Is a 100% Renewable Energy World Possible?

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on May 19, 2016

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I am reporting here the results of a small survey that I carried out last week among the members of a discussion forum; mainly experts in renewable energy (*). It was a very informal poll; not meant to have statistical value. But some 70 people responded out of a total of 167 members; so I think these results have a certain value in telling us how the experts feel in this field. And I was surprised by the remarkable optimism that resulted from the poll.

This is what I asked the members of the list

The question is about  the possibility of a society not too different from ours (**) but 100% based on renewable energy sources, and on the possibility of obtaining it before it is too late to avoid the climate disaster. This said, what statement best describes your position?

1.  It is impossible for technical reasons. (Renewables have too low EROEIs, need too large amounts of natural resources, we'll run out of fossil fuels first, climate change will destroy us first, etc.)

2. It is technically possible but so expensive to be unthinkable.

3. It is technically possible and not so expensive to be beyond our means. However, it is still expensive enough that most likely people will not want to pay the costs of the transition before it will be too late to achieve it, unless we move to a global emergency status.

4. It is technically possible and inexpensive enough that it can be done smoothly, by means of targeted government intervention, such as a carbon tax.

5. It is technically possible and technological progress will soon make it so inexpensive that normal market mechanisms will bring us there nearly effortlessly.

As I said, it was a very informal poll and these questions could have been phrased differently, and probably in a better way. And, indeed, many people thought that their position was best described by something intermediate, some saying, for instance, "I am between 4 and 5". Because of this, it was rather difficult to make a precise counting of the results. But the trend was clear anyway.

Out of some 70 answers, the overwhelming majority was for option 4, that is, the transition is not only technologically possible, but within reach at a reasonable cost and fast enough to avoid major damage from climate change. The second best choice was option 3 (the transition is possible but very expensive). Only a few respondents say that the transition is technologically impossible without truly radical changes of society. Some opted for option 5, even suggesting an "option 6", something like "it will be faster than anyone expects".

I must confess that I was a little surprised by this diffuse optimism, being myself set on option 3. In part, it is because I tend to frequent "doomer" groups, but also on the basis of the quantitative calculations that I performed with some colleagues. But I think that these results are indicative of a trend that's developing among energy experts. It is an attitude that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but the experts are clearly perceiving the rapid strides forward of renewable technologies and reacting accordingly. They feel that there is a concrete chance to be able to create a cleaner world fast enough to avoid the worst.

I understand that this is the opinion of just a tiny group of experts, I understand that experts may well be wrong, I understand that there exist such things as the "bandwagon effect" and the "confirmation bias." I know all this. Yet, I believe that, in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, we can't go anywhere if we keep telling people that we are doomed, no matter what we do. What we need in order to keep going and fight the climate crisis is a healthy dose of hope and of optimism. And these results show that there is hope, that there is reason for optimism. Whether the transition will turn out to be very difficult, or not so difficult, it seems to be within reach if we really want it.

(*) Note: the forum mentioned in this post is a private discussion group meant to be a tool for professionals in renewable energy. It is not a place to discuss whether renewable energy is a good thing or not, nor to discuss such thing as the incoming near term extinction of humankind and the like. Rather, the idea of the forum is to discuss how to make the renewable energy transition happen as fast as possible; hopefully fast enough to avoid a climate disaster. If you are interested in joining this forum, please write me privately at ugo.bardi(zingything)unifi.it telling me in a few lines who you are and why you would like to join. It is not necessary that you are a researcher or a professional. People of good will who think they have something to contribute to the discussion are welcome.

(**) The concept of a society "not too different from ours" is left purposefully vague, because it is, obviously subjected to many different interpretations.Personally, I would tend to define it in terms of what such a society would NOT be. A non-exhaustive list could be, in no particular order,
 

  • Not a Mayan style theocracy, complete with human sacrifices
  • Not a military dictatorship, Roman style, complete with a semi-divine imperial ruler
  • Not a proletarian paradise, complete with a secret police sending dissenters to very cold places
  • Not a hunting and gathering society, complete with hunting rituals and initiation rites
  • Not a society where you are hanged upside down if you tell a joke about the dear leader
  • Not a society where, if you can't afford health care, you are left to die in the street
  • Not a society where you are worried every day about whether you and your children will have something to eat
  • Not a society where slavery is legal and the obvious way things ought to be
  • Not a society where women are supposed to be the property of men
  • Not a society where most people spend most of their life tilling the fields
  • Not a society where you are burned at the stake if you belong to a different sect than the dominant one
 
Many other things are, I think, negotiable, such as having vacations in Hawai'i, owning an SUV, watering the lawn in summer, and more.

 

 

 

 

28 Responses to Is a 100% Renewable Energy World Possible?

  • EtyerePetyere says:

    The results of this survey clearly shows that the majority of visitors of this site mildly put are are "uninformed hopefuls " but that will not do . Considering the seriousness of the underlieing subject  they can only be called "Clueless Morons " 

    • Ugo Bardi says:
      • EtyerePetyere says:

        Yeah germany never ever ever and ever burned more lignite than today and has a highest output of CO2 in its ENTIRE history …. How about that  ?! On top of it all that renewable equipment the germans are installing  is being produced in china india etc third world with tremendous coal pollution and cheap labour arbitrage using nonrenewable ressources .  The "Clueless moron " .. confirmed 

    • Ugo Bardi says:
      • EtyerePetyere says:

        "Clueless moron " Was asking for more  here it is 

        http://www.wire1002.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/Documents/Reports/110403_How_much_net_energy_does_the_Spain_s_Solar_PV_program_deliver.pdf

        The result is EROEI of 2:1 over 25 years time. It comes to the conclusion that only 1/3 is production of the PV cells. And that makes sense if you consider all the energy needed to produce concrete, steel etc to the foundations. 

        The main problem with renewable energy calculations is that not all the energy input needed is accounted for. A change into renewable will take decades, under this time we will loose much of the cheap oil that is needed for the changeover. 

        Yes the panels get better and cheaper, but they are the small part of the total cost….

        • lracine says:

          I have been looking for real numbers that reflect the total energy and carbon emissions for not only the initial production and installation of the various renewable projects/tech but also the on going maintenance cost.  It doesn't seem to be out there.

           

           

    • A says:

      The thing is, in the West (especially US/Aust) we can cut consumption by at least 90% without really changing anything about our society (this needs to be done progressively, by income, but it's no more radical than anything FDR did). The fact that people think that such a cut in consumption is THE END OF THE WORLD says a lot about their sense of entitlement.

       

      Regards, A

      • EtyerePetyere says:

        Sure we can cut 90% of consumption just 90% of the people need to lay down and die .. I`ll be happy to see you starting to do so .. one less clueless moron .. It is a start 

        • SomeoneInAsia says:

          The usual thoughtless and rude reply from you-know-who. Sigh…

          • EtyerePetyere says:

            My Apologies . This was not meant to take it personally but in general . I am Running a General " Clueless Moron " Themed answer seccion . It is like Black people are calling each others "nigger" but in a loving fashion I am just calling here all my fellows who are interested in saving the world thru machines what caused the problem in the first place clueless morons  but lovingly 

      • SomeoneInAsia says:

        I'd say it's the 1% (or the 0.1% or whatever) who need to cut THEIR consumption by 90% — no, make it 99.9%.

        No single human being can possibly need that much wealth as they now have, for bloody goodness's sake.

        • Ugo Bardi says:

          It's fine. I didn't take "clueless moron" personally, I just used it as a rhetorical tool to answer. I took it as a form of entertainment, these debates are like this

        • A says:

          If your income is greater than about US$30000/year then you are in the global 1%

          Regards, A

          • SomeoneInAsia says:

            MY (current) income is way less than that, believe me.

            It's not even US$10,000.

          • A says:

            Fair enough. Many people who say things like "it's the 1%" don't realise that they are actually members of the 1%! 😉

            I'm well into the global 1% by income (though am only about the 70th percentile in Australia), and strongly recognise that people like me must drastically cut their consumption (cars, food, stuff and air-travel are the big four). What is underappreciated is that the vast majority of people in Western countries are in the global 1% and must cut their consumption.

            Having said that, if you live in Asia, I imagine you're doing fairly well on US$10k 😉

            Cheers, A

      • lracine says:

        Have you asked yourself what it would mean to limit your energy consumption to 10% of what you are currently using???  Are you including the energy used to produce food…  if so I believe people will starve….

        I have lived off grid and have done this  and I don't think I got down to 10% (including food)…  have you?  I don't think you have a clue…..

         

        • A says:

          Yes, I've thought about it. It's hard to estimate the embodied energy contained in what we buy, but here are a few thoughts:

          1. We drive little (~4000km/year) — mostly walk, cycle, or use public transport

          2. We are vegetarian, and buy most of our food from local producers ( we still buy dairy, and likely too much to be sustainable). We also grow quite a bit of our own food.

          3. We buy "GreenPower" electricity and have a family-of-four consumption of ~5 kWh/day. We don't use natural gas. We have 2kW solar PV, which produces more than we use except for a handful of days around the winter solstice.

          4. We try to buy second-hand where possible, and avoid buying new

          5. We try to avoid air-travel (or any long distance travel)

          I'm not trying to boast here, but I think these numbers probably represent a 90% reduction in energy consumption versus the average Australian or American.

           

          In answer to your question, it is possible that people could starve. But, just like people starving now, I doubt that it would be because of our inability to produce food, but instead it would be because of poor distribution.

           

          Cheers, A

  • Ken Barrows says:

    #4 assumes a carbon tax or similar government intervention.  To quote the philosopher, George H.W. Bush:  Not…gonna…happen.

  • EtyerePetyere says:

    But it is right and it is a fact .. The world will be powerded soon with 100% renewable energy  . The sun , Not thru photovoltaics but thru photosynthesys as before the madness took over . It will all nicely go back to where it wass functioning for eternity in the cycle of sun plant decay and renewal of soil and animals feeding and dieing and the big cycle of life without the machines and Clueless morons like Hugo Bardi 

    • lracine says:

      You can make your point without calling Hugo names… (and it will give you more creditablity)  I don't think Hugo is a moron…  I enjoy reading his blogs.

