Green Energy Will Not Save Us

Renewables are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for emissions reduction.

A solar powered oil well might sound like an organic cigarette, or a low-calorie cyanide pill, but they exist and this kind of absurdity is why we’re not getting out of this mess.

Green tech bros are just tech bros are just bros are just generalised assholes.*

In this post I will illustrate the following:

  • Cutting emissions requires reducing demand/ consumption of energy as well as changing sources of supply.
  • Renewable energy businesses are businesses, profit-seeking entities as opposed to disinterested advocates for people and the environment. In many cases they are financially entwined with the same entities and industrial processes responsible for GHG emissions, either through direct ownership or financial contracting.
  • The predominance of ‘clean energy’ within the enviro discourse reflects co-option of that discourse by said profit-seeking entities. 

This information gives rise to certain concrete demands/proposals, namely:

  • Emissions reduction must be established as a goal independent of renewables
  • Government must cease subsidising fossil fuel extraction via ‘green’ power
  • ‘Green’ energy companies must divest from fossil fuels; and
  • The Australian environmental movement needs to divest from the WWF, an organisation which systematically deploys paramilitaries to murder Indigenous people.

Renewables aren’t enough

It would be nice if we could fix climate change by doing everything we’re doing but with different power sources but unfortunately that doesn’t work. Within states and internationally the penetration of renewable energy has been rapidly increasing while emissions either flatline or continue to rise (but mostly rise).  

It gets clearer (and bleaker) when you compare individual countries. If you’ve worked in the sector you’ve probably heard how Germany is leading the ‘Energiewende’ (energy transition) with 38% renewable generation. By contrast Pakistan has less than 9% renewables. But from the actual emissions data, in 2017 Germany emitted 797 Mt of C02 or 9.7t per person while the Pakistan figures are 197 Mt and 1.0t respectively. Germany, then, is emitting about 4x more on in total and 10x on a per capita basis.

(I chose these countries essentially at ‘rich world/ poor world’ random, but you could do lots of similar pairings – Norway and Sri Lanka, for instance. This hasn’t stopped white enviros from blaming climate change on brown people for having the temerity to exist.)

The numbers fluctuate but the overall picture is clear. Installing green energy isn’t enough by itself to cut emissions. What’s going on?

There is no truly zero emissions power.

Entropy sucks and ‘clean’ energy is a misnomer. Over their lifecycle, even the ‘greenest’ technologies generate emissions and other impacts. Renewables are better than fossil fuels but in no way are they environmentally cost-free.

Materials for constructing solar panels and wind turbines have to be mined and refined and the machines themselves made and transported. This is done using oil and gas burning equipment, generating GHG. The extraction process creates vicious localised environmental and health consequences, which disproportionately fall on poor and Indigenous people.

Solar and wind are intermittent power sources – they are only available when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Maintaining availability at other times requires a mix of strategies, such as using storage technologies such as batteries (which themselves have an emissions footprint), building overcapacity of renewables in different areas then using transmission infrastructure to transport the energy over long distances, and deploying ‘firming’ capacity at times when renewables are not available. At present there are no zero emissions options for this capacity, which mostly takes the form of gas, nuclear and coal.

To cut emissions in a way that will meaningfully address climate change we need to use less energy. This will take some combination of greater efficiency and just producing/consuming less stuff – which, in terms of both technology and justice, is totally feasible. Within and across borders, energy consumption is highly wasteful and unfairly distributed. I, for one, am surrounded by useless shit I don’t need and actively don’t want.

The relative absence of this demand from movements like the Climate Strike reflects, I believe, the extent to which the enviro discourse has been co-opted under capitalism. Renewable energy is a thing you can sell. Selling less stuff is not.

Speaking of, renewable energy businesses are capitalists. This isn’t a slur, it’s a description: they invest in assets and seek finance to generate returns. Their business is selling electricity. They will not tell you to use less of it, even though that is something we desperately need to do.

‘Green’ energy should not be at the centre of the climate movement

In the sense of ownership, investment and incentives, there is no hard line between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ energy. Many of the same entities that own/benefit from fossil fuels also have a stake in renewables, either via direct ownership or financial contracting arrangements.

