Environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, remain enamoured of renewable energy, telling followers that the “global push for cleaner, healthier energy is on. With costs dropping dramatically, renewable energy is becoming the best choice for the environment and the economy.”
The Green Party of Canada is on board, touting the idea that Alberta “should be ready” to go to 100 per cent renewables.
And the Citizens’ Climate Lobby Canada says that not only can we go 100 per cent wind, water and solar for “all purposes,” we can reap a windfall by doing it.
Renewable Cities notes cities going big for the 100 per cent dream include Edmonton, Banff and Victoria.
Into all this green dreaming steps Mark Mills, an energy analyst with the Manhattan Institute. He recently published a report (The “New Energy Economy”: An exercise in Magical Thinking) that pokes many holes in the idea that wind, solar power and energy storage will provide 100 per cent of the power that drives our economy.
Mills finds that alternatives to hydrocarbons provide about two per cent of the world’s energy – a long way from 100 per cent. In fact, reaching 100 per cent over the next 20 years would require global renewable energy to increase by 90-fold. By contrast, Mills finds it took 50 years for global oil and gas production to increase by 10-fold.
Mills gleefully dives into his physics background to debunk the notion that wind/solar/batteries will follow the same trajectory as Moore’s law for transistors – that the number of transistors per chip would increase two-fold every two years. Mills offers an observation: “If photovoltaics scaled by Moore’s law, a single postage-stamp-size solar array would power the Empire State Building. If batteries scaled by Moore’s law, a battery the size of a book, costing three cents, could power an A380 [airbus] to Asia.”
Yes, wind power, solar power and batteries have gotten cheaper and more efficient (as new technologies often do), showing a 10-fold reduction in costs. But the days of 10-fold increases are behind us in the solar power sector, so renewables have a long road before they compete with fossil fuels.
According to Mills, for the same US$1 million, solar panels could produce about 40 million kilowatt hours (Kw) of electricity over a 30-year lifecycle. For the same $1 million, modern wind turbines can produce 55 million kW over 30 years. Those are impressive gains. But Mills points out that same $1 million worth of hardware for a shale rig would produce enough natural gas over 30 years to generate more 300 million kW.
Moreover, the physical limit of capturing energy with wind turbines (called the Betz limit) is about 60 per cent. Current wind turbine technologies already push close to that limit, capturing 45 per cent of wind’s kinetic energy. There’s no 10-fold increase for wind in the future.
The same is true of solar photovoltaic cells. Here, Mills observes, the theoretical limit of efficiency (called the Shockley-Queisser limit) is about 33 per cent – 33 per cent of the photons striking the solar cells are converted into electrons. The best commercial photovoltaic cells now capture around 26 per cent. Like wind, they’re pressing toward the limit.
On the battery front, Mills picks on everyone’s favourite poster child, Elon Musk and the batteries for his Teslas. To store the energy equivalent of one 300-pound barrel of oil, you’d need 20,000 pounds worth of Tesla batteries. And while Mills sees promising technologies on the horizon – non-lithium materials have shown impressive gains in efficiency (up to 300 per cent) – those gains don’t constitute a 10-fold improvement over current battery technologies.
Finally, Mills observes that energy revolutions remain beyond the horizon and can only dawn through the basic sciences – not product development. But he notes that 95 per cent of private-sector research and development (and most such government spending) flows to development, not basic research.
Governments must stop pandering to the idea we can let our fossil fuel infrastructure languish, since we’ll clearly be stranded as we quickly move to the great green energy future. We’ll need fossil fuels for many decades and it’s time policy-makers get their eyes on the prize and drop all the “magical thinking.”
Kenneth Green is an analyst at the Fraser Institute.