In my recent post, “The Limited Vision of the Pro-Nuclear Energy Argument,” one of the commenters wrote: “it is a fact that only carbon-based energy and nuclear have a high enough energy density to meet our world’s demands. None of the renewables come close.”

I responded, “It is far from ‘fact’ that only carbon-based and nuclear energy sources can meet the world’s needs. There are many studies showing that a combination of renewable sources can indeed meet that need. And that will be easier still with a rethinking of what we employ energy for and how it actually improves our lives.”

I was referring, in part, to several sources, including a 2009 article in Scientific American titled “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables,” as well as this study, this report and other promising work suggesting that renewables do, in fact, have the potential to meet our energy demand.  (See related story: “Going ‘All the Way’ With Renewable Energy?“) A recent Climate Progress post offered an indicator that we might even be headed in the right direction, noting that, according to government numbers, wind and solar made up 100 percent of new U.S. electricity capacity in September. And earlier reports in 2011 (see here and here) showed renewables outpacing conventional energy sources in both investment dollars and capacity growth.

Then, almost on demand, up pops a post by the inestimable Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in which he responds to President Obama’s recent statement that we “need some big technological breakthrough” to tackle climate change:

Mr. President — our nation already has the technologies to protect the climate while advancing prosperity. Here’s how.

Your National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed just last June how to produce 80 to 90 percent of America’s electricity from proven, reliable and increasingly competitive renewable sources like the sun and wind.

Lovins points to findings from his RMI book “Reinventing Fire” describing how a combination of energy efficiency and renewables can indeed meet the world’s future energy requirements. Energy efficiency, he writes, “can save 44 percent of projected 2050 electricity needs through proven building and industrial technologies that pay back far faster than any new source of supply. Wasting far less energy and getting the rest at lower and stable prices would powerfully boost jobs and growth.” (Similarly, a new report from the Alliance Commission on Energy Efficiency Policy says that we can double energy productivity by 2030.)

Lovins continues, “Conventional wisdom is wrong that solar and wind aren’t viable without a breakthrough in electricity storage. Analysis and experience prove that 60-80 percent solar and wind power — sited across a region, forecasted, and balanced by flexible supply and demand — can keep the lights on with often less storage or backup than traditional giant power stations need now. That’s how Germany, without adding storage, is already one-fourth renewable-powered, and at times last spring met over half its electric load just with solar power. A smart grid will make this even more successful and resilient.”

(You may have heard about the rather spectacular recent claim on Fox News that solar power works better in Germany than it could here because “they’ve got a lot more sun than we do.” There are many reasons, all involving policies, incentives and economics, that solar power has been more successful there than here, but amount of sunshine is definitively not one of them.)

My bet is that the commenter above could provide a bunch of similarly confident-sounding reports supporting his statement.

My father, who was a science journalist (and covered some of the early environmental stories), had a plaque on his desk with the quote “There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the facts.” But that was before the age of instant digital communications, sound bites and Citizens United. Now, it seems, there are just two sides: your facts and my facts. And anything, repeated often enough, now takes on the feeling of fact.

And beliefs have become confused with facts. (Making light of this, Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “I’m often asked whether I believe in Global Warming. I now just reply with the question: “Do you believe in Gravity?”)

It’s become increasingly difficult to ascertain whose facts are, in fact, factual. I subscribe to the “follow the money” rule, or rather, don’t follow the money. Self-interest is an incredibly strong force and money, these days, is its enabler. Virtually every climate denier’s “fact” can be traced to “research” or reports funded by corporate, usually fossil fuel, interests.

The counterclaim, frequently utilized in “climategate” and elsewhere, is that scientists manipulate facts in order to secure funding for their research — as if that funding amounts to even a miniscule fraction of what corporate grant recipients and lobbyists receive. (Even that, by the way, doesn’t always work.)  And never mind that scientific findings go through strenuous competitive peer review before being labeled facts, while the only review of most corporate statements is by their public relations departments.

I know that this “not following the money” rule is a dangerously broad one and subject to the great observation by Mark Twain that all generalizations are false. But I’ve seen little to lead me to believe otherwise.

A version of this post originally appeared at EcoOptimism.


  1. Warren McKenna
    March 7, 2013, 12:43 pm

    We are living the RMI dream here in Iowa. We are enjoying low cost wholesale power thanks to the massive wind build up in this region. Our Farmers Electric Coop. (FEC) is supporting non-load building efficiency measures, small solar and wind incentive rates, community solar, to further drive our local energy needs and to increase diversity in power sources. FEC has the lowest line loss factors, the highest load factor, and the best reliability indices of any utility in Iowa. Lovins book “Small is Profitable” is spot on and FEC is the model.

