One of the most pervasive criticisms about variable renewable energy sources like solar and wind is that, since the sun sets at night and the wind doesn’t always blow, we need to back them up with generation like natural gas and coal. As a result, you have a perverse situation where the installation of these zero-carbon sources can actually increase greenhouse gas emissions — the exact thing we were trying to avoid! One of the classic examples is that, as a result of shutting down nuclear power plants and installing too much renewable energy, Europe has had to increase the generation of coal and natural gas to backup the unreliable wind turbines and solar panels, and as a result greenhouse gases have actually risen. It’s a tragedy, right?
The problem with what I have just described, however, is that it is not true. But you certainly wouldn’t know that from watching the typical North American media outlets! But forget about the layman reporter, this is even repeated as a given among energy professionals. I hear this all the time in my work, and my voice has gotten coarser over the years making the same rebuttals…
So here I have the first in a series of articles I am calling “Energy Myths Exposed“, and I of course will be spending a lot of time on renewable energy. A lot of these are repeated so often that they have become unquestionable “facts”. But repeating something again and again doesn’t make it true.
If the particular myth of this post were true, we should clearly see an increase in fossil fuel consumption in the energy statistics. But thanks to renowned French energy economics and policy expert Bernard Chabot’s recent compilation of EU energy statistics from the last 23 years, we have some lovely graphs that shine a light on reality. The best part for me is that I don’t even need to do any work myself! Thanks for making it easy Bernard!
Here is what has happened with the electricity system in the EU-28 countries over the last 23 years with data from the European network of transmission operators ENTSO-E:
Contrary to popular belief among many energy professionals, fossil fuel emissions peaked in 2007 (top black curve). There was a severe drop from 2007 to 2008 due to the global financial crisis, but even after the economic recovery, fossil fuels have never recovered and are down fully 22%. What has been growing substantially instead is the bottom orange curve, which is mainly wind and solar. I also want to draw your attention to nuclear (red curve), and note that it has decreased 13% since 2004 — so that wasn’t the source picking up the slack.
What this graph shows, unequivocally, is that solar and wind do reduce fossil fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions. The data is clear, publicly available in the Eurostat database. Bernard Chabot has put it in graphical form that even a child can easily comprehend. Case closed! Now let’s hope belief in this myth goes the way of the vampire and werewolves.
Now some readers will say every region is unique and that the European experience may not be repeatable everywhere. Fair enough. However, it bears noting that the European power system is composed of many different types of individual power systems: Germany has a lot of coal, France has almost all nuclear, Norway is almost all hydro, etc. But even within this very diverse context, we see the above results. So while not universally applicable, it shows very clearly what can be done.
While the main “myth” I have exposed here is on emissions, as part of the opening paragraph there was a passing mention of another myth — the presumed need for total backup for variable energy sources. That topic is enough for an entire other post, so I will not go into it here, but I will note that the same compilation by Bernard also includes a graphic that shows one of the reasons why the backup myth is not true. Wind and solar are distributed technologies, and when the effect of hundreds of thousands of systems all over the place are summed up, we see synergistic effects that are not present when analyzing traditional centralized power plants. One of these effects is that wind and solar actually complement their seasonal variability, with wind picking up solar’s slack in the winter and vice versa. The below graph shows this quite explicitly:
If you would like to see more interesting graphs about energy in the EU over the last 23 years and 2014 in particular, you can download Bernard’s complete study on the Renewables International website, posted by Craig Morris. N.B. There is a good bio of Bernard Chabot on the Paul Gipe website here if you would like to read more about him.
So do you agree with the above? Vehemently disagree? Please comment below as I would love to hear your thoughts. And don’t forget to sign up for the mailing list to get updates!