Guest Post: Learning to rely on Renewable energy

A guest post by Jeremy Fordham

For people living both in the United States and across Europe, green issues are becoming increasingly important. Some scoff at it as a fashionable movement, but most people recognize the need to transition away from a dependence on fossil fuels for transportation and generating electricity. Though scientists, researchers and even many students in the process of completing Ph.D. programs have been working for decades toward the development of renewable resources for generating power, it is a movement that still seems quite new to most citizens. In both Europe and the U.S. government entities are setting measurable goals for increasing their respective region’s reliance on green energy production. Studies conducted in both regions indicate strong support for such movements among the people. With such broad approval, it is no wonder that politicians are generally anxious to promote green energy concerns.

Separate studies conducted in the United States and Europe show strong support for developing and utilizing renewable resources. A study conducted in America by the Natural Marketing Institute in Pennsylvania demonstrates that 80 percent of respondents reported caring about the use of renewable energy resources. A separate study conducted in the United Kingdom showed that between 70 and 80 percent of those polled were in favor of the development and installation of wind farms. Such numbers make it easy to conclude that many citizens in a broad range of situations are interested in, and supportive of, the efforts being made to transition to the increased usage of renewable resources for generating electricity.

So why is it that renewable resources are so much in favor over those that are non-renewable? Renewable resources have the advantage of being easily replenished whereas those that are non-renewable can never be replenished. Energy derived from sources like wind, water and the sun are readily available in many regions of the world and can be effectively harnessed to produce electricity and other forms of power. However, people are more accustomed to relying on forms of non-renewable energy – those derived from coal, oil and natural gas, for instance. Despite all of the emphasis placed on green energy in recent decades, the U.S. and Europe still largely rely on such resources to get the power they require. The problem with this situation is that these sources are finite. An oil well may run dry after several years, leading engineers to search out a new deposit to be exploited. Some scientists argue that at some point, there will simply be no more of these non-renewable resources to call upon, making the necessity of learning to exploit renewable resources all the more pressing.

Public support for green energy is strong in both America and Europe, but it seems as though Europeans are moving ahead in realizing the shortcomings of the current technology used to harness renewable resources, such as the wind. As writer Kenneth P. Green points out in the article “On Green Energy: Renewable Energy Fails to Green the U.K. Economy,” the high tech windmills used to harness the power of the wind at many wind farms have a tendency to freeze in severe winter weather. More than that, they also must be shut down during high winds to avoid damaging the blades. Essentially, this results in less power going onto the electrical grid, just when homes and businesses need it most for heat and light. Though such occurrences appear to be widely reported in the European media, they seem to receive little attention in the U.S.

Perhaps this is because of the attitude of U.S. politicians. Sensing the popularity of the green movement, they are loath to acknowledge that there just might be drawbacks to the methods by which green energy is produced. Building a wind farm is very expensive and to then have the windmills there be unable to function on cold winter days when their output is most necessary makes the wind farm seem like a very expensive waste of money. Then again, lobbyists and members of environmental organizations may also be to blame. They are so anxious to push their agenda forward that perhaps they are not willing to examine their cause from all sides of the issue.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there is also debate about whether green energy actually creates jobs. A United Kingdom study suggests that 3.7 jobs are lost in that nation for every single job the industry creates. The numbers hardly look more promising in the United States, but some experts suggest that studies should not be looking to find a rise in manufacturing jobs as a result of the development of green energy production. Instead, they encourage focusing on other areas, such as design and maintenance of clean energy facilities, to find actual job creation.

It may be true that the transition to renewable energy resources just might create jobs someday, but the technology is still too new and not widely enough used to be counted on to transform a nation’s unemployment numbers. Plus, the technology is still flawed. Until engineers can solve the conundrum of windmills that freeze in winter, for instance, they will not be a reliable alternative to fossil fuels. It is positive that the citizens of both America and Europe support the development of green technology and it is also encouraging to see the politicians responding to this support by passing legislation meant to ease the transition. However it will not be until scientists and engineers develop new and better ways of putting renewable resources to work that it will become a viable alternative, one that can be counted on to provide the majority of the power needs of the world.

26 Responses to “Guest Post: Learning to rely on Renewable energy”

  1. 1 Time Traveller 07/07/2011 at 12:22 pm

    Just in case this isn’t a joke..

