Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, Industrial-Scale Renewable Energy Does
The amount of hype, wishful thinking, and arguably outright lies that the renewable energy industries deal out ultimately does renewables more harm than good
Follow the headlines and you can hardly be blamed for thinking that we're on the cusp of a monumental renaissance, one that'll usher us into a renewable energy paradise and allow us to maintain our profligate first-world standard of living for... well, forever!
My favourite recent headline indicative of this supposed renaissance came via the website Ecowatch (by no means a lowly-ranked website), which proclaimed in one of its article's titles that "California Generates Enough Solar Power to Meet Half its Energy Needs".
Well kinda half – "haaaalf." For as the article's second paragraph states,
Recent data shows California coming through. The state briefly generated enough solar power to meet nearly half of the state's electricity needs, according to data from the largest grid operator in the state, California ISO.
Let's break down this paragraph and the title of the article from which it came from:
- Perhaps the most troublesome thing about this paragraph that should stick out more than any other is the slipshod way in which the article morphs into stating that it's not half the state's "energy needs" that were met (as the title stated) but half the state's "electricity needs" (as the second paragraph stated). This makes a huge difference, seeing how electricity is only one aspect of our energy usage – which also includes liquid and gaseous energies burned in internal combustion engines, central heating systems, etc., amongst much else. In fact, since electricity generally accounts for roughly 17% of overall energy usage, this means that it wasn't 50% of all energy needs that were supplied but 50% of 17% – otherwise known as 8.5%.
- Perhaps the second most troublesome aspect of the situation isn't the article's clarification that the energy-cum-electricity generated wasn't even half but "nearly half" (so we're talking less than 8.5% then), but the revelation that this level was met only "briefly". That is, the most ideal data from the most ideal time of the day was cherry-picked, then inexplicitly substituted in place for... I don't know, the title didn't say – the entire day, week, month, year? Fortunately the article did in fact say, and it turns out that it was for the single day of March the 3rd. Or at least part of that day, because if one looks at the supplied graph for the
24-hour15-hour period, one can confirm that the sun didn't in fact shine in the early morning, and that it looks like the appreciable levels of solar energy were generated for roughly eight hours between 8am and 4pm – which means about a third of the day, and so reduces the 50%-cum-(less than)8.5% to less than 3%.
- Last of all, it's stated that the data came from "the largest grid operator in the state", which is later in the article stated to not include urban places like Los Angeles or Sacramento. So while the inner cities undoubtedly have much less energy being generated by grotesque blobs of photovoltaics than rural California, this doesn't necessarily change the energy generation percentages in the slightest. Nonetheless, the wording and situation does still nonetheless seem a little fishy, which in my book justifies decreasing the less than 3% figure by another third, meaning that California, the stated state that "Generates Enough Solar Power to Meet Half its Energy Needs", possibly produces less than 1% of its energy needs from solar. Or in others words, jack shit. (Or in other other words, Jack ain't climbin' no stinkin' beanstalk to grift geese that lay golden eggs.)
My back of the envelope guess apparently wasn't even very far off, because after I realized that I'd better do some Internet sleuthing before I made an ever bigger arse out of myself, five seconds of research resulted in me finding an article explaining that in 2015 California ISO generated 15,591,694 megawatt-hours of solar electricity, out of the state's 231,965,326 total – that being 6.7%, along with 5.9% from hydro and 5.3% from wind. Multiply that 6.7% by 17% and, as I apparently wasn't very far off, we find that in 2015 California ISO produced 1.139% of the state's total energy usage via solar generation.
If that dismal number wasn't bad enough already, it also turns out that California has nearly half the entire country's solar electricity generation capacity. Jack and Jill really ain't gettin' Jack shit at the top of that hill.
Since the Ecowatch article gives nowhere near the kind of (cobbled) clarification that I just gave and instead resorts to conveying even more obfuscation and unwarranted hype, it's probably safe to say that this article's title is actually much worse than mere clickbait. One reason being, the misleading information that permeates these articles provides ample fodder for fossil fuel-backers to denounce renewables as full of BS, thus giving renewables in toto a bad name and giving many people the wrong impression of their complete futility. Secondly, while the article can not only be faulted for having a misleading title, but an ignorant-to-the-issues reader might very well come away feeling reassured that "well, the article didn't lie in the long run because it did ultimately straighten things out". In effect, a reader can consign themselves to believing that while things aren't as good as the title would have lead them to believe (if they even bothered going beyond the title, and if they even noticed some of the incongruities I pointed out), nor are things as bad as "industrial civilization is screwed". But the thing is...
