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Issues & Insights

The Rush To Renewable Energy Defies Science, Economics, And Common Sense

Linnaea Mallette

Whether it’s the Green New Deal, in which climate change abatement is only one of several radical proposals, or the general brainwashing of the younger generations about the impending end of the world, the absence of rational analysis and the willful ignorance of facts is counterproductive. Rather than promoting a feasible approach to dealing with climate change, the magnitude of which remains uncertain, the focus is on unfeasible approaches and unachievable goals. Leaders from around the world will be at it in earnest this week during the United Nations Climate Action Summit 2019.

Many approaches to climate change are analogous to saying that the best way to produce energy is to build perpetual-motion machines, which perform work indefinitely without an energy source — a concept that violates the laws of thermodynamics. In other words, the goal is laudable, but the means to achieve it is, literally, fantastic. In the case of climate change, the anti-hydrocarbon contingent seeks to violate basic tenets of science and economics.

The reality is that there are insurmountable or cost-prohibitive obstacles to the scale-up of renewable energy and to creating the necessary infrastructure for it. Here are some facts that provide a reality check:

  • Solar conversion to electricity is already more than 75% toward the maximum possible efficiency, according to the laws of physics. There are no possible breakthroughs that will reduce significantly the sheer numbers of solar panels needed to increase the overall power derived from the sun.
  • Likewise, with respect to efficiency, wind conversion to electricity is already approximately two-thirds of the way to the maximum physical limit. The number of wind turbines would need to increase massively.
  • A single wind turbine requires 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete, and 45 tons of plastic (produced from hydrocarbons and not recyclable). Solar is even more resource consumptive.
  • The mining of silver, indium, and rare earths would have to soar by up to 20-fold over today’s yields just to meet the Paris climate accord’s goals. The mining process (for both those minerals and for battery materials) itself is dirty, ecologically destructive, and consumes significant amounts of hydrocarbon energy; and the plastic needed for solar and wind requires hydrocarbons.
  • No step-function improvement in batteries has been attained in spite of 25-plus years of huge investment, including that from dozens of innovative startup companies. Counting on a breakthrough at this point is probably wishful thinking.
  • To store the energy equivalent of a single barrel of oil, which can be stored in a $20 container at minimal cost, requires $200,000 and 10 tons of Tesla batteries.
  • Tesla’s “Gigafactory” produces only enough batteries in an entire year to store three minutes of U.S. power demand. That is not enough to handle a cloudy or calm day for the renewables, let alone provide the needed two months of backup. Proper backup would require the equivalent of almost 30,000 production-years of similar factories.
  • A single car requires 1,000 pounds of batteries. This, in turn, requires mining, moving, and processing some 500,000 pounds of raw materials. So, imagine scaling that up to provide batteries for a public utility the size of ConEd or Pacific Gas & Electric.
  • Neither batteries nor wind nor solar equipment lasts forever. Currently available, state-of-the-art batteries have a useful life of just seven years, leading to massive disposal and pollution issues. And all the steel and other elements of retired equipment need to go somewhere.
  • A shale-oil rig produces almost 15 times as much energy per hour/day/year as two 500-foot turbines turning in the wind. Putting it another way, one producing rig is the equivalent of 30 wind turbines.
  • Wind turbine farms are unsightly and kill huge numbers of birds.
  • The intermittent nature of wind and solar imposes huge infrastructure and operating costs due to the necessary continual re-balancing of the electrical grid. Extensive reliable backup sources are needed in the absence of massive batteries at every wind or solar site, which inevitably will consume hydrocarbons.

This non-exhaustive list illustrates that salvation with respect to energy production does not lie in solar and wind, especially given that it ignores the subject of transportation, where weight and capacity considerations are not trivial. Electric cars are feasible (although they still need a source of electricity to be charged), but electric airplanes are difficult to conceive.

So, where does that leave us? There are several short-term possibilities that might help on the supply side: greater use of hydropower and large-scale and small-scale nuclear. The last of these is largely untapped but intriguing. Consider that hundreds of ships are powered safely and reliably by small-scale nuclear plants. Although not without some problems, these have operated largely uneventfully for many years, and because of their size, they pose manageable risks and waste disposal.

The long-term solution, we believe, is nuclear fusion. There is no significant waste, and the supply of raw ingredients is essentially unlimited. But significant technical obstacles remain, and the most likely timeframe is 30-50 years away.

On the demand side, efficiency measures can and should continue. Household appliances have become drastically more efficient in the last decade or two. Even ordinary gasoline cars have improved greatly. These efforts should continue, although we should not forget that these advances are primarily applicable to industrialized countries. Plug-in Teslas are not likely to take sub-Saharan Africa by storm in the foreseeable future.

