Thermodynamics, Fossil Fuels and Renewables, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly[*] — Part III

A romp with a whole heard of “elephants-in-the-room” in search of how to get out of deep trouble climate, energy and much else wise

In Part I we met the cast and encountered the Good, aka Thermodynamics.
In Part II we became acquainted with the Bad, aka Fossil Fuels.
We will now meet the Ugly, aka Renewables.

The Ugly

What about all these “green renewables” then? Aren’t they supposed to save the day? This is where the current global cargo cult turns distinctly both Ugly and ridiculous. Instead of actually addressing squarely the lethal matters encompassed in the Energy Seneca, hundreds of millions have been led to believe that combating the symptoms of the Climate Emergency by erecting millions of wind and solar farms could be effective…

The reasons why PV & WT “can’t cut it” are counter-intuitive. They concern scaling engineering. Mostly, people focus on individual projects, a solar PV farm, a wind farm, etc., and then aggregate them to show, essentially in Tooth Fairy economic terms, that “renewables” can triumphantly save the GIW.[1] This is fine when the matter concerns how a given business can make money building and operating wind or solar farms. With electricity prices from renewables having crashed below that of coal, indeed, individual projects can be money making (although most often thanks to subsidies of some sort or another).

There is an obvious issue, though, in the sleights of hand purporting to “demonstrate” that PV & WT are now “economic” and can disrupt the whole of fossil-based energy systems of the GIW. Since neither believers in “Business-as-Usual” nor most “Greens”believing in renewables see it, we may as well state the obvious. Renewables installations are meant to last decades and be progressively renewed or updated as time goes. Any evaluation of projects and, even worse, any evaluation of aggregate capacity build-up aiming to substitute for fossil fuels requires a reliable, fixed metric that could be used over at least a thirty-year time span and in fact over a century. Presently there is none left, none in terms of cargo cult fiat currencies and none in terms of energy analyses that also ignore the whole herd of elephants-in-the-room that we have already observed and the new herd that we are about to discover. Without a reliable metric able to span many decades and without robust whole system-based methods, masses of reports, studies, plans, policies, strategies, and Green New Deals are meaningless. They operate as lethal mirages leading astray entire populations of voters and investors.

Instead, what can we see beyond the looking glass?

Outside the Tooth Fairy fantasy world, on the downside of the Energy Seneca, let’s restate it again, the actual matter is that of replacing the whole system comprising fossil fuels-based energy supply infrastructures with “Something-else” that has to be sustainable, that really combats the Climate Emergency, and that does so profitably. We are dealing here with one of the least seen of our elephants, so let’s stress this further. This is a mine to grave matter concerning the thermodynamics of everything and everyone required for that “Something-else” to be developed, to build its productive capacity and to become self-powered, while simultaneously concerning all the required materials, their recycling and the eventual disposal of what can’t be recycled — keeping in mind that pesky matter that “there ain’t such a thing as a free lunch” — every single step all the way to recycling and ultimate waste disposal has an energy cost and entails waste heat. Like most people only seeing the visible parts of the oil industry and missing the huge support system that makes its operations possible, most people also miss renewables’ huge support system requirements. This whole system replacement challenge is indeed possibly one of the largest in our herd of elephants. It seems that the larger they are the less visible they become.

On the solid ground of thermodynamics and dynamic systems analysis, what us, pesky engineers attuned to scaling issues, have found is that there is absolutely no way current renewables can scale to that vital challenge of whole system replacement and that attempting to do so will make matters much worse. Although those scaling issues draw on a broad array of engineering disciplines, they have been highlighted numerous times in mostly lay language that can be readily understandable by decision-making elites. To this day, they have nonetheless remained an unheard and unseen whole herd of elephants-in-the-room.

Let’s note a few recent examples of lay language explanations:

I greatly encourage anyone keen to see through the media fog and fully walk through the looking glass to read some if not all of the above. I have found Dearnel’s, Gole’s or Martenson’s pieces easy to read. Some are even entertaining in their own ways.

