The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Climate and the Energy Transition:
Current Status and Challenges


The battle to mitigate and stop climate change is the biggest challenge of the 21st century. The rapid build-up of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere due to human activities with resultant global warming and disruption of earth’s delicate climate balance poses a clear and present danger to human well-being and the well-being of the planet. These facts have been well documented by climate scientists and in a series of reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

While there continue to be many climate change naysayers, a majority of people around the world now accept what they can see around them—climate change is happening. Outright refusal to accept the reality of climate change is fading (at least in mainstream media) but new forms have emerged, aimed mainly at delaying any significant climate policy action.1

One major tactic is to belittle and dismiss the substantial progress that is being made on solutions, such as renewable energy and the electrification of transport. Common criticisms are that these are too expensive, intermittent, unreliable, or impractical. We term them “green energy denial.” This view was expressed, we submit, in the article entitled “The Future of Energy and Our Climate” by Marc J. Defant in Vol. 28 Issue 2 of Skeptic magazine. The reality is that while the energy transition is quite challenging, it is inevitable. Substantial progress has been made, and even more effective and efficient solutions are in the works.

Two books provide a good summary of the current situation. One is Michael E. Mann’s The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet. Mann is the climate scientist famous for the hockey stick graph of global temperatures. “Outright denial of the physical evidence of climate change simply isn’t credible anymore. So, they have shifted to a softer form of denialism while keeping the oil flowing and fossil fuels burning, engaging in a multipronged offensive based on deception, distraction, and delay,” he writes. “Finally, when all other arguments fail, we’re left with ‘Well—it just won’t work. You can’t do it!’ Inactivists in fact twist themselves into veritable pretzels to explain why there’s no way we can possibly power our economy with renewable energy.” Here is how Mann sums up the problem:

We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar. To do it, we need lots of breakthroughs in science and engineering. We need to build a consensus that doesn’t exist and create public policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise.

Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, covers the solutions being developed to mitigate climate change. Both Gates and Mann agree that while this will prove extremely challenging, it is achievable. According to Gates:

We already have some of the tools we need, and as for those we don’t yet have, everything I’ve learned about climate and technology makes me optimistic that we can invent them, deploy them, and, if we act fast enough, avoid a climate catastrophe. This book is about what it will take and why I think we can do it. Within a few years, I had become convinced of three things: To avoid a climate disaster, we have to get to zero. We need to deploy the tools we already have, like solar and wind, faster and smarter. And we need to create and roll out breakthrough technologies that can take us the rest of the way.

So, what’s to be done?

Virtually all plans to mitigate climate change focus on large scale electrification. There are several steps required to fully implement this solution. The first step is to decarbonize the electricity supply. This means producing electricity from technologies that do not emit greenhouse gasses (GHG). Fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas should be eliminated from the electricity supply. Many countries have set such goals to be achieved in the coming decades. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has produced a study2 on pathways to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. To replace fossil fuels, electricity must be generated from non-emitting sources such hydro, wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and nuclear energy. At the COP28 United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2023, nearly 130 countries committed to tripling renewables by 2030.

A second step is to convert to electrification as many energy-intensive fossil fuel processes as possible. These include transportation, cars and trucks, heating and cooling of buildings, industrial processes such as steel and cement, and others. Electrification will not only eliminate most uses of fossil fuels; it will also reduce the total amount of energy required. For example, electric cars require about 75 percent less energy per mile than gasoline cars because they are much more efficient.3

Electrifying the economy to the maximum extent will require a significant increase in the amount of electricity produced. The Electrification Futures Study by the U.S. National Renewables Energy Laboratory (NREL),4 estimates an increase in electricity demand of about 70 percent by 2050 over 2020 levels in the “high” scenario (mainly due to electrification of transportation). The greater efficiency of new technologies such as heat pumps plays an important role in reducing the size of this increase. In another example, if all cars were to become EVs, it is estimated that this alone will require a 20–50 percent increase in the electricity supply over 2015 levels in the U.S.5 Taken together, these steps will have a huge impact on reducing GHG emissions. It is also a tremendous economic opportunity.

The Cost of Renewables

Renewables will play a key role in the decarbonization and growth of the electricity supply. A key fact that is ignored by the green energy critics is the dramatic unit cost decline in wind and particularly solar energy in recent years. The article “Why did renewables become so cheap so fast?”6 provides an excellent explanation of this development, and is the source of the following graphs. Figure 1 “The price of solar modules declined by 99.6 percent since 1976” is self-explanatory. “The price of electricity from new power plants” in Figure 2 shows how the price of electricity from new power plants has changed over the past 10 years. The most notable change is that both solar and wind are now the cheapest source of electricity in many geographic locations; lower than combined cycle gas plants.

These steep price declines undermine key arguments of green energy critics. This crucial fact is absent from Marc Defant’s Skeptic article. Renewable energy from wind and solar was more expensive than fossil fuel plants in the past, but is now cost competitive, not to mention that investments in renewables have far outpaced those in fossil fuels. In his article, Defant points to countries such as Germany and Denmark that have invested heavily in renewables but have high electricity prices. The high prices they paid as early adopters are what have now driven down the costs for everyone else. And this is precisely the path taken as most new technologies became competitive and eventually standard. It is a price worth paying to avoid an approaching global climate catastrophe. In addition, the winners will own the key technologies of the future.

