Myth-buster’s guide to renewable energy

“Base load renewables power is a myth, a wonderful, feel good, pile of lies.”

“Renewables drive the price of power up so high that no one can afford it. No thanks.”

“For wind power, the energy to construct and maintain the turbines costs more in power and pollution than they save.”

 

These are real comments we’ve received at Australian Ethical. If, like us, you’ve been waving the flag for renewable energy for decades these are likely arguments you’ve come up against. With so much misinformation it can be hard to sort fact from fiction. That’s why we’ve agonised through the detail of these claims to produce this myth-buster’s guide to renewable energy. (Keep a copy handy at your next extended family dinner!)

MYTH Renewables can’t provide reliable, baseload power

BUSTED. Early on, renewables struggled to provide on-demand power, but recent years have seen exciting developments and it’s no longer the case. Clean technologies in use around the world are proving it’s possible to deliver reliable power 24/7 with renewable energy.

For some technologies this is simple. Renewables like geothermal, biofuel and hydropower are similar to fossil fuel generators and can be dispatched on demand.

Other renewables like wind and solar follow nature’s cycles and require us to work around periods of high and low energy production. In the past this was done using fossil fuel generators as back up. However, exciting developments in energy storage, like batteries and molten salt towers, have opened up a whole new world of power possibilities. Energy storage enables solar and wind to provide steady, on-demand power without any fossil fuels. For example, in 2014 the world’s first utility scale battery was connected to the grid in Germany and has supported a reliable supply of renewable energy ever since.

Since then large battery storage projects have been flourishing around the world. Battery Storage has made it possible for islands like Ta’u in American Samoa to switch to being completely solar powered. The challenge is no longer that the technology doesn’t exist – we just need to roll it out.

MYTH Renewable energy makes power unaffordable

BUSTED. It doesn’t have to. Policy can be used to ensure that energy remains affordable for vulnerable members of the community, while at the same time increasing renewable energy production. For example, the Renewable Energy Target has cost the average household less than $1 a week and over the long term it is expected to save consumers money on their power bills.

However, there is no escaping the fact that upgrading the whole world from dirty fossil fuel generators to clean technologies will cost a lot of money. Transitioning to 100% renewable power is a mammoth infrastructure project. Huge amounts of investment are required to ensure the transition happens with the speed needed to avoid dangerous climate change. You’re helping by investing your money with Australian Ethical through our investments in renewable energy.

While these power upgrades will be expensive in the short term it will reduce the cost of power in the long term. Once installed solar and wind provide many years of free electricity.

Positively the cost of renewable energy has fallen far quicker than expected making the transition easier. The cost of solar energy has fallen by 80% since 2008. Costs have fallen so rapidly that renewable energy is becoming cost competitive with fossil fuels. Bloomberg reported in Europe that the levelised cost of electricity from wind is now cheaper than that of coal.

It’s important to remember that while there are large costs involved in cutting emissions, the costs of doing nothing is far higher (by 1.8 trillion according to Citi Bank analysis).

Critically the cost of the transition can be managed through planning and policy to ensure the transition is equitable and power remains accessible to everyone.

MYTH Wind and solar manufacturing releases more emissions than is saved over a lifetime of operation

BUSTED. We get this question all the time and it is simply not true. While manufacturing plants for wind turbines and solar panels often use dirty fossil fuel electricity from the grid, even taking this into account they save far more emissions than they release. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have found that even after factoring in emissions associated with production and installation, wind and solar are among the least emissions intensive forms of electricity available.

To know the true emissions savings from an energy source, researchers use a technique called ‘life cycle analysis’. Life cycle analysis looks at all the emissions released and avoided by a product over its entire lifetime of operation. Using this approach a typical wind turbine with a working lifespan of 20 years ‘pays back’ all of the emissions produced in its manufacturing after less than a year of operation after which all power produced is truly emissions free. For solar panels the payback is a little longer, up to 2 years after which the panels will provide over 20 years of emissions free power.

Once we have a renewables based electricity system then manufacturing turbines and solar panels will be much cleaner.

 

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