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How (Not) To Resolve the Energy Crisis

Increasing the share of renewable energy will not make us any less dependent on fossil fuels as long as total energy consumption keeps rising.

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Image: Illustration by Milo.

Renewable energy sources do not replace coal, oil or gas plants, they only meet (part of) the growing demand.

In spite of the impressive development of wind power, Spain is now 3 times more dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation than a decade ago

Regardless of the growing share of renewable energy sources, we burn up more and more fossil fuels every year. This is the case in the US, in Europe and on a global scale, but to make my point I will start by analysing the situation in Spain and in the Netherlands, because both countries are regarded to be an example for their commitment to renewable energy.

Moreover, the Netherlands have a negligible share of nuclear energy and hydropower (green according to some, not green according to others), while in Spain these energy sources have remained unchanged over the last decade, which makes the calculations more clear.

Share of renewables

Last week, Spain made headlines around the world with the news that it generated over 53 percent of its electricity by wind power alone, be it during an extremely windy night and only for some hours. There is no denying that the development of wind power in Spain is impressive. Electricity generated by wind power grew with 8,000 percent between 1996 and 2007, from 338 gigawatt-hours (GWh) in 1996 to 27,509 GWh in 2007.

With it, the share of wind power in electricity production grew from 0.2 to 9 percent (source). In the Netherlands, the amount of “green” electricity increased by 400 percent between 1998 and 2008, from 2,300 GWh to 9,500 GWh. With it, the share of renewable energy (mostly biomass and wind) in electricity production grew from 2.5 percent to 9 percent (source).

This sounds great, especially when you compare it to the situation in the United States, where the share of renewable energy in electricity production (excluding hydropower*) rose from 1.4 percent to 2.3 percent during the same period (1998-2008, source). Or, on a global scale, where the share of renewables rose from 1.12 percent in 1990 to 2.3 percent in 2006. Yet, just like the Americans and the rest of the world, the Spanish and the Dutch are now more dependent on fossil fuels than a decade ago, not less.

Total electricity production

The reason is, of course, that the total electricity production in both countries kept rising. In Spain, it went up from 174,246 GWh in 1996 to 303,293 GWh in 2007 (a rise of almost 80 percent in 11 years). The share of fossil fuels in electricity generation grew from 38 percent in 1996 to 59 percent in 2007, while the absolute amount of fossil fuels used for electricity generation grew from 67,651 GWh to 179,737 GWh (source).

So, from 1996 to 2007 the amount of wind powered electricity in Spain grew with 27,171 GWh (around 30,000 GWh if you include the use of solar and biomass), and the amount of fossil fuel powered electricity grew with 112,086 GWh. Now please explain to me, what is so “green” and exciting about this trend?

The Spanish would have obtained the same results if they would not have built one wind turbine, but had chosen to limit the rise of energy consumption to 85 TWh instead of the recorded 112 TWh

You could argue that Spain went through an economic boom during the last decade, and that it was merely catching up with the rest of Europe. This is why it is interesting to look at the Netherlands, too, a mature economy.

Dutch electricity production rose less spectacularly, from 92,000 GWh in 1998 to 105,000 GWh in 2008 (a rise of 14 percent in 10 years). The share of fossil fuels in electricity production in the Netherlands even dropped from 90 to 85 percent, but here also the absolute amount of fossil fuel generated electricity grew from 83,000 GWh in 1998 to almost 90,000 GWh in 2008 (source).

Thus, from 1998 to 2008 the amount of “green” electricity in the Netherlands grew with 7,200 GWh, while the amount of “non-green” electricity grew with 7,000 GWh. So today, the Dutch are more dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation than they were in 1998.

Avoided emissions

Of course, things could have been even worse: that is why policymakers and statisticians prefer to talk about “avoided use of fossil energy” and “avoided CO2-emissions”. The reasoning goes as follows: if we would not have built those wind turbines and solar panels, then we would have burnt up even more fossil fuels. But, who are we fooling here?

The Spanish would have “avoided” the same amount of emissions and fossil energy if they would have built not one wind turbine between 1996 and 2007, but had chosen to limit the rise of energy consumption to 84,915 GWh, instead of the recorded 112,086 GWh.

If they would have done that, they would have been just as dependent on fossil fuels as they are today, and they would have emitted the same amount of greenhouse gases as they do today - all this without those 27,171 GWh of wind powered electricity. They would not have made headlines with it, though. Nobody would have noticed.

