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3 clean energy myths that can lead to a productive climate conversation

Posted on 25 March 2019 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Karin Kirk

Energy use is the biggest cause of climate change, and it’s the first place to enact meaningful strategies to lower greenhouse emissions. It’s also a smart angle for talking about climate change, because it’s easy to find agreement on issues like improving energy efficiency, reducing pollution, cleaning up our energy supply, and reducing reliance on unstable foreign supplies.

But energy can be a bit of a double-edged sword. The very reason that some people reject climate change is that they fear some of its solutions, such as regulations on carbon, or government subsidies for clean energy, pose risks to established fossil-fuel based ways of life.

The good news is that it’s not hard to have positive conversations about energy. In doing so, one can leverage key strategies from previous articles in this series. For example, why not instill optimism by reminding people that Americans are proven innovators and problem-solvers, or by pointing out how America ought not get beat out by other nations in the global race toward modernizing the energy system? By emphasizing shared values, you can structure a dialogue around areas of mutual agreement.

The following are some common misconceptions and myths about renewable energy, along with a fact check, and a rebuttal designed to be inclusive and broadly appealing.

Renewable energy is inexpensive

The myth: “Wind and solar are FAR too expensive! Why should MY energy bill skyrocket for the sake of fake news about global warming?”

Fact check:

The overall costs of electricity generation from different sources can be compared using a measure called the levelized cost of electricity. The Energy Information Administration and Lazard financial analysts are two reliable sources for a deep dive on electricity costs. Similar, but easier-to-read information can be found in a summary at Scientific American, or these infographics from Lazard. Either route leads to the same conclusions: The price of renewables has fallen to the point that they are cheaper than conventional fossil fuels.

LCOE graph

Onshore wind turbines and utility-scale photovoltaic solar are essentially tied for the lowest cost of unsubsidized electricity for new power generation. Natural gas is not far behind, and the variation in prices between those three will likely depend on geographic location.

Add in tax credits for renewable energy, or the potential for carbon pricing, and the price tags of wind and solar look even better.

A friendly response: “I completely agree with you that the price of energy is important. High energy prices affect us all, every day. That’s why it’s such good news that renewable energy sources have fallen in price and are now cheaper than, or similar to, the price for conventional power plants. On-shore wind turbines and large-scale solar power are among the cheapest sources of energy today, and that’s not even considering subsidies, tax credits, or the potential costs of carbon pricing. Add in those factors, and the price of renewables is even more attractive.

This is why the U.S. Department of Energy expects renewable energy to be the fastest growing source of electricity in the next few years.”

Wind turbines return far more energy than it takes to build them

The myth: “Wind farms are a scam. They are not green and actually use more electricity than they produce. Stupid Idea.”

Fact check:

This myth doesn’t pass the smell test. If wind turbines were a net loss on their energy footprint, no one would build them because they’d be uneconomical. But as the response to the previous myth shows, wind energy is a winner when considering the total life cycle costs of construction and maintenance.

All types of energy infrastructure require energy to build. The ratio of energy generated compared to the energy sunk into the process is called the energy return on investment, or EROI. A 2010 study of wind turbines around the world shows that wind turbines generate 20-25 times the amount of energy that goes into making them; and a 2014 report pegs the EROI for wind at 18-20. The difference in numbers reflects variations in turbine design, site design, and the energy generated in different locations.

How does wind compare to other forms of electricity? Coal comes in at around 18, while natural gas falls somewhere in the range of 7 to 15. Although fossil fuels are energy-dense, considerable energy goes into transporting them via rail or pipeline. When fossil fuels are burned to generate electricity, 30 to 45% of the energy is lost as wasted heat. This further reduces the overall energy return of fossil fuels.

An article at Carbon Brief offers a summary of the energy required to generate electricity from various sources.

The math may be tricky, but there’s no question that wind turbines clearly generate far more energy than it takes to build them. And that’s one good reason that wind energy is growing rapidly, worldwide.

A friendly response: “That’s a good point, that we need to consider the amount of energy it takes to build our energy infrastructure, whether it’s a wind farm or a coal mine. And you are quite correct that any source of energy that doesn’t actually produce energy is unworkable. But, the good news is that wind turbines return about 20 times the amount of energy it takes to build them. Interestingly, wind has a better return on energy investment than coal or natural gas.”

Renewable energy can still deliver even without sunshine or wind

Myth: We could die without coal. Renewable energy is not reliable. What happens when the Sun doesn’t shine, or the wind stops blowing? I guess we all just sit in the dark?

