When Renewables Destroy Nature

How Integrating Society Into Nature Can Be Bad For Both

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The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years, but many have argued that the associated problems with bioenergy are anomalous. But in the first article from a forthcoming issue of Breakthrough Journal, Will Boisvert argues that bioenergy’s devastating impact on nature is typical of renewables, not exceptional. A world powered primarily by renewables, Boisvert argues, is unlikely to be environmentally friendly at all. He writes, “The renewable energy paradigm requires an unprecedented industrial reengineering of the landscape,” – one that “sees all of nature as an integrated machine for producing energy.” If we actually want to leave more room for nature, Boisvert says, we must “unshackle ourselves from ecosystems, and ecosystems from us.”

February 25, 2014 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years. The expansion of corn for ethanol in the American Midwest has worsened water pollution and soil erosion, and has had no benefit in terms of reduced emissions. Europe’s biofuels mandate has resulted in a palm oil boom that has devastated the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. And now efforts like those in Germany to burn wood for fuel, known as “biomass,” have been shown to be no better for climate change than coal—and perhaps even worse.

Many have argued that the problems associated with plant-based renewable energy are anomalous. Biomass may have its problems, the story goes, but a fully renewable energy system, with prominent roles for solar and wind power, will be good for the environment.

But in the first article from a forthcoming issue of Breakthrough Journal, Will Boisvert argues that bioenergy’s devastating impact on nature is typical of renewables, not exceptional. A world powered primarily by renewables, Boisvert writes, is unlikely to be environmentally friendly at all.

Consider that of the four renewable energy sources with an appreciable share of the market—large-scale hydroelectric dams, biomass, solar, and wind—the two that have scaled most significantly, hydro and biomass, are attracting intense opprobrium as the devastating consequences of their widespread deployment become impossible to ignore.

At scale, solar and wind would also cause considerable environmental damage. Both have large land footprints, and due to their intermittency they require backup, which usually comes from environmentally damaging power sources such as biomass or coal. As Germany has shifted from nuclear to solar and wind power, its brown coal consumption has risen to its highest level since 1990.

Indeed, part of what’s behind the continued support for biomass, despite its evident environmental impacts, is its ability to back up wind and solar. “In Germany, for example, wind and solar generation frequently collapses for days on end during calm and cloudy spells,” Boisvert notes. “So biomass must step into the breach. Reliability is why just about every renewables plan carves out a prominent share for biomass and biofuels.”

But beyond the practical need, bioenergy keeps popping up in green energy plans because it is, at bottom, the archetypal expression of ecology ideology. Dams, palm oil plantations, wind farms, and solar arrays all convert natural energy flows carried by water, sunlight, and wind into useful energy. The objective of plans to run the world primarily, or entirely, on renewable energy is to reintegrate human society into the natural energy flows of the planet.

The problem is that such efforts to harmonize society with nature tend to be bad for both. “For most of human history,” Boisvert notes, “biomass – burned or fed to draft animals – was the main source of energy, and the cutting, growing, and hunting of it has always had severe environmental repercussions. Early modern Europe was extensively deforested to get wood for heating and charcoal for metallurgical fuel...”

Against the vision of renewables having a light footprint on the land, Boisvert notes, “The renewable energy paradigm requires an unprecedented industrial reengineering of the landscape: lining every horizon with forty-story wind turbines, paving deserts with concentrating solar mirrors, girdling the coasts with tidal and wave generators, and drilling for geological heat reservoirs; it sees all of nature as an integrated machine for producing energy.”

Ultimately, if we want to save more nature we must leave more of it alone, not harness it to power a human population of 7 going on 9 billion. “Stewardship of the planet requires that we continue to unshackle ourselves from ecosystems,” Boisvert writes, “and ecosystems from us.”

Responses welcome.


Comments

  • First, I firmly agree with the core philosophy underlying your article about decoupling human and ecological systems and I appreciate that you have contributed to the conversation for concern for how renewables energy sources develop. We need to do decouple the two systems as much as we can if we are to avoid catastrophic environmental degradation and societal stability.

    Second, I have a few reservations about a few points that were made and will do my best to articulate those concerns.

    Damage: All forms of energy are ‘environmentally damaging’. I feel your article has provided a criticism of all current energy sources but has not offered an alternative that can go to scale. Biomass is certainly environmentally damaging when done unsustainably - more so than wind and solar especially at high percentages of energy needs. Comparatively, only wind and solar have the capability to grow to scale and provide a high proportion of our energy needs without damaging the environment (as much) or contributing to climate change (as much). Biomass will and should remain a proportionally small energy source primarily sourced from industrial waste streams and other ‘sustainable’ sources.

