James Schlesinger and Robert Hirsch got real today at the Washington Post, laying out in plain language the fact that energy production is more black than green and will be for the foreseeable future:
Solar cells and wind turbines are appealing because they are “renewables” with promising implications and because they emit no carbon dioxide during operation, which is certainly a plus. But because both are intermittent electric power generators, they cannot produce electricity “on demand,” something that the public requires. We expect the lights to go on when we flip a switch, and we do not expect our computers to shut down as nature dictates.
At locations without such hydroelectric dams, which is most places, solar and wind electricity systems must be backed up 100 percent by other forms of generation to ensure against blackouts. In today’s world, that backup power can only come from fossil fuels.
Because of this need for full fossil fuel backup, the public will pay a large premium for solar and wind — paying once for the solar and wind system (made financially feasible through substantial subsidies) and again for the fossil fuel system, which must be kept running at a low level at all times to be able to quickly ramp up in cases of sudden declines in sunshine and wind. Thus, the total cost of such a system includes the cost of the solar and wind machines, their subsidies, and the cost of the full backup power system running in “spinning reserve.”
It’s fine to talk about wind and solar as supplemental energy sources. In this context it makes sense to invest in them, but strategically, not as an all-in plan to replace the fossil-fuel-driven electric grid.
The main reason for this measured approach is that it’s likely to be decades longer before a suitable replacement can be on-line and in nationwide production. Of the alternatives to oil and coal power that actually exist today, only nuclear stands out as being able to provide large amounts of reliable energy. Sad then that few people seem to be looking in the right direction.