Every day, coal is killing us

by John Quiggin on August 25, 2020

That’s the headline for a piece I just wrote for Independent Australia, looking at a new report from Greenpeace about the harm done by air pollution from coal-fired power, in addition to the climate-destroying effects of CO2 emissions. The report estimates 800 deaths per year, and is, from what I can see, consistent with other studies.

Final para

As a possible recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic comes into sight, it’s time to place human health above the desire to maintain the economic status quo. Australia can and should get off coal by 2030, without harming workers employed in the industry. In doing so, we will be saving both lives and money.



Tim Worstall 08.25.20 at 11:14 am

A useful distinction could – perhaps should – be made. Over half (the value) of those coal exports is coking coal. That is, for steel production, not thermal coal for generation. Having just looked it up the thought that you’re exporting lignite strikes me as ludicrously absurd but that’s another matter.

Yes, sure, more steel recycling is a good idea but that cannot produce the steel necessary to build a civilisation the first time around.

Being “against coal” doesn’t make that necessary distinction and no, we’ve still not found a way of making steel from virgin ore without using coal. Well, not without going back to charcoal we’ve not.


Mike Huben 08.25.20 at 1:32 pm

This is where it might be useful to have a term such as “mercaticide”.

There doesn’t seem to be a term for harms and deaths due to corporate/market mechanisms, even though this is a very common and large phenomenon. Start with the toxic industries: coal, tobacco, opioids, lead, etc. This indicates to me that there is a need for the term to bring an accounting for the millions hurt and killed, which exceed those of well-known genocides. This sounds like a good subject for a PhD thesis, to assemble together the diverse harms and see their true scope.

Killing through markets, commerce, and other indirect and distributed methods. Voluntary participation by customers does not exclude deaths or responsibility from this category because (as in tobacco) their participation is due to advertising. This includes propaganda efforts such as anti-vax. It includes deaths due to sale of illegal and legal drugs where addiction plays a part. It includes deaths due to suppression of risk information. It includes deaths due to insufficient regulation (guns.) It includes deaths due to pollution. It includes deaths with distributed responsibility, as in corporations.

I looked for this in Wikipedia, and they have a list of different types of homicide. None correspond to cases such as the Sackler’s opioid deaths. Instead we use a passive term “epidemic” that doesn’t implicate anyone, let alone corporations and their owners who are the direct cause. Industrial manslaughter approaches this idea, but is not nearly inclusive enough.

Not having a term probably makes it much more difficult to legislate, sue or prosecute.


John Quiggin 08.25.20 at 7:34 pm

Tim @1 This article is about pollution from coal-fired power stations. In the report I did on Australia’s transition from coal, I was careful to distinguish between thermal and metallurgical coal. And while it’s true that met coal accounts for half Australia’s exports, it’s much smaller as a proportion of global coal use.

As regards met coal, the options aren’t as limited as you suggest. Hydrogen-based direct reduced iron is already an option, though it’s only beneficial if the hydrogen is generated without using coal. And it’s far from obvious that China needs all the steel it is currently consuming. Still, the immediate focus needs to be on thermal coal.


Zamfir 08.25.20 at 7:44 pm

@Tim Worstall, “not found a way” is a tad too strong. There are quite a number of iron reducers in operation that run on natural gas instead of coal. It’s primarily a cost issue, restricting it to places with very cheap nat gas. The same processes translate fairly straightforward to hydrogen usage. Its making enough hydrogen that’s the challenge,


Omega Centauri 08.25.20 at 9:03 pm

Green hydrogen is starting to become a thing. Perhaps in a decade met coal will no longer be needed.


Zamfir 08.26.20 at 6:33 am

@omega, a decade is awfully fast. Don’t underestimate the scale!
For one, you need the electricity. Roughly 1 China worth of electricity production, if I did my sums correct, or all currently-built wind and solar power several times over. In addition to further greenificstion, of course.

Then you need hydrogen plants to match (to match peak production of those electricity plants, not their average!) I don’t have good numbers, but I think its a few thousand times current capacity. It’s like wind power in 1990 compared to now – the technology might more or less exist, but the required scale is completely different

And then you have to close all blast furnaces and replace them by hydrogen iron plants. Probably all basic oxygen steel furnaces as well since those don’t work well with direct reduced iron, and more electric furnces to replace those. Quite possibly, the further downstream operation need massive changes as well, if the chemistry and geography of their upstream is turned upside down. All together, let’s ays that we might be replacing a quarter or more of all steel operations.

These are all project that usually take decade from plan to operations, of not more. All in one go, and by necessity mostly by inexperienced people.


Tim Worstall 08.26.20 at 7:54 am

Clearly I am behind the times with respect to DRI. If – and quite an if – green hydrogen becomes available in quantity yes, it solves that problem.


John Quiggin 08.26.20 at 9:53 am

As with most other things, green hydrogen is happening, but not nearly fast enough


As long as people like Trump and Xi are in charge of the world’s biggest economies, we are in a bad way. Hopefully, Trump will be gone soon. Xi is unlikely to be shifted, but perhaps the ill-will he is stirring up nearly everywhere (in many different ways) will induce him to change course.


Gorgonzola Petrovna 08.26.20 at 9:16 pm

Any thoughts on the recent Michael Moore documentary? I watched it a few months ago (during the corona lockdown), and it gives the impression that national- and global-scale environmentalism is a victim of regulatory capture that does more harm than good. To put it mildly.


ph 08.26.20 at 10:48 pm

Congrats, John. You’re holding up this blog (with Chris) almost singlehanded. The lack of public rational discourse, particularly by the Left, marks 2020 and not in a a good way.

