The Energy Spectator

Comparing Apples and Orangutans

The mistaken "equivalency" between renewables and conventional power sources.

By 5.14.10

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One of the most important energy matters to understand is that popular "renewable" electrical energy sources are not even remotely equivalent to our conventional energy sources.

Of course lobbyists don't want consumers and politicians to think about that fact, so they go to great lengths to disguise it. Everything they propagate is based on an "equivalency" between "renewables" and conventional power sources that does not exist in the real world.

Even generally objective sources like the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) seriously err when they show such things as levelized cost charts that have wind energy and nuclear power in contiguous columns.

The first problem encountered here is the term "renewables." This is bantered about as if it were: 1) a scientific definition, and 2) a homogeneous group of energy sources. This is lobbyist sleight of hand, as neither is true. It isn't my purpose here to go into the details of this charade but suffice it to say that the definition is very subjective, and there are extraordinary differences between various "renewables." (See here and here.)

After you've grasped those details, the heavy lifting begins. The trick here is to get our heads around the fundamental difference between something like wind energy and nuclear power.

I'm just a physicist and not a professional communicator, so wordology doesn't come naturally to me. However, what I have learned is that most people have a better chance of understanding complex matters when an analogy is used. Let's try that here.

My suggested comparison is to look at two types of transportation (a parallel energy sector), using concepts we are all familiar with.

Let's say that we have a business that repeatedly needs to get 50,000 pounds of goods from New York City to Denver, in two days, and cost is quite important. (In the electricity business this translates to satisfying a demand [load], through dispatchable energy, reliably and economically.)

So who do we subcontract this job to? A good option is to put this merchandise on an 18-wheeler and send it on its way. Will it always get there 100% of the time without fail? No, flukes do happen. However, if this experiment were repeated 100 times, the truck would arrive well over 90% of the time, on schedule and within budget. This is equivalent to using a conventional energy source, like nuclear power.

Now let's say greenologists are introduced into the equation, and they arbitrarily add a new requirement that no fossil fuel can be used. Oops. Our options are now severely restricted.

The parallel choice to using wind energy is to send the merchandise with golf carts (battery powered so no fossil fuel will be consumed during transport). The question is: how many golf carts will it take to dependably replicate the performance of one Mack truck?

Let's say a golf cart can carry 500 pounds (two golfers with sticks). To transport 50,000 pounds that would work out to 100 golf carts.

This is essentially the message that the lobbyists want you to buy: that approximately 100 golf carts (wind turbines) will do the job of one 18-wheeler (conventional source: e.g. a coal facility). They want you to blink and move on. Do not look behind the curtain! But wait! Can the golf carts get really there in two days? Of course not. The lobbyists answer is to add more vehicles: use 1,000 carts!

Does this "solution" really solve anything? No, but it further confuses politicians not used to critical thinking. What it also does is to insure more profit for the cart industry -- which is the only concern of the lobbyists.

What if the load is a hundred 500 pound pianos? Even though (on paper) a golf cart can carry 500 pounds, can a golf cart transport a piano across country? The lobbyists' answer: disassemble the load and use more carts. (Yes, they are slick.)

And will the cost of the golf cart option be comparable to the truck choice? Just to begin with there are 100+ drivers vs. one -- so I think you know the answer, right?

And what else will be needed to support this "alternative" source of transportation? A lot: like battery recharge stations throughout the country. And who will pay for that? Duh.

And what is the source of the electricity used to charge the cart batteries? Mostly fossil fuels. Oops.

In the face of this evidence, the lobbyists and their academic coconspirators distractingly wave their hands and say such non-sequitors as "Don't worry about these details. give us a huge subsidy and we'll do a grea job. Everything will make more sense mañana."

This isn't how science works. Before we pay them to run this route, these promoters should tell us exactly how many golf carts it will take, and then prove it by actually running this route dozens of times. We would then have real-world evidence of the reliability and cost of their proposal. This is exactly what we have not done with wind energy.

They have not only skipped right over the proof stage, right now the golf cart lobbyists are working on convincing our politicians that since businesses have been "resistive" to using their transportation product, that they need a law mandating that 20% of all goods from NYC to Denver go the golf cart route! Senators Kerry & Lieberman are now agents of these lobbyists, and have now introduced such legislation!

And the claimed benefit of all of this? Economic recovery. There will be lots of new jobs in the golf cart business! What about the economic loss due to the higher shipping cost, or the slower transportation? Don't worry about it. Come back mañana.

Hopefully this analogy makes things clearer, as this is the insane path we are now on. (For a more thorough discussion of this situation, go here.)

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About the Author

John Droz Jr. is a physicist and environmental advocate.