Predict
Published in

Predict

Don’t Believe the Trolls; 100 Percent Renewable Energy is Our Best Bet

One reality too little acknowledged is that the debate about the manner in which we produce and consume energy is dominated by those who can fund research and advocacy. By and large, it is the businesses supplying energy from fossil fuels and atomic fission, and those broadly sympathetic to their political agenda, who have such means, and use them, skewing the debate through the innumerable propaganda outlets which pass for “think tanks” and “news media.” And they, of course, have been relentlessly hostile to renewable energy (with the nuclear sector lobbying governments hard to make life as difficult as possible for wind and solar producers, and trying equally hard to discredit those sources of energy in the eyes of the public).

At the same time much mainstream environmentalism tends toward extreme (and often, perversely gleeful) pessimism about technological possibilities for saving modern civilization — inclined to ignore the benefits and emphasize the costs of any development.

Making matters worse, popular science reporting, dependent as it is on sourcing, cannot avoid being affected by these tendencies. This is all the more so due to the conventional and uncritical outlook of mainstream journalists; the reality that many of those who work as science journalists do so with surprisingly little scientific knowledge, and still less understanding of the methods, economics, politics, sociology of science; and the reality that profit-minded news outlets cater to the appetite of some for “disaster porn,” and generally seek attention through shock. All of this drives them to frequently use for their headlines the most negative possible reading of a given situation — and then, down in the text of the article, which fewer people will actually see, while those who will see it have already had their first impression of the piece formed, back off the extreme claim that the analysis does not actually support (for instance, this claim that wind farms may make global warming worse rather than better through their effect on wind flows).

In this post I address the arguments made by proponents of expanded fossil fuel or nuclear use (and collapse-besotted doomsayers) against the possibility of renewable energy sources becoming the principal providers of electricity in the near future, and especially the potentials of wind and solar energy in this regard. In particular this post examines the common claims that renewables are “too expensive,” whether in price terms, or the inconvenience to consumers through their being “too unreliable”; the related charge that they offer “too little Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI)”; and their being “too resource-intensive,” whether due to the pollution they cause, their land area requirements, or the raw materials they consume, to such a degree as to render them a “cure worse than the disease”; and debunks each of them in turn. Finally it turns to the prospects for renewables becoming still more rather than less favorable in the years ahead.

“Too Expensive — and Unreliable”
A longtime objection to renewable energy has been its reputed high cost, historically declining due to technical progress and rising production volumes, but still higher than fossil fuels in the area of electricity production until very recently. The last few years, however, have seen the levelized, unsubsidized cost of wind energy, and even utility-scale photovoltaic solar energy become a cheaper source of power than coal ($29-$56 per megawatt-hour for wind, $36-$46 for solar depending on type, versus $60-$143 for coal according to a by-no-means-bullish report from Lazard Asset Management). Indeed, we have reached the point where constructing new wind and solar is cheaper than running existing coal facilities. The same goes for wind and solar relative to nuclear energy ($112-$189), while the price of these renewables is edging below that of combined cycle gas ($41-$74). Community, and rooftop commercial and industrial photovoltaics ($73–170 per megawatt-hour), are also producing electricity at prices comparable to nuclear power, while their price range also overlaps that of coal power; and even pricier concentrated solar thermal has begun to prove economically viable in particularly favorable locations.

Subsidies
Impressive as these figures are, one can argue that they still underestimate the progress renewables have made, and perhaps grossly — because of subsidies not to them, but to their competitors. Much as free-market pietists bemoan the measure of government support that enabled the enlarging scale of production and continued research and development that let renewables attain their present level of productivity (such as feed-in tariffs), the fact remains that this pales next to the extremely long and continuing history of far more massive subsidy of fossil fuels. This is all the more striking if one counts the tolerance of the massive externalities of fossil fuel production and consumption — its negative effects on health and the environment, the bill for which is paid by other people in other ways. Reasonably conservative calculations indicate that the total may run as much as $1 trillion a year for the U.S. alone, and over $5 trillion globally — such that were oil companies actually expected to pay for rectifying the associated market failures ( the solution libertarians always advocate in theory and somehow always oppose in practice), they would swiftly go bankrupt. Nuclear energy, too, has been a massive recipient of subsidies, with colossal externalities (the bill for the cleanup after the Fukushima disaster already at $200 billion, and still counting).

