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The Reason Renewables Can't Power Modern Civilization Is Because They Were Never Meant To

Over the last decade, journalists have held up Germany’s renewables energy transition, the Energiewende, as an environmental model for the world.

“Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset,” thanks to the Energiewende, wrote a New York Times reporter in 2014.

With Germany as inspiration, the United Nations and World Bank poured billions into renewables like wind, solar, and hydro in developing nations like Kenya.

But then, last year, Germany was forced to acknowledge that it had to delay its phase-out of coal, and would not meet its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction commitments. It announced plans to bulldoze an ancient church and forest in order to get at the coal underneath it.

After renewables investors and advocates, including Al Gore and Greenpeace, criticized Germany, journalists came to the country’s defense. “Germany has fallen short of its emission targets in part because its targets were so ambitious,” one of them argued last summer.

“If the rest of the world made just half Germany’s effort, the future for our planet would look less bleak,” she wrote. “So Germany, don’t give up. And also: Thank you.”

But Germany didn’t just fall short of its climate targets. Its emissions have flat-lined since 2009.

Now comes a major article in the country’s largest newsweekly magazine, Der Spiegel, titled, “A Botched Job in Germany” ("Murks in Germany"). The magazine’s cover shows broken wind turbines and incomplete electrical transmission towers against a dark silhouette of Berlin.

“The Energiewende — the biggest political project since reunification — threatens to fail,” Frank Dohmen, Alexander Jung, Stefan Schultz, Gerald Traufetter in their a 5,700-word investigative story.

Over the past five years alone, the Energiewende has cost Germany €32 billion ($36 billion) annually, and opposition to renewables is growing in the German countryside.

“The politicians fear citizen resistance” Der Spiegel reports. “There is hardly a wind energy project that is not fought.”

In response, politicians sometimes order “electrical lines be buried underground but that is many times more expensive and takes years longer.”

As a result, the deployment of renewables and related transmission lines is slowing rapidly. Less than half as many wind turbines (743) were installed in 2018 as were installed in 2017, and just 30 kilometers of new transmission were added in 2017.

Solar and wind advocates say cheaper solar panels and wind turbines will make the future growth in renewables cheaper than past growth but there are reasons to believe the opposite will be the case.

Der Spiegel cites a recent estimate that it would cost Germany “€3.4 trillion ($3.8 trillion),” or seven times more than it spent from 2000 to 2025, to increase solar and wind three to five-fold by 2050.

Between 2000 and 2019, Germany grew renewables from 7% to 35% of its electricity. And as much of Germany's renewable electricity comes from biomass, which scientists view as polluting and environmentally degrading, as from solar.

Of the 7,700 new kilometers of transmission lines needed, only 8% have been built, while large-scale electricity storage remains inefficient and expensive. “A large part of the energy used is lost,” the reporters note of a much-hyped hydrogen gas project, “and the efficiency is below 40%... No viable business model can be developed from this.”

Meanwhile, the 20-year subsidies granted to wind, solar, and biogas since 2000 will start coming to an end next year. “The wind power boom is over,” Der Spiegel concludes.

All of which raises a question: if renewables can’t cheaply power Germany, one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, how could a developing nation like Kenya ever expect them to allow it to “leapfrog” fossil fuels?

The Question of Technology

The earliest and most sophisticated 20th Century case for renewables came from a German who is widely considered the most influential philosopher of the 20th Century, Martin Heidegger.

In his 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning of Technology,” Heidegger condemned the view of nature as a mere resource for human consumption.

The use of “modern technology,” he wrote, “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such… Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium…to yield atomic energy.”

The solution, Heidegger argued, was to yoke human society and its economy to unreliable energy flows. He even condemned hydro-electric dams, for dominating the natural environment, and praised windmills because they “do not unlock energy in order to store it.”

These weren’t just aesthetic preferences. Windmills have traditionally been useful to farmers whereas large dams have allowed poor agrarian societies to industrialize.

