Richard Heinberg on Renewable Energy

How we use energy is as important as how we get it

“I’ve concluded that many of us have been asking the wrong questions of renewables. We’ve been demanding that they continue to power a growth-based consumer economy that is inherently unsustainable for a variety of reasons (the most obvious one being that we live on a small planet with finite resources)” – Richard Heinberg

There is a varying views out there on if, and how well, renewables can replace fossil fuels. A recent report by Richard Heinberg, of the Post Carbon Institute, titled “Our Renewable Future” (published by the Simplicity Institute) provides an excellent concise look at what it will involve to move away from fossil fuels. The critical issue that Heinberg’s article adds to the debate is how we use energy is as important as how we get it. Over the last 2 centuries we have kept adding new sources of energy to existing ones (starting with firewood, then coal, oil, hydro, natural gas, and nuclear) giving us cheap and constant access to more energy than ever before in human history. This has the enabled the consumer society we have today to develop. The future we are facing will require the replacement of our primary energy sources.


Given that solar and wind have different qualities to fossil fuels (chief among them being the intermittent nature of these sources – sun doesn’t always shine and wind doesn’t always blow) and solar and wind farms take up much more space (with associated issues of land availability and impacts on conservation areas) this is most likely to involve a reduction in the amount and reliability of energy we will have available.

“We always adapt out energy sources, as much as we can, to suit the ways we want to use energy. It is therefore understandable that most people would like somehow to make solar and wind act just like fossil fuels – which have shaped our current consumption patterns……we may have to adapt the ways we use energy to suit the quantities and inherent qualities of the energy available to us.” – Richard Heinburg

So the questions that Heinberg sees that we should be addressing are:

  1. What kind of society can up-to-date renewable energy sources power?
  2. How do we go about becoming that sort of society?

In imagining this future it is important to consider how we can equally transition all classes of society. At current prices solar is not feasible for the poorer sections of community. Also while Heinberg does not go into it, it is also important that consideration is given to how these “green” technologies are produced. It is imperative that we ensure that workers producing solar panels are paid fair wages and work in safe conditions. There is also the additional issues of how metals used in panels are mined and how toxic by products of manufacturing process are disposed of (see Environmental impacts of renewable energy by the Union of concerned scientists.  for excellent summary of some of the potential downsides of solar energy)

Heinberg goes on to look at nine key areas of society will need to be redesigned: food, water, resource extraction (mining, forestry, fishing), building construction, building operations, manufacturing, health care, transportation and finance.

In this transition individual choices such as: buying food grown locally using permaculture methods; reducing water useage; reusing and recycling materials and repairing goods where possible; using natural locally available building materials for housing and building smaller houses; minimising energy use; walking cycling and using public transport as much as possible etc are important. However they need to be connected into larger initiatives that provide detailed plans on how to transition each of these major sectors.

I have included the introduction from Heinberg’s article below. The full article can be downloaded for free from The Simplicity Institute or read online.

Our Renewable Future, by Richard Heinberg

People who pay attention to energy and climate issues are regularly treated to two competing depictions of society’s energy options. On one hand, the fossil fuel industry claims that its products deliver unique economic benefits, and that giving up coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources like solar and wind will entail sacrifice and suffering (see [1]). Saving the climate may not be worth the trouble, they say, unless we can find affordable ways to capture and sequester carbon as we continue burning fossil fuels.

On the other hand, at least some renewable energy proponents tell us there is plenty of wind and sun, the fuel is free, and the only thing standing between us and a climate-protected world of plentiful, sustainable, “green” energy, jobs, and economic growth is the political clout of the coal, oil, and gas industries (see [2]).

Which message is right? Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts.

If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, “How we use energy is as important as how we get it.

The full essay is freely available here.”

Additional reading:

From Best to Worst: Renewable Energy from around the world. New Internationalist March 2015

Environmental impacts of renewable energy. by Union of concerned scientists.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.