"A Steady State Economy Powered by Renewable Energy" is a blog by Mark Diesendorf.
This Blog was originally submitted to "Steady State Herald". Effectively it was censored and rejected by CASSE Int. However CASSE NSW voted to provide it here. We affirm, in contrast to confusions in some quarters, that the current state of development of RE shows it is an important pathway to decarbonising. We believe it better to be well informed of current developments in RE & how, with EE and EC, they form a valuable contribution to a
transition to a SSE.
"A Steady State Economy Powered by Renewable Energy"
By Mark Diesendorf
Articles and correspondence about the film ‘Planet of the Humans’ and, in particular, its claims about renewable energy (RE), have been vigorous and polarised, both within the Steady State Herald and society at large. Some proponents of a steady state economy (SSE), fearing that a successful replacement of fossil fuels by RE would somehow perpetuate environmentally disastrous attempts to continue endless economic growth on a finite planet, have too readily accepted the film’s outdated and misleading perspective on RE. On the other hand, many proponents of RE, trying to make their technologies and scenarios more acceptable to the neoliberal economic elite, claim incorrectly that their transition scenarios don’t require socio-economic change and that SSE would result in massive unemployment if ever implemented.
As a scientist who has researched RE for decades and, inspired by Herman Daly’s writings, campaigned for SSE for decades, I am distressed by these two extreme, incorrect positions, both of which are at least partially the result of misconceptions.
A point of agreement
A point of agreement reached in correspondence between Herman and myself is that an SSE needs RE and RE needs SSE. To reflect the understanding of energy experts, RE should be replaced by ‘ecologically sustainable energy system’, which is defined to be one based entirely on RE supply together with demand reductions by energy efficiency and energy conservation.
Energy efficiency is defined as providing the same energy services (e.g. a warm home in winter; cold food) with less energy input and primarily involves technological improvements such as good design, insulation of buildings and five-star refrigerators. Energy conservation is defined as accepting reduced energy services (e.g. taking shorter showers; wearing warm clothes at home in winter together with reduced space heating; walking to the local shops instead of driving) and is primarily behavioural.
Herman Daly proposes that:
Let us first limit growth in resource throughput, and then encourage the technologists to grow our wealth by increasing resource productivity, rather than growing the volume of resources depleted and transformed into polluting wastes. Sequence makes a difference.
In exploring this proposal, a second point of possible agreement is that it’s OK for some researchers and educators to focus on developing an SSE, for some to focus on developing ecologically sustainable energy, and for some to do both. Sequence cannot be forced on individual researchers and campaigners or on individual research and campaign groups. Sequence applies to strategies and policies of a broader community, a political jurisdiction or society as a whole. Within this context, I agree that sequence is the logically correct pathway in theory, just as, more generally, the well-known aspirational sustainability diagram (Figure 1) is logically correct: first maintain an ecologically sustainable biosphere (the outer ellipse), then, within that, establish an ecologically sustainable and socially just society, and then, within that, an SSE. Those who label ecological sustainable energy as a ‘techno-fix’ would presumably place it within the SSE ellipse, although its widespread implementation actually involves substantial socio-economic change as well as technological.
Figure 1: An ideal sustainable planet Earth
Unfortunately, in both the general and specific cases, it’s too late to follow the logical sequence. In the general case, sequencing would give the outer ellipse first priority, but we live on a planet where, in the context of ecological sustainability, several planetary boundaries, including a stable climate, are being exceeded or threatened. Therefore, understandably, CASSE wishes to take SSE out of sequence and make it CASSE’s number one priority.
Similarly, anthropogenic climate change is occurring too rapidly to delay the ongoing energy transition until we have an SSE. Human society has a limited remaining carbon budget. To limit global average temperature change to the unsafe level of 2°C above the pre-industrial level, it must reach zero net emissions by 2050. It is probably too late to achieve 1.5°C without socio-economic collapse or a nuclear war.
In the absence of either of these disastrous scenarios, socio-economic change generally occurs slowly. Human endeavour and struggle have given us an end to support for slavery by governments and communities, civil rights for black Americans, votes for women and non-violent expulsion of the British colonial rulers from India, but all have taken several decades of campaigning to achieve.
The energy transition
While research, education and campaigning for an SSE continues to grow slowly, the transition to an ecologically sustainable energy system continues rapidly. Given the political will and public support, scores of detailed scenario studies and simulations, and practical experience show that large reductions in energy emissions can be achieved rapidly by means of RE plus energy efficiency and conservation.
Given space limitations, let’s focus on RE. Most future energy use will be as renewable electricity (RElec), the easiest and cheapest form of energy to convert to RE. Individual countries, states, regions, towns and businesses are showing the way to achieving electricity systems where RElec provides 100% of consumption. Regions with high hydro-electric potential – e.g. Iceland, Norway, New Zealand, Bhutan, Tasmania – already have about 100% RElec (annual averages). However, hydro is geographically limited, so let’s consider regions with high wind and/or solar contributions to RElec: South Australia (50% of consumption), Denmark (65%), Scotland (77%) are already on track to achieve 100% RElec within 10-15 years. Two North German states and the Australian Capital Territory are already at 100% net renewable electricity. Among large corporations, 235 have committed to go to 100% RE and some have already achieved it. Those heading to their targets include mining, minerals processing, steel-making, manufacturing and retail.
The transition to 100% RElec is well under way, driven by a combination of economic and environmental benefits. RElec is the gateway to transforming the whole energy sector, including transportation and heating, producing the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. The hardware changes are relatively easy and quick; the required institutional changes are more difficult and slower.
