Ten Reasons Intermittent Renewables (Wind and Solar PV) are a Problem

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.

Figure 1. Energy consumption by source for China based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. Energy consumption by source for China based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

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.

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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657 Responses to Ten Reasons Intermittent Renewables (Wind and Solar PV) are a Problem

  1. Brad says:

    Like many of the other commenters, I greatly admire most of Gail’s work, but this post hasn’t gone into the same rigorous analysis as her other posts.
    One of the key aspects that is completley missing is a discussion of nuclear, and how it can help to bridge gaps and provide clean power.

    • Paul says:

      Like Fukushima?

    • The post is about wind and solar power, why should we demand that Gail address everything in every post?

    • Lindon says:

      Nuclear will never save us from the end of (cheap, easy to get) oil. Reason: Nuclear does nothing to solve the transportation problem. Cars, trucks, trains, ships, jets — they all need liquid fuel. Sure, some talk of converting to natural gas has been generated, but it is absurd to think that we will be able to rebuild infrastructure to replace liquid fuel with NG, and at the same time replace coal and NG plants with nuclear.

      And without fully operational transportation, the economy collapses, it is as simple as that. Goods don’t get delivered, international trade zeros out, nothing gets moved in any quantity to any retail outlet. And without fully functioning transportation, how will parts for nuclear get manufactured, or replacement parts get moved to their destinations? How will raw materials for the new or replacement parts get moved to the factory that builds?

      Without fully operational transportation, everything stops. And without liquid fossil fuel — there are NO viable replacements — transportation becomes fully **inoperative**. That’s it. End of story.

      • Paul says:

        That is indeed the End of the Story – nuclear energy would not exist without the massive supply chain and complex economy that is utterly dependent on oil.

    • This post is not a discussion of nuclear’s merits or lack there of. It is long enough as it is, on its current topic.

  2. Quote: “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.”

    Comment: We would need oil production to decline by 6% pa already in this decade to remain within 2 degree warming. Numbers are in this post:

    Half of oil burnable in 2000-2050 to keep us within 2 degrees warming has been used up as we hit 400 ppm

    • We know what collapse “looks like” to some extent from the first years of the experience of the Former Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. It very definitely does not look like the normal decline rate. While the problem was with oil, it spread through all of the economy. Production dropped rapidly for oil, natural gas, and coal.

      Former Soviet Union Oil Gas and Coal Production

      Consumption of fossil fuels was affected as well, as evidenced by the drop in CO2 emissions.

      Former Soviet Union Carbon Dioxide Emissions

      I don’t think we will have any problem meeting the 6% per annum drop. In my view, a Hubbert curve very much overestimates future oil, gas, and coal production. It is wishful thinking. The idea that we know what the burnable fuels total is from geological information, is erroneous, in my view. Burnable fuels depends on the ability to keep the financial and political order together.

  3. kiwichick says:

    gail you have lost the plot

    the baseload renewables, available now ,are wave power and geothermal

    both are cheaper than coal or gas

    try getting your facts right

    you should really do some research on where solar is heading

    • Paul says:

      Where is solar heading? How many billions have been spent on storage battery research?

      And the best we can come up with is a battery that – when in regular use will last 3 years.

      Sometimes the god of technology simply fails – because some things just cannot be done – even if the monetary incentives are enormous.

      Case in point — whoever comes up with a cure for male baldness for instance – would be a billionaire overnight…. likewise if someone created a drug that cured cancer.

      Perhaps Gail has not posted on the awesome new solar technologies – because there are none that are of any significance?

      • DaShui says:

        Wait a minute now!
        Some of us like baldness., I mean, who doesn’t love uncle fester?

      • InAlaska says:

        Perhaps a Manhattan Project for renewables will prove you wrong. “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” and we will certainly have the need in a very few years.

      • Tom Murphy (Physics Professor at UCSD) has written a post about battery technology called, Battery Performance Deficit Disorder.

        His final paragraph is

        The real point is that batteries fall pathetically short of our customary fossil fuel energy storage medium. When we wake up to a declining global availability of petroleum, we won’t just switch over to electric cars. We may not be able to collectively afford such a transition, given the huge up-front costs in both money and energy. Where will the prosperity come from? If oil shortages drive recession in the usual fashion, expensive options may be off the table.

        Also, I remember but can’t find the link right now: The range for battery operated cars is not very different now from the early 1900s, when the idea was first floated.

