By STEVEN PARK
During these troubling times of environmental turmoil, in which dangerous levels of carbon dioxide emissions threaten to destabilize the global climate, it’s no surprise that a lot of people are pushing vehemently for greater investment in renewable energy. In fact, despite the childish clamoring of several anti-science government officials, the idea of renewable energy, especially solar and wind energy, is incredibly popular among the vast majority of Americans.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 89 percent of Americans favor building more solar panel farms and 83 percent favor constructing more wind turbine farms (Pew Research Center, “Americans Strongly Favor Expanding Solar Power to Help Address Costs and Environmental Concerns,” 10.05.2016). In contrast, only about 41 percent of Americans wanted to expand the coal mining sector, and these numbers aren’t meaningless, either. According to the Renewables 2016 Global Status Report (GSR), renewable energy saw its largest annual increase in energy contribution ever in 2015, despite low prices for fossil fuels (Forbes, “A Record Year for Renewable Energy,” 06.03.2016).
It’s pretty clear that a large majority of people hold solar and wind energy in high regard. I’d even go as far to say that in this modern, socially conscious age, there isn’t a term more associated with pure good than renewable energy. However, this blind infatuation may just end up jeopardizing our entire fight against climate change. But how in the world can renewable energy possibly lead to a bad thing?
To better illustrate my point, consider the incredible amount of attention and fanfare that the Idaho-based startup company Solar Roadways Inc. got for its idea to replace all the roads in America with structurally engineered solar panels that could generate backup electricity while withstanding vehicle traffic. Founded in 2006, this startup presented a vision of a world in which solar panel roadways not only use LED lights to light up the streets and change the road design, but also power entire cities to create a cleaner, greener world.
When people heard about this revolutionary new idea, they fell madly in love with the concept of solar roadways. During the crowdfunding drive at Indiegogo, more than 50,000 backers supported the project and the startup raised more than $2 million, making it the most popular Indiegogo campaign ever (Indiegogo, Solar Roadways). But it wasn’t just green-energy enthusiasts who contributed financially to this enterprise. Even the Department of Transportation stepped in and invested more than $1.6 million into the project (The Daily Caller, “Scientists Hate Solar Roadways, But Gov’t Keeps Funding Them,” 11.28.2016).
Unfortunately, all of it turned out to be a bust. When 30 solar roadway panels were finally installed on a public walkway in 2016, 25 of them broke down within a week, and more malfunctions appeared once it rained (Wireless Design & Development, “Idaho Solar-Powered Roadway a ‘Total and Epic Failure,’” 04.05.2017). But even more disappointing was that the highly anticipated solar roadway, even when fully operational, generated an average of 0.62 kilowatt hours of electricity per day—not even enough energy to power a hairdryer, much less an entire city.
But solar roadways aren’t the only inventions that took advantage of people’s infatuation with renewable energy. In February, a startup company raised more than $350,000 on Indiegogo when it promoted the Fontus water bottle, a self-filling water bottle that uses solar energy to extract water from the air (Hydration Anywhere, “It Looks Like the Fontus Self-Filling Water Bottle Was a Scam,” 03.06.2017). According to the campaign video, Fontus is designed to draw air into the bottle and capture moisture through condensation as the air cools. Not only that, the device would be powered by a small, mousepad-sized solar panel, making the Fontus perfect for backpackers and bikers going on a trip. Again, problems appeared when scientists pointed out that a solar panel that small is never going to produce the amount of energy needed to make the whole thing work. In fact, it would require a huge, 250-watt, 16-square-foot solar panel working at 100 percent efficiency under ideal circumstances for the Fontus to even come close to fulfilling its promise (Hydration Anywhere).
It’s not just solar energy, either. In 2016, the startup VICI Labs made headlines when it promoted the Waterseer, a device that used the wind to “provide up to 11 gallons of safe drinking water” from the air every day (Inhabitat, “Wind-powered Waterseer Pulls 11 Gallons of Clean Drinking Water From Thin Air,” 10.15.2016). Raising more than $330,000 on Indiegogo, the inventors behind the Waterseer made it seem as if their invention could end all water shortages thanks to the clean power of wind energy, managing to persuade UC Berkeley and the National Peace Corps Association to help contribute to its development. Once again, the power of green energy was overestimated and several thermodynamicists have pointed that the Waterseer wouldn’t work in dry, arid areas— places that need water the most (Popular Science, “This Device May Pull Water Out of Thin Air, But Not as Well as We Hoped,” 03.13.2017).
The reason why all these bogus crowdfunding campaigns made so much money despite being scientifically dubious is because so many people were willing to believe that renewable energy sources could accomplish anything, even the impossible. They had such a positive outlook on solar panels and wind turbines that they didn’t even stop to consider the possible limitations of those technology. Of course, this overly optimistic mindset is a natural product of today’s society, in which the increasingly alarming news of the humanity’s pollutant-ridden path towards ruin make it seem as if renewable energy is our only hope for survival. But no matter how beneficial it may be, renewable energy should not be placed on a pedestal. We can’t afford to treat it like some kind of magical energy source that provides unlimited free electricity without any restrictions or drawbacks.
