The Spin Doctors of “Renewable Energy”

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The spin doctors of renewable energy are in overdrive. On June 11 the renewable energy establishment jointly released the UN’s annual report on financial investment in the sector (Global Energy Investment 2012) and the annual report by REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, a UN spinoff) which focuses on the end uses of renewable energy — how much is being used in what sectors of the economy. The double release was timed nine days prior to the UN’s coming summit on “sustainable development” entitled Rio + 20 [it’s been years since the last Rio environmental gabfest]. It is designed to push the summit–with an expected attendance of 50,000, from heads of states to run of the mill activists– to enact yet more subsidies for renewables in pursuit of the holy grail: a “green” economy.

No one expects the media or delegates to read lengthy reports. In this case a single summary report of both reports has been issued, so that it is not even necessary to read two summaries. As in the case of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change reports, the summary is more tendentious and politically loaded than the reports on which it is based. But given that the summary is what is widely read and quoted–certainly it’s all the Rio delegates are likely to read–it carries the greatest weight. And it has a dual message. On the one hand the renewables sector is moving forward splendidly. Investment in solar has now outstripped that in wind and overall investment in renewables in 2011 grew 17% over 2010 despite the miserable economy. End uses have also grown strongly, to the point where renewables now supply 16.7% of total global energy consumption. On the other hand, there are headwinds. Those lower costs create pain on the supply side, sinking some major companies. Bottom line: the summary report quotes Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme: “This sends yet another strong signal of opportunity to world leaders and delegates meeting later this month…It is essential to continue government policies that support and nurture the sector’s growth…Otherwise the low-carbon transition could weaken just at the point when exciting cost reductions are starting to transform the economics.” A not so veiled threat here to the assemblage at Rio. Keep the subsidies coming or the green economy could collapse and it will be your fault.

The summary report obfuscates the underlying reality. Take that 16.7% of global energy consumption provided by renewables. By focusing heavily on the great percentage jump in solar and wind capacity, the report leaves the impression that these technologies provide a significant segment of that 16.7%. But while you could tease it out of the diagrams in the full length REN21 report, you’d never guess from the summary report that sun and wind together provide a lot less than 1% of that energy (or even of electricity, a much narrower measure).

And what of costs? The summary report slips and slides on that topic. We are told that gross investment in fossil fuel capacity in 2011 was $302 billion with renewables (excluding large hydro, which greens don’t like) moving closer at $237 billion. But there’s no mention of how much energy the public gets relative to the two investments. There’s a lot of talk of adding “capacity” but capacity is deceptive when it comes to wind and solar. Because the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine, capacity is much higher than the actual energy generated. For the same reason you need backup facilities using dependable coal or gas. These should be included in figuring the cost of renewables (but generally aren’t). For example, Britain has concluded it will have to construct an additional 17 natural gas plants as backup for its new wind turbines, at a cost of ten billion pounds.

The summary report says costs are coming down to the point where, in a few years, wind and solar will be competitive with fossil fuels. Let’s take wind first. The report says the costs of generating onshore wind fell 9% in 2011. Onshore. There’s the rub. If we are going to project into the future, the growing public clamor against onshore wind turbines, especially in Europe, has to be taken into account. They are widely viewed as blots on the landscape (a state of the art turbine is taller than the Washington Monument), a health hazard to those living in close proximity, a detriment to real estate values, and a blow to tourism. Talk about growth: The European Platform Against Windfarms, founded in 2008 by groups from four EU countries, now has 532 member organizations from 23 countries. Even Denmark, whose new government has grandiosely proposed completely phasing out fossil fuels by 2050 (Germany is not far behind with an 80% mandate for renewables by 2050) has bowed to public detestation of turbines, promising most will be built offshore. But offshore turbines, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA)of the U.S. Department of Energy, are three times more expensive. And, once they are buffeted by storms and tides, no one knows how expensive they may be to maintain.

As for solar, while it’s true the price of photo voltaic cells has dropped dramatically, that’s only part of the cost of solar power generation. The EIA estimates that in 2016 the cost of new solar generation will still be three times the cost of new natural gas facilities. That’s in the United States, but the relative costs elsewhere are not likely to be radically different.