In the US, Heidegger’s views were picked up by renewable energy advocates. Barry Commoner in 1969 argued that a transition to renewables was needed to bring modern civilization "into harmony with the ecosphere."

The goal of renewables was to turn modern industrial societies back into agrarian ones, argued Murray Bookchin in his 1962 book, Our Synthetic Environment.

Bookchin admitted his proposal "conjures up an image of cultural isolation and social stagnation, of a journey backward in history to the agrarian societies of the medieval and ancient worlds."

But then, starting around the year 2000, renewables started to gain a high-tech luster. Governments and private investors poured $2 trillion into solar and wind and related infrastructure, creating the impression that renewables were profitable aside from subsidies.

Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk proclaimed that a rich, high-energy civilization could be powered by cheap solar panels and electric cars.

Journalists reported breathlessly on the cost declines in batteries, imagining a tipping point at which conventional electricity utilities would be “disrupted.”

But no amount of marketing could change the poor physics of resource-intensive and land-intensive renewables. Solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants, and wind farms take 700 times more land than natural gas wells, to produce the same amount of energy.

Efforts to export the Energiewende to developing nations may prove even more devastating.

The new wind farm in Kenya, inspired and financed by Germany and other well-meaning Western nations, is located on a major flight path of migratory birds. Scientists say it will kill hundreds of endangered eagles.

“It’s one of the three worst sites for a wind farm that I’ve seen in Africa in terms of its potential to kill threatened birds,” a biologist explained.

In response, the wind farm’s developers have done what Europeans have long done in Africa, which is to hire the organizations, which ostensibly represent the doomed eagles and communities, to collaborate rather than fight the project.

Kenya won't be able to “leapfrog” fossil fuels with its wind farm. On the contrary, all of that unreliable wind energy is likely to increase the price of electricity and make Kenya’s slow climb out of poverty even slower.

Heidegger, like much of the conservation movement, would have hated what the Energiewende has become: an excuse for the destruction of natural landscapes and local communities.

Opposition to renewables comes from the country peoples that Heidegger idolized as more authentic and “grounded” than urbane cosmopolitan elites who fetishize their solar roofs and Teslas as signs of virtue.

Germans, who will have spent $580 billion on renewables and related infrastructure by 2025, express great pride in the Energiewende. “It’s our gift to the world,” a renewables advocate toldThe Times.

Tragically, many Germans appear to have believed that the billions they spent on renewables would redeem them. “Germans would then at last feel that they have gone from being world-destroyers in the 20th century to world-saviors in the 21st,” noted a reporter.

Many Germans will, like Der Spiegel, claim the renewables transition was merely “botched,” but it wasn't. The transition to renewables was doomed because modern industrial people, no matter how Romantic they are, do not want to return to pre-modern life.

The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could.  

By Michael Shellenberger, President, Environmental Progress. Time Magazine "Hero of the Environment". Published by Forbes, May 6, 2019.

