Renewable Energy Hype
(Adapted from The Climate Pandemic: How Climate Disruption Threatens Human Survival)

From my vantage point in an airplane, the sprawling semicircular array of more than 300,000 mirrors of the Ivanpah solar power plant look like some alien transmitter nestled against the rugged brown mountains in the California desert. The mirrors of Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar thermal plant, focus the sun’s rays on three “power towers.” The intense heat created in the towers produces steam to turn turbines designed to generate nearly 400 megawatts of power. On sunny days, the towers glow with a blinding brightness, feeding power to the grid.

Today, the towers are dark, and the mirrors reflect only a wan light. It is cloudy, so neither the towers nor the facility’s adjacent array of photovoltaic (PV) panels are producing energy.

The Climate Pandemic cover

The Ivanpah plant is an apt metaphor for the stark realities of renewable energy. It is dramatic, highly visible, and highly publicized. But it is ultimately a disappointment. As this section details, although renewable energy seems a savior in halting the relentless increase in greenhouse gas emissions, it is not.

The plant’s technical problems caused its production to fall short of expectations.[1] And, although the plant has, indeed, prevented millions of tons of CO2 emissions, it requires burning of significant natural gas to operate.[2] [3] The system burns natural gas at night to maintain boiler temperatures, and uses gas turbines as backup generators during cloudy days.

The plant has proven such an economic disappointment by its owner NRG Energy that the company has sold off its renewable energy holdings to focus on fossil fuels.[4] The similar Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project farther north also suffered technical problems, failed to be profitable, and declared bankruptcy.[5]

Advocates unrealistically tout renewable energy as a major future energy source. For example, an International Energy Agency (IEA) report on renewables forecast renewable electricity capacity to grow by over 60% between 2020 and 2026.[6]

While such statistics make renewable electricity seem highly promising, they are misleading. For one thing, the increase in renewable electricity is from a very small base. Also, renewable electricity constitutes only a small portion of the total energy supply.

Globally in 2019, about 14% of total energy came from renewable energy, according to the IEA.[7] However, more than half that percentage represents burning wood and charcoal for heating and cooking. Only small percentages come from such renewables as hydropower (18%) and wind (6.2%). Even a smaller percentage (3%) comes from combined biogases, renewable municipal waste, solar PV, solar thermal, and tidal.

What’s more, renewable energy’s share of global energy consumption rose only about 1% per year between 2010 and 2020, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.[8]

Currently in the US, wind produces about 8% of electrical generation, hydropower 7%, solar 2%, and biomass just over 1%, according to the US Energy Information Administration (USEIA). In contrast, natural gas generates 40% of electrical power, coal generates 19%, and nuclear about 19%.[9]

True, by 2050 in the US, renewables’ share of electricity generation is projected by the USEIA to reach up to about 44%. However, natural gas will continue to be a major source, with a 34% share, as nuclear and coal drop to, respectively 12% and 10% each.[10]

Worldwide, almost 28% of electricity is generated by renewables as of 2020, according to the IEA. The largest source is hydropower, with only about 9% generated by wind and solar power.[11]

Another widely cited—and misleading—statistic is the high percentage of new renewable electrical capacity. For example, almost 95% of new global power capacity added through 2026 will be renewables, projected the above-cited IEA report. However, additions to generation capacity do not mean significant replacement of the massive existing capacity, which is almost totally fossil-fuel-powered. Indeed, the IEA concluded that an almost doubling of annual additions of PV and wind power would be necessary to meet the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.

Overall, the IEA found that only 2 of 55 technologies—lighting and electric vehicles—key to meeting its Net Zero goal were on track. The 55 key technologies included the power sector, fuel supply, industrial processes, transport, buildings, and energy integration technologies such as energy storage and smart grids.[12]

Finally, there is little evidence for massive investment in renewable energy projects, despite highly publicized new projects. Analyses have found that such investment has been rising only slowly over time, even suffering a significant drop due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.[13] [14]

Rapid PV growth not relevant

Although the falling cost of PV solar installations has spurred rapid growth, momentum is not magnitude.

Statistics from an MIT study showed how a rapid rise from a minuscule level is still a minuscule level.[15] While PV solar accounted for about 139 gigawatts of electricity production in 2013, it would require 25,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon energy to avoid significant climate disruption, concluded the study. Reaching this generation level would require a scale-up of 10 to 100 times in PV installations just by mid-century.

