Why Wind & Solar Are Pointless: ‘Renewables Will Power Us’ Myth, Smashed Again
It takes a special brand of delusion to believe that we’re a heartbeat away from an all wind and sun powered future. But that’s the premise advanced by wind and sun worshippers and the rent seekers that profit from the greatest subsidy scam in human history.
Putting aside their chaotic intermittency, the staggering amount of resources required to build and construct wind turbines and solar panels, there’s the inherently diffuse nature of wind and solar power. Land use is just another issue which the renewable energy crowd brush away with a sniff and a shrug.
Atte Harjanne and Janne Korhonen take a different view, with a detailed analysis of why wind and solar are worse than pointless.
Abandoning the concept of renewable energy
Energy Policy (127, pp.330-340)
Atte Harjanne and Janne Korhonen
Renewable energy is a widely used term that describes certain types of energy production. In politics, business and academia, renewable energy is often framed as the key solution to the global climate challenge. We, however, argue that the concept of renewable energy is problematic and should be abandoned in favor of more unambiguous conceptualization.
Building on the theoretical literature on framing and based on document analysis, case examples and statistical data, we discuss how renewable energy is framed and has come to be a central energy policy concept and analyze how its use has affected the way energy policy is debated and conducted. We demonstrate the key problems the concept of renewable energy has in terms of sustainability, incoherence, policy impacts, bait-andswitch tactics and generally misleading nature. After analyzing these issues, we discuss alternative conceptualizations and present our model of categorizing energy production according to carbon content and combustion.
The paper does not intend to criticize or promote any specific form of energy production, but instead discusses the role of institutional conceptualization in energy policy.
4. Problems with the Concept
As described above, renewable energy is a concept that has been widely adopted across the field of energy policy. It emerged as an alternative to fossil and nuclear energy sources, was later used in conceptualization of an envisioned harmonious society and has now become a central conceptual building block of energy policy theory and practice. It is a clearly defined concept, in the sense that it is widely agreed which sources of energy are renewable and which are not. However, as we show next, the concept as it currently exists might even be harmful to the efforts to combat climate change or power sustainable development.
4.1 Renewable does not mean sustainable
Renewable energy is often associated strongly with sustainability. To consider whether renewable energy is sustainable, we first need to define what we understand as sustainability. The original definition by the Brundtland Report in 1987 defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (United Nations 1987). Since then, more definitions have followed, typically emphasizing some form of the triple bottom line thinking (see, e.g. Slaper and Hall 2011), where sustainability includes social, environmental and economic domains. Since no energy production comes without some societal and environmental impact, we adopt a pragmatic extension to our definition of sustainability. Sustainable energy enables societal development that is largely, even if not entirely, decoupled from increasing environmental degradation for the foreseeable future.
Among renewables, the sustainability challenges of biomass combustion are perhaps the best acknowledged. Nevertheless, biomass has an irreplaceable role in many ambitious renewable energy strategies and scenarios published by different organizations (see, e.g. European Commission 2011; Teske et al. 2012; Nordic Energy Research 2016; WWF 2011). Biomass has three major environmental issues and one significant societal issue. First, large scale biofuel production can threaten biodiversity due to the land area and water it needs (Gerbens-Leenes et al. 2009; Erb, Haberl, and Plutzar 2012; Pedroli et al. 2013; Immerzee et al. 2014).
Efficient biomass cultivation and harvesting presents a difficult trade-off with conservation of diverse ecosystems in the same area (Erb et al. 2012). Second, energy use of biomass causes considerable net emissions in the short term (Cherubini et al. 2011; Zanchi, Pena, and Bird 2011; Booth 2018), which limits its usefulness in curbing carbon emissions. Third, biomass burning causes particulate pollution that has adverse health and climate impacts (Sigsgaard et al. 2015; Chen et al. 2017). As for societal impacts, on a global scale biomass-based energy production competes with food production for agricultural land and water (Gerbens-Leenes et al. 2009; Dornburg et al. 2010), which could lead to increased food prices, causing major problems for the poorest people and potentially resulting in societal unrest (Bellemare 2014). In general, intensive agriculture comes with the risk of soil degradation, groundwater pollution and loss of recreational value (Tilman et al. 2002).
