While great efforts are being made to develop public support for renewable energy, much of the information that is reported is misleading. As an example, when new renewable electricity sources, such as wind and solar, are brought online, industry groups and the media usually report the capacity that has been added to the electrical grid. Indeed, the World Wide Web is filled with easy to locate stories about the added capacity of wind and solar. For example, the Solar Industries Association website reported that America would have almost twenty-eight thousand megawatts of solar capacity by the end of 2015. Similarly, the American Wind Energy Association reported that the nation has more than 60 gigawatts of wind capacity. However, the generating capacity means very little in actual practice.
Generating capacity is based on operations for 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. But no power source operates at full capacity all of the time. For example, nuclear and coal plants (two of the most reliable sources of electricity) must be shut down on occasion for repairs and maintenance. To account for this, experts calculate the capacity factor, which indicates the percentage of capacity that is typically achieved in actual performance. To speak of generating capacity without considering the capacity factor is at best naïve, and at worse intellectually dishonest, because the numbers can be significantly different.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has reported the following capacity factors for new power plants using various forms of fuel:
- Coal—85 percent
- Natural gas—87 percent
- Nuclear—90 percent
- Solar –25 percent
- Wind—35 percent
For solar to actually generate the same electricity as coal, natural gas, or nuclear, more than three times as much capacity must be built. And for wind, it is nearly two and a half times. For example, if a new coal plant is built with a capacity of one hundred megawatts, it will actually generate eighty-five megawatts. However, for a solar facility to actually generate eighty-five megawatts, a capacity of three hundred and forty megawatts will have to be built.
This isn’t a problem limited to the United States. It is a universal problem, because of the very nature of wind and solar. The wind does not always blow. The sun does not always shine. As one example of the undependability of wind and solar, at the end of 2012 wind and solar power represented 84 percent of Germany’s electricity generating capacity. However, in 2012 wind and solar actually generated only 11.9 percent of Germany’s electricity. For the year, solar generated only 11 percent of its capacity, and wind generated only 17 percent of its capacity. Despite the massive buildup of wind and solar capacity, Germany has also been building fossil fuel plants to meet its electricity needs. Indeed,
Germany is planning to back up every gigawatt of wind and solar average capacity with another gigawatt of gas or coal. As it builds its intermittent fleet [wind and solar] it will not be able to shut down existing fossil-fueled plants; they will remain in service, complete with staff, maintenance, and overhead expenses and the infrastructure of transmission lines, coal mines, and gas pipelines.
In other words, despite spending billions of dollars on wind and solar, Germany remains dependent on fossil fuels. If Germany—or any nation—wants reliable electricity, renewables are not going to provide it.
Even if the necessary capacity is built, problems still abound. Because electricity cannot be stored, power must be generated when it is needed. As Germany has demonstrated, the undependability of solar and wind requires back up generation if electricity needs are to be met. And this requires coal, nuclear, natural gas, or all three. Any nation that depends on renewables for its electricity will have an unreliable electric grid, and all of the problems that result from that.
Despite the massive subsidies and all of the media attention, wind and solar will not meet America’s energy needs anytime in the foreseeable future, if ever. As Germany has demonstrated, enormous capacity will be required, and even then the vagaries of nature make wind and solar unreliable for the energy needs of a modern society. However, unlike Germany, while America moves to become more dependent on wind and solar, it is not building the backup capacity required. Instead, it is closing proven, dependable plants.
Moving from the dependable to the unreliable is regressive. It is a move founded on manipulating the market and misleading Americans through government coercion.
This post is an excerpt from my book The Innovator Versus the Collective.