Why we must not rely on the media for
renewable energy progress reports:
Sadly, the following reporting is utterly typical of the media.
Bill Chappell of NPR writes on Tuesday, May 11, 2021:
Renewable Energy Capacity Jumped 45% Worldwide In 2020
"Despite the pandemic, the world's renewable energy capacity jumped 45% to 280 gigawatts in 2020, part of "an unprecedented boom" in wind and solar energy".
Actually, global consumption of wind and solar energy increased from 1.5 percent to 1.7 percent of total global energy consumption from 2019 to 2020.
This "energy reporter", as with most of them, doesn't even know the difference between power and energy; thus his opening sentence has no meaning. Energy is measured in gigawatt hours, while power is measured in gigawatts. It would be like saying that the distance from Minneapolis to Bemidji is 215 miles per hour.
In that same opening sentence, as in his headline, he claims that "the world's renewable [power] capacity jumped 45% to 280 gigawatts in 2020".
Actually, the world's renewable power capacity is ten times that amount. What increased by 45 percent is the amount of renewable power capacity added in 2020 (280 GW) as compared to the amount of renewable power capacity added in 2019 (193 GW).
(I wrote NPR an email and Chappell then corrected his headline and opening paragraph. Unfortunately, the public never sees the corrected version of a story as the story has already been squeezed out by the following day's news.)
From 2019 to 2020, the combination of solar PV and wind increased from about 1.5 percent of global energy consumption to about 1.7 percent of global energy consumption. It's hard to sell the public on the notion that we're up and running on solar and wind if we actually give them the preceding information. A much better sell is to say that energy from renewables has jumped 45 percent in one year without providing information on the actual energy contribution. Thus the sentence misleads in two ways.
The story makes no mention of capacity factors, the relationship between intermittency and demand fluctuation, or battery energy storage issues associated with wind and solar projects. In keeping with the "unprecedented boom" proclamation of the opening sentence, it goes on to spew out "gee whiz" raw numbers regarding the number of houses that can be powered by this or that new wind farm installation, even though these are actually mere drops in the bucket:
Chappell cites the new 2.8 billion dollar 800 MW capacity off-shore wind turbine project.
He does not mention any of the following:
With the typical 0.33 capacity factor, this yields 264 MW generated power. With a future 0.6 buffering factor (mismatches between power generation and hour by hour demand, what irregularities the power grid can accomodate in the absence of fossil fuel or nuclear power generation, energy lost during battery storage, and the energy cost of the buffering batteries themselves), this yields 158 MW power consumption. U.S. average total power consumption is 2,400,000 MW. Thus that off-shore installation will provide for 1/15190 of U.S. energy. 15190 x 2.8 billion dollars = 43 trillion dollars. And that doesn't take into account the enormous expansion of the electric grid entailed by using solar and wind energy. (About 20 percent of U.S. energy goes into transportation, and electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines; but our population and energy consumption continue to rise, easily offsetting that savings.)
The story also never mentions that global electrical energy consumption is just 18 percent of global total energy consumption.
Global solar PV and wind energy consumption still accounts for less than 2 percent of global total energy consumption. And as I mentioned, the story never mentions that fact.
Capacity, generation and consumption are three different quantities, in descending order. Consumption is the bottom line for any analysis.
In the images below, capacity factors, the relationship between intermittency and demand fluctuation, and energy storage issues are taken into account. And remember, this is in regard to total energy consumption.
Due to the intermittent output of solar and wind installations, we would need to triple the number of electrical transmission towers and lines if we were to rely mostly on solar and wind energy as mere replacements for coal fired electricity generation. To use solar and wind for all of U.S. energy, the number of towers and transmission lines would need to be multiplied many times over. The images below don't even include the land area required for, or affected by, that.
There is no intermittency issue with nuclear energy, and therefore far fewer transmission lines would be needed. Also, they automatically power up and down, meaning they self-buffer without the need for battery or fossil fuel backup.
It's not remotely possible to achieve any of the three scenarios depicted in the first three images below. This is due to both lack of raw materials and available space. If we could achieve such scenarios, the cost would be tens of trillions of dollars with any one of the three scenarios.
Hydro power should be considered to be beyond maxed out. We've already destroyed too many river valley environments. Currently, hydro power accounts for about 3 to 4 percent of global consumed energy.
Safe, clean, Thorcon nuclear reactors can supply energy more cheaply than coal, solar PV or wind, and with just a tiny fraction of the land footprint. And they are silent.
To meet total energy needs of the United States:
Considering that the average wind speed of the U.S. and surrounding coastal areas is only 2/3 of what's needed for a 0.33 capacity factor, the area would actually need to be 1.5 times the area shown above.
See Climate, geology, nuclear energy
for data and calculations.