Governments love to talk up renewable energy, describing it as green and low-carbon and the way of the future. They pump huge amounts of funding into it, and, in this country, are shutting down peat production and promising to leave carbon fuels like oil and gas in the ground, because they claim energy from wind and sun will provide future energy needs.
What they rarely acknowledge is that reneweable energy is failing on a fundamental level – mostly because energy should be dispatched when needed, but when its harnessed from the wind and sun it cannot be efficiently stored. There are two intrinsic aspects of renewable energy that make it an environmental and economic failure: weather-dependent variability, and energy density.
The variability problem rests in the fact that the energy produced from wind and sun cannot be stored until it is required – and because wind and sun are not always available when they are needed.
The density problem rests on the fact that wind and solar get very little energy from huge resources of material and space.
These constraints, which arise from realities rooted in the physics of materials and energy, have further knock-on technical consequences to supply and distribution networks, which magnify the effect of their shortcomings.
The size of these problems can be measured in the cost of renewable electricity, which is significantly more expensive than conventional electricity – at least 50% more expensive in both Germany and California, for example.
Costs, which are passed onto the customer, tell us a lot about the efficiency and waste of the generation and distribution system. The cost of electricity at the meter is an approximate indicator for how much additional infrastructure; resources, materials, redundancy, and inefficiency are added to the electrical supply and generation system. The more unreliable and spread-out the generation network, the more inefficient and costly it is.
The primary reason for this inefficiency in relation to the production of energy from wind and sun is that interminable problem of weather-dependent variability of supply.
Wind and sun are not controlled by human needs: so the wind won’t blow according to your energy demand and the sun doesn’t shine all day. The energy they produce must therefore be stored until its required and we have not, to date, invented an efficient or economic means of doing that.
As the ratio of unstable weather-dependent generation of energy increases, so does waste through inefficiency, and so does the amount of material used in the power grid infrastructure. For example, a surplus of wind might be available in the North Sea but there might be none in Spain. However, transmitting all that energy to Spain requires massive transmission lines and interconnectors.
Interconnectors, for instance, are expensive. The planned Celtic Interconnector between Ireland and France which is due for completion in 2026 at a cost of at least €530.7 million will be capable of shipping 700MW of electricity between Ireland and France. That’s less than the output of one single power plant. This raises the other intrinsic problem with renewables, energy density, which deserves its own article.
A connected continent-wide grid requires massive resources and ongoing maintenance requiring massive amounts of materials. These are materials that have to be mined, processed, and manufactured into plant and transmission utilities.
The price of electricity to the customer (for homes and industry) reduces a very complex technical and engineering array of questions into a single measurable variable – but we can tell from the cost per unit how efficient the production of electricity is.
Some people think of the inflated cost of green energy as a worthwhile price for saving the planet. A bit like buying organic; it costs more but its higher quality and feel good factor makes it worthwhile. However, these higher costs do not purchase a cleaner environment; they are in fact a signifier of waste. If reducing carbon emissions is the objective then renewable policies are the wrong strategy. They don’t result in significant emission reductions, and there is an alternative that does.
Nuclear energy is clean, and emission-free. The technology is developing all the time, costs are declining and the safety aspect is improving (despite the cold war rap it already is the safest kind of electricity). Yet there is a strong lobby from the green movement opposing it. A full review of nuclear energy, especially considering the comparison of France and Germany, is long overdue, but for now let’s look at why wind and solar have failed the test in comparison. Germany and California have undertaken the renewable experiment and the results are dismal.
Wherever renewables have achieved high penetration (the overall proportion of the electricity produced in the market by renewables) the intrinsic problems of variability kick in.
20 years ago, Germany started its Energiewende project, a wholesale transition from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. As it has done so, it has seen electricity prices rise by 50% between 2007 and 2020. It now has electricity prices that are 43% higher than the EU average. These higher costs all come back to one thing: unstable supply and grid sensitivity to that instability.
So, electricity in Germany is 50% more expensive than it is in France, and yet France produces fewer emissions than Germany. France produces 71% of its electricity from carbon-free nuclear. Wind and solar provided 34% of German electricity. But the clincher is that, because of the unreliability of wind and solar, these renewable sources have to have backup power plants running in parallel. These backup plants are usually run on gas or coal.
On top of all this, despite Germany’s massive investment in renewables, it is abundantly clear from this graph which of France and Germany is producing more carbon emissions.
Testifying before the US congress on April 19 2021, environmentalist and energy expert Michael Shellenberger said: “Few understand that significantly increasing variable renewable energy requires both greatly over-building the amount of electricity capacity that is required, and also cutting off increasing amounts of electricity from variable renewables when it is not needed.”
The root of the problem Shellenberger was describing is that the demand for electricity is immediate and so the supply must meet the demand on a moment by moment basis. If there was an ability to store large quantities of electricity, the variability of supply would not be a problem, but no efficient way to do this has yet been invented. The electricity storage problem is of much larger scale than the average observer thinks.
Suffice to say batteries won’t come anywhere near storing the amount of energy needed to supply the grid when wind and solar are down. As Bill Gates, a huge proponent of green energy, recently reluctantly acknowledged, “If you wanted to store enough electricity to run everything in your house for a week, you would need a huge battery—and it would triple your electric bill.”