Detailed sustainability criteria can help address the abovementioned problems, but such criteria might limit the scalability of biomass considerably. Scalability might not be an issue if the goal is to address local problems. However, for the development and influence of policy with national and global implications and application, we must consider whether or not an energy source can be scaled to provide a substantial fraction of total energy use, and the sustainability implications of this scaling.
A biomass solution can be relatively sustainable if used in a local, small-scale manner, but unsustainable in terms of land use, biodiversity loss and carbon emissions if it is used to power entire cities. Finally, the sustainability of biomass use can be modified by technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) combined with bioenergy (BECCS). Proposed BECCS plants would be emission-free, but with a penalty of decreased total energy efficiency. When the energy used for cultivating, harvesting, refining and fuel logistics is taken into account, the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) for BECCS plants, in particular, remains low, possibly even negative (Fajardy and Mac Dowell 2018).
The sustainability issues of renewable energy are not limited to bioenergy. Hydropower can have severe negative environmental impacts, particularly but not exclusively relating to fish populations and similar impacts relating to modification of freshwater hydrology (Chen et al. 2015, Zarfl et al. 2015). Hydropower projects can also release large quantities of greenhouse gases as the original biomass under reservoirs rots, when the water level fluctuation increases and they become large catchment areas of organic matter and nutrients (Deemer et al. 2016) Hydropower projects also often result in displacement of the local populace, and are therefore problematic from a societal sustainability point of view, especially if the negative consequences are faced by poor, indigenous populations while economic benefits are reaped elsewhere (Zarfl et al. 2015).
Geothermal energy has few adverse impacts other than possible local pollution and potentially increasing earthquakes (Moriarty and Honnery 2012), but in order to meet the general definition of renewability it has to be utilized only to the extent the energy flow can replenish itself, which is not always the case (Stefansson 2000; Rybach 2007). The assessed values for global technical potential of geothermal energy vary by orders of magnitude (Moriarty and Honnery 2012), but outside volcanic areas its applications are generally restricted to providing low temperature heating.
The sustainability challenges of wind and solar power are related to the low energy density of the energy flows they are harvesting and their variable nature. Low energy density results in high material and land area requirements (Vidal, Goffe, and Arndt 2013; Brook 2014), and the need to mine high volumes of potentially scarce raw materials such as tellurium and indium for solar photovoltaics (Feltrin and Freundlich 2008; Tao et al. 2011; Grandell and Höök 2015) and rare earths for wind turbines (Alonso et al. 2012; Habib and Wenzel 2014). Variable production of these sources means that in order to provide reliable service, the system as a whole needs some combination of i) major energy storage systems, ii) “overbuild” generation and transmission capacity, or iii) acceptance of decreased level of service. The first two further increase the material and land area requirements to deliver the energy service.
Energy security is a key factor in alleviating poverty (OECD/IEA 2010). From a societal sustainability point of view the distributed nature of wind and solar energy seems positive. In theory they enable local communities to become energy providers, disrupting the power of centralized major power utilities and providing a source of local income. Empirical evidence suggests that whether renewable energy plans achieve these aspirations really depends on specific policies. For example, in Germany, the economic benefits of renewable energy policies have not been felt by the less affluent but rather by those with considerable disposable income and opportunities to invest in and operate decentralized power production (Stefes 2016).
None of the above arguments mean that renewable energy technologies cannot be providers of sustainable energy. As with any form of energy production, the energy sources labeled as renewable come with pros and cons that depend on their scale and their role in the energy system.
4.2 Renewables are very different from each other
Another problem with the concept of renewable energy is that it is an umbrella construct that includes very different types of energy sources. The energy densities, practical siting requirements and physical processes of different forms of renewable energy vary greatly.
Table 1 illustrates the miscellaneous nature of renewable energy sources. The different renewables are compared based on their power density, primary form of energy harvested, land use, capacity and nature of fluctuation. Power density is here measured by estimated land use intensity. This number depends greatly on the underlying assumptions of what is included, but the diverse nature of the renewables itself makes direct comparison complicated.
As Table 1 shows, the renewable forms of energy differ from each other in almost all aspects. One thing is common, however; all these energy sources have a relatively low power density per area (for comparison, these are around 0.2 and 0.1 for coal and nuclear energy, respectively; Fritsche et al. 2017), although there is an order of magnitude difference in this aspect too. Different renewables harvest different forms of energy, which then requires different processes to convert the energy into useful electricity or heat. Finally, it should be noted that most of these renewables are not able to directly produce the high temperatures required by many industrial processes (Naegler et al. 2015).
The variability of energy production is a well-known challenge of many forms of renewable energy. All these sources except biomass are dependent on local conditions, resulting in some form of variability. However, the time scales and predictability of this variability are very different from each other. Wind and solar power are directly dependent on the ambient weather conditions, causing the power production to fluctuate in a matter of seconds (Anvari et al. 2016). Availability of hydropower depends on water levels and flows on time scales varying from hourly and daily fluctuation of run-of-river power plants to seasonal and annual fluctuation of storage hydropower with large reservoirs (Kumar et al. 2011; Gaudard and Romerio 2014). It should be noted that technological innovations can alter the figures of Table 1 in the future. The fundamental physical limitations such as solar insolation, wind catchment or biological primary production per unit of area, however, persist, limiting major shifts in the power density or the nature of variability.
Table 1: The varying nature of different renewable energy forms. Coal and nuclear energy included for comparison
The incoherence of a concept is not necessarily a problem. There are many ambiguous concepts that still have significant explanatory power and practical use. However, in energy policy design and discourse, such incoherence can cause confusion. Businesses, cities, states and countries are making pledges to run on 100 % renewable energy or electricity and these pledges are compared to each other, yet they describe very different energy systems in terms of infrastructure, material flows and societal, environmental and economic impact. For example, the fact that Iceland, Norway and Costa Rica have abundant hydropower or geothermal resources and can produce practically all their electricity from renewable sources tells us very little about the policy options in countries that are not as well endowed. Nevertheless, it is common to see these countries used as examples of successful renewable energy policies, and even academic publications often use these examples to make the case for 100% renewable energy (e.g. Brown et al. 2018).
4.3 Results of policies based on renewable energy are mixed
Conceptualizing certain forms of energy as renewable could be justified, if it leads to favorable policy outcomes. What ‘favorable’ exactly means depends, of course, on goals set for the policy. The Paris agreement (United Nations 2016) dictates in general that signatory countries should aim at sufficient emission reductions to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. At the same time, countries are interested in maintaining a secure supply of energy and improving their economic performance and competitiveness.
The World Energy Council ranks energy policy achievement according to the so-called ‘Energy Trilemma’: the ability to provide energy through three dimensions of energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability (World Energy Council 2017). The effectiveness of policy in meeting the Energy Trilemma is one illustrative way to systematically assess and rank energy policies. Figure 3 illustrates the energy trilemma rankings and share of renewables in total primary energy supply for 120 countries for which data was available for year 2017. As we can see, there is low correlation between a high share of renewables and “good” energy policy – and in fact the observable correlation is mostly negative.
There are high ranking countries with a low share of renewables and there are low ranking countries with a very high share of renewables. Naturally, the renewables in question are very different. In the countries with poorer performance, the renewables are often manually collected firewood and manure. Again, the label ‘renewable’ tells very little about the exact type of energy used.
Figure 3: The Energy Trilemma rankings and share of renewables in total primary energy supply in 2017 for 120 countries (Data: World Energy Council 2017)
Perhaps the best-known renewable-based national energy policy is the Energiewende of Germany, which aims to supply 60 percent of final energy consumption from renewables by 2050, along with pledges of emission reductions in line with EU policy and a complete nuclear phase-out by 2022 (Agora Energiewende 2017). The premise of Energiewende has a long history in Germany, and the current set policies were decided in 2010 and 2011 (Agora Energiewende 2017; Beveridge and Kern 2013). By 2017, German CO2 emissions had dropped by 4 percent compared to 2010 (Umweltbundesamt 2018), and in 2018 the newly elected German government announced that the country would not meet the emission reduction targets it had set for 2020 (Oroschakoff 2018). Although it is difficult to say what the emissions would have been without the Energiewende, these challenges were expected. Several studies have pointed out that the policy may result in challenges in grid management and reducing CO2 intensity (Bruninx et al. 2013; Schroeder et al. 2013; Knopf et al. 2015; Sopher 2015).