    So much to say but I’ll restrict it to asking what value can be attached to an E-on survey of its own windfarm staff on the desirability of windfarms.

  2. 2 hybridweb 07/07/2011 at 12:31 pm

    Has this blog been taken over by the loonie left greens?

    Renewable energy is the future, even though all real world examples indicate that it is…. underwhelming.

  3. 3 Rut.N.Branch 07/07/2011 at 12:46 pm

    Mr Fordham, this is a refreshingly restrained and nicely worded article – for a seemingly ‘green’ advocate, that is! I am only an interested layman myself, but I believe that uninformed public support for this or that technology is completely irrelevant.

    The only issues which need to be considered in energy generation are price and convenience, not CO2, not peak oil. By all means research other methods of electricity generation, but large scale implementation should take place only when such schemes are cheaper than competing ones, without subsidies. Leaving aside audio and visual destruction of human ‘habitat’ and the direct adverse effect on wildlife, have you considered the heavy metal pollution associated with windmills, for instances. That is one of the things I would regard as very inconvenient. It may well be manageable, but the cost has to be properly allowed for in the balance equations. On the other hand you may not consider such pollution as a decisive factor, since for the most part it is hidden from us in the West, being largely restricted to China, at least during manufacture.

    I realise you are writing about renewable energy, but the main reason for it is the desire for clean machines. Why then do you not discuss nuclear power stations and thorium in particular? Thorium is abundant. It is much more common than uranium. It is found everywhere. In existing nuclear power generation only a small percentage of the available energy can be extracted. However, thorium reactors can take spent nuclear fuel as feedstock and the final waste product is vastly less dangerous. Thorium reactors using the molten salt procedure are fail safe and it is impossible for them to produce material which can be used to make weapons. A thorium power station can be made very small, does not need a permanent staff and contains nothing of any use to terrorists. Therefore, this is also a green technology which is crying out for more research before it can be made ready for widespread adoption and it promises much more than wind, wave or solar power.

  4. 4 Peejos 07/07/2011 at 1:01 pm

    The whole concept is driven by emotion. Of course the bulk of people grasp that there is a finite amount of oil, so that alternative energy sources must be found, so they are in favour of ‘green’ solutions. In the same way vast sums of money are donated towards cancer research, without any idea as to how it will be spent, nor what line of research is likely to be beneficial. The price of fuel at present is not so prohibitively expensive as to intensify the world’s research facilites to produce an alternative. What is offered so far is not remotely such, primitive wave machines, non fuctioning wind generators and solar panels with limited life span, coupled with inefficient conversion and distribution. It is all bedevilled by the CO2 story, adequate coal exists to ensure energy supply for many years, yet emotion has forbidden its use. A method for storing electricity economically must be discovered and a reduction in transmssion costs essential, but little attempt is made to provide an answer.

  5. 5 peter geany 07/07/2011 at 1:27 pm

    I don’t need to go over just how useless wind turbines are, or just how destructive bio fuel product is to rain forest or food prices. I don’t need to remind anyone that all of these green and renewable power souses are hitting the poorest in our society hardest. And it is these poor who are often the least educated and most gullible when it comes to the spin from the environmental movement.

    We have used technology to clean our environments in the west, and this won the environmental movement much support. The results were easy to see and feel. I walk down the Marylebone Rd in London everyday, (supposedly one of the EU’s most polluted roads) and no longer have that dirty sticky feeling that even driving into London or living in the suburbs gave in the 80’s. In fact the only thing that is likely to wrinkle the nose is walking behind someone smoking a fag, a far cry from what once was.

    This goodwill and support has been taken for granted and abused over the last 10 years, and you will find that the polls have all been written in a way that leaves no room for a discretionary answer. I have refused to answer 2 in my time where I wanted to say I cared for the environment but thought Wind turbines and Bio fuels were wrong. This is not an option on these polls, the only way of objecting to any green measure is by answering you don’t care for the environment.

    So I would say 2 things; support for wind has never been as high as is thought, and the goodwill and the support the environmental movement once had has been squandered as the movement has been has been high jacked by the green movement that is more a left wing political movement than an environmental movement.