For example, many people tend to think solar panels can provide unlimited energy because they get their power from the sunlight, which should be infinite, right? In reality, however, a typical solar panel can only absorb about 20 percent of the energy that the sun produces (Interesting Engineering, “Solar Roadways: An Engineering Failure,” 05.18.2017). In addition, unless it is specifically designed to track the movement of the sun, the solar panel can lose up to 60 percent of the sun’s energy on top of the lackluster 20 percent energy absorption. Not only that, the hotter the solar panel gets, the less energy it absorbs. It may sound counterintuitive, but for every degree above 25 degrees Celsius a typical solar panel becomes, its maximum power drops by about 0.5 percent (CivicSolar, “How Solar Panel Temperature Affects Efficiency”).
This isn’t to say that renewable energy is terrible or that we should give up on it. While not entirely efficient, solar and wind power still produce electricity without consuming any limited resources. Yet we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that solving climate change is as simple as building more solar farms and wind turbines.
In fact, doing so without proper planning might do more harm than good. One major consequence of our infatuation with green energy is the rapid decline of nuclear power, the main source of zero-carbon electricity in the United States (The New York Times, “How Renewable Energy Is Blowing Climate Change Efforts Off Course,” 07.19.2016). Thanks to the popularity of solar and wind farms, nuclear power plants all across the world are on the verge of shutting down for good, which could severely damage our efforts in fighting climate change.
“[W]e can’t delude ourselves into thinking that solving climate change is as simple as building more solar farms and wind turbines.”
First of all, despite the negative press that it gets, nuclear energy remains quite possibly the cleanest and most viable form of energy that we currently possess. No matter what sort of Greenpeace propaganda you may have heard, nuclear energy is the safest way of producing reliable energy, a statement backed by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Academy of Science (The Motley Fool, “Why the Safest Form of Power is Also the Most Feared,” 09.14.2014). In fact, a 2010 study by those three organizations have found that nuclear power is 40 percent less deadly than the next safest form of energy, wind power. Nuclear energy is also tied for having the lowest carbon footprint, and unlike solar and wind energy, nuclear energy actually stands a chance against the natural gas and coal industries. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, although solar and wind power made up a combined seven percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2016, nuclear energy provided 20 percent of the U.S.’s electricity (EIA, “Electricity in the United States,” 05.10.2017).
But if the problem is that renewable energy isn’t contributing as much as nuclear energy, then can’t we solve this issue by building more solar and wind farms? No, it’s not that simple. One of the biggest problems with solar and wind energy is that they are entirely dependent on the current weather. When the sun doesn’t shine or the winds stop blowing, energy production plummets. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if one could store the excess energy generated on an especially sunny or windy day, but as of right now, a large-scale method of storing the electricity generated by solar and wind farms does not exist (NPR, “Solar and Wind Energy May Be Nice, But How Can We Store It?,” 04.05.2016). As a result, whenever the weather is unfavor- able, state governments must find an alternative energy source. What do they turn to now that many of the expensive nuclear plants are shut down? Answer: natural gas and fossil fuels.
This isn’t just a hypothetical scenario. In Southern Australia, a region in which wind energy makes up more than a quarter of its total energy, the government had to switch back on a gas-fired plant that had been shut down when prices of electricity spiked during a period of light wind (NYT). Meanwhile, despite investing heavily in green energy, the German government is supposedly paying billions to keep coal generators in reserve in case the weather suddenly becomes unfavorable. This could be why carbon emissions are still rising in Germany, even though Germans pay the most expensive electricity rates in Europe (NYT).
The loss of nuclear energy is serious. According to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis, reactors that produce up to 56 percent of America’s nuclear power may shut down and eventually end up becoming replaced by the much cheaper gas-fired generators (NYT). If that were to happen, the report estimates, an additional 200 million tons of carbon dioxide would be spewed into the atmosphere annually.
But even if nuclear plants weren’t shutting down, we still lack the infrastructure required to actually utilize green energy generated in the first place. We may spend heavily on building countless wind and solar farms, but most of it is wasted if we don’t have a way to distribute that electricity, especially since most farms are hundreds of miles away from the nearest city. Even worse, some estimates posit that constructing all the high-voltage lines needed to transport the electricity could take several decades (Slate, “Why Renewable Power Can Still Be Wasteful,” 06.29.2016).
This is a huge problem with solar and wind farms right now. Since there is no infrastructure in place to distribute the power and no way to store the energy generated, solar farms and wind farms across the United States from Texas to California are often turned off or left idling by, leading to massive energy waste (Slate).
Again, despite everything that was mentioned, renewable energy is not a bad thing. It is much more favorable to take advantage of solar and wind energy as soon as possible than to wait and do nothing with it. But mindlessly building more and more solar and wind farms simply because solar and wind energy are “objectively good,” will only drag us further away from our goal of a cleaner future. It is undeniable that renewable energy can save the Earth, but that doesn’t mean we should worship it blindly.