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Reality and renewables

By Charles Hemmings - posted Tuesday, 9 January 2024

In the years since I was first tempted to engage in trying to understand the real issues behind power generation - especially electrical power generation - there is, above all, one salient feature that emerges across the board. Sanity and rationalism have been cast aside, and the whole arena is now a political and ideological battleground whose main protagonists understand little or nothing about the industry they seek to bend to suit their ideological (and possibly commercial) needs.

In short the world is full of people who have an opinion about power generation, who understand nothing about how it actually works or even what actually works.

Leo Smith – Limitations of Renewable Energy (2012) (still as relevant today):


The combustion of fossil fuels is causing carbon dioxide to accumulate in the atmosphere. It has doubled since the Industrial Revolution and the rate of increase has been higher in recent times. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas so it follows that there is an anthropogenic enhanced greenhouse effect caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. There is a need to reduce and preferably eliminate these emissions. Replacing fossil fuels is a simple concept but its implementation is a formidable undertaking, and to be effective, requires world-wide cooperation and the identification and construction of suitable replacement electricity generators. Going-it-alone, even if significant emission reduction is achieved, will not save the planet, in fact net zero in Australia will have an imperceptible effect on arresting carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere.

Weather Dependent Intermittency

There are many who see so-called renewables as the complete answer to this major problem facing humanity. This includes Australian Governments. It is a very appealing concept as there is more direct sun-derived energy falling on the planet that we can use. The major flaw in this point of view is due to the intermittency of these generators. Intermittency is a limitation that is grossly underestimated. It is a technological limitation that has highly significant economic consequences that are often either ignored or its significance not properly understood. The UK, US and EU have a decade of experience in large-scale electricity utilities incorporating renewables, and, at this time, no one is claiming that they have an all-renewable electricity utility that is fit for purpose. It should also be noted that Denmark and Germany have the highest proportion of renewables in their generating mix and also the highest costs in the EU. Also Germany has done a deal with Nigeria to provide renewable technology in return for gas! Gas gives more electricity per unit of CO2 emission than coal. This would indicate that German experience is that dispatchable electricity is essential in functioning electricity utilities. One should take more notice of this experience with renewables, rather that the figures that are bandied around about by green extremists, academics dependent on government backing for salary and promotion and feckless politicians who say (without knowing or understanding anything about these issues) how "cheap" renewables are.


Cheap energy is an oxymoron. How many, with strong opinions on these matters, understand that simple statement?

The Purpose of an Electricity Utility

The purpose of an electricity utility is something more specific than just generating electricity. The purpose is to supply electricity on demand, 24/7, reliably, affordably, and now carbon-free. An electricity utility needs to be able to adjust to ever-varying demand, continuously. Utility output must always balance demand or the system fails. Fossil and nuclear are adjustable. Intermittent renewables cannot adjust so are not fit for electricity on demand but can be part of the generation mix. However, incorporating intermittent renewables into the generation mix incurs significant extra financial and environmental costs that you are not told about.


The cost of producing electricity from a renewable generator cannot be directly compared to that from a fossil or nuclear generator, because renewables cannot produce on demand whereas fossil and nuclear can. Being able to produce on demand is far more valuable to the consumer and it does add to costs. Do you want electricity when you want it or are you prepared to wait until the sun shines or the wind blows?

The cost metrics and the utility of renewable energy are simply not comparable with conventional plant. But by pretending that they are, hidden costs are brushed aside, and conclusions reached that are plainly invalid, bordering on public fraud.

The figures bandied around by the disciples of renewable energy and the nuclear and fossil industries cannot be taken seriously unless the methodology and the underlying assumptions in the calculations are made transparent. All of these groups have their own agendas. A fundamental of accounting is that all costs and subsidies need to be taken into account. Creative accounting is tempting, if not compelling, when you have a vested interest. For comparisons among different generating types, the specific situation must be clear. For example, comparing renewables with fossil generators using the LCOE methodology is invalid; fossil and nuclear in an electricity utility can produce electricity on demand whereas renewables cannot.

The marketing of renewable energy compares intermittent un-dispatchable power with reliable dispatchable power, on an averaged basis, to arrive at costs that simply bear no relation to the overall cost of supplying reliable dispatched 'renewable' power to the grid. Adjusting electricity utility output to meet ever-varying demand is a significant task in itself, and having renewables in the generating mix makes it harder and more costly.


Renewables are strictly limited by the vagaries of the weather. Comparing the cost of renewables against fossil and nuclear is a somewhat complex and situational matter. Such comparisons must be made in the context of incorporation into an electricity utility to have any useful meaning. The most important end-cost is the overall cost to the consumer, which must include all costs and subsidies.

Critical Significance of Dispatchable Generators

Dispatchable generators work when you switch the lights on. Renewable generators only work when the weather permits. This difference is not just a technical point, it has enormous economic consequences. With renewables in an electricity utility to provide electricity on demand, an enormous array of redundant generators is needed and has been found elsewhere to be very expensive or even unaffordable.

As the proportion of renewables in an electricity utility-scale system starts to approach 100%, costs sky rocket if the reliability of the system is to be maintained for security of supply against the vagaries of the weather. The smaller the weather non-dependent generating component, the greater is the replication needed, at great cost, of the renewable generators so as to try to offset the risk of having no sun nor wind when electricity is demanded. The greater the proportion of renewables, the more critical are the dispatchable generators of the electricity utility and the harder it is to balance utility output to meet demand. In addition, having renewables in the generating mix loads extra costs onto the utility (excess voltage management, inflexibility and unreliability of supply). This increases costs yet again. Storage, at the present level of technology is not an option. All-renewable electricity supply systems are unaffordable and not fit for purpose. This has been experienced abroad.

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About the Author

Charles Hemmings has a background in metallurgy, earth sciences and business. He is retired.

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