The Danger of Inspiration: A Review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

11 09 2019

Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, has one crippling flaw—it’s inspiring. At this moment in history, inspiring talk about solutions to multiple, cascading ecological crises is dangerous. Republished from the Resilience site……

At the conclusion of these 18 essays that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection.

The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints.

Klein’s essays in this volume make it clear that she is well aware of those limits, but the book’s subtitle suggests that she is writing not only to inform but also to mobilize support for Green New Deal proposals. This tension runs throughout the book—when Klein reports on and analyzes the state of the world, the prose challenges readers to face difficult realities, but when making the case for those policy proposals, she sounds more like an organizer rallying supporters.

That’s not a dig—Klein is a writer who doesn’t sit on the sidelines but gets involved with movements and political projects. Her commitment to activism and organizing is admirable, but it can pull a writer in conflicting directions.

This critique should not lead anyone to ignore On Fire, which is an excellent book that should be read cover to cover, without skipping chapters that had been previously published. Collections of essays can fall flat because of faded timeliness or unnecessary repetition, but neither are a problem here. As always, Klein’s sharp eye for detail makes her reporting on events compelling, whether she’s describing disasters (natural and unnatural) or assessing political trends. And, despite the grim realities we face, the book is a pleasure to read.

Before explaining concerns with the book’s inspirational tone, I want to emphasize key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises:

  • First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable;
  • capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future;
  • the modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and
  • we face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation.

In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, which Klein states forthrightly:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Firemakes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

Welcome to the third rail of contemporary political life. The question that the multiple, cascading ecological crises put squarely in front of us is, “What is a sustainable human population?” That question has to be split in two: “How many people? Consuming how much?”

It’s no surprise that political candidates ignore these questions, but progressive writers and activists should not back away. Honestly engaging these issues takes us well beyond the Green New Deal.

On the second of those questions—“consuming how much?”—Klein frequently highlights the problem, but with a focus on “profligate consumption.” She stresses the need to:

  • “scale back overconsumption”;
  • identify categories in which we must contract, “including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use”; [I do wish people would get off the back of meat consumption and point the finger at industrial scale agriculture instead…]
  • end “the high-carbon lifestyle of suburban sprawl and disposable consumption”;
  • reject capitalism’s faith in “limitless consumption” that locks us in “the endless consumption cycle”; and
  • make deep changes “not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system.”

No argument with any of those statements, especially because Klein rejects the notion that simply improving efficiency will solve our problems, a common assumption of the techno-optimists. But challenging “overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy” focuses on the easy target: “The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies, but also by reducing the amount of material stuff that the wealthiest 20 percent of people on the planet consume.”

My goal is not to defend rich people or their consumption habits. However, constraining the lifestyles of the rich and famous is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. Here we have to deal with the sticky question of human nature. Klein rightly rejects capitalism’s ideological claim that people’s capacity to act out of greed and short-term self-interest (which all of us certainly are capable of doing) is the dominant human trait. Human nature also includes the capacity to act out of compassion in solidarity with others, of course, and different systems reward different parts of our nature. Capitalism encourages the greed and discourages the compassion, to the detriment of people and planet.

But we are organic creatures, and that means there is a human nature, or what we might more accurately call our human-carbon nature. As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute puts it, life on Earth is “the scramble for energy-rich carbon,” and humans have gotten exceedingly good at grabbing lots of carbon. Not all cultures go after it with the same intensity, of course, but that scramble predates capitalism and will continue after capitalism. This doesn’t mean we are condemned to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and other creatures, but public policy has to recognize that we not only need carbon to survive but that most people—including most environmentalists—like the work that carbon can do for us when we burn those fossil fuels. And once we get a taste of what that carbon can do, it’s not easy to give it up.

As Klein points out, curbing our carbon-seeking is not merely a test of will power and matter of individual virtue; collective action through public policy is needed. I believe that requires a hard cap on carbon—limits that we can encourage people to accept through cultural advocacy but in the end must be imposed through law. A sensible approach, called “cap and adapt,” has been proposed by Larry Edwards and Stan Cox. In a forthcoming book, Cox will expand on a cap-and-ration strategy that could help in “drawing the human economy back within necessary ecological limits,” a follow-up to, and expansion of, his earlier book that made a compelling case for a rationing.

There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult. But that’s the easy part. Much more difficult is the first question—“how many people?”

On the question of population, On Fire is silent, and it’s not hard to understand, for several reasons. First, the Earth has a carrying capacity for any species but it’s impossible to predict when we will reach it (or did reach it), and failed attempts at prediction in the past have made people wary. Second, some of the most vocal supporters of population control also espouse white supremacy, which has tainted even asking the question. Third, while we know that raising the status of women and educating girls reduces birth rates, it’s difficult to imagine a non-coercive strategy for serious population reduction on the scale necessary. Still, we should acknowledge ecological carrying capacity while pursuing social justice and rejecting anti-immigration projects. Progressives’ unwillingness to address the issue cedes the terrain to “eco-fascists,” those who want to use ecological crises to pursue a reactionary agenda.

There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine. [I’ll offer one, and it’s well below one billion – https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/losing-our-energy-slaves/%5D

The fact that these questions are troubling and/or impossible to answer does not mean the questions do not matter. For now, my answer—a lot fewer people and a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

If I am nuts, critics have to demonstrate what is unsound about the argument, without resorting to the cliché that “necessity is the mother of invention” and the faith-based claims of the technological fundamentalists.

If I am not, then those Green supporters face a quandary. When mainstream Democrats tell progressive folks that the Green New Deal is doomed to fail because it is not politically viable at this moment, supporters counter, appropriately, by saying that anything less is inadequate in the face of the crises. Those supporters argue, appropriately, that the real failure is supporting policies that don’t do enough to create sustainable human societies and that we need to build a movement for the needed change. I agree, but by that logic, if the Green New Deal itself is inadequate to create sustainability, then we must push further.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan.

Back to what I think Klein is right about, and eloquent in expressing:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.

What kind of person wants to live like that? I can offer a real-life example, my late friend Jim Koplin. He once told me, in a conversation about those multiple, cascading ecological crises (a term I stole from him, with his blessing), “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief.” He was neither depressed nor irrational but simply honest. Jim, a Depression-era farm boy who had been permanently radicalized in the 1960s, felt that grief more deeply than anyone I have known, yet every day he got up to work in his garden and then offer his time and energy to a variety of political, community, and arts groups that were fighting for a better world.

Klein speaks of this grief in On Fire, in what for me were the most moving passages, often involving her young son’s future in the face of this “planetary death spiral”:

There is no question that the strongest emotions I have about the climate crisis have to do with [Toma] and his generation—the tremendous intergenerational theft under way. I have flashes of sheer panic about the extreme weather we have already locked in for these kids. Even more intense than this fear is the sadness about what they won’t ever know. They are growing up in a mass extinction, robbed of the cacophonous company of so many fast-disappearing life forms. It feels so desperately lonely.

The escape from loneliness, for me, starts with recognizing that Jim’s “state of profound grief” was not only wholly rational but also emotionally healthy. When told that even if this harsh assessment is correct, people can’t handle it, I agree. No one can handle all this. Jim couldn’t handle it every waking minute. I don’t handle it as well as he did. At best, we struggle to come to terms with a “bleak and austere” future.

But that’s exactly why we need to engage rather than avoid the distressing realities of our time. If we are afraid to speak honestly, we suffer alone. Better that we tell the truth and accept the consequences, together.





Impact of climate change on Hydro Tasmania’s Dams

20 08 2019

This is a guest post by Chris Harries, a consumate reader and follower of this blog. To my way of thinking, this shows yet again that renewables will not be able to power the future as we currently take for granted.

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Water inflows into Tasmania’s western river systems has been inexorably declining in recent decades. Furthermore, runoff is predicted to continue to decline in these catchments to the end of this century. This climate change trend has quite profound negative implications for Hydro Tasmania’s future business performance. A summary of these findings is attached – as extracted from Climate Futures for Tasmania CRC research document. It should be noted that the lowered water inflows are only partly caused by reduced rainfall. A bigger factor is soil dryness, caused by increased ambient temperatures. This factor reduces run-off more markedly, especially in the shoulder seasons (Autumn and Spring) Reduced runoff into the hydro-electric system can be notionally apportioned thus: 30% resulting from reduced rainfall as compared to 70% as a result of the soil dryness factor.


As a consequence of declining water runoff Hydro Tasmania officially downgraded the Long Term Average Energy Yield of its hydro system by over 10 percent in 2008. To graphically appreciate the scale of this, this equates to an equivalent loss of 130 MW of power generation capacity. To
replace that loss with new dam infrastructure would cost the business upward of $500 million. This downgrade was based on retrospective evidence from the previous 20 years performance data, showing that the performance of its whole system had been in decline, as shown in the


chart below. That time period was long enough for the business to accept the reality that this was an impact of climate change, not a temporal weather fluctuation issue.

Hydro Tasmania is fully aware that this trend in gradually lowered water inflows, is predicted to continue for the rest of this century.

This chart, showing electricity yield of the Tasmanian system, clearly shows the trend described above. Look at the horizontal bars. This information resulted in a downgrade of the system’s rated output by a factor of 10 percent.

Why soil dryness matters


Just as increasing soil dryness is causing dramatic changes to wildfire incidences in Tasmania, the very same condition is having dramatic impact on the state’s hydro-electric system. To understand this it is informative to compare Tasmania’s monthly rainfall with its river flows. From this chart we can see that Tasmania receives fairly even distribution of rainfall throughout the year.

By contrast the runoff into our river systems markedly peaks in winter months. The chart below shows a fairly typical pattern in this regard. Why is this so?

This phenomenon is almost entirely explained by the effect of soil dryness (temperature related). When soils become saturated, as they do in Winter, any rains that fall will instantly run off into streams and rivers. However, in warmer months when soils are dry a frontal shower may wet the soil surface temporarily and then evaporate without running off at all.


This hyper sensitivity – between soil dryness and water runoff – is resulting in rather dramatic consequences as climate change increases ambient temperatures, shrinking the mid-year band, above, where water flows are relied upon to replenish storages.

This drying trend is continuing


This year the Bureau of Meteorology published further clear data showing that these trends are continuing right to the present. The two charts below record a high level of deviation from historic conditions from the early 1970s to the present.

This data applies to the whole of Tasmania. The negative trend would be magnified further in the state’s western river catchments. It is perhaps a sobering thought that had the Franklin Dam being built it would have served no purpose at all other than to shore up declining system output.


Looking into the future

As we look to the future now, this double whammy (less precipitation + higher temperatures) has serious consequences for the bottom line of hydro-electric production and profitability.


