Guest Post: Zachary Shahan on the State of Renewables

December 21, 2015


If you’re looking for a visual representation of “disruptive technology”, this might be one.

Zachary Shahan is Director and Chief Editor of the invaluable CleanTechnica.

I’ve paired his update on renewables with some important interviews with renewable experts Brewster MacCracken of  Austin’s Pecan Street Project, and Michael Osborne, Chairman of the Austin Texas Electric Utility Commission.

Saving society from self-destruction should be reason enough to tackle global warming and limit climate destruction. After all, the economy is totally screwed when record-shattering and city-destroying natural disasters are handicapping state after state and country after country, and public health emergencies are multiplying. Yet, even if you completely ignored global warming, clean technology is now often better and even cheaper.

Starting with solar, rooftop solar panels often have an attractive return on investment, especially when compared to paying ever-increasing electric bills for the rest of your life. If buying solar panels outright or with a loan from the bank doesn’t work for you, leasing them may still be cheaper than paying your normal electricity bill. When it comes to wholesale electricity, utility-scale solar is increasingly more competitive than electricity from fossil fuels.

On the grid side of things, solar power is very beneficial since it is so decentralized, so widely distributed, and often put in place near the point of electricity use. Decentralization and wide distribution help grid security and improve reliability. The grid as a whole becomes more stable. When implemented near the point of use (like on rooftops), solar power reduces the transmission length of electricity, which saves money on expensive transmission infrastructure and also improves efficiency of the electricity transfer. Solar power also creates electricity in the middle of the day, a time of high electricity demand, which reduces the need for expensive peaker plants.

Wind power is often the cheapest option for new electricity generation plants. The typical levelized cost of electricity from wind power is lower than any other source of electricity. Wind power is also quite decentralized and distributed, offering similar benefits to solar power.

Wind and solar power, despite often being cheaper, also create a lot more jobs per dollar invested (or, more practically, per million dollars invested — $1 doesn’t create a job).

Jumping to transport, electric cars typically have much lower operational costs than gasoline- or diesel-powered cars (even hybrids). They are approximately 3-4 times more efficient, and that combined with the price of electricity vs the price of gas often means much lower “fuel” costs. Electric cars also have a lot fewer moving parts under the hood, reducing maintenance needs, and don’t need oil changes (or oil at all).

They do have much higher upfront costs because of the high cost of batteries, however, so you have to do the math for you own situation to see if an electric car would save you money (variable inputs include which car you’d be getting and in place of which non-electric car, how many miles you typically drive, how much gas costs in your area and how much you expect it to cost over the period of time you have the car, the same with regard to electricity, available subsidies, projected maintenance costs, differences in insurance costs, and perhaps some other factors).

The best parts of electric cars for many of us, though, are how much better they are to own and drive. They have instant torque, which allows for super quick acceleration off the line. They drive much more quietly and smoothly. And they allow for more relaxing one-pedal driving. Furthermore, with electric cars, you can charge while at home doing other things. You don’t need to go out of your way, find a gas station, pull over for gas, get out and fill up at a stinky and unhealthy pitstop, pay, get back in your car, and get back on the road. In other words, they are typically much more convenient.

Of course, all of the technologies above also massively reduce air pollution, improving our health and wellness.

When you look at all of these benefits of clean technology, even if global warming didn’t exist, why wouldn’t we switch to these options?

Zachary Shahan is the editor of,,,, and several other websites. You can make friends with him on just about any social network you like.



39 Responses to “Guest Post: Zachary Shahan on the State of Renewables”

  1. freggersjr Says:

    From the article:

    “On the grid side of things, solar power is very beneficial since it is so decentralized, so widely distributed, and often put in place near the point of electricity use.”

    The above, and the reduction in the distance which power must be distributed, have their benefits, BUT ONLY WHEN NOT CONNECTED TO THE GRID!

    When connected to the grid, as most users of renewables are, it is not really decentralized and the distance which power must be distributed is not reduced. It’s hard to see renewables as rivals to conventional power in cases where renewables are totally dependent on conventional power to assure that the power is reliable.

    Of course we must phase out fossil fuels, but we are not phasing out fossil fuels if we depend on fossil fuels when the renewable systems, which are intermittent, are not producing any power. The amount of fossil fuel power available would be reduced very little by connecting renewables to the grid because the fossil fuel systems would have to take over when the renewables are producing insufficient or no power.

