Renewables are more expensive and risky the deeper you dig – OPINION

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Renewables are more expensive and risky the deeper you dig

John Kane-Berman |

June 7, 2022

John Kane-Berman on why the “cheap” of sun and wind is mostly illusory

It is now almost a trusted article among energy writers in most media outlets that “renewable” is the best form of energy from an environmental point of view. After all, they emit no toxic gases. They are also cheap and becoming cheaper. Some journalists even argue that they are free: you don’t have to pay for sunshine or wind.

However, an article published this month argues that wind and solar are no cheaper than conventional fuels if one considers the full cost of electricity (FCOE) to society. Written by Lars Schernikau, William Hayden-Smith, and Rosemary Falcon, the paper, entitled “Full Cost of Electricity (FCOE) and Energy Efficiency (eROI)”, appears in the Journal of Management and Sustainability published by the Canadian Center for Science and Education.

Anthea Jeffery drafted this paper for part of her submission on behalf of the South African Institute of Racial Relations to the parliamentary committee in consideration of the Climate Change Bill.

All energy, the article by the three authors argues, requires taking resources from the planet, processing them, and thus damaging the environment. Mankind’s goal should be to minimize “these negative effects” by increasing efficiency. Energy policy should have three objectives: affordability, security of supply and environmental protection.

To ensure that energy policy promotes all three of these goals, the paper argues that both the FCOE and the eROI should be considered.

More commonly used is the leveled cost of electricity (LCOE). This, however, is misleading because it includes only three measures – the costs of construction, fuel and operation. FCOE, on the other hand, measures the full costs of renewable energy to society. It is therefore a broader measure than the LCOE.


In the first place, there are mining, transportation, investment and construction costs. The mining of lithium and other minerals involves the excavation of vast amounts of rock, which requires the use of fossil fuels, as wind and solar are too intermittent to be reliable for mining operations. Fossil fuels must also be used to transport the minerals to wherever wind turbines, solar panels, and storage batteries (“green machines”) are produced.

Secondly, it is the cost of fuel, which is a force for wind and solar, because they themselves have no fuel costs.

Third, there are operating and maintenance costs. The paper says that onshore wind and solar cost much the same as coal, but that offshore wind is much more expensive. Solar sets are relatively inexpensive, however.

Fourth, is the cost of load balancing, necessary for the very difficult task of stabilizing the grid taking into account the intermittency of wind and solar.


Fifth comes the cost of storage. Excess energy generated by wind and solar on windy and sunny days should be stored for when there is no wind or sunshine. Using fossil fuels, huge amounts of minerals have to be mined and transported for battery. But the necessary storage technology has yet to be developed. This is a major obstacle to the greater use of wind and sun, as an efficient electrical system must be able to meet demand at all times.

The sixth is the cost of backup. In the absence of sufficient storage capacity for wind and solar, a backup of conventional fossil fuel and / or nuclear energy is required. As the proportion of wind and solar energy increases, the use of backup decreases, which means that a necessary but expensive backup will remain inactive for an increasing amount of time. This is wasteful.

The seventh is the cost of issuance. CO2 emissions from fossil fuels for personal use must be calculated. But so must the emissions of all fossil fuels used for mining, transportation and manufacturing of green machinery.

The eighth factor to be considered is the cost of recycling and other environmental impacts. The paper argues that neither wind blades nor solar panels can be recycled, while the decay of discarded batteries is environmentally damaging. So, as already noted, there is all the mining necessary for green machines.


Ninth is “room costs,” such as land footprint and energy spread. Because the intermittency of wind and solar means they have a low power density, much more space is needed for turbines and solar panels than for conventional power plants. Stephen Davies of the American Institute for Economic Research noted that it takes a lot of energy from a small amount of coal or uranium, but that if you wanted to run Los Angeles entirely by solar, you would need to cover an area several times over. size of that city with solar panels. Schernikau and his co-authors note that a new solar park in India would need 33 times more space than a new coal-fired power plant to produce the same amount of electricity.

Number ten is other metrics, such as the energy return on investment (eROI). This refers to the input of energy needed to produce the required energy output. High eROI means lower environmental and economic costs, and thus lower prices and higher utility. Low eROI means higher environmental and economic costs, and thus higher prices and lower utility.

The benefit of energy invested is highest for nuclear, followed at some distance by coal and gas, with renewables far behind. “The principle of energy return on investment is at the heart of society’s energy efficiency, which is at the heart of humanity’s development and survival.”

Schernikau et al argues that the very low yield for wind and sun arises from their intermittency along with their need for backup and storage. Their very low energy investment means they are “a step back in history in terms of energy efficiency”.


The projected dramatic expansion in wind and sun will result in a more fragile and expensive electricity system, with the risk of prolonging the energy crisis that began in the second half of last year. They attribute this crisis to a lack of investment in conventional forms of energy, while increased use of wind and solar has been unable to meet demand.

Schernikau and his colleagues also note that if solar and wind were really cheaper, as is often claimed, they would not require “billions of dollars of government funding or subsidies, or laws to force their installation.”

* John Kane-Berman is a political fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a position with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs are valid.

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