Hydro Tasmania’s currently estimates that Tasmania is 90% self sufficient in electricity supply (from hydro + wind energy capacity). This estimate may indeed be a generous, top end figure since longer term climate trends become statistically valid only over considerable time. A few drought years can be seen as an aberration, accepting that weather fluctuates from year to year anyway. Longer term trends tend to be accepted only after following a good many years of data collection.


Continued modeling is being undertaken to further refine analysis of these climate change trends for Tasmania.


Why this may be the main driver behind the Battery of Nation project. It is worth putting these regressive energy losses into a practical context. The hard reality for Tasmania is that climate change induced energy losses from the Hydro system mean that 9,154 new 5kW rooftop solar systems would need to be added each year, just to compensate for climate change losses alone. This is three times the current installation rate of solar in Tasmania.


Alternatively, this would be equivalent to adding 6 new wind turbines (of typical capacity) each year to compensate for loss of hydro-electric output. That is, a major new wind farm, comprising sixty wind turbines, would have to be built each ten years just to stop us slipping backwards.


It should be noted here that the predicted decline in Long Term Average Yield of our power system affects base load supply. Hydro Tasmania can only supply energy to meet base load demand according to how much water goes into its dams.


From this we can see why the corporation is so keen to pursue its much vaunted Battery of the Nation project. Pumped-hydro technology is much less rainfall dependent because it stores energy by cycling the same water (generating electricity then pumping the same water back up). Hydro Tasmania’s ultimate expressed aim is to switch its entire hydro-electric system from base load energy production to peak load supply for the national market, seeing this in the interest of optimising its business bottom line.


References
Cooperative Research Centre: Water and catchments summary
‘Climate Futures’ reports for Tasmania
State government website
Hydro Tasmania Annual Report 2009
Entura website reference (mainly focuses on managing drought)





Jevons Paradox strikes again….

6 08 2019

Automated vehicles: more driving, energy wasted, & congestion

Posted on August 1, 2019 by energyskeptic

Preface. There’s no need to actually worry about how automated vehicles will be used and their potential congestion, energy use, and whether there are enough rare earth minerals to make them possible, because they simply can never be fully automated, as explained in this post, with articles from Science, Scientific American, and the New York Times: “Why self-driving cars may not be in your future“.

There are two articles summarized below.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical PreppingKunstlerCast 253KunstlerCast278Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

***

Taiebat, M., et al. 2019. Forecasting the Impact of Connected and Automated Vehicles on Energy Use: A Microeconomic Study of Induced Travel and Energy Rebound. Applied Energy247: 297

The benefits of self-driving cars will likely induce vehicle owners to drive more, and those extra miles could partially or completely offset the potential energy-saving benefits that automation may provide, according to a new University of Michigan study.

Greater fuel efficiency induces some people to travel extra miles, and those added miles can partially offset fuel savings. It’s a behavioral change known as the rebound effect. In addition, the ability to use in-vehicle time productively in a self-driving car — people can work, sleep, watch a movie, read a book — will likely induce even more travel.

Taken together, those two sources of added mileage could partially or completely offset the energy savings provided by autonomous vehicles. In fact, the added miles could even result in a net increase in energy consumption, a phenomenon known as backfire.

Traditionally, time spent driving has been viewed as a cost to the driver. But the ability to pursue other activities in an autonomous vehicle is expected to lower this “perceived travel time cost” considerably, which will likely spur additional travel.

The U-M researchers estimated that the induced travel resulting from a 38% reduction in perceived travel time cost would completely eliminate the fuel savings associated with self-driving cars.

“Backfire — a net rise in energy consumption — is a distinct possibility.

Mervis, J. December 15, 2017. Not so fast. We can’t even agree on what autonomous, much less how they will affect our lives. Science.

Joan Walker, a transportation engineer at UC Berkeley, designed a clever experiment. Using an automated vehicle (AV) is like having your own chauffeur. So she gave 13 car owners in the San Francisco Bay area the use of a chauffeur-driven car for up to 60 hours over 1 week, and then tracked their travel habits.  There were 4 millennials, 4 families, and 5 retirees.

The driver was free.  The study looked at how they drove their own cars for a week, and how that changed when they had a driver.

They could send the car on ghost trips (errands), such as picking up their children from school, and they didn’t have to worry about driving or parking.

The results suggest that a world with AVs will have more traffic:

  1. the 13 subjects logged 76% more miles
  2. 22% were ghost errand trips
  3. There was a 94% increase in the number of trips over 20 miles and an 80% increase after 6 PM, with retirees increasing the most.
  4. During the chauffeur week, there was no biking, mass transit, or use of ride services like Uber and Lyft.

Three-fourths of the supposedly car-shunning millennials clocked more miles. In contrast to conventional wisdom that older people would be slower to embrace the new technology, Walker says, “The retirees were really excited about AVs. They see their declining mobility and they are like, ‘I want this to be available now.’”

Due to the small sample size she will repeat this experiment on a larger scale next summer.





Rethinking Renewable Mandates

1 08 2019

Posted on July 31, 2019, another terrific post by Gail Tverberg

Powering the world’s economy with wind, water and solar, and perhaps a little wood sounds like a good idea until a person looks at the details. The economy can use small amounts of wind, water and solar, but adding these types of energy in large quantities is not necessarily beneficial to the system.

While a change to renewables may, in theory, help save world ecosystems, it will also tend to make the electric grid increasingly unstable. To prevent grid failure, electrical systems will need to pay substantial subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear electricity providers that can offer backup generation when intermittent generation is not available. Modelers have tended to overlook these difficulties. As a result, the models they provide offer an unrealistically favorable view of the benefit (energy payback) of wind and solar.

If the approach of mandating wind, water, and solar were carried far enough, it might have the unfortunate effect of saving the world’s ecosystem by wiping out most of the people living within the ecosystem. It is almost certain that this was not the intended impact when legislators initially passed the mandates.

[1] History suggests that in the past, wind and water never provided a very large percentage of total energy supply.

Figure 1. Annual energy consumption per person (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70. Figure by Tony Wrigley, Cambridge University.

Figure 1 shows that before and during the Industrial Revolution, wind and water energy provided 1% to 3% of total energy consumption.

For an energy source to work well, it needs to be able to produce an adequate “return” for the effort that is put into gathering it and putting it to use. Wind and water seemed to produce an adequate return for a few specialized tasks that could be done intermittently and that didn’t require heat energy.

When I visited Holland a few years ago, I saw windmills from the 17th and 18th centuries. These windmills pumped water out of low areas in Holland, when needed. A family would live inside each windmill. The family would regulate the level of pumping desired by adding or removing cloths over the blades of the windmill. To earn much of their income, they would also till a nearby plot of land.

This overall arrangement seems to have provided adequate income for the family. We might conclude, from the inability of wind and water energy to spread farther than 1% -3% of total energy consumption, that the energy return from the windmills was not very high. It was adequate for the arrangement I described, but it didn’t provide enough extra energy to encourage greatly expanded use of the devices.

[2] At the time of the Industrial Revolution, coal worked vastly better for most tasks of the economy than did wind or water.

Economic historian Tony Wrigley, in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, discusses the differences between an organic economy (one whose energy sources are human labor, energy from draft animals such as oxen and horses, and wind and water energy) and an energy-rich economy (one that also has the benefit of coal and perhaps other energy sources). Wrigley notes the following benefits of a coal-based energy-rich economy during the period shown in Figure 1:

  • Deforestation could be reduced. Before coal was added, there was huge demand for wood for heating homes and businesses, cooking food, and for making charcoal, with which metals could be smelted. When coal became available, it was inexpensive enough that it reduced the use of wood, benefiting the environment.
  • The quantity of metals and tools was greatly increased using coal. As long as the source of heat for making metals was charcoal from trees, the total quantity of metals that could be produced was capped at a very low level.
  • Roads to mines were greatly improved, to accommodate coal movement. These better roads benefitted the rest of the economy as well.
  • Farming became a much more productive endeavor. The crop yield from cereal crops, net of the amount fed to draft animals, nearly tripled between 1600 and 1800.
  • The Malthusian limit on population could be avoided. England’s population grew from 4.2 million to 16.7 million between 1600 and 1850. Without the addition of coal to make the economy energy-rich, the population would have been capped by the low food output from the organic economy.

[3] Today’s wind, water, and solar are not part of what Wrigley called the organic economy. Instead, they are utterly dependent on the fossil fuel system.

The name renewables reflects the fact that wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams do not burn fossil fuels in their capture of energy from the environment.

Modern hydroelectric dams are constructed with concrete and steel. They are built and repaired using fossil fuels. Wind turbines and solar panels use somewhat different materials, but these too are available only thanks to the use of fossil fuels. If we have difficulty with the fossil fuel system, we will not be able to maintain and repair any of these devices or the electricity transmission system used for distributing the energy that they capture.

[4] With the 7.7 billion people in the world today, adequate energy supplies are an absolute requirement if we do not want population to fall to a very low level. 

There is a myth that the world can get along without fossil fuels. Wrigley writes that in a purely organic economy, the vast majority of roads were deeply rutted dirt roads that could not be traversed by wheeled vehicles. This made overland transport very difficult. Canals were used to provide water transport at that time, but we have virtually no canals available today that would serve the same purpose.

It is true that buildings for homes and businesses can be built with wood, but such buildings tend to burn down frequently. Buildings of stone or brick can also be used. But with only the use of human and animal labor, and having few roads that would accommodate wheeled carts, brick or stone homes tend to be very labor-intensive. So, except for the very wealthy, most homes will be made of wood or of other locally available materials such as sod.

Wrigley’s analysis shows that before coal was added to the economy, human labor productivity was very low. If, today, we were to try to operate the world economy using only human labor, draft animals, and wind and water energy, we likely could not grow food for very many people. World population in 1650 was only about 550 million, or about 7% of today’s population. It would not be possible to provide for the basic needs of today’s population with an organic economy as described by Wrigley.

(Note that organic here has a different meaning than in “organic agriculture.” Today’s organic agriculture is also powered by fossil fuel energy. Organic agriculture brings soil amendments by truck, irrigates land and makes “organic sprays” for fruit, all using fossil fuels.)

[5] Wind, water and solar only provided about 11% of the world’s total energy consumption for the year 2018. Trying to ramp up the 11% production to come anywhere close to 100% of total energy consumption seems like an impossible task.

Figure 2. World Energy Consumption by Fuel, based on data of 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Let’s look at what it would take to ramp up the current renewables percentage from 11% to 100%. The average growth rate over the past five years of the combined group that might be considered renewable (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar) has been 5.8%. Maintaining such a high growth rate in the future is likely to be difficult because new locations for hydroelectric dams are hard to find and because biomass supply is limited. Let’s suppose that despite these difficulties, this 5.8% growth rate can be maintained going forward.