Jacobin is in the news, and not in a good way. Forgetting that the French Revolution was about enshrining property rights for everyone, not just the rich, comes at an enormous cost. The New Yorker just had to issue a correction for a totally nonsense article on police violence

You’re doing great work, too bad others aren’t willing to put in the same effort.


notGoodenough 08.27.20 at 7:03 am

John Quiggin makes, as always, good comments on sustainability, the environment, and energy – excellent read! The changes are slow, but there are some bright spots (and it is important to be realistic, but not to give in to despair).

If I recall correctly, Sidney is now supposed to be running on 100% renewables (sort of a part environmental movement and part groundwork for counter cyclical spending to help with jobs). I do wonder if this might be a way forward for the rest of the world – my economics is pretty negligible, but my understanding is it is not a bad idea to inject money to restart the economy after a bust. If so, perhaps such investments could be well spent on renewables and energy storage infrastructure? I feel there could well be a lot of jobs in those areas…


nastywoman 08.27.20 at 7:30 am

”You’re doing great work, too bad others aren’t willing to put in the same effort”.

”others aren’t willing to put in the same effort”.

Come on? –
The Whole World is doing the GREAT work – making sure – that Americas Science Denying Racist Crook doesn’t get re-elected!


nastywoman 08.27.20 at 9:18 am

”Congrats, John. You’re holding up this blog (with Chris) almost singlehanded”.

and I – ME –
also –
a very, very long time ago had been congratulated by a Trump Voter –
(because I was able to fix his bike)

And isn’t there anything worst in Life – if a ”Trump” -(the German word for ”STUPID”)
says: Congrats?
AND I don’t expect this comment to be published – just take it for ”private consumption” – because I just had a (female) ph – in a red dress yell at me.


Tm 08.27.20 at 9:59 am

Why does that totally off-topic nonsense (9, 10) have to keep getting published?


Zamfir 08.27.20 at 10:30 am

Gorgonzola Petrovna asks: “Any thoughts on the recent Michael Moore documentary?”

I watched the documentary, and I couldn’t figure out the point of it. I suppose, if there are people who genuinely thought that renewable energy was 100% problem-free, then this documentary would be reasonable (though unsubtle) counterpoint. But do such people really exist, especially among people who watch documentaries on the topic?

In my impression, everyone with the slightest interest in the topic already knows that renewable energy sources come with downsides. The question then is, how do those downsides compare to the downsides of alternatives? On that question, the documentary is absurdly bad – the kind of bad that doesn’t happen by accident.

As you say, its impression is that “environmentalism does more harm than good”. That is a common argument from people who think that the fossil fuels do not have much downsides. From that perspective, it makes sense. I disagree with that position, but I understand it. This documentary does not take that position though – it says that fossil are bad, and by extension that alternative energy sources are just as bad. I don’t think this adds up at all (with the possible exception for biomass, where some forms are IMO pretty much as bad as fossil fuels)

The documentary push for another alternative direction: less consumption, less focus on economic growth, lower population. If people take that direction, I want them to take it serious. Not how to lower emissions by 20% or so. How to get to 90% reduction or more. Perhaps that is possible, but it surely comes with a few documentaries’ worth of very serious downsides.


reason 08.27.20 at 3:18 pm

Once again we come back to old issue of vested interests (those few people actually earning living from coal and their dependents) versus the general welfare which are always a sticking point in a representative system based on location. I keep trying to get people to take seriously the view that the left needs to talk about economic security more. Otherwise people hanging on to their jobs can be easily manipulated by fear mongers.

I don’t think it is possible for a green revolution to happen without a UBI. People need economic security before they can be persuaded to change, no matter how much better you paint the future.


Gorgonzola Petrovna 08.27.20 at 10:17 pm

I thought the point of the documentary was to demonstrate how commercial interests co-opt the rhetoric, corrupt the leaders, and use the good intentions and enthusiasm of the public to advance their agenda. The agenda of a completely different nature. They might organize switching from coal to, for example, ‘biomass’, and destroy forests, while trumpeting it as a great environmentalist victory.

In other words, something similar to ‘Bringing Democracy to the Middle East’ 20 years ago.


Zamfir 08.28.20 at 1:50 pm

Gorgonzola, if that was the main point, then my objection is that it made too much other points in the wake of the main point. In particular, its assault on wind, solar power and batteries. The movie is not just highlighting the (real!) problems with such technologies. It flat out says that they are pointless, and we should not build them.

Clearly, I disagree with them. But there could be a genuinely useful debate on that, if it was clear what alternative approaches are under discussion. The movie is bloody vague on that. Here’s a typical quote from Zehner, the guy who delivers most input for the movie. Its not from the movie itself, but it illustrates my objection to the movie so well:

“I can’t say exactly what de-growth will look like, but I suspect it will start with a different conceptual landscape. We’ve built up stories around green technologies and we make comparisons that are bound to satisfy those preconceptions. As a result, we have an environmental movement that is asking the wrong questions about growth, economy, equity and global risks. […]The green illusions start to unravel over the coming years, we will find opportunities to create a new environmentalism, or perhaps a rediscovered environmentalism, which I am guessing will be both frustrating and exhilarating.”

That problem goes deeper than this movie. Alternative energy is going to get bigger from here on – and yet more industrial, more corporate, and with more obviously bad side effects. It’s going to attract more green critics, promoting some form of de-growth as the superior alternative. I really wish to see specific proposals there -with their own merits and demerits. If the sniping of this movie becomes the standard, we might just as well let Exxon handle climate change.


