Editor’s note: If you search the keywords renewable energy problems you’ll be snowed under with deceptive synonyms like challenges, opportunities or even solutions. Most articles don’t go into the depth of why “renewable” energy is continuing the ongoing environmental atrocities.
In Germany the buzz word is energy shift (Energiewende), which means we allegedly shift from a “bad energy” to a “good one”. But in reality it’s just a shift of our addiction from one “drug” to another, that is similarly contaminating. As Boris highlights in his article, only through a transition to a de-industrialized society will we live in a truly sustainable relationship with Mother Earth.
Why Renewable Energy Will Not Solve the Problem
By Boris Wu/DGR Germany
The word for world is forest. Long before humans existed, in the geological eras we now refer to as the Carboniferous and Permian, vast, dense swamp forests of ancient ferns, calamites, and the now extinct species of Sigillariaceae, Diaphorodendraceae, and Lepidodendraceae dominated the landmass of our planet. The high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere provided ideal growing conditions for plants and led to an overproduction of biomass that accumulated in the swampy soils of the primeval forests.
Over millions of years, parts of these swamps were regularly flooded by rivers and thus covered by sediments of clay and sand. These cyclical sedimentation conditions compressed and drained the swamp soils. Particularly in the Upper Carboniferous period, the organic source material was air sealed and compacted under high pressure and heat and thus finally converted into hard coal.
The other word for world is water. Alongside the primeval forests, nutrient-rich shelf and inland seas shaped the primeval landscape. Water is literally the source of all life, and even those of us who eventually left the seas in the course of evolution and learned to live on land still carry it in our blood. Our blood plasma contains salt and ions in a ratio remarkably similar to that of the oceans.
Our sacred Mother Earth, in her infinite love for all life, gave birth to an almost infinite variety of it. The primeval shelf seas were rich in life, with marine microorganisms such as algae forming by far the largest proportion of marine biomass. In the deeper zones, the dead algae were deposited on the sea floor together with clay particles. The low-oxygen conditions prevented the complete decomposition of the algal biomass and led to the formation of fouling sludge (Sapropel). The formations of thick sediment sequences with a high proportion of organic material, slowly accumulating and concentrating over millions of years, eventually became the energy source that made the industrialization of civilization possible: crude oil.
Ultimately, our planet has only one source of energy, namely the sun. All fossil fuels consist of millions of years of solar energy stored in fossil biomass. In the meantime, our holy Mother Earth, in her infinite love, created a further, almost infinite variety of life. The dinosaurs were followed by birds, mammals and finally the species that today quite immodestly calls itself Homo sapiens sapiens, the wisest of the wise. How wise it is to destroy the planet on which we live, however, must be questioned.
For the longest time of their existence, Stone Age people, who were primitive only in the imagination of the civilized, lived in harmony with ecological principles, until some cultures made a functional mistake: They cultivated annual grasses with nutritious seeds in large-scale monocultures. The surplus of easily storable and tradeable carbohydrates from grain monocultures led to unprecedented population growth, the construction of city-states with standing armies, patriarchal ruling cults, monotheistic religions, slavery and an endless wave of violence, war, colonialism and environmental destruction, in short, the form of culture we call civilization. Climate change is not a recent phenomenon.
The deforestation of primeval forests, the draining of swamps etc. for agriculture, mining, the construction of warships and other war machinery already had measurable effects on the global climate in ancient times, as we know from atmospheric data from gases stored in the no longer perpetual ice of Antarctica and Greenland.
In essence – and the essence is our relationship with the planet and our fellow creatures – there were and are only two human cultures: indigenous and civilized. While indigenous peoples live in harmony with biological principles, endless expansion, colonialism and overexploitation are the hallmarks of any civilization that eventually lead to its collapse. Civilizations have always displaced or destroyed indigenous peoples.
After the dominant Western civilization expanded throughout Europe and, after 1492, continued expanding to the Americas where it committed the greatest genocide on indigenous peoples in human history, in its endless hunger for resources it made a second, functional and fundamental mistake: it began to make use of the fossil fuels coal and oil, thereby increasing its destructive power to the extreme. Industrial civilization is civilization on steroids, and its steroids are fossil fuels.
