Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Green Reality VS. Ozzie Zehner

Green tech investor Dan Miller, and host Alex Smith answer Ozzie Zehner's claims the green energy is an "illusion". Ecoshock 150107

This is Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith. My original goal for this Radio Ecoshock series on alternative energy, was to find the most reasonable critic of green energy, who was not directly a beneficiary of competing energy - that is, a person with academic credentials who is not receiving money or other benefits from the coal, oil, and gas industries. California author and green energy expert Ozzie Zehner fits that bill.

I ran Ozzie's speech at Google last week on Radio Ecoshock. If you missed that, download it from our web site at Or listen to it on our Soundcloud page.

Then I hoped to hold a second program where I ask for listener questions, and pose them to Ozzie in an extended interview. Ozzie replied he is willing to come on Radio Ecoshock, but could not appear until next summer, due to a project he is presently working on. So we can't hear from Ozzie right now, but I hope we can pick this up again later in the season.

Ozzie applies his years of study, his European experience, and his keen intellect to persuade us alternative energy like wind and solar are not really green. They cannot power our civilization without heavy fossil fuel inputs. They damage the environment, from cutting down trees to toxic bi-products. We should put our focus and money into indirect methods of cutting carbon dioxide by creating a better society. In particular, Ozzie suggests population control, via a fair health care system, could be coupled with conservation, urban densification, and other energy saving techniques to reduce carbon emissions.

Ozzie makes some statements that raise serious questions. For example, he says increasing the current low amount of solar energy in the United States would bankrupt the American government. I thought the U.S. government was already bankrupt, and not because of solar subsidies. Going even further with solar to power our world would, Ozzie claims, destroy civilization within a generation. Later in this program, I'll check on some of the claims made in Ozzie's presentation, and suggest other possibilities. Hang in for that. But first we have a conversation with clean energy tech guru Dan Miller.

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Dan Miller is Managing Director of The Roda Group, a Berkeley venture capital group he co-founded that is focused on clean tech.

The other principal and chairman of that group is Roger A Strauch, who was the first CEO of "Ask Jeeves" which is now The Roda Group has several interesting projects on the go. In the show, we talk a little about their new tech to improve common batteries for use with renewable energy. They also have a company claiming the tech to remove CO2 from power plant emissions (carbon capture). It's startling to think in the future we may be able to run a gas fired power plant with no CO2 emissions. We'll see.

Dan Miller has a history in the telecommunications and aerospace industries. Dan is passionate about solving climate change, as you can hear in his Tedx talk on You tube. Dan regularly gives talks to the public and business on climate change. We have a wide- ranging discussion on alternative energy, plus his appraisal of the problems with the Ozzie Zehner talk.

Dan makes a lot of good points. Probably the best is that Ozzie seems to make his projections based on our current energy system, rather than assessing the changes as more and more renewable energy comes online. Or course, since fossil fuels are limited, the world must change to renewable energy sooner or later. If later, we encounter climate catastrophe first.


Since making this program, I've been advised by a couple of listeners that Ozzie Zehner left his car company history out of his online bio. He graduated from Kettering University in Flint Michigan, a school formerly known as General Motors Institute. Then it appears Ozzie worked for the Opel Division of General Motors in Europe for at least 3 years. I don't know if this background influenced his low opinion of electric cars, or whether he was involved in any part of General Motors that famously "killed" it's electric car. Certainly his General Motors history would indicate some experience and interest in cars. It should be part of his online bio, in my opinion.

What follows is mostly a print version of my comments in this week's Radio Ecoshock show.


Before I begin to counter some of Ozzie Zehners' positions on alternative energy, I want to outline the many ways I agree with Zehner. I appreciate his courage in speaking unpopular thoughts. I can't emphasize this enough. Ozzie Zehner, in his book "Green Illusions" and in his talks, raises fundamental issues about our direction into the future. Don't miss any opportunity to learn from him.

For example, Zehner says alternative energy cannot power the wasteful civilization we have not, without killing off the planet. I agree. A society powered by alternative energy will have to use a lot less power, and should, to preserve what is left of nature.

