The Clean Energy Tipping Point Is (Not) Here

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Today “data-driven” energy commentator Chris Nelder confidently informs us that the clean energy revolution tipping point has arrived. Nelder is an old fashioned peak oil type, and starts out talking about how we are running out of oil, while confounding oil and gas at the same time. But the reliability of his thesis is easily judged by considering the evidence that he aligns in its favour. Here are a couple of examples that show just how sloppily argued the whole business is.

Renewable energy now supplies 23 percent of global electricity generation, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with capacity having doubled from 2000 to 2012. If that growth rate continues, it could become the dominant source of electricity by the next decade.

The numbers presented here are completely incomparable. Renewable generation now supplies 23 percent of global electricity generation, and capacity has doubled from 2000 to 2012! Well, solar, wind and hydro all have significantly different load factors, so lumping their capacities together is deeply misleading. It’s kind of like saying a shop sold a bunch of bananas, apples, mangos and papayas, and just reporting it as pieces of fruit sold.

And the other thing that is missing here is that most of the growth in renewables has not been in wind and solar, it has been in hydro-electricity. Between 2000 and 2012 hydro growth was 1080 TWh, wind was 491 TWh, and solar was 91 TWh.

Nelder even manages to miss a trick in terms of using misleading numbers to impress. Wind and solar grew by a factor of 20 between 2000 and 2012. He really should have issued a ludicrous forecast that they would grow by a factor of 20 in the next 12 years. This would result in them producing almost half of global electricity.

Here is another impressive, but misleading claim:

Non-hydro renewables are outpacing nuclear and fossil fuel capacity additions in much of the world, wreaking havoc with the incumbent utilities’ business models.

1 GW of fossil fuel power plant will typically produce as much electricity as perhaps 2 GW of wind, and somewhere between 3 and 6 GW of solar. With nuclear the difference is even greater. Statistics are easily available for growth in generation from various sources. I have written about it myself recently. How difficult would it be for someone like Nelder to locate these generation statistics and write about them, instead of misleading capacity stats? Again, readers should be given apples-apples comparisons, but Nelder is comparing apples and mangos.

Nelder also confidently proclaims that death of coal power plants in the US. The reasons for this are well known: cheap natural gas. Nelder naturally downplays this and acts as if it is wind and solar that is doing the real damage. But what does Nelder say about this cheap gas? It is a myth, and we will soon return to expensive gas. If so, his confident forecast that coal plants will soon be retiring en-masse will turn out to be a failed prophecy.

And what exactly Nelder means by the following I cannot guess:

Is there any reason a homeowner might not think about putting a solar system on his or her roof, without taking a single dollar out of his or her pocket, and using it to charge up an electric vehicle instead of buying gasoline?

I quote that verbatim. I can think of a number of reasons why homeowners will not put solar panels on their roof “without taking a single dollar out of his or her pocket”, but I will not insult the intelligence of my readers to detail them.

Subsidies. Yes, here is a word that should appear in any piece about renewables taking over. Strangely this one acts as it is the market that is deciding to develop renewables. In fact subsidies are not even mentioned. Yet throughout Europe renewables growth is now on a knife edge, because cash strapped governments are increasingly unwilling to pay extra for wind and solar. Some tipping point.

I could go on, but I have the proverbial dog to walk. However as I look out my window I see a plane flying by, probably a Boeing 737. How do we fly it with renewables? And how do we make the steel in its wings with renewables? And I am sitting in the middle of a city, surrounded by a mass of concrete. How is this going to made without fossil fuels? And how will we transport the computer I am typing this on from China without fossil fuels?And the piece of junk food a colleague has just handed me. How will we fertilize the field needed for this if we are not going to use natural gas?

As I have explained before, the facts are clear. Renewable energy only makes up around 10% of the growth in global primary energy consumption. And large sections of the energy economy are likely to be fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels for decades to come. Claiming that we are close to a tipping point is nothing more than wishful thinking.