This month's top international coal headlines

  • Proposal for a German coal phase-out — Energy Transition
  • Release of updated IRP imminent, says Radebe, as he allays coal producers' fears — Engineering News
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets trend lower on poor demand — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices fall as weak fundamentals linger — Platts CTI
  • Chinese currency plunge spreads gloom in Asian thermal coal market
    — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets continue to wait for price recovery — Platts CTI
  • CIF ARA, FOB Richards Bay physical prices fall — Platts CTI
  • Pakistan thermal coal market anticipates downward price movement in near term — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets continue downtrend — Platts CTI
  • Second 900 MW unit at Opole synchronised — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets begin week with unchanged fundamentals
    — Platts CTI
  • Germany faces power supply crunch in winter 2022 – analyst — Montel
  • Supply tightness creeps in on South African coal — Platts CTI
  • The Reason Renewables Can't Power Modern Civilization Is Because They Were Never Meant To — Forbes
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets weak despite pricing gains — Platts CTI
  • Is exponential growth of solar PV the obvious conclusion — IEA
  • The World Bank Must Change Course — Bjorn Lomborg
  • Why Renewables Can't Save the Planet — Quillette
  • Indian thermal coal buyers seek out South African amid arbitrage — Platts CTI
  • Troubled Zimbabwean colliery eyes metcoal as lifeline
    — South African Coal Report
  • Richards Bay off-spec shores up on emerging South Asian demand
    — South African Coal Report
  • ANC wants banks to be forced to fund South African coal mines
    — Engineering News
  • Sweden’s Lack of Electricity Capacity Is Threatening Growth — Bloomberg
  • Activists slam South Africa's decision to pump water to coal mines
    — Bloomberg
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets turn to Asia amid poor European demand
    — Platts CTI
  • South African prices favorable for Indian buyers — Platts CTI
  • European, South African physical prices rise — Platts CTI
  • CME April thermal coal derivatives volumes drop 1.6% on year to 29.01Mt
    — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal prices recover although fundamentals still weak
    — Platts CTI
  • Deer Run, other Illinois Basin mines could change coal market dynamics
    — S&P Global
  • South Africa's March coal exports down 1.2% on year at 7.08Mt — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets face lack of spot demand — Platts CTI

