Tom Adams is an independent energy and environmental advisor, and a Research Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He has worked for several environmental organizations and served on the Board of Directors of Ontario’s Independent Electricity Market Operator and on the Board of Management of the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Energy.
Our intuitions about the benefits of solar and wind power are very strong: limitless, clean, and free. But the reality is very different from the hype, argues Tom Adams in this penetrating interview. An environmentalist at heart who worked in environmental groups for almost twenty years, he says that from a consumer perspective, but also from an environmental perspective, renewable energy has been vastly oversold.
Wind power in particular is highly problematic. It kills bats and birds, it’s noisy, it’s an eyesore, it’s unreliable—and it’s expensive. Without subsidies, it would virtually disappear. Wind turbines are an old technology, just like sailing ships, and both were displaced long ago by better technologies. “Commercial sailing was made obsolete by steam engines that were terribly primitive,” Adams points out. “Today, wind power in the maritime world is a toy for rich people. And that’s really what wind power is for electricity generation: a toy for rich people. Only wealthy societies can afford this.”
As for solar, it has niches where it is competitive. “If you’re in a developing world country where the electricity supply is heavily parasitized by power theft, which is a drastic problem in many parts of the world, really holds back the advancement of civilization, […] that’s the example where solar is today very successful.” This is because solar power can be small scale and modular, so you can put a fence around it and protect your assets.
New wind and solar technologies could change the energy picture, but the fossil fuel industry is not standing still either. It is innovating fast, finding cheaper, safer, cleaner ways to develop formerly inaccessible resources. Nuclear energy has also made great progress, although it has a long way to go, says Adams, before it can be cost competitive for North American consumers.
* * *