It’s Too Late For Renewables

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There is no energy transition, no paradigm shift or green revolution. Acknowledging this stark reality sooner rather than later will allow us to focus on devising strategies for managing the consequences of climate change, and the deteriorating state of earth’s biosphere.

This week, energy expert Vaclav Smil provided a valuable perspective.

“Contrary to common impressions, there has been no absolute worldwide decarbonization. In fact, the very opposite is the case. The world has become much more reliant on fossil carbon.

“We have not made the slightest progress…We cannot expect the world economy to become carbon-free by 2050. The goal may be desirable, but it remains unrealistic.

Vaclav Smil

The news, however, is full of outlandish claims that the world can depend mostly on wind and solar power, and that all other energy needs—from airplanes to steel production—can be met by green hydrogen or nuclear fusion. These assertions are more aspirational than real. Steel, concrete, plastic, and fertilizer are essential to modern civilization, yet we currently lack methods to produce them on a large scale without relying on fossil fuels.

Transport continues to rely on oil products for nearly 91% of its final energy, down only 3.5 percentage points from the early 1970s. Despite popular belief that electric vehicles will become the norm in the near future, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects electricity to provide only 11 percent of global transport power by 2050 in its stated policies scenario. Oil will still account for 78 percent of transport fuel in two-and-a-half decades (Figure 1).

Figure 1. IEA expects electricity to provide 11% of global transport by 2050. Oil will account for 78% of transport fuel.
Source:  IEA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Figure 1. IEA expects electricity to provide 11% of global transport by 2050. Oil will account for 78% of transport fuel.
Source: IEA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Global fossil fuel consumption increased 45 percent since 2000. Its share of total consumption has decreased marginally with more wind and solar installations but fossil fuels still accounted for 86 percent of primary energy consumption in 2022. While wind and solar capacity have doubled in the last five years, these account for only 2.0 percent of world energy consumption (Figure 2). All renewables together—including solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, and biofuels— make up only 7% of global energy use.

Figure 1. Fossil fuels accounted for 86% of global primary consumption energy in 2022.
Nuclear accounted for 1.6%, wind for 1.2%, and solar for 0.8%.
Source: Our World In Data & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Figure 2. Fossil fuels accounted for 86% of global primary consumption energy in 2022.
Nuclear accounted for 1.6%, wind for 1.2%, and solar for 0.8%.
Source: Our World In Data & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

It’s time to be honest about this reality and stop imagining some improbable renewable future that cannot be remotely supported by historical data trends. Despite advanced economies pouring approximately $10 trillion into the “renewable energy transition,” there has been no significant evidence of progress in reducing carbon emissions or lowering global temperatures. Estimated capital costs for the transition to a net-zero economy are approximately $275 trillion between 2021 and 2050. ​ This would require average annual spending on physical assets of around $9.2 trillion, or roughly 20 percent of GDP for advanced economies.

The idea that we’re undergoing an energy transition lacks compelling evidence. Historical data on world energy consumption from 1800 reveals an additive rather than a subtractive pattern (Figure 3). This means that new energy sources are layered on top of old ones, rather than replacing them.

Today, both biomass and coal consumption exceed their 1800 levels, with renewable energy sources like wind and solar barely making a statistical impact. This underlines that, despite the investment in renewables, they are just a small addition to our ongoing conventional energy usage.

Figure 2. There is no energy transition or green revolution
Wind and solar 2.4% of world energy consumption - a zero-rounding error.
Source: EIA, BP, IEA, FRED, OWWD, World Bank & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Figure 3. There is no energy transition or green revolution
Wind and solar 2.4% of world energy consumption – a zero-rounding error.
Source: EIA, BP, IEA, FRED, OWID, World Bank & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the supposed energy transition has not affected the increase in global mean temperature—which is at the highest level in the last 11,000 years (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Mean global temperature is at the highest level in the last 11,000 years. Temperatures during Medieval Warm Period have been misrepresented.

Source:  Marcott et al (2013), Berkely Earth  & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
Figure 4. Mean global temperature is at the highest level in the last 11,000 years. Temperatures during Medieval Warm Period have been misrepresented.
Source: Marcott et al (2013), Berkely Earth & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Nor is it surprising that the ongoing crisis of the natural environment, and the decline of biodiversity has not improved. Populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish have declined by an average of 69% since 1970 (Figure 5). Expansion of the human enterprise through deforestation, urbanization, and pollution have led to the destruction and fragmentation of natural habitats, making it difficult for species to survive and thrive.