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. While indigenous peoples had always fought for the preservation of nature and thus their livelihoods, people in the Western world were now also beginning to gather and try to protect wild places and wild creatures from destruction by our civilization. Climate change only came to public attention in the 1990s, as scientists like James Hansen only began to understand in the late 1980s that the burning of millions of years of stored fossil solar energy within a single century, and the release of the carbon dioxide trapped in it, would wreak havoc on our planet’s climate.
Due to the unprecedented overuse of our planet on an industrial scale, we Westerners today have more resources and energy at our disposal than any previous human generation. Western affluence and the arrogance that comes with it have seduced the environmental movement into a very narrow public discourse that focuses solely on global warming and unrealistic technocratic utopias, and in which the most extensive, dramatic and rapid extinction of species of all time, which we are currently witnessing, no longer plays a role.
Global warming is only just beginning to have a serious impact on us. The destruction of the environment, the extinction of all non-human life, in short the fact that civilizations, and especially industrial civilization, are inherently destructive and overexploiting their resources. This by definition can never be sustainable and will inevitably collapse. Although the resulting fact that we should actually radically change our way of life, are a taboo subject in public discourse.
The functional error in the belief system surrounding so-called renewable energy is that the fossil fuels coal and oil are literally storage devices for millions of years of fossil solar energy. These “natural batteries” have a higher energy density than any energy storage system developed by humans. Diesel stores 46 times more energy per kilogram than the most modern lithium-ion battery. Fossil fuels are therefore incredibly practical because they are easy to transport, can be stored indefinitely and can be burned whenever needed.
The entire electricity grid infrastructure is built on these characteristics, although the term “grid” is inaccurate in more ways than one. Firstly, it is more of a network than a grid. Second, it is not a single grid, but hundreds of grids around the world, each supplying power to a specific region. The entire network essentially works like one big circuit that starts and ends at the power plants. Sub-circuits lead to individual households, companies, factories, server farms, hospitals, etc. Electricity still flows between the regions, but it is carefully regulated.
The wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric power plants that we summarize under the vague term “renewable energies” are not energies or energy sources in the true sense of the word, but technologies that can convert sunlight or the kinetic energy of wind and water into electricity. The terms used in public discourse, such as “energy transition”, “renewable energy” or “green energy”, suggest that we want to switch from one form of energy to another. This is where the error in thinking lies, because what we are actually trying to do is to replace fossil energy storage with modern technologies for generating electricity.
One of the many problems with this is that this additionally generated electrical energy fluctuates greatly, depending on the sunlight, the prevailing wind or the current. According to estimates, the modern electricity grid can only cope with up to 35% electricity from wind power and 12% electricity from photovoltaic, i.e. a total of around 47%, or just under half of so-called renewable energy, as these fluctuations can still be balanced out by conventional coal and gas-fired power plants.
High power fluctuations are not compatible with a functioning industrial power grid. Most household appliances can cope well with a voltage fluctuation of 5 to 10 percent, but modern factories, server farms and hospitals with their highly complex equipment and machines require precise, stable currents.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to combine the intermittent, highly fluctuating power flows from thousands of wind turbines and solar power plants into a reliable grid voltage because there is no buffer storage on a grid scale (currently, conventional coal and gas-fired power plants serve as a kind of buffer, as power generation can be ramped up or down quickly depending on demand). The fact remains that the grid was not built for so-called renewable energies, but for fossil fuels.
But quite apart from that, even if ingenious scientists and engineers managed to convert the electricity grid completely to solar, wind and hydroelectric power, there is still the small problem that our civilization is destroying the planet. The hope of saving our civilization through modern technologies, which in reality do not help the planet but are themselves destructive in many ways, is just a Bright Green Lie. We cannot live on a destroyed planet, and it is long past time for a serious and radical discourse that addresses in necessary depth the highly dysfunctional relationship between our culture and our sacred Mother Earth, who brought us all forth in her infinite love, and who is our only home.
Boris Wu is a father of two, a Permaculture farmer, radical environmental activist and cadre for Deep Green Resistance
Photo: Stone Age dwelling at Kierikki Stone Age Centre Oulo Finland, Ninaras/CCBY 4.0
Editor’s note: It is true that wind and heat from the sun are renewable but the devices used to capture that energy are not. Creating such devices only adds on to a non-existing carbon budget. Richard Heinberg, the author of the following article, is an advocate for “renewable” energy as a part of the “transition” to a post carbon civilization. However, the following article demonstrates that the so-called transition is not happening in real life. In reality, civilization and a “post-carbon” future is an oxymoron. Civilization cannot survive in a post-carbon future. It is highly unlikely that humanity will willingly transition out of civilization, so it must be brought down “by any means possible”. The best way to accomplish that is through organizing. The sooner it is brought down, the better for the planet.
