Renewable energies and degrowth

Renewable energies and degrowth

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By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero

American physicist Amory Lovins has dedicated his entire professional life to promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency measures. Since the publication of his article "Energy strategy: The road not taken?" (Energy Strategy: The Path Not Taken?) In the magazine Foreign affairs in 1976 that launched him to fame, to this day, Lovins has traveled to the ends of the world and spoken on every stage available to him, advocating for what he calls "the path of soft energies" ( the soft energy path) (one). He has met with 23 heads of state and has testified as an expert in 8 countries, has been named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and in 2009 the journal Time included him in his list of the 100 most influential people in the world (2). Amory and his wife and collaborator Hunter Lovins together won the Alternative Nobel Prize (Right Livelihood Award) in 1983. Mr. Lovins has written 31 books, several of them together with Hunter, including the eco-capitalist manifesto Natural Capitalism, which they both wrote with businessman Paul Hawken in 1999 (3).

On the same wavelength as the Lovins, celebrity ecologist Al Gore put forward a proposal in 2008 to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuel to generate electricity in the United States in just a decade (4). In that same year, the Google company announced a plan to eliminate the use of coal to make electricity in the US by 2030. But the proposal that took all the others through the medium was one published in the influential magazine Scientific American in 2009, authored by M. Jacobson and M. Delucchi, professors at Stanford and California-Davis universities respectively, which proposes converting the entire world economy to renewable sources by 2030 (5).

However, these bold proposals rest on highly questionable foundations, according to experts Vaclav Smil and Ted Trainer.

Canadian Smil, professor at the University of Manitoba, awarded by the AAAS and named one of the hundred most important thinkers in the world by the magazine Foreign Policy (6), points out the true costs of harvesting wind energy in North America. In the United States, wind power is more viable in the great plains of the north-central part of the country (Minnesota and the Dakotas), so its successful development would require the construction of thousands of kilometers of transmission lines to the cities with the highest consumption. energy, which are on the east coast. Smil argues that proponents of renewables have badly underestimated the astronomical cost that such construction would entail, including expropriation costs, rights-of-way in densely populated areas (Ohio and Pennsylvania, where they would necessarily pass, come to mind. the lines), and the inevitable litigation by local groups that will oppose the location of at least some of these structures (7).

And on top of that, the currently existing electrical grid in the US is decrepit and in urgent need of onerous repairs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave D + to the country's electrical infrastructure in its report. Report Card for American Infrastructure (8).

And where will the money come from to build those mills and associated transmission lines, and also to update the existing infrastructure? To suggest that private enterprise will willingly bear the trillion-dollar costs and risks of the energy transition is more than naive, bordering on irresponsible. Without substantial public investment, it will not be possible. But is public funding a realistic proposition at a time like this, in which the governments of the most developed countries, in North America and Western Europe, are making savage cuts to the public sector, including in education and scientific research, while bailing out banks and bondholders and waging wars in the Middle East?

According to Smil, the field of renewables is replete with Polyannas who have not taken a serious and sensible look at the amount of capital and time that it would take to transform the world's energy system. He points out that this system annually moves over 7 billion metric tons of coal, around 4 billion metric tons of crude oil, and over three million million ( trillion) cubic meters of natural gas, which together produce 14 million million watts of energy. And on top of this we must also consider the associated infrastructure, which is "the most expensive and extensive set of facilities, networks and machines that has been built in the history of the world, which has required generations and millions of millions of dollars to put standing up, ”says Smil.

He adds, with the brutal and merciless realism that characterizes him, that “by 2025 modern wind turbines will be about 30 years old, and if by then they supply only 15% of the electricity of the United States, then it will be an amazing success. And even the most optimistic solar generation projects don't promise half of that. The drive for non-carbon sources of electricity is highly desirable… But this can only happen if planners have realistic expectations. ”

For his part, the Australian Ted Trainer, a professor at the University of New South Wales, maintains that the proposals by Lovins and the Jacobson-Delucchi duo do not stand up to analysis (9). He argues that these authors speak of averages for electricity demand and the availability of sunlight and wind, but that these averages do not take into account how these factors vary depending on the time of day and time of year. For example: the demand for electricity changes greatly especially in times of very cold or hot weather, as the use of air conditioning or heating increases. In terms of supplying sunlight, obviously even in the sunniest times, solar panels don't collect any energy for around 14 hours a day. And there is possibly no energy resource more variable and intermittent than the wind.

