Clean energy won’t save the world!

To listen to President Obama, you would think that clean energy is our next salvation. But clean energy can’t exist on its own. Clean energy options should more properly be called “fossil fuel extenders”. They only work within a system that has fossil fuels.

We can’t make solar PV panels or wind turbines without fossil fuels, and we can’t move them to their new sites and install them without fossil fuels. Many solar panels are made in China, and wind turbines often include overseas components (or are made overseas). If grid tied solar PV is installed without back-up batteries, it won’t work when the grid isn’t working.

Even corn ethanol is a fossil fuel extender. Corn is planted, harvested and transported using vehicles that use oil, and of course the finished product is mixed with petroleum products. Fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides also use petrochemicals, and ethanol plants are usually powered with natural gas or coal.

Wind turbines are only about 2% of US electrical production, and solar PV is well under 1%. Why aren’t school children and adults told about where our electricity comes from? The biggest source is coal, followed by natural gas. Nuclear is a very close third after natural gas.

Figure 1. US electric generation since 1970 in Btus, based on EIA data

Our electrical system needs oil, too. Most of the workers get to work in cars; maintenance of transmission lines needs to be done using vehicles; replacement parts need be transported using vehicles powered by oil; oil is needed for lubrication.

Even if we had an abundant supply of electricity from wind and solar, that electricity wouldn’t run today’s cars, trucks, airplanes, and boats. They run on petroleum products, except for a very few electrical powered vehicles. The electrical vehicles we are looking to use to replace current vehicles use lithium, which is an imported product (requiring oil for transport). Sources are limited, and leave us open to some of the same issues of supply interruption as oil.

More important than taking about clean energy is talking about using less fossil fuel energy, especially petroleum products, through buying smaller vehicles, carpooling and using public transportation. Saving electricity or natural gas through insulation and sealing cracks is helpful too, but doesn’t help our liquid fuel problem.

Taxing oil companies is a popular subject, but it is worthwhile thinking this through. Will doing this reduce the amount of oil that they pump, because fields that were at one time economic, are no longer economic? An example that is often given is all of the stripper wells that we have in the United States. They are typically owned by very small companies or individuals, rather than big oil companies. Together, they pump something like 900,000 barrels of oil a day out of the 5.5 million barrels a day of oil we are now pumping. These wells would likely not be profitable with higher taxes. They would just be closed. There are no doubt fields that big companies have in production that are marginal as well. Higher taxes might very well push the oil companies to close them.

Why not just import more? One issue is whether we really can. Imports have been declining since 2005, because world oil supply has remained flat, and because of more competition from China, India, and the oil exporting countries. It is nice to think that OPEC will supply more oil if we need it, but there is little evidence they can really raise their production by several million barrels of oil a day. Despite their promises, they haven’t done so to date, now or back in 2008, when prices were very high.

Whether we like it our not, we need petroleum products. If we don’t have them, we need to plan for a very different world. Rather than talking about clean energy, perhaps it would be worthwhile talking about what the world would look like with much less, or no, petroleum products. We have had an abundance of fossil fuel products in the last 200 years, but this will not continue forever.

Another thing we need to do is think through is what our economic system would look like with less oil. The oil intensity of the US economy has been declining by a shade over 2% per year. Even if this rate of improvement continues, we cannot expect the US economy to keep growing, if oil consumption (including imports) declines by a greater percentage, roughly 2% a year. Declines of greater than 2% a year in oil consumption seem quite possible–we experienced them in the recent recession. We need to think through what we need to do to change our economy, so that it can handle year to year declines in both oil consumption and economic growth.

President Obama, why don’t you start talking straight to the American people? Start telling the story as it is. Quit sugar coating the “clean energy” story. There is a very significant chance our oil imports will continue to decline from their 2005 peak in the near future, and we really haven’t prepared for this eventuality. There aren’t easy answers, but telling the truth would be a start in the right direction.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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26 Responses to Clean energy won’t save the world!

  1. Haraldo says:

    Will it ever be possible to convert from fossil energy to renewable energy?

