The Receding Horizons of Renewable Energy

15 07 2018

Another excellent article by Nicole Foss…  also known as Stoneleigh.

Renewable energy is best used in situ, adjacent to demand. It is best used in conjunction with a storage component which would insulate consumers from supply disruption, but FIT programmes typically prohibit this explicitly. Generators are expected to sell all their production to the grid and buy back their own demand. This leaves them every bit as vulnerable to supply disruption as anyone who does not have their own generation capacity. This turns renewable generation into a personal money generating machine with critical vulnerabilities. It is no longer about the energy, which should be the focus of any publicly funded energy programme.


Nicole Foss

Stoneleigh: Renewable energy has become a topic of increasing interest in recent years, as fossil fuel prices have been volatile and the focus on climate change has sharpened. Governments in many jurisdictions have been instituting policies to increase the installation of renewable energy capacity, as the techologies involved are not generally able to compete on price with conventional generation.

The reason this is necessary, as we have pointed out before, is that the inherent fossil-fuel dependence of renewable generation leads to a case of receding horizons. We do not make wind turbines with wind power or solar panels with solar power. As the cost of fossil fuel rises, the production cost of renewable energy infrastructure also rises, so that renewables remain just out of reach.

Renewable energy is most often in the form of electricity, hence subsidies have typically been provided through the power system. Capital grants are available in some locations, but it is more common for generators to be offered a higher than market price for the electricity they produce over the life of the project. Some jurisdictions have introduced a bidding system for a set amount of capacity, where the quantity requested is fixed (RFP) and the lowest bids chosen.

Others have introduced Feed-In Tariff (FIT) programmes, where a long-term fixed price is offered essentially to any project willing to accept it. Tariffs vary with technology and project size (and sometimes inversely with resource intensity) with the intention of providing the same rate of return to all projects. FIT programmes have been much more successful in bringing capacity online, especially small-scale capacity, as the rate of return is higher and the participation process much less burdensome than the RFP alternative. Under an RFP system accepted bids often do not lead to construction as the margin is too low.

The FIT approach has been quite widely adopted in Europe and elsewhere over the last decade, and has led to a great deal of capacity construction in early-adopter countries such as Germany, Spain and Denmark. In Canada, Ontario was the first north American jurisdiction to introduce a similar programme in 2009. (I was involved in negotiating its parameters at the time.)

Renewable energy subsidies are becoming increasingly controversial, however, especially where they are very large. The most controversial are those for solar photovoltaics, which are typically very much higher than for any other technology. In a number of countries, solar tariffs are high enough to have produced a bubble, with a great deal of investment being poured into infrastructure production and capacity installation. Many of the countries that had introduced FIT regimes are now backing away from them for fear of the cost the subsidies could add to power prices if large amounts of capacity are added.

As Tara Patel wrote recently for Bloomberg:

EDF’s Solar ‘Time Bomb’ Will Tick On After France Pops Bubble:

To end what it has called a “speculative bubble,” France on Dec. 10 imposed a three-month freeze on solar projects to devise rules that could include caps on development and lowering the so-called feed-in tariffs that pay the higher rate for renewable power. The tariffs were cut twice in 2010. “We just didn’t see it coming,” French lawmaker Francois- Michel Gonnot said of the boom. “What’s in the pipeline this year is unimaginable. Farmers were being told they could put panels on hangars and get rid of their cows.”…. ….EDF received 3,000 applications a day to connect panels to the grid at the end of last year, compared with about 7,100 connections in all of 2008, according to the government and EDF.

Stoneleigh: The policy of generous FIT subsidies seems to be coming to an end, with cuts proposed in many places, including where the programmes had been most successful. The optimism that FIT programmes would drive a wholesale conversion to renewable energy is taking a significant hit in many places, leaving the future of renewable energy penetration in doubt in the new era of austerity:


Half of the 13 billion euro ($17.54 billion) reallocation charges pursuant to Germany’s renewable energy act was put into solar PV last year. The sector produced about 7 GW of electricity, surpassing the 5-GW estimate. The government deemed the industry boom as counterproductive, pushing it to reduce subsidies and narrow the market.

The Czech Republic:

In an attempt to get hold of what could be a runaway solar subsidy market, the Senate approved an amendment April 21 that will allow the Energy Regulatory Office (ERÚ) to lower solar energy prices well below the current annual limit of 5 percent cuts. At the start of 2011, the state will now be able to decrease solar energy prices up to 25 percent – if President Klaus signs the amendment into law. Even with a quarter cut, the government’s subsidies for feed-in tariffs remain so high that solar energy remains an attractive investment.


The Ministry of Sustainable Development is expected to cut the country’s generous feed-in tariffs by 12 percent beginning September 1 in an effort to rein in demand and curb spending, according to analysts and news reports from France.


Incentives for big photovoltaic (PV) installations with a capacity of more than 5 megawatts (MW) will be slashed every four months by a total of up to 30 percent next year, said Gianni Chianetta, chairman of the Assosolare industry body. Incentives for smaller PV installations will be gradually cut by up to 20 percent next year. One-off 6 percent annual cuts are set for 2012 and 2013 under the new plan, the industry source said.

The UK:

The U.K. government signaled it may cut the prices paid for electricity from renewable energy sources, saying it began a “comprehensive review” of feed-in tariffs introduced last year. Evidence that larger-scale solar farms may “soak up” money meant for roof-top solar panels, small wind turbines and smaller hydropower facilities prompted the study, the Department of Energy and Climate Change said today in an statement. A review was originally planned to start next year.

The move will allow the government to change the above- market prices paid for wind and solar electricity by more than already planned when the new prices come into force in April 2012. The department said it will speed up an analysis of solar projects bigger than 50 kilowatts and that new tariffs may be mandated “as soon as practical.” “This is going to put the jitters into some market segments,” Dave Sowden, chief executive officer of the Solihull, England-based trade group Micropower Council, said today in a phone interview.


The Portuguese government has announced that it will review the existing feed-in tariff mechanism following calls that the subsidies are excessive and contribute to the increase of electricity prices to final consumers.