Seeking to minimize the importance of the high profile failures in the renewables sector, the summary report offers a specious comparison to the auto industry. “In 1903, the United States had over 500 car companies, most of which quickly fell by the wayside even as the automobile sector grew into an industrial juggernaut….Today, the renewable energy sector is experiencing similar growing pains as the sector consolidates.” But those 500 companies did not depend on the public dole to survive. The winners provided cars whose market price the public was willing to pay, because of cost, performance, style, reliability, quality of construction or a combination of such factors.

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  • davarino

    They subsidize ethanol as well and that is supposed to be a renewable energy? It takes more energy to make ethanol than what it puts out. No matter, the pols have it under control, and the farmers are loving it. Ethanol and all the other goofy "renewables" make about as much sense as fusion, and the public fall for it. The public are not smart enough to realize this is all a big scam. I heard a guy last night call into a radio talk show and suggest, like he had invention of the century, to put alternators on electric cars to keep the battery charged. Like it would be a perpetual motion machine. Folks, let the real scientists do the real work here. There is no free lunch, and when it come to fossil fuels, they pack more energy in one drop than anything else on the planet, except Uranium. Its been fun but this "green" initiative is going to play out and we'll have to face the facts and this will have been a real huge waste of time and money.

    I heard our local schools only required mid 30% on science and math tests in order to pass. You could get that by just guessing, and now you know why we are where we are. You gotta love liberal agendas.

  • Beat Odermatt

    We should remember that every bit of fossil fuel not burnt today remains available for future generations. The children of our grandchildren may need fossil fuel far more desperately then we do. It is so easy to say that renewable energy is getting Government help, but we do forget about the massive support traditional coal and oil industries benefited from Government welfare in form of tax breaks etc. The worst environmental degradation is usually found in countries with long left wing extreme Governments such as in Haiti and the former USSR and its satellite states. Good Governments do care for the environment and do support clean renewable resources as they care for future generations.

    • ebonystone

      "Good Governments do care for the environment …."
      Then the U. S. government must not be a good government. Some of its facilities — particularly military bases and Department of Energy installations — are among the worst polluters, loaded with toxic waste dumps. Hanford Works of the AEC is a prime example. Private companies do not pollute for the fun of it. They do so because there is no economical way around it. From a comlany's point of view, everything that goes up the stack or down the drain is waste and a loss. It goes down the drain because that's the cheapest way to deal with it. But as engineering and technology improve, techniques become available to reduce that waste; i.e. to make a profit from some of it, and smart companies quickly adopt those techniques.

      • ebonystone

        A case in point: In the late 1990's my employer sent its employees to a presentation on pollution, and what the company was doing about it. They gave an example of a pollutant that in 1950 (the earliest year of their records) had been dumped into the local river at the rate of 200 tons/year. By 1972 (the year of the EPA's founding) this had been reduced to 34 tons/yr — an 83% reduction. And all due to better engineering and to the company's "greed" in wanting to improve profitability and stop literally throwing money down the drain. By the late '90's, after 25 or so years of EPA diktat, the rate was down to 14 tons/yr — another 10% improvement. So private initiative, in the interest of profit, had reduced this pollutant by 83%, while government-imposed regulations added only another 10%. All things considered, it's clear that it's the EPA itself that is the biggest waste.

  • scotto

    I eagerly anticipate the author's hard hitting expose on the incomparably massive spin machine run by the fossil industry — he could start with his own article.

    • Nick Shaw

      "the incomparably massive spin machine run by the fossil industry"? LOL!
      When was the last time the fossil industry was able to get 50K sycophants together in one place?
      You are really comparing Heartland, for example, to the UN?
      Step away from the Kool Aid!

  • H&R_ Barack

    If the UN and the UN Environmental Programme-type activities could capture and channel their own B.S., – they would be a sustainable and renewable energy source that did not burden the American taxpayer.

  • ganadineroxinter

    There is no free lunch, and when it come to fossil fuels, they pack more energy in one drop than anything else on the planet, except Uranium. Its been fun but this "green" initiative is going to play out and we'll have to face the facts and this will have been a real huge waste of time and money

    • Jeff Green

      No matter how you cut it, co2 and other assorted GHG's are making this a climate a different place. It's money well spent to get off of carbon onto clean energy.

