Renewables unreliable and costly

On this page:

  • Storage takes far too much energy to build: so much that the energy profit from the entire system crashes!
  • James Hansen, father of modern climate science, on renewable energy
  • 1. Overbuild costs
  • 2. Storage costs
  • 3. Transmission costs
  • More realistic evaluations
  • Solar PV
  • Solar PV ‘cheaper than grid’ claims
  • Solar Thermal
  • Wind
  • A mix of the lot — BZE’s ‘paper’
  • So what’s the answer?

Storage takes far too much energy to build: so much that the energy profit from the entire system crashes!

Renewable power is intermittent and unreliable, like trying to move from a system that is mostly ON to mostly OFF. So renewables need storage: vast amounts of storage. Here’s the problem. One of the great questions about any energy system is how much energy do you get back after the energy it took to actually make your power plant or wind turbine? This is called  ERoEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested), which takes the energy returned and divides it by the cost of building the thing in the first place!

Most renewables have good ERoEI’s on face value. But here’s the thing. These papers always ignore energy cost of building the *storage* for wind and solar. That’s a major problem when trying to assess the Energy Return of an energy system that is mostly OFF! Sadly, when we include energy storage costs, the actual energy profit drops off a cliff.  Solar PV is not even an energy source, wind only returns 3 times the energy it took to make the turbines and the energy storage (like pumped hydro dams), and solar thermal is the highest at 9.

Our civilisation requires an ERoEI of at least 12. So given this is a fundamental limit to the energy profit of renewables, what are we to do? Live like the Amish? This is why Dr James Hansen says:

James Hansen, father of modern climate science, on renewable energy

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.
From BNC

Intermittent energy supply remains the stumbling block.

Years ago, back in the days of my peak oil activism, I was a great fan of renewable energy. Civilisation itself seemed threatened by peak oil and imminent energy decline. I feared the criticisms of renewable power offered by the energy experts below, and so I took refuge in the work of renewable energy fans like Dr Mark Diesendorf or the Beyond Zero Emissions group. I simply did not want to stare into the face of an inevitable collapse of society when the fossil fuels ran out. There had to be another option! There is, but it is not renewable energy; not on its own, not alone.

For renewable energy is still intermittent. The sun goes down at night and solar input changes with the seasons. Wind is also unreliable and regularly stops blowing. There are only a few countries on earth that can run off reliable baseload renewable power like hydro power or geothermal. Renewable proponents look to complicated integrated systems of multiple backups and overcapacity builds to supply that great challenge of a constant, reliable supply of power that we so desperately need. They trust that one day solar thermal and wind and wave and biomass and other power sources will all integrate into a reliable grid. They also talk about using a natural gas backup. Is a renewable grid going to be clean or fossil fuel based after all? Like it or not, an intermittent supply of energy requires:-

1. Overbuild costs

Renewable advocates like Dr Mark Diesendorf argue (in a very technical manner) that when the wind isn’t blowing the sun might be shining. If NSW has a week that is cloudy and quiet (low wind), Queensland solar plants might be clear and sunny and sell us some power. To top it all off we could have some biomass backup. It all sounds good, and won me over for a number of years. A variety of mixes will save the day, and if that fails somewhere else will save the day. However after further reading I came to see that the ‘multiple technologies’ argument requires an incredible overbuild in supply to deal with the vagaries of the weather.

While it might be technically possible to imagine it we could never spend that much money on our power. It’s like building a 5 story high concrete wall around Australia to keep out illegal immigrants and drug runners — we could do it, but what about the cost? Of course all grids have some redundancy to cope with traditional coal and nuclear down time for servicing. But the 10% to 15% down time for servicing is mostly planned. Moving from baseload power to renewables demands we prepare our grids to cope with power that has moved from:

  • mostly on to mostly off,
  • experience mostly controlled outages to mostly uncontrolled outages,
  • power that is mostly ‘strong’ to frequently ‘weak’
  • power that is mostly local to often incredibly far away.

Back to our overcast, cloudy week in NSW. If it’s not sunny, some would argue NSW will just run on the wind. But what about peak demand in the afternoon and evening? A vast cloud bank over NSW means that all our solar has been knocked out of action and we are forced to rely on wind power. That is, if we had previously assumed the grid was 50% solar and 50% wind, what happened to all the wind customers in this scenario? Are they just not going to use power so the solar guys can cook and watch TV and use air-conditioning?

Renewables advocates often fudge these details in presentations to the public. What they are really assuming is a vast overbuild of both wind and solar, more like 80% or 90% capacity. Do we really want to build out basically our entire power requirements in both wind and solar? 100% supply in solar and 100% supply in wind, so that when the solar dies off we can run on the wind?

But it’s worse than that, because solar thermal is not as efficient in winter, wind is variable and rarely at it’s peak output, so the overbuild required is actually vastly greater.