David J. Littleboy 08.28.20 at 2:01 pm

” (those few people actually earning living from coal and their dependents) ”

I may be misinterpreting what you are trying to say, but the number of workers employed by the coal industry nowadays is tiny. There are more healthcare workers in West Virginia (59,000*) than there are coal industry workers in the whole US (53,000). And they’re actually probably mostly relatively high-skill workers who could find other jobs (were there other jobs to find, of course.)

Whatever. Like the OP said (well, implied but should have said). We have to stop burning coal. Now. Presumably, most people here won’t agree with the following, but it’s right. (A while ago I read that a few green types had figured this out, though.)

IMHO, without nuclear, we’re doomed. Nuclear is ugly, but it’s an ugliness that it’s possible to deal with (e.g. if we committed to storage, not disposal, of nuclear waste, public review of designs), but the ugliness of coal is not dealable with: we may already be done for, since the latest on Greenland is that the ice sheet has gone into irreversible decline. And coal ash is just as radioactive as (vitrified and containerized) nuclear waste. But no one’s talking about handling coal ash responsibly. And that lovely electric car you just bought cost as much CO2 emissions to build as it could save were it running on green electricity, but it’s not. It’s running on coal. (OK, 40% coal.) (Basically, the private car is insane. (Easy for me to say: I’ve never bought a car.))

*: Hmm. This seems too high, since West Virginia’s population is 1.7 million. Is 3.5% of the population being a health care worker a reasonable number? (Apparently so: Healthcare is the US’ largest employer.) Whatever, those are the numbers I found groveling around the internets.


sean samis 08.28.20 at 5:20 pm

If I recall correctly, an analysis of the Three Mile Island accident concluded that the majority of deaths that could be attributed to the nuclear accident were deaths caused by the NORMAL operation of coal plants which had to replace the electricity previously generated by the TMI plant.

sean s.


Tm 08.28.20 at 8:45 pm

Re the Moore documentary: since it’s not completely off topic and the host seems to tolerate it, I’ll add my two cents.
Experts have identified numerous factual claims as outdated, misleading, or just false. (https://www.sueddeutsche.de/wissen/michael-moore-film-klimawandel-1.4897949) In particular the claim that solar and wind energy consume more energy than they produce is nonsense. There are some nuggets of truth too – biomass is not always but often awful – but environmentalists (including my humble self) have been pointing this out for years. Ag biomass is the work of agribusiness and farmer lobbyists, not environmentalists.

I don’t know what to make of the fact that Moore is now getting – or seeking? – applause from the reactionary side. Is this an accident? It doesn’t seem likely. One expert called the documentary „a destructive, nihilistic attempt to discredit green energy and solution oriented environmentalism“. And Moore doesn’t offer a better alternative to the environmentalism he is attacking. Surely the fossil fuel lobby can hardly believe its good fortune.


John Quiggin 08.29.20 at 6:27 am

@TM Things are slow, so I’m letting most things through at the moment.

On the energy used idea, I had a go back in 2015 and concluded EROEI was about 10 to 1.

On jobs, I did a detailed report for Australia, which is a big coal exporter unlike the US showing that we could easily manage a transition to renewable energy, and end thermal coal mining, without harming workers and communities currently dependent on coal https://www.tai.org.au/content/getting-coal-orderly-early-transition-minimise-impact-australian-economy


Hidari 08.29.20 at 8:21 am

I am going to state this and then back out (I promise!) because I haven’t seen the Planet of the Humans film and I think it’s intellectually wrong to ‘review’ a film you haven’t seen (although, equally, I know that everyone does that).

But it’s worth pointing out that although, yes, some people have criticised the film for factual inaccuracy, Gibbs stands by the facts (or ‘facts’ depending on your point of view) as stated in the film, cf here:


Incidentally this is one of these many debates in the modern world in which people engaged in them have a vested interest in obfuscating what the debates are really about, and instead, people throw insults at each other.

So, in case people don’t understand:

Moore/Gibbs are taking aim at those who argue that the environmental problems (plural) we face can be solved within the confines of the (more or less) neoliberal/neoconservative American dominated sociopolitical framework in which we live, by ‘technosolutions’ (like wind, solar, wave etc.). In other words, they are arguing in favour of the idea that the environmental issues are essentially sociological problems which will need sociological/socio-political solutions.

Opposed to them are those who argue that these issues are essentially technical/technological problems which can (and presumably will) be solved by (e.g.) new battery technology, new and more advanced computers (to solve the intermittency problem etc.) and so on, and that no fundamental alteration in ‘our way of life’ is necessary.

Or to put it even more simply: Gibbs and Moore see the various environmental problems as essentially political problems which will require political solutions.

Their opponents see the environmental problems as being essentially technical/technological problems which will require technological (and, by default, market orientated) solutions.

That’s it. That’s what the debate is about. Obviously there is a certain grey area in the middle: and no one holds these views in their ‘pure’ form, but ultimately that’s what the debate is about.


Zamfir 08.29.20 at 12:46 pm

@ Hidari, I agree on those sides of the debate, but there is the third side of that debate: don’t attempt to solve the problems.

The movie is an attack in the technosolution side, but it does not attempt much of a positive case for the ‘sociological’ side. In that attack it twists and picks facts in its favour. I don’t think it crosses over to outright lying. If this really was a two-sided debate, I wouldn’t mind. You might have to fight dirty if you care about an issue.

But in the three-sided arena, this attack is just as valuable to the do-nothing side. Exxon would happily have paid for this movie. I am sure that Exxon didn’t, which is exactly why it’s a concerning development.


