One thing that has always amazed me when we get news of a new milestone reached by renewable energy (more capacity installed, record level of generation in a country, lower price, etc) is all the negative reactions (“yeah sure but what will you do on a dark non-windy night?” or “there’s not enough metal” or “it all comes from China” or “this is destroying Europe’s industry” or “it’s irrelevant as long as China keep on burning coal” or “yeah but you need more coal or gas backup” and of course the traditional “it’s defacing the country” or “it kills birds”)...; The negativity is pervasive and astounding to me.
Even if you think it’s not enough, or that it cannot solve all problems, surely people could see that it’s at least a step forward, a small improvement? But no, a lot of people seem to think that more renewables is actually bad news. How can this be explained?
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A first category which seems obvious are the businesses and people that stand to lose directly from renewables. Most (the bad-faith losers) are actually quite silent about the real cost of renewables for them, and try to drape their opposition in different - maybe more palatable or more effective - arguments; quite a few are vocal about fears they have that they might be hurt, but these are often more worries than actual facts, and a surprisingly small number have legitimate grievances. Let’s start with the latter.
It may sound strange, but the NIMBYs actually have the strongest argument against wind and solar. Those that say “it’s ugly” (i) have a real issue, and (ii) are honest about it. Wind turbines (and utility-scale PV plants) take space and/or are visible from far away. You can’t ignore they are there. There are certainly a number of places where there is a good case to be made that it’s probably best to avoid modifying the view/the landscape/land use for wind turbines or solar panels. There are obviously also strong arguments that we do need at least some of these projects (i.e. that it’s less damaging to the environment than the alternatives, or that it’s actually graceful) but there is a debate to be had, and there is no clear cut answer.
Some of the NIMBYs worry about the economic impact for them of these new installations - whether it’s the potential loss of value of their house, the loss to local tourism, or, for fishermen and offshore wind, disruption to their fishing grounds and itineraries. These things are typically studied in detail during project development and in most cases it is possible to mitigate any actual damages (with local participation mechanisms, for instance), and reassure people about unfounded fears. Not all projects do that correctly or fully, of course, and there will always be stories or people whose preoccupations have been ignored or pushed aside, but it is generally possible to minimize such impacts. So there is a kernel of reality that should be taken into account, but most of these fears have been inflated by the scaremongering of other parties that have different reasons to oppose renewables (more on them below), and give a veneer of ‘seriousness’ beyond the pure “NIMBY” arguments, which are seen, for some reason, as weaker.
the (real) stakeholders
Next are those preoccupied with the potential damage that projects can have on their surroundings. Just like any other human activity, wind farms and solar plants can have an impact on their environment, and that should not be ignored just because they are otherwise helping to solve other (and maybe bigger) environmental problems. Birds, bats and other fauna can be killed or disturbed by some projects, and it is essential to ensure that renewable energy projects do minimal damage to their immediate environment. Fishermen may see change coming to the areas at sea that they have been using for fishing or other activities (oyster, crabs, etc)
Some sites are less well suited than others, and should be avoided. Some sites will require adaptation from current users (farmland for renewables projects, coastal areas for offshore wind, etc). Measures that go towards a loosening of applicable rules (unless they are actually harsher than for other activities, which has quite often been the case for renewable energy) and a weakening of the environmental impact assessment are a terrible idea in my view. It should be possible to authorize projects that have some impact because it’s an acceptable trade-off, but the trade-off should be known and acknowledged.
Again, the issues here are real, but most of the time they can be solved if projects are developed, and issues raised, in good faith. The fact that these issues have such prominence in public discourse (as opposed to the advantages of renewable energy, or tales of local cooperation) again suggests they are being instrumentalized against renewable energy.
the incumbent power generators
Now moving to the actual main losers from the development of renewable energy: the utilities with fossil fuel and other traditional generation capacity.
Power markets these days are mostly structured around marginal pricing with some fossil fuel plant being the marginal plant (ie the last generator needed to ensure enough production for the demand of the moment, which is mostly inflexible). Even in countries without power market mechanisms, the physical reality of the grid leads to the same: the last MWh of production comes from a fossil fuel plant. When you start adding renewables to the mix, they remove the production from the more expensive fossil fuel plants - and in the process, in places where markets use marginal pricing, that brings the price down at that moment.
