Photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ
October 30, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The climate is changing. We have left the Holocene and entered the Anthropocene[1], the era in which human enterprise is pushing the planetary functioning of essential cycles (e.g. of CO2) into a potentially unstable regime. Human enterprise, by burning fossil fuels for electrical, heat and motive power is the central cause of climate change, and is driven by an economic system that promotes insatiable consumption.

Despite growing awareness, as evidenced by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, that action is needed, business-as-usual  carries on, defining  narrow perspectives, to perpetuate the overuse of fossil fuels. A broader conversation is required, in which the health, environmental, economic and social impacts across the fossil fuel supply chain are brought to light. The entanglement of the fossil fuel supply chain, banks and commodity traders, as well as the industry’s historical advantages need to be taken into account when discussing the economic competitiveness of fossil fuel versus renewable electric power generation technologies.

Despite earlier strides toward the energy transition, European markets are now discouraging renewable power installations. While painted as requiring expensive subsidies, renewable power generation in fact receives only a tiny fraction of the subsidies that fossil fuels receive. Subsidies build infrastructure, and the choice has to be made to steer the subsidies away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, to give clear signals to investors and to avoid paralysis.

Renewable electric power is less expensive than grid power in many markets. Even though their presence on the electricity market lowers the wholesale electricity price, this saving is not passed on to consumers.  Indeed, the electricity market is fundamentally not suited to the demands of electricity generation that are required  in the 21st century.  Photovoltaics, despite their predictable intermittency, bring power management advantages, and can actually improve the resiliency  of the grid.  While storage will eventually be needed, it is not a current bottleneck.



The papers are published in MRS Energy and Sustainability, by Authors Carol Olson and Frank Lenzmann, and are freely available online for one month:

Bringing the social costs and benefits of electric energy from photovoltaics versus fossil fuels to light

The social and economic consequences of the fossil fuel supply chain



  1. 1- A renewable energy is a self-sustaining energy, ie which should be able to reproduce by itself its production infra structure. Solar energy is at the moment deeply embedded in the fossil fuel chain and therefore cannot stand by itself and therefore is not truly renewable. No fossil fuels, no solar energy.
    2 considering the price of a single energy is a big mistake. Only the cost of the energy mix which it is imbedded in makes sense.
    3 however, external costs of energies have to be considered, and it is true that they are very important for fossil fuels, especially coal.

  2. 1) The logic of the above comment needs to be examined. B. Durand posits that: “Renewable energy is a self-sustaining energy which should be able to reproduce by itself its production infrastructure” . Renewable energy is a sustainable energy because it does not rely on fuel whose procurement and use depletes resources and causes toxic by-products in the form of air, water and soil pollution. These toxic by-products have become so concentrated as to change the physics of our planet’s climate.

    It is questionable what is actually meant by a ‘self-sustaining’ energy’, which sounds a bit like magical thinking. Every new energy technology arises out of a context in which another energy technology predominates. Wood was required to produce charcoal, which was needed to produce iron for the industrial revolution, which was powered by water power and steam. Cities ran on steam when the first gas lines were introduced for urban lighting and later for cooking. Oil & gas replaced charcoal and steam, and were initially manufactured using the preceding energy technology. The replacement of fossil fuels by photovoltaic and wind energy of course begins with the manufacturing relying on the preceding technology. This is not to say that photovoltaics cannot be manufactured with electricity generated by renewable energy sources. There is no technological reason why photovoltaic modules can not be manufactured in regions that rely on 100% renewable energy. (Some photovoltaic manufacturing companies already use photovoltaic electricity on their manufacturing sites, and solar silicon is frequently manufactured with hydropower.) The electricity generated by a system consisting of wind and PV is equally able to power manufacturing, as conventional ‘dirty’ electricity. Therefore, the conclusion that solar energy cannot ‘stand by itself’ and is ‘not truly renewable’ are logically fallacious. The rhetorical statement, ‘no fossil fuels, no solar energy’ is a misleading sound-bite.

    2 & 3: I am glad that you agree that it is worthwhile for policy-makers to consider the cost of the total energy mix, including the environmental, social and economic ‘external’ costs of that energy mix to society. Therefore, it then follows that the cost contributions of each energy source needs to be figured out.

  3. Charles Hall writes:
    Fossil fuels are subsidized more but they generate far more electricity. What is the subsidy per GWh? That seems a fairer comparison.

    In our article we explain that it is a problematic framing of the issue because it does not include consideration of the accepted reasoning for awarding a subsidy in the first place. Subsidies are meant 1) to promote new technologies, or 2) to support services beneficial to society for which the private sector is unwilling to pay. On the first count, fossil fuel electricity technologies are mature technologies, having received subsidies over the past 90 years which have built a social and material infrastructure to enable them. On the second count, the damages of fossil fuel electricity generation now outweigh the benefits, especially when it can be substituted by less damaging electricity generating technologies. The calculation of subsidy per GWh will undoubtedly show that fossil fuel electricity has a lower subsidy per GWh than photovoltaics does, as possibly implied by Charles Hall.. This, however, obscures the point that fossil fuels should not be receiving any financial aid. Society must steer investments to less damaging energy technologies. Although they are technologically mature and commercially available, the renewable energy infrastructure is not yet in place and requires investment.

    The fossil fuel industries are mature industries with enormous financial resources. Nevertheless, they are still treated as protected industries for which strapped taxpayers, like aging parents, still pay their rent and give them allowance. Subsidies need to provide clear signals in steering investments. If the energy transition is to move forward, then the fossil fuel subsidies need to be ended and renewable subsidies continued.

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