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Renewables cannot sustain the globalized growth-economy


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by Almuth Ernsting (Biofuelwatch)

Living in Scotland, I should be proud of our government’s energy and climate change commitments. Not of those by the UK government, whose climate credentials consist mainly of slashing support for onshore wind and solar power, handing some €400 million in subsidies to energy companies for keeping old coal power stations open and riding roughshod over mass opposition to fracking. But proud of those by the Scottish government who, despite very limited powers over the energy sector, have made great efforts to follow a different path. 

Scotland’s climate and renewable energy targets are amongst the most ambitious in the world: Greenhouse gases are to be cut by 42% by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels) and by 80% by 2050. Other targets include meeting the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s electricity from renewables. ‘Equivalent’ means that Scotland would still produce some electricity from burning fossil fuels but that an equivalent amount of renewable electricity would then be exported to the rest of the UK.

Up to 1 gigawatt of wind power capacity has been installed annually in recent years which, for a country with just 5.3 million people, is quite a lot.

Unlike many other countries, Scotland has a relatively small population concentrated mainly in the central belt and, thanks to its climate and geography, has one of the highest potentials for wind energy in Europe. With a government eager to exploit this potential, Scotland serves as a good testing ground for the idea that renewable energy can provide abundant and affordable energy to an industrial society, and that the answer to climate change lies primarily in switching from fossil fuels to renewables.

What can we learn from the Scottish experience?

Unfortunately, a closer look at Scotland’s energy sector and policy reveals a rather more sobering picture: First of all, Scotland’s wind energy boom has done nothing to curb investment in, and the country’s economic reliance on, exploiting fossil fuels. During last year’s independence referendum campaign, the Scottish government boasted: “Scotland has the vast bulk of the UK’s offshore oil and gas reserves, which are estimated to have a wholesale value of £1.5 trillion.” They want to see every last drop of this oil exploited. Those ‘exploitable’ reserves, according to a report commissioned by the UK government consist of 24 billion barrels. The 90% of this oil that the Scottish government would like to control contains 9.3 billion tonnes of CO2. That’s the equivalent of 153 times Scotland’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. It makes any emissions savings from the expansion of wind energy look like a cosmetic exercise. Despite its stated commitment to tackling change, the reasons why the Scottish government keeps backing the oil and gas industry are clear: According to industry estimates, the sector contributes £30.1 billion (40.7 billion Euros) in taxes to the UK, more if supply companies are included, and it supports 450,000 jobs, half of them in Scotland.

For all the fanfare about the growth in wind power, Scotland is a very long way from relying on it for its current electricity use – let alone for what would be needed to electrify a significant proportion of the transport and heat sectors, as environmental NGOs have called for. Renewables account for just under one third of electricity generation in Scotland. More than a quarter of this comes from hydro dams, most of which were built many decades ago. There is little potential for additional hydropower. Some of it comes from waste incineration (bizarrely classed as ‘renewable’) and some comes from biomass power plants burning wood from conifers cut down for this purpose.

“False renewables” account for the lion´s share of supposedly renewable energy

Generating electricity by burning wood from Scottish conifer plantations – grown on 40-90 year-long plantations – results in 80% greater CO2 emissions than generating it from burning coal, as an analysis of UK government figures shows. Elsewhere, the climate impact of biomass electricity is even worse: Just one English power station (Drax) is on track to burn 1.5 times as much wood annually as the UK produces in total every year and much of this comes from the clearcutting of highly biodiverse and carbon-rich wetland forests in the southern US. Across the UK and the EU as a whole, bioenergy accounts for the biggest share of energy classed as renewable, even though its overall climate impact is no better than that of the fossils it replaces. Cutting down trees for burning and expanding monocultures (including soya and palm oil in the tropics in order to produce biofuels, or turning food crops into biogas of which Germany is the world leader) quite clearly shouldn’t be defined as renewable energy. It is neither sustainable nor low-carbon and it doesn’t accord with the International Energy Agency’s definition of renewable energy either, which is “energy derived from natural processes that are replenished at a faster rate than they are consumed”. Land and freshwater depleted by industrial agriculture and tree plantations, biodiverse ecosystems converted to sterile monocultures and diverse forests logged for bioenergy certainly won’t be replenished in the time it takes to consume the energy derived this way – in fact, they may never be restored at all. Such ‘false renewables’ account for the lion’s share of supposedly renewable energy across the EU and worldwide. In Scotland however, the vast majority of renewable electricity comes from wind.

