Jul 14, 2014

Get Fact: testing Ian Plimer on wind and solar power

Ian Plimer, an ally of Gina Rinehart, has written a new book criticising environmentalists and casting doubt on climate change. Renewable energy expert Dr Mark Diesendorf does some fact-checking.

No doubt Professor Ian Plimer is an expert geologist. He drew upon that knowledge in writing his well-known 1994 book attacking creationists, Telling Lies for God. Unfortunately his attempts to critique renewable energy in his new book Not for Greens demonstrate that he is out of his depth in this field. His treatment of renewable energy is mostly nonsense from start to finish. Not for Greens will be launched in Sydney today. Crikey ran a fact-check of Plimer’s key assertions on climate science last week; here I’m fact-checking what he says in my area of expertise, renewable energy.

Plimer’s book has no pretensions of scholarship, since it lacks references, and its discussion of renewable energy is clearly not based on scholarly research by himself. He simply rehashes false myths, mostly originating in propaganda disseminated by supporters of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. These myths have been refuted again and again by experts in renewable energy. Here I'll address a few of Plimer’s howlers on wind and solar power. A serious error is Plimer’s claim that wind is "totally unreliable" and that "no carbon dioxide-emitting coal-fired thermal power station has been replaced by a wind farm". Actually South Australia has nominally two coal-fired power stations, several gas-fired power stations and many wind farms. As a result of the growth of wind generation to an annual average of over 27% of electricity generation, one of the coal stations is now shut down for half the year and the other for the whole year. Although gas capacity has not increased, the state’s electricity supply system is operating reliably. Clearly wind is partially reliable, despite its fluctuations. Plimer then attempts to generalise his above incorrect claims to the notion that wind farms "cannot produce continuous electricity without coal, gas, nuclear, hydro or geothermal backup". This notion has been refuted by hourly computer simulations of the operation of large-scale electricity supply systems with 80 to 100% renewable energy in several countries and regions (reviewed in Chapter 3 of Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change). These studies use actual hourly data on electricity demand and renewable energy supply, striving to balance supply and demand each hour over periods ranging from 1 to 10 years. For instance, our research at UNSW simulating the Australian National Electricity Market uses only commercially available renewable energy technologies (scaled-up wind, solar and biomass, together with existing hydro). We find that 100% renewable energy could have supplied electricity in 2010 with the same reliability as the polluting fossil-fuelled system. While we would not operate the grid on 100% wind alone, we could operate it on the above mix of renewable energy technologies with different statistical properties. Furthermore, using the Australian government’s own conservative projections to 2030 for the costs of renewable energy technologies, we find that 100% renewable electricity would be affordable. The relevant papers by Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and myself, published in peer-reviewed international journals, can be downloaded from my UNSW website. In discussing the energy inputs needed to build a wind turbine, Plimer claims that "the correct figure for payback of just the embedded energy is probably more in the order of 15 to 20 years. Whatever the figure is ...". The weasel words "probably," "in the order of" and "whatever the figure is" suggest that Plimer is either guessing or misrepresenting the result and trying to cover himself. Actual life-cycle assessments find that, depending upon the site and type of wind turbine, the energy payback period (in terms of energy, not money) is actually three to nine months! Plimer greatly exaggerates the land use and associated environmental impacts of wind farms, by taking the land they span and misrepresenting it as the land they occupy. Wind farms actually occupy only 1% to 3% of the land they span. They are normally erected on agricultural land and it's rare that a single tree is cleared. They bring supplementary rental income to the farmers who host them (typically $8000 to $10,000 per turbine per year in Australia), and increasingly bring financial benefits to local communities. Other errors and misrepresentations abounding in Plimer’s account include:
  • The small subsidies to renewable energy under the Renewable Energy Target are not paid "even when a wind farm is shut down", because they are paid per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, not per megawatt of generating capacity.
  • Furthermore, they are not paid by taxpayers, but by a tiny increase in retail electricity price paid by electricity consumers (except large consumers who have gained exemptions). This increase is offset by a decrease in wholesale price of electricity.
  • Although Plimer correctly writes that "wind turbines can only extract about 45% of the available kinetic energy," he omits to put this into context: ordinary coal-fired power stations can only convert into electricity 30% to 40% of the energy stored in the coal.
  • The best solar cells have efficiencies of around 25% (laboratory) and 21.5% (commercial), rather than Plimer's "not much higher than 10%".
  • Solar power stations do not depend on floodlighting the mirrors to operate at night. Concentrated solar thermal power stations actually store part of the solar energy collected during daytime in tanks of molten salt, to generate at night.
These and other myths are busted in my new book Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change. Are Plimer’s errors and misrepresentations the result of ignorance or deliberate deception? I don’t know, but it is worrying to see them uttered by a senior scientist. Plimer’s book is not for anyone seeking a rational, accurate, up-to-date account of renewable energy. I wonder whether some will rename it Telling Lies for the Fossil Fuel Industry.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

