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Why Renewable Energy Cannot Replace Fossil Fuels By 2050

May 30, 2016

A number of environmental groups have recently endorsed the “100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water and Sunlight (WWS)” vision articulated in reports written by Mark Jacobson, Mark Delucci and others.

windmills

A number of environmental groups  have recently endorsed the “100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water and Sunlight (WWS)” vision articulated in reports written by Mark Jacobson, Mark Delucci and others. This vision seeks to eliminate the use of all fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) in the world by 2050. Jacobson, Delucci et. al. have published “all-sector energy roadmaps” in which they purport to show how each of 139 countries could attain the WWS goal.

Western Europe has extensive experience with investments in renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. By the end of 2014, the generating capacity of renewable energy plants there was about 216 GW, 22% of Europe’s capacity, but because of the intermittent nature of renewable energy production, the actual output was only 3.8% of Europe’s requirements. The capital costs of renewable energy plants are almost 30 times as high as those of the natural gas plants that could have been built instead; when operating costs are also taken into account, onshore wind plants are 4.6 times as expensive as gas plants and large-scale PV plants are 14.1 times as expensive as gas plants.

The financial costs of building the 100% renewable energy world are enormous, but the land area needed to accommodate such diffuse sources of energy supply is just as daunting. Page | 3 Accommodating the 46,480 solar PV plants envisioned for the U.S. in the WWS vision would take up 650,720 square miles, almost 20% of the lower 48 states. This is close in size to the combined areas of Texas, California, Arizona, and Nevada.

No region of the world has made larger investments in constructing renewable energy plants to replace fossil fuels than Western Europe. By the end of 2014, European Union countries had invested approximately 1.1 trillion Euros (CDN $1.63 trillion at current exchange rates) in large-scale renewable energy installations. This has provided a nominal nameplate electrical generating capacity of about 216 GW, or about 22% of the total European generation needs of about 1000 GW. Nameplate capacity, however, is quite different from electricity generation. Generation is the result of total capacity multiplied by the actual capacity factor achieved. According to the renewables industry itself, the measured output from renewable generation in Europe in 2014 was 38 GW, or 3.8% of Europe’s electricity requirement, at a capacity factor of about 18% overall.

Renewable energy generally has lower operating costs than conventional energy generation because of the higher fuel costs of the conventional facilities. If one includes both capital and operating costs, however, renewable energy plant costs are still multiples of what natural gas plants would cost; onshore wind plants are 4.6 times, offshore wind plants are 12.3 times and large scale photovoltaic plants are 14.1 times as expensive as gas plants.

Article Tags
Energy Environment
Author
Robert Lyman is an economist with 35 years’ experience as an analyst, policy advisor, and senior manager in the Canadian federal government.
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