Can We Rely on Wind and Solar Energy?

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Oct 19, 2015

Is green energy, particularly wind and solar energy, the solution to our climate and energy problems? Or should we be relying on things like natural gas, nuclear energy, and even coal for our energy needs and environmental obligations? Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress explains. Learn about Alex Epstein's book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.

Wind energy is simply too weak and too expensive to be reliable on a mass scale.

  • The wind delivers weak, unconcentrated energy, so for it to be useful we must be able to tap massive amounts of it.View Source
  • Wind energy requires the mining and extraction of massive amounts of minerals and elements, including neodymium, a rare-earth metal, for lightweight blades, magnets, steel, and concrete.View Source

Solar and wind energy offer the fewest benefits among renewables.

  • The Brookings Institute ranked renewables according to their net benefits, and concludes that hydroelectric, nuclear, and natural gas “have far more net benefits than wind or solar.”View Source

The government subsidizes wind and solar energy because they’re too expensive and unreliable for people to use on their own.

  • Renewable energy businesses in the U.S. have received 25 times more taxpayer-funded subsidies per energy unit produced than fossil fuel producers.View Source
  • The truth is that green jobs merely replace jobs in other industries, and in Europe green jobs have come at the cost of jobs in other sectors.View Source
  • Between 2000 and 2009, Spain lost 2.2 jobs for every green job created.View Source

Renewable energy businesses in the U.S. have received 25 times more taxpayer-funded subsidies per energy unit than fossil fuel producers.

  • Renewable energy businesses in the U.S. have received 25 times more taxpayer-funded subsidies per energy unit produced than fossil fuel producers.View Source

To capture, store and use the energy produced by wind and sunlight is very expensive and resource intensive.

  • Compared to other fuels, like oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy, solar and wind energy are the most expensive to produce.View Source
  • Solar and wind energy are largely cost-prohibitive to produce on a mass scale.View Source

Wind and sunlight only make up 2% of total energy production for a reason: Converting them into energy is very expensive.

  • Compared to other fuels, like oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy, solar and wind energy are the most expensive to produce.View Source
  • Solar and wind energy are largely cost-prohibitive to produce on a mass scale.View Source
  • Solar energy is twice as expensive as natural gas.View Source

MYTH: Green energy creates jobs. Between 2000 and 2009, Spain lost 2.2 jobs for every green job created.

  • The truth is that green jobs merely replace jobs in other industries, and in Europe green jobs have come at the cost of jobs in other sectors.View Source
  • Between 2000 and 2009, Spain lost 2.2 jobs for every green job created.View Source

Why aren’t solar and wind energy the solution? Because they’re too unreliable and too expensive.

  • The essence of the “intermittency problem” is that there isn’t always sunlight or wind.View Source
  • Intermittency adds cost to energy production because fossil fuel plants are needed to fill in the gaps. When such plants run at below maximum capacity, they are less efficient and more.View Source
  • Batteries are one possible solution to this, but they are expensive, resource-intensive, and cannot currently store enough energy to run a home for much time.View Source

Wind and solar energy are unreliable, not very environmentally friendly, and extremely expensive.

  • Renewable energy businesses in the U.S. have received 25 times more taxpayer-funded subsidies per energy unit produced than fossil fuel producers.View Source
  • The truth is that green jobs merely replace jobs in other industries, and in Europe green jobs have come at the cost of jobs in other sectors.View Source
  • Between 2000 and 2009, Spain lost 2.2 jobs for every green job created.View Source

Solar energy is twice as expensive as natural gas.

  • Solar energy is twice as expensive as natural gas.View Source
  • The sun delivers weak, unconcentrated energy, so a large quantity must be collected to be of use.View Source
  • Solar energy requires extensive use of rare minerals (titanium dioxide, boron, purified silicon).View Source

Germany, a supposed model for green energy, is unable to use wind and solar when they need it most—in the winter.

