Thursday, May 19, 2016

A 100% renewable world is possible? A poll among experts

Image source

I am reporting here the results of a small survey that I carried out last week among the members of a discussion forum; mainly experts in renewable energy (*). It was a very informal poll; not meant to have statistical value. But some 70 people responded out of a total of 167 members; so I think these results have a certain value in telling us how the experts feel in this field. And I was surprised by the remarkable optimism that resulted from the poll.

This is what I asked the members of the list (note: this poll is now on line at the Doomstead Diner)

The question is about  the possibility of a society not too different from ours (**) but 100% based on renewable energy sources, and on the possibility of obtaining it before it is too late to avoid the climate disaster. This said, what statement best describes your position?

1.  It is impossible for technical reasons. (Renewables have too low EROEIs, need too large amounts of natural resources, we'll run out of fossil fuels first, climate change will destroy us first, etc.)

2. It is technically possible but so expensive to be unthinkable.

3. It is technically possible and not so expensive to be beyond our means. However, it is still expensive enough that most likely people will not want to pay the costs of the transition before it will be too late to achieve it, unless we move to a global emergency status.

4. It is technically possible and inexpensive enough that it can be done smoothly, by means of targeted government intervention, such as a carbon tax.

5. It is technically possible and technological progress will soon make it so inexpensive that normal market mechanisms will bring us there nearly effortlessly.

As I said, it was a very informal poll and these questions could have been phrased differently, and probably in a better way. And, indeed, many people thought that their position was best described by something intermediate, some saying, for instance, "I am between 4 and 5". Because of this, it was rather difficult to make a precise counting of the results. But the trend was clear anyway.

Out of some 70 answers, the overwhelming majority was for option 4, that is, the transition is not only technologically possible, but within reach at a reasonable cost and fast enough to avoid major damage from climate change. The second best choice was option 3 (the transition is possible but very expensive). Only a few respondents say that the transition is technologically impossible without truly radical changes of society. Some opted for option 5, even suggesting an "option 6", something like "it will be faster than anyone expects".

I must confess that I was a little surprised by this diffuse optimism, being myself set on option 3. In part, it is because I tend to frequent "doomer" groups, but also on the basis of the quantitative calculations that I performed with some colleagues. But I think that these results are indicative of a trend that's developing among energy experts. It is an attitude that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but the experts are clearly perceiving the rapid strides forward of renewable technologies and reacting accordingly. They feel that there is a concrete chance to be able to create a cleaner world fast enough to avoid the worst.

I understand that this is the opinion of just a tiny group of experts, I understand that experts may well be wrong, I understand that there exist such things as the "bandwagon effect" and the "confirmation bias." I know all this. Yet, I believe that, in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves, we can't go anywhere if we keep telling people that we are doomed, no matter what we do. What we need in order to keep going and fight the climate crisis is a healthy dose of hope and of optimism. And these results show that there is hope, that there is reason for optimism. Whether the transition will turn out to be very difficult, or not so difficult, it seems to be within reach if we really want it.

(*) Note: the forum mentioned in this post is a private discussion group meant to be a tool for professionals in renewable energy. It is not a place to discuss whether renewable energy is a good thing or not, nor to discuss such thing as the incoming near term extinction of humankind and the like. Rather, the idea of the forum is to discuss how to make the renewable energy transition happen as fast as possible; hopefully fast enough to avoid a climate disaster. If you are interested in joining this forum, please write me privately at ugo.bardi(zingything) telling me in a few lines who you are and why you would like to join. It is not necessary that you are a researcher or a professional. People of good will who think they have something to contribute to the discussion are welcome.

