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Picture: GROUNDUP/JOHN YELD
Picture: GROUNDUP/JOHN YELD

I believe in a simple premise: our current way of life is not sustainable. Because I believe that if we do not effectively change the way we live we face an existential threat, I also believe that we need to start being more serious about the claims we make and the solutions we propose.

Much of the current thinking around renewable energy, in particular, does not hold up to scrutiny. I wish it did. I wish it were that easy. But our mindset is distorted by wishful thinking, and our proposed solutions contain the poison seeds of unintended consequences.

In the interests of finding implementable, constructive solutions, let me draw attention to seven myths that are leading us down the wrong path, chasing a chimera of sustainability.

Myth 1: We have sufficient resources to achieve “net zero”.

Myth 2: The cost of renewables will continue to decrease.

Myth 3: Wind turbines and solar have little to no climate impact.

Myth 4: Renewables are cheaper than current fossil fuels.

Myth 5: Battery energy density will achieve levels comparable to fossil fuels.

Myth 6: Electric vehicles are going to change the course of the future and fossil fuel usage.

Myth 7: Green hydrogen is fossil fuel free.

The dilemma facing us as a species can be encapsulated in a simple concept: energy return on energy invested (ERoEI). The story of human history as seen through ERoEI is this: as a species we started as hunter gatherers, using one unit of energy to hunt and gather food, which gave us roughly one unit of energy in return.

Eventually humans domesticated grains and began simple subsistence farming, and the ratio of energy invested to what we got back grew to 1:3. Over time we discovered better ways to harness energy, such as windmills and water mills, and this level increased modestly, until we discovered coal: with a gargantuan 1:130 or more ERoEI, the industrial age was born.

It took hundreds of years for this energy to reach all corners of the world, and it was only after the Cold War that the average ERoEI around the globe reached an average higher than 1:30, which is arguably the level required for the world to have positive economic growth and prosperity, but critically, in peace. (Bear in mind that ERoEI ratios depend on how you define the inputs, and definitions vary.)

Unfortunately, all the “free” energy from renewables comes at a price. Solar has an ERoEI of just 1:3.5, and wind a similar value when intermittency and redundancy is factored in (but a maximum of 1:18 under perfect circumstances). Hydrogen is a particularly challenging little molecule, as it needs five units of energy to produce a single unit of kinetic energy, for an inverse ratio of 5:1. These energies do not meet the levels we need as society to live peacefully and prosper. (Nuclear does — spectacularly — at over 1:100, and produces no carbon. But this is a topic for another article.)

This leaves the world at a rather uncomfortable impasse: continue with fossil fuels and maintain an average ERoEI at levels where we can sustain economic growth and peace, or drop our ERoEI and risk it with alternatives. To my mind the latter choice edges us closer to a sharp drain on resources (especially copper and nickel), as per the myths above, and leads us to a place where wars are inevitable as we compete for commodities.

To completely replace fossil fuels, one estimate in the Manhattan Institute’s publications shows we need to expand renewable energy production 90-fold over two decades, whereas the best we achieved was 10-fold in five decades for the fossil fuel industry. And to store two days’ worth of electricity capacity for the US national grid alone would require more than 1,000 years of battery production at the Tesla Gigafactory. It isn’t feasible.

But must it be one or the other? Not at all, nor should it be. The alternative — less appealing than a single cure-all solution that asks little of us besides its adoption — is to begin with incremental changes to how we live and work.

Changing our farming techniques could lead to us sequestering more carbon than we produce, and would produce healthier food. Ploughing is a huge source of carbon emissions in farming, whereas farming without ploughing has the capability of turning farms into giant carbon sinks.

Changing our current farming techniques could lead to us sequestering more carbon than we produce, and would produce healthier food

Add in regenerative farming techniques, and you reduce the need for large-scale fertiliser production and pesticides, all very large contributors to emissions. The best part: nothing to invent, build or engineer. Sequestering is cheaper than reducing emissions, but nature gives it for free and therefore provides no real economic opportunity to those advocating we eliminate fossil fuels.

Keep fossil fuels in the mix, sprinkle in more carbon-capture storage and sequestration, bring on more renewables and nuclear, and clean the air by developing food security in a sustainable way. Surely this is obvious.

So where are the carbon credits to farmers who deploy no-tilling farming? And additional credits to farmers who use regenerative farming? We gave credits to people switching to low-energy light bulbs, which saved capacity as opposed to building new capacity.

The concept is the same: use this as a land redistribution tool and create carbon sinks. Incentivise people to sink carbon as opposed to putting more technology down which will have unintended consequences.

Humans have come a long way and made great strides, but everyone needs to be a little more moderate in their approach to whether we should be “green” or fossil. Remember, always, that we are seeking solutions to self-inflicted problems — problems which were seen as all-powerful solutions in their day.

Let us not fall prey to the same wishful thinking. 

There is a balance, and increasing our carbon capture rate using nature seems to be the quickest and easiest way to save ourselves. Alternative technologies have their merit, but in 100 years’ time we may be sitting with other problems we aren’t capable of dealing with as a result.

* Marani is the CEO of Renergen

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