Tm 08.29.20 at 4:24 pm

Hidari, huge straw man. Can you Imagine there are people who understand that the environmental crisis is both a political and a technological challenge? What do you think does “political solution of environmental problems” mean, in any case? The revolution will solve the problems by magic so we don’t need any technology? Sorry but in my ears this is just pseudo radical mumbo jumbo, unless you can specify the “political solutions” you (resp. Moore and Gibbs) are referring to – and remember, after the revolution we’ll still need energy and food …


John Quiggin 08.31.20 at 10:19 pm

@Hidari My big problem with the claim that the climate can’t be stabilised under capitalism is time. We have to decarbonize electricity by 2030 and the rest of the developed world economy by 2040 or 2050. In optimistic modes, I can see us achieving a radical transformation of capitalism by 2050, but even so, we still have to do most of the work within the existing system.

So, saying we can’t fix the climate under capitalism isn’t saying “we need to change capitalism”. It’s more like “we’re doomed anyway, so we may as well do nothing about either capitalism or the climate”. That’s exactly the message the right has taken from Moore’s film.


Richard melvin 08.31.20 at 11:41 pm

In other words, they are arguing in favour of the idea that the environmental issues are essentially sociological problems which will need sociological/socio-political solutions.

COVID 19 provides a pretty good test run for purely non-technical solutions to global warming, in that a radical economic shutdown in response to a global pandemic led to less than 20% reduction in emissions. To achieve the kind of reductions actually required, you would need measures many times stricter, and continuously enforced over a period of decades.


Kiwanda 09.01.20 at 12:29 am

With the political will (well….), the U.S. could reduce carbon by 80% by 2035, emissions for electricity by 90% by “electrifying everything”, using wind and solar power plants, rooftop solar, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and batteries.

I can’t figure out where the figures for Germany in Moore’s film’s “fact check bible”, which put the contributions from biofuels and from wind/solar at about equal, came from, unless they merged the values for electricity, heat, and transport from e.g. here. That’s fair, to some degree, but heat and transport will use less biofuels as heat pumps and EVs ramp up.


notGoodenough 09.01.20 at 8:30 am

I think some good points have been raised here. It will be necessary to both make social changes (some big, some small) and to improve our technologies – relying on one or the other is the wrong approach. I´m reminded of when people were trying to poke Michael E. Mann by saying “do we need action on an individual level, or at a governmental level?”, to which he gave the only sensible response – “we need both”.

The challenges ahead are huge, and it is tempting to give into despair – having worked in this area for over a decade, I have certainly have had my black and bleak moments (sometimes from the situation, sometimes from the intransigence of people, and sometimes from people trying to actively destroy my life). We know things will get bad, and now we are fighting to determine just how bad – and I do realise “change your life and things will only get somewhat worse” is hardly the most inspiring message.

But it is important to remember that if we work hard the chance of success (however low it may be) will still be much higher than if we do nothing at all. As I was once told, however low the number of people able to complete a marathon, it is still higher than if no-one enters in the first place…

On a purely personal level I don´t see civilisation, as it currently is, surviving the next couple of decades – but what that means is up to us. One option is that we have to learn to integrate sustainability at every level (plan our cities, our work, how we live, etc. with the environment in mind), and work hard to change at both the social and technological level – adapting to our world, rather than trying to force the world to adapt to us. Another is to end up with a Mad Max-style system, only with less fun car explosions but more people dying early of preventable diseases because we can no longer produce the necessary medicine.

One cause for optimism is that I do think people (particularly younger people) are highly motivated. And, as John Quiggin has pointed out, sustainability is an excellent way to actually create jobs – and my understanding is it is generally wise, when trying to spend to restart an economy, to use the money on things you might want (like giant wind farms, etc.). In this way I think that, although capitalism is hardly an ideal system under which to work, it is possible to harness this as many companies will want to make money and will be able to spot the opportunity to do so by investing heavily in renewables (one potential lesson from history is that those who are successful in adopting the next generation energies typically reap considerable rewards). And, while green washing is still a thing, if we can get companies, governments, and people on board, we should see rapid evolution in this area. Maybe not as rapid as we´d like, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – and not with complaining about how badly paved the road is.

Of course, this does rely on ensuring our governments consist of people committed to these sorts of changes, and not – for example – people who campaign by sitting in a big truck and telling everyone how committed they are to seeing miners die of silicosis aged 40. As we have too often seen, for ideological reasons the latter are often quite popular.

I think though that there are some pretty clear paths ahead. If we can push from the eco-friendly perspective (in terms of social improvements) and from the capitalist perspective (opportunities to get in on the ground floor of providing stuff everyone needs), we have a pretty good chance of proceeding.

While I do think those involved in the Moore documentary have their hearts in the right places, this sort of setting up false dichotomies and only offering a bleak future is probably not particularly helpful – unless one is aiming to convince everyone to abandon all hope. Climate despair is a well-known phenomena, so we should probably work to avoid adding to it if we can.

I will, of course, keep chipping away making my own (very, very) small contributions – but if we all chip together (as it were) we should be able to move mountains (even if, at the individual level, it is only one pebble at a time).

And with those incoherent metaphors, I leave you.


notGoodenough 09.01.20 at 9:58 am

To make some pretty broad generalisations, I´ll note a few ideas I have (to be clear these are vast oversimplifications):

The Michael Moore documentary (should we be calling it the Jeff Gibbs documentary?):

Planet of the Humans is rather problematic, as has been well discussed elsewhere. I get the impression that some of the numbers have been calculated and presented in a way which is not exactly dishonest, but does give a false impression. A lot of data is also not properly referenced with dates, so it is difficult to know how it was calculated and how recent the numbers are (given the film´s inception, if I recall correctly, was around 2012, it is possible that some of the information was obtained earlier in production and not updated).

I don´t want to speculate too much, but can´t help but wonder if the biases of the film-makers led them to focus on some things and perhaps ignore others. It is human nature, after all, to tend to seek information which confirms our ideas, and perhaps they would have benefitted from a broader perspective from several other people.

