Controversial Book Claims Renewable Energy Does Not Offset Fossil Fuel Use

by , 06/27/12

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A controversial new environmental book called Green Illusions, by University of California Berkeley scholar Ozzie Zehner, claims that renewable energy technologies in the US are not offseting fossil fuel use in the United States. In fact, Zehner claims that by building more solar cells and wind turbines, we could actually be accelerating fossil fuel use.

green illusion, ozzie zehner, us alternative energy, us alternative power, fossil fuels, offset, fossil fuel usage, solar cells, renewable energy technologies

Zehner explains in his book that countries that subsidize renewable energy “merely expands energy supplies, which exerts a downward pressure on prices”. He says that as a result, energy demand subsequently increases. “This brings us right back to where we started: high demand and so-called insufficient supply,” says Zehner. “Historically, we’ve filled that added demand by building more coal-fired power plants, not fewer.”

It is a skewed take on the debate, and one that this writer doesn’t particular agree with. In the US, alternative energy is growing and getting more and more diverse. Plus, unlike other countries around the world, the US is still embracing nuclear energy which is seen as the current ‘stand in’ for fossil fuel plants. However, despite the fact that energy experts say that solar and wind farms will displace coal use and lower carbon dioxide levels, Zehner disagrees.

“We create an energy boomerang,” Zehner remarked during a recent PBS interview. “The harder we throw energy into the grid, the harder demand comes back to hit us on the head. More efficient solar cells, taller wind turbines, and advanced biofuels are all just ways of throwing harder.”

Zehner has backed up this claim citing a recent paper in Nature Climate Change, by University of Oregon professor Richard York. The study analyzed 50 years of energy data and found no evidence that wind or solar energy production offsets fossil fuel use – despite the fact that solar and wind efficiency has only really taken off in the last decade.

Zehner believes that in order to avoid this ‘boomerang effect’, there are five necessary prerequisites that have to be followed: 1. Low per-capita energy consumption; 2. An energy tax scheduled to increase over time; 3. A binding long-term plan to improve building and equipment efficiency; 4. Legislation that prioritizes walkable and bikeable neighborhoods over car culture; and 5. Universal healthcare and a strong human rights record.

“The United States meets none,” noted Zehner. “In fact, in countries such as the United States, with dismal efficiency, sprawling suburbs, a growing population, and high rates of material consumption, renewable energy technologies do the most harm as they perpetuate energy-intensive modes of living.”

In that regard he has a point, but if he truly believes we shouldn’t continue to invest in renewable energy technologies to make a cleaner, greener future – then he’s just wrong.

+ Green Illusions

Via Sacramento Bee

Images: Caveman Chuck Coker



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  1. blueskykate July 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Zehner is correct. This is called Jevons Paradox and it is very real. I believe his point is that we should all be focused less on how alternative energies might help us maintain our current relatively luxurious lifestyles, and more on how to meet basic needs with much less energy.

  2. james david moffet iii June 27, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    It’s important to note that conventional fuel producers get far, far more subsidy and investment than renewable producers and in some cases the money comes out of the same budget, meaning that a dollar in subsidy/investment for renewable energy reduces the subsidy/investment available for conventional energy by $1, which is, on balance, a victory. Ending energy subsidies altogether and instituting a dirty energy tax would, of course, be far more effective in reducing our impact on the environment (but politically impossible without a nasty popular uprising).

    The “throwing harder” problem actually has nothing to do with renewable energy, we’d be “throwing harder” at conventional generation if we weren’t doing it with renewables (probably much more effectively to boot).

    The author is describing a problem of total energy costs being too low for his liking. The “Boomerang Effect” is a silly buzzword. The effect exists to an even larger degree in conventional energy investment and subsidy, which means that it is devoid of any meaningful connection to renewable energy, except for the slight, obvious, irony in the fact that cheaper wind-turbines and solar panels cause people to consume more energy.

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