A tree stands on a hill. It has been on this hill for more than a few human lives. Before you were born, before you made it big, before you moved out here, cleared the land and built a giant house in its shade. The shade of this tree blankets the house in the winter, helping to trap its heat, and it cools the house in the summer, blocking the sun; or so the solar panel installation consultant tells you. “Chopping the tree down to install solar panels on the roof would result in a loss in energy savings”, they claim. But solar panels are in, and the buzzing of the chainsaw reverberates around the hill the next day, ending the stay of its longest resident.
The way humans are living is devastating to the environment and is changing climate on a global scale due to the burning of fossil carbons, emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To combat this, the implementation of “renewable” energy to reduce global carbon emissions has been at the forefront of environmental policy and decision making in recent times. In global terms, China has been investing huge sums of money into renewable programs with the promise of generating 30% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transformation program, has vastly increased their renewable sector from just below 20% of public energy consumption in 2010 to 42.6% in 2020. The Paris Agreement, and the Kyoto Protocol before it, are international attempts to unite the world to reduce carbon emissions, with renewables acting as the solution and salvation at the same time.
This is how the story is told on a global and international scale. The story has a simple nature; it identifies the problem, and provides a solution that can be worked towards. Cut fossil fuels, and transition to “clean”, “renewable” energy. However, the story starts to get more complicated when we dive into the definitions of the words “clean”, “renewable”, and of course: “energy transition”. What do the people selling this story mean by these words? Can we speak an idea into existence?
Energy sources such as wind, solar, hydropower, and biofuels are considered “clean” — they do not emit carbon and do not have a significant impact on the environment. They are “renewable” — self-sustaining and replenishable, they are parts of continuous, global energy cycles. They are an energy source to which we can “transition” — transform our energy systems in accordance with, and rely on them to run our current systems. Which of these working definitions actually capture reality? To better understand renewable energy sources and their story we must take a look at current energy systems and the story around them.
Fossil carbon is the energy source of modern capitalist human systems. It takes many forms such as oil, coal, and natural gas, all of which are the antithesis to renewable sources. They are “dirty” — they emit carbon dioxide and have devastating consequences for living systems. They are “exhaustible” — limited and finite, they will not last forever. And they dominate and power all modern capitalist human systems. There is a disconnect here. What is the story not telling us?
If fossil carbon is so bad and renewable energy so good, why do we have a fossil carbon system in place? And why have we not replaced it yet? One excuse could be that we simply didn’t know; we couldn’t have predicted the aggregate effects of burning terawatts of fossil carbon. But carbon and its greenhouse effect was discovered in 1856 by Eunice Foote, and 30 years later, Svante Arrhenius theorized the effect of fossil carbon combustion on global temperature, which would come to be known as global warming. While it wasn’t until many years later that more definitive data was collected, and scientific consensus was reached about the effects of anthropogenic climate change, we have existed in a world where the problem was known for a very long time. We have seen images of shipwrecked polar bears, felt the effects of devastating storms and hurricanes, and dreaded the chilling outcomes of sea level rise. But fossil carbon hasn’t budged, and it still remains the norm. It is, of course, because it is the norm, the fundamental fact upon which human systems have been built, that it continues to thrive; and why, as we’ve been told, big corporations and moneyed interests protect it. But let us not just be critical of the status quo, but also the solutions that it generates. Let us examine why fossil carbon is the norm, whether renewables can ever fully replace them, and of course, the motives of the narrators of each story.
We know how great fossil carbon is. We know that it is a densely-packed store of energy. We know that by burning it, millenia of work is consumed in an instant; a burst of incredible energy that allows us to travel vast distances, light up cities like giant torches against the night, and ultimately live comfortable lives. But there is another aspect of fossil carbons that isn’t given as much credit, but is just as important: they exist as dense solids or liquids that can easily be transported and stored. This simple and extraordinary fact allows for the global energy, food, and services system that we have today. It is what allows oil to be placed in a barrel from the reserves of Venezuela and shipped across the world, where it can be burned at the buyer’s leisure. It is also what allows access to 24 hours of electricity a day, a constant output for consumers due to the fact that the carbon being burned is replenished and stored on site, at all times.
Renewable sources–specifically wind, solar, and hydropower–are not like fossil carbon. They are dispersed forms of energy that must be converted into electricity either by spinning turbines to generate an electromagnetic current, or (in the case of solar) letting the sun’s rays strike a conductor to excite electrons. Since the energy isn’t concentrated, it isn’t as efficient of a transfer as burning carbon. Additionally, being harnessed as electricity means that the energy is much more difficult to store. Electric energy must be stored in batteries, and battery technology is not at a place where energy can be stored semi-permanently. As a result, the electricity generated by renewable technology must be used fairly quickly.
Now this may not seem like a problem until you consider the fact that the wind does not always blow, nor does the sun always shine. This makes wind and solar intermittent; they cannot provide a constant amount of electricity for consumers, but instead have highs and lows in response to weather patterns. The graph below illustrates this concept; while the highs of renewable energy production are more than enough to provide for consumer needs, the lows are far below.