The renewables-bashers typically ignore that side of the balance sheet entirely. However, no plausible calculation of the scale of public support to renewable energy production, or tolerance for any externalities that its production may entail, comes close to such figures, not for recent years, and cetainly not for the full history of the two kinds of energy production. In short, renewables have been competing and winning in spite of the government’s distribution of subsidy, not because of it, and would likely be doing even better today were fossil fuels not so heavily backed, and as a result the price of oil, coal and gas would be so much higher.

Reliability
All that is very well the renewables-basher may acknowledge, but renewables simply cannot do what those more established energy production methods can with regard to continuity and flexibility of output, can they? One needs “baseload” power supplying a high minimum of electricity round the clock. Renewables cannot provide that, for the wind does not blow all the time, and the sun does not shine all the time. Therefore we can expect to see traditional, baseload sources such as coal and nuclear continuing to operate around the clock, and we could expect to see such traditional sources remain the mainstay of the grid (maybe eighty percent of it), reducing renewables to a supporting player. And so in the end not much has changed.

The Problem of “Baseload”
The characterization of the need for baseload electricity is increasingly questionable, not only hypothetically in light of evolving technology, but large-scale, real-world practice. First and foremost, that word “baseload” that renewables-bashers love to use to browbeat their opponents in debate”really means . . . too much power when you don’t want it, and not enough when you do.” In an age of “smart grids” affording more detailed monitoring and control, this wasteful practice has increasingly given way to an emphasis on “flexibility” — the ability to direct power where it is needed, when it is needed, in line with fluctuations in supply and demand. Operative of a sufficiently wide area, such grids let areas generating power surpluses supply electricity to other areas capable of making use of that power, and vice-versa as conditions changeas has already been lengthily demonstrated in northern Europe. Dense, urbanized, highly industrialized Denmark and Germany have, despite being on the cutting edge of wind and solar investment, displayed superior grid reliability to other nations utilizing more traditional power sources and methods. Germany’s performance actually improved (its already low 21 minutes lost per year in 2006 falling to just 15 minutes in 2017, even as the share of renewable-generated power in its electricity mix nearly tripled from 12.5 to 36.5 percent of the total). For its part, Denmark is doing about as well with an even higher share ( deriving 44 percent of its electricity from wind in the latter year). Indeed, a recent estimate holds that the current technical state of the art may enable the problem to be managed in a grid deriving even 60 percent of its electricity from variable wind and solar.

Complementary Power Sources
The fact that flexible, connective grids can do much to compensate for the intermittency of renewables, however, falls far short of the palliatives, one of which is suggested by the claim that the wind does not blow all the time and the sun does not shine all the time. This could be usefully corrected to read “the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine all the time everywhere at the same time.” One can derive considerable advantage from using the two in a complementary fashion, with solar power generating electricity when wind cannot, and the reverse also operative. Indeed, hybrid wind/solar farms combining both forms of production at the same site have already been demonstrated — and the practice been shown to provide a good deal of stability, even at local levels, while further enhancing the stability of grids over wider areas in favored regions.

Energy Storage for the Sake of Dispatchability
In addition to the advantages of a flexible grid incorporating a mix of different energy sources, there are a range of options for storing energy for the sake of its “dispatch” at need later. The cost of batteries admittedly remains high (even the cheapest option, the use of lithium batteries with photovoltaic solar power wiping out its cost advantage), but older, proven alternatives exist. One is the pumped hydroelectric storage which has complemented nuclear power generation for a half century. Another is the storage of excess heat in water, ice and underground rocks, which can when needed be released to drive steam turbines. Concentrated solar thermal lends itself particularly well to such storage, solar towers with storage now price-competitive with nuclear power, and even coal, in many locations ($98-$181 per megawatt-hour). While the spread of cheaper photovoltaic solar has far outpaced the development of solar thermal power, this enables its round-the-clock operation, and its more generally contributing to grid stability.

“Too Little Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI)”
Of course, the matter of price and reliability does not entirely settle the issue. Apparent cheapness can obscure a much more complex and problematic picture — and there may be other ways of calculating costs and benefits, with subsidy payouts only one of the factors skewing the matter.

Accordingly some prefer to speak in terms of Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI) — simply put, the ratio between the energy output of a system, and the energy it took to build and operate it. The EROEI concept can also be analyzed “macroeconomically,” with the EROEI of a given society calculated, which has led to arguments that a given level of such return may be minimal for a society to maintain a given level of complexity.