On nuclear power:

My focus is storage, not generation, so can´t really say too much (other than giving the person-in-the-street perspective) but I suspect nuclear will, to some extent, be part of the energy generation basket – if only because we have some plants already existing. I have heard some arguments for (it will help with intermittency, provide stability, etc.) and some against (will they be built fast enough to actually have a meaningful impact, etc.). I don´t know, and wouldn´t really want to throw my uninformed ideas into the mix. I will note that Thorium seems to offer some promising safety advantages over Uranium, for those who care about such things, though we do have to avoid falling into a “magic pill” type mentality and hoping one solution will fix all problems.

Some people promote fusion as the way to go – I fall into the “I´m not saying no, but I´ll believe it when it is demonstrated” camp (though to be clear I don´t keep up to date with energy generation literature).

Technological vs societal fixes:


Individual action vs systematic changes:



No. Just no.

Battery-based stationary energy storage:

OK, I get why Tesla built a lithium-ion based facility – when you have a Li-ion hammer, every problem becomes an Li-ion nail. It makes sense, in the sense of “we can make batteries ridiculously quickly, let´s use these here”, but honestly I really don´t think it is good way forward. I suspect you´re probably better off with lead-acid integrated with smart sensors (to prevent over-voltages, which lead to battery failure), or – if you are really concerned about that potential impact – you can consider pushing newer technologies (like sodium metal phosphates).


For materials, maybe – plastics are pretty useful, even if we need to think better about how we use them (and their environmental impact). And many of the other polymer fractions are nice to have from a chemistry perspective.

But for energy? Burning oil makes about as much sense as heating your house by setting fire to your furniture – yes it may work in the immediate term, but it is hardly the most sensible approach and then you have the longer term problem that the house will catch fire…


Interesting one. Electrolysis to produce hydrogen may actually end up being quite important. The gravimetric and volumetric energy densities of hydrogen power (and yes, there are a lot of problems still) is very attractive for some applications. If one is planning on anything like planes remaining viable, I think you´re probably better off looking at integrating hydrogen rather than batteries.

Depending on where is comes from, of course.

Final remarks:

I´m painting with very broad brush-strokes of course, and given I have a narrower focus I could well be off in some of this. But this is just some “food for thought” – not a proposed policy. For me, I don´t see any one solution which will be sensible by itself – I favour a “basket” type approach for both generation and storage. I also think the deliver solutions are going to be pretty scary when people start trying to resolve them, but it will be interesting to see what levels will be in play (e.g. micro to macro grid).

Thoughts welcome.


Tm 09.01.20 at 10:20 am

Biomass in Germany is mostly use of waste material from domestic forestry and agriculture (see the link above and https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/themen/klima-energie/erneuerbare-energien/bioenergie). There’s nothing wrong with this. It cannot and should not be scaled up but it does nevertheless provide am important contribution to green energy.

Transport biofuels are a very small part of the picture. The link provided by Kiwanda has the details.


Tm 09.01.20 at 10:39 am

… also sewage waste and incineration of organic household waste …


Zamfir 09.01.20 at 11:01 am

@notGoodEnough, even if we need both, there is still a genuine conflict about the division.

It matters whether you see climate change as a somewhat isolated problem, or as an example of wider class of problems, perhaps a symptom of a deeper problem. If it’s the latter, then ‘technofixes’ are either a dead end, or at best a temporary bandaid until the next crisis hits.

I am myself mostly of the first view, but I have to admit that there is some truth in the latter view.


notGoodenough 09.01.20 at 1:49 pm

Zamfir @ 33

I believe I understand what you mean. However, I really don’t see why there should be conflict. I am of the opinion that climate change is the result of many things, some purely technological (such as the reliance on fossil fuels), some societal (such as unequal distribution of resource-access and the way IP is handled), and likely others I have not considered.

However, clearly technological fixes are not a dead end – there is strong evidence that use of renewables significantly decreases environmental impact (in terms of climate change). Even if you don’t think this is addressing the most important underlying factor (and good luck determining those), the facts are simple – climate change is happening, it is pretty catastrophic, and if we don’t act right now then it will likely be near-apocalyptic.

I would say it is less a band-aid on a cut, and more a tourniquet on a gushing wound. Yes, you will likely need stitches, but if you are going to wait for the ambulance then the patient will die.

Clumsy analogy, but my point is that you do need both. Anyone who argues otherwise is likely either deeply ignorant of the magnitude of the problem, or has ulterior motives.


Hidari 09.01.20 at 4:21 pm


Fair enough, and especially with the crushing of the Corbyn and the Sanders’ insurgencies, the future for the left in the advanced capitalist states looks bleak.

But I can turn that round.

It’s true that we probably ‘don’t have time’ for radical socio-political change.

But do we have time for the techno-fixes we need?

Think of the intermittency problem for example. Despite what some of the more starry eyed environmentalists have claimed this problem is serious and not going away. We desperately need radically and fundamentally better batteries to store the electricity when our renewable energy sources are not active. Now I have no doubt that we can develop such batteries in time. The question is: how much time? As you pointed out, we are running out of time. We really have about 30/40 years to completely,/I> solve this problem or we are toast (possibly literally). There are numerous other problems with renewables (e.g. cable loss over long distances, longevity, and the fact that renewables, at least in the early stages, are not green, they are greener than fossil fuels).

Again, no doubt all these problems can be solved given enough time.

The problem is that time is what we don’t have.


Matt 09.01.20 at 6:39 pm

I think that Hidari has crystallized for me why Ozzie Zehner’s Green Illusions was poorly representative of the technologies it examined, and why Planet of the Humans 8 years later provides an even more distorted picture.