Germany’s abrupt decision to shut down all their nuclear plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, which accounted for about 20 percent of their supply, along with a failure to build adequate transmission capacity have also played a role in its high electricity prices. Despite this, Germany has had remarkable success in adapting to the cut off from Russian gas due to the war in Ukraine. Many analysts believe that this has provided an impetus not only to Germany, but Europe generally, to speed up the transition off fossil fuels.

Figure 1. The price of solar modules declined by 99.6 percent since 1976.

Figure 2. The price of electricity from new power plants

Figure 3. Battery price learning curve

This data contains a valuable lesson for other technologies that are key to the green transition, such as batteries for electric cars. Wind and solar were beneficiaries of what is known as Wright’s Law, that predates the better-known Moore’s Law in the chip industry, which states that the number of transistors on microprocessors doubles every two years at about the same cost. “Wright’s Law that each doubling in experience leads to the same relative decline in prices, was discovered much earlier than Moore’s Law, by aerospace engineer Theodore Paul Wright in 1936. Moore’s observation for the progress in computing technology can be seen as a special case of Wright’s Law.”7

Figure 3 illustrates the major price declines in the cost of lithium batteries that are used in electric cars and grid energy storage. The price has continued to fall significantly below the price in the graph of $244/kWh in 2016 and was $139/kWh in 2023.8 Analysts such as Goldman Sachs predict the price will fall below the critical threshold $100/kWh in the next couple of years, which would enable EVs to become less expensive than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars without subsidies on a total cost of ownership basis.9

The lower cost of renewables is greatly accelerating their rate of adoption worldwide. Wind and solar provided nearly 18 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. in the first third of 2023, up from 14 percent in 2022. There are news stories practically daily on the success of new renewables projects. Here are just a few such headlines:

  • Solar Is Now 33 percent Cheaper Than Gas Power in U.S., Guggenheim Says10
  • Renewable Energy Prices Hit Record Lows: How Can Utilities Benefit From Unstoppable Solar and Wind?11
  • Is Solar Really Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels?12
  • The Era of Cheap Wind and Solar Has Arrived, U of C Researchers Find.13
  • In a First, Wind and Solar Generated More Power Than Coal in U.S.14
  • Renewables Were the World’s Cheapest Source of Energy in 2020, New Report Shows.15

Defant’s article raises a series of other issues of concern for renewables. These can each be addressed, even though as Bill Gates indicates in his book: “This will be hard.”

Gas and Fracking

Defant’s article promotes alleged benefits of fracking as a cleaner alternative to coal and petroleum, citing its contributions to reducing GHG emissions in the United States. However, the author fails to mention studies that have highlighted concerns about methane leakages during extraction and transportation.16 These can offset the emissions benefits given that methane leaked from fracking has a much higher effect on radiative forcing than CO2. Moreover, the long-term sustainability of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” is rather uncertain at best, as it remains a fossil fuel that is far from leading to a sustainable low-carbon future.

Land Requirements

One notable concern is the charge that renewable energy takes up too much land. Heartland Institute, for example argues that, “solar power requires 43.50 acres per megawatt.”17 This number comes from the Institute for Energy Research (IER) which is an advocacy organization for the fossil fuel industry.

According to an example in a study by the U.S. Department of Energy a solar farm with a total land area of 1375 acres has a capacity of 345 MW, which works out to 3.75 MW per acre.18, 19 This is more than 10b times lower than IER’s estimate! Another recent article states that: “According to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, roughly 22,000 square miles of solar panel-filled land (about the size of Lake Michigan) would be required to power the entire country, including all 141 million households and businesses, based on 13–14 percent efficiency for solar modules. Many solar panels, however, reach 20 percent efficiency, which could reduce the necessary area to just about 10,000 square miles, equivalent to the size of Lake Erie.”20

Rare Earth Metals

Rare earth metals are essential for many green energy technologies such as wind turbines, and lithium batteries. Concern about the rarity of the rare earths is raised by Defant. “According to the Institute for Energy Research, the United States imports about 80 percent of its rare earth elements from China, which makes the U.S. highly dependent on what is increasingly becoming an adversary nation.” Note that Defant cites information from the same group as The Heartland Institute (The Heartland Institute often uses the IER as a source. See the source of their claim that 1 MW of solar requires 43.50 acres of land in Land Requirements section above). Elsewhere in his article Defant states that “It should be noted that China has a market share in the solar panel supply chain of more than 80 percent, so the Paris Accords have proven a financial bonanza for that nation.”

