My old problems with renewables

Warning: these are my old views prior to 2022. I keep this page as a checklist of my concerns of the enormous cost of overbuilding renewables back then – but since then renewables have become so cheap that overbuilding and other grid issues might not be as significant a problem as I once thought.

Click here for my current energy summary page

On this page:

  1. I like the idea of renewables
  2. Even climatologist Dr James Hansen says no!
  3. But the LCOE says solar is 3 times cheaper than nuclear?
  4. Studying renewable energy systems is not for your average tinkerer
  5. So what’s wrong with the 100% renewables papers?
  6. Recycling costs not modelled by Australia’s biggest CSIRO study!
  7. Heard and Brooks review the Blakers study
  8. Anti-nuclear presuppositions bias the peer-review mechanism
  9. Other famous 100% renewables papers and TED talks that later went wrong
  10. Economic problems with capacity factors = market penetration limit
  11. What does the energy cost of building all those batteries and pumped hydro farms do to the overall energy profit of the system?

1. I like the idea of renewables

Abundant clean energy for all – Anywhere on earth – without depleting the fuel source is how the renewables narrative goes. Australia has a renewable building program and momentum and we’re probably going to build maybe half our grid out in short order. I support this!

But for years I have had significant unanswered problems with the second half of the grid. A 100% renewable grid would be relying on intermittent power. Generally speaking solar only works a third of the day. Add rain and this output halves. They are asking us to switch to a power source that is off more than it is on. There are significant challenges in meeting demand, creating reliable power 24/7, and storing enough power for bad weather and low production seasons.

2. Even climatologist Dr James Hansen says no!

Environmentalists are often shocked when they discover that even their climate hero Dr James Hansen says a 100% renewable grid cannot do the job and we need nuclear.

Hansen giving testimony to US Congress in 1998

“Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”
(His essay supporting nuclear power here.)

3. But the LCOE says solar is 3 times cheaper than nuclear?

And why did so many renewables activists emphasise the LCOE – the Levelised Cost of Electricity – a per unit cost of electricity to the grid? It doesn’t really matter if the per-unit of electricity price of Solar PV is 3 times times cheaper than nuclear if you then had to build 3 times as much to cope with night time and winter. Solar farms are only one part of a huge renewable grid. Grids have other components like transmission lines to bring distant solar power down to the cities that need it, storage facilities, wind farms, pumped-hydro dams, transformer boxes, and so many other things. Knowing the cost of a solar farm to the grid and then trying to guess the final consumer price is like building a house and saying “Windows are cheaper than sandstone bricks – therefore we’re going to build the whole house out of windows. And this will be cheaper than sandstone!” It might be – but it definitely won’t do the same job!

4. Studying renewable energy systems is not for your average tinkerer

Studying renewable energy systems is totally different to baseload. With a reliable power source like coal fired or nuclear, you know it’s going to run at 95% capacity factor (most of the time). You can do some relatively simple mathematics and calculate how many power stations you need for national demand, plus a few for backup when a station is due to be serviced or to cover sudden outages. (Factored into that 5% downtime.)

Renewables are totally different. First of all, they tend to have much lower capacity factors. Solar PV panels only work about a third of the day. Then you have to measure endless months of weather-data to calculate what your average performance is, and what your extremes are. EG: Solar PV output halves during rain, and how often is your state going to have weeks of rain? So this involves statistical data-mining and matching to energy systems statistics, not standard arithmetic and multiplication. It gets hard, and so us lay people are reduced to trusting expert papers.

5. So what’s wrong with the 100% renewables papers?

As I said on the energy home page the trends I’ve noticed in renewables models is:

  • They did not model enough demand (and forgot that society will need vastly more power for EV’s, especially for overnight charging, or modelled incredibly idealistic new train lines that their governments had not promised, etc.)

