Intermittent renewables–wind and solar photovoltaic panels–have been hailed as an answer to all our energy problems. Certainly, politicians need something to provide hope, especially in countries that are obviously losing their supply of oil, such as the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the more I look into the situation, the less intermittent renewables have to offer. (Please note that I am not talking about solar hot water heaters. I am talking about intermittent renewables added to the electric grid.)
1. It is doubtful that intermittent renewables actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
It is devilishly difficult to figure out whether on not any particular energy source has a favorable impact on carbon dioxide emissions. The obvious first way of looking at emissions is to look at the fuel burned on a day-to-day basis. Intermittent renewables don’t seem to burn fossil fuel on day-to-day basis, while those using fossil fuels do, so wind and solar PV seem to be the winners.
The catch is that there are many direct and indirect ways that fossil fuels come into play in making the devices that create the renewable energy and in their operation on the grid. The researcher must choose “boundaries” for any analysis. In a sense, we need our whole fossil fuel powered system of schools, roads, airports, hospitals, and electricity transmission lines to make any of type of energy product work, whether oil, natural gas, wind, or solar electric–but it is difficult to make boundaries wide enough to cover everything.
The exercise becomes one of trying to guess how much carbon emissions are saved by looking at tops of icebergs, given that the whole rest of the system is needed to support the new additions. The thing that makes the problem more difficult is the fact that intermittent renewables have more energy-related costs that are not easy to measure than fossil fuel powered energy does. For example, there may be land rental costs, salaries of consultants, and (higher) financing costs because of the front-ended nature of the investment. There are also costs for mitigating intermittency and extra long-distance grid connections.
Many intermittent renewables costs seem to be left out of CO2 analyses under the theory that, say, land rental doesn’t really use energy. But the payment for land rental means that the owner can now go and buy more “stuff,” so it acts to raise fossil fuel energy consumption.
Normally the cost of making an energy-related product gives an indication as to how much fossil fuel energy is involved in the process. A high-priced energy product gives an expectation of high fossil fuel use, since true renewable energy use is free. If the true source of renewable energy were only wind or solar, there would be no cost at all! The fact that wind and solar PV tends to be more expensive than other electricity generation gives an initial expectation that the fossil fuel energy requirements for creating this energy source are high, rather than low, if a wide boundary analysis were to be done.
There are some studies based on narrow boundary studies of various types (Energy Return on Energy Invested, Life Cycle Analysis, and Energy Payback Periods) that suggest that there are some savings (from the top of the icebergs) if intermittent renewables are used. But more broadly based studies show that the overall amount of fossil fuel energy used by intermittent renewables is really so high that we don’t come out ahead by its use. One such study is Weissbach et al.’s study in Energy called Energy intensities, EROIs (energy returned on invested), and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants. Another is an analysis of Spanish installed solar power by Pedro Prieto and Charles Hall called Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Energy Invested.
I tend to use an even wider boundary approach: what happens to world CO2 emissions when we ramp up intermittent renewables? As far as I can tell, it tends to raise CO2 emissions. One way this happens is by ramping up China’s economy, through the additional business it generates in the making of wind turbines, solar panels, and the mining of rare earth minerals used in these devices. The benefit China gets from its renewable sales is leveraged several times, as it allows the country to build new homes, roads, and schools, and businesses to service the new manufacturing. In China, the vast majority of manufacturing is with coal.
Another way intermittent renewables raise world CO2 emissions indirectly is by making the country using intermittent renewables less competitive in the world market-place, because the higher electricity cost raises the price of manufactured goods. This tends to send manufacturing to countries that use lower-priced energy sources for electricity, such as China.
A third way that intermittent renewables can raise world CO2 emissions relates to affordability. Consumers cannot afford high-priced electricity without their standards of living dropping. Governments may be pressured to change their overall electricity mix to include more very low-cost energy sources, such as lignite (a very low grade of coal), in their electricity mix to keep the overall price in an affordable range. This seems to be at least part of the problem behind Germany’s difficulties with renewables.
If there is any savings at all in CO2 emissions, it would seem to be from inexpensive intermittent renewables–ones that don’t really need subsidies. If renewables need a subsidy or feed in tariff, a red danger light should be flashing. Somewhere the process is using a lot of fossil fuels in its production.
2. Wind and Solar PV do not fix our oil problem.
Wind and solar PV both are used to make electricity. Our big problem is with oil. Oil and electricity are used for different things. For example, electricity won’t run today’s cars, and it won’t run tractors, or construction equipment, or aircraft. So even if we have more electricity, it doesn’t fix our oil problem.
Wind and solar PV have been billed as solutions to our CO2 problem. Unfortunately, as we just saw in (1) above, it doesn’t really do this either. The combination of (1) and (2) leaves wind and solar PV with relatively few purposes.