Fact check:

Storage of renewable energy is a hot topic in energy research. While wind farms and solar arrays are scaling up worldwide, we also need to become better at storing energy so that it’s available on-demand. Turning the intermittency of wind and solar into the ‘baseload’ energy required by the grid is an engineering challenge that offers enormous reward to those that solve it. So there is vigorous competition to optimize energy storage.

While traditional batteries are one option, there are other ways to store energy. A particularly elegant solution is pumped hydro, which uses surplus wind energy to pump water uphill. When energy is needed, the water is released and allowed to flow downhill, spinning turbines along the way. One advantage of pumped hydro is that it can respond nearly instantly to the ebbs and flows of energy demands across the grid. While all forms of energy storage result in some loss of energy (damn you, thermodynamics), pumped hydro is among the most efficient.

Concentrating solar power, also called solar thermal, uses mirrors to concentrate the Sun’s energy. Thermal energy can be stored in molten salt, which has an exceptional ability to absorb and retain heat, and can be used to spin steam-powered turbines 24 hours a day.

Until recently, concentrating solar power was expensive, but in 2017, the price dropped precipitously, as new plants under construction in Dubai, Australia, and Chile each set new records for the cheapest electricity price in the world. The Chilean plant is being constructed in the relentlessly sunny Atacama Desert, where it will soon bring 24/7 solar energy to Chile’s mining industry.

Technologies like batteries, pumped hydro, and concentrating solar power are advancing rapidly, in part because there are tremendous financial incentives to develop low-carbon, baseload energy sources. It would be unwise to assume the solutions we have on hand today will remain static over the coming decade. The innovation spurred by energy storage technology makes an appealing rallying point: a great America is a competitive America.

A friendly response: “You raise a really good point. Generating energy is only half the battle, because we need to deliver it when and where it’s needed. I agree that a lot of people overlook this important detail. While some people see energy storage as an insurmountable obstacle, others recognize it as a prime opportunity. Storage of renewable energy is a solvable problem. Look at pumped hydro, for example, which uses gravity as a giant battery. People who develop these solutions are going to become fabulously wealthy. Do you think America should become the world leader in storing wind and solar energy? Or should we let other nations take charge? Americans are proven innovators and problem solvers. Let’s use our ingenuity to get ahead in the global race toward modern energy.”

Regrettably, partisan politics (with some significant help from dark money) has made clean energy into a topic that is often mischaracterized and poorly understood. Fortunately, though, there are many ways to clear the air and build support for clean energy, using ideals that practically all Americans hold dear.

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Comments 51 to 64 out of 64:

  1. Thinkingman. You made the claim:
    "See: The point is: South Australia’s electricity price became the HIGHEST IN THE WORLD during the second half of 2017." The price was AUD47.13c/kWh.

    I understand that your accusation of moving the goal posts consists of:
    1/ I put a of comparison of countries rather than states
    2/ I used data from other than 2017 when the accusation was made.

    I disagree. While the statement about highest prices in the world is made using 2017 price, the data being used to support that claim is from a report in using comparitive data from 2015 (and published 2016). That report considered only OECD not whole world for comparison. My world countries basis did indeed show countries but it can be trivially seen that AUD47.13 (the SA price) is less than US99.

    In fact, let me summarize what I believe are the facts based on those sources.

    • In 2015, South Australia had higher electricity prices than average price of any OECD country at market exchange rates and higher than any other Portugal on PPP basis (though Japan and Ireland are in there too).
    • In 2017, South Australia may have had a higher rate than any of the OECD countries, but to honestly claim that, the comparison would need to be updated with 2017 prices for those other countries and there is no evidence in either that Leading Edge nor Financial Review did that.
    • In none of 2015, 2016, or 2017 did South Australia have the highest electricity prices in the world whether compared on exchange rates or PP basis.


    I would additional concluded that both FR and LE misrepresented their sources and misled their readers, including you.

    I am glad you do recognise that Lazard uses capacity factor since so much misinformation claims they dont. What is your basis for claiming Lazards range of capacity factor and lifetime are flawed? Hopefully not another FF schill.

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  3. Pls ignore the earlier 26 Apr. post.  Its sole purpose was to test adding links, and the test failed.

    This post tries again.  

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  4. Hopefully, this post will enable readers to view sources referenced in prior comments.


    For the Financial Review article, and similar articles, in Bing, please search the phrase "australian-households-pay-highest-power-prices".  The search results should yield the FR article, and you should be able to see the entire article.  Some links limit one to the first paragraph.











    For TX:


    For New England:

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  5. Mr. Sweet,

    With regards to your 23 Apr. comment disputing the need for spinning reserves:  How do you propose large electrical systems cope with the huge swings in wind turbine output within 1, 2, 3 hour and other short time spans?  Ditto, fluctuations in the frequency of electricity generated by wind turbines.

