A great transition is underway from the fossil fuel age to a new world powered by renewable energy (RE) – particularly solar and wind. Some of the key questions are how fast the energy transition will advance, whether it will be an “orderly” or “disorderly” transition, how much the transition will cost, what its impacts will be on job creation and economic growth, how it will reshape trade patterns and geopolitical alignments, whether it will promote more pacifying or conflictual tendencies between states, and what a truly “just transition” would entail.
But perhaps a more fundamental question, usually ignored by social scientists but debated widely among energy researchers, concerns the ultimate potential of solar and wind energy: can they become abundant sources of “cheap energy” (in Jason Moore’s terms) capable of powering a long wave of capital accumulation and exponential growth? Or are RE sources inherently constrained relative to the unique energy densities and affordances of fossil fuels?
Many economists, techno-optimists, and “solar dominance” advocates provide a version of the first position, focusing primarily on plummeting solar, wind, and battery costs and projecting these trends into the future. On the other side, numerous energy researchers contend that problems like relatively low energy densities and “Energy Return on Energy Investment” (EROI) compared to fossil fuels, intermittency, and high land-use and mineral demands will constrain RE potential and likely require an energy-constrained world relative to the fossil fuel era.
In a recently published article I provide a version of this second position, which I call the “non-substitutability hypothesis.” But any argument of this kind requires nuance, particularly given the technical uncertainties. Indeed, there may be no absolute geophysical limits to how far solar and wind energy could expand in principle. But there are a number of political, economic, technical, and ecological obstacles that will make it difficult to realize this potential. In practice, these obstacles may generate political-economic crises that doom the transition to fossil fueled backlash, though they may also create opportunities for more radical post-capitalist transformations.
In this short post I’ll focus on one of the key technical-economic barriers that is often ignored by mainstream analysts of the RE transition: the EROI problem. Biophysical economists emphasize that one of the key metrics for gauging RE potential is not simply the total energy that can theoretically be generated from solar and wind, which is indeed huge, but rather the net energy that remains after subtracting the energy costs needed to extract, harness, and deliver that energy to the point of use. It is incredibly difficult to calculate and compare EROI levels between fossil fuels and renewables, due to their different supply-chain profiles and conversion processes. But by following two of the mostup to date studies on this problem, we can roughly estimate that average contemporary EROI for fossil fuels is about 4 : 1 (i.e. 4 joules created for every joule of input), whereas it is about 2.9 : 1 for onshore wind, 2.3 : 1 for offshore wind, and 1.8 : 1 for solar PV.
RE technologies will certainly continue to improve, but other factors will counterbalance these gains and make it challenging to raise EROI over time, including the need to scale up energy and mineral intensive battery systems, the exhaustion of the sunniest and windiest locations over time, the shift to lower quality mineral ores as the highest quality reserves deplete, the need to eventually manufacture and transport RE using RE rather than fossil fuels (decarbonizing heat-intensive industrial processes and long-distance supply-chains critical to RE systems will be the biggest challenge here), and technical limits to solar panel and wind turbine efficiency improvements (e.g. the Shockley-Queisser and Betz’s law limits to single-junction solar cell and wind turbine efficiencies), among others.
Furthermore, another key problem that is often ignored by RE analysts, but highlighted by Iñigo Capellán-Perézand colleagues (among other energy researchers), is that the EROI of RE sources would likely reach their lowest levels during the early phases of an accelerated transition: the faster the transition, the higher the upfront energy and mineral demands to power it, and the lower the available net energy for the rest of the world economy. In the long run this wouldn’t necessarily matter: once the RE infrastructure is in place, the energy provided over its lifetime would more than make up for these initial inputs, potentially by many times over. But the danger is that this brings economy-wide EROI to dangerously low levels in the early phases of the transition. In this case, we would witness a high risk of energy shortages and mineral bottlenecks, which would likely trigger price spikes and economy-wide inflation (or what some analysts call “greenflation”).