What’s more, the rated capacity of a PV solar installation is not equal to the energy it will actually produce. Due to solar’s actual power output, news reports are misleading that assert that a new installation of a given megawatt capacity is capable of powering a given number of homes. Engineer Jatin Nathwani explained in an article in The Conversation why solar comes up short:

Because of the efficiency of energy conversion, solar energy output tends to be low. For example, the energy produced from a large number of solar arrays combined as 1,000 megawatts (MW) installed capacity will deliver, on average, an energy equivalent of 10 to 12% of its capacity. In contrast, a nuclear plant delivers energy at 80-90% of its rated capacity.[16]

Some studies do forecast that solar could grow fast enough to ameliorate climate change. One such analysis projected that PV solar could provide 30-50% of global power generation by 2050.[17] However, that analysis requires an unrealistic perfect storm of solar-friendly regulations and sufficient financing. The massive increase would also require storage technology such as batteries that could incorporate variable PV electricity into a power grid that must operate stably. As discussed below, such economic storage technology does not exist.

Colossal construction needed

One projection by environmental engineers revealed the gargantuan construction effort required for a total global, renewable-powered energy system. The researchers charted roadmaps to transform the energy infrastructures of 139 countries to be powered by wind, water, and sunlight. The roadmaps envisioned 80% conversion by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The researchers calculated that the conversion would require:

The engineers also created a US version of such a conversion plan.[19] That plan would require about four centuries to complete at the current rate of renewable generation installation, according to factory construction engineer Tom Solomon.[20] He calculated that reaching a hundred percent US renewable energy by 2050 would require building nearly 500 huge “gigafactories” for producing solar panels and wind turbines. It would mean building 29 gigafactories every year for almost two decades at a total cost of $6.3 trillion.

Massive metal demand, waste generation

A transition to renewables would require a vast increase in production of the metals used in solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. The metals include aluminum, nickel, cobalt, lead, lithium, silver, neodymium, and indium. Also, the expansion of the electric grid to accommodate renewables, discussed below, will require a massive increase in copper production (see “Gridlocked renewables” below).

For example, an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a similarly sized gas-fired plant, calculated the IEA. And a typical electric car requires six times more minerals than a conventional gas car. The average amount of minerals needed for a unit of power generation has increased by 50% since 2010, as the share of renewables has risen, found the IEA.[21]

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol, warned that “the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions.”[22]

One analysis found that copper demand will increase by up to 350% by 2050.[23] That increase will mean a major increase in copper mining, with its environmental impacts. An analysis of US copper mines’s impacts by the environmental group Earthworks found that:

. . .100% had pipeline spills, 92% failed to control mine wastewater and 28% had tailings impoundment failures—polluting drinking water, destroying fish and wildlife habitat, harming agricultural land and threatening public health.[24]

A total transition to renewable electricity sources could also require silver demand to grow by as much as 105%, indium by 920%, and lithium by 2,700%, calculated economic anthropologist Jason Hickel.[25] Mining such metals produces such impacts as deforestation, ecosystem collapse, and biodiversity loss, he pointed out. He calculated that just meeting the silver demand could require up to 130 more mines the size of Mexico’s Peñasquito mine, which covers nearly 40 square miles. Hickel wrote:

That operation is staggering in its scale: a sprawling open-pit complex ripped into the mountains, flanked by two waste dumps each a mile long, and a tailings dam full of toxic sludge held back by a wall that’s 7 miles around and as high as a 50-story skyscraper.

Hickel’s conclusions were based on a World Bank analysis of renewable energy metal requirements.[26]

Renewable facilities could also generate considerable waste. Without expensive recycling, disposing of decommissioned solar panels could generate 78 million tons of electronic waste by 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. By then, solar e-waste could amount to 6 million metric tons a year.[27]

Disposal of wind turbine blades in the US alone will generate up to 370,000 tons a year, with a cumulative 4 million tons by 2050, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.[28]

Energy additions, not transitions

History also offers sobering lessons about the futility of replacing fossil fuels with renewables. In the past, “the world has never truly undergone an energy transition,” wrote energy economist Richard Newell and policy researcher Daniel Raimi.[29] “Instead, the world has experienced a series of energy additions, where new fuels build atop the old, rising like a skyscraper under construction. . . . These new energy sources—like the ones that came before them—are simply stacking on top of the old ones.”