Finally, mankind is resourceful enough to find innumerable ways to adapt to climate change. Many of the predictions of planetary doom are almost certainly exaggerated. Common-sense measures such as protecting rain forests, planting more trees, fortifying coastal protection, and abandoning overly vulnerable property will be necessary. But these costs are eminently manageable.

There are also many ingenious approaches to “geoengineering,” the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change; these include solar radiation management and greenhouse gas sequestration.

We are best served by “un-brainwashing” ourselves about climate change — that is, dispensing with the hyperbole and nescience that distract from reality. The drumbeat of the apocalypse may demand responses, but, especially from politicians, so far it has not elicited the right ones.

Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. They were undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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10 comments

  • This was written to misinform. The efficiency of solar PV is already that of nuclear power, but has no intensely-radioactive waste and cannot melt down to contaminate the Earth. The fuel is free. Battery storage is so cheap now, that PV plus battery storage is only 3.3 cents/kWh. The new nukes in Georgia are already over 15 cents/kWh because of construction costs, and have yet to be finished. Los Angeles can buy electrical power for 1.997 cents/kWh daytime and 3.3 cents/kWh at night from PV and batteries..

    • Your comment is typical of those who choose to simply ignore the contents of the article and instead make their own ideologically driven unsubstantiated claims. It adds no value to the discussion whatsoever.

    • Sorry, George, but the entire earth’s core is naturally radioactive, as is the crust (to a lesser extent). The temporary addition of radioactive material from used nuclear fuel is dwarfed by natural sources. Are you proposing we have a massive program to clean up natural radioactive materials. On the conomics, “PV plus battery is only 3.3 cents/kWh” is a content-free statement. For what period will such a battery substitute for PV? What the grid (or isolated households) will need is months, not minutes. Even a mere week of battery storage for a 100 MWe PV system (costing, say $100M) would cost over $20 billion at today’s Tesla battery prices. Even a X10 reduction in battery costs would still make the battery cost dominate the system cost. The solar panel cost is utterly irrelevant for a high market penetration of solar. Finally, companies that build more than two reactors every 30 years can easily build nukes for under $5,000/kWe capacity — see the UAE and other Korean reactor projects.

      • Are you really saying that radioactive discharge is not an issue?
        Would you say that if you lived in Chernobyl?

      • Nearly all of the radioactive material discharged from nuclear power reactors is sealed in welded-shut metal tubes, where it remains for a very, very long time. The radioisotopes naturally and spontaneously decay over time without need of oxygen or chemical reactions. Used fuel is currently stored safely, and no one receives a radiation dose from it. Can you tell me how it is harmful to humans? No one will every build another Chernobyl-type reactor again, and the ones that are still operating in Russia have been modified to correct the design flaws that contributed to the accident. No other reactor has ever released radioactive material to the extent Chernobyl did.

  • Some ‘common sense’ energy conservation measures; no more sports events in indoor stadiums, no night sporting events, end private jet travel unless the plane is full to its design capacity.

  • We need to be good stewards of our environment, of course, but
    for mankind to believe he can change the climate is getting into Tower of Babel territory.

    • Physicists and climate scientists know that CO2 is a critical greenhouse gas, without which the Earth would be an iceball, too cold to support life as we know it.
      They know that we have increased atmospheric CO2 by more than 40% since 1880, which causes warming, which we have already experienced and can measure.
      None of this is in dispute, among scientists.

  • Our critical point of the article is that the propaganda spewed by politicians and people with vested interests in any form of alternative energy is distorting the entire discussion about climate change. But to respond to the claim of misinformation:

    First, we made no attempt to compare the efficiency of solar vs. nuclear. Our point on solar is just that there is little room left to improve the efficiency of solar cells. Hence, the costs will not be driven by technology improvements, only manufacturing improvements which tend to be incremental and slow to come. Physical space, maintenance, and infrastructure requirements are likely to increase linearly (or very close to it) with capacity.

    Second, the assertion that batteries are “so cheap” is hogwash. Using Tesla’s Powerwall as an example, it requires three units at $3500 each (call it $10,000) to store one day for one home’s worth of power. PG&E serves somewhere towards 10M homes. So to power all those homes for one day would cost $100 billion at retail prices, but probably half that in reality. And one day is not nearly enough given that on average there are only 12 hours of sunlight and plenty of fully cloudy days in most places. And that’s just PG&E.

    Third, simply building enough batteries for utility scale is infeasible at the present because there is nowhere close to the manufacturing capacity, never mind the huge mining challenge for materials and the pollution that comes with it.

    We did not analyze the per KWh numbers simply because we don’t have the data from unbiased sources.

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Issues & Insights is a new site formed by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 

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