Initial enthusiasm among ratepayers for the scheme is flagging in the wake of perceived links between the FiT and increased energy prices. The FiT passed into law in May 2009 as part of the Green Energy Act, which aims to promote the development of wind and solar generation in the province. With provincial elections slated for 6 October next year, the opposition Progressive Conservative Party is threatening to substantially revise and possibly even scrap the FiT should it win. Even if it the subsidy scheme were to be revoked, the legal implications of rescinding the over 1500MW in existing FiT contracts would be highly problematic.

Stoneleigh: Spain is the example everyone wishes to avoid. The rapid growth in the renewable energy sector paralleled the bubble-era growth of the rest of Spain’s economy. The tariffs offered under their FIT programme now come under the heading of ‘promises that cannot be kept’, like so many other government commitments made in an era of unbridled optimism. Those tariffs are now being cut, and not just for new projects, but for older ones with an existing contract. People typically believe that promises already made are sacrosanct, and that legal committments will not be broken, but we are moving into a time when rules can, and will, be changed retroactively when the money runs out. Legal niceties will have little meaning when reality dictates a new paradigm.


Spain’s struggling solar-power sector has announced it will sue the government over two royal decrees that will reduce tariffs retroactively, claiming they will cause huge losses for the industry. In a statement, leading trade body ASIF said its 500 members endorsed filing the suit before the Spanish high court and the European Commission. They will allege that royal decrees 156/10 and RD-L 14/10 run against Spanish and European law. The former prevents solar producers from receiving subsidized tariffs after a project’s 28th year while the latter slashes the entire industry’s subsidized tariffs by 10% and 30% for existing projects until 2014. Both bills are “retroactive, discriminatory and very damaging” to the sector. They will dent the profits of those companies that invested under the previous Spanish regulatory framework, ASIF argued.

Austerity bites:

The government announced soon after that it would introduce retroactive cuts in the feed-in tariff program for the photovoltaic (PV) industry in the context of the austerity measures the country is currently undergoing. According to this plan, existing photovoltaic plants would have their subsidies cut by 30%, a figure that would go up to 45% for any new large scale plants. Smaller scale roof installations would lose 25% of their existing subsidy, while installations with a generating capacity of less than 20 KW would have 5% taken from their tariff.

Spain is too big to fail and too big to bail out:

Spain has been forced to cut back on solar subsidies because of the impact on ratepayers. But Spain’s overall economy is in much worse shape and the subsidies for feed in tariff are threatening to push the country into bailout territory or, at lease, worsen the situation should a bailout be needed.

FIT and Debt:

The strain on government revenue is in part due to the way Spain has designed its feed-in tariff system. Usually, this type of subsidy is paid for by utilities charging more for the electricity they sell to consumers, to cover the cost of buying renewable energy at above-market prices. Therefore no money is actually paid out of government revenues: consumers bear the cost directly by paying higher electricity bills.

In Spain, however, the price of electricity has been kept artificially low since 2000. The burden has been shouldered by utilities, which have been operating at a loss on the basis of a government guarantee to eventually pay them back. The sum of this so-called ‘tariff deficit’ has accumulated to over €16 billion (US$ 20 billion) since 2000. For comparison, Spain’s deficit in 2009 was around €90 billion (US$ 116 billion) in 2009 and its accumulated debt around €508 billion (US$ 653 billion).

Stoneleigh: Ontario threatens to take the Spanish route by instituting retroactive measures after the next election. For a province with a long history of political interference in energy markets, further regulatory uncertainty constitutes a major risk of frightening off any kind of investment in the energy sector. Considering that 85% of Ontario’s generation capacity reaches the end of its design life within 15 years, and that Ontario has a huge public debt problem, alienating investment is arguably a risky decision. FIT programmes clearly sow the seeds of their own destruction. They are an artifact of good economic times that do not transition to hard times when promises are broken.


The outcome of an autumn election in Ontario could stunt a budding renewable energy industry in the Canadian province just as it is becoming one of the world’s hot investment destinations. If the opposition Progressive Conservatives win power on Oct. 6, the party has promised to scrap generous rates for renewable energy producers just two years after their launch by the Liberal government. That could threaten a program that has lured billions of dollars in investment and created thousands of jobs.

The Conservatives, who are leading in the polls, have yet to release an official energy manifesto. Even so, the industry is privately voicing concern, especially after the party said it would scrutinize contracts already awarded under Ontario’s feed-in tariff (FIT) program. “They are going to go through the economic viability of the energies and review all of the past contracts … I think that is going to cause a lot of delays, a lot of problems and a lot of risk to Ontario,” said Marin Katusa, chief energy analyst at Casey Research, an investor research service.

George Monbiot, writing for The Guardian in the UK, provides an insightful critique of FIT programmes in general:

The real net cost of the solar PV installed in Germany between 2000 and 2008 was €35bn. The paper estimates a further real cost of €18bn in 2009 and 2010: a total of €53bn in ten years. These investments make wonderful sense for the lucky householders who could afford to install the panels, as lucrative returns are guaranteed by taxing the rest of Germany’s electricity users. But what has this astonishing spending achieved? By 2008 solar PV was producing a grand total of 0.6% of Germany’s electricity. 0.6% for €35bn. Hands up all those who think this is a good investment…. .

As for stimulating innovation, which is the main argument Jeremy [Leggett] makes in their favour, the report shows that Germany’s feed-in tariffs have done just the opposite. Like the UK’s scheme, Germany’s is degressive – it goes down in steps over time. What this means is that the earlier you adopt the technology, the higher the tariff you receive. If you waited until 2009 to install your solar panel, you’ll be paid 43c/kWh (or its inflation-proofed equivalent) for 20 years, rather than the 51c you get if you installed in 2000.

This encourages people to buy existing technology and deploy it right away, rather than to hold out for something better. In fact, the paper shows the scheme has stimulated massive demand for old, clunky solar cells at the expense of better models beginning to come onto the market. It argues that a far swifter means of stimulating innovation is for governments to invest in research and development. But the money has gone in the wrong direction: while Germany has spent some €53bn on deploying old technologies over ten years, in 2007 the government spent only €211m on renewables R&D.

In principle, tens of thousands of jobs have been created in the German PV industry, but this is gross jobs, not net jobs: had the money been used for other purposes, it could have employed far more people. The paper estimates that the subsidy for every solar PV job in Germany is €175,000: in other words the subsidy is far higher than the money the workers are likely to earn. This is a wildly perverse outcome. Moreover, most of these people are medium or highly skilled workers, who are in short supply there. They have simply been drawn out of other industries.

