June 30, 2011

Wind industry decries "delegitimization"

The industrial wind industry is a lot like the state of Israel. Both began in an idealistic spirit of creating an vibrant alternative. Both soon came to antagonize their neighbors. As uncomfortable facts about their operations became undeniable, both have retreated to an aggressive self-righteous bravado and emphasize their important economic contributions: rural jobs and nanotechnology. Both rely on demonization of an imagined enemy behind all criticism: the coal lobby or Iran. Both can only answer their critics by calling them names: Nimby, climate science denier, antisemite.

Both have delegitimized themselves. The game is over.

June 29, 2011

Sheffield wind energy plant

From the Burlington Free Press, here is a photo of the substation construction from the 16-turbine 40-megawatt Sheffield facility on ridgelines overlooking Sutton, Vermont.

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June 27, 2011

The Deep Green Meaning of Fukushima

Don Fitz writes at Counterpunch (click the title of this post for the entire piece):

Humanity must decrease its use of energy. The decrease must be a lot (not a little bit) and it must happen soon. A failure to do so will lay the foundation for the destruction of human life by some combination of climate change and radiation. ... There is also a deeper green meaning: The limits of economic growth have long since passed and we need to design a world with considerably less stuff. ...

Claims that society must choose between fossil fuels and nukes are 100% false

Pretending to care about climate change, utility companies say that we must have more nukes to avoid increasing CO2 levels. Hansen and Monbiot parrot corporate propaganda when they present the false dichotomy: nukes or fossil fuels.

Their tunnel vision on climate change interferes with their ability to perceive global warming and nuclear power as different manifestations of the same problem. ... The deep green connection between radiation and climate change is that they are both part of the lockstep march toward economic growth. The question for both Hansen and Monbiot is what humanity will do when uranium ore is exhausted but the drive toward growth intensifies.

Coal, oil, natural gas and uranium will run out at some time in the future. None of them can ever be the basis of a sustainable economy. The issue is not whether society will or will not have to do without non-renewables — the only issue is whether humanity will stop using them prior to destroying the biological web of Life or whether humanity is forced to stop using them, either because it takes more energy to extract them than they yield or because our descendants have lost the mental or physical ability to process them.

Solar and wind offer no alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power

In a growth economy, solar and wind cannot replace fossil fuels and/or nukes, which they must depend on for their own creation and for making up energy short-falls. As Ted Trainer and others have clearly demonstrated, solar and wind power are subject to conditions like how much sunshine and wind exist at a given time. An industry which is geometrically expanding must be drawn to fossil fuel and nukes because they are not subject to weather fluctuations and they can produce enormous quantities of energy for manufacture.

Weather variability means that solar and wind power have a greater need to store energy than non-renewables. This means solar and wind lose even more energy during storage and retrieval. They also require considerable energy and resource extraction to produce associated technologies such as transmission lines and batteries. These are not green attributes.

During the opening of his seminal exposé of renewable energy, Trainer points to turf where solar and wind proponents dare not tread: The issue is not merely whether solar and wind can provide for the industrial needs of a modern economy — it is ridiculous to suggest that they could provide energy needs of a global economy which is 60 times its current size. Trainer calculates that bringing all the world up to consumptive standards of the overdeveloped countries, maintaining a 3% annual GDP growth rate, and reaching a population of 9.4 billion would require a 6000% increase in the economy between 2007 and 2070.

The mechanical impossibility of infinite solar and wind power leads to a deeper green problem: They reflect the same fetish on things as do non-renewables. Switching from one fetish to another in no way rejects the thingification of human existence. It is this worship of objects which is the core of the problem.

Failure to challenge the endless manufacture of artificial needs and the continual shrinkage of the durability of commodities means that no combination of nukes, fossil fuel, solar, wind, and other energy sources can ever satisfy bottomless greed. Seeking to replace human caring, sharing and community with object glorification will always result in feelings of emptiness and craving for more and more objects. Object addiction can never be satiated — even if those objects are “green.”