‘Green’ energy is used to directly power the extraction and supply of fossil fuels. Some of this comes via subsidy from government. In 2018-19 ARENA, the Australian renewables funding agency, gave oil company Santos $4.2 million to pump crude oil using solar and batteries. The justification was that if the oil pumps ran on solar, they would use slightly less oil… in the process of extracting oil to be exported and burned, producing vast quantities of CO2. In 2018 Santos was responsible for 17.7 Mt of emissions – more than Ethiopia, a country of 112 million people.

The ARENA people seem pretty happy with themselves, they have plans to keep doing this. “This project… provides a test case for deployment to thousands of other sites in the Australian oil and gas sector,” said Mr Darren Miller, the CEO. (I have come across more people called Darren in the energy industry than women of colour in totality).

ARENA is also funding/collaborating with the WWF, an organisation that systematically hires paramilitaries to murder Indigenous people worldwide.

Incidentally, GetUp sent me an email the other day asking me to help save ARENA being defunded. While I still think it’s better for ARENA to exist than not, there need to be conditions on support. Asking a renewables agency to divest from fossil fuels and also, well, murderers feels a bit like leaving a note for your housemate not to shit on the carpet. But, here we are.

Renewable energy companies are financially intertwined with high-polluting industrial users via energy derivative contracts.  

Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) are typically long-term contracts between an electricity generator and a buyer that pays for a quantity of energy produced. PPAs can entail the physical delivery of energy, as with (say) solar panels installed on site. Or, they can be purely financial arrangements where the user still sources energy from the grid but exchanges payments with the generator based on the price and quantity of electricity.

Large industrial users often sign PPAs with ‘green’ power businesses to hedge against fluctuations in future prices, caused by the changing balance between supply and demand for electricity. Green power businesses derive revenue from these contracts, which are often a condition for ‘green’ projects getting off the ground. This enables more renewables to be installed, but also constrains the industry from advocating for goals like emissions reduction, which would go against their clients’ interests.

It all gets quite complicated but the point is PPAs give renewables a stake in the ongoing solvency/success of the other party to the contract as well as an interest in maintaining good relationships both publicly and privately. Solar farms can’t lead a movement against climate change when they are getting revenue from high-polluting clients like steel manufacturer Bluescope – which has lobbied heavily against a carbon tax and other mechanisms to reduce emissions.

Greenwashing, co-option, a Venn diagram of bad

Investing in ‘green’ energy can be a deferral tactic against other, more costly (but potentially more effective) strategies for emissions reduction such as closing mines and fossil fuel plants and pricing carbon.

This year Molycop, a mining manufacturer, signed a long term solar/wind PPA with Flow Power, an energy retailer with mixed portfolio of renewables and non-renewables. An additional incentive was that Flow Power brokered access to ARENA support via the ‘demand response’ program (quite technical, won’t explain here but this a rock on which many consciences have foundered).

Molycop recently won an ‘environmental excellence’ award from this PPA. It has lobbied to be exempted from prospective obligations to reduce emissions.

Jamie McDyre, the general manager of Flow Power, is currently running for a board position at the Clean Energy Council, an industry group with lots of pictures of skies on their website. Curiously, reducing emissions isn’t listed as one of the Council’s goals – although ‘standing up for the industry’, ‘increasing demand’ and ‘growing the sector’ are.

Thinking about this makes me very, very tired.

What we can do?

To use the technical term shit is just so obviously fucked up and bullshit but it’s probably better to know about it than not.

Emissions reduction needs to be a goal above, and independent of, ‘green’ energy. Focusing explicitly on cutting emissions yields better results than just building renewables for their own sake. This needs to be reflected in messaging by the Climate Strike and any other climate movement. Ultimately renewables are (part of) the means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.

Stop subsidising fossil fuels via renewables. ARENA needs to cut this crap out and so does any other government agency/ non-profit/ NGO. There are lots of opportunities for public engagement with ARENA incidentally, they hold ‘Insights’ forums a couple of times a year in Melbourne and Sydney which you can register to attend.    

Divest from fossil fuels. Green energy should not support the extraction and supply of fossil fuels, either by directly powering this activity or by helping fossil fuel investors manage their financial and reputational risk.

Divest from murderers. It’s not a subtle point but the WWF should not be welcome anywhere in the environmental movement.

NEXT POST! I’ll look at the bureaucratic morass surrounding energy regulation, how this blocks action on climate, and stuff we could do about that.

*Further elaboration in future post.

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