Report: Energy Remains As “Dirty” As Ever Despite Rise Of Renewable Energy

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[Source: Wikipedia]

[Source: Wikipedia]

With all the news about wind farms, record-breaking solar power stations, and burgeoning sales of hybrid-electric vehicles one could be forgiven for actually thinking that renewable energies were actually making our energy cleaner. They haven’t. A new report from the International Energy Agency shows that, despite the rapid spread of renewable technologies, the energy produced today is just as “dirty” as it was 20 years ago.

The Clean Energy Ministerial first convened in 2009 with the goal of bringing together world leaders to promote clean energy technology. Twenty-two countries participate in the CEM. Because these countries account for 75 percent of the world’s energy consumption, they are powerfully positioned to drive a global transition to cleaner energy.

But in a recent speech to the Clean Energy Ministerial, International Energy Agency Executive Director, Maria van der Hoeven, had some bad news: “The drive to clean up the world’s energy system has stalled. Despite much talk by world leaders, and despite a boom of renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago.”

The report lists three areas for which it gauged progress: (1) Technology penetration: how much are clean energy technologies being used? (2) Market creation: what is being done to foster the necessary markets? (3) Technology developments: how are individual technologies performing?

Renewable energy like wind energy has spread rapidly in recent years, but dependence on carbon remains, largely due to government subsidies. [Source: Wikipedia]

Renewable energy like wind energy has spread rapidly in recent years, but dependence on carbon remains, largely due to government subsidies. [Source: Wikipedia]

Renewable energy like wind energy has spread rapidly in recent years, but dependence on carbon remains, largely due to government subsidies. To track clean energy progress, the report introduces a metric called the Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index (ESCII), which measures how much tons of carbon dioxide is emitted for each unit of energy supplied. In 1990 the ESCII was 2.39 tons of CO2 per ton of oil equivalent; in 2010 that number was 2.37.

Twenty Earth Days down the drain...or gas tank.

The report showed that progress for the majority of technologies that could save energy or reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But it also showed that, between 2011 and 2012, wind energy grew by 19 percent and solar voltaic energy grew by 42 percent, and that China, Brazil and India are coupling their surging economies with policies that foster renewable technologies. Also reassuring are the sales of hybrid-electric vehicles which passed the one million mark in 2012. In the same time electric vehicle sales doubled, reaching 110,000 worldwide.

Global energy demand is expected to increase by 25 percent over the next decade, according to the report. Partly in response to this, many emerging economies are introducing or toughening their energy efficiency regulations. But van der Hoeven mentioned that while many countries are improving the fuel economy of their passenger vehicles, standards between countries still vary widely.

Natural gas may be, in part, to blame for the continued reliance on coal. In recent years natural gas has experienced a revival in the United States due to technological advances – chiefly a new way of drilling called fracking. The boom in natural gas availability pushed natural gas prices down last year to a 10-year low in the US. But the drop in US demand for coal sparked a drop in the price of coal, which in turn sparked a shift in Europe where coal replaced much of the more expensive gas to supply power stations.

The IEA report ends with a series of recommendations to “set the clean energy transition in motion.” They want governments to set consumer prices to reflect the true cost of energy through carbon pricing and to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies. They also recommend developing more economic incentives for renewable technologies such as developing long-term policies that will motivate investors to switch from traditional energy sources to low-carbon technologies. Because as the Carbon Intensity index shows, you can have all the Earth Days you want, but if it doesn’t make economic sense, nobody’s going to want to do it.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 15 Responses

  • Edward Peschko April 30, 2013 on 9:43 pm

    this is no surprise to us who think that renewables are pretty much a big bubble/slam due to their inherent intermittency and large footprint – one which is touted as policy by those who have a vested interest in keeping carbon based fuels dominant. Which helps to explain the big FUD campaign against nuclear as well.

    I also see it very telling that the TRUE competition to carbon fuels isn’t mentioned here – nuclear power – as well any news about next generation reactors.

    Which is a real shame – it seems that some ‘future’ blogs have gotten SO seduced by renewables that they miss real advances in nuke power – the lowering of construction cost and increasing pace of nuke builds in china, the pursuit of alternate reactors (the DMSR of David LeBlanc and terrapower’s wave reactor come to mind).