The same applies to asking Queensland to rescue us. Doesn’t Queensland have their own power demand already? Are we asking Queensland to build an extra NSW worth of renewables supply ‘just in case’ there’s a week (or month or entire season!) where we really need it? This is why many expect natural gas to be a big part of the renewable energy grid, because there’s only so much power available in hydroelectric backup.

Fortunately, renewables can play a part in our energy future, but the heavy hitter will be GenIII and GenIV nuclear power. Nothing else is economically viable.

2. Storage costs

As well as overbuild, renewables advocates tell us we’ll also require storage. The limited number of traditional river hydro sites and the sheer expense of battery technologies means that in Australia we would be forced to adopt wild schemes like seawater pumped hydro ‘batteries’ (that are not even normal hydro power sources in the first place, but are vast ‘batteries’ we ‘charge up’ by pumping seawater onto land when we have excess solar or wind power — excess of course assuming massive overbuilds in capacity again!) But instead of spending over $40 billion on a seawater hydro dam we could spend it in about 10 reactors off the Chinese, which would close a good fifth of Australia’s dirty coal power! But that’s what renewable advocates would have us spend on storage, so that we can store excess = extra capacity solar and wind. The more we spend in government subsidised renewable energy storage systems, the less money we will have for health, education, electric cars, fast rail deployment, and everything else.

3. Transmission costs

Not only is the seawater hydro and other storage systems expensive, but getting the power from the seawater hydro sites to the rest of Australia would be expensive. Indeed, getting the solar and wind energy from where they are generated to where they are used is expensive. Enormous, expensive HVDC transmission lines are just assumed by renewables advocates like Desertec. Indeed, this beautiful, whimsical cover to a Desertec recommended paper illustrates exactly what I am talking about.(Click on the image below to download this pro-renewables PDF and confirm what I have been arguing about Overbuild costs, Storage Costs, and Transmission Costs. But you’ll have to read between the lines and the hype to see the engineering realities. This is another glowing ideological piece, not peer-reviewed by scientists out to attack the hypothesis to see what stands a real test).
2050 desert powerNote the electrical wires shooting across the Mediterranean sea and across the top of Africa into Europe? They are HVDC lines, bringing hypothetical power through hypothetically stable Arab Spring countries into Europe, making Europe’s power supply intrinsically dependent on geopolitical stability across Northern Africa.

HVDC lines may be a great idea for moving vast amounts of power across distances, but do we really want our power coming from thousands of bolometers away when a few hundred kilometres would be adequate to ensure safety in a nuclear grid? (I prefer Barry Brook’s idea of nuclear energy parks located way outside major cities to prevent contamination in the event of an incredibly unlikely accident).

More realistic evaluations

Professor Barry Brook is also very concerned about global warming. He ought to be as the Sir Hubert Chair of Climate Change at Adelaide University. Years ago Barry became concerned that Australia was not adopting clean energy fast enough, and in his quest to understand why came to see that Renewable Limits prevented the quick adoption of wind and solar.

Barry’s Renewable Limits pages

Barry’s own work, and the guest posts he brings in, are worthwhile.
(But avoid the work by Peter Lang, as Peter seemed to lack objectivity. He is a global warming denialist and seems more influenced towards nuclear power and against climate change by his politics).

Solar PV

First of all, I’m not against solar and think it will have important niche energy markets. But it is not going to provide the abundant cheap energy we need to prevent the nightmare scenarios of global warming. Solar PV might run a fantastic hippie earth-ship (which I love!), but with all its limitations and expense, Solar PV will not run a significant fraction of the modern industrial civilisation we have today. Given that it only works about a quarter of a sunny day, it is probably some of the most expensive electricity ever invented if applied to the task of baseload power. Which is what this is all about.

Solar PV ‘cheaper than grid’ claims

They’re only cheap if you ignore the enormous coal-fired grid backing our systems. For example, if you stick some Solar PV on your roof and over 30 years measure the cost per output, it appears wonderful. But that ignores the fact that the Solar PV is only giving you power for about a third of your power each day. The rest relies on a coal-fired power grid. Then there are seasonal fluctuations where the solar input is really low on dark wintry days. Read Professor Barry Brook on the cost of trying to make solar and wind baseload, that is, reliable 24/7. Unreliables might be technically feasible but they are economically impossible.  Barry Brook is on James Hansen’s Science Council for Global Initiatives. Barry’s renewable energy critiques can be found here:

Dreams and good intentions with are not going to solve the Global Warming crisis. Only hard nosed, tried and true engineering solutions can prevent the Global Warming disaster that is already upon us becoming a complete catastrophe.