I should mention that there is one small niche where intermittent renewables can substitute for oil. While oil is not generally burned to produce electricity, it is used for this purpose on some islands because of its convenience. These island communities do little manufacturing because their high cost of electricity makes them not competitive in the world market. On these islands, intermittent renewables can be used to reduce the amount of oil used for electricity production, without driving up the cost of electricity, since electric costs are already very high.
3. The high cost of wind and solar PV doubles our energy problems, rather than solving them.
The big issue with oil is its high cost of production. We extracted the easy-to-extract oil first, and now we are getting to the more-difficult to extract oil. Adding high priced electricity to our fuel mix means we have price problems with both oil and electricity, instead of only one of the two. Consumers’ wages don’t rise to pay for these high-priced fuels, so disposable income is adversely impacted by both. The two high-priced fuels also combine to make exported goods even less competitive in the world marketplace.
4. Even if wind is “renewable,” it isn’t necessarily long lived.
Manufacturers of wind turbines claim lives of 20 to 25 years. This compares to life spans of 40 years or more for coal, gas, and nuclear. One recent study suggests that because of degraded performance, it may not be economic to operate wind turbines for more than 12 to 15 years.
If we are expecting substantial changes in the years ahead, there are also issues with whether necessary repairs will really be available. Wind turbines are especially repair prone. These repairs can’t be made by just anyone, using local materials. They need the specialized world supply chain that we have today. Offshore wind turbines sometimes need helicopters for repairs. If oil is a problem, such repairs may not be available.
5. Wind and solar PV don’t ramp up quickly.
After many years of trying to ramp up wind and solar PV, in 2012, wind amounted to a bit under 1% of world energy supply. Solar amounted to even less than that–about 0.2% of world energy supply. It would take huge effort to ramp up production to even 5% of the world’s energy supply.
6. Wind and solar PV create serious pollution problems.
Both wind turbines and solar PV use rare earth minerals, mostly from China, in their manufacture. Mining and processing these rare earths generates a tremendous amount of “hazardous and radioactive byproducts.” In the part of China where rare earth minerals are mined, soil and water are saturated with toxic substances, making farming impossible.
If we were to try to increase wind and solar by a factor of 10 (so that they together amount to 12% of world energy supply, instead of 1.2%) we would need huge amounts of rare earth minerals and other polluting minerals, such as gallium arsenide, copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, and cadmium-telluride, used in making thin-film photovoltaics. We could not expect China to take on all of this pollution itself. Instead, the rest of the world would need to produce these toxic materials as well. Presumably, many countries would require stringent pollution controls to do this extraction. These pollution controls would likely require greater use of fossil fuel energy. While pollution problems might be kept in check, the greater use of fossil fuels would likely raise both CO2 emissions and the prices of the wind and solar PV.
There are many other pollution issues. China is a major center for renewables production, using coal as it primary fuel. Silicon-based solar cells require heating silica rock to high temperatures in 3000 F ovens, something that which can be done cheaply with coal. Wind is known for its noise pollution issues and for killing birds. Solar panels on the desert floor interfere with the local ecosystem.
A major reason why wind and solar PV are considered clean is because it is hard to measure their true pollution costs, whether CO2 or other types. Electric cars have some of the same issues, because they also use rare earth minerals and have heavy up-front costs.
7. There is a danger that wind and solar PV will make the electric grid less long-lived, rather than more long-lived. This tends to happen because current laws overcompensate owners of intermittent renewables relative to the value they provide to the grid.
One point of confusion is what wind and solar PV really replace. Do they replace electricity, or do they replace the fuel that makes electricity? There is a huge difference, in terms of when an intermittent renewable achieves “grid-parity” in costs. Fuel costs are typically only a small share of retail electricity costs, so reaching grid parity is extremely difficult if intermittent renewables only replace fuel costs. In the US fuel costs average about 3 cents per kWh. For residential users, the retail price averages about 12 cents per kWh, or four times as much as the fuel cost.
What we are interested in is the value of intermittent electricity to the companies that make and sell electricity–utilities or similar companies. In my view, the typical value of intermittent electricity is the value of the fuel the intermittent electricity replaces–in other words, the cost of coal, natural gas, or uranium replaced. This is the case because using intermittent electricity doesn’t generally reduce any costs for an electric utility, other than its fuel costs. It still needs to provide backup power around the clock to customers with solar panels. Because of the variability in production, it still needs pretty much the same capacity as in the past, and it needs the same staffing for each of the units, even though some of them might be operating for a smaller percentage of time.
The value of the intermittent electricity to the utility may be greater or less than the first estimate of the fuel savings. In some instances, particularly if there is a lot of solar PV in a part of the world where maximum energy use is during the summer, peak capacity needs may be reduced a bit. This would be a savings above fuel costs. Offsetting such savings would be increased costs for new transmission lines to try to even out spikes in electricity production and to bring wind from sources where it is strongest to locations where its energy is truly needed.