(**) The concept of a society "not too different from ours" is left purposefully vague, because it is, obviously subjected to many different interpretations.Personally, I would tend to define it in terms of what such a society would NOT be. A non-exhaustive list could be, in no particular order,

  • Not a Mayan style theocracy, complete with human sacrifices
  • Not a military dictatorship, Roman style, complete with a semi-divine imperial ruler
  • Not a proletarian paradise, complete with a secret police sending dissenters to very cold places
  • Not a hunting and gathering society, complete with hunting rituals and initiation rites
  • Not a society where you are hanged upside down if you tell a joke about the dear leader
  • Not a society where, if you can't afford health care, you are left to die in the street
  • Not a society where you are worried every day about whether you and your children will have something to eat
  • Not a society where slavery is legal and the obvious way things ought to be
  • Not a society where women are supposed to be the property of men
  • Not a society where most people spend most of their life tilling the fields
  • Not a society where you are burned at the stake if you belong to a different sect than the dominant one

Many other things are, I think, negotiable, such as having vacations in Hawai'i, owning an SUV, watering the lawn in summer, and more.


  1. What does "society not too different from ours" mean?

    Because I see three crucial components to that definition -- socioeconomic structure, per capita lifestyle and overall size.

    And the question can only make sense once we have clarified what exactly both of those look like.

    I don't see how any sane person could answer with anything els but "option 1" if it was the same society as today. The current socioeconomic structure depends on perpetual growth, so that alone makes it impossible to sustain. But even if it was different, I have hard time seeing how "renewables" could be sustainable for 7 billion people living modern lifestyles.

    If we radically change the socioeconomic structure and downsize by an order of magnitude while preserving the lifestyle, then we might enter the territory of options 3 and 4.

    1. Correct question. I added some notes at the end of the post

  2. I can only assume that you jest at the list of negatives at the end of your article:

    they are precisely the sort of unpleasantness that will define our future; right now they are held at bay because our form of democracy allows our society to exist as it currently is.

    look at those societies where democracy doesn't exist and most of that list becomes a terrifying reality.

    We have enjoyed a form of democracy for only 200 years, exactly coinciding with the industrial revolution and consumption of hydrocarbon fuels. That fuel consumption gave us "plenty" of everything, in stark contrast to previous eras when for most people survival was a day to day reality.
    Fuel consumption held our democracy together. Having plenty removed our need to fight over resources (with a few exceptions here and there)

    When those fuels have gone, democracy will vanish, as various factions compete for what remains of our infrastructure. There will not be a gentle "transitional" downsizing, because history shows, without exception. that humankind does not alter course (individually or collectively) without some kind of unpleasant force, administered by an equally unpleasant individual.
    I've tried to define the reality of downsizing to a "different" form of society:

    It's not going to be something we consciously choose to do.
    People prefer the status quo

    1. Norman, I wasn't joking. If we lose the energy supply, those are the kinds of societies awaiting us. As you correctly say, democracy is the product of cheap energy.

    2. It doesn't require cheap energy. What about ancient Athens?

    3. Athenian democracy had few participants and many slaves - cheap energy: "[W]omen, slaves, and resident foreigners (metoikoi) were excluded from the political process. ... Citizens probably accounted for 10-20% of the polis population, and of these it has been estimated that only 3,000 or so people actively participated in politics. Of this group, perhaps as few as 100 citizens - the wealthiest, most influential, and the best speakers - dominated the political arena both in front of the assembly and behind the scenes in private conspiratorial political meetings (xynomosiai) and groups (hetaireiai)."

  3. I puzzle over the assumptions present in the questions and answers about renewables, largely because I lack technical expertise. That said, I fall squarely in category 1 for at least a couple reasons that seem obvious to me. (Here I’ll my own deeply pessimistic doomer bias, FWIW.)

    Our use of fossil fuels are not merely for energy needs. It’s also a material resource that goes into, among other things, plastics and fertilizers. The amount of plastic packaging that accompanies a haul from the grocery store boggles me. And without fertilizers (force-feeding energy to plants), crop yields are going to drop like a stone through water. Further, unless I’m mistaken, the manufacturing, distribution, and maintenance of various renewable energy infrastructure is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, which make them, in effect, derivatives of fossil fuels. We labor under the bizarre delusion that we can run civilization on electricity and that the means of acquiring and distributing it are not deeply intertwined in the ongoing use of fossil fuels. Electricity is simply not the key energy resource. So even if EROI and other efficiencies make renewable financially feasible (doubtful), they in no way satisfy our current needs. We won’t even be able to keep tires on our electric cars or, for that matter, manufacture any more of them.

