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All that Glitters Isn’t Green. Or Renewable.

Green energy, green cars, green jobs, green policies, cleaner and greener – notice how everything green is good?   Today, “green” is not just a colour, it is a synonym for “good”; as is “renewable”.  But all that glitters isn’t green. Or renewable.

The problem with our obsession with green and renewable is that they are never defined.  These loose, borderless categories mistakenly include, and exclude, a lot of different things.  The loose language permits governments, when it is politically expedient, to treat energy technologies as green/renewable when they are clearly not. The European Union recently did this, labelling gas and nuclear electricity generation “green”.  But, if we really care about the global environment we need to look through the green and renewable slogans to see what lies underneath.

Green

Green as an Obedience Button

Today, “green” is being used as a political obedience button.  When government ministers say that their proposed policy is green they are pushing your green button to turn on your obedience algorithm.    We are expected to agree, without closely examining the proposed law or policy. After all, how could it be bad if it’s green?  We are not expected to ask “green in comparison to what?”  Or “green at what cost, to whom?”  If you were to ask these questions it is unlikely that government officials would provide any useful answers. 

Presenting oneself as a green leader, fighting to save the planet from the “climate crisis” is a source of political power, money and social acclaim.  The political benefit of this panic-generating strategy is to convert scientific and economic issues into moral and tribal issues.  The virtuous are on “our” side, clean green, so join us and be good too.

American and Canadian politicians exaggerate the dangers of climate change and then, egotistically, pretend that they are the leaders in fighting the planetary crisis.  Sorry, America, at a mere 13% of global CO2 emissions you aren’t the planet and you can’t do much to fix it. Sorry Canada, you are roughly 1/10 as able to affect planetary climate change as are the Americans. 

At a long string of global climate conferences (number 26 was recently held in Glasgow) we see displays of green ego competition among politicians, to out-promise each other on being more green, without any discernible reduction in emissions over the decades. Greta Thunberg was right to call this just “blah, blah, blah.”

Green Jobs

In the rapid transition to net-zero pledged by Western countries we are usually promised a “just transition” from fossil fuel jobs to “clean green jobs”.  What is a green job?  There is no definition, which is why government promises of such jobs will be virtually impossible to verify.

In the US, when the Obama administration was enthusiastically praising its record in creating green jobs, the definitions used for green jobs, when exposed, became hilarious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0IQ_vI9WZ0

The government agency doing the classification admitted that it would have described an employee of a used bookstore or of an antique store as having a clean green job because their work involved recycling; likewise, a cleaner in a school mopping the floor had a clean green job.  Of course, these or similar employees may well have been doing this same work for decades.  But they were only classified as green employees when it became politically desirable to give the impression that the incumbent administration had “created” millions of new green jobs. These were supposed to replace the two to three times greater number of jobs lost through cancelling pipelines and off-shoring to China and India manufacturing jobs that weren’t “green” enough.

Green as a Sign of Corporate Virtue

 Pressing our green button is profitable, and not just for politicians.  When a corporation announces that it already has, or soon will have net-zero emissions of CO2 people think that it has achieved this through restructuring its operations. But usually it is either through off-shoring production (and the resulting emissions), or purchasing “carbon credits” or other financial investments, while its operations, wherever located, continue to emit CO2 at almost the same level. 

As just one example, in late 2021, Delta Airlines announced at https://news.delta.com/update-our-path-net-zero:

“Last year, we became the first carbon neutral airline on a global basis.”

Really, in just one year?  So since 2020 have Delta’s planes stopped burning jet fuel?  Are they battery powered? Well, no, their announcement goes on to say, it’s still just a commitment:

“We’re committed to carbon neutrality from March 2020 onward, balancing our emissions with investments to remove carbon across our global operations.“

How do you balance two dissimilar things, emissions and investments? How much “carbon” can Delta “remove” across its global operations, from March 2020 onward, while still flying jet aircraft?  The answers to these questions exceed my understanding.