If you are demanding radical changes, the strongest argument for a particular set of changes is that There Is No Alternative. If you are really anchored to a certain package of radical changes for endogenous reasons — if you find them aesthetically pleasing, for example — it’s helpful if you can keep making the There Is No Alternative argument to people who won’t be swayed by your aesthetic judgment. It’s self deception but not necessarily willful self deception. It just so happens that the people who don’t update their positions based on new evidence will be the ones making the same TINA argument year after year, while people more open to change make different arguments over time.

This can explain why Planet of the Humans gets solar/wind power wrong in generalities and in most details. If you were anchored to a vision of environmental reform that proclaims Small Is Beautiful, anti-capitalism, localism, bicycling, etc. then it would be gratifying when extremely mainstream scientific and political bodies start sounding the alarm about fossil fuels. Since capitalism, cars, and large scale industry presumably can’t exist without fossil fuels, There Is No Alternative to your vision. But then big old companies like Siemens and General Electric — plus big new ones like Hanwha Q-Cells and LONGi Solar — maddeningly undermine your TINA argument by scaling renewables up to vast industrial quantities. Suburban homes get rooftop solar instead of being abandoned for nature to reclaim. Automobile companies start making battery powered cars instead of going extinct like they should. Unless you can convince people to reject both fossil fuels and high tech post-fossil energy, big corporations are going to survive largely intact on the other side of the energy transition.


notGoodenough 09.01.20 at 11:01 pm

Hidari @ 35

Quick question (and this is intended sincerely and with respect): Why do you think there is a technology vs. socio-political debate to be had? Do you think that the supporters of either approach would be completely unwilling to acknowledge the other in significant numbers (I mean, there are always going to be diehards, but let’s talk in terms of meaningful contributions)?

Allow me to offer some ramblings by noting once again that my opinion is we need both socio-political and technological advances – I really don’t see it as a case of one-or-the other. By doing both we don’t need to be so drastic in one or the other – the requirements for putting all eggs in one basket are, to the best of my knowledge, somewhat…troublesome.

If you did force me to choose one or the other (and I firmly believe it is a false dichotomy), I’d probably bet on the tech – that would be not because I think it would be possible to make the changes needed fully, but I think more could be done in the time by solely technological research than solely trying to change the socio-political makeup of the vast majority of the world.

But again, for me it is both – not one or the other. Fund science and tech, and push political changes – the skillsets are not so vastly overlapping, and I suspect you’d get more from letting scientists science than trying to out-politic lobbyists, and more from letting passionate organisers organise than trying to make them research (but both should support each other – scientists and engineers will need political backing, and politics is more successful if you have the data and tech to back it up). These things are not, as far as I can tell, contradictory.

Imagine (yes this is dreaming a bit, but just to illustrate the point) that tech advances makes installation of renewables a viable huge public investment, and so as the solar panel engineers become the modern-day “linemen for the county” it will help shift public opinion. While I’m sure some people will insist that dying of silicosis at age 40 is important for freedom, I suspect most people if offered unionised, well-paying jobs with good benefits (such as healthcare in countries where that isn’t standard) would not be unopposed to accepting them. As renewables, recycling, waste management, eco-friendly planning, etc. become the norm, people will adopt and adapt.

Or, alternatively, as green politics becomes more successful, more funding for green tech will become available. Do we really want the people in charge of green tech to be the silicon valley tech-bros who hate unions? I would say no. Does anyone (apart from the most rabid of fans) really think the best spokesperson for renewables is Elon Musk? While I’ll admit to being a bit personally biased against the man, I think it is fair to say he has had a few less-than-diplomatic moments. No, get passionate people who are good demagogues out getting people onside – if you make suggesting burning coal for energy about as popular as turning up to the young Conservatives Club in a Che Gevara T-shirt and an I Love Marxism baseball cap, I suspect politicians and companies will suddenly discover a new-found love of the environment (particularly if “greenness” is monitored by a consumer watchdog or three). And as more pressure increases, development will intensify (and while there are limits to how much money can achieve, let’s not underestimate the power of popular opinion and vast amounts of resources).

So, yes – both socio-political and technological changes. Always both. And if anyone tells you “no, let’s focus on what I want to do first”, I would ask them what benefit they think will be achieved by ignoring the other part of the equation, and how did they determine the advantages of doing so outweigh the disadvantages.

Honestly, I really, really do not understand why people think these things need to be or even should be in opposition – there really is a constructive superposition of interests here.


Tm 09.02.20 at 9:19 am

Hidari 35: why not be specific about the “radical socio-political change” you envision, and how it would help us solve Climate Change? What you are doing now is object to fairly concrete solutions in favor of vague and abstract (and politically unlikely to happen) system change.

May I offer a specific example? How about nationalizing the energy industry. There are many good political and economic arguments for such a policy. It is prime example of a political rather than technological approach. Now how would it help us solve Climate Change? Well, unfortunately, it wouldn’t on its own. The nationalized coal plants would still emit the same amount of carbon, we would still need to replace them with carbon-free energy sources, which requires – technology and infrastructure.

I’m making this argument sympathetically. The liberalization of the energy market in the 1980s was a huge political mistake. Governments willingly gave away democratic control over key industries to let corporations and “the market” wreak havoc. The result was that the energy transition, which everybody knew already then was a necessary precondition for the survival of civilization, lost decades of precious time. I definitely think that much stronger democratic control over the whole energy industry is needed. But this position neither contradicts the need for technological solutions nor is there any conceivable way in which political solutions can substitute for the necessary technological change. And finally, there is no turning back the clock. The political mistakes of the past have created new realities, new path dependencies, that we must address. Counterfactuals don’t get us anywhere.