Decades would be required for any energy transition, according to policy analyst Vaclav Smil.[30] Charting the history of past energy transitions, for example, from wood to coal or oil, he concluded:

Worldwide the enormous investment and infrastructure needed for any new energy source to capture a large share of the market require two to three generations: 50 to 75 years. . . . Renewables are not taking off any faster than the other new fuels once did, and there is no technical or financial reason to believe they will rise any quicker. . . . Today’s great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is fueled mostly by wishful thinking and a misunderstanding of recent history.

Gridlocked renewables

Integrating the increasing amounts of solar and wind generation into the power distribution system will require a profound transformation in the electricity grid, according to the IEA.[31] [32]

“Electricity grids could prove to be the weak link in the transformation of the power sector, with implications for the reliability and security of electricity supply,” the IEA noted. Given countries’ current energy plans, the global need for new transmission lines is “80% greater over the next decade than the expansion seen over the last ten years,” found the IEA report.[33]

An analysis of US policy concluded bluntly that “the current system for planning and paying for expansion of the transmission grid is so unworkable and inefficient it is creating a huge backlog of unbuilt energy projects.” Almost 90% of the backlog is for wind, solar, and storage projects, according to the report.[34]

Transmission costs for wind and solar generation are several times those for coal or nuclear, pointed out energy journalist Gail Tverberg. Because of renewables’ variability, transmission lines need to be scaled for maximum output, rather than average output. They need to be longer to bridge the longer distance between generation and consumption. There is, thus, increased maintenance. Tverberg wrote that renewables’ intermittency situation is:

. . . analogous to researchers deciding that it would be helpful or more efficient if humans could change their diets to 100 percent grass in the next 20 years. Grass is a form of energy product, but it is not the energy product that humans normally consume. . . . The fact that humans have not evolved to eat grass is similar to the fact that the manufacturing and transport sectors of today’s economy have not [emphasis added] developed around the use of intermittent electricity from wind and solar.[35]

Large-scale regional power grids could enable wind and solar electricity to be transmitted such long distances, sending surplus electricity to regions that need it. However, in the US, political and economic barriers have stymied such projects. For one thing, the 329 transmission owners in the US evolved to serve their local owners, who resist investing in regional grids, pointed out a report by energy economists.[36] The report concluded that:

Market and regulatory failures create perverse incentives that lead to under-investment in the type of regional and interregional transmission that would increase reliability and system-wide efficiency. This failure is widespread across the country.

As energy consultant Susan Tierney told Science magazine, “The regional division of power grids means that utility companies and legislators are reluctant to depend on outside power feeds; and communities object to large-scale power lines in their backyards.”[37]

Another complication to running power lines through multiple states is the fact that each will have its own regulations. And approval will be especially difficult for power lines that run through a state but do not supply power to that state.

Concluded an analysis of the power grid by consulting firm ScottMadden, “The general view across the industry is that inter-regional planning processes are at best, stalled, and at worst, ineffective in identifying valuable projects.”[38]

Rosy scenarios of a fully renewable energy future downplay the overwhelming barriers to transforming the energy system and re-engineering the power grid. For example, one such analysis concluded that a fully renewable-powered US grid would be stable with no blackouts. [39] [40] The modeling study by environmental engineeers imagined a complete electrification of all cars, trucks, heating systems, and other energy users. The plan would more than double electricity use over the next decades, they found.

True, such a profound transformation might be theoretically possible. However, replacing the gargantuan, existing energy infrastructure would require a prodigious, unprecedented feat of legerdemain—political, economic, and technological. And that replacement—scrapping all existing fossil-fueled plants and replacing them with wind and solar— would bring with it wrenching financial disruption.

Another “sunny” study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that solar PV could meet much of US power demand, but that curtailment during times of overproduction would become the “new normal.” Also, high levels of solar would require considerable energy storage; and conventional generation would still be needed when solar and wind lagged.[41]

When PV becomes unprofitable

The intermittency and distributed nature of solar PV even mean that it becomes uneconomic at some level due to the need for massive storage and grid re-engineering. An MIT study concluded that:

Even if solar PV generation becomes cost-competitive at low levels of penetration, revenues per kW of installed capacity will decline as solar penetration increases until a breakeven point is reached, beyond which further investment in solar PV would be unprofitable. . . . Without government policies to help overcome these challenges, it is likely that solar energy will continue to supply only a small percentage of world electricity needs.[42]

In fact, because they are intermittent, neither solar nor wind will be competitive in the electricity marketplace as their penetration rises, according to economic studies. In one study, energy economist Lion Hirth found that at low market penetration, wind and solar are comparable in value to a constant source such as coal or gas.[43] However, when wind power reaches 30% of market share, or solar reaches 15%, their value drops well below that of a constant source.