To increase the quantity from 2018’s low level of renewable supply to the 2018 total energy supply at a 5.8% growth rate would take 39 years. If population grows between 2018 and 2057, even more energy supply would likely be required. Based on this analysis, increasing the use of renewables from a 11% base to close to a 100% level does not look like an approach that has any reasonable chance of fixing our energy problems in a timeframe shorter than “generations.”

The situation is not quite as bad if we look at the task of producing an amount of electricity equal to the world’s current total electricity generation with renewables (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar); renewables in this case provided 26% of the world’s electricity supply in 2018.

Figure 3. World electricity production by type, based on data from 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

The catch with replacing electricity (Figure 3) but not energy supplies is the fact that electricity is only a portion of the world’s energy supply. Different calculations give different percentages, with electricity varying between 19% to 43% of total energy consumption.1 Either way, substituting wind, water and solar in electricity production alone does not seem to be sufficient to make the desired reduction in carbon emissions.

[6] A major drawback of wind and solar energy is its variability from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season. Water energy has season-to-season variability as well, with spring or wet seasons providing the most electricity.

Back when modelers first looked at the variability of electricity produced by wind, solar and water, they hoped that as an increasing quantity of these electricity sources were added, the variability would tend to offset. This happens a little, but not nearly as much as one would like. Instead, the variability becomes an increasing problem as more is added to the electric grid.

When an area first adds a small percentage of wind and/or solar electricity to the electric grid (perhaps 10%), the electrical system’s usual operating reserves are able to handle the variability. These were put in place to handle small fluctuations in supply or demand, such as a major coal plant needing to be taken off line for repairs, or a major industrial client reducing its demand.

But once the quantity of wind and/or solar increases materially, different strategies are needed. At times, production of wind and/or solar may need to be curtailed, to prevent overburdening the electric grid. Batteries are likely to be needed to help ease the abrupt transition that occurs when the sun goes down at the end of the day while electricity demand is still high. These same batteries can also help ease abrupt transitions in wind supply during wind storms.

Apart from brief intermittencies, there is an even more serious problem with seasonal fluctuations in supply that do not match up with seasonal fluctuations in demand. For example, in winter, electricity from solar panels is likely to be low. This may not be a problem in a warm country, but if a country is cold and using electricity for heat, it could be a major issue.

The only real way of handling seasonal intermittencies is by having fossil fuel or nuclear plants available for backup. (Battery backup does not seem to be feasible for such huge quantities for such long periods.) These back-up plants cannot sit idle all year to provide these services. They need trained staff who are willing and able to work all year. Unfortunately, the pricing system does not provide enough funds to adequately compensate these backup systems for those times when their services are not specifically required by the grid. Somehow, they need to be paid for the service of standing by, to offset the inevitable seasonal variability of wind, solar and water.

[7] The pricing system for electricity tends to produce rates that are too low for those electricity providers offering backup services to the electric grid.

As a little background, the economy is a self-organizing system that operates through the laws of physics. Under normal conditions (without mandates or subsidies) it sends signals through prices and profitability regarding which types of energy supply will “work” in the economy and which kinds will simply produce too much distortion or create problems for the system.

If legislators mandate that intermittent wind and solar will be allowed to “go first,” this mandate is by itself a substantial subsidy. Allowing wind and solar to go first tends to send prices too low for other producers because it tends to reduce prices below what those producers with high fixed costs require.2

If energy officials decide to add wind and solar to the electric grid when the grid does not really need these supplies, this action will also tend to push other suppliers off the grid through low rates. Nuclear power plants, which have already been built and are adding zero CO2 to the atmosphere, are particularly at risk because of the low rates. The Ohio legislature recently passed a $1.1 billion bailout for two nuclear power plants because of this issue.

If a mandate produces a market distortion, it is quite possible (in fact, likely) that the distortion will get worse and worse, as more wind and solar is added to the grid. With more mandated (inefficient) electricity, customers will find themselves needing to subsidize essentially all electricity providers if they want to continue to have electricity.

The physics-based economic system without mandates and subsidies provides incentives to efficient electricity providers and disincentives to inefficient electricity suppliers. But once legislators start tinkering with the system, they are likely to find a system dominated by very inefficient production. As the costs of handling intermittency explode and the pricing system gets increasingly distorted, customers are likely to become more and more unhappy.

[8] Modelers of how the system might work did not understand how a system with significant wind and solar would work. Instead, they modeled the most benign initial situation, in which the operating reserves would handle variability, and curtailment of supply would not be an issue. 

Various modelers attempted to figure out whether the return from wind and solar would be adequate, to justify all of the costs of supporting it. Their models were very simple: Energy Out compared to Energy In, over the lifetime of a device. Or, they would calculate Energy Payback Periods. But the situation they modeled did not correspond well to the real world. They tended to model a situation that was close to the best possible situation, one in which variability, batteries and backup electricity providers were not considerations. Thus, these models tended to give a far too optimistic estimates of the expected benefit of intermittent wind and solar devices.

Furthermore, another type of model, the Levelized Cost of Electricity model, also provides distorted results because it does not consider the subsidies needed for backup providers if the system is to work. The modelers likely also leave out the need for backup batteries.

In the engineering world, I am told that computer models of expected costs and income are not considered to be nearly enough. Real-world tests of proposed new designs are first tested on a small scale and then at progressively larger scales, to see whether they will work in practice. The idea of pushing “renewables” sounded so good that no one thought about the idea of testing the plan before it was put into practice.

Unfortunately, the real-world tests that Germany and other countries have tried have shown that intermittent renewables are a very expensive way to produce electricity when all costs are considered. Neighboring countries become unhappy when excess electricity is simply dumped on the grid. Total CO2 emissions don’t necessarily go down either.

[9] Long distance transmission lines are part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

Early models suggested that long-distance transmission lines might be used to smooth out variability, but this has not worked well in practice. This happens partly because wind conditions tend to be similar over wide areas, and partly because a broad East-West mixture is needed to even-out the rapid ramp-down problem in the evening, when families are still cooking dinner and the sun goes down.

Also, long distance transmission lines tend to take many years to permit and install, partly because many landowners do not want them crossing their property. In some cases, the lines need to be buried underground. Reports indicate that an underground 230 kV line costs 10 to 15 times what a comparable overhead line costs. The life expectancy of underground cables seems to be shorter, as well.

Once long-distance transmission lines are in place, maintenance is very fossil fuel dependent. If storms are in the area, repairs are often needed. If roads are not available in the area, helicopters may need to be used to help make the repairs.

An issue that most people are not aware of is the fact that above ground long-distance transmission lines often cause fires, especially when they pass through hot, dry areas. The Northern California utility PG&E filed for bankruptcy because of fires caused by its transmission lines. Furthermore, at least one of Venezuela’s major outages seems to have been related to sparks from transmission lines from its largest hydroelectric plant causing fires. These fire costs should also be part of any analysis of whether a transition to renewables makes sense, either in terms of cost or of energy returns.

[10] If wind turbines and solar panels are truly providing a major net benefit to the economy, they should not need subsidies, even the subsidy of going first.

To make wind and solar electricity producers able to compete with other electricity providers without the subsidy of going first, these providers need a substantial amount of battery backup. For example, wind turbines and solar panels might be required to provide enough backup batteries (perhaps 8 to 12 hours’ worth) so that they can compete with other grid members, without the subsidy of going first. If it really makes sense to use such intermittent energy, these providers should be able to still make a profit even with battery usage. They should also be able to pay taxes on the income they receive, to pay for the government services that they are receiving and hopefully pay some extra taxes to help out the rest of the system.

In Item [2] above, I mentioned that when coal mines were added in England, roads to the mines were substantially improved, befitting the economy as a whole. A true source of energy (one whose investment cost is not too high relative to it output) is supposed to be generating “surplus energy” that assists the economy as a whole. We can observe an impact of this type in the improved roads that benefited England’s economy as a whole. Any so-called energy provider that cannot even pay its own fair share of taxes acts more like a leech, sucking energy and resources from others, than a provider of surplus energy to the rest of the economy.

Recommendations

In my opinion, it is time to eliminate renewable energy mandates. There will be some instances where renewable energy will make sense, but this will be obvious to everyone involved. For example, an island with its electricity generation from oil may want to use some wind or solar generation to try to reduce its total costs. This cost saving occurs because of the high price of oil as fuel to make electricity.

Regulators, in locations where substantial wind and/or solar has already been installed, need to be aware of the likely need to provide subsidies to backup providers, in order to keep the electrical system operating. Otherwise, the grid will likely fail from lack of adequate backup electricity supply.

Intermittent electricity, because of its tendency to drive other providers to bankruptcy, will tend to make the grid fail more quickly than it would otherwise. The big danger ahead seems to be bankruptcy of electricity providers and of fossil fuel producers, rather than running out of a fuel such as oil or natural gas. For this reason, I see little reason for the belief by many that electricity will “last longer” than oil. It is a question of which group is most affected by bankruptcies first.

I do not see any real reason to use subsidies to encourage the use of electric cars. The problem we have today with oil prices is that they are too low for oil producers. If we want to keep oil production from collapsing, we need to keep oil demand up. We do this by encouraging the production of cars that are as inexpensive as possible. Generally, this will mean producing cars that operate using petroleum products.

(I recognize that my view is the opposite one from what many Peak Oilers have. But I see the limit ahead as being one of too low prices for producers, rather than too high prices for consumers. The CO2 issue tends to disappear as parts of the system collapse.)

Notes:

[1] BP bases its count on the equivalent fossil fuel energy needed to create the electricity; IEA counts the heat energy of the resulting electrical output. Using BP’s way of counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to 43% of total energy consumption. Using the International Energy Agency’s approach to counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to only about 19% of world energy consumption.

[2] In some locations, “utility pricing” is used. In these cases, pricing is set in a way needed to provide a fair return to all providers. With utility pricing, intermittent renewables would not be expected to cause low prices for backup producers.





Germany’s renewable energy program, Energiewende, is a big, expensive failure

21 07 2019

Another post about why renewables cannot keep complex civilisation running. Analyses like these are coming thick and fast these days, this one from Alice’s great blog……. you may also want to read a previous post here about The Lesson from Energiewend is that Germany consumes too much energy…….

After reading this post, or better yet the original 44-page document, you’ll understand why the Green New Deal is a bad idea.  This is a cautionary tale worth paying attention to.