Stoneleigh: Widespread installed renewable electricity capacity would be a very good resource to have available in an era of financial austerity at the peak of global oil production, but the mechanisms that have been chosen to achieve this are clearly problematic. They plug into, and depend on, a growth model that no longer functions. If we are going to work towards a future with greater reliance on renewable energy, there are a number of factors we must consider. These are not typically addressed in the simplistic subsidy programmes that are now running into trouble worldwide.

We have power systems built on a central station model, which assumes that we should build large power station distant from demand, on the grounds of economic efficiency, which favours large-scale installations. This really does not fit with the potential that renewable power offers. The central station model introduces a grid-dependence that renewable power should be able to avoid, revealing an often acute disparity between resource intensity, demand and grid capacity. Renewable power (used in the small-scale decentralized manner it is best suited for) should decrease grid dependence, but we employ it in such a way as to increase our vulnerability to socioeconomic complexity.

Renewable energy is best used in situ, adjacent to demand. It is best used in conjunction with a storage component which would insulate consumers from supply disruption, but FIT programmes typically prohibit this explicitly. Generators are expected to sell all their production to the grid and buy back their own demand. This leaves them every bit as vulnerable to supply disruption as anyone who does not have their own generation capacity. This turns renewable generation into a personal money generating machine with critical vulnerabilities. It is no longer about the energy, which should be the focus of any publicly funded energy programme.

FIT programmes typically remunerate a wealthy few who install renewables in private applications for their own benefit, and who may well have done so in the absence of public subsidies. If renewables are to do anything at all to help run our societies in the future, we need to move from publicly-funded private applications towards public applications benefitting the collective. We do not have an established model for this at present, and we do not have time to waste. Maximizing renewable energy penetration takes a lot of time and a lot of money, both of which will be in short supply in the near future. The inevitable global austerity measures are not going to make this task any easier.

We also need to consider counter-cyclical investment. In Ontario, for instance, power prices have been falling on falling demand and increased conventional supply, and are now very low. In fact, the pool price for power is often negative at night, as demand is less than baseload capacity. Under such circumstances it is difficult to develop a political mandate for constructing additional generation, when the spending commitment would have to be born by the current regime and the political benefits would accrue to another, due to the long construction time for large plants.

Politicians are allergic to situations like that, but if they do not make investments in additional generation capacity soon, most of Ontario’s capacity could end up being retired unreplaced. Large, non-intermittent, plants capable of load following are necessary to run a modern power system. These cannot be built overnight.

Many jurisdictions are going to have to build capacity (in the face of falling prices in an era of deflation) if they are to avoid a supply crunch down the line. Given how dependent our societies are on our electrified life-support systems, this could be a make or break decision. The risk is that we wait too long, lose all freedom of action and are then forced to take a much larger step backwards than might other wise have been the case.

Europe’s existing installed renewable capacity should stand it in good stead when push comes to shove, even though it was bought at a high price. Other locations, such as Ontario, really came too late to the party for their FIT initiatives to do any good. Those who have not built replacement capacity, especially load-following plants and renewables with no fuel cost going forward, could be very vulnerable in the future. They will be buffeted first by financial crisis and then by energy crisis, and there may be precious little they can do about either one.


The physics of energy and resulting effects on economics

10 07 2018

Hat tip to one of the many commenters on DTM for pointing me to this excellent video…. I have featured Jean-Marc Jancovici’s work here before, but this one’s shorter, and even though it’s in French, English subtitles are available from the settings section on the toutube screen. Speaking of screens, one of the outstanding statements made in this video is that all electronics in the world that use screens in one way or another consume one third of the world’s electricity…….. Remember how the growth in renewables could not even keep up with the Internet’s growth?

If this doesn’t convince viewers that we have to change the way we do EVERYTHING, then nothing will….. and seeing as he’s presenting to politicians, let’s hope at least some of them will come out of this better informed……

Jean-Marc Jancovici, a French engineer schools politicians with a sobering lecture on the physics of energy and the effects on economics and climate change

Is this a sign of collapse gathering pace…?

15 05 2018

The articles coming from the consciousness of sheep are getting more and more interesting… after reading this one, I could not help but think that while Australia’s energy dilemmas are different to the UK’s, the following quote really struck a cord with me…:

Underlying all of this is a fundamental truth that few are prepared to contemplate: with the end of the last supplies of cheap fossil fuels, there is no affordable energy mix for the foreseeable future.  No combinations of gas, nuclear and renewables can be developed and deployed at the same time as prices are held at levels that are only just affordable to millions of British households.  Nor is there any option of returning to cheap gas from depleted North Sea deposits; still less reopening coal deposits put out of reach by the Thatcher government.

We are ‘lucky’ to have more coal and gas than we know what to do with, until that is it becomes so obvious we can’t keep burning these climate destroying fuels, we just stop. Hopefully before it’s too late.  But consider this……  if the UK economy collapses, what effect would it have on ours? Oil is creeping up, and our electricity rates are the subject of much moaning all over the country. An economic shock is coming, as sure as the sun rises in the East…..

Centrica may not care

Sometimes a story is repeated so often that its veracity is never challenged.  One such is the myth that British households are in thrall to a wicked energy cartel that puts excessive profits above common decency.  So much so, indeed, that the government and the opposition parties have all signed up to some form of energy cap designed to keep energy prices affordable.

The grain of truth in this story is that, aided by a craven regulator, the “big six” – British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, Npower, Scottish Power, and SSE – have on many occasions operated a cartel to hold prices up.  How else can we explain, for example, recent British Gas price increases in the face of a collapse in their customer base?

“British Gas owner Centrica lost 110,000 energy supply accounts in the first four months of the year.  That is roughly equivalent to 70,000 customers as many households buy their gas and electricity from British Gas, so will have two accounts.

“Last year, the company lost 1.3 million energy accounts…

“In April, British Gas announced a 5.5% increase in both gas and electricity bills, which comes into effect at the end of this month.  It blamed the rising wholesale cost of energy and the cost of meeting emissions targets and introducing smart meters.

“Other big energy firms have also announced price increases this year, including Npower, EDF and Scottish Power.”

