Are wind and solar power the answer to our
energy needs? There’s a lot of sun and a lot of wind. They’re free. They’re clean.
No CO2 emissions. So, what’s the problem? Why do solar and wind combined provide less
than 2% of the world’s energy? To answer these questions, we need to understand
what makes energy, or anything else for that matter, cheap and plentiful.
For something to be cheap and plentiful, every part of the process to produce it, including
every input that goes into it, must be cheap and plentiful.
Yes, the sun is free. Yes, wind is free. But the process of turning sunlight and wind into
useable energy on a mass scale is far from free. In fact, compared to the other sources
of energy — fossil fuels, nuclear power, and hydroelectric power, solar and wind power
are very expensive. The basic problem is that sunlight and wind
as energy sources are both weak (the more technical term is dilute) and unreliable (the
more technical term is intermittent). It takes a lot of resources to collect and concentrate
them, and even more resources to make them available on-demand. These are called the
diluteness problem and the intermittency problem. The diluteness problem is that, unlike coal
or oil, the sun and the wind don’t deliver concentrated energy — which means you need
a lot of additional materials to produce a unit of energy.
For solar power, such materials can include highly purified silicon, phosphorus, boron,
and a dozen other complex compounds like titanium dioxide. All these materials have to be mined,
refined and/or manufactured in order to make solar panels. Those industrial processes take
a lot of energy. For wind, needed materials include high-performance
compounds for turbine blades and the rare-earth metal neodymium for lightweight, specialty
magnets, as well as the steel and concrete necessary to build structures — thousands
of them — as tall as skyscrapers. And as big a problem as diluteness is, it’s
nothing compared to the intermittency problem. This isn’t exactly a news flash, but the
sun doesn’t shine all the time. And the wind doesn’t blow all the time. The only
way for solar and wind to be truly useful would be if we could store them so that they
would be available when we needed them. You can store oil in a tank. Where do you store
solar or wind energy? No such mass-storage system exists. Which is why, in the entire
world, there is not one real or proposed independent, freestanding solar or wind power plant. All
of them require backup. And guess what the go-to back-up is: fossil fuel.
Here’s what solar and wind electricity look like in Germany, which is the world’s leader
in “renewables”. The word erratic leaps to mind. Wind is constantly varying, sometimes
disappearing completely. And solar produces little in the winter months when Germany most needs energy. Therefore, some reliable source of energy
is needed to do the heavy lifting. In Germany’s case that energy is coal. So, while Germany
has spent tens of billions of dollars to subsidize solar panels and windmills, fossil fuel use
in that nation has not decreased, it’s increased — and less than 10% of their total energy
is generated by solar and wind. Furthermore, switching back and forth between
solar and wind and coal to maintain a steady flow of energy is costly. Utility bills for
the average German have gone up so dramatically that “energy poverty” has become a popular
term to describe those who cannot pay — or who can barely pay — their electricity bills.
If those bills one day go down, the reason will not be more solar and wind energy, but
lower oil and coal prices. There’s no free lunch. And there’s no
free energy. And that very much includes the highly expensive energy from the sun and the
wind. I’m Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial
Progress, for Prager University.