The goal of Energiewende was to make Germany independent of fossil fuels.  But it hasn’t worked out.  The 29,000 wind turbines and 1.6 million PV systems provide only 3.1% of Germany’s energy needs and have cost well over 100 billion Euros so far and likely another 450 billion Euros over the next two decades.  And much more than that when you add in the extra cost of maintaining fossil generation systems to back up the lack of wind and sunshine from seconds to weeks.

Because of their extremely low energy density and need for a great deal of space, forests are being cut down, pits dug, and filled with hundreds of tons of reinforced concrete for wind turbines to stand on, 5 acres per turbine. With the forest no longer protecting the soil, it is now vulnerable to wind and rain erosion.

Because wind and solar farms get a guaranteed price for 20 years, they have no need to innovate, do research, or please customers, who paid them 176 billion euros for electricity with a market value of just 5 billion euros from 2000-2016.  This is money that taxpayers could have used to build bridges, energy efficient buildings, or renovate schools, which would create even more jobs than the wind and solar industry claims so they can tout themselves as good for society, perhaps they aren’t so great when you look at other ways and jobs that could have been created with all the subsidies (Vernunftkraft 2018).

Germany’s electricity rates have skyrocketed to the highest levels in the EU because of the Energiewende debacle.

Other news about Energiewende:

  • Germany’s Federal Audit Office has accused the federal government of having largely failed to manage the transformation of Germany’s energy systems (Energiewende  program), and will miss its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption and the share of renewable energy in transport.
  • At the same time, policy makers had burdened the nation with enormous costs. The audit further concluded that the program is a monumental bureaucratic nightmare.
  • The build-up of renewables benefited from more than $800 billion in subsidies. 
  • The country has not just been burning coal; it has been burning lignite, one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet. In fact, in 2016, seven of the 10 worst polluting facilities in Europe were German lignite plants.
  • When it’s windy and bright, the grid is so flooded with power that prices in the wholesale market sometimes drop below zero.
  • Transport consumes 30 percent and mining & manufacturing 29% of Germany’s power, but for each, only 4 percent of its energy comes from renewables. Households use 26% of power, but only 13% of it comes from renewables, and Trade, commerce and services 15% but just 7% renewables.  
  • Germany’s carbon emissions have stagnated at roughly their 2009 level. The country remains Europe’s largest producer and burner of coal, which generates more than one-third of Germany’s power supply. Moreover, emissions in the transportation sector have shot up by 20 percent since 1995 and are rising with no end in sight

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical PreppingKunstlerCast 253KunstlerCast278Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Vernunftkraft. 2018. Germanys Energiewende – where we really stand.  Bundesinitiative für vernünftige Energiepolitik, Vernunftkraft.

The Energiewende has the goal of making Germany independent of fossil fuels in the long term. Coal, oil and gas were to be phased out, allowing drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. However, these goals have not even begun to be achieved.

The idea of meeting our country’s energy needs with wind power and solar energy has proven to be an illusion. At present, around 29,000 wind turbines and 1.6 million photovoltaic systems together account for just 3.1 % of our energy requirements.   There were hardly any successes in the heating/cooling and transport sectors.

Well over a hundred billion euros have been spent on the expansion of solar and wind energy over the same period. The financial obligations undertaken in the process will continue to burden taxpayers for another two decades and will end up costing German consumers a total sum of around 550 billion euros.

To compensate for the lack of reliability of wind and sun and to be able to actually replace conventional power generation, gigantic amounts of electricity storage would be required. The replacement of controllable power generation with a fluctuating power supply is impossible without storage and unaffordable with it.

A reliable supply of electricity around the clock is taken for granted by citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany. But only those who have taken a closer look will appreciate the importance of a reliable power supply for our highly complex, high-tech society. It is not just about comfort and convenience. It is not only a matter of maintaining an essential input for important manufacturing processes; it is about nothing less than the functioning of civilized community life.

A fundamental characteristic of electrical current must be taken into account when answering this question: it must be produced, to the millisecond, at the moment of consumption, giving an exact balance between power supply and demand. Stable power grids are based on this principle.

At the end of September 2017, more than 27,000 wind turbines with a rated output of 53,374 MW were installed in Germany. Nominal power is defined as the highest power that can be provided permanently under optimum operating conditions (strong to stormy wind conditions). In Figure 2, the dark blue areas represent the delivered power from the German wind turbine fleet during September 2017. A total of 6,380 GWh (1 GWh = 1 million kWh) was sent to the grid, corresponding to just 16.6 % of what was theoretically possible.  

For approximately half of September 2017, the power delivered by the wind fleet was less than 10 % of the nominal capacity. Values above 50 % were reached only 5.3 % of the time, in essence only on 8 and 13–15 September.

Electricity consumption in September 2017 was 39,000 GWh. Wind turbines delivered for 6400 GWh of this and PV systems another 3100 GWh. The minimum power input by all of the PV and wind energy systems was below 0.6 GW, representing less than 1% of the installed capacity of 96 GW.

Since wind and solar are often absent, conventional power plants are needed to ensure grid stability at all times – often over long periods.  Consumers pay for the costs of maintaining two parallel generation systems.

There is no discernable smoothing effect from the size and geographical spread of the wind fleet: the argument that the wind is always blowing somewhere is not true. Even a Europe-wide wind power expansion in conjunction with a perfectly developed electricity grid would not solve the problem of the fluctuating wind energy generation. It is quite possible for there to be no wind anywhere in Europe.

Anyone who studies the feed-in characteristics of electricity generation from wind power and PV systems thoroughly must realize that sun and wind usually supply either far too little or far too much – and that one cannot rely on anything but chance.

Despite the increased capacity and the increasing peaks, the guaranteed output of all 27,000 wind turbines and the 400 million m² of PV systems remains close to zero because of their weather-dependency. This is a particular problem in the winter months, when electricity consumption is high.

Even the ‘dumping’ of electricity abroad to reduce the surplus energy will become increasingly difficult, since neighboring countries are closing themselves off with electricity barriers in order to protect their own grids.

There is no sunshine at night and electricity cannot be stored in bags

The wind energy statistics reveal the absurdity of wanting to tackle the problem of intermittency through construction of additional power lines and extensive wind power expansion.

So even with a European electricity grid based on wind turbines, a 100 % replacement system would always have to be available to ensure the security of electricity supply.

With PV systems, the lack any smoothing of electricity over the diurnal and seasonal cycles is even more evident. It is obvious that the generation peaks in Germany occur at the same time as the peaks in the other European countries. This is due to the size of the low pressure areas, which results in a positive correlation of wind power generation levels across the continent: if too much electricity is produced in Germany, most of our neighbors will be over-producing too. This calls into question the sense of network expansion a priori.

German energy consumption is particularly high in the winter months, especially during inversion weather conditions, when PV systems barely supply any electricity due to clouds and wind turbines are usually at a standstill. The weather-dependency of electricity generation would thus have direct and fatal effects on the transport sector. It would not be possible to heat electrically either. In other words, renewable energy can’t keep transportation or heating going.

Climate protection: a bad joke with deadly undertones

No discussion about the construction of wind turbines and no energy policy document of the last federal government can avoid the suggestion that the Energiewende might help avert the dangers of climate change. This is why the last German government continually described the EEG as a central instrument of climate protection. The thesis – often presented in a shrill, moralizing tone – is that the expansion of ‘renewable energies’ is a human obligation in view of the impending global warming apocalypse. Particularly perfidious forms of this thesis even suggest that not expanding wind power plants in Germany would mean that we would soon be dealing with ‘billions of climate refugees’.

At least one hectare of forest is cleared per wind turbine and is thus permanently destroyed. Afforestation elsewhere cannot make up for this, since old trees are in every respect much more valuable than new plantations. The negative effects of global warming predicted for Germany are more frequent floods and droughts, but forest is the best form of protection against soil erosion, cleaning soil and storing water.

Whether it is forest destruction, cultivation of maize for biogas plants, the destruction of habitats or the direct killing of birds and bats – the massive expansion of ‘renewable energies’ has appalling consequences, the result of their low energy density and the resulting requirement for vast areas of land.

Besides intermittency, the core problem of wind and solar energy is that it is generated in a very diffuse form. Anyone who has ridden a bike against the wind will understand: a headwind of 3m/s makes clothes flutter a little, but hardly makes it difficult to pedal. Water, on the other hand, flowing towards us at the same speed, will wash us away. This is because the power of water is comparatively concentrated, while the power of the wind is much more diffuse. In the case of hydropower, ‘collecting from the surface’ is done by a wide system of ditches, brooks, rivers and streams. If you want to ‘capture’ the power of the wind, you have to do the tedious work of concentrating the energy yourself – requiring a multitude of collection stations and power lines to connect them. Instead of ditches, streams, and rivers wind power required 200-m-high industrial installations, pylons and wires. Inevitably, natural areas become industrialized and opportunities for retreat in nature are gradually destroyed.

A few years ago, a wind turbine invasion of the many forests that have been managed for decades in accordance with the principle of sustainability was still unimaginable. But huge pits are now being dug and filled with thousands of tons of reinforced concrete, with considerable effects on the ecosystem. The effects on wildlife, soils and water as well as on the aesthetics and natural harmony of hilltop landscapes are catastrophic.

The direct cost drivers of electricity prices are the feed-in tariffs set out in the legislation: operators of wind farms, PV and biomass plants will receive a guaranteed price per kilowatt hour, fixed for 20 years after commissioning. This is set at a level that is many times higher than the market price. The difference is passed on to (almost) all consumers via the electricity price. In addition, producers are guaranteed to be able to sell electricity into the grid at that price, regardless of whether there is a need for it or not.

In the period 2000–2016, 176 billion euros were paid by electricity consumers to renewables companies, for electricity with a market value of just 5 billion euros.

What else could have been done with this money?  This is known in economic terms as the ‘opportunity cost’.  For example, the St Gotthard tunnel opened in 2016 at a cost of 3.4 billion euros; the Hamburg Elbe Philharmonic Hall cost 0.8 billion euros. The refurbishment needs of all German schools are estimated to total just 34 billion euros.

The fact that electricity from wind and sun is randomly produced puts the power supply system under considerable and increasing stress. The task of transmission system operators to maintain a constant 50Hz alternating voltage becomes more difficult with each additional weather-dependent and privileged feeding system. In order to cope with increasing volatility, the generation output must be repeatedly intervened in order to protect line sections from overload.

If a bottleneck threatens at a certain point in the grid, power plants on this side of the bottleneck are instructed to reduce their feed-in, while plants beyond the bottleneck must increase their output. The need for re-dispatching  will continue to increase.  Together with the expansion of wind power, the costs of these re-dispatching measures rose continuously. By 2015, grid operators had to spend a billion euros to protect the power grid from the blackout. Since this billion did not ‘fall from the sky’, the unreliability of EEG electricity is reflected in higher electricity prices.