There are many ways this can happen, too many ways to list them all there. In short, we could stop making things that don't last, stop buying things we don't need, and make sure our purchases are the least ecologically and socially harmful possible. Those require a major change in lifestyles in developed countries, and changes in aspirations in less developed nations.

Alternative energy if properly applied can also reduce the waste involved in centralized power production and transmission. It drives me crazy that we lose about 50% of all electricity produced in the big grid model of transmission. Solar panels on the roof, or a wind generator in the yard (when appropriate) involves a few feet of transmission, rather than a continental grid. I suggest the rural electrification program of the 1930's needs to be reversed. We should power only major cities and corridors with the grid. Remote homes, farms and mines should produce their own power.

We can also get a lot smarter, either personally or through computer-mediated power management, to avoid the peaks of use that demand coal or other fossil fuel backup. There is no need for all fridges and washing machines to run at the same predictable times.

Demanding Passivhaus or net-zero standards for all new construction would eventually replace most of our inefficient building stock. Dump the all glass models for apartments and skyscraper office buildings, replacing them with smaller windows and insulated walls.

The list goes on, and Ozzie supports these kinds of energy changes. Green energy will not power the wasteful system we have now. In a coming Radio Ecoshock show, I plan to run an in-depth conversation about that, from the Post Carbon Institute. Meanwhile, Zehner is correct about trying to fill the "leaky bucket" we have now. "We don't have an energy crisis, we have a consumption crisis" he says. That's absolutely correct. [26:40]

There is also a lot of truth that the promise of green energy has paradoxically encouraged some people to carry on with deadly amounts of energy use. The drive for a technical fix is very strong. It's true just pasting a few solar panels on a complete energy hog of a building is window dressing. It's also true that we might very well wreck the earth if we engage in a binge of making and installing alternative energy to keep the status quo. Few sane people are suggesting that.

We may create a burst of new carbon, in a mass plan to change over from fossil fuel plants to solar and wind energy. However, as Mark Jacobson from Stanford told us, this new carbon can be offset by cleaner production anywhere from six months to a year later. Then there is a long period, up to 25 years or more, when carbon would be reduced greatly, from the alternative of not building that green energy.

I do object when Ozzie Zehner uses emotional triggers, which are not based on science. He compares solar power, for example, to a religion. Some of his heated words are not the language of science, but might be at home on Fox News. I feel he communicates a personal grudge which remains unexplained.


Let's start with electric vehicles.

In his Google talk, and in other talks, Ozzie says: "But the National Academy of Sciences did a study, a life-cycle analysis. It's the broadest life-cycle analysis done on electric cars and they found that the harm steming from electric cars are a little bit larger than the harm stemming from a regular internal combustion engine of a car the same size.

In fact the only way we can find that electric cars are cleaner is if we narrow our research to just one metric, like CO2.

First of all, this one narrow metric of carbon dioxide is actually the largest threat to humans and all species in millions of years. Building carbon dioxide threatens us with great harm, and possibly extinction. This is a completely different "metric" than possible increased cancers from improperly storing the toxic waste from batteries, or solar panels. Carbon dioxide is the really big deal, Reducing it is a bonus strong enough on it's own to justify electric cars. Ozzie doesn't tell us about the scale of threats.

The paper he refers to was published by The Nation Academies Press. It's "Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use". The book represents the work of many scientists and was issued by a committee of the National Research Council in 2010.

You can find out more about Ozzie's objections to electric vehicles in his feature article in the publication "Spectrum". It was published June 20, 2013. The title is "Unclean at any Speed".

The conclusions of the 2010 National Academy Press publication that Ozzie uses are directly contradicted by more recent research, in two papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, or PNAS.

The first is "Valuation of plug-in vehicle life-cycle air emissions and oil displacement benefits" by Jeremy J. Michaleka et al.

That study does not support the radical statements that Zehner makes in his talk.

The most recent study was published by scientists in PNAS this November 2014, about two years after Ozzie's speech. It's titled "Life cycle air quality impacts of conventional and alternative light-duty transportation in the United States" by Christopher W. Tessuma et al.

This paper summarizes the situation as follows:

"We find that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or 'grid average' electricity increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline. Conversely, EVs powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar power reduce environmental health impacts by 50% or more. Consideration of potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles."

