Renewable energy is a failed path, scientist tells Utah legislators

Professor says true costs of wind and solar rule those alternatives out. No other views were presented.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wind turbines and hog farms north of Milford on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. A legislative committee Wednesday gave a Washington University professor opportunity to present his case for why wind and solar farms are a failed energy strategy despite a worldwide effort to embrace them. No other viewpoints were presented.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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A Utah legislative committee this week gave 45 minutes to a scientist who argued that policy makers across the globe are committing a grave mistake by turning to renewable energy.

William Hayden Smith, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote a research paper with colleagues in Switzerland and South Africa that claims to calculate a full cost of producing electricity from various sources. The paper was published this year in the Journal of Sustainable Development, a Canadian scientific journal.

“Now everyone will say that wind turbines and photovoltaics are cheaper than fossil fuels,” he told legislators. “That’s a stretch.”

He said the standard for comparing costs of electricity sources is called “Levelized Cost of Electricity,” which is calculated by adding up the total costs of a source over its lifetime and dividing it by the total energy expected from that source over the lifetime.

But Smith and his co-authors created an alternative metric they are calling the “full cost of electricity,” which he says factors in renewable energy costs not considered in LCOE, including the cost of storing power when renewables are not producing and the cost of replacing solar panels and windmills when they wear out.

He pointed to recent problems in Germany, where energy prices have shot up after Russia invaded Ukraine. He said Germany’s rush to renewables and decision to shut down nuclear plants is costing them now.

Beyond cost, wind and solar simply can’t meet the capacity, he said. “Every day the grid will collapse because you can’t meet the peak power.”

He also dismissed the idea that there is enough land available for the wind and solar farms to produce what fossil fuels do now. Thousands of square miles of wind and solar farms would be required. He added that windmills strike millions of insects, and no one is considering the biological effects.

Smith is a scientific and technical adviser to the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit organization established “for the purpose of educating thought leaders, policy makers and the public about the important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy.” He is not compensated for his work, according to the coalition’s website.

Smith presented to the Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Interim Committee at the invitation of Rep. Ken Ivory, but Ivory had a conflict and could not attend. No other viewpoints were presented.

There have been numerous deep dives into the issues of costs and capacity of renewable sources, and they raise similar concerns about intermittency, land use and the time and materials needed to build out storage. But the large studies have not concluded renewables won’t work.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy, published a report identifying several alternatives for achieving net-zero emissions in U.S. electricity. That study said renewables will be the low-cost leader in all the scenarios they examined.

“Wind and solar provide most (60%–80%) of the generation in the least-cost electricity mix in all the main scenarios,” the report said.

And Smith’s alma mater, Princeton University, published its “Net-Zero America” report that also developed scenarios for carbon-free power.

“With multiple plausible and affordable pathways available, the societal conversation can now turn from “if” to “how” and focus on the choices the nation and its myriad stakeholders wish to make to shape the energy transition,” the Princeton report said.

On land use, the Princeton scenario with the largest land use required more than 400,000 square miles for wind and solar farms, which is more than 10% of the contiguous U.S. But the study said enough suitable land is available for both wind and solar. Wind takes more area, but it also allows for other purposes like agriculture.

The Princeton study also noted that thousands of square miles of U.S. land already are used to grow corn, and about 30 percent of U.S. corn is used to make fuel (ethanol).

In general, legislators on the committee were receptive to Smith’s message, although Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she would like to hear from Utah’s energy and electricity experts. “I don’t think we’re turning into Germany, but I don’t see anything wrong with diversifying our energy portfolio.”

PacifiCorp’s 20-year planning document, the Integrated Resource Plan, includes large additions of renewables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 74% over 2005 levels by 2030.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.