Fact Checking Four Renewable Energy Myths

With any new technology or industry disruption there are myths that sprout up and need to be addressed. Here are explanations that dive deeper into four of the more prevalent renewable energy myths raised by those who are anti-renewable energy. (Yale Climate Connections, February 2019)

Myth #1: Wind and solar are more expensive ways to generate electricity than fossil fuels.

Fact Check:
When comparing prices on generation, it’s important to compare apples to apples.

The industry uses a measure called the “LCOE” which stands for Levelized Cost of Electricity: this metric compares the costs of building and operating solar and wind plants which have no fuel costs once built, with the costs of building and running gas and coal plants with ongoing fuel costs.

Levelized cost of electricity explained, a formula from Wikipedia
Levelized Cost of Electricity formula from Wikipedia

Over the lifetime of the plant, the costs for each type of plant are divided by the energy produced and a levelized cost per megawatt hour is produced. Bottom line: the price of renewables is now cheaper than conventional fossil fuels. Solar photovoltaic equipment has seen the greatest drop in price over the last 10 years, so much so that it ties wind for the lowest cost of unsubsidized electricity for new power generation.

For more info on LCOE, check out this piece from Forbes from the end of 2018: Plunging Prices Mean Building New Renewable Energy Is Cheaper Than Running Existing Coal

Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis over time for Unsubsidized Solar PV from LAZARD
Levelized Cost of Energy for Wind Unsubsidized
Historical LCOE comparison shows declines for solar & wind by Lazard (on Forbes)


Myth #2: Wind turbines use more energy to build than they produce.

Fact Check:
As noted above, wind energy is an economical choice when considering the total life cycle costs of wind farm construction and maintenance. The industry looks at the ratio of energy generated by a plant compared to the energy used to create it. It’s called the Energy Return on Investment (EROI).

Energy Return on Investment Formula, also known as energy returned on energy invested (EROEI or ERoEI)
EROI formula from Wikipedia

Wind turbines generate 20-25 times the amount of energy that goes into making them. Wind has an EROI of between 18-20. Coal’s EROI is around 18, while natural gas is in the range of 7-15. Coal and natural gas are less effective because a great deal of energy is used to transport the fuel via rail or pipeline to the plants. Solar and wind is on location! Also, 30-45 percent of energy is lost as heat in the fossil fuel electricity generation process. Not so with solar and wind.

Myth #3: Renewable energy isn’t reliable.

Fact Check:
There’s no denying “when the sun isn’t shining or the wind stops blowing, energy production stops”; however, it’s also true that renewables are able to generate at lower financial and environmental costs in place of fossil fuel when the sun is shining, and while the wind is blowing. And the industry is on the cusp of finding several new cost-effective ways to store power from these renewables to meet later demand.

It’s an engineering challenge that includes everything from commercial scale batteries to concentrated solar power stored in molten salt which can spin steam-powered turbines at any time.

An even more efficient storage method involves pumping water uphill using surplus wind energy and then releasing it downhill to spin turbines and generate electricity. Pumped hydro systems can respond nearly instantly to fluctuating energy demands across the grid. It uses gravity as a giant battery.

How the Pump Hydro Storage System WorksAbove image from Solar Quotes


Myth #4: Renewables use a lot of land.

Fact Check:
Like all forms of generation, renewables have some upsides and downsides. One of those is land use, because it varies.

Wind farms on average leave up to 98% of the land undisturbed which is important to farmers and ranchers continuing operations. (Schneider Electric, October 2018) Many landowners appreciate land use payments as a great source of secondary revenue.

Surface Area Required to Power the World on Zero Carbon Emissions Alone and with Solar Alone
Land use overview for Zero Carbon Emissions from landartgenerator.org

Solar generation is most efficient at commercial scale and in arid regions like the Southwest US where land is unsuitable for other uses. However, the amount of land use needed is significant and concerns remain about how the large farms affect sensitive ecosystems. That’s a topic we’ll address in a blog post soon and will soon be covered in a curated article on how some solar farms become areas to repopulate the bees.

To reduce U.S. emissions by 80% by 2050 using solar alone, it would take an acreage about the size of South Carolina. That’s why it’s important that we embrace a mixed portfolio of clean energy generation to meet electricity demand.

Siting solar on land already in use helps, too. Solar structures over landfills, parking structures and on rooftops are employed by more and more communities and businesses in partnership with their local utilities. Another advantage of locating the power closer to homes and businesses that need it, is a reduced need for new poles and wires.


A Balanced Approach

It’s important to be realistic about the challenges of introducing clean energy into our electricity system. Now that 100% renewable goals are being set, our best and brightest are finding solutions to bring us power that is affordable, reliable, environmentally friendly and sustainable.