    1. Apologies for my clumsy writing above (pronouns, conjugation). Another remark I failed to include is the supposed wisdom of promulgating hope and optimism (solutionism) in the face of intractable difficulties. I’ve never liked the practice of depth psychology -- lying to people to create actionable perception and consensus that fly in the face of reality. It’s a little Orwellian (Bushian in practice circa 2002), and if it works, then one faces the additional moral question about means and ends. While I may agree that the general public just can’t handle the truth, I would hate to be the decision-maker who takes it upon himself to reshape the truth to achieve even noble goals. Luckily for me, no chance of that.

    2. my point exactly
      Renewable energy systems are hailed as being some kind of saviour for our industrialised lifestyle, but without the infinite variety of machines to use it, electricity is effectively useless.
      And renewable energy systems cannot be manufactured without an industrial infrastructure that is itself hydrocarbon dependent.

      Our civilisation in its modern form is entirely dependent on converting explosive force into rotary motion. We cannot do that without hydrocarbon fuels.

    3. "Another remark I failed to include is the supposed wisdom of promulgating hope and optimism (solutionism) in the face of intractable difficulties" This spot on comment reminds me of a video i saw a couple of years ago of Barbara Ehrenreich talking about positive thinking:

    4. It is not a question of optimism or pessimism. It is just change. The pattern is being continuously woven: you'll despair only if you cling to the old pattern, you'll find hope if you the new pattern. We have to keep moving toward the future, and we will.

    5. I really do wonder why so many people fantasize that industrial infrastructure is hydrocarbon dependent. It's not.

      As one person pointed out, "What do you think they use for digging inside mines? Hint: they don't want to risk burning anything and threatening the air supply." Electrically powered excavators, is the answer.

      OK, yeah, we have a bit of an issue with steelmaking methods. But apart from that, our entire industrial civilization can be run off electricity, and far more of it already is than the typical doomer imagines.

    6. Renewable fertilizer is not a technical problem, by the way; solved multiple different ways, including using electricity to extract nitrogen from air.

  4. If this gives some consolation to you, I would also have answered 3. But we both known each other... ;)

  5. I personally feel that none of the options are likely because at some point business and industry will realize that they need to control energy (as they have to date) but will not be able to do so by controlling fossil fuel based energy. At that point (and this won't be one point but many points in many sectors over a period of time) there will be rapid development and implementation of clean energy, but at a cost set lower than would price the business out of the market, and otherwise as high as possible.

    In other words, like option 5, but rather than market forces responding to the viability, the viability will be controlled and developed by the market forces.

  6. If you understand French you have in you tube:

    1. @Derek,

      here is the first presentation (i.e. from the same presenter) with english subtitles: (Titled: "French engineer schools politicians on the physics of energy and resulting incidences on economics.")

      It is spot on and combines economy, growth, money, capital and energy!

  7. I fall in category 1. I can't imagine how low-EROEI intermittent (re-)sources like PV and wind (even worse EROEI with storage) shall guarantee our current and future lifestyle.

    Increasing complexity requires a higher and higher EROEI to sustain our civilization, and the EE perform massivly under the suggested EROEI (8-10) to maintain current civilization. How PV in Germany with an EROIE below "1" shall solve our problems? ( - I haven't a clue.

    Gail Tverberg also presents the bigger picture, as Jean-Marc Jancovici (French, video linked above) does, where the interaction of the economy and the net return on energy resources are discussed.

    Some people say: PV will get cheaper and more efficient - but still we have no clue how to store it cheaply. Also the PV panel cost are only 1/3 of the total cost of a PV system.... so even if the panels would be free - there would be still a lot of cost (installation, disposal, electronics, metals for framing, etc. pp., installation and maintenance cost and so on...).

    Its even worse.. for example: PV panels in China are produced with 80% coal power NOW - and hoped to recover 87% of that energy (or CO2 + a lot of other dirt) over the next 25 years! (look at the linked study). Insane!

