Monday, June 13, 2016

Will Renewables Ever Replace Fossils? The Results of a New Survey

The readers of "The Doomstead Diner" are very skeptical about the possibility of a rapid transition to a 100% renewable powered world. 54% of them say that it is impossible. 

A few weeks ago, I posted on "Cassandra's legacy" the result of an informal survey among experts in renewable energy. I asked about the chances of a transition to a world that would be completely powered by renewable energy, and about the chances of being able to attain that before climate change becomes a true catastrophe. Out of some 70 respondents, the large majority was of the opinion that a fast 100% renewable transition is possible and that can be attained without the need of heroic efforts.

I must confess that I found that result surprisingly optimistic, probably because I tend to frequent rather doomerish circles (and note the name of my blog!). Indeed, the people who read doomer sites seem to be even more pessimistic than me. So, "Reverse Engineer" of the "Doomstead Diner" ran the same survey with his readership, finding completely different results. In the Diner's survey, some 250 people participated and 54% of them said flatly that the renewable transition is impossible.

So, what can we say about these surveys? An obvious observation is that reality will decide what's going to happen about the renewable transition without paying too much attention to what puny human beings think. However, there are a few points that may be worth remarking.

1. The optimism of the experts should be considered as something more than just the opinion of the general public. Here, it is clear that the experts have a direct connection with the progress of the field and they perceive the rapid growth in efficiency and the reduction of costs. They are seeing a glimpse of hope.

2. The strong skepticism of the doomers shouldn't be discounted as a fringe opinion. It is an attitude that pervades society and that is not due to ignorance since the respondents to the Diner's survey reported a high level of formal education. However, that didn't shield them from believing in some of the various legends pervading the web. For instance, one respondent said, " All Electric RE require >70 elements of the periodic table. And they are NOT RENEWABLE."

3. The greatest shortcoming of renewables according to the doomers is their intermittency. That is a little strange, and it indicates how most of us tend to think in the BAU frame only. People are accustomed to have electricity "on demand" and won't consider the possibility of a world in which the supply is "demand managed."

4. The majority of the doomers indicated that the best renewable source is human slave labor. That's not surprising; after all, they are doomers!

5. It is refreshing, however, that only 2% of the doomers indicated that they believe that homo sapiens will soon go extinct.

There are a lot of details that you may find interesting in the survey published on the Doomstead Diner. But I would like to conclude this post with a personal note. It is something that I was telling to RE (Reverse Engineer) yesterday. I find that I am becoming less doomerish than I used to be. I can't really say why, but I think I see a chance.  Just a chance, and that won't save us from crashing against the limits of the ecosystem. But, with a little luck, we will emerge into a new world, better than the present one.


  1. Well. Just in case you're in need of a little sour pessimism, lest you float away on a cloud of sweet Pollyanna's my take. The massive problem facing humanity is not technological but sociological, and if the technical challenge is not met this civilization will crash. Human numbers will plummet, and it will be very ugly for awhile. Then we will rebuild, with thousands of different societies, some better than any place you could live today, some quite nasty (human slavery?)
    But if we DON'T crash, if we manage to replace fossil fuels with renewables and maintain a society "more or less like today's", then it could get really, truly horrible, and in one monolithic, inescapable way. It may look different to you, living in Italy (I've never been to Europe, maybe I romanticize it) but as a resident of the US, I see scary trends and the potential for much worse: increasing inequality, with the elite deciding they really don't need most of humanity either as workers or even as consumers. Increasing population eliminating habitat for 99% of Earth's species, improving it only for a handful of our pets, livestock and parasites. Development of innovation along the lines of potential profit regardless of risk. Increasing ability of the few to monitor and even kill any "troublemakers" anonymously, from a distance. So, we hear hints that there are breakthroughs in longevity research--we can assume that any life extension will be reserved for wealthy sociopaths, just as cloning would duplicate those of whom the first copy was one too many. Genetic engineering of human babies, bifurcating humanity into a larger race of commoners and an actually different coterie of their "betters." I see very scary potential out there as long as the society we have now is allowed to run on and expand--I've counted on resource depletion to stop it, to finally break the iron grip on power of the current cabal of powermongers. A transition to the Porto Alegre Possible world is entirely possible technically, but how could we get there from here?

