“The Unpopular Truth”: A Counter to the Great Green Transition

When it comes to The Unpopular Truth: About Electricity and the Future of Energy (2022),[1] it’s important to clarify first what it is — and isn’t. This slender volume (123 pages plus 25 pages of appendices) by Dr. Lars Schernikau and Prof. William H. Smith is a blunt, straight-from-the-shoulder explication of the authors’ concerns about over-relying on renewable energy technologies — a trend that, they fret, has been overhyped in political, green-advocacy, and media circles. The book tends to be technical in tone and substance, heavily infused with facts and figures, electricity physics principles, and illustrative graphs. With such spareness — stripped of anecdotes or digressions that might pad the oral delivery of similar material — it reads at times like a synopsis or study aid for a college lecture course. Eschewing the notion that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” The Unpopular Truth is pretty much the straight medicine.

The advantage of such a barebones, bordering on pile-driving style is that it lends a certain gravitas to the business at hand. And that business is to divert the seemingly headlong march of advanced Western societies towards intermittent but purportedly “clean” energy technologies. The foreboding tone of The Unpopular Truth keys on the authors’ worry that too heavy dependency on wind, solar, “green” hydrogen, and similar sources of power ignores the physics of the grid and myriad technological, materials sourcing, and efficiency hurdles such dependency entails. The authors also maintain that the full, life-cycle costs of renewables have been grossly underestimated to make them seem both simpler and more competitive vis-à-vis conventional thermal energy.

Dr. Schernikau is identified as an energy economist and commodities trader based in Switzerland and Singapore, while Smith is a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the McDonnell Center for Space Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Clearly, they know a thing or two about energy production and delivery, on both a regional and global scale. In a foreword, Schernikau disclaims any political agenda:

Reliable and affordable access to energy should never be political. Unfortunately, energy has been misused by both sides of the political spectrum for exactly that, political agendas. It should be [in] any government’s interest to have a good energy mix, reduce dependencies, ensure affordability, reliability, and of course limit the environmental footprint. Unfortunately, history is full of examples of exactly the opposite.[2]

The title, The Unpopular Truth, may evoke former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s celebrated 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.[3] While the book does not quarrel directly with Gore’s call to action regarding global warming, it does thoroughly interrogate the underlying premises, as well as technical feasibility, of an abrupt transition away from the carbon-based fuels blamed, in no small part, for climate change. Another dead giveaway to the authors’ angle is that they consistently enclose the word “renewable(s)” in quotation marks.

Importantly, the authors have a critical take on the notion that Variable Renewable Energy (VRE) — largely wind and solar power — is as economically competitive or as environmentally benign as it is cracked up to be. Their analysis zooms out to holistically examine the entire “life cycle” costs and quantitative challenges involved in extracting and processing the necessary raw materials, as well as manufacturing and installing the equipment necessary on a grid scale to displace fossil fuels — currently the source of about 80 per cent of the world’s electric energy — with wind and solar. They also question whether the effort, given the “low energy density” of wind and solar, is worth the candle. The authors’ polestar is always “efficiency,” and, in their view, VREs are seriously deficient in this regard.


Schernikau and Smith include an “Executive Summary” (somewhat unconventionally located in the rear of the book) that offers a concise inventory of their aims. They characterize Unpopular Truth as an “introduction to electric systems and…costs,” but with a “macroeconomic ‘energy transition’ point of view.”[4] And indeed, it addresses electric system fundamentals on the one end (e.g., the need for perfect real-time balancing of supply and demand) and the proposed “energy transition” at the other, with a distinct “macro” point of view. The unavoidable downsides of VRE resources, they emphasize, are numerous and include:

  • Low energy densities and efficiencies;
  • Low, unpredictable electricity production;
  • Conversion, frequency conditioning, and transmission inefficiencies;
  • High materials input;
  • Short [equipment] lifetime; and
  • Recycling difficulties and economics.[5]

This parade of practical disadvantages leads, in the authors’ view, to “low net energy efficiency” (a measure which they often abbreviate as “eROI”).[6]

Storage of excess wind and solar generation when their production is too much for current demand to absorb is frequently hailed, they note, as the remedy for these technologies’ intermittency. But the authors throw cold water on this prospect, asserting:

…[A]ny storage — which always adds complexity and requires an energy transformation…will always further reduce the eROI and material efficiency of an energy system because it costs or “wastes” energy. However, no grid-scale, long-term storage solution will truly solve the energy problem.[7]

The Executive Summary also broaches the hot topic of emergent geopolitical threats to energy security. The authors observe that 2021 was a watershed year in this debate, when “a shortage of energy raw material supply, insufficient and erratic electricity production from wind and solar, and geopolitical changes” translated into “high prices and volatility in major economies.”[8] These points most obviously pertain to the Ukraine invasion by energy superpower Russia and the ripple effects in Western Europe. But the dark shadow of geopolitics is also cast by China in the authors’ telling, because “China dominates almost all ‘green’ raw material processing supply chains, including critical solar PV, wind, and EV production.”[9] Here, the book stresses how a rapid transition from fossil fuels to cleaner technologies would give the unpredictable Chinese high cards it otherwise wouldn’t have in hand:

