Google engineers: Renewables can’t fix climate change


NOT ENOUGH POWER: A report by two Google engineers concludes that “trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work.”

By Rob Nikolewski │

It hasn’t received much play in the media, but two Google engineers assigned by the company to show how renewable energy can tackle climate change each came to a blunt conclusion:

It can’t be done.

“Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach,” engineers Ross Koningstein and David Fork said after analyzing a four-year project called “RE<C” — which means Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal.

The goal was to show that renewables — such as solar power and wind turbines — can generate electricity cheaper than a coal-fired power plant.

But they couldn’t pull it off.

“We had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change,” the engineers wrote when posting their findings online Nov. 18. “We now know that to be a false hope — but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.”

The pair’s conclusions did not surprise Robert Bryce, an energy journalist and author who has criticized what he says are overblown claims a dramatic switch to green energy sources can be done relatively quickly and painlessly.

“My reaction was, ‘No kidding,’ ” Bryce told

The RE<C project showed renewables “could not provide the enormous quantities of energy that the world demands in anything that the time frame was required to help deal with the issue of climate change or at costs that people could afford. It's a remarkable bit of truth-telling.”

“Unfortunately, most of today’s clean generation sources can’t provide power that is both distributed and dispatchable,” Koningstein and Fork wrote. “Solar panels, for example, can be put on every rooftop but can’t provide power if the sun isn’t shining.”

The Google team’s stark pronouncements have sparked plenty of discussion in energy circles in the three weeks since the report was released but has received scant media attention.

“It didn’t get much press. (You) didn’t read about it in the New York Times, did you?” said Bryce, who has been a critic of what he says are overhyped and overly ambitious promises from green energy advocates.

And some of those advocates have gone to the Internet to lambaste the RE

Joe Romm of the liberal think tank American Progress and founding editor of the Climate Progress blog called the work by the two Google engineers “horsefeathers.”

Romm said the findings only underscore the need to spend more money on research and development into zero-emission projects.

“Obviously, the cheaper it is to replace our fossil fuel-based energy system with a carbon free one — and it’s already remarkably cheap compared to inaction — the more likely we will do it fast enough to make a difference,” Romm wrote in a post last week. “As an important aside, the literature and recent experience makes clear that expanded deployment of renewables is probably more important to bringing down their cost than pure R&D is. Ideally, we’ll do both.”

But for Bryce, the RE<C project highlights the massive scale needed to generate electricity and power to replace the global demand that includes, Bryce says, the equivalent of 235 million barrels of oil per day — about 31 times the daily output of Saudi Arabia.

“These are daunting figures and to say we’re going to do it all with wind turbines and solar panels, it’s the big fib. It’s a fantasy of the worst kind,” said Bryce.

It should be emphasized that the RE<C project did not conclude that renewable energy sources don't work. Rather, that renewables cannot by themselves replace existing models and can act to complement power generated from traditional energy sources.

The project ran from 2007 to 2011 and looked into large-scale projects that emphasized innovation, such as that included solar thermal systems, drilling techniques for geothermal energy and wind turbines that were self-assembling.

“By 2011, however, it was clear that RE<C would not be able to deliver technology that could compete economically with coal,” Koningstein and Fork wrote.

The two engineers concluded that a solution won’t happen without a “breakthrough energy technology that has a high profit margin” but were not specific about where that breakthrough may come.

“Subsidies may help at first,” Koningstein and Fork wrote, “but only private sector involvement, with eager money-making investors, will lead to rapid adoption of a new technology.”

In an email to, Google spokesman Eric Raymond said the company still has faith in green energy projects.

“We’ve invested $1.5 billion in bringing new sources of renewable energy to the grid and have no plans to stop — renewable energy is a growing industry and important part of solving our future energy needs, particularly as its cost continues to decline,” the email said. “But we need a multitude of approaches, including new innovations in low cost, low carbon energy.”

Here’s video of Bryce talking about the Google project: