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Apr 21, 2010

Time to bust some myths about renewable energy

While climate change deniers and their arguments and tactics have come under scrutiny, renewable energy deniers have so far escaped, writes Mark Diesendorf.

The myths and assumed wisdom around renewable energy and its capabilities have been refuted, time and time again, by renewable energy scientists and engineers, but despite this, incorrect and misleading assertions are repeated, as if repetition of a falsehood somehow makes it true.

And who are the people peddling these inaccuracies? They come mainly from the coal and nuclear industries, electricity generators, other big greenhouse polluters such as the aluminium industry, and the supporters of these industries. And with the exception of some nuclear power proponents, renewable energy deniers are generally also climate change deniers.

If they cannot refute a particular observation by rational argument, they try to cast doubt on the result by introducing irrelevant material. They look for molehills in renewable energy systems and blow them up to mountains. They are masters of the 10% truths: taking a few facts and then spinning them into stories that convey the opposite impression from the logical implications of those facts. They insinuate arguments rather than state them clearly and unambiguously. Then, when questioned incisively about their insinuations, they back off and shift ground.

To follow is an attempt to test some of the claims trotted out by renewable energy deniers while demonstrating their tactics:

Claim 1. Renewable energy cannot provide base-load (24-hour) power.

A detailed refutation, based on a large body of international research carried out over the past 30 years, is given in my article The Base-Load Fallacy.

Very briefly, both bioelectricity, based for example on the combustion of crop and plantation forest residues, concentrated solar thermal power with thermal storage, and geothermal power can be operated as base-load. Wind power from geographically distributed sites, with a little intermittent back-up from gas turbines, can also replace some base-load coal or nuclear. Energy efficiency and solar hot water can reduce the demand for base-load.

Claim 2: Renewable energy cannot provide sufficient power to run an industrial society.

A simple calculation shows that in Australia a square 30km by 30km, filled with solar collectors and installed on marginal land, could provide all of current electricity. Of course, in practice there would be a mix of different renewable electricity sources – wind, sun, biomass, etc – and part of the solar contribution would be installed on existing roofs rather than in the Outback. In the long term, Australia could export vast quantities of solar energy stored as hydrogen, methanol or ammonia.

Similarly, a tiny percentage of US land area could generated all its electricity. Although Europe doesn’t have sufficient land to provide all its projected energy demand from local renewable energy (see Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air), there is now a proposal, backed by major corporations, to feed solar and wind power from North Africa to Europe by underwater transmission lines.

Globally, there is ample renewable energy available for demands projected to 2050 (Sorensen & Meibom, International Journal of Global Energy Issues 13 (1/2/3) 2000, DOI: 10.1504/IJGEI.2000.000869; Jacobson & Delucchi, Scientific American 301 (5): 58–65, November 2009). However, like fossil fuels and uranium, renewable energy is not distributed equitably across the earth and so trade will be necessary, by transmission line, pipeline and ship.

Claim 3: Renewable energy will be too expensive to provide most of our energy.

Only demand reduction from energy efficiency, energy conservation and solar hot water can compete in price with conventional coal power, which is cheap and nasty. In the absence of a carbon price, all low-carbon supply-side alternatives are going to be substantially more expensive than dirty coal power. However, the present costs of wind and bioelectricity from residues are already less that those of new nuclear and the estimated future costs of coal with CCS. The prices of more expensive forms of renewable electricity, solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal, are declining steadily as their markets expand, and are likely to become competitive with nuclear (whose capital cost has been escalating rapidly) by 2020.

It should also be borne in mind that renewable energy and energy efficiency are being implemented together and the economic savings from energy efficiency can pay for a large part of the additional costs of renewable energy, as shown by McKinsey & Co. In contrast, nuclear power and coal with CCS are being promoted on the basis that they will need no reductions in demand growth.

Claim 4: Denmark’s success in generating 20% of its electricity generation from wind power is actually a failure. Much Danish wind power is wasted, because it is not used in Denmark, although it is supported by “crippling subsidies”.

These and other fallacies have been published by a Danish “think tank” called CEPOS (Center for Politiske Studier), funded by fossil fuel interests. The fallacies have been disseminated by many renewable energy deniers, including advocates of the non-existent Integral Fast Reactor.

A detailed refutation has been published by group of 14 Danish energy experts writing on behalf of CEESA (Coherent Energy and Environmental System Analysis). These authors show that:

  • Only about 1% of Danish wind power is exported and so wind power does indeed provide about 20% of Danish electricity consumption. From a market perspective, it is generally electricity from power stations with the highest operating cost that is exported, rather than wind, which has the lowest operating cost.
  • No taxes are recycled to support established wind turbines.
  • The price of Danish residential electricity, excluding taxes and VAT, is only the 10th highest of the 27 EU countries. The high total price of Danish residential electricity is actually the result of high taxes and VAT which are not used to support existing wind power.
  • The price of Danish industrial electricity, excluding taxes and VAT, is actually the 7th lowest of the 27 EU countries.
  • On average Danish electricity consumers pay an additional 0.54 €c/kWh for feed-in tariffs for CO2-free electricity. On the other hand, with its very low operating costs, wind power reduces electricity prices in the Nord Pool market by 0.27 €c/kWh on average. Therefore, the net price impact of wind power is the (0.54 – 0.27) €c/kWh = 0.27 €c/kWh, which is negligible, considering that wind supplies 20% of Danish electricity.

