Renewable energy technologies do not offset fossil fuel use in the United States, according to a new environmental book, Green Illusions (June 2012, University of Nebraska Press), by University of California, Berkeley, visiting scholar Ozzie Zehner. In fact, building more solar cells and wind turbines could actually accelerate fossil fuel use unless nations take other steps to avoid a rebound effect.
Many renewable energy researchers assume that building solar cells and wind farms will displace coal use and lower carbon dioxide levels. However, Zehner explained in his book that subsidizing renewable energy merely expands energy supplies, which exerts a downward pressure on prices. Energy demand subsequently increases. "This brings us right back to where we started: high demand and so-called insufficient supply," Zehner said. "Historically, we've filled that added demand by building more coal-fired power plants, not fewer."
"We create an energy boomerang," Zehner said during a recent PBS interview. "The harder we throw energy into the grid, the harder demand comes back to hit us on the head. More efficient solar cells, taller wind turbines, and advanced biofuels are all just ways of throwing harder."
This counterintuitive boomerang effect is supported by a growing body of research. For instance, a recent paper in Nature Climate Change, by University of Oregon professor Richard York, analyzed 50 years of energy data and found no evidence that wind or solar energy production offsets fossil fuel use.
In order to avoid the boomerang effect, Zehner said that nations will have to institute socioeconomic innovations rather than technical ones. Green Illusions details five necessary prerequisites in order for renewable energy production to offset fossil fuel use:
- Low per-capita energy consumption
- An energy tax scheduled to increase over time
- A binding long-term plan to improve building and equipment efficiency
- Legislation that prioritizes walkable and bikeable neighborhoods over car culture
- Universal healthcare and a strong human rights record
Today some nations meet all of these prerequisites while others meet only some. "The United States meets none," Zehner said. "In fact, in countries such as the United States, with dismal efficiency, sprawling suburbs, a growing population, and high rates of material consumption, renewable energy technologies do the most harm as they perpetuate energy-intensive modes of living." He said renewable energy technologies might hold more promise in an alternate context and that concerned citizens should shift their focus toward social and political fundamentals if they wish to make renewable energy relevant.
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