But that’s not all: In order to protect themselves from unwanted erratic electricity inflows and to prevent their grids from being endangered, our neighbors in the Czech Republic and Poland were forced to install phase shifters, i.e. to erect ‘electrical current barriers’. The costs of these self-defense measures are also borne by German consumers.

The ‘energy revolution’ is often referred to as a modernization and innovation program. Germany will become a global leader in technology development, is the slogan. In green-inspired literature, ‘wind and solar’ should be celebrated as the ‘winners’. However, the real world is only partially impressed by this case: those technologies that prove to be economic will win, not those that bureaucrats and officials favor. Long-term economic gains can only be made through competition. However, with renewables, the competitive mechanism is switched off: prices and quantities are determined in a political process, the outcome of which is ultimately determined by the producers of renewable energy themselves.

If post-war governments had adopted the same approach for the automobile industry, it might have demanded that by the year 2000 every German must have a car. The Volkswagen Beetle – at the time, one of the most technically advanced cars in the world – would have been declared an industry standard and a purchase price that would deliver `cars for all’ would have been determined in a biennial consultation process between government and manufacturers. As a result, we would still have vehicles of the technical standard of the VW Beetle, innovation would be irrelevant, and the German industry would never have achieved its position of global leadership.

The plight of the German photovoltaic industry, which rapidly lost international market share and had to cope with many insolvencies, is an example of this. The availability of easy money – subsidies – was the main rea son for the sector’s loss of competitiveness.  It is a harbinger of what can be expected in other artificially nurtured segments of the renewables sector.

Subsidies, however, take away their incentive to innovate. German PV companies invested only 2–3 % of their sales in research and development. In the highly competitive automobile industry, the equivalent figure is 6%; in the pharmaceutical industry it is even higher, at around 9 %. Subsidies make businesses sluggish.

Green jobs? On large posters and in advertisements in autumn 2015, the Energiewende congratulated itself for the creation of ‘230,000 sustainable jobs’. This myth of a ‘job creating’ energy transition is regularly disseminated. Of course, the energy transition is shifting purchasing power from traditional consumer and capital goods industries to industries that produce wind turbines, solar panels and other equipment. This shift generates gross jobs in the those sectors: wind turbines, solar parks and biogas plants must be built. The components have to be produced, delivered and assembled; the finished systems have to be maintained. The investments require financing and credit agreements. This creates employment in banks and law firms. Subsidies must be regulated and monitored, which leads to even employment in the bureaucracy and, once again, lawyers’ offices.  

It should also be noted that were the money not spent on ‘renewable energies’, investments could have been made in other areas that would also have created employment. If, for example, the 178 billion euros mentioned above had been used to renovate schools, the order books of countless businesses would have remained full for many years to come.

If one wants to focus not only on short-term economic effects, but also on long-term growth, one has to ask not only about the scope, but also about the type of investments made. Otherwise you run the risk of losing to ‘Broken Window’ fallacy. According to this, a large stone would have to be thrown through the nearest window as powerfully as possible as an immediate measure of economic policy. This would ultimately give the glazier a large order and thus income, of which he would spend a portion on the confectioner, for example, and thus generate income again. An income that he in turn would spend partly on the butcher, resulting in a virtuous circle that would ultimately benefit everyone and increase national wealth…

Anyone who produces electricity will be remunerated at a guaranteed rate far above the market price for a period of 20 years. EEG beneficiaries do not need to worry about the needs of customers, the offerings of competitors, technical progress or other such ‘banalities’. The search for profitable locations is made easier for wind power producers insofar as the fixed prices per kWh are in essence higher at ‘bad’ locations than at ‘good’ ones. This principle – of incentivizing the use of bad locations – can intuitively be recognized as foolish, but was nevertheless adopted in the tendering procedures of the 2017 revision of the EEG. This absurdity was justified with a claim the fact that an expansion of the area covered in windfarms would lead to a reduction in the volatility of the electricity supplied – a fundamentally wrong idea

Tax consultant Daldorf, analyzed over 1600 annual financial statements of wind energy projects between 2005 and 2013. They found that the vast majority of wind farms in Germany operate at a loss. With many local wind farms, investors are lucky to get their original investment back at all. Daldorf gives the following reasons for the poor performance of windfarms:

  • poor wind assessments or no one-year wind measurements on site
  • erroneous wind indexes as a basis for planning
  • overly low margins of error in wind forecasts
  • underestimates of plant downtime for maintenance and repairs
  • ’planning optimism’ of the project promoters as a strategy for maximizing profits

The operators and investors bear the full risk. Before they can make a profit, the following costs must be covered from the sales achieved:

  • lease costs
  • insurance premiums, fees
  • maintenance costs
  • repairs, reserves for dismantling costs
  • management costs
  • administrative and other costs
  • interest-costs
  • taxes

The cubic relationship between wind force and power generation is decisive for the frequent red numbers: a doubling or halving of the wind speed changes the generation by a factor of eight. The smallest deviations from the expected wind input are reflected in sharp deviations in power generation and thus in revenues. Measurements on wind masts are the most accurate method, but even here the typical error range is 2–8 %. The uncertainty of measurement alone causes an uncertainty of the expected yield of up to 16 %. Measurements with optical methods (LIDAR) or even wind assessments are even less accurate. Anyone who evaluates such measurements will find that the operation of wind farms entails considerable economic risks. These risks apply in particular to wind assessments, whose error rate is in the order of 20 %.

The profit is almost solely determined by the annual electricity yield. No matter how clever the marketing may be, it cannot influence profitability, which depends on the whims of the weather.

Investment in wind turbines on the basis of wind assessments is close to gambling. Anyone who does so is responsible for their own downfall. However, anyone who lives in a community whose elected representatives fall for the promises of windfarm promoters is virtually forced to the roulette table.

The cardinal problems – weather-dependence and low energy density – are unsolved or unsolvable.

My note: there are even more reasons in this document than I have listed above for why Energiewende is a failure. And also see:





No, I don’t hate “renewables”

20 07 2019

Another masterpiece from Tim who keeps churning out great stuff on his website……

During a conversation with a friend yesterday I was asked why I was so hostile toward “renewables” – or as I prefer to call them, non-renewablerenewable energy-harvesting technologies.  My answer was that I am not opposed to these technologies, but rather to the role afforded to them by the Bright Green techno-utopian crowd, who continue to churn out propaganda to the effect that humankind can continue to metastasise across the universe without stopping for breath simply by replacing the energy we derive from fossil fuels with energy we harvest with wind and tide turbines, solar panels and geothermal pumps.  These, I explained to my friend, will unquestionably play a role in our future; but to nowhere near the extent claimed by the proponents of green capitalism, ecosocialism or the green new deal.

It would seem that I was not alone in being asked why I was so disapproving of “renewables.”  On the same day, American essayist John Michael Greer addressed the same question on his Ecosophia blog:

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m wholly in favor of renewables; they’re what we’ll have left when fossil fuels are gone; but anyone who thinks that the absurdly extravagant energy use that props up a modern lifestyle can be powered by PV cells simply hasn’t done the math. Yet you’ll hear plenty of well-intentioned people these days insisting that if we only invest in solar PV we can stop using fossil fuels and still keep our current lifestyles.”

Greer also explains why so many techno-utopians have such a starry-eyed view of “renewables” like solar panels:

“The result of [decades of development] can be summed up quite readily: the only people who think that an energy-intensive modern lifestyle can be supported entirely on solar PV are those who’ve never tried it. You can get a modest amount of electrical power intermittently from PV cells; if you cover your roof with PV cells and have a grid tie-in that credits you at a subsidized rate, you can have all the benefits of fossil fuel-generated electricity and still convince yourself that you’re not dependent on fossil fuels; but if you go off-grid, you’ll quickly learn the hard limits of solar PV.”

Greer is not alone in having to spell this out.  The first article I read yesterday morning was a new post from Tim Morgan on his Surplus Energy Economics blog, where he makes the case that even if we were not facing a climate emergency, our dependence upon fossil fuels still dooms our civilisation to an imminent collapse:

“Far from ensuring ‘business as usual’, continued reliance on fossil fuel energy would have devastating economic consequences. As is explained here, the world economy is already suffering from these effects, and these have prompted the adoption of successively riskier forms of financial manipulation in a failed effort to sustain economic ‘normality’.”

The reason is what Morgan refers to as the rapidly-rising “energy cost of energy” (ECoE) – a calculation related to Net Energy and Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI).  Put simply, industrial civilisation has devoured each fossil fuel beginning with the cheapest and easiest deposits and then falling back on ever harder and more expensive deposits as these run out.  The result is that the amount of surplus energy left over to grow the economy after we have invested in energy for the future and in the maintenance and repair of the infrastructure we have already developed gets smaller and harder to obtain with each passing month.

Morgan sets out four factors which determine the Energy Cost of Energy:

  • Geographical reach – as local deposits are exhausted, we are obliged to go further afield for replacements.
  • Economies of scale – as our infrastructure develops, we rationalise it in order to keep costs to a minimum; for example, having a handful of giant oil refineries rather than a large number of small ones. Unfortunately, this is a one-off gain, after which the cost of maintenance and repair results in diminishing returns.
  • Depletion – most of the world’s oil and coal deposits are now in decline, after providing the basis for the development of industrial civilisation. Without replacement, depletion dooms us to some form of degrowth.
  • Technology – the development of technologies that provide a greater return for the energy invested can offset some of the rising ECoE, but like economies of scale, they come with diminishing returns and are ultimately limited by the laws of thermodynamics:

“To be sure, advances in technology can mitigate the rise in ECoEs, but technology is limited by the physical properties of the resource. Advances in techniques have reduced the cost of shale liquids extraction to levels well below the past cost of extracting those same resources, but have not turned America’s tight sands into the economic equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s al Ghawar, or other giant discoveries of the past.

“Physics does tend to have the last word.”

Morgan argues that by focusing solely on financial matters, mainstream economics misses the central role of surplus energy in the economy:

“According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – world trend ECoE rose from 2.9% in 1990 to 4.1% in 2000. This increase was more than enough to stop Western prosperity growth in its tracks.

“Unfortunately, a policy establishment accustomed to seeing all economic developments in purely financial terms was at a loss to explain this phenomenon, though it did give it a name – “secular stagnation”.

“Predictably, in the absence of an understanding of the energy basis of the economy, recourse was made to financial policies in order to ‘fix’ this slowdown in growth.

“The first such initiative was credit adventurism. It involved making debt easier to obtain than ever before. This approach was congenial to a contemporary mind-set which saw ‘deregulation’ as a cure for all ills.”