The same goes for the Dutch: they would have “avoided” the same amount of emissions and fossil energy if they would have limited the rise of energy consumption to 7,000 GWh, instead of the recorded 14,000 GWh.

Embodied energy

In fact, this low-tech scenario would have been a more ecological and energy-efficient choice, because both countries would have saved the energy required to produce those renewable energy plants and sources - solar panels, wind turbines and wood pellets. Green electricity is not generated by a “clean” energy source, but by a “cleaner” energy source.

Solar panels, wind turbines and wood pellets do not use gas or coal during their operation, but they do require energy for their production (and since they are mostly produced far away from the place where they are used these figures do not show up in national statistics of energy consumption).

The embodied energy of wind turbines and solar panels is not a problem if they replace non-renewable energy plants. However, this is not the case. We are piling up energy sources.

Mind you: the embodied energy of wind turbines (and solar panels) is not a problem if they replace non-renewable energy plants, because in that case we do save energy and thus make progress. But, this is not the case, so the embodied energy of this added electricity generation capacity is definitely extra energy use.

We do too much

This does not mean that coal plants are preferable to wind turbines and solar panels. In fact, if the Dutch had built the (7,200 GWh) renewable energy plants and not built the (7,000 GWh) non-renewable energy plants, the result would have been real progress. Likewise, if they would have frozen energy consumption at the 1998 level and built nothing - renewable nor non-renewable energy plants - again there would have been substantial progress. They would be less dependent on fossil fuels and they would produce less CO2 and air pollution.

The problem is that they did not do any of this. Or, better said, they did everything at the same time; constructing more renewable energy plants, constructing more non-renewable energy plants, and consuming more energy.

Piling up energy sources

Again, this trend is not limited to Spain and to the Netherlands (see these figures), and what is happening is not a new phenomenon either. What we are doing for more than 100 years now, is piling up energy sources. Today (in the Netherlands, Spain, the US and worldwide) the absolute amount of coal consumed for electricity production is much larger than one century ago, when there was no talk of gas, oil and nuclear. The dirty coal of the beginning of the industrial revolution was not replaced by cleaner gas plants. The gas plants joined the coal plants.

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Image: US energy use by source, 1845-2001.

Next, nuclear plants did not replace the existing coal and gas plants, they joined them. Today, with renewable energy, the same thing is happening. They address an energy demand that did not exist before. We use renewable energy sources to power an ever growing plethora of energy-sucking gadgets - and this will not get us anywhere.

Up until now, newer and cleaner energy sources have always been used to enlarge energy production, not to make it “greener” (see for instance the image on the left, depicting US energy consumption from 1845 to 2001, source).

The so-called greening of our electricity production, which generates so much talk, is still 100 percent wishful thinking. We are not one step further than 5, 10, 20 or even 100 years ago. On the contrary, things get worse every day.

Relative versus absolute figures

Much more important than what we do, is what we don’t do. The key to progress is scaling down non-renewable energy production, or at least keeping it at the same level. Instead of aiming for the development of more renewable energy, policymakers should do anything in their power to make sure that not one more kilowatt of non-renewable energy is added.

All policy objectives are expressed in relative terms - a fruitless approach as long as total energy consumption is on the rise.

Problem is that all policy objectives are expressed in relative terms (as a percentage of total electricity production) and never as absolute figures. The European Union aims to generate 20 percent of total electricity production by wind energy and 15 percent by solar energy in 2020 (source).

The US aims to generate 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025 (source). None of their reports describe any goal in absolute figures. This is a fruitless approach as long as total electricity consumption is on the rise.

United States

For instance, imagine that the US indeed realises the very ambitious goal of generating 25 percent of their electricity consumption by renewables, and let’s assume it takes them 5 years longer as planned. According to the projections of the IEA, US electricity demand will grow by 26 percent (16 to 36 percent) from 2007 to 2030. This means that the 3,800,000 GWh of today will be 4,788,000 GWh by 2030. When everything goes to plan, about 1,244,880 GWh of that will then be renewable (that is 3 times the worldwide renewable electricity capacity today).

But, this is scarcely more than the 988,000 GWh of electricity demand that will be added during that period. So even if this ambitious goal would be realised, the US would still be as dependent on fossil fuels as it is today. Limiting electricity demand to current levels and not building any renewable electricity generating capacity would yield the same result. Limiting electricity demand to current levels and greening 25 percent of the existing electricity production would bring real progress.

