Sustainable Renewable Energy: Neither Sustainable Nor Renewable

As recently reported by 21st Century Wire and on UK Column News on 9 December 2022 (go to 35:45), the Swiss have noticed a bit of a problem with electric vehicles (EVs). Despite EVs' "green" credentials, the energy required to charge them has to come from somewhere. Yes, this is obvious; yet it is one among many conspicuous realities that the "sustainable development" faithful are apparently unable to understand.

Switzerland is one of the lucky few countries in the world that can sometimes generate up to 60% of its energy requirements from "renewable energy", predominantly in the form of hydroelectric power.

That adverb, "sometimes", is the crux of the problem.

When it is wet, Switzerland has excess energy. However, when it isn't—such as in the dead of winter—there's a shortfall that the Swiss currently meet with a mix of nuclear, wind and solar power on the one hand and "fossil fuel" energy generation on the other, combined with energy imports from their European partners. Nuclear provides the bulk, but Swiss "sustainable development" policy means that the Confederation has made the seemingly kamikaze-inspired decision to phase out nuclear energy.

The turbulence in global energy markets—along with what appear to be similarly insane energy policies from their main foreign energy suppliers, France and Germany—has compelled the landlocked Swiss to develop a new emergency energy plan. An over-reliance upon "renewable energy" is largely the cause of the energy instability problem; so, instead of securing the additional stable energy supply the country needs, the solution is to force individual and industrial consumers to reduce the amount of energy they use.

"Load shedding" includes, at least in Switzerland, potentially restricting the use of EVs because there won't be enough renewable energy to charge them. This gives us a glimpse into the inconvenient truth about the global transition to alleged sustainable "renewable energy": it is neither renewable nor sustainable.


Sustainable Energy Development

In response to the alarm of those who fear a prospective "climate disaster", we are told that the world must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and switch to "renewable energy". Constructing the new "renewable energy" system is, after all, a component of "sustainable development".

According to the United Nations, the intergovernmental organisation overseeing the redesign of the world's economy, our behaviour and society, "renewable energy" is defined as:

[E]nergy derived from natural sources that are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed. Sunlight and wind, for example. [. . . ] Generating renewable energy creates far lower emissions than burning fossil fuels. [. . . ] Renewables are now cheaper in most countries, and generate three times more jobs than fossil fuels.

The UN defines "sustainable development" as:

[D]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. [. . .] For sustainable development to be achieved, it is crucial to harmonize three core elements: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. [. . .] Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions is an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.

This is an adaptation of the definition first provided in the 1987 Brundtland Report, Our Common Future. The Brundtland Commission added that the "overriding priority" should be to meet "the essential needs of the world's poor".

Sustainable Development Goal 7 is the SDG concerned with the "sustainable" energy transition. The goal to "ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all" is commensurate with that objective. 

Providing affordable energy to the poorest and most vulnerable is the "overriding priority" and is said to be an an "indispensable requirement" for the sustainable development of energy.

The other important element of sustainable energy development is "environmental protection". Therefore, an energy transition that increases the cost of energy and pushes "affordability" beyond the reach of "the world's poor", while causing environmental damage, by definition, cannot be called "sustainable".


Basic Energy Considerations

Any energy source in its unrefined state is called primary energy. Examples include sub-bituminous and lignite (brown) coals, the various forms of crude oil, and wet natural gas. Other forms of primary energy include solar radiation, wind energy, tidal and hydro energy, geothermal energy, biomass energy and natural uranium, among others.

A key property of primary energy is its energy density. This is defined as "the amount of energy that can be stored in a given system, substance, or region of space". The greater the energy density, the more energy can be released from a certain volume or mass of a substance. Consequently, the gravimetric energy density of an energy source is "the available energy per unit mass of a substance". This physical property is often measured in Watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg), or megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg).

The properties of "renewable" primary energy differs from other types of solid, liquid or gaseous energy sources. It is more useful to consider their energy density by volume. A barrel of oil has 35 to 45 gigajoules (equivalent to 10,000 kWh and upwards) per cubic metre, whereas solar energy possesses 1.5 microjoules per cubic metre. This is twenty quadrillion times (20,000,000,000,000,000 times) less than oil—but, on the other hand, solar energy, to all intents and purposes, has infinite volume, arguably wiping out the apparently unfavourable comparison to oil, in this instance.

In order to make use of, or release, that gravimetric energy—sometimes called "specific energy"—some kind of reaction process is required. Usually, this will be a nuclear, a chemical, an electrochemical, a thermal, a mechanical (in the case of wind turbines, for example) or an electrical reaction. These conversion processes also require energy. That is, they each have an energy cost.

