With the deadline for keeping global warming below 1.5C quickly approaching (at least according to the extremely optimistic IPCC calculations - and we know how we feel about those), the time for renewable energy is yesterday. The transition to these clean sources of energy should be a no brainer, right? Well, as always, the story is more complicated than it would first appear and our addiction to cheap and highly energetic fossil fuels isn't going anyway anytime soon. Can we break our addiction and create real change?
(Thank you sooo much to Alexey Gladyshev for cleaning up this transcription for us. We can't do all this without help from people like you!)
[0:05] I'm David Torcivia.
[0:07] I'm Daniel Forkner.
[0:09] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky, the end of the world.
[0:19] But if we learn from all of this, maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken, but it doesn't have to be. [0:31] In July 2008 a meeting of the G8 was convened. And together these countries directed the World Bank to create a new arm dedicated to the financing of projects to help combat climate change. These climate investment funds received an initial 6.5 billion dollars, some of which was merely redirected from other national aide programs at the time. And one of the two funds that were created is called the Clean Technology Fund dedicated to the development of low carbon emission technologies around the world. One year after this meeting this new fund was financing the construction of a wind park on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The 27 wind turbines together would produce 67.5 megawatts of energy enough to power 160,000 homes, and its profitability would help kick-off additional mega clean energy projects that would cause Oaxaca’s wind power generation to soar upwards to between 2000 and 4000 megawatts by 2018. In fact, today some 90% of all wind power generation in Mexico is sourced from the Isthmus and it's estimated that a total 10000 megawatts of wind energy is possible in this location.
[1:52] Okay, so that's it! That's our show for this week, thanks for tuning in. Renewable technology can be a big success when the world comes together to fund it. I'm glad you all listened.
[2:03] That's right, David. That'll do it for the week. Oh wait, hold on.
[2:07] Wait. You keep a lot of notes for this one. This seems short.
[2:15] Oh yeah, hold on, David. My notes are telling me there's a bit more to the story. So let's look at this real quick. In Mexico power supply and generation for the longest time had been owned and controlled primarily by the state. This arrangement had been enshrined in the constitution although foreign companies had been allowed to operate within the country under service contracts and in limited situations. A new wave of liberalization has taken hold however, and last year the government began opening its oil and gas market up to private investment. But that was not the case in 2009. And so the World Bank had to figure out a crafty way to not just finance this wind park but allow private companies to profit from its creation as well. And this was done through a legal loophole that said: companies in Mexico could control the distribution of energy production if they were responsible for creating it and if they used it for their own purposes. So here's what they did.
[3:17] First of all, the wind park is owned almost entirely, 99% by a French utility company called Electricite de France. But Walmart bought a few shares in the project, so less than 1%. And through this arrangement the French utility company was able to sell every single watt of energy from this project directly at a discounted rate to Walmart. That's right, in a state in which 7% of the entire population is completely without power. And through funding by an international fund dedicated to ostensibly combating climate change a wind farm was constructed by bulldozing 361 hectares of community lands and the villages of indigenous people. And then that power was sold exclusively to Walmart’s 350 stores, its wholesale stores and restaurants. The region that produces the most power in Mexico simultaneously has the deepest power inequality.
[4:14] Add just a couple more details about this project. A subsidiary of this French utility company was granted a contract for the performance of peripheral maintenance services, and for that the company eventually was paid 2 million dollars a year which is 4 times greater than the market price for similar maintenance contracts. And because of this trumped-up contract, in addition to exaggerations about how much the project was costing in loans, it was able to qualify for carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism which came out of the Kyoto Protocol. This meant that the French utility company received some 1.2 million carbon credits and a potential 40 million dollars in additional subsidies directly into their pockets. And so to be clear: those 1.2 million carbon credits they received gave this utility company the right to emit 1.2 million tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases back home in the EU.
[5:14] But the grifting doesn't end in just these subsidies, Daniel. This project was supposed to be able to generate hundreds of local jobs. But of course all the high-skilled work and therefore most the high-paying work was not given to locals but rather to American contractors. Unsurprisingly, the construction was preceded with lies to locals about how much they would receive in compensation for their land and contracts that ultimately prevent locals from even growing their own food among other things. But at this point those things should not surprise any of you. Which brings us to the main topic of this episode. And that's renewable energy and some of the uncomfortable realities of so-called green technology that become hidden from view by the fervor of vague ideas about wind farms and solar panels.
[6:01] Here's a quote from one of the locals in Oaxaca trying to defend their land: “We don't think in the same way. The tradesman's vision is buy-buy-buy-buy-buy. But here we don't buy everything, there are things that the farmers, the women and men have and can get from the land and live from. It’s another vision. They come along and say to us: you have the wind here, so you have the obligation to contribute to reducing climate change. We didn't contribute to climate change, the corporates – they're the ones who caused climate change. And now the same companies are the ones with the solutions in their hands. They have the solution in these farms producing renewable energy. Really, it’s paradoxical.”