The problem that occurs is the fact that most plans reimburse users of wind and solar PV at a far higher rate than the cost of the fuel they replace. Often “net metering’ is used, so the user is in effect given credit for the full retail price of electricity for the electricity generated by solar panels. This higher reimbursements leaves a revenue shortfall for the companies involved in producing electricity for the grid. The danger is that some companies will go bankrupt, or will leave the system, endangering the ability of the electric grid to provide a stable electric supply for consumers. This is a potentially much more dangerous problem than any benefit that intermittent renewables provide.
Also, funding for the additional electric transmission lines is likely to become a problem, because neither the electricity companies nor governments have sufficient revenue to fund them. The reason the electric companies cannot afford them should be clear–they are being asked to subsidize the costs through overly high reimbursement of the value of the intermittent renewables. I discuss the reason for the government lack of funds in (8), below.
8. Adding more wind and solar PV tends to make government finances less sound, rather than more sound.
Around the world, extraction of inexpensive oil and gas has historically strengthened the finances of governments. This happens because governments have been able to tax the oil and gas companies heavily, and use the tax revenue to fund government programs.
Unfortunately, the addition of wind and solar tends to act in precisely the opposite direction. In some cases, the reduction in governments revenue comes directly through subsidies for wind and solar. In other instances, the reduction in government revenue is more indirect. If the high price of intermittent electricity causes a country to become less competitive in the world market, this indirectly reduces government tax revenue because it leads to fewer people having jobs, and thus less taxable income. Even if the issue is “only” a reduction in discretionary income of consumers, this still cuts back on the ability of governments to raise taxes.
9. My analysis indicates that the bottleneck we are reaching is not simply oil. Instead, a major problem is inadequate investment capital and too much debt. Ramping up wind and solar PV tends to make those problems worse, not better.
As I described in my post Why EIA, IEA, and Randers’ 2052 Energy Forecasts are Wrong, we are reaching an investment capital and debt bottleneck, because of the higher extraction costs of oil. Adding intermittent renewables, in which huge costs are paid out in advance, adds to this problem. Because of this, ramping up intermittent renewables tends to make collapse come sooner, rather than later, to the countries trying to ramp up these energy sources.
10. Wind and Solar PV come nowhere near fulfilling the promises made for them.
Trying to substitute expensive energy for cheap is like trying to make water run uphill. It is virtually impossible to make such a system work. It makes everyone from governments to businesses to citizens poorer in the process. Promises that are made regarding future payments for electricity often need to be reneged on.
If there really were benefits from the program–other than making government officials look like they are doing something–it might make sense to expand the programs. As it is, it is hard to see much benefit to expanding intermittent renewables. Even if we wanted to, there would be no way we could expand intermittent renewables to cover our entire electricity program–they are just too expensive, too polluting, and don’t provide the liquid fuels we need.
While many people would like us to believe that wind and solar PV will solve all of our problems, the more a person looks at the question, the clearer it becomes that wind and solar PV added to the electric grid are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
If capital is one of the limits we are up against, we need to spend that capital as wisely as possible. Because solar PV is relatively long-lived, it is possible it may be a tiny part of the path ahead, but not as part of the electric grid. Individual citizens may want to buy a panel or two, as a way of providing some electricity, if we should have problems with electricity at a later date. But there is no reason the government should subsidize these purchases.
We might better off spending our capital in more productive ways–for example, figuring out what path we will follow in the very near future, if we find we are reaching a financial bottle neck brought on the high cost of oil extraction. Do we need to be doing more in the direction of local agriculture, with seeds chosen for each area? Should we even be thinking about buying up farmland and resettling potential workers to different areas? Are there ways we can make soil more productive for the long term?
The primary reason for intermittent renewables was supposedly to reduce CO2 emissions to prevent climate change. If we seem to be reaching Limits to Growth in the near term, the amount of carbon burned will be far lower than the climate models assume–even the “peak oil” model for future CO2. So perhaps from that point of view, our inability to make intermittent renewables work doesn’t really matter. We are already reaching the goal the intermittent renewables were trying to reach, in another, not very fortunate, way.
We are now faced with the task of trying to figure out what we can do, in the world Nature gives us. The previous plan didn’t work. Perhaps we need to find a Plan B that will put us in a better position.
An interesting blog from Leslie Corrice on nuclear issues with frequent updates
The problem as highlighted is not a problem at all. I view the looming bankruptcy as a positive, the end of large centralized governments and utilities as part of the solution, the end of the industrialized world as inevitable.
The question that needs answering is where best to place these intermittant renewable energy devices. And how do we measure and compare the fuels burnt in manufature with the fuel savings after these devices are placed in service. This is not a money equation. We all know that centralized governments and industry will not stop burning fuels, so, should the few of us that are thinking about these issues, instead buy something else with our excess capital? Buy a newer vehicle? Take a cruise? [Insert any frivilous pursuit here]? Again, if an individual’s choices are anaylzed, how would a solar electric device (fuel burn’t minus fuel saved) measure up to other choices? Even considering it may take more fuel to make the device (which I don’t believe) than other choices (including not making a choice, leaving it with an investment firm, who wil make the choice for you), surely the clean electricity generated will overwhelming cancel out the energy used in manufacturing the device and extend the intial fuel energy expended in its manufature?
