A Skeptic Looks at Alternative Energy
It takes several lifetimes to put a new energy system into place, and wishful
thinking can’t speed things along
By Vaclav Smil / July 2012
A Skeptic Looks at Alternative Energy
It takes several lifetimes to put a new energy system
into place, and wishful thinking can’t speed things along
By VACLAV SMIL / JULY 2012
In June 2004 the editor of an energy journal called to ask me to comment on a just-announced plan to build the world’s largest photovoltaic electric generating plant. Where would it be, I asked—Arizona? Spain? North Africa? No, it was to be spread among three locations in rural Bavaria, southeast of Nuremberg.
I said there must be some mistake. I grew up not far from that place, just across the border with the Czech Republic, and I will never forget those seemingly endless days of summer spent inside
while it rained incessantly. Bavaria is like Seattle in the United States or Sichuan province in China. You don’t want to put a solar plant in Bavaria, but that is exactly where the Germans put it. The plant, with a peak output of 10 megawatts, went into operation in June 2005.
It happened for the best reason there is in politics: money. Welcome to the world of new renewable energies, where the subsidies rule—and consumers pay.
Without these subsidies, renewable energy plants other
than hydroelectric and geothermal ones can’t yet compete with conventional
generators. There are several reasons, starting with relatively low capacity
factors—the most electricity a plant can actually produce divided by what it
would produce if it could be run full time. The capacity factor of a typical
nuclear power plant is more than 90 percent; for a coal-fired generating plant
it’s about 65 to 70 percent. A photovoltaic installation can get close to 20
percent—in sunny Spain—and a wind turbine, well placed on dry land, from 25 to
30 percent. Put it offshore and it may even reach 40 percent. To convert to
either of the latter two technologies, you must also figure in the need to
string entirely new transmission lines to places where sun and wind abound, as
well as the need to manage a more variable system load, due to the intermittent
nature of the power.
All of these complications are well known, and all of them have been too lightly dismissed by alternative energy backers and the media. Most egregious of all is the boosters’ failure to recognize the time it takes to convert to any new source of energy, no matter how compelling the
arguments for it may be
An example is the 2008 plan promoted by former vice president Al Gore, which called for replacing all fossil-fueled generation in the United States in just a decade. Another is Google’s plan, announced in 2008 and abandoned in 2011, which envisaged cutting out coal generation by 2030. Trumping them all
was a 2009 article in Scientific American by Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil engineering at Stanford University, and Mark Delucchi, a researcher in transportation studies at the University
of California, Davis. They proposed converting the energy economy of the entire world to renewable sources by 2030.
History and a consideration of the technical requirements show that the problem is much greater than these advocates have supposed.
About the Author
Vaclav Smil, a distinguished
professor in the department of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba, in Canada, dates the interests that inform his
article “A Skeptic Looks at Alternative Energy” to his student days at Prague’s Carolinum University more than 50 years ago.
“Contrary to the currently popular assertion of accelerating innovation,” he
says, “most technical improvements are evolutionary and take time to make a real
difference. Consequently, I think little of claims of near‑instant
transformations of any complex system.”