Thursday, April 17, 2014
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The Decline of Renewable Energy

PRAGUE – Many today believe that renewable energy will let us get off fossil fuels soon. Unfortunately, the facts say otherwise.

According to International Energy Agency data, 13.12% of the world’s energy came from renewables in 1971, the first year that the IEA reported global statistics. In 2011, renewables’ share was actually lower, at 12.99%. Yet a new survey shows that Americans believe that the share of renewables in 2035 will be 30.2%. In reality, it will likely be 14.5%.

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.

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.

The momentous move toward fossil fuels has done a lot of good. Compared to 250 years ago, the average person in the United Kingdom today has access to 50 times more power, travels 250 times farther, and has 37,500 times more light. Incomes have increased 20-fold.

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%.

Yes, Denmark gets a record 34% of its electricity from wind. But electricity accounts for only 18% of its final energy use.

Europe now gets 1% of its energy from wind – less than before industrialization, when cozy windmills contributed about 2% (and ships’ sails provided another 1%). The UK set its record for wind power in 1804, when its share reached 2.5% – almost three times its level today.

Moreover, solar and wind will still contribute very little in the coming decades. In the IEA’s optimistic scenario, which assumes that the world’s governments will fulfill all of their green promises, wind will provide 1.34% of global energy by 2035, while solar will provide 0.42%. Global renewables will most likely increase by roughly 1.5 percentage points, to 14.5% by 2035. Under unrealistically optimistic assumptions, the share could increase five percentage points, to 17.9%.

So we are nowhere near switching back to renewables anytime soon. In the US, renewables accounted for 9.3% of energy production in 1949. President Barack Obama’s administration expects that number, almost a century later, to increase slightly, to 10.8% by 2040. In China, renewables’ share in energy production dropped from 40% in 1971 to 11% today; in 2035, it will likely be just 9%.

Yet we are paying through the nose for these renewables. In the last 12 years, the world has invested $1.6 trillion in clean energy. By 2020, the effort to increase reliance on renewables will cost the European Union alone $250 billion annually.

Spain now pays almost 1% of its GDP in subsidies for renewables, which is more than it spends on higher education. At the end of the century, Spain’s massive investment will have postponed global warming by 62 hours.

Current green energy policies are failing for a simple reason: renewables are far too expensive. Sometimes people claim that renewables are actually cheaper. But if renewables were cheaper, they wouldn’t need subsidies, and we wouldn’t need climate policies.

Former US Vice President Al Gore’s climate adviser, Jim Hansen, put it bluntly: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and [the] Tooth Fairy.”

The solution is to innovate the price of renewables downward. We need a dramatic increase in funding for research and development to make the next generations of wind, solar, and biomass energy cheaper and more effective.

Consider China. Despite the country’s massive investment in solar and wind, it mostly sells solar panels to Western countries at subsidized prices. Wind makes up just 0.2% of China’s energy, and solar accounts for 0.01%.

Meanwhile, China has 68% of the world’s solar water heaters on rooftops, because it is a smart and cheap technology. It needs no subsidies, and it produces 50 times more energy than all of China’s solar panels.

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.

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  1. CommentedSean Dawson

    I wouldnt be to worried by this. It just means atm consumption is rising faster than the green energy industry is expanding. We all know there will be a day when energy prices will force down consumption. This is when renewable as an overall source will rise. Especially if there is then global economic might helping drive it.

  2. CommentedKir Komrik

    Thank you for providing a much needed does of reality into this discussion.

    It seems that delusional thinking is creeping ever more into the public discourse in which basic science and math is overlooked or ignored lest it undermine one's desired reality.

    The energy density of petroleum, despite how that density has declined by an order of magnitude, still outstrips any other energy source we know of. But it's much worse. Some 90% of all manufacturing relies on petroleum. And the petroleum is running it out. DOE has estimated it could take trillions and decades to convert to an electric infrastructure, which is required for all these renewable schemes.

    I agree with the challenge the author makes to increase research and effort into renewables because, even if shale oil or other sources can keep the lights on a little longer, we don't have very long before something is going to be needed as a final replacement for petroleum.

    Because so much manufacturing now depends on petroleum, it also means that to sustain our way of life will require obtaining resources (elements and minerals) beyond Earth. There simply aren't enough of these materials on Earth (near enough to the surface) to construct so many solar cells, batteries etc. Again, DOE and others have researched this (2005) and reached the same conclusion.

    - kk

  3. CommentedArt Lewellan

    Boys and their toys are not separated without a struggle. Elon Musk & courtiers' Hyper-loop puts the cart before the horse, or, is a solution looking for a problem, enlisting clever boys clubs willing to waste their extra free time producing nothing. Is this who runs the country we're talking about, I ask the on.

    The California high-speed rail project is dying on the vine, stabbed in the back by its detractors and commercial interests who'd rather citizens remain car-dependent and condemned to drive like chickens with their heads cut off. This HSR can be saved by substituting 'slower' 135mph transets to reduce cost and impact, rather than this hyper-loop gobbledygook popularly discussed nonsense.

    Why are these guys wasting our time, resources and efforts to yet produce 'only' fossil-fuel comsuming industry, energy, trade with excessively motorized travel & transport economies? Answer: financial interests in management quarters like the system just as it is.
    Bam! Plug-in hybrid tech can produce many more benefits than can sport coupe electric Tesla's and Volts. The Ford Hybrid is still Top Tech when adding Plug-in. Keep it to yourself, or figure out how to spread this news around, son.

  4. CommentedDildar Baig

    We often take the renewable resources for granted. We assume that because these can be reused thus these do not have to be bothered much with. But till what extent is that true? The most common of these resources is water. We see water being wasted and drained with no guilt. The question we need to ask ourselves is what are we leaving for the coming generations? Will they have to fight for and guard even the basic things like plants and water? It’s time to protect our environment.


  5. CommentedNancy Holt

    Why are all nations not turning to using MSW and sewage sludge as a renewable energy source. The US-EPA has determined that plasma arc gasification is the best method to derive the most power, have the least amount of emissions from the process, and this is truly the only zero waste method of managing these waste streams.
    Jobs can be created, coal power plants can be replaced, and there will be no need to burn trees for biomass. China signed a MOU with Plasco Technologies of Canada to build a plant with potential for 300 power plants to be built using the plasma arc technology. This is not new! The US Navy uses it on aircraft carriers to manage waste and generate electricity, and industry has used the plasma arc method since 1800. A Florida military base is using plasma arc for all waste management and to destroy contaminated land caused by munitions. The only reason I figure this technology has not taken off like a rocket--is the coal powered electric companies and the natural gas industries. Since this is not incineration, the high heat (up to 2100 degrees F.) reduces all waste into carbon dioxide and hydrogen which is call Syngas or synthetic natural gas. The process melts metals and they are collected and sold, and the end result is a glass like material that does not leach any harmful materials and can either be spun into rock wool for insulation (to be sold) or crushed as aggregate for use instead of crushed gravel for road construction. Nothing goes into landfills, nothing applied to farmlands. Two plants are operational in Japan now and other countries in the EU. Rick Brandis, retired EPA scientists said that this method of energy generation could replace 29 nuclear power plants. Check it out!

  6. CommentedArt Lewellan

    Bjorn, I support plug-in hybrid over all-battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle technology (PHEV, BEV, FCEV). In your opinion, does thorough analysis defend my position? Can you explain how PHEVs have far greater affect upon land-use development and utility grid modernization?

  7. CommentedRobin Guenier

    The first sentence of my most recent post should of course have referred to "my exchange with Bjorn below" - not "above".

    1. Portrait of Bjørn Lomborg

      CommentedBjørn Lomborg

      Dear Robin Guenier.
      China produced 4208.26 TWh (IEA Electricity 2012) for 2010, their latest year. That is 362Mtoe (, using the physical energy content method, which IEA and most international organizations use ( - note if you use stats from the partial substitution method, like BP, you get numbers that can be 3x bigger. I use IEAs numbers because they’re the only ones that include the most important renewable, namely non-traded biomass, which is about 6% of all global energy.
      The 362Mtoe is about 14% of China’s 2010 total energy consumption of 2517Mtoe. (Wind is about 6Mtoe and solar PV is about 0.2Mtoe.)
      Hope this answers your question.

  8. CommentedRobin Guenier

    This is further to my exchange with Bjorn above.

    I did note that "Another explanation might be that electricity is only 10% of China's total energy production; but that seems extremely unlikely." It just doesn't seem likely to be as little as that. For comparison, see the most recent BP Statistical Review (normally pretty reliable). It shows wind energy as having a share of China's overall energy consumption of about 1%. That, incidentally, is quite small enough to make your point Bjorn. But surely your 0.2% claim is incorrect - do you have evidence to back it?

  9. CommentedNichol Brummer

    "many today believe that renewable energy will let us get off fossil fuels soon". I don't think many actually believe this. Some countries are making big progress. And more efficient energy use is a big part of the solution. Those countries are showing the way. Denmark, Germany, Spain have been making some extraordinary progress. It makes no sense to complain that they are not at 100% renewables yet.

    This article on the one hand seems to argue against investment in the economic systems of wind, sun, because it involves a lot of money .. which is no surprise: it is to replace a big part of the economy. On the other hand this article states that the solution would be more spending, on research, presumably of these same energy sources?? Very confusing zig-zag story.

  10. CommentedRobin Guenier

    I was surprised to see Bjorn's comment that "Wind makes up just 0.2% of China’s energy". In contrast, this article,, notes that, in China, wind energy provided "just 2 per cent of power generation". The latter is, according to Tom Holland (the author), based on official figures. These may be misleading but seem unlikely to be out by an order of magnitude. Another explanation might be that electricity is only 10% of China's total energy production; but that seems extremely unlikely.

    Can anyone, especially Bjorn, clarify this? Thanks.

    1. CommentedRobin Guenier

      But, Bjorn, I noted above that "Another explanation might be that electricity is only 10% of China's total energy production; but that seems extremely unlikely." It just doesn't seem likely to be as little as that. For comparison, see the most recent BP Statistical Review (normally pretty reliable). It shows wind energy as having a share of China's overall energy consumption of about 1%. That, incidentally, is quite small enough to make your point. Surely your 0.2% claim is incorrect - do you have evidence to back it?

    2. Portrait of Bjørn Lomborg

      CommentedBjørn Lomborg

      Dear Robin Guenier.

      Thanks for your comment. It is the difference between percent wind of total *electricity* which is just a smaller part of the percent of total *energy*. Since it is energy that is emitting CO₂ and not just electricity, the much higher percentages from electricity probably give us an unrealistic expectation.

      This is why I also wrote "Yes, Denmark gets a record 34% of its electricity from wind. But electricity accounts for only 18% of its final energy use."


  11. CommentedRichard Mignogna

    We would be far better off taking the money that is presently being dedicated to incentive payments and using it to conduct R&D to bring these techynologies to the point where they can stand on their own.

  12. CommentedTheStudent Economist

    In the US, our policies have done little to increase efficiency or decrease the cost of renewable solar (we still buy them cheaper from China.) What we need is a policy that funds the development of these markets. What do I mean? Citizen use and exposure to these technologies is at a minimum. Think about what type of market would arise if we were to spend $1 billion on retrofitting as many houses as possible with solar panel infrastructure to run 1 appliance (lets say a fridge.) This would produce a market larger and more competitive than any seen before in green energy. It would vamp up public support and use of such technologies and incentive green companies to invest in their own R&D.

  13. CommentedNaz Ekim

    It is disappointing to see data such as this but this doesn't mean we should stop trying. Unless we continue to push for investment in alternative fuels and break away from the oil monopoly, we'll never have the freedom to pick and choose. After all, isn't that what our country stands for? Why are we so behind countries such as Brazil and China when it comes to fuel?

  14. CommentedJoe Deely

    Interestingly, if you just look at electricity share of energy and you use IEA New Policy Scenario as shown in Table 7.3 of the 2012 report. -

    The estimate for renewable share is 31%. So, with the biased question in survey it appears the IEA agrees with the Americans surveyed. I didn't realize how smart the general American public was in regards to this topic.

  15. CommentedJoe Deely

    Comments on the survey referenced.

    "Yet a new survey shows that Americans believe that the share of renewables in 2035 will be 30.2%."

    - I am surprised that Bjorn would refer to the average result when commenting on Americans as a whole... A quick look at the data shows that 60.1% of Americans believe it will be 29% or less and 35.1% believe it will be 19% or less.
    - The question in the survey states - "Today, 13% of world energy is renewable (wind, solar etc). What do you think it will be in 2035?"
    When mentioning renewables - wind and solar are referenced. This could possibly give the survey taker the idea that "energy" was only referring to electricity.
    Very poorly designed question. Almost worthless.

    1. Portrait of Bjørn Lomborg

      CommentedBjørn Lomborg

      Dear Joe Deely.

      Thanks for your comments. Of course, you can slice a survey many different ways, and with the full survey published, that is exactly possible.

      You could similarly point out that two-thirds of all Americans believe renewables will be above 20% in 2035, above the extremely optimistic level estimated by the IEA.

      It still seems to me that the best estimate of a percentage is the average of all estimates of percentages, an approach you also seem to embrace in your following commentary.