Ten Reasons Intermittent Renewables (Wind and Solar PV) are a Problem

26 01 2014
Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg

raises many points that have already been posted here…..  I only reproduce her dot points one and nine, because they are the most relevant to DTM, but I recommend you read the entire article on her website if you have the time.  It is, as usual, an excellent well researched piece of journalism

Intermittent renewables–wind and solar photovoltaic panels–have been hailed as an answer to all our energy problems. Certainly, politicians need something to provide hope, especially in countries that are obviously losing their supply of oil, such as the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the more I look into the situation, the less intermittent renewables have to offer.

1. It is doubtful that intermittent renewables actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

It is devilishly difficult to figure out whether on not any particular energy source has a favorable impact on carbon dioxide emissions. The obvious first way of looking at emissions is to look at the fuel burned on a day-to-day basis. Intermittent renewables don’t seem to burn fossil fuel on day-to-day basis, while those using fossil fuels do, so wind and solar PV seem to be the winners.

The catch is that there are many direct and indirect ways that fossil fuels come into play in making the devices that create the renewable energy and in their operation on the grid. The researcher must choose “boundaries” for any analysis. In a sense, we need our whole fossil fuel powered system of schools, roads, airports, hospitals, and electricity transmission lines to make any of type of energy product work, whether oil, natural gas, wind, or solar electric–but it is difficult to make boundaries wide enough to cover everything.

The exercise becomes one of trying to guess how much carbon emissions are saved by looking at tops of icebergs, given that the whole rest of the system is needed to support the new additions. The thing that makes the problem more difficult is the fact that intermittent renewables have more energy-related costs that are not easy to measure than fossil fuel powered energy does. For example, there may be land rental costs, salaries of consultants, and (higher) financing costs because of the front-ended nature of the investment. There are also costs for mitigating intermittency and extra long-distance grid connections.

Many intermittent renewables costs seem to be left out of CO2 analyses under the theory that, say, land rental doesn’t really use energy. But the payment for land rental means that the owner can now go and buy more “stuff,” so it acts to raise fossil fuel energy consumption.

Normally the cost of making an energy-related product gives an indication as to how much fossil fuel energy is involved in the process. A high-priced energy product gives an expectation of high fossil fuel use, since true renewable energy use is free. If the true source of renewable energy were only wind or solar, there would be no cost at all! The fact that wind and solar PV tends to be more expensive than other electricity generation gives an initial expectation that the fossil fuel energy requirements for creating this energy source are high, rather than low, if a wide boundary analysis were to be done.

There are some studies based on narrow boundary studies of various types (Energy Return on Energy Invested, Life Cycle Analysis, and Energy Payback Periods) that suggest that there are some savings (from the top of the icebergs) if intermittent renewables are used. But more broadly based studies show that the overall amount of fossil fuel energy used by intermittent renewables is really so high that we don’t come out ahead by its use. One such study is Weissbach et al.’s study in Energy called  Energy intensities, EROIs (energy returned on invested), and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants. Another is an analysis of Spanish installed solar power by Pedro Prieto and Charles Hall called Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Energy Invested.

I tend to use an even wider boundary approach: what happens to world CO2 emissions when we ramp up intermittent renewables? As far as I can tell, it tends to raise CO2 emissions. One way this happens is by ramping up China’s economy, through the additional business it generates in the making of wind turbines, solar panels, and the mining of rare earth minerals used in these devices. The benefit China gets from its renewable sales is leveraged several times, as it allows the country to build new homes, roads, and schools, and businesses to service the new manufacturing. In China, the vast majority of manufacturing is with coal.

china-energy-consumption-by-source

Another way intermittent renewables raise world CO2 emissions indirectly is by making the country using intermittent renewables less competitive in the world market-place, because the higher electricity cost raises the price of manufactured goods. This tends to send manufacturing to countries that use lower-priced energy sources for electricity, such as China.

A third way that intermittent renewables can raise world CO2 emissions relates to affordability. Consumers cannot afford high-priced electricity without their standards of living dropping. Governments may be pressured to change their overall electricity mix to include more very low-cost energy sources, such as lignite (a very low grade of coal), in their electricity mix to keep the  overall price in an affordable range. This seems to be at least part of the problem behind Germany’s difficulties with renewables.

If there is any savings at all in CO2 emissions, it would seem to be from inexpensive intermittent renewables–ones that don’t really need subsidies. If renewables need a subsidy or feed in tariff, a red danger light should be flashing. Somewhere the process is  using a lot of fossil fuels in its production.

