There are 3 electricity essentials – that the power source and its delivery to homes and businesses be: 1) reliable; 2) secure; and 3) affordable. Which means that wind power – a wholly weather dependent power source, that can’t be stored and costs 3-4 times the cost of conventional power – scores NIL on all three counts.
Over time, STT has sought to pull together fairly technical aspects of power generation in an effort to demonstrate the patent nonsense of wind power.
We’ve attempted to cover the engineering and economics of trying to add a chaotic power source to a grid designed around narrow physical tolerances; and which requires constant second-by-second management to deliver that which – until wind power entered the equation – we all largely took for granted. And we’ve tried to do so in a style and with language that doesn’t require an engineering degree to follow.
Over the Christmas break, STT had the pleasure of fronting up at more than a few social events, at which the topic turned (unprompted) to the rising cost of power and the instability of the grid: SA’s recent State-wide wind power collapse blackout was on their radar, without one single hint from STT.
What was surprising, given the range of occupations (none of them engineers or in the power business) was the level of understanding of power generation basics, such as the necessity of ‘base-load’ power, the ‘intermittency’ of wind power and the ridiculous cost of ‘backing-up’ the latter.
The two general conclusions drawn at these festive gatherings were that wind power has been an expensive failure; and that Australia needs to crack on and start building nuclear power plants. The latter view, apparently, being driven by a clear understanding of the need for reliable, secure and affordable power; as well as the recognition that nuclear power is the only method of making a serious dent in CO2 emissions.
Although the need to rein in CO2 emissions wasn’t such an issue; rather, the talk on that score was along the lines that if we’re going to spend $trillions (post the Climate Jamboree in Paris) on trying to curb CO2 emissions in the power generation sector, then why waste it on intermittent and unreliable wind power?
With the knowledge that the average power punter has got a pretty fair handle on some the technical basics, STT dug around in the archive and found an absolutely brilliant dissection of the wind power fantasy by one of Britain’s top Engineers, Leo Smith MA (Electrical sciences).
Leo’s “Limitations of ‘Renewable’ Energy” was published in 2012, but is as relevant today; if not more so. And its relevance is not limited to the UK’s wind power disaster – what Leo describes covers every power grid in the developed world. The entire paper (36 pages) is available here: Renewable Energy Limitations
While we thoroughly commend Leo’s paper (and strongly suggest you study the whole fine effort in its entirety), we’ve extracted the main thrust below (minus Leo’s references, calculations, data and diagrams).
What we’ve set out covers the essentials of power generation; grid management; and the costly futility of wind power. Tellingly, Leo reaches the same conclusion that STT’s co-Christmas celebrators reached: that if we are truly serious about reducing CO2 emissions in the electricity sector, then nuclear power is the only way to go.
Now, over to Leo – and his conclusion that intermittent wind power is as “useful as a chocolate teapot”.
The three necessary concepts
In order to bring the strengths and weaknesses of all power generation systems, and in particular ‘renewable’ technologies into sharp relief, a basic understanding of the crucial elements of any system of generating electricity has to be arrived at. This necessitates introducing some basic concepts – shorthand terms used to describe physical parts of, or aspects of, electrical power generation.
At its simplest a useful electrical system consist of a means of generating electrical power – a generator, or a battery for example, connected by wires to a load, which then takes that electrical power and does something useful with it. Lighting a bulb, heating a kettle or driving a motor. In terms of national and international systems the system that has evolved is (for very sound reasons) to have a multiplicity of generators connected to a mesh or grid of wires that distribute the power to a multiplicity of loads over a wide geographical area.
The reasons why there are more than one power station, are redundancy, and geographical limitations. The reason why there are not as many generators as loads, is economic. In general the cost of generating plant, both in financial and in terms of materials is considerably in excess of the cost of distributing the power. Generators are expensive. Wires are cheap. Also, by using a broad geographical grid to interconnect generators and loads, the demand can be somewhat ‘averaged out’.
That means that whilst one region may be having higher demand than another, no extreme generating capacity is needed as the imbalance is catered for by the relatively efficient flows around the whole grid.
So we see that the traditional grids that we have, are optimized to connect large power stations located reasonably close to demands and interconnected into national (Europe) or region (USA) sized grids, using interconnects that are not too large, as they are only balancing systems, not designed to connect large amounts of generation in one place to large loads elsewhere. Under certain fault conditions they do need to do that, and rolling blackouts have occurred when grid elements get overloaded.