    1. Come on, Mary. I don't see myself as a Pollyanna. Don't worry!

  2. The key quote is this one:

    "it is clear that the experts have a direct connection with the progress of the field and they perceive the rapid growth in efficiency and the reduction of costs"

    Yes, it is important to know the field of renewable technology well.

    But that is not the question being asked -- the question being asked concerns the overall world system, which involves a lot more than what is going in the renewable technology field.

    This is why I am never going to be convinced by someone telling me "Look, we doubled efficiency and halved the cost in a couple of years", because that tells me almost nothing about the big picture as it is foolish to extrapolate blindly from such tiny pieces of data.

    What is needed is realistic complete-lifecycle and whole-system assessment of the situation.

  3. In both the surveys, the respondents would have been inherently biased and not reflective of general opinion. The outcomes should have been expected in both cases. 'Experts' in RE have a vested interest in being positive, if they aren't they would not have chosen to be specialists in the field would they? While is it any surprise that doomers are pessimistic?

    Secondly, I think the term 'replace' could be restrictive. As you pointed out previously, it would be a very different civilization if everything had to be powered by RE, certainly not a status quo maintaining of current lifestyles. So strictly speaking, RE can never replace fossil fuels outright. Probably the more relevant question to ask is, can we transit into RE without suffering a catastrophic collapse?

  4. I doubt whether the transition will be rapid enough to be of any use, because most people seem to either not be aware that something is very wrong, or they are just waiting for technology to save us. The attitude over here is very much, "she'll be right, mate" (an Australian idiom....we are very laid back!).

    I'm not quite as pessimistic as your first commenter, but I'm not optimistic either. I'm preparing for the worst and hoping for the best and won't be too surprised if it all goes belly-up.

  5. This is a REALLY difficult problem on so many levels that giving one "answer" to it is impossible. As Gail indicated a few times in the discussion, the leading problem here is the Financial System and it's continued operation. Obviously, with a failed financial system, making the necessary investments in Renewable Energy will be difficult if not impossible.

    The difference in attitudes between the population Ugo sampled and the population I sampled are extremely interesting. However, our sample wasn't strictly Diners, it came from numerous websites, including Cassandra's Legacy. The really interesting sample we cannot get is that of the general population, say the readers of USA Today. What does the average person think of this, and can Renewables be sold to these people, given it would be an extremely costly thing to do?

    We also wanted to make some discrimination here between the high finance systems of large PV farms and Windfarms and the smaller more self contained systems that are not necessarily Grid Connected. What I would like to see moving forward here is a financial and energy analysis of how large scale compares to small scale.


  6. Ugo, I think you intend to say demand is "supply managed" at the end of point 3.

    Thanks for your fine blog.

    1. No, it is "demand management". You do that, for instance, using prices.

    2. Ahm and thanks for the thanks!

  7. Hi:

    I'm the one that affirms that RE use >70 elements of the periodic table. And that comes from my background on electronics. Maybe PV only uses a tiny fraction of them, and for sure not all of them are to be found into all the required equipment, but I wonder if you can do anything like rationing (that is the real name for 'demand management', IoT, or 'Smart grids') without electronics and ALL required elements used to build electronics.

    Many of those elements are only secondary o tertiary by products of mining, like He. Many of them can't be replaced. A big bunch of them are monopolized by China (rare earths), and another big bunch will be really difficult to obtain if there were no other 'big players' that will carry out the bulk of the work (like the toxic tellurium, a by product of extracting gold - by cyanide means, from the gang of copper mining).

    And recycling can't obtain 100% of all the elements that go inside (but many of the ones I mention, like Helium, is used to manufacture the semiconductor, but it doesn't came inside, and it stands for a big bunch of the He produced around the worls). And recycling some time uses more energy than the raw, crude materials (like happens when recycling Li batteries), so if we go to recycling, it will increase costs (and, as Gail explains quite often, reduces affordability).

    Even more, if we want to switch to renewables, there are other options, that maybe are even less susceptible to rationing, where with lower energy imputs (bigger ERoEI), lower amounts of recycled materials, and some time, and bigger efficency, like Solar Water Heating, or solar cooking. No real NEED for All Electrical if we need other kinds of energy, like heat.