Sure, if you run electric cars on biofuels made of corn, or on coal, you make the environment worse. There's no suprise there. But electric vehicles can easily use clean sources, unlike gas vehicles. So far most electric vehicles have been sold in California, which uses very, very little corn ethanol or coal. Ozzie told his audience electric vehicles run on bull manure. New science shows they can be a much better choice, not only for the climate, but for public health. Sorry Ozzie.


My next major objection to Ozzie's presentation is when he says alternative energy cannot replace itself. As we heard from Dan Miller, there are already solar manufacturing facilities run on solar power. Ozzie says:

"The problem is that certain types of industries rely on certain types of energy. So it's difficult to explore for copper and bring the trucks out there if they are only running on electricity." [ at 46:20 of this Radio Ecoshock show]

So I looked into that. My research finds that mining companies, particularly in South Africa, are beginning to power their intensive milling operations with alternative energy. See this article "Unlikely bedfellows: mines that run on solar or wind power" by Andrew Topf for example.

Certainly mines can operate with hydro power or nuclear power, which existing mines already use. Electricity is electricity, and that's what mines use most.

Surely we can't run the big trucks on anything but fossil fuels? Nonsense. Electric vehicles can be stronger, with more torque, real working power, than any diesel engine. An all-electric mine is completely possible. Again, as we see often in his work, it seems to me that Ozzie's vision is limited by what exists today, the old fossil industrial model. That's the way it is, so it's the only way it could be, Zehner tries to tell us, reinforcing our stereotypes.

German heavy industry has run entirely fossil free on some days, including manufacturing wind generators. Iceland runs entirely on renewable geothermal energy - including it's energy-intensive aluminum industry.


Next up: Ozzie Zehner spends much time in his talk explaining that solar power is a threat to our forests. This argument against deforestation by solar power is ludicrous. Ozzie found a few instances where solar panels were installed by cutting down trees. In the global picture of deforestation, the pin-prick of solar deforestation is so small it could not be seen. We should also remember the deforestation caused by tar sands mining, creating roads for fracking rigs, and mountain-top coal mining. He doesn't mention those or compare them. This argument is a straw man.

Similarly, the fact that some maintenance is needed for solar power in a desert setting is also a straw man agrument. First of all, a study done by an oil producing state like the United Arab Emirates is immediately suspect. They are evaluating a product that could wipe out their profits and possibly their economy.

Secondly, what other source of energy runs with without employees? Coal-fired, gas-fired, oil-fired electric plants all need employees too, and regular maintenance. These power stations also occasionally explode, which solar does not. Oil and coal power plants kill people locally and even at great distances with their emissions. Solar operators might have to clean dust off the solar panels. So what? I wonder why Ozzie works so hard to catalog minor to very minor aspects of alternative energy? And why doesn't he give us comparable figures from fossil fuel plants?


Ozzie says: "The Mohave Desert may be the Saudi Arabia of solar. But if we were to cover it with solar cells, and cover the world's deserts with solar cells, it would destroy civilization as we know it, within a single generation."

I would love to ask Ozzie about his sources, or even his reasoning for such a statement. First of all, no one is suggesting, especially Mark Jacobson, that we could or should "cover the world's deserts with solar cells". That is a vast area, and not what Jacobson said was needed at all.

Nobody is suggesting we cover ALL the world's deserts with solar panels. The European Union worked through a plan to power most of Europe with a relatively small area of the Sahara desert. So Ozzie is arguing with a plan that has never been suggested by anyone that I know of.

Secondly, the idea that deploying solar fully would kill off civilization in a single generation is wild speculation, and the kind of scare statement we can do without.

He then says thermal solar has the same side effects, even though it is mainly concrete and glass, not the heavy metals in amounts used in other panels. Solar thermal may even use liquid sodium as batteries, instead of lithium. It's a quick statement that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.


"What if we multiply solar cells by 100 [times current production], which would incidentally bankrupt the federal government".

