Can the world run on renewable energy? A revised negative case

Ted Trainer (School of Social Sciences, University of NSW, Sydney, Australia)

Humanomics

ISSN: 0828-8666

Publication date: 17 May 2013

Abstract

Purpose

The discussion of climate change and energy problems is generally based on the assumption that technical solutions are possible and that the task is essentially to determine the most effective ways. This view relies heavily on the expectation that renewable energy sources can be substituted for fossil fuels. The purpose of this paper is to improve on an earlier attempt to estimate the investment cost that would be involved in deriving total world energy supply from renewable sources.

Design/methodology/approach

This discussion improves on an earlier attempt to estimate the investment cost that would be involved in deriving total world energy supply from renewable sources. It takes common assumptions re future energy demand and estimates of future output and capital costs of major renewable energy sources and explores four strategies for supplying global energy demand in 2050.

Findings

This paper finds that the greenhouse and energy problems cannot be solved by action on the supply side, i.e. by technical developments which promise to provide quantities taken for granted in energy‐intensive societies. This general “limits to growth” perspective is that these and the other major global problems can only be solved by action on the demand side, i.e. by moving to ways, values, institutions and systems which greatly reduce the need for materials, energy and ecological resources.

Research limitations/implications

Confidence in the conclusions is limited mainly by the lack of evidence at this point in time on the actual difficulties set by the problem of integrating the intermittent sources, and the resulting need for redundant plant.

Practical implications

Each of the four strategies explored requires large amounts of redundant plant to be able to cope with the intermittency problem. Each leads to total system capital costs which are well beyond affordable levels.

Social implications

The findings add to the general “limits to growth” case that solutions to the global energy and other sustainability problems cannot be achieved within consumer‐capitalist society but must be sought via dramatic reductions in production, consumption and GDP. This would require radical system change from the commitment to growth, market systems and affluent lifestyles, to what is described as The Simpler Way.

Originality/value

It does not seem that this approach has previously been taken to the specific issue of the potential and limits of renewable energy. Little or no attention has been given to the thesis that global sustainability and justice require transition to some kind of Simpler Way.

Keywords

Citation

Trainer, T. (2013), "Can the world run on renewable energy? A revised negative case", Humanomics, Vol. 29 No. 2, pp. 88-104. https://doi.org/10.1108/08288661311319166

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Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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