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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.

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Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond : Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought, where this piece first ran.

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