The electricity prices for households are the second highest among all EU member countries (Eurostat 2017). Yet at the same time, the economic growth of Germany has on average been higher than in the EU or Euro area in general (European Commission 2018; Eurostat 2018b), with Matthes et al. (2015) arguing that Germany’s energy policy has had an important role in lowering the price of wind and solar generation worldwide, potentially playing a beneficial role in reducing greenhouse emissions beyond German political borders. Thus, depending on what is valued and how, the Energiewende might be judged either a success or a failure. However, in terms of reducing Germany’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring affordability for German consumers, it has not been effective.
While energy security and equity are important, the case can be made that curbing carbon emissions is the global priority of energy policy at the moment. So, in a world where renewable energy is frequently framed as a key solution to climate change, how have we fared in reducing emissions? The answer is, quite poorly. After remaining flat for three years (IEA 2017b), global CO2 emissions are estimated to have grown by 2 percent in 2017 (Global Carbon Project 2018).
Even staying below the 2°C threshold without a high likelihood of overshooting would require major annual reductions. The national pledges set for the Paris agreement are not nearly enough (Sanderson, O´Neill, and Tebaldi 2016), and there is still a wide gap between those pledges and actual policies (Victor et al. 2017). Naturally, the current conceptualization of energy as renewable or not can’t be adjudged as the root cause of failed climate policies. But our conceptualizations have coexisted with this failure, and we suspect that this has limited our policy choices.
4.4 Renewable energy enables bait-and-switch tactics
Despite the controversies described above, the concept of renewable energy has become ingrained in climate policy logic. Climate policy can be seen as a complex, issue-based field (Schüssler et al. 2014), where the activities of the many actors involved are no longer connected to the central institutions or their goals. This can be the result of goal grafting (Grodal and O´Mahony 2017), where a shared goal exists, while potentially disparate underlying interests – such as promoting certain forms of energy production – are preserved. Such goal grafting allows actors participating in the field to rhetorically support the shared grand goal without actually abandoning their underlying interests (Grodal and O´Mahony 2017).
In the context of energy policy, the loose 1970s-era definition of “renewable energy” and its positive associations have permitted politicians and lobbyists to get away with what are essentially bait-and switch schemes that seem to address climate change, but in reality serve only to improve public image or promote selected technologies or interest groups and may hinder emission reductions or even increase them and cause other undesirable environmental impacts.
As we described in section 4.1, bioenergy is perhaps the most problematic of all energy sources that are nevertheless widely considered renewable. Despite its problems, the major upside of bioenergy from a domestic political viewpoint is that it is argued to provide opportunities for domestic businesses or to bring benefits to rural areas (see, e.g. BioPAD 2013; BioenNW 2015) which face the challenges of growing urbanization and a lack of economic opportunity.
The umbrella of renewable energy enables downplaying this trade off of potential benefits for problems while including increased bioenergy use in plans or policies that are labeled climate friendly and progressive. A recent example is the planned national coal ban in Finland, which is communicated as determined and accelerated action for climate change mitigation and promotion of renewable energy (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland 2018), but which in reality is projected even in the official reports as relying mostly on biomass for replacing coal and doesn’t result in direct emission reductions on a European level since it affects only emissions already controlled within the ETS (Pöyry Management Consulting 2018). City scale examples are the climate plans of Copenhagen (City of Copenhagen 2012) and Stockholm (City of Stockholm 2016) and the renewable energy strategy of Vancouver (City of Vancouver 2015). Each of these plans frames the city in question as a forerunner in climate change mitigation and emphasizes the increase in the use of renewable energy. All the plans, however, relies heavily on bioenergy, especially in heating and transportation.
The concept of renewable energy also enables biased visual communication of energy policies. Based on our experiences, the typical illustration of a news piece, press release or publication about renewable energy shows pictures of wind turbines or solar panels, whereas illustrations of biomass combustion are rare even if in a particular case a significant percentage of the energy generated would come from biomass (see, e.g. WWF 2011; City of Copenhagen 2012; European Parliament 2018; City of Stockholm 2016; Federal Ministry for Sustainability and Tourism of Austria 2018). A brief search among three major stock photography services reflects this bias as well: Of the 300 popular photos on renewable energy we browsed, only 15 depicted bioenergy, with the photos being dominated by wind turbines and solar panels.