    • Geothermal indeed probably makes sense in some places. I was not cautioning about things that make sense.

      Wave power as far as I am concerned is another intermittent renewable. It does not make sense, as far as I can see. Its costs are too great, relative to what it provides.

  4. Paul says:

    “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”

    Indeed this is the most thorough, thoughtful analysis that wrecks a truckload of assumptions that I – and I am sure a lot of people had about solar and wind.

    Superb work Gail. I have never seen any analysis that even remotely comes close to this.

    • Stilgar Wilcox says:

      I also commend Gail for taking on a galvanizing hot topic issue. I think the best comments in my opinion in the thread so far that ring of truth, are; renewables won’t stop collapse, renewables are an extension of this very complex civilization, once collapse occurs their days will be numbered because of the breakdown in parts distribution, and renewables will not support 7 billion people.

      With the oil age for example we have massive buildings pumping out 250,000 loaves of bread a day or processing and distributing 1/2 a million gallons of milk daily. Those kinds of economies of scale will disappear when the oil age descends into chaos. Farmers markets and Cuban style growing veggies in domiciles will not feed seven billion people. I really wonder how many people can comprehend how substantially different it will be, and that renewables are not going to even come close to achieving that level of production.

      • InAlaska says:

        Nobody is suggesting that renewable energy is the total answer, but they can be a bridge that can buy us time. They can help us stretch out the length of time that oil and other fuels will last. It is important to get out of those hopeless cities and into the real world and spend time with people who are inventive, clever, and adaptable–people who are out there every day doing things in the outdoors working with nature instead of against it. It may end up being a “scrap economy” for a century or so, but it won’t be the total end of civilization. Perhaps, a reset, in order to build a more sustainable, moral society.

    • Thanks! I thought someone should put this list of issues together. In many ways, wind and solar PV act like “energy sinks” rather than “energy sources”.

  5. Doug W. says:

    I will have to think about this one. One factor not mentioned in this analysis is the conservation benefit of wind or solar. Any reputable installer tells customers that they can reduce the cost of their new system by cutting their energy use. In our case that amounted to over 3000 kwh per year. In our region that means we have cut our CO2 emissions by 2 tons per year. We use 150 kwh per month and live what most people would consider a middle class life albeit one focused on meeting needs instead of conspicuous consumption. Serious conservation measures could certainly ease the transition we face.
    In a way solar technology misses the point. Many years ago we attended a NOFA conference. One of the workshop presenters summed it up pretty well, “What we need is not so much a solar technology, but rather a solar culture”. Azby Brown describes such a culture in Edo Japan before opening to the West, in his book “Just Enough”.

    • Paul says:

      Yes good point – as we have seen – when we create efficiencies or prices fall – we simply use more energy. Autos are a good example – we have more efficient cars but we use up the same amount of energy because we have all these new gadgets to power (and produce)

      We will never change our culture of energy – unless forced to. Because using less = the end of growth = economic collapse

    • I think that solar use does reduce total electricity consumption–which is a good point. If we could do it without the actual solar panels on the grid, it would be that much better.

      I don’t think wind does anything for electricity consumption. Small wind is terrible for efficiency. This units tend to not be high enough off they ground, and they break down frequently. This is a link to an article about small wind turbines that I helped with.

  6. I have both a solar hot water heater and a 2.5 KW PV feed-in system on my roof. My previous off-peak electricity bill for warm water is now limited to a couple of cloudy winter days. From the PV panels we export more electricity (7 cents per KWh refunded) than we import (25 cents per KWh).

    CO2 emissions from manufacturing PV cells can be offset by e.g. delaying the purchase of a new car or appliance and by downsizing.

    There is no way of solving our CO2 debt problem in the atmosphere without dramatically changing our lifestyles. If we don’t do it voluntarily, nature will force us. Latest global temperature analysis:

    Global Temperature Update Through 2013
    21 January 2014
    James Hansen, Makiko Sato and Reto Ruedy

    Summary. Global surface temperature in 2013 was +0.6°C (~1.1°F) warmer than the 1951-1980
    base period average, thus the seventh warmest year in the GISS analysis. The rate of global
    warming is slower in the past decade than in the prior three decades. Slower growth of net climate
    forcings and cooling in the tropical Pacific Ocean both contribute to the slower warming rate, with
    the latter probably the more important effect. The tropical Pacific cooling is probably unforced
    variability, at least in large part. The trend toward an increased frequency of extreme hot summer
    anomalies over land areas has continued despite the Pacific Ocean cooling. The “bell curves” for
    observed temperature anomalies show that, because of larger unforced variability in winter, it is
    more difficult in winter than in summer to recognize the effect of global warming on the occurrence
    of extreme warm or cold seasons. It appears that there is substantial likelihood of an El Niño
    beginning in 2014, and as a result a probable record global temperature in 2014 or 2015.