For more on the impracticality of renewables, read Bright Green Lies.
By Richard Heinberg / CounterPunch
Despite all the renewable energy investments and installations, actual global greenhouse gas emissions keep increasing. That’s largely due to economic growth: While renewable energy supplies have expanded in recent years, world energy usage has ballooned even more—with the difference being supplied by fossil fuels. The more the world economy grows, the harder it is for additions of renewable energy to turn the tide by actually replacing energy from fossil fuels, rather than just adding to it.
The notion of voluntarily reining in economic growth in order to minimize climate change and make it easier to replace fossil fuels is political anathema not just in the rich countries, whose people have gotten used to consuming at extraordinarily high rates, but even more so in poorer countries, which have been promised the opportunity to “develop.”
After all, it is the rich countries that have been responsible for the great majority of past emissions (which are driving climate change presently); indeed, these countries got rich largely by the industrial activity of which carbon emissions were a byproduct. Now it is the world’s poorest nations that are experiencing the brunt of the impacts of climate change caused by the world’s richest. It’s neither sustainable nor just to perpetuate the exploitation of land, resources, and labor in the less industrialized countries, as well as historically exploited communities in the rich countries, to maintain both the lifestyles and expectations of further growth of the wealthy minority.
From the perspective of people in less-industrialized nations, it’s natural to want to consume more, which only seems fair. But that translates to more global economic growth, and a harder time replacing fossil fuels with renewables globally. China is the exemplar of this conundrum: Over the past three decades, the world’s most populous nation lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, but in the process became the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal.
The Materials Dilemma
Also posing an enormous difficulty for a societal switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is our increasing need for minerals and metals. The World Bank, the IEA, the IMF, and McKinsey and Company have all issued reports in the last couple of years warning of this growing problem. Vast quantities of minerals and metals will be required not just for making solar panels and wind turbines, but also for batteries, electric vehicles, and new industrial equipment that runs on electricity rather than carbon-based fuels.
Some of these materials are already showing signs of increasing scarcity: According to the World Economic Forum, the average cost of producing copper has risen by over 300 percent in recent years, while copper ore grade has dropped by 30 percent.
Optimistic assessments of the materials challenge suggest there are enough global reserves for a one-time build-out of all the new devices and infrastructure needed (assuming some substitutions, with, for example, lithium for batteries eventually being replaced by more abundant elements like iron). But what is society to do as that first generation of devices and infrastructure ages and requires replacement?
Circular Economy: A Mirage?
Hence the rather sudden and widespread interest in the creation of a circular economy in which everything is recycled endlessly. Unfortunately, as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen discovered in his pioneering work on entropy, recycling is always incomplete and always costs energy. Materials typically degrade during each cycle of use, and some material is wasted in the recycling process.
A French preliminary analysis of the energy transition that assumed maximum possible recycling found that a materials supply crisis could be delayed by up to three centuries. But will the circular economy (itself an enormous undertaking and a distant goal) arrive in time to buy industrial civilization those extra 300 years? Or will we run out of critical materials in just the next few decades in our frantic effort to build as many renewable energy devices as we can in as short a time as possible?
The latter outcome seems more likely if pessimistic resource estimates turn out to be accurate. Simon Michaux of the Finnish Geological Survey finds that “[g]lobal reserves are not large enough to supply enough metals to build the renewable non-fossil fuels industrial system … Mineral deposit discovery has been declining for many metals. The grade of processed ore for many of the industrial metals has been decreasing over time, resulting in declining mineral processing yield. This has the implication of the increase in mining energy consumption per unit of metal.”
Steel prices are already trending higher, and lithium supplies may prove to be a bottleneck to rapidly increasing battery production. Even sand is getting scarce: Only certain grades of the stuff are useful in making concrete (which anchors wind turbines) or silicon (which is essential for solar panels). More sand is consumed yearly than any other material besides water, and some climate scientists have identified it as a key sustainability challenge this century. Predictably, as deposits are depleted, sand is becoming more of a geopolitical flashpoint, with China recently embargoing sand shipments to Taiwan with the intention of crippling Taiwan’s ability to manufacture semiconductor devices such as cell phones.