This is surely evidence of a cartel being operated behind the back of the regulator… or is it?

There is an alternative explanation for the recent behaviour of the soon to be Big Four that should send a shiver through the UK economy.  Toward the end of last year, Jillian Ambrose at the Telegraph reported that:

“Britain’s second-largest energy supplier is eyeing the exit as the Government’s crackdown on energy bills threatens profits.

“SSE, formerly known as Scottish and Southern Energy, may turn its back on supplying gas and power to almost 8m British homes ­after years of political threats against the six largest energy companies comes to a head.

“City sources say the FTSE 100 energy giant is quietly discussing early plans to sell off its customer accounts, or even spin the business off as a separate listed company in order to focus on networks and renewable energy and avoid the Government’s looming energy price cap.”

Some months earlier I took the time to examine Centrica’s (British Gas’ parent company) annual accounts.  The results are not pretty:

“While Centrica profits were down (but still high) the division of British Gas that supplies electricity to UK consumers (businesses and households) actually made a loss of £61.1 million last year – in the household market, the loss was even bigger at £71.9 million.  That is, business electricity consumers are subsidising household electricity to some extent, while Centrica itself is subsidising its UK electricity business out of the profits from its other divisions.  Despite this, of course, electricity consumers are facing increasing bills even as they scale back their consumption.  This is exacerbated by the government decision to load the cost of renewables, new gas and new nuclear onto customers’ bills; effectively creating in all but name an even more regressive tax than VAT.”

Centrica’s response at the start of this year was to axe 4,000 jobs; having previously ceased maintaining the strategically essential Rough natural gas storage facility in the North Sea.  SSE in the meantime has announced a merger with N-Power in an attempt to rationalise both company’s retail energy business.  Unfortunately, no business to date has managed the trick of cutting its way to greatness… particularly in an economic climate in which ever fewer consumers can afford the service.

Centrica’s route out of an increasingly unprofitable domestic energy supply sector will be to focus on its much larger international energy business.  Britain’s remaining retail energy suppliers – all of which are foreign owned – may not enjoy this option.  For example, EDF’s wholesale energy investments are tied up in an increasingly risky and very-likely loss-making nuclear power sector.  Nor is there much to be gained from investment in renewable energy technologies that depend upon uncertain government subsidies that have become politically toxic among ordinary voters.

Underlying all of this is a fundamental truth that few are prepared to contemplate: with the end of the last supplies of cheap fossil fuels, there is no affordable energy mix for the foreseeable future.  No combinations of gas, nuclear and renewables can be developed and deployed at the same time as prices are held at levels that are only just affordable to millions of British households.  Nor is there any option of returning to cheap gas from depleted North Sea deposits; still less reopening coal deposits put out of reach by the Thatcher government.

For the moment, the UK government is content to fill Britain’s energy gap with imports.  However, as global energy supplies begin to tighten once more, pricing and profitability issues are likely to rise up the political agenda again.  Faced with an increasing struggle to remain profitable, and in the face of a government determined to add the cost of green energy onto domestic bills while legislating to prevent those bills from rising, companies like Centrica may simply choose to walk away.  After all, one of the blessings of being a private corporation (as opposed to a public utility) is that nobody can stop you from closing when you run out of money.

A question too obvious…

25 04 2018

Every now and again someone poses a question so obvious that you wonder why nobody asked it before.  When that happens, it is usually because it reveals an unconscious narrative that you have been following.  It is precisely because it jars with what you thought you knew that it is so unsettling.  And, of course, most people will seek some means of avoiding the ramifications of the question; such as questioning the motives of the person asking it.

So it is that Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” Michael Shellenberger poses just such an apparently innocuous question:

“If solar and wind are so cheap, why are they making electricity so expensive?”

Image result for grid renewables

There are clearly merits to this question.  The spiralling cost of electricity played a major role in the recent Australian election.  In Britain, even the neoliberal Tory government has been obliged to introduce legislation to cap energy prices; while the Labour opposition threatens to dispense with the private energy market altogether.  Across the USA prices are spiralling ever upward, making Trump’s pro-fossil fuel stance popular for large numbers of Americans:

“Over the last year, the media have published story after story after story about the declining price of solar panels and wind turbines.  People who read these stories are understandably left with the impression that the more solar and wind energy we produce, the lower electricity prices will become.

“And yet that’s not what’s happening. In fact, it’s the opposite.

“Between 2009 and 2017, the price of solar per watt declined by 75 percent while the price of wind declined by 50 percent.  And yet — during the same period — the price of electricity in places that deployed significant quantities of renewables increased dramatically.”

According to Shellenberger, countries and states that have led the green energy charge have also led the charge to higher electricity prices.  Denmark has seen a 100 percent price increase, Germany 51 percent and California 24 percent.  At face value, these electricity price increases flatly contradict the narrative that we – and especially our governments – have been sold: that ever cheaper renewable energy technologies are the solution to our energy security and climate change problems.

Since the price of coal and gas has also fallen, we cannot point to fossil fuels as the cause of increasing energy prices.  That is, rushing to replace “dirty” fossil fuel power stations with even more “cheap” wind turbines and solar panels is unlikely to halt the rise in energy prices.

This brings us back to the apparently cheap renewables.  Could there be something about them that has caused prices to rise?

Once again, challenging the narrative helps expose the problem.  As with the term “renewable” itself, the problem is with our failure to examine the whole picture.  While to all intents and purposes, sunlight and wind are inexhaustible sources of energy, the technologies that harness and convert that energy into useful electrical energy are not – both are highly dependent on oil-based global supply chains.  In the same way, while the cost of manufacturing and deploying wind turbines and solar panels has dropped sharply in the past 20 years, the opposite is true of the deliverable electricity they generate.

For all the talk about this or that organisation, city or country generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewables, the reality is that the majority of their (and our) electricity is generated from gas together with smaller volumes of nuclear and coal.  Just because a company like Apple or Google pays extra for us to pretendthat it doesn’t use fossil fuels does not change the reality that without fossil fuels those companies would be out of business.  And that isn’t going to change unless someone can find a way of making the sun shine at night and the wind to blow 24/7/365.