    So – what gives? A quick google search shows all of 1 article on new nuclear tech (from norway, on thorium), as opposed to dozens at and Perhaps you could expand your horizons just a bit, no?

    • Bryan Seigneur Edward Peschko May 6, 2013 on 6:53 am

      “renewables are pretty much a big bubble/slam due to their … large footprint”

      I think all this nuke-loving among the grassroots might be a divide and conquer play by the fossil industry.

      The article said nothing about nukes being bad. The article suggested ending fossil subsidies and adding a fossil price. That’s as good for nukes as for renewables.

      Don’t get yourself wound up unless you think that nuclear can’t compete in the free market with renewables under a carbon price. Let’s join forces against what you **apparently** agree (but I’m not sure I believe you) is a common foe and push to end fossil subsidies and raise carbon prices. First things first. Let the market decide!

      • Edward Peschko Bryan Seigneur May 6, 2013 on 3:38 pm

        You’ve got to be kidding me – ‘nuke-loving among the grassroots’? People think with their guts so exclusively that in a disaster where 25000 people met their untimely end, the media concentrated 90% of their ink on fukushima, the nuke accident that didn’t kill anyone.

        As for competing fairly, I know nuclear can compete fairly – if you let market forces do their work and not make it so expensive by throttling it with regulation and tangle it in legal tape. Here’s a small history:

        Nukes grabbed 25% of the market share for electricity here in the US and 80% in france before the FUD campaign by the fossil fuel industry and environmental groups brought it to a screeching halt, and I find it deeply ironic that environmental groups are therefore in a large way responsible for the global warming crisis that we face.

        If we had just let science and good engineering do its thing, coal would have died off quickly. If we had let the market do its work, we’d be working on fourth generation nuclear plants and the energy issue would be a thing of the past. Instead, we let PR and thinking with our amygdala screw us up again, for the x millionth time in a row. We’ve gotta stop doing that.

        • Bryan Seigneur Edward Peschko May 7, 2013 on 2:16 pm

          I still wonder how much you think global warming is a crisis or that fossil fuels are a big problem. Surely nuclear requires a centralized, baseload paradigm even more than fossils.

          • Edward Peschko Bryan Seigneur May 7, 2013 on 11:30 pm

            well, ok, I’ll answer.

            a – yes fossil fuels are a big problem. Nevermind the depletion problem, the fight-over-resources problem, the habit of fossil fuels having price swings that can tank the economy, or the pollution/encroachment into habitat, and not even touching the global-warming-may-end-civilization-thing-as-we-know-it, there is the simple stark fact that fossil fuels cause approx 1 million deaths per year from particulates alone (source:

            2. no, nuclear doesn’t have to be completely centralized – there is lots of research in nuclear power plants into SMRs (or small modular reactors) which are typically in the 10-200 MW range and can fit onto the back of a truck. We already use nuclear power plants to power submarines for months on end – in close proximity with sailors and with no ill effects to crew – so its fairly far-fetched to think that we couldn’t build them that small for electricity.

            again, there’s been so much fear uncertainty and doubt thrown at nuclear that people’s knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss it out of hand. Its like flight since the late 1950’s; statistically, its the safest way to fly, but that doesn’t prevent thousands of people from avoiding it, going on cross-country trips instead, and lots of extra folks getting killed in accidents because of this. By our unthinking and uncritical fear of nukes – which are also statistically the safest way to generate power – we too are handing death warrants out to millions, and they tend to die slowly and painfully in the process from air pollution.

  • Marilyn Walker May 1, 2013 on 8:01 am

    Balancing financial incentives could go a long way toward cleaner energy. Incentivizing microgrids would be a huge step forward, particularly if combined with tariff structures that properly reward microgrid owners for using only excess power.

  • James Griffith May 1, 2013 on 5:48 pm

    Edward Peschko, one of us (maybe me) needs to read more closely. My take on the article was that the author was claiming that despite the fact that some of these renewables are better, cleaner, etc. and have great potential, it is policy, governance, and general incompetent economic management that prevents us from reaping the clean air benefits of these cleaner fuels.