To Reduce Risk, Reduce Scale
During the fossil fuel era, the global economy depended on ever-increasing rates of extracting and burning coal, oil, and natural gas. The renewables era (if it indeed comes into being) will be founded upon the large-scale extraction of minerals and metals for panels, turbines, batteries, and other infrastructure, which will require periodic replacement.
These two economic eras imply different risks: The fossil fuel regime risked depletion and pollution (notably atmospheric carbon pollution leading to climate change); the renewables regime will likewise risk depletion (from mining minerals and metals) and pollution (from dumping old panels, turbines, and batteries, and from various manufacturing processes), but with diminished vulnerability to climate change. The only way to lessen risk altogether would be to reduce substantially society’s scale of energy and materials usage—but very few policymakers or climate advocacy organizations are exploring that possibility.
Climate Change Hobbles Efforts to Combat Climate Change
As daunting as they are, the financial, political, and material challenges to the energy transition don’t exhaust the list of potential barriers. Climate change itself is also hampering the energy transition—which, of course, is being undertaken to avert climate change.
During the summer of 2022, China experienced its most intense heat wave in six decades. It impacted a wide region, from central Sichuan Province to coastal Jiangsu, with temperatures often topping 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and reaching a record 113 degrees in Chongqing on August 18. At the same time, a drought-induced power crisis forced Contemporary Amperex Technology Co., the world’s top battery maker, to close manufacturing plants in China’s Sichuan province. Supplies of crucial parts to Tesla and Toyota were temporarily cut off.
Meanwhile, a similarly grim story unfolded in Germany, as a record drought reduced the water flow in the Rhine River to levels that crippled European trade, halting shipments of diesel and coal, and threatening the operations of both hydroelectric and nuclear power plants.
A study published in February 2022 in the journal Water found that droughts (which are becoming more frequent and severe with climate change) could create challenges for U.S. hydropower in Montana, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, California, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, French nuclear plants that rely on the Rhône River for cooling water have had to shut down repeatedly. If reactors expel water downstream that’s too hot, aquatic life is wiped out as a result. So, during the sweltering 2022 summer, Électricité de France (EDF) powered down reactors not only along the Rhône but also on a second major river in the south, the Garonne. Altogether, France’s nuclear power output has been cut by nearly 50 percent during the summer of 2022. Similar drought- and heat-related shutdowns happened in 2018 and 2019.
Heavy rain and flooding can also pose risks for both hydro and nuclear power—which together currently provide roughly four times as much low-carbon electricity globally as wind and solar combined. In March 2019, severe flooding in southern and western Africa, following Cyclone Idai, damaged two major hydro plants in Malawi, cutting off power to parts of the country for several days.
Wind turbines and solar panels also rely on the weather and are therefore also vulnerable to extremes. Cold, cloudy days with virtually no wind spell trouble for regions heavily reliant on renewable energy. Freak storms can damage solar panels, and high temperatures reduce panels’ efficiency. Hurricanes and storm surges can cripple offshore wind farms.
The transition from fossil fuel to renewables faces an uphill battle. Still, this switch is an essential stopgap strategy to keep electricity grids up and running, at least on a minimal scale, as civilization inevitably turns away from a depleting store of oil and gas. The world has become so dependent on grid power for communications, finance, and the preservation of technical, scientific, and cultural knowledge that, if the grids were to go down permanently and soon, it is likely that billions of people would die, and the survivors would be culturally destitute. In essence, we need renewables for a controlled soft landing. But the harsh reality is that, for now, and in the foreseeable future, the energy transition is not going well and has poor overall prospects.
We need a realistic plan for energy descent, instead of foolish dreams of eternal consumer abundance by means other than fossil fuels. Currently, politically rooted insistence on continued economic growth is discouraging truth-telling and serious planning for how to live well with less.
Richard Heinberg is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis.
Featured image by American Public Power Association on Unsplash
Editor’s note: Fossil fuels are highly polluting, their extraction is linked to human rights abuses, and their continued use is killing the planet. However, renewable energy technologies also have massive unrecognized costs. Our conclusion is that resistance to both of these industries is a moral imperative.
In this article we highlight two scientific studies examining these harms. It is critical that we act proactively to defend threatened land before development plans are cemented and it becomes too late.
Researchers have warned that mining threats to biodiversity caused by renewable energy production could surpass those averted by climate change mitigation.