For one old example I’m now rethinking: Amory Lovins is famous for saying that baseload is a myth – he thinks we just don’t need it, nor power at night time. He assumes today’s demand will be the same about tomorrow. Um, but what about EV’s? What about studies from his own organisation – NREL – that show rebuilding the grid to cope with charging all the EV’s would cost a lot so it’s better to turn ALL our baseload power plants UP TO FULL POWER – so we can maximise how much charging today’s grid can do? Then from the perspective of grid costs (not power plants) – we can charge about a third of our future EV’s for ‘free’. That is, without building any more power stations or reactors or expensive HVDC transmission lines. Amory seemed to forget that rather than trying to charge all our cars during the day when we want to use them – there could be a strong demand for slow overnight ‘drip feeding’ of our cars charging.

However – these days I keep thinking that unless someone is a professional driver – most of our cars are parked 95% of the time. As long as your work eventually has all carpark spots rigged up with a charging station, we can charge our cars during the day. This would help with the Duck Curve:

Weather not properly modelled for a region had questionable data and wind and solar performance appeared exaggerated.

They underestimated overbuild requirements of renewables were sometimes overlooked for winter.

Technical aspects: In layman’s terms – power needs to be ‘massaged’ into just the right configuration to shoot over our transmission lines – and one big power station can do this more easily than dozens of little solar and wind farms.

6. Recycling costs not modelled.

A few years back I was debating renewables expert Matthew Stocks of the Australian National University Blakers study. He assured me that renewables were coming online faster and cheaper than anything else and questioned nuclear. He demanded the usual from me – such as costings for storing nuclear waste for 100,000 years. I explained breeder reactors would eat the waste and get 90 times the energy and money out of the uranium and that this would pay to vitrify the final waste away for just 300 years.

Then he blew my mind. I asked him where he had analysed the cost of recycling all the renewable energy farms at the end of their lives. Solar and wind farms use dozens of times the steel and and concrete and resources of nuclear power plants. Solar farms have toxins and lead in all that glass. Solar farms have toxins and lead in all that glass. Surely this would cost a lot to recycle? He admitted to me he hadn’t even costed it! One of the biggest problems with renewable energy – the recycling of all this extra building material and toxic e-waste in the solar farms – had not been costed? By a team of Australia’s leading experts writing for the Australian National University? I was staggered. Then it turns another expert modelled we would need 5 times the energy storage modeled by the ANU team.

7. Heard and Brooks review the Blakers study

Then there’s what real energy experts find. What did Ben Heard and Barry Brook and friends discover? Well, from their 2017 paper:

An effective response to climate change demands rapid replacement of fossil carbon energy sources. This must occur concurrently with an ongoing rise in total global energy consumption. While many modelled scenarios have been published claiming to show that a 100% renewable electricity system is achievable, there is no empirical or historical evidence that demonstrates that such systems are in fact feasible. Of the studies published to date, 24 have forecast regional, national or global energy requirements at sufficient detail to be considered potentially credible. We critically review these studies using four novel feasibility criteria for reliable electricity systems needed to meet electricity demand this century. These criteria are:
(1) consistency with mainstream energy-demand forecasts;
(2) simulating supply to meet demand reliably at hourly, half-hourly, and five-minute timescales, with resilience to extreme climate events;
(3) identifying necessary transmission and distribution requirements; and
(4) maintaining the provision of essential ancillary services.

Evaluated against these objective criteria, none of the 24 studies provides convincing evidence that these basic feasibility criteria can be met. Of a maximum possible unweighted feasibility score of seven, the highest score for any one study was four. Eight of 24 scenarios (33%) provided no form of system simulation. Twelve (50%) relied on unrealistic forecasts of energy demand. While four studies (17%; all regional) articulated transmission requirements, only two scenarios—drawn from the same study—addressed ancillary-service requirements. In addition to feasibility issues, the heavy reliance on exploitation of hydroelectricity and biomass raises concerns regarding environmental sustainability and social justice. Strong empirical evidence of feasibility must be demonstrated for any study that attempts to construct or model a low-carbon energy future based on any combination of low-carbon technology. On the basis of this review, efforts to date seem to have substantially underestimated the challenge and delayed the identification and implementation of effective and comprehensive decarbonization pathways.

