Citizen Action Monitor

Myth #21: Nate Hagens rebuts claims that “Renewable energy can power THIS civilization”

“The popular myth is that we can somehow swap out the dirty energy with clean energy technology while also continuing to consume at today’s income and GDP levels.” —

No 2753 Posted by fw, June 30, 2021—

“Renewable technology harnesses continuous energy flows from the sun. Those flows will keep coming, but the technology to extract the energy for our use is as complex and resource-intensive as building a computer or pickup truck. And oak tree or a chicken are renewables. Solar photovoltaics and wind towers are at best rebuildable. Currently what is referred to as ‘renewable energy’ requires fossil fuels, rare minerals, and complex global supply chains, financial guarantees – a more honest term would be ‘resource-intensive, free-energy harvesters that wear out in 25 years.’ Or, for shorthand – ‘repeatable’ or ‘rebuildable.’ Not ‘renewable’”. … we’re headed for higher energy systems’ complexity, which includes more moving parts and components which carry both cost and availability risks. … the future will be a hybrid system of improving energy technology and depleting fossil hydrocarbons. Renewables are mature and offer us many benefits. The myth is that using more of them will create an economy looking anything like today’s system.”Nate Hagens, selected excerpts from his MYTH #21

My transcript of this repost focuses on Nate’s 6:14-minute persuasive rebuttal of his Myth #21: “Renewable Energy Can Power THIS Civilization”, which is one of 33 myths that Nate presented in a dazzling May 21st Earth Day talk titled Earth and Humanity: Myth and Reality. The beauty of his 2hr, 52min long, information-rich Earth Day talk is that it is more of an indexed reference tool for recurrent consultation than a lecture meant to be consumed in one sitting.

At the bottom of this post is a complete time-stamped list of the titles of all of Hagens’ 33 myths, plus his opening Introduction and closing Interventions (and Wild Ideas). Moreover, the myths can be watched in any order — but, as Hagens mentions, the order decided on seems logical.

Briefly, Nate Hagens is a systems synthesist and well-known speaker on the big-picture issues facing human society. Before becoming a professor of an Honors seminar at the University of Minnesota, Nate was President of Sanctuary Asset Management and a Vice President at the investment firms Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers. He has a Masters Degree in Finance with Honors from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont.

The video segment of Myth #21, embedded in the repost below, is set to start at the 44:42-minute mark. (Although segment #21 ends at 50:56-minutes, the video will continue to play.)  For those who would prefer to watch Nate’s address on You Tube, without the transcript, click on the following linked title, which is also set to start at the 44:42-minute mark.

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MYTH #21: Renewable Energy Can Power THIS Civilization by Nate Hagens, Energy and Our Future / You Tube, May 16, 2021

TRANSCRIPT: Myth #21 (Starts at 44:42, Ends at 50:56)

[Note: For purposes of clarity, in my transcript I have numbered Nate’s 6 rebuttals of the renewable energy claims.]

Another popular myth is that we can somehow swap out the dirty energy with clean energy technology while also continuing to consume at today’s income and GDP levels. Briefly, there are multiple, fundamental flaws with this theme.

[1] First, not all joules* are equal in what they can do for us. Energy forms possess vastly different properties – like spatial distribution, power density, transportability, and environmental impact. Just like a hummingbird can’t easily switch from eating flower nectar to the equivalent calories-worth of grasshoppers, society dependent on low-cost liquid fuels can’t easily switch to land-intensive dispatchable electricity. [*joule – a unit of work or energy – e.g. a 60-watt lightbulb radiates 60 joules of energy every second]

For instance, a 200-megawatt wind farm might require spreading turbines over 19 square miles. A natural gas power plant with that same generating capacity would fit on a single city block. To replace substantial amounts of fossil carbon at anything near today’s consumption levels will require substantially more land.

[2] Second point, renewable technology harnesses continuous energy flows from the sun. Those flows will keep coming, but the technology to extract the energy for our use is as complex and resource-intensive as building a computer or pickup truck. And oak tree or a chicken are renewables. Solar photovoltaics and wind towers are at best rebuildable.

Currently, what is referred to as “renewable energy” requires fossil fuels, rare minerals, and complex global supply chains, financial guarantees – a more honest term would be “resource-intensive, free-energy harvesters that wear out in 25 years.” Or, for shorthand – “repeatable” or “rebuildable.” Not “renewable”.

[3] Next point, renewables are mature, viable, and relative to historical human to energy conversion ratios, cheap. But when extrapolating what they can do for us going forward, we often use a “money in, energy out” lens. We tend to focus on the improvement in technology and cost reduction, The green arrow of energy output is higher than the red arrow of dollar-cost input. It all looks great.

But a “money in, energy out” lens is only one way to see what’s happening. And it is a narrow boundary perspective and therefor incomplete and misleading.

A systems perspective would use “energy and materials in” / “energy and materials out” calculation. And when viewed this way, a more complete picture emerges. Fossil fuels provide the energy equivalence of 500 billion human laborers powering the global industrial and manufacturing engine.