The key points are summarised in the following Figures. Like it or not the Energy Seneca, with the Climate Emergency inside, is a challenge to be addressed with utmost emergency, basically over a 20-year period. In that game, typically, like the devil, elephantshide behind the tall grasses of details.

The Horns Rev wind farm picture in Figure 6 illustrates one of those details. Wind turbines are excellent turbulence generators. New designs are better but still generate significant turbulences that shift part of the wind energy into a form that downwind turbines can’t extract (it’s called entropy). Wake steering techniques can attenuate the problem but can’t suppress it. A wind farm sited too close to another further upwind can lose a significant amount of money due to enhanced wind turbulence. Which means that wind energy business is a kind of mining industry. It mines the best wind sites and endeavours to keep others downwind at bay.

Figure 6 — Renewables viewed from the other side of the “looking glass”

Another consequence of how turbines work is that large scale use of wind turbines actually warm-up downwind territories. They extract kinetic energy from the wind. This slows the wind down and alters exchanges of heat, moisture, and momentum between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere. For example, generating electricity for the whole of the USA from wind instead of using fossil fuels would “warm Continental US surface temperatures by 0.24ºC.”[2] In a world where staying below 1.5 ºC warming is now known to be unattainable and where the official aim is still to stay below 2ºC warming, large scale use of wind to replace fossil fuels not only for current electricity uses but also for converting global transport to electric vehicles is distinctly not a good idea.

Wind farm operations are also known for a wide range of other ecological impacts on wild life, cattle and humans, notably because of the infrasounds they generate that propagate over long distances with significant negative health impacts.

Large solar farms also cause microclimate modifications. A substantial part of the solar energy they receive is converted to waste heat. For a small installation on the roof of a home this is negligible. Scale this to thousands of hectares and it becomes significant.

Current installed fossil fuels-based power, including transport, is in the order of 19TW globally. Due to the intermittency of wind and solar sources and the limitations of available, suitable sites, replacing 19TW would require installing some 54TW of those so-called renewables. This is where considerable scaling issues click in that tend to be neglected by decision-making focused on implementing individual projects and relying of Tooth Fairy economics oblivious of thermodynamics.

Photovoltaic (PV) is about 4.4 times more greenhouse gas intensive than wind turbine use (WT). Replacing 19TW with a mix of PV and WT would mean increasing total world production approximately 12 times for Concrete, 18 times for Steel, 30 times for Aluminium, 18 times for Copper, 96 times for Glass plus using large amounts of epoxy resins made from oil, as well as glass and carbon fibre for WT blades, mostly non-recyclable and using dangerous chemicals, e.g. phthalates, plus substantial amounts of Silver, Mg, Cr, Ni, Mo, Li, Co, Nd, Ta and other rare earths… All well above world capabilities, especially over the time window that remains if one is to effectively address the Energy Seneca threats… and all being the sources of huge increases in a wide range of pollutions, in very sensitive ecosystems, affecting large human populations, and often involving quasi slave work, particularly of children.

The estimated total energy requirement for the above whole system substitution of the Bad fossils with the (supposedly) Good renewables would be in the order of 830EJ (ExaJoules), mainly fossil fuels-based, that is, some 111% of one year of world energy use. In other words, this would result in a drain of about 31EJ/year over 20 years from current energy supplies to the globalised industrial world (6% drain/year)… This is a world where over 4 billion people are currently energy deprived. This level of substitution, necessary not only to combat global warming but even more importantly to address the whole of the Energy Seneca threats is something the world can neither afford nor achieve.

Figure 7 — Energy storage can’t scale to global requirements

Yet another elephant follows closely on the heels of the above three. Renewables cannot replace fossil fuels without some form of energy storage. Fossil fuels are energy storage. PV and WT generate flows of electricity. Next to the above elephant-in-the-room, we can spot its twin, the greenhouse emissions (GHGs) that would result from building enough renewables capacity to replace fossil fuels. We estimate that total CO2 equivalent emissions would be in the order of 2.4 times world emissions in 2018, i.e. additional emissions of about 4Gt/year (i.e. billion tonnes per year), over 7 times the 1.7% increase in CO2 emissions in 2018 — accelerating warming well beyond the official 2 ºC limit… Something the world simply must not do.

