Are renewables a worthwhile or worthless investment?


It is sometimes argued that renewables sometimes create worthless energy at a very high cost; they only exist with huge taxpayers’ subsidies or as a result of users of non renewable energy being fined or taxed. It is further argued that if climate change is not caused by fossil fuel burning (perfectly feasible, but highly unlikely) then we will have invested in renewables at a very high cost for no reason, and we could have and should have used the money better.

It will not surprise you to learn that I disagree with these arguments and I think that they are false. The best way to explain why I think that renewables are valuable and important and necessary is to dissect the arguments against them, bit by bit.

My starting point is that I hope that I have set out the arguments against renewables fairly; I think that I have but I cannot be sure and if you are against renewables and have an idea or argument that I have not considered please post a comment.

Renewables sometimes create worthless energy

Yes, renewables do create energy that is worthless in the sense that it cannot be used. As far as I can understand all energy generation sources create energy that cannot be used. If you generate electricity from coal, a huge amount of the energy – around 45% – is wasted by being pumped into the atmosphere as heat. There is also lost electrical energy in heat when it is transmitted across power lines. We should use as much of this heat as possible – within district heating schemes, for example, but even with the most efficient use of waste heat there would still be a significant amount of energy wasted.

A wind turbine produces electrical power when the wind blows which may be when no –one wants the power. The power cannot be stored so it is wasteful. However if the power is used locally less is wasted.

A solar thermal system is designed to switch off when the temperature in the hot water cylinder or thermal store or swimming pool reaches a certain level. While the solar is turned off, the panels “stagnate” wasting the power of daylight.

I think that I have explained that when renewables produce energy that no one wants, it does not matter. It may be wasteful, but as the effect of this waste is benign (we will not run out of wind by building turbines or light by installing solar panels) it does not matter if we waste the energy produced benignly. That waste is insignificant compared with the malignant waste of fossil fuel burning or the waste produced by nuclear energy industry.

Renewables Produce Energy at a Very High Cost

This statement is not quite true, so as to speak. It is costly to build and install renewables but it is equally costly to build and install a power plant. It is very costly to decommission a power plant at the end of its life, and the latest estimates for safely closing down a dozen or so nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom now exceed £74 billion, and it is certain that the final figure will be much higher.

To decide whether renewables produce energy at a very high cost you have to compare like with like, and add the decommissioning costs and the pollution costs over the lifetime of each energy creating device.

In addition you have to take into account matters that you cannot attribute a value to in a discounted cash flow – such as life quality, safety, security, peace of mind and the well being of future generations.

Renewables can only exist with high subsidies

Like the curates egg, this statement is true in parts. In parts because under the present regime where there are secret subsidies to fossil fuel generation (has anyone or any company paid the decommissioning costs of the nuclear industry? No, these costs are picked up by central government out of taxation. We have to add them to the overall non renewable bill. In addition, we have to add in the cost (insofar as measurable) of health treatments that have to be paid for as a result of fossil fuel burning particulates causing lung disease, or carbon dioxide causing health problems and so forth.

If you look at the true picture you will find in effect subsidies existing in plenty for fossil fuel energy generation.

We could have and should have used the money spent on renewables elsewhere.

In life you always have to spend your own time and energies (which is exactly the same conceptually as a nation spending it wealth) on a mixture of things. A person will invest labour in building a home for a family. Other labour will be spent on providing very short term pleasures – like holidays – because they are important. Other labour of the same person will be spent on food and clothing, and other labour kept in store for rainy days, and days when the person is not capable of labouring again. Some labour may be spent on securing a decent inheritance for your descendants.

So it must also be with nations. An investment in renewables is an investment for future generations. It would be foolish to invest everything in renewables, we must also provide for food, clothing, housing, education and other present needs, but it is also wise to spend a small proportion of what a nation earns on renewables. It is an investment that future generations depend upon us making.


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