    When oil starts to declining, it may fall approximately 3% each year. If gas and coal also soon are peaking, the energy produced by fossil sources may be assumed to decline by a similar rate. Since the fossil contributes to most of the worlds energy productions, total energy available will decline by 2-3%, each year.

    So, they says the alternative is renewable like solar, wind, waves, bio etc. If renewable shall replace, the world will need to replace the fossil energy decline of 2-3% by some sort of renewable to maintain the same energy production.

    How much energy will need to invested to convert to these new energy plants? From finance we know it takes several years to pay back the an economical investment, say 10-15 years. The “energy pay back period” will be of similar length. This will imply that to replace the global fossil decline of 2-3% to renewable, an energy investment of magnitude 20-45% of the global fossil energy usage will need to reallocated in building these new plants!

    How on earth will it be possible to reallocate such vast amounts of energy in building these plants. This energy must be taken from existing usage like heating, production, food transports, leisure etc. It will be an impossible political task to reallocate such vast amounts of energy.

    The above numbers, rates and maths are mostly mine assumptions. I have search in various peak oil forums for similar calculations and ideas, but not found any yet. However, from my point of view, if the above numbers and maths are not to far from the truth, conversion from fossil to renewable energy production will be impossible. If a global economical growth also is required, the energy investment will be even bigger.

    Has any seen such similar calculations? Please comment.

    • I know people make the claim that renewables can offset the decline in oil, but this seems totally impossible to me too. It would probably be worthwhile to work out the mathematics to show how ridiculous the idea is. It doesn’t make sense now, and as the supply of oil gets lower, it will make less and less sense, because as far as I can see, you can’t make renewables from renewables, so they are nothing but a dead end. I would be interested in whether anyone else has worked through the details. Thanks for suggesting the idea.

      I know Scientific American had a ridiculous article in November 2009, and I wrote a post going through on an item by item basis explaining that what they were proposing wouldn’t work. But they were actually trying to replace current fuels with renewables–something easier to debunk.

  2. jstack6 says:

    OIL has been subsidized for over 30 years, we also subsidize COAL , Natural Gas and Nuclear. Solar still competes with all of them and provides clean , renewable energy for years.

    How can you run a cola plant without refuling for more than a day or two, how can you run a Nuclear plant with out refueling every 18 months. We have 104 Nuclear plants in the US and import 95% of the uranium to run them.

    Try to run COAL, NG or Nuclear without water. Try no to dumpo power from COAL or Nuclear at Off Peaks when they can’t be rampped down or up in time for the next day.

    Get the facts, all the facts.

  3. Dave says:

    Great article as usual. It seems to me we need all the tools in the box to negotiate the coming energy scarcity. I feel the most important tool is a policy to cap energy consumption specifically oil. The other tools (energy sources of all kinds) can be made effective by a cap. Of course a cap is only the 1st step in our predicament transition. Eventually living differently is our only option

    • DavidB says:


      The imperative to create some form of cap in energy use is of course all too clear. But fairness has to be embedded in the policy, for it to have traction with the public.
      The latest idea creating ripples in the Peak Oil blogosphere, is something called Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQ’s). The UK government are giving it a close look, to see how it might work.

      Read the report at :


      Having read it myself, I can think of dozens of problems, if it is not implemented intelligently. But for now it looks like the most sound mechanism we have to control the energy descent that we need in society.

      Take Care
      David / Manchester / UK

      • marty schoffstall says:

        Good stuff in there. Certainly better than the carbon tax sledge hammer.

      • Dave says:

        UK appears to be the primary source of ideas in the political arena to mitigate climate and the energy predicament. Let us hope the US will take notice. Talk about denial at all levels!

  4. Phil says:

    How do we make steel in large quantities using only renewable fuels in a renewable fashion?

    I’ve been pondering this one for a while. Can wind-powered electric arc furnaces replace our coke-fuelled CO2-belching furnaces?

    And so on….

    And then we have the problem that mankind’s destructiveness is fuelled by abundant energy, and not just abundant fossil fuels.