  6. 6 Autonomous Mind 07/07/2011 at 2:34 pm

    Hybridweb, Jeremy offered to write a guest post and even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says I think it adds to the debate. We’ll leave censorship to those with something they don’t want to have challenged.

  7. 7 vernon e 07/07/2011 at 3:37 pm

    “Adds to the debate”? I couldn’t even understand what he is trying to say – just rambling drivel. And, as usual whenever the words “green” or “renewable” appear, a mess of mis-information and half-facts. Eg…
    the problem with windmills isn’t just that they freeze in winter – that’s more-or-less irrelevant – but that for a lot of the time the wind doesn’t blow – especially in cold weather (almost by definition anti-cyclonic) and that there’s no control over when the wind does blow – hence the need to pay for power that has to be dumped because there’s no demand. How long can this nonsense go on for ?(Hurry up please, I’m seventy two already.)

  8. 8 Jeremy Fordham 07/07/2011 at 4:18 pm


    It’s pretty easy to bash wind turbines, but it seems evident from your comment that you are not completely familiar with the engineering of their functionality or with the macroscopic benefit associated with their use. It’s quite obvious that you can’t control the rate at which the wind blows — everyone knows that. And no, no one in their right mind would install a turbine in a place subject to frigid temperatures that would damage the rotors and decrease their already low conversion efficiency. They WOULD, however, funnel money into research for materials that allow turbines to operate in cooler climates.

    What people seem to forget is that renewable systems can be optimized for specific environments. Wind density analysis is pretty good at predicting air velocity characteristics for a given geographic locale, and has proven time and time again that even though the wind doesn’t blow 100% of the time, it blows enough to implement turbines in certain places. If it wasn’t worth it, people wouldn’t be investing in renewables, period.

    Take a look at the numbers. The green sector has experienced rapid growth for a long time, and continues to do so despite the recent slump in the world economy. The point of the article above was to give a relatively unbiased and simplistic look at the attitudes towards green technology.

    Whether you want to believe it or not, oil resources or finite — it doesn’t matter if it will take 200 years or 500. This inherently makes green technology a smart choice, and as it gets better and the price becomes right, I think we’ll see more widespread implementation and support for it.

    Support that isn’t based in faddy notions, that is.

  9. 9 AJC 07/07/2011 at 5:28 pm

    I hadn’t appreciated till recently that Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs) operate at atmospheric pressure and, amongst other attractions, are inherently fail-safe LFTR power stations don’t require the massive construction effort associated with traditional nuclear build.

    Any current or projected national funding being directed to wind should be diverted to a UK Manhattan Project to develop LFTR technology. The estimated costs seem to be pretty much equivalent to our contribution to current Club Med rescue funds.

  10. 10 rOBERT 07/07/2011 at 6:24 pm

    There is no reason to suppose that we are short of fossil fuels. The last 20 years has seen world gas reserves double with the exploitation of shale gas and now shale oil.

    This could kill off nuclear power as it will be too expensive compared to gas.

  11. 11 Martin Brumby 07/07/2011 at 6:43 pm

    @Jeremy Fordham07/07/2011 at 4:18 pm

    C’mon Jeremy. I like a joke with the best of them.

    But you expect us to swallow:- “If it wasn’t worth it, people wouldn’t be investing in renewables, period.”


    So why the massive subsidies, bloated feed in tariffs, shortcuts to the planning process, wheezes like saddling coal with the (completely unproven at appropriate scale) CCS technology which (surprise!) massively increases the cost of the cheapest competition? Wind is already costing the average consumer AT LEAST £200 per year. Thanks to wind we are having to hugely increase the grid infrastructure to get the power to where it (might be) needed. Thanks to wind we are now to build 17 gas powered generation plants JUST to try to balance out power fluctuations.

    “If it wasn’t worth it?”

    My arse.

    And what is some of the finest landscape in Britain worth?

    OK, at least you aren’t pretending that “peak oil” is already here, or just round the corner. 200 years might be right, who knows?

    So why go “renewable” now? Why not wait for all the technological fixes you dream of to be developed? After all, we didn’t come out of the stone age when we ran out of stones. And the underlying problems with wind (not high or even low wind speeds and not low temperatures) are (a) variability and (b) the fact that it has very low energy density. Try designing those out!

