Recently the Seattle Times ran an article with a seemingly paradoxical headline: “Rise in renewable energy will require more use of fossil fuels.”
Wasn’t renewable energy supposed to take the place of fossil fuels? Isn’t that the whole point?
Let’s be clear: We love the idea of renewable energy. Why, if we had a magic wand, all the earth’s energy needs would be met through renewable sources. The No. 1 Saudi export would be pistachios. Unfortunately, we do not have such a wand. We do have a choice: We can either ratchet down our energy consumption to match the levels that can be provided by renewable energy sources, or we can continue to use fossil fuels to maintain the lifestyles we demand. We don’t get both.
You’ll Have To Meet Our Demands
Renewable energy advocates admit that renewable energy isn’t capable of meeting the world’s energy needs today. Others question why we need to build expensive and inefficient renewable energy plants when we can meet our energy demand with fossil fuel generation. But someday renewable energy will be able to pay for itself and meet our demands, advocates insist.
And they might. As investment advice site Motley Fool points out, “all energy resources need time to develop, and renewables are no different. If we’d given up on natural gas decades ago because it wasn’t holding a large enough percentage of our electricity production, we’d be missing out on a resource that now provides a quarter of our electricity.”
The German Solar Miracle: The Hour of Power
When the weather’s perfect, renewable energy does well — there was one day last year when at one point, solar energy was meeting half Germany’s power demand, to the tune of 22 gigawatts of solar power per hour.
How we wish that were always the case.
Unfortunately, as Der Spiegel, Germany’s rough equivalent to TIME magazine, wrote on January 16, 2012, weather greatly affects solar power: “For weeks now, the 1.1 million solar power systems in Germany have generated almost no electricity. The days are short, the weather is bad and the sky is overcast. As is so often the case in winter, all solar panels more or less stopped generating electricity. To avert power shortages, Germany currently has to import large amounts of electricity generated at nuclear power plants in France and the Czech Republic.”
“Nuclear power plants.” Remember that.
Because this is the dirty secret of renewable energy production — it always requires backup generation, be it fossil fuel or nuclear. California, which is requiring more renewable energy production, will learn this. As the Seattle Times explains, “wind and solar energy must be backed up by other sources, typically gas-fired generators,” for windless and cloudy days. “As more solar- and wind-energy generators come online, fulfilling a legal mandate to produce one-third of California’s electricity by 2020, the demand will rise for more backup power from fossil-fuel plants.”
Solar: Inefficient By (Nature’s) Design.
It’s not just cloudy weather that renders solar so inefficient. Petr Beckmann, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado thirty years ago, wrote that ever since there’s been a sun, solar energy “comes in at the rate of 1 kilowatt per square meter (about eleven square feet) at the best of times — when the sun shines unobstructed and perpendicular onto the collecting area. That 1 kW/m2 is a value that will never change upward; no level of technology, no amount of money, no genius of human inventiveness can ever change it.”
In other words, no solar panel or technology will ever get more than 1kW/m2, and the best technology humans can conceive of is far below that. Why? Modern science tells us that’s simply how much energy sunlight produces. And most PV cells utilize only a portion of that energy, losing large amounts in the capture and conversion to electricity. Compare that to coal, which can produce 1 kilowatt of energy with a lump 15 square inches weighing less than a pound. The sun, Beckmann says, would have to shine uninterrupted in optimum conditions on a perfectly efficient solar panel that size for three months to produce the same energy.
Ultimately it’s not weather or technology that makes solar power so much less efficient than coal and other fossil fuel alternatives, it’s physics.
The Wind Blows… But Not Often Enough
Wind power is hardly better. As Forbes noted recently, wind blows inconsistently. This means power companies need fossil-fuel plants to pick up the slack, and turning fossil-fuel plants on and off “adds inefficiencies, producing carbon emissions just to heat up boilers before energy production can begin.”
In fact, wind is so inefficient and space-consuming that its appeal — as well that of other inefficient renewable energy sources — can be summed up in the opening sentence of a paper penned by an ardent wind power supporter: “My argument rests on the assumption that Global Warming constitutes a terrible threat not only to the environment (up to 40 percent of species going extinct with a 2° rise in the average temperature) but to human civilization itself.”
If you believe that, then you’re at least prepared to listen to the wind power argument since it’s your position that even inefficient energy production beats total world annihilation.
Wind And Solar’s Loss Is Nuclear’s Gain
Interestingly, as confidence in solar and wind as renewable energy sources wanes, a beneficiary has been nuclear power, which has been winning converts among former foes. It’s clean energy, and you can make the case that it’s “renewable” as well. Staunch leftists George Monbiot has declared himself a believer in nuclear power, not in spite of, but because of the Fukushima disaster.
Monbiot wrote in his Guardian column in 2011 of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, “A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.”
The “irony of Fukushima,” according to a 2011 editorial in The China Post, “is that in forcing us all to confront our deepest fears about the dangers of nuclear power, we find many of them to be wildly irrational — based on scare stories propagated through years of unchallenged mythology and the repeated exaggerations of self-proclaimed ‘experts’ in the anti-nuclear movement.”
And nuclear energy works — France, South Korean, Belgium, Slovakia, Switzerland, Hungary, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Ukraine all have anywhere from 30 to 75 percent of their total energy needs provided by nuclear.
So there you are — we do have clean, efficient renewable power available to power a goodly chunk of our energy needs. Just probably not the one you were expecting.