A further exchange of arguments, available for download from the CEESA website, does not change the above refutation of the CEPOS report.  Since Danish wind power has been a great success, it is not surprising that it is a focus for renewable energy deniers.

The above four incorrect and misleading claims show how renewable energy deniers try to undermine the only zero-emission energy supply technologies that can make substantial reductions in CO2 emissions before 2025. Many of these technologies are either commercially available or semi-commercial now. They can be rolled out very quickly, because they are manufactured in small modules in factories.

Globally wind power has been growing at about 25% per year for the past 20 years; in China it has been growing at 100% per year for each of the past five years; in Denmark, the official energy plan will expand wind power from 20% to 50% of Danish electricity by 2025. Such high rates of growth are impossible for coal with CCS and nuclear power stations, which are gigantic construction projects.

*Dr Mark Diesendorf is Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at University of New South Wales. He is author of ‘Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy’ and ‘Climate Action: A campaign manual for greenhouse solutions’.

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63 thoughts on “Time to bust some myths about renewable energy

  1. michael crook

    Thank you, from transition Towns, Sandgate, Queensland.

  2. Meski

    Myth busting, now with caveats and disclaimers. Man, if we could use such caveats and disclaimers for nuclear power, it’d be regarded as 100% safe!

  3. Mark Duffett

    …the present costs of wind and bioelectricity from residues are already less that those of new nuclear…

    Really? That’s not what it says here, where nuclear (including decommissioning costs etc.) is clearly indicated as cheaper than wind. Can Dr Diesendorf explain how the International Energy Agency is wrong, or have I misunderstood?

    Each of these refutations may stand up on their own, though I harbour serious doubts. But the real question is whether the answers to claims 1 and 2 are compatible with the answer to claim 3. None can be validly considered in isolation.

  4. Barry Brook

    For those who wish to educate themselves, systematically, on the realities (pro and con) of renewable energy, a good place to start is the Thinking Critically About Sustainable Energy series. If there are any errors in any of the 9 TCASE posts to date, I’d be happy to hear it:

    Further information, including systems analysis of different energy mixes and CO2 abatement, here (see especially the Peter Lang series of posts):

  5. Roger Clifton

    Storage problems might well be bypassed if off-cycle wind or solar could store excess energy by upgrading biomass, CH2O, to methanol, CH3OH. In that medium-scale scenario, agricultural land could be providing transport fuel for the bush and export to the city. Better for the greenhouse than burning biomass directly for its paltry calorific value.

    However, it would compete with the gas industry’s (CO2 emissive) gas-to-liquids processes. Beware that an apparently green process ends up getting “a little intermittent back-up from gas”, like other renewables.

    It’s a moral for any of us, lest we end up becoming the smile on the face of the tiger.

  6. Barry Brook

    I do wonder where Diesendorf gets his data from. I have read this “in Australia a square 30km by 30km, filled with solar collectors and installed on marginal land, could provide all of current electricity” before but just let it go as clearly impractical. But it is also wrong. Even Desertec said it was 50km x 50km and I thought they were being optimistic about future conversion efficiency. This is mastery of 0% truth.

    The wind cost he refers to does not include grid connection, transmission and firming (standing reserve requirements). He likes to say the firming requirements will be supplied “with a little intermittent back-up from gas turbines” By his own admission in his book, a little is 25% of the wind installed capacity. So 1,000 MW of wind needs 250 MW of gas back-up standing around in case it is needed. But the 1,000 MW of wind power could have been supplied by 300 MW of gas in the first place so we have invested in 1,000 MW of wind to save 50 MW of gas. Sure the gas will not be needed all the time so there will be GHG savings but at considerable cost. Of course the other response is if wind is truly cost competitive why do we need a RET scheme?

    “The prices of more expensive forms of renewable electricity, solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal, are declining steadily as their markets expand, and are likely to become competitive with nuclear (whose capital cost has been escalating rapidly) by 2020.”

    Isn’t that phrase “are likely to become” one of those “misleading assertions [that] are repeated, as if repetition of a falsehood somehow makes it true”?

    The 20% wind energy for Denmark might be formally true, but the deeper question you should be asking is: Has this additional generating capacity actually displaced any baseload coal-fired power stations? I’ll leave you to work out the answer.

  7. John Bennetts

    Mark Disendorf and Barry Brook. Both know their stuff. Both have credentials. Barry’s web presence is well established and well worth monitoring. How about a cage match?

    Closer to reality, I become exasperated when the likes of MD, who really should know better, resorts to dodgy statistics and wishful thinking to support their arguments.

    First: Domestic Solar PV. If it is so cheap and economical, why are the feed-in tarrifs set at 50 or 60 cents (Germany, Australia…) in order for it to compete economically? This represents a huge misallocation of resources because the market spends most of its time at about 4 cents per kWh.

