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.