Worldwide

The rise of renewable energy is of secondary importance. What matters is that the absolute amount of burned up fossil fuels lowers. Only then would we become less dependent on non-renewable energy sources and on foreign energy suppliers, and only then would we lower CO2-emissions.

On a global scale, the futility of the present approach is even more obvious. The total amount of renewable electricity worldwide (excluding hydro*) rose from 31,000 GWh in 1980 to 414,000 GWh in 2006 - a rise of 1,300 percent or an absolute increase of 383,000 gigawatt-hours.

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Image: the evolution of worldwide energy use. Source: Der Spiegel.

Yet, the amount of electricity generated by coal and gas doubled in that same period, which comes down to an absolute increase of 6,355,900 GWh. So, we added around 20 times more non-renewable sources than renewable sources. Total global electricity production rose from 8,027,000 Gwh to 18,008,000 Gwh, a rise of 250 percent. If we look at total energy production instead of just electricity production, the preponderance of fossil fuels is even larger (see the image above, courtesy of Der Spiegel).

Much more important than what we do, is what we don’t do.

This trend does not seem to come to an end soon. Last week, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its “World Energy Outlook 2009“, which looks forward to 2030. According to the organisation, energy consumption will rise by 40 percent between now and 2030. This will happen in spite of the fact that global energy consumption decreased in 2009 owing to the economic crisis. The IEA expects electricity consumption to rise with another 76 percent in 2030, which equals a required capacity of 4,800 gigawatts - almost 5 times the present capacity in the United States.

Even if we succeed in building 4,800 gigawatts of renewable energy in the coming 20 years (something which is rather unrealistic), we would still not be one step further than we are today. What we have to deal with is that which is almost regarded as an unshakable natural law - the non-stop growth of energy use.

How to solve the energy crisis

Don’t get me wrong: all efforts to build and develop renewable energy and energy efficient technology are useful and very necessary. My point is that, by themselves, they will not yield any results. To make them work, we need to put an absolute limit to energy use.

Imagine that the European Union or the US would decide that in 2020 we can only use as much energy (or electricity) as we do today. Interestingly, all other efforts suddenly make sense. If the share of renewable energy would rise, then the share of non-renewable energy would automatically fall. Energy efficient technology would be automatically transformed in energy savings, and not in extra applications or performance, as it happens now (the energy efficiency paradox).

In this scenario, with every small step forward in renewable energy production and energy efficient technology, we would become less and less dependent on fossil fuels, and we would emit less and less greenhouse gases. Moreover, it is hard to call this measure drastic or radical: if we can manage today with 18,008,000 Gwh, why not in 2030?

What more energy-sucking gadgets do we need? By the way, we can keep developing new products and services as we please, we will only have to make sure that these are energy efficient. Considering the amount of energy that is now wasted by most products and services, there is lots of room for innovation, improvement, and thus economic growth.

If we put an absolute limit to energy use, all other efforts (renewable energy sources, energy-efficient technology) suddenly make sense

Right now we try to match our energy production to an ever increasing demand. But, we could also try to match our demand to a fixed supply. Considering the circumstances, this would be a much more realistic and intelligent strategy. An even better strategy is the “oil depletion protocol“, an idea of author Richard Heinberg.

He proposes an international agreement to lower oil production and consumption each year with 2.6 percent. We can wait until the geological, economical or geopolitical reality lowers the availability of fossil fuels, but if we anticipate that reality now then we definitely have more of a chance to make a successful transition to a durable, less energy-intensive society.

Not China's fault

Last, but not least, the IEA notes that the rise of energy use is largely on account of non-western countries, with China ahead. But, this does not clear us at all. As the IEA calculated in a former report, almost 30 percent of energy use in China comes from the production of export goods - from bicycles over jeans to solar panels.

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Image: It’s all about fossil fuels.

Western countries succeed in limiting the rise of their energy consumption because they have outsourced ever more energy use. Moreover, the IEA states in its last report, non-OECD countries are, in spite of their high share in current energy use, only responsible for 42 percent of the CO2-emissions since 1890 - with a much bigger population. This means that - in a fair world - we would have to reduce our energy use much more than them.

Kris De Decker (edited by Vincent Grosjean).

