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Renewable Energy: What’s True, What’s False

A short, handy new guide from the Earth Institute cuts through the noise about renewable energy to lay out the facts about this politically charged subject. In Renewable Energy: A Primer for the Twenty-First Century, Columbia Business School professor and energy entrepreneur Bruce Usher takes readers briskly through the essentials: how various forms of renewable energy work, how much they cost, where they stand in relation to still-dominant fossil fuels, and where they are likely to go.

Usher largely eschews morality-tinged arguments about the imperative for “green” power, concentrating instead on economics and technology. He spices it up with weird historical surprises. (The ancient Chinese tried, and failed, to build natural-gas pipelines from sections of bamboo. The first English to burn coal were not the rich, but the poor, who couldn’t afford wood from fast-disappearing forests. In 1900, one-third of U.S. vehicles were electric; only after internal-combustion engines saw big improvements did gasoline take over.) He also gets into the minds of energy consumers, explaining terms  such as “range anxiety”–the greatly exaggerated sense that an electric car may run out of juice before the driver can recharge it.

Published by Columbia University Press, the book is the first in a series of sustainability primers with the Earth Institute imprint. Future planned ones will take on food and farming; mining; tropical forests; and conflict resolution.

We spoke with Usher about where renewable energy is now, and what to expect in coming years.

Your book approaches energy mainly in economic and technological terms. How fast is renewable energy growing, and why? Should people stop arguing for it mainly on moral “save-the-planet” grounds?
Renewable energy is growing faster than any other form of power, more than 8 percent annually for the past 6 years. This is happening in nearly every country, and for the same reason: renewables are increasingly cost competitive. Which is not to say that economics is the only reason for supporting renewables. Wind and solar power play a critical role in the fight against climate change, which I believe is a moral imperative for anyone who cares about future generations. But the moral argument isn’t enough, because electricity is a commodity, meaning that most consumers cannot readily determine where their electricity is coming from. We all know a plastic bag when we see one, and on moral grounds some people choose reusable ones. Renewables and fossil fuels produce the same electrons. So like any commodity, consumers are going to choose primarily on the basis of price.

You dig into what you call the “virtuous cycle” of growth in certain energy sectors. Is that not a moralistic theory?
No, a virtuous cycle in business occurs when growth in demand for a product results in economies of scale that lower manufacturing costs, further increasing demand for the product. For example, in solar power it means that the lower the cost of manufacturing solar panels, the greater the demand, and the greater the demand the greater the manufacturing efficiencies and the lower the cost, which further increases demand, and so on, in a feedback loop. That’s a virtuous cycle.

Which forms of renewable energy are growing fastest? Which are lagging and why?
By far the strongest growth is in wind and solar. Globally in 2017, wind grew 10 percent and solar grew by 32 percent This continued many years of double-digit growth. They are reliable, inexpensive, and inexhaustible. Tidal and wave power have tremendous potential but are yet to be proven at scale. The oceans contain enormous energy that can theoretically be harnessed. However, doing so has turned out to be costly.

You book largely writes off hydropower and nuclear.
In theory, nuclear could provide cheap and emissions-free power, but today’s power plants cost a multiple of wind and solar, despite efforts to develop better plants. And that’s not taking into account the unpopularity of siting nuclear plants, or the challenges of disposing of nuclear waste. Hydropower, on the other hand, is currently the largest single source of renewable energy, and is often cost competitive. But the primary problem there is that most of the world’s best rivers already have dams, leaving few growth opportunities. Last year, hydropower grew by less than 2 percent. I believe hydropower will remain an important component of the energy mix, but it’s unlikely to significantly replace fossil fuels, due to the limits on further development.

The Trump administration is doing everything it can to increase use of fossil fuels, and wants to pull out of the Paris climate accords. On state levels, utility industry lobbyists are trying to keep solar panels off homes. What effects might these efforts have?
In the long term, they will have no effect on the transition from fossil fuels to renewables and electric vehicles. But the Trump administration will have a significant long-term effect on something far more important: the planet. The challenge of climate change is one of timing, in that the longer we put off reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, the greater the warming and the more difficult it becomes to stabilize the climate system. President Trump and some state and utility lobbyists are slowing down the transition. In the long term, the economic fundamentals will overwhelm these short-term policy headwinds. Unfortunately, we don’t have long. Slowing the transition by a decade or more will likely make it nearly impossible to hold global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius, saddling the U.S. and every other country with severe environmental damage and enormous economic costs. For example, the real estate firm Zillow has projected that by 2050, which is the lifetime a 30-year mortgage, more than 386,000 American homes collectively worth $210 billion will be at risk of chronic flooding from rising seas.