Being intermittent, renewables require storage. Figure 7 puts things in perspective concerning two of the forms of storage most frequently mentioned in media “stuff”. Annual production and reserves of key materials are well below global requirements. Even assuming substantial incremental technology improvements, the gap is too wide. The same applies to hydro storage. For scale,Figure 7 compares the USA’s peak electricity demand with the flows from the largest rivers (PHS stands for pumped hydro system; the largest USA system is minuscule compared with potential requirements). There are other forms of storage. All face the same scaling issues.

Ah! Here is another one… The lack, even near impossibility, of recycling the thousands per year, soon millions, of WT blades or PV panels having reached the end of their operational lives (most end up in blade cemeteries in remote locations, in particular in poor regions of Africa), and also that of all those Li batteries reaching the end of their lives…

Figure 8 shows us yet another couple of other elephants are also hiding in thick jungle. These are a lot harder to spot but lethal.

Figure 8 — The global Energy Seneca trap

The first is known as the Red Queen effect (RQ), in reference to Alice in Wonderland. It is summarised on the top part of Figure 8. It’s the consequence of the relentless decline in net energy per barrel that we observed earlier. Because of that decline, the oil industry must keep pumping faster and faster to remain able to deliver net energy to the non-oil part of the industrial world. However, as it does so it accelerates the depletion of net energy. We estimate that by about 2030 or before, the Red Queen will have run out of breath. Short of a drastic paradigm change, most pumping will have stopped.

The twin of RQ is the Inverse Red Queen effect (1/RQ), shown on the bottom part of Figure 8. While some analysts have spotted RQ very few are remotely aware of 1/RQ. It’s a matter of systems dynamics that remains obscure to Tooth Fairy believers. Each time a PV or WT farm is installed, some months or years are required before that installation has produced at least enough energy to compensate for the energy used to manufacture, transport and install it (the so-called payback time). The time span is even longer if one takes into account the whole of the energy system replacement costs, in a mine to grave perspective. If now we do not just build a few of these from time to time but engage in a whole system replacement programme at a pace rapid enough to combat the emergency in time, as capacity builds the energy “debt” incurred in the process increases much faster than the “repayments” made by the farms already installed. The capacity build-up drains energy from the already deprived industrial world. Typically, the growth rate ceiling is around 7% per year. Above that energy drain occurs. This is far too low to ever hope to address the Energy Seneca in time.

Taken together those two elephants constitute the Energy Seneca trap the industrial world has fallen into. For now, under the present paradigm, under the vanishing but still strong sway of the Tooth Fairy, there is no way out. The critical time horizon of 2030 is now optimistic. As noted earlier, the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it have considerably shortened timelines.

Figure 9 — From Tooth Fairy economics to EROIcs…

At this stage of our walk through the looking glass, having spotted a very large herd of elephants-in-the-room, and even encountered Alice… it should be easy to understand why we cast Renewables in the role of the Ugly. Figure 9 summarises the matter in not too technical terms. Energy Returns On Energy Investments (EROI) sum up this part of your walk. EROIs have been much publicised over the last two decades. It’s a devilish topic that few actually understand. It requires a good background in thermodynamics, systems dynamics and very careful system boundary analysis. We consider here EROIp, that is, EROI at the point of production of primary energy.

For the avoidance of doubt, given the near impenetrable invisibility cloak that particular elephant is covered with, let’s stress it again, the defining challenge of our times is whole system replacement of existing supply chains with “Something-else” (that can’t be current renewables) that is self-powered and able to deliver the required net energy, affordable, safe, sustainable, profitable, implementable at speed while avoiding the 1/RQ rampaging elephant, and scalable to not only replace existing capacity but also extending it to levels big enough to supply the masses of people currently deprived, as well as repair the huge ecological damages to the Earth Life systems (soils, water, ocean, forest, etc.) and extract large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, enough to bring levels below 350ppm of CO2 equivalent, at pace — a huge, fat woolly mammoth maybe.

