Citizen Action Monitor

Moving the global economy from fossil fuels to a Green Energy future isn’t possible: Gail Tverberg explains

Belief that the world economy can transition to Green Energy is based on ten misunderstandings.

No 2643 Posted by fw, July 19, 2020

“Let’s look at a few [ten to be exact] of the misunderstandings that lead people to believe that the world economy can move to a Green Energy future”

  1. The economy isn’t really like a computer that can be switched on and off; it is more comparable to a human body that is dead, once it is switched off.
  2. Economic growth has a definite pattern to it, rather than simply increasing without limit.
  3. Commodity prices behave differently at different stages of the economic cycle. During the second half of the economic cycle, it becomes difficult to keep commodity prices high enough for producers.
  4. The low prices since mid-2008 seem to be leading to both peak crude oil and peak coal. Crude oil production started falling in 2019 and can be expected to continue falling in 2020. Coal extraction seems likely to start falling in 2020.
  5. Modelers missed the fact that fossil fuel extraction would disappear because of low prices, leaving nearly all reserves and other resources in the ground. Modelers instead assumed that renewables would always be an extension of a fossil fuel-powered system.
  6. The same issue of low demand leading to low prices affects commodities of all kinds. As a result, many of the future resources that modelers count on, and that companies depend upon as the basis for borrowing, are unlikely to really be available.
  7. On a stand-alone basis, intermittent renewables have very limited usefulness. Their true value is close to zero.
  8. The true cost of wind and solar has been hidden from everyone, using subsidies whose total cost is hard to determine.
  9. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric today only comprise a little under 10% of the world’s energy supply.
  10. Few people understand how important energy supply is for giving humans control over other species and pathogens.

Gail Tverberg, Our Finite World

Gail Tverberg is an actuary interested in finite world issues – oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. Gail tries to look at the overall problem.

Below is my abridged repost focusing solely on Gail’s misunderstandings numbered 5 through 10, and featuring my added subheadings, text highlighting and some bulletted reformatting. This abridged repost aims to give readers the essence of Gail’s thesis. Alternatively, to read Gail’s compete analysis of why, in her words, “There is little chance that Green Energy can play more than a small role in the Great Reset,” click on the following linked title.

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Why a Great Reset Based on Green Energy Isn’t Possible by Gail Tverberg, Our Finite World, July 17, 2020

Let’s look at a few of the misunderstandings that lead people to believe that the world economy can move to a Green Energy future.

[5] Modelers missed the fact that fossil fuel extraction would disappear because of low prices, leaving nearly all reserves and other resources in the ground. Modelers instead assumed that renewables would always be an extension of a fossil fuel-powered system.

The thing that most people do not understand is that commodity prices are set by the laws of physics, so that supply and demand are in balance. Demand is really very close to “affordability.” If there is too much wage/wealth disparity, commodity prices tend to fall too low. In a globalized world, many workers earn only a few dollars a day. Because of their low wages, these low-paid workers cannot afford to purchase very much of the world’s goods and services. The use of robots tends to produce a similar result because robots can’t actually purchase goods and services made by the economy.

Thus, modelers looking at Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) for wind and for solar assumed that they would always be used inside of a fossil fuel powered system that could provide heavily subsidized balancing for their intermittent output. They made calculations as if intermittent electricity is equivalent to electricity that can be controlled to provide electricity when it is needed. Their calculations seemed to suggest that making wind and solar would be useful. The thing that was overlooked was that this was only possible within a system where other fuels would provide balancing at a very low cost.

 

[6] The same issue of low demand leading to low prices affects commodities of all kinds. As a result, many of the future resources that modelers count on, and that companies depend upon as the basis for borrowing, are unlikely to really be available.

Commodities of all kinds are being affected by low demand and low selling prices. The problem giving rise to low prices seems to be related to excessive specialization, excessive use of capital goods to replace labor, and excessive use of globalization. These issues are all related to the needs of a world economy that depends on a high level of technology. In such an economy, too much of the output of the economy goes to producing devices and to paying highly trained workers. Little is left for non-elite workers.

The low selling prices of commodities makes it impossible for employers to pay adequate wages to most of their workers. These low wages, in turn, feed through to the uprisings we have been seeing in the last couple of years. These uprisings are part of “Revolutions and Wars” mentioned in Figure 1. It is difficult to see how this problem will disappear without a major change in the “World Order,” mentioned in the same figure.

Because the problem of low commodity prices is widespread, our ability to produce electrical backup of all kinds, including the ability to make batteries, can be expected to become an increasing problem. Commodities, such as lithium, suffer from low prices, not unlike the low prices for coal and oil. These low prices lead to cutbacks in their production and local uprisings.