Another worrisome development is the interest of the fossil fuel industry in using the concept of renewable energy to promote increased use of natural gas. Examples include the Norwegian energy company Statoil (Equinor since 2018) running an international advertisement that labeled natural gas as a natural partner for renewables, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America framing natural gas as the ideal resource to complement renewables and as an ally of renewable energy (INGAA 2016), and the Finnish gas and diesel generator manufacturer Wärtsilä promoting a fully renewable future – without a schedule (Wärtsilä 2018). The Corporate Europe Observatory, a non-profit organization focused on following lobbying activities within the EU, has reported systematic efforts of the fossil fuel industry lobby to utilize the positive views on renewable energy to promote policies supporting natural gas (Blanyà and Sabido 2017). This again shows how the vague concept of renewables enables such bait-and-switch tactics that move policy ever further away from the underlying issue of greenhouse emissions.
It appears that the vendors of fossil gas and related technologies regard the intermittency of most renewable energy sources as a business opportunity, one that will maintain the relevance of their product in the face of policies that are, in theory, supposed to work against their product. Although in a technical sense gas is indeed a good partner to variable renewables, gas is still a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions; not just when burned to carbon dioxide, but also when methane inevitably leaks from wellheads and pipelines (Howarth 2014; Schwietzke et al. 2016).
There is reason to fear that the co-promotion of gas and renewables will result in a lock-in to an energy system that includes a significant share of renewable energy, but will not achieve more ambitious climate targets because cheap fossil gas makes investments in non-fossil alternatives less appealing.
Assessing the efficacy and broader impact of these bait-and-switch tactics would require more detailed research. It seems clear, however, that the ambiguity and positive connotations of the concept of renewable energy have at least partly enabled these tactics.
4.5 There is no renewable energy
Finally, as a term, renewable energy is an oxymoron of sorts. Conservation of mass-energy guarantees that energy never disappears, but the second law of thermodynamics dictates that the total entropy in an isolated system can never decrease. Energy can be transformed in different processes, but the total exergy – the available, useful work – decreases irreversibly. Energy itself cannot in the strict sense be renewed.
This of course may be nitpicking; what renewability in energy means is that the production harvests some form of energy or material flow that is renewed by planetary or stellar processes faster than it is depleted by its use. Still, renewability is an issue that should not be taken for granted. At least with current technologies, all forms of renewable energy production rely on machines built with nonrenewable minerals. If variable energy production is balanced by chemical batteries, it emphasizes this problem even more. Bioenergy relies on renewed biomass flows. While the biomass volume can be renewed, the loss of biodiversity caused by land use changes is irreversible. Hydropower has similar tradeoff issues.
It is also worth noting that non-renewability is not the primary concern for any form of energy now in widespread use. Naturally, depletion becomes an issue in the long run, but the primary reason driving the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels drastically is the climate change the greenhouse gas emissions are causing.
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We are a group of citizens concerned about the rapid spread of industrial wind power generation installations across Australia.
- Francois Stallbom says:October 4, 2020 at 11:07 amThe term “combatting climate change” is insane.
What are you fighting, the weather?“…but the primary reason driving the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels drastically is the climate change the greenhouse gas emissions are causing.”
Another pathetic myth:https://principia-scientific.com/?s=greenhouse+gas+mythReply
- G. Wood says:October 3, 2020 at 10:18 pmLiving on the Trent Severn Waterway, I have yet to understand why there isn’t water turbines installed from one end to the other? And to go even further, why are they not installed on EVERY flowing water system?? Good, clean, quiet, inexpensive, reliable energy!Reply
- Peter Pronczak says:October 3, 2020 at 6:09 pmA well presented paper especially “4.1 Renewable does not mean sustainable” as sustaining the viablility of the planet is supposed to be the whole point of renewables.Also “…the economic growth of Germany has on average been higher than in the EU or Euro area in general”. Without delving into the reference it would be interesting to know if this includes the repatriation of profits from such as Siemens Financial from other countries.Although such analysis don’t include it, without morality there is no humanity, would address the actual motives of renewables as being life saving or for financial profit.
That advanced countries are trying to dump toxic and unrecyclable turbine blades on historically repressed African countries, suggests the profit motive is to the fore.