Can Renewables Fully Sustain Our Current Way Of Life?


By Tsvetana Paraskova

“The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could.”

Michael Shellenberger, Time magazine “Hero of the Environment,” wrote this commentary in an article in Forbes.

According to Shellenberger, president at Environmental Progress and an expert reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), renewables are simply incapable of sustaining our current way of life.

Why? Because people just are not willing to give up all the perks of modern life in order to return to some kind of a romantic pre-industrial era—the only kind of era that renewables could hope to sustain.

Climate change and the pivot toward energy transition are real. But the idea of having the world function as we know it powered solely by renewable energy is unrealistic today.

It will likely still be unrealistic three decades from now.

Can Falling Renewables Costs Enough Get Us To Zero-Carbon?

Renewable energy sources, especially solar and wind, are gaining market share in almost every corner of the world. Costs are falling and making new photovoltaic (PV) solar and onshore wind cheaper than the cheapest coal-fired power generation, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) said in a report in June. Over the past decade, utility-scale solar PV costs have plunged by 82 percent, followed by concentrating solar power (CSP) costs, which have dropped by 47 percent, onshore wind costs have declined by 39 percent, and offshore wind costs have fallen by 29 percent.

While the cost of renewables continues to fall as technology evolves, the cost of smoothly integrating intermittent renewable power sources into (often outdated) power grids are enormous in terms of investment. This incorporation is also currently unsurmountable in terms of government policies.

How Much 100% Zero-Carbon Grid Will Cost?

 In the United States alone, the full decarbonization of the power grid is estimated to cost a staggering US$4.5 trillion at the current state of technology, Wood Mackenzie said last year.

And these huge costs may not even be the biggest hurdle to overcome, according to WoodMac.

“Nimbyism – a not-in-my-back-yard attitude – is inevitable and forecasted increases in consumer energy costs may result in public backlash against aggressive climate change policies,” Dan Shreve, Head of Global Wind Energy Research at Wood Mackenzie, said in June 2019.

Governments and policymakers around the world face a tough balancing act between responding to the public’s growing concern over climate change and carefully planning energy transition strategies that would not alienate part of that same public from green projects.

Case in point: Norway plans stricter rules for onshore wind power installations, including turbine height and shorter project timelines, as it looks to respond to calls from the public to protect the environment when approving wind power development sites.

Germany’s plan toward incorporating more renewable energy, Energiewende, is not enthusiastically met by Germans, also because they are trusting politicians less. According to 6,500 people polled by the Potsdam Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), 78 percent of Germans said that the plan was expensive, 66 percent said it was chaotic, another 56 percent believe it was unfair, and 51 percent say it was elitist.

Can We Have Low-Carbon Grids Within Two Decades?

A recent report from the University of California, Berkeley, said that rapidly declining solar, wind, and storage prices make it entirely feasible for the U.S. to meet 90 percent of its power needs from zero-emission energy sources by 2035 with zero increases in customer costs from today’s levels.

Still, natural gas-fired generation will be needed for 10 percent of America’s power needs. According to the report, in 2035 it would be possible that “during normal periods of generation and demand, wind, solar, and batteries provide 70% of annual generation, while hydropower and nuclear provide 20%.”

Even with an exponential rise in renewable power generation, the U.S. grid will need nuclear power and hydropower to be stable with such a large share of solar and wind.

Nuclear power generation may be an option for countries with nuclear power plants and technology. But the others will have to rely on other sources for a stable grid, and like it or not, those are likely to be fossil fuels, especially natural gas.

Despite the growing environmental alarmism in industrialized nations, the world doesn’t have a common stance on decarbonizing power generation. Nor will it have any time soon, because every country is looking at its own economic and social costs and benefits of going green.

Despite the climate catastrophe or whatever other alarmist nouns activists use, today’s consumers will not give up on any modern-civilization services, appliances, or comfort, in order to return to the pre-industrial era just because solar and wind power are zero-carbon energy sources. After all, the Industrial Revolution happened because the world moved from an agriculture-dominated economy to an industrial economy, not because England was hell-bent on wrecking the climate 200 years later.

Consumers with ‘first-world problems’ want constant stable internet connection and cheap electricity. Many people in some parts of the world do not have any access to electricity.

Right now, fossil fuels are providing a large part of the world’s energy needs. The shift toward more renewable sources is already happening, but it will be gradual and slower than many environmentalists would have wanted.

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