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Clean Energy's Dirty Secrets

Fantasies of a renewable future obscure our big climate responsibilities, says Ozzie Zehner in 'Green Illusions.'

Justin Ritchie 27 Sep

Justin Ritchie covers energy, ecology and human behavior on The Extraenvironmentalist, which airs each Wednesday afternoon on CiTR 101.9 FM, on radio affiliates across Canada and in podcast form online. He is a PhD student at UBC in Resource Management and Environmental Systems studying our global energy transition.

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Ozzie Zehner: No illusions here.

As epic drought ravages North America and Arctic ice melts to record low levels, some of the most apocalyptic predictions of climate science are coming true ahead of schedule. Climate change's severity has become all too apparent in 2012, and calls to end the reign of fossil fuels grow ever stronger. Bill McKibben's article on "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" elicited millions of views, 112,000 Facebook likes, and over 5,000 comments as it elucidated the problem of fossil fuel companies and their unwillingness to set a price on carbon, address global warming or embrace an energy alternative. Though what would that alternative look like?

The mainstream environmental movement often turns to the idea of a renewable energy economy to paint the picture of a world without fossil fuels and their greenhouse gases. Bill McKibben himself has been amongst the most vocal proponents of the need for renewables. In an interview earlier this month, McKibben was asked how developing countries should handle the problem of climate change. He responded, "We would need to help them make the transition to renewable energy, and fast. It's not just the moral thing to do; it's the practical one."

Is the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy a moral or practical thing to do? A recent book, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism by writer, philanthrophy consultant and UC-Berkeley scholar Ozzie Zehner sets out to address that imperative.

Energy fantasies

Zehner is clear at the beginning of Green Illusions that he isn't writing the book to bash renewable energy, just to discuss some uncomfortable truths that tend to get overlooked in simplistic energy debates. He starts by tackling what he calls the "seductive tales" of wind turbines, solar cells and biofuels: the idea that the world is only a few technical upgrades away from sustaining its current energy trajectory (or something that looks a lot like it), with few consequences.

As an architect, Zehner's clients often asked him how they could incorporate alternative energy and solar energy into their projects. In researching ideas, he quickly discovered many drawbacks to photovoltaic technologies that sparked his journey of critical environmentalism. What he found didn't jibe with the commonly heard and very vivid descriptions of how transformative solar energy could be, like how just three per cent of the solar energy hitting the North African desert could power Europe, or that offshore wind turbines across the Atlantic could power the east coast of North America.

Stories like this are propagated so widely because they contain a grain of truth, Zehner writes. The truth is that there is an incredible amount of solar energy and wind energy flowing across our planet every second. The problem is when we think we can harness it for our electricity needs.

Zehner's motivation in writing Green Illusions is that simplistic dialogue on energy in society misdirects our focus on the real problem: energy consumption. If we build enough solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars to substitute for our living arrangements and car culture, we'll devastate the planet through mining and be disappointed with our results.

'We don't have an energy crisis'

Early in Green Illusions, Zehner describes what it would take to power our global energy needs with solar cells: US$123 trillion. The mining, processing and manufacturing facilities would cost about $44 trillion, solar panels would run about $59 trillion and the batteries would cost about $20 trillion. Don't worry about maintenance though; it would be only fraction of that cost, according to Zehner's estimate: $694 billion each year. To put that number in perspective, the world's GDP was at $69.97 trillion in 2011. Giving up fossil fuels for a solar PV future would also mean giving up clothes, housing and everything else for about two years.

Though few energy proponents would advocate that a nation should rely entirely on solar cells, the economics stack up in similar ways if you substitute part of the costs with wind turbines, tidal generators, thorium reactors or anything else you can think of. That's because Zehner claims we don't have an energy crisis, we have a consumption crisis.

Because we value production so dearly in our economies, our approaches to solving energy problems have been focused on changing the means of production rather than overall reductions in material and energy consumption. We can see this logic playing out in global trade: nations with a trade surplus like China and Germany are often given an elevated moral status over consumerist nations like the United States or Greece.

Zehner takes the cherished myths of the solar industry, the wind industry, biofuels, nuclear power, hydrogen, hydropower and others to task on their overenthusiastic promises. With few exceptions, environmentalists have accepted projections of growth in solar and wind energy production because these energy sources have taken on a cherished and moral status. Like reports from the oil industry, official publications on renewable energy can obscure darker consequences. On this, Zehner provides an example of a U.S. Department of Energy report titled 20% Wind Energy by 2030 that was given prominence by the Obama campaign in 2008, but was carefully written by industry insiders to over-hype wind potential using very optimistic numbers. Environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the Worldwatch Institute and Greenpeace widely touted the report, but not a single one questioned its methodology.

If solar cells aren't on a continually decreasing cost curve (their installation costs have basically flatlined over the last decade due to low-tech costs like labour), and highly touted industry reports on wind turbines have dramatically overstated their potential, what should future environmentalists work towards if it isn't a renewable energy future?

Enviros, time to retool

Can we really envision our energy future without imagining skyscrapers topped with gleaming wind turbines and solar panels on every house? Green Illusions is a fundamental critique of an approach to sustainability that simply aims for LEED buildings, high-tech energy gadgets like smart meters and electric cars. The book isn't just a critique of clean energy technologies; it also aims to outline the playbook for environmentalists of the future.

By advocating for women's rights to reduce overpopulation, reducing consumption and building walkable communities, Zehner says we can start building a society and culture that is accustomed to using less energy, though some of these changes may be rather dramatic. Following some of Zehner's suggestions would mean scrapping the GDP as a metric of economic growth, and reducing the number of hours in a work week to dampen the impact of the "work-spend-cycle" identified by Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor in her 1998 book The Overworked American.

"The key is trying to find paths to reduce energy consumption across society by finding approaches that people will actually want to embrace, because by doing so they will increase their quality of life and their satisfaction," says Zehner.

The critical approach towards environmentalism Zehner uses to construct the arguments of Green Illusions has drawn its own critics from environmental groups, clean energy manufacturers and the automotive industry. Especially ripe for critique is Zehner's claim that thinking electric cars are green obscures the extensive amount of materials and energy consumed in manufacturing. Many have argued that Zehner's references are out-of-date or that his approach is "alarmist" and "misleading."

Yet specific critiques of numbers in the book miss the greater point: in a world of limited decisions, is it really smart to subsidize marginally effective mitigation strategies of our car culture, suburbia and overpopulation without addressing the root causes?

Over the last year, numerous renewable energy companies have gone bankrupt across Europe, North America and Asia. Traditionally successful wind turbine manufacturers have laid off large portions of their workforce and dozens of solar panel manufacturers have gone bankrupt. At this rate, Zehner's suggestions for an environmentalism that doesn't build its primary focus on renewable energy may be all we have left.

Critiques or questions on Ozzie Zehner's approach to critical environmentalism? He'll be speaking as part of the 2012-2013 UBC Reads Sustainability series at the UBC Point Grey Campus on Friday, Sept. 28 from 12 to 2 p.m. in the Ike Barber Library's Victoria Learning Theatre. Register for free here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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