Why Renewable Energy Matters

During the heady days of the 1970s, when it looked as though American society might actually face up to the challenge of building a sustainable future for itself, talk about renewable energy filled the pages of a more than a dozen now-defunct journals and provided cocktail-party chatter for progressive circles across the country. Solar energy, windpower, and conservation technology briefly counted as significant growth industries, while more exotic possibilities – geothermal, tide and wave power, oceanic thermal energy conversion, and others – attracted their share, or more, of attention and investment.

All that went away with the political manipulations that crashed the price of oil in the early 1980s. The renewable energy industry wasn’t the only economic sector flattened by the Reagan administration’s decision to put low oil prices ahead of every other consideration – America’s nuclear industry suffered an even more drastic implosion, and the collapse in oil prices brought a decade of economic crisis to once-booming states around the Gulf of Mexico – but in the long view, the early death of the renewable energy industry will probably prove to be the most disastrous result of the shortsighted policies of the Reagan era. In 1980, the United States still had some 25 to 30 years to get ready for the worldwide peak of oil production, and its energy demands were much smaller. A controlled transition to sustainability would still have been a massive challenge, but it could probably have been accomplished.

Now, a quarter century of missed opportunities later, renewable energy gets short shrift, even from the minority aware of the imminence of Hubbert’s peak. There are, it has to be said, good reasons for this lack of interest. The hard aftermath of the 1970s alternative energy boom showed all too clearly the shaky numbers behind many overhyped renewable energy technologies. Crucially, too many of them failed the test of EROEI (energy returned over energy invested): that is, the usable energy they produced turned out to be little more than, and in some cases noticeably less than, the energy needed to manufacture, maintain, and run the technology. A case could easily be made that the EROEI of a society’s energy resources defines the upper limit of its economic development. More than any other factor, the huge EROEI of fossil fuels – close to 100-1 for light sweet petroleum from wells under natural pressure – made possible the modern industrial world and its extravagant energy-wasting lifestyles. EROEIs in single digits, which is what the best renewable energy technologies manage, simply won’t produce enough spare energy to support an industrial society.

These awkward facts show that renewables won’t allow us to continue living the sort of lives the inhabitants of the developed world came to take for granted in the Age of Exuberance. The problem, of course, is that as things now stand, neither will anything else. As oil production worldwide plateaus and falters, other fossil fuels come under strain, and no alternative – renewable or otherwise – is at hand to take up the slack, a steady decline in the overall production and availability of energy defines the future ahead of us. Extrapolate the effects in economic and social terms, and we face what might as well be called the Deindustrial Revolution, a period of wrenching change in which the world’s industrial societies give way to subsistence economies dominated by the agricultural sector and powered by sun, wind, water, and muscle.

The implied reference to the Industrial Revolution is deliberate, of course. The birth of industrial society in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and its global expansion in the 20th, catalyzed sweeping changes in almost every dimension of human life, and left the certainties of previous ages in tatters. It seems likely that the twilight of industrial society will drive equally sweeping effects, and overthrow today’s fundamental assumptions just as thoroughly as the coming of fossil fuels overthrew those of early modern Europe’s agrarian societies. One thing that seems not to have been noticed, though, is that the economics of renewable energy technology take on a very different and much more positive shape in the context of deindustrialization.

This suggestion cuts across much of the conventional wisdom in the peak oil community, but at least three factors back it. First and most obvious, of course, is the fact that even the most drastically deindustrialized society will still need energy. (Even hunter-gatherers systematically exploit energy resources, if only in the form of food and firewood.) Windmills with an EROEI of 5 or 6 to 1 are hopelessly inadequate to power an industrial society, granted, but deindustrial societies with grain to grind, water to pump, and many other uses for mechanical energy will find them just as economically viable as did the agrarian societies of the past. In the same way, the economics of passive solar heating are one thing when it’s a question of whether to heat one’s home with solar energy or fossil fuels, and quite another when fossil fuels are priced out of the heating market, firewood is scarce, and the choice is between solar heat and nothing at all.

Any renewable energy technology that can be built from readily available materials with hand tools will be economically viable in a deindustrialized society, then, simply because the fossil fuels that price them out of the market today will only be available at ruinous and rising prices, while they are still available at all. Windpower and waterpower as sources of mechanical energy head this particular list; as Lewis Mumford pointed out in his Technics and Civilization, the first phase of the Industrial Revolution (his “eotechnic” phase) used windmills, waterwheels, and sails as its prime movers. Passive solar space heating and solar hot water heating also belong on the list, as do bicycles and other efficient ways of converting human muscle power into mechanical energy.

Many other renewable energy technologies don’t make this particular cut. The poster child for the losers is the photovoltaic (PV) cell. PV cells can’t be made at all without high-tech manufacturing facilities and energy-intensive materials, and their EROEI is right around zero – it takes about as much energy to manufacture a cell as the cell produces in its relatively short working life. In the aftermath of the Deindustrial Revolution, barring drastic changes in the technology, PV cells will be museum pieces or expensive novelties if they can be made at all.

Yet a simple before-and-after analysis misses a crucial variable. The EROEI of PV cells, like most other renewable energy technologies, is radically asymmetric over time. Essentially all the energy inputs go into PV cells at the beginning, when they are manufactured and installed; the energy output comes later on, and requires next to no further input. Thus a PV cell functions very nearly as a way of storing energy; the energy put in at its manufacture, one might say, is extracted out of it, bit by bit, over its working life.

When energy availability is increasing or remains steady over time, this asymmetry is a drawback; it means that the user has to pay for all the energy produced by the PV cell up front, in the form of manufacturing costs, and only gets the energy back over time. Deindustrialization, though, stands this logic on its head. As energy resources decline in availability and rise in price, PV cells allow the user to arbitrage energy costs across time – to buy energy, in effect, when it’s relatively cheap and available, and use it when energy is relatively costly and scarce. The same is true of other renewable energy technologies; for example, a high-tech windpower generator can be built and stocked with spare parts now, when plentiful fossil fuel puts its manufacture within reach, and used with minimal additional investment for ten to twenty years in the future, as fossil fuels deplete and the price of energy soars.

Such strategies won’t provide energy for the long term, but it’s important to remember that the long term is not the only thing that matters. If you knew that tomorrow you would be taken up in an airplane to 10,000 feet or so and tossed out the cabin door, the long-term value of a parachute as an investment would probably not be the first thing on your mind, and the fact that the parachute would be of no further use to you once you reached the ground might not weigh heavily on your decision making process, either. These entirely valid points would presumably take second place to the overriding need to get to the ground alive.

We face a similar situation today. Industrial society’s dependence on rapidly depleting reserves of fossil fuels leaves us perched unsteadily in the cabin door with plenty of empty air below us, waiting for declining oil production to give us the shove that will send us on our way down. Renewable energy technologies, like the parachute of the metaphor, won’t keep us from falling but they can potentially slow the descent enough to make a difference. One of the lessons taught by, but rarely learned from, the wars and disasters of the 20th century is that the difference between a lot of energy and a little is a good deal less important than the difference between a little and none at all. Investing a portion of today’s relatively abundant energy resources into technologies that will yield energy later on, when fossil fuels are scarce, will make it a good deal easier to provide that little when it’s most needed, and cushion at least some of the impacts of the Deindustrial Revolution.