Stan Cox notes that a huge expansion of fossil fuel use would be necessary if solar and wind were to increase enough to replace nukes. Creating this solar and wind infrastructure would result in massive emissions of CO2. Thus, in a growth economy, renewables are no more separable from non-renewables than climate change is separable from radiation.

Recent increases in solar and wind power has resulted in lawsuits to protect native lands and sensitive species. [16] How many more valleys must be transformed into ugly wind farms and how many more deserts must be covered with solar collectors just to enable landfills of discarded junk to expand to the moon?

Why grow?

The ideology of growth is the bedrock of nuclear power. Growth requires the expansion of energy. As Robert Bryce demonstrates, “America’s energy consumption has grown in direct proportion to its economic growth.” Between 1913 and 2005, the 300-fold increase in oil imports was paralleled by a 300-fold increase in US economic output.

As energy sources have gone from wood to coal to oil to nukes, there has been a steady increase in the total amount of energy available. During most of this progression economic growth has meant an expansion of goods which people need. By the end of World War II this was no longer the case as there was enough to provide basic needs for everyone.

More than ever before, production for need gave way to production for militarism, for obscene wealth, for throw-away goods and for marketing to take precedence over utility. Nuclear power became the cornerstone of both militarism and the seemingly limitless energy necessary for planned obsolescence. Nuclear plants were born as a physical manifestation of social relationships underlying growth without need. ...

Is anti-growth feasible?

“Anti-growth” means that people will have better lives if society produces fewer things that are useless and dangerous. It assumes that the total quantity of things needed to make everyone’s lives better is vastly less that the total quantity of current negative production.

“Anti-growth” can be contrasted to “de-growth,” which has become synonymous with trying to change the economy by tiptoeing through the tulips. The phrase “anti-growth” aims to dismiss two myths: (a) the belief that a decrease in production requires people to suffer; and (b) the belief that lifestyle changes can substitute for social action. (Though altering individual lifestyles is important to show that a new and different world is possible, it does little to bring about the scale of needed changes.)

The corporate line on reversing growth is that it would bring agony worse than nuclear radiation and is therefore impossible. Sadly, many progressives (including environmentalists, anti-war activists and even “Marxists”) swallow the line.

Let’s not confuse an increase in provision of basic needs like housing, clothing and education with overall economic growth. Reducing unnecessary and destructive production (such as military spending) can be done at the same time as increasing preventive medical care. Reducing the advertising of food, packaging of food, long-range transportation of food and animal protein can occur simultaneously with increasing healthy food. Nobody’s quality of life is going to deteriorate because they have a simple coffee pot that lasts for 75–100 years rather than one with a mini-computer designed to fall apart in six months.

To reiterate: The economy can shrink while the amount of necessary goods expands. Anti-growth is not too complex to fathom. The idea that we should make more good stuff and less bad stuff is so simple that anyone except an economist can understand it.

Unfortunately, many advocating a smaller economy shoot themselves in the foot by rejecting anti-corporate struggle. ...

A radical rethinking

... The survival of humanity is at not only odds with right wing politicians and “free market” economists who preach growth by engorging the rich. Human existence is simultaneously threatened by “liberal” politicians and Keynesian economists who promote growth by governmental intervention. Preserving a livable environment is likewise at odds with “environmentalists” who advocate growth via purchasing green gadgets. “Socialists” and wooden “Marxists” walk less than a shining path when they demand a planned economy for the purpose of “unleashing the capitalists fetters on production” (i.e., unlimited growth). Planetary extermination under workers’ control does not fulfill dreams of Karl Marx.

In the wake of Fukushima many scream that we must abandon nukes as rapidly as possible. Yes, yes, and yes. Join their screams and demand a halt in the production of new nukes and a rapid shut down of those that exist!

We must do the almost the same for fossil fuels, with a rapid reduction to 90% of current levels, then 80%, and so on until we level off at perhaps 10% of where we are at now. If and only if this reduction is made can solar, wind and geothermal (along with a very judicious use of fossil fuels and biofuels) meet energy needs in a sane society.

