The Washington Post op-ed page remains the home of un-fact-checked disinformation about clean energy and global warming

Memo to Post:  Please fire editorial page editor Fred Hiatt or at least to give him something to read about CSP (World’s largest solar power plants with thermal storage to be built in Arizona) and plug-in hybrids and what real experts know about both wind power (see Bush DOE says wind can be 20% of U.S. power by 2030 “” with no breakthroughs) and the future of electricity  (FERC chair on new nuclear and coal plants: “We may not need any, ever.”).

You’d think that after the major hit to their reputation from the repeated publication of lies and misstatements by columnist George Will, that Washington Post editors would stop publishing such crap on their op-ed page.  You’d be wrong.

Today, two long out-of-touch energy “experts,” James Schlesinger and Robert Hirsch, write in “Getting Real on Wind and Solar“:

Why are we ignoring things we know? We know that the sun doesn’t always shine and that the wind doesn’t always blow….

Solar and wind electricity are available only part of the time that consumers demand power….

Realistically, however, solar and wind will probably only provide a modest percentage of future U.S. power.

Rubbish.  And this is the part of the article that is actually intelligible.

The Post‘s blurb on the piece says, “Solar and wind power’s limits are clear, two experts say.”  And yet these experts — and the Post‘s editorial editors and fact-checkers — are stuck in the 1970s, apparently utterly unaware of the most basic recent developments in energy:

  • solar thermal power with storage
  • major advances in electricity storage
  • other major countries with large fraction of their electricity from wind
  • Bush administration (!) projections that wind by itself could be 20% of U.S. electricity with no breakthroughs and at low cost
  • the imminent introduction of vast amounts of electricity storage (i.e. plug in hybrids and electric vehicles) that would be ideal for wind and solar PV
  • improved day-ahead forecasting of wind power
  • growing use of energy efficiency and demand-response as load-control and response strategies

Schlesinger is hardly what anyone would call a current expert on clean energy or climate.  Indeed, six years ago, he published an article pooh-poohing climate science — in the Washington Post of course.  As anyone who has served on a panel with him (as I have) can attest, he’s not an up-to-date expert on clean energy by any stretch of imagination.  He is an energy secretary (the first) from the 1970s stuck in the 1970s.  Hirsch’s credentials as a renewables expert — “Previously he managed the federal renewables program at the Energy Research and Development Administration, the predecessor to the Energy Department” — are equally ancient.  More recently, Hirsch, a peak oil expert, has said some very odd things (see “Robert Hirsch: Peak-a-Boo, I don’t see you?“).

But, as I’ve shown, you don’t have to know that their credentials as wind and solar experts have a long expired — this piece makes that clear.  They also write:

At locations without such hydroelectric dams, which is most places, solar and wind electricity systems must be backed up 100 percent by other forms of generation to ensure against blackouts. In today’s world, that backup power can only come from fossil fuels.

No, you don’t need 100% back up, especially when multiple wind fields are linked together.  And increasingly, utilities are looking to demand response and smart-grid technology to deal with what intermittency there is.

The piece then jumps into a discussion so opaque that I assume the main reason it made it through whatever little editorial oversight and fact checking the Post has is that nobody understood what the heck the authors were saying:

The climate change benefits that accrue from solar and wind power with 100 percent fossil fuel backup are associated with the fossil fuels not used at the standby power plants. Because solar and wind have the capacity to deliver only 30 to 40 percent of their full power ratings in even the best locations, they provide a carbon dioxide reduction of less than 30 to 40 percent, considering the fossil fuels needed for the “spinning reserve.” That’s far less than the 100 percent that many people believe, and it all comes with a high cost premium.

Huh?  I have read the paragraph several times — something I can’t in good conscience recommend to my readers — and have no idea what they are talking about.

Everybody knows that wind and solar have a 30 to 40 percent capacity factor.  It is no big secret as this paragraph seems to imply, assuming anyone can figure out what the authors actually meant.  It has no impact on their carbon dioxide reduction.  Spinning reserve is a reserve — it doesn’t significantly impact CO2 emissions.  The fact is that countries have integrated into their grids a fraction of wind that is 10 times what we have today.  And the fact is that this country is already reducing the fraction of all electricity produced by coal, thanks part to renewables.

The authors and the Post also seem to be unaware that the fossil fuel power most often paired with renewables to firm up the power — natural gas power — has substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions per kiloWatt-hour than the gird as a whole.  So a wind-gas or solar-gas hybrid still represents a very sharp reductions in carbon emissions.

The authors have apparently never heard of other key renewables like biomass, geothermal, and new hydro.

And given the egregious misstatements in this piece that the editors let slide, I suppose it is pointless to point out to the Post that it is at least worth mentioning that inaction on climate change comes with a much higher cost premium than renewables.

What else is there left to say?