    Quote: “a major problem is inadequate investment capital and too much debt.”
    Comment: Indeed. The last QE – possibly after a currency reform – will be done to finance essential projects to get away from oil and fossil fuels in general. Unfortunately, that will be done only when peak oil and global warming problems will have become real physical problems. I did the following post – which needs updating:

    System Dynamics peak oil, financial and CO2 debt, ME geopolitics

  7. cassandraclub says:

    In my humble opinion PV-solar and wind can be good alternatives for fossil fuel energy, but not in the nationwide electric grid.
    Standalone windmills and PV solar panels can power a farm or a small factory with just a few flexible workers. In the past millers would only grind grain on windy days. And when there was no wind, he would take the day of.
    Maybe the wish to keep up a nationwide electrical grid is the biggest obstacle.

    • InAlaska says:

      This is a very astute observation. A decentralized, local PV economy to replace a nationwide grid, will be more robust, redundant and efficient. I agree with you that flexibility and a change in lifestyle and mindset is the answer.

      • SourabhJain says:

        Now, I agree with you both, cassandraclub and InAlaska on that point. What we need is “localization” not “globalization”. But, see how many people would voluntarily adopt local decentralized economy. Unless there is total collapse, people will not willing to revert to local-based small-scale decentralized economies.

        We can figure out a way to manufacture smaller turbine and panels for local people without much industrial economy. We definitely need to change the mindset. I think economy before Industrial civilization was much more sustainable than what we have today.

    • I agree. There are some stand-alone applications. Solar PV for Saudi water desalination no doubt makes sense. The nationwide electric grid is likely a pipe dream. There is a reason why originally electricity generation was local, with only a bit of long-distance transmission lines for emergency purposes.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “There is a reason why originally electricity generation was local…”

        Actually, that reason was largely technical, based on using direct or alternating current (DC vs AC).

        Lined up on either side were two powerful individuals of the day: Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

        Edison envisioned small DC power plants, spaced about a mile apart in urban areas.

        Westinghouse’s AC system allowed simple voltage-current transformation, and could feature much larger power plants spaced much more widely. Westinghouse won anecdotally based upon a botched electricution event, where it took a long time to kill a prisoner using DC, which negated Edison’s claim that AC was more dangerous.


        That debate is revisited today, and I think any future that small electricity generation may have should be based on non-grid, non-stored, DC power generation. It is much simpler and efficient. I have a collection of 12 VDC things that I can run directly off solar panels, wind turbines, or micro-hydro, without any intervening inverters nor batteries.

        And when the sun goes down, we’ll go to sleep, or when the wind stops blowing, we’ll take a break. 🙂

        • I think people should be looking closely at what they own, and whether they run off DC power. Solar panels are great for DC power; not nearly as good for alternating current.

  8. I can speak from experience somewhat, as I’m running this “netbook” from deep-cycle batteries, which charged largely from a solar panel (which was made in China).
    I think real-life experience will answer these questions, & I suppose its “answers” will be anything but easy, or painless (http://davecoop.net/seneca.htm).
    Working around “high-tech” manufacturing, I’ve long seen some of the diesel-fuel-powered trucking which is involved, just in making the means of production for “microchips” (the vacuum chambers, within which they are made, are scrapped out after about 6-7 years, due to corrosion, etc.) — just one of those chambers is machined from over a ton of aluminum — are we going to do all of that, with “renewable energy”? (I’d say, “dream on”.)

    • Solar panels are great for charging electronic equipment. That is a reason some people might want one. And the little batteries in the netbooks work pretty well, at least for a few years.

      The problem is grid connecting everything, using inverters that wear out, and holding costs down to something very cheap, relative to fossil fuel costs. Also keeping the whole system repaired.