The main economic barrier to electric vehicles (EVs) has been the price of batteries, but this is now falling rapidly as many ‘gigafactories’ are being built. In Norway the majority of new vehicle sales are EVs. The transition to majority EV purchases could occur by 2025 in the USA.
Denial of ecologically sustainable energy
Unfortunately, the Gibbs/Moore film misrepresents RE by presenting material that’s out of date, atypical, biased, misleading, in some cases untrue, for example:
The fact that wind and solar power are variable sources does not provide a major technical or economic barrier to having reliable large-scale electricity systems with 100% RElec in which the vast majority of annual energy is generated from variable sources. Balancing the variability of wind and solar can be done by a combination of measures: e.g. hydro from a single reservoir; pumped hydro (both on-river and off-river); batteries; demand response; open-cycle gas turbines burning renewable fuels; concentrated solar thermal with thermal storage; new transmission links; power-to-gas. Hourly simulation modelling and practical experience show that neither base-load power stations (e.g. coal or nuclear) nor vast amounts of storage are necessary for a reliable power system.
The fact that some jurisdictions and industries with 100% annual average RElec get some of their energy from the grid and some from their rooftops does not invalidate their status as 100% RElec. Their grid energy is obtained either from a power purchase agreement from, or by partial ownership of, a solar or wind farm.
Good solar panels have efficiencies of energy conversion of about 20%, not 8%.
The Chevy Volt is a superseded electric car.
Bioenergy is a small or zero component of most renewable energy scenarios; furthermore, not all methods of bioenergy production are environmentally damaging like ethanol production in the USA; ethanol from waste starch from the Australian wheat industry provides a sound example.
Regions deficient in RE resources can be supplied by trade of RElec by transmission line or renewable fuels by tanker ship, just as regions deficient in fossil fuels are traded at present.
The claim that RE technologies require more energy investment than they produce is incorrect, because it’s based on studies that either use outdated data or inconsistent methods.
The claim is also incorrect because it ignores the huge gains in energy conversion efficiency achieved by RElec: one unit of RElec substitutes for approximately three units of primary energy from fossil fuels. Big gains also come from replacing internal combustion vehicles with EVs and replacing direct heating via combusting fossil fuels by electric heat pumps.
Studies using recent data and consistent methods find that the energy return on energy invested (EROI) of wind and solar are typically greater than or approximately equal to those of electricity from coal and gas. Furthermore, empirical data shows that EROIs of wind and solar are increasing over time.
Another form of denial comes from the irrational fear that the success of RE in replacing fossil fuels could somehow drive growth in energy demand and undermine the transition to an SSE. Not a shred of evidence supports this fear. Evidence to the contrary is that, in developed countries/states where RElec is replacing fossil fuelled (or nuclear) electricity, electricity demand is either approximately constant or falling. Absent evidence to justify their fear, some people resort to criticising RE on fallacious technical or economic grounds on which they are unqualified to comment. Unintentionally they give propaganda to the fossil fuel and nuclear power lobbies, which are threatened by the growth of RE.
The relationship between RE and SSE
One way of expressing the relationship is indirectly through the well-known identity I = PAT, expressing environmental impact as the product of population, ‘affluence’ aka consumption per person, and technological impact. This disaggregation of environmental impact is valuable because the variables on the right-hand-side can be addressed by different strategies and policies. To tackle environmental impacts, including climate change, we must simultaneously transition to an ecologically sustainable energy system and to an SSE with reduced consumption and population.
An SSE needs RE because CO2 persists in the atmosphere for centuries and so any net emissions continue to drive the climate crisis. Only a socio-economy with net zero carbon emissions (and possibly even carbon removal from the atmosphere) can be sustainable. An alleged SSE that still emits carbon is not an SSE. Ecologically sustainable energy offers the fastest, cheapest and safest scenarios for a zero-carbon world.
Conversely, an SSE would be very valuable in assisting RE, together with energy efficiency and conservation, in replacing fossil fuels, because the technology replacement task would be smaller. An SSE would also be valuable because land-use constraints rule out endless growth in energy demand with 100% RE (as well as in some fossil fuel scenarios). However, RE doesn’t ‘need’ an SSE in the formal logic sense of a necessary condition, because claims that ‘100% RE cannot supply current global energy demand’ or even double that demand, are incorrect. Wind farms are compatible with almost all agriculture and the land they actually occupy is only 1-3% of the land spanned. Off-shore wind farms are expanding in capacity. Much solar can be generated from rooftops – e.g. in Australia nearly 25% of homes have it and 50% is feasible. Although on-ground solar farms occupy significant land per unit of energy generated, new designs will lift them higher to allow grazing and crops underneath them. Bioenergy will play a minor role. Thus land-use in most RE scenarios is less than or approximately equal to that of fossil fuel scenarios in which most coal is open-cut.
To conclude, RE is growing rapidly and, given the political will, can cut emissions substantially within 10-15 years, without driving growth in energy demand. It is the appropriate energy supply for an SSE. Therefore, I recommend that supporters of an SSE also support RE and campaign more vigorously for reductions in energy demand by improvements in energy efficiency and conservation, as well as reductions in consumption in general.
(Word count: 1973)
Mark Diesendorf, BSc (Hons 1), PhD, a long-standing member of CASSE in Australia, is currently Honorary Associate Professor in Environment & Governance at UNSW Sydney. Previously, at various times, he was a Principal Research Scientist in CSIRO, Professor of Environmental Science and Founding Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of Technology Sydney, Deputy-Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW Sydney, President of the Australia New Zealand Society for Ecological Economics and Education Program Leader of the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living. His most recent book is Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change (Routledge-Earthscan).
steady state economy; renewable energy; demand reduction; energy transition
Renewable energy is the appropriate energy supply for a steady state economy.