Wind Power: the Real Threat to Energy Security

light-in-darkness

Stick with wind power and prepare for grid chaos.

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One of the pitches being tossed up by the wind industry and its parasites at the minute is that adding wind power to the energy “mix” improves “energy security”.

The yarn is spun around something like a “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” argument. Ergo, we should put all of our eggs in the wind power basket – irrespective of the cost or efficacy of such a ploy.

In the UK and Europe, the additional pitch is that if an economy ploughs every last available (public) cent into wind power, it will be able to “wean” itself off of fossil fuels and, therefore, be able to tell the Arabs where they can stick their oil and the Russians where they can direct their gas.

This argument doesn’t carry a lot of weight in the US and Australia, where both are gifted with huge reserves of readily accessible coal. Moreover, the US is awash with cheap natural gas (and domestically available oil) thanks to its shale oil and gas bonanza; Australia is just about to reap similar rewards, having located huge shale gas reserves in central-west and northern Western Australia and western Queensland.

Here, the “wind power provides energy security” furphy seems to focus on the “energy mix” aspect of the pitch.

The Global Warming Policy Foundation has put together this study which soundly debunks both aspects of the wind industry’s “energy security” spin (for the full paper click here).

Here’s the wind industry’s argument, as summarised by the GWPF (minus the references, which appear in the original):

Claims that renewable energy sources can contribute to energy security

In 2007, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published an information paper with the title ‘Contribution of Renewables to Energy Security’. The paper assessed opportunities presented by renewable energy technologies to mitigate risk to energy supply.

It claimed that introducing a broad range of renewable sources of energy – hydro, geothermal, bioenergy, solar and wind – into the electricity system and establishing a decentralised power generation system could provide more energy security. The report asserted that renewable energy could reduce geopolitical security risks by contributing to fuel mix diversification and that indigenous renewable energy sources reduce import dependency. It claimed that deploying renewable heating and cooling technologies could reduce supply risks and provide energy security benefits as a result of distributed supply. According to the paper, many governments perceive biofuels as a solution to their high dependence on imported oil and the increasing costs of foreign exchange expenditure from high gas and oil prices.

For those countries where growing dependence on imported gas can be seen as a significant energy security issue, the report claimed that renewable energy could provide alternative, and usually indigenous, sources of electric power.

Policymakers in Britain seem to be convinced by such claims. Both the previous Labour government and the present coalition have been seeking to enhance energy security by reducing energy demand and by decarbonising electricity generation. The last Labour government argued that the most secure energy is energy that is not used, and they developed a range of initiatives to deliver energy savings in the home, the workplace and the transport sector. They claimed that decarbonisation was key to ensuring the security of supply in the long term because it would reduce reliance on fossil fuel markets and increase the diversity of supply.

In its manifesto for the 2010 general election, the Labour Party claimed that in government they had been ‘building a clean energy system, which [would] reduce Britain’s dependence on imported oil and gas and increase our energy security’.

The coalition government has followed the lead of its predecessor in emphasizing renewables as a way of providing energy security. In July 2012, Edward Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, announced more subsidies for renewable energy:

The support we are setting out today will unlock investment decisions, help ensure that rapid growth in renewable energy continues and shows the key role of renewables for our energy security.

So there you have it, directing massive subsidies filched from taxpayers and power consumers can be justified on the basis that wind power will provide “energy security” by displacing fossil fuel generation sources, thereby “decoupling” an economy’s reliance upon fossil fuel imports.

So for those countries that rely heavily upon fossil fuel imports is there really a threat to “energy security” in any event? Here’s the GWPF again:

Reality

It is pointless to try to increase energy security by replacing fossil fuel imports for the simple fact that importing fossil fuels does not threaten energy security. There are three main reasons for this.

Energy markets provide security 

First of all, oil and coal can be safely bought in the world market. Many people think that energy markets are unreliable, unstable and volatile. However, markets are in fact far more stable and reliable than the government policies on which renewable energy strategies depend. Governments change, adapt and repeal their energy policies all the time. This means that government policies are inherently unreliable and thus untrustworthy. The subsidies for wind and solar power that many European governments have introduced over the last decade, are a good example of this. In recent years, many governments have cut solar or wind feed-in tariffs and have even begun to tax profits made by generating electricity with renewables. Greece has introduced a levy on photovoltaic systems for electricity generation and in Spain, photovoltaic producers will have to pay a 6% tax on any income they earn from generating solar power, including feed-in tariffs.  Belgium is mulling a solar panel tax too.

The premise of modern economics – that market actors are better informed than political actors – would seem to hold here.

