Bjorn Lomborg: Why solar and wind power aren’t winning – Financial Post

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All-in costs too high once you count fossil fuel and battery backups, land requirements and damage their equipment does

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We are constantly being told that solar and wind are now the cheapest forms of electricity. Yet governments around the world felt they had to spend US$1.8 trillion on the green transition last year.

Wind and solar only produce power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. When they are not, electricity from these sources is infinitely expensive and back-ups are needed. This is why fossil fuels still account for two-thirds of global electricity and why, on current trends, we are a century away from eliminating their use in electricity generation.

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Imagine if a solar-driven car were launched tomorrow, running cheaper than a gas vehicle. It sounds great, until you realize it won’t run at night or when it’s overcast. So if you did buy a solar car, you would still need a gas car as back-up. You would have to pay for two cars.

Modern societies need power 24/7. Solar and wind power’s unreliable and intermittent operation involve large, often hidden costs. This is a smaller problem for wealthy countries that already have fossil-power plants and can simply use more of them as backup. But even in wealthy countries it makes electricity more expensive.

In the world’s poorest, electricity-starved countries, however, there is little fossil fuel energy infrastructure to begin with. Hypocritically, wealthy countries refuse to fund sorely needed fossil fuel energy in the developing world. Instead, they insist the world’s poor cope with unreliable green energy supplies that can’t power the pumps or agricultural machinery needed to lift populations out of poverty.

It Is often reported that emerging industrial powers like China, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh are getting more power from solar and wind. But these countries get much more additional power from coal. Last year, China got more additional power from coal than it did from solar and wind. India got three times more electricity from coal than from green energy sources, Bangladesh 13 times more and Indonesia an astonishing 90 times more. If solar and wind really were cheaper, why would these countries not use them? Because reliability matters.

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The usual way of measuring the cost of solar simply ignores its unreliability and tells us the price when the sun is shining. The same is true for wind energy. That does indeed make them slightly cheaper than other electricity sources: 3.6 US¢ per kWh for solar, just ahead of natural gas at 3.8 US¢, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But if you account for reliability, their real costs explode: in 2022, one peer-reviewed study showed an increase of 11-42 times, making solar by far the most expensive electricity source, followed by wind.

The enormous additional cost is for storage. We need electricity whether or not the sun is shining or the wind blowing. But our battery capacity is woefully inadequate. Research shows that every winter, when solar is contributing very little, Germany has a “wind drought” of five days on average when wind turbines also deliver almost nothing. That suggests batteries will be needed for a minimum of 120 hours — although the actual need will be much longer, since droughts sometimes last much longer and recur before storage can be filled. A new study shows that to achieve 100 per cent solar or wind electricity with sufficient backup, the U.S. would need to be able to store almost three months’ worth of electricity every year. It currently has seven minutes of battery storage.

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The required batteries would cost the U.S. five times its current GDP. And it would have to replace them all when they expired after just 15 years. Globally, the cost just to have sufficient batteries would run to 10 times global GDP, with a new bill every 15 years.

Current estimates of the cost of solar and wind also ignore the cost of recycling spent wind turbine blades and exhausted solar panels. Already, one small town in Texas is overflowing with thousands of enormous blades that cannot be recycled. In poor countries across Africa, solar panels and their batteries are being dumped, leaking toxic chemicals into the soil and water supplies. Because of pressure from the climate lobby for an enormous ramp-up in use, this will only get worse. One study shows that on its own this trash cost doubles the true cost of solar.

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If solar and wind really were cheaper, they would replace fossil fuels without need for a grand push from politicians and the renewables industry. The claim they are cheap is repeated incessantly, not because it is true, but because it is convenient. If we want to fix climate change, we must instead invest much more in research and development into low-CO₂ energy. Only a significant boost in such R&D can bring about the technological breakthroughs that are needed — in reducing trash, in improving battery storage and efficiency, but also in other technologies like modular nuclear — that will make low-CO₂ energy sources truly cheaper than fossil fuels. Until then, claims that fossil fuels are already being outcompeted are just wishful thinking.

Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus, is a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest books include “False Alarm” and “Best Things First.”

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