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Do Renewables Displace Fossil Fuels Under Capitalism?

Ted F

Admin
Brian Tokar asked an interesting question in an email thread:

I’m curious how much of the discrepancy re: energy intensity can be explained by something Richard York exposed in a study in Nature Climate Change 5 years ago: that most current renewable capacity adds to rather than displaces fossil fuels. Has anyone looked into this? It’s certainly consistent with what we know about the imperatives of capitalist expansion.
Unfortunately, Richard York's article is hidden behind a $59 paywall but here's the free teaser which summarizes York's view:

A fundamental, generally implicit, assumption of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and many energy analysts is that each unit of energy supplied by non-fossil-fuel sources takes the place of a unit of energy supplied by fossil-fuel sources. However, owing to the complexity of economic systems and human behaviour, it is often the case that changes aimed at reducing one type of resource consumption, either through improvements in efficiency of use or by developing substitutes, do not lead to the intended outcome when net effects are considered. Here, I show that the average pattern across most nations of the world over the past fifty years is one where each unit of total national energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-quarter of a unit of fossil-fuel energy use and, focusing specifically on electricity, each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. These results challenge conventional thinking in that they indicate that suppressing the use of fossil fuel will require changes other than simply technical ones such as expanding non-fossil-fuel energy production.
How does York determine what is added versus what is displaced? Seems to me the devil is in the details. If consumption of a fixed amount of electricity is assumed, all electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources replaces electricity from fossil-fuel sources. That's axiomatic. Only if the increased production of electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources results in increased consumption does York's conclusion make sense. I would think it very difficult to prove a claim that an increase in non-fossil-fuel-generated electricity of given amount will result in an increase in consumption of 90% and not 22% or 48% or 79% of that amount. Since I, and presumably most other forum members, don't have access to York's article, it would be helpful if Brian or someone else can explain whether I'm mistaken as to York's approach.

Thanks.
 
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