Not so renewables

12 05 2018

Lifted from the excellent consciousness of sheep blog…..

For all practical purposes, solar energy (along with the wind, waves and tides that it drives) is unending.  Or, to put it more starkly, the odds of human beings being around to witness the day when solar energy no longer exists are staggeringly low.  The same, of course, cannot be said for the technologies that humans have developed to harvest this energy.  Indeed, the term “renewable” is among the greatest PR confidence tricks ever to be played upon an unsuspecting public, since solar panels and wind (and tidal and wave) turbines are very much a product of and dependent upon the fossil carbon economy.

Until now, this inconvenient truth has not been seen as a problem because our attention has been focussed upon the need to lower our dependency on fossil carbon fuels (coal, gas and oil).  In developed states like Germany, the UK and some of the states within the USA, wind and solar power have reduced the consumption of coal-generated electricity.  However, the impact of so-called renewables on global energy consumption remains negligible; accounting for less than three percent of total energy consumption worldwide.

A bigger problem may, however, be looming as a result of the lack of renewability of the renewable energy technologies themselves.  This is because solar panels and wind turbines do not follow the principles of the emerging “circular economy” model in which products are meant to be largely reusable, if not entirely renewable.

dead turbine

According to proponents of the circular economy model such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the old fossil carbon economy is based on a linear process in which raw materials and energy are used to manufacture goods that are used and then discarded:

 

This approach may have been acceptable a century ago when there were less than two billion humans on the planet and when consumption was largely limited to food and clothing.  However, as the population increased, mass consumption took off and the impact of our activities on the environment became increasingly obvious, it became clear that there is no “away” where we can dispose of all of our unwanted waste.  The result was the shift to what was optimistically referred to as “recycling.”  However, most of what we call recycling today is actually “down-cycling” – converting relatively high value goods into relatively low value materials:

 

The problem with this approach is that the cost of separating small volumes of high-value materials (such as the gold in electrical circuits) is far higher than the cost of mining and refining them from scratch.  As a result, most recycling involves the recovery of large volumes of relatively low value materials like aluminium, steel and PET plastic.  The remainder of the waste stream ends up in landfill or, in the case of toxic and hazardous products in special storage facilities.

In a circular economy, products would be designed as far as possible to be reused, bring them closer to what might realistically be called “renewable” – allowing that the second law of thermodynamics traps us into producing some waste irrespective of what we do:

 

Contrary to the “renewables” label, it turns out that solar panels and wind turbines are anything but.  They are dependent upon raw resources and fossil carbon fuels in their manufacture and, until recently, little thought had been put into how to dispose of them at the end of their working lives.  Since both wind turbines and solar panels contain hazardous materials, they cannot simply be dumped in landfill.  However, their composition makes them – at least for now – unsuited to the down-cycling processes employed by commercial recycling facilities.

While solar panels have more hazardous materials than wind turbines, they may prove to be more amenable to down-cycling, since the process of dismantling a solar panel is at least technically possible.  With wind turbines it is a different matter, as Alex Reichmuth at Basler Zeitung notes:

“The German Wind Energy Association estimates that by 2023 around 14,000 MW of installed capacity will lose production, which is more than a quarter of German wind power capacity on land. How many plants actually go off the grid depends on the future electricity price. If this remains as deep as it is today, more plants could be shut down than newly built.

“However, the dismantling of wind turbines is not without its pitfalls. Today, old plants can still be sold with profit to other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Russia or North Africa, where they will continue to be used. But the supply of well-maintained old facilities is rising and should soon surpass demand. Then only the dismantling of plants remains…

“Although the material of steel parts or copper pipes is very good recyclable. However, one problem is the rotor blades, which consist of a mixture of glass and carbon fibers and are glued with polyester resins.”

According to Reichmuth, even incinerating the rotor blades will cause problems because this will block the filters used in waste incineration plants to prevent toxins being discharged into the atmosphere.  However, the removal of the concrete and steel bases on which the turbines stand may prove to be the bigger economic headache:

“In a large plant, this base can quickly cover more than 3,000 tons of reinforced concrete and often reach more than twenty meters deep into the ground… The complete removal of the concrete base can quickly cost hundreds of thousands of euros.”

It is this economic issue that is likely to scupper attempts to develop a solar panel recycling industry.  In a recent paper in the International Journal of Photoenergy, D’Adamo et. al. conclude that while technically possible, current recycling processes are too expensive to be commercially viable.  As Nate Berg at Ensia explains:

“Part of the problem is that solar panels are complicated to recycle. They’re made of many materials, some hazardous, and assembled with adhesives and sealants that make breaking them apart challenging.