Figure 4. The average abundance of wild animal species has decreased -69% since 1970.
The shaded area represents the statistical uncertainty.
Source: Our World in Data, World Wildlife Federation & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc
Figure 5. The average abundance of wild animal species has decreased -69% since 1970.
The shaded area represents the statistical uncertainty.
Source: Our World in Data, World Wildlife Federation & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Despite clear evidence that the world’s efforts to decarbonize are failing, I consistently see papers and presentations that argue the superiority of renewables over fossil fuels.

This week, for example, I came across a video claiming that the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is feasible because much of the energy from fossil fuels ends up as “rejected energy”—essentially wasted. The argument is that renewables, being less wasteful, don’t need to replace as much fossil energy as commonly projected. Yet, while the channel boasts nearly 600,000 subscribers, the optimistic take overlooks the complex realities of energy systems. Merely pointing to inefficiencies in fossil fuel use does not address the scalability and intermittency challenges that renewables face on a grid designed around consistent energy input from fossil fuels.

Another example this week involved a peer-reviewed paper that suggested that wind and solar have a much higher EROI (energy returned on energy invested) than fossil fuels. Such a claim highlights these renewables as more efficient in terms of energy output relative to input when compared to traditional energy sources. However, while the paper makes a compelling case for the efficiency of renewables, the practical aspects of integrating high-EROI renewables into an energy infrastructure that’s heavily dependent on the consistent energy flow from fossil fuels present significant challenges that the paper does not address.

Both examples have their flaws, but ultimately, their specific claims and arguments matter less than the empirical data, which clearly indicates no significant shift away from fossil fuels. The instances I’ve discussed serve merely as enthusiastic endorsements for the renewable sector, offering little in the way of real progress towards decarbonization. Framing the future of our planet as a competition between two factions—Team Renewables vs Team Fossil—trivializes the serious, complex challenge of genuinely reducing carbon emissions.

“Belief in near-miraculous tomorrows never goes away…Responsible analyses must acknowledge existing energy, material, engineering, managerial, economic, and political realities.”

Vaclav Smil

The sustained increase in fossil fuel consumption alongside the growth of human activities presents significant environmental and economic risks. While renewable energy offers some relief by reducing fossil fuel dependency, particularly in electric power generation, its impact remains limited. Even if renewables could fully replace coal in electricity generation—a major source of carbon emissions—they would still address only about 20 percent of global energy consumption. The intermittent nature of renewable sources and the ongoing expansion of coal-fired power generation complicate this transition. The slow pace of change and the continuous rise in overall energy demand suggest that renewables will have only a marginal effect on global emissions within the critical time required for substantial climate action.

The energy transition as currently framed is a bad idea because it does not address the underlying problem of growth in energy consumption. The premise of the transition is to replace fossil fuels with renewables. It fails to acknowledge that climate change is a consequence of the larger problem of overshoot.

“Humanity is in overshoot—global heating, plunging biodiversity, soil/land degradation, tropical deforestation, ocean acidification, fossil fuel and mineral depletion, the pollution of everything, etc., are indicative of the increasing disordering of the biosphere/ecosphere.

“We are at risk of a chaotic breakdown of essential life-support functions.”

William E. Rees

The history of energy transitions shows that no energy source has never before replaced another. If it is happening now, it will be too late to make a difference at the present pace of climate change and ecological collapse. Energy substitution is a doomsday stratagem that condemns civilization to its status quo path of growth & biophysical destruction.

Everyone wants solutions, yet there’s a pervasive lack of understanding about the problem itself. Attempting to solve a problem without understanding it first is an error. In the present case, It could be fatal.

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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20 Comments

  1. Mark Will on June 10, 2024 at 1:05 am

    Hi, Art. I’m a huge fan of yours and Nate Hagens. I try to socialize these kinds of ideas with my family and friends, and pretty much nobody is interested. I talk about how 2-3% exponential growth in the economy requires a doubling in both the rate and aggregate total of natural resources every 30 or so years. I’m 55, so I say that we have shot way over half wad of all the wad that has ever been shot in my lifetime and really more like two thirds.

    I talk about peak oil and bust out the charts of how dozens of the 98 or so oil producing countries on the planet are decisively and convincingly beyond their peaks in production. Just a few of the biggies are the only ones left with any potential spare capacity, and they could go into decline soon. I talk about how Shale is a flash in the pan at the end of the day, and how shale refines into more gasoline and less diesel, and the world runs on diesel.

    I talk about mining and declining ore grades as well as all manner of environmental degradation and how humans and their livestock and pets make up around 96% of all mammalian biomass on the planet. I am fairly well-versed in all the major talking points of the meta crisis regarding how the near-term future will be become progressively more modest than that to which we have become accustomed.