    But it is not the worst... all the "green" solutions shall have a growing business model where someone makes a lot of money. So in the end - it is all about growing, producing, consuming, debt extension and expansion and BAU!

    Nobody speaks about consuming less, different consumption patterns, etc. Even I. Asimov in "Caves of Steel" - some 60 oder 70 years ago - envisioned that we have to live closer together (smaller rooms per family in bigger housings) , share resources, houses, utensils, infrastructure (e.g. bathrooms, cooking facilities, laundromats, etc. pp.) - to reduce resource consumption.

    So im at "1" until I geht some well and deep grounded/rootet arguments to convince me otherwise - and try to enjoy every remaining day :-)

  8. i would be a bit concerned about selection bias among your sample given their involvement in renewable energy. to commit to such a field is, at least implicitly, to say "yes, this is possible". otherwise one must admit to having wasted one's professional life. what an expert in renewables considers to be "too expensive" is likely to be very different from the conclusions by those who will actually be called upon to write the checks. and expecting governments in the nations leading the world in emissions to enact carbon taxes etc. in the foreseeable future seems to me to be naive at best.

  9. You asked a group of renewable energy experts only about renewable energy. That presupposes that renewable energy is not only possible but desirable. What needs to be asked first is: "is renewable energy (of the sort in question) sustainable?" If the answer is yes, we go from there. If no, then the question needs to be dumped in the bin.

    1. Asking about renewable energy to renewable energy experts makes much sense: if you ask about cancer you ask oncologists and researchers, not architects. They are supposed to know about renewable energy sustainability much more than anybody else (although it isn't always so). You can ask anybody about anything, but the answers you'll get will be pretty much wishful thinking (or it's contrary, depending on the individual and his/her biases) but not an informed opinion. Yes, they can be wrong, too. But all the others will be almost certainly wrong, because of lack of expertise. :-)

  10. You would of course get a completely different result if you presented the same survey to the readers of Our Finite World, Economic Undertow, the Doomstead Diner, etc. You're sampling people who generally believe in the potential of renewable energy to begin with.

    I suggest making this same poll available to our readers. If you don't have a survey site you can use from the University, I can drop it on my survey site.


  11. thanks for the interesting article.

  12. There is a typo in option 1, should be "need too large amounts of non renewable resources", right ?

  13. Renewable Energy Survey Construction Offering

    I am seeking ideas and questions to ask based on Ugo's Renewable Energy Survey. If you have ideas for questions and choices please drop them in the thread I have originated for this on the Diner.,7206.msg104066.html#msg104066

  14. A long time ago (two centuries), in a galaxy far, far away (Island of Mallorca, Balearic Islands, on the western Mediterranean Sea), on the Plains of Sant Jordi, close to the capital, Palma, where right now sits the Airport of Son Sant Joan, the land was a huge morass, a quagmire, insane.

    Some of the poor farmers that live there had the idea to use windmills to extract the water, like in Holland. The idea proved to be good.

    Early in the XX century, after a visit of an engineer from Holland (of course), the windmills improved, and many people turned to them to dessicate the land, changing from a quamire to the paradise on earth.

    Productivity soared, quality of food, business, and population in the capital, quite close to the plains increased fast, and everything was fine.

    That was a coulture of farmers, though, so they know pretty well what they were doing, but soon, the water table begins to drop too quit, and it begins to be saly.

    Productivity begin to drop, the water was not so good, harvests were smaller, and those that saw the problem get caught into a trap. If they didn't increase the production, something that would be good for the land, they go bankrupt. The dilemma there was to be a honest farmer and do what it had to be done, or go bankrupt, where some other landlord will buy the lands and continue doing the same.

    There was no way out.

    But technology came to their rescue. Diesel pumps and fertilizers helped to continue growing. And then the doom was complete.

    But what has to be quite clear, is that even with renewable sources (wood, stone and wind), the land become improductive, and the situation was unsustainable by its own, without any need for technology, or fossil fuels to settle or worsen an already doomed situation.

