In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the proliferation of misinformation on social media is finally getting the attention it deserves. Or so I thought.
Scrolling through my Facebook news feed recently, I stumbled upon an article shared by Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization focused on climate science. “The World’s Renewable Energy Capacity Now Beats Out Coal,” read the headline from Co.Exist. I clicked. “The tipping point marks a major milestone in the transition to cleaner power sources,” the subhead declared from atop an aerial photo of a wind farm.
And so went most of the coverage of a new report on renewable energy markets by the International Energy Agency, a well-respected source of global energy statistics. Outlets big and small, reputable and lesser-known, specialized and general, adopted similar headlines, subheads and ledes, accompanied by photos of wind turbines and solar panels.
The problem is twofold. First, capacity is a highly selective way to measure electricity, especially in the context of emissions and climate change. Capacity is defined as the maximum electric output a generator can produce under specific conditions at a moment in time — for example, how much a solar farm can generate during a sunny summer day or a wind farm when it’s really windy. But, of course, the sun doesn’t always shine or the wind always blow.
“Installed capacity is not really a useful metric for a lot of purposes,” Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford University who studies renewable energy, told me. “When you’re asking, ‘how much is this supplying, how much is wind supplying versus coal?’ you want to look at the actual energy delivered.”
That’s commonly called generation, and is defined as the amount of electricity produced on average over a period of time, such as a year. Sure enough, if you look at generation numbers, coal still beat out renewables in 2015 by a significant margin, 39 percent to not quite 24 percent.
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