Three fallacies spread by renewable energy deniers

Those who deny that renewable energy can meet society’s needs use tactics that are almost identical to those of climate change deniers

This is the Appendix to “The Base Load Fallacy and other Fallacies disseminated by Renewable Energy Deniers,” a paper published in March 2010 by Dr. Mark Diesendorf, Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of New South Wales, Australia. For the references cited in this excerpt, see the original paper.

While climate change deniers and their arguments and tactics have come under public scrutiny, renewable energy deniers have so far escaped. Yet the latter and their fallacious arguments are delaying effective climate action. They come mainly from the coal, oil and nuclear industries, electricity generators, other big greenhouse polluters such as the aluminum and cement industries, and the supporters of these industries. With the exception of nuclear power proponents, renewable energy deniers are generally also climate change deniers.

The tactics of renewable energy deniers are almost identical to those of climate change deniers. Unlike genuine skeptics, deniers are not open to rational argument. They repeat claims that have previously been refuted, time and time again, by renewable energy scientists and engineers, as if repetition of a false statement somehow makes it true. They look for molehills in renewable energy systems and blow them up to mountains. If they cannot refute a particular observation by rational argument, they try to cast doubt on the result by introducing irrelevant material that obfuscates the issue. They insinuate arguments rather than state them clearly and unambiguously. Then, when questioned incisively about their insinuations, they back off and shift ground. They are masters of the 10% truths: taking a few facts and then spinning them into stories that convey the opposite impression from the logical implications of those facts. Examples are given below.

Fallacy 1: Wind power has negligible reliability

Miskelly and Quirk (2010) have attempted to refute the statement in the present article that wind power is partially reliable. Their method is to select 11 wind farms in south-east Australia and only one month of their power output. Their result is that the outputs of 10 of the 11 wind farms are highly correlated. Hence their conclusion is that ‘wind farms in South East Australia are not likely to supply any significant base load power that can be relied upon, and hence system operators will have to schedule generators as if there were no wind power at all.’

This conclusion follows directly from their two initial selection processes. Although the chosen wind farms span a long distance, 10 of the 11 sites lie along the southern coasts of South Australia and Victoria, or are close to the coast. They are spread out approximately perpendicular to the prevailing wind in this coastal region, which comes from the south to south-west. The particular month chosen for the study, June 2009, was characterized by the prevailing wind direction. The 11 th site, which is not highly correlated with the other 10, is at Cullerin in southern NSW. It is the only site chosen from NSW. The study ignores the more distant wind farms at Blayney and Hampden NSW, and fails to take into account that major wind farms are also planned for Silverton NSW and the northern tablelands of NSW. All these neglected NSW sites are likely to have very different wind regimes from the South Australian and Victorian coasts and hence low correlations with wind at these sites. In short, Miskelly and Quirk have cherrypicked their data.

Although they published their paper in an international journal (one favored by climate change deniers), they ignored the international literature on the spatial correlations of wind speed, most notably the paper by Sinden (2007), which analyzed wind data spanning 30 years from 66 sites in the UK, finding that wind power from multiple sites has a high degree of reliability in the UK. They also ignored all the international literature on the capacity credit of wind power, including mathematical and numerical studies for wind power at a single site by Martin and Diesendorf (1980) and Haslett and Diesendorf (1981), and the studies at multiple sites such as Martin and Carlin (1983) and van Wijk et al. (1992).

Thus the paper by Miskelly and Quirk (2009) has very low academic credibility, but that is of little importance to the renewable energy deniers who use it.

Fallacy 2: Renewable energy cannot provide sufficient power to run an industrial society.

This is the second most popular fallacy in the armory of renewable energy deniers. It is easily refuted. In Australia, a square 30 km by 30 km, filled with solar collectors and installed on marginal land, could provide all of current electricity. Of course, in practice there would be a mix of different renewable electricity sources – wind, sun, biomass, etc – and part of the solar contribution would be installed on existing roofs rather than in the Outback. In the long term, Australia could export vast quantities of solar energy generated on marginal land and stored as hydrogen, methanol or ammonia.