A favorite tactic of renewables-bashers is to claim a particular EROEI figure as essential for modern life to go on, then present figures for renewable energy’s output well below that mark — then smugly stand back and gloat over the dashed hopes of this energy form’s proponents.

Alas, while the term EROEI sounds intimidatingly scientific, the reality is that EROEI calculations are highly unstandardized. They can be computed in as many ways as there are people to perform the computation, with the result that they vary enormously. Moreover, the factors entering into the calculation are subject to change over time, with rapid change especially likely to skew the estimates. (It appears plausible that the higher-performing wind turbines or photovoltaics of today have a higher EROEI than those of several decades ago, while as oil and gas production relies on less inaccessible supplies and more costly extraction methods, the EROEI of fossil fuels may be going in the opposite direction.) And with renewable energy sources the calculation is trickier because, compared with other sources, siting can make so much difference (the EROEI on solar in equatorial desert very different from that in the polar regions).

All of this leaves much room for the play of analysts’ prejudices, enabling anyone to cherry-pick statistics that appear to support their argument, which even a specialist would need a good deal of time and effort to pick apart in detail. (The calculations regarding that far more established, prolific and technologically stable source, nuclear energy, have produced figures ranging from 60 to less than one, meaning that nuclear energy production actually uses up more energy than it produces.)

The question of how high an EROEI we must have to go on with modern life is even more complex and confusing. Clearly an energy source must “pay back” more than it takes to be worthwhile, but the question of how much more would be required to provide a satisfactory base for modern civilization is exceedingly uncertain, and no less contentious and clouded by prejudices. (Some say an EROEI as low as 5–7 would be adequate, while others cite far higher figures, suggesting 40 and more.)

In the absence of deeper explanation and context, any one such claim does not mean very much — and indeed, some go so far as to question not only the value of most such analysis ( even its originator Charles Hall acknowledging the problematic nature of its application in these debates), but the value of the concept as such (for example, because EROEI is not the end all and be all of the gross and net energy actually made available).

Still, it seems worth noting that considerable meta-analysis of the subject, endeavoring to critically assess the available body of study, indicates that EROEI for many renewable energy sources is at least as good as many established sources in this regard. A 2010 “meta-analysis” examining fifty different studies conducted between 1977 and 2007 concluded that, according to even the more conservative operational studies, the average EROEI of a wind turbine was in the vicinity of 20 to 1. The figures for photovoltaic solar tend to be less impressive, but impressive nonetheless, another such meta-analysis providing figures ranging from 8 to 34. Solar thermal power, in spite of its high cost, tends to be rated more highly than solar photovoltaic power, with one 2013 study — notorious for its pessimistic estimates regarding renewable energy and very high estimates regarding established sources — placing it at 19 (in contrast with 16 for wind, and under 4 for photovoltaics).

By contrast, the EROEI on fossil fuel and nuclear production in North America is commonly reckoned as running in the 10–15 range.

At the least, this offers significant grounds for the position that — to the extent that we are getting anywhere in calculating these matters at all — actually existing wind and solar do no worse than traditional power sources (with this especially going for the less conventional oil production, as with fracking and tar sands exploitation, on which expanding fossil fuel production relies).

Of course, it must be acknowledged that where renewable energy is concerned, the combination of production with storage costs cuts into their return. Still, where solar thermal was concerned, at least, the aforementioned 2013 study reported an EROEI of 9 for the practice, above the threshold of economic viability set by the authors themselves.

“Too Resource-Intensive”
A certain sort of renewables-basher, trolling advocates of the technology, brings up, as if it were a profound revelation, “Did you know that building wind turbines and solar panels actually requires stuff? Stuff they dig out of the ground and process in factories? How horrible! Did you know that it actually takes energy to do all that? And you know where energy comes from, right? Fossil fuels! Horribly polluting! And you realize they have to put them somewhere, on actual land! Ugh! Besides, we’ll run out of the resources we need before they can make a difference anyway. So, totally a deal-breaker.”

The implication is that the proponent of renewables thought these items appeared by magic — and it is more insulting than intimidating. Yes, producing these technologies does involve the consumption of resources, which may be more or less polluting. No one imagined otherwise. However, the question is not whether energy production from renewable sources is ecologically perfect. The question is whether it is significantly preferable to the other options available — and when we are discussing climate change, whether the production, installation and operation of the required systems generates less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than fossil fuels.

