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Cornucopian Renewable-Energy Claims Leave Poor Nations in the Dark

Alternative Energy

Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and his colleagues have written yet another paper purporting to show that 100 percent of energy demand can be fulfilled by wind, solar, and hydroelectric generation. This latest study, which comes in the form of a manuscript accepted but not yet published by the journal Renewable Energy, seeks to show how that goal can be met in 139 nations.

Jacobson’s previous “100 percent renewable” papers have prompted other researchers to publish their own studies pointing out faulty technical assumptions and analyses that cast a shadow over his claims. I expect that we will see technical critiques of Jacobson’s latest study as well published in coming weeks or months (if, that is, there are experts out there who are willing to risk being sued by Jacobson for questioning his results. He’s got one such sketchy lawsuit in the courts already.)

But even if we disregard the technical weaknesses of claims that all future demand can be satisfied with renewable energy sources—even if we assume for the sake of argument that such rosy scenarios really are achievable—there will remain the problem of energy poverty. As I have noted,

Billions of people around the world need more energy than they can afford, while billions of others can buy far more energy than is required to meet their needs. Global 100-percent renewable scenarios are based on these distortions; as a result, they typically aim to satisfy a worldwide per capita energy consumption that’s about one-eighth of what Americans consume. . . the 100-percent scenarios would leave in place huge gaps in consumption between affluent and poor communities, both among and within countries.

To quantify those distortions: Jan Christof Steckel and coworkers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have shown that for societies to achieve satisfactory levels of human development, they must have energy capacity large enough to satisfy annual consumption of at least 40 gigajoules (GJ/yr) per capita, which translates as an average per capita flux of about 1300 Watts. (That fluctuates hour to hour, day to day, and place to place, and, according to Steckel and coauthors, it is a minimum for healthy development of a society.) But in their new manuscript, Jacobson and coauthors set their goals much lower than 1300 W for large parts of the world’s population. Here are the targets for per-capita consumption that they would try to meet with renewable energy in some of the continents, regions, and nations they examined:

South America:   1413 W

Southeast Asia:   1007 W

Africa:                   625 W

India:    755 W

Haiti:    760 W

Cuba:    705 W

(For comparison, the current U.S. average is 9500 W.)

In the context of Jacobson’s studies, these are presented as reasonable targets because he, like many other energy-scenario researchers, is forecasting that extremely rapid improvements in energy efficiency will reduce worldwide demand to a level that can be satisfied by renewable sources. These sunny forecasts assume that progress in information and communications technology (ICT), along with good old industrial technologies, will accelerate and spin off greater and greater efficiencies.

But there is plenty of doubt about whether such historically unprecedented efficiency improvements can be achieved even in wealthy nations. And an analysis by ecological economist Mauro Bonaiuti shows that rather than accelerating, the marginal benefits of innovation in traditional industries are in long-term decline, while even those of the still-young ICT revolution are already fizzling.

Steckel and colleagues conclude that poor nations striving to achieve high levels of human development cannot at the same time achieve rapid improvements in energy efficiency. Even if consumer goods like stoves and refrigerators are made to run on less energy, they argue, the society-wide infrastructure improvements necessary for development (which involve a lot of inputs like cement and steel) are and will remain highly energy intensive. Low-income nations, even ones with a large economy and an affluent minority, cannot adequately raise their overall Human Development Index if they are operating at only half of the 1300 W threshold, as Jacobson is asking India, Haiti, Cuba, and the whole continent of Africa to do.

(Beware of some Jacobson critics who, determined to save capitalism but cynically adopting the language of social justice, look at the inadequacy of the high-energy 100-percent renewable strategy and draw a suicidal conclusion: that the only acceptable alternative is a big rollout of nuclear power, carbon capture, and geoengineering.)

All nations, rich and poor, need to undergo a renewable energy conversion. But for the world’s poor majority to achieve good quality of life, energy supplies in poor nations must be not only converted but also increased. This will require massive assistance from the rich nations; perhaps those funds and resources can be regarded as partial payback of what Pope Francis has called the “ecological debt … between the global north and south.”