Hirth concluded that “without fundamental technological breakthroughs, wind and solar power will struggle becoming competitive on large scale, even with quite steep learning curves.”

A central problem with PV is that it requires massive storage capacity as its percentage in the power grid rises, and a phenomenon known as value deflation kicks in. That is, solar generates so much power during sunny days that its value plummets, even below zero. So utilities must either pay neighboring utilities to take the power or install expensive storage systems. As discussed below, the expense of storage make the system uneconomic (see Battery “derangement” below).

The excess solar power problem is already rearing its head in places such as California, with its large solar power base. Grid managers in the state are actually having to cut solar installations off the grid, to prevent surges during high-solar-output periods.[44] [45] California utilities have even paid other states to take surplus solar power to avoid overloading power lines.[46] Utility planners worry that increasing solar power will make overproduction during the day even worse.[47]

One study found that PV costs would have to drop to 25 cents per watt for solar to be truly competitive, given the decreasing value of PV power with increasing grid penetration. “Cost-competitiveness for solar is a moving target,” wrote researchers Varun Sivaram and Shayle Kann. “As solar’s share of the electricity mix increases, the cost of each new solar project must fall to compete.”[48] The current PV cost is almost $3.00 per watt for residential systems and $1.00 per watt for utility-scale systems.[49]

A major cost drop is unlikely because while the cost of the panels is falling rapidly, solar installations also require additional fixed-cost hardware such as inverters, installation, and grid connection. Sivaram and Kann concluded that “even with rapid technological advancement, 25 cents per watt may be out of reach by mid-century.”[50]

High percentages of wind power also produce barriers to economic viability on an electric grid. One study concluded that because of the inability to store energy and the need for fast-responding backup capacity, “the indirect costs of wind energy have often been neglected or underestimated.” The authors wrote that “The costs of wind power likely exceed the benefits [and] there may be limits to the proportion of electricity that can be generated by wind.”[51]

In fact, storage inadequacies have forced Germany to pay customers to consume excess wind-generated power.[52] Other countries, including Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have experienced lesser periods of “negative power prices.”[53]

Fossil-powered renewables

Even heavily renewable-powered electrical grids are still mainly fossil-fuel-based. When energy analyst Michael Goff calculated the costs and carbon intensity of electrical grids in 18 leading global economies, he found that:

Electrical grids with relatively high shares of wind and solar generation are still largely fossil-powered grids. Nations that source 20 to 30% of their electricity from wind, solar, and biomass get up to 60% of their electricity from fossil generation.[54]

Battery “derangement”

Renewable energy advocates have proposed, unrealistically, that huge banks of batteries could smooth out the hills and valleys of solar and wind generation. They believe that batteries could store massive amounts of excess power during high-production periods and feed that power back into the grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow.

Proponents of such storage suffer “battery derangement syndrome,” contended energy analyst Mark Mills.[55] They vastly underestimate the magnitude of the batteries that would make up for the lack of solar generation at night.

While factories making lithium batteries currently produce 100 billion watt-hours of storage capacity each year, that production is dwarfed by global electricity use, at 50 trillion watt-hours daily, wrote Mills. Thus, a pure solar power system with battery backup would require half that amount to make up for nighttime lack of generation. The required battery production “would take 250 years of production from all of today’s global battery factories,” he wrote.

To meet the 2°C limit, grid storage of about 310 gigawatts (billion watts) would be needed in the US, Europe, China, and India, concluded an IEA report.[56] By comparison, only about 3 gigawatts of energy storage were added globally in 2019, according to the IEA.[57]

In the US alone, it would cost some $2.5 trillion to install sufficient battery storage to enable wind and solar to be available when needed.[58]

Long-duration storage too expensive

A major drawback to battery storage is that it only lasts for a matter of hours. So long-duration energy storage is needed to make wind and solar energy viable during long periods of low generation. However, long-duration energy storage systems are currently far too expensive to compete with natural gas as a backup. These systems store energy as compressed air, hydrogen, and pumped hydro. An economic analysis by MIT researchers found all to be far too expensive.[59] As energy journalist David Roberts wrote of their findings:

Their findings on long-duration energy storage (LDES) are daunting and somewhat deflating. In a nutshell: LDES needs to get extremely cheap before it will play a substantial role in a clean grid—cheaper than almost any candidate technology today, and cheaper than any geographically unconstrained technology is likely to get anytime soon.[60]

That said, the US Department of Energy has set as a goal to reduce the cost of LDES by 90% by 2030, based on its Energy Storage Grand Challenge.[61] [62] However, developing such technologies will take many years, and large-scale deployment many more.