The economic problem that Shellenberger points to is simply that the value of renewable electricity is in inverse proportion to its availability.  That is, when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, additional electricity is at a premium.  When the sun is blazing and the wind is blowing on the other hand, there is often more electricity than is needed.  The result is that the value of that electricity falls.  In both circumstances, however, the monetary costs fall on the fossil fuel and nuclear generators that provide baseload and back-up capacity.  When there is insufficient renewable electricity, they have to be paid more to increase their output.  When there is too much renewable electricity, they have to be paid more to curtail their output.  Those additional monetary costs are then added to the energy bills of their consumers.

In these circumstances, the falling cost of the renewable electricity technology is almost irrelevant.  According to Shellenberger:

“Part of the problem is that many reporters don’t understand electricity. They think of electricity as a commodity when it is, in fact, a service — like eating at a restaurant.

“The price we pay for the luxury of eating out isn’t just the cost of the ingredients most of which, like solar panels and wind turbines, has declined for decades.

“Rather, the price of services like eating out and electricity reflect the cost not only of a few ingredients but also their preparation and delivery.”

Even if the price of renewable technologies fell to zero, the cost of supplying electricity to end users would continue to rise.  Indeed, paradoxically, if the cost fell to zero, the price would spiral out of control precisely because of the impact on the wider system required to move that renewable electricity from where it is generated to where and when it is required.  In short, and in the absence of cheap and reliable storage and back-up technologies that have yet to be invented, the more renewable electricity generating technologies we deploy, the higher our electricity bills are going to rise.

This may, of course, be considered (at least among the affluent liberal classes) to be a price worth paying to reduce our carbon emissions (although there is little evidence that this is happening).  But it has potentially explosive political consequences.  As the UK government’s energy policy reviewer, Dieter Helm pointed out:

“It is not particularly difficult to set out what an efficient energy system might look like which meets the twin objectives of the climate change targets and security of supply. There would, however, remain a binding constraint: the willingness and ability to pay for it. There have to be sufficient resources available, and there has in a democracy to be a majority who are both willing to pay and willing to force the population as a whole to pay. This constraint featured prominently in the last three general elections, and it has not gone away.” (My emphasis)

Energy poverty and discontent is a growing phenomenon across Western states, as stagnating real wages leave millions of families struggling to cover the cost of basics like food and energy that have risen in price far faster than official inflation.  This has already translated into the disruptive politics of Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of the European far right and far left parties.  In acknowledging this constraint, Helm points to the true depths of our current trilemma – we have simultaneous crises in our environment, our energy and resource base and our economy.

Thus far, “solutions” put forward to address any one arm of the trilemma – economic growth, renewable energy, hydraulic fracturing – impact negatively on the other arms; ultimately rendering the policy undeliverable.  Until we can drop our illusory narratives, grasp the full implications of the trilemma, and begin to develop policy accordingly, like the rising price of supposedly cheaper renewable electricity, things can only go from bad to worse.

The Real Lesson of the Energiewende is that the German Economy uses Too Much Energy

6 02 2018

For a long time Germany’s attempt to grapple with atomic power, climate change and energy issues through its so called “Energiewende” (Energy Transformation) has been inspirational to many green activists and seen as a process to learn from. The priority given to “clean energy”, to wind and solar in its electrical grid, incentivised by feed in tariffs and favourable prices has taken wind and solar added together to 3.5 % of its energy supply and 16 % of its electrical power generation.

However, there is a long way to go to 100% green energy. 58% of power generation is still by fossil fuels and fossil fuels are still predominant in 78% of energy consumption that is not electrical, for example for transport fuels and non electrical space heating.

No problem, just a matter of time? A lot of activists probably think this but sadly it is not likely to be true. Yes, there are things to learn from Germany’s attempt to make an Energy Transformation. Unfortunately these things are that it will not be easy and it will probably not be possible at all without a considerable reduction in overall energy consumption and/or major new technological breakthroughs in energy storage. Such breakthroughs currently do not look very likely and/or would involve very high costs. Such costs would cripple the German economy in its current form.

This anyway is the conclusion that I draw from a study by one of Germany’s leading economists, Hans Werner Sinn, that appeared in the European Economics Journal, in the summer of 2017. I was alerted to his article, published in English, by a weblink which connected to a lecture that Sinn gave at Munich University just before Xmas. The lecture, in German, contains much the same material as the article with one or two small differences.

Before I go further I think it important to say that Sinn is not a climate denier. He acknowledges climate change as real and in need of addressing. It is important to be clear that the issue of whether climate change is real is completely independent from how easy or difficult or costly it will be to develop a renewable energy system. There are no guarantees that just because humanity has a serious problem there are easy and cheap engineering solutions. In any case Sinn does not address these issues – he is addressing the practicalities and limits of the Energiewende.

Whether in German or English the data he presents is bad news because it is about the difficulty of storing electricity for the German economy at its current scale of energy and electricity use – and storing energy is going to be necessary to further expand renewable generation without having fossil fuel based generation to back it up.

This is because under current conditions the coal and gas generators in Germany are necessary complements to balance the volatility of wind and solar and the variable nature of electricity demand. When the wind is not blowing and the sun not shining – the coal and/or gas generation must step in to provide the power. Or perhaps there is wind and solar power but not enough as the demand for power rises. It is the fossil fuel generators that must step in and provide the buffer between them and if fossil fuel generated electricity is going to be driven out then some other means must be found to buffer between fluctuating supply and demand. There is a missing technology needed to make this possible – electrical storage.

What gives Sinn’s article and lecture credibility is that they are based on real world intermittent data for wind and solar power generation in Germany in 2014 as well as data from an EU research project called ESTORAGE. ESTORAGE set out to find Western Europe’s potential for pumped hydro power – by finding all the locations where it could conceivably be developed along with how much electricity could be stored altogether.

The use of real world data from Germany in 2014 completes the picture because it enables Sinn to show how much storage is needed over a year to balance the grid at different levels of penetration by renewables. This volume is then compared to what is available in potential pumped hydro sites.

