Category — Renewable Energy
“Renewable energy” has two fundamental conceptual flaws. It’s not really renewable, and it’s not really energy.
What is “Renewable”?
“Renewable” in most definitions approximates to something like “naturally replenished” and it often contrasted with allegedly inferior, “finite” sources. It brings to mind the image of a pizza where a slice, once eaten, magically reappears.
There is no such phenomenon in nature, though. Everything is finite. The sun and the photons and wind currents it generates are not infinite; they are just all part of a very large nuclear fusion reaction. True, that nuclear fusion reaction will last billions of years, but so will the staggering amounts of untapped energy stored in every atom of our “finite” planet.
To obsess about whether a given potential energy source will last hundreds of years or billions of years is to neglect the key issue that matters to human life here and now: whether it can actually provide the usable energy that will maximize the quantity and quality of human life.
Usable vs. Unusable Energy
The key question about energy is not whether it is “finite”–everything is–but whether it is usable.
This is borne out by the history of energy production. For most of human history, our amount of usable energy was barely above the amount needed to power our muscles (and during famines, not even that). There was copious amounts of unusable energy–the chemical bonds in deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas, the mechanical energy of the wind, the photons of the sun, and, greatest of all, the energy stored in all the matter around us, whose proportions were quantified when Einstein identified that E=MC^2. [Read more →]
April 27, 2012 19 Comments
“This house believes that subsidizing renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels.”
- ECONOMIST magazine, Online debate, November 8–18, 2011
Yesterday we reviewed the surprising rebuke of renewable energy–and the underlying premise that fossil fuels were inherently unsustainable–by an international voting audience.
Today we revisit the essential question: Can renewable energy really help ‘wean the world off fossil fuels’?
Although the affirmative’s Matthias Fripp, moderator James Astill, and their colleagues evaded this fundamental question, here is a sampling of oft-heard rationales, most if not all of which were implicit in Astill’s comments and final announcement. Windpower (providing more than 75% of any politically correct renewable portfolio), we are told, helps to:
(a) Reduce reliance on foreign oil;
(b) Substitute for coal;
(c) Complement the fuels used in our electricity generation portfolios;
(d) Provide a fair return to wind investors while making them feel good about helping save the world;
(e) Spawn discretionary revenues to help bootstrap our economic doldrums;
f) Create new jobs;
(g) Establish leadership credentials to encourage the rest of the world to follow our example; and
(h) Serve as a bridge to newer, better technologies in some more enlightened future.
All of the rationales are severely lacking. Even if one believes that fossil fuel usage is greatly harming the earth and its inhabitants, renewables, used extensively, can only make that problem worse. [Read more →]
December 14, 2011 5 Comments
The first of two rebuttal phases of the ECONOMIST’s online debate on renewable energy is up. My opening statement focused on energy density by resurrecting the timeless wisdom of William Stanley Jevons. My rebuttal below (against Matthias Fripp of Oxford University) expands the energy density argument to stress that environmentalists must reconsider (not assume) climate alarmism to stop the assault of government-enabled renewables on the environment.
With growing grassroot opposition against industrial wind parks, the supply-side strategy of forced energy transformation is in real trouble. Wind power is not much of a supply source, which raises the question about why anti-fossil-fuel types have not embraced nuclear power.
To play devil’s advocate, is the real strategy of anti-industrialists to purposefully restrict supply to force conservation via high prices? Is the real enemy cheap energy itself? After all, it was Paul Ehrlich who infamously said, “Giving society cheap energy at this point would be equivalent to giving an idiot child a machine gun.” (1)
(1) Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power,” Federal Academy of Science Public Issue Report, May-June 1975, p. 5.
Part II’s rebuttal by yours truly follows. Part III of our debate will follow this weekend. [Read more →]
November 11, 2011 7 Comments
I am part of an online event hosted by The Economist magazine debating the proposition:
This house believes that subsidising renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels.
