Hidden Costs Constrain the Benefits of Transitioning to Renewable Energy

It seems that little effort to understand fully the costs and benefits of the transition from fossil fuel to PV energy production has accompanied the rush to install utility scale solar and wind farms. However, it is very important to examine the environmental costs of achieving the environmental benefits of low carbon emissions energy production, especially at industrial scale. Moreover, that transition must involve so far largely ignored major societal transformations if humanity is actually to achieve the goals of zero carbon emissions, ecological restoration, and climate stabilization.

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Paris Agreement Celebration

Given the accelerating trajectory of ecosystems collapse and climate destabilization well underway, achieving those goals is simply imperative. Yet, despite the importance of the technical, economic, and social complexities inherent in such a comprehensive transition to “sustainability,” utilities, governments, and corporations pursue the quest mostly in a business-as-usual format.The COP-21 Paris Climate Agreements, so difficult to implement, nevertheless fall short of needed international action.

Even before reading Ozzie Zehner’s book, Green Illusions, I worried about the carbon costs of the production of renewables. Zehner raised many questions but did not provide the kind of data-driven findings we need to optimize renewables deployment, though he rightly asserted the primacy of the problem of overconsumption.

Optimization Imperative

Importantly, the choices are difficult and the optimal solutions very hard to achieve.  In several ways, international trade is an important culprit. Not only does it add immensely to carbon costs; it also amplifies the waste resulting from not keeping manufacturing domestic in all PV markets. Corporate financial optimization conflicts with ecological and climate imperatives.

Clearly, we need an international agreement that works in the exact opposite direction from the extant NAFTA or delayed TTP regimes. No approximation of net-zero emissions will be possible in the near future without severely curtailing international trade and minimizing the distance between materials extraction, and the manufacture, installation and operation of near carbon-neutral energy systems. The same goes for all industrial production.

COP-21-Paris-Climate-Conference-Summit co2 chart

Only Deep Industrial Contraction can Achieve Adequate Reduction in Carbon Emissions.

We must accelerate the transition, but we must do so consistent with the goal of minimizing net carbon emissions in the process as well as in the outcome.  In that context, it is interesting to note that so little mention is made of energy conservation in the literature of emissions reduction and “sustainability” — except indirectly, in terms of improving production efficiency. The immensity of the task escapes most analysts.

DeGrowth and Consumption

One of Zehner’s core arguments is that the renewable energy transition not only consumes a lot of fossil-fueled energy production and depletes increasingly scarce mineral resources. It also encourages more energy consumption and waste.  It is not surprising to find the old pattern of “unanticipated consequences of social action” in this context.

The core consequence in this case is that the goal of zero carbon emissions to stabilize ecosystems and climate must entail significant contraction of industrial economies themselves – “degrowth.” Most government officials and policy wonks do not anticipate that deeply transformative consequence. It contravenes their deeply held beliefs in economic growth as the primary societal goal.

Two Kinds of “Grass Roots”

Most analysts and even political leaders agree on the need for large-scale highly rational international agreements to optimize the transition to a low-carbon renewable-energy-based economy. Yet little prospect for such large-scale political solutions is in sight. At one level, local community efforts to fight global warming are essential. However, some sort of “grass-roots” effort also must arise within the PV and wind industries, in order to optimize the extraction-production-distribution-installation matrix, despite the difficulty. Maybe the industry could form cooperatives to trade or share elements of the cycle in order to minimize distance between these elements in order to optimize carbon-reduction benefits. At this point, micro-economic incentives are lacking.

As Kris De Decker documented as early as 2015, based on diverse research findings, net-positive life-cycle carbon-reduction benefits from renewables are far from automatic. They only occur with localized optimization of supply chains. An important step is to bring awareness to the players — and to environmentalists too. However, some form of leverage on the industry is also needed, or it’s not likely to happen. Time is short, and the cost of time in this instance is very high.

Conserving Energy: The Overlooked Key to Mitigating Climate Disruption

Increasing production of renewable energy at competitive cost is the core strategy for environmentalists whose goal is to reduce carbon emissions and minimize the damage caused by the climate effects of global warming. The goal is to replace fossil fuel energy production with clean renewable energy production. It is widely known that per capita energy use has increased significantly in recent years. But the idea of limiting or reducing total energy use is rarely a topic of discussion among either environmentalists or politicians. Conserving energy is just not that exciting and does not provide a clear target for the investment of capital. Nobody wants to tell the public that its energy consumption is excessive; it’s easier to focus on replacing fossil fuel with ‘renewables.’