The inevitable result was the financial crash in 2008, when unrepayable debt threatened to unwind the entire global financial system.  And while the financial crisis has been temporarily offset by more of the same medicine – quantitative easing and interest rate cuts – it has been the continued expansion of emerging markets that has actually kept the system limping along:

“World average prosperity per capita has declined only marginally since 2007, essentially because deterioration in the West has been offset by continued progress in the emerging market (EM) economies. This, though, is nearing its point of inflexion, with clear evidence now showing that the Chinese economy, in particular, is in very big trouble.

“As you’d expect, these trends in underlying prosperity have started showing up in ‘real world’ indicators, with trade in goods, and sales of everything from cars and smartphones to computer chips and industrial components, now turning down. As the economy of ‘stuff’ weakens, a logical consequence is likely to be a deterioration in demand for the energy and other commodities used in the supply of “stuff”.

“Simply stated, the economy has now started to shrink, and there are limits to how long we can hide this from ourselves by spending ever larger amounts of borrowed money.”

The question this raises is not simply, can we replace fossil fuels with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (Morgan refers to them as “secondary applications of primary energy from fossil fuels”) but can we deploy them at an ECoE that allows us to avoid the collapse of industrial civilisation?  Morgan argues not.  The techno-utopian bad habit of applying Moore’s Law to every technology has allowed economists and politicians to assume that the cost of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies will keep halving even as the energy they generate continues to double.  However:

“[W]e need to guard against the extrapolatory fallacy which says that, because the ECoE of renewables has declined by x% over y number of years, it will fall by a further x% over the next y. The problem with this is that it ignores the limits imposed by the laws of physics.”

More alarming, however, is the high ECoE of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies; despite their becoming cheaper than some fossil fuel deposits:

“…there can be no assurance that the ECoE of a renewables-based energy system can ever be low enough to sustain prosperity. Back in the ‘golden age’ of prosperity growth (in the decades immediately following 1945), global ECoE was between 1% and 2%. With renewables, the best that we can hope for might be an ECoE stable at perhaps 8%, far above the levels at which prosperity deteriorates in the West, and ceases growing in the emerging economies.”

At this point, no doubt, some readers at least will be asking Morgan why he dislikes “renewables” so much.  And his answer is the same as Greer’s and my own:

“These cautions do not, it must be stressed, undermine the case for transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. After all, once we understand the energy processes which drive the economy, we know where continued dependency on ever-costlier fossil fuels would lead.

“There can, of course, be no guarantees around a successful transition to renewable forms of energy. The slogan “sustainable development” has been adopted by the policy establishment because it seems to promise the public that we can tackle environmental risk without inflicting economic hardship, or even significant inconvenience.”

Morgan’s broad point here is that there is a false dichotomy between addressing environmental concerns and maintaining economic growth.  The economy is toast irrespective of whether we address environment crises or not.  There is not enough fossil fuel energy to prevent he system from imploding – the only real question to be answered is whether we continue with business as usual until we crash and burn or whether we take at least some mitigating actions to preserve a few of the beneficial aspects of the last 250 years of economic development.  After all, having clean drinking water, enough food to ward off starvation and some basic health care would make the coming collapse easier than it otherwise might be.

The problem, however, is that even with the Herculean efforts to deploy non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies in the decades since the oil crisis in 1973, they still only account for four percent of our primary energy.  As Morgan cautions, it is too easy for westerners to assume that our total energy consumption is entirely in the gas and electricity we use at home and in the fuel we put in the tanks of our vehicles.  In reality this is but a tiny fraction of our energy use (and carbon footprint) with most of our energy embodied within all of the goods and services we consume.  Not only does fossil fuel account for more than 85 percent of the world’s primary energy, but both BP and the International Energy Agency reports for 2018 show that fossil fuel consumption is growing at a faster rate than non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies are being installed.

Nor is there a green new deal route out of this problem.  As a recent letter to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, authored by Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Prof Richard Herrington et al., warns:

“To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry…

“There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.

“Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars: If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.

“Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.

“Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.”

Put simply, there is not enough Planet Earth left for us to grow our way to sustainability.  The only option open to us is to rapidly shrink our activities and our population back to something that can be sustained without further depleting the planet we depend upon.  Continue with business as usual and Mother Nature is going to do to us what we did to the dodo and the passenger pigeon.  Begin taking some radical action – which still allows the use of some resources and fossil fuels – to switch from an economy of desires to one of needs and at least a fewhumans might survive what is coming.

The final problem, though, is that very few people – including many of those who protest government inaction on the environment – are prepared to make the sacrifices required.  Nor are our corporations and institutions prepared to forego their power and profits for the greater good.  And that leaves us with political structures that will inevitably favour business as usual.

So no, I don’t hate “renewables” – I just regard those who blithely claim that we can deploy and use them to replace fossil fuels without breaking a sweat to be as morally bankrupt as any climate change denying politician you care to mention.  There is a crash on the horizon, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the fourteenth century.  When the energy cost of securing energy – whether fossil fuel, nuclear or renewable – exceeds the energy cost of sustaining the system; our ability to take mitigating action will be over.  Exactly when this is going to happen is a matter of speculation (we should avoid mistaking inevitability for imminence).  Nevertheless, the window for taking action is closing fast; and promising Bright Green utopias as we slide over the cliff edge is not helping anybody.





How (Not) to Run a Modern Society on Solar and Wind Power Alone

20 07 2019

This is a great article from Low-Tech Magazine explaining the limitations of renewable energy. Let me tell you, now we are off grid and not relying on it for the house site, I have personally visited the limits of solar energy on several occasions. Winter, in particular, really tests my ability to do things, even building. We’ve had lengthy rainy periods when the solar array has literally produced nothing whatsoever, and I couldn’t even use power tools. When the sun shines, I can do anything. But when it doesn’t……. to add insult to injury, even owning a wind turbine would not help, because at this time of year there’s no useable wind!

While the potential of wind and solar energy is more than sufficient to supply the electricity demand of industrial societies, these resources are only available intermittently. To ensure that supply always meets demand, a renewable power grid needs an oversized power generation and transmission capacity of up to ten times the peak demand. It also requires a balancing capacity of fossil fuel power plants, or its equivalent in energy storage. 

Consequently, matching supply to demand at all times makes renewable power production a complex, slow, expensive and unsustainable undertaking. Yet, if we would adjust energy demand to the variable supply of solar and wind energy, a renewable power grid could be much more advantageous. Using wind and solar energy only when they’re available is a traditional concept that modern technology can improve upon significantly.

100% Renewable Energy

It is widely believed that in the future, renewable energy production will allow modern societies to become independent from fossil fuels, with wind and solar energy having the largest potential. An oft-stated fact is that there’s enough wind and solar power available to meet the energy needs of modern civilisation many times over.

For instance, in Europe, the practical wind energy potential for electricity production on- and off-shore is estimated to be at least 30,000 TWh per year, or ten times the annual electricity demand. [1] In the USA, the technical solar power potential is estimated to be 400,000 TWh, or 100 times the annual electricity demand. [2]

Such statements, although theoretically correct, are highly problematic in practice. This is because they are based on annual averages of renewable energy production, and do not address the highly variable and uncertain character of wind and solar energy. 

Annual averages of renewable energy production do not address the highly variable and uncertain character of wind and solar energy

Demand and supply of electricity need to be matched at all times, which is relatively easy to achieve with power plants that can be turned on and off at will. However, the output of wind turbines and solar panels is totally dependent on the whims of the weather.

Therefore, to find out if and how we can run a modern society on solar and wind power alone, we need to compare time-synchronised electricity demand with time-synchronised solar or wind power availability. [3][4] [5] In doing so, it becomes clear that supply correlates poorly with demand.


The intermittency of solar en wind energy compared to demand

Above: a visualisation of 30 days of superimposed power demand time series data (red), wind energy generation data (blue), and solar insolation data (yellow). Average values are in colour-highlighted black lines. Data obtained from Bonneville Power Administration, April 2010. Source: [21]


The Intermittency of Solar Energy

Solar power is characterised by both predictable and unpredictable variations. There is a predictable diurnal and seasonal pattern, where peak output occurs in the middle of the day and in the summer, depending on the apparent motion of the sun in the sky. [6] [7]

When the sun is lower in the sky, its rays have to travel through a larger air mass, which reduces their strength because they are absorbed by particles in the atmosphere. The sun’s rays are also spread out over a larger horizontal surface, decreasing the energy transfer per unit of horizontal surface area.

When the sun is 60° above the horizon, the sun’s intensity is still 87% of its maximum when it reaches a horizontal surface. However, at lower angles, the sun’s intensity quickly decreases. At a solar angle of 15°, the radiation that strikes a horizontal surface is only 25% of its maximum. 

On a seasonal scale, the solar elevation angle also correlates with the number of daylight hours, which reduces the amount of solar energy received over the course of a day at times of the year when the sun is already lower in the sky. And, last but not least, there’s no solar energy available at night.

Cloud map

Image: Average cloud cover 2002 – 2015. Source: NASA.

Likewise, the presence of clouds adds unpredictable variations to the solar energy supply. Clouds scatter and absorb solar radiation, reducing the amount of insolation that reaches the ground below. Solar output is roughly 80% of its maximum with a light cloud cover, but only 15% of its maximum on a heavy overcast day. [8][9][10]

Due to a lack of thermal or mechanical inertia in solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, the changes due to clouds can be dramatic. For example, under fluctuating cloud cover, the output of multi-megawatt PV power plants in the Southwest USA was reported to have variations of roughly 50% in a 30 to 90 second timeframe and around 70% in a timeframe of 5 to 10 minutes. [6]

In London, a solar panel produces 65 times less energy on a heavy overcast day in December at 10 am than on a sunny day in June at noon. 

The combination of these predictable and unpredictable variations in solar power makes it clear that the output of a solar power plant can vary enormously throughout time. In Phoenix, Arizona, the sunniest place in the USA, a solar panel produces on average 2.7 times less energy in December than in June. Comparing a sunny day at midday in June with a heavy overcast day at 10 am in December, the difference in solar output is almost twentyfold. [11]

In London, UK, which is a moderately suitable location for solar power, a solar panel produces on average 10 times less energy in December than in June. Comparing a sunny day in June at noon with a heavy overcast day in December at 10 am, the solar output differs by a factor of 65. [8][9]

The Intermittency of Wind Energy

Compared to solar energy, the variability of the wind is even more volatile. On the one hand, wind energy can be harvested both day and night, while on the other hand, it’s less predictable and less reliable than solar energy. During daylight hours, there’s always a minimum amount of solar power available, but this is not the case for wind, which can be absent or too weak for days or even weeks at a time. There can also be too much wind, and wind turbines then have to be shut down in order to avoid damage.