      Coal is being called "dead man walking". Aint goiong to go in the United States.

      • Western Canadian

        Your post is as incoherent as it is short. You make no sense at all, since you know nothing at all.

      • wsg

        Jeffery – Ever heard of the Krebs Cycle ? CO 2 is a TRACE gas in earth's atmosphere it is NOT a pollutant !
        Based on the geologic record the earth's climate IS dynamic and always will be. There have been several glacial cycles ( ice ages) and mankind and not a thing to do with any of those changes and yet now the eco-socialists/ fascists are insisting that our freedom must be eradicated in the name of Gaia and THEIR QUEST of statist utopia => POWER .

      • Nick Shaw

        And, you know this how, Helen?
        'Cause somebody with a hockey stick chart told you?
        CO2 is plant food. You wanna' make the earth green? Feed the plants!
        And who calls coal "dead man walking"? Only fools like your incoherent self.

      • ebonystone

        "…other assorted GHG's …"

        You mean like water vapor and methane? Both. like co2, produced in huge quantities by Mother Nature.

      • ebonystone

        "Coal is being called "dead man walking". Aint[sic] goiong[sic] to go in the United States. "

        But it's going pretty well in China. Even with their own large coal resources, they're importing the stuff like crazy from Australia and Canada. They'd buy a lot from the U.S. too if our greenies didn't keep stopping the construction of port facilities on the Pacific coast.

  • ebonystone

    Hooray! I've made comments of various blogs over the past year or so about ridiculous waste of money on solar or wind generation, because of the need for conventional power plants to back them up–essentially building two power systems when only one is needed. And this article makes that price plain: ten billion pounds for gas turbines for when the wind ain't blowing! So why bother with the wind system at all? Use the gas turbines full time and save the billions spent on the wind-farm.

  • Jonathan Gal

    Flaws in the Global Warming Hypothesis

  • Don Kosloff

    Anybody who actually believes that AGW is real should be demanding that more nuclear power plants be built.

    • davarino

      Exactly, because they are not going to replace fossil fuels with renewables. It cant happen, but non scientists dont understand why.

  • Russ P.

    Imagine a new kind of nuclear power plant that

    cannot melt down

    produces essentially no waste (much less than 1% of the amount of waste that current nuclear power plants produce)

    is based on proven technology and requires no new scientific breakthroughs

    uses an abundant fuel that will last for thousands of years

    cannot contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation

    can actually burn up existing stockpiles of nuclear waste

    is much simpler to build and operate than current nuclear power plants (in part, because it operates at low pressure and does not require a huge pressure vessel)

    • davarin

      Dont know anything about Thorium base nuclear power but it sounds good. Nuclear is the clean way to go regardless of which option is used. Then the greenies could charge their electric cars without the guilty thought that they polluted the air using a coal fired power plant : )

  • mrbean

    Governments and private investors around the world are spending billions to subsidize green energy projects, but many of the emerging technologies in this industry are theoretically ineffificent, unproven and controls often are lax. All too frequently, investors in green energy aren’t motivated by solid business judgment but by environmentalist hype and political propaganda. The result is an environment ripe for fraud.

    • Nick Shaw

      Nope, Mrbean, those investors are far more interested in the government subsidies than the hype. Oddly, they seem to get out just before the project fails.

      • mrbean

        I don;t think you mean the investors – i.e. those who put up their own money? It is the actual people who are running these subsidized green energy projects and companies, not the venture capitalists as investing in the green energy business is a high risk for venture capital and private money with a low return at best – unless of course someone discovers "Dilithium Chrystals" – Ayyye… Captain Kirk.

  • http://Valmartinireland Val Martin

    The question now has moved from does renewable energy work ( only large hydro works ) to how can so many people be fooled into thinking it does work . The phasing out of science and maths from schools may be part of the answer . I am still puzzled . To say 1 mwh of wind energy is equal to . Mwh of conventional energy is like saying that if a shop sells a loaf of bread for 2 euros , then that 2 euros is all profit for the owner . 1 mwh of wind may give about . 04 % of a mwh . From this must be taken grid power used by turbines . Wind probably makes no contribution at all .

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