If and when a market actor – an energy company for example – makes a big mistake (say, investing in solar power instead of shale gas), it might go bankrupt. In that case, the consequences of its mistake are borne by its shareholders, management, employees and suppliers – a limited group. Energy companies that did not make the same mistake – and their shareholders, management, employees and suppliers – are not affected. However, if the government implements an energy policy that turns out to be a mistake, all market actors are affected because the government normally forces all companies and households to comply with its policies. Thus, a government blunder carries a much heavier price tag than a mistake by a company.  Energy markets are a source of security. Large, flexible and well-functioning markets with many buyers and sellers provide security by absorbing supply shocks and allowing supply and demand to respond more quickly and with greater ingenuity than a government-controlled system could.

There is only one global oil market, moving and selling about 86 million barrels every day. It is complex, integrated and highly liquid and for consumers, security resides in its stability. The global oil market is in no danger of falling apart and accessing it requires no military capabilities. Freedom to import and the absence of price regulation protected US consumers from physical disruption of oil supplies during the strike of oil workers in Venezuela’s national oil company PdVSA in 2002 and after hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The same principles also apply to coal. Coal is mined commercially in over 50 countries and used in over 70 countries. Coal is readily available from a wide variety of sources in a well-supplied worldwide market.

It appears that the “threat” to energy security faced by countries heavily reliant upon fossil fuel imports is little more than a strawman used to prop up, yet another, mythical wind industry “benefit”.

In reality, if you’re looking for threats to an economy’s “energy security”, then look no further than costly, intermittent and unreliable wind power. Here’s the conclusion reached by the GWPF:

Genuine threats

As shown in Section 2, claims that fossil fuel imports are an energy security threat are false. However, the statements by the IEA, the British government and renewable energy supporters that renewable energy enhances energy security are wrong too.

Wind and solar power are an energy security risk 

The central factor in managing the electricity grid is to match supply and demand minute by minute throughout the year. Any failure of the grid managers to do this will result in blackouts. In this regard, it is important to distinguish between dispatchable and intermittent forms of electricity generation. Dispatchable generators can be operated to meet demand when it arises. Nuclear, coal and gas power plants all provide dispatchable generation, as do hydro plants if they have storage reservoirs. In contrast, most forms of renewable generation are intermittent and not dispatchable because they produce electricity only when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining rather than when there is demand for electricity. Because of the fact that the demand for electricity varies throughout the day and the year, one megawatt hour generated at 9 am on a December morning is simply not same product as one megawatt hour generated at 2 am in mid-June.

Wind and solar power are therefore in fact a serious energy security risk because they are intermittent and thus unreliable. Wind turbines only produce electricity when there is the right amount of wind: if there is not enough wind, they cannot produce energy and if the wind blows too strongly, they have to be switched off to avoid being damaged. Similarly, solar panels do not produce electricity if there is no sunshine.

At times when demand is high, wind turbines and solar panels might not generate enough electricity. Therefore, intermittent renewable energy sources need to be backed-up by dispatchable power plants – mostly gas-fired power stations – which can be ramped up quickly when wind and solar power do not generate enough (or any) electricity.

Energy demand varies both during the day and over the year. The lowest demand for electricity in the UK is normally in the early hours of summer mornings. If there is a lot of wind at times of low demand, wind farms produce too much electricity for the grid and they have to be switched off. The demand for energy is highest in the mornings and evenings of cold, dark winter days. This peak demand often coincides with very large, slow-moving anticyclones that bring extreme cold weather and almost no wind, and therefore little or no wind power production. No matter how many wind turbines are built, if the wind does not blow during periods of peak power demand, their potential generating capacity is worth nothing.

Germany, which has deployed a significantly larger amount of renewable energy and for longer than Britain, provides a good example of these problems. In early December 2013, Germany’s wind and solar power generation came to an almost complete halt. More than 23,000 wind turbines stood still. Meanwhile, due to a lack of sunshine, one million photovoltaic systems stopped working almost completely and only generated a few kilowatt hours for a few hours in the middle of the day. For a whole week, coal, nuclear and gas power plants had to provide almost all of Germany’s electricity supply.

The ability of the grid to absorb intermittent renewable energy becomes increasingly more hazardous with scale. The scale of intermittence to be accommodated in the British grid is daunting given the determination of both the current and the previous government to promote windfarms. The problem has the potential to destabilise the grid.

