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Hiattian Climate Deception Strikes Post OPED Section Again

April 24th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Fred Hiatt’s studied journalistic malpractice in his mismanagement of the Washington Post editorial pages when it comes to the energy and climate domain merits a name. Just as the specifics related to George Will’s serial deceptions mounted into The Will Affai, the serial “faux and balanced” nature of WashPost opinion pieces on energy and climate issues merits naming: Hiattian Climate Deception.

Today’s Washington Post publishes two energy authorities, former Secretary of Energy and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and energy analyst Robert L Hirsch, in a full throttle attack on renewable energy with “Getting Real on Wind and Solar“. These “authorities”, however, simply get point after point wrong in their misguided and disingenuous attack. They take “truisms”, state truthiness, and move into untruths.

Let’s take a look. Look at the opening paragraph.

Why are we ignoring things we know? We know that the sun doesn’t always shine and that the wind doesn’t always blow. That means that solar cells and wind energy systems don’t always provide electric power.

Wow. The shock. “Solar cells and wind-energy systems don’t always provide electric power.” Actually, Jim and Robert, they can provide a reliable power if linked with other power sources and storage, as you do mention later in the OPED. That they can do so at an affordable price is (a) a fact and (b) something that you do not mention. In addition, you fail to mention that distributed wind and solar power systems can work together to give far higher reliability than is the case with any single wind or solar site.

Nevertheless, solar and wind energy seem to have captured the public’s support as potentially being the primary or total answer to our electric power needs.

Yes, Jim and Robert, this is a problem. But, in the paragraphs to come, you systematically misrepresent this problem. The issue: to understand, clearly, that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SILVER BULLET. The “public’s” readiness to be suckered into simplistic Silver Bullet fantasies (whether “Green” solar panels on every rooftop or the far more manipulative deception of Drill Here! Drill Now! Pay Less! and “Drill, Baby, Drill“) is the problem, rather than recognizing that we face a ’silver BBs’ solution path, with a cafeteria of options and opportunities that will shift around regions, nations, and over time. Wind is great for the Great Lakes and Great Plains but pretty much a flop for Florida. Solar electricity, on the other hand, is far more profitable to pursue in the Southwest US deserts than in southwest Detroit. And, well, efficiency is useful elsewhere. In other words, Schlesinger and Hirsch create a rather shallowly truthiness-laden strawman to then play fast and loose with facts to attack that strawman.

While, below, I will go through this paragraph by paragraph (painfully so), here is a confusion-laden example of this truthiness

The climate change benefits that accrue from solar and wind power with 100 percent fossil fuel backup are associated with the fossil fuels not used at the standby power plants. Because solar and wind have the capacity to deliver only 30 to 40 percent of their full power ratings in even the best locations, they provide a carbon dioxide reduction of less than 30 to 40 percent, considering the fossil fuels needed for the “spinning reserve.” That’s far less than the 100 percent that many people believe, and it all comes with a high cost premium.

Yes, there are people out there who somehow might think that a solar panel or a wind turbine produces electricity 24/7. Yes, I am sure that there are but let’s be honest: those people are not anywhere in the serious discussion of energy challenges and opportunities. “far less than the 100 percent that many people believe” … Okay, please show the serious players in the energy and climate discussions who present the “faceplate” wind and solar power systems as the amount of displaced coal-fired electricity generation. Guess what, they don’t exist.

And, as importantly, the “high-cost premium” is, simply, a myth. The additional cost for covering the intermittency, based on actual experience, is in the range of .5 to 1 cent per kilowatt and that cost is included in the overall utility pricing of renewables, which are proving themselves ever more competitive. In addition, that “high-cost premium” might want to mention the value of reduced impacts of fossil fuel pollution (from reduced asthma cases to less mercury in the food system to global warming mitigation). And, in fact, through reducing the bid costs for electricity for much of the time and reducing the demand for additional power generation, higher renewable energy penetration has actually proved to lower the cost to consumers, not raise it.

Now, to the rest of the article.

Solar cells and wind turbines are appealing because they are “renewables” with promising implications and because they emit no carbon dioxide during operation, which is certainly a plus. But because both are intermittent electric power generators, they cannot produce electricity “on demand,” something that the public requires. We expect the lights to go on when we flip a switch, and we do not expect our computers to shut down as nature dictates.

Yes, ‘true’. Yet again, distributed generation enables lowering the challenges of intermittency. And, we can store power (discussed below) and control demand through a Smart Grid.

Solar and wind electricity are available only part of the time that consumers demand power. Solar cells produce no electric power at night, and clouds greatly reduce their output. The wind doesn’t blow at a constant rate, and sometimes it does not blow at all.

Stating truisms. Anyone shocked at this?

Note, of course, that there is no discussion here of the quite viable paths for ‘demand side management’ and power shifting our demand. If able to run the dishwasher at 3 am, with electricity at 2 cents kWh, rather than 7 pm at 11 cents per kWh, would you consider changing your dishwashing patterns?

If large-scale electric energy storage were viable, solar and wind intermittency would be less of a problem. However, large-scale electric energy storage is possible only in the few locations where there are hydroelectric dams. But when we use hydroelectric dams for electric energy storage, we reduce their electric power output, which would otherwise have been used by consumers. In other words, we suffer a loss to gain power on demand from wind and solar.

