Definitive answers to 6 renewable energy myths

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Renewable energy has been plagued by some persistent rumors that just aren’t true. Here, we respond to six of the most common.

1. Renewable energy is more expensive.

Has it been a while since you last looked at renewables? If so, you may still think they are more expensive than conventional sources of energy.

In truth, renewables are quickly becoming one of the most plentiful and cheapest sources of electricity. In 2017, 95% of new electricity capacity added to the U.S. grid was renewable and, globally, solar photovoltaic was the fastest growing electricity source of all. Solar power is already cheaper than fossil fuels in nearly 60 developing countries. Earlier this year, IRENA reported that by 2020, wind and solar generation will be the least expensive electricity sources everywhere.

The economics of renewables benefit from technology improvements, efficiencies, and increasing demand. There are also no input costs for wind or solar generation as they do not rely on fuel. By contrast, fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and combustion is expensive.

Complaints about the cost of renewable energy almost always ignore the externalities of fossil fuel generation, which leads to billions of dollars in annual expense from environmental degradation and human health impacts. Fossil fuel subsidization—which amounts to $5 trillion annually—is also generally discounted in arguments about the high price of renewables.

2. Renewable energy kills birds.

One common complaint about renewable energy is that clean generation kills birds. And while it’s true that turbines do lead to avian deaths, wind farms have one of the lowest rates of impact on birds (and other wildlife) of any form of power generation. Cats, buildings, and cars pose a higher danger.

It’s also worth noting the much greater threat—to birds and all species—posed by global warming, the result of the greenhouse effect caused by excessive emissions pollution. Increasing temperatures are causing changes in bird migration and reproduction patterns, as well as impacting habitats, food and water sources, and nesting sites. In Europe, a warming climate accounts for the decline in 92 bird species, while in North America, 314 species are imperiled.

3. Renewable energy uses a lot of land.

It’s true that renewable energy does require natural resources. Metals and other minerals must be mined or reused to construct turbines, solar panels, and infrastructure. Transmission lines must be laid. And, ultimately, wind farms and solar power plants require land use.  But just how much?

The answer varies.

Wind farms, for their size, are very efficient in their use of land. On average, these farms leave up to 98% of land undisturbed, making it ideal for farming or ranching. For the landowners who lease their property to energy developers, wind farming becomes a secondary source of revenue, stabilizing farms and preserving a way of life that goes back generations.

The answer isn’t as clear cut when it comes to solar. It takes about 5-10 acres per megawatt of land for utility-scale solar generation, and studies indicate that solar at scale is more cost effective and efficient. This is useful in arid regions like the American Southwest, where land is unsuitable for other uses, but ideal for solar farming.

However, the magnitude of this land use is significant: an acreage about the size of South Carolina will be required to reduce U.S. emissions by 80% by 2050 with solar alone. However, land impacts can be reduced by siting solar on land already in use—such as landfills, parking structures, and rooftops. This also puts energy closer to where it is being consumed, reducing the need for additional transmission infrastructure and the impact of grid congestion.

It’s also important to note that, in a life cycle analysis, land use for utility-scale solar is still less than the average U.S. coal-fired power plant. And renewable energy generation requires drastically less water; nearly zero, compared to coal’s average 427 gallons/1622 liters per megawatt hour.

4. Renewables can’t provide for all our electricity needs.

“What about baseload power?” is a common question when it comes to renewable generation. Many are skeptical that the intermittency of wind and solar generation can adequately and reliably meet our growing electricity needs—particularly the fluctuations in peak demand that occur during specific seasons and times of day (a supply-and-demand volatility that has given rise to California’s now infamous “duck” curve).

A 2018 research paper published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science indicates that the U.S. could reach up to 80% penetration of overlapping wind and solar resources, and even as high as 90%. When complemented with other forms of new energy, such as hydropower, biofuels, storage, and demand-response the number achievable is 100% or more. Research from NREL finds that the U.S. could achieve 80% renewable energy penetration by 2050, and that this high renewables scenario will meet electricity demand 24/7.

Many countries are already leading the way. Sweden has set a 100% renewable energy target. Costa Rica regularly achieves 90% of its electricity production from renewable sources. Germany has long been noted for its high percentage of renewables penetration, reaching as much as 78% demand with wind and solar.

It’s increasingly apparent that a renewable future is feasible. Renewables are challenging traditional sources of baseload power, including natural gas, and recent research by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) show that they are making the grid more reliable, too.