I am opposed. Defending the motion is Matthias Fripp, Research fellow, Environmental Change Institute and Exeter College, Oxford University, who defends renewables from the premise that “we must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 in order to avoid dangerous risks to the environment and ourselves.”
With my opening statement, I began with a recent observation by the rising UK intellectual star Matt Ridley and continued with the timeless insight of William Stanley Jevons. Readers of MasterResource know Jevons well from previous posts, but I wanted to make sure to put him front and center of this debate to awaken his homeland that he ‘refuted’ renewables nearly 150 years ago.
I also bring in crony capitalism, the popular term for rent-seeking businesses in the mixed economy (what I prefer to call political capitalism). That has to be a sore spot among the statists these days, not so much with Solyndra but because their renewables scheme involves so much back-room politicking (cough, cough).
My opening statement follows. Part II and Part III of our debate will follow in the next days. Be sure and vote! [Read more →]
November 9, 2011 8 Comments
Like in the classic Tale of Two Cities, the world of solar energy today seems filled with the excitement of seeing its revolutionary potential realized by rapid growth, while fearful that falling prices, changing feed in tariff subsidies and looming government deficits will overwhelm it first.
There is no denying solar energy’s promise and potential. Its rapid growth is a worldwide phenomenon. Lately I have been catching up on the news reports and changing solar situation in Europe. A recent report prepared by Ernst & Young for UK’s Solar Trade Association confirmed what we already knew that solar PV prices are falling so fast that by 2013 they will be half of what they cost in 2009. But keep in mind for for on-grid applications, conventional power sources fueled by shale gas in particular are improving too.
New EU Realities
The EU’s big aspirations for a clean energy, low emissions future had run up against government budget deficits. Consequently, the mother’s milk of feed-in-tariffs for qualifying renewables is vulnerable to rapid modification.
Across the EU countries, feed-in-tariffs are being reduced or at least re-evaluated for affordability about every six months. France is the latest country to announce changes in its feed-in-tariff regime. The UK is scheduled to follow suit slashing its feed in tariff rates in August 2011. [Read more →]
August 17, 2011 3 Comments
Just what shape is California in?
Several weeks ago, credit default swaps on state bonds were at 200 basis points. Kazakhstan’s were at 170. At the end of 2009, California’s cost of debt was the treasury rate plus 310. Mexico’s was plus 185. The state is temporarily solvent thanks to a great legislative fix: they took an extra month of state income tax withholding from all state workers’ paychecks, which they get back (without interest) in their next tax refunds.
When it comes to gauging the state of California’s government, however, you can’t do better than follow the conflict between Los Angeles’ municipal electric system – the Department of Water and Power (LADWP) – and the city’s mayor and council.
Municipals are an odd American institution, a significant presence of publicly funded entities in a system that is largely private. Exempt from regulation in most states, municipal utilities are governed by local officials or appointed independent panels. LADWP has the latter. Cities usually get a percentage of the utility’s revenue off the top (the analogue of a corporate utility’s taxes), and some, including Los Angeles, give municipal agencies “free” power.
LADWP is governed about as well or poorly as any other electric system, public or private, and it does give the city $200 million a year. There have been embarrassments – two years ago, for example, it spent $50,000 on “lactation consultants,” hoping to discourage absenteeism by certain employees.
And now renewables and global warming. [Read more →]
April 28, 2010 7 Comments
The Sierra Club: How Support for Industrial Wind Technology Subverts Its History, Betrays Its Mission, and Erodes Commitment to the Scientific Method (Part III)
Editor note: In Part I and Part II, Jon Boone set the stage for a final analysis of the Sierra Club’s current position in support of wind power. This conclusion to the series provides a discussion on the science, realities, and the unintended consequences that may be the result of current environmental movement thinking, which it typifies.