This is another scare statement. Obviously, if we stopped subsidizing the fossil fuel industries, and used a free market system where the consumer of energy pays for not only the power, but the carbon pollution, we could multiply solar production by 100 times without bankrupting the federal government. Only a government built on fossil power and fossil industry corruption could go bankrupt by building clean energy. More fearful listener hears that we cannot proceed with green energy without bankrupting society, which is nonsense. [18:30]

Maybe you could reach a few trillion dollars in taxpayer costs if you based all your calculations on government give-aways meant to stimulate the beginning of an American solar industry. But who would stick with that? Once solar becomes more affordable, available, and common, it can easily compete with coal - assuming coal subsidies are dropped.

Anyway, the U.S. government seems headed for bankruptcy on it's own, with trillions of dollars in new debts, with no help from solar. China will likely increase it's solar power by 100 times what it had in 1990. I doubt the government will collapse because of that. It's a strange claim, and an extreme one, that does not help his argument.


Why does Ozzie Zehner pick up on solar energy as his main thrust against green energy. We'll grant him the time limitations in his talk - but still wind energy has become the major source of power for countries like Denmark, and provides a lot of power for Germany. We don't hear about geothermal energy, which already powers Iceland, and can do much more in many countries, including Australia and the United States. Then there's hydro power and nuclear power. I agree that nuclear is too dangerous to use, but it's there now.

My point is, we don't get a picture of solar energy as part of a large alternative energy mix, doing what it does best where it can. Instead we are brought to fear the expansion of some allegedly toxic giant.

Zehner doesn't offer us a balance between using alternative energy, with it's known risks, versus not using it, with the gigantic risk of mass extinction, including ourselves. As Dan Miller says, he doesn't really seem to get the big risks of climate change.

Assuming we have to choose between better health care (already available in almost every other developed country) and alternative energy is a false choice. We can do both. We will continue to use energy. It may as well be less harmful energy. Climate change threatens to wipe out not only our health, but our food and water sources in many cases.


Zehner says there is no proof that adding alternative energy actually decreases the use of fossil fuels. The Jevons Paradox, which he doesn't cite directly, calling it the "boomerang effect" has been true. It's a big worry, but the past is not necessarily an image of the future. For various reasons, the United States HAS decreased it's emissions and it's use of fossil fuels. Germany has greatly reduced their fossil fuel emissions, not only through the addition of solar and wind power, but also through better building techniques, mass transit, more energy awareness, and so on.

To say adding a cleaner energy source will just add to the waste, and make things worse, is demonstrably wrong already in some countries, and will become increasingly wrong, as more alternative energy is added to the mix.


Zehner says solar panels have the illusion of a price drop, which are really based on subsidies. But he fails to provide the comparative assessment of massive subsidies to solar competitors, like oil and gas. These fossil fuels get direct subsidies and tax breaks of many billions of dollars from governments, for decades, while they build their empires. They get free dumping of carbon dioxide into the air, and do not pay for the health costs of the pollution. The whole highway system is build for their products. The subsidies to fossil fuels are almost beyond calculation, and make the tiny subsidies to solar and wind laughable.

His argument that solar panels tend to age, and parts like the regulators have to be replaced is specious. Anyone who runs a fossil powered car knows they fall apart, and need maintenance. Ditto power plants of any kind. How do the costs of solar power compare to fossil power, that's what we need to know, and that Ozzie doesn't provide. That is a disservice, warning us away from a source of power that may in fact be cheaper to maintain, but he doesn't tell us that.

Again in the so-tiny-it-doesn't-matter reasons to not install solar: the panels might be stolen. What are the figures for stolen solar in the United States? What about in Europe? He doesn't say. Your car is far more likely to be stolen. So don't ever buy a car? Would you buy that argument?

He's also found some solar panels not facing the sun. What percentage of solar installations is that? .0001 percent or less? Why look for human foibles to argue against a much cleaner technology which might prevent the climate catastrophe? It's a shopping list of pointless objections.

In his talk, Ozzie Zehner claims "Even some of the most expensive options for dealing with CO2 would be become cost-competitive long before today's solar technologies". Really? First of all, I'm not aware of ANY viable technology for reliably removing and storing CO2, other than not producing it, as solar does. So he's comparing a technology that does not exist, with one that does. Second, I haven't seen any such paper, nor are we likely to. I think it's an example of the extreme statments that Zehner makes, in the long reach to make his case.

