I’m pro-renewable, but it is useful to know in advance what the likely problems with renewables are going to be. That way we can attempt to deal with those problems.

Jancovici does not believe renewables can save the day. By which he seems to mean preserve our society in the way it is today, and allow everyone in the world to share in that mode of living. This is possibly true. We need social change as well, and that will be difficult. Conscious social change is always difficult and prone to unintended effects. Sometimes such change is relatively successful as the change from free market capitalism to democratic socialism in Europe after the Second World War. Unfortunately this was not stable in the face of sustained political attack and was replaced by “neoliberalism”. It would have been useful to have been prepared for this attack, rather than to assume (as many people seem to have done) that we could never return to such a destructive and unstable system… That depends on knowledge and experience, both of which are malleable to concerted propaganda. The eternal problem of any political system.

Anyway, back to renewables. This is a little repetitive of my last couple of posts, because I want it to be understood without reference to them. Please forgive me, if you have struggled through the others.

Please note I am not even attempting to evaluate his estimations of costs at this stage.

Non-fossil fuels are needed because of massive problems with non renewables:

  • 1) Climate change will produce massive trouble for current economies, due to destruction of habitation, disruption of food supplies and so on.
  • 2) Climate change is produced by burning fossil fuels. So we need to stop burning them.
  • 3) Oil, which is the most efficient form of stored energy is running out, or will run out eventually.

    Once you have extracted and burnt a resource that takes several ten million to several hundred million years to renew, you have less.

  • 4) Oil is also used in many chemical processes such as plastic, synthetic materials, and fertiliser production. It is central to much industrial production and processing, not just as a fuel.

    when you eat a kilogram of beef, you kind of eat a kilogram of fossil fuels

    In that sense it is another polluter and currently necessary for growth.

  • 5) Coal is heavily polluting and deadly to humans, both in terms of mining and burning. The sickness and death rate from coal usage is not insignificant.
  • 6) Cheap easily accessible coal tends to be lignite which is more polluting, so there are always economic incentives to use this (where profit is central) and increase pollution.
  • 7) Clean coal burning requires further energy expenditure, lowers the efficiency of coal as an energy source, and is so far not successful enough to bother with. The same is currently true of carbon capture, which may be necessary to lower CO2 in the atmosphere and slow warming.
  • The prime problems with renewables are:

  • 1) The sun and wind energy is not freely available in the concentrated forms useable in industrial society by anyone who can dig it up and burn it. It has to be collected and transformed, and this takes energy.
  • 2) [Not in Jancovici] Changes in land use can disturb people and destroy environments they love. Renewable use is always less traumatic and disruptive than conversion of land to a coal or oil mine, or a fossil fuel power station, but it is not negligible. We are asking people to accept disruption of their relation to the environment so as to save the environment.
  • 3)[Not in Jancovici] If energy usage is important, we can expect that our patterns of power relations are embedded in that energy usage and the habits that it encourages and allows. If this is the case, then changes in the energy system will be heavily resisted, and attempts will be made to make any change replicate the existing system.
  • 4) Manufacture of renewables, especially solar PV requires large amounts of energy, currently being supplied by coal.
  • 5) Collection can never be constant, there will always be variation, and this causes a loss in efficiency.
    Far more energy needs to be generated than used, so that the energy can be stored to smooth out the variations in electricity generation. Attempting to store energy causes further losses in efficiency.
  • Storage
    The main potential forms of storage are battery, pumped hydro, and manufacture of hydrogen as fuel. All of these have ecological consequences, although hydrogen’s seem minimal and could possibly make use of the infrastructure we use for gas and petrol.

    Pumped hydro often consumes land for reservoirs dispossessing people or destroying biodiversity, unless it is limited by being constructed underground. It requires energy expenditure to build. It depends on water availability, which could be affected by Climate change. It also depends on there being excess renewable energy which can be diverted to make it useful, and it has significant losses of energy through efficiency issues – and the second law of thermodynamics – energy is always dissipated if used or moved.