    • marty schoffstall says:

      You have enough coking coal in West Virginia and PA to recycle steel and run the mini-mills in the US for a long time. But not if we want to manufacture 12M cars per year, and destroy engines with foolish federal stimulus plans. We were running Bessemer Blast Furnaces in the 19th Century with steam locomotives and horses.

      What Gail is bringing up appears to be the issue of liquid fuels to transport things around, this is our weak link. plus the DE-localization of everything that we use. In the 19th through early 20th century almost no homes were built from materials that were not within 15 miles according to a book i read.

      Another example from today: while I am a proud owner of a totally passive two chamber Harmond wood stove made in PA (in my home county), the steel came from a mini-mill 200 miles away, how did it get there? By an 18 wheeler using Diesel. “Manufacturies” used to be almost adjacent to the steel mills of Pennsylvania.

      I’m trying to remain positive on an electric future for local transport which would dramatically decrease the use of liquid fuels, I’d love to believe that shale gas is going be successful and we can CNG the 18 wheelers, but the assumptions, oh the assumptions are so unrealistic. The grid requirements for charging for instance, well guess what I think investment in centralized grids are a titanic inefficient waste. Let’s really de-centralize them. I charge my EV with 6.6kw of solar, but there is no heat and no AC in it.

      Are people willing to work towards less of a quality of life as sold by Madison Avenue and Hollywood? I doubt it, we’ll simply fall off the cliff.

  5. Joe Clarkson says:

    Clean energy may not save the world, but that does not mean that it is absolutely impossible for clean energy to save the world.

    It is fairly easy to imagine a fairly high-tech world where almost all energy use is electric, save for a very small amount of renewable liquid fuels and lubricants. What aspect of modern culture is impossible to replicate using all-electric equipment or fuels derived directly from electricity? None! Even air travel could be made electric using dirigibles or hydrogen powered jets.

    This imaginary all-electric world would require the wholesale substitution of vast amounts of our present infrastructure. It would have been much easier to have started 40 or 50 years ago, but that did not happen, and now it is too late to do it gradually.

    What is needed is a crash program to electrify everything possible and to produce the electricity needed to run them without fossil fuels. Because when fossil fuels do run out, only that which we have converted to electricity will still be functional. Will such a crash program happen? I doubt it; and I am acting accordingly on a personal level, but please don’t “blame” clean energy for not saving the world. It really could have. And only clean energy will save what little is left.

  6. Kitegal says:

    One aspect the article is pointing to over and over and making it sound (in my ears) quite desperate is the fact that petroleum and petroleum like products simply would be needed for transportation using our existing infrastructure and objects plus for materials to produce parts and maintain machinery and technology.

    The view missing here however is that of the chemist. Being one I am very hopeful that we will be very able (once it is commercially attractive – right now it is not) to create nice amounts of petroleum like chemicals (including fuel) from biomass + energy (energy = electricity which is convertible). What you need is things like catalysts, cheap and easily available ones. Here is a company which is young but seems to have a working process they are licensing out. From a chemistry point of view this makes total sense.
    (in a way this is a bit “boring” science and that’s why nobody looks into it more, but it is not rocket science and the potential for more is great here).

    For me this means…should we be able to produce electricity then we can also create materials and with those keep energy production running and in limited ways transportation – and still have enough leftover for our needs, strongly reduced needs that is, we need to save energy and materials. There is no way around it, saving that is. But we can save immense amounts of fuels if we all make best use of modern technologies and abstain from travel, commuting etc. (replace that by the soon to come “holodeck type apps; working in the cloud etc to telecommute, telemeet etc.) and stop wasting those materials by burning them for the purpose of individual transportaion (yikes, dumb anyways!). I am growing optimistic that we will probably not just extend the fossil fuel age but stretch it long enought that potentially there will an ok transition for us into a future based on renewables.

    • What we need is very cheap energy. Something which is not economic now is likely not very cheap. Also, biomass is something everyone has their eyes on. We quickly over-use the biomass-there was a problem with deforestation years ago, when all people did with wood was heat their homes. If there were many fewer of us, then biomass solutions might work. The problem is that there are too many of us.