2019 archive

April 2019
  • Increased Asian demand expected to boost Atlantic prices: sources
    — Platts CTI
  • Firmer demand for South African coal — Platts CTI
  • Indian demand boost for South African coals — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal market trades rangebound on weak global sentiment — Platts CTI
  • India seeks South African coal amid tight supply — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal market sources see little room for near-term recovery — Platts CTI
  • Domestic arbitrage in South Africa — Platts CTI
  • Behind the Green New Deal: An elite war on the working class
    — New York Post
  • A Cup Half Full: Answering the Question “Why Coal and How Coal?”
    — American Coal Council
  • China's Far From Done With Coal as Regulator Eases New Plant Ban
    — Bloomberg
  • Trump's Latest Idea to Help Coal Is Mini Power Plants — Bloomberg
  • Green Deals Won’t Save the World, But Access to Energy Will
    — RealClearEnergy.org
  • SA’s coal output steadies at 252Mt in 2018, prices up — McCloskey Coal Report
  • Global thermal coal market at risk of oversupply — McCloskey Coal Report
  • Supply tightness lifts SA off-spec export prices, Eskom buying
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • South Africa prices also rise on-day — Platts CTI
  • South African thermal coal prices continued to rise after Monday's gains
    — Platts CTI
  • South African prices find more support — Platts CTI
  • South African coal sold out on domestic consumption — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal market continues bearish run — Platts CTI
  • Mantashe urges continued investment in clean coal tech — Mining Weekly
  • CIF ARA, FOB Richards Bay prices rise on week — Platts CTI
  • Limited upside for Atlantic thermal coal prices despite on-week gains
    — Platts CTI
  • Choices for India — Platts CTI
  • South African, Australian physical markets lose ground — Platts CTI
  • Negative sentiment prevails in Atlantic thermal coal markets — Platts CTI
  • South African 2018 coal output steadies at 252Mt — South African Coal Report
  • Gains in off-spec FOB Richards Bay prices — Platts CTI
  • CIF ARA thermal coal price ticks up, sentiment still bearish — Platts CTI
  • No, renewables are not taking over the world — Bjorn Lomborg
  • Overheating About Global Warming — Bjorn Lomborg
  • Climate change: 'Magic bullet' carbon solution takes big step — BBC
  • Coal prices plunge as global energy dynamics whip up perfect storm
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • India turns attention to South African thermal coal away from Indonesian volumes — Platts CTI
  • South32 begins sale process for South African thermal coal operations
    — Mining Technology
  • Physical CIF ARA, FOB Richards Bay prices hit fresh lows — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets see no end in sight for dramatic price falls
    — Platts CTI
  • World economic forum admits benefits of CO2 — CO2 Coalition
  • The “New Energy Economy”: An Exercise in Magical Thinking — CO2 Coalition
  • Botswana's Minergy on track to supply coal to SA in 2019 — Business Live
  • Richards Bay plumbs fresh 2-½-year lows in buyer’s market — IHS Markit
  • South African supply seen a favorable option in near term — Platts CTI
  • South Africa Feb coal exports recover 40% to 6.82Mt: customs — Platts CTI
March 2019
  • "The end of the coal age" is nowhere in sight — Count on Coal
  • Global Energy & CO2 Status Report — IEA
  • Indonesian coal faces uphill struggle to diversify exports away from China
    — Global Platts
  • Mining of continued importance to Australia’s economy — World Coal
  • Wood Mackenzie comments on China's thermal coal import restriction
    — World Coal
  • EIA: US Coal exports reached five year high in 2018 — World Coal
  • GE Steam Power helps CPHGC in Pakistan reach power plant milestone three months early — World Coal
  • Energy policies should be technology neutral so as not to damage Australia’s economy — World Coal
  • We're finally told what the carbon tax will cost us. Are you sitting down?
    — Financial Post
  • South African coal still a cheaper option — Platts CTI
  • Longer-term coal prices seen as resilient but falling new mine investment limits supply — Platts
  • Construction of coal-fired power plants rising in China: report — Platts CTI
  • What is the future of coal? — Mining Review Africa
  • South African prices more stable, deals to Pakistan — Platts CTI
  • World Coal Association response to IEA Global Energy & CO2 Status Report 2018 — WCA
  • Coal industry has to choose: exports or local supply? — Business Day
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets pushed into steeper contango as poor demand drags on — Platts CTI
  • Global coal demand up 0.7% in 2018, largely due to Asia: IEA — Platts
  • Richards Bay drops to 2-½ year low on weak demand, supply glut — IHS Markit
  • Generation margins rise in Germany on power price hike; fall in UK
    — IHS Markit
  • Global coal market seen well-placed for next decade, despite challenges
