Sunday, January 01, 2017

The 100 percent renewable energy future: The good news and the bad news

Authors Richard Heinberg and David Fridley in their recent book Our Renewable Future make the case for a society that runs on 100 percent renewable energy. But they don't pull any punches, giving us both the good news and the bad news.

Okay, here's the good news: A 100 percent renewable energy society is well within our technical capability, and we've taken some important steps already. Now, here's the bad news: The 100 percent renewable energy society is inevitable whether we plan for it or not.

I know the bad news perhaps sounds like good news, but it's not. The bad news may make it seem as if all we have to do is sit back while solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass and other forms of renewable energy are deployed at an ever faster pace. But, what the bad news really implies is that if this deployment process isn't coupled with strenuous efforts to decrease our fossil-fuel energy use dramatically, we may find ourselves in a dystopian energy-starved world with a chaotic climate, a world that little resembles the one we live in now.

Here's the problem as the authors explain it toward the end of the book: "Sound national and international climate policies are crucial: without them, it will be impossible to organize a transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy that is orderly enough to maintain industrial civilization, while speedy enough to avert catastrophic ecosystem collapse."

In other words, we'll get to a renewable energy economy eventually as fossil fuels become ever more expensive to take out of the ground. But the default endpoint is not one that results from a planned transition which would try to save the best of industrial civilization while jettisoning the worst.

Rather, the default endpoint is merely the wreckage of an industrial civilization that didn't prepare properly. Such a society would be forced to make due with the energy budget available from renewables like all past civilizations. That's a lot less than we in industrialized countries use, and, more important, far less than we could have if we make sensible and serious plans and implement them starting now.

Heinberg and Fridley don't dwell on this conclusion, but it is at the heart of their message. Most of the book is spent explaining why the transition to renewable energy is possible and how it can take place.

This is a largely hopeful message which explains that there is a lot for each of us to do as citizens in influencing and pushing for the right policies and as community members in preparing ourselves, our families and our neighbors for a lower energy future. The authors make very clear that the amount of renewable energy we can hope to generate in the coming decades simply cannot be expected to match what we are getting today from fossil fuels. That means we have to change many aspects of our society and our daily lives.

Fortunately, as they explain, we know how to reduce our energy footprint dramatically if we have the will and the perseverance. The steps for doing this will sound familiar to many: weatherizing and insulating existing buildings; building new ones for very high energy efficiency; focusing on public transportation, bicycling and walking as modes of daily transport; creating a food system that uses far less energy (which means primarily organic) and builds rather than depletes the soil (which can become a place to store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere); moving toward local and regional manufacturing (relocalization as it is commonly called) to reduce the need for freight transportation; moving away from the consumer economy which prioritizes consumption and planned obsolescence toward what the authors call the "conserver economy" which prioritizes durability, repair and recycling; and scheduling our electricity use to accommodate the daily cycles that renewables are likely to exhibit.

These are tall orders and lack much of the flash offered by the techno-optimists who assure us that renewable energy will make the future look like the present, only better--and, all we have to do is sit back and watch it happen.

Our Renewable Future is without a doubt the most sensible book I've read on the prospects and promise of renewable energy, and I wholeheartedly endorse its conclusions. A future of 100 percent renewable energy is possible. But only if we act now and persist.

That means there is a lot of work ahead for all of us. The rewards, however, are a stable climate and durable communities that offer many (but not all) of the advantages of our current fossil-fueled civilization. And this future is one that can be ushered in by a transition far more humane and far less traumatic than the one our business-as-usual trajectory could hope to offer.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Steve Bull said...

While I like the idea, and agree with the paths that must be taken to get there, I am far less optimistic in the probability of actually arriving at the destination. Pre/history tends to show that once a society/civilization has overshot its carrying capacity, it tends to continue on its path to collapse. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is the tendency of the ruling class to fight tooth and nail to maintain the unsustainable behaviours/institutions/actions that support the status quo arrangements; to say little of the significant momentum of current trends.
Hope springs eternal, and no one can predict the future with any accuracy. I'm not holding my breath, however.

Paul said...

Once we've sorted out our energy requirements we then only have fresh water, catastrophic biomass loss, soil degradation, the nitrogen cycle, ocean acidification and existing pollution of every type to sort out. Have I left anything out?