How practical an energy source is largely depends upon the difference between the amount of energy that can be extracted from it and the (necessarily lower) economic, environmental, human and energy cost of converting that energy into a usable form. The total cost includes the costs of extracting the primary energy. For example, the cost of drilling for oil or manufacturing a solar panel is included in the equation.

What also needs to be considered is the economic, environmental and energy costs of mining the minerals and producing the raw materials—steel, copper, aluminium, etc.—that are needed to manufacture the machinery to extract the oil or produce a wind turbine. Energy storage and variable demand are further, vital considerations.

We don't use energy at a constant rate. At British latitudes, we tend to use more energy in the winter to heat our homes and stay alive. This isn't always the case. In most of California, for example, people generally use more domestic energy in the summer for air conditioning than in winter for heating.

Then there is daily variability. In the UK, the domestic peak hours tend to be in the early evening, when the family is at home and cooking, using their devices or watching TV, etc.

The upshot of all the above is that for energy to meet the needs of the global population, both domestically and in terms of our industrial usage, it needs to be stored in a usable form that is flexible and able to respond to variable demand. Ideally, we need the most responsive, energy-dense power source possible, while minimising the economic, environmental and human costs of both acquiring and using it.


Not Sustainable Development

Speaking in April 2022, Dr Augustine Njamnashi, the Executive Director of the Africa Coalition for Sustainable Energy Access (ACSEA), noted that "many families do not have access to any form of energy". Two out of every three people living in sub-Saharan Africa have no stable supply of electricity, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

So-called renewable energy could go some way towards alleviating energy poverty and tackling global wealth inequality. Micro-power plants, using renewable energy, suggest this potential. They could be used to provide at least some energy access for more than one billion people who still have virtually none.

Yet the necessary investment in the decentralised power distribution that would be needed for such a solution is notable by its absence. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that the bulk of investment is in developed countries and among some emerging-market and developing economies (EMDEs) that already have extensive grid and energy distribution networks.

The money is often spent on converting the existing network infrastructure into so called smart grids, rather than extending access to regions of the world that have no or very limited access. The IEA reported:

Much of the spending resilience in 2020 was concentrated in a handful of markets, most notably the People’s Republic of China [. . .] In contrast to advanced economies and China, investment in emerging market and developing economies (EMDEs) is set to remain below pre-crisis [pre-Covid–19] levels in 2021 [. . .] EMDEs outside China account for nearly two-thirds of the global population but [. . .] just one-fifth of clean energy investment.

In many developed nations, the intention is supposedly to transition at high speed to a renewable energy-based system. If we consider the UK's current power generation (when this article was first drafted on 12 December 2022), with just 3.9% of the UK's energy requirements met from "renewables", this is going to be a monumental task.

Germany has advanced further than most in transitioning to "renewable energy". Thanks to its Energiewende (energy transition) policy, the German Government claims that Germany generates more than 30% of its energy from "renewables", It is said that, on occasion (another of those adverbial expressions of frequency), this rises up to 60%. This has encouraged the German Government, through its 2022 Easter package of energy policy reforms, to commit to 80% renewable energy by 2030.

This transformation has come at an immense, if unknown, cost to the German taxpayer. Estimates vary between a modest €220 billion and more than €500 billion, extrapolated over two decades. According to the German Government's own statement, made in 2018, the costs were "not known". It projects a final cost of around €750 billion, but who knows?

What can be said with certainty is that there has been a significant corresponding increase in the price Germans pay for their energy. In 2000, in order to finance the Energiewende, the German Government passed the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG). This levied a surcharge on energy bills paid by some German consumers. In the generation since then, the German people have paid far more for their energy than residents of most comparable countries.

Multinational corporations, which buy energy at wholesale prices, benefited from the lowering of energy spot prices in the years when heavily subsidised "renewable energy" was entering the market. Meanwhile, the payment of the subsidy by everyone else, via the consumer surcharge, pushed the retail price up for them.

In March 2021, the German Federal Court of Auditors urged the Federal Government to recognise the risk that the Energiewende posed to the German people. The move toward renewable energy was increasing the cost to the poorest and most vulnerable German households and threatening the viability of small to medium-sized German businesses:

The Federal Court of Auditors sees the danger that the energy transition in this form endangers Germany as a business location and overwhelms the financial capacity of the companies and private households that consume electricity.