    I’ll believe that renewables make sense when they provide continuous and reliable power without using fossil fuels as back-up.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      your assumption is not born out in the real world, where renewables have taken their place among all the competing sources of supply.
      You might as well say, “I’ll believe coal fired power plants work when they don’t have to be backed up by nuclear” – it makes little sense, in that the nature of the grid is that all of the power sources back up all the other power sources.
      This is how renewables are already providing much larger percentages in places like Texas, Iowa, and Germany, than “experts” would have thought possible 20 years ago.

      • lorne50 Says:

        But they need back up the wind doesn’t always blow and in Canada when we need solar the sun is gone most of the time! Anyone that says we should drop the temperature in Canada by 2C in the winter 🎿 has never lived here in the winter 😆 Just ask Leonardo Chinook hahahaha

      • freggersjr Says:

        WHERE have renewable systems replaced non-renewable systems?

        Of course there are places where people cannot be connected to the grid. Some use solar with battery storage, at considerable expense, and have Diesel or other generators in case the batteries become discharged. But in other places, they just about always depend on conventional power systems as backup.

        Germany, in phasing out nuclear systems, is actually building more coal powered power plants and importing more coal as documented in the following link:

        Germany is also importing more power from France which gets about 75% of its power from nuclear reactors. Thus, Germany is not a very good example.

        Except for countries which have plentiful hydro power, there is no reasonably large country in the world that has been able to get 100% of its power from renewables at all times even when they have renewables to back up renewables. That is true even though in some places the amount of renewable power is sometimes far more than they can use.

        You have written, “This is how renewables are already providing much larger percentages in places like Texas, Iowa, and Germany, than “experts” would have thought possible 20 years ago.” So what? It still doesn’t even approach 100% and is unlikely to do so ever.

        See whether you can cite an example of ANY large country without hydro power that is able to generate 100% of its electricity reliably with only renewables. Renewable sources are unable to back up renewable sources reliably.

        It is unwise to depend on any power system that has not been PROVEN adequate.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          If your assumptions were correct, the German Grid would be much less reliable than the US grid, when in fact, it is 10 times more reliable.

          • Will use this video on my website if that’s OK.

          • greenman3610 Says:

            of course. RMI has a lot of them and most are very worthwhile.

          • freggersjr Says:

            No, renewables would not necessarily make the grid unreliable, IF they increased the amount of spinning reserve thereby reducing the efficiency of the fossil fueled plants which are operating in spinning reserve mode.

            Actually Germany did go through a period of grid instability which they apparently corrected by using the above method.

            Except for countries which have large amounts of hydro power available, there is no large country which has succeeded in getting 100% of its power from renewables reliably. Thus there is no actual proof that renewables, except for hydro, can do the job alone. Without actual real world proof, claims cannot be accepted as more than wishful thinking.

        • 100% renewable is a high bar without storage, which is becoming a more affordable part of the energy infrastructure mix. In the meantime, there’s a lot of room for cost effective growth between 0% and 100%.

        • redskylite Says:

          “WHERE have renewable systems replaced non-renewable systems?”

          Answer : Costa Rica for one, I understand this is a grid based country . .

          The Central American nation is leading the world in cutting fossil-fuel pollution by relying on hydropower and other forms of renewable energy. Is this a model other countries could follow?

          • freggersjr Says:

            OK, but they have considerable hydro power available which is what makes it possible. Obviously when there is sufficient hydro power available, it is possible to get 100% of power from renewables. Wind and solar power can fill in if the amount of hydro power is somewhat less than required. But without hydro power, there is no example of a large country that has succeeded in getting 100% of its power from renewables alone.

          • Yup, going to hydro and geothermal is about the only way you can get to 100% renewable economically. Relying on wind and solar alone triples the cost. Once you get beyond the curtailment point, the cost of wind & solar go way up as capacity factors go down.

            The cheapest (& fastest) way to decarbonize the grid is (a) hydro & geothermal where available; (b) wind, up to the curtailment point; and (c) nuclear for the rest. France, Sweden, Norway, Iceland show the way; Germany shows how to screw it up.

        • redskylite Says:

          “The Central American nation is just one of many nations around the world that is getting behind renewable energy.”

          “Renewable energy now powers nearly 95 percent of electricity in Uruguay. Over the past decade, the South American nation has drastically reduced its carbon footprint “without government subsidies or higher consumer costs,” the country’s National Director of Energy Ramón Méndez told The Guardian earlier this month.”

          But as this Al Jazeera (America) article points out you do need the political will to do it . . wealth alone is not enough to succeed (but it sure helps). . .

          “When it comes to improving energy efficiency, it is widely assumed that wealthier countries are better positioned to develop the technology and enact policies to do so.