By 2040, LDES could store only up to 10% of global electricity capacity, found an analysis by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.[63] That level is far lower than would be required to support large-scale deployment of intermittent renewable energy.

No Moore’s Law for PV, batteries

Some advocates have claimed that PV cells and batteries will plunge in price due to a version of Moore’s Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. That law predicts that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double about every two years, reducing costs and increasing computer power.

While Moore’s Law has proved durable in electronics, it is not valid for PV panels or batteries. Moore’s Law applies to computer chips because physics allows them to be made smaller and cheaper, pointed out engineer and policy analyst Varun Sivaram.[64] Solar panels, however, do not have that advantage. Rather, Sivaram wrote:

Falling costs of silicon solar panels have largely been driven by lower input material costs from scale, lower labor costs through manufacturing automation, and lower waste driven by efficient processing.

Nor will batteries follow Moore’s Law. They will remain expensive, even with technological advances, wrote physicist Fred Schlacter:

The reason there is a Moore’s Law for computer processors is that electrons are small and they do not take up space on a chip. . . . Batteries are not like this. Ions, which transfer charge in batteries, are large, and they take up space, as do anodes, cathodes, and electrolytes.[65]

Because of fundamental physical limits, even the most advanced lithium-ion battery will only reach an energy storage density of about 6% that of crude oil, according to calculations by energy storage researcher Kurt Zenz House. He wrote:

Given other required materials such as electrolytes, separators, current collectors, and packaging, we're unlikely to improve the energy density by more than about a factor of 2 within about 20 years. This means hydrocarbons—including both fossil carbon and biofuels—are still a factor of 10 better than the physical upper bound, and they're likely to be 25 times better than lithium batteries will ever be.[66]

Realistically modest solar

The stark reality is that worldwide, solar PV and solar thermal systems such as the Ivanpah plant could only supply up to 27% of electricity by 2050, concluded an IEA report.[67]

But meeting the 2°C temperature limitation of the Paris Agreement would require a tenfold increase in the spread of such low-carbon-emitting technologies as PV systems, concluded a study led by environmental engineer Gabriele Manoli.[68]

“Radically new strategies to implement technological advances on a global scale and at unprecedented rates are needed,” Manoli told The Engineer.[69]

Also, neither PV cells nor batteries are totally “green.” Both produce carbon emissions in their manufacture. In the case of PV cells, it may take years to “pay back” that carbon deficit.[70]

Wind power limited

Wind energy, like solar, will experience a steady cost reduction over the next decades, although not a Moore’s Law reduction. The falling costs will be mainly due to the growing size of wind turbines, enabling an economy of scale and enabling capture of more wind energy per unit.

Offshore wind installations in particular are growing rapidly, with a projected production of up to 25 gigawatts by 2030 in the US and 220 gigawatts globally, according to the NREL.[71] The potential resource is far greater. The US has a potential offshore wind resource of 2,000 gigawatts.[72]

Despite such growth and such a huge resource, wind generation, onshore or offshore, is not increasing fast enough to meet the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.[73] And as indicated earlier, wind power becomes uneconomic with increased market penetration.

Even given soaring demand, wind power systems may also be uneconomic in that they may not be profitable for manufacturers. As of 2022, costs of raw materials, supply chain disruptions, and other barriers have led to a “colossal market failure” in the industry, according to Ben Blackwell, head of a wind power trade group.[74]

It’s also possible that wind intensity may decline due to climate disruption. A modeling study by atmospheric scientists found that a warming Arctic will reduce the temperature difference between the Arctic and equatorial latitudes. The result: diminished winds over North America, Asia, and Europe.[75]

Onshore wind farms are meeting sometimes fierce public resistance as they expand, given their impact on communities. Both onshore wind farms and PV installations are causing controversy in Britain, Germany, and the US.[76] [77] [78] [79]

This local resistance can kill renewable energy projects because siting requires local or state approvals of such things as the setback requirements of wind projects from buildings. Opponents of wind projects have objected to the noise and “shadow flicker”—the strobing light of windmills on buildings—of such projects. They have also launched aggressive social media campaigns to stop solar and PV projects. These campaigns have gone so far as to push bogus assertions that wind turbines cause cancer and birth defects; that climate disruption is a scam; and that the turbines can dangerously collapse.[80]

