The Green Energy Cargo Cult

Are wind generators and solar panels a replacement for fossil fuels? A lot of people still seem to believe that, even after the recent flood of bad news on this front, but a few people are already beginning to suspect something.

Although some people claim that wind and solar farms have an EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) of 5 or even 7, it is trivial to prove that this just isn’t so. If, for each 1 kWh of energy invested in their design, marketing, production, installation, maintenance, removal and safe disposal, they were to return 5 or even 7 kWh over their useful lifetime of, optimistically, 20 years, and assuming a constant (inflation-adjusted) cost of energy, they would produce at least 400% of pure profit! Compare that to a bank deposit or a guaranteed income investment yielding 3% over inflation (if you can find one!). Over the same 20 years it would produce a mere 80% profit, which is equivalent to an EROEI of just 1.8. If wind and solar installations were so lucrative, their promoters would not be asking for government subsidies; they would be running away from frenzied mobs of investors shouting “Shut up and take my money!” Such a huge, and guaranteed, rate of return, is something to die (or at least risk going to jail) for.

Instead, the wind and solar energy sectors have turned into gigantic state subsidy sponges. Not only have they squandered money and natural resources, but they have become a major headache for grid operators because they have managed to force through regulations requiring grid operators to take whatever electricity they produce regardless of demand. However, there is generally little risk of them ever producing too much electricity; for instance, wind farms for all of 2021, for all of Germany, have produced just 20% of their rated capacity and solar farms barely over 10%. In any case, all they have to show for several trillion dollars of squandered public funds, and huge swaths of land and sea blighted by their installations, are much higher electricity rates. In Russia, which has so far avoided this green plague and has instead concentrated on developing hydroelectric and nuclear generation capacity, electricity rates are 10 (ten!) times lower than in the West. Thus, the real EROEI of wind and solar is not 5 or even 7 but much less than zero: they are a net waste of energy.

While such very simple analysis is sufficient to demonstrate that wind and solar farms are not just unprofitable but a net waste of energy, a more in-depth look would reveal that they also impose exorbitant costs on the rest of the electric grid. That is, if wind and solar installations were entirely free, connecting them to the electric grid imposes costs on other energy producers because their output fluctuates randomly, depending, as it does, on the availability of wind and sunlight, instead of being matched to real-time electricity demand. This forces other electricity producers to waste fuel, whether by spinning idly or by rapidly ramping up and down, in order to compensate. In turn, this causes energy rates to fluctuate wildly (in some cases going negative on cool, sunny, windy days while shooting up into the stratosphere on cold or hot, overcast and windless ones), making it impossible for energy-intensive businesses to plan their production so as to avoid financial losses.

The problem of ragged energy generation from wind and solar, which is unmatched to real-time energy demand, could be remedied by the introduction of mass energy storage, but electricity storage doesn’t exist except for a few boutique applications, and scaling it up would only compound the overall waste of energy. There are just a few locations on Earth that could reasonably be used for mass electric storage: that is where there is a lake at a high elevation in close proximity to a lake at a lower elevation that could be connected together using pipelines, pumps and turbines; all other mass electricity storage ideas have so far turned out to be duds and, given the physics of the problem, are likely to remain so. Thus, it would be far more cost-effective and energy-efficient, overall, to keep wind and solar farms disconnected from the electric grid; not as good as never building them at all, but a major step in the right direction. As far as building any more of them, here is an interesting datapoint: spot prices for polycrystalline silicon, a major ingredient in solar panels, having reached an all-time low of $6.30/kg in mid-2020 have since gone up 600% to $36/kg and are now predicted to continue to increase over time.

Thus, the effective EROEI of wind and solar farms is comparable to that of a classic cargo cult, in which native tribes that have become inured to the indignity of regular airlifts providing them with humanitarian relief in the form of, say, beer and pizza, when suddenly deprived of this affront to their native dignity, take to building fake airstrips with fake control towers, and burning bonfires in place of runway lights, in the hopes of luring more transport planes laden with aforementioned beer and pizza. The natives then sit around and wait for some transport planes to land, remaining hungry and sober. Eventually, sanity returns and they wander off into the jungle in search of something to eat. With regard to renewable energy, we are not quite there yet, but it may be time to try to move things along because with any more of this nonsense a lot of people will end up very cold and very hungry—and very angry as well.

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