Saturday, April 25, 2009

Solar and wind need fossil-fuel backup, say noted authors

Wind and solar power are available only part of the time, and hence need 100% backup by other forms of generation to ensure against blackouts. So say James Schlesinger and Robert L. Hirsch in a recent article in the Washington Post.

In today's world, the authors write, a 100% backup can only come from fossil fuels. Then they reason that this means consumers will have to pay a premium for wind and solar -- once for the renewable energy, and a second time for the conventional power plant that must be kept on standby at all times.

The article makes other points, but that's the crux of its argument.

While their case sounds convincing, it ignores the larger picture.

Our capabilities in wind and solar power generation, and electricity storage (pdf), are still evolving. At present, renewable energy is an adjunct to conventionally-derived power.

But it is nibbling into the demand for fossil fuels. In the long term, those nibbles will grow into bites. When those bites cause the need for oil and natural gas to drop by double digits, fossil fuel prices will plummet.

If we abandon renewable energy now, we will always be dependent on hydrocarbon fuels.

World oil production, according to several estimates, will peak between 2010 and 2020. Say we stop investing in wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, and other renewable energy sources. What happens in 2030? 2050?

OK, that may sound overly pessimistic. Predictions of doom have a way of not panning out.

But here's the key: they don't pan out because because we are blessed with people who see beyond the horizon and take action. They're the ones who prevent doomsdays.

Doomsdays like running out of oil and sitting in the dark.

The authors of the Washington Post article conclude by saying, "Some serious realism in energy planning is needed, preferably from analysts who are not backing one horse or another."


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