On average throughout the year, and depending on location, modern wind farms produce 10-45% of their rated maximum power capacity, roughly double the annual capacity factor of the average solar PV installation (5-30%). [6] [12][13][14] In practice, however, wind turbines can operate between 0 and 100% of their maximum power at any moment.


Hourly wind power output on 29 different days in april 2005 at a wind plant in california

Hourly wind power output on 29 different days in april 2005 at a wind plant in california. Source: [6]


For many locations, only average wind speed data is available. However, the chart above shows the daily and hourly wind power output on 29 different days at a wind farm in California. At any given hour of the day and any given day of the month, wind power production can vary between zero and 600 megawatt, which is the maximum power production of the wind farm. [6]

Even relatively small changes in wind speed have a large effect on wind power production: if the wind speed decreases by half, power production decreases by a factor of eight. [15] Wind resources also vary throughout the years. Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark show a wind speed inter-annual variability of up to 30%. [1] Yearly differences in solar power can also be significant. [16] [17]

How to Match Supply with Demand?

To some extent, wind and solar energy can compensate for each other. For example, wind is usually twice as strong during the winter months, when there is less sun. [18] However, this concerns average values again. At any particular moment of the year, wind and solar energy may be weak or absent simultaneously, leaving us with little or no electricity at all.

Electricity demand also varies throughout the day and the seasons, but these changes are more predictable and much less extreme. Demand peaks in the morning and in the evening, and is at its lowest during the night. However, even at night, electricity use is still close to 60% of the maximum. 

At any particular moment of the year, wind and solar energy may be weak or absent simultaneously, leaving us with little or no electricity at all.

Consequently, if renewable power capacity is calculated based on the annual averages of solar and wind energy production and in tune with the average power demand, there would be huge electricity shortages for most of the time. To ensure that electricity supply always meets electricity demand, additional measures need to be taken.

First, we could count on a backup infrastructure of dispatchable fossil fuel power plants to supply electricity when there’s not enough renewable energy available. Second, we could oversize the renewable generation capacity, adjusting it to the worst case scenario. Third, we could connect geographically dispersed renewable energy sources to smooth out variations in power production. Fourth, we could store surplus electricity for use in times when solar and/or wind resources are low or absent.

As we shall see, all of these strategies are self-defeating on a large enough scale, even when they’re combined. If the energy used for building and maintaining the extra infrastructure is accounted for in a life cycle analysis of a renewable power grid, it would be just as CO2-intensive as the present-day power grid. 

Strategy 1: Backup Power Plants

Up to now, the relatively small share of renewable power sources added to the grid has been balanced by dispatchable forms of electricity, mainly rapidly deployable gas power plants. Although this approach completely “solves” the problem of intermittency, it results in a paradox because the whole point of switching to renewable energy is to become independent of fossil fuels, including gas. [19]

Most scientific research focuses on Europe, which has the most ambitious plans for renewable power. For a power grid based on 100% solar and wind power, with no energy storage and assuming interconnection at the national European level only, the balancing capacity of fossil fuel power plants needs to be just as large as peak electricity demand. [12] In other words, there would be just as many non-renewable power plants as there are today.

Power plant capacity united states

Every power plant in the USA. Visualisation by The Washington Post.

Such a hybrid infrastructure would lower the use of carbon fuels for the generation of electricity, because renewable energy can replace them if there is sufficient sun or wind available. However, lots of energy and materials need to be invested into what is essentially a double infrastructure. The energy that’s saved on fuel is spent on the manufacturing, installation and interconnection of millions of solar panels and wind turbines.

Although the balancing of renewable power sources with fossil fuels is widely regarded as a temporary fix that’s not suited for larger shares of renewable energy, most other technological strategies (described below) can only partially reduce the need for balancing capacity.

Strategy 2: Oversizing Renewable Power Production

Another way to avoid energy shortages is to install more solar panels and wind turbines. If solar power capacity is tailored to match demand during even the shortest and darkest winter days, and wind power capacity is matched to the lowest wind speeds, the risk of electricity shortages could be reduced significantly. However, the obvious disadvantage of this approach is an oversupply of renewable energy for most of the year.

During periods of oversupply, the energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines is curtailed in order to avoid grid overloading. Problematically, curtailment has a detrimental effect on the sustainability of a renewable power grid. It reduces the electricity that a solar panel or wind turbine produces over its lifetime, while the energy required to manufacture, install, connect and maintain it remains the same. Consequently, the capacity factor and the energy returned for the energy invested in wind turbines and solar panels decrease. [20]

Installing more solar panels and wind turbines reduces the risk of shortages, but it produces an oversupply of electricity for most of the year.

Curtailment rates increase spectacularly as wind and solar comprise a larger fraction of the generation mix, because the overproduction’s dependence on the share of renewables is exponential. Scientists calculated that a European grid comprised of 60% solar and wind power would require a generation capacity that’s double the peak load, resulting in 300 TWh of excess electricity every year (roughly 10% of the current annual electricity consumption in Europe).

In the case of a grid with 80% renewables, the generation capacity needs to be six times larger than the peak load, while the excess electricity would be equal to 60% of the EU’s current annual electricity consumption. Lastly, in a grid with 100% renewable power production, the generation capacity would need to be ten times larger than the peak load, and excess electricity would surpass the EU annual electricity consumption. [21] [22] [23] 

This means that up to ten times more solar panels and wind turbines need to be manufactured. The energy that’s needed to create this infrastructure would make the switch to renewable energy self-defeating, because the energy payback times of solar panels and wind turbines would increase six- or ten-fold.

For solar panels, the energy payback would only occur in 12-24 years in a power grid with 80% renewables, and in 20-40 years in a power grid with 100% renewables. Because the life expectancy of a solar panel is roughly 30 years, a solar panel may never produce the energy that was needed to manufacture it. Wind turbines would remain net energy producers because they have shorter energy payback times, but their advantage compared to fossil fuels would decrease. [24]

Strategy 3: Supergrids

The variability of solar and wind power can also be reduced by interconnecting renewable power plants over a wider geographical region. For example, electricity can be overproduced where the wind is blowing but transmitted to meet demand in becalmed locations. [19]

Interconnection also allows the combination of technologies that utilise different variable power resources, such as wave and tidal energy. [3] Furthermore, connecting power grids over large geographical areas allows a wider sharing of backup fossil fuel power plants.

Wind map europe saturday september 2 2017 23h48

Wind map of Europe, September 2, 2017, 23h48. Source: Windy.

Although today’s power systems in Europe and the USA stretch out over a large enough area, these grids are currently not strong enough to allow interconnection of renewable energy sources. This can be solved with a powerful overlay high-voltage DC transmission grid. Such “supergrids” form the core of many ambitious plans for 100% renewable power production, especially in Europe. [25] The problem with this strategy is that transmission capacity needs to be overbuilt, over very long distances. [19]

For a European grid with a share of 60% renewable power (an optimal mix of wind and solar), grid capacity would need to be increased at least sevenfold. If individual European countries would disregard national concerns about security of supply, and backup balancing capacity would be optimally distributed throughout the continent, the necessary grid capacity extensions can be limited to about triple the existing European high-voltage grid. For a European power grid with a share of 100% renewables, grid capacity would need to be up to twelve times larger than it is today. [21] [26][27]

Even in the UK, which has one of the best renewable energy sources in the world, combining wind, sun, wave and tidal power would still generate electricity shortages for 65 days per year.

The problems with such grid extensions are threefold. Firstly, building infrastructure such as transmission towers and their foundations, power lines, substations, and so on, requires a significant amount of energy and other resources. This will need to be taken into account when making a life cycle analysis of a renewable power grid. As with oversizing renewable power generation, most of the oversized transmission infrastructure will not be used for most of the time, driving down the transmission capacity factor substantially.

Secondly, a supergrid involves transmission losses, which means that more wind turbines and solar panels will need to be installed to compensate for this loss. Thirdly, the acceptance of and building process for new transmission lines can take up to ten years. [20][25] This is not just bureaucratic hassle: transmission lines have a high impact on the land and often face local opposition, which makes them one of the main obstacles for the growth of renewable power production.

Even with a supergrid, low power days remain a possibility over areas as large as Europe. With a share of 100% renewable energy sources and 12 times the current grid capacity, the balancing capacity of fossil fuel power plants can be reduced to 15% of the total annual electricity consumption, which represents the maximum possible benefit of transmission for Europe. [28]

Even in the UK, which has one of the best renewable energy sources in the world, interconnecting wind, sun, wave and tidal power would still generate electricity shortages for 18% of the time (roughly 65 days per year). [29] [30][31]

Strategy 4: Energy Storage

A final strategy to match supply to demand is to store an oversupply of electricity for use when there is not enough renewable energy available. Energy storage avoids curtailment and it’s the only supply-side strategy that can make a balancing capacity of fossil fuel plants redundant, at least in theory. In practice, the storage of renewable energy runs into several problems.

First of all, while there’s no need to build and maintain a backup infrastructure of fossil fuel power plants, this advantage is negated by the need to build and maintain an energy storage infrastructure. Second, all storage technologies have charging and discharging losses, which results in the need for extra solar panels and wind turbines to compensate for this loss. 

Wind map usa

Live wind map of the USA

The energy required to build and maintain the storage infrastructure and the extra renewable power plants need to be taken into account when conducting a life cycle analysis of a renewable power grid. In fact, research has shown that it can be more energy efficient to curtail renewable power from wind turbines than to store it, because the energy needed to manufacture storage and operate it (which involves charge-discharge losses) surpasses the energy that is lost through curtailment. [23]

If we count on electric cars to store the surplus of renewable electricity, their batteries would need to be 60 times larger than they are today

It has been calculated that for a European power grid with 100% renewable power plants (670 GW wind power capacity and 810 GW solar power capacity) and no balancing capacity, the energy storage capacity needs to be 1.5 times the average monthly load and amounts to 400 TWh, not including charging and discharging losses. [32] [33] [34]

To give an idea of what this means: the most optimistic estimation of Europe’s total potential for pumped hydro-power energy storage is 80 TWh [35], while converting all 250 million passenger cars in Europe to electric drives with a 30 kWh battery would result in a total energy storage of 7.5 TWh. In other words, if we count on electric cars to store the surplus of renewable electricity, their batteries would need to be 60 times larger than they are today (and that’s without allowing for the fact that electric cars will substantially increase power consumption).

