Letter: More discussion on the renewables fossil fuels file

Hydrocarbons find favour because they are reliable, dispatchable and cost effective

To the Expositor:

In a June 12 letter (‘Some facts regarding the transition away from bitumen’), Derek Stephen McPhail (DSP) took exception to some of the facts I presented in a recent note regarding wind/solar/batteries as they relate to electrical generation and distribution. The title of his work starts off with “some facts,” which seems a bit odd since there isn’t a single fact in his entire article. Here are my responses to the various points that he presents.

A quote from David Suzuki starts things off. First there is a statement that costs and inefficiency make oil sands products less desirable on world markets. Sorry, Suzuki but that is not how markets work. The things you are talking about will drive up production costs and if they get too far out of hand, the producers will be forced out of the business by market pressures. A second point in the sermon from Suzuki is that clean energy technologies are advancing rapidly. Really! Here is where a few facts would be appropriate. Wind and solar producing two percent of the world energy requirements doesn’t qualify as advancing rapidly. For contrast, since 2000, the world has doubled its coal-fired power capacity to ~ 2,000 gigawatts. A further 236 GW is under construction and an additional 336 GW planned. (Carbon Brief 25 March 2019)

Next a quote from DSP, “Many think tanks supported by the fossil fuel industry, like The Copenhagen Consensus Centre (CCC)…” He inserts a quote from Wikipedia and if he looked just a few paragraphs down on the page from where the quote was taken there is a note about funding. It says very clearly that the CCC does not accept funding from fossil fuel interests. Here we have an oversight or a blatant disregard for the truth. Bjorn Lomborg won’t accept money from oil interests because he knows that people like DSP will criticize this action. It is a shame that organizations like the CCC cannot take advantage of oil money. The work that the CCC does is to review conditions in developing countries and help the authorities to identify opportunities where money can be most effectively spent to improve the human condition. For example, clean water, pest control, lighting so that students can study after the sun goes down etc. Bjorn Lomborg and the initiatives he has undertaken with the CCC are well documented. His major point is that diverting just a little of the money being spent on climate change would do a tremendous amount of good in the developing word.

Another DSP quote, “Conflating energy with power does not properly compare the equivalency of oil with solar and wind power.” This is a classic word salad devoid of meaning. Gas fired turbines, steam turbines, diesel engines, and wind turbines etc. all are able to drive generators. These machine combinations have name plate capacities usually stated in mega watts. They all have typical mechanical availabilities and operating utilization factors. Knowing what these various numbers are, it is quite a simple matter to determine how they compare. 

The next item DSP discusses is the Tesla factory. He claims that I criticized the factory when I pointed out that all of the batteries from a full year’s production connected to the USA grid, could power it for three minutes. Again, a simple fact: one that DSP doesn’t like but welcome to reality. Additionally, what I said about improvements in wind/solar technology was that we cannot expect additional radical improvements going forward since the technology is bumping up against the limits imposed by the laws of nature. I did not say that wind/solar haven’t made significant advancements. Marxist ideological rants will not change the science, they might conspire to shroud the facts of the situation which is the only tactic DSP seems able to employ.

Now to the Goggle affair. Here is a bit more information. In 2007 Google unveiled a project that was to make renewable energy competitive with coal. The project was called RE<C. in 2011 Google cancelled the project. We know a fair bit about it because two of the engineers who worked on the project, Ross Koningstein and David Fork published a review after it was cancelled. Here is a quote from the paper; “Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.” Again, DSP attempts to fog the issue with some information about the energy Google uses in its operations. This has nothing to do with the RE<C project. Just for the record, data centers in general are responsible for 1.3 percent of the world’s electricity consumption. Google says it accounts for a mere one-hundredth of that statistic. 

In summary, energy from hydrocarbons find favour because they are reliable, dispatchable and cost effective. Wind and solar are none of these things. If there are other sources of energy that can compete, and there are, that is a good thing. Some are site or location specific, such as geothermal in Iceland or water falls compressed air in Cobalt Ontario. We shouldn’t expect a large or significant contribution from these sources. Other technologies such as nuclear have a track record of generating base load energy requirements in a safe, reliable and cost effective manner. Ontario is a good example, France is a better one. Whatever the technology one cares to review, the numbers have to add up as David MacKay pointed out again and again – with mixed success! 

Shane Desjardins