Could Scotland meet all its electricity needs from wind?

This brings us back to the question of whether a country like Scotland could meet all of its electricity needs from wind. As it stands, wind energy still only accounts for 21% of electricity generation, compared to 34% from nuclear power. In addition, Scotland’s wind energy is already near the limit of what can be accommodated by an electricity grid and infrastructure built around fossil fuels. Wind operators are already being regularly paid not to feed too much energy into the grid when it is particularly windy. Meantime, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has warned that even the government’s 2020 target (let alone NGOs’ proposed targets of meeting much of the transport and heat sectors needs on renewable electricity) “did not appear to be supported by a rigorous engineering analysis”. Supplying a much greater proportion of current electricity use from intermittent wind power would require vast investment in storing electricity, new grid infrastructure, building up new supply industries, etc. Is it possible? Theoretically yes, at least in a country like Scotland with a relatively small population and one of Europe’s biggest potentials for wind energy (as well as a particularly big potential for storing electricity through pumped hydro power). But getting there certainly won’t be quick, cheap and easy, and it will require vast amounts of upfront energy (most likely from fossil fuels), too.

How about transport and heat?

Replacing fossil and nuclear power with electricity from wind will require far greater changes and investments than the Scottish government envisions. Even more sobering is the fact that energy requirements for transport and heat account for more than electricity. At least half of all energy is used for heat, unsurprising in a country with one of the leakiest housing stocks in Europe. A multi-billion subsidy programme to insulate houses, coupled with strict building standards, would likely have done far more to curb carbon emissions than ramping up wind generation. At the same time, it would have greatly reduced energy use, alleviated poverty and enabled hundreds of thousands of people to stay warm in the winter. But with wind turbines (or, in more southerly countries, solar PV) so widely regarded as the primary response to climate change, such priorities tend to get forgotten.

Scotland’s situation differs from that of most other countries in that its government has a stronger commitment to wind energy than many others and in that geography, climate and demographics offer its wind industry a particular advantage. In this context, the limitations of relying on renewable energy as a way of addressing climate change, without drastic reductions in overall energy use, are really highlighted.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewables – constraints and limitations

Worldwide, renewable energy generation stands at record levels – but so does fossil fuel burning. The biggest shift in global energy isn’t growth in renewable energy but the rise of coal, which the International Energy Authority predicts will surpass oil as the world’s top energy source by 2017. There is no evidence that renewables have, at a global level, replaced fossil fuel use – they may have added more electricity capacity and thus fuelled more economic growth.

Then there’s the fact that the scale of the efforts and investments required to replace fossil fuels with lower-carbon but renewable energy are far greater than the optimistic wind and solar forecasts tend to admit. In Germany, 87.8% of total energy still comes from fossil fuels and nuclear power, and just 28% of the energy classed as renewable comes from wind and solar power. The vast majority of renewable energy comes from maize-based biogas, from burning wood and from biofuels for transport. Denmark has generated more energy from wind per head of population than any other country in the world. But even there wind energy still accounted for less than 4% of Denmark’s total energy generation in 2010.