    Power Supply: “Baseload” power plants like coal and nuclear (and to some extent biomass), depending on their implementation, are incompatible with high percents of wind and solar by design. “Peaking” power plants like natural gas are essential to replace baseload plants as we transition to 100% renewables and eventually transition away from natural gas as well. I invite you to learn more about baseload and peaking systems and I have included a link at the end of my response. Contrary to your statement in the article, coal plants do not back up wind and solar. Rather, wind and solar are turned on and off to meet shifting energy demand while coal provides the ‘base’ of the power supply.

    Implementation: Given that the current fossil fuel energy system is already grossly unsustainable, to say that a world powered by renewables is unlikely to be environmentally friendly is to offer no alternative. Shall we just turn out the lights to solve the environmental problems? In the article, it is suggested that a 100% renewable future would require unacceptably large use of land area. Perhaps I agree - if it is implemented haphazardly. A 100% renewable future will take up more space than the current fossil fuel system. That is undeniable - but unlike fossil fuel systems, that land area can have multiple purposes (like rooftop solar) and be placed in strategic locations to reduce environmental impact (like offshore wind). We also need to transition away from mass-ownership of automobiles in the US. How much of US land is covered in parking lots? It’s estimated that one third of Los Angeles and Orlando are covered in parking lots. That’s a terribly inefficient waste of space that can be retrofitted for compact urban design and solar generation.

    Philosophy: Presuming that we need to use as much energy as we do, then we ought to ask where (and when) that energy ought to come from. Fossil fuels burn energy consolidated from millions of years. Renewable sources use energy available in the moment. In regards to what source can sustainably persist into the indefinite future, it is obvious that the latter is the only alternative. This means reintegrating human society into the natural energy flows of the planet. The way that it is integrated is key. To absorb solar radiation from the sun does not contribute to climate change as much as burning coal. To use wind to spin a turbine in an area out of the way of migratory paths is not as environmentally damaging as deforestation.

    Videos about baseload and peaking power plants:
    http://energyshouldbe.org/delve.html

    I am happy to hear your responses and am happy to continue this conversation.

    By Chris Ververis on 2014 02 25

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    • Chris:
      You said, in part: “Renewable sources use energy available in the moment. In regards to what source can sustainably persist into the indefinite future, it is obvious that the latter is the only alternative. “

      Well, it not “obvious” to me. There’s enough Thorium and U-238 (not U-235) in the earth’s crust to sustain a low-carbon energy future for thousands of millennia.  And we can even use current nuclear “waste” before we start any mining.  The machines that can harness that energy are just a decade or two away.  I dare say that the machines that can harness an equivalent amount of solar energy are much further away if they can exist at all.  The clock is ticking.  Please don’t bet human civilization on such a fragile platform as solar power.  Nuclear fission is a much more robust alternative.

      But if you want to bet the planet on solar, you can take solace in the fact that the planet and most of its life forms will survive.  There just won’t be anybody around that will know about or understand that you lost your bet. You know, global warming, coastal flooding and such.

      By William Vaughn on 2014 02 27

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      • Thank you for the comments. Nuclear power is available “in the moment” and thorium is plentiful. It could eventually prove to be a fantastic source of energy. However, the technology is still in development to prove that it is viable and safe (ie - Fukushima). For the climate, we must reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050. That will NOT happen if we wait 20 years for thorium technology to develop and then go to scale. The “bet” of relying on thorium power to go to scale in time is more dangerous and unlikely than renewables in regards to climate change. If you would like references to climate projections and CO2 emission goals, I’m happy to share.

        The issue is not about 100% coal or solar or thorium. A renewable energy platform is a diversified set of energy sources that does provide an aggregate consist supply of energy. I would urge you to watch the videos in the link in my original post to get a sense of this.

        By Chris Ververis on 2014 03 01

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    • “peaking” is a myth.  It has been proven so time and again by credible scientific research.  The oil industry will win out as “sustainable” pipe dreams fail technologically while oil and gas recovery systems defy the odds and enable us to do more with less.  In time, you and yours will go away…especially once your grant funding goes bust and the feds unleash exploration on government lands.

      By AnthonyC on 2014 03 03

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      • Peaking is simply that finite resources get used up over time. Therefore, for peaking to be a myth, the resources must be infinite.

        Please provide any “credible scientific research” that shows resources are infiinite, especially on a finite planet.

        (I would not normally comment on something that is so obviously silly and inane, but in another forum, someone was concerned there was no response to a a racist comment, and they felt that created a culture of acceptance of racism. So, I just want to be clear I think this comment is idiotic, and I do not accept it.)

        By Ruben on 2014 03 04

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  • Excellent essay. It reminded me of John James Audubon’s journal note when he approached England by sailing ship from New Orleans on 20 July 1826, copied below.