The Post continues to savage its reputation by publishing such easily fact-checked and debunked disinformation.  Fire Fred Hiatt already.

13 Responses to The Washington Post op-ed page remains the home of un-fact-checked disinformation about clean energy and global warming

  1. caerbannog says:

    I don’t want to hijack/divert the discussion thread, but Andy Revkin has a really good article up at:

    The title of the article is: “Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate “.

    The article is certainly worth a climateprogress post of its own.

  2. Ronald says:

    Those 2 guys who wrote in the Post are sure old time energy experts who were only able to make comments from their memories.

    When discussing non- carbon and carbon, I think we need to add 2 words into the discussion of electrical energy sources. The words, Peak, Shoulder and Base load power are used by electrical power companies to explain what time of the day when electrical power sources are run to cover the varying loads during the day with varying costs of power sources. Now we want to add a new important variable which is how much carbon fuel is used from the power source.

    I’m suggesting that we add Bulk load and Bridge load.

    Bulk load power would be that electrical power that powers most of the electricity during any day and this would be better from a low or non-carbon fueled power source.

    Bridge load power is that which would cover the electrical power grid when low or non-carbon fueled power sources are not available.

    CSP could be a great low carbon Peak load, Shoulder load and partly Base load for the southwest. But at 6 am, before the sun comes up and after heat storage is all used up, it might need an electrical power cover for the electrical grid. That would be the time to use Bridge load carbon fueled power sources to cover that. (or even a non-carbon Bridge load power source.)

    Wind power can supply some of the Bulk load of the electrical grid, but the grid would need to fall back to carbon fueled or other sources as a Bridge load of the grid.

    Non-carbon fueled power sources should be considered to important to be used as the Bulk load power sources for the electrical grid because carbon fueled sources are nonrenewable (depletable, exhaustible) and because they are greenhouse gas polluting.

    If someone is found guilty of 10 assault charges and is given 2 years in prison for each assault, what is it that the person wants to find out from the Judge? Whether the sentences are concurrent or consecutive. Concurrent and consecutive applies to electrical power sources.

    Some people argue that when you put in these renewable (non-depletable, non-exhaustable) wind and solar energy sources, you have back these up. Well partly that’s true. But what the alternative? To use up all the carbon fuel energy sources first and when they are depleted and exhausted, then start using these renewable energy sources and not have carbon fueled energy for back up Bridge load power? This rush to exhaustion that some people seem to have is perplexing to me. So we can build non carbon fueled power sources for the Bulk load power and carbon fueled sources for the Bridge load power needs as they occur and have them run concurrently or we run only carbon fueled power sources now and then run non carbon fueled sources, having them run consecutively. The first option of concurrently of Bulk power non-carbon fueled power sources and using carbon fueled power sources for Bridge power is better.

  3. Leland Palmer says:

    As a response to the question of fossil fuel backup for wind and solar, the smart grid is a good solution, and so is solar thermal heat storage. Heat storage is often done using phase charge materials, but it is also possible to do it using sensible heat- simply heating up something like a rock bed. Alloy spheres or ceramics like silicon carbide might be able to take thousands or millions of heating and cooling cycles without corrosion or damage, and so may some minerals. Silicon dioxide or quartz has a very low coefficient of thermal expansion, for instance, and should be extremely heat shock resistant.

    Another good solution might be to transform existing coal plants that are in the desert to solar thermal power, and use biocarbon as a backup fuel source. Biocarbon without CCS is carbon neutral, and with CCS it would be carbon negative. Biocarbon makes biomass as transportable as coal, and it might also be possible to build biocarbon log pipelines that could transport biocarbon very long distances, from the Northwest to the Southwest U.S. for example.

    Although the water necessary for a biocarbon log pipline is considerable (enough to supply a small town), the environmental consequences of using the water for biocarbon log transportation would likely be much less than coal. Biocarbon is mostly activated charcoal – the water might end up much purer than it started out, or require minimal cleanup after being used in the pipeline.

    Long-Distance Transport of Coal by Coal Log Pipeline

  4. paulm says:

    Interesting perspective on energy consumption and a good way to compare …

    Saving the planet by numbers

    I would like to suggest measuring energies in kilowatt-hours, and measuring how fast activities use or produce energy in kilowatt-hours per day.

    One kilowatt-hour (1 kWh) is the electrical energy used by leaving a 40 watt bulb on for 24 hours (and it might cost you 10 or 15 pence (15 or 20 US cent)). Driving an average car 50 kilometres uses 40 kWh of fuel.

    In total, the British lifestyle (and I apologise to international readers but my study is based on British numbers) uses 125 kWh per day per person for transport, heating, manufacturing, and electricity.

    electric vehicles …20 kWh per 100 km or even 6 kWh per 100 km.

  5. Dill Weed says:

    Hey, those guys are my two dads. Leave’m alone. I gotta eat, too.

    Dill Weed

  6. john says:

    I read this with disgust. The Post’s Fred Hiatt must have searched long and hard to come up with credentialed energy “experts” who were so astoundingly ignorant.

    This bit of idiocy would have been out of date in 1975 — it’s laughable now — except it isn’t. It appears on the oped pages of one of the leading newspapers in the country.

    Well, perhaps this is at least part of the reason newspapers are dying.

  7. Karel says:

    I think I understood what they were talking about. Let’s try to explain their thoughts: when a wind turbine on a good site has a capacity factor of 30-40%, their argument goes that you still need fossil fuels for the other 60-70% of electricity production, taking into account a flat consumption equal to the maximum power of the wind turbine. So fossil fuel consumption is reduced by only 30-40%.

    Their argument would (at least partly) hold if there was only a single wind turbine. The argument does not hold for the electricity produced by many wind turbines dispersed over a country: never will all wind turbines produce at their maximum at the same time. E.g. in Spain, at 16740 MW of installed wind power, the maximum produced wind power ever was 11180 MW (on March 5, 2009). So, although the theoretical capacity factor (average produced power divided by nominal power) does not increase, the practical capacity factor (average produced power divided by maximum produced power) does increase significantly!

    The effect becomes even (much) stronger when you also take into account solar, not to speak about biomass, hydro, geothermal, demand-response, smart-grids, storage (such as hydro or solar thermal), power curtailing (e.g. a few hours a year as with wind power in Spain or northern Germany) or interconnections with neighboring countries.

    Of course is 100 % renewable electricity production possible! In the US even without a cost premium!

  8. Rick Covert says:

    Apparently the Post is impossible to embarrass now.

  9. russ says:

    When people talk about residential wind turbines you would be surprised haw many have no idea of the capacity factor. Most people assume that a 1.5 kW turbine will provide you with a steady 1.5 kW – commercially it would be rated at 500 watt.

    Another thing is that while commercial turbines consider the useful and available wind loads many residential turbines are rated at 25 to 28 mph wind speed – storm conditions.

    A fact about electric grids that many overlook is that the US is not on one grid but many separate grids with some interlinking. New grids are definitely needed for many purposes.

  10. “Load Control” means that they get to turn off your air conditioner on hot
    nights when the wind isn’t blowing. NO THANKS! I need my sleep. Wind
    is often least when the temperature is the hottest. My electric utility
    company already asked me for permission to turn off my air conditioner when
    I need it most. OF COURSE I SAID “NO WAY IN HELL!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    Notice that the thermal storage is “TO be built,” not “HAS been built and
    proven.” What will the efficiency be? 5%? 1%? What will the cost be?
    YOU, Joe Romm, are talking pie in the sky until that energy storage system
    has 20 years of history. You also have to prove that enough energy storage
    can be built for the wole world, that it doesn’t cause some other pollution,
    that it works in every climate and location, that it is cheap enough, and it
    needs an efficiency of 99%, not the more likely 5%, etc.

  11. I’ve heard Robert Hirsch and his “Hirsch Report” co-author Roger Bezdek speak at Peak Oil conferences, and even spoke to at least one about the importance of electric vehicles and renewable electricity. They’re icons in Peak Oil but unfortunately resistant to the necessary solutions.

    I trust you’ve submitted your rebuttal op-ed to the Post?

    [JR: It would just be rejected. I have better uses of my time — here!]

  12. Many people assume that if a wind turbine’s capacity factor is 30-40%, that means it is running 30-40% of the time. That’s not true–at a typical Midwestern site, it will be generating some net electricity 65-90% of the time, but it won’t be running at full power.

    Unlike the CF of fueled power plants, the CF of a wind turbine is not a function of O&M or whether fuel is available, it’s a function of economical design–the manufacturer matches the rotor and generator sizes to generate the lowest cost of energy per kWh. A larger rotor and smaller generator would produce a higher CF, but lower capacity and more expensive electricity.

  13. The one clear message that should have come from this article is the ENERGY STORAGE of all types will be critical as we use more renewable resources. Fossil fuels are STORE ENERGY ans so if we are going to reduce and eventually replace them, we have to also replace the “STORAGE ” characteristic they provide.
    There are many types of energy storage: potential as in Pumped Hydro and Compressed Air (both about 65% cycle efficiency), Kinetic (Flywheels), Chemical (batteries) and thermal (for grid solar systems this is heat storage).
    However, BY FAR the most cost effective,cycle efficent and proven is COOL Storage at the building. Power produced at night (by renewable wind or even nuclear) is stored in the form of Ice or Cold water. Since Air-Conditioning is what is causing most of the electric peak demand, this stored cooling is in effect stored electrons. Cool storage in buildings makes renewables and nuclear essentially “dispatchable”. With thousands of installations around the world in use for decades, cool storage is proven and a vital key in getting to renewables.
    Why do so many people in this industry not get this!!