One misconception that has been voiced is that somehow the grid represents a store of electrical power. Nothing could be further from the truth, indeed one of the hardest technical jobs the grid and power station operators face is that at any given instant the power they are generating must exactly match the power that is needed. There is simply no storage on the grid itself in any shape size or form. At best there are a few seconds of power in terms of the flywheels comprised by the spinning rotors in the generators before grid power is completely lost if one or more generators lose their power input.
Prior to the use of electronic loads, a sudden loss of generating capacity or a sudden increase in load would result in a lowering of voltage and frequency on the grid, and electric motors connected to it would slow down, reducing power demands, and lights would dim. However modern electronic power supplies do not respond to lowered voltage by reducing power demands. They draw what they draw over a wide range of input voltages, and this may in time be an added problem to grid engineers as traditional filament lighting is replaced by electronically controlled CFL and LED lamps, and directly connected motors are replaced by electronically controlled ones. Part of the drive towards ‘smart grids’ is for this very reason: To identify non-critical equipment that can be reduced in power in conditions of temporary power shortage. As we will see later, renewable energy makes these problems far far more serious.
So because the grid can store no energy at all, and power must match demand at all times, there is a need to have a multiplicity of ‘hands on the throttles’ of all the power stations, to adjust power at all times to match the demand, and since demand is only predictable to a certain level, this means that some power stations are at all times ‘throttled back’ from what they might be producing – and indeed some are throttled back so far that they are generating nothing at all, a condition known as spinning reserve – such power stations are ready to take up the load at short notice, but are essentially burning fuel, doing nothing.
And this brings us to the first important concept that is unknown to most outside the generating business, the concept of dispatch which is used to describe the processes involved in adjusting generator output to match demand.
This is such an important and relevant – possibly the most important and relevant – issue when it comes to analysing renewable energy, that its full discussions is given a complete section in itself. Suffice to say that the key issue is that, lacking any ability to store electricity on the grid itself, there is no alternative but co-operation with dispatchable power sources, when attempting to match generated output to actual real-world demand. And that technologies that render this more difficult, are in general to be shunned. The problems of fluctuating demand is, so to speak, bad enough already without making it far, far, worse .. and that is precisely what renewable energy – of the more popular sort – does.
Which brings us neatly to the second issue that needs to be understood. The issue of intermittency.
Intermittency is, quite simply, the fluctuating availability of an energy source. All power generating technology suffers from it. Things break and need mending. Supplies of fuel can get interrupted. Routine maintenance can shut down a plant for weeks. But where we are considering conventional power stations that rely on stored energy fuel sources – coal, gas or uranium and the stored renewables of hydroelectricity, geothermal, and biofuels – such loss of availability is the exception to the rule, and equally as importantly, generally characterised by being both infrequent and of significant duration.
Taking down a coal plant for a boiler inspection is a week or more to let it cool down, inspect it and restart it. But it happens only once a year (and generally in summer when demand is lower anyway).
By contrast, when considering the intermission of ‘intermittent’ renewable energy – that is wind, solar, tidal and wave power (which is really a sort of wind power by proxy!) the intermittency is characterised by being persistent and of short duration. Solar power varies from nothing at night to full power during the day every day, tidal does similar twice a day (roughly). Wind power fluctuates randomly but with a general period that approximates to 3-5 days, that being the average time it takes for a low pressure system with associated wind to pass over a reasonable geographical area.
But it is far from a smooth curve, for reasons to be touched on later.
[Leo cites data from the UK which shows that wind industry’s, ‘the wind is always blowing somewhere’ line is utter bunkum – as the graph below confirms. This is the output (courtesy of Aneroid Energy) of all wind farms connected to Australia’s Eastern grid in June: spread over 4 states (NSW, VIC, TAS & SA) with a notional capacity of 3,669MW]
[At this point Leo goes into detail on the issue of ‘energy’ and ‘power’ density – where using the example of a nuclear reactor “the size of Fukushima (4.7GW)” and trying to ‘replace’ it “with a wind farm of the same average output, it would render an area larger than the current temporary exclusion zone (about the size of Greater London in which ~10m people live) permanently uninhabitable.”]
The important problem of intermittency
Of all the aspects of renewable energy, none is greater in impact or less well understood by the lay public than the question of intermittency, and how it relates to dispatchability, capacity factors, and affects the whole idea of trying to incorporate renewable energy cost effectively into the demand patterns that we have for power. It has been already stated that intermittency is a name applied to the availability – or lack of it – of any power generating source of electricity. That much is easy to grasp.
The first thing to say, is that it has nothing whatever to do with predictability or otherwise of that power source. That is, the fact that a conventional power station has scheduled down time is helpful, but does not negate the fact that it has to have that downtime. The fact that tides are predictable – highly predictable – does not remove the problem of dealing with e.g. lack of tidal power at high and low tides (in tidal stream power stations).
As previously noted it is already an issue – a big issue – to deal with demand fluctuations in electricity, and the easiest way to consider intermittency is to regard it as a negative demand fluctuation on the grid, that is, it just subtracts from the demand in a more or less random way.
And again, note that whilst intermittent renewable energy obviously (in this way of looking at it), reduces the average total demand on the conventional power stations, it actually increases the dispatch demand. That is, there is – when seen from the perspective of the conventional power stations – an increase in variability of demand, overall. And the key thing to be understood here, is that we have no way to compensate for intermittency except by dispatching power stations that can be dispatched. Even if those are pumped hydroelectric storage ‘batteries’.
What we find is that coping with generator intermittency is the same as coping with demand fluctuation, and requires exactly the same generic solutions to it as following the demand curve.
[Leo then goes into data and detail on the ineffectual ‘solutions’ to the intermittency issue, and concludes as follows.]
To summarise, the methods of dealing with intermittency all lead to non ideal solutions. Using geographical dispersion needs transcontinental power links of massive cost and low efficiency to transport huge amounts of power from ‘where the wind is blowing/sun is shining’ to ‘where its needed’. Storage requires country sized installations of phenomenal potential destructive power and devastating environmental impact even if they don’t disintegrate in a tsunami size dam burst.
Oversupply of generating capacity to cover ‘worst case’ scenarios inflates the cost and environmental impact to the sorts of levels that would destroy a nation before it got the job half done. And moving from a ‘demand dictates supply’ to a ‘supply dictates demand’ grid would in the end equally disrupt society to a totally unacceptable degree.
The renewable lobby response to this is to hand wave it away with statements like ‘well that’s why we need diversity’ and ‘we simply need to build the storage’, despite the fact that the actual numbers are nowhere to be seen, as to what the building of that storage would cost, or what impact it would have, over and above the massive costs already involved in ‘renewable energy.’
The reality is that there is only one way to realistically add dispatch to large numbers of renewable power sources, and that is through co-operating them with conventional power. The renewable lobby use the term backup but I prefer to call it co-operating, to make the point that its not an occasional thing, its a 24 x 7 balancing act between dissimilar power sources both of which need to be built and operated – instead of just the one.
Note that if you happen to live in a country that has a lot of hydroelectric installation (or potential) and you find you are running out of rainfall, then in that case, and that case alone, you can extend your already renewable grid without becoming any less renewable, and by about 25%, using wind and solar to essentially conserve rain fall and use the hydroelectric potential you have when the ‘intermittents’ fail you. It is still expensive, and very poor value for money compared with – say nuclear – but its not such a total unmitigated disaster as e.g. using coal fired power stations to cooperate with, as is done in e.g. Germany.
In conclusion, what I have tried to demonstrate in this section is two things: firstly that intermittency is not unpredictability, but simple variability in output that is a necessary and intrinsic problem, of all types of renewable energy that do not in some way store energy – as biofuels and hydroelectric dams do. And that secondly there is no magic way to deal with it, except to regard it as additional demand for dispatchability on a range of conventional power stations that may or may not include hydro and pumped storage. Unless you count hydro, this completely destroys any hope whatsoever of an ‘all renewable’ grid. At least not one that allows you to access electricity when you need it, rather then when it happens to be there, like some third world Banana republic.
Furthermore it relegates intermittent renewable energy to a far more lowly role. As a bolt on fuel saving device that may or may not save fuel. One that depends on conventional energy for its consistent operation.
Without some form of low cost, efficient, high capacity small footprint, safe, electrical or otherwise storage system an all renewable grid is simply total fantasy.
That still doesn’t entirely administer Euthanasia to the concept however. Indeed one renewable proponent I spoke to said ‘well at least it saves fuel’ – and presumably Dangerous Emissions, too.
But does it, does it actually save fuel? With luck the necessary concepts are now in place to address that important question, and reply to the rhetorical:
‘Well if we are generating less electricity with gas and coal we must be saving fuel, right?’
with the surprising and considered response of:
‘No, not necessarily’.
And once again there is a nasty little devil in the detail. We have the necessary ideas in place to demonstrate that renewable energy by dint of its intrinsic nature is big, and hence expensive, impracticable, and environmentally unpleasant in its use of space, that it increases problems for conventional power stations, rather than replacing them altogether, that it can’t exist alone, but only in partnership, that all of the ideas that are touted to render it effective are either impossible or totally impractical, but hey it still saves fuel doesn’t it?
‘No, not necessarily’.
[Leo then turns to the essential requirement for power to be ‘dispatchable’ – ie power output being controlled by command, in response to variations in demand: not variations in availability of the ‘fuel’ source – eg the wind, the sun or the tides. And goes on to deal with the additional cost of gas or coal plant holding thermal and/or spinning reserve.]
Capacity factor, and cost benefit analysis
One has to ask the question that, if there was no concern about climate change would anyone employ renewable energy (beyond a bit of cost effective hydroelectricity and biofuel) at all?
Now, amongst the faithful it is held that, even in the absence of climate change, world shortages of affordable oil and so on means it is still a Good Idea, because it will replace carbon based fuels. And yet the issues of Intermittency shows that on grid, it cannot. In the absence of hydro power or fossil fuel, intermittent renewables could provide, at best, emergency power for some functionality and only ‘consumer and general industrial power’ at certain times.
And that not for long: without transport fuel able to go off grid, remote installations of wind turbines would be unmaintainable, and would last at best a few years. This especially applies to offshore installations.
So in this scenario we must also conclude that renewable energy of the intermittent kind, is ultimately about as useful as a chocolate teapot. In short the answer is:
Without the (presumed) existence of anthropogenic climate change, no rational reason exists to pursue a policy of intermittent renewable energy whatsoever in any country that has not got a large installed base of hydroelectric power.
That leaves the sole justification of renewable energy (of the intermittent kind) as a kind of fuel saving bolt on to conventional power stations.
And yet we have seen that even there, the gains are marginal and the costs are extremely high.
In short in the final analysis the pro-renewable argument must boil down to:
Are intermittent renewables the, or even a, cost effective way to reduce carbon emissions?
Because if they are not, we have to ask the question why on earth we are messing around with them at all?
And certainly many people have concluded that they are in fact not a cost effective way to reduce emissions. Vis this gem of sarcasm from a report by AF Mercados:
It is often not clear whether the aim of that (having a renewables target, over and above an emissions target, alone) policy is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, or to deliver renewables for their own sake.
Or this equally pithy report from Professor Hughes, writing on behalf of the United Kingdom’s The Global Warming Policy Foundation:
The casual assumption that expenditures on green technology represent an efficient and economic use of scarce resources is little more than a convenient fairy tale for troubled times.
Both reports make the point that if carbon reduction is the aim of the policy, renewable energy for its own sake is an extraordinarily expensive way – in terms of materials, direct and indirect costs, and environmental impact – to achieve remarkably little.
[Leo deals with the cost of the variability of intermittent renewables on the power supply as a whole and concludes:]
In short dispatchable power requirements add to the cost of electricity. And intermittent renewable energy adds to that dispatch requirement…
The marketing of renewable energy completely ignores this, comparing intermittent un-dispatchable power with reliable dispatchable power, on an averaged basis, to arrive at costs that simply bear no relation to the overall cost of supplying reliable dispatched ‘renewable’ power to the grid.
This is in essence fraudulent – the costs are taken off the balance sheet of ‘renewable energy’, deliberately, and in the end, appear on the costs of the suppliers of the dispatch – namely the grid operators and the operators of the plant that is required to provide that dispatch, instead. All of which, one way or another is paid for by the consumer.
[Leo goes into detail about the costs incurred by trying to incorporate wind power in a grid designed to take dispatchable power; and makes the case for nuclear power being reliable, secure and, when the cost of avoiding the intermittency of wind is properly accounted for, affordable. Leo then wraps up as follows:]
A pessimistic view?
In the years since I was first tempted to engage in trying to understand the real issues behind power generation – especially electrical power generation – there is, above all, one salient feature that emerges across the board. Sanity and rationalism have been cast aside, and the whole arena is now a political and ideological battleground whose main protagonists understand little or nothing about the industry they seek to bend to suit their ideological (and possibly commercial) needs.