          But as a comparison of energy trends in the United States and South America’s second-smallest country, Uruguay, shows, the key to success may be clear decision-making.”

    • This article from CleanTechnica ( ) contains two reports (1 video, one audio) from the CEO of 50 Hertz, which runs the grid in NE Germany (I take that to mean former East Germany, and would include Berlin). Both talks are short, but most interesting.

      In them he points out how originally as little as 5% renewables in the grid would, it was believed, lead to grid instability. In fact, now in their network 46% is from renewables, and it’s expected to reach 50% next year. He thinks we can increase renewables to 70% before storage becomes essential.

      Most countries, apart from those with substantial hydro, produce way below this threshold of renewables. So there is plenty of room to move before we come up against storage constraints.

  2. Electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are 4 or 5 times as efficient as i.c. engine powertrains – except when you charge with a central station steam electric system that is 25% efficient. The EV efficiency benefit is thus negated unless you charge with solar panels. Fact – a solar panel the size of a one car garage or full parking space is fully capable of charging an EV/PHEV enough to supply the average daily range of a vehicle – which is 29 miles/day. My 25- sq. ft. solar panel fully charges my Ford Fusion Energi PHEV and after six months is averaging 130 to 140 miles per gallon. The latest ExxonMobil ad says they are working on “doubling” vehicle fuel efficiency. sounds like they are going backwards to me. Although that money combined with evil stupidly – priceless.

  3. redskylite Says:

    Finally townships in Australia are set to divorce themselves from the grid as many sources, discuss . . It helps that the anti-science pm has stepped down . . .

    It is worth to note that there have been large advances in storage and the technology is coming down in price and becoming much more available in Australia and elsewhere. We have moved on from a few years back, where windless, cloudy days and nigh-time, limited us, with renewables.

  4. Kiwiiano Says:

    It worries me that no-one, ever, includes any assumption that we can or should reduce demand rather than perpetually expecting renewables to replace fossil fuels. There is no way we will meet the reduction in emissions of 90% needed to avoid >2°C rise without a very hard look at what we need as opposed to what we like or have been used to for the last century.

    • otter17 Says:

      Well, it doesn’t get a lot of play in popular circles, but the energy wonks certainly discuss efficiency and conservation before or during switching energy sources.

      IPCC WG3 report
      Lovins Reinventing Fire scenario
      ask any industrial/commercial/residential energy retrofit expert

      Efficiency and conservation efforts make sense first because one can then save a good deal on both the operating costs due to lower electricity billed, but also some substantial savings on capital costs for the new energy source installed at the site, solar, wind, geothermal, etc.

      • Kiwiiano Says:

        I think our big problem is going to be that efficiency & conservation will only go part of the way. We are going to need to ‘go without’ a lot of stuff like entertainment, travel or affluent lifestyles if we are to retain access to more important aspects like medicine & education. Or food.
        Which is going to go down like a bowl of cold vomit for waaay too many consumers.

        • Why should energy be a limiting factor when sun/wind/wave is free and in 10,000 fold abundance? Granted, that seems like a dream because the only models people seem to write about are nice corporate profit-driven free market-based business plans.

          Zach Shahan sees PV neatly sequestered into two corporate piles:

          1) PV on roofs for homeowners who properly buy at full retail

          2) PV in “utility-scale” quantities providing “wholesale” electricity by corporate for-profit utility companies.

          But, what we could have are local, regional, state, national electric non profit co-ops owned by the public, distributing green energy at cost. And since that cost will be very low, our future could be the exact opposite of “going without” as you put it.

          Funny how our electric utility sector has always been about 1/2 non profit – but all we see are articles about how “democratic” for-profit green energy is.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          one example, LED lighting, which is now taking over, uses 85 percent less power than traditional incandescents. So you have the advantage of light without “giving up” anything.
          “Zero net energy” buildings, for instance, provide lighting and warmth to their occupants without a net demand on the grid, or sometimes are even “net positive” in terms of energy..
          But be very, very, clear, there are no scenarios that get us where we want to go that do not include very substantial cuts in energy use.

          • “But be very, very, clear, there are no scenarios that get us where we want to go that do not include very substantial cuts in energy use.”

            Maybe that is because there are no scenarios that propose using our energy monies most efficiently, with an aim to produce new green infrastructure that will provide electricity in superabundant supply at the lowest possible price?

            Perhaps the scenarios show decreases in energy use not as an intentional austerity program, but rather as a happy benefit of the increased efficiency of electric motors vs carbon-burning ICE technology? The transportation sector is large enough that if everything was held the same, we would still be using significantly less energy in future simply by converting to more efficient motors?