  2. Paul Roden
    Yardley, PA Bucks County PA
    March 7, 2013, 11:40 am

    Dear David Bergman and the Great Energy Challenge Blog:

    President Obama in his State of the Union Address stated that we must take action to deal with global climate change. I agree, but an “all of the above energy strategy” is not the solution. As you state in your article, the work of Jacobson and Delucchi as well as Amory Lovins should be studied and the results implemented with all deliberate spead. To that end, I have started a petition on the Whitehouse Website, “We, the People” to have the US Department of Energy to investigate converting the US Energy supply to renewable energy by 2030 with existing technology and without fossil fuel or nuclear power. The link to the petition is: We have until 3/22/13 to gather 100,000 signatures. If the Germans can muster the political will to convert to 80% renewable energy by 2016 and shut down all of their nuclear power plants by 2022, why can’t we? The Germans are not “straving and freezing in the dark.” I was there last year for two weeks. The German Parliment Building is totally powered by renewable energy. A combination of solar, wind, photovoltaic and biomass diesel fueled with canola oil. The Germans call it “rape seed” oil. In contrast, the US Capital Building is powered 100% with coal. If you are ever in Berlin, you need to take the tour. How did the German Parliment (the Bundestag) from right to left, Green to Conservative, unite behind their plan? How did they overcome the fossil, nuclear and electric utility lobbys money and our politicians don’t?

  3. David Bergman
    March 4, 2013, 2:53 pm

    Dear green thinker,
    Germany’s current construction of coal burning power plants is primarily due to their post-Fukushima move away from nuclear power. Also, though it’s a problematic defense, some argue that the new coal plants are cleaner than the ones they are retiring.
    Here’s a fairly even-handed discussion of this: (I must note, though, that I have disagreed elsewhere with one of the Breakthrough Institute founders’ support of nuclear energy.)

  4. David Bergman
    March 4, 2013, 2:39 pm

    Dear physiguy,
    Yours is a frequently cited part of a disinformation campaign. First, the sun always shines and the wind always blows somewhere, so they can indeed be part of a totally renewable energy system. Second, there are additional forms of renewable energy (e.g. tidal, geothermal and, in some cases, hydro). No one is claiming that local sun and wind, on their own, can do the job. Third, there are many ways to store energy and to practice load leveling so that energy can be available to satisfy peak demands, even when “the sun don’t shine or the wind don’t blow.”

    And to address your point about taxes, SOME taxes distort the so-called free market (which is itself quite distorted) while others correct for its mistakes and shortcomings. To the extent that they transfer wealth to large corporations, the primary transfers are through “perverse subsidies” such as those in favor of fossil fuels, which heavily outweigh the more recent and much smaller subsidies for renewables.

  5. green thinker
    March 2, 2013, 7:37 pm

    This article that is supposed to be Focusing on “facts” is deceptive.
    For example it mentions that Germany is one-fourth renewable-powered but fails to mention that most of this capacity is from their already fully exploited hydro. In fact Germany is building filthy Lignite coal plants faster per capita than any other country. In fact their solar and wind investment has yet to close a single coal plant. That is zero…none…zip. I find it informative that Germany, the richest country in Europe with the highest electricity costs has not managed to cut its CO2 emissions. While France was able to reduce its CO2 emissions to the lowest in Europe by replacing coal with Nuclear power, while having the lowest cost electricity.
    That is true reality and facts.

  6. psysciguy
    South Dakota
    March 2, 2013, 11:13 am

    Speaking as a Physicist, “This article is BS.” CA provides a recent example. When the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine – a regular occurrence – the backup power generation must be capable of carrying the entire grid. This makes sun/wind completely redundant. Economically this is not tenable unless government takes money from citizens to pay for redundancy. Such taxes distort both the market place and the government tax structure, transfer wealth to large corporations, and create a permanent power dependency on government subsidies.

  7. David Bergman
    February 26, 2013, 6:26 pm

    The blog CleanTechnica just started this useful page listing the studies they’ve found on the potential for renewable energy to satisfy demand. They plan to update the list periodically.

  8. CS
    Durham, NC
    February 26, 2013, 6:27 am

    KL – are you aware that fossil fuels are heavily subsidized by governments (taxpayers) all over the world? In fact, fossil fuel subsidies are roughly six times greater than subsidies for renewables.

  9. Denis Kleinfeld
    Miami Florida
    February 25, 2013, 9:30 pm

    Where are the facts and math calculations to back up the claims?
    Virtually every claim of global warming, now morphed into climate change, is also traceable to vested interests. David Bergman, like Al Gore makes a living off this ideological hype. Putting that aside, writing an opinion article to make it appear as scientific is not science but propoganda.

  10. KL
    February 25, 2013, 6:54 am

    Spain’s hopes of becoming a world leader in solar power have collapsed since the Spanish government slammed the brakes on generous subsidies.
    The sudden change has rippled across the global solar industry, in a warning of the problems that government-supported renewable-energy programs can encounter.
    In 2008, Spain accounted for half the world’s new solar-power installations in terms of wattage, thanks to government subsidies to promote clean energy. But late last year, as the global economic crisis worsened, the government dramatically scaled back those subsidies and capped the amount of subsidized solar power that could be installed.
    Factories world-wide that had ramped up production of solar-power components found that demand for solar panels was plummeting, leaving a glut in supply and pushing prices down. Job cuts followed.


    Without enormous government – that is, taxpayer – subsidies alternative energies do not work in the marketplace, even in places like Spain that are progressive and “get a lot more sun”. The conceit of politicians is that they can manipulate the markerplace at will for their noble ends. Which worked out great in the government subsidized sub-prime mortgage debacle. As well as for government directed command evonomies like the USSR. In the end, the market and basic forces of supply and demand will decide the shape of the energy sector and economy at large.