In short the world is full of people who have an opinion about power generation, who understand nothing about how it actually works or even what actually works. They will readily believe contrary things at the same time. They believe the governments when it tells them that climate change must be addressed by renewable energy, they disbelieve it when it quietly lets slip that nuclear disasters are not actually disasters on much of a scale at all. They believe scientists who tell them that climate change is a proven fact, and its all the fault of Big Oil, they don’t believe scientists who tell them that if that is so, the remedy is in fact nuclear power.
Government policies are riddled with contradictions. Merkel shuts nuclear power stations and builds dirty brown coal ones, instead – the renewables don’t work, and industry can’t afford to continue funding the lost cause, but politically that can’t be admitted, because with a PR system and enough Greens to hold the balance of power, the minority lunatic fringe must be kept appeased.
The UK is in a similar position with a coalition comprised of people who know that nuclear power is needed, and are deeply sceptical of renewables, but are hamstrung by their coalition partners utter determination to drive it off the face of the planet and install windmills irrespective of their actual benefit.
It’s a political minefield. One of the most telling statements I ever read, came from a Danish paper some years back. It bears repeating.
Hitherto, the radical transformation of the Danish energy system has almost entirely been driven by economic considerations based on technical feasibility. The recent imposition of arbitrary targets by politicians that require unquestioning implementation by the infrastructure suppliers, without any apparent estimates of costs, is a relatively new and worrying departure for the way Denmark is organized.
The very fact that the wind power system, that has been imposed so expensively upon the consumers, can not and does not achieve the simple objectives for which it was built, should be warning the energy establishment, at all levels, of the considerable gap between aspiration and reality.
Denmark needs a proper debate and a thorough re-appraisal of the technologies that need to be invented, developed and costed before forcing the country into a venture that shows a high risk of turning into an economic black hole.
Rational scientific analysis shows conclusively that renewable energy cannot ever deliver on the very basis that it has been sold to the public. It’s not cheap, it’s anything but free, it’s not environmentally desirable, it offers no energy security, and it cannot exist in isolation from other technologies that are either even more costly than it itself is or have grave risks associated with them.
What we find when we analyse the intermittency problem, is that intermittent non-dispatchable power actually carries very little value at all. What society requires, is dispatchable power – power that can be on tap when it’s required, and turned off when it’s not, and it requires in addition a large component of cheap baseload power, that never needs to be turned off. What it does not require is wilful power that’s here today and gone tomorrow.
You cannot run a country on volunteers who turn up for work when they want to, and at other times don’t (and take up 1000 times the office space of your normal workers even when they don’t turn up at all). If the power density of renewable energy makes it large, awkward, expensive, and environmentally challenging, the intermittency destroys its value completely. It is not something you can engineer out either: if the fuel supply is intermittent, lacking storage, so too will be the output. And the fond hope that engineers can build anything you want given enough time and money is total fantasy.
We simply do not know how to build storage – we do not even know where to begin – that is better than fossil or nuclear fuel in terms of cost, size and safety considerations. If we did, we would long ago have done it – and halved the capital cost of the rest of the grid in the process.
The renewable lobby must know this. They simply seem not to care.
If you look at the complete range of political pressures applied to the power industry worldwide, it benefits only one set of people: those engaged in the construction and supply of renewable technologies, and gas.
Policies, when examined, result in no significant emissions reductions, but only increase profits for a minority. In fact, it makes more sense to regard the renewable energy business as a pure piece of cynical marketing with only profit in mind. They compare apples with oranges and the solution is bananas!
The cost metrics and the utility of renewable energy are simply not comparable with conventional plant. But by pretending that they are, hidden costs are brushed aside, and conclusions reached that are plainly fraudulent.
Above all, this emotional narrative of renewable energy has to march forward on the fundamental assumption that it is, in the end, the only long term solution to global energy needs. That no matter how outlandish, or costly, or complex it gets, the alternative is a fossil stripped world with no power at all.
And yet, the actual reality that nuclear power can do everything that renewable energy claims to be able to do (but fails to achieve) at a fraction of the cost and far far better, must not be allowed to gain traction. Reason must not be allowed to prevail. Affordable zero carbon power that is clean safe and be tucked into a corner of the country and largely forgotten? No way! Not when you own a gas field in Azerbaijan, or Texas. Or your wife is on the board of a wind power company…
And if you are not concerned about Climate Change (and let’s face it, a world with no electricity at all is a lot more terrifying than one a degree warmer) there’s several hundred years of coal, which the Chinese will be burning anyway.
Leo Smith MA (Electrical sciences)