    The morale that I extract from this european case, is similar of what happened to the farthest case (both in space and time) of Esater Island, and what was about to happen in Japan before the Tokugawa.

    The whole issue is a culture, a society issue, not an energy or renewables or tecnology issue.

    We have to change deeply our culture, our society if we didn't want to run out of fossil water, peak soil, peak phosphorus, or whatever.

    And, like happened in Japan, that has enough quorum to be comparable to our society (but I doubt that the concept of island is well understood oustside islands), not like Tikopia, the only way is not by democracy, but by some authoritarian government, and usually, not the nice kind of them, but some quite brutal.

    Since this wouldn't happen voluntarily, given the course our society has, for me the response is clearly 1. We could switch to 2, perhaps 3 if we change our economy, culture and society, but this is clearly not the way, neither the time to do that.

    1. By the way, the engineer was Paul Bouvij, that arrived by 1835. By 1950 there were more than 800 of those windmills, but the productivity peak was almost then, and fossil fuel pumps were not still too common.

      An image of the wooden type. Mostly all materials were renewable too.


    2. Well said Anonymous.

      Human civilization in general rejected renewable energy long ago, when it was utterly abundant, universal, and so cheep it was almost free.

      As you indicated, the context is what culture, civilization (not individuals) can do.

      Culture, civilization rejected natural, renewable energy long ago.

      The question should have been "can this civilization, this culture, go back to the natural renewable energy of the natural Earth that once existed?"

      That natural, renewable energy has always existed, so those who try to make something that has existed since before civilization are missing something.

      The at-one-time most quoted historian was neither optimistic nor pessimistic when he wrote: "In other words, a society does not ever die 'from natural causes', but always dies from suicide or murder --- and nearly always from the former, as this chapter has shown." (The Authoritarianism of Climate Change, quoting "A Study of History", by Arnold J.Toynbe).

      The question is "can this civilization go back to natural renewable energy" rather than "is it possible in the abstract."

      Why is this civilization (the anthropocine, pervayers of the ongoing sixth mass extinction) more able than the others which historian Toynbee studied then wrote about?

      We all think that "anything is possible" in the abstract, but we are not in the abstract.

      Neither is civilization (Civilization Is Now On Suicide Watch).

    3. What I mean with this example, is that Renewable and Sustainable are two different concepts.

      But our society uses renewable electric generation as a proxy for whole society sustainability, that are damn different things.

      Many people belive that they can simply continue with they lifestyle simply usign PV and Wind Turbines and Teslas, as if we were not plundering the planet with many many resources.

      It seems that peak fossil water, peak copper, peak soil, peak phosphorus, peak helium will vanish simply by using Photovoltaics.

      An in the meantime, the most element (70 out of 92 from the Mendeleiev table) and entropy technology we have (as if sorting atoms one by one, side by side, in a quite defined pattern were not the lowest form of entropy possible), the one that is our cornerstone of ALL other technologies, semiconductors, is totally invissible to us, even less the needs and other things that make it possible.

      But no wonder when everybody believe that in PV land, like in the Spanish empire, the Sun always shine...


    4. Peak population will solve the soil problem and the phosphorus problem, and it's *actually happening* (google Demographic Transision).

      Copper can be recycled.

      We need to stop wasting helium, yes.

  15. "- Not a society where, if you can't afford health care, you are left to die in the street
    - Not a society where you are worried every day about whether you and your children will have something to eat"

    Sorry, I thought you said "a society not too different from ours"...

    1. The future is arriving faster than anyone could have imagined

    2. Not me. I imagined it would go quicker. In 2008 I figured by 2015 we would be down to stone knives and bearskins. lol.


    3. You have a feverish imagination. I know.

    4. The US has always been a society where we let sick people die in the street. Europe has not.

  16. For me, the critical point is the transition to lower per capita energy (exergy, to be more precise) - consumption, at least as long as world population is as large as it is now.I see 2 reasons for this.

    The first are the investment costs Ugo already outlined in this blog. At a certain point it may be just cheaper to spend less (energy) than to produce more.

