One of the easiest ways to get away with dodgy analysis of energy matters is to assume that your readers are completely ignorant about what is going on in other countries. If you live in Britain, you can point to Germany, Denmark, or any other country, and claim they are doing much better than you on renewables, climate change, or whatever you choose. If you are German, you can point to Britain.
I recall this happening when Angela Merkel’s coalition announced its energy policies. The immediate response of British environmentalists was “look how far behind Germany we are”. German environmentalists however were saying “we are now falling behind Britain”. Facts, well, facts don’t matter. Narratives do.
Assume your readers are parochial – and many are – and you can get away with murder.
The latest example of getting away with murder is John Matthews in the Conversation this week. The piece, arguing that Labour Party proposals for renewables in Australia are in line with international standards, is so marred by twisted facts and logical fallacies that you begin to question the editorial judgement of the website. The Conversation should be a more reliable and rigorous source of information than the regular press, but too often isn’t.
Let me go through a few of the things Matthews distorts.
First, a distortion of the reality of China’s energy system:
China is, of course, the world leader in this transition, with a commitment to source 30% of electricity from renewables by 2020. China’s Energy Development Strategic Action Plan (2014–2020) specifies limits for overall energy and coal consumption, and at the same time sets targets for renewable energy capacity as reaching 350 gigawatts, 200 GW and 100 GW respectively for hydro, wind and solar, plus 58 GW for nuclear.
These are by far the most ambitious targets in the world. China’s current electric power capacity stands at 1,360 GW, with hydro, wind and solar accounting for 424 GW – a total that grew by 51 GW in 2014 (or roughly a 1-GW non-thermal power station each week). By contrast, thermal generation of electricity (from coal) actually shrank in 2014.
A more misleading string of numbers would be hard to find.
China becomes the world’s most ambitious country on the earth simply on the basis of its 1.35 billion people. How easy life becomes for China once innumerate analysis is at work. China does one tenth of what Britain or Germany does on a per-capita basis and remains more ambitious.
Any attempt to convert these numbers into per-capita rates or anything else that can be compared with other countries on a per-capita basis would show that China is not the most ambitious country.
Then we have the misleading comparison of growth in renewables capacity with changes in electricity generated from coal. Again, apples must be compared with apples. The fall in electricity generation from coal was mostly because of a declining economy. In fact, China is still building roughly one coal power plant per week. As Armond Cohen points out, China is still building more new coal fired generation – yes, it is generation that really matters – than renewables.
Mr. Matthews then goes on to rewrite the history of Germany’s response to Fukushima.
To those who think such an energy transformation is inconceivable, Germany and China stand as major correctives, with Japan hovering as another major contender. Germany abandoned its nuclear industry after Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, and instead adopted aggressive targets for renewables, backed by a feed-in tariffs scheme which helped to fund the transition from consumers’ energy bills, not from public fiscal sources.
Germany did not adopt aggressive renewables targets after Fukushima. These “aggressive targets” were put in place six months before Fukushima, as even a glance at Wikipedia will tell you. Furthermore, the updated renewables targets set out by the Merkel coalition in 2013 clearly showed no increased in ambition.
The idea that Germany responded to Fukushima by ramping up its renewables ambitions is a myth.
Mr. Matthews then inverts reality to make it seem that the diffuse nature of renewables was a virtue:
The usual canards against renewables are already being trotted out by those who criticise their advance. The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd wrote yesterday that renewables don’t offer the same “density” of energy as their fossil-fuelled and nuclear competitors – ignoring the point that it is their very diffuseness that makes them so attractive. Solar and wind energy can be generated almost anywhere, while fossil-fuelled and nuclear sources have to be centralized and suffer rigidities as a result.
This is completely zany in every way. First, fossil fuel power plants do not have to be centralized. You could run a country using a bunch of small coal power plants. In fact, this is basically what countries like Britain did a century ago. Today they are centralized because of economies of scale.
And how attractive is the diffuse nature of renewables? Take Britain. The current Tory government is effectively blocking new onshore wind farms because of NIMBY opposition. Would wind farms therefore not benefit from being more dense? Imagine a turbine that could produce 100 times more energy. Britain’s existing onshore wind turbines could then provide more electricity than we would know what to do with, and they would also suffer less from the NIMBY problem. The diffuse nature of renewables is clearly a problem, regardless of what many green thinkers believe.
Matthews then heaps logical fallacy on to logical fallacy:
Lloyd also claimed that energy storage and intermittency are “technological barriers” that make the transition to renewables difficult, along with cost barriers. But the real experience of Germany and China provide a very different perspective. These two countries, through their commitment to large-scale renewable energy, have been driving down costs. Solar panel prices globally have tumbled by 80% over the past few years, driven largely by scaling up production in China and to some extent in Germany.
What does the price of solar panels have to do with solving intermittency? Have the Chinese or Germans solved the problem by making cheaper solar panels? This is hand waving of the worst sort, akin to claiming one disease is not a problem because we are making progress in curing another, completely unrelated disease.
It goes on and on. Narratives. This is what matters. Erecting narratives on soggy ground to increase momentum towards an effective global agreement on climate change that does not appear to be forthcoming.