope of surviving, beyond the year 2050, they have to stop breeding until the Earth’s population drops to less than 1% of the current population.

    The following may be useful if readers want to look further into the overpopulation and climate threshold issues.

    It took around 200,000 years for the Earth’s population of modern homo sapiens to reach one-billion, at around 1803 CE. During my 70 years the Earth’s human population has tripled to 7.40+ billion people. Those, who don’t see anything significant in this fact, must be living in a state of denial.

    The vast majority of the world’s still growing population of 7.40+ billion people are likely to reject my and similar comments in favor of blind positivism. Most people have strong vested interests in doing so. It’s become increasingly clear that many people reject evidence that doesn’t support their existing worldview. For them, maintaining these views is far more important than the kind of future our offspring will inherit.

    It doesn’t make sense to bring children into this world where discussions of overpopulation have become taboo. Despite four decades of warnings regarding anthropogenic climate disruption impacts it has become clear that little of the needed actions are taking place. Denial is a natural human coping mechanism. Most of the 7.40+ billion people on this planet are now living in a profound state of denial regarding the gravity of what we are doing to our planetary life support systems. Some people find that children provide superb distractions from all the bad news.

    Graph of human population from 10,000 BCE – 2000 CE
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_overpopulation#/media/File:Population_curve.svg

    David Suzuki speaks about overpopulation

    Earth Is In The Early Days Of A New Mass-Extinction Event, Researchers Warn
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/25/sixth-mass-biological-extinction-event_n_5621215.html

    Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0081648

    How Hot, How Fast?
    http://guymcpherson.com/2016/02/how-hot-how-fast/

    Last Hours

    Human overpopulation
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_overpopulation

    Google VHEMT.

    Reply

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