Have to wonder whether Schlesinger and Hirsch are reading any of the material on developments for energy storage. If they had argued that these are reasons for emphasizing development and deployment of a range of storage systems, okay. But, they are asserting that “large-scale electric energy storage [isn't] viable” unless there are hydroelectric demands. Have they heard of Compressed Air Energy Storage? Does distributed power storage through Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) with increased deployment of EVs/PHEVs could as “large-scale” in their thinking as the gigawatt hours of electricity will be stored in millions of different sites? And, well, the use of hydropower storage often enables time shifting of that hydro power, actually enabling increased hydro power generation (refilling emptied reservoirs …), writ large, rather than decreased.

At locations without such hydroelectric dams, which is most places, solar and wind electricity systems must be backed up 100 percent by other forms of generation to ensure against blackouts. In today’s world, that backup power can only come from fossil fuels.

Note that “today’s world”, which puts aside discussing any of the quite real developments pushing concentrated solar power, with thermal storage, into 24/7 systems nor having to deal with V2G and Smart Grid.

And, by the way, want to mention anywhere what “fossil fuels”? Why not write “natural gas”, rather than “fossil fuels”?

Because of this need for full fossil fuel backup, the public will pay a large premium for solar and wind — paying once for the solar and wind system (made financially feasible through substantial subsidies) and again for the fossil fuel system, which must be kept running at a low level at all times to be able to quickly ramp up in cases of sudden declines in sunshine and wind. Thus, the total cost of such a system includes the cost of the solar and wind machines, their subsidies, and the cost of the full backup power system running in “spinning reserve.”

Fred Hiatt was hit, hit hard, for Will’s blantant truthiness statements that were untruthful. Did Hiatt ask Schlesinger and Hirsch to back up the claim that “the public will pay a large premium for solar and wind”?

Did Hiatt think to question what “substantial subsidies” go to fossil fuel systems? (Including, for example, not having to pay pregnant women for any brain damage to their children through mercury that coal electricity emissions have put into the food chain.)

If we are going to talk “total costs”, shouldn’t we be considering security, health, economic, and other impacts?

And, by the way, Fred, did you bother to question why new wind-power electricity is cost competitive in many places in the world, even without any carbon cap or fee?

Finally, since solar and wind conditions are most favorable in the Southwest and the center of the country, costly transmission lines will be needed to move that lower-cost solar and wind energy to population centers on the coasts. There must be considerable redundancy in those new transmission lines to guard against damage due to natural disasters and terrorism, leading to considerable additional costs.

Are Schlesinger and Hirsch ignorant to the fraility of our current electrical system and the costs of ongoing disruption? Do they really think that moving to a Smart Grid will weaken our security situation over today’s fragile grid?

The climate change benefits that accrue from solar and wind power with 100 percent fossil fuel backup are associated with the fossil fuels not used at the standby power plants. Because solar and wind have the capacity to deliver only 30 to 40 percent of their full power ratings in even the best locations, they provide a carbon dioxide reduction of less than 30 to 40 percent, considering the fossil fuels needed for the “spinning reserve.” That’s far less than the 100 percent that many people believe, and it all comes with a high cost premium.

As above, very weak and confusing.

The United States will need an array of electric power production options to meet its needs in the years ahead. Solar and wind will have their places, as will other renewables. Realistically, however, solar and wind will probably only provide a modest percentage of future U.S. power.

Did Hiatt consider even asking this. What is “a modest percentage of future US power”? Right now, Denmark gets over 20 percent of its electricity from wind power. Is that “modest”?

The Department of Energy (the Bush Administration DOE, that is) laid out a roadmap for 20 percent of US electricity to come from wind power by 2020. This roadmap assumed lower installations of wind turbines than are already occurring (wind has been growing at over 20% per year) and zero new technological developments in the coming 23 years.

Some serious realism in energy planning is needed, preferably from analysts who are not backing one horse or another.

Yes, we need “serious realism in energy planning”, but realism that shows knowledge and understanding of the real world of energy, rather than what might have the state of place decades ago when Jim Schlesinger was Secretary of Energy. And, should we wonder whose “horse” these authors are backing?

And to bios

This is how the Washington Post describes the authors

James R. Schlesinger was the first secretary of energy and established the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Robert L. Hirsch is senior energy adviser at Management Information Services Inc. Previously he managed the federal renewables program at the Energy Research and Development Administration, the predecessor to the Energy Department.

Robert Hirsch is author of the quite important, not surprisingly named, Hirsch Report that examined what would be necessary to assure mitigation of Peak Oil impacts. He concluded that, based on his work, starting significant mitigation efforts 20 years in advance would mean that peak oil would have minimal disruption to the world economy. But, less than 20 years out and, well, not good things.

Mitigation efforts will require substantial time.

  • 20 years is required to transition without substantial impacts
  • A 10 year rush transition with moderate impacts is possible with extraordinary efforts from governments, industry, and consumers
  • Late initiation of mitigation may result in severe consequences.

Just so that we all understand, serious mitigation has not started around the globe (nor yet in the United States, although the Obama Administration and Congressional Democratic Party leaders are working to change that). This is valuable work and respect for that work means that I look with interest when seeing his name. Sigh … this travesty of truthiness-laden shallowness does that work an injustice.

James Schlesinger has been a strong skeptic when it comes to climate change issues, penning multiple opinion pieces questioning the science, often without noting his close ties (serving on boards, such) with some of the worst of America’s polluters and companies that have systematically engaged in efforts to distort the science and facts when it comes to the science of global warming and economics of a clean energy future. This OPED, as with many others, failed to note these associations.

For a separate analysis, see: Joe Romm’ Post op-ed page remains the home of un-fact-checked disinformation about clean energy and global warming.

Tags: Solar Energy · journalism · renewable fuel · truthiness · wind power

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