[6:44] So let's look at some of these paradoxes. When energy production overall increases, new renewable sources that do not directly result in the closing of non-renewable sources don't actually end up curbing emissions. And this is no secret, in fact one industry report said, “Investing in new renewable power is not the same as making overall electricity production cleaner if the overall energy mix does not significantly alter.”
[7:11] And then there's another paradox going on in terms of how this energy is used. One of the USAID officials who oversaw this project said, “This will enable Mexico to greatly increase its exports and provides an incentive to develop power projects.” And so, when renewable energy technology is used to fuel the growth of private business as this wind farm was done for Walmart, and when renewable energy is used to fuel the growth of industry and export-led development as wind power has done for a Oaxaca broadly, and as that USAID official admits here, when these projects are used as ways to grab land away from locals and then deny them access to that very power, and when all this results in carbon credits for private businesses to then dump emissions elsewhere. We have a contradiction of everything that are renewable technology represents.
[8:08] This region of Mexico on the southern part is one of the best sites in the world for wind power generation. And the project we discussed represents just one of over 20 that have been built so far and over double that which are planned. In the mapping that has been going on in the region to locate the best sites for wind energy has gone hand-in-hand with mapping for oil and gas extraction sites, it has opened the door to the planning and construction of mega fossil fuel energy projects and the development of even more industry. And because international companies can invest in the area, clean energy represents a way to speculate and profit off climate change, where companies are given massive subsidies and carbon credits to build low-risk projects in developing regions like Oaxaca where profit is guaranteed. But those carbon credits, which can be then sold to other companies, become more viable as climate change gets worse. It's the perfect way for energy companies to hedge their risk and continue non-renewable production at home. And it goes without saying, but along with all this development is a destruction of ecosystems, human rights abuses aimed at locals defending their land and even the destruction of important archaeological sites.
[9:19] Yeah, it's really a racket when you start looking at the details. I mean, companies like this French utility company, they plan these projects that would be profitable in their own right based on the contracts that they set up, but then they say, “hey, if we pro forma these really high costs, in this case by inflating the contract, the amount they're paying to a subsidiary of their own company, and if we overestimate the amount they're going to be paying in loans, then we can go to these international bodies and say, ‘hey, we want to develop this Green Technology that's going to save the world, but we just don’t have the financial incentive to do it. Can you give us a favorable loan, can you give us some carbon credits so that we can save the world?’” [10:01] And that's what they get. It’s really double-dipping and it's extremely destructive especially as we're talking about when it leads to this fossil fuel dependent growth of industry. Maybe at this point, David, we need to hit the brakes, because I feel like we're getting into a perfect opportunity for the Ashes Ashes critic out there to say, “look, these guys on Ashes Ashes are nothing but negative. Here we are facing the greatest threat to life on Earth, which people are waking up to with movements like Earth's Strike and Extinction Rebellion picking up steam. And this crisis has been recognized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and governments all over the world. And if we don't do something to curb our carbon emissions fast, we're all doomed. And here these guys are going to sit up here and try and tell us that renewable technology is terrible.”
[10:51] Well, before you go down that road, listener, we want to be clear and address a concept that normally we would probably have left towards the end. The fact that technology for renewable energy is quite simply beautiful, and a sustainable future depends on our ability to utilize these technologies. But when we look at a solar panel and we say, “how can we take this technology for capturing the sun's energy and then use it to keep our economies growing, to keep the rate of industrialization accelerating, to increase the number of jets we have circumventing the globe, to keep these massive cargo ship delivering crate after crate of useless electronic knick-knack bulshit?”. Well then we have grossly bastardized everything that this technology stands for. A renewable future will not be created by some quick fix innovation that allows the status quo to continue. A renewable future involves more than technology. It has to include a total transformation of our political economic and social institutions, our ways of relating to the Earth and ultimately to each other.
[11:57] To put it in practical terms, from an article. “In November a joint venture of Vestas, the world's largest maker of wind turbines, and MHI, a unit of Mitsubishi, announced that it would provide 23 of its new biggest turbines to a project in the Belgian North Sea, the massive turbines that can power 137,000 German homes.” the company said, which sounds pretty great. Right, David?
[12:22] Yeah, that's a good number, that's a positive move towards more renewable energy.
[12:26] 137,000 homes. Yet at the same time the number of German homes that were constructed grew by 245,000 in the same year. So that's the paradox we are in. If we are using renewables as a way to keep this party going, the party that is our economy of infinite growth, then the demand we are placing on the Earth will simply continue to outpace whatever mitigating effect we think this technology is having. To bring it back to Oaxaca, if we are building wind farms just so that we can expand industry, we're not really deploying carbon neutral solutions. Because that industry itself is going to drive increased demand on fossil fuels through the trucks, ships, factories, roads and everything else that needs to be built and put into service for that industry to profit. And as we’ll get to, there are certain sectors of our economy they're much harder to decarbonize than others. And this helps explains the data that despite the world's enthusiasm the past few decades for developing so-called clean technology: solar panels and all that – 2018 saw the highest level of global greenhouse gas emissions in human history. We have a broken system and adding solar panels to this broken system won't change that. From Steven Mufson quote.
