Bernie Sanders' clean energy claims need a bit of tidying up

by Paul Phillips

Bernie Sanders’ clean energy pitch says, in part, that “nearly a full quarter of the world’s electricity today comes from clean, sustainable resources like the sun and wind”.

Well that’s interesting. In 2014, according to the International Energy Agency, of the world’s entire energy requirements:
– 40% came from Oil
– 10% came from Coal, Peat and Shale
– 15% came from Natural Gas
– 18% came from Electricity

That’s already 83%.

Another 12.4% came from Biofuels and waste. Do they count as renewables?

The clue may be in the ‘Others’ section, which is
– 3.5% from Others (Renewables).

So that’s a ‘no’ on the biofuels and waste.

But wait a second – Bernie’s talking about electricity, not power in general.

Aha! So what he’s actually saying is that nearly one quarter of 18% of the world’s power is coming from renewables. Quite a different matter.

Of course, he’s using language that people might not look at too closely. Maybe he wants us to believe that we’re a quarter of the way to our target of power through renewables? Either that, or he totally overrates our reliance on electricity?

But some of us do look closer, and what he’s saying is that 4.5% of the world’s total energy consumption comes from renewables.

Which is barely worth mentioning really, after, what, nearly 100 years?

Yes, it’s almost 100 years since the world’s first geothermal power plant was built (in California); more than 90 years since the American government passed its first law to control pollution.

Solar cells began to approach cost-effectiveness in the 1970s. So how come 40 years later they’re still not the answer?

Come to that, the first commercial wind turbines were sold in 1927. Still it took 60 years till Palm Springs, the California desert community incorporated in 1938, installed the wind farm that now provides its power.

In the 1980s, 2,700 wind turbines were erected on parched land outside Palm Springs. There are now 3,218. Palm Springs is 245 square kilometres. The wind farm is on 22 square kilometres. Think about that for a second.

Twenty two square kilometres of wind farm may be fine when you’re literally in the middle of nowhere, and there are hundreds of miles of even more nowhere all around you. (Although, not so fine if you’re a bird, or you like to see the desert in its virgin state. The San Gorgonio Pass wind farm is a culture shock on first sighting. And second, and third. It’s kind of awe-inspiring, but not in a good way).

But at least it makes it easier to see the difficulties in creating, say, all the energy needs for the whole of California. Or all of Britain.

London, for instance, is 1,572 square kilometres (to Palm Springs 245k²). It is home to 8.5m people (compared to Palm Springs’ 46,200). It doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that if it requires a 22k² wind farm to serve 46,000 people, the amount of empty land required to serve 8.5m doesn’t exist anywhere outside of London that wouldn’t require the evacuation and flattening of hundreds of other towns and communities.

(To be fair, it is estimated that the same wind farm that serves Palm Springs could power, in total, 300,000 homes. Still the maths don’t work, do they?).

And these are the reasons we are where we are nearly 100 years since these marvellous renewable sources were first thought of. (And please don’t chase me down with ancient history; we’re talking of the here and now, give or take 100 years or so).

So why is Bernie Sanders talking up this superfluous information? Well, chances are, he wants you to be angry at the oil companies.

No, scrap that. He does want you angry at the oil companies. They’re bloated, they make profits, and they’re the bosses. Bernie doesn’t like any of that. More than that, they’re actively stopping the development of renewable resources.

He might have a point if we were already getting 25% from renewables. But we’re not. We’re getting 3.5% (that’s the International Energy Agency’s number, a bit lower than Bernie’s).

3.5% after 100 years. Tells its own story, really. We haven’t found the answer yet, whatever the Green Lobby – or Bernie – tells us.

But when clean energy does come (and it will, within 50 years pessimistically) the oil companies are as likely as anyone to provide it. Why? Because they like making money. Why else?

Meanwhile, have a look at this marvellous clip from The West Wing. It may be nearly 15 years old, but it still makes its point brilliantly. Every renewable energy source has its own lobby, and each lobby always has to pitch to the detriment of the others. If you really want to know why wind, sun and water are not already providing all of our energy requirements, this is the best possible start point.


From series 6, Episode 5, The West Wing, 2004.

More about the Palm Springs Wind Farm

And more here

A fascinating short history of energy use


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