If the above sound like “Mission Impossible” that’s near correct. In our estimates, if one is prepared to abandon the Tooth Fairy to her fate, it’s not impossible but extremely tough. It is a matter of “EROIcs”… as shown in Figure 9. What we, watchers of elephants-in-the-room, have learned over the last two decades is that one can define three EROI developmental thresholds.

Those three levels are shown as the red, blue and green horizontal bars in Figure 9. Recall, everything in our world rests on thermodynamics. Whatever we do has to take place within a thermodynamically viable space. Stepping outside that space means death. Within that space, our lives can unfold at various levels of squalor or prosperity depending on how we handle the thermodynamic processes involved. EROIp thresholds characterise those levels.

Until recently, during a large part of last century, the affluent so-called “developed” world operated at EROIp well above 30:1, but was doing so in highly destructive and inefficient fashion. 30:1, thirty to one, means that for one unit of energy invested one gets 30 back at the primary energy level. This can be regarded as the minimum level to ensure sustained affluence globally, including repairing Energy Seneca damages inflicted over the last 270 years or so.

By the mid-2000s, the industrial world had slipped below 20:1. Tooth Fairy believers never really understood the so-called subprime financial crisis of 2007–09. Its fundamental driver was that the thermodynamic decline in train since the early 1970s had passed below 20:1 EROIp for oil and gas, i.e. concerning net energy and the energy foundations of the Globalised Industrial World (GIW). Below 20:1, austerity regimes are unavoidable or one has to gamble one’s future by incurring massive debts that one cannot repay… The subprime affair was merely about how the decaying thermodynamic conditions had been papered over, initially with debt that large numbers of home owners could not service while they still attempted to live the consumerist dream, and then, when it all blew up in financiers’ faces and snowballed, more gambling on the future was engaged in…

Since 2008, the GIW has continued its descent and passed below 10:1. 10:1 must be seen as the bare minimum viability for an industrial society — to get a sense of what that means think of the squalid lives of many people under North Korea’s totalitarian regime, for example. No society can live for very long below that level without breaking down.

Here, the annoying detail is that all current would-be alternatives to the present, decaying oil-based energy supply system are below that 10:1 bare minimum level, again when considered in terms of whole system replacement — all, even the oft touted nuclear fusion projects. Many would want to dispute this. However, let’s stress it again, we face the urgency of replacing some 19TW of power over about 20 years with “Something-else”, other than fossil-fuels as we presently use them or current renewables… We have learned from our herd of elephants that this is not doable with what we presently have technology-wise. The three thresholds merely summarise what the elephants taught us…. That is, the massive cognitive failure on the part of decision-makers that has prevailed since the early 1970s.

An eerie backdrop to the Seneca’s stage

Before considering if by any chance there may be a way out of the Energy Seneca’s trap, we ought to look up to see what is on the horizon, beyond the Seneca’s cliff. In the mid distance, we can see what nearly everyone, bar a few die-hard deniers, is worried about, the dark outlines of climate chaos and pandemonium, extremes of all kind, mega hurricanes and typhoons, long lasting droughts, forests going up in immense fires, glaciers melting, the Arctic melting, methane bubbling up, Antarctic ice shelves collapsing, sea levels rising, millions of climate refugees migrating, mass extinction of species — the list is seemingly endless… and further along, way up, a big bright sun.

That gloomy backdrop is obscured though by some kind of a large screen, like one of those somewhat obscene huge billboards one sees here and there on roadsides, especially in the US, or maybe it’s some huge post-modern art installation — it’s hard to tell. It’s hanging there, just beyond the edge of the Seneca’s cliff, kind of floating in mid-air, advertising in big, bright letters, Climate Emergency, framed in a colourful picture of a glorious future, telling us that we will all be saved if we all abide by the COP21 Paris Agreement of 2015. It tells us that there are two limits. We are meant to do all we can to stay below 1.5ºC and failing that definitely below 2ºC — all in a distant foggy future, by the 2050 time horizon. Below, all around by the cliff edge that they have not yet noticed, we hear the loud Green chorus relentlessly chanting the praises of all things green and that it can and will all be done with Renewables… it’s just a matter of incurring more debt, much more, and all will be fine…