So the immediate, unavoidable impact of renewables is to (i) reduce demand for fossil fuel plants, and (ii) lower (wholesale) prices for ALL other generators (including baselaod plants like nuclear and lignite). Both lead to lower revenues for traditional power generation utilities.
Lower wholesale prices have not necessarily translated into lower retail prices, for a variety of reasons (regulated prices, incorporation in more or less economically correct ways of renewable tariff mechanisms into retail prices, increased taxes), but they are real, measurable and they have basically bankrupted the old utilities in the markets with the highest renewables penetration. Germany’s utilities have gone through something like 100 billion euros of write offs over a decade as they adapted, painfully, to the irresistible, and massive, rise of renewable energy in the country.
Consumers have mostly not paid for renewables, despite the very visible surcharges like the EEG in Germany or the CSPE in France, because these charges are balanced by lower cost of wholesale electricity (and if not, it means the *regulated* distributors captured the difference).
The generation side of utilities are definite losers in that transition, and unsurprisingly they have been the main source of arguments against renewables - although for some reason they almost never underline that it lowers their revenue. One reason for this is that it has simultaneously increased the revenues on the distribution side, as their sales price (retail) has increased while their purchase price (wholesale) has gone down, and they’d rather not have too much attention focused on that. They want to ask for compensation for the loss on one side but do not want to give back the additional profits from the other side… so distraction is needed.
Over time we’ve had arguments about cost (to consumers), stability of the grid, the need for costly backup, frequency stability, along with the obvious tales about noise, birds and landscapes, and more recently, as these arguments wore thin, more sophisticated (but mostly just as bad faith) stories focusing on the rare metals needed for all these turbines and solar panels, the dependency on China, or the insufficient scale of battery storage.
A number of utilities have finally ditched their old generation assets and embraced renewables fully, and their engineers are now surprised to repeatedly bump into arguments against their projects that they know to be false, and often ask “why do people believe that?” - and it’s a little bit funny (but also very sad) to tell them that people have only heard the arguments their colleagues have loudly made for years and thus that’s all they know: the PR machine of utilities works!
Some will retort that we are brainwashed by green ideology and everybody wants to save the planet, loves renewables and hates big bad utilities while requiring uninterrupted (and cheap) service from them, but both can be true at the same time: people don’t like pollution and would love to save the planet, but at the same time they have come to believe the story the utilities have promoted, i.e. that it’s incredibly hard and costly, and that in the meantime we need the vital power provided by the dirty but efficient and realistic - and cheap - incumbents, and there’s not a lot that one can do.
So utilities have a real reason to fight renewables, and as some of what they do is still necessary to keep our energy system working, there is also a case to be made to listen to their legitimate worries and see how to help them survive the transition.
One obstacle is that the business model of utilities is essentially to hide their real situation as much as possible and whine loudly about regulation and other things that supposedly hamper them, and get the State to take action (preferably discreetly, via “technical” fixes) on things they actually care about. That means that most public debate around utilities is all about distraction and scaremongering and it’s very hard to know how much of the whining is legitimate and how much is not. Their behind-the-scenes lobbying focuses on their narrow short term interests and a lot of that is stuff that is not necessary but does make their life easier (and more profitable). Regulators know they are being lied to, but have less information than the utilities, and they need to cater to public opinion which is shaped by the mindless noise the utilities make.
Oil&gas companies are in the same predicament. Their business model is not as directly affected in the short term as utilities, but they see that it will eventually suffer the same fate, and they want to keep the fossil fuels party going as long as they can, underlining how they are ”serious people” and provide a vital service that the renewables guys (still painted as ‘hippies’) cannot possibly take care of.
So, in short, they have real gripes against renewables, but since their core problem is that they are less competitive and are beaten by renewables for price reasons on the market (lower marginal price, remember?), and that is not an argument they can use (they do not want to be seen as losers, even if that’s what they are), they push every other possible argument.
That brings us to the worriers, which often act as the conduits for these arguments.
As the name suggests, the worriers are people that worry that renewables do not work as advertised (intermittency!), or have hidden costs (they need lots of backup! they kill birds! ), or cannot scale without generating new, bigger problems (they need rare earths! they use up agricultural land! the grid will collapse! what will we do on cold windless nights?).
