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[ Focusing on Facts: Can We Get All of Our Energy From Renewables? ]

 

In my recent post, “The Limited Vision of the Pro-Nuclear Energy Argument,” one of the commenters wrote: “it is a fact that only carbon-based energy and nuclear have a high enough energy density to meet our world’s demands. None of the renewables come close.”

I responded, “It is far from ‘fact’ that only carbon-based and nuclear energy sources can meet the world’s needs. There are many studies showing that a combination of renewable sources can indeed meet that need. And that will be easier still with a rethinking of what we employ energy for and how it actually improves our lives.”

I was referring, in part, to several sources, including a 2009 article in Scientific American titled “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables,” as well as this study, this report and other promising work suggesting that renewables do, in fact, have the potential to meet our energy demand.  (See related story: “Going ‘All the Way’ With Renewable Energy?“) A recent Climate Progress post offered an indicator that we might even be headed in the right direction, noting that, according to government numbers, wind and solar made up 100 percent of new U.S. electricity capacity in September. And earlier reports in 2011 (see here and here) showed renewables outpacing conventional energy sources in both investment dollars and capacity growth.

Then, almost on demand, up pops a post by the inestimable Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in which he responds to President Obama’s recent statement that we “need some big technological breakthrough” to tackle climate change:

Mr. President — our nation already has the technologies to protect the climate while advancing prosperity. Here’s how.

Your National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed just last June how to produce 80 to 90 percent of America’s electricity from proven, reliable and increasingly competitive renewable sources like the sun and wind.

Lovins points to findings from his RMI book “Reinventing Fire” describing how a combination of energy efficiency and renewables can indeed meet the world’s future energy requirements. Energy efficiency, he writes, “can save 44 percent of projected 2050 electricity needs through proven building and industrial technologies that pay back far faster than any new source of supply. Wasting far less energy and getting the rest at lower and stable prices would powerfully boost jobs and growth.” (Similarly, a new report from the Alliance Commission on Energy Efficiency Policy says that we can double energy productivity by 2030.)

Lovins continues, “Conventional wisdom is wrong that solar and wind aren’t viable without a breakthrough in electricity storage. Analysis and experience prove that 60-80 percent solar and wind power — sited across a region, forecasted, and balanced by flexible supply and demand — can keep the lights on with often less storage or backup than traditional giant power stations need now. That’s how Germany, without adding storage, is already one-fourth renewable-powered, and at times last spring met over half its electric load just with solar power. A smart grid will make this even more successful and resilient.”

(You may have heard about the rather spectacular recent claim on Fox News that solar power works better in Germany than it could here because “they’ve got a lot more sun than we do.” There are many reasons, all involving policies, incentives and economics, that solar power has been more successful there than here, but amount of sunshine is definitively not one of them.)

My bet is that the commenter above could provide a bunch of similarly confident-sounding reports supporting his statement.

My father, who was a science journalist (and covered some of the early environmental stories), had a plaque on his desk with the quote “There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the facts.” But that was before the age of instant digital communications, sound bites and Citizens United. Now, it seems, there are just two sides: your facts and my facts. And anything, repeated often enough, now takes on the feeling of fact.

And beliefs have become confused with facts. (Making light of this, Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “I’m often asked whether I believe in Global Warming. I now just reply with the question: “Do you believe in Gravity?”)

It’s become increasingly difficult to ascertain whose facts are, in fact, factual. I subscribe to the “follow the money” rule, or rather, don’t follow the money. Self-interest is an incredibly strong force and money, these days, is its enabler. Virtually every climate denier’s “fact” can be traced to “research” or reports funded by corporate, usually fossil fuel, interests.

The counterclaim, frequently utilized in “climategate” and elsewhere, is that scientists manipulate facts in order to secure funding for their research — as if that funding amounts to even a miniscule fraction of what corporate grant recipients and lobbyists receive. (Even that, by the way, doesn’t always work.)  And never mind that scientific findings go through strenuous competitive peer review before being labeled facts, while the only review of most corporate statements is by their public relations departments.

I know that this “not following the money” rule is a dangerously broad one and subject to the great observation by Mark Twain that all generalizations are false. But I’ve seen little to lead me to believe otherwise.

 
A version of this post originally appeared at EcoOptimism.

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