    “Thursday, 20 July 1826. St. George’s Channel. I am approaching very fast the shores of England. Indeed Wales is abreast our ship….But what nakedness the country exhibits, with scarce a patch of timber to be seen. Our fine forests of pine, of oak, of heavy walnut trees, of magnificent magnolias, of hickory, or ash, or sugar trees, are represented here by a diminutive growth named furze. Come, come, no criticism—I have not seen the country….”

    And this scene was more than a century after the English began their conversion from wood to coal—precisely because they had used up their forests for biomass domestic and process heating.

    By Richard Rhodes on 2014 02 25

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    • I was knocked out by this quote when I read your biography of Audubon.  It continues to be powerfully relevant.  I think of it when I see pristine areas of national forests in the Southwest devastated by natural gas operations or by huge wind-farms, which require four times more concrete and steel per kilowatt hour than nuclear plants.

      By Gwyneth Cravens on 2014 04 16

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  • The eco-bullies have had there way for far too long.  Green policies cause more problems than they resolve.  The only truly proven green energy technologies are (1) hydro-electricity, but greens don’t want anymore dams built, and (2) nuclear energy, but greens have their outdated objections to this too.

    The impact of the bio fuel industry is appalling.  But the greens don’t care.

    People in third world countries, such as in Africa, are sick and tired of being told by “imperialist Europeans” to abandon fossil fuel energy in favour of solar panels and wind turbines… too expensive for poor people to afford… too inefficient to build and drive industries.

    Environmentalists should get back to looking after the whales and polar bears, and abandon climate alarmism that has been overly exaggerated and promoted like a religion.

    By Mervyn on 2014 03 01

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  • Mervyn,
    I would urge you to learn about the science of climate change and the projections for the future of climate within the next century. Doubt about climate science and it’s human causes is akin to doubting the Earth is round because it doesn’t look that way from the front door of your house. You need to understand the quantitative aspects of the science to truly cast an opinion of doubt. Is the world round?

    If you do decide that you’d like to learn more about the projections of climate, I would invite you to read through the World Bank report: Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4C Warmer World Must Be Avoided (2012). You mention advocating for economic development over climate action. All reports for national and international organizations suggest that the economic cost of not acting on climate will be far greater than “business as usual”.

    The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 100 species go extinct each day due to climate change and human land use fragmentation. There are bigger issues than whales and polar bears.

    By Chris Ververis on 2014 03 01

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  • I have critiqued one of Will Boisvert’s articles at Why Green is not Sustainable.

    While trying to google him, I found almost nothing but work supporting the nuclear industry. And now he is criticizing biomass—and if biomass went away, that could be good for the nuclear industry.

    And given that he looks like a nuclear industry shill, it does seem more than a little coincidental that his name is the cute “Green Woods”.

    Still, perhaps he is a real person, and not just an astroturfer. In which case, his arguments persistently founder on the same rocks.

    It doesn’t matter if biofuel can’t supply all the energy we currently use, because we won’t be using that much energy. All the techno-utopians and other progress-fetishist hopeheads can’t see the forest for the trees. This world relies on very high EROEI of energy, and without that—well, we don’t have this world.

    Just allow that notion to feel true for a moment—we are going to use much, much less energy, whether we like it or not.

    Now, I don’t want to raze the forests for biofuel, nor do I want to plant switchgrass monocultures; but we can avoid that by using much, much less energy. And we will.

    By Ruben Anderson on 2014 03 03

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    • Hi, Ruben,
        Will Boisvert is my (little) brother, so I guess I gotta defend him.  I can attest that he, as well as our family name, which you correctly identify as the French version of Green Wood(s), is real.  Our father was Louis Boisvert, immigrant from Montreal to Detroit at the age of 12.  The name, as common in the Francophile northeast as “Greenwood” is in the rest of the U.S., has caused us endless (slightly bemusing) problems, because we stick to the French pronunciation—as a college math teacher, I have had a variety of student attempts at it, ranging from the pathetic (Professor Brwghfwhrtt) to the wonderful (Professor Brassiere).  We do indeed use the translated English equivalent “Greenwood” when making reservations and ordering pizza…

      And thus I can also attest that Will is not a nuclear industry shill nor employee in a uranium mine management office—if only!  That would imply a steady and “sustainable” salary—instead Will ekes out a living in Manhattan (selling ekes on street-corners, and doing extremely poorly paid freelance writing.)  Contrary to your random, wild speculation, he critiques renewables in favor of nuclear power solely as an unpaid labor of love—love of critical thinking, of rationality, of examining arguments for consistency, logic, and evidence. 

