Fascinating discussion: Are renewables really challenging fossil fuels?

Repost from National Observer (left column)
Discussion (right column) reposted from System Change not Climate Change

Fossil fuel expansion crushes renewables

By Barry Saxifrage in Analysis, Energy, September 20 2017

I read lots of articles these days pointing to the rapid expansion of renewable energy as a reason to be hopeful about our unfolding climate crisis. Unfortunately, the climate doesn’t care how many solar panels and wind farms we build.

What determines our climate fate is how much climate-polluting fossil fuels we decide to burn. Renewables are great but only if they actually replace oil, gas, or coal. Sadly, rising renewables haven’t stopped our fossil fuel burn, or our atmosphere’s CO2 from continuing to rise. Instead, the new business-as-usual is one in which we keep expanding both renewables and fossil fuels at the same time.

The best available science says we need climate pollution “reductions of 90 per cent or more between 2040 and 2070.” (see International Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment report.)

But the latest energy data clearly shows we aren’t reducing fossil fuel burn. Just the opposite. We keep cranking the tap open wider every year. In a recent article, I dug into the latest “BP Statistical Review of World Energy” to illustrate the climate-sobering fossil fuel side of this story:

  • Fossil fuel use continues to rise every year
  • Fossil fuels continue to supply at least 85 per cent of global energy use
  • Oil and gas are expanding more than other energy sources

After reading that article, Canadian energy expert Dave Hughes pointed me to the equally sobering renewable energy side of the story. Here it is.

Demand growth swamps renewables

Hughes notes that while renewable energy is growing, global energy demand is rising much more.

To illustrate, I created this new chart from the BP data.

Global energy demand vs renewables

The orange line shows the increase in global energy demand since 2009.

Compare all that new demand to the top green line showing the increase in renewable energy. As you can see, renewables expanded only enough to cover about a quarter of new demand.

In fact, all the expansion of renewables over the last seven years isn’t enough to cover even the single-year demand surge of 2010. Sure that was a big year for demand as the world emerged from a global recession. But those last seven years have also been the all-time biggest years ever for renewable energy.

The situation looks even worse if you don’t like the idea of relying on expanding hydropower dams. That’s because hydropower expanded more than any other renewable over those years. The lower green line shows the increase from all the non-hydro renewables: wind, solar, biofuels and biomass.

So, any guesses what filled that huge gap between renewables and demand? Yep.

Fossil fuel expansion trumps all renewables

Instead of prioritizing climate-safe renewables, humanity met most of the rising energy demand by burning ever more fossil carbon. My next chart shows the renewables-crushing scale of the recent fossil fuel expansion.

The huge bar on the left shows global fossil fuel burn last year. The tiny right bar shows all renewable energy use last year. Quite a mismatch, eh? But the key thing to notice is the yellow part of each bar. This shows how much each type of energy increased over the last decade.

Global fossil fuels vs renewables in 2016, with decade changes

As you can see, we expanded fossil fuels twice as much as renewables. Actually, 2.4 times more. When people have wanted more energy, they have mostly decided to burn more fossil carbon, not install more renewables.

In fact, as the red arrows show, the last decade’s increase in fossil fuels was so huge that it single-handedly exceeds all the renewable energy supply we’ve ever built.

In other words, all the world’s hydropower dams, solar installations, biomass burning, biofuels and wind farms produce less energy than just the recent expansion in fossil fuels.

The new business as usual: more of both

Here’s another chart showing how things have played out over the last decade.

Global fossil fuels vs renewables from 2006 to 2016

The black line shows fossil fuel use. The green line shows renewables. And, again, yellow shows how much each increased over the last decade.

This chart lets you see how both fossil fuels and renewables continue to rise at the same time.

As with the previous chart, the red arrows point out that fossil fuels expanded more in this decade than all renewables combined have ever expanded.

This chart certainly shows that renewables are growing at a good clip. But it also shows that fossil fuels keep expanding even more. There is no indication here that fossil burning is going start declining rapidly as needed. I don’t even see any sign it is going to stop rising!

Instead, the world isn’t even coming close to expanding renewables enough to meet the annual increases in energy demand.

Cherry picking climate hope?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of renewables. I’ve got grid-tie solar panels on my roof and I’m an avid daily reader of the renewable energy press. I see renewables as a critical and necessary part of a climate-sane future.

But renewables aren’t the metric that will determine our climate future. Renewables can — and currently are — prospering even as fossil fuels expand and we accelerate into the climate crisis.

Focusing on just the positive renewable energy news feels to me like cherry-picking climate hope. It’s tempting, for sure, but can distract from what actually determines our climate fate: how much fossil fuel we burn. And by that measure we are still heading ever further from safety while our time to turn around is running out.

Debate and Discussion

System Change, Not Climate Change, Sep 21, 2017.

Steve Ongerth, Sep 21, 2017
If you presented this argument to anyone who was a renewable energy expert, you’d be laughed right out of the room.

