From our U.S. editor: Renewable energy and information pollution

After covering solar and other forms of renewable energy on a daily basis for nearly eight years, I have come to a deep appreciation of the work done by research institutions, including the United States government’s network of national laboratories, as well as the many fine analysts working in various private firms and non-governmental organizations.

Through the collected work of so many and the actual experience of nations such as Denmark, Germany, Spain as well as individual U.S. states, we have come to learn a great deal about the integration of large amounts of solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy on grids, what the challenges are, and what we can expect in the future.

However, I am consistently disappointed that this information is not better represented in the press, including in some energy publications. In many cases, journalists and editors have chosen mythology over careful study and the flash of contrarian viewpoints – even if these are poorly supported or come from sources with a track record of misleading the public – over more credible assessments.

Most recently, I was greatly disappointed by Bloomberg View Columnist Tyler Cowen’s op-ed which allegedly reviews Varun Sivaram’s latest book but instead appears to be a collection of his own biases and preconceptions applied to a field of which he shows little understanding.

Since the article contained so many unsupported, misleading and inaccurate statements, I’m going to take them one by one.

Claim: “There is now a doctrine of what I call ‘solar triumphalism’: the price of panels has been falling exponentially, the technology makes good practical sense, and only a few further nudges are needed for solar to become a major energy source. Unfortunately, this view seems to be wrong.”

Problem: While it depends on what you call “major”, solar supplied around 2% of the electricity in the United States in 2017 (we are still awaiting final data), as well as more than 10% in California, Nevada and Hawaii in the first nine months of the year. As solar capacities have been doubling roughly every two years, you can expect much more in the future.

Claim: “Solar energy could be a boon to mankind and the environment, but it’s going to need a lot more support, and entrepreneurial and policy dynamism.”

Problem: Varan Sivaram does make such a claim in his work but, from what we have read, for significantly different reasons than the ones that Mr. Cowen references. Instead, Sivaram has addressed the problem of raising the trillions in capital that a full-scale global energy transition requires.

Claim: “The first disquieting sign is that solar companies are spending only about 1% of their revenue on research and development, well below average for a potentially major industry. You might think that’s because things are going so great, but some major solar users may have already maxed out their technology. According to Sivaram’s estimates, four of the five most significant country users — Italy, Greece, Germany and Spain — have already seen solar energy flatten out in the range of 5% to 10% of total energy use. The fifth country, Japan, is only at 5%.”

Problem: There is simply no causal relationship demonstrated between the first fact – the portion of R&D spending by solar companies – and the second – that increases in solar deployment greatly slowed in several European nations.

There is also no compelling evidence that these nations “maxed out” solar technology. Instead, what happened in Italy, Greece, Germany and Spain was that feed-in tariff policies were dismantled or stopped. In Italy this was intentional – the program had a cap and ended after this cap was reached. In Germany, this was the result of deliberate policy actions by both the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the later CDU/Social Democratic Party (SPD) “grand coalition”.

There are real technical challenges to deploying very high levels of solar on the grid, but they are unrelated to solar panel efficiencies and R&D spending at the company level. For these challenges national borders are less relevant – what is more relevant is the area that power is balanced over. For high solar penetrations the island of Kaua’i, which gets around 23% of its electricity from solar on an annual basis on an isolated grid and under far less than ideal circumstances, is a good test model.

Which brings us to our next faulty claim…

Claim: “Because the sun isn’t continuously available, solar power at large scale doesn’t integrate well with the electric grid, which favor steady sources such as fossil fuels or nuclear.”

Problem: No compelling evidence is supplied to back the claim that electric grids “favor” so-called “baseload” (read: inflexible) power sources, or that they are necessary for reliability. In fact, among the technical requirements of power grids is the flexibility to be able to increase and decrease the supply to match daily and seasonal patterns of demand fluctuation.

Claim: “…about 95% of global energy storage capacity is from hydroelectric power, a discouraging sign for the notion that solar energy storage is on a satisfactory track.”

Problem: While large-scale grid battery deployment is still in its infancy, the presence of flexible hydro and pumped hydro storage on many grids, including in Scandinavia, California and Japan, is not a problem for renewables. Hydro can help to integrate higher levels of wind and solar without having to back up such generation with gas peakers.

Claim: “Promoting solar energy also isn’t in the interest of regulated utilities.”

Problem: Failure to disaggregate. Nearly all utilities are opposed to customer-owned distributed solar. However, they are increasingly procuring utility-scale solar of their own volition, because it is cheap and unlike fossil fuels offers price stability and predictability.

Claim: “Other customers’ bills would have to rise to cover the costs of the grid, and that in turn would encourage even more secession into solar and alternate energy sources.”

Problem: This is a claim often made by utilities, who again are almost always opposed to customer-owned rooftop solar. However, not only does the author present no compelling evidence to support this claim, but it has been widely debunked by a large number of studies.

Claim: “Solar energy has great potential for emerging economies, but some basic preconditions are not in place.”

Problem: While removing fossil fuel subsidies would be a major step forward, solar is already being widely deployed in the developing world.

Claim: “In sum, just improving silicon panel solar technologies may not be enough. A whole series of integrated breakthroughs may be required to move significantly closer to a green energy future.”

Problem: The author, yet again, provides no compelling evidence to support this claim, which appears to be a product of his own preconceptions. 

This last claim, and the claim below the headline that “much more R&D is needed for a true green energy breakthrough”, as well as his statement that we should “reconsider the abandonment of nuclear energy” do suggest where this faulty line of reasoning comes from.

The claim that a breakthrough in clean energy technologies is a precondition for moving to a clean energy future is far from new. This claim has been made for many years by proponents of nuclear energy, many of whom have realized that conventional nuclear technology is failing in the market and cannot compete either with other forms of conventional generation or renewable energy.

For the nuclear industry, this is a self-serving claim and demonstrably false. Repeated studies and the experience of nations such as Denmark and islands such as Kaua’i show that we can indeed move to much higher penetrations of wind and solar than previously thought.

It is clear why nuclear proponents would want to attempt to obscure and challenge this evidence, for the only reason in the 21st century to deploy wildly expensive existing nuclear technology and pour even more government largesse into new, unproven technologies is if nuclear is the only option for decarbonization.

The net result of all of this has been to weaken public understanding of our energy situation, including our options for decarbonization and the real challenges associated with them. It has been a pernicious form of information pollution.

And while I will note that in this case this article in question comes from the opinion pages, where standards for supporting your statements with evidence are more lax, what is truly unfortunate is that otherwise reputable publications who should know better continue to publish such faulty claims.

We at pv magazine will be here to set the record straight, and to continue to publish fact-based articles bringing you the latest developments in the global energy transition, backed by the latest research, evidence and logic.