Updated: Dec 15, 2019
The great physician Rudolph Virchow once said “Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale. Medicine as a social science, as the science of human beings, has the obligation to point out problems and to attempt their theoretical solution.”
While weather dependent renewables have become a sacred cow amongst environmentalists and are presented to the public uncritically by the media I believe that the time has come to point out the problem with these energy sources. We must abandon our fear of exposing them as the failure that they are when it comes to phasing out fossil fuels.
The most fundamental and unavoidable truth about solar panels and wind turbines is that they do not produce energy the majority of the time and their output is unpredictable. Hospitals, water treatment, heating and refrigeration facilities all require reliable electricity to avoid catastrophic public health consequences. In Canada wind production averages less then 40% of the time, Solar less then 18%. 1 What this means is that a reliable duplicate back up generation system capable of meeting peak demand for days to weeks at a time must be in place. To date and into the foreseeable future these have been fossil based: Coal and natural gas. This explains the dismal emission reduction results of the German Energiewende and California's solar energy experiments. It takes an enormous leap of faith and willingness to squander unimaginable amounts of natural resources to believe that batteries or other storage systems will be able to make up for the fatal intermittency flaw.
In Germany filthy lignite coal remains the backbone of their electricity generation despite hundreds of billions invested in weather dependent renewables. According to the European environmental agency “Germany saw the highest number of deaths attributable to all air pollution sources, at 80,767 in 2014.” 2
What are the alternatives? The only successful deep decarbonisations of state sized electricity grids have been accomplished via nuclear and or hydro. If you are not blessed with extremely favourable hydrology this leaves you with Nuclear as the only demonstrated and proven tool as accomplished by France, Sweden and Ontario.
One need only look to the weather dependent energy transition in Germany and compare that to predominantly nuclear France and Ontario. Carbon intensity of electricity is on average 10x lower in the nuclear powered examples. 3
Many will counter with the position that Nuclear is just too unpopular a technology and will not achieve public acceptance. If politics is medicine writ large we must remember that good politics is the art of the impossible, made possible. As physicians we must make choices based on what the evidence shows us is in the best interests of our patients not what is popular.
I believe we should be bold, diplomatic yes, but bold and intellectually honest in our condemnation of ineffective weather dependent renewables. They are a dead end, incapable of deep decarbonisation and lock us into the continuing use of fossil fuels. Given the exceedingly tight timelines imposed by climate change and the spiralling public health costs of air pollution further investment in a demonstrably failing decarbonisation technology is an unforgivable waste of time and resources.
Einstein said “the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” We can’t afford to repeat the disastrous policies of Germany’s Energiewende.
We must dare to expose the falsehood that weather dependent renewables are a viable strategy to the urgent challenges we face. Appeasement is a losing strategy.