Renewable Energy Myths
Myth #1: Renewables are an insignificant source
Wind accounts for > 4% of U.S. energy production, 1/10th of what coal provides. However, the 4% figure does not take into account other renewables such as biomass, geothermal, solar, and hydroelectric power (i.e., the Hoover Dam). Combined, renewables accounted for 12% of U.S. energy production for 2012. For 2013, the figure is expected to be 14%. The armed services’ nuclear fleet provides 19% of all electrical production.
The U.S. accounts for ~ 20% of global electrical generation. The 60 gigawatts of wind power (if at 100% of listed capacity) in the U.S. represents more electricity capacity than all of Australia or Saudi Arabia, and much more than all of Mexico. Wind farms produce only 1/3 of their listed capacity, while nuclear produces almost 100%. Even when discounted to actual production, U.S. wind farms generate 54% of all electricity used by Mexico, 26% of France and Brazil, 62% of Australia, 64% of Turkey and more than twice that of Switzerland.
Myth #2: Renewables can replace fossil fuels
Experts believe the U.S. could get 80% of its electricity from renewable energy. What would be more difficult is finding a place to put all those wind farms, solar panels, and hydroelectric facilities. The U.S. would have to double its entire existing network of transmission lines by 2050 to handle 80% renewable energy.
Myth #3: Renewables are too expensive
According to the Journal of Environmental Studies, coal generation costs 3 cents a kilowatt-hour; new gas plants can produce power at 6.2 cents, wind power costs 8 cents, and solar costs 13.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. However, the price for wind-generated electricity has been falling and is now 4 cents, not counting the 2.2 cent federal tax subsidy. In some regions, wind farms produce electricity at close to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour. Small-scale solar residential costs fell by 13% from 2012 to 2013.
There are also hidden costs. The cost at an existing coal-fired plant increases by 6 cents (to a total of 9 cents); at a new coal plant, the costs increase by 4 cents. Natural gas costs increase by 1.3 cents. Wind, solar, and wind do not increase because they do not cause asthma or emit carbon dioxide.
Myth #4: Variability dooms renewables
There are important caveats when comparing costs. For example, gas plants are frequently used to meet peaking power demands (and thereby charge higher rates). Solar also produces during those peak periods and can also charge more. In contrast, wind produces more power at night and less in the daytime so its electricity is less valuable.
Nuclear plants have decommissioning costs, waste storage, and liabilities that are not always priced in. Wind and solar need extra transmission lines and grid integration costs that are not included in their costs. The sun does not always shine in any given area and wind does not blow 24 hours a day. A 100-megawatt wind farm generates the equivalent of 34 megawatts of full-time power.
When power-grid operators do not either want the wind power or cannot handle it, they simply dump it. Fortunately, dumping, known as “curtailment” in the energy industry, has been decreasing as infrastructure has been beefing up; in Texas, the state was dumping 17% of its wind power; by 2012 the figure had dropped below 4%.
Myth #5: Cheap natural gas is an enemy of renewables
From 2009 to 2012, natural gas electricity generation increased by 34%; over the same period, wind generation rose by 92%. Natural gas plants have low upfront costs and do not have federal subsidies. The cost of renewables is mostly upfront and there is no fuel to buy.
Myth #6: Renewable energy means millions of new green jobs
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. had 3.4 million green jobs in 2011. In 2008, the wind industry said it employed 85,000 people. In 2010, solar employment was 93,000. Two years later, and a 9x increase in solar power, solar employment increased by just 28%. The entire coal sector employs 150,000 people. Hydraulic fracking for natural gas and tight oil accounted for 360,000 direct jobs in 2013 (source: IHS Cera).