Similarly, a tiny percentage of US land area could generated all its electricity. Although Europe doesn’t have sufficient land to provide all its projected energy demand from local renewable energy (MacKay 2009), there is now a proposal, backed by major corporations, to feed solar thermal and wind power from North Africa to Europe by underwater cables (Desertec website).

Globally, there is ample renewable energy available for demands projected to 2050 (Sorensen & Meibom 2000; Jacobson & Delucchi 2009). However, like fossil fuels and uranium, renewable energy resources are not distributed equitably across the earth, and so trade will be necessary, by transmission line, pipeline and ship.

Fallacy 3: Wind power in Denmark is not the great success story it is portrayed to be, because (the renewable energy deniers claim) most Danish wind power is exported and because Danish wind power is very costly to Danish taxpayers and electricity consumers.

These and other fallacies have been published in a study published by a Danish ‘think tank’ called CEPOS (Center for Politiske Studier), funded by fossil fuel interests. The fallacies have been disseminated by many renewable energy deniers, including advocates of the non-existent Integral Fast Reactor.

A detailed refutation has been published by group of 14 Danish energy experts (Lund et al. 2010). These authors show that:

  • Only about 1% of Danish wind power is exported and wind power meets about 20% of Danish electricity consumption. From a market perspective, it is generally electricity from power stations with the highest operating cost that is exported, rather than wind, which has the lowest operating cost.
  • No taxes are recycled to support established wind turbines; however, R&D funding comes from taxes.
  • The price of Danish residential electricity, excluding taxes and VAT, is actually only the 10th highest of the 27 EU countries. The high price of Danish residential electricity is actually the result of high taxes and VAT which are not used to support existing wind power.
  • The price of Danish industrial electricity, excluding taxes and VAT, is actually the 7th lowest of the 27 EU countries.
  • On average Danish electricity consumers pay on average an additional 0.54 €c/kWh for feed-in tariffs for CO2-free electricity. On the other hand, with its very low operating costs, wind power reduces electricity prices in the Nord Pool market by 0.27 €c/kWh on average. Therefore, the net average price impact of wind power is the (0.54 – 0.27) €c/kWh = 0.27 €c/kWh, which is negligible, considering that wind supplies 20% of Danish electricity.


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3 Responses to Three fallacies spread by renewable energy deniers

  1. Rory Short May 15, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    It would seem that interests, vested in non-renewable energies, play a significant role in denying the viability of renewable energies.

    Are we surprised? It is human nature to put our livelihoods at the very top of the hierarchy of what is most important, or valuable, to us and these folk are doing just that. It is a pity however that they are prepared to use any means, fair or foul, to push their case. This probably means that they know deep down within themselves that the days for non-renewable energies and the fat monetary pickings that are available through them, are, swiftly drawing to a close.

  2. Jeff White May 17, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    In my experience, a lot of the “renewable energy deniers” are misguided leftists who have been persuaded that nuclear power is the answer to our energy and climate problems, and that only nuclear can replace fossil fuels or hydroelectricity as the “Base Load” for electrical power.

    The above article will help us persuade these people to be sceptical of nuclear industry propaganda.

  3. Monk May 18, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    Unfortunately, industrial societies also require petrochemicals, which are generally derived from oil. In fact, various components needed for renewable energy, esp. plastics, lubricants, solvents, and others come partly from oil.

    In addition, renewable energy has much lower EROEIs, and industrial societies require much more.

    Besides oil, we may also face shortages for copper, phosphates, and other necessities for an industrial society.

    One study also argues that we may need up to 131 years in order to retool manufacturing to use less petrochemicals, but we may only have a few years before oil production starts to drop.

    This is not to argue that we should not use renewable energy, but the implication that renewable energy can replace oil to maintain industrial societies is not true. In general, industrial societies (essentially the outcome of capitalism) may require many more resources per capita, and we do not have enough of various requirements, from fresh water to oil, due to resource depletion, the effects of climate change and pollution, and increasing demand from more people worldwide who aren’t part of but want industrial societies.

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