Why Big Oil loves the renewable energy industry

Wind and solar can only output so much. Fossil fuels often fill a gap better suited for nuclear power

Published June 18, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

Solar panels and wind turbines | Oil (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Solar panels and wind turbines | Oil (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Oliver Stone's new film "Nuclear Now" is causing many of us to pause and re-examine how we power our lives and meet rising global demand for energy, while grappling with our collective failure to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Many of us unquestionably support renewable energy sources like wind and solar, resolutely believing that our support for them qualifies us as 'climate conscious' citizens. It therefore follows that if humanity is failing to solve climate change, others are to blame. Not us good folks. We can feel virtuous because our backing of renewables makes us "green" and firmly part of the solution.

But – and whisper the question quietly – are renewables really such a good idea? Joshua Goldstein, who co-wrote the film with Stone, put it bluntly when I asked him how we solve our clean energy conundrum. "If you want to actually solve climate change and do the math top-down instead of little pieces adding up, then it's clear that we're not on track, and we're not getting on track. You can get about halfway there with renewables, but then you look in your bag of tricks and there's nothing in there left except nuclear power."

So why is it that oil and gas companies are among renewables' biggest cheerleaders? For decades now the biggest fossil fuel companies have been telling us that they are investing in renewables as part of their transition to clean energy. Yet BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2022 showed that 82 percent of global energy still comes from fossil fuels. Almost a quarter into the 21st Century, we are pumping more carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere than ever before. The oil and gas companies continue with their rhetoric, but the transition is yet to materialize. So, what is driving their support for renewables —and what do they get in return for it?

A lesson from the land of the Scorpion Pepper

Five years ago, I was living in Trinidad, the larger island of the oil and gas producing Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Mercifully just south of the Atlantic's Hurricane Alley, Trinidad appears on the map like a small fleck of land that has been chipped off the coast of Venezuela.

"t's clear that we're not on track, and we're not getting on track. You can get about halfway there with renewables, but then you look in your bag of tricks and there's nothing in there left except nuclear power."

I remember the squally showers that would sweep in during the rainy season, sometimes hijacking an entire day. The downpours were broken up by interludes, as though a great faucet from above had been closed. Sometimes the sun would pierce through clouds to burn off the reflection of glistening foliage, creating intense energy-sapping humidity. Then coastal breezes would provide brief respite, returning everything to grey and green: faded tarmac interspersed with grass, palms and shrubs beneath a fast-brooding slate and charcoal sky. Then, the rain would return.

Trinidad might avoid the region's hurricanes but it is not immune to extreme weather caused by climate change, not least an increase in ambient temperature. Erosion linked to rising sea levels and storm surges is evident at popular spots on its northern coastline such as Las Cuevas and Blanchisseuse. And each time those monsoon-like rains sweep in, different communities take turns in being cut-off by floods.

Currently, the country is totally reliant on fossil fuels. Gas produces ninety-one percent of its energy, oil contributes nine percent and solar provides less than 0.01 percent. In 2018, the year I lived there, the government's Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (VCA) report called for urgent and comprehensive adaptation and mitigation measures. It warned that failure to act immediately would have disastrous consequences for national food and water supply, fisheries stock, physical infrastructure, cities, oil and gas and industrial assets.

The somewhat immediate action the government of Trinidad and Tobago is taking — in partnership with the oil and gas companies — is to expand the proportion of its electricity generated by solar farms. But this is deeply misguided. 

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

Located deep in southern Trinidad where few tend to venture, Moruga is home to the Scorpion Pepper, once the world's hottest chili (it has since slipped to second place, usurped by the Carolina reaper). On one August day the skies cleared, allowing me to pick pumpkins down in Moruga, on land farmed by a neighbor's friend who was not harvesting his crop that year. In the preceding days, the rains had turned the farmland plots to bog. If I close my eyes, I can still visualize the ordeal of carrying sacks of large pumpkins, knee-deep in cold mud, back to the car parked on firmer ground.

The pumpkin field was accessed by driving through a largely flat landscape encompassing acre upon acre of arable fields, sectioned off by narrow tracks, producing a variety of fruit and vegetables. Like many Caribbean islands, Trinidad desperately needs to increase self-sufficiency in food production just as it needs to decarbonize its economy. It cannot afford to sacrifice the fields of Moruga to other purposes — such as the expansion of solar farms it seems currently intent on pursuing. Similarly, in the pristine tropical forests of Trinidad's mid and northern mountain ranges, it would be severe eco-vandalism to clear trees to accommodate those solar photovoltaic panel grids, in doing so removing the prospect of future eco-tourism revenues.

BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2022 showed that 82 percent of global energy still comes from fossil fuels. Almost a quarter into the 21st Century, we are pumping more carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere than ever before

And yet, these areas of rich biodiversity could eventually be sacrificed if the government of Trinidad and Tobago pins its transition to a clean energy future on solar. Under the Project Lara Solar Park scheme, construction of two solar sites aims to generate a combined 0.24 terawatt-hours of electricity annually on the island. Based on the government's current electricity usage of 8.73 terawatt-hours per year (2021 data), thirty-five projects on the scale of Project Lara would be needed to supply all of the country's electricity, taking up a few hundred square kilometers.

And there seems to be little public scrutiny of what will happen to all of the disused material from solar panels when they need to be dumped somewhere at the end of their twenty-five-year lifespan. Perhaps we should be worried. Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that, "modern PV (photovoltaic) contains trace amounts of very toxic metals, like cadmium, which has to be disposed of somehow."

The bad news doesn't stop there. Electricity accounts for only four percent of Trinidad and Tobago's  overall annual energy usage. The country has an exceptionally high level of consumption because of its energy-intensive industries. In 2018, this was one hundred and ninety-eight terawatt-hours, down from a 2010 peak of two hundred and thirty-four terawatt-hours. So, for solar energy to provide the other ninety-six percent of non-electricity consumption, the country would need to devote more than sixty percent of its land area to solar farms, or more than eight hundred Project Lara-scale sites.

As elsewhere, Trinidad and Tobago needs to decarbonize its energy infrastructure whilst simultaneously adapting to climate change. But renewables cannot be the centerpiece of its energy strategy moving forward, because it simply cannot afford to sacrifice that amount of land. Solar farms take up seventy-five times the land area to produce the same amount of energy as one 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility, which takes up just over one square mile, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, based in Washington DC. Wind farms require up to three hundred and sixty times as much land to match that output.

The Project Lara scheme is to be delivered in partnership with – you guessed it – big fossil fuel giants keen to see the government of Trinidad and Tobago invest in solar farms. At first glance it might look like good environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing from the firms, until we consider the limits to what solar can produce as a proportion of overall energy supply, even in places less land-constrained than Trinidad and Tobago. Emanuel tells me, "If you try to push beyond 30 or 40 percent, you either have to supplement it with fossil fuels or nuclear, or else you have to store the energy. And the sad fact is, right now it's too expensive to do that."

Trinidad's oil and gas companies know that solar farms can only result in one thing: continued demand for their core products.

America the Beautiful

Located in a golden land of giant Sequoias and Redwoods, Kristin Zaitz is a civil engineer who likes to take her children hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Deeply connected to the landscape of California, she shows her kids the Oak forests where, in the summer months of her own childhood, she and her siblings climbed trees to take respite from a home which lacked air conditioning. Just as the contours of her native golden state run through the timeline of Kristin Zaitz's life, so too does the issue of energy.

Trinidad's oil and gas companies know that solar farms can only result in one thing: continued demand for their core products

For many years she has worked at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power station, which is nestled by cliffs that plunge down to foaming white Pacific waves on California's rugged central coast. She's also a climate activist who co-founded the advocacy group Mothers for Nuclear, and played a leading campaigning role in convincing California's legislators, in a decision last year, to delay the planned 2025 closure of Diablo — the last remaining nuclear facility in the state — by five years.

As an engineer, Zaitz understands that electric grids need to be able to meet the demands of consumers around the clock, including during peak demands such as California's hottest summer days when air conditioning is a modern necessity for the millions without nearby forests to seek refuge in. She explains that, "energy produced and sent out has to equal the energy demand that we pull from the grid, at any given time. Batteries are not even close to being able to store the amount of electricity for the length of time we need it."

In other words, we need a reliable source of energy to constantly produce energy for the grid, not intermittent production combined with batteries to cope with downturns.

Zaitz points out that, "the largest energy storage systems that we have around the world are in pumped hydro, where we have two reservoirs and we pump water from the lower reservoir to the higher one, and then release it to produce hydroelectricity. But otherwise, we have to make electricity at the time when it's needed."

Unfortunately, most viable opportunities for large scale hydroelectricity have already been exploited. Further projects to dam natural water systems tend to involve the destruction of ecosystems — and let's not forget that climate change is causing droughts and water shortages in many locations, reducing the reliability of hydro as a source of electricity going forward.

Zaitz knows only too well that the faith most of her fellow Californians place in solar and wind needs to be revisited. The state is struggling with intermittent renewable energy sources that it "rushed to bring online without properly figuring out how to back them up." Batteries can't provide that on the scale required, and so the result is that California still burns natural gas to produce forty-nine percent of its electricity, according to recently published Statista data. Indeed, it's second only to Texas as the largest natural gas consumer in the US.

The environmental performance of California is not something to be hailed. Whilst it's true to say that the state has achieved modest success relative to the extremely low bar of average US greenhouse gas emissions, it should be put into context: California is way behind any European comparator. Sweden emits under four tonnes per capita, France under five tonnes. Germany's supposedly green Energiewende policy is the source of much derision in many quarters. Germany emits around eight tonnes per capita; California is worse still, having only got it down to around ten tonnes per capita.