    — IHS Markit
  • Asia will contribute 49% of global petrochemical capacity additions by 2030, says GlobalData — Energy Global
  • Coaltrans Cairo: Coal is not phased out in the Middle East — World Coal
  • Bilateral trade reported at $69.10/mt in FOB Richards Bay market — Platts CTI
  • Indian buyers turn to South African thermal coal amid tight petcoke supply
    — Platts CTI
  • Are Existing Coal-Fired Power Plants Less Expensive Than New Gas, Wind or Solar? — American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity
  • Supporting the Next Generation Of Coal-Fuelled Power Plants
    — American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity
  • Boiler-tube leaks playing big role in rise of unplanned losses to over 12 000MW — Mining Weekly
  • Suez Canal charges advantageous for South African sellers — Platts CTI
  • Future thermal coal demand from power sector limited in Middle East and North Africa: sources — Platts CTI
  • Why solar and wind power are ruinously expensive — Bizcommunity.com
  • South African thermal coal prices drop on physical deal — Platts CTI
  • Richards Bay hits 21-month low with no bottom in sight — SACR
  • FOB Richards Bay priced at $59.50/mt — Platts CTI
  • “The Surprisingly Sustainable Case for Coal” — World Coal Association
  • Commentary: The mysterious case of disappearing electricity demand — IEA
  • Coal industry struggles with lack of capital, negative public perception — Platts
  • World Coal Association response to Glencore announcement — Mining Weekly
  • Coal will continue to be key resource for decades — Mining Weekly
  • Indonesian coal faces uphill struggle to diversify exports away from China
    — Platts
  • S Africa’s Exxaro achieves record coal production, sales in 2018 — Platts CTI
  • FOB Richards Bay follows futures market upward — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal market anticipates further Australian flows — Platts CTI
  • Richards Bay prices under pressure from cheaper Australian coal — IHS Markit
  • South32 shortlists bidders for South African coal assets — IHS Markit
  • World Energy Outlook 2018 — IEA
  • Scientists at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology turn carbon dioxide back into carbon — World Coal
  • Atlantic thermal coal market sources look outside of Europe for deals
    — Platts CTI
  • Egypt’s Jan-Feb thermal coal volumes top 1Mt, up 40.9%: shipping data
    — Platts CTI
  • New black-empowered miner Sibambene Coal searching for assets
    — Engineering News
  • Faking It on Climate Change — Bjørn Lomborg
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets rangebound with bearish sentiment — Platts CTI
  • New technologies, not Paris climate agreement, will do the job
    — Financial Times
  • Why Renewables Can’t Save the Planet — Quillette
  • Richards Bay rally to cool after loadings return to normal
    — South African Coal Report
  • Community unrest interrupts coal output at Mpumalanga
    — South African Coal Report
  • Colombia loses some share to Russia, South Africa — Platts CTI
  • Glencore’s watershed on coal — BusinessLIVE
  • America Should Better Utilize Advanced Coal — Forbes
  • Does it really make sense to build a new coal power plant today?
    — Emerging Europe
  • Green New Deal is more of a disaster — register-herald.com
  • SA Jan thermal coal exports hit 18-month low of 4.87Mt — Platts CTI
  • Atlantic thermal coal markets suppressed by weak demand — Platts CTI
February 2019
  • FOB Richards Bay trade at $83/mt — Platts CTI
  • Russian thermal coal offered aggressively into ARA — Platts CTI
  • Pakistan South African coal remained the main source to the market
    — Platts CTI
  • Anglo wary of new thermal coal investments — South African Coal Report
  • CIF ARA thermal coal market sentiment starts week bearish, stocks still high
    — Platts CTI
  • Strange days for coal with Glencore's cap, China curbs: Russell — Reuters
  • Atlantic thermal coal market subdued by European complex, Asian demand
    — Platts CTI
  • Woodmac assesses Australian high CV thermal coal prices — World Coal
  • Mueller’s ‘Foreign Agent’ Prosecutions May Lead to Probes of Green Groups — The Daily Signal
  • First development pod completed at Lesedi 3 — World Coal
  • FOB Richards Bay trade at $82/mt — Platts CTI
  • FOB Richards Bay trades 50 cents lower — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal market remains bearish in near term despite price rise — Platts CTI
  • FOB Richards Bay trade at $82.50/t — Platts CTI
  • European thermal coal market still bearish, no fresh utility demand
    — Platts CTI
  • Richards Bay trades higher after hitting 2-1/2yr low — Platts CTI
  • Pakistan traders buy Indonesian cargo, while South Africa prices fall
    — IHS Markit
  • Commentary: The mysterious case of disappearing electricity demand
    — International Energy Agency
  • DOE electricity chief belittles 'Green New Deal' goal — Greenwire
  • DOE to Invest Up to $9.5 Million to Create New Market Opportunities for Coal — Office of Fossil Energy
