FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Not So Bright Future of Green Energy

Imagine a world fueled wholly by renewable energy. Rooftops lined with solar panels, ridges and coastlines dotted with turbines, rivers tamed by massive dams. A world free of fossil fuels and their polluting emissions. A sleeker, quieter, greener world.

For many of my progressive friends, such a vision represents the future. Eventually, the argument goes, the U.S. government will ‘wake up’ and start subsidizing Green Energy a la Germany and Spain, putting tens of thousands to work rebuilding our electrical infrastructure, and evading climate change’s nastier aspects.

A wonderful vision, I’ll agree.

A look at some current realities, however, suggests a future not so rosy.

At present, only 7 percent of total American energy consumption is powered by renewables.  (Biomass: 4.5%; hydro: 3.26%; wind: 1.2%; solar .16%.) Even in vanguard nations like Spain and Germany, fossil fuels still supply the lion’s share of energy needs, at 75 and 76% respectively. Massive government-subsidies notwithstanding, only 7.5 percent of global demand is satisfied by renewables. To say we have our work cut out is an understatement.

Consider wind power. In the US today, some 45,000 turbines generate 60,000 megawatts. Wind apologists claim the US possesses the capacity for 60 quads, or 17,584,264,999.98 megawatts. Yet as was pointed out in Richard Heinberg’s, The Party’s Over, to produce even “…18 quads of wind power in the US by 2030 would require the installation of something like half a million state-of-the-art turbines, or roughly 20,000 per year starting now.” (Now being 2003).

Solar offers similar challenges. Though USDE studies estimates a total 350 quads of US solar potential, (total consumption being 100 quads), the cost would be an astronomical six trillion dollars, and would require an area roughly the size of Maryland.

Hydropower is even more daunting. Assuming a target of 50% of consumption, we would need to build an additional 38,333 new dams—and that’s on top of the billions we’d need to spend repairing the existing 2,300.

Given the current political climate, does any of this seem likely?

Not with a Congress who would slash crucial social programs while pumping billions into unconstitutional domestic spy programs.

Even if some cataclysmic event forced the government’s hand—a sudden spike in sea level, say—there is still the problem of storage.

Unlike fossil fuels whose tangibility permits energy-conversion pretty much anytime, anywhere, renewables are dependent on ever-changing environmental outputs. If the wind ain’t blowing or the sun ain’t shining, the juice ain’t flowing. In a perfect world, you’d capture and store the excess generated during wind events and long summer days, releasing it whenever supply failed to meet demand. Unfortunately, such technology does not yet exist—at least not on an efficient and cost-effective scale.

Currently, there are two main ways of storing renewable-generated power at grid-scale: pumped hydroelectricity and compressed air energy storage (CAES). Pumped hydroelectricity works by pumping water uphill into large reservoirs during times of high supply, and releasing it when supply is low. The rushing water turns a turbine, creating electricity. While effective, this approach is expensive and environmentally destructive. It’s also only feasible in mountainous regions, leaving the Midwest and much of the East S.O.L.

The other method, CAES, works similarly. Excess generation is used to force hot air into underground vaults where it is stored until needed. When released, the air is fed through a series of electricity-generating turbines. However, much of the heat is lost during storage, leaving behind air that is cooler, less expansive. New designs to capture and store the heat before it is absorbed are still on the drawing board.

Other methods—lithium batteries, vehicle grid storage, ultracapacitors, hydrogen—show promise but are either underdeveloped, too expensive, impractical, or all three.

The unfortunate truth is after decades of R&D we still don’t have a workable, grid-scale storage solution.

So okay, you say, we’re dragging our feet a bit. But that’s what human-beings always do. And then someone comes along at the last second and invents some brilliant new device, and everything’s fine.

A technological breakthrough is certainly a possibility, but it would have to be implemented using—you guessed it—fossil fuels. Fossil fuels so sparse and precious as to make their use for anything other than the most immediately profitable activities unthinkable.

If the federal government had acted in the Seventies and Eighties, before the rise of China and India, it might have been possible. But not now. Not with 6 trillion in debt. Not with banks sitting on billions in reserves.

The future of renewable power will be one that is sporadic and piece-meal.  A community here, a city there. A cluster of cabins on a Montana ranch with an array of aging solar panels.  Military and governmental installations. A wealthy and privilege few.

For the rest of us, it will be very much as it is now: getting by with less.

Jeremy Tucker blogs at deadnationwalking and can be reached at jeremytucker99@gmail.com He is the creator/star of two short satirical films: FU Ocean and The 20 Minute Weightlifting Freakout with Boz Blackknuckle. He lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania.

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
April 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Omar Shaban
Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19
Rob Urie
Work, Crisis and Pandemic
John Whitlow
Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day
Jonathan Cook
The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus
Paul Street
Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Control of Nature
Louis Proyect
COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper
Kathleen Wallace
The Highly Contagious Idea
Kenneth Good
The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators.
Andrew Levine
Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.
Ramzy Baroud
Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic
Matthew Stevenson
Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe?
Ron Jacobs
Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed
Michael T. Klare
Avenger Planet: Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Mother Nature’s Response to Human Transgression?
Jack Rasmus
COVID-19 and the Forgotten Working Class
Werner Lange
The Madness of More Nukes and Less Rights in Pandemic Times
J.P. Linstroth
Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race
John Feffer
We Need a Coronavirus Truce
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”: the Ultimate Floating Signifier
Victor Grossman
Corona and What Then?
Katie Fite
Permanent Pandemic on Public Lands: Welfare Sheep Ranchers and Their Enablers Hold the West’s Bighorns Hostage
Patrick Bond
Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa
Eve Ottenberg
Capitalism vs. Humanity
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 2: Panic On the Streets of Tehran
Jonas Ecke
Would Dying for the Economy Help Anybody?
Jeff Mackler
Capitalism is the Virus!
Andrew Moss
Incarceration, Detention, and Covid-19
Farzana Versey
Prayers, Piffle and Privation in the Time of Pandemic
Will Solomon
In the New Dystopia
Dean Baker
The Relative Generosity of the Economic Rescue Package: Boeing vs. Public Broadcasting
Dr. Leo Lopez, III
We Need a Lot More Transparency From the CDC
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Reflections on a Glass of Homemade Cider
Rashid Nuri
Homegrown Crisis Response: Who Grows Your Food?
Mark Luskus
Worst Case Scenario: Healthcare Workers Need Masks, ASAP
Volker Franke
The Virus That May Bring us Together
Mitchell Zimmerman
A Q & A on the GOP’s Call for Elder Sacrifice
Olfat al-Kurd
COVID-19 Could Be Catastrophic for Us: Notes From Gaza
Eileen Appelbaum - Roesmary Batt
Hospital Bailouts Begin…for Those Owned by Private Equity Firms
Nabri Ginwa
Carcinogens
Jill Richardson
Efficiency vs. Resilience
Lee Ballinger
Eddie Van Halen and the Future of Humanity
David Yearsley
Beset by Bach
Robert Koehler
Developing a Vaccine Against War
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail