Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, by Ted Trainer. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2007, 197 pp. $66.06. ISBN-13: 978-1-4020-5548-5 (HB)
Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change, by Pat Murphy. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2008, 317 pp. $19.95. ISBN-13: 978-0-86571-607-0
The 21st century opened with twin crises barely known a hundred years before: climate change and the impending collapse of energy resources. Both necessitate a social reorientation toward local and global communities that are based on vastly smaller economies. Ironically, it is environmentalists (and those claiming to be environmentalists) who have thrown up major barriers to the community solution.
First, the worship of green gadgetry aims to expand production of everything from mercury light bulbs to wind mills, oblivious to the fact that expansion of production is itself the problem.
Second, "exhortationism" is the belief that environmental Jesuits must convert individuals to piously consume less, a belief which ignores the economic, political and social realities which force us to consume more.
Ted Trainer's Renewable Energy and Pat Murphy's Plan C document the absurdity of schemes to buy our way out of ecological catastrophe. Yet, despite their enormous contribution to understanding the potential of living a simpler way, both authors fall prey to the illusion that individual acts of conscience can substitute for igniting social movements
Debunking green nirvana
To adherents of shallow green consumerism, images of solar and wind power exude a nirvana-lib mystique. The title of Trainer's book smacks this eco-naivete between the eyes and its content gives the coup-de-grace. Trainer poses two intertwined questions: Can renewable energy be produced in sufficient abundance to meet current demand? and, Can renewable energy satisfy an unlimited expansion of greed? After exhaustively demonstrating that an answer of "yes" to the first question is highly unlikely, he renders the second question inane. He notes that if the rest of the world consumed like the US, all coal, oil, natural gas and uranium would be exhausted in 20 years.
Solar and wind power share similar limitations that prevent a corporate society from utilizing them for more than a small fraction of expanding power needs. Optimal sources are often not near the points of greatest need, meaning a large quantity of power will be lost transferrins them from one place to an-other. And both are unavailable during several vital times--solar during darkness and wind when the air is still.
Thus, both solar and wind power require backup energy sources which would become highly inefficient in a society relying on renewables. A coal plant is most efficient when operating at maximum capacity continuously. If coal was used as a back up to renewables, it would have to be running inefficiently at minimum capacity and then revved up when the renewables were down.
The only way to resolve the "fluctuation problem" of solar and wind would be to store their energy. But this doesn't work. Solar batteries are far too costly and there is no way to store energy from wind power in anything like the quantities corporate economics demands. Even if this could be resolved, large amounts of energy would be lost transferring renewable energy to storage and back again, meaning that even more energy would be required to construct and operate a much larger number of solar panels and wind mills.
Solar and wind enthusiasts claim that there are vast untapped sources for both. Trainer cites considerable data demonstrating that sources are, in fact, very limited. The best locations for both solar and wind have already been utilized, meaning that future sites will have less wind speed, less sunlight, or be further from population centers and involve greater loss of energy during transference.
The fluctuation/backup problem is severe. Trainer calculates that an expanding economy would need one new coal (or nuclear) plant for an equivalent amount of energy supplied by renewable sources.
The dynamics of a market economy make it unlikely that solar and wind will ever provide much more than a few percentage points of global energy. Large wind farms cannot be cheaper than coal because wind cannot operate continuously at maximum capacity as do coal plants. When subtle costs are taken into account, a photovoltaic solar system would be 34 times...