As always, there is a nugget of truth in these worries, but it is often extrapolated beyond the real issue to be turned into an existential issue for renewables. For instance, it is true that we could not power our current way of life with 100% wind and nothing else. But nobody is suggesting that, and the fact that we can’t do 100% should not prevent us from going from 5% to 10% to 20% and to 50% - and the fact that we did go from 5% to 20% in many places and to 50% in several markets could still be seen as an encouraging first step rather than a dead end. But no - the worriers cannot rejoice at the first 50% because the second 50% are not done yet and maybe cannot be done (and most likely do not need to be done as there will be solar and hydro and storage and a whole new universe of demand-focused adaptations) and thus the first milestone is somehow worthless.
The superficial credence of these artificial “end game” worries makes the problems bigger than they are. As all topics, some indeed require continuous attention (the impact on fauna needs to continue to be assessed; land use questions need to be taken into account; the requirements in terms of metals and other commodities require long term planning, etc) but in practice most of these issues are either completely theoretical (imagining a system from scratch when we are always working from the existing infrastructure) or they are technical problems that have practical solutions, most of which are already available - and many new ones keep on being invented or designed every year.
The most acute issue, in fact, is that we are not going fast enough, and that’s largely because permitting is going too slowly, and that’s because (i) the need is not yet seen as acute enough, and/or (ii) the available solutions, like energy efficiency and renewable energy, are seen as a sacrifice rather than an opportunity. (some of the worriers worry about that)
Nothing has been more persistent than the idea that renewables are a poor substitute to traditional energy because they are more expensive, in addition to be unreliable. This is received wisdom, and even the reality over the past several years that renewables now cost significantly less than traditional sources, and are actually providing large proportions of overall electricity generation without blackouts, is rejected (“not all costs are accounted for” “why do they need tariffs if it’s competitive” and again “what about windless winter nights”).
So, for the most part, worriers are part of the problem, as their skepticism slows the development of renewables and reinforces the forces that make it harder. To some extent even, some of these problems only exist because they have been overhyped and then take time from the limited attention of deciders. As the issues now brought up are a bit more sophisticated than 20 years ago (“rare earths/China” rather than “birds”), they seem more credible, but they mostly aren’t, and the worriers are the useful idiots of the utilities.
Interestingly, we’ve actually gone backwards twice in recent years in the understanding of renewable energy. A few years ago, with costs well down to highly competitive levels and utilities, having ditched their past investments, firmly on board, there was a moment when renewables seemed better understood and actively promoted.
But then the oil&gas companies came in, and they are still in the “schizophrenic” position the utilities were 15 years ago, both wanting to do renewables and hating their impact on their existing business, and understanding the business case even less, and coming from a mindset that “we’re serious people, we know better, this has been done by amateurs (hippies, again) so far”, let’s bring some reality - and bringing into it lots of new people with the ignorance of 15 years ago of the sector, asking again all the questions from the past (birds/intermittency/ subsidies/grid/etc).
And now, with the war in Ukraine bringing security of supply to the fore, we get a new influx of "‘serious’ people looking at renewables, this time from a national security/geopolitics angle, but again with a near total ignorance of the sector. The “rare earths/China” type of arguments, along with the supposed '‘macro systems” arguments (not enough land, not enough metal, supply dependency, intermittency, again) are taken more seriously than they should by these people, leading again to a general perception that renewables are just not up to the task.
But ultimately, the last category is maybe the most worrisome obstacle
What is most striking about hostility to renewables is that, ultimately, it does not seem to be grounded in facts, but just on an assessment of who is for and who is against. The core reasoning is “greens annoy me with their sanctimonious bullshit, they favor renewables, therefore I hate renewables (and will find arguments to back that up)” or “I like nuclear, renewables promoters seem to hate nuclear, therefore I hate renewables (and will find arguments to back that up).”
There is increasingly little dialogue between camps that see each other as either existential threats or unrealistic ideologues.
To me, it was quite unexpected to find the same behavior that I’ve seen in politics for a long time seep into a topic where you’d expect reason and the laws of physics to help find more common ground. But ultimately, energy is always political - and political decisions do have an impact on the competitiveness of the relative apparent competitiveness of energy sources - and political tribalism has taken over that sector too.