Hidari 09.03.20 at 11:44 am

I am absolutely in favour of nationalising all companies involved in fossil fuels, big coal, ‘the seven sisters’, all the natural gas companies, and shutting them down. And yes they will have to be replaced by renewables as much as possible (and the phrase ‘as much as possible’ covers a large number of possibilities).

Whether even that drastic action will be enough, this late in the day, is a moot point, but it would be a good statement of intent.


Tm 09.04.20 at 7:14 am

Hidari: „I am absolutely in favour of nationalising all companies involved in fossil fuels“

Great but would you care to address how that would help solve Climate Change?

„and shutting them down“ – ok and we do without electricity and heat or what?

„And yes they will have to be replaced by renewables as much as possible“ ok but Moore and Gibbs say renewables don’t work?

Am I being pedantic??


notGoodenough 09.04.20 at 8:55 am

Hidari @ 35, 39

Firstly, let me just say I believe we are in (near enough) total agreement, particularly with respect to your comments at 39. I am confident you have a good grasp of the situation, and a fairly realistic approach. I also think we are on the same page with respect to pushing for climate change mittigation from as many directions as possible.

In short, you are someone with good ideas, and a good perspective.

This is not, therefore, a disagreement. However, just to make a few brief comments regarding the technical challenges (which may or may not be interesting) for general consumption and consideration.

Most people (particularly those of us working in the field) are well aware that moving to renewables is by no means straight forward. However:

1) we don’t necessarily need to go 100% renewables to begin with (I think you’ve already started from this position, but it is worth repeating). It’d be better, certainly, but if you have (and this are just some numbers to illustrate the point) 60% renewables, 30% nuclear, 10% natural gas, it is still an improvement over ca. 80% fossil fuels – and 60% renewables, 30% nuclear, 10% hydrogen from electrolysis would still be (in principle) close to 0 emissions yet not rely solely on intermittent sources.

2) I’m not sure the problems are as insurmountable as many appear to think.

I will preface this by noting, again, I’m in storage (specifically batteries) not production, so I am open to the idea some of this may be wrong (I’m going off the literature, not a lifetime of experience). But I’d like to offer some rough comments for your consideration (and again, these aren’t intended to be indisputable statements of fact, but rather numbers taken from peer reviewed literature to have a starting point for discussion). I don’t know your experience in the topic, so please do forgive me if I’m repeating things you already know and understand (and may even have already rebutted!).

Anyway, food for thought again:

Cable loss over distance.

As far as I am aware, this is a factor for all energy distribution. It is possible that renewables may even be at an advantage here (if, for example, we’re looking at microgrid systems based primarily on localized production with grid smoothing, then the distances between production, storage, and use may in fact be smaller). Regardless, I don’t see why it would be inherently more of a problem.

Longevity, EROI, and End of Life.

The average lifespans of solar panels and wind turbines are in the 20-30 year range (with some exceptions). Energy production tails off towards the end of life (EoL), of course, and so we should think carefully about how much energy is required, how much is generated, and what we do with these when they have reached EoL.

Looking at solar panels (or photo-voltaic devices, PVs, as the cool kids call them), from a systematic metareview [1] the average time before the energy used (including all components) is “earned back” is : 1 year for Cad-Tel and 2.7 years for amorphous Si thin films. However, this would not be a fair comparison, as most PVs would not be thin film (and Cad-Tel is very nasty and best avoided; and, for personal reasons, I’m very uncertain about thin film reported data – I have some strong methodological objections to how it is often measured). So, instead let’s look at poly- and mono- silicon devices (which are the most popular for domestic use) to see that the average energy payback times reported are: poly-Si 3.1 years and mono-Si 4.1 years.

The energy return on investment (EROI) is also an important consideration (though, of course, we should be careful as there are some reasonable objections to the metric and way it is measured). This is a factor which measures energy generation over lifetime compared to that used for manufacture and installation. An EROI of 2, for example, would mean a system generates twice the energy used for manufacture and installation, 0.5 would mean the system generates half the energy used. Hopefully this is clear (I know my explanations are not always the easiest to follow). Maybe you already know this anyway – in which case sorry for the unnecessary explanation!

The study gives EROI values of: poly-Si 11.6 and mono-Si 8.7 (thin films again seem to be better, with Cad-Tel being 34.2, but again let’s ignore these as they are not widespread technologies).

What about wind? This is pretty complicated (there are a lot of variables to consider, and the choice of boundaries is always a key factor). One recent metareview [2] suggests the EROI of wind turbines may be around 19.8.

These numbers are comparable to the estimates for nuclear (15.8 or 9.1, depending on your assumptions [3] regarding whether or not multiple fuel stages are accounted for). Given nuclear is already a viable form of energy generation, I think this demonstrates a pretty good case for renewables. Coil and oil EROIs are far more variable, and I won’t comment as I have insufficient expertise to evaluate, but I will note that some studies give EROI values for shale oil which are actually significantly lower than that of wind or solar – again, this is by no means authoritative, but perhaps an interesting point for a life-cycle analyst to look into.

Now, there are a lot of methodological issues with EROI-type calculations and I certainly wouldn’t say what I’ve cited here is the ultimate word. However, most studies and meta-reviews seem to show that EROI of wind and solar are positive, often quite comparable to nuclear, and not exactly minuscule compared to coal- and oil-fired electricity (though of course those are superior in terms of total energy offered). The amounts of time required for them to overcome the initial energy investments are – though definitely significant and an important consideration – also not exactly huge.