46 thoughts on “Get Fact: testing Ian Plimer on wind and solar power

  1. Bill Parker

    I am growing ever more weary of the kind of stuff that Plimer writes. I have to ask – what is the motivation? Why does he write deliberately misleading material and get the facts wrong? Surely he should apply the same rigour to this writing as he might to his geological writing? Why the difference?

    Flood lighting mirrors at solar thermal power stations? Is he really serious? This kind of stupid nonsense is a discredit to himself.

  2. marcfranc

    You say that ‘Concentrated solar thermal power stations actually store part of the solar energy collected during daytime in tanks of molten salt, to generate at night.’

    The only reference I can find to a working solar power station using this technology is Andasol in Spain, which Wikipedia says cost 900 million euros and has a capacity of about 150 MW, about the same as, for example, the Capital Wind Farm outside Canberra, which reportedly cost around $300 million to build, less than a quarter of the cost of the Andasol plant.

  3. Bill Parker


    You should look at Bright Source and Solar reserve for more info. It might also be instructive to look at the cost of coal fired power station (where of course there is a fuel cost factor over the entire lifetime of such a plant, not to mention the environmental cost)

  4. marcfranc

    Bill Parker, the plants you refer to don’t appear to be operating yet. Dr Diesendorf seems to be saying that this technology is currently operating at multiple plants. It may have great potential (I’m no expert, and have no idea), but unless you or he can point to operating examples of the technology, I’m going to wonder about the rest of his response to Ian Pilmer’s book. Which disappoints, because I certainly don’t fall into the climate change deniers club.

  5. Scott

    marcfranc, what exactly are you asking for?

  6. marcfranc

    Scott, some evidence to back up the implication in the original story that molten salt technology is routinely used to keep solar power stations operating at night. Solar plants may well have the potential to provide around the clock power, but are we anywhere near that point yet? Is it too much to expect that fact checking Ian Pilmer’s claims should be based on solid evidence?

  7. RichardB, Hornsby

    The Andasol plant is a proof of concept commercial solar plant, at 150MW. Larger plant is now being built, indeed operational in the USA and elswhere in Spain, up to 354MW. Plans are current for much larger plant. As the scale builds, and experience builds, the costs are reliably* forecast to reduce to be comparable with or better than coal within a few years at most. Wind will remain cheaper, but for reliability you need a mix of the cheap wind power and the on tap thermal storage provided by Solar Thermal Storage.

    Check this list for Largest Solar Thermal Power Plans in Operation

    PS: So far performance in reducing costs is actually better than forecast.

    The question is not if wind and solar will replace coal fired power, it’s will another single coal fired power station ever be built in Australia, in America, in Europe ? To build a new coal fired power station, with a 30 year return on investment, means gambling on being able to compete with renewable technologies in 2044 and beyond. But eh forecast is it will be cheaper /MW in just a few short years.

    Once concentrated solar is fully scaled up, and wind allowed to expand without opposition from fossil fuel paid politicians, expect the coal power stations to begin shutting down, beginning with the dirtiest ones.

  8. zut alors

    marcfranc, this is part of the transcript from last week’s Four Corners programme, a project which is due to kick start very soon in the USA:

    STEPHEN LONG: Tonopah.