9. My analysis indicates that the bottleneck we are reaching is not simply oil. Instead, a major problem is inadequate investment capital and too much debt.  Ramping up wind and solar PV tends to make those problems worse, not better.

As I described in my post Why EIA, IEA, and Randers’ 2052 Energy Forecasts are Wrong, we are reaching an investment capital and debt bottleneck, because of the higher extraction costs of oil. Adding intermittent renewables, in which huge costs are paid out in advance, adds to this problem. Because of this, ramping up intermittent renewables tends to make collapse come sooner, rather than later, to the countries trying to ramp up these energy sources.

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3 responses

26 01 2014
Greg

In her first item, she equates cost (roughly) with CO2 production. I think it can also be equated, roughly, with energy. Thus the “higher extraction costs of oil” in her item 9 are really due to higher energy requirements of that extraction. Therefore, peak oil is biting NOW.

26 01 2014
mikestasse

Davos delegates warned of imminent oil crisis

http://peakoil.com/publicpolicy/davos-delegates-warned-of-imminent-oil-crisis

‘Sunset industry’

Leggett says the conventional oil industry is facing an imminent crisis, because existing crude oil reserves are declining fast, it is having to find the money for soaring capital expenditure, and the amount of oil available for export is falling.

“Big Oil is still extremely powerful and well-capitalised”, he says, “but it is fast approaching sunset. The profitability of the big international groups – like Exxon, Shell and BP – is a real worry for investors, and they’ve been largely locked out of the easy oil controlled by national companies – just look at BP and Russia.

“Gas? Unless the price goes up, the whole US shale gas industry is in danger of becoming a bubble, even a Ponzi scheme. All but one of the biggest production regions have peaked already, and losses are piling up. This is an industry that’s in grave danger of committing financial suicide.”

A linked message that Leggett will deliver is that there is a growing danger of a carbon bubble building up in the capital markets. He says investors who think governments may agree stringent and strictly-enforced limits on greenhouse gas emissions might decide their investments in oil and gas are at risk of becoming worthless.

Crunch next year?

There is little sign yet that such limits are likely any time soon. But Leggett says that is to miss the point: “You don’t have to wait until agreement is close, or even probable. You have to believe only that there’s a realistic chance of policymaking which means assets might be stranded.”

He will also tell his audience “to take out insurance on the risk of an oil crisis, by accelerating the very things we need to deal with climate change”. Chief among these, he says, is the need to channel funds withdrawn from oil, gas, and coal into clean energy instead – though he acknowledges that, as a renewable energy entrepreneur himself, he may be accused of self-interest.

Leggett fears a world oil crisis could occur as early as 2015. And when it comes, it will certainly mean “ruinously high prices”, for a start. But it will mean something more, he says.

Last December he worked with a US national security expert, Lt-Colonel Daniel Davis, to organise the Transatlantic Energy Security Dialogue. Leggett has a regard for the views of people like Davis. “The military are better than your average politician or consultant to Big Energy at spotting systemic risk”, he says.

Leggett says military think-tanks have tended to side with those who distrust “the cornucopian narrative” of the oil industry.

One 2008 study, by the German army, says: “Psychological barriers cause indisputable facts to be blanked out and lead to almost instinctively refusing to look into this difficult subject in detail. Peak oil, however, is unavoidable.”

17 02 2014
rabidlittlehippy

I’ve not read the extended article (3 kids=no time sadly) but I know this is something I have wondered. We are in the process of quotes for solar but my brain gets stuck at 2 questions.
1. What is the TRUE environmental cost (as you ask here)
and
2. What happens when the panels cease to perform at a level that is usable. Ok, I imagine that panels slowly lose efficiency and after their 25 warraty years I would guess they won’t drop dead over night but I read somewhere that panels are good for 40 years. That would see me through until I die or close to but what about my children? I believe the crash is coming and soon so panels simply won’t be able to be made once that happens. Factories that run on fossil fuels (unless they harness the tremendous energy required from their own panels) and of course, mining for the raw materials is energy intensive too. Aside from returning to the world of candle light I simply cannot think of another way to light a house aside from rise and sleep with the sun. By having ones own self sufficient garden and using other preserving techniques like salting, drying, curing, pickling and also canning/bottling (when done with non-fossil fuel heat) we can do without all other uses for electricity really but light has probab;y been one of the greatest gifts given us by coal. Solar panels are at best a large bandaid to see us through possibly half a century of transition but not much more.

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