By Todd Royal
The future for renewables (mainly, solar and wind) shows growth, and wide-scale public, and private acceptance, but it comes with a price. What renewables have accomplished however, is truly mesmerizing.
Harnessing solar power coming from the Sahara Desert, hydroelectric power from the Hoover Dam in the United States (US), and Wind Power off the coast of England are wonderful achievements. This one time, niche electricity sector, is here to stay.
In 2016 “Renewables received 94 times more in U.S. federal subsidies than nuclear and 46 times more than fossil fuels per unit of energy generated.” In 2017, renewables provided the US roughly: “11% of total U.S. electricity consumption. About 57% of U.S. renewable electricity consumption was by the electrical power sector, and about 17% of U.S. electricity generation was from renewable electricity sources.”
Renewables also: “More than doubled from 2000 to 2017, mainly because of state and federal government requirements and incentives to use renewable electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that U.S. renewable electricity consumption will continue to increase through 2050.”
All encouraging numbers, however, renewables are having a hard time lowering costs and emissions over their intermittent nature. Renewables also require enormous amounts of land, raw materials, “and many of their most critical materials are extracted and processed using child labor and near-slave wages for adults.”
Currently, we are told that solar panels and wind turbines are cheap to build and easy to deploy, while being the same cost as fossil fuels; yet they cause electricity prices to rise.
Renewables require smart electrical grids that can move electricity simultaneously between cities, countries, states, and continents. That form of electrical grid hasn’t been invented yet. Renewables have additional problems since they cannot handle powering millions of electric vehicles from an electrical grid that only relies on solar, wind and hydroelectric.
Additionally, renewables need coal-fired, natural gas, or nuclear power plants backing them up continuously, because of their intermittent nature. New transmission lines also need to be installed, otherwise electrical prices dramatically increase.
The United States and states such as Arkansas embraced solar and wind, but found that:
“For 18,000 megawatt of nuclear electricity it takes 1,100 acres of land that equals 1.7 square miles, for 1,800 megawatt of wind power it takes 108,000 acres of land that equals 169 square miles, and for 1,800 megawatt of solar power it takes 13,320 acres of land that equals 21 square miles.
Professor Mark Jacobson from the Stanford engineering department outlined what it would take for the U.S. to achieve clean, renewable and zero-emission electricity sources. The plan was found to have multiple faults that will be difficult to overcome under current technological constraints. This 2015 plan for the US would:
“Involve installing 335,000 onshore wind turbines; 154,000 offshore wind turbines; 75 million residential photovoltaic systems; 2.75 million commercial photovoltaic systems; 46,000 utility-scale photovoltaic facilities; 3,600 concentrated solar power facilities with onsite heat storage; and an extensive array of underground thermal storage facilities.”
To achieve those figures it would take an area roughly 500,000 kilometers larger than California. Renewable wind power has a large onshore and offshore footprint. This land and sea footprint breaks down, “to about 3 watts per square meter,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The US’ largest state, California, would need 124.6 billion watts of onshore wind capacity, and set aside, “41.5 billion square meters or about 16,023 square miles of turbines.” Los Angeles is a little more than 4,000 square miles, so California would need to cover a land area four times larger than Los Angeles County (the largest county by population in the US) with wind turbines. Gaining approval to build wind and solar farms is facing environmental resistance.
The Los County Board of Supervisors, in 2015, voted unanimously to ban large wind turbines in unincorporated areas of LA County. The head of the California Wind Energy Association told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2017, “We’re facing restrictions like that all around the state…It’s pretty bleak in terms of the potential for new development.” California now has approximately 5,632 of megawatts installed wind capacity, 153 megawatts less than in 2013.
Once popular wind projects like the 468-megawatt Massachusetts Cape Wind Project – met fierce opposition that scuttled the project – over locating dozens of turbines offshore. Affected groups are rallying against renewables once home values are lowered, and environmentally sensitive areas and coastlines are overwhelmed by land use requirements for renewables to be effective.
According to energy scholar Lion Hirth, “Solar’s value drops by 50 when it arrives at 15 percent of the electrical mix.” But solar installations in the US are expected to grow 25 percent, according to Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie.
In Spotsylvania County, Virginia, which lies about halfway between Washington, DC and Richmond, Utah-based, Sustainable Power Group known, as sPower wants:
“To construct the largest solar complex east of the Mississippi River and the fifth-largest solar facility in the nation. SPower plans to install nearly 2 million solar panels on 3,500 acres of land, or about 5 ½ square miles. The project will encompass 6,350 acres.”
Difficulty overcoming the land needed for the project and communities of Spotsylvania County, Virginia was a sticking point, but they also:
“Found out these unsightly monstrosities destroy vegetation and wildlife, pollute rivers, streams and groundwater, and lead to higher electricity prices and lower property values for nearby residents.”
While trying to understand if the project is even “green,” is then realizing thousands of acres of trees were cleared to make way for solar panels.
Europeans are also pushing back against renewables by slashing government subsidies, causing uncertainty in the market. Twelve EU countries, “failed to install a single wind turbine,” in 2018, and manufacturing for wind turbines is declining. Renewable energy jobs in Britain have declined one-third since subsidies were cut, and solar panels sales sunk 94 percent after government cutbacks.
Germans are growing skeptical over renewables after their emissions have risen “10 times higher than nuclear powered France,” their electrical grid is possibly collapsing, and they have spent between $560 billion to $1 trillion US dollars for these results.
With subsidies in free fall, European countries like Germany are building new coal-fired power plants, and refurbishing older, existing ones to meet energy and electrical needs.
Renewable energy to electricity is intermittent, dilute and needs fossil fuel or nuclear power plants as a backstop. For the clean energy transition to work all parties involved need to push away from the price-per-kilowatt hour model, and move to one based on guaranteeing electricity; the same way much of the phone and internet sector is monetized, regulated and delivered.
For U.S. and European governments or private companies having large financial stakes in renewables for the projects to be successful here is what needs to happen: great public relations, reliable taxpayer subsidies, and possible eminent domain being implemented to move projects forward.