In sum, while the ultimate long-run potential for RE expansion may be immense, the problem of relatively low EROI – especially in the early phases of the transition – means that an accelerated transition would likely mean less net energy available for the world economy, increasing risk of energy shortages, “greenflation”-induced stagnation (or “green-stagflation”), and possibly, as Jason Moore anticipates, an overall “decline in [capital’s] capacity to restructure its way out of great crises.”
We should not assume that this analysis is necessarily correct: EROI calculations are subject to immense methodological uncertainties and disagreement, which means the estimates cited above could be misleading. But what if they are roughly accurate? If so, then I suggest that three possible trajectories for the RE transition may result.
The first is climate catastrophe: this may come about merely through continuous delay, polarization, and political gridlock that perpetuates the current gradualist approach. But it could also emerge from a backlash that emerges if/when a “net zero by 2050” coalition succeeds in decisively changing policies to accelerate the transition, e.g. by shifting subsidies en masse from fossil fuels to renewables. In this case, a green-stagflation crisis (similar to but worse than what we’re witnessing today with the current energy crunch) would likely strike, creating a negative feedback in the form of an immense “Gilets Jaunes”-style backlash and rightwing mobilization against the transition (possibly taking the form of what Andreas Malm and company call “fossil fascism”).
Alternatively, a protracted green-stagflation-induced crisis of capitalism, in conjunction with increasingly powerful climate justice movements in core states, could force it to mutate in a post-growth, post-capitalist direction. There are numerous possible geographically uneven and combined variants of this trajectory, but in my recent article I focus on two: 1) a post-capitalist transition that socializes production and ensures access to universal public services (or basic income) in some privileged states (perhaps the G7 plus China) while perpetuating a “militarized global apartheid”structure vis-à-vis the global south; or 2) a “climate justice” transition scenario in which powerful climate justice movements force the G7 plus China to facilitate global decarbonization and redistribution through ramped up climate finance, technology transfers, debt cancellation, debt-for-nature swaps, and other compensation mechanisms (better thought of as reparations) to the global south. The second variant is of course the most politically challenging, but it can be considered a “concrete utopian” potential that can orient and inspire activism in the present.
Ecosocialists and climate activists fighting for a genuinely just transition need to take account of the these possible trajectories of the RE transition in order to inform political strategies in the present. In particular, this analysis has major implications for those fighting for a “Green New Deal” (GND) in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. Many leftwing GND proposals, such as Robert Pollin’s, assume that a GND would bolster economic growth through its effects on job creation and the “fiscal multiplier.” But the analysis above suggests things are more complicated; instead, green-stagflation may be a more likely outcome. If so, given that a near-term GND is essential, the challenge for climate justice movements then becomes: how would we defeat the reactionary narratives that emerge during a green-stagflation crisis by instead promoting the narrative that the solution is to create a more equitable post-capitalist economy? In short, how do we mobilize responses to the crisis that go further towards ecosocialism rather than backwards into the fossil capitalist attractor? And how do we do so in a way that furthers the ends of global solidarity and anti-imperialism rather than constructing what we could call “fortress ecosocialisms” in the global north?
There are no easy answers, which must emerge through concrete movement-building and a theory-praxis dialectic between scholars and activists. But one thing should be clear: rather than assuming that the RE transition will involve a smooth and painless transition to clean energy abundance, we need a more nuanced analysis of RE potential and the possible dynamics of the transition. A future of clean energy abundance is within reach (at least following post-capitalist understandings of “abundance”), but a river of turbulence stands between us and the hoped-for destination. Open-minded, provisional, and humble exercises in foresight can inform ecosocialist strategies to navigate this turbulence, ward off fossil fueled backlash, and ultimately create more just and sustainable futures.
Michael J. Albert is a Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London.
To read more, see: Michael J. Albert. “The Global Politics of the Renewable Energy Transition and the Non-Substitutability Hypothesis: Towards a ‘Great Transformation’?” in Review of International Political Economy 2021.
Image: Renewable Energy on the Grid via Wikimedia Commons (CC by 1.0)