The consequent increase in energy poverty in Germany presents, as it does in every nation, a direct threat to life. The link between energy poverty and an elevated mortality risk in the Northern Hemisphere winter is well known. For example, when University College Dublin's Department of Environmental Studies examined the mortality risk factors for southern and western Europe, the researchers found:

[M]ean winter environmental temperature, [. . .] mean winter relative humidity, [. . . ] rates of income poverty, [. . . ] inequality, [. . .] deprivation [. . .] and rates of fuel poverty [. . .] are found to be significantly related to variations in relative excess winter mortality. [. . .] High seasonal mortality in southern and western Europe could be reduced through improved protection from the cold indoors.

The transition to renewable energy is dangerous. There is no evidence of any "overriding priority" being given to the "indispensable requirement" of "eradicating poverty". Either the transition cannot legitimately be called "sustainable development" or the term itself is meaningless.


Not Renewable Energy

As outlined above, the definition of renewable energy is energy derived from natural sources that are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed.

But this definition only relates to primary energy, such as solar radiation—and that is not energy in a usable form. It has to be converted by some process or mechanism into, for example, electricity. 

A more faithful definition of what constitutes renewable energy would be something like:

  • Energy converted into a usable form that uses natural sources that are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed.

The current official definition of "renewable energy" can therefore be used deceptively. For example, the UK Government has a Hydrogen Strategy, as it claims that the lightest element is a form of "renewable energy". Hydrogen has high energy density and could replace many fossil fuels, and it could be used without releasing the carbon dioxide associated with fossil fuel production. But you need energy in sufficient supply to produce the required volume of hydrogen in the first place.

The UK Government proposes manufacturing so-called "blue hydrogen". This relies upon concomitant efforts in carbon dioxide capture and offsetting to make the claims stand up that it is a "low-carbon" energy source.

The other suggested form of "low-carbon" hydrogen is green hydrogen. The UK Government has just committed to burning biomass as a way to generate this allegedly low-carbon hydrogen. The claim that biomass is "green" or "sustainable" is based upon a similarly convoluted set of assertions about carbon dioxide capture and offsetting as are the claims underpinning "blue hydrogen". However, that is a topic for another time.

Green hydrogen is commonly produced by electrolysis, liberating the gas from water using electricity from "renewable energy" sources. Green hydrogen was also a focus at the recent 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) at Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt. In a round table discussion on investing in our green future, the delegates noted:

Hydrogen has been identified as the potential energy source for the future, with an increasing focus from all stakeholders on Hydrogen, in particular Green Hydrogen. [. . .] 90 Mt (million metric tonnes) of hydrogen are produced annually, mainly from natural gas. Less than 0.5% of this hydrogen was produced from renewable electricity in 2020.

In order to produce green hydrogen in sufficient quantities, just to meet existing demand, the global production of it using "renewable electricity" would need to increase by a factor of 200. This, in turn, assumes that the production of electricity from, for example, solar or wind farms, is genuinely "renewable".

Energy intensity, in industrial terms, refers to "the energy consumed per unit of gross output". The industrial production of the solar panels and wind turbines required to convert "renewable" primary energy into usable energy, is itself an energy intensive process. So much so, in fact, that those who manufacture these renewable energy conversion products cannot power their own manufacturing processes with the products they manufacture.

Recently, European "renewable energy" manufacturers such as solar panel makers Rystad Energy have been forced to shut down operation due to the rising cost of energy production. That is to say, they can't even meaningfully subsidise their energy costs using the solar panels they themselves make.

Energy density is the problem that they cannot overcome. In order to use solar power to generate the same amount of energy that you could derive from an equivalent nuclear power plant, you need to use 400 times as much land. Rystad is among the European renewable energy manufacturers that don't own enough land to power even just their own factories.

The idea that "renewable energy" can be used to process enough green hydrogen for our modern industrial processes or domestic requirements is ridiculous, even if these renewables were entirely dedicated to nothing else but this task. If we then consider the logistics of meeting all our other energy needs with solar panels and wind farms, the whole idea becomes absurd.

We need energy to drill for, mine and produce the oil, silver, copper, aluminium, lead, cadmium, magnesium, sulphur, silicon, various plastics and other essential materials to make solar panels.

Then there's the energy intensity we need to dispose of them and other renewable energy products. Solar panels have a limited lifespan of around 20 to 30 years. They are occasionally recycled using robots that remove the valuable components before the remaining materials are destroyed. More commonly, however, they are simply incinerated in large-scale concrete gas ovens. Green hydrogen could fuel the incinerators, but the reader will appreciate how the First Law of Thermodynamics makes this a complete nonsense.

If we persist with the idea of switching to so-called "renewable energy", then by 2050—according to the Institute for Energy Research (IER)—we will need to "recycle" approximately 78 million metric tonnes of solar panels. Solar panels contain highly toxic materials and cannot be safely discarded in landfill sites.