      In the future, before you google someone and then draw conclusions from the results (which are, of course, guaranteed by Google to be absolutely accurate, precise, and transparent representations of the complete truth about the person), upon the basis of which you then make absurdly counterfactual ad hominem attacks, perhaps you should actually deal with the logic and evidence adduced in their arguments.  Doing so would help you avoid instantly losing credibility in the eyes of any objective observer.

      My purpose is not, by the way, to defend Will’s logic and evidence.  His arguments speak for themselves, and he would be the first to reject defending them on any other basis than having people read them for themselves and think carefully about their cogency.  I was initially very skeptical about them myself, as I am largely in agreement with your take that a social life of much smaller consumption of all resources is the only real long-term solution. 

      But I think I have a different take than you do on the immediate efficacy of efforts to achieve that, particularly in relation to potentially crucial short-term timing issues regarding catastrophic global warming from carbon.  So I’m now pretty sympathetic to his take—not because he’s my brother, but because he marshals evidence and logic that I find fairly convincing.  Of course, you have every right to find it unconvincing, as does everyone—but showing that it’s unconvincing is about the logic and evidence of the message, not the possible identity of the messenger.
        —Paul Boisvert, Actual Person—go ahead and google me… smile

      By Paul Boisvert on 2014 04 15

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  • The problems I see, are more in failing to consider renewable energy, or any new idea, in terms of how it affects the big picture.
    Each new idea must be viewed in context of it’s risk; benefit ratio.
    Many ideas aren’t scalable.
    Renewables are not all fit for centralizing and control by big corporations—they lend themselves to small scale, local use, often.
    Some might be scalable.
    ALL must be viewed in context with Risk: benefit, not only now, but on-going for many generations.
    It is remiss, indeed, arrogantly irresponsible, to not implement safe, renewable, scalable, viable tech.
    Food crops as fuel filed those criteria—a good thought, but it isn’t scalable; it failed the Risk: benefit context.
    Simple, low-tech [placement, design, passive, etc.] solar coupled with good insulation, could be a huge ‘win’.
    Wind, done right, is a ‘win’.
    Electric cars ARE becoming more viable—see Tesla motors [sorry, for all the petro-vehicles—-Tesla Motors is showing the way to viable vehicles using only sustainable electric, despite all the road blocks set them from so many opponents].
    Micro-hydro does far less damage than big-hydro.
    Wave and tidal energy harvesting is viable and low-damage.
    Even certain methods of using nuclear are safer than what’s currently perpetrated—why is it blocked? 
    Stop justifying business as usual based on mistakes made.
    LEARN from mistakes, and move on.  Renewable energy is still our best bid for sustainability.  Just allow it to get done right.

    By Chimonger on 2014 03 26

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  • Plants used for bio-fuel, in the manner they currently are, seems similar to other industries attempting some half-baked changes.  That is, converting to some new bits, but in terms of “how things are currently done”.  For instance: continuing centralized services; or changing to new energy sources without also mandating rapid remediation of energy-wasting buildings, or glacially slow up-grading of infrastructure, etc.
    People are scrabbling for better solutions, while still brain-locked into old ideas and patterns. 
    Another part of that is, that to convert to new solutions as currently known, there’s a transition period prolonged by things like:  our limited knowledge-base per-population at a given time, filtered through the massive size and variables of world population. 
    We are limited by rustic understanding, ignorance, corporate greed to keep doing business-as-usual, limited ability to gear-up to make sweeping changes, etc. 
    We’ll need to use multiple sources, to cover needs, for some time, until someone invents the holy grail of a power source. 
    We will also have some time of cutting back on usage [unavailability of energy—like black-outs], until someone invents vastly better efficiency. 
    What we have so far, are lots of token nods toward energy efficiency—-like the “bench-tested” refrigerator works installed in same old mingy-insulated boxes, corporations lying with numbers to feign compliance with energy-star mandates….That’s part of our ‘transitional period’ issues:  unless that industry stops making excuses, and at least doubles the insulation used in those boxes, the units will still use too much energy. 
    We need better ways to do things like refrigeration and heating.
    Better ways to do those, could use current tech/low tech—what’s missing is disseminated information, money to pay for it, and overcoming inertia—humans being human.
    Huge hurdles.
    We seem a bit star-struck by some new tech, while failing to consider some that might be better options.  Like double-helix wind gens, vertical-axis wind-gens, wave/tide-gens, geothermal, etc.
    We might be better served by framing conservation and use in terms of cradle-to-grave, or 7-generations of use, instead of what new single stand-alone sources are the shiny toy at present moment.
    Those are pretty big tasks for so many billion people, many still held-in-sway by industry shills promoting half-truths and whole lies, from ignorance and greed. 
    Sorry…not being as lucid as wanted at this time—trying to think clouded by current personal circumstances.

    By Chi on 2014 08 01

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About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

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