The easiest way to see how well solar and wind are doing

We have all heard on the media and on TV that solar and wind electrical energy is getting cheaper, and often much cheaper than that generated by coal, gas, oil, or nuclear.  Here are some recent article titles:

  • “Solar and wind costs continue to fall as power becomes cleaner,” Forbes, April 30, 2020
  • “Solar power will cost less than coal, Bloomberg Green, June 2, 2020; Solar and wind power will cost less than coal by 2030 according to one analyst’s math,” Barrons, Energy Features, Nov 25, 2019

However, there are enormous scientific, technical, and economic barriers that these “new” energy forms must overcome before they can be regarded as economical — barriers that are, in reality, just about impossible to overcome.  They have been described by recently by Michael Shellenberger, a well known environmentalist, in his recent book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.

The skeptical arguments, while correct, are not necessarily easy for a layman to follow.  After all, who notices or cares if, to build solar panels, we have to dig up a lot of indium somewhere, most likely in some remote African country, which will not complain about us trashing its environment and paying its citizens slave wages?

However, one thing all of us do understand is price. There is “a gigantic laboratory” in Europe.  It is France and Germany.  France for years has generated most of its electricity (~75–80%) by nuclear power.  Germany, in about 2000, adopted a different route.  It has embarked on an “energiewende,” a German word for energy transformation to solar and wind.  Accordingly, it has decommissioned many of its coal fired power plants and is in the process of decommissioning what once were its 17 nuclear power reactors.  At this point, it is getting about 25–30% of its electrical power from wind and solar and the rest from other sources.

Look up articles on the energiewende, and you will see some articles calling it a smashing success.  For instance, see “The spectacular success of the German Energiewende- and what needs to be done next” (The Energy Post, E.U., October 10, 2017).  Others call it a dismal failure.  For instance, see “German Failure on the Road to a Renewable Future,” Der Spiegel, May 13, 2019.

Where does the truth lie?

There is one thing anybody can easily figure out: despite all the claims of low cost solar and wind, how do the costs of electricity in Germany and France compare?  Furthermore, since the whole purpose of the energiewende is to reduce the CO2 input into the atmosphere, how well do Germany and France do?  This is simple, noncontroversial, and easy to find.

Below is a graph of the price of a kilowatt-hour of electric energy in Germany, France and, the United States, in euro cents, from 1980 to about 2020.  Also shown on the graph are plots of per capita CO2 emission into the atmosphere in tons per year.  These are taken and plotted from various internet sources.

The graph shows that, at least up to now, after about 20 years, the German energiewende has failed on both counts.  It has not reduced the price of electricity, but rather has greatly increased it.  It has not reduced the per capita German CO2 emission into the atmosphere as compared to France, or even the United States (in fact, most of the German reduction shown here predates on the energiewende).

The conclusion is obvious.  Sunlight and wind are free, but solar- and wind-powered electricity is very, very expensive.  Sunlight and wind are clean, but turning them into electricity is not.

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