Friday, April 06, 2007

Are Renewables Really Renewable?

We all know that the fuel required for renewable sources of energy are virtually limitless, hence the name. But what about the essential components that renewables like wind turbines and solar panels rely on to function? An article from The Economist (subscription required) highlights several production problems for the "clean-tech boom":

THESE should be heady times for Vestas, a Danish firm that makes more than a quarter of the world's wind turbines. The wind business is booming, and the company said last week that it had swung into profit in 2006, thanks to an 8% rise in revenue. But there is “significant unexploited production capacity”, Vestas says, due to shortages of high-quality turbine components. Other companies grumble about a lack of gearboxes and bearings.

Wind firms' worries echo those in the solar-power business, which is also booming but where a shortage of polysilicon has hampered growth. Silicon is made from sand, which is abundant, but there are not enough refineries to turn it into solar-grade polysilicon. As a result, prices for silicon contracts have more than doubled, to $70 or $80 per kilogram, in the past three years, says Jesse Pichel, an analyst at Piper Jaffray.


Supply shortages will not ease quickly in either case. Wind turbines are giant machines that require lots of parts. Several firms are building new factories: Vestas has just announced its first American plant, which will make blades in Colorado. But new factories will take several years to get up to speed. In the meantime, buyers are putting down deposits to reserve their turbines. GE Energy, the largest turbine installer in America, is already booked up until the end of next year.

Similarly, the big polysilicon producers, including Hemlock and MEMC, are expanding their capacity, says Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association. But some of their additional output will go to chipmakers, which are still the biggest buyers of polysilicon (though the solar industry is about to take the lead). So polysilicon shortages and the associated high prices will not ease until at least 2009, Mr Pichel predicts.

And they say nuclear is too slow to come online. Looks like wind and solar are facing the same production capacity constraints nuclear is. While The Economist article highlights production problems that can be overcome, the materials needed are limited. So are renewables actually limited or am I just out there?


Anonymous said...

You're not out there Dave. I've never found the term "renewable" to be very concrete (no pun intended - wind power uses up a lot of concrete). The fact that the fuel is free doesn't mean anything: wind and solar power still require inputs of energy, raw material and labor to build, maintain and decomssion facilities. "Renewable" fans would have you believe that EROEI (energy return on energy invested) is infinite, but it's not so.

gunter said...

bad pun, anonyomous

Particularly given nuclear power's concrete footprint and well documented dwindling suppliers market. In the case of renewables its about gearing up for new technology. In nuclear's case, its about proposing a reinvestment in a demonstrated failure.

Big difference.

But true enough there's no free lunch... in nuclear's case however it happens to be the whole hog or bust as the most capital intensive of all the energy producers.

Moreover, speaking of parts and component problems, nuclear faces a far more formiadable supply line problem, as much for the current fleet, let alone a steep ramping up with new construction.

This makes the recurring issue of counterfeit and substandard parts for nuclear power plants all the more a subject of increased focus. Bad parts and fraudlent claims on quality control and assurance are not new to the nuclear power industry... we have the GAO reports and the differing professional opinions.

Overall, this is a genuinely lame attempt to malign renewable energy's blossoming and continue to ignore the growing emphasis needed on efficiency and conservation---the bane of a centralized generator industry.

I'll take this as an opportunity to raise another critical issue on facing rapid climate change and meeting future energy needs: population control.

Unless we are intending to colonize other planets as Stuart Brand might likely advocate, there are indeed limits to population growth and its associated demand on all Earth's increasingly anthropocentric resources including energy.

gunter, nirs

Jeremy Stieglitz said...

I'd say you are somewhat out there...

Yes, there are clearly FIXED costs and energy inputs into any system. Nothing comes for free, not even cold fusion. But the POINT is that the ongoing, lifetime contribution of energy input costs are extremely small. For reference, there are thousands of 1920s and 1930s wind water pumping tubines still in operation. There are hydro electric plants in operation for approaching 100 years. What is the ratio of energy in and energy out for those hydro plants today!

But don't find renewables too hard... advanced breeder etc. technologies could very well bring nuclear into "almost" fully renewable.

Check out more writings on renewables at my

robert merkel said...

The whole renewable/non-renewable distinction is irrelevant, in my view, to the sustainability or environmental impact of a particular activity. Caviar, mahogany, and ivory are renewable resources. Bauxite is not. I know which ones have worse scarcity problems...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what part of "no pun intended" Gunter doesn't understand.

In any event, per unit energy nuclear power requires relatively little in the way of raw materials, namely steel and concrete, which is one reason why nuclear's CO2 footprint is at least as good as that for any of the diffuse power sources, and why its externalities are so low.

Diffuse power is "blossoming", if you can call it that, because of subsidies, tax breaks and government fiat, not because of any technological breakthroughs. After all, wind and solar power are centuries old. The photovoltaic effect was known long before nuclear fission was discovered, and heating water, rocks, salts, etc. with solar insolation goes back to antiquity. If these concepts had actually worked to generate large amounts of power, we would never have found the need to burn coal or oil or natural gas.

Anonymous said...

As far as demonstrated failures go, I'd have to include renewables in that category ahead of nuclear. In my area, there are a couple of nuclear plants serving our electricity needs. They came on line in the late '70s and early '80s, and are still going strong. The local gas utility decided to put an expensive, state-of-the-art (for ancient technology) solar heating (heated water, not PV) system on the roof of it's headquarters building, more of a publicity stunt than anything else, but they did it. It was on their roof for a few years, then they tore it out. Why? Their energy use was higher with the solar heating system installed than it was without it.

Anonymous said...

"subsidies, tax breaks, and government fiat"

Isn't that what sparked the current 'nuclear renaissance' (see the Energy Policy Act of 2005)? Applicants are queueing up now with proposals for potential new units to grab these "subsidies, tax breaks and government fiat" before they expire in 2008.

Why are such incentives so loathesome for renewables but perfectly acceptable for nuclear?

Anonymous said...

I think the Energy Policy Act provisions were simply an attempt to take an even-handed approach to the national policy goal of reducing the use of carbon-based energy sources. If you're going to have incentives in the form of subsidies and tax breaks, make them more across-the-board for alternate energy sources. As far as being "loathesome", they are only so if applied unfairly. The 2005 EPA sought to correct the inequity.