 Why are bankers and other business leaders competing to present themselves as leaders in fighting climate change?  Perhaps because in the competition for climate change virtue signalling a business can’t afford to appear less virtuous than its competitors.

Delta tells us:

“Our commitment to carbon neutrality is rooted in the idea that our customers shouldn’t have to choose between seeing the world and saving the world.”

So if you fly with Delta – the first carbon neutral airline – instead of using another airline flying the same aircraft to the same destination, you are not only seeing the world you are saving it. But if you fly with another airline you aren’t saving the world.  The world may perish unless you save it by flying with Delta.  Too bad United, Air Canada and all the other airlines.

“Green” as a Useless Distinction

In a recent Fraser Institute video interview host Danielle Smith asked her guest, Lynne Kiesling of the University of Colorado-Denver, whether hydroelectric generation is “green”.  The answer was “yes” and “no”.  It is green in the sense that water flowing over a dam emits no CO2.  But it has some harmful environmental impacts.

Kiesling’s answer demonstrates that whether hydroelectric generation is labelled “green” doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t tell us what the project does or doesn’t do to the local environment.  A better question would be: “If a new hydroelectric generating station was to be built at location X, what would be its positive and negative environmental impacts?”  There is no need to use the word “green” in asking or answering this question.

Because we associate the colour green with grass, leaves and plants, it fosters warm emotions.  But our love of “green” tells us nothing about whether any particular energy technology has acceptable environmental costs and benefits, when compared with alternative technologies.  Let’s lose the greenspeak and start talking about what is actually happening.

Renewables

What Are Renewables?

What are renewables?  Whatever you want them to be, it seems. 

Hydroelectric generation is sometimes classed as renewable even though nothing is actually renewed.  It is just water flowing downhill and through electricity generator turbines.  The same can be said of wind or solar generation: when the wind blows fast enough the turbine blades rotate, but the wind is not renewed by humans, any more than humans renew the sun when it shines.  It would be more accurate to describe the common characteristic of all three types of generation as non-CO2 emitting.  There is no need to use the word “renewable” in discussing the positive and negative impacts of these technologies. 

Renewables Have a Very Limited Role

Supply

Fossil fuels still dominate the global energy supply.  In 2019 (prior to the impact of the pandemic) 84 percent of primary energy came from oil, gas and coal: bp Statistical Review of World Energy 2020.  Renewables provided 5.0 percent, hydro 0.3 percent and nuclear 4.3 percent. 

In Canada in 2019, 87 percent of primary energy supply, some of which was exported, came from oil, gas and coal: statcan.gc.ca

Demand/Consumption

Of all the energy sources Canadians consumed in 2018, electricity represented only about 20 percent. Oil and oil products and natural gas totalled 71 percent, biomass 6 percent and all other 3 percent: nrcan.gc.ca/ at p. 43

Canada’s electrical generation by fuel type in 2018 was only 5 percent from wind, and from total renewables, only 7 percent. The rest came from hydro, nuclear and fossil fuels: nrcan.gc.ca/ at p. 58.  7 percent of 20 percent is 1.4 percent – the total contribution of wind and solar to total Canadian energy consumption. 

Wind and Solar Generation Also Have Adverse Environmental Impacts

Wind and solar energy, like all other energy sources, have some adverse effects on the environment. For wind and solar these include:

  • China dominates the global manufacturing of wind and solar generation equipment, by using a lot of inexpensive, heavily emitting coal
  • Solar panels make extensive use of scarce minerals
  • Wind generators require massive concrete bases and steel towers creating heavy emissions from concrete and steel-making with coal
  • The low energy density of these technologies requires covering huge amounts of land
  • Wind turbines kill numerous birds and bats
  • Both solar panels and wind turbines create huge amounts of un-recyclable waste

Burning Trees is Treated As Renewable

Another renewable is “biomass”, a name few people understand.  Although biomass includes a variety of technologies such as energy from waste, the vast majority of biomass is wood pellets, burned to generate heat and electricity. 