But all of us, especially environmentalists, must abandon the illusion that solar, wind and geothermal can be a source of infinite economic growth. And all of us, especially social justice activists, trade unionists and socialists, must abandon any misplaced belief that a massive reduction of energy requires any sacrifice in the quality of life. We must affirm if we change our values, change our society and change our economy, we can have great lives by focusing on people rather than the eternal accumulation of objects.

‘Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society

Searching for a Miracle

Post Carbon Institute & International Forum on Globalization - September 2009 [read the full report: »Download the PDF (2.61 MB)]:


This report is intended as a non-technical examination of a basic question: Can any combination of known energy sources successfully supply society’s energy needs at least up to the year 2100? In the end, we are left with the disturbing conclusion that all known energy sources are subject to strict limits of one kind or another. Conventional energy sources such as oil, gas, coal, and nuclear are either at or nearing the limits of their ability to grow in annual supply, and will dwindle as the decades proceed—but in any case they are unacceptably hazardous to the environment. And contrary to the hopes of many, there is no clear practical scenario by which we can replace the energy from today’s conventional sources with sufficient energy from alternative sources to sustain industrial society at its present scale of operations. To achieve such a transition would require (1) a vast financial investment beyond society’s practical abilities, (2) a very long time—too long in practical terms—for build-out, and (3) significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.

Perhaps the most significant limit to future energy supplies is the “net energy” factor—the requirement that energy systems yield more energy than is invested in their construction and operation. There is a strong likelihood that future energy systems, both conventional and alternative, will have higher energy input costs than those that powered industrial societies during the last century.We will come back to this point repeatedly.

The report explores some of the presently proposed energy transition scenarios, showing why, up to this time, most are overly optimistic, as they do not address all of the relevant limiting factors to the expansion of alternative energy sources. Finally, it shows why energy conservation (using less energy, and also less resource materials) combined with humane, gradual population decline must become primary strategies for achieving sustainability.


The world’s current energy regime is unsustainable. This is the recent, explicit conclusion of the International Energy Agency1, and it is also the substance of a wide and growing public consensus ranging across the political spectrum. One broad segment of this consensus is concerned about the climate and the other environmental impacts of society’s reliance on fossil fuels.The other is mainly troubled by questions regarding the security of future supplies of these fuels—which, as they deplete, are increasingly concentrated in only a few countries.

To say that our current energy regime is unsustainable means that it cannot continue and must therefore be replaced with something else.However, replacing the energy infrastructure of modern industrial societies will be no trivial matter. Decades have been spent building the current oil-coal-gas infrastructure, and trillions of dollars invested. Moreover, if the transition from current energy sources to alternatives is wrongly managed, the consequences could be severe: there is an undeniable connection between per-capita levels of energy consumption and economic well-being.2 A failure to supply sufficient energy, or energy of sufficient quality, could undermine the future welfare of humanity, while a failure to quickly make the transition away from fossil fuels could imperil the Earth’s vital ecosystems.

Nonetheless, it remains a commonly held assumption that alternative energy sources capable of substituting for conventional fossil fuels are readily available—whether fossil (tar sands or oil shale), nuclear, or a long list of renewables—and ready to come on-line in a bigger way. All that is necessary, according to this view, is to invest sufficiently in them, and life will go on essentially as it is.

But is this really the case? Each energy source has highly specific characteristics. In fact, it has been the characteristics of our present energy sources (principally oil, coal, and natural gas) that have enabled the building of a modern society with high mobility, large population, and high economic growth rates. Can alternative energy sources perpetuate this kind of society? Alas, we think not.