Pumped hydro is a way of storing electric power by using surplus electricity to pump water uphill into a storage lake, that can then be released through turbines downhill later, when electric power is wanted. Its significance is that it is by far the cheapest and easiest way of storing electric power on a grid scale. The findings of the ESTORAGE project therefore enables Sinn to explore if there is enough pumped storage capacity in Germany, in Germany and Norway and in an energy union between Germany, Norway, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland. The figures are sobering – firstly there is no way that Germany has enough undeveloped new sites where it could develop sufficient pumped hydro storage on its own territory to balance its grid without fossil fuel generation doing buffering. The furthest it can get in the direction of an entirely green electricity supply is 49% of power generation by renewables, if it is in an alliance with 4 other countries which have the best pumped storage options – assuming they are prepared to develop these options.

Sinn does consider other storage methods in his lecture but considers them too expensive and impractical for storing electric power – for example lithium ion batteries are practical up to a point for powering electrical cars but it would require the batteries of 524 million BMW electric vehicles to balance the German grid and the cost of storing a kilo watt hour in a lithium battery is 50 times the cost of storing a kilo watt hour using pumped hydro. Sinn also considers storing energy by using surplus electricity to generate hydrogen or methane but again considers them too expensive particularly because of the “round trip” power conversion losses from power to methane and back to power (only a quarter of the power left) and with hydrogen only a half of the power left. (Added to which hydrogen is a very corrosive stuff to work with.) This is a thermodynamic problem first studied by Carnot for which there is no pat solution.

There is also the option of shifting demand. The problem with wind and solar is that what is generated must be made to match what is demanded – but can this done by shifting demand around so that, for example, the washing machine is switched on when the wind is blowing? To explore the magnitude of what is possible Sinn again uses real world data. He calculates how much buffering storage could be reduced by shifting demand around during the course of each day. He also calculates how much storage could be reduced by shifting demand during the course of a week and shifting demand during each month. His results are disappointing. Shifting demand during a month it is only possible to reduce the need for energy storage by 11%. This is because energy storage is mostly needed between seasons and the amount of storage required would be astronomically expensive to achieve without pumped hydro. Switching the washing machine on when the wind is blowing is one thing – you cannot wait till summer to switch a heater on in winter when there is no wind and it’s the middle of a cold night.

There are in fact three ways of balancing a grid rendered unstable by intermittent renewables. One is a double structure where fossil fuel generation balances the grid but we want to go beyond that. Another is storage which we have seen is expensive with not enough options – but what about just continuing to expand wind and solar capacity – more installations at each place and over a wider area. This is the strategy of “over extension”. If its not windy or sunny everywhere it will be somewhere so one just has to have enough kit there to capture enough of the wind and/or the sun.

In fact Sinn considers this option too. He has a “thought experiment” in which a greater and greater percentage of the German grid is supplied by renewables and a smaller and smaller % of electricity is balanced by fossil fuel generation. At 89% wind and solar generation the German grid would in fact be 100% green energy since 11% would be electricity from hydro power and through burning biomass. (He ignores those who question whether biomass is really “renewable”). But at this point of 89% wind and solar the average efficiency of wind and solar generation would be 39% and the marginal efficiency would be 6%. Put in another way 61% of all electricity would on average have to be dumped or curtailed because there would be too much power for the demand. To say the marginal efficiency is 6% means that to extend renewable energy by 1% of the overall capacity at this point you would need to dump or curtail 94% of the extra generated electricity.

I hope this is clear – you can extend wind and solar more and more but in order to have power all the time, including those times when there is not a lot you need to develop a capacity that, in the face of intermittent wind and solar, is most of the time oversupplying.

Any way you look at it you have a lot of cost.

Now to my own comments. What Sinn does not explore is if the German energy demand were only half its current size or even smaller. His figures suggests that renewables can maximally supply a balanced grid for only half the current power supply in the 5 country association. But what if only half the energy were needed?

I do not think that Hans Werner Sinn is an exponent of degrowth…far from it….but that is what we should be looking at.

The aim is not unreal or unrealisable if we start thinking about “energy sufficiency” (rather than energy efficiency). In a recent article titled “How Much Energy do we Need” in Low Technology Magazine Kris de Decker explores the many opportunities for reducing energy consumption once we adopt a sufficiency approach. He writes

“In principle, public service delivery could bring economies of scale and thus reduce the energy involved in providing many household services: public transport, public bathing houses, community kitchens, laundrettes, libraries, internet cafés, public telephone boxes, and home delivery services are just some examples.

Combining sufficiency with efficiency measures, German researchers calculated that the typical electricity use of a two-person household could be lowered by 75%, without reverting to drastic lifestyle changes such as washing clothes by hand or generating power with exercise machines. Although this only concerns a part of total energy demand, reducing electricity use in the household also leads to reductions in energy use for manufacturing and transportation.

If we assume that similar reductions are possible in other domains, then the German households considered here could do with roughly 800 kgoe per capita per year, four times below the average energy use per head in Europe. This suggests that a modern life is compatible with much lower energy demand, at least when we assume that a reduction of 75% in energy use would be enough to stay within the carrying capacity of the planet.”

Suddenly we are back in the realms of practicality IF, that is, it is politically practical to adopt a sufficiency agenda – but perhaps that is what will have to happen anyway as the decline of the oil and gas industry accelerates.

In conclusion. It looks very as much as if before “over developed” countries like Germany can hope to develop an all-renewables power system, let alone an all-renewables based energy system including non-electric energy uses, it will have to dramatically reduce its power consumption. Even though studies based on energy sufficiency show that most people could probably live a comfortable enough life the changes in economic organisation and thinking would or will have to be massive for that to happen. I therefore doubt that this is going to happen as a result of well-meaning policy intiatives any time soon. The inertia will in all probability be too great.

That said countries like Germany are not just under pressure to change their energy system because of climate change – Germany and other countries too must respond to the global trend to depletion of fossil energy sources and the rising cost of extracting them. While it is true that renewable energy together with energy storage would be expensive if attempted above a limited scale, it will be expensive in the future to extract fossil fuels too. As we reach the limits to growth we are probably looking at economic contraction anyway- and no doubt a good deal of political turmoil because politicians and the German (and world) public will be disorientated and not really understand that is happening.

There is an irony here. The best chance of developing grids adapted to renewables will probably be in countries where electricity demand and energy use is currently very low and where it can develop “organically” without having first to go backwards in a retreat from “overdevelopment” before it can again “go forward” in conditions of much depleted resource availability.

