McCormack Speaks

Renewable Energy: Where Perception and Reality Collide


by Thomas Nee, McCormack Graduate School student

confused man with his hands on his headPeople often believe what they want to believe despite contrary information. “It is remarkable that large groups of people can coalesce around a common belief when few of them individually possess the requisite knowledge to support it.” (Fernbach and Sloman, 2017). I examine here how perception and reality collide regarding climate change not whether it exists but what to do about it.

People trust experts. But what happens when experts contradict long-held beliefs?  “(S)witch off the radio, change channels, only like the Facebook pages that give you the kind of news you prefer. You can construct a pillow fort of the information that’s comfortable.” (Beck, 2017). Listen to trusted authorities who share your opinions and suppress the rest. False beliefs are often a social phenomenon.

Many people believe that “renewable” energy of any type is preferable to burning fossil fuels. Hydroelectric power is a proven form of renewable energy but it is not “free.” It costs money, manpower, and resources to develop a plant. Any carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted is greatly outweighed by the plant’s lifetime output. This may not be the case with all renewable systems.

The CO2 cost of producing renewable energy systems is often difficult to quantify. I propose a simple approximation:
E = $

where E is energy. If something costs a lot then a lot of CO2 was emitted to produce, ship, and maintain it. A 30 MPG, $100,000 luxury car is not better for the environment than a 20 MPG, $20,000 pickup.

I considered buying a hybrid. As a former engineer, I love the concept of storing braking energy normally lost as heat. The hybrid cost 50% more, with government incentives, and was rated for about 3 MPG more than the standard model.  However, it would take almost 3,000,000 miles to break even. I chose the standard.

Similar calculations should be done for other “green” technology.  Expensive electric cars may make sense in cities with air quality issues but they may increase net CO2 emitted. A utility’s electric generator may not be more efficient at converting fossil fuels into energy than a gasoline engine. Transmission losses are significant depending on distance.

Wind turbines are expensive, even with government subsidies. They do not replace any conventional power plants because electricity demand does not cease when the wind is calm for days.

The $1M wind turbine in Hanover, Massachusetts was acquired via a federal grant. In addition to steel production and shipment of components, numerous round trips were made by Indian engineers. Offshore Cape Wind turbines will be even more expensive. Maintenance will be extremely difficult. How many wind turbines would it take to operate a steel mill?  Most wind power advocates don’t want to find the answer.

Going 100% renewable is preposterous. Well-off people buy expensive equipment and go “off the grid,” claiming to be self-sufficient. Yet, how much CO2 was emitted to produce that equipment?

Fusion is the most promising solution. It converts matter to energy as in the sun and in hydrogen bombs, leaving no radioactive waste like today’s fission reactors. The challenge with fusion is to extract more energy than is needed to contain the reaction. This research is a costly, long-term, multi-national endeavor. The United States spends roughly 20% of its $3B annual energy research on fusion, not nearly enough to develop a commercial reactor in a couple of decades. Scharping (2016) quoted Soviet physicist Lev Artsimovich, the “Father of the Tokamak” design*, “Fusion will be ready when society needs it.”

In my opinion, governments should focus on research and not subsidize “renewable” energy systems without a clear net reduction in CO2 emissions. Perception versus reality is a problem, even for the “enlightened.”


Thomas Nee studies public administration at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.


*Learn more about the tokamak, one of the most advanced magnetic confinement systems created to contain the hot plasma to generate thermonuclear fusion power:

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar