The Green/Brown Divide
The Problem With Renewables

Coal and renewable energy executives sparred at a meeting in Paris this week, as both sides had some harsh words for what they must each see as existential threats to their business models. The FT reports:

“With the best will in the world, solar is not an answer to broad scale industrialisation,” [said Tony Hayward, chairman of mining company Glencore], adding it was too intermittent to supply the steady, reliable power needed by an aluminium plant or a steel mill.

“Unless we can deal with this dilemma this debate goes nowhere,” he said.

In response, chief executive of North American solar group SkyPower Kerry Adler remarked that “Solar is the new world. You’ve got to get used to it.” But the coal executive’s remarks can’t simply be brushed away by such a flippant dismissal. He makes a good point.

Fossil fuels pollute both locally and, in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, globally, but they are very good at one thing: providing consistent power round-the-clock. Renewables, on the other hand, are plagued by an intermittency issue. Lacking cost-effective and scalable energy storage options, solar and wind producers can only meet demand when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Civilization as we know it requires more from its energy supply.

Until we make a breakthrough in battery technology, we’re going to continue to need fossil fuels to supply our baseload power, and use renewables to supplement that supply at peak usage times. In that sense, green and brown energy aren’t as mutually exclusive as the talk from this latest Paris meeting might make it seem.

If solar executives really see their industry as the “new world,” they’d be well served to pour money into the research and development of next generation storage technologies.

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