Letter: Another round in the renewables debate

The best hope for transition away from hydrocarbons is nuclear power

To the Expositor:

As I attempted to point out in my last note regarding renewable energy, the capabilities of wind and solar energy generation are defined by the physical laws of nature. Standing at the foot of a hill and expecting a boulder to roll up the hill, then ranting hysterically about some weird conspiracy being responsible won’t change the boulder’s refusal to roll up the hill. I refer of course to the Jan McQuay letter of June 5 (‘Greenhouse gases will destroy life on Earth as we know it,’ Page 4).

Here is another dose of reality given the European experiment with renewables; they have been at it much longer than we have. Dr. David MacKay was a physicist at Oxford and later was Chief Scientific Advisor of the Department of Energy and Climate Change for the UK government. He wrote a book entitled ‘Renewable Energy – without the hot air.’ The book deals with most types of renewables by stating the physics governing each and then does the mathematics showing what each is capable of. It is a sterling piece of writing and he works through each option with clarity. The book is free online at www.withouthotair.com. It is also available in hard copy at places like Amazon. Bill Gates describes the work as one of the best books on energy that has been written. MacKay uses average energy demand per person (125 kWh/day for the UK), then looks at alternate energy sources to see how much a particular option can deliver. For example, wind power can deliver about 2.5 watts/m2. He then calculates the land area required to generate this energy. Anyone with a calculator can do the math and the result is clear. It is simply not possible to generate enough power to satisfy demand given the surface area the UK has available for development. During his time at both Oxford and in government, MacKay was always careful not to take a position on any particular energy option, preferring to lay out the facts and let people decide for themselves. His book follows this strategy as well and presents a number of different options using various forms of renewable energy including nuclear. He then became terminally ill with cancer but just 11 days before he died in April of 2016, he had this to say about the issue of energy generation: “The concept of powering a developed country such as the UK with weather dependent renewable energy is an appalling delusion. It is so dangerous for humanity that people allow themselves to have such delusions that they are willing to not think carefully about the numbers, and the reality of the laws of physics and the reality of engineering… humanity does need to pay attention to arithmetic and the laws of physics.”

Moving to Europe in general, there are five countries that have installed over 75 percent of renewable generation capacity there. They are Germany, Spain, Italy, UK and France. All of these counties are subject to the same issues as outlined above. With the exception of Spain, solar performance is around 10 percent. In other words, if the capacity of a farm is rated at 100 units, expect 10 over the long term. On shore wind is about 20 percent. Again, do the math and it is soon obvious that the prospects for the utilization of most renewables face the same realities as those in the UK. The delusion that MacKay talked about is indeed appalling. 

The growth of renewables in Spain and Italy ceased in 2013. Although Germany and the UK continue with renewables, reality is starting to hit home as people realize what is going on.

So is there any hope for an energy transition away from hydrocarbons? MacKay presents a number of alternatives in his book. Each alternative has its problems. This is especially the case as the book does not dwell on the economics of many of the options. However, there is hope and the best option would appear to be nuclear. Again, see chapter 24 of his book for a detailed review.

It is apparent that as time goes on, more and more people are questioning the merits of wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy. Pandora’s Promise is the title of a film produced by a number of environmentalists who own calculators and use them. The theme of the film is nuclear power and it goes over the various issues associated with this form of energy and also discusses the encouraging developments taking place in this area, particularly with fourth generation reactors. There are serious public concerns with nuclear energy; hopefully this film has and will continue to put some of these concerns to rest. France is the best example of what can be accomplished. Nuclear power has resulted in the lowest unit costs for power in Europe and not surprisingly, CO2 emissions are at a level Germany can only envy. 

Shane Desjardins