If we watch carefully, however, in the mist of that foggy, distant vision, we can see a bunch of young Dumbo-like elephants flitting in front of the huge billboard, languorously flapping their oversized ears… One reminds us that from the outset, when some years ago the “limits” were mooted, some climate scientists had warned that they were mythical, a dangerous mirage. Another points out that the only safe limit is about 350ppm CO2 equivalent and that this was crossed over 30 years ago. Another one joins in to highlight the Limits’ “fine print” — they are set at only 66% chances of avoiding catastrophe. By comparison, who would mindlessly keep getting into a car, a bus or a plane if there was a deadly crash every third ride? And a last one closes their swirling around the Climate billboard flagging that there is absolutely no “budget” of fossil fuels left for anyone on Earth to keep burning… All of this would not be too dreadful, it could even be entertaining, if it was not for yet another large and dark Dumbo that landed there last September (2019).

Back then, two teams of climate researchers equipped with some of the best supercomputers presented their findings, in Paris. Figure 10 summarises them. In short, even if magically, thanks to a cousin of the Tooth Fairy, all greenhouse emissions stopped overnight, the world will keep heating up well above the 2ºC limit. We are on track to overshoot the 1.5ºC mark by around 2025 and the 2ºC one by around 2040 — no more distant foggy future around 2050, no more Paris Agreement, time to get real… Still, almost no one noticed. The research teams presented their findings in French. They had to. They are civil servants paid by the French state. One or two French media dutifully reported the event and that was it. The English-speaking media entirely missed it — language barrier oblige. The findings are due to find their way into the next IPCC report to be published later 2021. This is a long time to wait considering the accelerating speed of the Emergency…

Meanwhile though, a growing number of English-speaking climate scientists have voiced their concerns that with the latest advances built-in, in particular concerning clouds and the decline in cooling aerosols, their models are all “running hot” — in other words, trending in the same direction as those of the French teams…

Ah! Those aerosols. It’s a double bind. Currently, aerosols derived from the burning of sulphur-containing fuels result in a significant cooling effect, but they cause a large number of deaths each year in terms of air pollution over large areas of the Planet. There are now major efforts to eliminate those pollution sources, from power stations, urban traffic, maritime shipment and now even airplane traffic. The problem is that the projected decline in aerosols results in a quasi-instant warming of at least 0.5ºC and up to 1ºC, combine this with the 2ºC overshoot and big trouble looms in a not too distant future — either one kills people, crops, and other forms of life with one kind of pollution or one does it with another — take your pick… In any case overshooting 2ºC means going relentlessly much higher due to known feedback reinforcing loops in the Earth’s system. Saying that this will be catastrophic would be an understatement. Recall the time millions of years ago when CO2 levels were comparable to what they are now with about the same amount of about 1ºC warming and sea levels had risen by over 10 metres. No one in their right mind would want to undergo overshooting by 2ºC and counting…

Figure 10 — Vanishing warming limits

In Part I we met the cast and got acquainted with the Good, aka Thermodynamics.
In Part II we met the Bad, aka Fossil Fuels.
In this Part III we looked closely at the Ugly, aka Renewables.
In the last Part, we will close this romp with “elephants-in-the-room” by examining the energy trap we are now locked in with no possibility of exit, short of radical change, and where this may lead to if, by any chance, we do manage radical change: the Fourth Transition.

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[*] With a wink towards Sergio Leone’s famous eponymous spaghetti western, 1966, and Ennio Morricone’s music, possibly even more famous.

[1] This remains the case even when they attempt to present analyses in energy terms. Tooth Fairy economics remain implicit and for the main part scaling issues are missed.

[2] Lee M. Miller, and David W. Keith, 2018, Climatic Impacts of Wind Power, Joule,



Louis is the catalyst and main author for the Fourth Transition Initiative and Cool Planet Foundation.

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Dr Louis Arnoux

Louis is the catalyst and main author for the Fourth Transition Initiative and Cool Planet Foundation.