NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Alternative Energy Hoax

August 19, 2013

Many today believe that renewable energy will allow us to get off fossil fuels soon. Unfortunately, the facts say otherwise. Solar and wind energy account for a trivial proportion of current renewables, which is about one-third of one percentage point. The vast majority comes from biomass, or wood and plant material, which is humanity's oldest energy source. While biomass is renewable, it is often neither good nor sustainable, says Bjørn Lomborg, the founder and director the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

  • According to International Energy Agency (IEA) data, 13.12 percent of the world's energy came from renewables in 1971, the first year that the IEA reported global statistics.
  • In 2011, renewables' share was actually lower, at 12.99 percent.
  • Yet a new survey shows that Americans believe that the share of renewables in 2035 will be 30.2 percent.
  • In reality, it will likely be 14.5 percent.

Burning wood in pre-industrial Western Europe caused massive deforestation, as is occurring in much of the developing world today.

  • The indoor air pollution that biomass produces kills more than 3 million people annually.
  • Likewise, modern energy crops increase deforestation, displace agriculture and push up food prices.

The reality is that humanity has spent recent centuries getting away from renewables. In 1800, the world obtained 94 percent of its energy from renewable sources. That figure has been declining ever since.

The momentous move toward fossil fuels has done a lot of good. Compared to 250 years ago, the average person in the United Kingdom today has access to 50 times more power, travels 250 times farther, and has 37,500 times more light. Incomes have increased 20-fold.

Of course, fossil fuels brought their own environmental problems. And, while technological innovations like scrubbers on smokestacks and catalytic converters on cars have reduced local air pollution substantially, the problem of carbon dioxide emissions remains. Indeed, it is the main reason for the world's clamor for a return to renewables.

To be sure, wind and solar have increased dramatically. Since 1990, wind-generated power has grown 26 percent per year and solar a phenomenal 48 percent. But the growth has been from almost nothing to slightly more than almost nothing. In 1990, wind produced 0.0038 percent of the world's energy; it is now producing 0.29 percent. Solar-electric power has gone from essentially zero to 0.04 percent.

Source: Bjørn Lomborg, "The Decline of Renewable Energy," Project Syndicate, August 14, 2013.


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