A University of Queensland study found protected areas, key biodiversity areas and the world’s remaining wilderness would be under growing pressure from mining the minerals required for a clean energy transition.
UQ’s Dr. Laura Sonter said renewable energy production was material-intensive—much more so than fossil fuels—and mining these materials would increase as fossil fuels were phased out.
“Our study shows that mining the materials needed for renewable energy such as lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel and aluminum will create further pressure on the biodiversity located in mineral-rich landscapes,” Dr. Sonter said.
The research team mapped the world’s mining areas, according to an extensive database of 62,381 pre-operational, operational and closed mining properties, targeting 40 different commodities.
They found that areas with potential mining activity covered 50 million square kilometers of the planet—35 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial land surface excluding Antarctica—and many of these areas coincided with places critical for biodiversity conservation.
“Almost 10 percent of all mining areas occur within currently protected sites, with plenty of other mining occurring within or nearby sites deemed a priority for future conservation of many species,” Dr. Sonter said.
“In terms of mining areas targeting materials needed specifically for renewable energy production, the story is not much better. We found that 82 percent of mining areas target materials needed for renewable energy production, of which, 12 percent coincide with protected areas, 7 percent with key biodiversity areas and 14 percent with wilderness. And, of the mining areas that overlapped protected areas and wilderness, those that targeted materials for renewable energy contained a greater density of mines than the mining areas that targeted other materials.”
Professor James Watson, from UQ’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Science and the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the impacts of a green energy future on biodiversity were not considered in international climate policies.
“New mining threats aren’t seriously addressed in current global discussions about the post-2020 United Nation’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity,” Professor Watson said.
The research team said careful strategic planning was urgently needed.
“Mining threats to biodiversity will increase as more mines target materials for renewable energy production,” Dr. Sonter said.
“Combine this risk with the extensive spatial footprint of renewable energy infrastructure, and the risks become even more concerning.”
Laura J. Sonter et al. Renewable energy production will exacerbate mining threats to biodiversity, Nature Communications (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17928-5
A World at Risk: Aggregating Development Trends to Forecast Global Habitat Conversion
A growing and more affluent human population is expected to increase the demand for resources and to accelerate habitat modification, but by how much and where remains unknown. Here we project and aggregate global spatial patterns of expected urban and agricultural expansion, conventional and unconventional oil and gas, coal, solar, wind, biofuels and mining development. Cumulatively, these threats place at risk 20% of the remaining global natural lands (19.68 million km2) and could result in half of the world’s biomes becoming >50% converted while doubling and tripling the extent of land converted in South America and Africa, respectively. Regionally, substantial shifts in land conversion could occur in Southern and Western South America, Central and Eastern Africa, and the Central Rocky Mountains of North America. With only 5% of the Earth’s at-risk natural lands under strict legal protection, estimating and proactively mitigating multi-sector development risk is critical for curtailing the further substantial loss of nature.
Oakleaf JR, Kennedy CM, Baruch-Mordo S, West PC, Gerber JS, Jarvis L, et al. (2015) A World at Risk: Aggregating Development Trends to Forecast Global Habitat Conversion. PLoS ONE 10(10): e0138334. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0138334
by Kim Hill
Ten things environmentalists need to know about renewable energy:
1. Solar panels and wind turbines aren’t made out of nothing. They are made out of metals, plastics, chemicals. These products have been mined out of the ground, transported, processed, manufactured. Each stage leaves behind a trail of devastation: habitat destruction, water contamination, colonization, toxic waste, slave labour, greenhouse gas emissions, wars, and corporate profits. Renewables can never replace fossil fuel infrastructure, as they are entirely dependent on it for their existence.
2. The majority of electricity that is generated by renewables is used in manufacturing, mining, and other industries that are destroying the planet. Even if the generation of electricity were harmless, the consumption certainly isn’t. Every electrical device, in the process of production, leaves behind the same trail of devastation. Living communities—forests, rivers, oceans—become dead commodities.
3. The aim of converting from conventional power generation to renewables is to maintain the very system that is killing the living world, killing us all, at a rate of 200 species per day. Taking carbon emissions out of the equation doesn’t make it sustainable. This system needs not to be sustained, but stopped.