Energy security is about the supply of energy raw materials — namely oil, coal, gas, and uranium — and now also about who controls the supply of short-lifetime ‘renewable’ energy production capacity and consuming equipment.[10]

Another critical thesis advanced by Unpopular Truth is that mid-century “Net Zero” pathways delineated by government institutions rely on an understatement of future demand. These rosy scenarios banking, as they do, on pervasive energy conservation in developed economies soft-pedal, in the authors’ view, the growth in electricity demand coming from three distinct drivers: (1) improving standards of living in underdeveloped countries; (2) overall population growth; and (3) the policy of “electrifying” energy usages historically served by direct burning of fossil fuels.[11] Their bottom line flatly rejects any expectation that renewable energy can even come close to meeting consumer demands in the approaching decades:

It is prudent to assume that wind and solar alone will not be able to generate enough electricity to match the expected total energy demand, and it would be inadvisable to force its grid-scale adoption. It goes without saying that any loss of ‘renewable’ energy due to conversion for storage or transportation is inefficient, will contribute to warming our biosphere, and has to be avoided at all costs.[12]

Extracted in this manner from the “Executive Summary,” such statements may seem starkly conclusory as well as irreconcilably at odds with the consensus of system planners and government policymakers propelling the movement away from coal, natural gas, and oil. Undoubtedly, they are at odds; but in fairness, it should be noted that the authors offer a plethora of data, charts, scientific concepts, and technical study citations to undergird such “unpopular” contentions. They’re not, in short, just hurling down thunderbolts from Mount Olympus.


The bleakness of the authors’ outlook, assuming currently ambitious national energy transition policies aren’t revised, is nowhere more apparent than in their tableau of “logical economic consequences” which “net zero” pathways will allegedly inflict on societies. They predict that:

  • “Widespread adoption” of renewable energy would “reduce humanity’s net energy efficiency below the level critical to sustaining our present advanced civilization”; and
  • Storage solutions to capture wind and solar generation in periods of excess can’t be expected to rescue the situation because “no viable, long-term, grid-scale energy shortage solution has yet been found.”[13]

The book illustrates these predictions with citations to relatively recent energy system stress in economically developed regions. In late 2021 and into 2022, articles in mainstream media began popping up about shortages of electricity or gas — and the concomitant ballooning of energy costs.[14] The impacts on industries dependent on competitive energy costs as well as on small retail customers hard-pressed to pay their utility bills are noted in these articles, excerpts of which are briefly quoted in this chapter. The section is capped with this sobering observation:

We have shown why the ‘energy transition’ to variable ‘renewable’ forms of energy such as wind and solar will result in higher electricity costs. Energy-transition-supporting strategy consultant McKinsey…confirms and also summarizes: ‘A Net-Zero transition would have significant and often front-loaded effect on demand, capital allocation, costs, and jobs’ [emphasis in original].[15]

Accompanying this warning is a section documenting how capital investment in conventional generation has dwindled while Western countries — Germany is this chapter’s poster child — have overseen massive investments in wind and solar, leading, the authors maintain, to critical energy shortages already emerging in this decade. The book then suggests that developed nations will have little choice but to reverse the tide, quoting a December 2020 study declaring that “by 2030, investment levels [in oil and gas] will need to rise by at least US$ 225 billion from 2020 levels to stave off a crisis.”[16]


With concerns about too much CO from power and industrial sources in the atmosphere driving climate change, Schernikau and Smith can’t ignore the elephant in the room. And they don’t, at least not entirely. They first enter a general disclaimer — viz., “It is not the subject of this book to quantify the cause or impacts of a warming planet”[17] — but proceed to include some broad strokes to combat the popular notion that a massive, precipitous transition to non-carbon electricity sources is warranted.

Their approach is rather more oblique than head-on. They don’t deny that the planet is warming or that CO emissions from human activities have something to do with it. But they counter with several arguments. Besides noting that the earth has been warming since well before modern, industrialized civilization began amping up greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, they suggest that energy consumption itself emits heat — warming the “biosphere” — regardless of its production method. Quoting from a study, they state:

‘Climate neutrality does not come from decarbonized economies,’ since the consumed energy ends up in high-entropy, low-value heat (see Chapter 3.3) which warms our biosphere. The more inefficient our energy systems are, logically, the more we warm our planet to utilize the same amount of useful energy.[18]

In addition to implying, in this manner, that switching away from fossil fuels may not get you very far in terms of reducing planetary warming, the authors observe that CO and GHG concentrations in the atmosphere vary over time and are driven by non-human as well as human causes.[19] It is therefore difficult, they posit, to sort out how much of the observed warming in the late 20th and early 21st centuries derives from human activities. They also cite Steven Koonin’s 2021 book, Unsettled, for the proposition that climate models attempting to predict the future trajectory of temperatures if GHG emissions aren’t abated disagree considerably among themselves.[20]