[13:45] “Royal Dutch Shell chief executive noted in 2014 that solar and wind provide about 1% of the world's energy. ‘How on earth do we think that 1% is going to become 90% of a system that will be twice as big as what it is by the middle of the century? It won't happen. Even with large advances in renewable energy,’ he said, ‘the share of world energy met by oil and gas would decline from 85% to 75% by the middle of the century,’ a time when the IPCC said net carbon dioxide emissions should drop to zero. ‘I think the real challenge is not so much how do we accelerate renewables but more about how do we decarbonize this system have.’ van Beurden said.”
[14:30] That's really the heart of this issue, David, it’s that if we truly want to decarbonize the system we have that means looking well beyond just our technology for energy and towards ways to transform the economy itself.
[14:42] I think this is the really important point to take away from this episode, and we're doing this really on because it is the core of this idea. Like we said, we're really excited about all these green technologies. The future is absolutely one that is going to have to be built on decarbonized technology: so that solar panels, wind farms, hydroelectricity – all sorts of different types of tech that does not emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That's a requirement. We have no other choice. But we're not going to get to that point if we continue to grow our economy. And if we continue to grow our economy on that affordable, high energy, energy dense fossil fuel that we have become so reliant on over the past hundred 150-200 years, it's not a change of technology that's going to save us or rather a slow evolution of technology we already have, but drastic increases in the way that we live our lives and structure the global economy and everything down to the local economy as well.
[15:37] Here is Julia Adeney Thomas who's writing from the University of Notre Dame. She says, “Slowing climate change is crucial. But navigating its challenges is only possible if it is understood as one facet of planetary overshoot, the challenges of our altered unpredictable Earth system cannot be met by technological tinkering within the very system that pushed it over the edge in the first place. There's nothing for it but to roll up our sleeves and begin the hard work of transforming our political and economic systems with the aims of decency and resilience.” Before we get into a little bit more of the technical side of the challenges with renewable technology, David, I want to come back to this concept that we kind of hit on in various episodes about the need for us as individuals to live smaller. That if we're going to enter a renewable future, a sustainable future, we're all going to have to become accustomed to living with less. It means maybe less driving, maybe less meat consumption, less world travel, you know, less flying around the world. And I think this is something that gets people hung up a lot because they look at their own individual life, they say, “I'm going to have to make all these changes while my neighbor, if they decide not to, they just keep on living their lives. And now I'm suffering and they're reaping the benefits of my sacrifices.” And this line of thinking, this perspective is kind of a symptom of this very individualized way of looking at the world that has kind of been a product of our consumer economy. And I was talking to someone the other day and they mentioned this luxury service that available to many of the moderately rich people of the world. [17:27] And I looked it up. There's a company, David, that offers wardrobe shipment for rich people. They come to your house or whatever and they take an inventory of all the clothing, all the shoes, all the accessories, all the coats that you own and then they make a database of every item that you have. And then anytime you want to travel somewhere, you want to visit your second home, they will quite literally take your wardrobe, ship it, clean it. And before you get to your location they set it up in your closet or your hotel room, or whatever it is you're going. There's one company called Garde Robe and I found some of their marketing material where they say, “Garde Robe® pioneered the luxury wardrobe management and Cyber Closet® valet concept to service the needs of couture collectors, city residents with inadequate closet space, business travelers, globetrotters, multiple home owners, and fashion designers.The only service of its kind, Garde Robe’s raison d’être is museum-quality garment storage for its members’ precious clothing, footwear, furs and accessories collections, and providing on-demand accessibility whenever, wherever.” [18:39] And I want to propose something. Why don't we just start there, right? As a society, as people who have the power to encourage policies. What if we looked at our world today and said, “how many businesses out there are providing services and goods that are nothing but wasteful?” Instead of seeing the challenge of making individual decisions in our own life we could all work together and maybe get rid of the ability for some of these types of businesses that are wasting fossil fuels flying people's wardrobes all around the world? I mean, to end a business practice like that would probably do more in terms of saving on energy than if every single American shaved 2 minutes off their shower time.