4. Humans, and all living beings, get our energy from plants and animals. Only the industrial system needs electricity to survive, and food and habitat for everyone are being sacrificed to feed it. Farmland and forests are being taken over, not just by the infrastructure itself, but by the mines, processing and waste dumping that it entails. Ensuring energy security for industry requires undermining energy security for living beings (that’s us).
5. Wind turbines and solar panels generate little, if any, net energy (energy returned on energy invested). The amount of energy used in the mining, manufacturing, research and development, transport, installation, maintenance and disposal of these technologies is almost as much—or in some cases more than—they ever produce. Renewables have been described as a laundering scheme: dirty energy goes in, clean energy comes out. (Although this is really beside the point, as no matter how much energy they generate, it doesn’t justify the destruction of the living world.)
6. Renewable energy subsidies take taxpayer money and give it directly to corporations. Investing in renewables is highly profitable. General Electric, BP, Samsung, and Mitsubishi all profit from renewables, and invest these profits in their other business activities. When environmentalists accept the word of corporations on what is good for the environment, something has gone seriously wrong.
7. More renewables doesn’t mean less conventional power, or less carbon emissions. It just means more power is being generated overall. Very few coal and gas plants have been taken off line as a result of renewables.
8. Only 20 per cent of energy used globally is in the form of electricity. The rest is oil and gas. Even if all the world’s electricity could be produced without carbon emissions (which it can’t), it would only reduce total emissions by 20 per cent. And even that would have little impact, as the amount of energy being used globally is increasing exponentially.
9. Solar panels and wind turbines last around 20-30 years, then need to be disposed of and replaced. The production process, of extracting, polluting, and exploiting, is not something that happens once, but is continuous and expanding.
10. The emissions reductions that renewables intend to achieve could be easily accomplished by improving the efficiency of existing coal plants, at a much lower cost. Given that coal or gas plants are required for back-up of all intermittent renewables, this shows that the whole renewables industry is nothing but an exercise in profiteering with no benefits for anyone other than the investors.
Green Technology and Renewable Energy
Ten Reasons Intermittent Renewables (Wind and Solar PV) are a Problem
The Myth of Renewable Energy
A Problem With Wind Power
Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism
In China, the true cost of Britain’s clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale
Originally published on Stories of Creative Ecology
Editor’s note: Contrary to what mainstream environmental organizations assert, so-called “renewable” energy is NOT a solution to the ecological crisis we are facing. It would require a tremendous amount of energy to mine materials; transport and transform them through industrial processes like smelting; turn them into solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, vehicles, infrastructure, and industrial machinery plus installation and maintenance. This is all done using the same systems of power which is currently used for conventional fossil fuels. The resulting emissions from these process will only add to the business as usual emissions. While the wind and sun may be “renewable,” the turbines, solar panels, the raw materials that go into making them, and the lands and oceans they impact certainly are not. They require tons of carbon emissions to produce so they are not carbon free and not green. Calling them “green” is greenwashing.
The proposed mass adoption of “renewable” energy on a hitherto undreamed of scale has made the issue of energy (power) density extremely important . In its simplest terms, power density can be understood as: ‘how big does my power station have to be, in order to generate the power I want?’ The most useful metric is the land (or sea) area that will be used up. Here, we encounter the most easily understood, and the most insoluble of “renewable” energy’s problems. Compared to fossil fuel, it’s power density is very very low. Thus, they require larger areas of land to produce. This land is someone’s home, someone’s sacred site, someone’s source of food, water and air. We just don’t hear about them, because they are the wild beings, the nonhumans treated as disposables by civilization. The humans that inhabit the land are indigenous peoples who are yet to be fully assimilated into the industrial culture. Here, we can see colonialism and extractive economics come together.
The following article describes the plans for different “renewable” energy plants in California and Nevada. The article also demonstrates how the plans for big “renewables” actively reinforce the existing structures of power, with the energy companies lobbying to disincentivize decentralized and community-controlled rooftop solars in favor of big projects that are destroying the neighbors.
By Joshua Frank/Counterpunch
There is a lot of hot air blowing around the West these days, blustery claims that geothermal, wind, massive solar installations, nuclear power, along with a smattering of hydroelectric dams, will help the country achieve a much-needed reduction in climate-altering emissions. Certainly, there is money to be made off of this energy transition, and on paper, a few do appear to be far less damaging than coal-fired power plants and natural gas operations.
That’s if, of course, you ignore the toll these energy ventures have on the lands and people they exploit. Right now, not far from where I live in Southern California, solar companies are gobbling up public and private lands for future solar and wind projects.