Another complication: The wholesale conversion to wind and solar energy infrastructure, wherever it’s happening, will itself consume a lot of energy. Until the conversion is complete, the energy driving the transition will have to come largely from fossil fuels. So supporting the energy-expansion-and-conversion effort in poor nations will put even heavier pressure on rich nations, which will already be struggling to build up their own renewable infrastructure on a crash schedule while simultaneously trying to shrink their overall energy footprint (if they are really serious about reducing emissions). The rich nations will need to offset those emissions created in the process of converting the worldwide energy supply by cutting their own energy use even more deeply.

For more than a decade, we at Green Social Thought have argued that the United States will need to reduce total energy generation by 80 percent if we are to run on wholly renewable energy, avoid runaway greenhouse warming, and help achieve adequate emissions reductions worldwide.

An 80-percent U.S. reduction would take us down into the neighborhood of 2000 W per capita, a quantity that according to the Steckel analysis, could support good quality of life (if, that is, it goes to meeting human needs and not toward capital accumulation). That level of demand could be met with 100-percent renewable energy. It also happens to be right around Mexico’s current per-capita consumption and close to the consumption that Jacobson and company are projecting for a future China. We could live with that.

17 Comments on "Cornucopian Renewable-Energy Claims Leave Poor Nations in the Dark"

  1. deadly on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 6:05 am 

    Nurse Ratchet is dispensing required meds to Jacobson hourly, the schedule rigidly followed and needs to remain implemented.

    Always some nut more than willing to implement a pie-in-the-sky dreamer plan, to impose their will (Green Social Thought). Freaking hilarious! Viability and acceptance doesn’t matter, do as I say, not as I do is what Green Social Thought is conveying, which is really stupid.

    Complete bullshit, right up to their ears!

    They need to start drinking heavily, for their own good.

    Tie the numbskull to the end of a dunking poll and have some fun.

    Don’t ever let him have another drop of oil for as long as he lives, which won’t be long without oil to make his over-indulged opulent profligate sorry excuse for a life happen at all.

    Have a nice day, suckers.

  2. deadly on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 6:16 am 

    I guess I misspelled ‘pole’.

    I made a spelling error, however, it is still a responsibility, a moral obligation, to use a dunking pole and dunk Jacobson for a week or so.

  3. Davy on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 7:23 am 

    Poverty is always discounted and dismissed by techno optimist. Let’s remember techno optimist are able to be techno and optimistic because of wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. While the rich do create wealth they do this through a process that includes using resources that often come from the poor. This process is not fair and the system is rigged to reward those who are connected and near power centers. Poverty is increasing as systematic thresholds of decline compress. These thresholds are ecological and related to population and carrying capacity.

    Forecasting extremely rapid improvements is also another techno optimist tool of deception. Saying technology and efficiency will improve rapidly in the future makes bold predictions appear achievable. What is discounted and dismissed is diminishing returns that involve the physics and the economics of these forecasts. The economics of the process is usually considered a constant by techno optimist. Long term average growth is assumed. We know we are in uncharted waters with global economics. We see it with central bank intervention. We have had an odd sort of stability but to say that is an assured constant is wishful thinking and dangerous. There are risk involved with pushing the envelope economically and with the physics. When your investment strategy is pushing the limits you are also flirting with large losses. When this is at the level of national economies then huge consequences are possible.

    So taken together when you factor in the diminishing returns, poverty, and the need for investment without immediate payback you have huge hurdles with the business side of the process. You then must consider the other side of the process with the physics. When you are forecasting rapid technological and efficiency improvement that allow the economics to work you are taking significant risks. How safe is such a strategy? What are the risks of failure? When we push the limits of forecasting and combine that with investment strategies are we taking bold risks that could end up dangerously exposing society to more problems. Societies are not like businesses they don’t have the luxury of bankruptcy protection.

    I fully agree with “Green Social Thought” that if we are going to succeed with renewable energy integration into our modern world we will have to reduce energy demand. This means behavioral changes to allow demand management. The catch 22 of this is the economy. The economy must have longer term average growth just like we have now. This growth we have now is dangerously exposed to not enough for the global economy as we witness with debt and unfunded liabilities. Yet, this may be too much economic activity to run the economy on. The energy requirements are too great to support even a minimum of what a growing economy needs.

