Magazine | October 28, 2019, Issue

The Trouble with ‘Renewable’ Energy

The sun rises behind windmills in Palm Springs, Calif. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Wind and solar are inefficient, and their environmental benefits are oversold

‘Renewable” electricity — predominantly wind and solar power — is all the rage, described by numerous commentators, politicians, pundits, journalists, and other such “experts” as cost-competitive, clean, and a major part of the solution to the “existential crisis” now purportedly looming large as an attendant effect of anthropogenic climate change. A massive expansion of wind and solar power is a central component of the various proposals subsumed under the heading “Green New Deal” (GND), which has faded from the headlines for now, but which is very likely to return to prominence as next year’s presidential race intensifies.

Notwithstanding the romantic view of wind and solar power held by many, they are not cost-competitive, they are very far from clean, and they would do remarkably little to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and anthropogenic climate change, the “crisis” view of which is unsupported by the evidence. Several available analyses show that a major expansion of wind and solar power would increase the emissions of such conventional pollutants as carbon monoxide. Even apart from those problems, the renewable-electricity component of the GND is unworkable as a matter of straightforward electrical engineering, unless one believes that the American electorate will accept constant and widespread blackouts. 

In the larger context, the opposition to conventional energy that is the core of the GND is fundamentally anti-human, because one major implication of the opposition to fossil fuels is an aversion to increases in the value of human capital and other parameters that have the effect of increasing the demand for conventional energy. Moreover, the authoritarian implications of the GND are serious, however unnoticed.

High costs are a major problem with wind and solar power. First, wind flows and sunlight are intermittent: Power generation from windmills and solar panels cannot be scheduled in advance, because the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. This means that wind and solar “capacity factors” — the percentage of the time that wind and solar units actually produce electricity — are much lower than those for such conventional units as coal, gas, and nuclear, new installations of which have capacity factors of 85–90 percent. For onshore wind units, the figure is 40 percent or less, and it is 30 percent or less for solar facilities. Note that a massive expansion of wind and solar power as envisioned in the GND would drive those numbers downward, because the sites with the best wind and sunlight conditions are developed first, with new wind and solar farms necessarily sited at increasingly unfavorable locations. Accordingly, the wind- and solar-power industries would experience scale diseconomies — rising average costs — as more such capacity was added to the market. 

The lower capacity factors mean that the cost of generating power is vastly higher for renewables than it is for conventional electricity. The Institute for Energy Research estimates that wind power is about twice as expensive as conventional gas-fired power, and that solar power is almost three times as expensive. The ubiquitous claims that wind and solar power now are cost-competitive ignore substantial costs for backup power and much longer transmission lines, and the effects of massive subsidies and guaranteed market shares. In addition, replacement of a given amount of conventional capacity would require far more renewable capacity precisely because of the lower capacity factors characterizing the latter. The GND envisions replacement of about 850 gigawatts of conventional capacity; my own estimate, based on very conservative assumptions, is that the wind and solar capacity required to replace this would be over 2,600 gigawatts, a twentyfold increase over current U.S. wind and solar capacity. That would impose a net annual cost of $357 billion, or about $2,800 every year for each American household. And that does not solve the intermittency problem; doing so would require conventional backup capacity and generation, the additional annual cost of which would be about $77 billion, or over $600 per household.

Let us turn now to the adverse environmental effects of wind and solar power, typically ignored in the public discussion but very serious nonetheless. The energy content of wind and sunlight is unconcentrated, meaning that a renewables system would require the use of massive amounts of land. For the GND, the total land requirement would be, conservatively, 15 percent greater than the entire land area of California. The production process for wind turbines, apart from the massive use of steel, concrete, and other such industrial materials, requires significant amounts of such toxic heavy metals as neodymium and dysprosium for the magnets. For the most part these metals are mined in China, where environmental controls are lax, to put it mildly. Such heavy metals could be produced in the U.S., but the environmental requirements would increase costs massively. The disposal problem for wind turbines — in particular, the magnets and the massive blades — is only now beginning to be recognized. The noise and light-flicker effects of wind turbines are a serious problem that siting arrangements can solve only partially at most. The disposal problem for solar-panel waste — as much as 78 million metric tons worldwide by 2050 — is acute, in particular because of the lead, cadmium, chromium, and other toxic metals that are released if the panels are broken during the disposal process. And there is the wildlife destruction attendant upon the operation of wind farms and solar fields, as large numbers of birds are killed by wind turbines and by the scorching temperatures in solar “flux” regions where mirrors focus sunlight at solar towers. 

