Relying on Renewables Alone Significantly Inflates the Cost of Overhauling Energy

By James Temple – Re-Blogged From MIT Technology Review

growing number of US cities and states have proposed or even passed legislation that would require producing all electricity from renewable energy sources like solar and wind within a few decades.

That might sound like a great idea. But a growing body of evidence shows it’s not.

 A solar farm in Hughsville, Maryland supplies enough electricity for 600 homes.


It increasingly appears that insisting on 100 percent renewable sources—and disdaining others that don’t produce greenhouse gases, such as nuclear power and fossil-fuel plants with carbon-capture technology—is wastefully expensive and needlessly difficult.

In the latest piece of evidence, a study published in Energy & Environmental Science determined that solar and wind energy alone could reliably meet about 80 percent of recent US annual electricity demand, but massive investments in energy storage and transmission would be needed to avoid major blackouts. Pushing to meet 100 percent of demand with these resources would require building a huge number of additional wind and solar farms—or expanding electricity storage to an extent that would be prohibitively expensive at current prices. Or some of both.

The basic problem is that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. The study analyzed 36 years’ worth of hourly weather data and found there are gaps in renewable-energy production even on a continental scale.

Relying on these intermittent sources alone would requiring building many more solar and wind farms to produce excess energy during particularly sunny and windy periods, plus huge storage systems that can bank hours’ or even weeks’ worth of power (see “Serial Battery Entrepreneur’s New Venture Tackles Clean Energy’s Biggest Problem”). Another possibility is to build long-distance transmission routes that could ship the electricity around the country at just the moment it’s needed.

Storage systems are incredibly expensive in the case of batteries—and geographically limited in the case of pumped hydroelectric, which requires a set of water reservoirs at varying heights (see “Why Bad Things Happen to Clean-Energy Startups”). Long-distance transmission lines are also pricey and can take decades to get approved and built (see “How to Get Wyoming Wind to California, and Cut 80% of US Carbon Emissions”).

Just getting to 80 percent of demand reliably with only wind and solar would require either a US-wide high-speed transmission system or 12 hours of electricity storage. A storage system of that size across the US would cost more than $2.5 trillion for a battery system.

To meet all the nation’s annual electricity needs with 99.97 percent reliability, utilities would have to build 12 hours of storage plus at least twice the amount of renewable-energy generation, the study found. Or businesses could deploy slightly more wind and solar coupled with more than a month’s worth of storage.

The advantage over renewables of other clean options, like nuclear or natural gas with carbon capture, is that they can provide always-on power or, at least in the latter case, can quickly ramp up and down to meet fluctuating demand (see “Potential Carbon Capture Game Changer Nears Completion”).

“Policy makers would be well advised to consider the data and trade-offs that result from this type of data analysis before adopting policies or mandates for a 100% wind/solar grid,” said Nathan Lewis, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology and coauthor of the study, in an e-mail.

Still, the fierce debate among scientists over the virtues of aiming for 100 percent renewables rages on. Most prominently, Mark Jacobson of Stanford has argued that states and nations can make that transition affordably. Other researchers have critiqued his work, notably in a paper published earlier this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jacobson subsequently filed a libel lawsuit against the lead author and publisher, which he dropped last week (see “A Renewable-Energy Champion Is Suing His Scientific Critics”).


4 thoughts on “Relying on Renewables Alone Significantly Inflates the Cost of Overhauling Energy

  1. The up/down/”back” radiation greenhouse gas energy loop of the radiative greenhouse effect theory is pencil on paper, a spreadsheet cell, a “what if” scenario and NOT a physical reality.

    Without this GHG energy loop, radiative greenhouse theory collapses.

    Without RGHE theory, man-caused climate change does not exist.

    And with a snap of the fingers and “Presto!!” the bazillion dollar global climate change fantasy is suddenly unemployed.

    Must be why nobody is allowed to talk about this possibility. Not newsworthy enough? Or too far outside the fake news narrative?


    • I agree with all you say except that ‘CO2 back radiation’ is real. It’s the amplification that is phony.Alarmists have theorized that water vapor ‘must’ go up, and that in going up, water vapor ‘must’ amplify the CO2 back radiation effect. They know this because their models tell them so.

      The loopiness is in the models. In the real world, the feedbacks are negative. An increase in water vapor brings more clouds which block the sun, cooling the planet. Willis Eschenbach does an excellent job describing how this works. (Please see: ) The result is that, over millions f years, the earth has kept the average temperature with just a few degrees up or down – an amazing accomplishment.


      • “I agree with all you say except that ‘CO2 back radiation’ is real.”

        Uh, no, it’s not and the burden of proof is on you.

        WE is another wanna-be amateur Wiki scientist.


  2. NIck, every piece of matter, including CO2 molecules, which is above absolute zero (0 degrees Kelvin), emits radiation. The hotter it is, the more radiation it puts out and the higher the wave length.

    Also, every piece of matter takes on energy radiated to it although the particular wavelength it favors in this respect will vary. For both water vapor and CO2, this wave length is within the range of heat radiated from the earth toward outer space. So, CO2 accepts radiation from the earth, and it also re-radiates this energy – in all directions. Some of this re-radiated energy is in the direction of earth.

    The earth is warmer than the CO2, so it radiates more energy toward the CO2 than the CO2 does toward the earth. The NET energy radiated is from the earth toward the CO2, and this is in accord with the laws of physics.

    For some reason, this confuses a lot of people who think that heat only radiates from warm to cool, but in reality, it is the net flow that only is from warm to cool. Both warm and cool radiate and accept radiated heat, with the warmer radiating more than the cool, while the cool accepts more than the warm – the net flow is warm to cool.

    The effect is that, while the warm cools because it is losing heat, it is losing less heat if the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) are there than if there were zero CO2. This is accepted physics. Where the Alarmists go wrong is with their claim of positive feedbacks. In reality, the net feedbacks are working to keep the effect neutral, as shown by the earth’s remarkable ability to regulate average global temperature to within such a narrow band over millions of years.


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