For example, the Drax facility in the UK burns wood pellets imported from the US, Canada, the UK and Brazil.  Making wood pellets starts with a large, diesel powered machine that chops down trees, then diesel powered trucks transport the logs to a facility using fossil fuels to manufacture the wood pellets.  The pellets are carried by diesel powered rail or truck to a port, where a diesel powered ship transports them to the UK.  According to the Yale Environment 360 newsletter, burning wood pellets releases as much or even more CO2 per unit of energy as burning coal.  So why are these cumulatively large emissions encouraged?  Simply because through a definitional loophole, burning trees has been treated as renewable, and anything renewable is treated as good.

In theory, when trees are cut down others can be replanted, but the theory has problems.  First, the replacement trees are not the same natural mix of species as found in a forest, they are usually rapidly growing trees of a single species, a monoculture that requires lots of insecticides (which can get into the soil and water) to avoid crop losses from pests.  Second, the seedlings take decades to reach sufficient height, when they are again harvested for combustion.  With biomass, the generic label “renewable” actually facilitates more emissions and greater damage to mature forests and their wildlife, the very opposite of the purpose of the environmental policy.

The European Union’s “Taxonomy” Trick

In the last few months there has been an escalating energy crisis in Europe.  This is largely caused by having shut down many nuclear and gas plants, while creating excessive reliance on wind generation. Then the wind stopped blowing for an extended time. This required replacing the lost wind generation with gas generation. But this spike in gas demand caused a huge spike in gas prices.  It also increased European dependence on gas from Russia.  With Russia strategically limiting its gas exports to Europe, several countries have had to burn more coal to keep the lights on:  bloomberg.com/europe-forced-to-rely-on-expensive-dirty-coal-to-keep-lights-on.  Coal emits approximately twice the amount of CO2 as gas.   

After much debate, the European Union, desperate to increase its electricity supply without burning even more coal, changed its green “taxonomy” to treat both nuclear and gas generation as “green” for investment purposes. 

But nuclear technology uses uranium, a limited resource that is not renewable.  Likewise, natural gas, another limited resource, is no more renewable than coal.  These governments try to conceal the obvious political game: last year nuclear and gas were dangerous and dirty, this year they are green.  What has changed? Only the taxonomy.

Increasing Reliance While Decreasing Reliability

Reliable electricity is essential to our lives.  The European energy crisis well illustrates what happens when countries excessively increase their reliance on an intermittent, weather dependent generation technology while decreasing the overall reliability of their electricity systems. If more than a certain percent of electricity generation (around 33-50 percent, depending on the system) uses wind and solar technologies, then fossil fuel or nuclear backup will be essential to keep the electricity flowing when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.  Without that backup everything stops working: furnaces and air conditioners, refrigerators, gas pumps, electric vehicles, computers, phones and lights.

The Impacts of Widespread Use of Electric Vehicles

As but one example of “clean green” policy, consider the electric vehicle. EVs will become the only vehicles permitted to be sold in Canada and some other countries after 2035. The energy that comes down the wire to charge an EV is zero emitting, unlike what comes out the tailpipe from an internal combustion engine.  But that’s only one impact of many.  There are some questions about:

1.  The environmental impact of the vehicle itself

(i) How is the electricity to charge the battery generated?  If, as in some places, it is mostly generated with coal or gas, you have a fossil-powered car that uses batteries to store the fossil-generated electricity.  (ii) How are the 1,000 lbs of batteries in the car manufactured?  Probably by using fossil-fuelled earthmoving equipment in China or Africa, to move tons of earth to extract the small amounts of useful minerals and chemicals that go into the battery.  (iii) What will happen to the price of some of these scarce battery materials (the supply of which China largely controls) as more EVs are being manufactured and as older EV batteries have to be replaced?  (iv) How will these billions of large, heavy batteries be recycled or disposed of in landfills?

