From STOP THESE THINGS
No country in the world is running on wind and solar power alone; no country ever will.
Calm weather and sunset guarantee it.
Every routine collapse in wind and solar power output (for the reasons above) requires the total capacity lost in consequence to come from somewhere, and that ‘somewhere’ is going to be a plant running on nuclear, coal or gas or, in certain places, hydro plant.
Every single MW of wind or solar is to be matched by another MW of the aforementioned dispatchable power sources. The alternative (ie the world without coal, gas and nuclear power) is no power at all, every time the wind drops and the sun sets.
Ah, the wind and solar cult retort, ‘you’ve said nothing about battery ‘storage’.
Well, in truth there’s not really much to say.
At this point in time the so-called giant batteries – ordinarily a bank of lithium-ion units built by Tesla – provide trivial volumes of electricity and then only at the margins.
In most places, their role is to provide Frequency Control Ancillary Services to account for rapid surges in demand (increased load) and drops in power output from wind and solar (loss of inertia) – delivering short bursts of power to maintain voltage and frequency and thereby keep the grid from collapsing. For which the owners of the batteries in question charge a very handsome premium.
Those in the know don’t talk seriously about combining wind and solar with lithium-ion batteries operating at grid scale; the economics simply don’t stack up.
And yet, there’s still a delusional band of characters peddling the myth that, with just a little more ‘battery storage’, they’ll be able to lick the hopeless intermittency problem and we’ll all be running on nothing but wind and solar, before you can say “renewable energy transition”.
As Francis Menton explains below, there’s only one tiny problem with that story: it is simply impossible, at every level.
The Impossibility Of Bridging The “Last 10%” On The Way To “100% Clean Electricity”
10 December 2022
The Official Party Line from our government holds that we have this “100% Clean Electricity” thing about 90% solved. As the government-funded NREL put it in their August 30, 2022 press release, “[a] growing body of research has demonstrated that cost-effective high-renewable power systems are possible.” But then they admit that that statement does not cover what they call the “last 10% challenge” — providing for the worst seasonal droughts of sun and wind, that result in periods when there is no renewable power to meet around 10% of annual electricity demand. That last 10%, says NREL, will require one or more “technologies that have not yet been deployed at scale.”
But hey, we’ve got 90% of this renewable transition thing solved. How hard could figuring out that last 10% really be?
And on that basis the government has embarked upon forcing the closure of large numbers of power plants that use fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, as well as on suppressing exploration for fossil fuels and other things like pipelines and refineries. After all, if we’re transitioning at least 90% to renewables, we won’t need 90% of the fossil fuel infrastructure any more, will we?
Actually, that’s completely wrong. Until the full solution to the so-called “last 10% challenge” is in place, we need 100% of our fossil fuel backup infrastructure to remain in place, fully maintained, and ready to step in when the wind and sun fail.
Let’s take a brief look at what bridging the last piece of the renewable transition actually looks like.
NREL’s August 2022 Report titled “Examining Supply-Side Options to Achieve 100% Clean Electricity by 2035” lays out several scenarios for supposedly achieving that goal. For all the scenarios, the most important piece is the same: building and deploying lots more wind turbines and solar panels. (The scenarios differ in the degree of deployment of other elements like transmission lines, battery storage, carbon capture technology, and additional nuclear.). As foreseen by NREL, by 2035, total electricity generation capacity in the U.S. has more than tripled, with the large majority of the additions being wind and solar. There is substantial overbuilding of the wind and solar facilities, presumably to provide enough electricity on days of light wind or some clouds, while having large surpluses to discard on days of full wind and sun. Some storage has been provided, but mostly “diurnal” (intra-day) and not seasonal.
Here is a chart from the Report (page x) illustrating the addition of facilities in the four scenarios by 2035. In this chart, the left-most column depicts current (2020) conditions, and the right-most four columns depict the four proposed scenarios for 2035:
And here’s the translation of the color codes:
So in any of these four scenarios for 2035, assume that we are now at the moment when the “last 10%” of the annual power consumption needs to be generated. That means that the wind is not blowing, the sun is not shining, and the storage facilities are empty. Also assume for these purposes that the magical something that will supposedly bridge the “last 10%” gap still remains to be invented, as is the case today.