How did this happen? I love peer reviewed science. Now I’m questioning renewable energy papers written by experts? Why are these experts assuming we’ll all use vastly less energy than trends show? 12 of the 24 papers above – half – vastly underestimated the amount of energy we’ll actually need. What’s happening here?

8. Anti-nuclear presuppositions bias the peer-review mechanism

Let’s back it up a bit. What is peer review? The scientific process should vigorously attack all new hypothesis and see what is left standing. But social bias interferes with the peer-review process. As The Conversation says:-

Despite the undoubted strengths, the peer review process as we know it has been criticised. It involves a number of social interactions that might create biases – for example, authors might be identified by reviewers if they are in the same field, and desk rejections are not blind.

It might also favour incremental (adding to past research) rather than innovative (new) research. Finally, reviewers are human after all and can make mistakes, misunderstand elements, or miss errors.

Translation: is it really a peer-reviewed scientific study if everyone in it operates under a presupposition that they must rule out nuclear power, no matter the cost? Is it peer-reviewed science if it is written by renewable fanbois that build on this assumption with each new paper – unwilling to really ask if nuclear power could do the whole job better?

As George Monbiot said:

To the greens who accuse me of treachery I say this: we do not have a moral obligation to support all forms of renewable energy, however inefficient and expensive they may be. We do have a moral obligation not to be blinded by sentiment. We owe it to the public, and to our credibility, to support the schemes which work, fairly and cheaply, and reject the schemes which cost a fortune and make no difference.

9. Other famous 100% renewables papers and TED talks that later went wrong

This next point probably requires a whole blog just to address – but I’ll include a few of the more famous renewables papers that have major problems with them.

2017 – Professor Mark Jacobson WWS (Wind Water Solar) study

One of the most famous American renewable advocates – Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson – was enthusiastically promoted by Mark Ruffalo (the Incredible Hulk) and Leonardo DiCaprio. But in 2017, the American National Academy of Science tore that paper apart. But did Ruffalo and DiCaprio recant? Did they explain to their adoring public that there were questions around this study – that the Professor had in effect lied to the public? Basically he over estimated the on-river pumped hydro available in America by 100. DETAILS HERE

10. Economic problems with capacity factors = market penetration limit

The Breakthrough argues there are economic reasons:

We think there are clear reasons to expect the share of VRE in system-wide electricity mixes to be constrained. Indeed, we offer a rough rule of thumb that is supported by a growing body of power systems research: it is increasingly difficult for the market share of variable renewable energy sources at the system-wide level to exceed the capacity factor of the energy source

…In other words, wind and solar depress the market price at exactly the times of day these VREs are generating the most power. The revenues earned by wind and solar for each unit of generation thus falls as the share of renewables rises.

And then on the same page argues there are technical reasons:

To keep the power system stable, a certain amount of flexible and controllable generation (“dispatchable generation” in industry parlance) must remain online and “spinning” to provide the “operating reserves” needed to meet unexpected fluctuations in either demand or VRE output or the failure of a thermal power plant or transmission line. These generators have minimum technical output levels, so in order to keep enough flexible capacity running, wind and solar will not be able to supply 100 percent of demand in any given hour. System security requirements will require curtailment of VRE before this point.

Indeed, according to a major new study of the challenges of integrating wind and solar in the Western Interconnection of North America, the maximum production of variable renewables at any instant can’t exceed about 55-60 percent of total demand without risking system stability.

11. What does the energy cost of building all those batteries and pumped hydro farms do to the overall energy profit of the system?

 When you measure the energy cost to build all the storage, are 100% renewable grids even a high enough energy source to run society?

