OPINION

Renewables are more costly and risky the deeper you dig

John Kane-Berman |

07 June 2022

John Kane-Berman on why the ‘cheapness’ of solar and wind is largely illusionary

It’s now almost an article of faith among energy writers in the bulk of the media that “renewables” are the best form of energy from an environmental point of view. After all, they spew forth no noxious gases. They are also cheap and getting cheaper. Some journalists even argue that they are free: you do not have to pay for sunshine or wind.

However, a paper published this month argues that wind and solar are not cheaper than conventional fuels if the full cost of electricity (FCOE) to society is taken into account. Written by Lars Schernikau, William Hayden-Smith, and Rosemary Falcon, the paper, entitled “Full Cost of Electricity (FCOE) and Energy Returns (eROI)” appears in the Journal of Management and Sustainability published by the Canadian Centre of Science and Education.

Anthea Jeffery has drawn on this paper for part of her submission on behalf of the South African Institute of Race Relations to the parliamentary committee considering the Climate Change Bill.

All energy, the paper by the three authors argues, requires taking resources from the planet, processing them, and so harming the environment. Humanity’s goal should be to minimise “these negative impacts” by increasing efficiencies. Energy policy should have three objectives: affordability, security of supply, and environmental protection.

To ensure that energy policy promotes all three of these objectives the paper argues that both the FCOE and the eROI should be taken into account.

More commonly used is the levellised cost of electricity (LCOE). This, however, is misleading because it includes only three measures – the costs of building, fuel, and operation. FCOE, by contrast, measures the full costs of renewable energy to society. It is therefore a more comprehensive measure than the LCOE.

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In the first place, there are mining, transportation, investment, and building costs. The mining of lithium and other minerals involves excavation of vast quantities of rock, which necessitates the use of fossil fuels, since wind and solar are too intermittent to be reliable for mining operations. Fossil fuels must also be used for transporting the minerals to wherever wind turbines, solar panels, and storage batteries (“green machines”) are manufactured.

Secondly, there is the cost of fuels, which is a strength for wind and solar, as they themselves have no fuel costs.

Thirdly, there are operating and maintenance costs. The paper says onshore wind and solar cost much the same as coal, but that offshore wind is much more expensive. Solar arrays are relatively cheap, however.

Fourth, there is the cost of load balancing, necessary for the very difficult task of stabilizing the grid given the intermittency of wind and solar.