It was more than a decade ago now that I first read a misleading article claiming that wind and solar had become cheaper than coal for generating electricity. Turned out that this was only true if you ignored an approximately 95% subsidy. In other words the article was claiming that less than five percent of the cost of wind and solar was less than the entire cost of coal. Or, in other words, these renewables were about 20 times more expensive than coal.
Yesterday I saw the latest in a series of claims like this. “Renewables surpass coal in US energy generation for first time in 130 years.” And like that first time I had a thrill of excitement at the possibility it was true. Spoiler: it was not.
Nowadays you can look up such data.
There has been a decrease in coal burning for electricity, due primarily to an increase in natural gas burning. Better than coal, but still not great. There has been a small increase in non-hydro “renewables” but that includes a large share of manifestly unsustainable biogas which is an environmental nightmare.
All non-hydro renewables for electricity generation look to be about 12–13%. Coal at 20% and expected to increase in 2021. So, the article is not even close to being true.
Coal for 2020: 730.30 billion kWh
Renewable non-hydroelectric: 476.92 billion kWh
And again “renewable” includes waste biomass, biomass-based diesel, ethanol, and a wood biomass electricity subtotal which are all sources of CO2.
Wood biomass electricity is shredding forests to make woodchips and essentially cooking them up to make burnable fuels. Wood biomass represents 9.822 quadrillion Btu of the “renewables” total of 11.797. So deforestation is 83% of “green” energy in this case.
And it is not even clear that in such a scheme the fuel output is greater than the total fuel inputs. It is entirely possible that harvesting shipping and processing the wood consumes more diesel than the output from the generation offsets. So this process overall can consume more resources than it produces, a net loss of energy, and produces CO2 and deforestation as a… as a… bonus?
So, no, renewables have never come close to “surpassing” coal. And much of that free wheeling term, “renewable” is either hydro, which capacity has not grown in the last 6 years or absolutely mad biogas/biomass schemes that are disaster.
And that is only the electricity sector. What about industry? Transportation? Home heating and cooling?
What minute fraction of the greater energy budget are wind and solar? These being what people naturally think you mean when you say “renewable.” No one looks at that headline and assumes that you have replaced coal with vast inexcusable deforestation of much less energy dense wood.
Coal burning is a serious problem. We have not in the past solved it by pretending fantasy nonsense about it and we are not going to wish or lie it away now.
For the love of life on this tiny blue dot, stop pretending that there is a simple miracle cure to climate change and start backing realistic non-imaginary technologies we can use to address our situation now. We could go on pretending while the world burns, or we could do something about it.