Here in Wisconsin there is a propane shortage. The Governor’s response is to release millions of dollars that are being used to buy propane at very high prices. Included is a very large payment from the Federal Government. Now lets compare these expenditures (direct subidies) from government with how much “heat” would have been generated if this same money was used to help encourage individuals to but solar heating devices? Same principle applies to solar electric.
But of course next to nobody understands the concept, including this very smart author.
I will agree utilities and industry may find higher returns elsewhere with investments, but they all lead to a faster use of Earth’s finite resources. Solar and wind will extend these resources when placed in service to the current business model.
Yes, Rick, your last para sums it up. That’s why renewables have been labelled ‘fossil fuel extenders’. There’s a logic to that labelling.
But I speak as a renewables advocate, not a sceptic. It’s not the technology that’s the problem it’s the idea that we can power the monstrous industrial machine that we have using dilute energy sources. The futility of trying to do that will become obvious to all in due course. But not until after we have done everything possible to try to make the impossible happen.
That’s what the article is all about, I believe.
Wow, 647 responses so far. I think the proverbial 100th monkey just hit the ground running! It’s amazing – just recently it seems like the number of people understanding our current dilemma and predicted unfortunate consequences to come are ballooning in numbers.
Anyway, Gail they have this article of yours posted over at http://peakoil.com/consumption/a-forecast-of-our-energy-future-why-common-solutions-dont-work/comment-page-2#comment-68432
and the message board there also is quite long. The graph that really got people chatting was the shark fin graph of future energy.
Sorry, I am running out of energy to respond to comments. I need to work on other things too.
The stock market unloaded 150 pts today, and since it’s year end peak at 16600, it’s now down to 15,700 a drop of 900 points! DOWN NINE HUNDRED POINTS and QE has only been reduced from 85 billion to 65b, drop of 20b a month or a drop of 23.5%
So what happens when QE tapers to 55, 45, 35, 25, 15, 5, ZERO. My hypothesis is QE monthly injections are holding the fragile façade of growth together, and with it inflated asset bubbles. We are already down 900 points on the Dow and they’ve only made the move from 75b to 65b a couple of days ago. The prediction to go along with the hypothesis is that due to negative economic feedbacks from reduced QE monthly amounts, the Fed will be forced to stop tapering and hold steady at that level or higher until collapse occurs. I think that range is 35-45 billion a month. We shall see. More updates to come as this unfolds.
Dow Jones Indices: .DJI – Jan 31 4:30 PM ET
I am keeping a watchful eye on this as well.
Reblogged this on Зеленое будущее.
Kaller’s “Simpler Ways to Stay Warm” is interesting to a degree valid. I would suggest however that certain things go along with living like that. I could see more house fires and clothes fires happening; more people dying of fires and carbon monoxide poisoning. But that would not be the main effect. The effect would be higher infant, child and elderly mortality. Put simply, only the hardiest survive in those conditions. It won’t be any kind of idyllic, bucolic existence. Life will be nasty, brutish and short. But that is nature’s way. That is how all animals and plants live in nature. Nature is a battlefield; a battle against the element and against most other life. It is a constant mortal fight.
I am 59. My parents are 89 and 87 and both are very infirm and completely lost to Alzheimer’s disease. I will not live as long as my parents. The changing conditions of the collapse will kill me very possibly by 79 or earlier. I should count my lucky stars. I got to live in the most properous age and now the collapse will knock me off before my existence becomes totally pointless.
“Life will be nasty, brutish and short. But that is nature’s way. That is how all animals and plants live in nature.”
Dilworth (“Too Smart for our Own Good” pg 136) notes that high childhood mortality rates on the order of 60% have long been “normal” for humans and most other animals. This is during the childhood years alone.
Velasquez-Manoff (“An Epidemic of Absence”) reports what appears to be a “natural” infant mortality of 25% for the first year of life, and another 5% until puberty (i.e. 30% total, again for the childhood years alone).
Ikonoclast also wrote:
“My parents are 89 and 87 and both are very infirm and completely lost to Alzheimer’s disease. I will not live as long as my parents.”
Average American lifespan circa year 1900 was 46 years of age. Employing medical measures to double the height, weight, gestational period, or number of eyeballs that people lived with back then would be considered Frankensteinian. How is trying to double the lifespan to 92 years NOT equally unnatural?
At present in America, we spend as much money on the medical care for people in their final 6 months of life, as is spent on that same individual’s entire medical care during their entire life to that point. The final six months of life can easily cost well into 6 figures. While employed at the HIP HMO on 34th Street in NYC, I personally audited many such hospital charts and they often accrued total expenses >$250,000.