    The second reason is a more longterm argument and much more fundamental.

    We can indeed extract an awesome lot of energy from renewable sources, but in the long run, we are going to need a high percentage of it for one special purpose: to reconcentrate the raw materials we diffuse with jawdropping rate into the environment.
    Diffusion creates entropy, and we can reverse the diffusion process only by paying the price of more entropy generation - but of a different kind and at a different place: exergy diffusion.
    This development is already taking place. Just look at how much exergy use to extract gold from ever less concentrated ore has increased. Look e.g. here:

    We will have to learn to deal with fewer of highly concentrated raw materials, may be very much fewer, for which mankind will have to spend a pretty high percentage of its exergy income.

    Even more: in the long run, the question whether mankind can harvest more exergy than is needed to recreate the harvesting machinery, which always undergoes some degradation and has to be repaired and replaced, is of great importance. My guess is: it should work - but a calculation would be better (I'm looking at you , Ugo. ;-) )

  17. It is a pitty that David Mackay is not among us anymore, I dont think he would be that optimistic, since he has done some pretty good math on renewables...



  18. Hi Ugo. The problem with the poll, even after reading your qualifiers, is that you asked them to be experts in too fields at the same time.

    I would have changed the enunciation of the poll from "before it is too late to avoid the climate disaster" to "by the year X at the latest", where X is your current best guess/calculation for when it would be too late to avoid the climate disaster.

    I bet the renewable energy experts in that poll have an estimation for X that is at least 10 to 20 years later than yours. Which would completely invalidate their answers and hence your positive conclusion.

    Don't underestimate the disconnect between what the latest science says and the general public (yes, even among the greens) knows/believes!

    1. I think most of the people who answered the poll understand the urgency of the transition. But maybe not in the truly stark terms that describe it quantitatively

    2. Even among people who understand the climate problem well, most I talked to during the past year are not really aware of those "truly start terms".

  19. Dr Bardi:

    Thank you for keeping your definitions of a "society not too different from our own" vague. "Precision must not be the enemy of accuracy." My brothers and I pretty much agree on what a GOOD steak is. During the years my wife and I lived in Mexico, I met only one Mexican (my wife's secretary) who agreed with me on what a GREAT steak is. My wife and I cannot agree on much more than WHAT a steak is. Yet all of us have enjoyed some wonderful meals together.

    Many years ago, when my then-teenager son and I returned from a weeklong bicycle trip, he observed that the finest fruits of civilization are hot showers, cold beer, and a dry & comfortable place to sleep. Now I am (much) older; I am still pretty much of that opinion (so is he); however, other views need to be amalgamated into that view for it to be of value of any width.

  20. "hope and optimism" is a lie. We don't need more lies. It doesn't register. I can not go buy an affordable electric vehicle. If I could it would still be coal generated. This hasn't changed in forty years. It will not change in the next twenty. Buying a fancy light bulb will not save any energy when they go into a house with double the square footage. Green washed and spun till...

    1. Tesla Model 3: $35,000, unsubsidized, electric car with 215 mile range before you need to recharge, delivery in 2018. Powered by solar panels with a PPA of less than 14 cents / kwh. You can do this anywhere in the US in 2018.

  21. "Not a society where, if you can't afford health care, you are left to die in the street"

    Ugo, even if I had no issues with your other ideas about what constitutes a desirable society, you totally lost me with that one. Seriously, I would rather live a short, but freer life in such a society rather than what now exists in the demented decaying west. The very posing of the question is problematic. Firstly, no one but homeless people would die in the street. The normal thing is to die at home with one's family and friends. People who have neither family nor friends have problems far deeper than access to health care.

    And what constitutes health care anyway? For most of time that has been the wiping of brows and cleansing of wounds, possibly combined with local herbs. Is everyone now supposed to be entitled to heart transplants, MRI scanners, and cancer drugs costing several multiples of household income? Does that include health care for bums, drunks, rapists, murderers and thieves, paid for by taxes on the productive enforced by threats of violence from a totalitarian government as in the EU?