“’The longevity of these panels, the way they’re put together and how they make them make it inherently difficult to, to use a term, de-manufacture,’ says Mark Robards, director of special projects for ECS Refining, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the U.S. The panels are torn apart mechanically and broken down with acids to separate out the crystalline silicon, the semiconducting material used by most photovoltaic manufacturers. Heat systems are used to burn up the adhesives that bind them to their armatures, and acidic hydro-metallurgical systems are used to separate precious metals.

“Robards says nearly 75 percent of the material that gets separated out is glass, which is easy to recycle into new products but also has a very low resale value…”

Ironically, manufacturers’ efforts to drive down the price of solar panels make recycling them even more difficult by reducing the amount of expensive materials like silver and copper for which there is demand in recycling.

In Europe, regulations for the disposal of electrical waste were amended in 2012 to incorporate solar panels.  This means that the cost of disposing used solar panels rests with the manufacturer.  No such legislation exists elsewhere.  Nor is it clear whether those costs will be absorbed by the manufacturer or passed on to consumers.

Since only the oldest solar panels and wind turbines have to be disposed of at present, it might be that someone will figure out how to streamline the down-cycling process.  As far more systems come to the end of their life in the next decade, volume may help drive down costs.  However, we cannot bank on this.  The energy and materials required to dismantle these technologies may well prove more expensive than the value of the recovered materials.  As Kelly Pickerel at Solar Power World concedes:

“System owners recycle their panels in Europe because they are required to. Panel recycling in an unregulated market (like the United States) will only work if there is value in the product. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) detailed solar panel compositions in a 2016 report and found that c-Si modules contained about 76% glass, 10% polymer (encapsulant and backsheet), 8% aluminum (mostly the frame), 5% silicon, 1% copper and less than 0.1% of silver, tin and lead. As new technologies are adopted, the percentage of glass is expected to increase while aluminum and polymers will decrease, most likely because of dual-glass bifacial designs and frameless models.

“CIGS thin-film modules are composed of 89% glass, 7% aluminum and 4% polymers. The small percentages of semiconductors and other metals include copper, indium, gallium and selenium. CdTe thin-film is about 97% glass and 3% polymer, with other metals including nickel, zinc, tin and cadmium telluride.

“There’s just not a large amount of money-making salvageable parts on any type of solar panel. That’s why regulations have made such a difference in Europe.”

Ultimately, even down-cycling these supposedly “renewable” technologies will require state intervention.  Or, to put it another way, the public – either as consumers or taxpayers – are going to have to pick up the tab in the same way as they are currently subsidising fossil carbon fuels and nuclear.  The question that the proponents of these technologies dare not ask, is how far electorates are prepared to put up with these increasing costs before they turn to politicians out of the Donald Trump/ Malcolm Turnbull stable who promise the cheapest energy irrespective of its environmental impact.

Advertisements




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.





Wind will never make a significant contribution to energy supplies

9 04 2018

Portrait photographer newcastleMatt Ridley. May 15, 2017. Wind turbines are neither clean nor green and they provide zero global energy. Even after 30 years of huge subsidies, it provides about zero energy. The Spectator.

The Global Wind Energy Council recently released its latest report, excitedly boasting that ‘the proliferation of wind energy into the global power market continues at a furious pace, after it was revealed that more than 54 gigawatts of clean renewable wind power was installed across the global market last year’.

You may have got the impression from announcements like that, and from the obligatory pictures of wind turbines in any BBC story or airport advert about energy, that wind power is making a big contribution to world energy today. You would be wrong. Its contribution is still, after decades — nay centuries — of development, trivial to the point of irrelevance.

Even put together, wind and photovoltaic solar are supplying less than 1 per cent of global energy demand. From the International Energy Agency’s 2016 Key Renewables Trends, we can see that wind provided 0.46 per cent of global energy consumption in 2014, and solar and tide combined provided 0.35 per cent. Remember this is total energy, not just electricity, which is less than a fifth of all final energy, the rest being the solid, gaseous, and liquid fuels that do the heavy lifting for heat, transport and industry.

[One critic suggested I should have used the BP numbers instead, which show wind achieving 1.2% in 2014 rather than 0.46%. I chose not to do so mainly because that number is arrived at by falsely exaggerating the actual output of wind farms threefold in order to take into account that wind farms do not waste two-thirds of their energy as heat; also the source is an oil company, which would have given green blobbers a excuse to dismiss it, whereas the IEA is unimpleachable But it’s still a very small number, so it makes little difference.]

