For a long time now, I have wondered why many journalists and others believe the claim that solar and wind, as energy sources, employ more people than nuclear or other sources and, therefore, they are good.
Firstly, this is just not true, but far more important is the fact that such a trend is neither good nor desirable. So, I have wondered why people fall for it.
Think of building a road. One can use a bulldozer to level the ground. While the bulldozer needs one driver to operate it, there are also other fellows to refuel it, wash it, et cetera. So, a handful of people ‘operate’ a bulldozer.
Okay, if job creation in itself is the primary objective then we can ban the bulldozer and use workmen with shovels instead. That will provide many more jobs. But why stop there? Let us rather push on to greater heights – ban shovels and build a new freeway using only teaspoons. That will create even more jobs. We can go further – ban trucks and instead carry all the earth away in plastic buckets. Get the picture?
So, claiming that solar power is good because it employs so many more people should be something to be embarrassed about, not something to brag about, even if it were true.
I read an excellent article about this point by journalist Ivo Vegter. I critically read much of what he writes and I find that he does his homework and uses some brainpower to interpret issues. He states that “supporters of wind and solar power”, who promote employment figures as a demonstration of why these renewables are good, actually demonstrate “either a deliberate aim to deceive or a poor grasp of economics”. He quotes a typical US news article indicating the sentiment that “solar employs nearly twice as many people in US electricity generation as oil, gas and coal combined”. Vegter points out that this just is not true. He shows, with real data, that, in fact, oil, gas and coal employ about three times as many people in the US as solar.
Vegter goes on to point out that solar and wind actually produce very little energy, making the whole issue even worse. In the US, solar produces way under 1% of the electricity, while wind generates not more than 5%. Even biomass burning produces more than twice what solar produces.
But even this is actually not particularly relevant.
Vegter continues to point out the real major factor that so many journalists love to ignore. Wind blows intermittently and the sun does not shine at night. Now imagine that some wonderful friend announces that he will give you 30 ℓ of milk every month. That sounds like a wonderful gift. Wow! Free milk forever! You would not be faulted for assuming that 30 ℓ in a month means 1 ℓ everyday. But not so fast. Say it turns out that, for the first week, no milk comes at all. Then, on the next day, 10 ℓ is delivered. The following day, 2 ℓ, the next three days, none, and then 5 ℓ. Then 1 ℓ a day for five days, none for four days, 2 ℓ a day for three days, none for three days, 2 ℓ and then zero – so ending the month.
The real fun would be that the following month would be different. That is what wind power is. It is sold as a quantity per month or year, and not as a guaranteed supply every minute of the day when you need it. That is why State-owned power utility Eskom is griping about being locked into expensive 20-year wind power contracts.
Eskom still has to supply electricity during the minutes, hours and days when the wind is zero. So, the utility has to have a permanent backup in place. It is like having to buy a cow when your friend offers to give you free milk. You also have to get rid of the excess milk when you do not want it. Same for Eskom and wind.
Solar and wind enthusiasts oppose nuclear on principle. The nuclear folks do not oppose solar and wind. I do not. We nuclear folks just say: “Use the solar and wind in situations where it is applicable.” This means not feeding wind- and solar-generated electricity into the national grid. It also means finding applications for which such electricity sources work well. Pump water up into dams with wind and drive the lunchtime sandwich restaurant with solar power, bearing in mind that solar cells produce a direct current voltage like that of a car battery.
I was really pleased to see one sensible journalist, Vegter, point all this out. Nuclear people are not opposed to solar and wind. We are opposed to leading the public, plus bankers, down the garden path, even if the path is lined with sun-loving pretty flowers. The flowers look good, but they do not actually do the work.