Citizen Action Monitor

Atmospheric scientist makes decisive case why renewables will NOT be our salvation

Tim Garrett sees two “really important” problems with a move into renewables.

No 2370 Posted by fw, September 9, 2018

NOTE — To access my other posts related to Dr. Garrett’s research on a global economic/civilization collapse by the end of this century, click on the Tab in the top left margin, titled Civilization/Economic Collapse ~ Links to All Posts By or About Dr. Tim Garrett’s Research

“With a renewable revolution, is our salvation at hand? There are two considerations in this discussion that are rarely acknowledged. First, new sources of energy tend to add to past sources. Second, any source of energy, whatever its source, enables civilization to further destroy its environment through the extraction of matter. … So even if sunlight and wind is seemingly infinite, our planet Earth is not. Any short-term material gain of ours is a loss for the world around us. Renewables only accelerate this process.”Tim Garrett, University of Utah, 2014

In my preceding post, How ignorance of the physics of climate science could compromise our very survival, I cited an article by Tim Garrett to make the point that mainstream media and online environmental sources rarely explain the complicated science of climate change.

The Garrett article that I referenced in that post is the one I am reposting today, in full. In this piece, Garrett, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah since 2002, makes a conclusive case that renewables will not save us from the climate crisis. And Garrett should know, for he has, he says, “been focused on the complex interplay between aerosols, clouds, precipitation, radiation and climate, key ingredients in the understanding of climate change.”

Judge for yourself. Below is a repost of his article Are renewables the answer? with my added subheadings and text highlighting.

To read Garrett’s article on his website, click on the following linked title.

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Are renewables the answer? By Tim Garrett, University of Utah, 2014

With a renewable revolution, is our salvation at hand?

It is argued that there are two fundamental challenges facing humanity over this century: running out of the easily accessible fossil fuels that support our civilization, and second, burning these fossil fuels will lead to a less hospitable climate. This would seem to pose the inescapable problem that, if civilization doesn’t collapse from running out of fuel, it will collapse from the environmental damages created by burning the fuel.

The obvious solution seems to be renewables. Solar and wind provide the energy that civilization requires to continue while not being based on combustion that leads to carbon dioxide emissions.

Sure, solar and wind has the issue of being either expensive or intermittent. But production prices keep falling, and with a continental sized electrical grid, it’s probably sufficiently windy or sunny somewhere. Remarkably, solar and wind seem to be succeeding.

With a renewable revolution, is our salvation at hand?

Garrett sees two “really important” problems with this move into renewables

There are a couple of considerations in this discussion that I don’t see frequently addressed and I think may be really important. First, new sources of energy have historically added to past sources rather than replaced them. Second, any source of energy, whatever its source, enables civilization to further destroy its environment through the extraction of matter.

Total energy consumption estimates by source in the US 1775-2010 has risen dramatically

Consider the figure above, which provides a broad brush view of energy consumption in the United States over the past couple of hundred years. Overall, total energy consumption has risen dramatically. With the establishment of European settlers, society was first powered off wood, adding coal to the mix around 1880, with non-solid fossil sources taking off around 1950. Nuclear and renewables have (so far) been smaller players. 

Two problems: each energy source levels off; dominant sources do not decline, they become part of the mix

There’s a couple of interesting things to notice about these curves. First is their shape: following an initial period of exponential growth, each source tends to plateau. Then, when new sources are added,  they are additive: previously dominant sources do not decline, or at least not by much — they simply become part of a larger mix.

Consumption of coal actually “increased” when oil and natural gas became part of the energy mix

The curve for coal is particularly interesting. While there was marginal decline between 1910 and 1950, since then consumption of coal appears to have been resuscitated by oil and natural gas. Fluid fuels didn’t replace coal. In fact it was quite the opposite!

Explanation: New energy sources grow civilization, thus increasing demand for ALL TYPES OF ENERGY

Why would this be? I think a case could be made that what is going on is that new energy sources grow civilization, thereby increasing all of its aspects, including population, vehicles, and homes, as well as their corresponding demand for all types of energy, irrespective of source. Energy supports the technological advances that make previously inaccessible sources of energy more accessible.  With oil, mechanized digging of coal is easier; with an explosion of human population aided by the fertilizer produced with oil, demand for electricity produced by coal increases too.

Using the language of physics, think of an energy type as a “degree of freedom”

There are many physical analogs for this sort of behavior. To use the language of physics, we could think of an energy type as a “degree of freedom”. In low energy systems, certain possible degrees of freedom may be “frozen out”, and be inactive. With increasing energy added to the system, these degrees of freedom become active, but not at the sacrifice of those degrees of freedom that were previously active at lower energies.

Renewables would only slow climate change if they actually REPLACED rather than ADDED to existing energy sources (which is unprecedented)

So renewables are great as a substitute fuel for the purposes of slowing climate change, provided they actually replace rather than add to existing sources of energy. Unfortunately, it is not clear that there is any precedent for this sort of thing happening.

Moreover, as civilization grows, waste products grow, increasing the rate of pollution

A second issue is that civilization is made of matter not energy. As civilization grows, it accelerates its rate of pollution as it goes. Acting as an open thermodynamic system, we use energy to extract raw materials from our environment in order to feed and grow our children, construct the stuff of civilization, and offset ever present decay. As we do so, resource extraction depletes the oceans of fish, the forests of trees, and the ground of minerals, leaving behind material waste products such as plastic, nitrogen, and exotic chemicals that pollute our land, water and air.

Given the above logic, how can renewables ever be a solution to our environmental/climate crisis?

How can it be that renewables are any sort of environmental panacea if they simply add to the energy mix that we use to extract raw materials from our environment and leave behind an ever growing pile of waste? 

Renewables may not emit CO2, but they are used to extract earth’s finite materials to build more of us, leave less of the environment

Whether the energy source is oil or solar doesn’t really matter. Energy of whatever stripe is used to acquire the raw materials from our environment, that are needed to make up all the stuff of humanity, building more of us while leaving less of the environment in its wake. Sure, maybe renewables do not leave behind carbon dioxide in quite the same way as fossil fuels, but the energy they do provide helps contribute to our seemingly unstoppable conversion of matter from the environment into the matter that composes civilization.

So, even if sunlight and wind is seemingly infinite, our planet Earth is not. Any short-term material gain of ours is a loss for the world around us. Renewables only accelerate this process.

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