Across the border in Nevada, desert is under threat of being developed in the name of fighting climate change. In the rich and biodiverse Dixie Valley, located in the middle of sacred Shoshone and Paiute lands, a massive geothermal project called the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Development Project faced a fierce legal challenge this past year. Geothermal, like hydroelectric dams, is often cited as a renewable energy source, since the technology harnesses heat from the earth to produce electricity, which in theory (as long as it doesn’t stop raining, surprise!), is endless.
Even so, large geothermal plants consume a lot of land and spit out a lot of water. The Dixie Meadows project, which was proposed in Nevada, was one such “green” energy plan that, if built, would suck up over 40,000 thousand acre-feet of water every single year, the result of which would be devasting. Dixie’s delicate wetlands habitat, unique to this stretch of the Great Basin, is home to the imperiled black-freckled Dixie Valley toad, and even a slight alteration of surface water conditions could spell extinction for this rare little toad. Birds too use Dixie’s natural spring water as migratory stopovers. Dixie Meadows is a literal oasis in the desert and has been for tens of thousands of years.
“The United States has repeatedly promised to honor and protect indigenous sacred sites, but then the BLM approved a major construction project nearly on top of our most sacred hot springs. It just feels like more empty words,” said Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Chairwoman Cathi Tuni following the announcement of the Dixie Meadows project. “This location has long been recognized as being of vital significance to the Tribe. There are geothermal plants elsewhere in Dixie Valley and the Great Basin that we have not opposed, but construction of this plant would build industrial power plants right next to a sacred place of healing and reflection, and risks damaging the water in the springs forever. We have a duty to protect the hot springs and its surroundings, and we will do so.”
On December 16, 2021, The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and the Center of Biological Diversity (Center) sued the BLM over its approval of the Dixie Meadows geothermal project, and in early August were successful in stopping it from moving forward.
“I’m thrilled that yet again the bulldozers are grinding to a halt as a result of our legal actions,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center. “Nearly every scientist who has evaluated this project agrees that it puts the Dixie Valley toad in the crosshairs of extinction. This agreement gives the toad a fighting shot.”
About 270 miles south of Dixie Meadows, another “green” energy plan is in the works near the remote Searchlight, Nevada. The Kulning Wind Project, proposed by Eolus Vind AB, a Swedish power developer, is not unlike other wind projects that were halted in 2017 and 2018 after an outcry from local Tribes and conservationists. Kulning, like the prospects that were shot down, is massive and would include 68 wind turbines spanning 9,300 acres of federal lands on the site of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame (Ah-VEE kwa-meh) National Monument. Like Dixie Meadows, Kulning would greatly impact local wildlife.
“[The] development would likely undermine the use of the region by bighorn sheep and would introduce an unnecessary wildfire risk, threatening Wee Thump and South McCullough wildernesses, among many other concerns,” says Paul Selberg, director of Nevada Conservation League. “Decisions on where to develop renewable energy must be evaluated critically and placed in areas that are appropriate.”
The real question is; are expansive energy projects, be they fossil fuels or “green”, ever really “appropriate”? Indigenous communities and conservationists are wary.
The land outside Searchlight where these huge twirling wings are to be erected is considered a sacred “place of creation” to 12 local tribes, including the Havasupai, Hualapai, Kumeyaay, Maricopa, Mojave, Pai Pai, Quechan, and Yavapai. Opponents of the development, led by a broad coalition of tribes, point out that this stretch of the Mojave is some of the most pristine, in-tact wilderness in the Southwest.
Joshua trees (known as sovarampi to the Southern Paiute) in this area, which make up the largest Joshua forest in Nevada, will be destroyed if the project moves forward. These distinctive, twisted trees are already facing a bleak future in the West. Mojave’s high desert is becoming even hotter and drier than normal, dropping nearly 2 inches from its average of just over 4.5 inches of annual rainfall just a decade ago. The result: younger Joshua trees, which grow at a snail’s pace of 3 inches per year, are perishing before they reach a foot in height. Their vanishing is an indicator that these peculiar trees will not be replenished once they grow old and die, and they are dying at a startling rate.
While it has not received as much attention as Bears Ears or Gold Butte, Avi Kwa Ame National Monument is equally important as an ecological and cultural site, which would span 450,000 acres, protecting the delicate landscape from energy developers (to support the proposed monument, you can sign a petition here).