    Second: Nuclear cost, time to construct and safety are factually stated elsewhere. I need not re-state them here, except to say that nuclear as an option is incredibly competitive using existing technologies for mining, power generation and long term management of wastes. Fly Sydney-Brisbane sometime and have a look out the window as you pass over the Hunter Valley if you think that there are no longer term issues relating to coal. My valley has been comprehensively stuffed.

    Third: Solar Thermal. Much as I wish otherwise, I have been unable to find an example of ST power production which actually provides adequate thermal storage for night time running or morning peak loads. 6 hours seems to be about it, ie midnight. Allowing for a bit of thermal heating through of the system in the morning means that there is notjing for the grid till well kinto the morning… unless supported overnight by steam from other sources.

    Barry is absolutely right. If we are, by 2020, to wean ourselves substantially away from brown and black steaming coal, we will need to use every available technology, including nuclear ones, and to concentrate our efforts on achievement rather than dreams of future developments. By all means, use wind, solar thermal, solar PV, wave, geothermal and Gas Turbine. If the goal is to be reached, the hoodoo negativism re nuclear must be set aside.

  8. John Morgan

    Mark refers to those who have critically and quantitatively analysed our possible carbon free energy futures and come to the conclusion, without prejudice, that renewable power generation systems simply can not meet Australia or the world’s energy demands, as “renewable energy deniers”. This is a transparent ploy to associate thoughtful quantitative analysis with the cranks denying climate change. It is an underhanded and rather dishonest tactic, in my opinion, which I doubt will wash with many readers. Its name calling, when the issue demands quantitative analysis and integrity t what the data is saying.

    Far from being ‘myths’, the four problems Mark identifies are real problems, serious problems, with the engineering of a practical renewable generation system. The engineering shortcomings of renewable energy flows and the systems designed to harvest them are glossed over in the various plans proposed to get us to a renewable-only future. The gaps that are glossed over inevitably get plugged with fossil fuels, as in the example Barry Brook gives above.

    We simply cannot commit to a one time infrastructure investment of tens of billions of dollars over decades, only to discover that we’ve wound up with a power system that is still critically dependent on fossil fuels and is a savage greenhouse emitter. That is where renewable energy will take us.

    Fortunately we have a choice. The nuclear power plants China is now punching out by the dozens, quickly and cheaply, are safe, clean, carbon free power. We need them here, now. Or we could follow the Indian model, taking us to a virtually inexhaustible thorium fuel cycle. And Generation IV designs, such as the integral fast reactor or the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, will give more and better options in the future.

    Ideas in science and engineering often seem very unlikely at their genesis. They often need strong willed, determined advocates to see their development through the difficult early development phase. Mark has been this advocate for renewable power, and is to be applauded for his efforts.

    But there also comes a point where its clear the problems are real, they’re not going away, and that its time to let go. Renewable energy is at that point now, and this is becoming clear to people who have an investment in solving the climate (or peak oil problem), but no investment in the technology used to do so. The renewable dream officially died with the failure of Danish and German wind, Spanish solar, Ausra, and other large scale attempts that confirmed the validity of these critiques of renewable systems.

    Mark, its time to stop spoiling our real hopes for a carbon free future – nuclear power.

  9. John Bennetts

    John Morgan – thanks. Well put.

  10. Eponymous

    I still can’t believe that people who care about climate change can still, with a straight face suggest that ‘nuclear is the only way’.

    Central to the concept of caring about climate change is the consequence of Intergenerational Equity; not wanting to stuff things up so that those that come after us have a harder time of it.

    Nuclear power flat out fails on this count. The levellised costing numbers produced by the IEA that Mr Duffet quotes so religiously have a serious methodological flaw; they are based on Net Present Value calculations, and they ‘include decomissioning’.

    NPV calculations are at direct odds with intergenerational eqity. The NPV methodology is based on the fact that money is worth more now than in the future and dinishes future costs compared to holding that money as an investment until then. Using the discount rate that the IEA uses a cost in 30 years of 1 billion dollars becomes just $63m. Make it 60 years and the future decomissioning cost of a nuclear power plant is $3million dollars. Does that sound reasonable to you?

    If cost is so important, I need nuclear advocates to answer 3 questions:
    1. What is the future cost of decomissioning? How can you be certain of this? How many plants have been decomissioned to date?
    2. What is the future cost of long term storage?
    1 and 2 are strongly linked as the radioactive waste from the desomissioning will need to be stored soewhere.
    3. Explain to me how nuclear power can lower greenhouse emissions in the next 10 years; next 20 years. Ziggy Switkowski, nuclear energy fan-boy to the stars doesn’t think 1 plant, thats 1 plant, could be built before 2030. Why is Ziggy wrong?

    Barry; I think it would be more honest if rather than saying ‘the awesome and totally objective Brave New Climate’ you said ‘my website’. Just a thought.

    Further, I’ve looked at your TCASE series and I find it a load of crap and have pointed out flaws in it previously. If you are serious about peer review, I will do a full analysis of all your numbers and state why I disagree with them. Only if you promise to publish my rebuttal on your website. Somewhere where people can see it.

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