How to dispute clean energy deniers

Below is an email I sent to the author of an article attempting to explain why renewable energy doesn't work.  I was compelled to reply in an email to inform the author there were many flaws in the argument.  I hope you enjoy!  Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments!


I recently read your article Energy Solutions in Pursuit of a Problem, and I think you failed to highlight a few important factors in your analysis.

You mention that Germany is paying a high cost of electricity compared to Georgia, but you failed to mention any of the benefits that clean energy brings?  Did you look at air quality over the time frame that renewable energy has been installed?  I live next to the coal plant in Smyrna, GA (which is being converted to a natural gas plant), and I can assure you that I am very happy that the pollution I see coming out of the smoke stack blows over the city, and not back towards my house and my bike trails.  Also, what about all the solar manufacturers choosing to build their plants in Germany and not in the U.S. because Germany's adoption of clean energy (yes, I know Georgia has a few solar companies of our own who would probably disagree with many of your statements)?

You state,

Renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar, are unreliable, inconsistent and often unavailable when customers might require the energy. This fact causes the greatest underestimation of the true cost of renewable energy.

Yet this is slightly misleading.  Your readers who aren't technically knowledgeable on the subject may think that people who live near solar or wind would simply be without electricity because it is so "unreliable, inconsistent and often unavailable" but (hopefully) you realize that renewable power goes onto the electricity grid, which is essentially a very large, on-demand battery.  When renewable electricity goes down (night time/wind not blowing) fossil fuel electricity goes up.  In short, it always balances out.  The highest consumption of electricity is on hot, sunny, summer days when solar works best.  Renewables lessen the demand on fossil fuels when connected to the grid.

Finally, you say,

Diversity in energy is important to competition and reliability, and advancements in solar and other renewables in Georgia are occurring. But they must move forward within the competitive constraints of the free market, not through artificial subsidies.

I'm a fan of the free market as well, but you fail to mention how the fossil fuel industry accounts for externalities.  In short...they don't.  How does the free market deal with the effects of air pollution from fossil fuel power generation? Do you know anyone with asthma who lives in Atlanta?  Ask them how the free market is working to improve their air quality the next time we approach red or orange on the smog alert scale this summer. I addressed this issue in my recent article, "The TRUE cost of Coal" which references a Harvard study which looks at the costs of coal with all externalities accounted for.

I can understand your closing paragraph, but I take issue with your conclusion:

There is always more that can be done to produce cleaner energy. Given the opportunity, America's spirit of innovation has produced more for its citizens' advancement and quality of life than government ever has. Germany's admirable but expensive venture into renewable energy is by government mandate. Americans, on the other hand, pride themselves on their freedom of choice – and their ability to choose wisely.

If Americans are prideful on their ability to choose wisely, I can't help but be reminded that Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Americans don't always choose wisely.  Americans choose the easy way out. Americans choose whatever the cheapest solution usually is.  Do you forget the mortgage crisis that was brought on by people choosing poorly on the loans they took out, banks choosing poorly to assemble those loans into CDOs and then recommending them to investors, and rating agencies choosing poorly in giving these collections of mortgages their highest rating?  This multi-billion dollar calamity was a direct result of Americans not choosing wisely because they failed to account for all underlying issues.

With an exponentially growing population and a finite supply of fossil fuel we must start moving towards clean energy before we quit discovering new supplies of fossil fuels and get stuck with our heads in the sand.  We need strong governmental policy to support clean energy because the much-heralded free market does an absolutely abysmal job of accounting for negative externalities.  We need to start thinking about the next generation of Americans, and quit thinking about what's easiest and cheapest for right now.

Chris Kaiser
I was happy to see that the day after I wrote this email I saw an article in USA Today describing the EPA's plans to limit coal plant emissions.  My favorite quote from the article is from what I presume to be another clean energy denier:
The rules would cost an estimated $100 billion by 2015, said Lisa Camooso Miller of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. She said they’d also “cause significant job losses in a number of states due to higher electricity prices and the retirement of coal-fueled power plants.”
So does anyone else see the irony in a representative from the American Coalition for CLEAN COAL Electricity speaking out against initiatives that would clean up coal?  If an industry has to attack policy that "reduce respiratory illnesses, heart disease and developmental problems in children" on the basis that it will hurt jobs and raise rates, I would say that the industry needs to get its damned priorities in order (in reality, I'm not naive enough to think that a corporation would really choose health over profit, but one can always hope).
But maybe we should let the ratepayers choose what is more important to them: cheap electricity or healthy children.   Based on what I'm seeing coming out of clean energy deniers, I wouldn't be surprised if they would sell their soul to the devil if the price was right.....
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One thing you didn't bring up is that fossil fuels are subsidized as well, though those numbers can be tough to nail down, and it can turn into he-said she-said... Another thing: "But maybe we should let the ratepayers choose what is more important to them: cheap electricity or healthy children." The thing is, in many places the ratepayer can choose, individually, to buy "green power" and honestly, very few do. People want clean power in the abstract, but when it comes down to individual decision points it's tougher. Lastly, here's a great resource for "wind is too intermittent to be useful" - Xcel apparently has shut down coal for up to 3 days when the wind is blowing - - but I don't know how common that may be.
ckmapawatt's picture
Below is a comment emailed to me by Jeff Gold: "Great post! I think you could really add some horsepower to the subsidy argument. Just Google “oil industry subsidies” and “coal industry subsidies” and you find that the author’s statement is completely false. “Conventional” fuels like oil, gas, and coal are heavily subsidized, much more that any “alternative fuels” are. (As a side note, oil, coal, and gas are really the “alternative” fuels and relatively new on the scene. The world operated for thousands of years on solar and wind power long before we tapped into our fossil fuel inheritance. Based on that, I question which fuels are conventional and which ones are alternative!)."
Chris, It may actually be true that "Renewable energy sources....are inconsistent and often unavailable when customers might require the energy", but that does not make them any more "unreliable" than any (coal, gas, nuclear) plant that slows or shuts down from time to time for various reasons. I don't think that the grid really is a battery (where does it store energy), but I agree with you that "renewables lessen the demand on fossil fuels when connected to the always balances out." Besides, there are renewables that DO provide electricity during those dark calm nights - hydroelectric and geothermal are two examples. Just because certain power sources do not provide 100% of the electricity does not make them invaluable. The "true cost" is spread between all sources - good and bad. Renewables allow us to reduce the bad. I totally agree that the "cost" of fuel must include the environmental and health "costs" - i.e. they should be sustainable (responsible), not just cheap.

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