While it is possible to point to innumerable successful alternative energy production installations within modern societies (ranging from small home-scale photovoltaic systems to large “farms” of three-megawatt wind turbines), it is not possible to point to more than a very few examples of an entire modern industrial nation obtaining the bulk of its energy from sources other than oil, coal, and natural gas. One such rare example is Sweden, which gets most of its energy from nuclear and hydropower. Another is Iceland, which benefits from unusually large domestic geothermal resources, not found in most other countries. Even in these two cases, the situation is more complex than it appears.The construction of the infrastructure for these power plants mostly relied on fossil fuels for the mining of the ores and raw materials, materials processing, transportation, manufacturing of components, the mining of uranium, construction energy, and so on. Thus for most of the world, a meaningful energy transition is still more theory than reality. But if current primary energy sources are unsustainable, this implies a daunting problem. The transition to alternative sources must occur, or the world will lack sufficient energy to maintain basic services for its 6.8 billion people (and counting).

Thus it is vitally important that energy alternatives be evaluated thoroughly according to relevant criteria, and that a staged plan be formulated and funded for a systemic societal transition away from oil, coal, and natural gas and toward the alternative energy sources deemed most fully capable of supplying the kind of economic benefits we have been accustomed to from conventional fossil fuels.

By now, it is possible to assemble a bookshelf filled with reports from nonprofit environmental organizations and books from energy analysts, dating from the early 1970s to the present, all attempting to illuminate alternative energy transition pathways for the United States and the world as a whole.These plans and proposals vary in breadth and quality, and especially in their success at clearly identifying the factors that are limiting specific alternative energy sources from being able to adequately replace conventional fossil fuels.

It is a central purpose of this document to systematically review key limiting factors that are often left out of such analyses.We will begin that process in the next section. Following that, we will go further into depth on one key criterion: net energy, or energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).This measure focuses on the key question: All things considered, how much more energy does a system produce than is required to develop and operate that system? What is the ratio of energy in versus energy out? Some energy “sources” can be shown to produce little or no net energy. Others are only minimally positive.

Unfortunately, as we shall see in more detail below, research on EROEI continues to suffer from lack of standard measurement practices, and its use and implications remain widely misunderstood. Nevertheless, for the purposes of large-scale and long-range planning, net energy may be the most vital criterion for evaluating energy sources, as it so clearly reveals the tradeoffs involved in any shift to new energy sources.

This report is not intended to serve as a final authoritative, comprehensive analysis of available energy options, nor as a plan for a nation-wide or global transition from fossil fuels to alternatives. While such analyses and plans are needed, they will require institutional resources and ongoing reassessment to be of value.The goal here is simply to identify and explain the primary criteria that should be used in such analyses and plans, with special emphasis on net energy, and to offer a cursory evaluation of currently available energy sources, using those criteria.This will provide a general, preliminary sense of whether alternative sources are up to the job of replacing fossil fuels; and if they are not, we can begin to explore what might be the fall-back strategy of governments and the other responsible institutions of modern society.

As we will see, the fundamental disturbing conclusion of the report is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can reliably be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth—or even current levels of economic activity—during the remainder of the current century.

This preliminary conclusion in turn suggests that a sensible transition energy plan will have to emphasize energy conservation above all. It also raises questions about the sustainability of growth per se, both in terms of human population numbers and economic activity.

June 25, 2011

Denmark: More CO₂ emissions with more wind

Some time ago, I created the following graph, juxtaposing annual Danish wind energy production and total CO₂ emissions from 1996 to 2006. The CO₂ emissions are on a reverse scale so that as they decrease the line would parallel an increase in wind production. But as can be seen, while wind production rose dramatically, CO₂ emissions remained essentially flat.

A related graph in the latest annual Energy Statistics report from Denmark (p. 37) shows two different measures of CO2 emissions just in electricity generation (below). The blue line is CO₂ emissions per fuel unit, which steadily declines as natural gas replaced oil and combined heat and power is increasingly used. But in the later 1990s the amount of CO₂ emissions per unit of electricity generated (the red line) starts to decrease at a slower rate, dramatically so after 1999.

This indicates that more fuel is being burned, or being burned less efficiently, per unit of electricity produced since the 1990s. And that phenomenon corresponds with the build-up of wind energy, as shown in the graph below, from page 9 of the same report.

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June 21, 2011

June 17, 2011