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:
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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’.