While I agree that we should not rely on a strategy of “cherry picking hope” (as if that’s what anyone other than a few green capitalists are doing with regards to renewables), there are some errors in Saxifrage’s analysis of the very graphs he includes:

First of all, while it’s true that fossil fuel usage has continued to expand since 2010, the trend line shows that the *rate of fossil fuel increase* is actually *decreasing* each year (though the curve turned slightly upward at the end of 2016). There is no *corresponding decrease* in the installation of new renewable energy capacity, however.

This essentially *contradicts* Saxifrage’s claim that renewable energy is having no appreciable impact. In fact, most experts agree that it is having a *substantial* impact, in fact a much larger impact much earlier than even some of the most optimistic projections from the first decade of this century predicted.

Now, you may argue that this was due to the crash of the Chinese economy, but if that were true, we’d see a corresponding drop off in renewables. We don’t, however.

Secondly, even the most pie-in-the-sky predictions don’t assume that there would be a sudden drop-off in the rate of expansion of new fossil fuel capacity, because many of these projects go through a lengthy permitting and planning process that can sometimes take more than a decade to unfold. In other words, much of the expansion we’re seeing in the graphs here was already “in the pipeline” so to speak. Most experts predict that the curve we see is going to slow and then begin to decline. (it will decline faster if we have a revolution, of course.)

Thirdly, this study fails to distinguish between increases in capacity that are demand driven and those that are *supply* driven. The latter are cases of fossil fuel capitalists pushing development of unwanted capacity so that they can continue to justify their existence and profiteering (such as the Dakota Access Pipeline) in spite of the deep unpopularity of these projects. (The Chinese are only now beginning to put a moratorium on permits for new coal plants which already greatly exceed their demand).

Fourth, the graphs fail to show that the newer fossil fuel capacity, while certainly not welcome due to their contribution on GHG emissions, is still more efficient and cleaner than the older capacity that is being retired. It’s a small point, but it should be made nonetheless.

Lastly, Saxifrage’s assessment fails to mention the likely disruptive effect that storage—which is only becoming a major factor *this year*, will have on these energy mixes.

None of these points is meant to suggest that we shouldn’t continue to push as hard as we can to end capitalism, but we don’t do ourselves any credit if we make weak or inaccurate arguments.

The author replies… Barry Saxifrage, Sep 22, 2017
Steve, I think you are misrepresenting what my article says.

My article says:

* BP energy data shows that energy demand has vastly out-paced renewables. And that humans are still expanding fossil fuels. This isn’t controversial.

* Climate safety requires that we reduce fossil fuel use to near-zero in a few decades. There are three main fossil fuel knobs: oil, gas and coal. The data shows we aren’t doing this. In fact fossil oil and gas are increasing the most of any energy source. They are crushing renewable options. By far. Oil use is increasing so fast that the global economy has started burning more oil per dollar of GDP in recent years. It’s getting dirtier. Not exactly climate hope or cleaner in my book. Coal use is supposedly flat, but as BBC “Counting Carbon” and others, including my previous article, point out the coal data is self-reported by the burners and impossible to verify. And it doesn’t match CO2 rise in atmosphere. We know that climate polluters fudge and cheat (ex: VW) when they can. So if there is room for skepticism in the fossil fuel data it is towards under-reporting of coal. All told, the energy data to date shows INCREASING fossil fuel use and lock-in. Nothing in the data shows we are anywhere close to a path to climate safety.

* You say I’m claiming “that renewable energy is having no appreciable impact.” I don’t say that. I say that it hasn’t been able to meet rising energy demand yet. Until it can do that it won’t be able to ever reduce humanity’s fossil fuel burn — which keeps rising. Every year. Last year fossil burn rose at the same level as 1990s average — hardly a decade of climate hope, eh? Renewables so far are ever-thicker frosting on an ever-expanding fossil fuel cake. After twenty years of trying the still expanding fossil fuel cake doesn’t give me climate hope. Does it give you climate hope?

* You say renewables are doing better than expected. Yes. I don’t say anything about whether they are doing better than expected. I just point to the data to show they aren’t able to drive down fossil burn. And I show how humanity expanded fossil fuels more than renewables in recent years. That includes last year too. If you have different data, please share it.

* You make several claims about what will happen in the future. And you say most experts predict falling fossil fuel use. Hmm, not the energy experts I read or talk to. If you have projections from experts that show falling fossil fuel use anywhere close to the rate needed for climate hope, please share them.

* I actually try to walk the talk, so I know the energy transition territory at a personal level too. I put on grid-tie solar. I grow a bunch of my own food. I boycott hyper-carbon, such as not flying for the past decade. I don’t burn natural gas at home. And so on. I think the transition to renewables is possible but I certainly don’t see people doing it. I think renewables could provide climate hope. But humans aren’t choosing them in the quantities required. What I see in my life and in the data is people continuing to burn huge amounts of fossil fuels with little effort to eliminate them as needed.

[BenIndy editor: There’s more – see additional comments, continued here.  – RS]