A reader of our column recently sent us a video that claims that there is no possibility that renewable energy, specifically wind and solar, can supply our energy needs. It’s narrated by a “Senior Fellow” of the Manhattan Institute, a “free-market think-tank,” and was produced by PragerU, itself a non-profit funded primarily by petroleum industry donors. We thought it might be interesting to take a few points from the video to see how numbers can be used to distort facts. Unfortunately there isn’t enough room in our column to address all of the misinformation in the video, but let’s make a start.
First of all, the narrator sets the scene with a mocking observation that renewable energy advocates are living in a cinematic fantasy world in pursuit of “Unobtainium,” the magic power source. To snap us back into reality he proceeds to pelt us with sobering factoids and intimidating, undocumented numbers, a few apples-to-oranges comparisons and some false equivalencies. These he uses to form his argument that replacing fossil fuels with renewables is actually impossible and moreover anti-environmental, anti-labor, and even promoting of child labor. Wow, what a buzz-kill!
Just for a little reassurance, let’s review just a few of the claims reflecting his unreliability.
For example, to start off he blandly informs us that wind and solar energy technology are now close to their peak efficiency, and so are reaching their growth limit. While it is true that the technical efficiency of both wind and solar energy have an upper limit, this does not mean we are reaching a limit in how much total energy we can produce from them: What, we can’t put up any more panels or turbines? Did we stop building coal plants when they reached peak efficiency?
Later he says that these renewables only produce 3% of our energy, presumably to highlight their irrelevancy. We are not sure when the video was produced, but right now in the U.S., wind and solar provide about 4.5% of our total energy and 12% of our electrical energy, which may not sound like a lot – BUT this share was less than 1% ten years ago, and is now growing at around 15% per year. At this growth rate we could get up to 65% of our total energy by 2040. (We are not stating this as a prediction, only pointing out the arithmetic of a 15% growth rate.) Exponential growth is a thing.
In fact most of the new build-out in electricity generation in the last several years has been in wind and solar. They now produce electricity more cheaply than coal.
He does point out correctly that the variability of wind and solar energy will require substantial growth in electricity storage, and that much of this will come from batteries. But then he observes “Consider the world’s biggest battery factory, the one Tesla built in Nevada. It would take 500 years…to make enough batteries to store just one day’s worth of America’s electricity.”
Two points: First, we will not need more than a few hours total storage. Second, Tesla is not the only battery company in the world!
On the first point, with a robust smart grid, storage would only be needed to smooth out fluctuations in the supply of wind and solar. Only some of this storage would be supplied by batteries. We would need maybe 6 hours of storage on a nationwide basis, under any circumstance of supply and demand mis-match.
On the second point, the U.S. Energy Information Office estimates that battery deployment is increasing at a rate of 28% per year. If this rate continues, it will take less than 20 years to achieve the required storage capacity for the nation’s power needs.
Another claim made by the video is that developing renewables will wreak havoc on the environment. They use a 100 megawatt wind farm as an example, which the narrator states would require the mining of 30,000 tons of iron ore, 50,000 tons of concrete and 900 tons of plastic. (We have not verified these numbers but we can assume they are not understated.) Assuming this is correct, we can compare the impact to electricity generated from coal.
Over its 30 year lifetime, the wind farm would produce around 8500 GWh of electricity and would be responsible for around 200,000 tons of CO2 from its manufacture, installation, and disposal. A coal plant producing the same amount of energy would require mining more than 3 million tons of coal, would produce between 200,000 and 800,000 tons of toxic coal ash (depending on the type of coal) and almost 8 million tons of CO2. So the coal energy uses 30 times more input material and produces 40 times as much CO2, and 10 times more waste.
Because of the limited space of this column, we can’t really address all of the misinformation in this video. This includes the claim that supplying the materials needed for a transition to renewable energy will require the biggest increase in mining in history – among other points, we might offer that coal has been responsible for more mineral mining than will be required, ever – but, that’s another column!
The point is, we can state categorically that the remaining attacks on renewables in this video are easy to refute and anyone desiring further information can feel free to contact us.
Paul Stancioff, PhD., is a retired professor of physics at the University of Maine Farmington who dabbles in energy economics on the side. Cynthia Stancioff advocates for climate action and looks for edible mushrooms. Their emails are [email protected] and [email protected] . Previous columns can be found at https ://paulandcynthiaenergymatters.blogspot.com/.

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