    The west has literally lost its mind with utopian cornucopian fantasies. While I deplore the replacement of the indigenous peoples of Europe with savage fanatics, it had to happen. The west has already destroyed itself in futile pursuit of an impossible dream.

    PS: Slavery is a humanitarian institution. It allows the vanquished to live and breathe, and even reproduce. In the absence of slavery, the defeated are executed on the spot. Slavery also allows the dissolute and slothful to contribute something to a community, even if shackles and the lash are required. Much better than the system we have now where the best are enslaved and the worst get a free ride

    1. Allow me to disagree, NH. When I said "Health care" I meant "care", not the excessive forms of treatment that are typical of current medicine. And I'd rather have access to a dentist when I need it, rather than living free with my toothache.

      About slavery as a humanitarian institution, I also have may doubts. My take is written here

  22. At the risk of sounding churlish, not possible 100% but less than that perhaps, laws of thermodynamics seems to negate the optimism of the technological cornucopians. The issues the discussion group no doubt considered are: what type of energy? and what for? The optimism does not surprise me and the cause for that are many and various, as you have alluded to above. I am unconvinced that there is a useable and renewable replacement energy source for many mechanical devices that currently rely on hydrocarbons, such as aircraft. But the key stumbling block is scale, I can see no renewable energy source that can be used as a substitute at the current scale of our societies worldwide demand and use of fossil fuels and electrical energy. I would agree that renewables can be produced but at a much lesser scale and the matter of scale takes us back to the key problem of what sort of society it would be.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. We can power aircraft with biofuels.

      But then the question of scale becomes critical, as you very accurately focus on.

      We can probably (almost) sustainably generate enough biofuels to drive critically necessary machinery that cannot be powered without hydrocarbons because it's just too bulky.

      But whoever thinks that can be done for a civilization of 10 billion people living Western lifestyles should check with a psychiatrist. Or go back to high school.

    3. Exactly! Here is an example of a scale problem and energy. When you fill your car it may take about 50 litres of fuel and you will probably be able to travel about 500-700 km on that fuel and take 4 people with you. A jet transport will fill up with anything from 10 to 100 tons of fuel (thats right tons) and travel maybe 8 times further thanks to speed. Lets say its the lower figure of 10 tons and the aircraft carries 50 people, it took 500 litres or kgs of fuel for one person to travel, thats the scale problem. The era of mass air transport is over for those very reasons, you cannot scale up without having somebody else's share.


    Ugo's Question starts it off, then I added a few more plus some Demographics which are Optional to answer.

    1. The Renewable Energy Survey has already garnered a few response, most with detailed text answers as well as multiple choice. So far, the only place the link is up is here in the commentary of Cassandra's Legacy.

      Tomorrow, I will cross post Ugo's blog on the Diner and include the link to the Survey. I will also get the link up on my Reddit Sub r/globalcollapse, and next Sunday I will put up an article on Renewables with the Survey link in it.

      In order to get the maximum number of respondents, if you run a blog or have an email list of people who might like to fill out the survey, advertize the Survey link wherever you think it is appropriate.

      Based on prior survey numbers, I should have enough responses in 2 weeks for a statistically valid survey, and I will publish preliminary results on the Diner at that time. Full results will be made available if you include an email address with the survey. No emails will be published distributed.


  24. The true answer is somewhere between 3 and 5. I wouldn't dare to say which at this point. The big problem is that we can't even get our governments to do *4*, because they're so captured by fossil fuel interests.

  25. I might not be a full fledges scientist but i studied physics and recently social anthropology and struggle with this question for years.

    Especially the question on how our civilisation would look like if it indeed would transform to be 100% renewable is very difficult to answer. I can state firmly though, that it would require a revolution and total change of our current way of living and thinking.
    This discussion is not one about technologies and scientific progress but about system change.
    A 100% renewable world will not be capitalism, period.

    The best starting points for a discussion for me would be to take into account the world system theory as formulated by Immanuel Wallerstein and the Limits to growth study (studies) and their ideas of complex systems theories. Both approaches give a very rough but scientifically sound prognosis, without trying to predict details of the transition.