The backup conventional units must be “cycled” (that is, ramped) up and down depending on whether the renewable units are producing power. That cycling reduces the operating efficiency of the backup units — more gas or coal must be burned for a given amount of backup power — and under a broad range of conditions increases net emissions of conventional pollutants and reduces greenhouse-gas emissions by far less than advertised. And to what end? The electricity component of the GND, under highly favorable assumptions, would reduce temperatures by the year 2100 by about 0.173 degrees Celsius, barely distinguishable from zero, from where such temperatures would be otherwise.

This backup problem cannot be avoided unless we accept a power system characterized by constant blackouts. Because generation from wind and solar units cannot be ramped up and down in response to disequilibria in power frequencies in a grid, conventional units must be used to regulate those frequencies. In the absence of such frequency regulation, the generators composing the grid often would spin at different speeds, a condition of non-synchronous generation that would result in power outages. Despite casual assertions to the contrary, batteries cannot solve this problem. A battery-backup system cannot maintain output for more than several hours. And batteries produce power that is about twice as expensive as market prices for spare generating capacity.

Expansion of wind and solar power, and the GND, is justified constantly on the grounds of a climate crisis for which there is little evidence. Temperatures are rising but, as the Little Ice Age ended around 1850, it is not easy to separate natural from anthropogenic effects. The latest research in the peer-reviewed literature suggests that mankind is responsible for about half a degree Celsius of the global temperature increase of about 1.5 degrees since 1850.

There is little trend in the number of “hot” days (maximum temperatures above 100 or 105 degrees Fahrenheit) between 1895 and 2017; eleven of the twelve years with the highest number of such days occurred before 1960. Global mean sea level has been increasing for thousands of years; the increase may or may not be accelerating. Changes in the extent of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice tell very different stories. U.S. tornado activity shows either no trend or a downward trend since 1954. Tropical storms, hurricanes, and accumulated cyclone energy show little trend since satellite measurements began in the early 1970s. The number of U.S. wildfires shows no trend since 1985. (Wildfire acreage is far more driven by federal forest-management practices.) The Palmer Drought Severity index shows no trend since 1895. U.S. flooding over the past century is uncorrelated with increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations. The available data do not support ubiquitous assertions about the dire impacts of declining pH levels in the oceans. The International Panel on Climate Change, in its Fifth Assessment Report, is extremely dubious about the various severe effects often hypothesized or asserted as future impacts of increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations. The one exception is the disappearance of the summer Arctic sea ice, which the IPCC views as “likely” with “medium confidence,” but only under an extreme greenhouse-gas concentration path that is not plausible. 

Two larger observations remain to be made. First: Increases in incomes lead to significant increases in expenditures on energy. For the economy as a whole, a 1 percent increase in incomes is correlated with an increase in energy expenditures of over 0.9 percent. (Correlation is not causation, but no one can argue seriously that this correlation is spurious.) Accordingly, if conventional energy is a social “bad,” as assumed by proponents of the GND, then by implication rising GDP, incomes, and employment are “bads” as well. And so the factors that improve incomes similarly are “bads” in the ideological universe of renewable power and the GND: greater employment opportunity, rising compensation for employed individuals, education and training investment, investment in productivity-enhancing capital, health-care investment, and on and on. The promotion of renewable power and the GND fundamentally is anti-human in that its goals are diametrically opposed to the aspirations of virtually all individuals. 

Second: The campaign for ever more renewable power and the GND must engender a massive erosion in the freedom of individuals and businesses to use their resources in ways that they deem appropriate. If the adverse consequences of the GND emerged and grew, government would be driven to circumvent them by increasing explicit rationing and political favoritism, a process that inexorably would expand government surveillance of energy use and erode individual freedom and privacy. Such has been the recent experience in California in the face of perceived water shortages. 

The forced expansion of renewable electricity and the adoption of the Green New Deal would yield no positive outcomes. They are all cost and no benefit, derived from falsehoods, environmentally destructive, anti-human, and authoritarian. They are a fitting monument to leftist ideology.

This article appears as “The Trouble with ‘Renewables’” in the October 28, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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