Green energy: Is it sustainable?

Dr. Robert M. Gresham, Contributing Editor | TLT Lubrication Fundamentals February 2018

Nations that want to live entirely off the sun’s energy must find a way to make their initiatives affordable.

© Can Stock Photo / paulista
YOU’VE HEARD MY THOUGHTS ABOUT the economic viability of some of our green energy initiatives. In a nutshell, developed nations seek to reduce greenhouses gases, reliance on nuclear power and use less fossil fuels. Admirable goals. 

These nations also have the wealth to experiment with and economically support various green energy initiatives to reduce all emissions and use of fossil fuels. The problem is--how do you do this and stay in balance? That is, by subsidizing the development and use of green energy initiatives that, at least right now, are not cost effective, these nations are adding a cost to their economies and their citizens that might not be sustainable, depending on the size and longevity of the added costs. 

Conversely, developing nations will not grow and keep developing unless they can secure reliable sources of energy at a price their economies can afford. Thus, these nations, left on their own, will consume more and more of the less expensive fossil fuels and perhaps nuclear power. They also are less concerned with emissions.

As these developing nations become more economically viable, they will, in turn, put more economic pressure on the developed nations that already are carrying added costs by selling goods and services at inherently lower prices to secure market share. Thus, green energy will not be sustainable unless the developed nations can find a way, through science and technology, to make the costs go down to competitive and thus sustainable levels.

Using today’s vernacular, “How’s it working for ya?” As we have written here before, Germany has been one of the key pioneers in the use of green energy. It made a significant commitment to the development and use of green energy while reducing, by significant amounts, its reliance on nuclear- and fossil-based fuels. However, recently Berlin conceded that it will miss its 2020 goal to cut carbon emissions by 40% compared to 1990 levels; Germany estimates an approximate 30% reduction will be achieved. Further the goal of a 55% by 2030 is considered out of reach.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, it is estimated that business and households paid an extra €125 billion (~$148 billion) in increased electricity costs between 2000 and 2010 to subsidize renewables. Germany and Denmark pay the highest household electricity rates in Europe, and German companies pay near the top for industrial users. In 2010 Germany escalated the effort by increasing the energy-emissions targets that it currently is missing. Further, Germany established the goal of reducing energy consumption by 50% of the 2008 level by 2050, including a 25% reduction in electricity use. After the Fukushima incident, where an earthquake-caused tsunami severely disabled a nuclear power plant in Japan, Germany began taking steps to phase out its nuclear power by 2022.

In terms of electricity-generating capacity, renewables are now almost equal to traditional fuel sources. But only a third of Germany’s electricity is actually generated by renewables. Wind and solar work best in the north, but Germany’s industrial centers tend to be in the south, and sufficient transmission systems don’t yet exist. Germany also hasn’t yet solved the problem of what to do when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Thus, the nation must rely on “dirty coal” to fill these gaps, which represents about 40% of its current power.

The end result is that German households pay an average of about 36 cents per kilowatt-hour versus about 13 cents in the U.S. That’s a big, big difference.

Sadly, Germany is a good example of the difficulty that a truly developed nation has in finding a way, through science and technology, to reduce costs to competitive, sustainable levels. Passing a law doesn’t make it so.

So when I ask the question: “Green energy: Is it sustainable?” I’d say the jury is definitely still out, but not looking so good.

Bob Gresham is STLE’s director of professional development. You can reach him at