[19:23] Yeah, Daniel, we talked about some of these concepts before and how so much of this is waste and energy use. And ultimately because of that the pollution is coming from a very small group of people up at the top and they very much dominate their contribution to climate change globally and we all have to deal with the consequences of that. And well, yes, we will always hear about how we need to take up our own personal responsibility by shaving our showers shorter, by recycling - trying to shift this guilt from those who are wealthy and in control or who have these businesses that contributed to these problems in the first place onto us, the lowly individual. There are things we can do like Daniel's mentioning, we can very quickly legislate away some of these problems and it's going to hurt all of us in the process, but it is going to hurt some people a lot more. But that's what democracy is: it gives us the ability to say, “Hey, you know, for the better sake of all of us, we need to step in and make some hard sacrifices or, I mean I guess in this case, some of you at the top. And if we had a functioning democracy then that would be simple for us to do. But because in large part it is controlled by those people at the top, who have the money and wealth, and power, that's easier said than done. But maybe we're getting a little off topic with that idea.
[20:35] Yes, something to think about as we go through this episode. I guess, let's bring this conversation, David, back to the more technical side of renewable technology. Because we don't have to go that far down this idea to see evidence that green technology is simply not up to the job of replacing all sources of production on our grids assuming this status quo economics. And you mentioned something a little bit ago about energy density. And this is an important concept to help wrap your mind around some of the limits to the technology that is going to fuel our civilization of the future.
[21:10] Okay, yeah, that's a good idea, Daniel. Let's talk about energy density and it look at it from sort of a historical perspective. [21:17] So, before we turned oil into fuel for combustion energy came either through direct physical labor like you traveling on foot, or riding a bicycle, or you have the aid of some sort of animal like a horse or an oxen, or it came from the Earth energy flows. So that would be something like the wind that creates a force that pushes a sailing ship ahead. Or the flow of the river that turns the watermill. And all of these energy flows are constantly ultimately being powered by the sun. A mule, working on a farm for example, is powered by the solar energy stored in the vegetables it eats. The wind for that sailing ship is caused by temperature differentiation caused by the sun ultimately. And even that water while yes, it is gravity that's pushing it down there, the weight of the water got up the hill in the first place was through evaporation from the sun. The sun is the ultimate source of power for all of this energy movement. Fossil fuels then, being a concentrated plant and animal material, are basically a giant battery of stored solar energy that has been accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. And to put this in perspective, 1 ton of coal is the equivalent of 13 tons of fossilized organic matter. But it gets even more concentrated than coal: one ton of oil, for example, is equal to 120 tons of fossilized organic matter.
[22:41] It's so to help visualize this Buckminster Fuller coined the term energy slave which is similar to horsepower but measured in terms of the amount of work a human is capable of expending and then comparing that to the amount of work we derive from the stored energy of fossil fuels or any other non-human source. [23:02] So, If you were to put in 2000 hours of exercise this year on a cycling machine or rowing machine, you know, really getting after that New Year's resolution, you would produce about the same amount of energy that we can derive from just 3.7 gallons of gasoline or 14 L. So for a car with a 16 gallon or 60 L tank going from empty to full is the energy equivalent of one human doing maximum physical work 48 straight months or 48 humans working in a single month. And so he would call that 16 gallon tank the equivalent of 48 energy slaves for example. And the point of this illustration is the recognition that modern civilization built in just the past couple hundred years, or if you want to consider the moment the US began its massive highway construction, then we're looking at just the past 65 years or so – that civilization that we have built cannot be managed and it cannot be run and maintained on the work output of humans and animals. Because you could drive your car to the mall and back and then that one trip expend more energy than a human could in an entire year. And so that's kind of why energy density is so important and what has enabled so much economic growth over the past couple hundred years because we kind of unleashed this giant battery as you put it, David, stored in the Earth's crust.
[24:30] And battery is a really great way to think about it, Daniel, but all batteries eventually run out and they get less efficient as time goes on. And that's something that we’ve started to see happen in the way that we use fossil fuels now. You mentioned our economic growth, Daniel, and I think that's where the story gets really interesting here, because it is important to understand that that growth has not just been a result of cheap energy being available but it has been premised on the assumption that the availability and the density of energy will continue to rise. As you mentioned, oil has a higher energy density than coal, which has a higher energy density than wood, which has a higher energy density than just raw plant matter. At every shift in the paradigm of energy use we have exploited either higher density energy or a greater availability of energy in order to expand our global footprint. That is to say build taller buildings, build more roads, build more powerful engines. But renewable energy technology represents a massive decline in energy density that we use to power our civilization. According to one paper from the International Journal of Green Energy, if you look at energy density alone, “gasoline is 10 quadrillion times more energy dense than solar radiation, 1 billion times more energy dense than wind and water power and 10 million times more energy dense than human power.” And I think it really does a great job illustrating just how big this gulf that we're going to have to cross with our energy use is.
[26:00] But it also really conveys the idea that our modern civilization cannot be sustained on a resource with a lower energy density than what we're used to.
