Debunking Clean Energy Myths

We’ve all been hearing these statements and reading those blogs since the 2008 election cycle: Clean energy is entirely unachievable! Insane! Stupid! A pipe dream that will never work and can never pay off.

And yet, I’ve successfully lived off the grid with my home powered entirely by solar and wind since 1991. So, I obviously beg to differ. I do agree there’s been a lot of idiocy in the discussion over the last few years, but most of it stems from narrowly defining the questions in absolutes, rather than painting a broader picture of the multiple and integrated systems that all need to change, slowly and deliberately, for clean energy to become a reality in the US.

The last few weeks have brought us not a mere one-two energy sucker punch, but a full body slam worthy of the Ultimate Fighting Championships. There have been multiple nuclear meltdowns in Japan, gasoline at $4.00 a gallon thanks to North African political turmoil, news that fracking for natural gas is an environmental nightmare and recent reports showing that coal-fired power plants in the US kill up to 13,000 people yearly through mercury and other emissions (source: American Lung Association). According to Charles D. Connor, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, “It’s time that we end the ‘toxic loophole’ that has allowed coal-burning power plants to operate without any federal limits on emissions of [dangerous pollutants].”

It’s time to re-examine some of these old “clean energy myths” with a focus on broad solutions and a sober debate on the untallied (and incalculable) costs of dirty energy, like coal, oil and nuclear.

Myth #1: The sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow 24 hours a day.
The high plains of North Dakota could provide wind energy to a huge swath of the US, while the deserts of Nevada could do the same with solar. Why can’t every state in the Union share in this bounty? The answer is lack of transmission infrastructure, as you can see from this link to the U.S. Power Grid. The thinner the power lines are and the longer the distance from source to load, the more energy is wasted. As you can see, the lines coming from both North Dakota and Nevada are inadequately thin, and branch out in only very limited directions.

Expanding power transmission infrastructure capacity is a logical solution, which boils down to stringing up more and thicker wires, and bumping everything on them up to higher voltage. But nobody seems to think that they should have to actually pay for such infrastructure improvements on their monthly electric bills.

On the other hand, string a new power line to a remote village in Africa to electrify it for the first time, and you can be assured that every resident knows that they are paying for the new infrastructure…and they are paying the price gladly. Maybe it’s time for an infrastructure reality check here in the USA.

Newer utility-scale solar thermal generation plants have some interesting base load capacity built right in-solar heat is stored in molten salts, which remain hot enough to continue generating steam after the sun sets. Until recently, this psuedo-base-load capacity has been only a minor focus in the solar thermal industry because true base load capacity has been so cheaply and easily provided by coal and nuclear sources. As the costs of greening and cleaning these base load technologies rise, so will interest and investment in the thermal storage side of solar thermal generation.

The current Obama administration national energy policy is actually packed full of oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear-with the focus not on abandoning these energy sources (as some anti-clean-energy pundits shrilly assume,) but instead on making them cleaner and greener. Will the cost come out of your pocketbook? Well, yes. But the costs of dirty energy are far more insidious and long-term, as we pay the piper under the table for health care costs from air and water pollution for decades into the future. We have two recent examples of these costs in the Gulf Oil Spill and the Japanese Nuclear Disaster. The Japanese Disaster is so extensive and expensive that the Japanese government will likely have to bail out the utility company that owns the nuclear power plant.

Electricity prices in the US are relatively cheap compared to the rest of the world because our base load fuels are cheap, with high energy density: coal, nuclear and hydro. “Peaking load” fuels, to power our lives while everyone else in the US is also using lots of power, include natural gas, oil, geothermal, solar and wind.

Myth #2: Renewable energy just costs too much, and will never be cost effective.
This myth has never been further from the truth as today. Prices continue to drop rapidly on solar and wind technology, as both demand and production increase. Cost per kWh for solar is already competitive with non-renewable sources in much of the world, where energy prices are not held so artificially low with government subsidies on base load fuels as they are in the US.

