The Renewables Farce

The renewals transition is a lie. Here's why.

The Renewables Farce
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP / Unsplash

Let me say this loud for the people in the back:


Sure, wind, solar or geothermal energy might reduce carbon intensity per unit of output. Indeed, an EV, for example, emits less carbon than an ICE vehicle.

Unfortunately, it's more complicated. It always is.

Let me stop right here for a second. I am no fossil fuels apologist. And I'm not trying to thwart the efforts to improve the planet. However, I am a realist and observer of human and political behavior. In this article, I describe what will likely happen, as opposed to what I wish would happen.

First, renewables must be evaluated from a birth-to-death perspective. This includes the manufacturing processes, inputs and raw materials extraction. Accounting for these, the tradeoff is less black-and-white and often highly influenced by the longevity of the renewable alternative.

Break-even estimates vary wildly, and are highly dependent on what you're measuring - e.g. financial cost or carbon emissions. I think it's fair to say any renewable used to replace fossil fuels must have a lifespan across decades to be a viable alternative.

Studies show conflicting information - potentially influenced by inherent biases - with one recent study suggesting the breakeven between EVs and ICE vehicles is beyond normal usage.

Other studies show carbon parity can occur much earlier, depending on the underlying energy source.

My point is there are hidden complexities beneath the renewables transition, which has been misused as a soundbite to appease the citizenry.

Looking longer-term, those hidden complexities worsen. Transitioning to alternative energy sources requires massive consumption of copper, nickel, lithium and other metals. Research by Simon Michaux, Associate Professor at Geological Survey of Finland, suggests at current production rates there simply won't be enough raw materials to feed the transition.

Some argue his analysis doesn't anticipate technological developments, such as improvements in storage capacity and sodium batteries, that reduce metals requirements. (Note: the potential for cheaper, more effective future technological advances has long been an excuse for doing nothing to mitigate our predicament.) Still, Michaux highlights a major challenge to the feasibility and expediency of the transition, given what we can do today.

More from Simon Michaux:

A third issue with the transition, as it stands today, is the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy. While battery storage may mitigate this risk, energy redundancy (aka energy stability) will be a political leg for decades.

Modern, developed countries are defined by the instant, "unlimited" access to electricity. What downtime risk is politically palatable? 5%? 2%? 1%? Unsure, but, given people start panicking after a 30 minute outage, I do know that current energy sources will remain connected to the electrical grid for a long time.

This redundancy comes with a cost, and maintaining existing energy plants will be highly unprofitable if only used during intermittent outages. Remember, this cost is incremental to the cost to build and maintain new renewable sources. Underutilized, high cost electricity production becomes an easy target as governments around the world approach fiscal criticality.

Over time, society may develop confidence in the consistency of renewable power, as storage capabilities improve. Or become comfortable with occasional electricity outages. We may pull the plug on old electrical plants and hope renewables pull their weight.

More likely, politicians will conceive a 'better' idea. One that follows the path of previous energy transitions.

You'd be hard pressed to find a mainstream forecast that doesn't assume the world's energy needs will continue to grow. Given that, a transition to renewable energy isn't meant to replace today's energy needs - it must replace tomorrow's needs. So all the challenges I outlined above? They're worse.

Fast forward X years and assume through some miracle we've replaced 50% of 2024-level energy needs. Except, needs have grown over X years so the actual substitution is even less. This means it's more likely the energy produced by renewables is simply additive and capacity utilization for existing power sources never declines. Politicians will embrace this: no redundant expenditures, max power for industry and the 'greens' get their renewables growth.

In other words, there is no transition. It's a farce.

History backs this up. Jean-Baptist Fressoz, former lecturer at Imperial College London, explains the additive effects of new energy sources in a recent interview:

The industrial revolution has often been presented as a transition from wood to coal. Except that England in 1900 consumed more wood to hold up the galleries of coal mines than it burned in the 18th century! Coal didn’t replace wood – it stimulated its consumption. Of course, it is used as lumber, but also to produce energy. As of 2022, England still burns four times more wood energy than in the 18th century – mainly to produce electricity. In Europe, this figure was at least three times more in 2020 than in 1900. The world in general burns much more wood today than before the industrial revolution, namely thanks to oil, which allows us to exploit it much more easily.
Similarly, to extract oil, you need steel tubes made from coal. In the 2000s, in the US, these tubes alone represented more than all the steel the country consumed in 1900. The statistical observation is clear: we have never consumed as much wood as now, as much coal as now, as much hydraulic or wind power too... All energies are growing, and this is true for poor countries as well as for rich countries. Energies don’t replace each other, they don’t compete on a limited market – they add up and even reinforce each other. And this observation applies to almost all raw materials.

Moreover, renewables REQUIRE fossil fuels:

Unfortunately, the increase in renewables doesn’t imply an equivalent decline in fossil fuels. Renewables, like all other energies, are caught in energetic and material symbioses: solar panels are made with silicon, a metal that must be refined; wind turbines have large steel masts, etc. And more importantly, if renewable electricity powers the same world that depends on plastic, steel, fertilisers, cement – ​​materials that emit CO2 – this only solves part of the problem. Thanks to renewables, we can slow down warming, but certainly not stop it.

If renewables aren't the answer, what is?

For twenty years, we were made to believe that it was the market and free initiative that would solve the problem. Now, we have a New Keynesian discourse centred on the state and the trillions of dollars that should be invested to decarbonise the global economy... These two socio-centric forms of solutionism are also illusory and allow us – as with this myth of transition through innovation – to avoid answering the annoying question, which for me is the fundamental question of climate policy: what quantity of material goods should we produce, and how should they be distributed?

The answer: degrowth.