EROEI asks about energy profit: how much energy do you get back after counting all the energy it took to build the solar farm in the first place? It tries to measure the energy generated by a power source over the plant’s lifetime, then divide it by the amount of energy it took to build that power plant. It’s called Energy Return On Energy Invested, or you can think of it as energy gained divided by cost = energy profit. Depending on how it is built and where it is, wind normally generates about 16 to 30 times the energy it took to build the wind farm. Solar PV can get 7, but in Germany with poorer sunlight gets only 3.9. But when you include the energy cost of building a Pumped Hydro Electricity Storage system to backup wind and solar, they drop so low they could not possibly run the world. There’s just not enough energy profit there!  Weißbach’s paper measures this important and often overlooked issue. Even if his figures are out of date, how often do you see ESOEI being measured in the renewables literature?

However, it has been noted that this was a German study with German weather and solar parameters in mind. Also, R&D has evolved this technology, refining processes and making it more efficient over time so that each new wind turbine or solar panel is cheaper and more energy efficient to produce. Less energy in means more energy out of the whole life cycle!



4 Responses to My old problems with renewables

  1. I think I am almost convinced that you are right about nuclear power. Let me see if I understand the problem:

    If we want unreliable renewables to provide reliable power, we have to build either a super grid plus a lot of extra generating capacity plus energy storage, or we need to build a lot of gas or coal fired backup generators plus energy storage.

    The first option is only politically viable in either the US, Australia or China, and requires building 2x the generating capacity needed to meet all our power needs, so that when the sun isn’t shining/wind isn’t blowing in one area, there is enough excess power being generated in another part of the grid to make up the loss. You also need to add expensive and largely untested grid balancing and energy storage technologies.

    The second option, building a lot of coal or gas generation as backup, requires building 2x the generating capacity needed to meet all of our power needs, with 1x coming from solar and wind and 1x coming from coal or gas. You need to be able to meet 100% of your power needs from coal or gas when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing for days or weeks at a time and energy storage isn’t sufficient. So you need 1x your power requirements in generating capacity from coal or gas just to get you through the 1-20 percent of the time that solar and wind isn’t sufficient. Basically, renewables don’t replace fossil fuels and will actually require the building of more coal or gas plants; renewables just reduce how often we need to turn on the coal or gas plants.

    I’m almost certain that nuclear would be cheaper than renewables, but I’d still like to see a study directly comparing the costs of nuclear to the cost of doing renewables + gas + storage.

    • Eclipse Now says:

      Great summary Patrick! Mate, if some kid in a garage ever cooks up some kind of Star Wars Light-sabre battery that can store *serious* power cheaply, then no one would be more delighted than James Hansen, Barry Brook, and the other climate/energy guys I read. But it’s just no good pretending we’re there yet. The problem us lay people have is that while there are peer-reviewed science agencies like the IPCC that thrash out all the intricacies of climate change in an objective a fashion as possible, the same cannot be said for energy. *Governments* are swayed by the powerful cultural biases against nuclear power. Governments fund whole agencies into backing the *only* perceived solution, renewable energy. Especially in Australia where nuclear is illegal! So what I’m saying is that there are *hundreds* of studies into how Australia or America can have 100% renewable energy and how *cheap* it will all be, except are these studies peer-reviewed, or written according to the brief described by a culturally prejudiced agency to begin with? Are they written objectively, or by fan-boys?
      If you want some fan-boy studies, go here. There are 20 or so to read.

      The more objective, critical thinking crowd can be found here.

      As George Monbiot asks, is our priority to solve climate change, or to guarantee that we do so with *only* renewable energy? I’d like to see a mix. Renewables can be cheap when they’re not asked to do the impossible, provide 100% baseload power. If there’s a strong nuclear backbone to the grid, renewables can play a significant part, maybe 40%? But the moment we try to take them to 100%, we start overbuilding capacity all over the place, constructing a super-grid, and all sorts of storage facilities. We start building capacity out like 5 or 6 times the capacity, instead of maybe 1.5 times as we would with nuclear. We just don’t have the money.

      If you ever have any questions for the *really* technical experts, please ask on the blog above or join their forum below. Both are good places to learn more than you imagined about nukes, safety, energy, and the shape of the modern world. Subscribe to the blog. It’s worth it.

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