 

[7] On a stand-alone basis, intermittent renewables have very limited usefulness. Their true value is close to zero.

If electricity is only available when the sun is shining, or when the wind is blowing, industry cannot plan for its use. Its use must be limited to applications where intermittency doesn’t matter, such as pumping water for animals to drink or desalinating water. No one would attempt to smelt metals with intermittent electricity because the metals would set at the wrong time, if the intermittent electricity suddenly disappeared. No one would power an elevator with intermittent electricity, because a person could easily be trapped between floors. Homeowners would not use electricity to power refrigerators, because, as likely as not, the food would spoil when electricity was off for long periods. Traffic signals would work sometimes, but not others.

Lebanon is an example of a country whose electricity system works only intermittently. It is hard to imagine that any other country would want to imitate Lebanon. Lack of reliable electricity supply leads to protests in Lebanon.

 

[8] The true cost of wind and solar has been hidden from everyone, using subsidies whose total cost is hard to determine.

Each country has its own way of providing subsidies to renewables. Most countries give wind and solar the subsidy of “going first.” They are often given a fixed rate as well. Both of these are subsidies. In the US, other subsidies are buried in the tax system. Recently, there has been talk of using QE [quantitative easing] to help wind and solar providers lower their cost of borrowing.

Newspapers regularly report that the price of wind and solar is at “grid parity,” but this is not an apples to apples comparison. To be useful, electricity needs to be available when users need it. The cost of storage is far too high to allow us to store electricity for weeks and months at a time.

If we were to use intermittent electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels in general, we would need to use intermittent electricity to heat homes and offices in winter. Sunshine is abundant in the summer, but not in the winter. Without storage, solar panels cannot even be counted on to provide homeowners with heat for cooking dinner after the sun sets in the evening. An incredibly huge amount of storage would be needed for storing heat from summer to winter.

China reports that it has $42 billion in unpaid clean energy subsidies, and this amount is getting larger each year. Countries are now becoming poorer and the taxes they are able to collect are lower. Their ability to subsidize a high cost, unreliable electricity system is disappearing.

 

[9] Wind, solar, and hydroelectric today only comprise a little under 10% of the world’s energy supply. 

We are deluding ourselves if we think we can get along on such a tiny total energy supply.

Few people understand what a small share of the world’s energy supply wind and solar provide today. The amounts shown in Figure 6 assume that the denominator is total energy (including oil, for example) not just electricity. In 2019, hydroelectric accounts for 6.4% of world energy supply. Wind accounts for 2.2%, and solar accounts for 1.1%. The three together amount to 9.7% of world energy supply.

None of these three energy types is suited for producing food. Oil is currently used for tilling fields, making herbicides and pesticides, and transporting refrigerated crops to market.

 

[10] Few people understand how important energy supply is for giving humans control over other species and pathogens.

Control over other species and pathogens has been a multistage effort. In recent years, this effort has involved antibiotics, antivirals and vaccines. Pasteurization became an important technique in the 1800s.

We are dealing with COVID-19 now. Today’s hospitals are only possible thanks to a modern mix of energy supply. Drugs are very often made using oil. Personal protective equipment is made in factories around the world and shipped to where it is used, generally using oil for transport.

Human’s control over other species started over 100,000 years ago, when humans learned to burn biomass for many uses, including cooking foods, scaring away predators, and burning down entire forests to improve their food supply.

 

CONCLUSION

World leaders are being misled by flawed modelling

We do indeed appear to be headed for a Great Reset.

    • There is little chance that Green Energy can play more than a small role, however.
    • Leaders are often confused because of the erroneous modeling that has been done.
    • Given that the world’s oil and coal supply seem to be declining in the near term, the chance that fossil fuel production will ever rise as high as assumptions made in the IPCC reports seems very slim.

It is true that some Green Energy devices may continue to operate for a time.

    • But, as the world economy continues to head downhill, it will be increasingly difficult to make new renewable devices and to repair existing systems.
    • Wholesale electricity prices can be expected to stay very low, leading to the need for continued subsidies for wind and solar.

An emerging “New World Order” previews a grim picture of what’s in store for humanity

Figure 1 indicates that we can expect —

    • more revolutions and wars at this stage in the cycle.
    • At least part of this unrest will be related to low commodity prices and low wages.
    • Globalization will tend to disappear.
    • Keeping transmission lines repaired will become an increasing problem,
    • as will many other tasks associated with keeping energy supplies available.

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