    A conservative 30% of the initial electricity is.. lost into the storage process.

    In OECD countries, all this costs 5,000 to 6,000 euros per kW of pumping power, and the lifetime of the corresponding investment is roughly a century.

    Batteries, so far, require rare minerals – we don’t know for sure there is enough of these – and batteries also require renewable energy to be manufactured if they are not involve greenhouse gas emission. Batteries also have a shelf life. I do not currently know how much energy is required to make the materials reusable for new batteries – but it is probably significant.

    Hydrogen power is not being taken up, but it seems a reasonably interesting idea.

    For storage to be successful, without too much disruption, we need technological innovation (just as we do for CO2 removal). That we need this innovation, does not mean it will occur, but it is necessary to fund such research, and this adds to the expense of the transformation. Most massive technological innovation has depended on fairly high levels of State Funding and freedom from patents, at the initial stages at least.


    Renewables also require refurbishment of the grid. The grid has usually been designed to be one way from producers to consumers, now it needs to be multiway. Furthermore as renewable plants are usually fairly small, it requires more installation, more energy expenditure and more expense. Jancovici remarks:

    it is much more expensive to install 500 lines of 100 MW each (magnitude of the nominal power of a set of wind turbines or a medium to large scale PV plant) than 20 cables of 2 GW each (magnitude of the nominal power of a nuclear reactor… or coal power plant): it requires much more materials, bulldozers and public works!


    it seems reasonable to consider that for 1 euro invested in production, it will take about one additional euro for investments in the “electrical environment” in the broad sense (connections to the grid, additional low and high voltage power lines, transformers).


    “decentralizing” production strongly increases the total amount of investments required, and thus the overall cost of supply.

    We are probably again in the situation in which the State needs to fund the necessary development of grids, yet this will lead to freeloading by established power companies. Perhaps the State needs to re-start its own power company to encourage competition?

    vs Nuclear

    Jancovici is pro-nuclear. Because the variation in energy emission is not significant we have to install a lot less of it, and we don’t need storage.

    He calculates that nuclear is at least 10 times cheaper than any renewable system. He is optimistic about ‘accidents’ based on the French record, and forgets the difficulty and cost of insurance. The problem is not that serious accidents are rare, but that when they occur they seal off land for a humanly significant period of time, cause illness, widespread fear, lack of confidence and suspicion of suppression of information.

    Jancovivi concludes that for everyone in the world to gain or maintain the standard of living familiar in the Western World today (with all its needed energy expenditure and energy available pretty much on demand) through renewables is prohibitively expensive. It is probably only possible in a world without energy, material, financial or social restraints. Given that we have to make the transition quickly, he thinks, nuclear is the only option.

    With nuclear, replacing all coal fired power plants in the world (a little over 2000 GW presently) would cost 10,000 billion dollars. With wind and solar, it jumps to at least 100,000 billion dollars, knowing that the overall investments in the energy sector are now close to 1500 billion dollars each year.


    We can summarise Jancovici’s position by saying that the cost of transformation into renewables to maintain current lifestyles and modes of social organization is prohibitive, especially when we are in the middle of an energy crisis and hence an economic crisis

    If point is correct, then as said earlier this means we need to be aware of the need to change our ways of life, as well, and this is difficult, and possibly politically toxic. It does mean State encouragement of renewable infrastructure is probably necessary. Research into the social transformations needed and possible is as necessary as research into storage and CO2 removal.

    Ultimately, however, we must not be distracted by climate change from other massive ecological collapses occurring. We must analytically face the problem of energy as central to economy, and to the entropic effects of economy. We cannot simply pretend that we do not create the disorder which is going to eventually end our economy, if we do not attempt to curb that disorder or compensate for it. Unintended effects do not arise solely because of planned action, they also arise through ‘free markets’ and capitalism.

    Next post: Objections to Jancovici