Fact Check: Does Renewable Energy Make Sense?

In defense of his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, President Trump offers his assurance that the commitment would be unfair to the United States. Among his claims is that “the Obama Administration’s emissions commitments would

“Idaho Wind Farm.”
Jerry and Pat Donahoe, 28 Sept. 2013.

require us to shift energy production from affordable, reliable fuels to those that are more costly and less reliable.” In saying so, he suggests that in order to make the agreed 26% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, we would have to sacrifice the affordability and stability of our energy supply. Although methods of power production that are lower in emissions present new costs and challenges, they are not nearly so insurmountable as Trump might have us think.

What Exactly Are We Debating?

Trump provides little information on the “affordable, reliable” fuels we would shift from and why we would need to do so. However, it is clear that the United States relies heavily on fossil fuels to generate electricity. In 2016, natural gas fueled about 34% of the nation’s electricity production, and coal fueled another 30% (“Electricity Explained”). According to the US EPA, the burning of fossil fuels is the United States’ greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions (“Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions”) ,so it would make sense to seek alternative energy supplies to meet the Paris Agreement emissions goals.

Trump also does not directly identify the alternative fuels whose economic viability he questions, but there are several options which produce no direct emissions. These include nuclear power as well as renewable options such as solar, wind and hydropower (“Solar”, “Wind”, “Hydropower”, “Nuclear”). Geothermal power, another renewable method, produces very low emissions (“Geothermal”). The Obama administration supported the use of both nuclear energy and renewables to reduce emissions, but this fact check focuses on renewables. Nuclear power already provides 20% of the nation’s electricity (“Electricity Explained”) and is economically competitive with other conventional methods (“The Economics of Nuclear”). However, fear of dangerous nuclear meltdowns and controversy over nuclear waste disposal make its future uncertain (Timmons et al.6) Furthermore, nuclear fuel, like fossil fuels, is a resource that must eventually run out. Renewables are a better long-term option.

Are Renewables More Expensive?

The United States would need to invest large amounts of money in to increase our sources of renewable energy, because we would need to construct new equipment and facilities. The Strata Institute cites a series of reports by researchers at Utah State University, who express doubt that the United States could successfully switch to renewable energy. They point out that the solar, wind and geothermal industries all rely on government subsidies to operate (Lofthouse et al). As noted in a 2014 report from Tufts University, capital investments for renewables are typically much higher than they are for fossil fuels. Startup costs for wind and solar are especially high. However, wind and solar power plants have very low operating costs, and the cost of these technologies is decreasing. Hydropower is already cost competitive with “traditional” fuels, and wind and geothermal are not far behind (Timmons et al 17-18,22). Once initial investments are made to develop the technology and build the infrastructure, production costs should not be an obstacle.

Are Renewables Less Reliable?

It is true that solar and wind energy are available on a more intermittent basis than fossil fuels. Whereas humans can control the flow of natural gas and coal into power plants, they cannot control when the wind blows or when the sun shines. Geothermal and hydropower can both provide a steady supply of power, but both are limited by geographic constraints (Lofthouse et al). A 2017 analysis has found that, renewable technologies have been successfully integrated into reliable power networks, by altering their use with that of other production methods. Developing methods include demand response programs, which encourage consumers to reduce their energy usage when demand is highest, and storage of electricity in batteries (“Demand Response”, Hibbard 53). Although studies have found that additional use of renewables in current systems would require more effective transmissions, they have also found that the transition would be “cost effective, for producers and consumers” and that operators have successfully made this transition in compliance with the Clean Power Plan (Hibbard 56). Renewables have already shown themselves to be a viable part of a stable energy supply.

The Bottom Line

Fossil fuels are currently the cheapest and easiest source of electricity because we are used to them and have designed our current system around them. If we are willing to invest in the initial costs, however, renewable technologies can become affordable, reliable sources of energy.

Works Cited

“Demand Response.” Energy.gov, U.S. Department of Energy, https://energy.gov/oe/activities/technology-development/grid-modernization-and-smart-grid/demand-response. Accessed  Sept. 2017.

“Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States.” EIA. U.S. Department of Energy, 10 May 2017, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfmpage=electricity_in_the_united_states. Accessed 6 Sept. 2017.

“Geothermal Explained: Geothermal Energy and the Environment.”EIA. U.S. Department of Energy, 21 Nov. 2016, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfmpage=geothermal_environment. Accessed 6 Sept. 2017.

Hibbard, Paul, Susan Tierney, Katherine Franklin. “Electricity Markets, Reliability and the Evolving US Power System.” Advanced Energy Economy. Analysis Group, June 2017, https://info.aee.net/hubfs/PDF/AG-Markets-Reliability-Final-June-2017.pdf?t=1497985624115. Accessed 5 Sept. 2017.

“Hydropower Explained: Hydropower and the Environment.”EIA. U.S. Department of Energy, 12 July 2017, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=hydropower_environment. Accessed 6 Sept. 2017.

Lofthouse, Jordan, Randy T. Simmons, Ryan M. Yonk. Reliability of Renewable Energy. Institute of Political Economy: Utah State University, 2015, https://www.strata.org/reliability-of-renewable-energy/#1482196708924-dacfed4c-59ae. Accessed 8 Sept. 2017.

“Natural Gas Explained: Natural Gas and the Environment.” EIA. U.S. Department of Energy, 12 July 2017, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfmpage=natural_gas_environment. Accessed 8 Sept. 2017.

“Nuclear Explained: Nuclear Power and the Environment.” EIA. U.S. Department of Energy, 10 Jan. 2017. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfmpage=nuclear_environment. Accessed 8 Sept. 2017.

“Solar Explained: Solar Energy and the Environment.”EIA. U.S. Department of Energy, 14 Dec. 2016, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=solar_environment. Accessed 6 Sept. 2017.

“Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Overview.” EPA, 14 Apr. 2017, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions. Accessed 6 Sept. 2017. 

“The Economics of Nuclear Power.” World Nuclear Association, August 2017, http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/economic-aspects/economics-of-nuclear-power.aspx. Accessed 8 Sept. 2017.

Timmons, David, Jonathan M. Harris, and Brian Roach. The Economics of Renewable Energy. Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, 2014, http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/education_materials/modules/RenewableEnergyEcon.pdfAccessed 8 Sept. 2017.

“Wind Explained: Wind Energy and the Environment.”EIA. U.S. Department of Energy, 12 July 2017, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=wind_environment. Accessed 23 Nov. 2016.

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