  • Wind energy is unpredictable, and solar energy is unavailable for most of the winter months when Germany is most in need of energy.View Source
  • Due to these energy gaps, Germany requires a backup source for energy: coal.View Source
  • Rather than scaling back, Germany’s coal use continues to climb.View Source

Wind and solar energy are not free.

  • Compared to other fuels, like oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy, solar and wind energy are the most expensive to produce.View Source
  • Solar and wind energy are largely cost-prohibitive to produce on a mass scale.View Source

Why isn’t solar energy used more? Because it provides relatively little energy and is very expensive.

  • The sun delivers weak, unconcentrated energy, so a large quantity must be collected to be of use.View Source
  • Solar energy requires extensive use of rare minerals (titanium dioxide, boron, purified silicon).View Source
  • Solar energy is twice as expensive as natural gas.View Source

Are wind and solar power the answer to our energy needs? There’s a lot of sun and a lot of wind. They’re free. They’re clean. No CO2 emissions. So, what’s the problem?

Why do solar and wind combined provide less than 2% of the world’s energy?

To answer these questions, we need to understand what makes energy, or anything else for that matter, cheap and plentiful.

For something to be cheap and plentiful, every part of the process to produce it, including every input that goes into it, must be cheap and plentiful.

Yes, the sun is free. Yes, wind is free. But the process of turning sunlight and wind into useable energy on a mass scale is far from free. In fact, compared to the other sources of energy -- fossil fuels, nuclear power, and hydroelectric power, solar and wind power are very expensive.

The basic problem is that sunlight and wind as energy sources are both weak (the more technical term is dilute) and unreliable (the more technical term is intermittent). It takes a lot of resources to collect and concentrate them, and even more resources to make them available on-demand. These are called the diluteness problem and the intermittency problem.

The diluteness problem is that, unlike coal or oil, the sun and the wind don’t deliver concentrated energy -- which means you need a lot of additional materials to produce a unit of energy.

For solar power, such materials can include highly purified silicon, phosphorus, boron, and a dozen other complex compounds like titanium dioxide.  All these materials have to be mined, refined and/or manufactured in order to make solar panels. Those industrial processes take a lot of energy.

For wind, needed materials include high-performance compounds for turbine blades and the rare-earth metal neodymium for lightweight, specialty magnets, as well as the steel and concrete necessary to build structures -- thousands of them -- as tall as skyscrapers.

And as big a problem as diluteness is, it’s nothing compared to the intermittency problem. This isn’t exactly a news flash, but the sun doesn’t shine all the time. And the wind doesn’t blow all the time. The only way for solar and wind to be truly useful would be if we could store them so that they would be available when we needed them. You can store oil in a tank. Where do you store solar or wind energy?  No such mass-storage system exists. Which is why, in the entire world, there is not one real or proposed independent, freestanding solar or wind power plant. All of them require backup. And guess what the go-to back-up is: fossil fuel.

Here’s what solar and wind electricity look like in Germany, which is the world’s leader in “renewables”. The word erratic leaps to mind. Wind is constantly varying, sometimes disappearing completely. And solar produces little in the winter months when Germany most needs energy.

Therefore, some reliable source of energy is needed to do the heavy lifting. In Germany’s case that energy is coal. So, while Germany has spent tens of billions of dollars to subsidize solar panels and windmills, fossil fuel use in that nation has not decreased, it’s increased -- and less than 10% of their total energy is generated by solar and wind. 

Furthermore, switching back and forth between solar and wind and coal to maintain a steady flow of energy is costly.  Utility bills for the average German have gone up so dramatically that “energy poverty” has become a popular term to describe those who cannot pay -- or who can barely pay -- their electricity bills.

If those bills one day go down, the reason will not be more solar and wind energy, but lower oil and coal prices.

There’s no free lunch. And there’s no free energy. And that very much includes the highly expensive energy from the sun and the wind.

I’m Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress, for Prager University.

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