Solar and wind: some suggestions on how to inflate the numbers

The previous post focused on the contribution-of-solar-and-wind-to-total-load metric as used by our Flemish Minister of Energy. In short, there was a lot of electricity production by solar and wind on a Saturday afternoon (when electricity consumption is traditionally low) leading to a 45% contribution by those two power sources to total load. This was praised as a “new record”. We can’t control the sun nor the wind and consumption of electricity follows certain patterns, so some pretty high contribution values are bound to happen, making it a rather meaningless metric.

He also used other equally meaningless metrics in te past. At the beginning of the year, he surprised us all with the MWh-per-km2 metric. According to this metric the Belgians are among the best in “Europe” when it comes to solar and wind energy! We are in the top 3 when it comes to production of solar energy per km2 and in the top 4 when it comes to production of wind energy per km2.
The problem with this metric is that it is mining for small countries with a high population density like, well, Belgium. If one want to classify countries by their population density, then this is most definitely a wonderful metric, but that is probably not what he was trying to do.

Although these two claims are as brilliant as they are meaningless, I think there are many more meaningless claims that the Minister has neglected. I want to play advocate of the devil and help him a little bit in his communication on solar and wind. In this post I will propose some other utterly meaningless claims that can be used to deceive the public in order to promote solar and wind.

Before I start with that, just a small recommendation: the Minister should consider using installed capacity instead of actual production. The low capacity factor of solar and wind makes that these power sources will always be in the disadvantage when comparing to dispatchable power sources. Therefor needing some rather weird constructs to avoid that. The two examples above (“record contribution to total load” and “MWh/km2“) prove that.

Installed capacity can remedy that. It redirects the attention to the intermittent nature of solar & wind energy and it has the advantage that much larger numbers are involved. Because the capacity factor of solar in our region is somewhere around 10% and that of wind around 15%, the numbers are 7 to 10 times higher than actual production. Whether those numbers are meaningful is a different issue of course, but these higher numbers are a huge advantage when promoting solar and wind. Not many people know the difference between production and capacity anyway, so it is pretty low risk using them.

Now some examples how to easily inflate the numbers in order to promote solar and wind.

Solar and wind surpassed all other power sources!

The installed capacity of the power sources with the biggest shares are: nuclear (5,920 MW), natural gas (4,500 MW), solar (3,370 MW) and wind (3,070 MW). Even when it comes to installed capacity, solar and wind are not big players, so at first it might seem that these are not really suitable for energy communication.

You couldn’t be more wrong.

When we add the figures of solar and wind together we get 6,4040 MW and this is more than nuclear and more than natural gas! So, if we want to fool the public more efficiently, then it makes sense to add solar and wind together. We then get something like that:

Wow, look at that. The capacity of wind and solar is now waaaaaaaay above the minor players like coal, hydro and biomass (even if we would add them together). More importantly, solar and wind already surpassed nuclear as well as natural gas in 2017. Isn’t that nice? Using installed capacity already pays off big time. When we would graph them separately, both solar and wind would compete with the minor players production wise, yet now we add their installed capacity together, they are exceeding nuclear and also gas.

Don’t be distracted by the fact that gas and nuclear have a capacity factor that is far greater than that of solar plus wind and that nuclear and natural gas can potentially produce much more electricity with that installed capacity (and in a very reliable way). It is a bigger number and that is what counts. Nobody is going to check that anyway. Except maybe that trustyetverify-guy, but he is a denier, so you can safely ignore whatever he says anyway.

This neat trick is for example used by the news agency Belga and two Australian investigators (Blakers and Stocks). So not only low information journalists do it, even scientists use that same metric! You are in good company when comparing installed capacity of intermittent power sources with dispatchable power sources.

Solar and wind are superior to all other power sources!

Installed capacity is a nice way to let solar and wind shine, but there are other, cool ways to do that. The Minister should also consider using the growth of the growth of installed capacity, which is pretty non-intuitive and therefor can give some unexpecting outcomes, so very suitable for promoting solar and wind. For example this graph uses the same data as the previous one, but it shows the growth of the growth of capacity each year:

There is no addition of nuclear, coal or biomass in the last five years, so that is huge bonus. You can claim that solar and wind are superior to all other power sources (at least when it comes to this specific metric, but don’t spoil it by explaining that to the public). Only gas had some additions (and plenty of it in 2017). But don’t worry, just compare 2016 with 2018 and declare total victory for solar and wind. As done by the two scientists linked above.

One word of caution however. This can not be done indefinitely. Belgium will start building new gas power plants soon and that will overwhelm the current growth of solar and wind, but for now this metric has a lot of potential for skewing communication on solar and wind energy. If you do want to use this metric, then now is the moment.

A growth of 400% for solar and wind!

There is no need to limit oneself to graphs, it is also possible to calculate some pretty cool numbers on basis of these growth figures. The IEA showed the way how to do that. Basically, they claimed that solar grew by 50% in 2016 compared to 2015, but when calculating the actual number I got only 33%. How do they managed to inflate that number from 33 to 50%? Well, that is rather simple: there was a 50 GW increase in 2015 and a 76 GW increase in 2016. Obviously, 76 is 50% more than 50, so a, ahem, “growth” of 50%. Just by redefining their definition of “growth”, they were able to inflate the actual 33% growth into a 50% growth.

Okay, that is not what people would understand when we talk about “growth”, but hey, it gives bigger numbers and isn’t that what counts?

The Belgian figures are even more impressive. Installed capacity of solar + wind went from 4914 MW to 5575 MW in 2016-2017. For us, mere mortals, that is a (5575-4914)/4914*100 ≈ 13.5% growth.

Not when you want to save the world. The difference 2015-2016 is 126 MW and the difference 2016-2017 is 661 MW. According to the EIA method, that is (661 – 126) / 126 * 100 ≈ 425%.

Gasp … that is a 4 fold increase!

But, but, would you say, that could only be done for the 2016-2017 time frame, the 2017-2018 increase is much, much less? That is true, it is also visible in the graph, but make that look much better. In reality it is a (6372-5575)/5575*100 ≈ 14% increase. The IEA method gives us (797-661)/661*100 ≈ 21% increase.

Okay, that is less impressive, but also in this case it is certainly possible to inflate the numbers above what they really are. Don’t show the graph though, also don’t show the numbers of previous years. Just throw around that 21% figure, it is the perception that counts.

That is it for this post. There is much more where that came from though, maybe for a next time.

No, don’t thank me. It is the least I can do…


3 thoughts on “Solar and wind: some suggestions on how to inflate the numbers

  1. vuurklip

    How about showing how cheap wind and solar are by leaving out subsidies, maintenance, decommissioning, backup, etc. – at the same time boosting the tax breaks for fossil fuel mining and exploration.



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