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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claim that wind is “totally unreliable” and that “no carbon dioxide-emitting coal-fired thermal power station has been replaced by a wind farm“.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.

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

  1. wbddrss

    I am very skeptical of ” the energy payback period (in terms of energy, not money) is actually three to nine months!”

    From my understanding of chemistry, all metals are energy intensive in their production. Even silicon wafer needs to be converted from SiO2 to Si using expensive energy that is subsidized. I personally don’t see this situation changing.

    On just the physics alone the more energy intensive as opposed to energy dispersed collection, must be cheapest because there is less infra structure to support it.

    But as even Jim Kramer said on TV, NUCLEAR HAS TURNED OUT TO BE THE MOST EXPENSIVE. A financial TV anchorman knows better because all this research is just rhetoric AND figures are self serving for & on behalf of industry practioners.

    If accountants & lawyers were to think that renewables would be cheaper, then we would all have nothing but renewables.

    The opposite is occurring, Germany is actually WIP going back to dirty brown coal to balance up closing down nuclear.(no URL, just wait & see.. all eyes on germany)

    Again all this costings just makes the word research ugly.


  2. @chrispydog

    Just for a taste of the kind of assumptions required to run 100% renewable, here’s one:

    24 GW of gas turbines running on biofuels

    (That’s approx half of Australia’s current total generating capacity)

    Anyone think that ‘smells’ funny?

    I rest my case.

  3. Thomas Stuart

    Dr Mark Diesendorf gives acknowledgement to Plimer’s expertise in “Telling Lies For God” but it may reflect agreement with the conclusions rather than an examination of the actual arguments. Reviews on that book reveal that Plimer similarly ventures beyond his expertise undermining the credibility of his conclusions … even when you agree with them.

  4. Thomas Stuart

    Here is a review of Plimer’s “Telling Lies For God” from the Amazon website … which by implication suggests that “Not For Greens” is just more of the same:
    “As a hobby, I follow the creation/evolution controversy. I read as many books as I can, from both sides. Having missed the media frenzy when Plimer’s book first came out, I only just got around to reading it. Frankly, it is possibly the worst response to creationists, and definately the worst book on science I have ever had the misfortune of reading.

    Plimer makes many, fundamental scientific errors, such as that sulfer is solid below 444 degrees C (p. 21), when this is actually the boiling point; that nuclear reactors are powered by alpha-decay through uranium 238 (p. 25) when nuclear reactors is actually fission of uranium 235 or plutonium 239; that the sun functions through the same process (alpha fusion) when it fuctions through fusion of hydrogen; that no item in science or technology has been developed by creationists (p. 12) when self-admitted creationist Dr. Raymond Damadian was the scientist who developed the MRI, Sir Ambrose Fleming developed the thermionic valve that enabled radio broadcasts to be made, Forrest M. Mims III developed am atmospheric haze sensor that even Scientific American itself admitted “could revolutionize this important field of study.”

    Plimer also claimed that Pi is 3.14159 (p. 18) when this is still an approximation; that camels hooves are not cloven (p. 17) when there is actually a pad between the hooves, meaning that the hoof is not completely divied; and manages to get racemisation backwards (p. 29-30). These mistakes could literally be multiplied by the hundreds. But my all-time favorite blunder continues to be when Plimer stated categorically that the english alphabet contains 23 letters (p. 224). Which three has Plimer decided not to use? And if you think that could just be a typo or fluke mistake, he repeats the same thing (emphasis, you know) in the very next line!

    Plimer also commits libel against the Creation Science Foundation (now Answers in Genesis), fabricating articles and papers which do not exist to smear AiG, calling creation science a “cult”, despite the fact that leading authorities on cultic activity called the claim misleading and without theological, psychological, or sociological support. Plimer has also made other false claims we won’t address.

    The book is replete with errors, false documentation, harsh language (i.e. creationism is a “bull**** reinforcer,” p. xiv; creationism is a “cult,” etc.) far beyond any creationist has ever said about evolutionists, false claims (i.e. CSF has deliberately lied, deceived, and fuctions through financial impropriety), and inuendo. As a further death mark, the book contains no index.

    Ultimately, this book, with its many errors, scientific and otherwise, can ironically be called a work of “pseudo-science” itself, a label Plimer pins on creationists.”

  5. Sancho

    Progressives exaggerating the effectiveness of renewables, and conservatives flat-out lying about it. Same old.

    Easily the most fascinating comment so far is from Chrispydog, when he says:

    If solar was truly “cheaper than coal” then we’d be using it to replace coal.

    Those of us on the progressive side of this debate often wonder if the denialists are mendacious or simply gullible. In this case it appears the latter, because it’s hard for anyone who understands what actually happens in the real world to make, with such unknowing irony, such a credulous, black-is-white statement that flies not only in the face of available facts, but contradicts the actions of the entire fossil fuel lobby.

    The answer is no, Chrispy. Ensuring that the world doesn’t switch to renewables despite their effectiveness is the entire point of the argument. It’s the entire point of the oil industry spending billions of dollars on propaganda, the entire point of the Abbott government’s wasteful pandering to fossil fuel corporations, and, of course, the entire point that Plimer was paid to justify with this book.

  6. PDGFD1

    Thank you Dr. Diesendorf… you’ve saved me a great deal of work… not to mention the price of Plimer’s book.

    Will be more than happy to purchase your ‘rebuttal’ book, should you and your associates write one (Hint, hint…)

  7. PDGFD1

    Oops…. and there it is (the book)… off to grab one!

  8. PDGFD1

    Oh C’mon Crispydog
    “No country has reduced emissions to such low levels without nuclear, and none will, because civilisation is built on dense energy sources. It’s maths.”

    ‘Civilisation’ appears to be causing climate change.

    Nuclear… why do people insist on going ‘back to the future’?? 10,000 years half life toxic waste issue, that’s just a new problem (and no… I won’t bother with the greed/human error aspect re accidents).

    It seems pretty clear to anyone pragmatic, and interested in having a genuine new industrial revolution, that we will need some coal (preferably gas) whilst we make the necessary transition to RE.
    Unless we find alternatives to coke for steel manufacture (and the like), we will probably have some coal for a while yet.

    Basically, we need to minimise our use of fossil fuels asap.
    Perhaps a few of these contracts to sell Australian gas overseas (and in liquid form… stupidly wasteful) should be stopped, so we can actually use our gas while the transition is made.
    Utopian perhaps in the current political climate, but pragmatic.

  9. PDGFD1

    Wbddrss @19
    “A financial TV anchorman knows better because all this research is just rhetoric …”

    No it’s not. Moreover, without adequate research geese like Plimer and Monkton would completely hold sway.

    “If accountants & lawyers were to think that renewables would be cheaper, then we would all have nothing but renewables.”

    I can reliably inform you that neither accountants nor lawyers are likely to have any knowledge whatsoever in this area.

  10. wbddrss

    Is this green enough for everyone. Cut out the subsidies. Burn the coal. May the cheapest source of energy stand on its own two feet.

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