  9. I agree with Gail. I see “renewables” as another “middle man” between fossil fuels and the electrical socket in your home. Middle men add complexity, costs and decrease efficiency. And electrical generation does to fix our liquid fuel problem. Folks tend to site how a person (in the lab) can get more energy out of say a solar panel than was put into its construction. In the lab that may be true. But, you still need the equipment to mine/extract the resources to not only build the solar PV device but all the associated appliances you want to power with it. You need to educate, feed, house and clothe all the folks that are working in the industries to extract these resources and build the appliances to do useful work. Therein lies a lot of unmeasured embedded energy that goes into our modern industrialized society. The earth moving equipment needs to be maintained, replaced and refueled. The machines that build the earth moving equipment need to be maintained, replaced and refueled. You need a critical mass of people to support the lifecycle of these machines. The more complex this society is the higher the critical mass of people becomes. These people need to be educated, housed, fed and clothed and sufficiently entertained so they get along well. A person cannot begin to fathom the amount of embedded energy that we simply take for granted just to sustain modern society.

    If solar PV or wind is truly able to stand on its own then try an experiment and create a city where every renewable is available (solar, tidal, geothermal etc) and no fossil fuels are used to extract, build and maintain even a small industrial civilization. What would it look like? Would the folks decide that electricity for all is a useless adventure because nothing worth powering could be built? Would everyone be driving electric cars? Would there be computers of any kind? Would they be able to build solar PV panels and wind turbines using solar PV and wind turbines? We kicked started modern civilization with a very high-energy dense fuel. And that that energy is still there hidden in the background of modern civilization in the form of embedded energy.

    I truly believe what we call “renewables” can only exist in an ecosystem of high embedded energy fossil fuels and they cannot stand on their own. I have heard Gail call them “fossil fuel extenders”. I believe that phrase “fossil fuel extender” could be applied to hydro power or solar thermal or local off grid intermittent solar PV (without battery backup). But I do not believe grid-tie-solar or wind turbines are even good enough to be fossil fuel extenders. They are energy sinks. I read that Germany is having real problems with them. Germany is burning more coal and natural gas idling power plants on stand-by to coverup the intermittency.

    What is needed is efficiency improvements, better education to understand our energy problem, steps to humanely reduce our population numbers and a real push to bring back the family farmers and local communities around them. We will all need to let go of our complex society and the techno gadgets we have grown fond of. I am afraid society will go kicking and screaming (wars) before letting go.

    • Paul says:

      Outstanding post.

      ” Would the folks decide that electricity for all is a useless adventure because nothing worth powering could be built?”

      You hit the nail on the head – most people do not realize how little power actually comes out of a solar system. If you wanted to try to operate a washer and dryer you’d need a massive, expensive array of panels.

      People have the utopian vision of people coming home from work to plug their electric cars into their solar charger. I don’t know specifically what the would involve but I suspect you’d need a backyard the size of a football field covered with panels to be able to collect enough energy to charge a car.

      And then there is the issue with batteries – you’d be replacing them every few years – and they are expensive.

      This dream of a solar (or wind) powered world is – even if you could continue to produce the hardware without an industrial economy backing you – total pie in the sky.

      I quickly realized this when I made some recent inquiries into solar for a log cabin I am building.

      • InAlaska says:

        I operated a full-sized house on 12 solar panels including a washer and a dryer. Facts are facts and we live and die by them. The deep cycle batteries last 20 years if you tend them properly with a good programmable inverter and charge controller. I have friends with 30 year old solar panels that still crank out the power. We must all avoid the temptation to extrapolate from what we think we know. It will take all of humanity’s ingenuity along with a mixture of all of the energy sources discussed here, along with a little luck, to make it through the coming bottleneck. It can be done.

        • SourabhJain says:

          Was renewable energy used to manufacture your dryer, washer, inverter, batteries, solar panel, house, etc.?

          If you are living off-grid, 12 panels is about 3kW (am I right?) how much energy did they generate? What was your standards of living? I allude to annual energy consumption? How much “stuff” did you buy locally and how much of it was made in China? I am just wondering if you accidentally exporting your emissions. If you are truly living sustainable, as you seem to claim is possible, how much interaction do you have with outside world (beyond your town)? (Btw, I am sure internet server you are using is not running on renewable energy, and definitely not manufactured using renewable energy. Do you drive? was road built using renewable energy? What about car?

          If you are grid-connected, then was renewable energy used to manufacture that grid? I guess not. So, the main point of this post was that wind and solar cannot replace energy intensive lifestyle we are living in. If we were to live the way people living before Industrial revolution, we can live, but now we have four or five times as many people as they were two hundred years ago.