The variability of renewable sources such as wind and solar energy require electric grids to be built around a diversity of energy sources. For a system to heavily rely on solar and wind energy, wind and solar farms must cover a massive area to ensure energy production at all times, and also be connected to multiple, diverse sources of energy to ensure grid reliability. But the reality of the situation is that a certain baseload of energy production is required to run a balanced grid. But the story of renewable energy tells us that adapting the grid completely away from the baseload energy sources that are fossil carbons and towards variable sources like wind and solar is not only possible, but profitable. Forbes magazine will tell us “Just How Good Of An Investment Renewable Energy Is”. Meanwhile the Financial Times assures that “Renewable Energy Is Good Money, Not Just Good For The Earth”. To make their narrative come to life, we need baseload renewable sources like hydropower, biofuels, geothermal and nuclear energy.
Hydropower (harnessing the power of the potential energy of flowing water), liquid biofuels, heat from the earth, and atomic fission can be accessed as constant, baseload energy sources. They have the potential to add much-needed stability to an electric grid based on renewable sources. However, these sources are individually indicative of several major problems that arise with renewable sources.
Hydropower is known widely for environmental devastation through the damming of rivers rather than as a clean, efficient energy source. It displaces Indigenous and Native peoples while blocking water and sediment transport down the river, which seriously affects the local ecosystem and can cause flash flooding downstream.
Biofuels, as we have discussed, have a terrible energy return on energy invested; too much energy is put into the process of growing the plant matter to be ground into fuel, and not enough is received in return.
Geothermal energy is a great energy source for the people of Iceland, where access is right under their noses; other places must build geothermal plants only in a few specific locations. Besides availability troubles, the capital cost (the initial investment to build the plant) is enormous and is usually heavily subsidized by governments to make the process profitable.
Nuclear energy is naturally associated with nuclear disaster, and not without good reason. Not only is the volatility of nuclear energy generation a danger to those in the locality, but the waste generated from the process is radioactive and hazardous, sticking around for thousands of years before breaking down; as a result, the only way to safely dispose of the waste is by burying it under the earth.
None of these options sound like energy sources I would like to build a society upon, but these facts go against the mainstream story of renewable energy. Environmental devastation and radioactive waste generation do not go well with defining renewables as a “clean” energy source. Nor does low efficiency and enormous capital costs make them seem particularly “robust” and “competitive with fossil carbon”.
Not only are renewable sources not so “clean”, but they are also not entirely carbon-free. The embedded carbon within all of their production comes from the fact that they exist within a fossil carbon industry. Hydroelectric dams are created by fossil carbon, and so are huge nuclear plants. They rely on the global machinery run by oil and gas to generate their own viability; cheap transportation allows wind turbines to be carried, part by part, and constructed on site. This means that even through the production of renewable energy, carbon is burned and released into the atmosphere. So the question then becomes, if renewable energy sources are created and maintained through the consumption of carbon, can they be relied on in a decarbonized world? And why is this the story being sold to us?
The answers to both questions are intertwined and involve the definition of the word “renewable energy”. The idea, the narrative of renewable energy is as an energy source that will replace fossil carbon to avoid climate change, but more importantly, so that we can continue living the way we have. And that is why it is so appealing; business as usual means those in power can stay in power, the rich can keep enjoying the same luxuries they have now, and the all-consuming nature of the industrial-capitalist machine can continue to thrive.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the reality of life on a finite planet, nothing is truly renewable. Yes, both wind and water will flow for millenia into the future. Yes, plants will continue to grow and we will harness their energy for many generations to come. Yes, the Earth will still provide heat from its molten core for as long as it exists in this solar system, and the Sun will continue to shine for the next 5 billion years. And while even these phenomena are set to fade in the long-long term, our access to their energy requires the use of finite resources: lithium batteries and fiberglass for wind turbines, semiconductors in solar cells, uranium ore in nuclear power plants; all of these materials and more are extracted from the Earth using energy, and all of them, just like fossil carbons, are exhaustible. You can’t have electricity without copper wires, or dams without concrete. And so, if we want to power our society forever, an industrial capitalist society that seeks growth and energy accumulation as its maxims, we will not power it on so-called “renewable” energy. That is just one of the hypocrisies we cling to. That we can cut down trees and place solar panels on our roofs.
Changing our energy source is not the solution to the problems of modern society; renewable energy is nothing more than a silk-wrapped distraction from the real issues at hand. Growth-driven energy accumulation and a totalitarian, materialist perspective towards the world and how we live are the real causes of our current global-environmental crisis. We need a transformation in society, and we need to look at the one word we always try to ignore: reduce. It’s the only surefire way to slow carbon emissions and environmental devastation.
While “renewable” energy is not the magic solution to fuel our ever-increasing growth, its weaknesses in that department become strengths for rebuilding an egalitarian society. Dispersed energy access does not make for a strong baseload energy source, but is something that can be accessed by all. The wind flies everywhere, and the sun shines everywhere. Wind and solar have a great potential for creating microgrids; localized electrical systems that can power single buildings or more. They have the potential to take the power away (literally) from megacorporations and utility companies and place it in the hands of the people, where it belongs. The onus is on us to make that future a reality: to reclaim our power from giant, energy-grabbing entities, and create a new, smaller, and deeply just society.