Saturday, November 30, 2019

Cheap renewables AND expensive electricity? What gives?

Ontario's notoriously renewables-averse Conservative government is using Germany as an object lesson in why NOT to pursue renewable energy.
Now, granted, Energy minister Greg Rickford was caught out in the embarrassing act of using using unreliable stats from climate change-denying website, Climate Change Watch, which he described as one of his "favourite periodicals". But what is the truth behind the great German experiment in Energiewende (energy transition)?
Well, it turns out that Germany, as well as fellow renewables pioneers Denmark and the state of California, are all paying for some of the highest-priced electricity around. This seems irrefutable. But, just as irrefutable, renewable energy from wind and solar is in fact among the cheapest energy options available, and their prices have been plummeting in recent year. So, cheap energy AND expensive electricity? What gives?
The answer is far from simple, but it seems likely that the problem lies in the inherent  unreliability of renewables, the very complaint that opponents have been flinging at the new technologies all along. The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine and, when it does blow and shine, it is not necessarily at the time when electricity is most needed. This therefore requires relatively expensive electricity generation from gas (and even coal) plants to take up the slack, as well as the still-expensive option of battery storage. And, if too much renewable energy is produced, it may need to be offloaded on to neighbouring countries, AT A COST rather than at a profit. All this can have the effect of substantially increasing the cost of delivered electricity, and the greater the share of renewables the greater this problem rears its ugly head.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but cheap energy can prove expensive in the end, something that German economist Leon Hirth predicted some years ago. This is not to say that the renewables route should be abandoned. The point is to to generate CLEAN electricity, not necessarily the cheapest electricity. We may need to tone down the "renewables is cheap" rhetoric a little, and clearly much more work needs to be done on how to fix these teething problems (for example, Califormia has already figured out a fix for the complex problem of how the use of batteries can increase carbon emissions). But renewables still remain our best bet for generating electricity in an environmentally sustainable way. That part hasn't changed.

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