2.  Its impact on your neighbourhood electricity supply

 EVs require high voltage chargers for quick charging. The wires that bring electricity to your home and those of your neighbours were designed and built for the much lower electricity demand prior to EVs. As more EVs are charged in your area the capacity of the wires system may be overloaded.  Engineers at EPCOR, the large Edmonton-based electric and water utility, conducted a study of the impact of EVs: Epcor stakeholder presentations, and concluded, at slide 14, that:

  • Just a single EV can overload a standard service transformer
  • A small number of EVs could lead to circuit overloads

To charge more than a small number of EVs would, long before 2035, require rebuilding the entire local distribution system of every municipal and provincial electricity distribution system. That would take decades and cost billions.  This rebuilding has not even started.  Thus, EVs create the risk of pitting neighbour against neighbour when your neighbours’ EVs charging causes your electricity to become unreliable.  

As EVs become more common, the problem will not be limited to the “wires” part of the system.  We will also need a very large increase in electrical generation capacity.  This additional capacity will take decades to construct, and cost many billions, but has not yet begun: electric-vehicle-considerations-for-canada/

Canadian and other governments’ policies on EVs have it backwards.  The generating and distributing capacity should be built, or at least started to be built, before we have a lot of EVs that will need charging.  Under current policy our government will, before 2035, induce, if not coerce, millions of Canadians to buy EVs. These new EV owners will then be frustrated because they won’t be able to charge them whenever they want, if at all.

Adding intermittent wind and solar generation and escalating carbon taxes will rapidly increase the cost of electricity, escalating the cost of charging an EV. Eventually, electricity system operators or local distribution utilities will have to limit EV charging, to keep the lights on for everyone else.  EV owners won’t be happy.  Neither will anyone else.

Look Behind The Labels

Real environmental leaders don’t promote empty slogans like “clean green jobs” or “Build Back Better “. If, as a country, Canadians are serious about environmental protection, we must stop using the “green” and “renewable” labels and examine the pros and cons of the various forms of energy on their merits, including their overall environmental impacts, their reliability and their cost. 

If all fossil fuels are to be phased out to net-zero by 2050, all of our heating, lighting, transportation and manufacturing will have to become 100% electrical in just 28 years.  Western countries all promise to do this, without ever explaining how.  When it comes to admitting that the pursuit of net-zero has to be balanced with economic and social realities, perhaps the most honest government is China:  xi-jinping-says-climate-targets-can’t-compromise-energy-security

As both the Chinese and the European experience has recently demonstrated, energy security is critical, and can’t be pushed aside by political climate targets.  The US and Canada are perhaps a decade behind the Europeans in shifting to wind and solar generation, and haven’t yet learned the EU’s reliability lesson the hard way.  That’s why, when “The Great Reset” to net-zero in the US and Canada inevitably runs into a brick wall, we will see “The Great U-Turn” back to nuclear and gas.  Of course it won’t be called that, it will be called a change in taxonomy.

10 replies »

  1. This is an excellent discussion of the taxonomy (the practice and science of categorization and classification, for those like me who had to look it up) of environmentalists’ storylines. Few energy sources are truly “renewable” and none are without adverse environmental effects, but fortunately the economic benefits to society usually far outweigh the adverse environmental effects. The alleged jobs benefits of wind and solar are especially exaggerated by proponents. According to studies done in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and other countries in Europe that added costly wind and solar power generation, the jobs lost in the broader economy due to increased electricity rates were two to three times larger that the ones created by the subsidies. In Ontario, the higher electricity rates caused by the Green Energy Act caused the loss of 75,000 industrial jobs.

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  2. The change in taxonomy reminds me of a perhaps apocryphal story about a federally mandated school lunch program for poor kids in the U.S. It specified that the lunch serving had to include two vegetables. Eventually reality set in and the program bosses had to accept that French fries with ketchup would count as the two vegetables.

