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Busting Renewable Energy Myths

Discovery Channel has a rather curious show called Myth Busters. The show evaluates various myths — from MacGyver tricks to the Apollo 11 Moon landing — by staging them in a controlled setting. You may wonder why this may be relevant to renewable energy. The truth is, this entertainment show has more things in common with renewable energy than you think. The main goal of the show is to “bust” myths by proving them wrong. The same strategy can and should be used to increase popularity and public support of renewable energy initiatives.

It seems odd that under the ever-growing threat of global warming and other environmental disasters, some still oppose the industry’s attempt to shift toward clean, sustainable energy. Many people support renewable energy in theory but disapprove of it in reality. Why? It is likely that their knowledge about the industry is limited. As a result, we are often left with myths that are scary in nature but false in their essence. Granted that the renewable energy industry is rather ‘young’ and ‘controversial’, it is filled with such myths that instigate public opposition.

As Discovery Channel does in its show, renewable energy companies should work together to “bust” negative myths about the industry. Of course, the most common criticism of almost any form of renewable energy is the intermittency of its resources. Remarkably, the public usually seems to have few objections to the potential lack of continuous availability of solar or wind power. They appear to be more concerned with the technical and ecological issues that may arise when producing clean energy. Below are some of the most common misconceptions about the renewable energy industry that cause unnecessary tension and disapproval in the public eye.

Myth: Hydropower is not carbon-neutral

Some critics of hydropower claim that this source of energy is not, in fact, carbon-neutral. They claim that some hydropower dams create more greenhouse gases than a fossil fuel plant of the same size. If soil and vegetation are trapped in turbines, spillways and surfaces of a dam, they will decay and emit methane and carbon dioxide. In addition, they argue that to build a dam, nearby forests that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere are destroyed, thus further damaging the environment.

Bust: Methane emissions can be controlled

A proper public relations campaign should be implemented to clarify how and why methane is emitted as a result of hydropower production. The industry must make sure the public understands that while such emission is natural, it can be controlled and eliminated. With proper technology dams can be built to be ‘clean’, emitting very little or no methane at all. In addition, it is crucial to educate the public in hydropower facts; that it is a clean alternative to coal and has the potential to fully replace fossil fuel energy.

Myth: Technology for solar power is too expensive

Most people have a very vague understanding of what is involved in solar power production. The general assumption is that the technology necessary for harvesting such energy is extremely complicated and thus too expensive to be profitable.

Bust: Sunlight is free

Indeed, the construction and installation of solar power plants is a rather complex and costly venture. Extra costs may be inevitable granted the harsh environment of deserts where such plants are usually built. However, the public needs to understand that the technology of solar panels is rather simple and similar in principal to chemical batteries or standard electrical outlets. Most importantly, the “great” expenses of constructing a solar power plant is a one-time bill as the sunlight itself is free.

Myth: Geothermal energy releases toxic gasses from the earth

Most people who are not familiar with renewable energy fear the toxic gasses that may escape and contaminate the atmosphere as a result of geothermal drilling. They are also concerned with the dangerous elements such as arsenic and mercury contained in hot geothermal water that may be harmful if deposited in rivers.

Bust: Toxic gas release can be controlled and eliminated

Geothermal drilling does not inherently release toxic gasses. It only happens when poor techniques are used and safety precautions fail during drilling and extraction. Therefore, with proper regulations and technology, the threat of toxic gas release can be minimized or removed all together. In regards to potentially dangerous elements in the water, the public needs to decide for themselves whether living near a nuclear plant is a better option.

It is human nature to believe the negative over the positive. If you give the public two contradictory facts, chances are they will pay more attention to the scary and threatening one, even if it is false. Most do not fact check before forming an opinion which makes any public relations campaign that much more difficult. As a result, we are surrounded by myths that interfere with our lives.

If you are ever watching Discovery Channel and Myth Busters comes on, take a closer look. It may seem impractical, yet the methods that it uses to bust myths may prove to be useful in your next public relations campaign.