            At some point in the not too far future, we may well see PV system prices, for example, be 1/10th or 1/100th of what they are now, and come with lifespans on the order of 100 years. They would pay for themselves (based on some archaic fossil-fuel standard) in a matter of a few months. [Think this is far-fetched? Imagine thin-film flexible panels with integrated inverter circuitry, printed on 300 year UV-stable plastic in spring-loaded retractable rolls 10-feet wide by 100 feet long]

            So, why would we not simply overbuild and enjoy the comforts of of energy indulgence? Electricity is going to be dirt-cheap in future.

          • greenman3610 Says:

            see here

          • freggersjr Says:

            On a global scale there will NOT be any cuts in energy use. Rather, energy use will considerably INCREASE. It MUST increase to lift people in poor countries out of poverty and as more power is used for sea water desalination.

            Regardless of anything we do now, global warming will increase. All we can do is limit the increase and we do not know accurately how much than increase will be. And, because of global warming, we will need to use more power for air conditioning.

            Of course we can limit to some extent the increase in energy demand, and perhaps we should, but it will still increase substantially.

            I don’t know how much energy LED lighting will save. We are already saving considerable energy by using fluorescent lighting, both CFL and traditional long tubes, and LED lighting is not much more efficient than incandescent lighting. Incandescent lighting is not used very much by businesses, industry, and for street lighting although it is used for residential lighting. It would be interesting to have actual statistics to determine how much LED lighting would actually save.

            There are places where we SHOULD be using incandescent lighting, i.e., in situations where it is not used very much such as in closets.

            By using nuclear power, we would have no difficulty getting sufficient power. Of course we should be using R & D to develop better, safer, more economical, and more efficient nuclear technologies just as we are using R & D to develop better energy storage technologies. Regardless of what energy systems we use, it would still be helpful to have considerable storage in the system if it can be made sufficiently economical.

          • otter17 Says:


            Not sure where you are getting your info on LEDs, but the claim that LEDs are not that much more efficient than incandescents is not accurate on both an overall cost and lifetime energy perspective.

  5. redskylite Says:

    To further the subject of backup and alternative methods needed to boost supply at peaks and when renewables are under-performing, here is great news from California. While gas turbines are a lot less pollutive than coal fired generators, they nevertheless still emit carbon into our very thin and vulnerable atmosphere. Southern California Edison is addressing this and embracing energy storage technology over the natural gas-fired peaker plants that utilities have traditionally relied upon to meet sudden shortfalls in electricity.

    That’s brilliant news.

    • redskylite Says:

      and of interest Energy storage leader AES is one of the companies assisting Southern California Edison . . .

    • freggersjr Says:

      Let us hope that economical and efficient energy storage systems do become available. They would be beneficial for any power system technology, including fossil fueled generating plants (which should of course be phased out), nuclear plants, and renewables. However, it is too soon to rejoice. The systems mentioned by the articles have not yet been adequately tested and there could be problems not covered by the articles.

    • freggersjr Says:

      @ Otter17,

      My statement that LED lighting is not much more efficient than incandescent lighting was not what I intended to write. Of course it is much more efficient. What I meant to write was that LED lighting is not much more efficient than fluorescent lighting. Thus, LED lighting may not save as much power as one might suppose if it is used mostly to replace fluorescent lighting.

      It is unfortunate that this system does not provide for correcting mistakes.

      • otter17 Says:

        Ah, I see.

        Yes, the fluorescent versus LED battle is one that is certainly closer. That being said, LED has a lot of design experimentation left, particularly when we get into larger fixture designs for industrial or commercial lighting where fluorescents still dominate.

        Fluorescent is more mature and LED is showing some real promise on both installation cost and adaptability to various form factors, along with saving somewhere between 10% to 30% on power rating for equal lighting.

        The lifetime. reliability, turn-on time, and environmental tolerance are seeming to be some advantages for LEDs currently and as they progress. Also, with the capability to arrange LED arrays into a variety of form factors can even produce more aesthetic and directed lighting that is more effective, potentially allowing for a better use of light and better power savings through application-focused design of the bulb. LEDs have that ability to break the tube mold into something more functional and aesthetic.

        Fluorescent has a good form factor in the tube, which matches a ceiling lighting profile for quite some time. As an engineer, I just tend to look at all the pros/cons in total and what is coming up in the future. There may be a future where human dwellers in the office and industrial settings demand LED lighting because it looks more pleasant as well at 2700K color temperature, for example. I know folks complain occasionally my cubicle farm about the lighting when they aren’t near a window.