    But in this case, 'demand management' will imply 'relocating population'.

    Of course, I'm a mere anonymous name that talks about electronics. But then maybe you can adress CIRCE and Alicia Valero, as well as any electronic manufacturer for semiconductors, o read some datasheet of a ceramic capacitor, or a Schottky Diode, or check energyskeptic entries about electronics.

    I guess you even can contact me directly or indirectly through other places (Dr. Turiel's blog/associated forum), and I will be glad to exchange knowledge and opinions with you directly, with my real name and such.


    1. Well, Beamspot, maybe I misunderstood your point. Maybe you referred to inverters, transformers, electronics in general. Then, it is true that this kind of equipment requires a lot of elements. But electronics is not the same as "renewable energy". And PV is no more complex than a steam machine. You use electronics to manage the output of PV, but it is a completely different matter. You need all this sophisticated electronics because the grid was created in a certain way for the purposes of large scale power plants. If you switch to local power sources, you can manage supply with 48 V d.c. and you don't need any electronics. That's the beauty of renewable energy: it is so simple and it doesn't require rare elements!

      Apart from that, "demand management" has nothing to do with "relocating population". You experience demand management every time you go shopping at your local mall.

    2. Well, I guess if you stuck to 48V DC, then you have some nuissances.

      1st: you need Maximum Power Point Tracking system, otherwise you EROEI will be slashed to maybe 1/4 if you are lucky, even to 0.

      Since you need to extract up to the last drop of energy at the right moment it is created, you need some form to balance the energy out, some energy storage, even for the ms required for an inverter to generate AC, or, even worse, DC, then you need or an inverter, or a battery management system.

      Thus I can't see how can I get rid of some electronics.

      2nd, DC is not easy to be converted to another DC. It requires more electronics:

      That means control semiconductors, power semiconductors (another breed in its own), high quality capacitors, Tantalum and ceramic (that use palladium that is never recycled). Probably also LED's, that use Eruopium dopped Yttrium aluminium garnet ove a blue InGaN LED, some ferrite coils/transformers that also use rare earths for the magnetic properties, and so on.

      Just another point about electronics being required in PV, even also for Wind.

      3rd: 48V is not well suited for high power in any case due the high current required, and the Joule effect loses that rise with the square of the current.

      For DC you will need batteries as well as electronics, that will affect EROEI for sure, but they are never accounted.

      4rt I guess our society wouldn't like the approach you are using, and right now everybody is involved with smart grids and such, that means transmission lines, thus also electronics, but probably LESS than if you use DC and storage.

      But even the small distribution lines in a handy phone suffer from a rather weir nuisance of electricity that is relativity. Weird it may sound, pure SF, lightspeed is relevant. At 1.5GHz of the phone CPU working with square wave, it means >3GHz harmonics, with a wavelength of less than 10cm long.

      That implies that the energy storage must be fast and be located at less than a tenth of the wavelength. That should be a dispatchable power source (usually capacitors).

      When I asked Antonio Garcia-Olivares regarding the issues with seasonality (1:6 January to July in Germany), the response was continental size grids. But this weird issues with lightspeed imposes to have dispatchable sources at less than 500Km:

      Thus, there are many many issues that require electronics and points that had never been adressed, and the most important one, is that Electricity has to be balances ALWAYS, no way to have wild demand management easily: you will have serious problems with grid stability and voltage surges, spikes, blackouts (a less than one nanosecond voltage drop will block your computer microprocessor, and a 1ms will burn a high power switched power suply, I had repaired many of them).

      Besides that, electronics is ubiquitous. It is the cornerstone of our tecnology in many fields, the basement of renewables as we know, as many other points, and, referring to Tainter work on complexity, thus on entropy, sorting individual atoms in a little space is the lowest entropy techonlogy I know.

      And electronics hit a limitng wall few years ago, when Moore's law stopped. More or less when conventional crude peaked, BTW.

      Buff. I can continue writing for the whole day about this issues, but I think this is more than enough for now.

