More abuse of renewables capacity statistics at the Guardian

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Perhaps this will become a weekly rant. But I feel I must persist. Can someone at the Guardian, an editor perhaps, learn what the capacity of wind and solar energy actually represents? Because until they do they will keep writing misleading news articles.

I was complaining about a piece which thought 50% of electricity capacity being renewable was the same as 50% of generation being renewable. This is a mistake a journalist who repeatedly covers energy issues should not make. It’s rather like a golf commentator imagining that you can just return to the tee without penalty after hitting the ball into the middle of a lake. Yet, one week after making this obvious mistake the same journalist is back again with the same mistake.

The piece itself is a masterclass in how to not discuss energy issues. We are told that today Britain will get 15% of its afternoon electricity from solar power. No attempt is made to state the obvious: solar panels do not produce any electricity at night and throughout winter months their output is minimal. As a result average generation will barely be one tenth of the 15% figure appearing in this story’s breathless headline. But averages don’t hit the spot the way peaks do.

Then we have this list of impressive, but misleading statistics:

With a 36% annual growth rate, the solar photovoltaic industry is mushrooming so fast at the moment that some analysts expect that half the current global total will be being installed every year by 2020.

The cumulative market at that point would be around 700GW, roughly equivalent to the size of all the electrical generating capacity in Europe today, if the predictions by Greentechmedia prove correct.

700 GW of solar is “equivalent” to all generating capacity in Europe today? No it is not. Total electricity generating capacity in Europe was 1075 GW in Europe in 2012 according to EIA. So, even in capacity terms 700 GW is lower.

However, the word equivalent implies that 700 GW of solar will generate as much electricity as Europe’s total electricity generation. But it clearly will not. Even if we assumed that average capacity factors of solar were 20% – this is a very generous assumption and 15% might be more credible – then total solar production would be 1226.4 TWh. This is around one third of the total generation in Europe in 2012, which stood at 3582 TWh.

These are not minor errors. We are frequently presented with numbers that make it seem renewable energy is growing two, three, four, five, sometimes ten, times faster than it really is. For some reason this is deemed acceptable. The bien pensant thinking seems to be that we are both doing absolutely nothing about climate change, but that we are also in the middle of a renewables revolution.


6 thoughts on “More abuse of renewables capacity statistics at the Guardian

    Math Geurts said:
    July 3, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    For sure, this is not a mistake but deliberate deception. It considered fully acceptable amongst friends of renewable energy.


      Robert Wilson said:
      July 3, 2015 at 1:38 pm

      Have you ever heard of Hanlon’s Razor?


        Math Geurts said:
        July 3, 2015 at 5:04 pm

        Be that as it may, but I would think it is not actually forbidden for a journalist to have some basic knowledge about the subject he is wrinting om. There are more of this kind of persisting confusions. The first is using energy in stead of power, another one is expressing the production of a (renewable) power plant in average households consumption and the last one is thinking that an average houshold counts 4 persons.


    Charles said:
    July 5, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Had a bit more of a look at the site, especially the sources referred to. I take back the accusation that this is a denier blog. Still, that first article, which I was initially only able to see, containing the paraphrase of “when the sun don’t shine” still seems to bear all the hallmarks. And just glancing through this one above: seems to be a bit of a rant about the false identification of generating capacity with generation. But that would be assuming that journalists did some backgrounding and know what they were talking about. I think anyone who reads about renewables understands both capacity figures and those for actual generation; and has an outline in mind of the conversions for: onshore/offshore wind, and where; PV and lattitude. The one that bugs me is “enough electricity to power x 1.000 households; as brainless as “football fields” as a measure of area.


      Robert Wilson said:
      July 5, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      Your previous comment has been removed because I’m not in the business of hosting crazy accusations that I’m an astro turf operation working on the behalf of fossil fuel companies. I suggest you take the crazy to some other part of the internet.


      donoughshanahan said:
      July 6, 2015 at 11:49 am


      Then I suggest you read the comments section of the a fore mentioned Guardian article. We see a very poor understanding indeed.


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