We're creating a first-of-its kind planning product with two main parts: a Biophysical Analysis and an Action Plan.
The Biophysical Analysis will examine which renewable energy technologies are viable given the widely overlooked constraints shaping an all-renewable energy landscape; how much net energy those technologies can deliver, and in what form; and what those energy supplies will mean for population sizes, infrastructure, and way of life. We'll do this by analyzing existing data and consulting Subject Matter Experts as necessary.
This analysis will then inform a holistic Action Plan containing policy and other recommendations for the transformation that all levels of society can pursue.
The widely overlooked constraints shaping an all-renewable energy landscape include:
Less than 20% of total energy consumption is in the form of electricity; the rest is in the form of liquid fuels used for transportation and heat. Solar panels, wind turbines, hydro, and nuclear only produce electricity.
The energy return on energy invested (EROI) of renewable technologies. A minimum threshold must be met for a technology to even be viable, and a greater threshold must be met for the technology to accommodate energy-consuming activities that characterize modern life.
The dwindling supply of metals - widely depleted throughout the Industrial Age - that go into building renewable and storage technologies, along with the ecological impacts of mining and recycling them.
The energy inputs required to mine and transport those metals.
The feasibility of generating the high temperatures required for all manufacturing processes - including those that fabricate renewables - in the absence of fossil fuels.
The enormous toxicity of manufacturing processes (solar panels, for example, often dubbed "clean and green," use and produce highly toxic substances).
The energy required to transport and install renewable technologies (large wind turbines, for example, require huge fossil-fueled cranes - that can't be powered electrically - to be erected).
The efficiency, age, and ecological impacts of hydroelectric dams, with implications for modifications and/or closures.
The feasibility of generating liquid fuels in a post-Green Revolution agricultural world.
This research does not aim to micro-design a one-size-fits-all future. Rather, it will focus on biophysical constraints that will inform the broad form social-ecological systems can take, out of which many possibilities can emerge.
While our work will initially focus on the U.S., the research and its end product are nearly universal. The Biophysical Analysis is global in scope, and the political section of the Action Plan can be geared towards any nation or region.
The first phase of our research looks at the widely overlooked limitations of the renewable energy technologies commonly put forth as solutions.
This examination shows that RE cannot deliver the same quantity and quality of energy as fossil fuels, that the espoused technologies are not renewable, and that producing them – particularly mining their metals and discarding their waste – entails egregious social injustices.
We conclude that that the narrative of business-as-usual with a technological fix is not possible and that scale-back, transformation, and a re-assessment of RE options is needed.