    This sleepy little town in the high desert country of the Sierra Nevada is at a crossroads, where the old economy is making way for the new.

    Tonopah was one of the last frontiers of the Old West.

    The discovery of silver at the dawn of the 20th century sparked a mining boom, before the town lapsed into fading glory.

    They campaign hard out here, but there’s little division about where the future lies.

    It’s in mining the sun.

    Less than a half hour’s drive out of town is a state-of-the-art solar facility known as Crescent Dunes.

    If it looks space-age, that’s because it is, considered by some to be the most advanced power plant in the world.

    The project’s technical director is Brian Painter, an industry veteran who’s been running electricity plants for 30 years.

    (to Brian Painter) It’s amazing. It’s like a mechanical forest.

    BRIAN PAINTER, CRESCENT DUNES: It is exactly, you are walking through a mechanical forest. It’s made up of steel and mirrors and all this sort of thing.

    STEPHEN LONG: The huge mirrors on these mechanical trees are known as heliostats.

    BRIAN PAINTER: Each heliostat concentrates the sun’s energy on the top of the tower there, the black section that you see.

    STEPHEN LONG: What’s in the tower?

    BRIAN PAINTER: What’s in that black section is molten salt. Molten salt is pumped through the top. It’s like a big energy absorber; it’s absorbing all that sun’s energy that’s being concentrated on the tower.

    STEPHEN LONG: While we were at Crescent Dunes, the process of pumping 31 million kilograms of salt into the tower was still being completed.

    When the plant starts running later this year, 10,347 glittering mirrors will beam concentrated light onto the tower, where the molten sodium will act like a giant battery, storing the sun’s energy.

    DAVID HOCHSCHILD: Crescent Dunes is a remarkable thing to see. This is the first solar thermal power plant in the world to have molten salt storage, so what it does it takes the energy of the sun, produces electricity and then stores that as heat in molten salt storage and, at night, when they need to make use of that power, they can run it from the heat that’s being stored in this molten salt storage facility.

    BRIAN PAINTER: The thing with being able to store the energy is that we can shift the time of delivery; we can deliver night time, day time, when a utility might want power, we can deliver any time.

    STEPHEN LONG: Overcoming one of the perceived problems of solar: that the energy’s only available when the sun’s shining. This technology could be the backbone of a power grid, delivering base-load power as reliably as coal or gas-fired generators.

    When it’s up and running, it will be providing energy into the night for the neon-light capital of the world.

    DAVID HOCHSCHILD: That’s right. The facility’s going to be providing power to Las Vegas.

    It’s hard to think of a city in the world that uses more energy at night than Las Vegas, so it’s a great validation of the possibilities of solar and storage together.

    STEPHEN LONG: The company behind Crescent Dunes wants to bring this remarkable technology to Australia.

    It’s hoping the mining industry will embrace solar power at remote mine sites, which currently rely on polluting, and heavily subsidised diesel fuel to generate electricity.

    It had planned to build large scale renewable power plants to supply retail electricity, but it’s given up on those ambitions because of the drift of policy down-under.

    KEVIN SMITH, CEO SOLARRESERVE: That policy change pretty much took the life out of the renewable energy sector as far as large scale projects for say utility applications.

    Other markets around the world are advancing.

    Australia is going to get left behind.

    STEPHEN LONG: Kevin Smith is the chief executive of SolarReserve, the company that developed Crescent Dunes.

    (to Kevin Smith) What was the reaction in your sector in the United States when people discovered that a man who denies that C02 is contributing to climate change was appointed to head the review of the Australian Renewable Energy Target?

    KEVIN SMITH: Well, it’s a little bit hard to grasp that, kind of that concept. I mean clearly you know that appointment was made because they want to move back towards conventional fuels: coal and oil.

    It’s pretty clear that the policy in Australia is now being centred around big coal. The coal industry clearly has rallied to move policy away from renewable energies because they view renewable energy as a threat and back toward conventional coal.

    STEPHEN LONG: The new developments with renewable energy and storage seem to have passed the Prime Minister by.

  9. mikeb

    The tragedy is that Plimer’s book will get all the publicity until myth becomes “fact”.

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details