[26:10] These concepts about energy density and how they relate to the way civilization is built are very popular in certain areas of energy theory. You’ve seen a lot online over the past decade or two with the Peak oil community which is not what this show is about, that is its own a very long lengthy complicated area of conversation, we're not going to get into that. But one thing they did come out of that is the idea of EROEI or energy returned on energy invested. And basically the idea is that in the past when we first started extracting these very easy to extract oil and fossil fuel reserves [26:46] we got a lot of energy out of these for every little bit of energy we put in, so basically was very easy to mine these. I think one of the first oil wells that was mined was only like 20 or 30m underground and then oil is coming out of the earth. It's very simple but now we have very complicated and energy-intensive ways of extracting the same amount of oil: we have to drill down thousands of meters oftentimes in very remote places, get that oil out, move it to her needs to be – and all that energy we ultimately pull out, we had to put that much more energy in to get it out. And so the efficiency of this process and therefore the practical economic energy density has decreased, and as this decreases we have to exploit more energy in order to make up for that gap and we get into this sort of vicious loop that continues and makes economic growth harder in the process. So we're constantly trying to increase our economic growth with what is ultimately less and less efficient energy supplies. Then eventually we’re going to come to this slowing point and then fall off his cliff, that’s the Peak oil theory. But this sort of larger idea can be carried also to the different types of energy and power generation that we have whether it is a solar panel, whether it's wind power. Some are more efficient than others: wind power can have 20 to 50x EROEI depending on what type of study looking at, where it’s put, what type of windmill, how large they are – there's a lot of different variables and it's really hard to nail all the stuff down. [28:04] If you want to read more about it, there are communities who spend all their time online discussing this, we encourage you to check it out. But that concept that we have to put energy in to extract energy, and the efficiency of that process is something that's very important in this larger concept of renewable energy, of replacing our energy generation systems and of what that means for how we live our lives and build our civilization on a very grand scale.
[28:28] And it is important to understand how we EROEI is kind of tied up with market forces and economics, where, like you mentioned, the first oil well in the United States was something like 30 meters underground – compare that to the Deepwater Horizon off the Gulf of Mexico which begins 1500m underwater or roughly a mile and then, once it hits the ocean floor, extends 4000m down into the Earth's crust just to get enough oil that, if you were to use it all up in one, go would power the entire globe for about 12 hours. We hear a lot about fracking these days and how technological innovation has open the door to these new energy extraction methods but in reality the technology for fracking has been around for a long time and it was always technically feasible. But what made it a economic reality was the fact that all those shallow wells dried up, and the cost for getting that additional barrel of oil rose to the point where it actually made economic sense to invest billions of dollars into the technologies for shale rock oil and gas extraction.
[29:35] But these problems don't just and in energy efficiency. Assuming that we have solved the technical feasibility question, assuming we developed scalable grid storage technology. And an array of solar, wind, hydrothermal, tidal etc. – all are efficient enough to replace that fossil fuel related energy production. And assuming we want this new grid-scale to support our current and rising energy demands, to support our growing global population and to maintain our high consumption lifestyles. Well that's a lot of assumptions. But in fact, unfortunately, even after all of that there are still roadblocks to overcome.
[30:10] Yeah, what you're saying is: if we had the magic technology to create enough solar panels, enough wind turbines to replace every single one of our coal plants today, would we still have challenges? And yet we still have massive problems because at this point all we have done, all we have targeted and measured are the carbon emissions at the source of energy production. We said, “Okay, a coal plant emits this mini greenhouse gases so we can replace that with the wind farm.” But what we have still failed to look at is how much environmental destruction and depletion and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions go on behind the scenes of producing, delivering, maintaining and ultimately replacing that wind farm or that solar panel in the first place. And we need to ask, is that process sustainable? And so there's a ton that could be said on this, David, and we're not going to go in real depth here. I think this is a topic that we will have to revisit at some point, maybe look at each renewable technology separately whether that is solar, wind or geothermal and really go deep on the environmental consequences, the geographical constraints and technical limits of each of these. But why don’t we look at this one of these complications that will affect all of these and that's the resources that we need to manufacture all these solar panels and wind farms in the first place.
[31:29] When it comes to the technical feasibility of renewable technology many people simply point to the falling cost over the past decade as well as China's massive investment in solar manufacturing and say, “Well, at this rate renewables would be more affordable and available everywhere.” But this narrative fails to take into account the depletion rate of the resources needed to construct this tech in the first place. Both wind and solar technology rely on a collection of rare-earth metals, 90% of which are currently sourced from China. And in 2012 the Chinese government estimated that it only had enough reserves to fuel 15 more years of this rare-earth mining. In addition, all the rare-earth mining going on in China has wreaked substantial environmental destruction: poisoning drinking water, poisoning farmland and disrupting crop yields and injecting fresh water sources with high levels of ammonia and nitrogen. It is estimated that a single ton of ore from these rare-earth mines produces 200 cubic meters or 7000 cubic feet of acidic wastewater. [32:29] So here's the reality. The global demand for rare-earths which are not just used in renewable technology but also in our electronics, our electric vehicles, our batteries are light bulbs – all this the demand has devastated the environment and left once flourishing habitats to become toxic dumps. Our demand is so high that China's black market for rare-earths is two to three times larger than the legitimate. Just go to episode 36 “Slaves to Progress” to consider what that might mean for the people who are caught up in sourcing these minerals. And that's the state we are in today.