Consider now, information to the contrary:

  • The World Population Review provides a table of Solar Power by Country.21 This table shows that in 2022 China had 393 GW while the U.S. had 113 GW of installed solar capacity. China has three times more solar than the U.S. and approximately 40 percent of the world’s installed solar capacity. Any wonder why they are the world’s largest producer?
  • The Government of Canada has published a table of countries that produce rare earth metals.22 This overview shows that in 2021 China produced 60.6 percent of the total while the U.S. produced 15.5 percent. The report goes on to say: “Canada has some of the largest known reserves and resources (measured and indicated) of rare earths in the world, estimated at over 15.1 million tonnes of rare earth oxide in 2022.”
  • An article for Metal Tech News23 states:

    • “While finding economically viable deposits of rare earths is not easy, the real complexity comes with separating these notoriously tightly interlocked elements into usable rare earth metals.”
    • “This gets to the heart of why rare earths are mined in the U.S., yet the country is 100 percent reliant on imports for the metals.”
    • “Several companies in the U.S. and Canada are in various stages of developing new technologies for separating rare earths and establishing facilities to enable rare earth oxides production in North America.”

It is clear that while China currently dominates rare earth metals production, the situation is evolving rapidly.

Finally, the full lifecycle analysis of electric vehicles (EVs) needs to be taken into consideration when comparing them to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, the latter having significant downstream environmental and air quality impacts, and the former having a much smaller footprint overall. Further, while it is true that critical minerals are essential for battery production in EVs, it’s worth noting that resource availability is a dynamic factor, and that recycling and circular economy principles can help reduce the demand for new resources and responsible supply chain regulations will address the extractive impacts of battery production. In fact, there are a number of startups making a profit by recycling the expensive materials in EV batteries.24 This promises to become a significant new business. Additionally, many countries now have recycling regulations, e.g., in Europe.25

Intermittency and Energy Storage

Intermittency and energy storage are the biggest concerns with wind and solar due to the variability of these resources. It should be noted that variable demand has always been a key factor in grid management. So-called base load power sources such as nuclear and coal can take hours or days for power to be changed up or down. Electricity demand is highly variable within a 24-hour period with demand highest during the afternoon or evening, and lowest overnight. Base load is typically between 30–40 percent of peak load. Nuclear can be a source of base load power in a zero emissions grid. However, important issues like nuclear waste disposal, large cost overruns, lengthy approval and construction times, and public acceptance must be resolved.

The grid operator is responsible for balancing supply to demand. In a free-market energy dispatch system, the operator has several options to meet demand at any given time. Generally, the operator will choose the lowest cost option. When available, this is usually from wind or solar since these have zero fuel cost. There are many options available to mitigate the inherent intermittency of these sources. The most common is to select one of the other sources on the grid. The combination of wind and solar may complement each other. Wind and solar from different geographic regions are valuable as weather conditions may be more favorable at other locations.

Various forms of energy storage are used. Hydroelectric power dams provide the largest form of storage. In suitable geographies, pumped storage hydro is an option. So-called gravity storage is a related emerging technology. Grid scale batteries are an increasingly viable solution to manage variability over minutes or hours. Green hydrogen, which is produced through the electrolysis of water from renewables, is a promising emerging technology for energy storage. This hydrogen can be converted back to electricity when needed. Green hydrogen has other potential uses as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Demand response is another solution that has several variants. Variable pricing tied to demand managed through smart metering is one scheme. The customer may use timers to schedule functions such as the dishwasher operation or car charging at night. Water heaters or freezers may be turned on/off intermittently during periods of peak demand. Large industrial users may have agreements and receive compensation for curtailing demand during peaks.

Finally combined cycle gas turbines and peaking plants, which have been used to deal with variable demand on traditional power grids, can be used on a grid with a high percentage of renewables. While not net zero, such hybrid systems can achieve drastically reduced emissions at a low cost.


In considering issues as contentious and important as the extent of human-induced climate change and various methods proposed for mitigating it, it behooves skeptics to examine all the relevant information as well the interests making such arguments. This article, therefore, presents vital information ignored in a previous Skeptic article, and which, we submit, refutes those arguments decisively. END

About the Authors

Trained as a biologist, Jean-Patrick Toussaint holds a PhD in environmental sciences and has been Senior Climate Director at the Trottier Family Foundation since 2022. During his career, he has conducted academic research and worked on several environmental and climate files with various national and international organizations. Prior to joining the Trottier Family Foundation, Jean-Patrick was Senior Advisor on Francophone Affairs at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). Jean-Patrick also worked as a science officer at Future Earth and as science project manager at the David Suzuki Foundation.

Lorne Trottier is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who co-founded Matrox in 1976, a tech company known for its computer graphics and broadcast video products. The Trottier Family Foundation was established in 2000 and is active in the areas of climate, education, health, and science. The Trottier Foundation has funded a number of institutes including the Trottier Energy Institute at l’ École Polytechnique in Montreal, and the Trottier Space Institute at McGill University. Trottier was a Board Member of the National Center for Science Education NCSE for more than 10 years and is currently a Board Member of the Planetary Society.

  1. Mann, M.E. (2021). The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet. PublicAffairs.
  2. – 100%25 Clean Electricity – Final.pdf

This article was published on May 10, 2024.

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