On top of all that, articles like the one from Ecowatch are by no means anomalies since our various forms of media are rife with this kind of claptrap.
Denmark is of course the poster-child for renewable energy Shangri-La, one example of the kind of stuff that gets bandied about being that "In the fall of 2015 Denmark generated 140% of its electricity demand with wind power". Which to me sounds like the entire three months of the season called "fall". However, not only did this stated 140% occur on what was "an unusually windy day" (as opposed to an entire windy season called "fall"), but the measurement occurred at the precise moment of – wait for it – 3am in the morning! To throw insult to injury, and as quoted in a Guardian article shoddily titled "Wind Power Generates 140% of Denmark's Electricity Demand", a representative of the European Wind Energy Association actually had the gall to then say that "It shows that a world powered 100% by renewable energy is no fantasy". No, no more fantasy than if we set our clocks to a permanent state of 3am, all went outside to blow really hard, and as a result found our energy woes to be solved.
Nor is it any more fantasy than setting our clocks to 11am, our calendars to Sunday, and similarly finding ourselves blissfully energized. Because at 11am on Sunday, May the 8th of last year, "95% of German electricity demand was being met by renewable energy". (The inclusion of the word "demand", as was used in both quotes about Denmark and its wind energy, gives me the impression that all this energy wasn't actually consumed [and certainly not stored] in Germany and for whatever reason had to be offloaded out of the country, but we'll let that one slide for now.) As said proclamation then continued, "In one of the most advanced manufacturing countries on the planet – this is an amazing feat of engineering."
Really? Is that such a feat? Because as another article described the very situation, "This demand is seen as pretty low, mostly a result of warm temperatures, the summer break and the weekend, when most commercial operations remained closed." Phew, sanity prevails. Or... or does it? Because as the paragraph then continues, "But exactly at such points of time, it can be proven how renewables are edging closer to be capable of covering 100% of the demanded energy."
!?!? Are renewable energy industry shills actually trying to sell the idea that cherry-picked data is proof of viability!? Does stealing candy from babies really mean we can have all the candy we want!? Is everybody involved in the energy industry smoking crack!?
Thankfully not, because as another article clarifies the similar notion that Germany now produces half of its energy using solar (of which was repeated in Popular Mechanics and Rickard Dawkins' website, and which both errantly used the word "energy" instead of "electricity"), "Last year only 4.5% of Germany’s gross electricity generation came from solar panels, far short of 50%." As it then states,
Germany's solar output varies massively during the year, and these variations can be made clear by a simple comparison. Daily output of Germany's solar panels peaked last year on 21st of July, when panels produced 20.9% of daily electricity demand. In contrast, the worst day of the year was 18th January when solar panels produced just over 0.1% of Germany's electricity demand. This second statistic has, unsurprisingly, failed to elicit any headlines.
Phew – and without any caveats!
Anyway, it's hard to not get the impression that what the wind energy lobbies, the solar energy lobbies, and whatever other renewable energy lobbies partake in is the same hype, wishful thinking, and arguably outright lies that the coal energy lobbies, the nuclear energy lobbies, and all the rest of the "dirty" energy lobbies partake in.
On top of all that, similar to how money lenders will lend to both sides in a war and ultimately not really care which side wins since they'll be coming out on top either way, PR agencies, advertising agencies, and the rest of the Madison Avenue types cumulatively couldn't care less if it's the coal industry that comes out as winners, or the fracking industry that comes out as winners, or the renewable energy racket that comes out as winners, or if Tinker Bell comes out as the supreme winner. Because whichever way it ends up, their industry is coming out on top.
And while getting paid and maintaining cush salaries is of the utmost importance here rather than clear assessments, it's probably not too far off the mark to surmise that – as Eric Janzen did back in 2008 and John Michael Greer did more recently – what's being created is a renewable energy bubble, possibly contributing to, or even causing, the next stock market crash. (The race is on frackers!)
None of this is to say though that "renewable" energies are all for naught, just that their large-scale application isn't going to work any better than "dirty" energies will at maintaining industrial civilization in light of the onset of peak oil and plummeting EROEI levels.
In the meantime, weeding through all the BS and delivering a straight assessment regarding all these energy sources is of course a massive undertaking, so next week I'll take a look at an excellent resource that has done just that.