Renewables unreliable and costly

On this page:

  1. I like the idea of renewables
  2. Even climatologist Dr James Hansen says no!
  3. Studying renewable energy systems is not for your average tinkerer
  4. So what’s wrong with the 100% renewables papers?
  5. Anti-nuclear presuppositions bias the peer-review mechanism
  6. Famous 100% renewables papers and their critics
  7. Economic problems with capacity factors = market penetration limit
  8. 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

Extracting energy from the environment without a depleting fuel source to fight over? Who wouldn’t like that idea. Abundant clean energy for all – anywhere on earth – 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 there remain significant unanswered problems with the second half of the grid. A 100% renewable grid would be relying on intermittent power that generally speaking only works a third of the time. That means it is off more than it is on.

EG: (And this is for rough illustration purposes only.) Solar PV only works about 8 hours a day. That means solar panels require some kind of power storage for 16 hours, or twice as long as solar panels actually produce power. That means during the day you have one lot of solar running the country while you have another two lots of solar charging the batteries that will keep you going overnight. That’s 3 grid’s worth of solar. Then there are rainy days that cut solar power in half and further problems with battery efficiencies. You can probably throw in another full grid’s worth of solar just to cope with those rainy weeks in some parts of the country. So now we’ve built the solar PV grid about 4 or 5 times over. At this point you have to stop and ask if solar is really ‘cheaper than coal’. But note we still haven’t costed the ‘batteries’ or pumped hydro power that is going to get us through the night.

“But it will have wind power as well so that we don’t need as much storage!” Sure – wind is cheaper than most forms of storage we have. But wind has a similar capacity factor to solar – it might operate at slightly different times of day but it tends to operate around a third of the time. So now you have 2 lots of ‘cheaper than coal’ operating sometimes together, sometimes complementing the other – but there’s still heaps of the night where it’s both dark and quiet. How many times are we going to build the grid out?

So when they say “solar is cheaper than coal” it just makes me cranky at what a gross oversimplification that is. Climate change is too dangerous for us to let wishful thinking postpone the tough choices. We need reliable nuclear power and we need it now.

I’m grateful for that 8 hour burst of solar power. As long as it is backed up by a reliable baseload nuclear grid, I see renewables working with nuclear. Our future grid is going to have so much more demand for electricity as it tries to offset oil by charging electric vehicles. Cars just sit around 95% of the time – the perfect customer to gobble up any wind or solar when nature throws it at us. A smart grid can facilitate that. Even nuclear power promoter Dr Barry Brooks says we can probably do a half renewables half nuclear grid. But 100% renewables?

2. Even climatologist Dr James Hansen says no!

The Green movement rightly wants to address climate change. But decades ago they were hijacked to be anti-nuclear by such charlatans as “Dr” Helen Caldicott. Climate activists shoot themselves in the foot by also fighting the best solution to climate change – reliable nuclear power. Greens are 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. 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.

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

Generally speaking (as there are many papers) the critiques I’ve read of these 100% papers show they tend to:-

  1. Underestimate how much energy we will need in the future. Amory Lovins is famous for saying that the need for baseload power is a myth. He assumes that today’s night time drop in demand will remain a constant moving forward, but ignores how much power Electric Vehicles will use. But EV’s will demand a lot more power overnight. Indeed, the same American NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) that publishes Amory Lovins work has also said that if we ramp up all baseload power stations to full speed all day and all night – we might just be able to charge about a third of our future EV’s for ‘free’ – without building a single new power plant or reactor. That’s assuming we have reliable baseload electricity 24/7. This means a huge new market for night time electricity. So which is it NREL? No baseload, or turbo-charged baseload to cope with as many EV’s as we can to minimise how much we have to spend upgrading the grid?
  2. Or they underestimate how much storage we’ll need to get through the night or get through the winter. Or both. But all this is hard to demonstrate as there are so many fanboi papers out there I can only link to a few of the more famous ones and link to a few replies. I’ll include a few links below.
  3. Or they underestimate other costs, like long-distance transmission, or even the clean up bill.

EG: A few years back I was debating renewables expert Matthew Stocks of the Australian National University Blakers et al 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 nuclear power, and especially storing the 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 was for 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 that nuclear power does. 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.

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?

5. 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.

6. Famous 100% renewables papers 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

7. 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.

8. 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?



4 Responses to Renewables unreliable and costly

  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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