Of course, the more we can move over to renewables + nuclear, the closer to 0 the emissions of the energy become. While I don’t want to sound too starry-eyed (and we do need to think carefully about environmental impact other than simply emissions), this is a self-reinforcing circle. And given that renewable energy is “readily available”, while coal and oil are (on any sensible timescale) not, this does seem a good bet. Far from perfect – but not as bad as perhaps some may think.

But what about end of life (EoL)? This is certainly an area which requires improvement – recycling, as always, is often left as an afterthought rather than built into the design. However, there is considerable work going on in this area (though, again as always, it’d be easier if we actually funded it to a significant degree).

The current EU directive for PV recycling/recovery targets is ca. 85% and 80%. The current PV recycling % possible is between 90% and 96% (depending on how much you believe literature vs press-releases). One estimate suggests currently PVs are cycled at ca. 10% world-wide [4], though that appears to be mainly a consequence of lack of regulation (hey – that sounds like a way in which socio-political changes could help!).

Recycling wind turbines is interesting – one can easily get 85-90% (remember it is mostly metal and wires!), with the main sticking point being the (typically) carbon-fiber blades. Composites are very hard to recycle (pyrolysis can be used, but it is not an energy efficient approach!), so a lot of thought should be put into the starting point (are there more-easily recycled materials which could be used?), the possible processes (can we introduce polymer matrix design, such as embedding thermoplastic materials, etc.?), and the potential recycling opportunity (do we shred them, burn them, or what?). This isn’t a solved problem, but I doubt it is impossible to ever find any way to make wind turbine blades which are relatively efficient (though maybe not quite as high) but more easily recyclable.

So, TL;DR, There is room for improvement in terms of lifetime and EROI (though they are by no means significantly terrible), but it seems recycling is where the main advances still need to be made.


When talking about this, we have to first think a bit about timescales, systems, variability vs predictability, and distributions. To give the “in a nutshell”:

a) Storage is a complex topic, but my suggestion is “don’t think batteries – think energy storage basket”. This is because:

i) Batteries are good at the things they are good at (to be tautological), but using a battery to fix every problem is a bad, bad idea. To make one of my famously bad analogies – this is like insisting everyone drives a Ford Mondeo – sure, for most people it is probably fine, but if you actually need a fire engine or a lorry then you are not using the best tool for the job. Also, using lead acid batteries in a plane is impractical, while using Li-ion in stationary storage is (admittedly arguably) a bit of a waste (though there may be some interesting advances in Na-ion, but be skeptical). In short, we should be careful not to artificially limit the perspective.

ii) We need to think a bit about time resolution and requirements. Different energy storage systems are better are different rates of charge discharge. Supercapacitors are better at fast rates, batteries for long term storage. Hydrogen has potentially very high gravimetric and volumetric energy densities, redox flow batteries have potentially unlimited life-span. Etc. etc. Moreover, variance in supply/demand on the grid happens at different timescales too. So, the best tool for the job is dependent on the toolkit and the jobs.

b) Predictability vs variability. For example, while the sun doesn’t always shine, this is relatively predictable (often on the days-weeks timescales). It is variable, but potentially manageably so. While I’m not suggesting this is trivial, there is nothing there which couldn’t (at least in principle) be solved by having a sensible system with planned storage in place. And while such things are expensive (another socio-political issue!), require sensible planning, a diverse generation basket, and close monitoring, none of this seems to be beyond the technologies we either already have or are very close to having.

c) Distribution is an interesting question. What is better – a series of local microgrids linked together, a large national grid with centralised control, something else? Potentially the answer will be dependent on whereabouts you are talking. Again, though, managing and distributing energy is something with which there is experience and solutions – and again, I’m not trivialising it, but it is not really “beyond our technology”, though it might be beyond what is currently politically achievable (again, socio-political…well, you get the point).

d) Including non-intermittent “green-ish” energy is also a potential approach. We could have nuclear. Or electrolysis-produced hydrogen. Hydropower (ok, bad for local habitats, but maybe slightly preferable to cooking to death?). We don’t have to start with “let’s go 100% solar and wind right now, regardless of the issues” (as you indeed note). Most countries phase in. Should we be phasing faster (yes)? Should there be better investment in looking into how to handle phasing (yes)? But again, this is not so much a technological issue (though I would agree we still need to keep pushing that front – the more we advance here, the easier the changes, the easier to get society to change, something something chicken and egg, etc.).

Concluding remarks

It is also worth looking at what currently has been achieved. Some countries are already near 100% renewables, such as Iceland (100%), Norway (98.5%), and Austria (80%). Of course, these use large amounts of hydro, which has its own objections, but it is interesting to note that they seem to be handling it quite well (I think there are some good lessons here). Denmark is at ca. 50%, mostly from wind (with some solar) and while we should be cautious (they have advantages of being able to rely on their neighbours), again it shows that it is not impossible to make quite significant leaps.

I am not saying technology alone will solve the issue (I think I’ve been very clear on that!), but if we are sensible in advocacy, avoid getting hung up on pushing a one-size-fits-all approach, plan well, and look to make both social-political and technological advances, we stand a very good chance of mitigating the worst case scenarios.

And while we need to keep advancing the tech, we already have some good (if problematic) approaches and systems, and I don’t see making sensible advances in these areas requires anything which offends the laws of physics.

Be skeptical, be a passionate advocate, and do demand better. But we have to be careful, as despair is not productive – we need to push, and we are already past the point where the future won’t be problematic, but if we don’t keep at it the issues will go from “pretty bad” to “civilisation ending with mass extinctions”.

Let’s all of us work together to make it more the former than the latter…

[1] DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2015.02.057
[2] DOI: 10.1016/j.renene.2009.01.012
[3] DOI: 10.1016/j.enconman.2008.01.033
[4] DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.74390

Comments on this entry are closed.