At the center of this onslaught of development is California’s quest to end the use of fossil fuels. Most of the energy in the state, one of the largest energy consumers in the country, is generated from utility-scale wind and solar, which, as of 2016, has required over 400,000 square kilometers of land to produce. This development, because it is billed as “green” energy, has received little scrutiny from the broader environmental movement. As a result, studies on the effects on biodiversity and threatened species, like the Desert Tortoise, are virtually non-existent.
In Northern Nevada, a similar fight is raging over Thacker Pass, where a proposed mine would produce upwards of 80,000 tons of lithium per year, a mineral that is crucial for most electric car batteries. Lithium Nevada, the company spearheading the Thacker project, is facing strong pushback from activists and members of Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone, among others.
“Places like Thacker Pass are what gets sacrificed to create that so-called clean energy,” says author and activist Max Wilbert. “It is easy to say the sacrifice is justifiable if you do not live here.”
Indigenous communities are equally upset at the plan.
“Annihilating old-growth sagebrush, Indigenous peoples’ medicines, food, and ceremonial grounds for electric vehicles isn’t very climate conscious,” said Arlan Melendez, the chair of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Opposition to the lithium mine has invigorated a new, vibrant protest movement in Nevada, led by Indigenous activists that see these developments for what they are: a continuation of settler-colonialism, an onslaught fully supported by the Democrats and the Biden Administration. In the case of EVs, Biden’s 2021 American Jobs Plan earmarked $174 billion to promote electric vehicles. The Thacker mine, claims Lithium Nevada, is central to those efforts.
There are also alternatives to lithium like seawater, sodium, and glass batteries. While none are environmentally benign, the impacts do vary. Maria Helena Braga a scientist at the University of Porto in Portugal, who has been researching glass battery technology, believes glass has the brightest future. “It’s the most eco-friendly cell you can find,” claims Braga.
Recently, researchers at the University of California San Diego’s Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice disagreed that we need to mine our way out of climate change, stating that in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions we would have to decrease our output by 80% over the next thirty years. EVs, they claim, would only reduce greenhouse gases by 6%. In other words, the destruction these mines cause is not worth such little benefit. A larger, far more significant transition is needed.
In addition to technological advances (and the need to consume less), the energy grid itself must be revamped, from centralized sources of energy like coal or natural gas to a decentralized network of producers, where existing homes and commercial buildings are required to install solar on their rooftops. Big utilities, like PG&E in California, which has been responsible for causing over 1,500 fires and hundreds of deaths in the state, are not pleased with the push for community-controlled, decentralized power. In fact, in an effort to disincentivize rooftop solar, California regulators, after heavy lobbying from energy companies, are currently pushing to slash residential solar incentives, making the transition even more difficult, while supporting large desert developments in the process.
Hundreds of plans for large renewable energy projects are currently in the works in California, New Mexico, and Nevada, and one by one they are set to destroy vast stretches of desert habitat. In 2015, researchers from UC Berkeley and UC Riverside looked at 161 proposed and operational solar plants. What they found was startling. Only 10-15 percent of the projects in California were located in areas that would have little impact on their surroundings. In other words, 85% of these would harm the environments where they’re located.
“We would hope that if a developer was on the ground and saw that, oh, this is a really important area for migratory birds, maybe we should look at that Walmart commercial roof down the road, and collaborate with them rather than putting it here,” said the study’s lead author Rebecca Hernandez, a scientist at UC Berkeley.
While the push for decentralizing is paramount, some argue that locating green energy installations in already impacted areas, like brownfields, is a good alternative. Yet this is rarely the most profitable choice. At the heart of the problem is that public lands in the desert west are inexpensive. The Bureau of Land Management leases huge parcels of these lands for dirt cheap, which in turn incentivizes large-scale wind and solar projects — projects that support Biden’s climate plan, where companies like PG&E will continue to control the grid and small-scale projects will be difficult and expensive to build.
If the goal of clean, green energy is to offset the wrath of climate catastrophe, yet damages sensitive habitats in the process, are these projects even worthwhile? That’s a question environmentalists and others must grapple with. Certainly, they are good for profit margins, but the evidence is mounting that they are also devastating to desert ecology.
JOSHUA FRANK is the managing editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, published by Haymarket Books. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.
Featured image by Antonio Garcia via Unsplash