Pollution
Where pollution is concerned, it is indisputable that wind turbines and solar panels do not release pollutants into the air in the manner of coal and gas plants. In fact, when in operation wind turbines and photovoltaics produce no greenhouse gas emissions whatsoever. Emissions are involved in their production, installation, and disposal, but the evidence is that this is only a minute fraction of what is generated by fossil fuels. Coal produces almost a kilogram (980 grams) of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour, and natural gas nearly half that much (465 grams). By contrast all the costs associated with wind-energy amount to 99 percent less carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt-hour than coal, and 98 percent less than natural gas (11 grams). Comparisons with nuclear energy seem more variable, given the variety of grades of uranium ore and the methods of their enrichment, among other factors, but it is safe to say that wind is a rough match with nuclear energy at its cleanest, and an order of magnitude or more better than nuclear energy at its dirtiest ( 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour according to one estimate, with others running higher still).

As this goes to show wind power is not, for the time being, carbon-free — but this is a far different thing from implying (or outright declaring), as its detractors so regularly and vehemently do, that its present (comparatively minor!) fossil fuel requirement makes it no better than a coal or gas plant. The same goes for solar power in both its photovoltaic and thermal forms, which in even relatively critical assessments similarly represents an improvement over coal and gas. Moreover, one can envision even this slight footprint being further reduced — if the manufacture and transport of such systems itself becomes increasingly based on renewable sources (as would increasingly be the case as the transition away from fossil fuels advanced).

Land Use
All right, the renewables-basher concedes, maybe renewables do mean less pollution. But they require vast amounts of land area. Just look at those colossal wind farms and solar arrays! Think of how this would diminish our wilderness areas! The sacrifice of all that land we could be reforesting! (Suddenly oil industry shills become tree-huggers. Convenient.) Compare that with that wonder of efficient land use, a compact, little, nuclear power plant . . .

As it happens, calculations which show nuclear energy to be an efficient land user consider only the power plant, not the surrounding exclusion zone, nor the land use required by the rest of the fuel cycle, from uranium mining to waste disposal, creating a false picture. Not only does this sharply cut into any claims for nuclear energy’s efficient land use, but there is the very different manner in which wind farms use their land. Far from placing all of their territory off-limits, other than that on which towers actually stand — over 99 percent of it — remains free, and has been successfully used for such activities as farming, with the land “cropped up to the base of each tower.” The result is that, correctly utilized, they may be markedly more efficient land users than nuclear power plants.

Solar arrays ( both photovoltaic, and concentrated solar, comparable in this respect) may likewise be a more efficient use of land than nuclear facilities (or coal production). They also have the potential to be more efficient still in practical terms, because they can with relative ease be deployed on otherwise unusable land, like contaminated areas, salt-affected land, and the surfaces of water reservoirs.

Raw Materials Sufficiency
Very well, the renewables-basher may grant, but a 100 percent renewable energy economy will still be out of the question regardless, because there is simply not enough material for the job. It is, for example, common for those attacking renewable energy to point to the steel requirements of wind turbines. However, the extent to which this is a genuine obstacle is, at the very least, debatable. One calculation recently posited that were the world to rely on 2-megawatt wind turbines for 100 percent of its electricity production, it would need 4 million such turbines, each averaging 260 tons, for a total of some 1 billion tons of steel.

Staggering as this sounds, it is worth remembering that the world produced 1.8 billion tons of steel in 2018. A billion tons is a bit over half of that. This would indeed be an intimidating figure — if someone was seriously considering switching to a 100 percent reliance on onshore 2-megawatt turbines for the world’s electric power in a single year. To my knowledge, no one has suggested either such a complete reliance on this one source, or such a timeline for making such a complete transition to renewables.

It is worth noting, too, that any ambitious program of wind turbine construction would not come on top of existing steel production, but substantially represent a shift in the end of use of existing steel output to this from the fossil fuel industry — whose pumpjacks and derricks, pipelines and tankers, storage facilities and power plants, make it a colossal user of steel. (I have found comprehensive figures elusive, but Russia alone shipped four million tons of steel just for pipe for the oil and gas industry in 2018.)