If humanity survives the next few decades of turmoil – and it is a big IF given the collective psychosis likely in heavily armed countries thrown into economic contraction – IF… then the best chance for technologies to evolve into 100% renewables-based systems are in what are today regarded as poor countries. Then the last would be first and the first last. That at least is something to hope for.


Hans Werner Sinn in European Economic Review “Buffering Volatility. A study on the limits of Germany’s energy revolution” – on his website at
Hans Werner Sinn “Wie viel Zappelstrom verträgt das Netz? Bemerkungen zur deutschen Energiewende” Lecture in German for the IFO institute at the University of Munich 18.12.2017
Kris de Decker in Low technology magazine – “How Much Energy do we Need?”

Featured image: A. Source:

The Future of Renewable Energy

19 10 2017

I 60% agree [ED: I only 10% agree…!] but have severe reservations with carrying the analogy too far. There are some real differences that make the two “revolutions” largely non-comparable:

(1) The digital revolution has brought us many new products that do things we couldn’t do before – computers, mobile phones, the internet. That makes it attractive to people and companies and has sped adoption. The energy revolution does not bring new final end products – the end products are electricity (and heat and motion) which we already had. What it brings are many new ways of generating electricity (and heating and moving things).

(2) To pay for the energy revolution people must pay once for the new technology that generates the energy source (mostly as electricity) and once for products that are adapted to this new energy source (eg a petrol or diesel car to an electric car) – and perhaps a third time for the back up or storage to cope with intermittency in the renewable power source.

(3) To supply electricity, heat and motion reliably and at demand will be incredibly expensive – there are good reasons to believe that current cost reductions in the energy generation arrangements for wind and solar will not be sustained when the fossil fuel back up (ie natural gas power stations ) that is the current back up have to be replaced by renewable energy back ups or energy storage infrastructures. In other words it will get more difficult over time when fossil fuel back up has to be closed down.

(4) Over the decades while the digital economy was being developed household, corporate and government debt started out much lower and has grown massively. At the start of the energy technology revolution the economy is maxed out on debt which is only sustainable with very low interest rates. Rising interest rates are not going to make it easy to fund the capital/equipment costs of a new technological revolution.

(5) Over the last few decades conventional oil production has peaked and depletion in coal and gas, as well as a variety of minerals that will be needed for another technological revolution are becoming more costly to extract because they are in depletion too, with lower ore quality being tapped. Depletion in the oil and natural gas sector are driving that sector into bankruptcy because the sector cannot recoup its rising costs from rising prices – a stagnant economy cannot charge rising energy prices without crashing the economy. Developing a new energy system takes energy – a renewables infrastructure is first of all dependent on fossil fuel based energy to build it and if the fossil fuel industry is in trouble at an early stage in the development of a renewable system that is going to be a serious problem.

All these things can be summarised as saying that the digital revolution occurred while the global economy still had expansion capacity. It had not yet reached the limits to economic growth – although for some time now the global economy has been in overshoot and running down resources and “natural capital” (I do not like the term, however I use it here as a shorthand).

The energy revolution has to be made in totally different and much more difficult times – while the global economy is in retreat. It will be difficult to bring a new energy sector into existence when the economy is stagnant and people will struggle to afford expensive innovation. Paradoxically in these circumstances it is likely to be many older technologies that will make sense again – perhaps in a reworked form. That is what makes the work of Kris de Decker written up in the Low Technology Magazine and its companion, the No Technology Magazine so important – rediscovering a multitude of solutions from history.

Below are links to two fantastic articles written by Kris de Decker in Low Technology Magazine – well researched, clear and easy to understand and full of relevant technical data.

What they show is that trying to build an electrical energy system mainly with wind and solar that would be able to meet the demand for electricity at all times as we have now is a futile endeavour. It would be way too expensive in money, resources and energy. We must get used to the idea of using electricity only when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing (enough).

In practical terms that means that

“…. 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.”

I dare say a similar conclusion would be drawn for Ireland.

The second article develops in more detail the idea of running the economy on renewables when the energy is there and is an important complement to the first article.

No Soil & Water Before 100% Renewable Energy

7 09 2017

Hot on the heels of my last post from someone else who has given up campaigning for renewable energy, comes this amazing article that defines why it’s all a futile effort…. I am beginning to think it is all starting to catch on…..

After all, excessive energy use got us into this mess, more energy will not get us out. As Susan Krumdieck says, the problem is not a lack of renewable energy, it’s too much fossil fuel consumption…….


Many say we can have 100% renewable energy by 2050. This is factually incorrect.

We can have 100% renewable electricity production by 2050.

But electricity production is only 18% of total world energy demand.

82% of total world energy demand is NOT electricity production.

The other 82% of the world’s energy is used to extract minerals to make roads, cement, bricks, glass, steel and grow food so we can eat and sleep. Solar panels and wind turbines will not be making cement or steel anytime soon. Why? Do you really want to know? Here we go.

TWED = Total World Energy Demand

18% of TWED is electrical grid generation.

82% of TWED is not electrical grid generation.

In 20 years, solar & wind energy is up from 1% to 3% of TWED.

Solar & wind power are projected to provide 6% of TWED by 2030.

When you hear stories about solar & wind generating
50% of all humanity’s electrical power by 2050,
that’s really only 9% of TWED because
100% of electrical production is 18% of TWED.

But, it takes 10X as much solar & wind energy to close 1 fossil fuel power plant simply because they don’t produce energy all the time.

Reference Link:

Reference Link:

That means it will take 10 X 18% of TWED to close all fossil power plants with intermittent power.

Research says it will take 4 X 82% of TWED for a 100% renewable energy transition. But then again, whoever trusts research?

10 X 18% + 4 X 82% = 100% Renewable TWED.

We require 10X the fossil electrical grid energy we use now just to solve 18% of the emissions problem with solar & wind power. This also means that even if we use 100% efficient Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) for all the world’s electricity generation, we would still only prevent 18% of our emissions. 100% efficient CCS is very unlikely. Switching to electric vehicles would only double electrical demand while most of our roads are made out of distilled oil sludge.

These figures do not include massive electrical storage and grid infrastructure solar & wind require. Such infrastructure is hundreds of millions of tons of materials taking decades to construct, demanding even more energy and many trillions of dollars. With that kind of money in the offing, you can see why some wax over-enthused.