You say that developing countries will be undoubted winners in the move to renewable energy, but the United States and Europe might win or lose. Please explain.
Developing countries have a significant advantage, in that much of their energy infrastructure is yet to be built. Instead of having to replace expensive fossil fuel facilities, they can build renewables on what so-called “greenfield” sites. It is like the mobile phone sector, which in most developing countries has leapfrogged landlines. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 2 percent of people have access to landlines, but nearly everyone now has a mobile phone. Similarly, solar home systems are growing extremely rapidly in many of the world’s poorest countries, providing power to places that never had it. The U.S. and Europe, on the other hand, will have to replace fossil-fuel infrastructure, at a time when total demand for electricity has been flat for over a decade, due to growing energy efficiency. Replacing existing infrastructure also leads to competition with companies that have sunk money into coal and natural gas generation. On the plus side, both the U.S. and Europe have advanced technology development capabilities, leading commercial enterprises, and access to capital markets. Whether they will win or lose primarily rests on government. Policies that support industry in making the transition will improve the odds. Ones that slow it will have the opposite effect. Implementing effective policy is challenging even in countries that support the transition, as recently evidenced by the protests in France against rising taxes on gasoline. In the U.S., the politicized debate over climate change is overshadowing the economic fundamentals. It’s taking the country backwards, at the same time China and other competitors move ahead.

 

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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Andy Capp
Andy Capp
4 years ago

Large scale renewable energy is a myth. You can’t use thousands of acres for solar panels and there is no continuous wind anywhere in the continental United States that would make wind turbines profitable. These myths are spread by centers who make their living hyping green and clean energy. Sorry, it does not exist

Nomyth
Nomyth
Reply to  Andy Capp
4 years ago

Why can’t you?

Wind power is already quite profitable.

Bob
Bob
Reply to  Nomyth
4 years ago

Also wind is very unreliable, paid for by government subsidies and can’t support system frequency. It’s already a huge problem that reliability coordinators are currently trying to deal with and no one ever mentions how much fossil fuels are used to create, transport and assemble the wind turbines. I totally agree with the first comment.

Jeff
Jeff
Reply to  Andy Capp
4 years ago

I’ve made decent capital gains investing in renewables. Yes, solar and wind alone won’t save us. However, the technology gets cheaper and more efficient by the year. You’re stuck in 2005. It’s now 2019.
**I have two brothers who work on drilling rigs, I’m not anti-fossil fuels.**

David Stone
David Stone
4 years ago

Wind and solar are not profitable without generous government subsidies – it’s a parasitic industry supported by taxpayers. As Warren Buffett said “they only make sense with the tax credits, without the tax credits no one would build them”. Consequently he invested approximately $30bn in 2 years.

So why do they only make sense with subsidies? Because they don’t work! They are a weather dependant form of electricity production. Supply can almost never meet demand. That is the complete opposite to how electricity has worked for most of the last 130yrs. Despite trillions of dollars of investment world wide wind supplied 0.4% of the world’s electricity in 2016. Round that to the nearest whole number – zero. Only governments can make those sort of ecomomic blunders and survive – but for how long?
Germany is in the process of trying to run entirely on wind and solar but is failing spectacularly. It was once an exporter of electricity but now imports from Hungary, Poland and France. Ironically it’s carbon dioxide emissions have gone up because they shut down their nuclear power plants and still use some of their old coal fired generators. 800,000 Germans have had their electricity disconnected. Another 8 million are on payment plans because Germans pay more for their electricity than anyone else except the Danes and Australians. Almost 5 times more than Americans. This is the case for all nations who go heavily into renewables – expensive unreliable electricity.
Watch Germany’s progress as they continue this experiment for the benefit of the Western world. They’ll go from powerhouse economy to basket case economy. However, a more interesting nation will be Australia. Why? They’ve copied Germany but they’re an island continent and will collapse their economy in record time. Unlike the Germans they have no neighbours so no extension cable long enough to help them out when there is no wind or solar which can be for months at a time. That’s not an exaggeration. They are currently building a hydro system but just discovered it will store only 5 days worth of electricity and THEN checked the number of windless and sunless days. They were informed they could be in a wind and solar drought for months. To make it worse they started shutting down coal fired power plants based on the “potential capacity” of the wind farms “replacing” them. Wind farms make capacity calculations based on the wind blowing at 8 metres per second every second of the day 365 days per year – only politicians believe this will happen. Australia is the only First World nation to have an entire State put itself in a blackout. South Australia accomplished this in 2016 when a storm caused their wind farms to shut down because the wind was too far above 8m/S. On top of that the interconnector into a neighboring state failed. Some parts of the state were without power for 2 weeks.

Only wealthy first world nations can afford this lunacy. To add to the madness of Australia’s economic, environmental and social suicide it has an abundance of the cleanest burning black coal, vast quantities of natural gas, almost 50% of the world’s uranium but has chosen to run on sunshine and breezes.
I could go on but you get the gist and I haven’t even mentioned the toxic components of wind and solar, the need for constant fossil fuel backup, no large scale battery storage, the waste of large tracts of agricultural land, the short life span of renewables and no decommission plan for either…

Stephen Wacksman
Stephen Wacksman
Reply to  David Stone
4 years ago

So fossil fuels won’t last forever either. Then what? I think the best plan is a mix of technologies. With time, we can’t even begin to predict the possible improvements or breakthroughs that could happen.