Al Maiorino started Public Strategy Group, Inc. in 1996. He has developed and managed multiple corporate public affairs campaigns in a variety of industries such as gaming, cable television, retail development, auto racing, power plant/wind farm projects, and housing/residential projects. Al received his BA in political science and a MA in American Studies from the University of Connecticut.

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6 thoughts on “Busting Renewable Energy Myths

  1. I like this idea of making this conversation something that’s more fun, like Mythbusters.

    When I talk to people about renewables, the main roadblock that I usually hit is that it’s not scalable. These other points do come up, but I’d like to see a nice, clean, “Mythbuster-esque” response to the assertion that renewable power sources, though actually cleaner, can’t be scaled in a way that is both economically viable, and technologically possible in the near future (next decade or two).

    Bradley Short

  2. Nicely written article, Al but solar PV is not financially viable to the average consumer.

    As proof we take a high-efficiency home in sunny Southern California, the land of Southern California Edison arguably some of the highest energy rates in the nation, and ‘replace’ the SCE annual energy consumption with that produced from a PV array.

    Cutting to the chase we find that the 2.5 kW AC, net inverter output per CEC ratings, PV system requires over 25 years to achieve a simple payback. This is even after accounting for the 30% ITC and the current, but rapidly declining, SCE incentives and rebates.

    Free sunshine or not a 25 year payback is a lousy investment. One that no homeowner in their right mind is likely to make.

    The nega-watt still rules. Every dollar spent on energy efficiency and reducing total energy consumption is likely to see a 5, 10, or even 25X better return than one spent on a solar PV system.

    When a complete 2.5 kW AC, net inverter output per CEC ratings, PV system can be installed for less than $1/W gross (before any ITC or incentives/rebates), then and only then will Solar PV be a commercially viable solution in markets with a high degree of available solar insolation and high utility energy costs.

    Large utility-scale PV arrays are another matter. Many of these have solid economic, marketing, tax, depreciation, and PR considerations that can be monetized to show an acceptable risk/return balance to certain classes of sophisticated investors. We expect this market will continue to grow. There are economies of scale at work in the multi megawatt PV arena as well as the fact that these projects receive much more favorable tax treatment (including accelerated depreciation not available to the consumer) and grant support from government agencies

  3. The residential ratepayers and commercial/industrial decision makers need facts more than just stories. For example, regarding PV installations, many do not understand things as simple as the rate of purchase price decay and the increase in efficiency. To tell them both are improvements is not enough. Let the data, presented for the average person and without a lot of informational clutter, tell the story.

  4. I like the pow-bam approach to busting RE myths because it names the myth and condenses the counterargument, and consolidating that kind of info could be a useful tool. On the other hand, complex issues lend themselves to misrepresentation by opponents because the average listener won’t know whom to believe, and consequently the winner is often the one willing to misrepresent the facts. TV shows like the one you mention have the advantage of effectively owning the airwaves, and so if you are going to engage in this kind of strategy then perhaps you can also take the lesson from that and don’t make your myth-buster resource into a debate site. Let the opponents get their own website 🙂

  5. While I support renewable energy, including hydro, solar and geothermal when properly conducted, I also think that overly slick answers like this one are counterproductive.

    There are real and concerned studies about some hydro programmes, mainly about vegetative matter that is existing in the flooded areas of dams, especially in the rainforest areas. It is dangerous to dismiss these concerns flippantly. It is dangerous to assert that these concerns and studies are not relevant and should be disregarded.

    It is flippant and undermines the case for solar to rebut a cost concern with solar by the line “Sunshine is free”. Sunshine is free, but solar electricity is not, and never will be.

    A serious, informed, and balanced response to “myths” or better described as points put up against renewables, is far more compelling than half true, flippant jokes.

  6. Jack what are you using as an installed cost for solar and how much does your electricty cost? I think your installers might be a little greedy. You need to caculate return on investment and then let us all know where you can invest money and get that same return with the same lack of risk.

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