Sunday, April 14, 2024
HomeClimate WatchThe great renewable energy myth

The great renewable energy myth


The author is in Australia.

UNFORTUNATELY, much of the Western world has been blindsided by the smoke-and-mirrors approach to science, an arm-waving ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’ approach which has sent many governments dashing down a ‘net zero’ path muttering all sorts of fairy stories.

One of these stories is that renewable sources of energy are not only carbon-free, but produce electricity of similar quality for a much lower cost than can be achieved by fossil fuels. None of this is true, for if they were, we should be seeing a slowdown in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, an increase in the availability of and drop in the cost of electricity, but we haven’t.  

Another obfuscation is the phrase ‘Levelised Cost of Energy’, used to suggest that solar and wind are cheaper, but this is true only when they are producing electricity in optimum conditions, for example when the sun is shining and there are no clouds, and when the wind is blowing at the right speed. LCoE calculations do not mention the subsidies, without which the house of cards would collapse. Nor do they tell you that on top of the subsidies, your electricity bill includes the inescapable cost of all the different back-ups needed to keep power flowing 24/7, instead of around 40 per cent at best – with back-up provided at the moment by fossil fuel-powered generators which they want to close ASAP. Adding more renewables does nothing to keep the lights on at night when there is no wind, so where will the back-up come from then? 

Back-up, or rather ‘long-duration energy storage’, also comes from nuclear, hydro, pumped storage and those famous exploding so-called giant batteries. Unlike the first two back-ups, pumped storage does not make new energy and is in reality just a very expensive battery which has to be recharged daily when being used. Goodness knows what they will do for back-up when the Victorian gas-fired stations are terminated as planned.

Would you build a nuclear power station that would not work 24/7? It’s a bit like opening the best restaurant in the world, with the world’s best chef and maître d’hôtel, to find they each come to work only two days a week, and not always on the same days. 

Another cost not mentioned in dispatches is that of transmission, distribution, balancing and conditioning, most of which is due to renewable energy ‘factories’ (for they are not farms) being very far away from where the power is needed. Coal-fired power stations produce regulated power 24/7 and are mostly placed near where the coal exists, and where the industries set up to use that power are located. New gas-fired power stations are built on the site of the coal-fired units they replace and all that is needed is a pipeline to bring the gas to the site.

Then there is another, much better-hidden cost problem – the low energy density per square metre of the land required to capture the discontinuous and diffuse energy from the sun and wind. Rates are chargeable on the land area occupied. But with renewables, the cost is carefully massaged out of view. To illustrate, let’s compare solar, wind and nuclear power generation land use.

Hinkley Point nuclear power station in the UK is rated at 3.2 GW and covers 430 acres (174 hectares), whereas the equivalent power-producing solar factory would cover 130,000 acres (52,600 hectares) and an equivalent land-based wind installation would need 250,000 acres (100,000 hectares), not including the land needed for the power grids to get the electricity to market. 

Hinkley Point, like any nuclear plant, can produce >90 per cent of its rated output 24/7; solar panels can average around 20 per cent of their land-rated capacity – when the sun shines – while wind turbines can produce up to 50 per cent of their land-rated capacity when the wind blows at the optimum rate. You don’t need even basic maths to tell you that on a ‘power output per day, per acre of land’ basis, renewables are a non-starter. 

They say it is the price we must pay to save the planet, but will the planet be liveable when so much pristine wilderness has been lost? Yes, under certain circumstances, sheep may safely graze under solar panels where soil moisture is retained and the grass is greener, but these are very small exceptions and do nothing to reduce the cost of power derived from such an unreliable, intermittent source. 

Environmental costs are difficult to measure but habitat loss is clearly there for species such as koalas, and the kill rate for top predators flying into the blades is rarely mentioned, as is the death of bats which can avoid the blades but suffer lung damage due to the pressure drop across the swept area.

A nuclear, coal or gas fired power station will easily last for 60 years but solar panels, which can be destroyed by hail, will be lucky to last for 20, and where will the old panels go? As for turbine blades, again 20 years seems to be the lifespan. They are disposed of by cutting them up and burying them in fields.

Solar and wind constructions are built on land ‘leased’ from the owner, generally a farmer, which means that when they reach their final use-by date, the cost of taking them down and disposing of the un-recyclable bulk of the equipment falls to the farmer. What is most likely to happen can be seen in the fate of Australia’s first solar power station, erected at White Cliffs in western NSW in 1980/1. It had no connection to the national grid so the power was sold locally to opal miners and to the town. Initially, 14 tracking parabolic dishes focused the sun’s rays to heat water and when this boiled, the resulting steam drove a generator. In 1997 it was converted to a photo-voltaic system, which produced daily daytime electricity until January 2005. The unsightly dishes are still there, in a yard on the edge of town, all forlornly pointing in the same direction, away from the sun, and there they will probably stay: of vague interest to tourists and despair to the locals.

Where are the Greenies now? How can they allow such massive habitat destruction to go un-protested and still sleep soundly?

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Howard Dewhirst
Howard Dewhirst
Howard Dewhirst has had a long career in international energy resources exploration relying on climate change-driven stratigraphic principles.

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