Many renewable stories have rosy forecast that ignore the ongoing heavy lifting done by these unseen laborers, who will be getting older [scarcer] and thus retiring and thus more costly. As these fossil energy reserves deplete, the cost to get the same energy output will require a higher energy input which has to come from somewhere else in the economy.

Irrespective of renewable energy build-out, our fossil armies will be increasingly retiring in coming decades. Plus, each dollar in the global economy requires around two pounds of non-renewable material inputs. In effect, renewable stories focus on the green arrow is relationships to the red arrow of its cost. But too often neglect the brown arrow – the big one – that backstops the entire system. The total energy and materials underpinning the current system are essential to enabling any future system.

[4] Another key point, we’ve recently seen in the media that a new solar installation somewhere was cheaper than coal or gas. This can be technically true but is misleading for many reasons, but mainly because a solar kilowatt-hour comes when it comes. A grid-based kilowatt-hour, using natural gas, is available when you flick a switch.

As an analogy, it’s like a restaurant advertising cheap hamburgers for $7.00 but only on three days a week between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. versus a café that’s open 24/7 where the burger costs $9.00.

Comparing the cost of adding solar photovoltaic to a city or a region to the overall cost of electricity for that region is like apples and oranges. Because our culture demands, at least currently. 24/7 access to energy, a shift to more and more renewables is going to be much more costly than narrow boundary examples.

[5] You can’t use renewables for base load. Renewables are not reliable if you don’t put the cost of the  backup power into renewable costs.

As such, the future will likely be a combination of two trends: As fossil fuels deplete we’ll have no choice but to go back down to lower quality [energy] resources, as measured by less portability, lower density, more land area, etc.

[6] Additionally, we’re headed for higher energy systems’ complexity, which includes more moving parts and components which carry both cost and availability risks.

Economically, this all might look something like this graph, where the trifecta of higher cost natural resources, higher complexity solar inputs, and the end of cheap money will necessitate a biophysically smaller economy. Yes, solar and wind will be a much higher percentage of our energy mix, but the total size of the economy will be a third or even a half smaller

Whatever this ends up looking like, the future will be a hybrid system of improving energy technology and depleting fossil hydrocarbons. Renewables are mature and offer us many benefits. The myth is that using more of them will create an economy looking anything like today’s system.

50:56 — End of Myth #21

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LIST OF THE 33 MYTHS (plus opening introduction, Interventions (and Wild Ideas and Closing thoughts)

Nate notes that the myths themselves are listed in reverse numerical order from #33 down to #1, while the time markers are in chronological order from beginning to end, which facilitates their quick and easy location on the video. The myths can be watched in any order, but the order they’re in made the most sense to Hagens. To go directly to the beginning of any numbered myth or to the opening Introduction and closing Interventions and Wild Ideas, just click on the hyperlinked time stamp in front of the term “Myth” .

Time stamps: //   0:04 Introduction //   2:20 Myth #33: The Experts Have ALL the Answers //   4:16 Myth #32: Humans Are Separate From Nature //   6:45 Myth #31: Humans Are Mostly Selfish //   12:17 — Myth #30: More Is Better  //  18:12 Myth #29: “Someday I’ll Have enough” //   21:18 Myth #28: We Care About the Future //   23:38 Myth #27: Everyone Has Their Own Truth //   26:37 Myth #26: Truth Matters //   29:31 Myth #25: Energy Is Merely a Commodity //   34:28 Myth #24: The American Dream is Based on Hard Work and Cleverness //   36:05 Myth #23: Oil: The USA Will Be the Next Saudi Arabia //    41:46 Myth #22: We Can Always Get More Resources if We Have More Money //   44:42 Myth #21: Renewables Can Power THIS Civilization //   50:55 Myth #20: In the future we won’t need oil due to Peak Demand!! //   55:01 Myth #19: We Can Achieve Net Zero!! (by 2050 or any date) //   59:54 Myth #18: As Earth runs out of resources, We’ll Colonize Outer Space!! //   1:02:26 Myth #17: Growth Is Forever //   1:05:04 Myth #16: GDP Is the Right Goal for Society //   1:10:56 Myth #15: Overpopulation Is the Main Driver //   1:15:21 Myth #14: Technology Will Solve It //    1:21:16 Myth #13: The Environment Is Part of the Economy //   1:24:04 Myth #12: The Natural World Is Ours //   1:27:03 Myth #11: Climate Change Is the Core Problem //   1:32:44 Myth #10: Billionaires and Politicians Are in Charge //   1:38:56 Myth #9: Financial Markets Give Us the Right Signals for the Future //   1:43:22 Myth #8: Stimulus Is Permanent //   1:48:37 Myth #7: We Need to Crash the System to Get a Fresh Start //   1:52:43 Myth #6: The Use of Nuclear Weapons Is Unthinkable //    1:57:03 Myth #5: Fossil Fuel Companies Are at Fault //    2:03:01 Myth #4: Capitalism Is to Blame //    2:07:54 Myth #3: Humans Are Bad //   2:11:37 Myth #2: We Face a Shortage of Energy //    2:14:17 Myth #1: We Are Doomed //    2:19:56 Interventions (and Wild Ideas)

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