    And as far as “generating green jobs” is concerned, that’s another sick joke. If you are after generating jobs, why not set up bicycles with dynamos? It would only take 2 billion pedellers to keep the UK going! No unemployment there!

    I think you urgently need to do some real investigation into “renewables” rather than believing the scam-artists who are promoting it.

  12. 12 Beware of Geeks Bearing GIFs 07/07/2011 at 6:50 pm

    Quite simply, the bigger the penetration of wind power on the NAtional Grid, the more conventional gas plants (CCGT) and coal fired plants you need to build and have them running on spinning standby for when the wind either stops or blows too hard 80% of the time.

    And while these plants are on spinning standby, they are not efficient, ergo you burn more CO2.

    Simply “plugging” a windmill into the National Grid causes grid spiking – operators will remove them from the grid.

    Also, you cannot simply switch a power station on: it can take from hours to days, hence these “backup” fossil fuelled plants will be running on spinning standby.

    Windmills sound great in theory, when part of our National Grid power delivery model, they simply don’t work and all monies, tax payer subsidies and production should be stopped immediately.

  13. 13 Brian H 07/07/2011 at 7:11 pm

    This is a very interesting post. Most commenters seem to be responding to the long opening paragraphs which lay out much of the simplistic rationale for greening, and the public’s openness to that message.

    But look at the closing paragraphs. They acknowledge the hurdles remaining in front of renewables, and don’t attempt to hand-wave them away. In fact, they are insuperable, and that’s a possibility hinted at.

    So a very careful job of tight-rope walking. For a Green reading it, the take-home is devastating.

  14. 14 John Payne 07/07/2011 at 9:06 pm

    I see the story is changing from CO2 being the cause of Global worming to a lack of energy resources. On the Global warming issue I understand more CO2 is pumped into the atmosphere by volcanoes that all human activity combined. The problem we have is that so many lies are being told by politians that I now do not believe anyone.

  15. 15 Dave_G 07/07/2011 at 9:13 pm

    “The green sector has experienced rapid growth for a long time, and continues to do so despite the recent slump in the world economy.”

    ANY sector of business would see ‘rapid growth’ if the very same levels of financial assistance were given to it. The very fact that ‘we’ are funding these green sector initiatives is precisely one of the reasons we’re in such a financial and economic mess!

    £100Bn for useless wind turbines, £Bn’s to connect them, £Bn’s to supplement them with gas turbines, the uncounted £Bn’s already gleaned through green taxation….. these are not sums to be passed off lightly and could, if spent elsewhere and more appropriately, ease the lives of millions – people who will freeze to death this winter due to the taxes that are supposed to be making us ‘green’. Blue, more like.

  16. 16 Dizzy Ringo 07/07/2011 at 11:00 pm

    Windmills are just the thing to enhance the Brecon Beacons.

  17. 17 vernon e 08/07/2011 at 2:37 pm

    @ Jeremy

    Martin Brumby has made most (I really mean all) the points I was instantly tempted to post so I won’t repeat them. I will, however, repeat my point about the consistency with which proponents of “green” and “renewable” use the same tactics – now you revert to the tired tactic of alleging ignorance to be the failing of those who disagree with you. Far from not understanding the technology of turbines nor the vagaries of the wind I am both a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and a Yachtmaster; I think I may well have more first hand experience of the natural world than perhaps yourself.

  18. 18 vernon e 08/07/2011 at 2:49 pm

    P.S. to my previous. Martin missed one point that i would have made. There is no factual doubt whatsoever now that the average output of UK turbines is only about 20% of nameplate, and that includes the unwanted power that we have to pay for. Would you or anyone else buy a car that only ran for 20% of the time or only ran at 20 mph?

  19. 19 Jeremy Fordham 08/07/2011 at 4:30 pm

    Indeed, all very good points here. I think that inherently people have a tendency towards personal bias when it comes to green tech. I agree that right now it’s over-hyped and that there are still technical hurdles to be made before it can do what it needs to do. My mindset is focused more on the bigger, more objective picture, and not so much on the microscopic details. As a sidenote, it was my intention to generate this kind of discussion — and it has been extremely insightful reading the comments here, for which I am grateful.