      • Anita says:

        “Massive, expensive array of panels” just for a washer and dryer? Misunderstanding! (Unless your cabin is way closer to the North or South Pole than most of us.) The three of us get about two-thirds of our electricity from just four panels (1.6 m2 each) – about 800 kWh of a total of 1100-1200 kWh a year. A bit more than we need in summer, a lot less than we need in winter. We wash often but admittedly prefer a clothes-line to the dryer.

        • Anita says:

          (The above was in reply to Paul’s post. Afterthought: of course we use a lot less electricity than an average three-person household. No accident, yet we don’t lead unreasonably frugal lives. Just replaced light bulbs with LED lights and the TV with a notebook computer, and we turn off what we don’t need.)

          • Anita says:

            Jain: the question was addressed to someone else, but no car here. Good old Europe. Actually it’s a no-brainer that PV and wind won’t ever get us off oil. Oil means transport and new renewables don’t. Transport of the mindless and useless variety is one of our biggest energy sinks today, e.g. from suburbia to the supermarket and then to the gym in an SUV, instead of riding a bike to the farmer. Much of it won’t be missed too sorely. I do see Gail’s point that our four PV panels needed a large energy investment to begin with. I also get the problem of subsidies. We could have claimed some for those measly four panels but chose not to – they cost a fraction of what our neighbours spent on their second car. Whatever the problems of new renewables, that second car still strikes me as the dumber strategy. If anyone disagrees, I’d like to know why.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. You may be right that I am too generous in calling grid-tie solar and wind “fossil fuel extenders.” In many cases, they are just plain energy sinks. They certainly act that way, in the way they affect economies. We hope some folks will learn from Germany’s experience.

  10. Ozzie Zehner says:

    Excellent, much needed post. Thank you!

    Pt. 5: I wonder if we should stop calling modern wind turbines and photovoltaics “energy production” and instead speak of them as the “energy sinks” or “energy consumers” that they are. I see modern wind/solar simply as illusions. We would not say that a magician that produces cards from thin air is adding anything to the global playing-card supply. Not even a tiny bit.

    Pt. 1: But this makes me wonder, do you or other readers have any thoughts on what might be a sink for wealth that would not lead to growth or ecosystem impacts? The only idea I can think of for sequestering wealth is buying land and allowing it to go wild. But even if this were performed on a large scale, nations could simply print more money to spur more natural resource extraction or raise land taxes so that preserving wild land becomes expensive.

    For those interested, the first chapter of Green Illusions, is entitled, “Solar Cells and Other Fairy Tales” which is available for free here: http://www.greenillusions.org/description/

    • I agree that most of what we call “renewables” are energy sinks. One exception I think is hydro power and thermal solar. Hydro is an efficient use of fossil fuel energy (building the power plant) to capture massive amounts of energy from flowing water. It is a proven “renewable” resource. But, I agree that grid tie solar PV and wind turbines are energy sinks.

      • I think most hyrdo is a proven renewable resource. I also think that a lot of the best places were taken first. The issues I see (1) Existing dams need maintenance–dredging and replacement for parts that no longer work. At some point these will be a problem, (2) New sites usually are in less good places–higher cost, lower EROI (3) Natural flooding of rivers is needed to maintain soil fertility along rivers. When hydroelectric is added, this is lost. This a big issue along the Nile in Egypt. They now are using fossil fuels to do what nature did much better in the past. (4) Run of the river hydro is better from a point of view of not damaging ecosystems.

        Solar thermal is also usually good.

        • Ahhh yes those unintended consequences again. Your right about the side effects of the dams. I was aware of these. I just don’t want to come across as overly pessimistic. There is no free lunch unfortunately.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “do you or other readers have any thoughts on what might be a sink for wealth that would not lead to growth or ecosystem impacts? The only idea I can think of for sequestering wealth is buying land and allowing it to go wild.”

      Check out Restoration Agriculture, Real World Permaculture For Farmers, by Mark Shepard.

      In it, Shepard makes a strong case for restoring the function of the mixed-perennial savannah — a mixture of food forest and perennial grassland — with prominent use of domesticated ungulate herbivores.

      Such a system isn’t going to support seven billion humans, but it’s probably the optimal way to support as many as we can on a current-solar-energy budget.