The Production Transition

Most of the debate around the growing use of energy has to do with its production. In New Mexico, for example, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) is a dominant investor-owned utility company. PNM plans to replace its old San Juan coal-fired plant with other coal-sourced and nuclear-sourced energy production. New Energy Economy is a clean energy advocacy group trying to get the state’s Public Regulatory Commission (PRC) to reject the plan and require more investment in solar and wind energy production. Critics complain that the plan will lock New Mexico ‘rate payers’ into costly liability for (1) future damage to the environment and public health caused by continued mining and burning of coal in the Four Corners region, and (2) nuclear power plant risks and huge future decommissioning costs. And the costs of producing electricity will be greater as well. PNM is one of the most intransigent utilities in the nation, seemingly dragging its feet in every way possible to block solar and wind energy production. PNM’s ownership of and partnering with other investor-owned utilities in coal, natural gas, and nuclear facilities most likely are drivers of its plans.

California has structured its relations with utilities differently. Incentives are in place that allow utilities to make more money if energy is conserved. Significant investments are being made in very large solar farms in the high desert to reduce dependence on burning fossil fuel. In contrast, despite boasting some 300 days of annual sunshine and a lot of wind, the state of New Mexico has taken little advantage of alternative forms of energy production. Yet, whatever level of effort made at reducing carbon emissions by converting from fossil fuels to alternative or renewable forms of energy production, the problem is almost universally seen as only an economic conversion problem. That is, if we just get off using fossil fuels and convert to renewable sources of energy, carbon emissions will go down and climate catastrophe will be averted. But that is not quite true.

How much is the addition of solar and wind powered energy production helping us reduce carbon emissions? Well, not so much. In the U.S., emissions have continued to increase. Every discussion of how to mitigate climate change is framed in a context of assuring continued economic growth. In that context, solar and wind add to the total energy production and may even encourage more consumption and waste.

Houston, we have a contradiction!  First, the entire economic system is structured to encourage over-consumption. The culture focuses almost entirely on economic materialism. Second, the consumer culture is now infused with the idea that everything must be upgraded at shorter and shorter intervals. Current product replacement regimes far surpass the old slower paced “planned obsolescence” product design criteria. The “greening” of marketing and advertising do not reflect production and consumption practices that would result in any energy conservation. The entire environmental movement, it seems, has been captured and marketed as another means to achieve the economic growth encouraged by the corporate state.

Another even more disturbing problem has been brought to light but has not been widely discussed among solar or wind power ‘productivists.’* The new high technologies for renewable energy production not only consume considerable quantities of fossil-fuel sourced energy in their manufacture and installation. They also deploy significant amounts of the rare earth, heavy metals, and other exotic and toxic materials. These are the same materials used in the production of all the microelectronics in computers, smart phones, and the endless array of ‘smart devices’ that comprise the burgeoning “Internet of everything.” The manufacture of such devices consumes vast quantities of water, polluting it in the process, in addition to materials that are increasingly in short supply and often very toxic. Hardware upgrades constitute a growing problem of waste and pollution rarely talked about or considered in assessing the value of ‘renewable’ sources of energy.

Social Transformation, Not Production Transition

When the energy consumed in producing renewable energy production systems is combined with looming shortages of materials and increasing waste and pollution, it becomes clear that transitioning from fossil-fuel energy to ‘renewables’ will fall far short of achieving the reduction in carbon emissions necessary to avoid climate chaos over the next few decades.

Other strategies, often simpler and with far less environmental impact, are available, but they will require that we radically reorganize our economy, social policies, and the way we live. Devising ways to reduce energy use and waste will require a lot of creativity and work; this will generate jobs that use relatively little energy while directly reducing the excessive energy use and waste that cause carbon emissions. Investment in such jobs will be in direct conflict with the capital investment regime under which we now live.
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* Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. Zehner’s insightful and comprehensive study of the intersection of environmentalism and the growth economy goes beyond merely showing how difficult the situation is; he makes valuable suggestions for realistic policy changes that could be far more effective by reducing energy consumption, than the ‘whiz-bang’ high-technology based ‘productivist’ approaches to reestablishing a viable relationship between humanity and our biosphere.