As Zaitz argues, "there's this mismatch between perception and reality in California when it comes to how 'green' we actually are. A lot of our efforts are good and well-intentioned, but we're not doing enough and we're certainly not a role model. California has backslid to the point where we can't even provide reliable electricity to our people."

U.S. energy policy requires a rethink from 'sea to shining sea.' At the diagonally opposite corner of the country, romantic notions of woodland collaged with vibrant crimson on crisp-autumn mornings are unlike almost anywhere else on earth. Pin cherry leaves turn purplish-red, red oaks change to brick, scarlet and rusty orange. Maples blaze rouge whilst bigtooth aspens and mountain-ash trees sprinkle yellow. New England's own pumpkin season gives way to cold, long winter, when peak demand for energy strains the grid on dark biting nights. Solar generally doesn't do much to turn on the Christmas lights, and often wind isn't producing either. In their absence, network volatility is covered by gas, which produces harmful methane emissions.

"In Massachusetts we're just a methane economy — flat out," Joshua Goldstein tells me. "We had a nuclear plant just up the Connecticut River from me, over the border in Vermont. It was shut down for political reasons eight years ago, the idea being to replace it with renewables. Of course, that didn't happen. We replaced it with natural gas, which is always what happens when nuclear gets shut down."

Through economies of scale, the price of building wind and solar facilities has come down across the US. At first glance, they look very affordable … but this is misleading. As Goldstein says, "they're only cheap at the times when they are producing." So, a price thumbs up for renewables on sunny, windy days. But the grid has to provide an all-seasons service.

"A nuclear plant was shut down for political reasons eight years ago, the idea being to replace it with renewables. Of course, that didn't happen. We replaced it with natural gas."

Goldstein speaks of the, "perverse elements of the way we structure the grid pricing and subsidies" in his home state of Massachusetts. These include tax credits which incentivize the installation of wind turbines, because they guarantee the supplier gets paid a few cents per kilowatt hour to produce electricity regardless of whether it's needed or not. "On a windy day, you end up producing multiple times how much electricity you need on the grid but you still get paid. The steady producers, including nuclear, can't do that and tend to get driven off the grid. Once they get driven off the grid, what's going to keep it running when the wind is coming and going? Natural gas," he says, before adding the sting in the tail, "So it makes sense from a gas company's point of view to give the subsidies to wind."

The drawbacks of renewables aren't simply in the acreage they eat up, nor their inability to reliably meet the demands of electricity grids. We also need to consider the fact that solar panels and wind turbines are not especially resilient in the face of extreme weather conditions such as storms or tornadoes — extreme conditions which are on the increase as our climate changes.

By contrast, after seventy years of usage, we should note the resilience of nuclear energy at a time of increasing weather volatility. I touched on this point with Goldstein, "people have the idea that nuclear power is somehow fragile, vulnerable, and it's exactly the opposite. But wind and solar power, hydroelectric, are much more at the mercy of the elements."

Running into Reality

As with Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed across the world, the U.S. fossil fuel industry is anti-nuclear, but pro-renewables. And most of us are not questioning why this is the case. The answer lies in the fact of the very serious unreliability and limitations of renewables. It's therefore time we stopped being led by our delusions of virtue and instead heed the warnings from those who understand our energy systems. As Kristin Zaitz says, "Reality is running into our best laid plans. And the reality is that we need a 24/7 clean energy source if we really want to take action on climate change. The good news is that we have a technology that can do that — nuclear energy can do that."

Some take the view that oil and gas executives are evil. However, it is probably more likely that they're just rational and adept strategists who understand that by convincing a majority of us that nuclear energy is any combination of dirty, dangerous, too expensive or unsustainable, they will stay in business. They know that most of us won't do the homework to understand that nuclear is none of those things, but is actually the best reliable source to backup renewables.

Goldstein has spent the last several years doing the homework for us and points out that the huge solar array near his Massachusetts home is owned by a large gas company in Texas. The reason for this is clear: the more wind and solar that is installed, the more natural gas is required to carry the load for the intermittent renewables.

"You run a natural gas economy, then you put in enough wind and solar to make it look good and to make everybody feel good … but we don't decarbonize that way.," Goldstein says, telling me that more homework is needed. "There's an unholy alliance between natural gas and wind and solar, which I think deserves a little more attention than it gets."

Kerry Emanuel, Joshua Goldstein and Kristin Zaitz spoke to Nick O'Hara for the new docuseries podcast Gridlocked, which explores "why the 21st Century is broken and how to fix it."

By Nick O’Hara

Nick O’Hara is a dual Irish-British communications strategist, avid walker and aspiring new writer. He is co-founder of thought leadership consultancy Renovata, and producer of the new Gridlocked podcast, which seeks to explore why the 21st Century is broken and how to fix it.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Big Oil Climate Change Energy Fossil Fuels Nuclear Pumpkins Science Solar Trinidad And Tobago Wind