Derek Birkett, a former grid control engineer and author of the book When Will The Lights Go Out?, calls the policy to promote wind power ‘thoroughly misconceived’. He considers the stability risk that intermittent wind power poses to the grid to be ‘unacceptable’ and says that support for uneconomic intermittent renewable electricity generation cannot continue without a serious risk of grid instability, which can only be delayed by mitigating measures at an unsustainable cost.  How much wind power can be installed on the national grid without risking destabilisation and blackouts is still an open question. Experts agree that wind generated electricity could be accommodated as long as it provides less than 10% of total electricity but there is a lack of agreement above that level.  The management of electricity systems becomes increasingly difficult if the share of wind and solar power in total system capacity approaches or exceeds the minimum level of demand during the year.

The problems of intermittent electricity generation from wind turbines and solar panels could be managed if the surplus produced at times of insufficient demand could be stored and then released on to the grid when demand is high. However, storing electricity is grossly uneconomic. Battery technology is not up to the task on an industrial scale and in Britain pumped storage plants lack the capacity to store all the surplus at economic cost. Hence, once the electricity is produced, one has either to ‘use it or lose it’.

This means that when wind turbines and solar panels generate large amounts of electricity (on a sunny and windy summer day for example), conventional power plants need to be switched off to match supply and demand and keep the grid stable. It is expensive and inefficient to run large nuclear or coal power plants in such a way that their output matches fluctuations in demand and so their economic viability is undermined.

This being the case, when existing nuclear and conventional power plants reach the ends of their lives, investors may be unwilling to fund replacements and their generating capacity will be lost, despite it still being required for when wind and solar generators are not working. And this generating capacity cannot be replaced by wind or solar power because solar and wind power are not dispatchable technologies. This development, a direct result of the promotion of intermittent solar and wind power, is a genuine energy security risk.

Conclusions

Many people think that fossil fuel imports are a risk to energy security and that renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biofuels can reduce oil, gas and coal imports. However, renewable energy sources are not able to reduce fossil fuel imports on a large scale. More importantly, fossil fuel imports are not an energy security risk. Oil and coal can be freely bought in global markets. In coming decades, shale gas and LNG will create a global market for gas too. Free markets provide better security than government guarantees or interventions and ensure that energy embargoes fail. For these reasons, fossil fuel imports are no threat to energy security. It is therefore mistaken to justify subsidies for renewable energy sources by claiming that fossil fuel imports are an energy security risk. In fact, wind and solar power, because of the intermittent nature of the electricity generated, are the real risk to security of supply.

Precisely the same conclusion was reached by Paul Miskelly in his detailed peer-reviewed and published paper on the very serious risk to the security and stability of Australia’s Eastern Grid the result of the inherent intermittency and unreliability of wind power (see our post here). Here’s a link to Paul’s paper: “Wind Farms in Eastern Australia – Recent Lessons”.

The wind industry is a bit like “Ol’ Tom”, the grizzled alley cat that’s seen more than his fair share of scrapes with cars and junkyard dogs: he’s fast running out of lives; and he knows it. On the reckoning above, it’s just lost another.

On our count, the wind industry can’t have more than a couple of lives left; and the RET Review Panel is about to snuff them out faster then you can say “poor Ol’ Tom’s gone”.

tom cat

Like “Ol’ Tom”, the wind industry’s fast running out of lives.

About stopthesethings

We are a group of citizens concerned about the rapid spread of industrial wind power generation installations across Australia.

Comments

  1. Jackie Rovenksy says:

    There is of course a place for other forms of energy production referred to as ‘renewables’, but that place is not as a secure alternative to current energy production methods.
    Yes they can be used on a small intermittent scale to supplement other forms, especially in the outback where there’s reliance on diesel to provide electricity, but as for providing a reliable source of energy for the rest of Australia these forms of production are useless and no matter how hard their supporters try, they cannot change that fact.
    Modern living and industry requires a constant reliable supply. Yes, we can no doubt find ways to reduce the amount of energy we use and we have been doing that for some time, as seen by modern whitegoods which are apparently more energy savvy.
    Finding ways and assisting industries to transform the way they produce or use energy in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner will do more good than continuing to purchase, erect, maintain and supplement large scale wind turbine installations.
    Even roof top solar usage by individuals will help reduce the need for energy from large scale coal and gas production plants. The need to have the community of Australia work together to reduce reliance on energy production by assisting more people to be able to access roof top solar is more worthwhile than continuing to financially support large scale wind installations which return only an economic benefit to their owners and nothing to the community or environment.
    Until we get the balance right it’s necessary for us all to stop focussing on some mythical ‘target’ and actually get down to the nitty gritty and make good changes that are effective and lasting that benefit us all now and in to the future.

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