    I even wrote a book called “Lights Out,” and I sold 2 copies besides the copies I printed to hand out to everyone I know. The 2 copies sold were due to my brother buying a copy for himself and one for our dad. I think it is one of the best books that almost nobody has ever read. Traditionally, whenever I have tried to socialize my ideas with all of my family and friends, I might have received one comment of encouragement and positive reinforcement. Then, I would respond by saying, “Hey, thanks, Mom, I really appreciate your support.” Be that as it may, the very little feedback I received for the book was very encouraging.

    I understand the power of confirmation bias where people can easily accept information they like and can disregard anything to the contrary. I commend you for fighting the good fight, and sharing your important insights with anyone who will listen. I love reading your posts and seeing you in interviews.

    All the best, Art.

    Mark Will

    • Art Berman on June 10, 2024 at 3:04 pm

      Mark,

      Thanks for your comments. It can be difficult to find people who will pay attention to things that are counter to the mainstream story much less disconcerting.

      All the best,

      Art

  2. Karl Klein on June 7, 2024 at 1:06 pm

    Use less? Ha ha ha ha ha!

    That $10 trillion would have bought a LOT of public transport. But, nope.

    Thanks for the essay Mr. Berman. I am glad to be old. In the past three years, we have planted over 1000 trees on our property here. Despite knowing that it won’t make a difference. Just getting to be an older fool every day. For now, anyway.

    • Art Berman on June 7, 2024 at 8:24 pm

      Karl,

      I don’t believe that I said that in this post. When I have said that using less energy is the only solution, it’s not a proposal or expectation. It’s just a fact.

      All the best,

      Art

  3. Aa on June 6, 2024 at 8:16 pm

    I was reading that Los Angeles in the 30s had almost all of its power supplied by hydro electric ,but the demand just keeps going up and in 2015 I remember it was 70% coal.
    Any city in the US is completely filled with cars,you can drive 10 hours straight in interstate 5 and it’s a literal wall of Semi trucks,even everthing became electric … if you ad up know lithium reserves and amount of batterys …….there is no way
    What should have been done was decades ago .

    • Art Berman on June 6, 2024 at 9:09 pm

      Thanks for your comments.

      All the best,

      Art

    • Bill James on June 7, 2024 at 9:19 pm

      REF: “should have been done was decades ago”. It was. In 1916 there were 260,000 miles of freight railroads that average 470 ton-mpg. Federal highway policies replaced 45% of those railroads with 25 mpg roads.

      It was also done following the 1973 Oil Embargo. At the time of the Embargo the US, Sweden, and Denmark all had similar highway centric policies, same safety record, same 43 megawatt-hours of oil use per person per year. Following the Embargo US government planning continued sprawl. Sweden/Denmark shifted policies to make walking and biking safer. Sweden/Denmark reduced per-person oil use to 60% below the US and pedestrian and bike road-kills to 400% below the US.

      Government central planning mandate foreign oil addiction of 6 million barrels per day, oil wars, Climate Change, and the coming Oil Famine.

      http://www.JPods.com/bikes

      • Art Berman on June 9, 2024 at 10:39 pm

        Bill,

        There is no central government mandate in the same way that there is no US energy policy. Blaming the “system” is a form of a conspiracy theory IMO.

        The true origin of foreign oil import is the composition of US oil which is not good for diesel refining. When refineries were re-designed 50 years ago to accommodate the growing demand for diesel, they required heavier oil to blend with US lighter grades which had to be imported. It’s really that simple.

        There is no oil addiction. All life including human life self-organizes to exploit energy sources that provide the maximum power output (see my post on the Maximum Power Principle). For lions, that was gazelles. For humans, that was oil. It’s also really that simple.

        I suggest looking for simple rather than complex reasons for the way things are.

        All the best,

        Art

  4. Jonathan Paul Allen on June 6, 2024 at 1:43 pm

    No disagreement with what you’re saying.
    Framing renewables as the solution risks to deflect from the real issue – “overshoot”.
    Overshoot has been greatly enabled by the amazing energy characteristics and capabilities of fossil-fuels.
    The growth and “development” genie is out of the bottle.
    We are just too “successful” and dominant a species. And like any species we are programmed to increase our numbers, We are already far too many and will be many more up to… 2,100. We are way beyond the numbers needed for the continuity of the species.
    Agreed also, first the real problem has to be accepted but, even then, is there a “solution”? This is the big question. I don’t think people who help with understanding problems are obliged to also provide solutions. Sometimes different skill-sets are needed to understand as to solve.
    Human consumption has to be reduced by choice, which is unlikely, by force, which is undesirable, by reducing the population, again either by choice or force, or by finding and implementing technologies to mitigate the undesirable effects.
    Most likely the population-limiting mechanisms limiting the growth of any organism will kick-in at some tipping point.
    Any other more optimistic scenarios?

