WILLIAM TUCKER: A Dose of Renewable Reality – But Why No Nuclear?

By William Tucker

Nicole Foss is a British peak oiler, climate catastrophist, meticulous researcher and editor of theautomaticearth.com, a website that takes on a variety of issues from the Eurozone crisis to Hurricane Sandy.  

Last weekend she published what amounted to a small booklet on the foibles and fantasies of renewables.  “Renewable Energy: The Vision and a Dose of Reality,” the title of the 55-page document (on my printer, at least) hardly captures the gloom of her diagnosis.  By the time Foss is finished, the entire effort to convert the world’s energy system to wind and solar lies a smoldering ruin.  Moreover, there are several European countries under the rubble.

Let’s start with the opening salvo:

In recent years, there has been more and more talk of a transition to renewable energy on the grounds of climate change, and an increasing range of public policies designed to move in this direction. Not only do advocates envisage, and suggest to custodians of the public purse, a future of 100% renewable energy, but they suggest that this can be achieved very rapidly, in perhaps a decade or two . . . These plans amount to a complete fantasy.  

Of course a lot of people have said this before, but Foss does the legwork in exposing the nuts and bolts of the situation.  Did you know, for example, that Europe’s monumental dash into offshore wind is being undertaken without any consideration of how to get that electricity back on shore?  Quoting Adam Barber from RenewableEnergyWorld.com (and there are a lot of lengthy quotes from other sources), Foss writes:

Essentially, what appears to be happening across Europe is that nations are falling in love with offshore wind, permitting grand projects far out to sea – and then belatedly realizing that it is not so easy to get the energy back to shore. It is a bit like building hotels in the desert and forgetting to put the roads in. How come some of the world's most advanced and industrialized countries are committing such a colossal oversight?

The outcome, unfortunately, is not just low comedy.  Again, quoting Der Spiegel:  

[W]hen work is completed on the Nordsee Ost wind farm, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of the island of Helgoland in the North Sea, the sea air will be filled with a strong smell of fumes: diesel fumes.

The reason is as simple as it is surprising. The wind farm operator, German utility RWE, has to keep the sensitive equipment — the drives, hubs and rotor blades — in constant motion, and for now that requires diesel-powered generators. Because although the wind farm will soon be ready to generate electricity, it won't be able to start doing so because of a lack of infrastructure to transport the electricity to the mainland and feed it into the grid. . .  .

What started out as a bit of a joke . . . has rapidly turned serious. Siemens, the contractor for Germany's offshore transformer stations, has booked almost €500 million in charges, according to Dow Jones. 

Foss notes that while wind and solar electricity already costs four to ten times as much as power from conventional fossil fuels, these prices have still not taken into account the costs of restructuring the grid and providing back-up for these intermittent sources.  The same logic applies to wind.  

The cost of building the [wind] turbines, their grid connections, back up gas plants and additional gas storage would be over ten times the amount required to build a fossil fuel alternative. According to a recent report to Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change, the cost of the grid connection alone would be greater than the entire cost of the alternative option. (Emphasis in original.)

Country after country has entered this Venus fly trap only to be digested in its clenching jaws.  Both Greece and Spain had visions of becoming the world center of renewable energy right up until their financial collapse.  “Both Greece and Spain . .  championed renewable energy regardless of cost, but . . . subsidy uptake exceeded expectations.”  With the subsidies abruptly withdrawn, an inevitable trail of bankruptcies is left in the wake.  Vesta, which Denmark subsidized into the world’s leading windmill manufacturer, is not on the brink of collapse:

Early investors enjoyed sparkling returns, with shares leaping from 34 Danish kroner in 2003 to 698 in 2008 – a 20-fold rise. But since then, beset by the loss of government subsidies, cost overruns, production delays and competition from China, the price has collapsed. Today it is trading at 35 kroner – so someone investing in 2008 will have lost nearly 95% of their money. (Unidentified source.)

Nor has China, generally thought to be the winner in the renewables casino, escaped the consequences:  

Look at SunTech, the world's biggest maker of PV (photovoltaic) panels, based in Wuxi, China. Its private equity backers (notably Goldman Sachs) made a fortune when it listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2005, making well over 10 times their original investment. So did the people who bought at the initial share launch, with the shares shooting from $20 to $79 in late 2007. And today? They are changing hands at just 92 cents. . . Solar is an industry awash with overcapacity in China, falling prices and declining government subsidies. (Unidentified source.)

Foss believes the world of renewables is still wildly overextended and the entire bubble has not yet burst.  When it finally happens, we will discover we have spent trillions on an energy infrastructure that provides only a misfit between sources and consumers and is generally useless.  At that point, the world will undergo a financial trauma equal to the 2008 housing collapse, dragging us into a new age of austerity. 

And here is where, to my mind, she gets a little overly pessimistic.  As a peak oiler, climate catastrophist and complexity theorist, Foss argues that these three strands create a paradox that humanity will be unable to overcome.  Instead, contemporary society is doomed to a regression where reliable, uninterrupted electrical power becomes be a thing of the past:  

When the economy tries to recover, it is likely to find itself hitting a hard ceiling at a much lower level of energy supply. With less energy available, society will not be able to climb the heights of complexity again, and therefore many former energy sources dependent on complex means of production will no longer be available to simpler future societies. Widespread electrification may well be a casualty of the complexity crash.

We are likely to realize at that point just how unusual the era of high energy profit ratio fossil fuels really was, and what incredible benefits we had in our hands. Sadly we squandered much of this inheritance before realizing its unique and irreplaceable value. The future will look very different.

What Foss never brings into the equation is nuclear energy.  Somehow it escapes her notice entirely.  Yet nuclear is the one piece of the puzzle that fits with all the others.  It avoids the scarcity of declining oil resources, it does not threaten the climate, and it does not disrupt the grid in the manner of renewables.  Nuclear can be fitted into either the hub-and-spoke model of centralized power generation or, in the avatar of small modular reactors, into the distributed, locally based power mode that Foss admits works better for wind and solar.  

Why is such an astute observer as Foss so completely oblivious to the potential of nuclear?  I can’t say for sure.  But I suspect the reason is that it’s easier to be seen as a hard-bitten climate-and-peak-oil pessimist than a naïve and optimistic proponent of nuclear power.  

  • Brian Mays

    Some people, I fear, simply become addicted to the doom and gloom scenario.

  • yestradamous

    Environmentalists don’t appear to know the first thing about nuclear energy. They think all reactors are like Fukashima and just as vulnerable. They are scared of it.

  • stevek9

    Send her a letter and find out.