Intermediary companies, called solar equipment brokers, buy up the used solar panels. Many of the panels end up being shipped off to developing nations, thus avoiding the expense of recycling them in developed nations. These waning panels limp on, producing ever-decreasing amounts of energy, until they are finally discarded into toxic landfills a couple of years later in those poorer countries.

Similarly, the huge industrial wind turbine blades, constructed from fibreglass, carbon fibre and plastics—itself an energy intensive manufacturing process—cannot be easily recycled. They, too, end up in landfill.

Very few—if any—of the raw materials needed, such as the bauxite for the aluminium or the iron ore for the steel, can possibly be "replenished”. Hence the emerging commercial value of, and the need for, recycling.

Therefore, the "natural sources" needed to generate "renewable energy" are not "replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed". Renewable energy is not "renewable" at all.


Renewable Energy: An Inconvenient Truth

Given the current state of renewable energy technology, it is incapable of meeting the energy needs of the human population. There is no evidence that there are enough natural resources on Earth to build the energy infrastructure required—not even if a high degree of reliance upon renewable energy were feasible, which it isn't.

Compared to that of fossil or nuclear fuels, its energy density is practically non-existent. Nor can renewable energy be stored in a usable form that is sufficiently flexible to meet real people's variable demand. It is ostensibly uncontrollable, environmentally damaging, and often dangerous.

Successive state legislatures in California have progressively pushed Californians towards a claimed near-60% reliance upon renewable energy. California uses a mix of wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal renewable energy sources. It also uses biomass, which the legislature also claims to be renewable.

When it is very sunny or "perfectly windy", California's vast solar panel and offshore wind farms generate an uncontrollable surge in electricity. If California achieves its target of 80% renewables, then somehow it will have to store 9.6 million megawatt-hours of excess, peak energy. If it achieves its ambition of 100%, the state will in fact need to handle an additional 36.3 million, but only occasionally (that term again).

On still days, or when it's cloudy or dark, solar and wind "renewable energy" doesn't work at all—much as Swiss hydroelectric plants don't when it’s dry or freezing.

As a result, the California power grid burns out and the people enjoy blackouts in the heat of the summer, just when they need air conditioning the most. To address this problem, grid operators in California are paying neighbouring states to absorb as much of this energy as they can, in order to avoid blowing the Californian grid to pieces.

These increased costs, combined with the subsidies that California residents have to pay for their legislature's decisions—just as in Germany—have significantly increased the cost of energy for Californians. Again, this has led to a sharp rise in energy poverty. This is not "sustainable development". Nor is this problem one that nobody expected.

We have to use the term "perfectly windy" in relation to modern wind turbines, because they necessarily have a safety mechanism that shuts them off if the wind speed reaches 55 mph. Otherwise, they tend to fly apart.

They don't really generate anything of note when the wind speed is below 20 mph and are not "rated" to produce consistent power until the wind speed is above 30 mph. This means that wind turbines actually generate their rated power for about 10–30% of their lifespan.

When the wind decides to be just right like Goldilocks' porridge, turbines can generate a lot of energy. As noted in 2011 by the UK-based environmentalist group, the John Muir Trust (which is tied to the Sierra Club and couldn't be a more avid supporter of sustainable development), the sporadic surges are a problem:

The incidence of high wind and low demand can occur at any time of year. [. . .] This indicates the requirement for a major reassessment of how much wind capacity can be tolerated by the Grid. [. . .] The nature of wind output has been obscured by reliance on “average output” figures. [. . .]

It is clear from this analysis that wind cannot be relied upon to provide any significant level of generation at any defined time in the future. There is an urgent need to re-evaluate the implications of reliance on wind for any significant proportion of our energy requirement.

If the energy from these peak periods could be stored in battery banks, instead of burning the grid out, so that it could subsequently be used when it is required rather than when it isn't, then this could make "renewable energy" more practicable.

But there are many reasons why it simply can't.

Modern lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are able to discharge stored energy at the variable rate that is called for. They have high energy density, are quite efficient and have a reasonable life-cycle. Unfortunately, the economic cost is beyond prohibitive.

Currently, the US maintains an annual average of about six weeks' worth of fuel for use in high-demand periods. This increases further in the winter months. In order to replace just two weeks of that reserve with a Li-ion battery grid system, at current prices, the US taxpayer would need to invest around $200 trillion (a little less than ten times the US' annual GDP). However, this isn't even the main problem.

Current Li-ion battery manufacturing accounts for 40% of all lithium and 25% of all cobalt mined globally. If Li-ion batteries are to be the solution to the intermittent renewable energy problem on a global scale, then there would need to be something like a 200% increase (a tripling) in global mining operations to obtain the necessary rare earth metals and minerals. Even this conservative estimate is made assuming that they are used for grid storage capacity and nothing else.