  • The role of coal in India’s energy ambitions — World Coal Association
  • FOB Richards Bay trades at $76.60/mt — Platts CTI
  • CIF ARA futures fall, FOB Richards Bay trade — Platts CTI
  • A timely reminder of the essential value of coal power
    — The Tribune Democrat
  • King coal retreats in Europe, but still powers global growth — S&P Global Platts
  • High-CV Indonesian cargoes more competitive than South African — Platts CTI
  • Large off-spec discounts to become the norm this year in South Africa
    — IHS Markit
  • The ‘Green New Deal’ May Not Save Planet Earth, But It Could Rescue the Trump Campaign — InsideSources
  • SA coal prices under pressure from low demand, strong Indian stockpiles
    — Platts CTI
  • South African 4,800 kcal/kg NAR exports lose to domestic market
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • S. Africa failing to cash in on high prices, output steady at 253Mt
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • South Africa promises to clear hurdles blocking mining investment
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • Wood Instead of Coal: More Foolishness from Radical Environmentalists
    — Western Journal
  • SA needs coal 'until at least 2040', panel argues — Fin24
  • The Cost of Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
    — Journal of Economic Perspectives
  • Richards Bay volumes remain in terminal decline — Platts CTI
  • Report's sensational claim of 'climate breakdown' is catchy but untrue
    — Bjorn Lomborg
  • Australia: 2018 sees coal as number one — World Coal
  • Light trading Monday in bearish Atlantic thermal coal markets — Platts CTI
  • How South Africa could fix distressed Eskom — Bloomberg
  • Logistics a weak link in South Africa’s coal value chain — Mining Weekly
  • S. African thermal coal producers highlight quality issues, balanced outlook
    — Platts CTI
January 2019
  • WCA responds to IPCC's Special Report on Global Warming — World Coal
  • Boost for international miners as India's thermal coal imports jump — Reuters
  • European thermal coal market responds slowly to German coal commission
    — Platts CTI
  • Can wind and solar replace fossil fuels? — Watts Up With That?
  • Why a Green Deal Is No Bargain at All — LifeZette
  • Coal Remains a Dominant Global Fuel in IEA Forecasts
    — Institute for Energy Research
  • Coal Isn't Dead. China Proves It. — Forbes
  • Accelerated coal exit could cost Germany up to 54 bln euros extra: study
    — Xinhua
  • A Cup Half Full: Answering the Question “Why Coal and How Coal?”
    — American Coal Council
  • Exxaro commits to R20 billion investment in South Africa
    — Mining Review Africa
  • CIF ARA coal prices rise again but outlook remains bearish — Platts CTI
  • RBCT coal exports decline — Mining Weekly
  • German industry warns on coal exit costs, calls for periodic reviews
    — Platts CTI
  • Low prices in European thermal coal market squeeze US, South African sellers — Platts CTI
  • Benchmark RB prices edge up, off-spec sentiment mixed — IHS Markit
  • Germany's 2019 hard coal imports seen rising after mining ends — Reuters
  • Indian demand for South African thermal coal weak into Q1: trade — Platts CTI
  • Eskom presentation in Durban focuses on coal and Independent Power Producers — Eskom Media Desk
  • South32’s thermal coal production slips 9% on year in Oct-Dec — Platts CTI
  • IEA sees global coal consumption steady until 2023 — McCloskey Coal Report
  • China uncertainty to weigh on 2019 thermal coal markets
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • South Africa Oct coal output steady on year at 22.7Mt
    — McCloskey Coal Report
  • S. Africa exports hit 14-month high above 8Mt in November — Platts CTI
  • White House sends EPA chief nomination to Senate as shutdown drags on
    — S&P Global Platts
  • Coal - king for another day — Mining Mirror
  • Late Eskom exec Mark van der Riet: How State Capture turned murderous
    — BizNews.com
  • Indian thermal coal buyers return for South African coal in December
    — Platts CTI
  • Demand low in CIF ARA thermal coal market amid high stocks — Platts CTI
  • Global coal demand set to remain stable through 2023, despite headwinds
    — International Energy Agency
  • The IPCC dismissed natural climate change risks
  • Business chamber asks Nersa to stop all new IPPs — Moneyweb
  • Jarrett: EPA proposal could cut coal emissions and boost fuel diversity
    — Farmington Daily Times
  • EPA Pushes for More Coal-Fired Power Under the Trump Administration
    — The Charleston Chronicle
  • Another climate summit means more expensive, ineffective promises
    — Bjørn Lomborg
  • Focus on climate change draws resources best used elsewhere
    — Bjørn Lomborg
  • Truth is the First Casualty of Global Warming — Bjørn Lomborg
  • FOB Richards Bay trade at $94/mt — Platts CTI
  • SA Nov thermal coal exports rise 13% on year to 7.9Mt: customs — Platts CTI
  • Futures tumble — Platts CTI
  • CIF ARA thermal coal market starts 2019 down 5 cents — Platts CTI

2018 archive

 

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