In each country you will have sector-specific tribes that “contribute” to these divisions, like the pro-nuclear lobby in France, which still dreams of the (successful) original nuclear plan of 40 years ago and considers any renewables as sabotage of their carbon-free and (supposedly) cheap industry. That leads to a permanently high level of anti-renewable discourse. The fact that the nuclear industry is today unable to complete next generation plants anywhere close to on time and on budget is seen as the result of a conspiracy by irrational anti-industry and anti-progress types (the greens) and their politically-correct and naive - or treasonous )- allies (the socialists).
Renewables are woke, anti-rural, subsidy-seeking - and also a Big Business lobby, a plot by Americans or Chinese to destroy Europe’s industry and its competitiveness and a play by Big Finance to take over our grid and independence.
This generates a lot of noise, which fosters not just confusion but also helplessness and the feeling that nothing can be done.
Of course, it is worth noting that confusion favors the incumbents, so it is not absurd to think that utilities and other incumbents have willfully poisoned the debate and generated that noise. Even if they end up tainted with the same brush, they are protected by the fact that they are the incumbents and are still largely running the current energy system and in the absence of clear political will, inertia plays a big role in what happens. They can’t really fight the reality that renewables are now definitely cheaper than the alternatives - that trend is irreversible - but they can slow down the speed of the transition, by posing as the “serious people” and the “realistic” tribe.
What’s still missing is the positive story where renewables are a source of wealth (cheap energy can be used for a lot of different things and indeed is at the heart of all economic activity), of local jobs while helping to solve our two large current crises - climate change (by avoiding fossil fuel emissions) and security of supply (by avoiding large scale imports of said fossil fuels from dubious regimes). Such a positive story goes against the pervasive mood music that has successfully tainted renewables as a path of desperation and deceit rather than a source of hope, and has not managed to catch on.
There’s no power in renewables
And maybe a last point. I suspect that deep down, renewables are not attractive to politicians and big business because they are too dispersed and not macho enough. People often underestimate how centralised the current energy system is, and how concentrated in a few hands the power is (MBS, Putin, the CEOs of Exxonmobil and Shell, Pouyanné in France, etc) - they manage hundreds of billions and control the fate of whole countries, via a handful of highly concentrated nodes (big oil fields and pipelines, large power plants) - but insiders know it and relish it - they are at the heart of things. Individual turbines and solar panels are too small to be relevant, and too dispersed to be managed - it’s a mosaic without any center and it’s impossible to control. Of course that’s part of its strength and why it will eventually make for a stronger, more resilient grid, but it’s not attractive to people in power. Turbines are graceful but they are flimsy and unserious. The popularity of offshore wind amongst oil&gas and utility players and big financial investors is the symbol of this - it’s the only part of the renewable energy world that involves gigawatt-scale and multi-billion-euro projects: something they understand and crave. The rest of the renewable energy industry is just lame and hard to appreciate.
So nobody can take credit when renewables do well, it’s just too dispersed. And that’s not good. There’s more mileage in hating them.
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Thanks a lot for a great article again. One thing I don't really understand about the nuclear crowd is, if we assume it's actually a good solution, how do they see it working in practice?
* Looking at France, there are 56 of them with a population of 67 million, so about 1.2 million people per plant
* So a rough approximation for 8 billion people on the planet now would be over 6000 new plants
* of course, a plant is not a plant, depends on the capacity, and this influences price
* but is a ballpark number of 100 trillion $ right now an unreasonable estimate?
Who can afford to do that and wait 15 years to see the results? Could we physically accomplish that even? At best we can do it slowly over decades, so why invest first in the slowest and most expensive possible solution? Even if we can't do without it, you can always build it last.
This is interesting, and gets to some of the central psychological points.
Myself I'm a worrier. Vigorously in favor of all low carbon technologies, but recognizing we haven't been through the lifecycle of most technologies, we don't fully understand the impacts of wind, solar, etc, as much as we do with "traditional" tech, and should tread carefully because the grid is the literal lifeblood of civilization and five minutes without circulation kills you forever. I'd derive a certain pride from being told I think like a utility engineer. I am, after all, an engineer of very large systems where most cost is fixed.
I'm however willing to consider that I play useful idiot for the utilities whose arguments do ring true to my predilections and experiences. What's a good place to read about why their system arguments may not be valid?