    • Edward Peschko James Griffith May 1, 2013 on 8:10 pm


      … and I agree that’s a possibility (mismanagement), but I think its a remote one.

      Renewables have a couple of inherent strikes against them – they are not reliable, have inherent, low power density, and there is a high mismatch between this power density and where they are used. It is even worse for solar because – for large chunks of the earth – solar power isn’t available at all for large patches of the year. Germany, for example, had 32.3 GW of installed capacity, but only 600 MW – max – of ACTUAL OUTPUT in all of january. And, when it *does* generate large amounts of electricity, it dumps it on the grid, causing wide price swings and instabilities in markets.

      Hence, lots of people getting excited about cost/watt, when the true cost that they should look at is cost per *system*. Once you get too much unreliable generation capacity into your electricity supply costs go up – extra transmission lines need to be maintained, extra switching systems. Transmission lines have to be spec’d to handle the maximum capacity even though lots of the time those lines would be empty – which leads to co-opting dispatchable load like natural gas to take up the slack. And since the natural gas turbines need to spin up and down to handle the variability in load, they run lots more inefficiently. Which in turn increases cost.

      No, it may just be that renewables are the dead end that lots of indicators seem to point to. I wouldn’t stop the rollout because their is always a chance that a breakthrough in storage may happen and be scalable – but what gets my goat is those people who think that we should be putting ALL our eggs in this particular basket.

      Nukes are exceedingly safe, carbon-free, and the waste is a miniscule (almost non-problem). Yet otherwise tech-savvy people tend to dismiss them outright, as if solar was somehow the ‘newer’ technology and atomic plants were dinosaurs.

      Here’s a hint – the solar cell was first invented in 1883, and people have been using solar power for millenia. Wind turbines have been around just as long. Yet, we didn’t as a species truly develop until we got concentrated power in the form of coal and oil.

      Now we may just get there where wind/solar replace these, but my guess is that this ain’t gonna happen, at least not on earth. Solar based solar power may be another thing, there it is constant and high – about 1400 W/m^2, but again this is probably better implemented for providing power to space-based colonies, not to earth.

      My guess is that like it or not, our future is going to require a large helping of atomic power, one way or the other. The chinese are getting to the point where making atomic power plants is fairly straightforward and cheap. If we continue ignoring nuclear energy and renewable power doesn’t pan out, we could be in pretty deep trouble.

      • James Griffith Edward Peschko May 1, 2013 on 10:41 pm

        Well I agree with you that it makes sense to invest more time, energy, and research to nuclear energy, even if some of that energy and research is in advertising and education to assuage public fears about meltdowns.

        Meanwhile, it makes sense to simultaneously invest more time, energy, and research into working out the kinks of using renewables. As you probably know (you seem to know more about this than I do), some (like Siemens, in Germany) are considering compensating for fluctuations in generation from renewables by means of additional gas power plants and energy storage capacities. (Unfortunately, in Germany’s case, such considerations are happening as a result of the decision to eliminate their existing nuclear power production.)

        And, for the record, I think it is I, not you, who needs to read more closely, or at least to keep track of what I’m reading. I was reading two or three articles on this topic simultaneously, and I think I mixed up part of your comment with the comment of a reader of one of the other articles.

  • Che Mort May 8, 2013 on 12:10 pm

    BUNKUM once again. All research has shown that in the developed countries the amount of particulates has dropped dramatically across the board, If you use only carbon as your definition of “Dirty” you can get away with a fraud. Yet even that doesn’t work as since the US has switched to more natural gas use our carbon emissions are down over 20% in the last 10 years alone.

    Then let’s look at the fact that nuclear power was purposely derailed and any movement to put into play the new Gen IV reactors are blocked. We have been forced to be stuck with 1970’s technology and then we are regaled with how unsafe nuclear power is when one of these aging reactors has a problem. I don’t think a 1970s Buick is up to the safety and efficiency standards of a modern one, do you? Yet we are forced and coerced into keeping these old technologies alive as we cannot replace them with new reactors.

