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Alternative reality

08 Feb 2023 | News Roundup

The past year wasn’t a good one for alternative energy, meaning the trendy renewables wind and solar. From the failure of key energy systems during the harsh winter of 2021-22 including in Texas to the perilous dependence of Europeans on Russian natural gas because they were superstitiously opposed to fracking and their windmills weren’t up to the task, events appeared to confirm that if you don’t like hydrocarbons and don’t have abundant hydro you’d really better build nuclear reactors or, if you have them but weren’t using them, turn them back on. Especially given growing unease about the environmental footprint of mining the materials for wind and solar then disposing of it, and the physical limits on battery storage. But to the world’s press, of course, renewables had a great year and only mudsticks couldn’t see it.

For instance Michael Bloomberg wrote in his own media outlet that the increasingly alarming loss of power in winter is due to the unreliability of fossil fuel plants that never happened until we started replacing them with wind and solar and the lights and heat went off. See, those rotten utilities lobbied not to let people with rooftop solar sell power into the grid or make them sell it at a low price. And so, he claims:

“As a result, the public is paying a steep cost: in higher electric bills, dangerous blackouts, harmful pollution that kills thousands of Americans every year, and changes to the climate that are making extreme weather – and the suffering that it brings – worse.”

In the real world, we hear from of all things BNN Bloomberg that “UK Asks Households to Reduce Power For Second Day as Wind Fades”. In midwinter. Just when some bourgeois dolts are thinking it’s a fine day to indulge in a little furnace or something. The story added that “The UK’s grid operator asked three reserve coal units to be ready to supply power” so apparently it forgot that it’s those plants that we can’t depend on.

And even the Guardian acknowledged the downside of EVs: “Revealed: how US transition to electric cars threatens environmental havoc,” in a piece that said:

“The US’s transition to electric vehicles could require three times as much lithium as is currently produced for the entire global market, causing needless water shortages, Indigenous land grabs, and ecosystem destruction inside and outside its borders, new research finds.”

Oh dear. Indigenous land grabs. It doesn’t get much less woke than those things. It goes on, “unless the US’s dependence on cars in towns and cities falls drastically, the transition to lithium battery-powered electric vehicles by 2050 will deepen global environmental and social inequalities linked to mining – and may even jeopardize the 1.5C global heating target.”

What? The pursuit of EVs will be bad for the climate? Yes but the planners aren’t discouraged. The piece cheerfully rights itself by pointing out that the solution is for Americans to learn to walk or take transit everywhere:

“ambitious policies investing in mass transit, walkable towns and cities, and robust battery recycling in the US would slash the amount of extra lithium required in 2050 by more than 90%.”

Phew. That way you’d get “transport options for Americans that are safer, healthier and less segregated, and less harmful mining while making rapid progress to zero emissions.” Abracadabra. Although the buses would presumably need to be electric too.

The glories of green energy are now so clear, despite their abysmal reliability record, that The Economist assures us even Republican Texas ranchers are big wind power enthusiasts. “Go to Texas to see the anti-green future of clean energy”, they say, and behold “Lessons for liberals from climate-sceptic wind ranchers”.

You have to read quite a way into the story to get to the actual lesson, which is that:

“Even though Republican lawmakers unanimously opposed President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which provides hundreds of billions of dollars to curb America’s use of fossil fuels, red states like Texas plan to lap it up. The Davis family do not support the IRA, but they hope its expanded federal tax credits will entice more wind and solar to rural Texas.”

So yes, if you pay people large enough sums to put inefficient contraptions on their land they will. If that’s news, you missed Adam Smith. Oh, and something else. The piece more or less winds up, so to speak, with:

“The upshot is that there are ways to promote clean energy that do not rely on convincing climate sceptics that they are bonkers. A better sales pitch may be to play up the cost advantages of renewables rather than the climate benefits, emphasise their contribution to cutting air pollution rather than carbon emissions, and acknowledge that, owing to intermittency factors, natural gas may have a role to play in power generation for years to come.”

Intermittency factors. Could it be code for “unreliability”? And without endless subsidies, including the ones in Britain that let wind farms sell the same power twice, would these projects even get as far as being unreliable?

Some say no. Thus we also read in the Financial Times that:

“It seems like an odd thing to say in the middle of an energy crisis, but we may be on the cusp of a new era of abundant energy. Not because of nuclear fusion, exciting though recent breakthroughs are, but because of renewable energy. Over the past week, renewable energy has met more than half of the UK’s demand for electricity, breaking records for wind power in the process. Gas, the dirty and expensive part of the electricity grid, has provided just 14 per cent of electricity. In some parts of Scotland, the grid has regularly been operating with zero carbon emissions.”

And zero energy emissions, we are tempted to retort. Before mentioning that this piece was not by an skeptical, detached journalist (if such things exist anymore) but by the “deputy mission director at Nesta” which is “The UK’s innovation agency for social good” rather than anyone with skin in the game. Other than the government funding that created them and their primary commitment to “Equity, diversity and inclusion” rather than silly old energy. (Their “About” section doesn’t seem to mention where they now get their money.)

So as not to seem unduly negative we do want to note that plans to capture some of the enormous amounts of heat generated by modern digital server farms and get it back into use seem ingenious. But even they are questionable from an efficiency point of view. And when we read of plans to run modern air travel on used cooking oil we dare hope that when the planes have all dropped from the skies the end of giant COP meetings attended by the global jet set may soon follow.

2 comments on “Alternative reality”

  1. From UK GridWatch:

    last update 2023-02-08 13:25:00 GMT

    CCGT - 10.57 GW (28%)
    Wind - 11.47 GW (30%)
    Solar - 5.57 GW (15%)

    It seems that for once weather dependent renewables are doing reasonably well. However, what one needs to appreciate is that that 17.04 GW of renewable energy is being supplied by an installed capacity of circa 40GW.

    I keep asking how many wind turbines and solar farms do we need for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine? No replies, so far.

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