By Anders Lorenzen
Some renewable energy enthusiasts, particularly on the left in politics, love to talk up the idea that renewables would mean free energy. This is a distorted version of the truth and does not do justice to the future growth in this exciting industry.
Can renewables give us free energy?
I last heard this mentioned by the 2016 US Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, in a news podcast where he discussed this with veteran environmental campaigner and founder of the activist group 350.org, Bill McKibben. Their argument that the sun could supply us with electricity for free could best be described as ‘Fake News’. And it sounds to me that they do not understand how the technology works. They did acknowledge that there would be a payback period, which, depending where you are, varies between 5-10 years. But they also said that after that period you would have electricity for free. And they continued underlining their message by saying that as the technology improves and the cost comes down, that time span in the coming years would be even less.
They are, of course, partly right on this issue that for homeowners who install solar, once the costs have been paid, the remainder of the time they would receive electricity for free. And they may even for some of the time be able to sell excess electricity back to the grid. However, what must be to be added to their equation is that the average lifespan of solar panels is around 20-25 years, so we will at maximum be talking about 10-15 years without paying. We must also understand that unless you have bought one of Elon Musk’s expensive solar home batteries you would still need to purchase electricity from the grid when the sun doesn’t shine. If you have bought a battery to capture excess power being generated when you don’t need it, and therefore can use it when the sun doesn’t shine and you would not need to purchase electricity from the grid, you should add the cost of that expensive Musk battery to the payback period.
I want to add another equation. Let’s say today (2017) I purchase solar panels .And in ten years time, in 2027, the science and innovation has come such a long way that for half the price which I spent in 2017 I could buy a new set of panels which would generate twice as much electricity as the panels I own already. I might be tempted at that point to renew my panels. My new payback period might be shorter, let’s say five years, and in five years time I might do the same thing again. Innovation and scientific breakthroughs in solar energy production is happening so quickly..
I understand my last equation was hypothetical, so let’s say it might not happen, and I would in fact keep my panels for the full 25 year period. These would include 15 years where I did not pay and where the panels would provide some `free` electricity. However, solar panels are technical appliances; and it would be unlikely that during the 25 years I owned them that nothing will happen to them. It is likely that from time to time I will need to pay for a solar engineer to come and fix problems. Closely related to this would be the cleaning of the panels. If you don’t clean the panels regularly , the amount of power they generate is much reduced. Depending on my physical ability, on where the panels are mounted and how much time I have, it is possible I could do it myself . But the most likely scenario is that I would hire a company to do this service on a regularly basis. There is of course a chance that our ongoing technological revolution and AI could change that. This is quite another issue, which I will not go into on this occasion.
Renewables and mining
But whether or not having panels on your house will be cost free for a period, you would have to make an initial investment. Whether you make that as a one-off payment or spread it over a longer time frame will be down to your preferred method and the financial position you find yourself in. But it is ludicrous to say that solar power in itself can be free. Whether it is solar panels, wind turbines or electric cars , they all need the mineral elements which are classified as rare earth minerals. Those minerals are not called rare earths because they’re rare but because they’re rarely mined. They are mined specifically in countries where human rights are not top of the agenda, for example China and Latin America , while mining operations could also be about to start in Greenland. Mining for rare earths is as dangerous as it gets. So production of renewables has large human costs; and if miners were paid according to our western values , renewables should be a lot more expensive. We talk a lot about the impact on human health from coal mining, fracking, oil drilling and mining in general; but when it comes to renewables we completely forget about it. The ideology that renewables is this beautiful and sunny thing with panels and turbines dotted across picturesque farmland, and which gives us energy for free, could not be further from the truth. So we need to ask the question that when renewables like solar and wind become cheaper, does that inevitably have a serious human cost?
The scale of offshore wind – a full time job
I have only really covered home-owned solar energy, which of course has an important role in adding more renewable energy electricity. But if we are serious about tackling climate change we need to get our industries to move from fossil fuels to renewables. And I’m afraid that this can’t be done by a few panels on rooftops, though large factory roofs and brownfield sites dotted with solar panels obviously help. But we need large industrial scale renewable energy infrastructure, such as offshore wind power. In that area costs are coming down rapidly, and financial institutions as well as national governments are turning their attention towards it. If you want to dismiss the rhetoric of free energy from renewables there is no better place to turn than offshore wind. This is the technology to best give us large amounts of renewable energy capacity. But there is a huge engineering effort in constructing them, building in deep waters, developing floating wind farms etc, and the need to have work done on them each day with engineers based there, transported by helicopters or boats. So even when an offshore wind farm is operational , it is a full time job for engineers and for many other operatives. This also applies to onshore wind farms as well but on a less frequent basis.
There is another element of rhetoric in Sanders` and McKibben’s statement that does not quite make sense. If we are serious about turning our attention towards renewables, we need to promote the change as a job creator. We need to adopt the rhetoric that a large number of green jobs can be created in the green economy. You can’t both argue for green jobs and free energy. You can’t create jobs in any industry where customers do not pay for the products.
Capitalism as the root of all evil?
I wonder what drives the likes of Sanders and McKibben to have such a narrow and simplistic view. It may be that deeply rooted in their minds is the theory that capitalism is the root of evil, and that it does nothing but drive environmental destruction. It is certainly true that in the past, many companies were guilty of causing environmental destruction, as well as delaying or even halting action on climate change. But as I have argued previously, we need the World’s capital to scale up climate action. And not all companies are the same; some are doing little or nothing, while some are doing a lot. What we need to do is divert investments from fossil fuels towards renewables while scaling up innovation in energy storage. And making simplistic statements that renewables are literally free energy does not help that mission at all.