Environmental impacts drive opposition

Such resistance will grow in part due to the huge land requirements for wind farms and PV installations. A full 12% of the continental US land area would be required to meet today’s US electricity consumption with wind power, calculated researchers. PV installations would require 1% of the land to meet that need, they calculated.[81]

Large-scale solar power facilities also produce significant environmental impacts that will drive local opposition. The plants may interfere with wilderness and recreation areas, as well as grazing and farming land. Construction site preparation may cause soil compaction, drainage alteration, increased runoff, and erosion. Thermal solar plants consume water for cooling, straining water resources, especially in desert areas. Chemicals used in solar facilities could contaminate surface or groundwater. All these impacts could adversely affect habitats of native plant and animal species.[82]

The facilities also directly kill animals. Wind turbines are significant killers of birds, pointed out environmentalist Michael Shellenberger. And the Ivanpah plant has caused the death of hundreds of threatened desert tortoises and thousands of birds a year. In fact, the massive predicted expansion of wind and solar will in some cases lead to extinction-level wildlife deaths, contended Shellenberger.[83]

Biofuels bust

Biofuels, such as ethanol from corn, are also not an answer. While their energy is not intermittent, producing them uses large amounts of land and water that could be devoted to producing food. Indeed, food grown using land and water currently used for biofuels could feed about 30% of the world’s malnourished population, or 280 million people, calculated one study.[84] And the projected increase in biofuel production based on renewable energy policy would cause a food deficit for 700 million people, said lead author Paolo D’Odorico.[85]

In fact, the environmental costs of using corn to produce ethanol are significantly greater than the impacts of using the corn for feed, found a study by ecohydrologists. They concluded that producing feed corn is “more energy efficient and less environmentally costly than corn-based ethanol.”[86]

Producing ethanol from corn is not necessarily even significantly lower in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) than refining gasoline from oil. A 2011 National Research Council (NRC) report found that emissions from ethanol-from-corn production are just 20% less than those from gasoline.[87] However, a more recent in-depth analysis concluded that corn-produced ethanol would be at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline production.[88]

The 2011 NRC report concluded that “the extent to which [biofuels production] contributes to lowering global GHG is uncertain.”

In any case, a major biofuels industry would require massive feedstock production, an IEA report concluded.[89] The most optimistic production scenario would require 8 billion to 11 billion dry metric tons of feedstock a year by 2050, the report concluded. That scenario assumed that bioenergy would provide only 7.5% of global power generation, 15% of heat used in industry, and 20% used in heating buildings.

The industry would require investing hundreds of billions of dollars for production plants and trillions of dollars for feedstock. However, such an investment is not likely because biofuels are more expensive than fossil fuels, concluded the IEA report.

Hydropower, geothermal inadequate

Hydroelectric power seems a much better bet, given its reliability, low cost, and proven technology. Hydropower already supplies 17% of global electricity generation, behind coal and natural gas, according to an IEA report.[90]

While the report envisions an increase in hydropower in the next decades, it forecasts that modernizing aging dams will require massive investment. Some $300 billion will be required by 2030 to modernize dams globally, more than double the amount currently planned, said the report. Attracting investment for such modernization projects will be difficult, the report concluded. Investors in new projects will also be discouraged by “long lead times, lengthy permitting processes, high costs and risks from environmental assessments, and opposition from local communities.” What’s more, the huge dams required for major power production cost up to tens of billions of dollars.

Hydropower is not necessarily a benign, safe source of electricity. Many thousands of older dams have reached the end of their lifespan, needing major repair or replacement. Dams constructed pre-climate-disruption may not be able withstand predicted future extreme floods and river flows.[91]

Geothermal energy is only a marginal contributor to electricity and heating demand, and is growing only a few percent a year, according to the IEA. This growth is not enough to meet the agency’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.[92]

That said, there are geothermal technologies in development that could accelerate its use as an electricity source. One company, Eavor Technologies, Inc., has developed a closed-loop system that circulates a working fluid through deep wells, harnessing subterranean heat to generate heating and electricity. The fluid circulates without pumping as a “thermosiphon,” in which the heated fluid rises at the outlet, drawing colder fluid into the inlet.[93]

Overall, renewable energy’s bottom line is that it will not live up to its hype. As Richard Heinberg, co-author of Our Renewable Future, bluntly wrote:

While renewable energy can indeed power industrial societies, there is probably no credible future scenario in which humanity will maintain current levels of energy use . . . . Therefore current levels of resource extraction, industrial production, and consumption are unlikely to be sustained—much less can they perpetually grow.[94]



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