Energy statistics: World / US / Europe / The Netherlands Spain

Comments

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Bjorn

Don’t you know that all that matters is growth?

All kidding aside, thanks for this very clear and succinctly put argument.

Loredowsky

The EU is also committed to reducing its overall emissions to at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 (http://ec.europa.eu/environment/climat/climate_action.htm) This implies a reduction in its dependency on fossils fuels, doesn’t it?

Wind4me

so U are going to tell China and India to ””JUST STOP GROWING”“” and just stop reproducing????? Sometimes, some arguments like yours are just naive………we as a society are NOT able to tell countries like Spain and India and China to just “”STOP CONSUMING”“!

Wind is the answer and Wind is NOW……..tell America to turn off their SUV’s and see how far that takes ya and works out for ya!

Loredowsky

Dear Wind4me, please just read the article again. There’s no point in keep on building new windfarms as long as fossil fuels dependency keep on increasing. Wind by itself won’t solve the problem. In the other hand, accepting the current economical system as the one and only viable system and consumption without limits as the unique solution to make things work is really really naive.

Kris De Decker

@ Loredowsky (#2): Yes, the EU commitment implies a reduction in its dependency on fossil fuels, and as far as I know this is unique. But I wonder how effective this is. By focusing on CO2-emissions instead of energy consumption, it seems to me that there are ways to get your reduction but still use more energy. For instance, by trading CO2. Or, by not including things like shipping or air traffic. There is also CO2 not originating from energy sources, but from forest fires, for instance. It also seems to me that energy consumption is easier to measure than CO2 emissions.

jeremy

Yes, and if we had capped our global energy usage in the early 70’s, roughly half a billion people in India and China would still be living in abject poverty. The growth in energy usage is a corollary to growth in prosperity. Wouldn’t we be far better off continuing to grow more prosperous and discover ever more efficient ways of producing energy as we need it? History shows that we will innovate at a pace that exceeds our demands, despite every Malthusian prediction.

jeremy

Also, it is worth noting that the problem with wind power in countries such as Spain is not just that their energy demand continued to rise, but that wind power is erratic - meaning that coal plants can not be fully shut down. As coal plants require several days to go from “off” to full power, they must be kept partially running even at peak wind production, which means that although they can claim to produce a set amount of electricity from wind, they have not replaced that energy with the equivalent downtime to a coal plant. That is an inherent defect in wind as a “clean” energy source that all major adoption countries such as Spain and Germany have discovered. Germany’s largest provider determined that for every 48,000MW hours of wind power generated you have only replaced 2,000MW of coal energy; very cost inefficient and nearly as good as useless if your goal is to reduce carbon footprint.

Sandra Gibson

You’ve got an interesting debate going here but there are more than three billion people - half of the world’s population - who rely on traditional biomass such as wood, crop residues, poor grade wood and dung to meet their energy needs and have no access to electricity.

For them renewable energy is a way out of poverty - giving them access to better health, better education and ways of making a living. Practical Action works with communities to provide small scale renewable projects which will help meet their energy needs, especially in rural locations where grid systems often don’t get to.

Having renewable energy options means they can ‘leapfrog’ old technologies in favour of low carbon energy systems.

I can see your point of view about limiting our use of electricity and cutting back on our consumerist lifestyle in Western countries, but don’t forget the huge impact energy can have on people’s livelihoods in developing countries.

ironworker

The energy efficiency paradox was discovered by Jevons (Jevons Paradox); it is a nuanced theory, that has been shown true since he developed it in the 19th century. It works both at the micro- and macro-economic level (I’m not an economist, so don’t query me deeply about what those terms mean). At the macro level, technological efficiency reduces the cost in producing a commodity—say, light—also known as increasing productivity. Increasing productivity lowers the cost of production, resulting in lower prices for that commodity.

Result: more money in the economy to spend on other things, all of which also require energy to produce. Thus overall energy consumption in the economy increases, despite increased energy efficiency. Even if I don’t use more light in my house despite swapping Edisons for LEDs, I’ll still buy more stuff.

Jevons was intrigued by the fact that widespread use of the Watt-designed steam engine resulted in greatly increased coal use in Britain… Then he found out why. Unless the energy source is (God help me) taxed to compensate, use will increase. Thus carbon tax, cap and trade, and all the rest. If we want off the treadmill, Jevons and 150 years of history show that is the only answer.

inconvenienttruths

The eminent historian and critical thinker Walter Russell Mead recently wrote an aptly titled article “Global Warming Is Dead.” And guess what, it is. The underlying data sets behind the claim of catastrophic AGW has been shown to have been altered or non-existent. Thus the fundamental hypothesis has been falsified. Sorry, game over.