        • freggersjr Says:

          My new house is indirectly illuminated mostly by fluorescent tubes with a CRI > 90 and color temperature of 5400K which more closely matches daylight than the more yellowish tubes. I had to order them since high quality fluorescent tubes (and also CFLs) are difficult to find locally.

          For all-night outside security lighting I have CFLs. I’ve found that they generally last far longer than their rated life no doubt because they are turned on and off only once per day.

          I do object to laws making it impossible to buy incandescent bulbs because in some situations only incandescent bulbs make sense. In closets they are turned on and off very frequently but rarely left on for even one minute. In that situation CFLs do not last very long since turning them on and off constantly greatly shortens their life to the extent that incandescent lights can last longer than CFLs. The rated life of CFLs assumes a certain number of on and off cycles and if that is exceeded their actual life is less than their rated life.

          So far as I can determine, LED lamps are not rated for CRI (color rendition index) and it is impossible to know what one is buying. At some future date they could replace fluorescent lights. There are companies that make LED arrays designed to replace fluorescent tubes but so far they are too expensive to consider; that could change.

          Light bulbs are called bulbs because they are shaped like bulbs. It irritates me that fluorescent tubes are commonly called bulbs when they are not bulbs.

          My degree is in business administration, but at the tertiary level I’ve had two years of physics, one year of chemistry, and one year of zoology. Also, before I got my degree (11 years late) I had a trade school certificate in industrial electronics and worked as an electrical technician for a manufacturer of engines and generators. I endeavor to analyze things carefully before taking a position and recognize the need to change positions as new information becomes available. I also tend not to be swayed merely by the letters people have after their names.

          • Kiwiiano Says:

            LEDs are the only option for short use lights like cupboards, PIRs, or such, they can switch 1000/sec with no problems. Tungsten bulbs are rated for 1000 hours pretty precisely unless they are ‘long life’ or are on a dimmer that is turned down just enough to see a change in brightness when you might get 2-3000 hours.
            There will always be a demand for incandescent bulbs for low level heating. My home brew cabinet is warmed by a 150W and I can’t see baby chicks being comforted by an LED.

  6. Kiwiiano Says:

    ” LED lighting is not much more efficient than incandescent lighting.”
    An LED lamp will use about 10-20% of the wattage the equivalent tungsten bulb and is claimed to have a life expectancy 10-25x that of the incandescents. What we don’t know yet is what the energy input & carbon footprint of their respective manufacturing processes are. The purchase costs are only a rough guide. Certainly on total costs over their lifetimes the LEDs are waaay ahead.

    • otter17 Says:

      Well, the primary energy-intensive material in an LED bulb would be the doped semiconductor material that goes into the light emitting diode itself and the rectifier/driver power electronics circuitry in the base. The rest is either the clear bulb housing material, heatsink and screwbase, which an incandescent also has some of these.

      So, we can estimate relative lifetime energy for incandescent versus LED with the following.

      incan_life ~= 3000 hrs
      LED_life ~= 25000 hrs
      life_ratio = 25000/3000 = 8.3

      incan_power ~= 100 W
      LED_power ~= 10 W

      So, we can do a study for a 3000 hr period to see how much more energy the LED bulb manufacturing energy would need to be.

      total_energy_incan_3000hr = incan_mfg_energy + 100W*3000hr
      total_energy_LED_3000hr = LED_mfg_energy/8.3 + 10W*3000hr

      So in order to break-even the LED manufacturing energy would have to be…

      LED_mfg_energy = 8.3*incan_mfg_energy + 270 kW-hr

      So, the LED’s manufacturing energy would have to be over 8x the incandescent manufacturing energy plus an additional 270 kW-hr for a 100W bulb example.

      Another way to think about it would be to think just about replacement costs. An incandescent manufacturer would have to produce well over 8 incandescents for a single LED bulb just to break even on replacement rate, not even mentioning the likely much larger longer term operating costs. It is extremely likely that LED beats incandescent by a mile on overall lifetime energy efficiency. Edison would be proud of this generation for inventing them.

      • freggersjr Says:

        In commercial, industrial, and street lighting situations, the cost of labor to replace the lights also has to be considered and can be significant. And, from the power consumption standpoint, it just does not make sense to use incandescent lights where the burning time is several hours or more per day so their use should be only in places where they are never on for very long.

        Comparing LED with fluorescent, LEDs have not yet become a mature product and we can expect significant improvement. Right now it usually makes more sense to use fluorescent lights than LEDs, but that is likely to change. It may never make sense to replace existing fluorescent lights with LEDs until the fluorescent lights fail.

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