Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.
The Climate Council has a new report out. The Global Renewable Energy Boom: How Australia is missing out (GREB) is authored by Andrew Stock, Tim Flannery and Petra Stock. The lead author is listed on the Climate Council website as a “Non Executive Director of several ASX listed and unlisted companies in the energy sector, ranging from traditional energy suppliers to emerging energy technology companies.” He’s also a chemical engineer.
Page 6 of the report begins by claiming “Globally, renewable energy’s contribution to global capacity and generation has climbed steadily upwards (Table 1)”.
Here’s line 4 from Table 1 except that I’ve added a column in red for 1973 using data from the IEA:
The percentage isn’t so clearly “climbing steadily upwards” now is it?
This table is one of a number carefully chosen or designed to enhance the images of wind and solar power and to misleadingly exaggerate their ability to prevent further destabilisation of the climate.
Page 8 follows with a claim in a large red font: “Global wind and solar capacity is growing exponentially”. This is accompanied by a graph which I’ve repeated here; but with a few annotations … in black. I’ll discuss them later.
Who think the graph supports the claim? It doesn’t. Exponential growth, by definition is growth with a regular doubling time, not regular increments … big difference! Growing exponentially is pretty easy for something trivially small, but it soon becomes hard and the graph shows clearly that both wind and solar are now only growing linearly; after about 2010 for solar PV and 2008 for wind.
The lead author is an engineer, so why call something exponential growth when it isn’t?
As the wind and solar contributions to an electricity grid grow, engineers expect stability problems to which there are currently no answers. AEMO’s 2013 report into 100% renewable electricty in Australia recommended underpinning wind and solar with either a biomass or geothermal baseload system to reduce the volatility; the sudden swings in supply. Germany obviously understands this and is now just burning half her forestry output annually. That’s about 30 million tonnes. This provides more electricity than either wind or solar.
Germany certainly had exponential growth in both wind and solar for some years, but that’s long gone. It took just one year to double the PV output for 2005; but the output from 2011 still hadn’t been doubled by the end of 2014. This slow down is despite solar providing just 6 percent of electricity. The wind power growth slowdown is even more advanced; it took eight years to double the 2004 wind output. Closer to home, South Australia has a higher renewable penetration than Germany, but no biomass baseload component, hence the stability risks which I suspect are behind the back-flip by long time nuclear opponent Jay Weatherill with the establishment of a Royal Commission into (almost) all things nuclear.
Understanding renewable growth
But am I being too cynical? The wind and solar growth lines above still look impressively steep. How can that be when Table 1, in contrast, shows a negligible percentage growth between 1973 and the present?
A few reasons:
- Table 1 includes hydro electricity and this has, as a percentage, declined since 1973. Wind and solar have simply expanded at about the rate required to compensate for that decline, no faster.
- The above graph means nothing without knowing how fast other sources of electricity have grown and table 1 implies that they have collectively been growing much faster. Meaning far more additional electricity generated each year.
- Why “much faster”? Between 1973 and 2012, global electricity production went from 6,129 TWh/yr (tera watt hours) to 22,668 TWh/yr with most of that growth, in absolute output (the stuff that matters), coming from coal. Oil as a source of electricity declined in both absolute and percentage terms; being replaced by natural gas and nuclear.
Imagine if the growth had been plotted in TWh with the vertical axis showing the full 22,668 TWh? The solar and wind lines would run along the bottom as a thin hardly visible band. Here’s just such a graph from the IEA with wind and solar only making an appearance as part of the odds and sods category in the top strip.
What’s missing from the above graph? Population and wealth. The global population has nearly doubled during the 40 years represented. So adding a terawatt hour per year of additional generation in 1973 is double the per capita addition of a similar amount of generation in 2013. Increased wealth and technical capacity are also missing. Engineers don’t design and build with slide rules anymore. The latter is tricky to factor in, but population is easy and roughly halves the apparent growth in solar and wind over the past decade.
Another set of graphs
Here’s another set of graphs that says much the same thing but tells us something interesting about hydro electricity. The set is also from the IEA in a report called “Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2014”. For the IEA, clean energy includes nuclear power, but lets focus on understanding how the Climate Council has mislead with its charts and words on wind and solar.
Look first at the vertical axes. If they had all shared the scaling used in the hydro power graph (top left), then solar, wind and bioenergy growth would look much smaller than they do. For example, solar growth would look four times less steep.
The blue lines on the graph represent the OECD total and the yellow is everybody else. You can see that hydro will expand substantially during the current decade but not in the OECD. Hydro is pretty much built out in OECD countries. A little digging will show that most of the hydro expansion will be in South America, primarily Brazil, and its environmental cost will be massive. Hydro is renewable, but apart from its direct ecological and often social destruction, it isn’t usually clean (ie., climate friendly). Hydro exploits loopholes in international agreements that don’t count methane emmissions from the large flooded areas usually associated with big hydro schemes.