  7. Arthur Robey says:

    +10 Gail.
    Actually I believe that people do understand the situation. We have all been screened as fit for survival by millions of iterations of genetic selection. Seeing no hope they shut down thought, and will react to their immediate threats as they arise successfully or not, as the case may be.

    It is because I am in full agreement with your interpretation of our reality that I champion the efforts of the people who are exploring the possibilities of Low Energy Nuclear Energy phenomenon (LENR).

    If this promise is barren then we are destined for another round of selection. Most of us who read these words will not make it through.

    The next conference of LENR/CANR will be held in a few days in Chennai, India. This supremely important expose is passing completely unnoticed by the media. I put this failure down to fatalism.

    • I take it that this is a thorium based approach. If it could be made to work at reasonable cost, it certainly would be helpful. The catch is that we are reaching limits in so many ways, it is hard to find a way around all of them

      • Arthur Robey says:

        Dear Gail.
        I like the idea of using Thorium. But Thorium just got gerzumped.

        Do you remember Pons and Fleishmann? They were flayed alive by their peers.

        Most of their peers. However some do not subscribe to the canard that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

        If I see a black swan, this is indeed an extra ordinary event. But do I need to see thousands before I can definitely say that black swans exist? Of cause not. One is evidence enough.

        So some experimenters saw with with their own eyes that nuclear reactions were taking place in a low energy environment, and for the last twenty nine years have been wrestling with what exactly they experienced.

        Now the Italians have made the breakthrough. They have got the nucleus of Hydrogen over the Coulomb barrier of Nickel and a consequent fusion to transmute nickel into copper. This leads to a loss of mass and prodigious release of energy. An EROEI off the scale.

        A lot of people are resistant to the idea that they have been flat wrong for the last 29 years.

        All we have to do now is sit back with popcorn and watch the show.

  8. donald scott says:

    I just want to say i really like your economic approach to understanding our problem. i’ve been hip to our dilemma for some time now and have adjusted my life style accordingly. Me and my wife live in southern california. The water reality here is just the tip of the ice berg of potential dreadfulness should any thing happen to our energy supply for a prolonged period of time….

    any way, ive got a question for you. I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the seriousness of our future predicament, and feel i could benefit from some sort of peak oil support group. Is there such a thing?

    • DavidB says:


      I haven’t found any support groups as such, but the link below has many articles and personal stories that make you realize that ‘you are not alone’ in your emotional responses to this dilemma.

      Best Wishes

      David / Manchester / UK

    • People set up peak oil groups of various kinds. We have more than one peak oil related group in Atlanta. In Atlanta and some other cities, there is a computerized system for setting up groups called Meetup Groups. This is a listing of oil awareness meetups they show: The system automatically sends out reminders to people who join. It also makes it easy for people living in the area to see what groups are available.

      The format that one group I am involved with uses is a potluck supper once a month, followed by discussion. The host provides a main course, and asks for a small donation to cover the expenses. Some groups are organized more around having a speaker, or around learning more about permaculture, etc. One group I was involved with for a while met in the activity room of a library.This didn’t work as well, unless someone made sure they had a good program each time. With libraries closing earlier now, I expect it would work even less well.

      I believe Facebook also has a provision for getting information out about meetings.

  9. John Weber says:

    Gail – first, I look forward to your posts wherever the show up.
    Below are the first paragraphs of a essay on my blog that supports your position. I have another coming in the next few days that looks at our misguided tax payer support of alternative energy. I would guess you might not have much time to read my blog, I just wanted to send my support.
    Energy in the Real World

    Solar and Wind are not renewable. The energy from solar and from wind is available but not renewable. An oak tree is renewable. A horse is renewable. They reproduce themselves.
    But, and a very important but, the human made equipment used to capture solar energy or wind energy is not renewable. In fact, there is considerable fossil fuel energy embedded in this equipment. The glazing on a solar collector of any kind – solar thermal water, solar thermal air, and solar electric – requires energy to manufacture.