MBA types who wouldn’t know a bat from a bowtie now run the national Sierra Club. Their interest is in gaining membership and revenue. In a critique aptly entitled, Torquemada in Birkenstocks, Jeff St. Clair said this about Carl Pope: “[He] has never had much of a reputation as an environmental activist. He’s a wheeler-dealer, who keeps the Club’s policies in lockstep with its big funders and political patrons. Where Dave Brower scaled mountains, nearly all of Pope’s climbing has been up organizational ladders.”
Environmental organizations that support wind technology by pretending that the ends justify the means, by falsely assuming that wind can do anything meaningful to alter our existing energy profile, are largely responsible for the depredations unloosed by the wind industry. Their imprimatur gives the industry a legitimacy it does not deserve. This “legitimacy” welcomes the industry’s trade association to a place at the government table, which then compels politicians to bestow upon the wind lobby political favors, given the political penchant for compromise. [Read more →]
April 19, 2010 9 Comments
Why has California expressed concern over the EPA holding up approvals for natural gas-fired power plants?
Answer: because state regulators know that California’s gas plants are crucial for establishing new wind and solar projects. After all, firming intermittent power sources is essential short of employing cost-prohibitive battery packs to continuously match supply to consumption.
But the analysis can go a step further. What if the gas backup actually runs more poorly in its fill-in role than if it existed in place of the wind and/or solar capacity? It does run less efficiently, in fact, creating incremental fuel use and air emissions that cancel out the fuel/emissions “savings” from wind.
Thus California should go a step further than just allowing new natural gas capacity. Regulators should rethink the rational of wind per se and block its new capacity–if only by removing the government subsidies that enable industrial wind power in the first place.
Parts I to IV (links provided at end) introduced an analytic framework and calculator as a working hypothesis to assess the impact of industrial-scale wind on fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. This post, Part V, provides an update to the calculator. The methodological framework has not changed, and the need for confirmation from actual performance data using extensive real-time local dispatch analysis at finely grained time intervals capable of accurately and sufficiently assessing how wind affects all the variables within the electricity system remains. In summary, the calculator:
(1) refines the emissions rates for the fuel plants modeled;
(2) improves the manner in which fossil fuel consumption is calculated, which increases the amounts previously reported; and
(3) adds a coal plant scenario.
This update also includes examples of the use of some of the input parameters to incorporate subtleties not considered in Part I and Part II. [Read more →]
February 12, 2010 22 Comments
The higher costs and inferior reliability of government-mandated wind power and solar power are well known to students of the electricity market. Many analyses on wind and solar have documented their real-world problems.
But another negative aspect of wind and solar technologies is their failure to live up to their raison d’être: emissions reduction. As I have explained in a four-part post, firming intermittent electric generation requires very inefficient fossil-fuel generation that creates incremental emissions compared to a situation where there is not wind or solar and fossil-fired generation can run more smoothly. This is a huge insight, a game changer, that could take the renewable energy debate in a new direction entirely.
A number of studies are emerging that quantify both the cost premium of politically-forced renewables and the minimal amounts of emissions reduction (and even notable emissions increase) resulting from their use. Country-specific studies (such as the one under review) present a methodology that is applicable to other jurisdictions (such as the U.S.) to better assess policy options and their consequences for all stakeholders, including taxpayers.
Peter Lang’s important new study, Emissions Cuts Realities – Electricity Generation, analyzes five options for the Australian electricity system for cutting CO2 emissions over the period 2010 to 2050 compared to business-as-usual (BAU) in terms of cost. The range of CO2 emissions reductions by 2050 compared to 2010 is from zero to 80%.
The conclusions that Lang draws include:
- The nuclear option provides the largest reduction in CO2 emissions – 80%.
- Any CO2 emissions reduction achieved with wind and solar thermal (there are arguably none and even increases) is “achieved” at a very high cost – 250-300% of 2010 costs.