[33:02] Yeah, that’s so much environmental destruction going on, so much human rights abuse going on just to source these rare-earth minerals. And if you just look at one of these technologies, these rare-earth minerals are critical for wind turbines. A single turbine uses up to 400 kg of neodymium and dysprosium. And today there are some 350,000 wind turbines in the world which is a lot. But China alone had plans to construct 1 million turbines by 2050. So if you add that up with the rest of the world, what kind of devastation are we going to leave in the wake of all this manufacturing? And then we need to consider that wind turbines typically last no more than 20 to 30 years, similar life spans for solar panels. And so we're going to somehow replace all of these over and over, and over, and over, on and on every couple of decades just to keep our societies going. There's a report from the Netherlands which reveals how this small country alone will require some 11 million tons of metal to build out its clean energy infrastructure by 2050. So the five critical metals will include neodymium, terbium, indium, dysprosium [34:17] and praseodymium. And according to the report, “if the rest of the world would develop renewable electricity capacity at a comparable pace with the Netherlands a considerable shortage would arise.” And even more alarming quote, “exponential growth in renewable energy production capacity is not possible with present-day technologies and annual metal production. As an illustration, in 2050 the annual need for indium only for solar panel application will exceed the present day annual global production 12-fold.” That's a lot of metal, David.
[34:57] But, Daniel, like I said earlier, this is assuming even that all these other problems that we're running into are taken care of but those assumptions are still problematic at this point. One of those things is grid storage and how to store all this energy when the sun isn't shining, when the wind isn’t blowing. That’s a very complicated problem. We’ve talked about this a lot in the past on the show in episode 13 “Lights Out”. And the fact of the matter is: storage technology is just not there on an efficient and cost-effective scale right now. There's a lots of different ways to doing this, from lithium-ion batteries to flow batteries, to gravity batteries, to water pumping – they're all interesting. A lot of them are geographically dependent on where you're doing this grid storage. Some are more economical than others, but none of them are really ready for a prime-time mass deployment across the energy. And that means that we have to be waiting for the technology to catch up with renewable technology in order to start really converting all of our grid over to this renewable tech. And that clock is counting down continuously while we struggle with this problem. Because every moment that we aren't on a fully renewable grid is more carbon that we need to somehow magically pump out of the air using that technology the IPCC is depending upon in their reports that unfortunately doesn't really exist or work in an effective way, at least according to their models.
[36:18] I think the grid storage problem with renewable technology really just emphasizes this fact that were so unimaginative when it comes to solutions and that we really have built our entire economy on this this consumer economy where we need just in time everything. [36:35] You know, not just goods to be delivered just in time after their manufacturing to save on costs and efficiencies. But our whole power grid is set up in this way where as energy demands increase, energy production increases. And we try to balance out demand with supply constantly because it's not possible to store electricity in our transmission and distribution lines. That's why we have giant fuses in the event that something like a lightning bolt hits our grid, that's excess energy that we need to quickly remove from the system because we simply cannot handle it. And so we’ve built this economy on constant energy just-in-time production, and without this 24/7 reliable constant stream of energy our economy simply falls apart. And renewables doesn't work that way, it's intermittent: you can't control when the wind blows, you can't control the clouds and and how much sun exposure you’re going to get. And so the idea is what we need to keep this outdated economic model of just-in-time manufacturing, So, I guess we're going to have to invent some magic technology to help store this intermittent energy so that we can use it when we're ready for it and not when it's produced. But another way to look at that is just, well, why don't we just look at the economic side of all of this and say, why don't we transform the system the currently relies on the 24/7 input of energy and maybe shift away from this globally interdependent trade system and more to a local self-subsistence model where it's easier for communities to generate their own electricity and use it as it comes? But maybe that's a discussion for another time.
[38:12] Yeah, there's some really exciting development people are working on, things like microgrids and stuff. But a lot of these problems are limited to residential energy generation and, unfortunately, that's not going to get around the needs of industry, which are much larger energy consumers in the first place. And I think it's always a very telling that when they construct a new windmill or put up a new solar farm, they are always mentioning the power generated in terms of X number of households. When the vast majority of power consumption is going to each other prophecies and not just towards turning on the light bulbs in your kitchen. You know, they are smelting aluminum, they are generating semiconductors – all the stuff is very power-intensive because our technology and our lifestyle is very energy-intensive. And unfortunately for this type of industry these microgrids aren’t going to work. And while neighborhoods can become self-reliant in terms of the energy generation through these types of processes, and they are exciting and I'm really excited for the development in this industry and the way that its ties the community together as being responsible for their own power. It's unfortunately not going to transform the overall larger grid because the necessary way that we built our society and the efficiencies of these much larger installations, like a giant windmills obviously can be much more efficient than a small personal windmill, means that it's going to have to be a sort of whole-scale grid transformation if we want to really counter the carbon that we’re admitting into the atmosphere and the corresponding climate change from that process.