    • Ric Steinberger says:

      The “wealth sink” I’d like to see is for the governments of industrial nations to buy up large plots of farm land, even marginal farm land, and make it available to 21st century “homesteaders” – people, especially the unemployed, who would promise to learn (low to zero fossil fuel based) organic farming and take care of the land in exchange for growing food for themselves and 1 – 5 other families (depending on land size, quality, rainfall, etc.).

      If the citizens of the industrial nations are not going to starve in “The century of Malthus”, then tens of millions of them are going to have to become organic farmers or get otherwise involved in food production.

      Another “wealth sink” would be the non-commercial, non-profit development of sustainable forests, primarily for building materials and firewood.

      Last suggestion for a “wealth sink” – The development of what E. F. Schumacher called “Intermediate Technologies” – tools, techniques, processes that are easy to implement, require little to no fossil fuel inputs and can help allow a reasonably comfortable existence – probably a mix of 18th – 20th century low-energy, small scale technologies. Be nice to have community colleges giving courses in “The New IT” – Intermediate technology.

      • Unless you’re using a tree branch as a lever, or a bone as a club, every ‘tool’ carries an element of heat in its manufacture.
        They have to, because tools are essentially a means of advantage over whatever it is you’re working on or with, to have an advantage means tools have to be harder,
        hard can only come from application of heat.
        18th/20th c small scale technology supported scale scale populations. I wish those two concepts could stay linked in commenters minds
        I can think of one exception though, stone tools.
        This way to the Olduvai gorge everyone!

        • Ric Steinberger says:

          I did say, “low to zero fossil fuel based”, right? That means that decent tools made using small amounts of fossil fuels could be safely used if they were high quality and designed for long life. Every farming village should have a skilled blacksmith. S/he will be making plows, nails, horseshoes, crowbars, hammers, anvils, door handles, stoves, cookware, saws and maybe simple windmills, perhaps even electric ones. But s/he won’t be making PV cells – those require an industrial society with complex supply chains.

          • you missed my point—small scale enterprise supports a small scale population, we are stuck with a large scale population
            All the items you list involve iron bashing. If you want to bash iron, you must have heat, that means charcoal, I believe the equation is 1000 tons of tree=100 tons of charcoal= 1 ton of iron. work that out–per village, and dream on
            I live within 5 miles of where the industrial revolution began, a canal that fed it runs at the bottom of my garden. There is an awareness of what those men did in the 1700s, but they were driven to do it by a simple reality, they were running out of trees.

        • Ric Steinberger says:

          We are only “stuck” with a large scale population of 7+ billion until the inevitable population reduction happens, partly due to global climate change and partly do to a growing collapse of industrial agriculture. This is one of the bottlenecks we face. So, Malthusian constraints will apply and extreme weather will speed them along. We can “look forward” to massive floods, hurricanes, droughts, breakdown of sanitation systems, pestilence, diseases like cholera and typhoid, famine, wars over remaining resources, civil violence, global pandemics for which the medical establishment cannot counteract.

          My guess would be that the earth’s population stabilizes at well under 1 billion. [About 200 years ago, it was close to that, but climate change will make the planet far less able to support even that number.] So the human population will shrink radically (baring an energy and climate miracle) and the survivors will be lucky if they can duplicate some quality 19th century farming technology. If they’re really lucky, they may get to hang on to some methods for making anesthesia, antibiotics, antiseptics, basic medical chemicals like aspirin and ones to purify water, primitive electrical wind generators so houses get a few primitive lights and maybe even radios (if the future techies can make tube amplifiers and cobble together batteries).

          • InAlaska says:

            There are already carbon sequestration machines being built that literally suck CO2 out of the air. Bill Gates is funding research into this now. In an era of great need, it is theoretically possible that we can reverse what we have done to the climate (or at least stabilize it). The engineering is already in existence.

        • DaShui says:

          Almost right eom.
          I know a person who makes stone arrowheads with a deer antler, called flint knapping.
          Anyway he has to heat the rocks up first to create a fracture line, Stone Age fracking?
          So even Stone Age technology needed artificial energy inputs.
          The Aztecs used obsidian knives which of course comes from volcanoes.

        • xabier says:


          The irony that the way over Ironbridge leads back to Olduvai….!

      • Paul says:


        Perhaps the government should nationalize these holdings and start to allocate plots to those who are interested in having a chance at surviving 🙂

    • Ert says:


      “any thoughts on what might be a sink for wealth that would not lead to growth or ecosystem impacts?”