    3. I see that you know what you are talking about and your points surely deserve consideration - even though we don't completely agree with each other. I am sorry if I was a bit rough in my initial comment, but please understand that I am pestered by people who are convinced that, for instance, PV cells can't work without rare earths, or platinum, or tellurium, or whatever!

      Getting into the details, my point was that you could perfectly well run a PV system without any electronics if you connect it directly to a battery. That's not normally done, but the charge control system can be very, very simple and it can be based on simple transistors - MOSFETs are normally used. (BTW, mosfets are based on silicon and require no rare metals).

      So, depending on what you want to do, there are complex or simple ways of doing it. The point I want to make is that there is no "mineralogical barrier" to a reasonably efficient system based on PV and/or wind. I am sure we can build it using silicon, aluminum, and just traces of other elements. Of course, up to now, there was no need to limit the number of elements that go into the system, so it wasn't done. But if we design the system with this idea in mind, it can be done.

    4. I totally agree. One thing is what goes into a polycristaline PV, and a totally different one is what goes into (and what is used even if it doesn't go into) electronics, in general.

      And even then, even thinking about the huge effort to build up a planetary scale smart grid and such, probably only few of the minerals will have some shortage (even if we have this in mind) due amounts that can be found on earth's crust.

      The problem maybe is not technical.

      There are two different problems: one thing is what society wants, and that maybe can't be achieved (seasonality is, IMHO an unsurmountable barrier), and what will be economically feasible.

      And I guess neither approach will be done. What may be economically feasible (and I wonder what all this will mean, for sure NOT ELECTRONICS), wouldn't be accepted by our society. What our society wants, for sure wouldn't be economically feasible (and probably neither practically due many hard limits).

      But then, what I stand is that electricity has to be balanced and stored. But AFAIK, about 50% of our energy needs are heat, not electricity (and electricity, if you take into account the efficiency when producing it, since we don't have electricity, we have to convert other forms of energy into electricity, is less efficient for heating than other sources, being the Sun one of those sources).

      If we try to analyze what we need before commit directly everything to electricity, perhaps we will see a different picture, and quite different approaches. But we are stuck at electricity.

      And it seems that everybody avoids the word 'seasonal', as it seems our disconnection from nature is the way to go, how 'progress' should work (I like John Michael Greer explanations about the concept of 'progress' and the 'cymmerian hipotesys'), and that means to avoid seasonality at all costs.

      Well, PV, and any other solar form of energy is heavily seasonal, and it depends on the latitude. And some direct uses of energy (that is what I'm advocating for, to reduce the use of electricity and electronics to the bare minimum, while using other forms of energy like solar water heating, solar cooking, hydro and wind for mechanics and/or compressed air, solar steam for steam machinery, and such) may imply relocation of people to more sunny places, just to reduce the amount of heat required out of season.

      Switch to renewables, too and specially with electricity, in my poor opinion, is a really big threat to biomass, and then, a paved way to the Eastern Planet Earth. Damage to nature can be much worse as the fall of FF may imply switching to biomass (and the already broken loops for nitrates and phosfates - another thing currently life is NOT recycling, like Oil, Coal, Gas that are other life forms that life didn't recycle).

      What I think it is already happening, is that our economy is no longer sustainable, and that may imply the fall of the lowest entropy technologies, those upon which renewables, and specially PV, rely. In this sense, Gail Tverberg is a good source of information (I know you know her personally), although I think the one that approaches better how things will unfold is, again JMG (who I guess you already know personally).

      And please, to everybody, note that I'm not against renewables at all. I'm only simply trying to figure out what I think will be the best approach for our society (direct action renewables that can be build in the backyard, with simple tools), that, IMHO, seems to be quite different from the approach we are taking (and, IMHO also, quite different from what Prof. Bardi proposes also).

  8. There is no chance in hell. May was the 8th hottest month consecutively. Runaway climate change is here. Extinction is guaranteed.

    1. Don't forget the Zombies & Cannibals!

      What about rendering the lard from Fat People? It might not be Renewable, but the EROEI is very good! No deepwater drilling necessary, no fracking! Just Liposuction! A few years back a Plastic surgeon from Beverly Hills powered his Mercedes this way!

      It ain't OVAH till the last Fat Lady is Liposuctioned!