Lang’s analysis is very conservative. The author’s preference seems to be to gain an unassailable beachhead in a very contentious debate. But in reviewing his data, I see confirmation that new wind or solar capacity provide marginal reduction in CO2 emissions at best. I would even argue that there are emission increases because any reductions due to new renewables are dependent upon solar thermal technology development by 2020 providing sufficient thermal storage to allow operation for 8,000 hours per year.
Other conclusions that can be reached are:
- The nuclear option provides an effective ‘bridge’ to future generation technologies.
- The extraordinarily large funding required for the implementation of new renewables in this period would be better spent on energy efficiency/conservation programs and in research and development for other technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), nuclear waste management, nuclear fusion and solar.
In summary, Lang’s study and other considerations provide another illustration of the failure of industrial-scale new renewables, particularly wind and in the near future, solar, to meet societies’ goals. They do not provide the impact that is needed in terms of energy independence, avoidance of fossil fuel use and reductions in CO2 emissions that conventional wisdom, with all its inadequacies, dictates.
My summary of Lang’s paper follows. [Read more →]
January 21, 2010 9 Comments
Wind Integration: Incremental Emissions from Back-Up Generation Cycling (Part I: A Framework and Calculator)
Editor note: Mr. Hawkins’ study is presented to increase the interest in this highly important, politically sensitive issue of incremental pollution from firming up industrial wind power. This post has been joined by Parts II-V, with Part V providing updates to the calculator and links to the other posts.
Integrating random, highly variable wind energy into an electricity system presents substantial problems that subvert wind technology’s ability to offset the use of fossil fuels–and avoid air emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2). Measuring this accurately is important because many believe that wind projects significantly reduce such emissions.
This analysis finds that natural gas used as wind back-up in place of baseload or intermediate gas (in the absence of wind) results in approximately the same gas burn and an increase in related emissions, including CO2. Extrapolating from this example to the whole, the working hypothesis is that intermittent wind (and solar) are not effective CO2 mitigation strategies because of inefficiencies introduced by fast-ramping (inefficient) operation of gas turbines for firming otherwise intermittent and thus non-usable power.
In the absence of extensive real-time load dispatch analyses at finely grained time intervals capable of accurately and sufficiently assessing all the variables affecting electricity system behavior as wind energy penetration increases, I propose a method – a calculator – that captures a wide range of considerations. I am unaware of any previous attempt that is as inclusive as what I present here and welcome reader comments for improvements on the present framework or alternative approaches.
This model, or calculator, provides a framework for the considerations involved and an interim assessment of their effects until sufficiently comprehensive studies can be performed in the areas indicated. It shows the impact on fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions compared to typical claims by wind proponents and other bodies, including some government policy makers. As it is parameter driven, the calculator allows examination of the sensitivity of these considerations. The result is that the typical claims are not supported, except by ignoring most of the following considerations:
- The amount of wind mirroring/shadowing backup required.
- Inefficient operation imposed on the mirroring/shadowing backup, in terms of both the fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, treated separately.
- The need to make comparisons, with respect to gas plants, of:
- Case A – The more efficient Combined Cycle plants (CCGT) operating alone, in other words without the presence of wind, versus;
- Case B – The appropriate mix of gas plant type used to balance wind’s volatile output. This includes the need to introduce less efficient, but faster-reacting, Open Cycle Gas Turbine gas plants (OCGT) to mirror/shadow the wind production, especially as wind penetration increases.
- The effect of reduced wind capacity factor.
- The effect of wind output exceeding 1-2 percentage points of a total electricity system, on a country or regional basis.
The framework used is similar to that of Warren Katzenstein and Jay Apt (see citations below). It focuses on the wind/gas plant combination and has general applicability. Additional considerations involving wind’s impact on other electricity system elements particular to a specific jurisdiction, such as baseload capacity as analyzed by Campbell, will have to be assessed separately and could have implications that further offset wind’s claimed benefits. [Read more →]
November 13, 2009 46 Comments