    The theory of complex systems, as the limits to growth study, show us, that as variables become invariant/inelastic, complex systems tend to oscillate very unpredictably, and linear extrapolation is clearly no option.

    So all tools for mathematically approach this problem fail us terribly. The World system theory tries formulate regularities in such wild oscillations (i.e. Kondratiev wave) and also adds anthropological, economic and sociological aspects in the "equation".

    As capitalism will not survive the end of growth very much longer and we will find ourselfs in an intermidiate, chaotic and transformatory state for several decades. What this transformation towards a postcapitalist society could look like, is very hard to answer and will vary locally.

    Maybe there is the possibility of a transition without a total system breakdown, but current developments do not make me lean towards this prognosis. A system failure/breakdown is the most realistic scenario. This breakdown can take many forms. It could be akin to what happened in Greece or in the most extreme case to something like the civil war Syria.

    As such current "experiments" in system failure, like Syria, suggest, is that they have a huge bandwith of outcomes in sociopolitical and socioeconomic organisation. In Syria, several approaches to organise society are currently in an "experimental" state.

    Maybe, as a lesson from Syria, we could argue that the resulting systems would fall somewhere between the "ecological anarchist socialism" of the northern syrian Kurdish revolution, the extremeley brutal authoritarian fascist regime of isis or some form of authoritarian neoliberal postcapitalist system like the Assad regime.

    As Wallerstein writes in "Crisis of the Capitalist System":
    "We may think of this period of systemic crisis as the arena of a struggle for the successor system. The outcome may be inherently unpredictable but the nature of the struggle is very clear. We are before alternative choices. They cannot be spelled out in institutional detail, but they can be suggested in broad outline.
    We can "choose" collectively a new stable system that essentially resembles the present system in some basic characteristics -- a system that is hierarchical, exploitative, and polarizing. There are, no doubt, many forms this could take, and some of these forms could be harsher than the capitalist world-system in which we have been living. Alternatively we can "choose" collectively a radically different form of system, one that has never previously existed -- a system that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian.
    I have been calling the two alternatives "the spirit of Davos" and "the spirit of Porto Alegre." But the names are unimportant. What is important is to see the possible organizational strategies on each side in this definitive struggle -- a struggle that has been going on in some form since the world revolution of 1968 and may not be resolved before circa 2050."

    1. Yes! Your important insight here is that we WON'T likely end up with either the spirit of Davos or of Porto Alegre; our collective denial coupled with the heel-dragging of the powerful likely dictate that we can't have a rationally chosen, well-controlled, egalitarian energy descent. Instead there will be a lot of breakdown, and it will be uneven with wide-ranging variants, some better than today's norm and some worse.

  26. I guess what I am trying to say is, that the question of the survey are moot, as a transition to 100% renewable is a complex progress that encompasses much more than technological, economic or financial issues.

    It will take nothing less than a "revolution" in all aspects of our way of living and thinking that will make this transition possible.

  27. My own thoughts are constantly but slowly evolving. A few years back I was convinced we were so far into overshoot that we would suffer a hard economic and environmental crash world wide, with the survivors necessarily going back to an animal powered economy.

    Now I am cautiously optimistic that some of us at least have a fairly good shot at transitioning to a sustainable renewable energy based way of life.

    Success will depend mostly on hard work and good luck.

    Some of us are far better positioned than others. The USA and Canada together could probably survive very nicely as "Fortress North America" given that we have lots of good land, lots of remaining mineral wealth, and relatively small populations in relation to our resources. We are protected by oceans, in military terms, from actual physical invasion by enemies, and we are militarily powerful enough we don't have to worry about being invaded anyway.

    Our economies and population are large enough to maintain the necessary scale to enjoy and and all sorts of industries.

    OTOH, I sure wouldn't want to get trapped in a place such as Egypt! It's hard to imagine how a country with so many people and so few resources could manage a successful transition to a sustainable economy.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)