I wonder if the generalization that renewables are “more expensive” reflects what they are actually competing against. Peak demand period electrical prices are commonly in excess of the grid cost of renewables. In addition, different conventional sources have differing costs and new construction needs to be factored. Finally, renewables can swap petroleum with electric vehicles, though volumes are currently very modest.
Dear timl2kll and others
Following up on my previous comments that the correct way to evaluate something like solar PV or wind as a source of electricity is to first construct a mental model of a much lower energy society, and then see how, or if, wind and solar might fit into that model. I also suggested that a few hours spent living a much lower energy lifestyle (backpacking, visiting people who live that way all the time) will be a more rewarding exercise than reading learned studies of EROEI or assessments of the cost of pumped storage.
Here is a good article by Brian Kaller which talks about the simple ways to use a lot less energy for heat:
These ideas are mostly things that our grandparents took for granted. No new inventions are required…just a change in mindset.
I do need to discuss the ‘stone age scenario’ issue. As I understand Gail, she rejects these kinds of scenarios because she thinks that we are going back to the stone age and resources such as long underwear and sturdy woolen sweaters simply won’t be available. Furthermore, there won’t be any wood to burn even very modest fires and no airtight stoves to burn the wood in. All I can say is that I don’t think many people in the cold parts of the planet can survive without some of these resources. Few of us would survive if we were dumped in upstate New York in January with no firewood, no metal axe, no matches, no clothing, no shoes. I imagine that tropical dwellers might make out quite a bit better…but perhaps I underestimate the challenges of living in the tropics.
Dmitry Orlov wrote about the ‘stages of collapse’, and pointed out that we need to pay particular attention to arresting collapse before certain critical thresholds are crossed. For example, humans are social animals, and we will do very poorly indeed if social ties are allowed to disintegrate. We can get along without the paper money, but we wither when social intercourse disappears (as people in solitary confinement learn). I would make the same point relative to materials. Stoves and shoes and clothing are important. Televisions and celebrities are not. Yet today almost all of our GDP is spent on things which are not really important to survival and probably make our lives poorer. Whether, in a collapse, we can redirect our energies toward the important things will be a test for humanity.
In the meantime, it seems to me that practicing Brian Kaller’s skills is an excellent place to start. It’s also a way of ‘starving the beast’, if you are into that.
PS If you want to think clearly about EROEI and such topics, I suggest that you get yourself a hand cider press. Grow some apples (mother Nature does most of that work), then gather the apples, press them with muscle power, harvest pitifully small amounts of juice, put it into jars you have scavenged somewhere, and ferment it. Then enjoy your alcohol.
The point is, of course, that the return on energy is negative. The apples had all the energy there was available. You have not only added a lot of energy in the form of hard manual labor, you have lost some of the energy the apple had. Yet humans have made alcohol from fruit for thousands of years. The point is that what is valuable is not necessarily the thing with the highest energy for the lowest cost.
“Stoves and shoes and clothing are important. Televisions and celebrities are not. Yet today almost all of our GDP is spent on things which are not really important to survival and probably make our lives poorer.”
Well worth repeating!
Part of Holmgren’s “deliberate crash” strategy is stripping back to essentials.
That does not mean we have to get rid of the upper levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. You can still read poetry from a paper book, or play music on an acoustical instrument — or sing or whistle with no human artifact! You can still self-actualize by creatively providing your own food and shelter.
That does not mean we need to reduce expectations; it means realizing that one can have a rich, full, joyful life, even in a low-energy world. Indeed, my experience in de-complexifying my life has made it richer. (Gotta get off this damned computer and go trim goat hooves.)
Well said Don and Jan
You conveniently ignore industry though which doesn’t follow the same rules or play the same game. Industry can’t simply “turn the lights off” when the sun goes down. I also wonder about your prolific pontificating on permaculture. Where are we supposed to get all the land?
Peter Bane, the publisher of the USA “Permaculture Activist” magazine for over 20 years, moved back to Bloomington Indiana about 8 years ago from Earthaven ecovillage in North Carolina. Anyway, he and his partner bought a place (home) there and named it Renaissance Farm. The size of the “farm” is 3/4 acre! We have great farmland that tract homes were built on.
He wrote a recent book on it titled, “Garden Farming for Town and Country” available on Amazon or his website.
You don’t need a lot of land with permaculture design
So how many people do you think can move out to the country and buy a house with 3/4 an acre of land for use to farm? Most of the new tract homes being built today have barely 1/10th of an acre that could be used to farm. My parents house built in 1970 on 1/4 acre of land has at most 1/8 of an acre of land that could be used for farming.Then there are all the people that live in apartments and mobile home parks. I suppose the same could be said of permaculture as of solar and PV, it is in no way scalable. Seems to me like Permaculture is the next “Holy Ox” that needs to be gored (as one poster said of wind and solar).