    All of this hand wringing and no solutions in sight due to this gangrenous idiotology.

    You want zero emissions and cleaner energy, go nuclear! Gen IV is ready to roll out, GEN V is in the wings. Yet we can’t as ninny nonsense and silly supercilious socialism rules the day.

  • davekimble May 18, 2013 on 6:26 pm

    The main problem with renewable technologies is their energy budgets. (The financial budgets also have to make sense, but that is already being done.)

    Consider solar PV. Before you can start making solar panels on a scale that makes a difference, you need many factories, and these are not your ordinary factories as they must be super-clean and highly temperature regulated, so need to be built from scratch using lots of energy. The factory then has to be equipped with lots of hi-tech machines, which all have to be built from raw materials and energy.

    Then you need to dig up and transport the raw materials to a refining centre using fossil-powered machinery. Silicon comes from the basic reaction: SiO2 + C => Si + CO2 . There many alternative reactions, but the inputs need to be made by spending energy, and the outputs need energy spent on them to make them environmentally benign, and Hess’s Law says that you can’t win by going a different chemical route.

    The energy spent up until now is largely fossil energy in various forms, which is fine if you have got it to spare, but with Peak Crude Oil already past, Peak All Liquids happening now, and Peak Coal in the near future, the future isn’t going to be at all like the past. Building new stuff is going to be very, very expensive and the old business models won’t work.

    The usual way of assessing technologies is with Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI), but this misses the timeframe in which EI and ER occur. The EI spent on building the factory occurs years before the first solar panels are actually installed and producing some ER. One would hope the factory would operate for 30 years, and its final production run will produce panels that hopefully will operate for 30 years, so some of the ER will lag the EI by 60 years.

    Now solar PV does make an energy profit eventually, but to start with it is all EI, and therefore needs energy support from something else – largely fossils. Moreover, if the rate of annual increase in the PV industry as a whole is faster than a certain limit, that fossil energy support needs to be continued until sufficient PV-making infrastructure is in place to power the world. These limits can be modeled using spreadsheets and various parameters tested, and this shows that in an energy-scarce world, you can’t complete a transition to solar PV (although you can start it) because you will run out of energy part way through.

    Solar PV is one of the worst technologies when assessed on ERoEI, and is even worse when the time factor is included, as so much of the EI occurs at the beginning. But the same problems apply to ALL technologies, even fossils. The one thing that fossil energy has going for it is that it has a lot of infrastructure, worth trillions of dollars, already in place, and that’s why it is hard to displace.

    • Edward Peschko davekimble May 24, 2013 on 3:05 pm


      I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’ve got to comment that your points about EROEI make an even STRONGER case for nuclear energy.

      One of the main problems that renewables face is that the grid has been designed to be centralized. All those trillions of dollars invested on something that expects large-scale, top-down distribution of energy. As you point out, renewables will – by their nature – require a huge up-ending of all this infrastructure, which will skyrocket costs.

      However, with nuclear power you can basically plug-and-play a CO2-free source into existing infrastructure, and it simply just works. Its why france was to go CO2 free with their electricity in 30 years, wheras denmark is stalled at 20-25%.

      And we aren’t even doing nuclear close to right. If we were smart, we’d just be converting the coal boilers so they generate electricity using nuclear-powered (rather than coal-powered) steam, and keeping the rest of the plant intact. The majority of the utility cost for coal-fired power is the fuel, and doing this would save utilities BILLIONS of dollars, as well as huge infrastructure headaches.

      Hell, if they wanted to, they could use the same coal trains to power Fischer-Tropsch conversion of coal to synthetic oil, using the same nuclear power, and gain billions of dollars more in oil profits to boot.

      So – don’t displace the infrastructure surrounding fossil fuels, *use* it. Converting everything to fission would let us do even more – like scrub the atmosphere for excess CO2, get rid of (almost all) mining, spur the development of fission based rockets, etc., etc., etc.

      Again, its criminal that our society has turned against atomic power – we owe it to ourselves to overcome our distaste for it.