The fastest and largest-scale energy transition humanity has ever experienced was the rise of oil. In purely economic terms and disregarding the devastation caused to ecosystems and communities and the major contribution to climate change, oil was a veritable miracle fuel for much of the 20th century. It had a higher energy return on investment than any other source of fuel ever discovered (though with most ‘easy oil’ already exploited, those days are long gone). Oil is also the only ideal energy carrier for fuelling transport, providing heat and generating electricity alike. Yet it still took 52 years from when the oil economy started to expand in earnest (itself 19 years after ‘easy oil’ was first discovered) until oil contributed 50% of global energy in 1972. At which time, global energy use was far smaller than it is today. Even if a ‘renewables transition’ was to mirror the fastest energy transition in history, it would not be nearly fast enough to offer much hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

Land and resource use and associated climate impacts

Finally, there is the question of what an attempt to replace current fossil fuel use with renewable energy would mean for land and resource use and their associated climate impacts. Right now, the vast majority of energy classed as renewable comes from bioenergy which, as shown above, is neither low-carbon nor genuinely renewable. A very big contribution comes from large hydro dams which are also associated with the destruction of vital ecosystems, the displacement and impoverishment of millions of people, and with greenhouse gas emissions (mainly methane) which can be higher than their fossil fuel equivalents. But let us imagine that wind and solar power – together with the necessary electricity storage – were the main technologies we scaled up to replace fossil fuels.

Studies on the life-cycle carbon emissions of wind and solar power concur that they result in lower emissions than fossil fuel burning. However, they are by no means negligible, and nor are their other environmental impacts. Solar PV systems, for example, use on average 23-59 kg of aluminium per kW hour of electricity. Aluminium production is highly energy intensive and requires around half a tonne of carbon (usually coal) to be burned per tonne of aluminium produced, and that's in addition to what is burned to provide energy for mining and smelting. The main solar PV conductor is silicon, which requires quartz sands to be mined, smelting quartz at temperatures above 2,000oC and then using a range of corrosive chemicals to produce thin silicon wafers. Other types of solar PV that don’t rely on silicone are being developed but, as a peer-reviewed study warns, the environmental impacts and energy requirements associated with these may be even higher. Wind turbines are somewhat less energy-intensive to produce, although steel production is energy intensive and also relies on burning large amounts of carbon (generally coal again) to create a hard enough material.

Efficient wind and tidal turbines rely on the mining of rare earths

But efficient wind turbines – as well as tidal turbines, but unlike solar PV – also rely on the mining of rare earths, as do many of the technologies which are being developed for storing electricity. Rare earths are elements found in very small and diluted quantities in the earth’s crust. Rare earths mines and refineries are amongst the most polluting operations in the world. They are mined in opencast mines, the ore is then crushed and milled and treated with a range of toxic chemicals, before the rare earths are extracted in energy-intensive processes. All rare earth metals contain radioactive elements and arsenic, barium, copper, aluminium, lead and beryllium may also be released. Refining one tonne of rare earths, which is required per 5 MW of wind capacity, results in around 75 m3 of acidic wastewater and one tonne of radioactive residue.

Then there is the question of land use: Though wind and solar power have a far smaller land footprint than bioenergy, their land footprint is nonetheless substantial (except in the case of rooftop solar PV). According to a highly-respected previous scientific advisor to the UK government, installing 15 offshore wind turbines along every kilometre of UK coastline would supply a mere 13% of the country’s average daily energy use.

Moving towards a low-energy society remains the only path for avoiding a climate catastrophe.

Any meaningful response to climate change must involve rapidly phasing out fossil fuel use while protecting remaining ecosystems, including healthy soils, and restoring and allowing as many damaged ecosystems as possible to regenerate. Wind and solar power, depending on where they are sited, can be amongst the ‘lowest-impact’ and ‘lowest-carbon’ forms of energy, so their expansion will indeed need to be supported. But ‘lowest-impact’ is far from ‘low impact’, and lower carbon is nowhere near ‘zero carbon’. Nor, as we have seen, is it realistic to expect such forms of energy to replace current fossil fuel use, and certainly not in the time necessary to prevent the most disastrous effects of climate change. Moving towards a low-energy society remains the only path for avoiding a climate catastrophe.


Almuth Ernsting helped found Biofuelwatch in 2006 and has been researching, publishing about and and campaigning on issues related to biofuels, biomass, biochar and wider energy-related and environmental policy issues since then.

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