A spectre is haunting our globe—the spectre of climate change. Now, it seems, the major force to combat it, renewable energy, may itself be nothing more than an apparition.
The US-based National Bureau of Economic Research published a recent working paper by Geoffrey Heal, an economist at Columbia University, which argues that a “key” component of combating climate change, renewable energy, hasn’t undergone significant economic analysis—as is, it cannot function to decarbonize the environment on its own.
Heal finds a glaringly conspicuous but unaddressed concern: intermittency. “To state the obvious, solar produces power if the sun shines and wind produces if the wind blows,” he writes. “Neither is true all the time, and neither is fully predictable.”
What this means is that solar plants or wind generators, for example, often operate at 15-30% of maximum capacity, according to Heal. In contrast, geothermal or coal plants work in excess of 90% capacity.
The irregular nature of wind power or solar energy is hardly surprising; every school-aged child knows the limitations of these renewable energy sources. But Heal gives a novel spin on the issue: “One way of thinking about intermittency is to say that there is a social cost associated with the use of an intermittent power source”— the cost of constructing capacity when such sources are not operating or the cost of leaving demand unsatisfied.
To overcome the “social cost” of intermittency, renewable sources need an effective way to store power which, as is, is not possible; that means that coal or nuclear—continuous power—will be favoured over renewable energy.
Until the renewable storage issues can be solved, firms and governments may have to look at other, less ideal, ways to produce carbon-free energy. Heal suggests nuclear energy or coal with carbon capture and storage, which are not considered renewable energy sources. These are obviously not ideal alternative sources of energy.
Climate change, of late, has been on everyone’s radar: from US President Barack Obama’s subsidies for renewable energy, to tiffs between India and the developed world over carbon emissions levels. The potential shortcomings of renewable energy sources, indeed, are a dimming prospect.
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