In 2022, I authored two articles [1, 2] expressing doubts about society’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable solar and wind power. In this final article in the series, I’ll explain why my conclusions are based on experience as well as analysis.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
My gloomy assessment of the prospects for renewable energy is not motivated by love of fossil fuels. In fact, I’ve spent the past two decades writing books and articles and giving hundreds of talks arguing that our collective adoption of coal, oil, and gas was the biggest mistake in human history. However, I don’t think, as some spokespeople for environmental organizations sometimes seem to do, that any criticism of alternative energy sources is a form of climate denialism.
At the other extreme, I disagree with the few hard-core environmentalists who believe that renewables are a complete dead end. After humanity’s fossil-fueled fever has eventually broken, we will return to renewable energy, one way or another. We’ve relied on renewable energy for untold millennia in terms of food, firewood, wind, and flowing water. It certainly would be preferable if we could partially transition to forms of renewable energy that would enable us to maintain some of the best of what we’ve accomplished over the past few energy-intensive decades—including scientific knowledge and creative works produced in a growing host of media, from sound recording to motion pictures to digital art. Unfortunately, that will be impossible without functioning electricity grids, which are challenging to maintain even in the best of times. If we could use hydro, solar, wind, and geothermal energy to power slimmed-down grids, that would greatly ease the transition away from fossil fuels.
In short, I have no reason to dislike renewable energy. In fact, I love it. And I live with it.
My wife Janet and I have had solar panels on the roof of our house for so long that the first set aged to become antiques; recently, we replaced that still-working initial set—which we donated to a good cause—with a new one that was cheaper and far more efficient. We have a solar hot-water heater, a solar cooker, and a solar food dryer; we heat and cool our home with a solar-powered electric heat pump, and we drive an electric car. We went solar not for the purpose of virtue signaling, but in order to use our household as a laboratory. And the experiments have been not only instructive but also enjoyable. We would never willingly go back to using the fossil fuel-based technologies we ditched.
However, being an early adopter of solar technology has given me personal insight into some of the practical limitations and difficulties of making the energy transition. For example, proponents of the Inflation Reduction Act (President Joe Biden’s main legislative effort to boost the shift toward renewables) point out that the government can’t be expected to pay for the transition entirely on its own; rather, the idea is for government incentives to prime the national economic pump so that companies and households will be incentivized to do the heavy spending that will be necessary to ensure this transition.
But what level of spending on the part of the companies and the public is realistic? I can only cite Janet’s and my own experience: we’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on our personal energy transition, even though we did things as cheaply as possible, and even though various financial incentives were already being offered by the government. Bigger tax breaks would have helped. But not every household will be installing a new mini split HVAC system or induction stove or replacing its cars (the average U.S. household has two of them) in the next few years. Similarly, not every company will want to replace its fleets of vehicles (including long-haul trucks, ships, and airliners) or abandon its sunken investments in other machinery—possibly including cement kilns and blast furnaces.
In addition to my renewable experiments at home, I also explored the feasibility of transitioning away from fossil fuels while working on the 2016 book Our Renewable Future with David Fridley of the Energy Analysis Program at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. We engaged in researching renewable energy over the course of the previous year, during which time I would propose questions to which Fridley could use technical analysis to answer.
I asked Fridley how the consumer electronics industry can proceed without fossil fuels. I also asked him how our food system can adapt, given the vital importance of nitrogen fertilizers currently made with natural gas. Fridley did the research and math and often came up with sobering answers. We concluded that nearly all the technical problems entailed in making these transitions can be solved at the laboratory scale.
What do I mean by “laboratory scale”? For example, it’s possible to use solar electricity to make synthetic hydrogen-based fuels that can be used to keep airliners flying. However, in many cases, ramping up such solutions to the vast industrial scale, which is necessary to maintain global business-as-usual status, is probably unrealistic. In rich countries like the U.S., the transition will only be feasible if we cut energy usage dramatically, especially for certain transportation modes (aviation) and industrial sectors (concrete and steel), while completely redesigning truly essential sectors (notably, our food system).
One thing Janet and I realized early on in our home energy transition experiment was that most of the fossil fuel energy usage that sustains our household is not under our control. In our house, we don’t do any mining, heavy manufacturing, road construction, or industrial agriculture. We can’t even make the glass for our solar cookers. Other people do those things; and, after carefully monitoring the relevant industries over the past 20 years, I’ve concluded that those other people are taking only tiny steps toward eliminating fossil fuels. The next 20 years may see more vigorous efforts in that direction, but the inertia is enormous.
In my personal view, energy transition planning is now based far too much on abstract computer-based models that fail to include all the relevant factors. It’s relatively easy to project renewable energy growth trends using a spreadsheet; but, beyond the easy phases that Janet and I have undertaken, the actual implementation will imply vast changes in materials supply chains and manufacturing processes—shifts that will be disruptive in the best case, and nearly impossible in the worst.
As I’ve suggested before, we need integrated pilot projects to identify major potential snags in the energy transition process. An ideal project would be to retrofit a medium-sized industrial city so it runs not just its electrical power system on renewables but also its transport and food systems, with sunlight and wind also supplying heat for its homes. The concrete for its roads and buildings would be made using renewable electricity, as would the glass for its windows.
The fact that there are no such pilot projects currently in operation is a clue that there are systemic roadblocks relating to large-scale interlocking technological systems that will make it hard and costly to wean from fossil fuels. In some respects, the energy transition is analogous to redesigning and rebuilding an airplane while it’s in flight.
Household experience is currently about the closest thing we have to operating pilot projects. So, do the experiment yourself. Go solar. But notice how much energy you use and what you use it for; also, pay attention to what energy you can control, and what you can’t. You may discover, as Janet and I have, that your most impactful efforts to reduce your carbon footprint involve simply reducing your travel and consumption.
My aim is not to discourage people working toward an energy transition, but to insist that we develop a realistic plan for energy descent, rather than insisting on foolish dreams of eternal consumer abundance by means other than fossil fuels. Currently, politically rooted insistence on continued economic growth is discouraging truth-telling and serious planning for how to live well with less.
Teaser photo credit: A parabolic solar cooker with segmented construction. By http://www.atlascuisinesolaire.com – Own work www.atlascuisinesolaire.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10362650