Despite Green Hype, Coal Still Makes 55 Times More Power Than Solar

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Environmentalists are overjoyed on news the world has more solar power capacity than coal capacity, but that obscures the fact that solar still produces far less electricity than coal on a global scale.

A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found total global solar power capacity is larger than total coal capacity. The report was quickly seized on by environmentalists to claim solar subsidies have been successful.

There’s just one problem. Most of this global green energy capacity isn’t used due to unreliability.

“For the first time, renewables accounted for more than half of net annual additions to power capacity and overtook coal in terms of cumulative installed capacity in the world,” the IEA report’s executive summary states.

Capacity is how much a power plant can theoretically produce under the best possible conditions, but actual power generation from solar power is 55 times lower than the amount of electricity from coal due to the basic unpredictability of sunlight. Coal provides more than six times as much electricity as solar and wind power combined, because far more coal capacity can be put to use.

Last year, wind and solar power only accounted for 4.7 and 0.6 percent of all electricity generated in America respectively, according to data from the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA). Coal power and natural gas power collectively provide 66 percent of all power generated in the U.S. and nuclear power generates another 20 percent.

Wind power provided substantially more electricity than solar, but it has grown at a slow rate, while solar produced far less electricity, but has grown at a relatively faster rate. Even in the unlikely event that both wind and solar power continue to grow rapidly, they will only provide about 10 percent of U.S. power within a decade. Hydropower and biofuels account for 6 and 1.6 percent of all electricity generated last year, but both are increasingly targeted by the green movement, difficult to rapidly expand and dependent upon regional conditions.

Solar and wind power are also incredibly intermittent, which is a huge problem for the power grid. In order for the power grid to function, demand for energy must exactly match supply. Power demand is relatively predictable and conventional power plans, like nuclear plants, coal or natural gas, can adjust output accordingly. Solar and wind power, however, cannot easily adjust output. They also provide power unpredictably relative to conventional power sources.

The unpredictability means that solar and wind power systems require conventional backups to provide electricity when they cannot. Since the output of solar and wind plants cannot be predicted with high accuracy by forecasts, grid operators have to keep excess reserve running just in case.

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