[39:37] So the main takeaway I think we want the listeners to come away from this episode with, David, is that, these renewable technologies are not a replacement for our current greenhouse gas emitting energy production methods, and that we're really going to have to transform our entire way of living. But we don't have to use our imaginations for this, we can look at how countries around the world today are starting to feel the stresses associated with trying to roll out all this infrastructure for status quo economics. And one of those is Germany. Germany is one of the countries considered a leader in the development of renewable technology and a country that many point to as an example of how we can all do better. [40:17] But according to Bloomberg, by 2025 Germany will have spent well over five hundred billion dollars to transform its energy system and it will have miserably failed to reach its goals as defined by the 2016 Paris agreement. An agreement by the way if you've listened to our episode number 50 “Apocalypse Now”, an agreement that falls short of avoiding massive warming even if every single nation reached their pledge. Germany has until 2020 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40%. But in 2017 was only at 27% reduction they have until 2020 to drop energy consumption by 20% but have barely hit 4%. And renewable energy still represents a small share of total energy consumption. And if we take a deeper look at the share of renewables present in the German economy, we can see how we have so much more challenges to overcome to our current way of managing energy.
[41:17] Much of the discussion around greenhouse gas emissions is focused on the emissions that results from energy production, so think coal plants spewing carbon dioxide in the air. And while energy production is a significant source of these greenhouse gases and in Germany's case 35% of their total GHD's. That still leaves two-thirds of our economies that are emitting these greenhouse gases. This is things like transportation, agriculture, residential sectors and more. And many of these sectors can be really difficult to transition to clean sources of energy. In Germany transportation represents a 20% share of GHD emissions and renewable technology represents just 4% of the energy consumed for transportation. Mining and manufacturing, another big source of GHD emissions, also just get 4% of their energy from these renewables. And so all this goes back to our initial discussion which is that: if energy generation represents just one third of our GHD emissions then, when we only look at renewable technology as a way to replace our coal plants, our fossil fuel industries while continuing to grow our industrial sectors, while growing the automotive and commercial airline industries and while we continue to encourage export-led development – well, then our GHD emissions will continue to outpace whatever reductions that occur in that energy sector.
[42:36] Another country is China. One of the biggest drivers of solar-powered deployment worldwide. And China's commitment to subsidizing the solar industry at home and exporting the majority of the world's supply of solar panels has been a big driver of investment in solar technology worldwide. However, a 2018 decision by China to stop subsidizing solar projects unless they can compete with coal in terms of energy prices could change that and have a dramatic impact on solar technology around the world. Already as a result we've seen a global dip in investment and spending on renewable technology. In 2018 China spent 32% less on clean energy than they did in 2017 and for solar that was a 53% reduction. And as a result of global spending on renewables was down 8% in 2018 from 2017. [43:32] And as we alluded to, if we build out a massive infrastructure of renewables to keep this economy growing, we still run into the problem of having to replace all those materials every 20 to 30 years. Which will simply just delay the inevitable death cycles in infrastructure that we're already seeing. Once again, Germany provides an insightful example. [43:54] The country has some 30,000 wind turbines in operation, and the operational costs of these have been subsidized since 2000 so long as they're supplying energy to the grid. But in 2020, next year those subsidies will end. And wind farm operators will have to pay their own costs out of the revenues they make from selling energy. The only problem is that at current energy prices many of these wind turbines will not be profitable because they've aged, and as they've aged they’ve become more expensive to maintain. In one estimate is that over 25% of land-based wind power in Germany will have to be decommissioned. And that means taking the turbines down, removing the concrete foundation which alone can cost hundreds of thousands of euros. And then there are the blades to deal with which poses a huge problem because they're completely not recyclable at the moment. Many wind turbine blades are mixture of carbon fiber and glass that gets cemented with polyester resin. And the blades cannot be separated once that resin sets which means you can't recycle the components that went into making it. And even things like incineration is untenable because when you try to burn these turbines they end up clogging the filters in these incinerator plants.
