Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
Page added on January 11, 2017
Public debate having become weighted with bombast and extremism, there is still a potential penalty to be paid for dishonesty. Many forget the story of the debate on homelessness in the 1980s and the sad end of activist Mitch Snyder, famed for extravagant, often tongue-in-cheek protests. It was thought by some that the issue of homeless policy suffered from the misrepresentation of the problem as one affecting families displaced by condo conversion, when in reality mental illness and substance abuse were the overwhelming causes.
There are those who argue that it is sometimes necessary to, shall we say, exaggerate the seriousness of a problem to get the appropriate attention, and this can certainly be seen in many areas related to energy. Public figures like David Letterman comment on fracking by describing the “destruction of the Delaware River Valley” and Yoko Ono warned “President Obama, you have two beautiful daughters. Do you want their health, environment and futures to be irreversibly destroyed by fracking, like the suffering children of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio?” A previous post mentioned Jackson Browne’s warning that nuclear power would lead to our domination by giant mutant sponges.
Given the decline in the level of political debate recently and the rise of internet trolls, it might seem trivial to worry that dishonesty about an issue of policy could harm some advocates. But the challenge for Cleantech, most especially the more expensive subsets of solar power and electric vehicles, is the crying need for public support, specifically money, in order to proceed. As spending grows for these areas, so will scrutiny and as reality conflicts with the claims of advocates there is a very strong likelihood that public opinion will shift, as it has in a number of other nations and some states in the U.S. Although numerous renewable energy advocates insist that they no longer need government support, this appears to be completely untrue. That particular point will be explored in some depth in this post; a subsequent post will discuss the cost of solar.
Since the election of Donald Trump, numerous stories have appeared insisting that renewable energy will not have to worry about any steps he takes to cut subsidies for the sector. For example, the New York Times noted “…the American energy market has already shifted away from the most polluting fossil fuels, driven more by investors and economics than by federal regulations.”
Jim Marston of the Environmental Defense Fund argued on the Huffington Post, “Market forces and technology – not government regulation – are increasingly making old, dirty power plants uneconomical.” And Jeremy Deaton for Nexus Media said on thinkprogress.org, “Analysts found that new solar or wind installations are cheaper than a new coal-fired power installation just about everywhere — even without subsidies — while the cost of renewables continues to fall rapidly.”
And of course a plethora of stories have argued that the age of petroleum is over, this time not relying on peak oil supply theories, but peak oil demand. Specifically, “Thierry Lepercq, who says that oil demand will be hit on multiple fronts. He lays out five tsunamis: solar power, battery storage, electric vehicles, “smart” buildings, and cheap hydrogen.”
Reality is very different. In country after country, where government financial support for renewables has declined, investment in solar has also dropped. The Guardian in England reported, “UK solar power installations plummet after government cuts: The amount of household solar power capacity installed in the past two months has plummeted by three quarters following the government’s cuts to subsidies, according to new figures.”
In Japan, solar investment appears to have peaked in 2015, as subsidies have been cut and solar power related bankruptcies have been increasing. Spanish solar installations in 2015 dropped to the lowest in 20 years after the government shifted policy, and in Germany, solar capacity increased by less than 3% in 2016.
Reports of installations in Chile or Dubai that are selling power cheaply are interesting, but hardly representative of the industry. Costs have come down to where, combined with subsidies and mandates, solar is often attractive. But wherever solar power has boomed, it has been with significant government support and the withdrawal of that support has seen sharp declines in investment. Obviously, in places like Spain or Nevada where homeowners are being charged for having solar panels, it is not clear whether the fees are fair representation of the costs incurred due to the intermittent nature of renewable power, but to pretend that there are no costs, and the fees are merely an unfair tactic by big utilities, risks alienating the voters who must ultimately decide the issue.
By being less than honest, advocates of solar power and electric vehicles are threatening that support, especially as they insist that these technologies are competitive. Regardless of developments in federal renewable policy in the new administration, state level regulations will determine the prospects of the industry, and if the public believes the mantra that solar is now competitive with fossil fuels and withdraws financial and regulatory support, then the future could be bleak.