Nuclear-equivalent gigawatt units
Now let’s go back to the first graph which I annotated. It’s fundamentally dishonest to compare different kinds of things without making some attempt to convert to commensurable units. Nobody compares lettuce to lentils using volume. Nobody compares cars, trucks and bicycles using seat numbers. So why use capacity as a measure of growth for an energy source? Capacity is a useful unit for comparing baseload generators, but not for intermittent sources which aren’t available on demand.
So I’ve annotated the map by converting the wind and solar capacity growth figures into “nuclear-equivalent” numbers. A gigawatt of solar PV will on average get you about 15 percent of the electricity that you’ll get from a gigawatt of nuclear (or coal or hydro) power. Similarly, a gigawatt of wind will get you about a third of what a gigawatt of modern nuclear power delivers.
It would have also been reasonable for me to add some kind of penalty factor for wind and solar not being “available-on-demand”. In South Australia for example, for every mega watt of wind capacity added, less than 10 percent will be available at least 85 percent of the time to meet peak demand.
Recasting failure as success
The Climate Council report doesn’t just use capacity once. It continues a little later with what I can only describe as a breathtakingly brilliant example of using graphs to mislead.
Looking at this graph would have you thinking that solving our climate problems is a done deal. Another decade like this and the red line will be at 100 and the yellow at zero … problem solved! We can go back to frittering away our evenings watching reality TV.
The methods the Climate Council uses to sugar coat our clear and major problems are straight from the climate change denial handbook. Choose dates carefully; know when to slip deftly between percentages, increments and absolute numbers, and pretend that all gigawatts are created equal. Comparing solar gigawatts with nuclear gigawatts is like comparing trucks and bicycles: “Look we’ve added a million bicycles to our roads this year and only half a million cars, trucks and minivans, our streets will be empty in no time … if only we had more money … we’re missing out on the bicycle boom!”.
Why? Please explain
Why would an organisation dedicated to fixing our climate stoop to such adulterated statistical swill? I suggest the other members of the Climate Council ask the authors for an explanation. I suggest the authors resign for incompetence and bias.
The Climate Council should have exactly one vested interest. It’s the same one we should all have. To prevent further climate destabilisation. That requires a balanced assessment of problems and tools. The lack of Climate Council balance is easily established by looking at its treatment of nuclear power.
What treatment of nuclear power? Exactly.
Nuclear isn’t just missing from this report but from the entire Climate Council website. In its place are the usual sycophantic stories about pissant renewable projects. For example, in September 2014 the Climate Council republished a gushing story about a floating solar plant being built in Japan. It was described as a “successor” (despite being much smaller) to the Kagoshima solar farm which was described as “the country’s largest”. Kagoshima? Large? You’d have to build 350 of Kagoshima sized solar farms to replace the electricity that used to be generated by Fukushima Daiichi. And as for the floating plant? They are still building the first one, and they’ll need another 2,100 to match the Daiichi output. How long before people work out that pissant solar farms shouldn’t be called large simply because they cover a lot of ground (or water)? They are best described as monster toys whose principle purpose seems to be to mop up renewable energy subsidies. Why are there no stories on the Climate Council website about the 4 or 5 large reactors that China will bring on-line this year, and the next, and the next. Each is equivalent to over 480 of these shiny floating toys.
Nuclear power growth and growth potential
The slow global growth of renewable energy would be irrelevant if there were just a single sizable success story. But compared to the nuclear decarbonisation of French electricity in the 15 years between about 1975 and 1990, there’s nothing in the renewable camp but failure. There’s no doubt that there’s a boom in renewable electricity investment, but it’s clearly not being matched by performance and looks more like snouts sucking at the trough of public money than a serious attempt to tackle climate destabilisation.
Is nuclear power dead? Is it worth investing in? What is its potential growth rate? If the Climate Council was serious and wasn’t, apparently, dominated by renewable energy interests, it would be doing reports about nuclear. It would be lobbying to end our nuclear isolation. It would be working to bust the anti-science myths surrounding nuclear power and radiation risks.
A little internet research will show that there is a resurgence in nuclear technology, but more than a few people are watching the wrong countries. The people who’ll build the nuclear plants of the future are the same people who build our phones and cars. The Chinese and South Koreans.
Currently, the biggest solar farms on the planet each generate about 1 TWh of electricity per year. You can count them on one finger challenged hand: Topaz, Ivanpah, Desert Sunlight. Currently there are 63.5 gigawatts of nuclear plants under construction and they’ll generate as much electricity as about 500 of these largest of solar plants. About half of these are in China.
Is the Climate Council merely pandering to public opinion so that the donations keep rolling in? Do these particular authors have serious financial interests that interfere with their powers of rational thought? I’ve no idea, but the public and the planet deserve better.