Solar & wind systems last 30 years meaning we will always have to replace them all over the world again 50% sooner than fossil power plants.

Solar and wind power are an energy trap.

It takes 1 ton of coal to make 6-12 solar panels.

Business As Usual = BAU

In 15 years 40% of humanity will be short of water with BAU.

In 15 years 20% of humanity will be severely short of water.

Right now, 1 billion people walk a mile every day for water.

In 60 years humanity will not have enough soil to grow food says Scientific American. They call it, “The End of Human Agriculture.” Humanity’s soil is eroding and degrading away at 24 million acres per year.  And, when they say 60 years they don’t mean everything is wonderful until the last day of the 59th year. We will feel the heat of those words in much less than 30 years. Soil loss rates will only increase with severe droughts, storms and low-land floods. Here’s what BAU really looks like.

50% of humanity’s soil will be gone in 30 years.

50% of humanity will lack water in 30 years.

50% of humanity will go hungry in 30 years.

100% TWED transition takes 50 years minimum. It is a vastly more difficult and complex goal than you are told.

Reference Link:

Reference Link:

We are losing earth’s soil and fresh water faster than we can effect 100% renewable TWED.

In 25 years civilization will end says Lloyds of London and the British Foreign Office.

In my opinion, in 30 years we won’t have enough fossil fuel for a 100% renewable TWED transition.

This is the most important fact I’ve learned:

Renewable Energy is Unsustainable
without massive energy demand destruction

Humanity will destroy its soil and water faster than we can switch to renewable energy with BAU. We cannot sustain economic growth with renewable energy. Without massive political-economic change, civilization will collapse with 100% certainty. But, don’t worry, I like to fix things.

Animal Agriculture = AA

Humans + Livestock = 97% of the weight of all land vertebrate biomass

Humans + Livestock = 80% of the cause of all land-air extinctions

Humans + Livestock = 50% of the use of all land surface area

Humans + Livestock = 40% consumption of all land plant growth *
* Net Primary Production.

50% of the soy grown in South America is shipped over to China to feed their pigs. Rainforests and deep-rooted scrub are cleared to grow animals & feed so that their required fresh water is in reality a sky river exported in boats to China and Europe leaving little moisture in the air to reach São Paulo. Since rainforest roots are so thick they don’t require very much, or even good, soil;  this leaves rainforest soil so poor and thin that it degrades and erodes faster when exposed to the elements.

The Himalayan mountains are heating 2X faster than the planet and many fear that China will run out of water in 15 years by 2030.

50% of China’s rivers have vanished since 1980.

60% of China’s groundwater is too poisoned to touch.

50% of China’s cropland is too poisoned to safely grow food.

Animal Agriculture will destroy our soil and water long before we can effect 100% intermittent TWED transition with BAU.

BAU means 7 billion people will not stop eating meat and wasting food without major $$$ incentive. Meaning a steadily rising carbon tax on meat. Just saying that can get you killed in some places.

Without using James Hansen’s 100% private tax dividends to carbon tax meat consumption out of the market earth will die. 100% private tax dividends means 100% for you, 0% for government.

100% for you, 
    0% for gov.

The funny thing is that meat and fire saved our ancestors from extinction and now meat and fire will cause mass extinction of all the life we love on earth. Survival is not an optional menu item as is eating meat. We have to act now, not 5 years from now, or forever be not remembered as the least greatest generation because there’ll be no one left to remember us.

Michael Mann says we will lock-in a 2 degree temperature rise in 3 years for 2036 with BAU. Ocean fish will be gone in less than 25 years simply because of the BAU of meat consumption. The BAU of fishing kills everything in its path producing lots of waste kill. We are stealing all the Antarctic Ocean’s krill just to sell as a health supplement. You can learn a lot about fishing by watching “Cowspiracy” on Netflix.

We cannot let governments get control of carbon markets like how Sanders, Klein and McKibben want government to get 40% of your carbon tax dividend money. Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben are funded by the Rockefellers. Klein’s latest video about herself was funded by the oil-invested Ford Foundation. This is 100% in direct opposition to James Hansen’s tax dividend plan and immoral. Hansen said that governments should get 0% of that money, not 40%.  I strongly believe your carbon dividends should be in a new open-source world e-currency directly deposited to your phone to be phased in over 10 years. But, I’m kinda simple that way.

Google: Rockefellers fund Bill McKibben. Believe me, the Rockefellers don’t fund out of the kindness of their hearts. To learn why they would do such a thing, you can watch the educational video at the bottom of this page.

Reference Link:
Rockefellers behind ‘scruffy little outfit’

Reference Link:

James Hansen repeated at COP21 that his 100% private carbon tax dividends would unite Democrats and Republicans because government would be 100% excluded. Socialists like Sanders, Klein and McKibben want government to control 40% of that money. They are divisive and Republicans will never accept their revolutionary rhetoric. We don’t have time for this endless fighting. Forget the Socialist vs. Capitalistmentality. We barely even have time to unite, and nothing unites like money. Environmentalism in the 21st century is about a revolving door of money and power for elite socialists and capitalists. Let’s give everyone a chance to put some skin in the game.

Reference Link:

What humans & livestock have done so far:

We are eating up our home.

99% of Rhinos gone since 1914.

97% of Tigers gone since 1914.

90% of Lions gone since 1993.

90% of Sea Turtles gone since 1980.

90% of Monarch Butterflies gone since 1995.

90% of Big Ocean Fish gone since 1950.

80% of Antarctic Krill gone since 1975.

80% of Western Gorillas gone since 1955.

60% of Forest Elephants gone since 1970.

50% of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985.

40% of Giraffes gone since 2000.

30% of Marine Birds gone since 1995.

70% of Marine Birds gone since 1950.

28% of Land Animals gone since 1970.

28% of All Marine Animals gone since 1970.

97% – Humans & Livestock are 97% of land-air vertebrate biomass.

10,000 years ago we were 0.01% of land-air vertebrate biomass.

Humans and livestock caused 80% of land-air vertebrate species extinctions and occupy half the land on earth. Do you think the new 2-child policy in China favours growth over sustainability? The Zika virus could be a covert 1% population control measure for all I know. Could the 1% be immune? I don’t know, but I know this…

1 million humans, net, added to earth every 4½ days.