    The EV proponents need to remember that you can’t use the same electricity twice. That is, you can’t be charging an EV from a windmill during a low-load time while running those same Watt-hours into a grid-storage battery or pumped water reservoir. The other thing you can’t do is use customers’ EV batteries to back up the grid during a period where the wind doesn’t blow. If you do, those EV owners will come out in the morning to find their EVs are flat. Sure, the utility will pay them for it but if someone needs to get to work and her car has been discharged, she won’t be mollified by a few bucks of a rebate on her electricity bill. The process is also not very efficient: you have to discharge a lot of batteries to fuel the grid. To charge an EV, the AC from the lines is rectified in the car to DC for the battery. If you want to go the other way, the pure smooth DC from the car battery has to be “inverted” to AC to sync with the lines. Each step entails heat losses, particularly the inversion to feed the grid. (If you change your money sequentially into many foreign currencies and eventually back to Canadian, you find that you don’t have very much left — most of it has gone to Forex.)

    The capital cost of expanding the local electricity service to keep neighbours from sabotaging each other’s EVs ought to be born by EV owners, not electricity customers in general. Non-drivers don’t have to pay the costs of building gas stations and maintaining fleets of gasoline tanker trucks to supply them — that’s captured in the retail price of gasoline that drivers pay.

    Finally, EV owners are not paying gasoline taxes. I don’t mean carbon taxes, I mean the old-fashioned gas taxes that in the U.S. are earmarked for road repair. They should be paying the same “driving tax” as gasoline and diesel cars do, else the government will have to find the revenue somewhere else. If you figure out the energy per km for both types of car, you will find that the tax per kW-hr for EV owners should exceed the current meter price of electricity. This cost must be borne by EV drivers, not by all electricity customers regardless of whether they drive or not. I should not have to pay a driving tax to heat my house, especially since in the Net-Zero world I am going to have to use electricity for almost everything.

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  3. Without CO2 there would be no green plants on earth. It is well documented by satellite image analysis that rising CO2 levels have resulted in significant increase in green land cover worldwide.

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  4. ‘Green’ also represents edible things, and edible things are construed as non-toxic (notwithstanding some edible things are toxic to those with allergies, sensitivities, and various individual disease/dietary constraints).

    If something is toxic, it must be removed or cleansed. Hence, you’ll note a proliferation of ‘detoxifying’ diets (e.g. organic, paleo, etc). What is ‘good’ for the individual becomes conflated with what is ‘good’ for the plant. E.g. eat organic (vegan, etc) to detoxify your body and the environment. Two senses of the word ‘good’ are used to conflate biological and moral categories.

    ‘Toxic” is the Oxford dictionary 2018 word of the year: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/15/toxic-is-oxford-dictionary-2018-word-of-the-year.html

    Oil is of course an organic substance, comprised (as a crude explanation, pardon the pun) of decayed living organisms. But it’s construed as toxic to people and the planet, and is conflated with moral categories such as greed (a moral contaminant, which only makes sense if some people are contaminated). Hence a ‘green’ diet is prescribed to cleanse (purify) body and ‘soul’ from this great evil. But some medicines are as bad or worse than the ‘disease’.

    Some things are green, but are indeed toxic to eat. Rhubarb leaves. Hence a wise person or Shaman is required to discern and teach others to avoid consuming this part of the plant, and to eat the part of the plant that is safe. But rhubarb leaves are no wise evil, and in fact it’s stalks (which might not be to everyone’s taste) are part of what one might consume as a whole-food detoxifying diet. Such is the case with most things we use, oil included.

    Anyway. I just wanted to push on the concept of ‘green’ a little farther. I’m supposed to be packing for the weekend! I leave off with the thought that it’s not hard to see how good/evil/toxic (contaminants)/purification are neatly embedded in theological narratives, a tendency of homo-religioso which is well exploited by rhetoricians. (A tendency even the most staunch atheist will not overcome! — I’ll add an example when we’re back home.)

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  5. *”What is ‘good’ for the individual becomes conflated with what is ‘good’ for the plant.” — I meant what is good for the “planet”. (And what is ‘good’ for the planet becomes, unreflectively, good for others. Pressing on all the good-for ‘whos’ and ‘hows’ tends to denote this rhetoric. Fallacies of composition abound in these narratives.)

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