Jacobson and Delucchi propose integrated electrical grids at the continental level, starting from the premise that the sun is always shining or the wind is blowing somewhere. Windmills and solar panels in places where there is wind and sun will compensate for similar installations located where there is neither wind nor sun at any given time. Trainer finds that the data and arguments they present for this proposal are superficial and unconvincing, he mentions that Western Europe had a two-week period in February 2006 in which there was neither wind nor sun, and points out that such lapses are not atypical . Storing energy to meet all of Western Europe's electrical needs for such a period presents a virtually insurmountable technical and economic hurdle.

The basic problem that Trainer points out is that for an electricity grid to work, whether municipal or continental, it must have a constant supply of electricity - it can never vary, neither from moment to moment nor from day to day. That is why power grid administrators and technicians are most concerned about supply and demand variability, which, if not managed correctly, can cause blackouts.

Can renewable energies get us out of the global environmental and energy predicament we are in? Yes and no. If one assumes a world economy that grows without stopping and therefore an energy demand per capita that increases eternally, if one assumes that the spiral of consumption and waste will continue to rise forever, then renewables are not a viable option.

But if we can propose and envision an economy without growth, in which the use of energy and material resources is reduced with a view to gradually reducing our collective ecological footprint, then renewable energies would have a place in the future. But you don't need a Nobel Prize in economics to see that economic decline runs counter to all current economic models, be they Keynesian, neoliberal, reactionary, progressive or developmentalist. Current models quarrel about how to achieve economic growth, but all agree that such growth is good and unquestionable.

Unfortunately all the governments of the world, irrespectively of ideology, seem determined to do the same: extract all the natural resources at their disposal until they leave nothing. In all the countries of the world the consistent defenders of ecology are in dissent, whether in the United States, Russia, Ecuador or Puerto Rico. It is becoming increasingly urgent to create spaces where we can discuss and develop ideas that can really guarantee our future as a species: degrowth, post-extractivism, ecological economy, social ecology, agroecology and food sovereignty, among other promising proposals. .

I have been told that in Bhutan the attitude of the government is different, but I have never been there. If someday I visit the place I will tell you.

Ruiz Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, investigative journalist, and environmental educator. Her blog Making Point in Another Blog ( is updated regularly, and her Twitter account is @carmeloruiz.


1) Amory B. Lovins. Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace, Penguin Books, 1977.

2); For more information about Lovins:


4) Katie Couric. "Al Gore: Energy Crisis Can Be Fixed" CBS Evening News, February 11, 2009.

5) Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi. "A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables: Wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy, eliminating all fossil fuels" Scientific American, October 26, 2009.


7) “You can't use wind turbines unless you're prepared to hook them to the grid by building lots of additional high-voltage transmission lines, an expensive and typically legally challenging undertaking… Assuming that any major wind farms in the United States would be built on the Great Plains, where there is sufficient wind and land, developers would need to construct many thousands of kilometers of transmission lines to connect those farms to the main markets for electricity on the coasts. "

Vaclav Smil. "A Skeptic Looks at Alternative Energy: It takes several lifetimes to put a new energy system into place, and wishful thinking can’t speed things along" IEEE Forum, June 28, 2012.

8) “America relies on an aging electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems, some of which originated in the 1880s. Investment in power transmission has increased since 2005, but ongoing permitting issues, weather events, and limited maintenance have contributed to an increasing number of failures and power interruptions… Although about 17,000 miles of additional high-voltage transmission lines and significant oil and gas pipelines are planned over the next five years, permitting and siting issues threaten their completion. "

American Society of Civil Engineers. “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure”

ASCE estimates that US infrastructure needs an investment of $ 3.6 trillion ($ 3.6 trillion) by 2020.

9) Ted Trainer. Critical review of the book “Reinventing Fire” by Amory Lovins, September 15, 2012.; "A Critique of Jacobson and Delucchi’s Proposals for a World Renewable Energy Supply" Synthesis / Regeneration # 60, winter 2013.

Video: Sustainability - Full Documentary (May 2022).