George Monbiot: Are we really going to let ourselves be duped into this solar panel rip-off? — Basically robbing the taxes of the poor to fund the solar PV panels of the middle class.
George Monbiot: there is no ‘green treachery in questioning this solar panel rip-off We do not have a moral obligation to blindly support inefficient, expensive renewable technologies when nuclear power can provide all the clean power we need.
George Monbiot: Solar PV has failed in Germany and it will fail in the UK Our tariff plan is near-identical to Germany’s – that’s the one that produced woeful amounts of energy, jobs and innovation
George Monbiot: rebuilding better nukes at Fukishima would be a third the cost of solar AND would work on cold, dark, winter days!

An analysis by the Breakthrough Institute finds that the entire German solar sector produces less than half the power that Fukushima Daiichi – a single nuclear complex – generated before it was hit by the tsunami. To build a Fukushima-sized solar industry in Germany would, it estimates, cost $155bn. To build a Fukushima-sized nuclear plant would cost $53.5bn. And the power would be there on winter evenings.

Solar Thermal

Ted Trainer: Solar thermal questions
Ted Trainer: Can Solar sources meet Australia’s Electricity and Liquid fuel demand
? (While I disagree with Ted’s conclusions about the need for a  voluntary Powerdown to what he calls ‘The Simpler Way’, his energy papers reveal the limits of renewables).
Barry Brook: TCASE 7: Scaling up Andasol 1 to baseload where Barry shows that this solar thermal project works out to be around $25 billion per GWe! (Where nukes can come in at 20% the cost). Also, the ratio of materials required to build solar thermal to nuclear power are:

Concrete = 15:1; Steel = 75:1; Land = 2,530:1

The conclusion? When energy storage is properly accounted for, the material and land requirements for solar thermal vs nuclear power area appallingly lop-sided. Further, if the solar plant doesn’t end up lasting 40 years, and the AP-1000 lasts 60 years (nearly half of the US reactor fleet is now licensed to run for this long), then the numbers get even more skewed.

Needless to say, for concrete and steel — two of the most carbon-intensive products embedded in any power generation facility — this amounts to a large difference in the embodied energy and associated greenhouse gas emissions of the capital infrastructure. As such, the additional mining, required to deliver the limestone and iron ore needed to produce the construction materials for solar thermal versus nuclear, must be set against uranium mining (until Generation IV reactors are standard, that is). Anti-nukes who raise the mining objection against nuclear power, but ignore the mining associated with solar (or wind) construction, are presenting a false comparison. They can’t have it both ways.

Wind power

Ted Trainer: Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy intensive society Tom Blees: Germany – crunched by the numbers
Tom Blees: Danish fairy tales – what can we learn?

A mix of the lot — Beyond Zero Energy’s ‘paper’.

In critiquing BZE it is good to remember that these activists are concerned about the things I’m concerned about: peak oil, global warming, and ecological impact. Their goals are admirable.

BZE are developing a detailed, costed blueprint for the transition to a completely decarbonised Australian economy within a decade. The Zero Carbon Australia project will consist of 6 transition plans covering the 6 sectors of energy, buildings, transport, land use, industrial processes and coal exports.

But the BZE plan is fundamentally flawed as, like many renewable energy plans, it assumes way too much culture change and ‘Powerdown’ to be socially and economically feasible in the modern world. But here are the summary critiques:

  • They assume we will be using less than half the energy by 2020 than we do today without any damage to the economy. This flies in the face of 200 years of history.
  • They have seriously underestimated the cost and timescale required to implement the plan.
  • For $8 a week extra on your electricity bill, you will give up all domestic plane travel, all your bus trips and you must all take half your journeys by electrified trains.
  • They even suggest that all you two car families cut back to just one electric car.
  • You better stock up on candles because you can certainly expect more blackouts and brownouts.
  • Addressing these drawbacks could add over $50 a week to your power bill not the $8 promised by BZE. That’s over $2,600 per year for the average household.

The facts and figures are here.

So what’s the answer?

In the face of unreliable and expensive renewables, many have argued for a totally different society that runs within the confines of these limits. Richard Heinberg calls it Powerdown and Ted Trainer The Simpler way. In the past I have even pushed this kind of Powerdown thinking myself. It’s not all bad. Much of it aligns with the localism I admire about New Urbanism and Ecocity design.

But there are some more extreme elements in the Powerdown scenario that is just not going to win over the Australian public. People just dismiss radical ideas about most of us heading back to an 18th Century rural lifestyle. If there is a viable alternative, they’ll eventually flock to it! So I’m forced to agree with Barry Brook when he says:

2. The developing world lives in Ted Trainer’s power-down society already, and they are going to do everything possible to get the hell out of it. The developed world will fight tooth an nail, and will burn the planet to a soot-laden crisp, rather than embrace Trainer’s simpler way. Power down is a non-solution to the climate and energy crises…

Fortunately, there is an alternative that can supply abundant cheap electricity ‘forever’.

5 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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