      He is asking question and exploring subjects that need more discussion. 

      • EtyerePetyere says:

        You got to make it sometimes painfully clear when someone who is claiming authority is so obviously wrong . C`mon  ! 

        Germany !? The posterchild of green energy ? It is  like saying the hitlerjugend is a shining example of a youth organisation where young people will be thaught benevolent values for the good of society especially toward minoritys like the Jews .  I mean how come not everyone jumped at his throat when he said that ?  I mean… Really ! Do you wonder that i had to come up with a headline like "Clueless Moron" as the motto for relplies . It hurts me to set you free .. But i have to do it sometimes  

  • SomeoneInAsia says:

    Is a 100% renewable energy world possible? This is trivially obvious. Of course it is. Our premodern ancestors have lived in such a world since the beginning of history.

    But can we continue our current way of life on the basis of renewable energy only? Now that's a totally different question. And from what I've read, I don't see how the answer can be anything but option 1. Not only are renewables simply unable to deliver as much as fossil fuels can, the hardware for renewables requires fossil fuels to build and maintain. Renewables are really just fossil fuel extenders. No fossil fuels, no renewables. So, sorry mate, renewables aren't going to replace fossil fuels — barring some truly incredible technological breahthrough.

    I'm not holding my breath in anticipation of such a breakthrough.

  • The remarks I made on the survey are as follows. If you took the survey, you will understand where they were placed. I will not waste my time with the biosphere math challenged  and thermodynamics challenged hand wringing crowd that claims "we are all gonna die without fossilfuels". 

    The fossil fuel industry corruption of our government is the main obstacle, not thermodynamics.

    The fossil fuel industry corruption of our government is the main obstacle, not thermodynamics.

    Items 11 (draft animals) and 12 (human slavery) are non-solutions. Item 13 is exactly backwards. ONLY Renewable energy can enable us to survive.

    I believe that if we don't use a 10 to 15 year phase out period for eliminating dirty energy use, about 3 billion will die unnecessarily.

    2040 is my estimate of when the brown outs, etc. begin.

    The cause of the lack of power available will be severe climate catastrophe infrastructure disruptions, not lack of energy if the centralized power based refinery product fossil fuel business as usual insanity continues. The recent one billion barrel crude oil basin discovery in the Falklands is proof.

    Electric Vehicles (land and sea) powered by batteries charged with Renewable energy and buildings heated with Renewable energy are the key to destroying the fossil fuel industry polluting business model because 42% of refinery output is for gasoline and 23% is for heating oil (including kerosene).

    • Ken Barrows says:

      Do you know how long 1B barrels satisfies current world demand?  I suspect you don't.

  • Harquebus says:

    Short answer: No.

    “despite a string of optimistic choices resulting in low values of energy investments, the ERoEI is significantly below 1. In other words, an electrical supply system based on today’s PV technologies cannot be termed an energy source, but rather a non-sustainable energy sink or a non-sustainable NET ENERGY LOSS.”
    https://collapseofindustrialcivilization.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/ferroni-y-hopkirk-2016-energy-return-on-energy-invested-eroei-for-photo.pdf

    The pollution caused in the manufacture of these inefficient devices is also never factored.

    “Reckless dumping of industrial waste is everywhere in China. But what caught the attention of The Washington Post was that the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Company was a “green energy” company producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world.”
    “Polysilicon production produces about four tons of silicon tetrachloride liquid waste for every ton of polysilicon produced.”
    http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31478-china-s-communist-capitalist-ecological-apocalypse

  • Derryl Hermanutz says:

    I agree with the sceptics.  Industrial civilization is made possible by fossil-fueled machine labor replacing food-powered human and animal labor.  The problem is the energy requirements of our mechanized industrial economic system that brings together resources from all over the Earth to produce non-natural materials and machines made from those materials, to do much of physical work of human life.  Fossil fuels power the machines that mine and refine the resources and transport them all over the planet.  Mechanized production vastly increases outputs of goods that make us much materially richer than we could accomplish without machines.  If we want to remain this materially rich and comfortable and labor-free, then non-food powered machines must continue doing the work.  Here's an illustration I read awhile back:  

    Hold up a gallon can of gasoline.  Now push your car 20 miles, up hills, through potholes, over gravel, wherever the road goes.  That's how much energy is in that gallon of gas.  If you could do it at all, it would take you 2 or more days of brutally hard physical labor to do the work that gallon of gas in your car did in 20 minutes.  We are rich because of fossil-fueled machines.  

    Maybe the machine age ends with fossil fuels, and it's back to much more food-powered human labor producing food and simpler goods made by hand from locally available resources.  Electronics and even electrical generators and grids require materials that can only be produced by global supply chains and energy-intensive mining and refining.  A "green" future would look more like peasant agriculture than the gleaming labor-free clean energy cities most greens imagine themselves being pampered in.

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