    2. While I do follow McPherson, I am not at all certain that climate change will result in our extinction but it could be close. What I am certain of is we will suffer a population & economic collapse as our excessive population & our high energy consuming way of life is simply not sustainable.

      Perhaps "renewables" can stretch out the oil age a little longer but then our collapse will result in even more deaths as we will continue to feed population growth, this must & will end resulting in horrific suffering & billions of deaths.

      As for rendering the lard of us fat people, better hurry to do your "rendering" while we are still fat because the lean times are coming & fat folks will become rare.
      I am far more worried about "cannibals" than "zombies".
      Dead is still just dead!
      BTW, I love this blog, keep up the good work!

  9. Everytime I hear that elements can not be recycled completely, that it's impossible, I remember him that life has do it before.
    If 100% recycling was impossible, life had exhaust its elements billions years ago.

    1. Excellent point, recycler. I make the same point all the time, but people remain convinced that 100% recycling is somehow forbidden by the second law. I has to be the fault of Georgescu Roegen, I think

    2. If 100% recycling was impossible, life had exhaust its elements billions years ago.

      That is in fact what is happening.

      The elements get recycled by plate tectonics.

      When plate tectonics ends, and it will eventually, there will be no more recycling (of course, on some planets that moment may come after life is already extinct for other reasons)

      That recycling happens on geological time scales though.

      Also, it is not the case that everything is recycled, and that is not a bad thing -- huge amounts of carbon have been sequestered over time in the form of fossil fuels and carbonate rocks, which has compensated quite nicely for the increasing luminosity of the Sun. That cannot and will not go on forever.

      The point is that these are not perpetual motion closed loop processes, they have a direction and it is towards extinction of everything.

    3. Well, yes, but plate tectonics will end in several hundred billion years from now. For the time being, and for a long, long time, the supply of elements to the biosphere remains assured.

    4. Ooops.... hundreds of MILLIONS of years, of course!

  10. I think I made the point in the survey that only a fraction of 'us' (in this case 'us' is the global population) constitute 'industrial civilisation' and use anything remotely like an American. Will RE grow to serve a majority of humanity sufficiently to provide say equivalent 10 - 20% of industrial consumption all us educated commenters think of as normal? One must have doubts on commonsense grounds. Will industrial 'growth' continue for long? Will this growth reach a limit roughly when the rate of total energy use per annum can rise no further? Will the lack of further 'growth' impact the self-stoking financial slash industrial nexus that 'we' have invented?

    I do not hope for 'more of the same'. Does RE provide a different model? Should it be more like the concepts of 'Appropriate Technology' I read about in my youth? I read just today (Sussex University, UK, Energy Group) of hideous fossil fuel impacts in Bangladesh. RE could help perhaps ... but ...?

    Thanks to everybody for survey and comments

  11. Ugo, et. al., I took RE's survey and am not a doomer. Our home has renewable energy in the form of solar hot water and solar voltaic. Our 28+ year experience indicates that we, humanity, will never power our current Western Civilization lifestyle with renewable energy. Such will provide a step down to a more simpler life that many in the rest of the world experience quite comfortably. We in Western Civilization need to wake up and quit denying reality and recognize that the high energy life we have led is over. It is up against reality. Best to all on the downside of the cliff. Russ Day

    1. Apparently you have a crystal ball the rest of us don't have? Jesus, I swear Mcphersonites live here.

  12. Russ
    Well said (and done)


  13. RE cannot replace fossil resources because they produce none of the essential raw materials we now get from oil, coal & natural gas plus they only produce electricity weakly & intermittently.
    Without the raw material we now get from FF, this civilization & us would not exist, we literally "eat" oil. For every calorie of food we eat, 10 calories of OIL were consumed as well as natural gas for producing the fertilizer to grow that food.
    RE may keep some lights on, but you will be very very hungry!

    Even worse, OIL is needed to obtain their raw material, to process that raw material, oil is used as a raw material & the energy needed to manufacture those RE devices & dirty oil is used to transport those RE devices across the seas to where they will be sold.
    There won't be enough oil to manufacture the vast number of RE devices we need & then in 30 years or so, they will need to be replaced. Dead end.



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)