But a few years ago, when he was host of Weekend Update, Fallon made one of the best arguments ever why solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy work very, very badly.
Photo credit: Jimmy Fallon (left) with Stephen Colbert at the Montclair Film Festival (license)
He was commenting on a seemingly ridiculous proposal to power cars using renewable energy from…hazelnuts.
Boosters of hazelnut energy made the same arguments we hear for solar and wind:
- It’s “renewable.” It gets its energy from the sun, which will keep replenishing year after year.
- It’s technically possible. Engineers can extract the oil from hazelnuts and use it to power an engine.
But Fallon explained why these arguments are meaningless:
New Scientist magazine reported that in the future, cars could be powered by hazelnuts. That’s encouraging, considering an eight-ounce jar of hazelnuts costs about nine dollars. Yeah, I’ve got an idea for a car that runs on bald eagle heads and Fabergé eggs.
In other words: if your form of energy is unaffordable, who cares if it’s based on the sun or works in a lab?
Here’s my question for Jimmy, given that he wants to ban fracking, a technology used in oil and gas production: Why is hazelnut energy so unaffordable? After all, hazelnuts get their energy from the sun, which is free, right?
I’m guessing that Jimmy would respond that while the sun is free, there were other factors in the process of producing hazelnuts that make them expensive. There are the materials needed to grow the hazelnuts. For example, there is the land in which they optimally grow; hazelnuts require land with a unique combination of rainfall or irrigation, mild summer climate and cold winter climate, and fertile soil. There are also all the machines needed to grow and harvest the hazelnuts and then all the work to transform them into usable energy. And there is the manpower to work the machines.
Here’s a key principle for understanding what makes energy, or anything else, cheap and plentiful. For something to be cheap and plentiful, every part of the process to produce it, including every input that goes into it, must be cheap and plentiful.
With hazelnuts, when you add up all the parts of the process, it’s worth growing hazelnuts as a luxury food for human beings—but as fuel for the high-powered machines of modern life, it is a disaster. The same is true for solar and wind.
Just as it’s a mistake to assume that because the sun is free, solar-powered hazelnuts will be cheap, so it is a mistake to assume that solar-powered energy can or will be cheap. Whether that’s true or not depends on all the materials, manpower, and machines involved in the entire process of harnessing the sun’s power.
The basic problem is that because sunlight and wind are dilute (low-concentration) and intermittent (unreliable) energy inputs, it takes a lot of resources to collect and concentrate them, and even more resources to make them available on-demand. These are called the diluteness problem and the intermittency problem.
The diluteness problem
The diluteness problem is that the sun and the wind don’t deliver concentrated energy—unlike coal or oil—which means you need a lot of materials per unit of energy produced. For solar, such materials can include highly purified silicon, phosphorus, boron, and compounds like titanium dioxide, cadmium telluride, and copper indium gallium selenide. For wind, they can include high-performance compounds (like those used in the aircraft industry) for turbine blades and the rare-earth metal neodymium for lightweight, high performance magnets, as well as the steel and concrete necessary to build thousands or tens of thousands of structures as tall as skyscrapers.
Here’s a comparison of how steel (and iron) intensive it is to generate electricity from wind as compared with coal, nuclear, or natural gas.
Sources: ALPINE Bau GmbH, July 2014; Peterson, Zhao, Petroski (2005); Wilburn 2011
This is a problem—but it’s nothing compared to the intermittency problem.
The intermittency problem
We know from experience that the sun doesn’t shine all the time, let alone with the same intensity all the time, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time—and leaving aside the assurance that the sun will be “off” at night, they can be extremely unpredictable.
The only way for solar and wind to be truly useful, reliable sources of energy would be to combine them with some form of extremely inexpensive mass-storage system. No such mass-storage system exists, because storing energy in a compact space itself takes a lot of resources. Which is why, in the entire world, there is not one real or proposed independent, freestanding solar or wind power plant. All of them require backup—except that “backup” implies that solar and wind work most of the time. It’s more accurate to say that solar and wind are parasites that require a host.
Here’s what solar and wind electricity look like in the world leader in “renewables,” Germany—often cited as an example we should follow. I got this data from the European Energy Exchange, which collects data every 15 minutes.
Sources: European Energy Exchange Transparency Platform Data (2013); Federal Statistical Office of Germany
Notice how unreliable the quantity of solar and wind electricity is. Wind is constantly varying, sometimes disappearing nearly completely, and solar produces very little in the winter months, when Germany most needs energy.
As you look at the jagged and woefully insufficient bursts of electricity from solar and wind, remember this: some reliable source of energy needed to do the heavy lifting. In the case of Germany, much of that energy is coal. As Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars to subsidize solar panels and windmills, fossil fuel capacity, especially coal, has not been shut down—it has increased.
Why? Because Germans need more energy, and they cannot rely on the renewables.
They might be better off relying on hazelnuts.