Nine myths about new energy
I will begin this list with my first introduction to a myth about renewable energy, put forward by the 'pro-nuclear, pro-coal, anti-renewable' advocates circa 2005:
1) ‘We could never integrate more than 5% intermittent renewables (they meant wind and solar) into an electricity grid.’
Fast-forward to 2015, South Australia is going to be 35% renewable powered next year with a plan to reach 50% in the not-too-distant future. And there’s no reason why this contribution can’t double. Denmark gets 40% of its electricity from wind and is aiming for 100% renewables (that’s all energy including heating and transportation). And after a very slow start compared to neighbouring Germany, the Danes are now going gangbusters installing solar on their rooftops.
2) ‘Wind turbines will never pay back the energy to produce them.’
This one’s a real doozy – wind power has some of the quickest energy payback of any technology. Even out of date 'life cycle' assessments put wind power’s energy payback time at five to six months; compare this to a wind farm’s 30-year lifespan (onshore windfarms can last even longer, especially in drier areas) and the truth is that wind farms produce at least 60 times the energy that was required to make them. A new generation of turbines in development by the world’s biggest energy industry technology player, General Electric, will dramatically reduce material inputs for wind turbines and reduce payback time to around two months, thus giving an EROI factor (energy returned on energy invested) in excess of 100.
3) ‘The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine; therefore wind and solar are unreliable sources of energy and need more back-up.’
Much as it pains me to have to debunk this well-worn myth (without simply saying ‘go look up a company called Tesla’) it just got mouthed by none other than Tony ‘I’m not a tech-head’ Abbott. Perhaps the Prime Minister should seek some technical advice from the Germans and Danes – with higher penetrations of renewable energy than Australia they suffer far far fewer hours of grid reliability issues when compared to the Australian grid. Existing coal, gas and hydro plant in Northern Europe balances wind and solar right up to a future of 60% of total annual energy from those renewable sources, according to studies commissioned by grid operators National Grid in the UK and Energinet of Denmark. But of course, along the way the power storage industry is gearing up to deploy batteries behind the meter and on the grid (by innovating and slashing prices) well before we get anything like 60% penetration of renewable energy on the Australian grid or even before the aforementioned Danes or Germans manage it.
4) 'Additional renewable generation has not replaced conventional generation in the usual sense; just adding capacity to the energy mix without forcing the retirement of conventional plant.’
Wrong again. We only have to travel to South Australia to see that wind and solar – which produce about 35% of the state’s electricity with the recent commissioning of TrustPower’s Snowtown II wind farm– have displaced fossil fuel generation. An example of this is the announcement by Alinta Energy that it will will shutter and decommission all its coal-fired power generation capacity at the Playford and Northern coal power stations. Along with these two power plants, the Leigh Creek coal mine and connecting railway will also be shuttered. This has occurred due to the introduction of renewables and it is only the beginning ... as it becomes clear that renewables are the cheapest source of energy, the decline of the fossil fuel sector will accelerate in Australia and around the world.
5) ‘People in the developing world will need to consume energy equivalent to current per capita consumption in the West (about 40GJ per person per year) if their standard of living is to be raised up to be equal to the West.’
This is another mistaken bit of analysis which looks at the gross energy required to deliver services (that make up a First World lifestyle) rather than the services themselves. With improved technology, I have shown that a household in a typical ‘Western’ city such as Melbourne can go from using 114GJ of energy per year to just 13GJ per year (and exporting 72 GJ). This was achieved by switching from gas to electricity for heating, cooking and hot water and installing solar, all of which has an economic payback for the householder above the government bond rate. Further improvements are possible that would more than halve the 13GJ per year that is used, which means a cleverly designed house (and an electric car) along with an upgrade to industry can support a Western lifestyle and consume the same amount of energy as people in Vietnam (which uses ~30GJ per capita per year) or Cambodia (15GJ per capita per year).
(By the way, the Melbourne volume built house in the case study was a whopping 288sqm.)
6) ‘The rebound effect, or Jevons paradox or Kazoom Brooks, means that energy saved in efficiency will be wasted in other ways.’
Oil companies and gas and electricity utilities don’t like to see customers using less of their products so they’re always out to try and give the idea that any effort put into energy efficiency will be wasted. Economies like Denmark, Germany and the parts of the US have shown how decoupling energy from growth is quite simple when you move away from traditional energy development paths. My previous example, of the house which reduced energy consumption by 90%, occurred with a minimum of rebound (indeed it would be hard to see where the house could waste the 90% of energy saved even if it wanted to). If energy drops for someone’s house and transportation by 85-90% it doesn’t really matter if they have a 5% or 10% rebound the change is still disruptive and should refocus society’s thinking on what is possible.
7) ‘Past solar installations in Spain, Italy, Germany and Australia cost a bomb and were a waste of money.’
Wrong; they were an excellent investment for all of the world’s peoples, including the citizens in each of those pioneering countries. Every panel that has been installed has made the next solar panel cheaper. The heavy lifting that Germany, Spain, Italy, China and Australia have done has given the world power that is, on average, cheaper than what is available on the world’s grids and what will in the future be cheaper than power generated from any other source anywhere on earth.
8) ‘The merit-order effect will make solar power generated in the middle of the day worthless causing the technology to cannibalise its own market.’
The answer to this one isn’t just storage but electric vehicle charging. People, on the whole, use their cars in the morning from 6am-9am and in the evening from 3:30pm-7pm. In between is the middle of the day, and that’s when the contribution from the sun is at its greatest. Whether it’s from charge points at your workplace or from your home solar array, it’s obvious that in the future the low cost of solar during the day will give us cheap travel. Solar won’t be wasted – it will be turned into forward motion for our cars with the rest stored for cooking and space conditioning in the evening.
9) ‘Solar will never be cheap enough to complete with fossil fuels.’
Hmmm, gee, well it’s really cheap in developing countries. And that’s because labour is now dwarfing the cost of the hardware in the developed world. But solar costs are coming down in countries like Australia as well. It used to be 10 times the price of what the technology is today (but that goes for almost all technology – think computers or mobile phones). People who said solar would never be cheap enough seriously jumped the gun and lacked the imagination and foresight to see the trend that indicated this technology would become very cheap and, therefore, the energy source demanded by all. One way that solar will get cheaper is where the labour used to roof our houses will instead roof them in solar panels. That means the incremental labour costs for solar on new houses will be almost eliminated.
There are many many more myths about renewables to be debunked (some honourable mentions include ‘solar panels can’t face south’ and ‘batteries will always be expensive’), indeed there are about as many as there are entrenched interests who desperately want solar to not disrupt their nice, cosy and lucrative world of energy supply.
But if you’re sharp then you’ll be getting familiar with solar, whether it’s as an investor on your roof, investor in a listed solar company or an angel investor in some new innovation that just may be the next thing that makes solar even cheaper again.
Matthew Wright holds a graduate diploma in engineering and is executive director of Zero Emissions Australia, technical director at Efficiency Matrix and resident columnist at Climate Spectator.