This calculation from Mark Nelson illustrates just how ridiculous the battery proposition is:
UNA embed this plse Mark Nelson on Twitter: “Yes, it works out to just One Billion Tesla Powerwalls! 35 for every man, woman, and child in Texas. Will “avoid blackouts at low cost”. 388 years of total max output of Tesla Nevada Gigafactory except the batteries themselves only last for a few years.”
Yes, it works out to just One Billion Tesla Powerwalls!
35 for every man, woman, and child in Texas.
Will "avoid blackouts at low cost".
388 years of total max output of Tesla Nevada Gigafactory except the batteries themselves only last for a few years. https://t.co/Gzw7Otg9fU
— Mark Nelson (@energybants) April 9, 2021
What Shellenberger pointed out in his Senate testimony was that currently the only way around this renewable-reliability problem was to have much more generation capacity than was needed to meet demand. This would be turned on when renewables are not available.
For some systems, this means having a gas or coal power plant constantly on, ready to be ramped up to full output when needed because the energy supply from wind and sun is not constant. It means having extra generation plants built, making the infrastructure and operation costs that much more expensive, and in reality making a nonsense of what is meant to be green energy. This is one of the reasons that German customers pay 43% higher electricity costs than the European average.
If this backup generation infrastructure is not built and maintained in operation, the danger of blackouts massively increase. Last year, both California and Texas experienced blackouts precisely because of this weather-dependent reliabity issue. In the summer heat wave, California experienced no wind to drive its wind turbines, and during the February freeze, Texas had the same issue. When electricity was needed most, they couldn’t count on wind.
The solution to this problem is to buy in electricity from neighbours if there is an interconnector; or more often, to buy in fossil fuels such as gas, as the Germans do.
Germany decided to ease up on coal mining and gas fracking as part of their Energiewende plan, but have found since that fossil fuel powered electricity plants are absolutely essential to their energy security. Now they are buying this gas from Russia, and the heavily contested Nord-Stream-2 gas pipeline, which will double the supply of gas from Russia to Germany at a cost of €10bn/year, has just been given the green light.
In 2019, consultancy giant McKinsey wrote that Energiewende posed “a significant threat” to the nation’s economy and energy supply. For three days in July of that year, the country came close to having electricity blackouts (as California did last year) and had to import emergency power from neighbours. “The supply situation will become even more challenging in the future,” McKinsey said.
Similar problems abound in California; another mecca for renewable policy dreamers. After generating just 23% of its electricity from solar panels, California is suffering from blackouts and price spikes stemming from over-dependence on weather-dependent energies. This reality hasn’t bitten hard enough though for the hard core renewable fans of California, who want to triple their solar production.
They are taking this reckless step at the same time as closing down the nuclear energy plant at Diablo Canyon. But if California’s proposed new large wind energy project is built, it will provide less than half of the energy of California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant which governor Gavin Newsome is planning to close in 2025.
As this graph shows electricity in renewable obsessed California is 67% higher than in the rest of the US. The reasons are simply down to California’s obsessive ideological pursuit of wind and solar.
The higher the percentage of the generation network is comprised of renewables, the more volatile the price of electricity becomes. In a paradoxical sounding pricing mechanism The Market Value of the Variable Renewable Energy (VRE) decreases when renewables come on stream, and this causes severe volatility in prices.
So the temporary low price eventually leads to extraordinarily high pricing when the wind stops and the sun isn’t shining. The more of your electricity supply is from this unpredictable source the more volatile the price of electricity. That volatility has other technical implications relating to grid (voltage) frequency and load disruption, so it has real world technical and infrastructural costs that also get passed onto the ciustomer.
What we are also seeing is that smart energy investors invest in renewables not because they are clean but because they are subsidized by this mechanism and by green-motivated preferential buying strategies. Huge grants are available from governments and international bodies for the provision of renewable energy, making it the smart game to get into, not because it works but because there seems to be an endless supply of cash for anyone willing to supply it.
Oversupply in electricity is not the same as oversupply in storable goods. Until we can store large quantities of electricity, oversupply is a major technological problem with severe consequences.
We call this mix of electrical generation Renewables Portfolio Standards (RPS), and, as we have discussed, they present real technological problems that are reflected in costs. Federal auditors in Germany concluded that before 2025 they would have to spend €600 Billion on addressing these RPS problems . They warned that this would “endanger Germany as a business location”.
Why have the Irish authorities not conducted an audit along these lines? Why are the Greens and the major political parties not expected to provide a costing of this catastrophic Green Leap Forward? Isn’t the future of our desirability as a “business location” sort of important seeing as we depend so much on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)? After all wasn’t the FDI pharmaceutical sector one of the only sectors of the economy keeping us afloat during the Covid lockdown?
Covid lockdown, by all measures, was a policy disaster from the same authors of the Climate Action Bill.
The fact that sometimes wind and solar energy is sometimes free (in terms of input running costs) might seem like a no-lose situation, but the truth is that the concomitant unreliability makes it very, very, costly indeed. A waste of money that could be better spent making electricity more reliable, efficient, and environmentally friendly.
Lorcán Mac Mathúna