While it may be true that the current manufacturing techniques making solar panels involves the release of greenhouse gases thousands of times more powerful than CO2, Zehner doesn't give us a comparison between these billion parts per million emissions, with the masses of CO2 averted by the use of solar. It's just the tip of an iceberg of facts and studies we need to evaluate this claim. Perhaps he includes such numbers in his book, where he has more space.

Zehner tells his audience "There's no evidence that alternative energy offsets fossil fuel use in the United States". First of all, why limit this statement to the United States, which is the world model for energy profligacy. The U.S. is more or less the last of the developed nation to deploy alternative energy on a scale which matters. America has avoided infrastructure like mass transit, high-speed rail and other techniques which can match up well with alternative energy to reduce fossil dependence. It's a misleading statement, implying that alternative energy cannot reduce fossil fuel use, which is a wrong-headed approach. [16.:30]

Ozzie says: "Most importantly, alternative energy financing relies ultimately on the kind of economic growth that fossil fuels provide." This is an intriguing argument, with some truth. However, as discussed above, continuing to find and provide fossil fuels also relies on growth. The growth model may be breaking, which threatens all energy sources, not just solar.

Because once installed solar does not require the continued production and importation of fuel, it may in fact be a better answer to the problem of needing continual growth. In any case, it is the large economic system of growth that is unsustainable, not the power system feeding it. If we disinvest from things like Tar sands and Arctic drilling, not to mention military, we could create much more alternative energy, even without growth. [19:10]


Zehner repeatedly maligns people who want solar power as being religious, worshipping solar cells and setting up temples to them. [at 29:10] Then he says we make a "fetish" out of solar cells, using a negative image from psychology. Let's stop the vilification of people trying to find solutions to climate change. Zehner frankly fails to offer good solutions himself. Sorry, his solutions of better health care and densification of cities will take decades, and we don't have that long.

Zehner replies to a question about Mark Jacobson's research, by saying "if you ask a ridiculous question, you can find a ridiculous answer". [54:10] Is it ridiculous to ask if we can find enough power using alternative energy sources? I don't think so. Listen to my recent Radio Ecoshock interview with Mark Jacobson. He says Jacobson hasn't asked meaningful questions. In fact, Ozzie's answer is very weak and dismissive of the work of a major scientist, who has published over 100 valuable scientific papers. Jacobson at Stanford is far above Ozzie's grade. [and 55:20]

One of Ozzie's questioners asks if there is any example for history of conserving our way out of a crisis? (41:50). That is the crux of Zehner's argument, but he has no such examples. He might have given the Soviet Union, or Cuba after 1990 as examples, but did not.


I've run out of time, before I could go into the many more ways I agree with Ozzie Zehner. He's dead on about our addiction to technical solutions, and our harmful consumer lifestyles. We have a tendency to damage nature with the best of intentions.

I like Ozzie Zehner and his work. He serves as a valuable caution of how we can do alternative energy in damaging ways. But I think his main venture is a disservice to the future. We need solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and all sorts of non-carbon energy. We need them quickly.

"Clean energy is less energy" says Zehner. Yes that's true, but clean energy is not a situation of NO energy. We will continue to use energy, and getting it from the Canadian Tar Sands, or Arctic deep water drilling, will fill the atmosphere with carbon and kill us. We need to use the greenest tech to produce the minimum energy we need.

Fortunately, Ozzie Zehner can't stop solar or any green energy. I'm told one out of four homes in Australia has solar panels on the roof right now. European countries are decarbonizing rapidly. The nations that listen to Ozzie, and stall new forms of climate-friendly power, will be last in the economic competition. America needs to catch up quickly, or be stuck in a left-behind old coal age.

At the end of his talk, Ozzie Zehner calls for "a green movement that is not simply a receptacle for energy firms and car companies to plug into. A green movement that looks beyond the eco-gadgets on the stage to consider the social and environmental justices behind the curtain." He's absolutely right. I applaud Ozzie Zehner for demanding we move into the future with our eyes open, always asking questions.

Next week, we'll conclude this series on the prospects for alternative energy, with a conversation with a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute.

I'm Alex Smith. Find all our past Radio Ecoshock programs free at the web site Or listen to our most recent programs at the Ecoshock Soundcloud page.

Thank you for listening, and thank you for caring about our world.

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