The rhetoric and reality of renewables

In the face of a lot of hard evidence on the failure of renewable energy sources to defeat the physics of energy and laws of economics, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on renewable energy development in May 2011 ( Headlining is this IPCC assertion: ‘Close to 80% of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies.’ Welcome to Planet UNIPCC. With the ‘right enabling public policies’ of course, we could all hitch a ride on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space shuttle too.

There has been an on-going many-year gap between rhetoric and reality.

Rhetoric: Remember Germany’s ‘Green Chancellor’? In 2006 Angela Merkel famously promised to rid her country of coal and nuclear power replacing them with renewable energy sources.

Reality: Within just three years Merkel was actively promoting the construction of 26 new coal-fired power stations and demanding special protection for German heavy industry via free cap and trade permits.

Rhetoric: Remember on the green jobs front when President Barack Obama shamed Americans that ‘countries like Spain, Germany and Japan [are] surging ahead of us’? Obama wanted to create five million green jobs and set up a green jobs Czar.

Reality: A study in Spain in 2009 revealed that in fact 2.2 jobs were destroyed for every ‘green job’ created. The Center for American Progress, whose CEO had headed up Obama’s transition team, calculated it would take government spending of $100 billion to create two million green jobs, a bill to the US taxpayer of $50,000 per job created. And in February this year a UK report confirmed that funding the green sector costs more jobs than it creates ( Rhetoric: Eurocrat Andris Pielbalgs has been a front-runner in the renewable drivel stakes with assertions such as: ‘Wind energy can replace a large proportion of the polluting and finite fuels we currently rely on.’

Reality: ‘Soon we “celebrate” the 20,000th wind plant, without replacing even one single small plant of conventional energy,’ said Ferdinand Furst zu Hohenlohe-Bartenstein, chairman of Germany’s Federal Association for Landscape Protection. The British Wind Energy Association has been forced to admit wind power facilities would need 75% of its infrastructure backedup by hydrocarbon back-up facilities; UK generating industry players, like E.ON, say wind would need over 90% hydrocarbon back-up. A 2009 House of Lords report suggested wind power would need 100% back-up.

Rhetoric: Speaking on ‘Earth Day’ in 2009, President Obama decried the fact that only 3% of US electricity is generated from renewable sources, itself an exaggeration – and held Denmark up as a leading model – the oft-quoted Danish alternative energy ‘miracle’.

Reality: Aase Madsen, chair of energy policy in the Danish Parliament, calls the Danish wind program ‘a terribly expensive disaster’. Commissioned to report on Danish electricity exports in 2009, Danish think-tank the Centre for Political Study (CEPOS) found that Danes paid the highest residential electricity rates in Europe (partly due to wind industry subsidies), that 90% of new jobs were technology jobs transferred from other industries with only 10% of wind industry jobs being newly created, and that GDP took a hit of $270 million because of wind subsidies. As congressman Peter Stark commented of US wind farm construction: ‘These aren’t wind farms, they’re tax farms.’

Dr Howard Hayden, professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Connecticut, puts the total dependence of renewables in perspective: ‘With the right subsidies, wind could become a viable energy source. And, with the right subsidies, gasoline could be made free, and 2 carat diamonds could be given away in cereal boxes. How is it that wind, with a 4000-year head start, is such a small player in the energy scene? Could it be – just possibly – that the answer has something to do with the physics instead of economics and politics?’

Dale Allen Pfeiffer, writing about photovoltaics, does the math to defeat the solar science fiction too: ‘The US would require 17% of the planet’s entire surface area, or 59% of the land surface to produce solar energy to replace its current daily oil consumption.’

In 2007 the European Investment Bank calculated it would cost the EU l1.1 trillion over the next 14 years to pay for its Renewable Energy Roadmap to be implemented. The entire EU budget at that time was l100 billion. Asked who would pay for it, then EU president Angela Merkel, in a moment of unreserved honesty, responded: ‘With the best will in the world, I can’t tell you that.’ Taxpayers, beware politicians who haven’t done the math?

Ecologist Dr John Etherington’s pre-emptive epitaph for renewables as ‘the minting of money for the undeserving, aided and abetted by the uneducated’ may be rhetoric, but it’s also reality. As we have quoted elsewhere: ‘He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.’

In politics, as in life, it has always been thus. OE

Michael J Economides is a professor at the Cullen College of Engineering, University of Houston, and editor-in-chief of the Energy Tribune. Peter Glover is its European associate editor. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect OE’s position.

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