    • marty schoffstall says:

      John I agree with you that there is imbedded oil in the renewables, but at the same time there are some sweet spots that can be exploited to extend (but not pretend) liquid fuels. Here in the northeast there is a ton of usage of fuel oil for heating and its replacement by solar heating or biofuel heating (or both) probably does have a payoff on imbedded oil in 3-4 years.

      The two installations i’ve been involved in replacing fuel oil, one was using about 2000 gallons per year, and other 6000 (don’t gasp), both systems were locally manufactured (75 miles), essentially out of sheet metal, though the one did use evacuated tubes, with the pump and tubing all made in the US. The 2000 gallon/year system is now down to 50g/yr.

      While Edwin Black’s observation in “The Plan” on fuel oil was about an emergency, I think the current calm before the storm might be a better time
      to focus on solar or biofuel replacements with certain quick financial payoffs (at $3.15/gallon it is getting even easier), and realistic imbedded liquid fuel displacement.

      My idea of “biofuel” is firewood and wood pellets, though I have neither helped nor pushed pellets in this application. Pellet stoves are for another sweet spot.

      Btw, i’m working on another fuel oil displacement, and would freely evangelize/engineer/manage a dozen a year in my community if the capital was there for the homeowners.

    • Thanks! I read your post, and it is good.

      People seem to grab on to the label, and assume that it means more than it does.

      Even if the solar PV panels work for many years, the won’t be helpful for many uses without batteries (night at light, keeping refrigerator cool). I expect that even during the daytime they won’t be able to work for much, if the panels have been set up to work with an inverter that is grid tied and the grid isn’t working. Panels might work for a few years on things that can use the electricity directly (computer with battery??; light bulbs while the sun is out). But when the devices break and no replacement is available, the solar panel will have nothing it can work on.

  10. Shunyata says:

    There is a fundamental problem here – a vast amount of global outstanding debt.

    There are two ways to pay off debt: (i) expand your hard economy (e.g. mine minerals that were formerly locked underground) and use the newly created asset to pay the debt; or (ii) defer future consumption and apply it to your debt.

    Note: Expanding your soft economy (e.g. creating apps for cell phones) won’t necessarily do the trick unless there is a global wealth surplus that can be easily reallocated to settle the debt problem. Global policy has created debt in excess of liquid assets so there is no way that reallocation can solve the problem.

    Our leaders have made it clear that austerity – deferring future consumption – is off the table. But economic development can only work if energy is available to fuel it. Conservation of existing resources is off the table too. This dynamic seems to ensure a hard landing.

  11. DownToTheLastCookie says:

    I’m thinking the President didn’t word this SOTU for Gail Tverberg but for the American public. A lot like you don’t hire a college professor for a group of second graders.

  12. OK Jeanne says:

    Gail – you are exactly on the mark IMO. However, neither Obama nor any other
    politician can get re-elected if they come clean and tell the truth about our fossil
    fuel situation. There won’t be any public truth-telling until we fall into a Greater
    Depression, food riots, or worse. Personally I expect a currency “exchange”
    within the next3 to 5 years, i.e. you might have $100,000. of “previous” currency
    in the bank–which will get exchanged for $10,000. of new ‘patriot’ dollars.
    But then it’s hard to make predictions; especially about the future.

    • Jb says:

      OK Jeanne: I agree with you. We will not get (enough) leadership from our politicians to create the society we can now only dream of. As Gail describes, in order to create vast fields of PV arrays, wind, tidal and geothermal energy systems, we would have to divert a portion of the oil we have left into the production, installation, and maintenance of these systems. Doing so means less oil for our society and economy. The model of perpetual growth based on fiat currency and cheap oil is dead.

      At some point, I think we will pass through the bottleneck of declining affordable energy and unpayble debt. Again, I agree with you: it won’t be pretty. Rolling black outs, food shortages, lack of medical care, and rioting are all possibilities.

      Perhaps the ‘solution’ to our energy angst is staring us in the face. Rather than trying to figure out how we can maintain our lifestyle through technology, we can accept the fact that our lifestyle was artifically elevated to begin with. Perhaps we can use this time to set a trajectory that lies much more closely in line with several other billion people on the planet.

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