5. Renewables cause global warming

Another myth that continues to plague renewables, and wind power generation in particular.  First covered by popular media in 2012, a controversial and highly debatable new study has again asserted that wind turbines might cause global warming. The study’s flawed analysis was exacerbated by its hypothetical and extreme assumptions of the future energy mix, and the media’s misrepresentation of the findings.

The truth is, the study’s model does not imply that wind turbines add more heat or carbon pollution to the atmosphere, but that they may result in localized temperature increases due to mixing of air layers. This redistribution of heat has the potential to raise temperature profiles of the immediate surrounding area on some nights. One of the assumptions of the study was a high geographic concentration of turbines, and a major flaw was that study authors did not properly account for the scale of land required for each turbine. The conclusion that temporary surface temperature changes contribute to global warming is unfounded and has been refuted.

It’s important to weigh such findings against the benefits renewables bring to local communities and their contributions to reducing climate change-causing carbon emissions. Consider: In 2017 alone, wind power cut air pollution enough to create $8 billion in public health benefits.  And even if wind turbines were a source of global warming, as the study claims, their contribution to warming pales in comparison to our current fossil-fuel driven trajectory.

6. Renewables aren’t easy to access.

While it was once true that it was difficult for companies to access renewables, times have changed. Nearly all companies can choose Energy Attribute Certificates (EACs) to address their carbon goals, and companies from every industry vertical are turning to a combination of onsite and offsite renewables generation to achieve their economic goals, ranging from investment to electricity budget stabilization.

Renewables are also increasingly viable in every geographic region, reducing the barriers for companies based in those regions, or with global footprints, to adopt a 100% renewable energy goal.

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  • While the success of solar energy companies booms, so too will the success of big oil, as the need for both will continue well into the future.

  • Motivating And Leading Teams

    5 years ago

    Fantastic article, I have bookmarked this excellent website and may learn more later. keep up the great work!

  • Taylor Anderson

    4 years ago

    It’s cool that renewable energy can totally provide for electricity needs. A lot of my coworkers are worried about global warming and want clean energy. Thanks for dispelling myths about renewable energy.

  • If green energy is cheaper, why do I pay still more and more every year? Shouldn’t it be cheaper?

    • Amy Haddon

      4 years ago

      A great question. Unfortunately, rates for energy vary widely depending on geography, regulatory structure, and more. And while the price of utility-scale renewables keeps falling, those price decreases are not necessarily being passed on to consumers. Your local electricity provider should be able to tell you more about why you pay what you do for your electricity and what their plan is to incorporate renewables.

  • Dave Yang

    4 years ago

    Mostly a fairly accurate article at this point in time, with some additional information that should be noted.

    * Before retiring, I sold/represented Siemens High Voltage products, including wind turbines. In traveling with the Siemens Wind Turbine Sales Manager, he informed me of a couple of relevant bits of information. First, the Sierra Club is now the #1 opponent of all wind farms, and it is not just avian deaths. Second, he told me most wind farms have employees who report prior to sunrise with the job of picking up dead birds before the sun rises. So, are the avian death counts you have then undercounted?

    * Large renewable projects such as wind farms/solar farms typically will be at sites pretty remote from population centers where the power is needed. The bottleneck is transmission line capacity. There are limitations to expanding capacity on existing right of ways, and it takes about 10 years to obtain all of the licensing/permits to begin building a new transmission line. So, until this puzzle is solved, how do you get the power from these farms to where it is needed?

  • Darren R Jones

    4 years ago

    Re: Cost of renewables, the author is misleading and writing half truths. It is the price consumers have to pay that is relevant.

    I was recently quoted $40k to install a solar system and battery bank for my house, amortized over 25 years, and this is in a high sun zone. But i was told, battery life is 10-12yrs in which all batteries need to be replaced at additional price of approx $5k, and solar panel life span is 20-25yrs. Takeaway, as soon as I pay off my equipment, it needs to be fully replaced once again putting myself in a 25yr debt.

    And consider areas with high renewables Germany, Copenhagen, Ontario etc, have the highest electricity prices in the world.

    Dont be fooled, by the oft cited “renewables are cheap”, the fact is renewables are not cheap for consumers.

  • Amy Haddon

    4 years ago

    Thanks for your comment. It’s true that individual solar systems on residences have not come down dramatically in price. However, at the large-scale utility level, solar prices are among some of the lowest in the world. This low price drives the larger transition to renewable power by utility providers. Ideally, this price would be passed to consumers, but that is not always guaranteed, and consumer price is determined by many factors.

  • You avoid health issues caused by noise when setback distances are not great enough. All wind farms produce AM and LFN which cannot be ignored.

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