Simple question: How much in the way of fossil fuel backup do we need at this moment? The answer is: all of it. That is, we need enough fossil fuel backup to supply 100% of the demand on the grid, or at least 100% of the demand that is not supplied by whatever residual generation from dispatchable things like hydro, biomass, or nuclear our masters have allowed to remain in service.
In other words, don’t get fooled from the assertion that only 10% of the supply problem remains to be solved into thinking that that means that any of the fossil fuel backup can be reduced or eliminated. You may need the backup for only 10% of the year, but when you need it, you need all of it. You may have built wind and solar facilities sufficient to supply the grid three times over when the wind is blowing and the sun shining; but when they are not, and the storage is empty, you need every single fossil fuel power plant you ever had.
So until this “last 10% challenge” is solved, it remains completely incompetent and irresponsible to reduce any of the fossil fuel generation infrastructure currently in place. No amount of building of wind and solar facilities changes that. The only thing that can change that is the invention and deployment of some kind of storage or carbon capture technology that, in the gentle phrasing of NREL, “has not yet been deployed at scale.” (Someone else might use the term “complete fantasy.”)
During the massive build up of wind and solar facilities envisioned in the Report, the 100% of fossil fuel infrastructure that must be kept around must also be fully maintained and ready to step in at a moment’s notice at any time during the year. The fossil fuel supply chain must be fully in place. The facilities must be fully replaced when they wear out. The full capital cost of the facilities must be paid — even though those facilities only operate by assumption about 10% of the time. If you think about it, that means that the capital charge for the plants per unit of electricity sold gets multiplied by 10. Somehow I can’t find any mention of that issue in this very lengthy and detailed Report.
Incidentally, I could quibble with the assertion that addition of more and more wind and solar facilities and some diurnal storage can get you anywhere near 90% electricity production from these sources. El Hierro Island has a 2x overbuild of wind turbines and plenty of storage from its water reservoir to supply demand for a full day; but they can’t consistently get past 50-60% of supply from the wind/storage system. These NREL guys claim to have sophisticated models that show they can get to the 80-90% range. Believe them if you want. What they don’t have is any functioning demonstration project. Building such a thing would require work that can’t be done on a laptop. We can’t expect government bureaucrats to do such things, now can we?
However, for these purposes, assume that their claim that they can get to 90% is right. It doesn’t make any difference. It could even be 95%. You still can’t get rid of any of the fossil fuel infrastructure until some form of seasonal storage has been invented and deployed at scale.
Yet our government functionaries, under direction from the President, go about working to suppress fossil fuel production and infrastructure in every way they can think of. After all, they are the “experts.”
Policy Implications Of The Energy Storage Conundrum
13 December 2022
It occurs to me that before moving on from my obsession with energy storage and and its manifest limitations, I should address the policy implications of this situation. I apologize if these implications may seem terribly obvious to regular readers, or for that matter to people who have just thought about these issues for, say, five minutes. Unfortunately, our powers-that-be don’t seem to have those five minutes to figure out the obvious, so we’ll just have to bash them over the head with it.
Here are the three most obvious policy implications that nobody in power seems to have figured out:
(1) More and more wind turbines and solar panels are essentially useless because they can never fully supply an electrical grid or provide energy security without full dispatchable backup.
Here in the U.S. the so-called “Inflation Reduction Act” of 2022 provides some hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies and tax credits to build more wind turbines and solar panels. Simultaneously, the Biden Administration, directed by a series of Executive Orders from the President, proceeds with an all-of-government effort to suppress the dispatchable backup known as fossil fuels. Does somebody think this can actually work? It can’t.
