Lomborg on the declining share of renewables

When green renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, they will take over the world. Instead of believing in the Tooth Fairy, we should start investing in green R&D.

Bjorn Lomborg examines the long perspective on renewable energy trends. I liked this piece because it so concisely summarizes both the engineering and social realities of the popular but tragically expensive/ineffective rush to solar and wind. Bjorn forecasts that, in the next 25 years –  from 2011 to 2035, renewables will only increase by about 1.5%. That means from about 13% to 14.5%. But what does “renewables” actually mean. It doesn’t mean “clean” because nuclear power is excluded. Most people think “renewables” means the politically popular “feel good” solar and wind. In some countries, think Norway, New Zealand or Canada, a large portion of renewables comes from hydro power. But expansion of hydro is severely limited – both by opportunity and by politics. So what “renewables” mostly means is burning stuff:

Solar and wind energy account for a trivial proportion of current renewables – about one-third of one percentage point. The vast majority comes from biomass, or wood and plant material – humanity’s oldest energy source. While biomass is renewable, it is often neither good nor sustainable.

And in most places “burning stuff” is really bad. That is the nasty, filthy life that the developed world has escaped – but continues to kill the poorest two billion by air pollution, especially indoor air pollution.

Burning wood in pre-industrial Western Europe caused massive deforestation, as is occurring in much of the developing world today. The indoor air pollution that biomass produces kills more than three million people annually. Likewise, modern energy crops increase deforestation, displace agriculture, and push up food prices.

The most renewables-intensive places in the world are also the poorest. Africa gets almost 50% of its energy from renewables, compared to just 8% for the OECD. Even the European OECD countries, at 11.8%, are below the global average.

The reality is that humanity has spent recent centuries getting away from renewables. In 1800, the world obtained 94% of its energy from renewable sources. That figure has been declining ever since.

(…snip…) 

The switch to fossil fuels has also had tremendous environmental benefits. Kerosene saved the whales (which had been hunted almost to extinction to provide supposedly “renewable” whale oil for lighting). Coal saved Europe’s forests. With electrification, indoor air pollution, which is much more dangerous than outdoor air pollution, disappeared in most of the developed world.

And there is one environmental benefit that is often overlooked: in 1910, more than 30% of farmland in the United States was used to produce fodder for horses and mules. Tractors and cars eradicated this huge demand on farmland (while ridding cities of manure pollution).

Of course, fossil fuels brought their own environmental problems. And, while technological innovations like scrubbers on smokestacks and catalytic converters on cars have reduced local air pollution substantially, the problem of CO₂ emissions remains. Indeed, it is the main reason for the world’s clamor for a return to renewables.

To be sure, wind and solar have increased dramatically. Since 1990, wind-generated power has grown 26% per year and solar a phenomenal 48%. But the growth has been from almost nothing to slightly more than almost nothing. In 1990, wind produced 0.0038% of the world’s energy; it is now producing 0.29%. Solar-electric power has gone from essentially zero to 0.04%.

There is lots more Lomborg at Project Syndicate.