In previous posts, I several times made the remark that installed capacity is not a good measure to define the success of solar and wind energy. Those remarks were the reaction on the claims of Blakers and Stocks that solar PV and wind energy are “growing exponentially”, that they are “on the path of dominance” when it comes to new capacity and that they “are on track to entirely supplant fossil fuels worldwide within two decades”. The authors also claimed that other low-carbon energy sources would only play a minor supporting role.
The subject of this post will be the impact of this much celebrated new capacity of solar PV and wind when it comes to the actual production of electricity by those sources. I did something rather similar in another post with world data, my guess was that the outcome for Australia would be something rather similar.
Solar PV and wind are getting so cheap and more abundant that they are on track to entirely displace fossil fuels worldwide by 2032. This remarkable claim is made in The Conversation article titled Solar PV and wind are on track to replace all coal, oil and gas within two decades.
It is a remarkable claim because the last figures that I found show that solar PV plus wind generated only a tiny fraction of total energy compared to fossil fuels. So I would doubt that solar PV and wind suddenly could replace all coal, oil and gas in just a couple decades. Two decades seems like an awfully short time to go from (almost) zero to hero.
That made me really curious about the principle behind this claim. To clarify their case, the authors showed two graphs. This is the first one:
When I read the Bloomberg news article about solar capacity growing 50%, I was pretty disturbed. I was even more disturbed when I read its source: the IEA news article Solar PV grew faster than any other fuel in 2016, opening a new era for solar power.
I could understand that the Bloomberg journalist might have no clue what he was copying and pasting, but I expected much more from an organization like IEA.
The first sentence of the IEA news article sounds familiar for those who read previous two posts:
New solar PV capacity grew by 50% last year, with China accounting for almost half of the global expansion, according to the International Energy Agency’s latest renewables market analysis and forecast.
This was the subject of the last two posts, in which it is shown that the growth of installed capacity of photovoltaic is a meaningless metric for the growth of solar energy consumption. That 50% growth (which is in fact a 33% growth) translates to a 0.13 percentage point growth in solar energy consumption when compared to the total energy consumption worldwide.
This focus on the growth of installed capacity allowed the IEA to overstate the impact of solar energy. They even went a step further in the next paragraph(s) (my emphasis):
Reading previous post one could remark that a 33% growth in photovoltaics (PV) is already an excellent result and rather close to 50% anyway, so what is the big deal about the IEA inflating a 33% growth to 50%?
I think that none of the two numbers is representative for the impact PV has on energy use, but let me first show the story as it is brought. This is how PV growth looks like according the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017:
This looks quite impressive, even when PV grew “only” 33% in the last year. At first glance this seems to be a sign that PV is expanding rapidly. According tot the IEA news story, PV is growing stronger than other energy sources (in installed capacity). Which is mathematically true, but how relevant is it in the bigger picture?
Another tweet that grabbed my attention this week:
The text of the tweet:
Speed of energy transition every day more jaw dropping. Solar to surpass nuclear by end 2017.
That seems odd. In previous post I looked at the share of the different energy sources in worldwide primary energy use in 2006 and found that 11.6% was generated by nuclear and only 1.5% by solar in the EU. When I look at the BP figures for energy use worldwide (1,3276.3 Mtoe), then nuclear (592.1 Mtoe) has a share of 4.5% and solar (75.4 Mtoe) has a share of 0.6%.
Yet now we get to hear that solar will somehow surpass nuclear by the end of 2017…
The tweet linked to the slightly more nuanced article “Solar energy will surpass nuclear by the end of the year” and the included summary gives a glimpse of what is really meant by “solar that surpasses nuclear” (my emphasis):
From the half-news department comes the article titled Capacity of wind energy has overtaken coal in De Morgen (the Flemish Guardian).
This is how it is explained (translated from Dutch):
Last year, the installed capacity of wind power in Europe surpassed that of coal. This according to figures from the industry association WindEurope.
In terms of capacity, only gas-fired power plants preceded wind energy.
The source was an article with the same title from Belga (a news agency) and it was copied verbatim by a huge flock of news sites in Flanders.
The article in De Morgen jumped out as a sore thumb: it appeared in the section “Science”. Probably copied by a “science” journalist who had no clue that comparing installed capacity of wind with coal is meaningless and a direct comparison of the two is misleading.
The journalists of our beloved Flemish media seem to go ballistic lately. Yesterday there was the item in the VTM news about the current “drought” that was “direct result of climate change”. Today the VRT news felt it had to compete with that and went full stupid in an article with the sensational title:
Flemish windmills have almost the same capacity as a nuclear reactor
Apparently the onshore windmills in Flandres have a total capacity of 920 MW, which is only slightly below the capacity of (some of) our nuclear turbines (at somewhat above 1,000 MW).
I am afraid that I have to spoil that party…