And then there’s the December 6 press release from the UN’s International Energy Agency, touting how renewable energy sources (wind and solar) are being “turbocharged” to provide countries with “energy security.” The headline is: “Renewable power’s growth is being turbocharged as countries seek to strengthen energy security.” Excerpt:
The global energy crisis is driving a sharp acceleration in installations of renewable power, with total capacity growth worldwide set to almost double in the next five years. . . . “Renewables were already expanding quickly, but the global energy crisis has kicked them into an extraordinary new phase of even faster growth as countries seek to capitalise on their energy security benefits. The world is set to add as much renewable power in the next 5 years as it did in the previous 20 years,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol.
Completely ridiculous. Wind and solar power provide the opposite of energy security. Back in the real world, just a few days after the IEA issued that nonsense, on December 11 the UK got a taste of the kind of “energy security” provided by wind and solar power, when a cold snap at the darkest part of the year came along with a prolonged period of calm in the winds — a typical winter occurrence. From the Guardian, December 11:
Live data from the National Grid’s Electricity System Operator showed that wind power was providing just 3% of Great Britain’s electricity generation on Sunday [December 11]. Gas-fired power stations provided 59%, while nuclear power and electricity imports both accounted for about 15%.
And what was the inevitable consequence of the wind conking out just when it was needed most?
UK power prices have hit record levels as an icy cold snap and a fall in supplies of electricity generated by wind power have combined to push up wholesale costs. The day-ahead price for power for delivery on Monday reached a record £675 a megawatt-hour on the Epex Spot SE exchange. The price for power at 5-6pm, typically around the time of peak power demand each day, passed an all-time high of £2,586 a megawatt-hour.
2,586 pounds/MWh would be equivalent to about $3 per kWh (wholesale), compared to a typical U.S. price for electricity of around 12-15 cents per kWh retail. Congratulations to the UK on achieving this level of “energy security.”
(2) The so-called “all of the above” energy strategy is equally disastrous.
In the U.S., Republicans sensibly looking to blunt the disastrous energy policies of the Democrats and the Biden Administration have somehow come up with something they call the “all of the above” strategy is their proposed alternative. For example, here is the webpage of the Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources, led by one Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. Excerpt:
Republicans support an all-of the-above energy approach that includes development of alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear, geothermal and biomass, along with clean coal and American-made oil and natural gas. A comprehensive plan will help protect the environment and improve our economic and natural security.
No, no, no and no. Because of the impracticability and cost of energy storage, building more and more wind and solar facilities cannot lead to any reduction, let alone elimination, of the fossil fuel infrastructure. You will inevitably end up with two fully redundant energy systems, both of which must be paid for even though each supplies only about half of the power to the grid. Thus at the minimum you have doubled the cost of electricity to consumers. But the worst case is far worse than that, where the government suppresses the fossil fuel backup (as in the UK). In that case, when the fossil fuel backup has been reduced but is suddenly needed, the consumer may have to pay 10 or 20 or 30 or more times a reasonable price for electricity. All due entirely to government folly. Can the U.S. Republicans avoid the disastrous blind alley into which the UK Tories have driven their country? That remains to be seen.
(3) A carbon tax is a terrible idea.
Over at the GWPF (where I am the President of the American Friends affiliate), they are in the process of sponsoring a back-and-forth debate on the subject of carbon taxes as a way to address the issue of climate change. Professor Peter Hartley of Rice University has taken the side of advocating for a carbon tax. William Happer of Princeton and energy analyst Bruce Everett have taken the negative.
The gist of the Happer/Everett piece is that CO2 is not a pollutant and poses no danger to humanity, and therefore a tax designed to suppress it is unjustified. I agree with that argument. But an equally valid and independent line of reasoning is that, because of impracticability of energy storage and the consequent futility of trying to make wind and solar generation work without fossil fuels, a carbon tax can only serve to drive up the price of energy to consumers without meaningfully changing the use of carbon fuels.
As much as all three of these policy prescriptions are manifestly terrible and destructive ideas, they seem to reign supreme today, with virtually no push back anywhere. Maybe a few bouts of $3/kWh electricity this winter in the UK and Germany might start to wake people up.
Only rent-seekers and fools take wind power seriously.