Such numbers are not hard to find, but they don’t figure prominently in reports on energy derived from the unreliables lobby (solar and wind). Their trick is to hide behind the statement that close to 14 per cent of the world’s energy is renewable, with the implication that this is wind and solar. In fact the vast majority — three quarters — is biomass (mainly wood), and a very large part of that is ‘traditional biomass’; sticks and logs and dung burned by the poor in their homes to cook with. Those people need that energy, but they pay a big price in health problems caused by smoke inhalation.

Even in rich countries playing with subsidised wind and solar, a huge slug of their renewable energy comes from wood and hydro, the reliable renewables. Meanwhile, world energy demand has been growing at about 2 per cent a year for nearly 40 years. Between 2013 and 2014, again using International Energy Agency data, it grew by just under 2,000 terawatt-hours.

If wind turbines were to supply all of that growth but no more, how many would need to windmountainbe built each year? The answer is nearly 350,000, since a two-megawatt turbine can produce about 0.005 terawatt-hours per annum. That’s one-and-a-half times as many as have been built in the world since governments started pouring consumer funds into this so-called industry in the early 2000s.

At a density of, very roughly, 50 acres per megawatt, typical for wind farms, that many turbines would require a land area [half the size of] the British Isles, including Ireland. Every year. If we kept this up for 50 years, we would have covered every square mile of a land area [half] the size of Russia with wind farms. Remember, this would be just to fulfil the new demand for energy, not to displace the vast existing supply of energy from fossil fuels, which currently supply 80 per cent of global energy needs. [para corrected from original.]

Do not take refuge in the idea that wind turbines could become more efficient. There is a limit to how much energy you can extract from a moving fluid, the Betz limit, and wind turbines are already close to it. Their effectiveness (the load factor, to use the engineering term) is determined by the wind that is available, and that varies at its own sweet will from second to second, day to day, year to year.

As machines, wind turbines are pretty good already; the problem is the wind resource itself, and we cannot change that. It’s a fluctuating stream of low–density energy. Mankind stopped using it for mission-critical transport and mechanical power long ago, for sound reasons. It’s just not very good.

As for resource consumption and environmental impacts, the direct effects of wind turbines — killing birds and bats, sinking concrete foundations deep into wild lands — is bad enough. But out of sight and out of mind is the dirty pollution generated in Inner Mongolia by the mining of rare-earth metals for the magnets in the turbines. This generates toxic and radioactive waste on an epic scale, which is why the phrase ‘clean energy’ is such a sick joke and ministers should be ashamed every time it passes their lips.

It gets worse. Wind turbines, apart from the fibreglass blades, are made mostly of steel, with concrete bases. They need about 200 times as much material per unit of capacity as a modern combined cycle gas turbine. Steel is made with coal, not just to provide the heat for smelting ore, but to supply the carbon in the alloy. Cement is also often made using coal. The machinery of ‘clean’ renewables is the output of the fossil fuel economy, and largely the coal economy.

A two-megawatt wind turbine weighs about 250 tonnes, including the tower, nacelle, rotor and blades. Globally, it takes about half a tonne of coal to make a tonne of steel. Add another 25 tonnes of coal for making the cement and you’re talking 150 tonnes of coal per turbine. Now if we are to build 350,000 wind turbines a year (or a smaller number of bigger ones), just to keep up with increasing energy demand, that will require 50 million tonnes of coal a year. That’s about half the EU’s hard coal–mining output.

The point of running through these numbers is to demonstrate that it is utterly futile, on a priori grounds, even to think that wind power can make any significant contribution to world energy supply, let alone to emissions reductions, without ruining the planet. As the late David MacKay pointed out years back, the arithmetic is against such unreliable renewables.

MacKay, former chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said in the final interview before his tragic death last year that the idea that renewable energy could power the UK is an “appalling delusion” — for this reason, that there is not enough land.





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.

Sources

Hans Werner Sinn in European Economic Review “Buffering Volatility. A study on the limits of Germany’s energy revolution” – on his website at http://www.hanswernersinn.de/dcs/2017%20Buffering%20Volatility%20EER%2099%202017.pdf
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
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3397&v=ZzwCpRdhsXk
Kris de Decker in Low technology magazine – “How Much Energy do we Need?”
http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2018/01/how-much-energy-do-we-need.html

Featured image: A. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/autobahn-1441758





The conundrum of civilisation…..