      Two suggestions:

      First: You may change the economic system that is driven by private debtors that chase for the money they owe their creditors. This is the core drive of what we call “capitalism” and which I call “debtism”. But you may be be the “Emperor” to decree that 😉

      Second: You have to tax away the industrial efficiency gains to avoid the rebound principle effects, therefore lower the available income for “goodies” and reduce growth. You may find a extension of the concepts you propose in Mr. Weizäckers book “Factor 5”: http://www.amazon.de/Factor-Five-Transforming-Improvements-Productivity/dp/1844075915

      The system itself will never allow itself to shrink. Even the German “Energiewende” was (also) designed to grow the economy, as it was credit driven and highly supported by massive incentives.

    • Thanks, Ozzie for the link to your website and first chapter. Your chapter “Solar Cells and Other Fairy Tales” is very good. I checked on Amazon as well, at it gets very good reviews, and isn’t terribly expensive.

      I agree with you on most wind and solar being energy sinks when put on the grid.

      I think the sink for people’s wealth in the next few years will be failing banks, insurance companies, and pension plans. The paper wealth we have is just a way of transferring around real physical things that are made with fossil fuels and with other natural resources. This paper wealth will have little value, as the amount of resources we become unable to extract oil, because of financial disruptions indirectly caused by the high cost of oil extraction. (The issue may be that oil prices do not rise high enough for companies doing the extraction, so they stop new exploration and production.) A couple of posts to read:



    • Jan Steinman says:

      Thanks for the link, Ozzie. I watched your presentation to Google employees, as well.

      I have a minor nit I’d like you to think about and possibly re-consider.

      In the presentation, you mentioned something about “educating women” as a way to control population. I consider this a common myth among demographers, repeated enough times that it is generally repeated as fact, yet with no underlying proof. Correlation is not causation!

      Rather, I would submit that women’s access to energy is the root cause of falling birth rates, which tends to correlate closely with women’s education.

      In subsistence populations, children are a slave labour force and a retirement plan, whereas in industrial populations, children are closer to “hobbies” — wonderful, joyful hobbies, but not essential to one’s existence. Yes, there is the “biological imperative,” but it doesn’t have the practical reasons of labour and retirement when fossil sunlight supplies both.

      For example, a small African village gets electricity and a well — as well as some charitable organizations’ education on birth control. Now, the village women don’t need to walk five miles to get water, and they have less incentive to breed a water-carrier. The World Health Organization proclaims success: the poor brown women have been “educated,” and the birth rate has fallen!

      In fact, I think western “education” of third-world subsistence farmers is more of a problem than a solution. I have been greatly influenced in this by the film, Schooling The World, The White Man’s Last Burden (Paul kindly found the entire movie, in seven parts, on You Tube.)

      I think we should let the third-world subsistence farmers alone. They are currently better equipped to handle the coming energy decline than either the citizens of industrialized nations, nor their poverty-stricken, slum-dwelling, newly-educated peers.

      If you see fit, perhaps you can introduce this perspective as an alternative when you talk about “educating women” in order to reduce birth rate. Because, as the Limits To Growth graphs hint, we may have universally accelerating birth rates soon, even after educating women. The resource spent on education could instead be used to introduce appropriate-technology “energy levers” to the third-world, such as hand-pumps for wells.

      Thanks for the video and book!

      • Ozzie Zehner says:

        Thank you Jan for your thoughtful reply. I agree with your critique of that point of the Google talk, which was quite a bit more simplified than the chapter in Green Illusions that I wrote on the topic. It seems you are thinking that this is a large, multifaceted problem that will require many changes at once, including increased energy access to those most in need. That makes sense to me.

      • Russell says:

        Exactly Jan. The ‘educating women to reduce population’ campaign is a prime example of people doing what they would like to do rather than what is needed. Provisioning and protecting women is very much a BAU approach. It is the rationale for over-consumption and even war.

    • Ert says:


      Regarding population dynamics, please read (transcript) or hear (Podcast): http://www.peakprosperity.com/podcast/84314/bill-ryerson-challenges-presented-global-population-growth

      Bill Ryerson does actually the stuff, helps to educate people in Africa and removed some “myths” for me. Have no time to summarize it here – but the 60 minutes of the Podcast are well worth your time – and if you know Martenson, then you may trust his judgement.

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