From the editor: James Hansen is behind the times on wind and solar

Editors’ note: After a period of travel, I am now returning to my regular Thursday column. This week I bring you a letter which pv magazine USA correspondent Frank Andorka and I wrote to Rolling Stone, as a response to statements made by Climate Scientist James Hansen in a December interview.

Dear Rolling Stone,

We read with great interest Jeff Goodell’s Dec. 22 interview with Climate Scientist James Hansen. First, we must thank Rolling Stone for treating climate issues with the urgency that they deserve, an urgency routinely missed in the mainstream media. Additionally, we all owe James Hansen a debt for his early and sustained leadership in raising this critical issue.

However, it is unfortunate that Hansen’s understanding of renewable energy is so outdated, and that he continues to propagate myths about wind and solar. The intermittency of which Hansen speaks is a challenge that can be managed, and Hansen’s bizarre statement that wind and solar are not sufficient to replace fossil fuels misses the point. No one expects wind and solar to entirely replace coal and gas generation without widespread deployment of energy storage, as well as means to manage and shift electric demand.

Hansen’s statements are also contradicted by the actual experience of several nations. Last year Denmark met 56% of its electric demand with renewables, with wind alone providing 42%. Likewise in Nicaragua, non-hydro renewables met 41% of the nation’s electricity needs (with wind providing roughly half of this), and Ireland, Portugal and Spain all met 19% or more of annual electric demand with wind, on relatively isolated grids. At a smaller scale, entire islands in the Pacific are currently running solely on solar and batteries.

Hansen’s allusions to higher subsidy levels is also misleading. The U.S. solar industry is not asking for greater subsidies, only to be paid fairly for electricity generated. In fact, a recent analysis by the consultancy Lazard found that wind and solar are the cheapest forms of new electricity globally on an unsubsidized basis.

And yet instead of these inexpensive and practical solutions, Hansen places his faith in nuclear technologies that are decades off at best.

We are not the first to note that Hansen’s faith in nuclear power and his dismissal of renewable energy is deeply misguided. As early as 2013, a Union of Concerned Scientists rebuttal of a pro-nuclear statement by Hansen and three other climate scientists declared that “[r]enewable energy technologies are cheaper, less risky, and ready for deployment today.”

Hansen is a great climate scientist and human being. But in echoing an outdated assessment of renewable energy and placing blind trust in the nuclear industry, he is no longer serving the interests of future generations.

Christian Roselund
Americas editor, pv magazine

Fran Andorka
U.S. Correspondent, pv magazine