Piet Strydom
Piet Strydom
Reply to  David Stone
4 years ago

NOTHING of what you said had any basis in fact.

abdc
abdc
Reply to  Piet Strydom
6 months ago

But it is. Just do the research. Only thing he’s wrong about is the emphatic statement that renewable do not work. You can’t say they DON’T work, you can just say don’t believe the hype and that they are not the end all be all that they are touting them to be. Clearly, they work. People ARE using solar and wind power.

abdc
abdc
Reply to  David Stone
6 months ago

Wow! U unpacked a lot.

David Stein
David Stein
4 years ago

How can you tell if a hydrocarbon fuel is sustainable? Answer one question… where does it get its hydrogen and carbon from? If they come from prehistoric subterranean deposits they are finite and WILL run out. If they come from water and air, directly or indirectly, it is a closed loop and sustainable. Read http://www.dms-ent.com/interesting-times.pdf for more details, fully referenced.

Marlin Williams
4 years ago

Your not going to power up a city like Houston or Chicago with windmills and solar panels. Eliminating or abolishing fossil fuels would mean a return to a more primitive way of life on the NAmerican continent, with people freezing in their houses in the north country in winter, and without AC, rendering life in the south almost unbearable. Running the US on ‘Green Energy’ is largely delusional.

Marlin Williams
4 years ago

What a con. There’s no way your going to run the US economy on windmills and solar panels. Let me ask the author this: if traditional fossil fuel plants are eliminated, will we have the same reliable cheap electricity we have had during the past 10 decades, with no brown and blackouts, and which is affordable?

Am Ghobsmacht
Am Ghobsmacht
4 years ago

Does this research take into consideration the vast amount of mining required for renewables?
I believe a tonne of earth at a cadmium mine yields 0.2 grams of cadmium?

So, if we create solar farms large enough then what level of mining are we talking?

I see the mining argument come up a lot against uranium mining but the same people are quiet when this light is shone upon renewables, does any one on here have any insights on the matter?

Robert
Robert
3 years ago

How much fossil fuel use does it take to create renewable energy plants and why do renewable energy plants require fossil fuels to power them? IT IS NOT RENEWABLE and we are actually consuming more fossil fuels to drive ‘renewable’ energy agendas. We need to be honest and not focus on economy and technology, but on life on earth. Our resource is finite.

RAMANA GOVE
RAMANA GOVE
3 years ago

There are two important reasons for the renewable basket to gain momentum, more so the solar and the wind : 1.If we don’t shift faster, mankind may have to reap untold consequences due to climate concerns and 2. Fossil fuels are not going to last long.
The efficiency in PV cells and land needed per MW are areas that need research to bring a breakthrough in solar power.It is high time nations pay heed and commit themselves to the Paris Agreement to save the planet by reducing the carbon footprint !

David Bursey
David Bursey
3 years ago

Any jurisdiction that has gone the renewable route have expensive power rates and most have no decrease in their carbon footprint.
Several jurisdictions that have gone nuclear have lower rates and lower carbon footprints such as France and Sweden which were completed decades ago.
As for nuclear waste, the nuclear power industry knows where it is stored and secured. Once society grows up and loses its irrational fear of radiation, maybe long term storage can be done. The high energy isotopes decays rapidly and the low energy takes thousands of years, for all practicality , the fuel rods are not dangerous after 800 years.
For some long life isotopes in the fuel, being bombarded inside a reactor for a couple of years does not significantly increased the original amount because it’s so stable in the first place.

Alan Edwards
Alan Edwards
3 years ago

Wind farms and solar arrays need some space. A study from fluix.io suggests that the entire expected electricity demand in 2050 would need approximately 33,000 square kilometers of land if solar power were the only provider. By using the country’s sunniest parts would reduce this to 12,000 square kilometers.

upsavesenergy
3 years ago

Thanks for helping me in the direct or indirect way but I want to read some renewable energy-related blog posts this blog very informative for me to understand renewable energy and how to save energy.

we work for Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency works to save energy it has a different subpart of its organization which is situated in each state as a state-designated agency in Uttar Pradesh Agency name as Uttar Pradesh New And Renewable Energy Development Agency (UPNEDA).
This organization’s main work to save energy and aware people of energy conservation. NEDA arranges all possible things which are important for energy conservation like the Energy calculator.ESCo Company in Renewable Energy Development Agency this organization has different – different name work are same save energy and use renewable energy.

Wayne Tyson
Wayne Tyson
1 year ago

Mix including cuts in consumption, starting with electrified advertising and other nonessential “uses.” Did I mention WASTE?

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