We don’t have a workable plan to stop using fossil fuels. And NO, renewable energy is not such a plan.
Many are hoping that renewables will save the day, by providing the energy that the economy needs “renewably.” This is what Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Bill McKibben, and the Sierra Club are relying on. Unfortunately, it’s going to be much more expensive and take longer to achieve than most people think. And when we finally get there, our economy is going to be substantially smaller.
In the current political climate, it is not possible to be honest about what is really involved, even among those who clearly recognize the problem of climate change. In the meantime we face breathtaking inequality both in the United States and the world. To be clear: we need to get rid of fossil fuels anyway, but we need to be honest about what is involved.
Most of the scientific hope for a quick and relatively painless scale-up of renewables relies on a single set of authors: Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi. They wrote “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables,” Scientific American, November 2009, pp. 58 ff. In 2015 the same authors published a related paper advocating the same viewpoint, “Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes.”
A variety of people have expressed concern about this approach. Vaclav Smil went into some detail on this in the January 2014 issue of Scientific American. He concludes that the transition to renewables will take decades, and that “the great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is wishful thinking.” A few months ago, twenty-one researchers headed by Christopher Clack published a rebuttal to the Jacobson and Delucchi approach detailing a number of practical objections to the idea that this will be “low cost.”
The heart of the problem is not about technical feasibility. It’s about cost. There are things that don’t matter at low levels of renewables but will matter if we want to get to 100% renewables.
The most obvious problem is the erratic nature of renewables. When the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing (which are not uncommon!) , you do not have any solar or wind power. At low levels of solar and wind, this doesn’t matter. If it’s night and the wind isn’t blowing, no problem — we fall back on fossil fuels. But to get to 100% renewables we need to get into some serious building of backup storage, so we can store energy during the day to use at night. We can do this, but it requires massive additional expense and energy inputs for the same return. Nuclear power, suggested by Clack et al., offers a carbon-free approach that would at least temporarily solve intermittency and storage problems, but it is politically unpopular.
Solar and wind power (and even nuclear power) produce electricity. But relying on electricity instead of fossil fuels implies a huge increase in electricity production — at least doubling or tripling. It also requires a huge increase in the electric grid that we will need to build and maintain. It requires a completely different infrastructure as well. To start with, this means electric cars, trucks, and rail. Have people thought through what this will cost?
Numerous other technical issues complicate matters further: scarce rare earth metals, hydroelectric power issues, and unanswered questions about “energy return on energy invested.” On top of that, even completely ending fossil fuel use deals with only part of the problem; livestock agriculture and our disruption of the biosphere are equally significant.
Transitions from one energy source to another in the past has taken a very long time. It took the United States over a century to move from a wood economy to a coal economy. We then moved from a coal economy to an oil economy, but it took many more decades. The transition away from fossil fuels will be just as difficult, if not more so. Unlike previous transitions, we will almost certainly be “selling” an energy system that is going from larger to smaller.
We need to be honest about what is involved and mobilize support for a fundamentally different economy. We face not only many technical challenges but even more daunting social challenges as well.