In short, the idea that steel requirements singlehandedly doom any 100 percent renewable project to failure wildly exaggerates the issue. Indeed, serious study of the prospect of bottlenecks generally pays it little heed, instead focusing on the far more germane question of securing sufficient rare earth metals. However, examining the literature one quickly finds that the problem is less one of the scarcity of such resources in nature, or the technical impossibility of exploiting them, than the fact that demand for them could outstrip the world’s productive capacity, and the concentration of some of these resources in a few countries, and above all, China — the vagaries of power politics, rather than natural abundance or the technological state of the art, the issue. This is not to be dismissed, but it is a very different thing from saying that the problem is intrinsically intractable, let alone that palliatives are unavailable (with quite modest recycling rates perhaps sufficing to redress even the more serious problems).

The Scope for Improvement
As demonstrated here, renewables, wind and solar included, even without subsidy, have become cheaper than established energy production sources. They demonstrate great reliability in practical operation, when a suitable mix of them is incorporated into a properly connective and flexible grid. Where pollution, and especially greenhouse gases, are concerned, they are, by orders of magnitude, superior to coal and gas use; their land area requirements are less exorbitant than their detractors claim, and perhaps superior to those of nuclear energy; and it appears that, at the least, the question of raw materials sufficiency has been overstated.

It would be excessive to claim that every problem on the road to a 100 percent renewable energy future has been solved. It seems plausible that the challenge of keeping the grid reliable will rise as renewable energy production expands in scale, and it is far from clear that every technology and practice required for the task has been fully worked out. (Indeed, this has been by far the most contentious issue in the debate sparked by Mark Jacobson’s highly welcome plan for shifting the world to a 100 percent renewable energy economy by 2030.) It is equally true that the expanded production of wind and solar-generated electricity will require some mix of expanded mining efforts, recycling, and substitution far from clear or certain at the moment.

Yet, that not every detail has been worked out is an odd basis for vehement denial that a sharp expansion in renewable energy-based electricity production can be viable. A measure of uncertainty is always part of significant action in the world, the more so as that action is large-scale and deeply directed, while the alternatives appear even more doubtful. An expansion of fossil fuel production and consumption is already ecologically unacceptable in light of the persistent, massive failure to protect the environment from their massive pollution, and problematic in light of its falling return on investment by every measure (not least, because of the high reliance on unconventional oil to increase output). Similarly the expansion of nuclear power to meet our electrical needs, even were it deemed desirable, is a highly problematic endeavor given the technology actually at hand. That this does not usually concern the advocates of those technologies much reflects the double standard to which they tend (whether discussing subsidies, materials consumption, or anything else), and the fact that not only misinformation and shoddy reasoning, but bad faith, commonly underlies their arguments.

Moreover, it is clearly the case that technologists are only beginning to exploit the vast potentials for improvement in every one of the areas discussed here. The building of taller wind turbines with longer blades and higher capacities, and the optimization of wind farm layouts, can increase their yield appreciably. (Indeed, the increasingly tall towers on which the turbines are mounted is opening up the possibility of siting wind farms in new locations, not least inside forests.) At the same time, increasingly high-output units, as well as the possibility of reducing the carbon footprint of steel production with existing methods, hold out the hope of further economizing the emissions, land use and materials consumption of every kilowatt-hour of energy generated by this means.

It is much the same story with solar power, where the fuller utilization of individual photovoltaic cells through the use of more of their surface area, and the denser packing of panels with more cells, among other developments, show great promise of continuing the increase in their productivity and the drop in their cost — which will extend the cost-effectiveness to increasingly dispersed, small-scale residential production that could take much of the burden off of centralized production and extensive grids. Technologists are only beginning to properly explore the possibilities for enhancing grid efficiency and flexibility (the electrification of car fleets may actually be a help rather than a hindrance), and storing electricity from any and all sources, with the cost of what is perhaps the most flexible option, battery storage, plunging with much the same rapidity as the price of renewable energy production. Meanwhile, efforts to increase the recycling of rare earth metals, already underway because of the broad interest in the matter (the electronics sector relies on them heavily), offer some grounds for optimism in regard to materials requirements.

Any and all of this will mean cheaper and more reliable electrical power from renewables, considered in monetary terms, EROEI terms or anything else. It also holds out considerable hope of further lightening such burdens as the production of electricity from these sources seems likely to place on the natural environment.

None of this is cause for complacency — the pressure to move even faster than we already are too great for that. Accordingly these potentials are grounds not to calmly await the play of market force, but to back the swiftest and fullest development and deployment of all these technologies — not least, through “moonshot” efforts aimed at resolving the storage and raw materials problems that may lie ahead — to the end of deriving 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy at the earliest feasible date in a national and ultimately global Green New Deal.

Originally published at http://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy

63 Followers

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.