    The above is a sincere question, seeking to build on your acknowledgement that wind turbines must be supplemented with other sources of electricity.

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  6. Thinkingman - I am puzzled. The reason I analysed the South Australia article was to demonstrate to you that you are relying on sources that cannot be trusted. Pundits like Leading Edge have happily quoted their source, but it does not support their claim. Like certain well-known denial sites, they know that if the message is what their readers want to hear, then they wont bother to check the source.

    If you are continuing to insist that sources like FR are accurate when public data trivially demonstrates that they are not, then I cannot see how discussion can be continued. If you are not willing to look at analyses from reviewed sources that contradict your viewpoint, how can any discussion occur? If you bother to read the material provided by myself and others on storage, then you wouldnt be insisting on spinning reserves.

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  7. On further note, both wholesale and retail prices in SA dropped in 2018 (remember a big battery?) and AEMC expect prices to drop further over next 2 years as more renewables and storage come online.

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  8. Thinking man,

    Wikipedia has this  graph:

    graph of power As you can see, after 10 minutes stationary reserve can be engaged.  15 minute wind forecasts are very accurate and tell operators if they need to engage gas peaker plants in the future.  

    As a practical matter, over a large area, like several wind farms, the wind changes slowly so you have plenty of time to engage peaker plants if they are needed.  Grid operators in Texas have no problems with keeping power steady when the wind changes.

    The same Wikipedia reference states: "Most power systems are designed so that, under normal conditions, the operating reserve is always at least the capacity of the largest generator plus a fraction of the peak load" my emphasis.

    The spinning reserve is to account for major, very rapid changes.  If a nuclear power plant detects a radiation leak it immediately shuts down completely with no notice.  Coal plants also have emergencies where they shut down with no notice.   The spinning reserve deals with those shutdowns which happen frequently (once every year or two). 

    The equivalent problem with a wind farm is a single turbine goes out.  Since many thousand trubines are running at the same time the loss  of one is trival.  If a transmission line goes out that can call on spining reserve but that applies to all power sources.

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  9. Thinkingman,

    Recently nuclear power has received over a billion dollars is subsidies in the us  source.  these subsidies are primarily going to plants that are profitable but cry poor to politicians (and give the politicians lots of money).  This means the plants generate more profit for the company but no additional carbon free generating is built.  It also subsidizes inefficient plants.

    Fossil fuels and nuclear receiive way more in subsidies than wind and solar.

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  10. @scaddenp (comment 56) Financial Review seems reliable to me, and Australia really has one of the highest electricity prices, it already had in 2012

    USA is large area of land, and there is nearly always wind somewhere to produce significant amount of wind electricity continuosly, the same applies to Europe, so wind alone is able to provide some baseload without any energy storage ( In Australia renewables like wind and solar are really intermittent and without large storage capacity they cannot turn off any of their fossil generation capacity, and connecting with undersea cables to other regions with significant renevables production possibility would be quite extremely costly in case of Australia, they will have one of highest renewable energy prices on the world until they will build enough storage capacity to fully replace fossil baseload

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  11. @ my comment (60) instead of

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  12. (it's actually on web archive).

    p.17 (chapter 8.3 Solar Electricity)
    "Wind energy will be clearly favoured in coastal locations or in areas with particularly good wind resources. However, most of the communities are in the north and west of Australia where wind resources are poor."

    This significantly increases initial cost of building transmission lines and possibly other infrastructure for wind energy in Australia.

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  13. CzarnyZajaczek, as I pointed out in 51, (and further see also 46) the source of the claim for Financial Times and ABC was LeadingEdge and they blatantly misrepresented the source they quote (easy to check). It is further contradicted by more reliable sources. I would not trust any media source and especially not a media source whose readership is dominated by one or other end of the political spectrum. As was also pointed out, SA wholesale generation prices were not expensive but retail was, so a rather more complex picture than blaming it on renewables.

    Furthermore, if you look at the same source behind the 2017 stories, you will see rather an improvement in Austalian pricing. The Australia Institute is reporting South Australia produces best wholesale electricty prices now.

    Your Jamesnixon link is 404 for me. It is unclear what point you are trying to make.

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  14. @scaddenp I have error in my comment (60), I meant that "Australia really has one of the highest electricity prices among developed countries" and I've just noticed this omission. Of course Australia is far from having highest electricity prices on the world when comparing to all countries.

    Btw it seems that they had relatively high electricity prices before they started investing in intermittent renewables like solar and wind on large scale, so intermittent renewables are unlikely to be main cause of high prices.

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