    • Art Berman on June 16, 2024 at 11:25 pm

      Jonathan,

      Agree that solutions are not required of those who comment on the state of things. At the same time, I have explained that less energy consumption is the key to many of our problems. I have no confidence that we will do that because no one likes that idea.

      All the best,

      Art

  5. Matthew Guy on June 6, 2024 at 12:44 pm

    Hello Art,
    Thank you for a non spin view of the energy situation.
    I just wanted to get your input regarding the benefits noted on the documentary “kiss the Dirt” about the ability to reduce co2 with regenerative farming techniques.
    Do you think that could have any notable impact?
    What would be the the challenges and limitations or even feasibility to incorporate this idea into battling global warming.

    • Art Berman on June 6, 2024 at 3:19 pm

      Matthew,

      Regenerative farming is a good thing but has no potential to scale for the needs of our society.

      All the best,

      Art

  6. Tom Osborne on June 6, 2024 at 11:43 am

    This is a great, comprehensive article. I only have a question on the chart which shows the mean global temperature for the past 11,000 years. I have not seen temperature data which indicates that the current global average temperature is higher now than during the Medieval Warm Period, unless the data uses NOAA data which has been extensively falsified. There is evidence that the current global average temperature is still lower than the Medieval Warm Period. In the book “The Little Ice Age” by Brian Fagan, the first chapter is about the Medieval Warm Period. This chapter indicates that many farming diaries that were kept by monks indicate that grapes for were grown for wine-making as far north as Central England, 500 km further north than where grapes can be grown today. Additionally, logs from Icelandic fishing boats indicate that the ice edge was much further north during the Medieval Warm Period, than it is today. Greenland was actually green and had many farms, the remnants of which can be seen today. Leif Erikson initially named Newfoundland “Vineland” because there were so many wild grapes growing there. So I have to conclude that the Earth is still not as warm as it was during the Medieval Warm Period. Additionally, the interglacial warm periods only last for 11,500 years and we are approaching that.

    • Art Berman on June 6, 2024 at 3:18 pm

      Tom,

      The Medieval Warm Period was not as warm as today. Read the referenced papers in my posts and recognize that most of what you see on the internet about it is propaganda and not science.

      All the best,

      Art

  7. George Hart on June 6, 2024 at 12:44 am

    “There is no energy transition” is the paradigm shift. This shift is generally rejected, in willful ignorance and hopeful fantasy, but you have stated the reality of our situation perfectly clearly. As always, thank you!

    • Art Berman on June 6, 2024 at 3:16 pm

      Thanks, George.

      All the best,

      Art

  8. Paul P. on June 5, 2024 at 10:10 pm

    Your concerns are well founded. I think you would agree that we should not give up whatever sensible gains we can make because less of a carbon increase is still better than more. However, you seem to be advising that we risk throwing borrowed money at ineffective “solutions” and then handing future generations both a bad climate and a painful invoice for our failed efforts. I would share that viewpoint.

    There ought to be more focus on simple conservation. The American public in particular generates a lot of wasteful emissions and should be pressured to do better. However, I gather than no politician wants to push any conservation initiative that would lose a vote. It’s more popular to rail on the producers than the greater-emitting consumers.

    There also ought to be more discussion about global population growth. I see the upward projections and am wondering why it’s being accepted as a foregone conclusion rather than elevated as a global public-education matter to address. But then, it’s hard to argue when we seem to have powerful advocates for population growth in this country.

    • Art Berman on June 6, 2024 at 3:15 pm

      Paul,

      Most people have no interest in changing their beliefs or their lives, and I see no way to force or convince them to.

      My message is for those who are already beyond all of that and want to understand the truth of our predicament better.

      All the best,

      Art

      • Paul P. on June 8, 2024 at 8:50 pm

        When I referred to applying pressure against wasteful consumption, I didn’t mean appealing to people’s senses. I meant tougher regulations, product standards and taxation policies that force improvement. There have already been significant energy-efficiency gains in the U.S. over the last few decades but we are still way behind Europe in discouraging activities that produce emissions, particularly auto usage.

        That said, there is opportunity to improve American interest in environmental matters. Unfortunately, membership in one of our political tribes has long required exposure to chants that climate change is a hoax. That rule may falter after a few more hot and dry years.

        • Art Berman on June 9, 2024 at 10:44 pm

          Paul,

          I disagree. Regulations are fine up to a point but add complexity that in turn, requires more energy for its support.

          The only regulation that will make any difference for waste and the environment is to make the waster/polluter pay.

          All the best,

          Art

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