Of course, the post-modern world could try to move to alternative energy sources such as wind and solar just because it feels right. But any reputable engineer will tell you these sources are irredeemably unscalable in quantities demanded to meet today’s energy demand at today’s standard of living.

Of course, if the decision makers insist we can move back to a really low-tech, Malthusian world of the pre-1800s. Unfortunately the process, as well as the destination, for the average person was described well by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 as “nasty, brutish and short.” But, at least it’s “off the treadmill.” And, hey, it’s all about Gaia, not people and raising them out of poverty.

No, the reason to be studying and applying the low-tech solutions to meeting the basic needs of you and your family have nothing seriously to do with “environmentalism.” The value of the information here is to prepare for the inevitable collapse of the spend-thrift, debt riddled Regulatory & Welfare State model of government. The unfunded liabilities in the U.S. today have reached $108 trillion. That is more than 7 times the annual GDP of the entire U.S. economy.

If may borrow one of environmentalism’s favorite, but misused, terms, that, my friends, is unsustainable. With the information and advice, whether the fall is soft - unlikely with the incompetent political leadership we now have - or hard, families and small communities may be insulated from the worst of the impact by applying low tech solutions. Some useful advice and guidance may be found here.

Good luck, all.

NoProblemAtAll

In my humble opinion there might be no energy problem at all. thermal power is able to create as much energy as we want at a affordable price. we do have enough deserts with lot of sun.

Kris De Decker

Sandra (#8): I appreciate the work of Practical Action, and I have written about it before:

http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2009/10/how-to-make-everything-yourself-online-lowtech-resources.html

The strategy outlined in the article above is of course aimed at western countries with high energy consumption, not developing countries. Our energy consumption has to go down, theirs can go up (though not up to our level, of course).

Bilsko

Kris You demonstrate a pretty good grasp of one of the often ignored questions in the energy world. Reducing demand is, of course, the cheapest way to adress the problem - at least in the developed world. The idea of the ‘negawatt’ has been around for a while - Amory Lovins gets credit for coining the term. Both conservation measures and increased efficiency on the consumption side displace the generation on the supply side. Look to California as a good example of long-term efficiency measures (see the graph on the bottom of p 3 of this report: http://goo.gl/krcjr )that have kept consumption largely flat even with rapid population and GDP growth over the past few decades.

Where the analysis could use more refinement - and where I think you’ll end up with a more accurate picture of the generation landscape - is on the issue of dispatch and marginal generation. Saying that the PV panels or wind turbines simply replace output from fossil fuel plants is not accurate enough. For one thing, not all fossil fuel generation is equal: natural gas plants (used for load-following and peaking applications) are generally much cleaner than coal plants (which, along with nuclear plants, are the baseload workhorses of many electric grids). Onshore wind typically blows most favorably for power generation at night, while PV panels are best suited for peak shaving applications - the brightest sunshine is coincident with peak loads. So each of these generation sources replaces a different type of fossil fuel.

So its probably worth exploring the dispatch question and getting a more accurate picture of what exactly the wind and PV are replacing. But none of this detracts from your broader point about conservation and efficiency being the easier/cheaper/quicker paths to a better energy future. And its worth adding that energy conservation and efficiency is not inconsistent with development goals.

Dean Camp

SES: We have two factors in an equation that we as a people can’t seem to balance. Technology and population. Very few realize that our current conditions are different from only twenty years ago. Moderation is the key to our survival as a planet. We have to start with ourselves and help to educate those who are willing to change.

Kris De Decker

A peer-reviewed paper comes to similar conclusions as this article:

http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2012/03/study-alternative-energy-has-barely-displaced-fossil-fuels.ars

Thanks to Christof Kraus

Name Withheld

POPULATION GROWTH is causing the rise in energy demand, not shopping for new iPhones.

POPULATION GROWTH is what you overlooked.

Stop the POPULATION GROWTH and you can begin to think about limiting carbon emissions.

YourNameIsRequired

People in the Third world will stop having so many kids the day Americans stop driving gas guzzlers.

Deal?

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