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.

The Greatest Challenge Ever to Human Ingenuity

We usually think of innovation as creating new technologies to solve problems or improve some industrial process, or invent new products. Throughout the Industrial Age, economic growth and productivity have resulted from innovations in the production of goods and services. The integration of new technologies with labor and new energy sources, first coal, then oil, and later nuclear power, resulted in rapid development. Cheap energy has been so plentiful in the industrial nations for most of that time that we have been comfortably complacent, assuming its permanence.

But now, the fossil-fuel driven growth economy has just about run its course. Resource depletion, overpopulation, over-consumption, financial crises, and peak everything leave little room for the continued economic expansionism on which social stability has been based for over 200 years. On top of that, the ultimate planetary limits imposed by accelerating climate disruption call upon humanity to innovate in heretofore unimagined ways.

One of the standard rationales used by business elites to argue for special tax breaks and subsidies is that they are needed to stimulate innovation. Even the Banksters throw up the idea that “financial innovation” will stimulate investment and job growth, to justify avoiding public regulation. They manipulate markets and sell fraudulent derivatives to pension funds and municipalities. Their overextended speculations caused the world banking crisis of 2008-9, from which we still suffer. It will happen again without real controls in place. That kind of innovation we can do without. Yet Attorney General Erik Holder cowers before the power of Jamie Diamond, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, one of the biggest offenders and one of Wall Street’s most powerful firms. Crime without punishment.  These are artifacts of a corrupt and dying system.

Of course, looking at the actual cases of innovation and ingenuity in the real world of business, technology, or social sectors, which lead to actual benefits to society, we see a very different picture. Innovations come from the creativity of persons in situations. In contrast, financial manipulators operate in an abstract electronic environment. Some people are quite ingenious in creating new ways to acquire money. But money does not cause real-world innovation. Today, the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced calls for ingenuity and innovation of a completely different kind at a much grander scale than even the financial elite can imagine.

The Challenge
This time, a huge dose of human ingenuity is required by the rapid emergence of extreme circumstances. Yet, the elements of this crisis of humanity are barely recognized and are mostly seen as a vague future threat. Major innovations at scale are needed because of the severity and urgency of the need for massive collective action to abandon fossil-fuel and create an unprecedented societal transformation to reset our relation to the earth systems on which we depend for life.

Awareness is a very big challenge. We do, after all, live in a bubble, experientially quite isolated from the natural environment. Consider the overwhelming inundation of our senses by the images and symbols of consumer culture – from inside the bubble. Being “connected” has become both an essential resource and a source of endless thought-numbing consumerist propaganda. The total effect of nearly universal engagement with mass media is to shape much of the consciousness and beliefs of most people most of the time. That consciousness is closely tied to the fossil-fueled growth economy and its needs.

The one critical benefit of social media is what may remain of “net neutrality.” The Internet has been a major resource for the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring movement, and the Peoples Climate Marches. These all indicate a broad awareness that something is very wrong. Naturally, social media venues are targets for corporate control, even though the Internet was created by government and universities funded by the taxpayers for public purposes. But social communication will be critical resource in shaping the new transformations required for human survival as environmental and economic disturbances accelerate in response to the climate disruptions that are already inevitable. Only if we are able to develop rapid methods for changing the relationship of human economies to energy systems will the great new challenge be met.

Ingenious Innovation
The 1% of the “1%” has a lock on the economic and political institutions. That is clear, and it is not about to change on its own. But as has been demonstrated in various historical examples, major social change can occur when large numbers of people recognize the problem and stand together in opposition to dictatorial regimes holding all the military power. We are not used to calling our government “dictatorial,” although various conspiracy theories seem to be on the rise. It is more accurate to view the new situation as “inverted totalitarianism,” as Sheldon Wolin describes it. A shell or façade of democracy is operated by the “deep state” (as former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren calls it) a plutocratic corporate-government institutional complex that works in its own interests, not the public interest.

In any case, the comprehensive transformation of society necessary to respond adequately to the crisis of rapidly destabilizing earth systems will not come from that entrenched corporate-state. Therefore it must arise from below. Many small local efforts are underway, from efforts to establish municipal solar utilities to public banking initiatives, but so much more is needed. We do have some examples of social transformation, but, as the title of Naomi Kline’s new book puts it so well, This Changes Everything.

Every situation is different – especially this one. Today contrasts with the familiar examples of the Collapse of small societies detailed by Jared Diamond. The problem of likely societal collapse due to environmental destruction at present is planetary. System failures caused by human actions can only be fixed by human action. Looming earth-system failures can only be fixed by community actions all over the globe involving innovative ways to quickly withdraw from the fossil-fuel energy systems and create ingenious non-destructive ways of life. That may be the greatest challenge to human ingenuity ever.