[45:13] We’ve talked about this sort of problem before, Daniel, way back in episode 5 “End of the Road” discussing the problems that happen when we are having to maintain our expensive infrastructure as it decays and ages. [45:24] We see a lot of economic benefit for building a road or a new wind turbine for the first time but when it comes to making sure that that wind turbine or that road is safe, maintained and continuing to generate energy or allow cars to drive by, well, then that economic return is starting to decline, especially when it comes to having to completely replace this turbine or this road, or this bridge, or whatever it is. And it starts adding up, these cost increase as time goes on. And a lot of times in the United States especially we just try to ignore this and hope the problem will fix itself. And that has meant that a lot of roads are in fact being torn out and replaced with gravel roads, with dirt roads. Bridges are allowed to just be safe until they collapse and cars can't drive on them at all anymore, then at some point they are torn or replaced. And the same thing is going to end up happening to this aging energy generation infrastructure. The first time you build a windmill you're seeing a positive effect, you seeing the economic incentive of developing something that’s generating power for the first time, whether it's replacing old carbon-emitting technologies or whether it's generating even more power that you can use to spur this economic development. But when you have to rip down that windmill and rebuild it in the same place you aren't gaining anything new, you're just emitting a cost in order to maintain the status quo. And our economy and the way our world set up is not built to do that. And this is another reason why we have to be looking at changing our very relationship with economic growth if we want to be able to even have a chance of establishing a renewable energy world.
[46:51] Which brings us to the tail end of this episode, David, where we haven't gone to in depth in terms of technical details about renewable technology but I hope we we provided some concepts to think about as you hear our politicians and our companies bragging about the renewable technology they're investing in or the jobs are creating. We need to start thinking about what's really going on behind the scenes, what is that power being used to do. You know, at the end of the day, like you mentioned in the beginning, the technologies for renewable energy are beautiful: a solar panel is a wonderful thing and the idea of replacing a reliance on coal or oil with the sun is wonderful. We would never here on Ashes Ashes discourage that. But to look at the world today and imagine everything the same, the same overabundance of cheap electronic gadgets, automobile shopping malls, the same suburban sprawl, the same systems that exploit the Global South, the same systems of economic growth in pursuit of profit accumulation. To imagine a solar panel as the solution for keeping the status quo going is not merely a lack of imagination. It's a gross corruption of everything these renewables stand for. [48:07] To understand that our industrial expansion and consumer economies are destroying the world and then conclude that we can solve the problem by eliminating energy production source greenhouse gas emissions through a great blanket of concrete upon which tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of giant steel turbines will sit. That is to perform a mental calculation that lacks any sense of reality. A transition to renewable energy must be accompanied by a commitment to renewable living. Add to a scaling back of economies broadly. It so we need to join hands with others around us, we need to recognize that we live in a society and we can use the power that comes from being a part of that society to make change happen. And we can realize that individually and as communities it's not our fault this great wasteful world that has arisen. It's not our fault that companies are pillaging the Earth. It's not our fault that we live in food deserts, that we have to buy products made through exploitation, that we have to breathe air twice as dense with carbon dioxide than levels our bodies are adapted for. We as individuals did not create this world, but together we can change the systems in which our individual lives take place. We don't want cell phones made from slaves. But one individual boycotting Apple is unlikely to make a difference. But working together to change the laws of the economy such that a factory is owned by the workers themselves, not some individual billionaire halfway around the world – that would make an immediate difference. [49:44] If we work together locally, nationally and internationally advocating for systemic changes to the destructive war path of the global economy, then we will simultaneously be creating a world of less and abundance. Yes, there might be less consumption, we might use less energy, might not drive as much, there will be fewer businesses pandering to the super-rich to ship their wardrobes everywhere they go. But whatever paying this might cause will be more than made up for in an abundance of pride, an abundance of confidence, abundance of mutual aid and social relationships as we see our collective work remake and reshape the world. As you said in episode 55 “What Can We Do”, David, “When we are alone we are defeated, but together our actions multiply and together we can make change happen.” [50:40] Also there's a great article published in Nature Energy that discusses the social justice impacts of energy projects and ways to correct what for a long time has been a complete neglect of community inclusion and justice considerations in these huge energy investments. And it's really important, we encourage you to give it a read, we’ll provide a link on our website, you might have to use Sci-Hub to get around the paywall. If you don't know how to do that, send us an email. And it's important because, going back to that case study from Oaxaca, people's lives in the environment are affected by investment and development and we desperately need to abandon the idea of this technocratic process that uses data and objective economic thought to deliver solutions around the world. That does not exist and we allow our hubris to blind us to the social realities of these investments when we ignore the social justice considerations. Anyway, give it a read, and I suppose that's a lot to think about, David.
[51:35] As always, Daniel, but think about it we hope you will. You can find that article, all the other sources that were used in this episode as well as a full transcript of this show on our website at ashesashes.org.
[51:48] As always, a lot of time and research goes into making these episodes possible. And we will never use advertising to support the show, so if you like it, would like us to keep going, you our listener can support us by giving us a review, recommending us to a friend, discussing these issues with your community and supporting us on patreon.com/ashesashescast. And if you join our Patreon support, visit us in our Discord channel where we hang out. At least once a day you can be a part of that discussion and and join in with other listeners around the world of this show so we can get this little community growing. Right, David?
[52:25] That's the magic word, Daniel.
[52:26] Send us an email at contact at ashesashes.org.
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