The energy paradox: Cheap versus clean
January-March 2018
By: Bob S Effendi

If renewables could run 24-7, they could be the solution for clean and cheap energy. Unfortunately, they can’t. The fundamental reason renewables can’t compete with coal as the primary energy source in most countries is their low power density and intermittency. David MacKay, in his book “Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air,” points out that intermittent renewables are a nonsolution to power a whole country, let alone solve climate change, so the 100 percent renewables solution proposed by some scholars is a pipe dream.

As an economic case, renewables have a very low energy return on energy invested: in fact, below the economically viable threshold, making it an unsustainable economic investment unless given some sort of subsidy to sustain its economic viability. According to James Conca, an American writer and energy consultant, energy return on investment is still the best tool to evaluate whether an energy source is sufficient to power our society into the future. In that light, intermittent renewables should be considered a complementary solution, not the solution.

If we cannot find a cheap and clean solution to replace coal, then the paradox will continue – coal will power the planet for the next 100 years. This paradox probably is the hardest challenge humanity faces right now: how to achieve prosperity without polluting and destroying the planet. No country has a workable solution yet, and we need to examine all possible solutions, even if they are only on paper.

The energy miracle

It is obvious that the solution to the paradox is clean, base-load electricity. The choices are: large hydro, geothermal and nuclear. Hydro and geothermal are relatively cheap, but their locations are fixed. We cannot simply move the energy source closer to the load demand, meaning that it cannot replace coal. Nuclear, on the other hand, has the highest power density of all energy sources and can be built near points of demand. Unfortunately, it has two problems. First, there is a negative public perception of the safety of nuclear power. Second, a current conventional nuclear power plant cannot compete with coal on price. This is most probably why energy giants such as Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy.

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