Federal tax credits and state and local incentives for the installation of renewables have long been the targets of scorn from anti-clean-energy activists, and conservative pundits froth at the mouth with the mere mention of Feed-in-Tariffs (FITs). But the only thing frightening about FITs is their unfortunate name-they are not any sort of tariff or tax at all, but rather an intricately structured rate plan straight from the utility.

FITs start out paying excellent rates per kWh for renewable energy to encourage individual investment in distributed renewable generation, with the rates paid stabilizing at “normal” levels after a few years, allowing the initial investment to pay back quickly but remain sustainable for the long term for everyone involved. FITs have been successful worldwide, in such diverse locations as Australia, Algeria, China, and Germany-the latter being quite an accomplishment, since Germany’s solar potential is very low, on par with only the worst locations in the US.

Such government “nudges” to tip new energy technology over the line into profitability are nothing new. When oil was discovered in the US in the 1860s, federal subsidies gave that infant, homespun industry a big financial boost as a way to replace expensive, imported whale oil lighting, lubrication and other applications across the US. Nuclear energy received similar government boosts in the 1950s and 1960s, while cheap base-load fuels like coal continue to receive aid to this day.

Myth #3: You can’t charge your electric car with solar or wind energy.
It’s true that operating an electric car in a region that generates most of its electricity from coal means you are really driving a coal-powered car. However, an EV charged from a solar-powered home is a green ride.

Renewable portfolio standards for utilities are increasing across the US. Solar and wind generation capacity is increasing. And electric car penetration into the market is also increasing. Up-front costs are creating a bit of a struggle for the individual consumer, but as these market forces increase and combine together, it all has every chance to end up as a win-win situation.

It’s currently possible to power your electric car with your own solar array. In areas with excellent solar resources and robust local incentives, some homeowners are installing renewables by the total immersion method-enough solar capacity on the roof to completely offset their annual home usage, and extra capacity up there to charge up that new electric car in the garage. This isn’t a valid plan yet where solar resources are weak (Seattle, Upstate New York), but again increasing renewable portfolio standards will eventually provide almost the same effect at the end of the day-electric cars powered (at least mostly) by renewables, with the non-renewable part of the equation significantly cleaned up.

Myth #4: Electric cars will leave you stranded.
If you are contemplating a cross-country drive from New York to LA in your new Tesla Roadster, your planning will need to be meticulous or you will indeed be left stranded. But in the urban areas where EVs are becoming most popular, charging stations are not really an issue, due to both short driving distances and expansion of pay-to-charge services. You can even download an iPhone application to direct you to the nearest charging station.

Google Maps tallies charging stations, too. Many employers are very receptive to providing EV charging capability to their employees while at the office, even if the program starts with a simple extension cord. A full 200-mile charge from flat empty in a Tesla Roadster costs under $6.

By the way, that cross-country EV tour has been successfully accomplished — many times. In rural areas, EV drivers report that some straight talk at motels and restaurants, a $5 bill and maybe a test drive can open the doors to a variety of electric outlets for charging during lunch or an overnight stay. In many urban areas, though, such measures are no longer even a matter of discussion. You can even charge up at the mall.

Is clean energy really a myth?
No. The simultaneous growth of demand for renewable energy generation, the corresponding drop in production costs, and the stark realization of disastrous effects on the environment from current energy technologies are all working together to launch renewable energy sources to the forefront worldwide.

Let’s be realistic-there will be no sudden abandonment of oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy sources in the US in favor of solar and wind, only a gradual greening of the most egregious base load sources as renewables are phased in by stages. To imply otherwise is, well, simply absurd.

Dan Fink has lived off the grid, high in the Northern Colorado mountains, since 1991, 11 miles from the nearest power pole or phone line. He has a BA in Technical Journalism from Colorado State University, and spent 10 years in the field as a renewable energy system consultant, designer and installer. He has been a renewable energy technical author and educator since 2000, and is the Executive Director of Buckville Energy Consulting, the Editor-in-Chief of Buckville Publications LLC and the co-author of the book Homebrew Wind Power.
Dan teaches renewable energy classes throughout the USA.