Taking into account a charging/discharging efficiency of 85%, manufacturing 460 TWh of lithium-ion batteries would require 644 million Terajoule of primary energy, which is equal to 15 times the annual primary energy use in Europe. [36] This energy investment would be required at minimum every twenty years, which is the most optimistic life expectancy of lithium-ion batteries. There are many other technologies for storing excess electricity from renewable power plants, but all have unique disadvantages that make them unattractive on a large scale. [37] [38]

Matching Supply to Demand = Overbuilding the Infrastructure

In conclusion, calculating only the energy payback times of individual solar panels or wind turbines greatly overestimates the sustainability of a renewable power grid. If we want to match supply to demand at all times, we also need to factor in the energy use for overbuilding the power generation and transmission capacity, and the energy use for building the backup generation capacity and/or the energy storage. The need to overbuild the system also increases the costs and the time required to switch to renewable energy.

Calculating only the energy payback times of individual solar panels or wind turbines greatly overestimates the sustainability of a renewable power grid.

Combining different strategies is a more synergistic approach which improves the sustainability of a renewable power grid, but these advantages are not large enough to provide a fundamental solution. [33] [39] [40]

Building solar panels, wind turbines, transmission lines, balancing capacity and energy storage using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels doesn’t solve the problem either, because it also assumes an overbuilding of the infrastructure: we would need to build an extra renewable energy infrastructure to build the renewable energy infrastructure.

Adjusting Demand to Supply

However, this doesn’t mean that a sustainable renewable power grid is impossible. There’s a fifth strategy, which does not try to match supply to demand, but instead aims to match demand to supply. In this scenario, renewable energy would ideally be used only when it’s available. 

If we could manage to adjust all energy demand to variable solar and wind resources, there would be no need for grid extensions, balancing capacity or overbuilding renewable power plants. Likewise, all the energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines would be utilised, with no transmission losses and no need for curtailment or energy storage.  

Moulbaix Belgium  the windmill de la Marquise XVII XVIIIth centuries

Windmill in Moulbaix, Belgium, 17th/18th century. Image: Jean-Pol GrandMont.

Of course, adjusting energy demand to energy supply at all times is impossible, because not all energy using activities can be postponed. However, the adjustment of energy demand to supply should take priority, while the other strategies should play a supportive role. If we let go of the need to match energy demand for 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, a renewable power grid could be built much faster and at a lower cost, making it more sustainable overall.

If we could manage to adjust all energy demand to variable solar and wind resources, there would no need for energy storage, grid extensions, balancing capacity or overbuilding renewable power plants.

With regards to this adjustment, even small compromises yield very beneficial results. For example, if the UK would accept electricity shortages for 65 days a year, it could be powered by a 100% renewable power grid (solar, wind, wave & tidal power) without the need for energy storage, a backup capacity of fossil fuel power plants, or a large overcapacity of power generators. [29] 

If demand management is discussed at all these days, it’s usually limited to so-called ‘smart’ household devices, like washing machines or dishwashers that automatically turn on when renewable energy supply is plentiful. However, these ideas are only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

Before the Industrial Revolution, both industry and transportation were largely dependent on intermittent renewable energy sources. The variability in the supply was almost entirely solved by adjusting energy demand. For example, windmills and sailing boats only operated when the wind was blowing. In the next article, I will explain how this historical approach could be successfully applied to modern industry and cargo transportation.

Kris De Decker (edited by Jenna Collett)


Sources:

[1] Swart, R. J., et al. Europe’s onshore and offshore wind energy potential, an assessment of environmental and economic constraints. No. 6/2009. European Environment Agency, 2009.

[2] Lopez, Anthony, et al. US renewable energy technical potentials: a GIS-based analysis. NREL, 2012. See also Here’s how much of the world would need to be covered in solar panels to power Earth, Business Insider, October 2015.

[3] Hart, Elaine K., Eric D. Stoutenburg, and Mark Z. Jacobson. “The potential of intermittent renewables to meet electric power demand: current methods and emerging analytical techniques.” Proceedings of the IEEE 100.2 (2012): 322-334.

[4] Ambec, Stefan, and Claude Crampes. Electricity production with intermittent sources of energy. No. 10.07. 313. LERNA, University of Toulouse, 2010.

[5] Mulder, F. M. “Implications of diurnal and seasonal variations in renewable energy generation for large scale energy storage.” Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy 6.3 (2014): 033105.

[6] INITIATIVE, MIT ENERGY. “Managing large-scale penetration of intermittent renewables.” (2012).

[7] Richard Perez, Mathieu David, Thomas E. Hoff, Mohammad Jamaly, Sergey Kivalov, Jan Kleissl, Philippe Lauret and Marc Perez (2016), “Spatial and temporal variability of solar energy“, Foundations and Trends in Renewable Energy: Vol. 1: No. 1, pp 1-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/2700000006

[8] Sun Angle and Insolation. FTExploring.

[9]  Sun position calculator, Sun Earth Tools.

[10] Burgess, Paul. ” Variation in light intensity at different latitudes and seasons effects of cloud cover, and the amounts of direct and diffused light.” Forres, UK: Continuous Cover Forestry Group. Available online at http://www. ccfg. org. uk/conferences/downloads/P_Burgess. pdf. 2009.

[11] Solar output can be increased, especially in winter, by tilting solar panels so that they make a 90 degree angle with the sun’s rays. However, this only addresses the spreading out of solar irradiation and has no effect on the energy lost because of the greater air mass, nor on the amount of daylight hours. Furthermore, tilting the panels is always a compromise. A panel that’s ideally tilted for the winter sun will be less efficient in the summer sun, and the other way around.

[12] Schaber, Katrin, Florian Steinke, and Thomas Hamacher. “Transmission grid extensions for the integration of variable renewable energies in europe: who benefits where?.” Energy Policy 43 (2012): 123-135.

[13] German offshore wind capacity factors, Energy Numbers, July 2017

[14] What are the capacity factors of America’s wind farms? Carbon Counter, 24 July 2015.

[15] Sorensen, Bent. Renewable Energy: physics, engineering, environmental impacts, economics & planning; Fourth Edition. Elsevier Ltd, 2010.

[16] Jerez, S., et al. “The Impact of the North Atlantic Oscillation on Renewable Energy Resources in Southwestern Europe.” Journal of applied meteorology and climatology 52.10 (2013): 2204-2225.

[17] Eerme, Kalju. “Interannual and intraseasonal variations of the available solar radiation.” Solar Radiation. InTech, 2012.

[18] Archer, Cristina L., and Mark Z. Jacobson. “Geographical and seasonal variability of the global practical wind resources.” Applied Geography 45 (2013): 119-130.

[19] Rugolo, Jason, and Michael J. Aziz. “Electricity storage for intermittent renewable sources.” Energy & Environmental Science 5.5 (2012): 7151-7160.

[20] Even at today’s relatively low shares of renewables, curtailment is already happening, caused by either transmission congestion, insufficient transmission availability, or minimal operating levels on thermal generators (coal and atomic power plants are designed to operate continuously). See: “Wind and solar curtailment”, Debra Lew et al., National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2013. For example, in China, now the world’s top wind power producer, nearly one-fifth of total wind power is curtailed. See: Chinese wind earnings under pressure with fifth of farms idle, Sue-Lin Wong & Charlie Zhu, Reuters, May 17, 2015.

[21] Barnhart, Charles J., et al. “The energetic implications of curtailing versus storing solar- and wind-generated electricity.” Energy & Environmental Science 6.10 (2013): 2804-2810.

[22] Schaber, Katrin, et al. “Parametric study of variable renewable energy integration in europe: advantages and costs of transmission grid extensions.” Energy Policy 42 (2012): 498-508.

[23] Schaber, Katrin, Florian Steinke, and Thomas Hamacher. “Managing temporary oversupply from renewables efficiently: electricity storage versus energy sector coupling in Germany.” International Energy Workshop, Paris. 2013.

[24] Underground cables can partly overcome this problem, but they are about 6 times more expensive than overhead lines.

[25] Szarka, Joseph, et al., eds. Learning from wind power: governance, societal and policy perspectives on sustainable energy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

[26] Rodriguez, Rolando A., et al. “Transmission needs across a fully renewable european storage system.” Renewable Energy 63 (2014): 467-476.

[27] Furthermore, new transmission capacity is often required to connect renewable power plants to the rest of the grid in the first place — solar and wind farms must be co-located with the resource itself, and often these locations are far from the place where the power will be used.

[28] Becker, Sarah, et al. “Transmission grid extensions during the build-up of a fully renewable pan-European electricity supply.” Energy 64 (2014): 404-418.

[29] Zero Carbon britain: Rethinking the Future, Paul Allen et al., Centre for Alternative Technology, 2013

[30] Wave energy often correlates with wind power: if there’s no wind, there’s usually no waves.

[31] Building even larger supergrids to take advantage of even wider geographical regions, or even the whole planet, could make the need for balancing capacity largely redundant. However, this could only be done at very high costs and increased transmission losses. The transmission costs increase faster than linear with distance traveled since also the amount of peak power to be transported will grow with the surface area that is connected. [5] Practical obstacles also abound. For example, supergrids assume peace and good understanding between and within countries, as well as equal interests, while in reality some benefit much more from interconnection than others. [22]

[32] Heide, Dominik, et al. “Seasonal optimal mix of wind and solar power in a future, highly renewable Europe.” Renewable Energy 35.11 (2010): 2483-2489.

[33] Rasmussen, Morten Grud, Gorm Bruun Andresen, and Martin Greiner. “Storage and balancing synergies in a fully or highly renewable pan-european system.” Energy Policy 51 (2012): 642-651.

[34] Weitemeyer, Stefan, et al. “Integration of renewable energy sources in future power systems: the role of storage.” Renewable Energy 75 (2015): 14-20.

[35] Assessment of the European potential for pumped hydropower energy storage, Marcos Gimeno-Gutiérrez et al., European Commission, 2013 

[36] The calculation is based on the data in this article: How sustainable is stored sunlight? Kris De Decker, Low-tech Magazine, 2015.

[37] Evans, Annette, Vladimir Strezov, and Tim J. Evans. “Assessment of utility energy storage options for increased renewable energy penetration.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 16.6 (2012): 4141-4147.

[38] Zakeri, Behnam, and Sanna Syri. “Electrical energy storage systems: A comparative life cycle cost analysis.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 42 (2015): 569-596.

[39] Steinke, Florian, Philipp Wolfrum, and Clemens Hoffmann. “Grid vs. storage in a 100% renewable Europe.” Renewable Energy 50 (2013): 826-832.

[40] Heide, Dominik, et al. “Reduced storage and balancing needs in a fully renewable European power system with excess wind and solar power generation.” Renewable Energy 36.9 (2011): 2515-2523.