Renewable Energy Myths 1: Inevitability, Or Bad Timing: A Renewable Obsession

February 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Anyone who reads the general press and even longer articles in more specialized journals will see many arguments about renewable energy (or ‘Cleantech’) that are given as truisms without supporting evidence. In actuality, some of these are closer to green urban legends that have been repeated so many times that few question them, especially when they approve of the message.

In this and coming posts, I will discuss a variety of myths that proponents of renewable energy rely on but which are lacking sound quantitative arguments, such as cost/benefit analysis, and sometimes falling pretty to some simple logic. This is because renewable energy is a rare case of an industry (or product) that has many proponents from outside the sector itself, often with little expertise. The Red Cross doesn’t promote automobiles, nor do Civil Rights activists argue for greater use of microwave ovens, but huge numbers of ‘pundit’ write about the glories of solar or wind power.

One basic example: proponents or renewable energy technologies and fuels often claim that, in order to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and avoid climate change, or at least anthropogenic climate change, we must switch from fossil fuels to renewables for our energy supplies. Additionally, given the allegedly finite nature of fossil fuels, the implication is that renewables must replace them over the long run, especially since the costs of fossil fuels always rise.

The relevance of inevitability to current policy is hard to ascertain, though. It could even be argued (tongue in cheek) that if renewables are inevitable, then the government need do nothing. Certainly, if one accepts the argument of inevitability, it would seem less urgent to impose costly policies to try to implement it, such as mandates that utilities source a given amount of power from renewable sources.

Pushing technologies that are not yet commercial has been tried many times, including electric vehicle mandates in the 1990s, which were an abject failure. But aside from Cleantech, efforts to promote the supersonic transport (SST) and the fast breeder reactor (FBR) as inevitable technological steps ultimately fell flat despite the billions of dollars governments lavished on them.

And this is true as well in the case of both photovoltaics and electric vehicles. Despite the belief that they are inevitable, efforts to make them commercially viable have repeatedly run into the obstacle of the marketplace: inferior technologies do not always yield to the paeans of their advocates. Consumers, sadly, do have minds of their own. (TIC)

This is because there is a huge gap between “non-emitting technologies are inevitable” and “photovoltaic energy is inevitable” or “battery electric vehicles are inevitable” let alone “the current photovoltaic/battery technology is inevitable.” To me, it seems that the current design of photovoltaic cells is unlikely to produce electricity cheap enough to be a major portion of electricity supplies. Similar, lithium ion batteries appear unlikely to provide the cost and convenience that consumers want in a personal transportation device (that’s “car” for you neophytes).

If I were in charge (highly unlikely) of DOE, the emphasis would shift to RD: for batteries, photovoltaics, nuclear (both kinds) to develop a technology that is reasonably competitive in the marketplace, so that consumers would happily buy them, rather than the few who are farming the subsidies. I recognize that there are many other arguments put forward by proponents, and I will address these in later posts.


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