      • davekimble Edward Peschko May 24, 2013 on 4:49 pm

        If I run the same kind of argument over nuclear, I get more or less the same result – the Energy Invested (EI) in the early stages are huge, and are spread out over maybe 10 years before the station comes on-line. Not all the Life Cycle EI is up front though. Some EI is spent on mining and refining the fuel, and a huge amount needs to be spent on waste disposal and decommissioning at the end of the life cycle – exactly how much is not known as it has never been done.

        We have lived through an age of energy plenty, when if it makes financial sense you can always buy enough energy to tackle any job. But with the arrival of Peak Fossils, we are entering an age of energy scarcity, so the energy to decommision a nuclear plant will probably not be available except by taking it from some other project, and it will be very expensive, so nuclear companies will simply go broke and society will be left with radioactive trash all over the place.

        Uranium still has to be mined, in increasingly poor ore grades, in increasingly unstable places (this weeks attack on the uranium mine in Niger requires France to launch another counter-insurgency operation at great energy expense).
        Read “Does nuclear energy produce no CO2 ?” at to see that nuclear energy relies on fossil energy being available. If you want to run all that machinery on electricity, then you also have to factor in the energy needed to manufacture all that new stuff in quantities sufficient to operate nuclear at 100% of the energy mix.

        All of this could have been done if we had started 30 years ago, when fossils were cheaply available, but then of course it was cheaper to use fossil fuels directly, so we didn’t do it. Now, when fossil energy scarcity is starting to bite, and many business models no longer work with high energy prices, we haven’t the spare energy to complete the transition, no matter how much money we are prepared to throw at it. At some point it will be a question of ‘do we use the energy to build another solar PV factory, or another nuclear plant, or do we keep the lights on and the internet running?’

        • Edward Peschko davekimble May 24, 2013 on 7:46 pm

          sorry, dave, I simply don’t buy it.

          The EROEI of nuclear is damn high. If you really do the math, as the physicists at did, you get an EROEI of between 100 and 500, and that is just for current light water reactors. In fact, the plant at namibia produces more energy than the WHOLE COUNTRY consumes by a factor of 50!

          As for the plants themselves, they use less concrete and steel – by a factor of 10 – than wind and/or photovoltaic systems supplying the same amount of energy, and are in fact lower than the needs for a coal power plant. Sources:

          .. which, although the articles dated are from 2008, is unlikely to change

          No, the costs of nuclear are – as of now – strictly political, and nothing more. They *may* become problematic if we don’t take the incredible gift that nuclear power has to offer before fossil fuels become too expensive, but it looks like that we have at least a 20 year reprieve in that arena, and hopefully by then the chinese will make nuclear reactors a commodity item by then. They already build them from concrete-pour-to-grid-attachment between 30 && 42 months. Source:

          So I conclude – no, the pain we feel with our creaking energy systems is almost completely self-inflicted and political. If we were thinking rationally, this wouldn’t have even been an issue; nuclear power would be dominant and we would be focusing on the next crisis.

          But instead, fear trumped reason, and well.. what did you expect as a result?

          (ps – Oh yes, EROEI. From the site:

          “The calculations of the operating energy costs include the energy required to mine and mill the Uranium. In the case of the Forsmark power plant some of the Uranium is sourced from the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia. This mine has a rather low Uranium concentration (0.05% by weight). A detailed and audited environmental description of the Olympic Dam mine is available here. A succinct description of the energy inputs of the mine is here. These data show that the Olympic Dam mine supplies enough Uranium for the generation of 26 GigaWatt-years of electricity each year (including the Uranium needed to run the power plants for enrichment). The energy consumed by the the mine is equivalent to 22% of a GigaWatt-Year. The energy gain is over a factor of 100. The Olympic Dam mine energy cost includes the energy required for mining and smelting it’s huge Copper production.

          Another Uranium source for Forsmark is the Rossing Mine in Namibia. A description of the operations of the mine is available here. The Rossing mine produced 3037 tonnes of Uranium in 2004, which is sufficient for 15 GigaWatt-years of electricity with current reactors. The energy used to mine and mill this Uranium was about 3% of a GigaWatt-year. Thus the energy produced is about 500 times more than the energy required to operate the mine.”