Oh, he is not in the country but right outside of the city limits of Bloomington. I guess you didn’t bother to view the video. That’s OK. You are right, most will die because they won’t grow food on the land that is available.
P.S. Cuba found itself in the same situation after the Soviet union failed and their oil imports literally dried up overnight! There agriculture was based on fossil fuels. Needless to say, when you are hungry, you find ways! They did.
I suppose the same could be said of permaculture as of solar and PV, it is in no way scalable.
In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed. Cuba had been embargoed by the US since 1960, and when the supply ships stopped coming from the Soviet Union, Cuba was in a “big hurt.” It could have gotten nasty.
However, they pulled together. During that “special period,” Castro asked that women stop having children, and they did. There was a three-year gap in the school system. Nobody starved to death, but the average person lost 30 pounds — doctors and ditch-diggers alike.
In the early 90s, they brought in a small army of Australian Permaculturists, who helped them re-design their entire food system, moving it from large, monoculture, chemical-intensive “green revolution” farming to small, organic, largely perennial-based agriculture in less than a decade. By 2000, Cuba went from importing 2/3rds of its food to being self-sufficient, including urban areas. Havana now produces over half its food from within its borders, and gets all its food from within perhaps ten miles.
Permaculture does scale — at least to the size of a small, communist, island nation. But as Dmitry Orlov points out about the collapse of the former Soviet Union, making changes of this magnitude is easier in a totalitarian system than it is in a corporatist system.
Could the US do the same? I’m doubtful. But that doesn’t mean Permaculture hasn’t been proven to scale.
This process is documented in The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, directed by Faith Morgan of Community Solution, an organization devoted to addressing energy decline with small-scale neo-socialism. The videographer, Greg Greene, went on to make the documentaries End Of Suburbia and Escape From Suburbia, yours truly featured in the latter film.
Here is where you can download Escape from Suburbia.
The thing I see is that the Cuba story was only a temporary partial fix. The country now is not doing at all well. Basic meat and grain needs were not addressed at all. The changes made in the cities were to some extent temporary ones that require fossil fuels to maintain, like installed irrigation systems. Cuba’s oil use did not drop dramatically during this period either. The story is a nice story, but it is not very complete. The National Geographic had a fairly recent story about Cuba. If I remember correctly, one of Cuba’s current problems has to do with a lower water table, because of the irrigation attempt.
“But the thing I see is that the Cuba story was only a temporary partial fix… The story is a nice story, but it is not very complete.”
I agree that the Cuba story is complex and nuanced. Your data show that oil consumption declined about 30% over about three years, which seems pretty steep to me, compared to “peakist” warnings of 3.5% to 7% annual decline rates on the backslope of Hubbert’s Curve.
It does seem that Cuba uses less than a third of the fertilizer used in the US, which to me, sounds like they can be more resilient in the face of oil shocks.
Back to the question: does Permaculture scale? I think the answer is itself a question: what would happen if US oil consumption went down 30% in three years? Would there be starvation?
I’m sorry if my posting made it sound that things are all “peachy keen” in Cuba. (I did mention that Cubans lost 30 pounds, on average, during a period when their oil consumption fell 30%.) But I remain convinced that without the widespread adoption of Permaculture, things would have been much worse.
It seems as if there are diverse views about Cuban agriculture.
A Canadian 2012 reportsays
This is a 2012 report called The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture. It says (among other things):
I looked at the Nov. 2012 National Geographic again. The caption on one picture says,
I tried to find the reference I read earlier about the irrigation of food crops in Havana leading to increased saltwater incursion, but I didn’t find it. I did find references to the problem of saltwater incursion in Havana, and I also found references to the Special Period food production using irrigation in Havana.
You said, “By 2000, Cuba went from importing 2/3rds of its food to being self-sufficient, including urban areas.” By 2000, most of the dip in oil consumption had disappeared. So that was probably part of what helped.
I will admit that information about food imports is probably pretty iffy for a country that we don’t have international relationships with. I get the impression that there was (and still is) some local food production that is helpful for those who were involved with it, but there are different views on the extent to which it has fixed Cuba’s overall food problem.
Interesting, bringing to mind Mark Twain’s “lies, damn lies, and statistics” quote.
Personally knowing the people involved, I don’t really doubt the information in the movie, but that’s old info, so it seems things have gotten much worse since the movie was produced in 2005.
Then there’s Sicko. the 2007 Michael Moore movie, in which he took 9-11 emergency responders to Cuba for health care that they couldn’t get in the US. He didn’t really paint a bad picture of Cuba at the time.
So were these two movies just leftist propaganda? Or might it simply be that people can live happy, productive lives on less oil and less food? Nationmaster says Cuba’s life expectancy (in 2003) was close to a year longer than that in the US, and in 2005, its infant mortality was just 6.45, better than the US at 7.0.
