Renewable Energy Not Living Up To Expectations

Published January 1, 1998

A multi-billion-dollar government crusade to promote renewable energy for electricity generation, now in its third decade, “has resulted in major economic costs and unintended environmental consequences,” according to Robert L. Bradley, an expert on energy policy. As the debate over meeting the targets of the Kyoto Protocol heats up, lobbyists for renewable energy can be expected to push their industry as an alternative to greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels.

Bradley, president of the Houston-based Institute for Energy Research and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, notes that even improved new generation renewable capacity is, on average, twice as expensive as new capacity from the most economical fossil-fuel alternative, and triple the cost of surplus electricity.

In a Policy Analysis released by Cato last year, Bradley observes that solar power for bulk generation is substantially more uneconomic than the average. Biomass, hydroelectric power, and geothermal projects are less uneconomic than the average. Wind power, once viewed as a viable energy alternative, costs on average two to three times more to produce than traditional sources of electricity, he adds.

Bradley also points out that renewable energy sources, such as wind, sunshine, water, and the combustion of replenishable crops (biomass), have unpleasant environmental side effects. Wind and solar farms, for example, can require 100 times more land space–often in pristine areas–than fossil-fuel plants producing the same amount of power. Wind farms are noisy and, he notes, it is estimated that such farms in California have killed hundreds of endangered golden eagles.

That renewable energy sources are not economically competitive explains why proponents at both the state and federal levels lobby heavily in favor of quota requirements and continued or expanded subsidies, Bradley says.

“Current state and federal efforts to restructure the electricity industry are being politicized to foist a new round of involuntary commitments on ratepayers and taxpayers for politically favored renewables, particularly wind and solar,” Bradley points out. “Yet new government subsidies for favored renewable technologies are likely to create few environmental benefits; increase electricity-generation overcapacity in most regions of the United States; raise electricity rates; and create new ‘environmental pressures,’ given the extra land and materials (compared with those needed for traditional technologies) it would take to significantly increase the capacity of wind and solar generation,” he notes.

“The failed coercive model of eco-energy planning should be replaced with a market energy model predicated on private property, competition, market pricing, profit/loss signals, technological improvement, and growing real wealth and philanthropy,” Bradley advises.