    So we are again faced with a situation of forecasting but this time a decline needed as well. We need to reduce energy demand to allow renewables to work but it is uncertain the economy can survive that kind of degrowth. This begins to sound like a trap and the kind that are catch 22 in nature. We are pushing the systematic limits of technology and economy with regards to diminishing returns and conflicting goals.

    Once you see you are in a trap then it is time to reevaluate your strategy and the place to start is the goals. Should we acknowledge a 100% renewable is not possible? Should we accept that climate change is baked into the cake? Should we accept the economy is at its limits? Should we accept poverty is here to stay and set to get worse? This point to a fairness issue. It points to the triage that occurs on lifeboats. It points to hospices to allow dignity to those who will not survive. It points to force being taken to make this happen. Should we be wise to these realities that come with humility and sobriety? Should we reject the extremes of techno optimism and market based capitalism?

    The wise strategy is to accept terminal illness of modernism and mitigate and adapt to decline. We can prolong affluence but not indefinitely. Our linear society will be forced into a circular reality of planetary limits by forces of nature. Human nature has limits to behavioral adaptation. The economy as an extension of human nature has similar limits. There are systematic limits to the amount of change society can stand on multiple levels. With this in mind we should embrace renewables as a wise choice for increase resilience and sustainability but understand and accept the limits. We cannot leave fossil fuels as we would like. We must accept with humility and sobriety that our affluent way of life is dated. This is clearly demonstrating in the science of psychology. It is related to the denial of death. Until we accept that we have breached long term thresholds of carrying capacity then we will not make wise choices.

    We have been on an undulating plateau of change with growth and decline. We have picked low hanging fruit. We are not yet in catastrophic change but we are in the vicinity of it. Anyone who studies the science knows this. The last issue is time. Time is a critical component of what we are going through at the moment. We do not have unlimited time. Time is actually speeding up as we get closer to a breakpoints. We do not have the luxury of bold forecasting and goals. This is what we are doing. Wisdom says be able to say no to some of this. Wisdom says be able to accept ultimate failure that will come because that is what happens to linear systems in a planetary system that is circular with finite limits.

  4. kanon on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 8:08 am 

    ” . . . for societies to achieve satisfactory levels of human development, they must have energy capacity . . . 40 gigajoules (GJ/yr) per capita, (average per capita flux of about 1300 Watts).

    FYI: The Collapse of Globalism

    The propaganda technique is to set the range as high as possible to justify things in terms of the present, hugely wasteful, consumer – corporate paradigm. However, the present energy use standard is a political construct as much as a reflection of social or human needs. I have no doubt that humanity has the physical ability to adopt 100% renewable energy, but the ruling class does not have that ability. Hence, we must endure a constant stream of propaganda such as this article.

  5. Davy on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 8:28 am 

    Kannon, you honestly think this is just a ruling class issue? Who is the ruling class? Where do you start defining that? Just like who is rich? Where do we draw the line. I think you are over simplifying. I think modern life is too complex to even define properly to even get a starting point.

  6. Antius on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 8:31 am 

    Large efficiency savings will be very difficult to achieve with electricity consumption because electricity already has a 100% work potential. That means that typically very little energy is lost in energy transitions. Individual nations can buck this trend by outsourcing energy intensive industry, although soaring trade deficits in western countries raises question marks over this as well. For the world as a whole that obviously cannot work at all. Per capita GDP is closely tied to electricity consumption.

  7. MASTERMIND on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 8:34 am 


    What the fuck was the word salad rant above? I bet if you put as much effort into prepping as you do writing comments like that you could survive several collapses! LoL just kidding prepping is futile!

  8. kanon on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 9:18 am 

    “Kannon, you honestly think this is just a ruling class issue?”

    The ruling class in the U.S. is the banking cartel, fossil fuel industry, and military industrial complex. The banking cartel is the heart of the ruling class and their position is based on their ability to create and issue money (the money power), which means their agenda is always funded. The ruling class runs on fossil fuels and the military maintains corporate access to and control of vital resources, such as fossil fuels. One must realize that the first priority of any ruling class is simply continuing to be the ruling class. Since the ruling class is built on the money system and fossil fuel energy, they would lose their position if we were to actually transition to renewable energy. In addition, we have the cartelization and monopolization of nearly every important economic sector. So yes, the ruling class is the major problem as of now.

    As an additional point, the present bank-money system will not, IMHO, work with renewable energy and a conservation imperative, because the need for ever more debt would be too difficult to maintain. I do not think the ruling class is necessarily cognizant of these factors, because I don’t think they even understand the flaws in their own BS. People tend to not see what is wrong with their ideas (it they did they would change their mind). The thinking is largely limited to short term expediency and maintenance of corporate bureaucracies and hierarchies.

    While modern life is very complicated, the major thrust of human activities continues to be the promotion and maintenance of status quo social arrangements. It is really difficult to think outside the box, so I will just guess that a mammoth financial crisis or an environmental breakdown will be what breaks the ruling class hold over society. It is very optimistic to think we will make an orderly transition to a sustainable society.

  9. bobinget on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 10:30 am 

    OK, here’s the latest skinny. (on topic)

    Cushing draw 879,000 barrels.
    IOW’s we are not replenishing crude oil storage fast enough. Now, here’s the bad news.
    Once tank levels get too low we cannot continue to keep withdrawing and need to tap SPR.
    Here’s the really bad news, diesel and gasoline prices will slowly but surly rise.

    At some point price rises need to be explained.
    SPR was put in place for emergencies, not to cover up deficits.

    If you are wondering, why don’t we increase imports? Answer, Canada, our #1 #2 #3 supplier
    is dancing as fast as it can. Pipelines are full.

    Canadian oil companies are providing crude
    @ 10% lower cost and are still arguing over export pipelines. One day those pipelines will be built.

    Then, we get serious about renewables.

  10. bobinget on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 11:14 am 

    I’m in love with my ‘island’ example.
    Importing gasoline and diesel to run generators
    KEEPS ‘my’ island POOR.
    Importing fresh solar panels, EV’s every 20 years
    keeps locally grown funds on the island.

    Today, all our solar panels are covered w/light blocking snow.
    On my island the sun comes out between light
    marine showers


  11. kiwichick on Mon, 26th Feb 2018 2:03 pm 

    has the potential for geothermal power from the hot “basement ” rocks been factored into these equations?

    I know that they have been tried…..and failed….in Australia

  12. Cloggie on Sat, 3rd Mar 2018 2:56 am 

    Here is the 100% renewable energy villain Mark Jacobson, 3 days ago (bad sound and video):

    Good sound and video from 2014:

  13. Antius on Sat, 3rd Mar 2018 3:38 am 

    The guy sounds like a moron. Suing people that criticize your work is never going to put you in a good light.

  14. MASTERMIND on Sat, 3rd Mar 2018 7:49 am 


    Jackobson said on his blog that if we build wind turbines in the gulf they could protect against hurricanes! LOL he is as dumb as you are!

  15. Cloggie on Sat, 3rd Mar 2018 8:17 am 

    Jackobson said on his blog that if we build wind turbines in the gulf they could protect against hurricanes! LOL he is as dumb as you are!

    500 million Europeans, carrying a culture that is the origine of science and technology…

    … are committed to a 100% renewable energy future and have persuaded all most all other countries in the world (minus America, big shrug) that they should go along in that effort.

    One less articulate American won’t spoil that future, even if he has the right ideas, but can’t express them eloquently.

    Meanwhile in the real world, outside millimind’s standard set of 2010 articles (“Dear reader”), GE owned Alsthom of France has introduced its new 12 MW offshore giant Haliade-X 12 MW offshore windturbine:

    These monster machines are expected to become operational, probably in European waters, as of 2019.

  16. MASTERMIND on Sat, 3rd Mar 2018 9:20 am 


    Top scientists show why powering US using 100 percent renewable energy is a total fantasy

  17. Cloggie on Sat, 3rd Mar 2018 9:29 am 

    Could you summarize in a few sentences the core of the argument as to why a 100% renewable energy base is impossible according to these, no doubt, peer-reviewed geniuses.

    After all this is discussion board, not a link-pushing operation.

    I mean, for self-described “Mastermind”, this should be a piece of cake.


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