Another possibility is that things have simply gotten worse much quicker there, since none of my data is newer than 2007.
Dear Jan and Gail
I wasn’t there, so don’t know anything for sure. But the International Permaculture Gathering was held in Cuba a few weeks ago. One of the events on the list was a tour of the ‘hurricane resistant’ production methods they are now implementing.
When you are a small island in the path of big hurricanes, ‘local food’ can be quite vulnerable. I don’t know what they are doing to make themselves more resilient.
Dear Gail and Jan
Adding to my comment on the Permaculture Gathering visiting the new ‘hurricane resistant’ plots in Cuba. Cuba also has a dry season. From a tourist brochure:
‘The tourist high season runs from December through March, coinciding with the winter months in most northern countries. It also coincides with Cuba’s dry season.’
So they have a hurricane season from July through November followed by a dry season. The only really ‘good gardening’ weather seems to be April through June. Chuck Marsh, a local permaculturist who has been involved in projects in Jamaica quotes some extreme numbers in terms of Jamaica’s dependence on imported food. The Carribean islands may just be a very tough place to feed a large population density with locally grown food.
Also note that in David Holmgren’s tours of Mellidora, he features a show and tell on the things they have done to make them ‘bush fire resistant’.
I think one conclusion we can draw is that a densely populated, seasonally dry, or seasonally weather threatened location is going to be tougher. It only takes one disaster to lead to severe consequences…averages don’t count for much. The second conclusion is that Cuba should perhaps be compared to other Carribean islands. They may be doing outstandingly well by that metric. The third conclusion is to go back to the studies of famine in France in the 15th and 16th centuries (as I remember, and I can’t remember the citation). There were scores of local famines, and a few widespread famines. The fourth conclusion is that it is frequently extremes which are important…Taleb’s conclusions. Studies indicate that most of the topsoil erosion occurs in a very few extreme events. A 10 or 12 inch rainfall, for example. A British guy has identified ‘atmospheric rivers’ as being responsible for many of these extreme rainfall events. They are increasing, and will apparently get worse with climate change. A rancher in North Dakota who farms to mimic native prairie experienced a 10 inch rainfall. His land absorbed the first 8 inches without runoff. The last 2 inches he got some runoff, but not too much erosion. Neighboring properties lost a lot of soil. Bare ground would have been devastated.
PS Having been cooped up now for a while, I am beginning to think that Chaucer’s Pilgrims had the right idea. But I’ve been to Canterbury and its not very exciting. I think I should go on a globetrotting, fact-finding expedition to truly understand all these disaster issues and make some recommendations to some international committees with lots of letters in their acronyms. Since I am poor, I think I will have to crowd fund the expedition. Can I count on your two?
In Atlanta, I thought it would be possible to grow two crops during the year, but this year, the temperature got down to 6 degrees (instead of 20 degrees), so even the most cold tolerant plants froze. A person can’t really count on more than one crop a year. I think the natural variability is one of the things that makes it had to depend on agriculture. A person pretty much has to count on something close to the minimum. Maybe some from a bigger crop can be traded for clothes or something else of value, or held over for emergency use, but a family can’t really plan on getting the average amount each year.
One of the reference I saw a while back calculated that the amount of area needed to support a family was much higher, as one goes back through the centuries. I am sure a lot of this had to do with natural variation, plus inability to control pests of various kinds.
On finding a nice trip to somewhere, see if you can get invited to speak somewhere on permaculture or your research. The trips don’t always turn out to be in great places, but you can meet some interesting people.
For the last half dozen years I have grown leafy greens right through the winter with no special protection. The plants have methods for making antifreeze or else pushing water out of the cell into the inter-cellular area. But this year, when the forecast was 9 degrees overnight, I went out and harvested all the green leaves. I kept some of them for fresh eating, for about a week, but the rest was made into ferments. We will be eating the ferments well into the summer.
The experience points out some things:
1. Have a lot of different tricks in your kit bag.
2. Easier for a gardener to adapt than a farmer.
3. There are reasons why so much industrial food is waste.
4. Anyone depending on crops to bring in money to pay debts is always in peril.
5. A ‘diversified portfolio’ household will ideally have one foot in each camp…the workaday economy and also a home economy.
6. Frugality pays. If I had invested a lot of money in plastic tunnels, and still experienced a severe freeze, I would have lost a crop I needed to sell in order to pay for the tunnel. Too many ‘money spending’ projects are justified based on ‘expected returns’, some of which will never materialize by the laws of probability, and if the family is highly leveraged, will lead to disaster.
7. Two guys who get the frugality message are Darren Doherty and Joel Salatin. Both advise just about the opposite of captial intensive farming.
Thanks. I agree with you. The more inputs, the less sustainable a system is. Ultimately, we will probably have to give up plants that cannot live within the range of temperatures prevalent in our area.