    Peak oil is an interesting issue and there are way too many opinions out there to go into reasonable depth here, but the takeaway (for me) is that there will be a day in the future when countries will say, “Well, we have no more oil. What now?”

    And yeah, what then? Wouldn’t it be smart to have invested — centuries earlier — in technology that could stretch the “end oil” date back by hundreds of years, potentially? Yes, green technology is expensive. Yeah, it is an over-hyped industry full of sinister businessmen and women who take advantage of public ignorance. But it does have long-term, macroscopic benefits that I think it is wise to focus upon.

    P.S., No, I wouldn’t purchase a car that ran 20% of the time, but that is a lacking analogy. So what if windmills only (CURRENTLY) provide 20% of nameplate? What about the fact that the UK has approximately a 5,000 MW windpower capacity right now? What about the fact that a MW from wind saves approximately 2,600 tons of carbon? That’s 13 million tons of carbon saved, in addition to making a contribution to the baseload need. It’s not perfect, but it has dual benefits. I think this is the overarching power of green energy. It is an expensive initial investment that over time pays itself back in other ways. (Vernon especially, given your experience and background, I’m interested to hear what you think about this.)

  20. 20 Brian H 09/07/2011 at 11:52 am

    both your “dual benefits” beg the question (are circular), as they assume a) carbon dioxide reduction is beneficial and efficacious, and b) the baseload contribution is reliable and economic.
    a) is widely asserted but easily disproved;
    b) is patently false with regards to every renewable energy source.

  21. 21 Westie 09/07/2011 at 5:36 pm

    The ridiculous title ‘Learning to RELY on renewable Energy’ is all that’s needed to discount the entire premise of this writeup. Only a complete fool would rely on this green ‘reliable’ energy and dismiss the sources that account for 99% of the true reliable energy! As ever this is not about energy it is about CONTROL and POWER!

  22. 22 The Filthy Enginner 09/07/2011 at 8:24 pm

    I looked into fitting “green technology” to my own home. I considered solar panelling to my south facing roof. Now being an engineer I looked into the long term costs rather than the short term installation costs quoted, and was shocked to find that nowhere was any breakdown of maintenance freely available. So I did a bit of digging.

    1. They need to be cleaned once a year to ensure efficiency in light collection.
    2. Inverters used to convert DC to AC have a MAX life of 10 years. (Cost of replacement at present £1,000)
    3. Efficiency of the panels will have dropped to 80% by their 20 year expected life.
    4. And of course, the bleeding obvious. Nothing is produced at night, and very little on a cloudy day. Just when you want it.
    5. After 20 years the householder is left with worthless junk that he’ll have to pay to get uninstalled.

    Taking the costs and rewards of the feed in tarrif, (The tarrif could be reduced at anytime if the government decides it can’t afford it . So beware).
    I worked out that I’d break even after 19.5 years.

    Not such a good deal is it? This green energy that is going to save us from whatever the latest buzz word is from the green religion.

  23. 23 Vernon E 10/07/2011 at 5:47 pm

    No thanks Jeremy, I’ve said my piece and Mr Mind’s later post is spot on. In summary, windmills will never, ever make a noticeable contribution to base load electricity in the UK. They are unreliable, inefficient and unpredictable; they despoil the landscape (and the seascape) and they cost us all shedloads of money, some of which would be better spent on researching and developing the pending souces of power (thorium, fusion etc).

  24. 24 Brian H 13/07/2011 at 8:16 pm

    The Filthy Enginner 09/07/2011 at 8:24 pm

    I looked into fitting “green technology” to my own home. I considered solar panelling to my south facing roof. Now being an engineer I looked into the long term costs rather than the short term installation costs quoted, and was shocked to find that nowhere was any breakdown of maintenance freely available. So I did a bit of digging.
    Good work. But…. tell me you aren’t one of the ones that can’t spell it! Just a typo, right???

  25. 25 AdvaPoint Solar 20/07/2011 at 9:12 am

    Definitely, by using solar power we can save not only a lot of money but also we will be able to help the environment for our future. More and more people are installing solar panels on their roofs and they actually save a lot of money plus no more blackouts.

  26. 26 Brian H 20/07/2011 at 12:23 pm

    Learning to balance on your nose on the tip of a pogo stick.

    It may be possible, but you’re likely to be maimed or dead before you succeed.

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