FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Cornucopian Renewable-Energy Claims Leave Poor Nations in the Dark

Photo by Udo | CC BY 2.0

The Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and his colleagues have written another paper purporting to show that 100 percent of energy demand can be fulfilled by wind, solar, and hydroelectric generation. This latest study, which comes in the form of a manuscript accepted but not yet published by the journal Renewable Energy, seeks to show how that goal can be met in 139 nations.

Jacobson’s previous “100 percent renewable” papers have prompted other researchers to publish their own studies pointing out faulty technical assumptions and analyses that cast a shadow over his claims. I expect that we will see technical critiques of Jacobson’s latest study as well published in coming weeks or months (if, that is, there are experts out there who are willing to risk being sued by Jacobson for questioning his results. He’s got one such sketchy lawsuit in the courts already.)

But even if we disregard the technical weaknesses of claims that all future demand can be satisfied with renewable energy sources—even if we assume for the sake of argument that such rosy scenarios really are achievable—there will remain the problem of energy poverty. As I have noted,

Billions of people around the world need more energy than they can afford, while billions of others can buy far more energy than is required to meet their needs. Global 100-percent renewable scenarios are based on these distortions; as a result, they typically aim to satisfy a worldwide per capita energy consumption that’s about one-eighth of what Americans consume. . . the 100-percent scenarios would leave in place huge gaps in consumption between affluent and poor communities, both among and within countries.

To quantify those distortions: Jan Christof Steckel and coworkers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have shown that for societies to achieve satisfactory levels of human development, they must have energy capacity large enough to satisfy annual consumption of at least 40 gigajoules (GJ/yr) per capita, which translates as an average per capita flux of about 1300 Watts. (That fluctuates hour to hour, day to day, and place to place, and, according to Steckel and coauthors, it is a minimum for healthy development of a society.) But in their new manuscript, Jacobson and coauthors set their goals much lower than 1300 W for large parts of the world’s population. Here are the targets for per-capita consumption that they would try to meet with renewable energy in some of the continents, regions, and nations they examined:

South America:   1413 W
Southeast Asia:   1007 W
Africa:   625 W
India:    755 W
Haiti:    760 W
Cuba:    705 W

(For comparison, the current U.S. average is 9500 W.)

In the context of Jacobson’s studies, these are presented as reasonable targets because he, like many other energy-scenario researchers, is forecasting that extremely rapid improvements in energy efficiency will reduce worldwide demand to a level that can be satisfied by renewable sources. These sunny forecasts assume that progress in information and communications technology (ICT), along with good old industrial technologies, will accelerate and spin off greater and greater efficiencies.

But there is plenty of doubt about whether such historically unprecedented efficiency improvements can be achieved even in wealthy nations. And an analysis by the ecological economist Mauro Bonaiuti shows that rather than accelerating, the marginal benefits of innovation in traditional industries are in long-term decline, while even those of the still-young ICT revolution are already fizzling.

Steckel and colleagues conclude that poor nations striving to achieve high levels of human development cannot at the same time achieve rapid improvements in energy efficiency. Even if consumer goods like stoves and refrigerators are made to run on less energy, they argue, the society-wide infrastructure improvements necessary for development (which involve a lot of inputs like cement and steel) are and will remain highly energy intensive. Low-income nations, even ones with a large economy and an affluent minority, cannot adequately raise their overall Human Development Index if they are operating at only half of the 1300 W threshold, as Jacobson is asking India, Haiti, Cuba, and the whole continent of Africa to do.

(Beware of some Jacobson critics who, determined to save capitalism but cynically adopting the language of social justice, look at the inadequacy of the high-energy 100-percent renewable strategy and draw a suicidal conclusion: that the only acceptable alternative is a big rollout of nuclear power, carbon capture, and geoengineering.)

All nations, rich and poor, need to undergo a renewable energy conversion. But for the world’s poor majority to achieve good quality of life, energy supplies in poor nations must be not only converted but also increased. This will require massive assistance from the rich nations; perhaps those funds and resources can be regarded as partial payback of what Pope Francis has called the “ecological debt … between the global north and south.”

Another complication: The wholesale conversion to wind and solar energy infrastructure, wherever it’s happening, will itself consume a lot of energy. Until the conversion is complete, the energy driving the transition will have to come largely from fossil fuels. So supporting the energy-expansion-and-conversion effort in poor nations will put even heavier pressure on rich nations, which will already be struggling to build up their own renewable infrastructure on a crash schedule while simultaneously trying to shrink their overall energy footprint (if they are really serious about reducing emissions). The rich nations will need to offset those emissions created in the process of converting the worldwide energy supply by cutting their own energy use even more deeply.

For more than a decade, my colleagues and I writing for Green Social Thought have argued that the United States will need to reduce total energy generation by 80 percent if we are to run on wholly renewable energy, avoid runaway greenhouse warming, and help achieve adequate emissions reductions worldwide.

An 80-percent U.S. reduction would take us down into the neighborhood of 2000 W per capita, a quantity that according to the Steckel analysis, could support good quality of life (if, that is, it goes to meeting human needs and not toward capital accumulation). That level of demand could be met with 100-percent renewable energy. It also happens to be right around Mexico’s current per-capita consumption and close to the consumption that Jacobson and company are projecting for a future China. We could live with that.

Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is on the editorial board of Green Social Thought, where this article first appeared.  He is author of ‘Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing’  and three other books.

More articles by:

Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Nevins
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Jasmine Aguilera
Beto’s Lasting Legacy
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Yves Engler
Ottawa, Yemen and Guardian
Michael Winship
This Was No Vote Accident
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Tracey L. Rogers
Dear White Women, There May be Hope for You After All
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Thomas Knapp
Scott Gottlieb’s Nicotine Nazism Will Kill Kids, Not Save Them
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail