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How to Fool Americans

June 12, 2015

When it comes to renewables and other clean energy issues, there is an effort to make things seem what they aren’t.

In media parlance, by using spin.

Three such “spins” come immediately to mind.

Unfortunately, they are from our government, where the Energy Information Agency (EIA) attempts to mislead Americans by spinning information pertaining to the cost of generating electricity based on each method’s Leveled Cost of Electricity (LCOE)(1).

The following explains how the EIA is misleading Americans with respect to:

  • Coal
  • Wind and Solar
  • Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)

Coal

While coal generates some of the least costly electricity, the EIA attempts to make it appear as though it is more expensive than wind.

The table accompanying the EIA website shows the LCOE of coal as 9.66 cents /kWh and wind as 8 cents /kWh.

Clearly, according to the EIA, it costs less to generate electricity with wind than with coal-fired power plants.

Pinocchio. Photo by D. Dears

Pinocchio. Photo by D. Dears

This is repeated by the media and by those who favor wind.

But the table is misleading, and it’s necessary to read the text accompanying the table to understand why.

Buried in the text, the EIA increases the cost of capital that’s equivalent to a $15 per metric ton of CO2 penalty to the LCOE calculation for coal-fired power plants.

The EIA arbitrarily increases the cost of coal generated electricity by adding a charge for CO2. Here is the actual EIA text.

“In LCOE terms, the impact of the cost of capital adder is similar to that of an emissions fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide (CO2).”

The EIA cooks the books to make it appear that wind is less costly than coal, when in fact, wind is at least twice as expensive as coal for generating electricity.

Wind and Solar

Another spin by the EIA is found in the same table referenced above.

It shows the cost of onshore wind at 8 cents /kWh, offshore wind at 20 cents /kWh, PV solar at 13 cents /kWh and thermal solar at 24 cents /kWh.

But these are for 2019, four years from now.

These are merely estimates and are not actual costs.

Obviously, the cost of these renewables is higher today, since the estimates are based on anticipated improvements in these renewables.

Again, the media and proponents of renewables use this data to spin the so-called benefits of renewables. They merely say, “As reported by the EIA, wind costs 8 cents /kWh.” But wind doesn’t cost 8 cents /kWh, it actually costs much more.

I have seen 8 cents /kWh quoted in several media articles, AND it is WRONG.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)

It’s not clear whether it was the EIA or Power Magazine that distorted the cost of CCS.

Power Magazine referred to EIA data and said, “The critical point is that coal with CCS is not economically disadvantaged when [compared with the cost of wind and solar after adding storage costs etc.]”

The article avoided comparing the cost of CCS with the cost of generating electricity by natural gas or coal without CCS, thereby distorting the truth about CCS.

Obviously, CCS is disadvantaged when compared with the least costly methods of generating electricity rather than with expensive alternatives. In fact, the cost of electricity using CCS is two to three times more expensive than when generated without CCS.

In essence: “CCS isn’t so terrible when compared with other terrible alternatives.”

Or, phrased differently: A skunk doesn’t smell badly when compared with other skunks.

The article also inferred that CCS will eventually be viable, when it’s clear that CCS won’t work. See, The Why and How of Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

Summary

These examples are clearly attempts to fool Americans about the cost and usefulness of clean energy, specifically wind, solar and CCS.

Here we have an agency of the U.S. government distorting information and undermining the confidence that Americans have in their government.

We also have a magazine whose readers expect it to provide factual information to the utility industry, but which seems to parrot the government’s line.

Americans deserve better from their government.

 

  1. Reference EIA web site: http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2015 10:52 am

    Donn, a red flag goes up for me when a writer uses the word “cost”, and the only cost referred to is money. I respect that your expertise is in energy-related fields. Mine’s in health care.

    Where we would probably agree is in accepting that alternatives for power technology, like choices about a medical treatment plan, are risk vs. benefit calculations. You’ve explained coal’s advantage. It’s cheaper. Saving money is a benefit.

    However, burning coal to produce electricity includes a risk you didn’t mention. It causes the release of fully half the mercury into the air-water cycle that we breathe in and/or consume. That’s twice as much as is released by volcanic activity, the largest natural (non-industrial) contributor.

    While we in the US do a far better job of limiting this toxicity than we used to, other countries don’t follow the same high standards for their coal plants. They cite the same justification as yours – cost. We can’t entirely segregate the pollution in their parts of the planet from ours.

    Non-fossil fuel technologies DO cost more money, probably as much as you say it does. But they also have significantly less impact upon our health. And health care is a cost. We are dealing with large increases in COPD, metal poisoning cases from food, and asthma (especially in children). Burning coal to make electricity is part of the cause.

    Until you can factor in the dollar amount equivalents for lost work days, lost school, breathing treatments and medication, surgical procedures, and insurance to cover the cost of increases in disease and disability, it’s going to be hard to categorically state what the true “cost” of a technology is. It’s difficult to create a balance between our need and desire for power, and our need and desire to live longer, healthier lives.

    I agree with your main point that Americans deserve more facts and less spin. But transparency has to come from all quarters, industry as well as government.

    • June 12, 2015 11:30 am

      Natural gas doesn’t have the problems associated with it that you ascribe to coal, so there are few if any negative health effects from using natural gas.

      There’s no question that coal has negatives associated with it.

      There are the airborne pollutants such as mercury, and there is fly ash or slag. Here in the United States, coal-fired power plants can meet the EPA requirements for everything except CO2. There is no reason therefore, to prevent the construction of coal-fired power plants other than the unwarranted fear of global warming.

      Some foreign countries, especially developing countries, may not have the same controls to prevent pollutants from entering the atmosphere as we do.

      They need electricity and energy to develop, and may see economic development as being more important. They frequently are deciding which is best, to have babies die or have smoggy unhealthy air. That’s not an over statement, as I have seen conditions around the world.

      You cite mercury specifically. There are several things about mercury that many people don’t realize. For one, the health risk has probably been overstated. I studied mercury emissions in depth a few years ago, which led me to reach that conclusion. Not that mercury emissions are good, just that mercury emissions are not as bad as some say they are.

      It’s a long discussion and I would need to review some of the data before entering into that discussion as I never want to provide inaccurate information.

      The question of leading longer healthier lives is an amorphous straw soldier. Of course, it would be wonderful if the world was perfect. But it never was, and probably never will be.

      150 years ago people had shorter lives even though the air was cleaner. Coal-fired electricity allowed society to progress and create a better overall environment.

      Attempting to include all the costs associated with any technology is impossible. Take solar for example. What is the cost of disposing of all the toxic materials used in the manufacture and disposal of solar panels? I don’t know, and no one else does either. But there are health issues associated with solar panels.

      It’s not perfect, but an economic analysis using accepted accounting practices is the best method we have for evaluating alternatives.

    • usurbrain permalink
      June 13, 2015 9:58 am

      Look at the EPA rule. The actual reduction in Mercury is meaningless. It is basically in the noise as far as quantity. BUT it is large enough of a reduction that it is no longer economical to burn coal. The GREEN Antagonists knew this when the picked that value. The life time dose of a person that lives under the stack would only be slightly reduced.

      And how many people in less industrial advance countries will die from the lack of power when Wind/Solar is forced upon them and they could have had power if they had a coal fired power generator? The numbers are in favor of coal. And I strongly suggest you look deeply into the entire process required for the generation of electricity from Wind and Solar. You claim to be in the medical profession. Does that provide you with knowledge of where and how ALL of the rare earth materials used in the manufacture are mined. Does that provide you with the knowledge of all of the other HIGHLY toxic elements and compounds that are contained in the same ground (ore) as the material they are looking for? Does that provide you with the knowledge of how those toxic materials are removed and hoe the desired material is purified and what happens to all of the waste material? and where it goes (ground, rivers, atmosphere)? Then there are all of these highly toxic batteries and the materials they use. Again as you claim you are in the medical profession, what are the consequences of micrograms of lithium? You, know, the material that is in the batteries that MUS is putting in the TESLA/ The material in the batteries that Musk is putting in the batteries that will be in 10 million homes in less than ten years. The material that will be vaporized when the home burns down or is doused with a fire hose while burning and can not be put out with water.
      All of this GREEN Wind, Solar and battery manufacturing B/S is creating a toxic waste super site problem more massive than any caused by the extraction of lead or even the Love Canal of years ago. Who is going to pay for it? How much will it cost. Who is going to pay for it’s removal/cleanup? How much will it cost? What would the TRUE cost of Wind Solar be if you included the proper. environmentally neutral mining, manufacturing and use of only environmentally neutral, toxic chemical wise, GREEN energy? All of the problems are being hidden now, but eventually you will suffer. And no one cares now as it is GREEN.

      • June 13, 2015 10:32 am

        Thanks for many interesting comments about green energy.

      • June 13, 2015 3:34 pm

        You don’t have to take such an adversarial tone, “usurbrain”. I’m here to learn. I compared the risks of coal burning to other alternatives only in terms of relative health risk. I didn’t say other methods have NO risk, only LESS. And I didn’t profess any expertise about the other aspects of the word “cost”. I read Donn’s work precisely because I don’t know much about power prior to its use.

        I see only the negative aftereffects on people seeking help, and act accordingly. Folks who feel well don’t come to the clinic.

        There is no “safe” exposure level to mercury, only survivable levels. It’s toxic even at an infinitesimal dose, which is why thimerosal (mercury-based preservative) is no longer in vaccines given to children in the US.

        i have had to deal with industrial metal poisoning cases that occurred in non-workers, and metal poisoning from dietary sources. My university training didn’t prepare me to expect that. It was rarer to encounter it in the general public decades ago. So I’m more aware of mercury dangers than I am of the economic “cost” factors.

      • usurbrain permalink
        June 13, 2015 5:08 pm

        @Invisible Mikey The intent of my “Rant” is that the majority of the pro-green energy sites are completely and utterly ignoring the totality of the environmental effects of this new “Wonder Drug” (Green Energy) that is going to cure the earth of all of the problems man has brought upon the environment. The think that since a wind turbine uses no “fuel” it is inherently clean, ignoring what is needed to make the parts of the generator, magnets, the mining, extraction and purifying of these rare earth elements. They hate strip mining, yet love loping off the top of a mountain and placing a wind turbine on it. You cannot get even one proponent of wind turbines to admit that the hypersonic noise the turbine blades has health effects. Google that if you are concerned about health. Then determine how many wind turbines are needed to provide the us with power from 1/3 wind, 1/3 solar and 1/3 other “renewable.” http://www.eia.gov/electricity/annual/html/epa_01_01.html
        you need 3 times the name plate rating to provide that one third due to length of sun light, and availability of wind’ Thus you need 4,065,964,000 megawatts of wind generators. Right now the worlds largest is 8 Megawatts, thus you would need 2,000,000,000 of these wind turbines. There would be enough of them across the US that essentially you would not be able to drive to work without seeing one. What is that noise going to do to health. Also, no one has planed for the removal of these after they are no longer working – another hidden cost not factored in their “Free” electricity.

        The elements used in Solar collectors have the same problem. The numbers need to provide 100% renewable are in the same monstrous range and the hazards are right there with, if not worse than coal. And, again, no one has planed for the removal of these after they are no longer working – another hidden cost not factored in their “Free” electricity. If you put one on your roof, who will remove it in 25 years at a cost of about what you paid for the installation – plus inflation, plus hazardous waste fee? I have three old TVs sitting in the basement that no one will take unless I pay $100 for the lot to get rid of them.

        The chemicals used in batteries also have this problem. And it is not just the chemicals they mine it is the chemicals that are found with them in the ground. Typically, they are extracted from this mixture using chemistry techniques. That means that those chemicals in the same column as the one you are trying to extract will come along with them and then need to be removed by other processes. All of this goes somewhere and usually not where you want it. The chemical used for making batteries are not as pure as those used for drugs and they will be given off each and every time the battery is charged and discharged. Look at the family of chemicals in the Periodic chart associated with Lithium. Use your knowledge of these chemicals biological effect and tell me if you want them and lithium discharged into your house on levels of several milligrams per charge/discharge of the battery.

      • June 13, 2015 5:49 pm

        Thanks, usurbrain, this is an impressive parade of information. [When I first saw your screen handle I pronounced it to myself ‘user brain’ but now I see it should be ‘use your brain’. Nice one.] The only thing to prevent these comments of yours being truly useful is lack of citations. You cover an enormous range of topics, so I fear no single source could be found, but is there a book or article, or will you perhaps write one, to collate all these facts into one handy reference? Having spent nearly ten years researching climate science, a huge and diverse field in itself, I now find that a discussion of the climate change panic is quickly diverted into technical details of electricity generation, metallurgy, batteries, poisoning, animal welfare and lots more. We need to be Renaissance men to cope with this breadth of scholarship, which of course is impossible. Here you present seemingly impregnable responses to the glib assurances of most Green enthusiasts for ‘alternative’ power but it is necessary to trust the responses.

      • usurbrain permalink
        June 13, 2015 7:41 pm

        @Richard Treadgold

        The information about the Rare Earth materials used in the generator magnets and the Solar-cell Panel material are on the internet. Look for non-environmental sites (either for or against).
        The batteries are a little harder. It is near impossible to find info on their off gassing. You have to go back to the descriptions of how a Lead Acid cell works and the fact that the ions in the electrolytic are released during charging and discharging. I was taught this in the 60’s in the Navy as I served on a Sub and all subs have large batteries. A graduate level course on thermodynamics I took in grad school also explained how the ions in the acid were released with the hydrogen and oxygen while charging and discharging. This text did not have much on the tramp elements, but chemistry and thermodynamics laws still apply. A MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) should (required) have the percentage of these tramp elements in the lead or whatever the battery is made of Arsenic and Antimony, both are listed on the Lead acid battery MSDS. The rest is all chemistry and thermodynamics, and that was to many years ago for me, but was not that hard of a problem as I remember. A competent Thermodynamics and/or Chemistry professor should be able to provide better help than me. Courses today just don’t seem to cover this, so I guess everyone building this stuff is unaware of it. My HS chemistry textbook seems like a more comprehensive text than the one my grand son is using in college today.
        This site has a good description of the Lead Acid Battery. http://www.powerstream.com/1922/battery_1922_WITTE/battery_WITTE.htm#toc Chapter 4. the Arsenic and Antimony will also be in solution, at the percentage it is present, as it has similar chemical proprietaries. Thus the gas will carry off some of these toxins. Have you read E.A. Poe’s short story of a murder using Arsenic laced candles? Same effect, same result (if there is enough. And here we are worried about Radon and a nuclear power plant that has killed no one.

  2. donb permalink
    June 12, 2015 11:48 am

    I agree with this comment:
    “Attempting to include all the costs associated with any technology is impossible.”

  3. June 12, 2015 5:23 pm

    Good article, Donn, thanks. What an eye-opener. But about ‘inferred’ (and I bet you knew this):

    The article also inferred that CCS will eventually be viable, when it’s clear that CCS won’t work.

    It’s the other way round: the speaker does the implying, the listener does the inferring. 🙂

    • June 12, 2015 7:01 pm

      I’m afraid you caught me with a colloquialism, or maybe just bad grammar. The article implied, would have been correct. Every now and then I get careless. Many thanks.

  4. June 13, 2015 4:24 pm

    Mr. Invisible.
    I’m glad you are reading my articles because they can provide you with the cost and science associated with energy from all sources, coal, oil , natural gas, hydro, wind, solar, geothermal etc.

  5. June 14, 2015 9:01 am

    usurbrain. Thanks for your excellent comments and additional information.

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