Another way the book casts doubt on the thesis that the earth is careening towards a climate crisis is to raise the “undisputed — though less known” principle that the temperature impact of GHG concentration in the atmosphere declines as the amount of concentration increases (in other words, the global temperature impact of mounting emissions is not linear)[21]. But the authors insist, above all, that the enormous financial commitments being lined up to arrest climate change — they cite estimates of the cost ranging from $3–4 trillion per year to over $9 trillion per year in U.S. dollars — are being spent “misguidedly,” given the uncertainty as to why “the climate has warmed and cooled over the past millennium” and the questionable (in the authors’ eyes) “assumption that the entire putative warming over the past 150 years is due to human actions…”[22]


The book’s final chapter is mostly a tease. The authors don’t have a blueprint for how to get to get to the Promised Land of sustainability beyond fossil fuels. They merely point in the direction: the future, they say, lies in “possibly a combination of fusion or fission, solar, tidal, geothermal, or presently unknown energy source[s]…It would likely harness the power of the nuclear force, the power of our planetary system…and the energy from within our planet.”[23] But, they caution:

“It will have little to do with today’s wind and photovoltaic technologies due to the physical limits of energy density…and — mostly importantly, their intermittency.”[24]

They also recommend investment in energy system education and basic research.[25]

In the meantime, the authors take one last lick at the imprudence, in their view, of an energy policy that neglects security and affordability of supply — two critical policy goals — by devoting itself almost exclusively to a third goal, environmental protection, enabled by “decarbonization…replacing fossil fuels with net energy inefficient wind and solar”.[26] They also reprise their warning that cost estimates for generation focusing on the levelized cost of wind and solar (versus their counterpart conventional sources of power) miss the forest for the trees. Schernikau and Smith champion another, broader measure — labeled the “full cost of electricity” — that takes into account the entire life cycle and value chain of wind and solar, including their space requirements and back-up costs.[27]


One cannot help but be impressed by the earnestness of the authors’ concerns about energy policies fixated on radically shrinking the role of fossil fuels in the energy mix. Of course, much of The Unpopular Truth’s argument goes against the grain of a great deal of contemporary thinking by experts and policymakers, in and out of government. Schernikau and Smith would suggest there is a lot of wishful thinking underlying the more popular versions of our energy roadmap to the future.

What readers can do is to reflect on whether the authors’ deep reservations about heavy reliance on intermittent energy technologies deserve more visibility and debate within the expert communities qualified to weigh in on them. At the least, the authors have presented a prima facie case for deliberating more thoroughly, and with traditional scientific skepticism, the engineering foundations and calculations underlying advocacy for a full-on “renewables” transition. The Unpopular Truth, like most such books, favours but one side of the argument. Getting to the truth, unpopular or not, requires maximum ventilation.

There are several ways the current edition of the book could be improved. Some of the charts and graphs, however intriguing, are too dense and finely printed to be readily legible. Occasionally, passages descend into technical concepts or jargon that may elude a number of readers. But for the most part, the writing is coherent and sufficiently simplified for a general audience with some energy issues background to digest. And if the narrative often gets repetitious, the authors probably felt it was vital to hammer home their most salient points in this way.


* Kenneth A. Barry is the former Chief Energy Counsel of Reynolds Metals Co. in Richmond, Va. and has served as Counsel in the energy regulatory section of Hunton Andrews Kurth’s Washington, D.C. office. He has also been a regular contributor to two national energy law publications.

  1. Lars Schernikau & William Hayden Smith, The Unpopular Truth: About Electricity and the Future of Energy (Energeia Publishing, 2022).
  2. Ibid at 17.
  3. An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Classics 2006) [Director: Davis Guggenheim].
  4. The Unpopular Truth: About Electricity and the Future of Energy, supra note 1 at 125.
  5. Ibid at 126.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid at 125.
  9. Ibid at 127.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid at 102–103.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid at 105.
  14. Ibid at 108–109.
  15. Ibid at 109.
  16. Ibid at 106. The 2020 study is by the Boston Consulting Group and the International Energy Forum.
  17. Ibid at 111.
  18. Ibid at 112. Readers will note the scientific flavour of such arguments as well as the authors’ oft-repeated emphasis on “efficiency” as the hallmark of a sound energy production and delivery system viewed holistically.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Kenneth A. Barry, “Review of Steven Koonin’s Unsettled” (2022) 10:1 Energy Regulation Q, online: ERQ <www.energyregulationquarterly.ca/book-reviews/review-of-steven-koonins-unsettled1>.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid at 116. See in an adjacent argument, the book suggests that EU leaders may have been better informed to have declared “coal and nuclear” as acceptably “green” technologies rather than natural gas generation, since (they allege) methane escaping from the LNG value chain is responsible for more GHG impact than CO at 117.
  23. Ibid at 122.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid at 119.
  27. Ibid at 120. The book does not, however, undertake the very complicated task of developing and comparing the “full cost of electricity” for various fuel choices. That is left for another day.

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