The Dirty Truth About Renewable Energies

Israel’s cabinet was lambasted for failing to set ambitious renewable targets, but ambition is only half the story. Realism is the other half

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Irony in Germany
Irony and realism in GermanyCredit: Martin Meissner / AP
David Rosenberg

The howls of protest came fast and furious on Sunday after Israel’s cabinet approved a watered-down resolution on making the transition to renewable energy. Instead of a climate change law, ministers approved a package of 100 measures to encourage the development of energy technology and incentives for business and local governments to switch to renewables.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tried to deflect the blame by leaking laments about Israel’s failure to commit to net zero emissions. Embarrassingly, he will be attending next week’s United Nations climate conference in Glasgow (COP26) as one of the national leaders on the wrong side of climate change history. At least the others are coming with targets.

No neutrals in this war

The threat of climate change is real, and the world is distressingly behind schedule in taking the steps needed to stabilize, much less reverse, the situation. Meanwhile, the fight has turned into a moral crusade.

That’s inevitable, and maybe even helpful, as a way of rallying people to the cause, but it has the deleterious effect of blinding them to the obstacles and the costs that will be an inevitable part of achieving them.

The transition to renewable energy is more often than not portrayed as a struggle between scientists and activists on the side of truth and indisputable facts pitted against a wicked fossil-fuel industry determined to profit at the cost of humanity’s existence by keeping us dependent on oil, gas and coal. There’s no place for neutrals in this war, and there’s certainly no room for admitting the complications involved in transitioning to alternative energy; nor is there room to question whether renewable energy can “save” us or whether, no matter what, people simply have to slash their consumption.

In any case, unfortunately, that transition to renewables is not simple or cost-free.

Europe, which is routinely lauded in Israel as the exemplar of proper climate change policy (not that it’s been meeting its own targets), is now experiencing a serious energy crisis.

There are several factors at play, most notably a shortage of natural gas. But the problem has been exacerbated by the failure of wind power to generate its share of electric power because of insufficient wind. Meanwhile, Europe’s policy of weaning its economies off fossil fuel by decommissioning fossil-fuel power plants and discouraging oil and gas exploration has meant there isn’t enough generating capacity to make up for the lost wind power.

Prices for natural gas have soared and Europe faces the prospect of bailouts if the winter turns out to be especially cold and energy demand rises. And, don’t imagine this is a one-time event; energy crunches like this are likely to occur with increasing frequency if the transition to renewables isn’t managed properly.

There’s a great middle between the minorities at either end of the spectrum between climate-change denialists and climate-change hysterics. The great middle recognizes the climate threat and the need for change, but when the lights go out or the price of gasoline soars, dealing with global warming isn’t going to be their top priority.

A Dorel solar power facilityCredit: Adit-movies

Your money or your life

Leaders in democratic countries (and even in many autocracies) can’t and won’t pursue the right climate change policies if their voters are too resistant. Climate change policy isn’t just about science, targeting and programs: it’s about getting the great mass of ordinary people on board.

No government can afford to ignore that by risking traumas like blackouts or long lines at filling stations. To ensure that doesn’t happen, oil and gas and even evil coal will be with us for some time; in fact, the world will have to continue to explore and exploit it for years to come, if our living standards as we know them are to be maintained, until renewables can truly fill the gap.

The second challenge is the cost of transition. The International Energy Agency estimates the world will invest no less than $1.9 trillion in clean energy and that's just in 2021. To meet the carbon-reduction targets set for 2050, that investment will have to grow to as much as $5.5 trillion annually.

That’s a huge amount of money and, as we know, money doesn’t grow on trees even when it is going to save the planet.

Given the proper incentives, the private sector can provide the capital, but it will come at the cost of investing in other things, some of them dear to us, like housing, health and education.

Worse still, the transition financed by this investment will almost certainly exacerbate economic inequality. As much as environmentalists talk about all the jobs the renewables revolution will bring, we should be honest about the kind of jobs that will be: Lots of coal miners and oil tanker crews will be replaced by many fewer engineers and techies, because that’s what green energy requires. The tech-inequality phenomenon will simply grow worse, even if governments try to mitigate it.

Finally, there is the uncertainty of tech development. A lot of the technology the world will need to make the transition to greener energy has yet to be developed, especially efficient batteries to store solar and wind power at competitive prices. In that regard, the plan approved by the Israeli government that focuses on innovation is a (small) step in the right direction.

Sunshine: Check

On top of all these other challenges, Israel has some special ones of its own that add to the risk of a headlong rush into renewables. We don’t have the full array of renewable options others have, such as hydropower and much wind, so our transition has no choice but to focus on solar. But that is a problem because solar not only requires a lot of sun (which we do have) but a lot of land (which we don’t).

How much land Israel would need to reach 90 or 100 percent renewables is a matter of much debate. But the pat answer that we can erect solar panels on every flat urban surface and avoid blanketing vast desert tracts with solar farms is facile. At the very least, it would require considerably more money than giant solar farms cost and many years to adapt the electricity grid to such decentralized power. Even then experts argue over how much power could be generated.

The bottom line is, yes, we do have to set targets, but they have to be targets that we can actually meet and won’t create crises that turn the public against the war on climate change. It’s easy to laud the countries that set the most ambitious green goals for themselves, but we would do better to laud those that set realistic ones.

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