This brings us back to the Swiss electric vehicle problem. As reported by UK Column on many occasions, the prospect of replacing the world's current fleet of vehicles with EVs is nil.

In 2019, the UK Government proudly declared its commitment to so-called "net zero" policy. Consequently, it pledged to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 and to enforce the sale of EVs only by 2035. Few people checked to see whether this was so much as possible.

A team led by Professor Richard Herrington undertook that task and wrote a letter to the UK Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change highlighting an inconvenient truth.

It isn't possible at all:

To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles [. . .] would take [. . .] just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and 12% of the world’s copper production. [. . .] [It] will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry. [. . .]

If this analysis is extrapolated to the currently projected estimate of two billion cars worldwide [. . .] annual production would have to increase for neodymium and dysprosium by 70%, whilst cobalt output would need to increase at least three and a half times. [. . .]

The energy demand for extracting and processing the metals is almost 4 times the total annual UK electrical output. [. . .] There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs [. . .] this will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.

It is worth bearing in mind that Herrington's team was focused solely upon upgrading the existing vehicle fleet in the UK. Just charging our cars, vans and lorries alone would require a 20% increase in the UK's total energy production. If this is going to coincide with "reduced" carbon dioxide emissions, as the Government claims, then this extra energy will have to come from renewable energy or nuclear power.

Herrington's calculations didn't even consider the rare earth metals, minerals and other resources that would be needed for the exorbitantly expensive grid Li-ion batteries required to store and mete out this one-fifth increase. Nor did it account for the much greater demand for the grid Li-ion batteries that would be needed to power every other sector of the British economy.

If we then extrapolate these calculations to achieving the same in every nation on Earth, then—as far as anyone knows—there are not enough resources on the planet even to make the transition to EVs, let alone to meet all of the world's other energy needs. In 2015, when a team of US scientists and engineers considered the feasibility of the proposed global transition, they noted:

[A]ll of the scenarios examined envision historically unprecedented improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy [. . .] Achieving these rates would require a significant and discontinuous acceleration of worldwide energy efficiency efforts. [. . .]

To accomplish deep decarbonization with this limited portfolio, [. . .] studies depend on sustaining global energy intensity improvements for decades at a rate twice as fast as the most rapid energy intensity improvement experienced in any single year in recent history and roughly 3.5 times faster than the average global rate sustained from 1970 to 2011. [. . .]

Given the multiplicity of feasibility challenges associated simultaneously achieving such rapid rates of energy intensity improvement and low-carbon capacity deployment, it is likely to be both premature and dangerously risky to ‘bet the planet’ on a narrow portfolio of favored low-carbon energy technologies.

If we are seriously going to use "renewable energy" to power the world, then the environmental damage caused by (for example) scraping the seabed for cobalt or covering farmland in solar panels is practically incalculable—quite apart from the problems of food insecurity, energy poverty and the excess deaths it would cause.

Nothing about the plans to transition to so-called "renewable energy" can legitimately be called "sustainable”.


An Uncomfortable Realisation

The uncomfortable realisation we have to face is that the transition to "sustainable energy" is not based upon the premise of our continuing to use energy on anything close to the scale we are accustomed to. The figures simply don't add up.

Rather, the sustainable development (which is in no way "sustainable”) of renewable energy (which isn't "renewable”) is predicated upon one stark equation: either we will each use a considerably less energy or there will be far fewer of us.

Perhaps we, as a species, are ready to accept this in order to protect the planet for future generations. But in doing so—unless some quantum leap in energy technology suddenly emerges—we also need to accept the dictum that they should be poorer and less numerous than we are.

A sudden global collapse in the energy generation system would cause mass civil unrest and bloody revolutions everywhere, simultaneously. Therefore, governments need to transition us carefully, and they can't expect to do this by rapidly switching to an energy system that is actually based upon solar panels and windmills. This is why the EU recently reclassified nuclear power and gas-fired power stations as "green”.

The whole notion of renewable energy, as it is presented to us, is essentially a ruse. It is designed to train us to accept ever more restrictions imposed upon our lives.

Carbon trading, carbon offsetting, carbon markets, carbon bonds, carbon capture and a whole range of equally ludicrous carbon dioxide-related mechanisms have been created to maintain the social, political and economic and financial power of those who are promoting sustainable development. The idea is to maintain the illusion just long enough to complete the transformation to a new global economic model.

This article is followed up by: Are We Really At War? Nonsensical Sustainable Development