Anonymous said...

Of course we'll have renewable energy in the future. Civilisation will collapse, millions will die and we'll go back to living on the energy from green plants and the animals that eat those plants, just like we always did.

Anonymous said...

Paul - I'm afraid you left out rather a lot, just as the book's authors have apparently done.

Ending the use of fossil fuels is a large part, but only a part of anthro-CO2 outputs, with both concrete and deforestation outputs also needing to be halted. And on top of that, there are the outputs of the other five main GHGs that must be stopped, and that is only the end of our direct exacerbation of the GHG pollution problem.

Ending all those outputs will not end the global warming for three main reasons.

1/. Due to the oceans' thermal inertia, there is a timelag on the warming from any GHG output of about 35 years, so in effect the present warming is a consequence of the level of airborne GHG pollution in the early 1980s. Since then we have massively increased the annual output, and most of the warming from it will manifest over the next 35 years (by 2051). After that, we'll see the warming from whatever emissions we release during the period of their being phased out - perhaps out to 2085 - if the Obama Shuffle is ended and the problem is at last taken seriously enough for rapid action.

2/. Due to the priority of closing down coal use we are going to end its output of fossil sulphates, and thereby close down the cooling "Fossil Sulphate Parasol" that it maintains, thus unveiling between 0.5C and 1.2C of additional warming that it has shaded out thus far.

3/. Due to the eight "Major Interactive Feedbacks"[MIFs] - that are widely reported as already accelerating, with several each having the potential to dwarf current anthro-GHG outputs, there is no prospect of global temperature stabilizing merely by ending GHG outputs and enduring the timelagged and unveiled warming to which we're committed. Those MIFs are not only self-reinforcing, each one's timelagged warming accelerates itself and also all others - on top of which there are very numerous 'direct coupling mechanisms' between them that operate in or near real time.

An example of the latter mechanisms is of the Ocean Heating & Acidification feedback (that can reduce the ocean carbon sink) driving the acceleration of ice-loss and the Arctic's Albedo Loss feedback (that allows more warmth into much darker ocean surface) which results in much warmer air-masses above the Arctic Ocean - whose signature has been recorded in the acceleration of the Permafrost Melt feedback 1500 kms inland from the coasts.

The eight MIFs will accelerate for as long as anthro-warming continues (2085?) and their output will not be stopped by anything less than either exhausting their feedstocks (ice, permafrost, etc) which would only occur long after society's collapse, - or by the intentional cooling of the planet to decellerate them. (It won't cool naturally for many centuries).

For this reason I think the proposals of Heinberg and many well-meaning writers on the issue of Climate Destabilization fall far short of what is needed. Emissions Control alone cannot resolve this existential problem, and the longer that we pretend that it can, the poorer our chances. In addition to radically fast Emissions Control we need also to research, develop and mandate the use of reliably benign modes of Carbon Recovery and Albedo Restoration as a means to cool the planet and stabilize the climate. Failure to do so will leave us heading directly for the onset of serial global crop failures, along with their consequent geopolitical destabilization.

From this perspective I'd suggest that Heinberg et all need, like the politicians, to start taking the issue of Climate Destabilization seriously.


genconc said...

Paul, in the event of a precipitous degradation of industrial civilization, I think your list would need to include the 104 nuclear power plants in the US and some 400(?) worldwide whose reaction control systems and spent fuel cooling systems are unlikely to see normal continuous operation.

Optimistic said...

Americans riding bicycles.... Yeah I'd like to see that.

Sheila said...

We are constantly attending to the symptoms of overpopulation but we REFUSE to directly attack our excessive production of MORE HUMANS!

It doesn't matter what we try to do to soften our impending collapse if we continue to IGNORE OVERPOPULATION & keep overbreeding, we will suffer a very painful population collapse with all of it's horror.
As some have pointed out here, we will indeed have 100% renewable energy in the future but not what so many are expecting, it won't be anything like today's BAU, it will be more like the 1300's, NO electricity, NO auto's, NO trucks, NO airconditoning, NO aircraft, NO trains, NO factory food, NO refrigeration, NO more "progress", NO modern way of life & there will be only ONE BILLION HUMANS ALIVE if we are "lucky", most of us will DIE in the coming collapse of disease, wars & of course starvation.
Have a happy Trump, new year!