4 01 2018

KIM HILL: WHAT’S WRONG WITH RENEWABLE ENERGY?

By Kim Hill / Deep Green Resistance Australia

 

Ten things environmentalists need to know about renewable energy:

1.    Solar panels and wind turbines aren’t made out of nothing. They are made out of metals, plastics, chemicals. These products have been mined out of the ground, transported, processed, manufactured. Each stage leaves behind a trail of devastation: habitat destruction, water contamination, colonization, toxic waste, slave labour, greenhouse gas emissions, wars, and corporate profits. Renewables can never replace fossil fuel infrastructure, as they are entirely dependent on it for their existence.

2.    The majority of electricity that is generated by renewables is used in manufacturing, mining, and other industries that are destroying the planet. Even if the generation of electricity were harmless, the consumption certainly isn’t. Every electrical device, in the process of production, leaves behind the same trail of devastation. Living communities—forests, rivers, oceans—become dead commodities.

3.    The aim of converting from conventional power generation to renewables is to maintain the very system that is killing the living world, killing us all, at a rate of 200 species per day. Taking carbon emissions out of the equation doesn’t make it sustainable. This system needs not to be sustained, but stopped.

4.    Humans, and all living beings, get our energy from plants and animals. Only the industrial system needs electricity to survive, and food and habitat for everyone are being sacrificed to feed it. Farmland and forests are being taken over, not just by the infrastructure itself, but by the mines, processing and waste dumping that it entails. Ensuring energy security for industry requires undermining energy security for living beings (that’s us).

5.    Wind turbines and solar panels generate little, if any, net energy (energy returned on energy invested). The amount of energy used in the mining, manufacturing, research and development, transport, installation, maintenance and disposal of these technologies is almost as much—or in some cases more than—they ever produce. Renewables have been described as a laundering scheme: dirty energy goes in, clean energy comes out. (Although this is really beside the point, as no matter how much energy they generate, it doesn’t justify the destruction of the living world.)

6.    Renewable energy subsidies take taxpayer money and give it directly to corporations. Investing in renewables is highly profitable. General Electric, BP, Samsung, and Mitsubishi all profit from renewables, and invest these profits in their other business activities. When environmentalists accept the word of corporations on what is good for the environment, something has gone seriously wrong.

7.    More renewables doesn’t mean less conventional power, or less carbon emissions. It just means more power is being generated overall. Very few coal and gas plants have been taken off line as a result of renewables.

8.    Only 20% of energy used globally is in the form of electricity. The rest is oil and gas. Even if all the world’s electricity could be produced without carbon emissions (which it can’t), it would only reduce total emissions by 20%. And even that would have little impact, as the amount of energy being used globally is increasing exponentially.

9.    Solar panels and wind turbines last around 20-30 years, then need to be disposed of and replaced. The production process, of extracting, polluting, and exploiting, is not something that happens once, but is continuous and expanding.

10.    The emissions reductions that renewables intend to achieve could be easily accomplished by improving the efficiency of existing coal plants, at a much lower cost. This shows that the whole renewables industry is nothing but an exercise in profiteering with no benefits for anyone other than the investors.
Further Reading:

http://theenergycollective.com/gail-tverberg/330446/ten-reasons-intermittent-renewables-wind-and-solar-pv-are-problem

http://thebulletin.org/myth-renewable-energy

http://docs.wind-watch.org/ProblemWithWind.pdf

Zehner, Ozzie, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism, http://www.greenillusions.org/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1350811/In-China-true-cost-Britains-clean-green-wind-power-experiment-Pollution-disastrous-scale.html#ixzz32e4D227e

 

Originally published on Stories of Creative Ecology





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.

http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/
http://www.notechmagazine.com/

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.

http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2017/09/how-to-run-modern-society-on-solar-and-wind-powe.html

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.

http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2017/09/how-to-run-the-economy-on-the-weather.html#more





“Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl” – Dr. Vaclav Smil

18 09 2017

Dr. Vaclav Smil was the speaker at a TISED and Fondation 3E event in September 2015 called “Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl”. He explored the current state of global and major national energy dependencies and appraised the likely speed of their transformation. In his words, “The desirable development of new renewables should not be guided by wishful preferences and arbitrary targets. Using more energy, albeit more efficiently and with lower specific environmental effects, is unlikely to change our fortunes — yet no serious consideration has been given to how to use less, much less.”