“Since I am poor, I think I will have to crowd fund the expedition. Can I count on your two?”
Blood from a stone. My annual income is below $8,000!
Thanks, Jan, that was most helpful and the links too.
There will always be naysayers that say “It can’t be done”. These are the folks that won’t make it.
A German movie made in the 1920s involves an ‘anarchist’ who is planning to blow up a chemical plant in Berlin. The plant is shut down for the night, and no one is around when the anarchist goes about his project. I wasn’t around to see it, but I suppose the movie is accurate and manufacturing plants used to close for the night. I imagine that the drive for profit keeps them open 24 hours. That may have to change. But I’m no expert on the subject.
My point is that households don’t have to operate on a 24 hour schedule…and probably won’t because they won’t be able to afford to.
As far as pontificating on permaculture. I hope I have made it clear that there are different flavors of biological gardening and farming…some of them called permaculture and some with other names. What makes them interesting to us right now is that they use the energy from the sun as their primary ingredient. Oxygenic photosynthesis accounts for 10 times as much energy as fossil fuels. If we lose fossil fuels, we will need to increase the efficiency with which we use the plants which do photosynthesis. Which leads us to the importance of biological gardening and farming.
Good reply, Don, adapting will NOT be easy by no means. Especially for the coach potato generation and those use to getting a bag of them for a few dollars. I remember growing green peppers and all the work I have to put into getting a bag full. I went to a farmers market and got what I produced for a couple of dollars! Needless to say, it was an eye opening experience. We are living a fantasy “Godlike” existence now. It is going to be a real shock when reality hits.
Amen to that! I remember Matt Simmons talking years ago about how cheap a cup of oil was compared to a cup of coffee. Even as oil shot over $100\bbl he argued it was still cheap compared to more useless items such as a cup of coffee. And oil is so crucial to our survival. Food is the same way really.
Diner Agelbert, the Renewable Energy KING on the Diner has produced a fairly lengthy REBUTTAL to Gail’s arguments in this article.
Gail, you are invited to rebut the rebuttal.
I have a hard time getting past “Reason number ELEVEN.” This is an unfair, ad-hom attack, and so I chose to view all the others as mindless drivel. I think The Diner should be embarrassed to host such, and should take it down immediately.
This smacks of the #1 argument against AGW scientists: they are all getting rich by publishing in lucrative scientific journals! Yea, right.
I did glance at the rest of the article, and found that much of it attacks Gail’s profession. I think it’s wonderful to have the viewpoint of an actuary in this realm, and again, such attacks are unproductive, unconscionable, and it reflects poorly on the writer.
So when I hit the second negative reference to “actuarial,” I quit reading, except to do a search to show there were a couple more references.
“If you can’t argue the facts, attack the messenger!”
I believe Gail has stated that she does not profit from these activities, that indeed, she spends some of her retirement income in support of these activities.
Perhaps she can correct me if that’s in error, but it’s sad that one should even have to defend one’s self against such accusations, when it is very clearly the other side of the argument who have the biggest financial foot in the race.
Shame on you RE. You have not published a rebuttal but an attack piece. “Reason number ELEVEN is the MAIN reason she came up with the other TEN! She’s just talking her book.” reverseengineerre? What the hell? I’m pretty sure you’re aware Gail doesn’t have a book nor does she make money off this site. Why did you publish such drivel on your site? Do you just wish ti shamelessly promote your site?
Forgot to mention: even with many years of inflation, tariffs rest almost unchanged.
Gail, I’ll be pleased hearing of Argentina from you. A point not to miss are subsidies on domestic electricity and natural gas, whose tariffs payed by end users are the lowest in Southamerica. Theese are proudly issued to all citizens without reference to incomes (and this the gov pretending to be progressive and leftist). The national airline is subsidied too. And last week they issued they will “improve trade balance with Brazil (which is in huge deficit now) lowering taxes to local auto parts manufacturers”. So, they envision more cars and more deficit on oil imports, which are the very real (and growing) problem… Theese sutpid oil sellers in charge just go Burn, baby burn… and they’re burning the whole country!
Inflation was purposedly created by the gov some years ago, to build up a political cashflow (yes, you read it well). They lie about it (the statistical office systematically underestimates it, and have even gone to fine consultants delivering real data) and so they can project future incomes of the State lower that they will really be (because prices and tax revenues will be higher than forecasted). This extra cash is not considered in the budget proposed by the executive to the legislative, and so the former can spend it at will. With this money in their hands they negociate with governors and majors their political subordination (wich they recently lost, anyway). Now the beast is unleashed and is becoming a major problem. Actual devaluation is very badly planned, or not at all, and will not work because it doesn’t tend to tackle inflation and people will continue to look at the dollar to protect from it.
They want to burn it all and that nobody pays the bill. On a macro scale and replacing inflation by debt, this makes me remember the whole world financial situation.