Monday, December 17, 2018
The Future of Energy is Bright, Part I
But there does seem to be one point of near-universal agreement: concentrated forms of energy, and especially electricity, are an essential ingredient of modern civilization. Fuel shortages and price increases are a major cause of social upheaval and mayhem. Power cuts are disruptive, especially to industrial production facilities that require steady state conditions. In hospitals and medical centers they can be lethal. Extended power outages often result in riots and looting. Without refrigeration food stockpiles go to waste; without heat or air conditioning urban centers become unlivable. Commerce, increasingly reliant on distributed information networks for payment processing and inventory control, grinds to a halt. Without elevators high-rise buildings become inaccessible.
If frequent though temporary power cuts are a major nuisance, stable electricity but high electricity prices are even worse because they make entire economic sectors—any that involve running electrically powered industrial machinery—globally noncompetitive. Sometimes all it takes is one bad decision. A case in point: some time ago Lithuania decided to shut down its only nuclear reactor, because it was an old Soviet design—RBMK, the same type as had blown up in Chernobyl, although with numerous safety upgrades, and so dumb politics rather than safety were the real issue. Now the Lithuanians have some of the highest electricity rates in Europe, there is no more industry in Lithuania, and instead they have to look for work in Germany.
A lot of people seem to think that energy is all about fossil fuels, which are bad because burning fossil fuels causes global warming. True, much of our energy, and virtually all transportation energy, comes from fossil fuels. But they are also not as plentiful as we would like, and the world as a whole is depleting the resource base of fossil fuels much faster than it is finding new resources. It is also generally conceded that there are enough of these resources left in the ground to completely wreck the climate—if they are ever going to be produced. Thus, fossil fuel resource depletion, and the fact that most of the remaining resources may turn out to be too difficult and expensive to produce, is actually a sort of blessing in disguise.
Furthermore, most of the fossil fuel resources, as far as quantities of usable products, are past their peaks. China has powered its transformation into an industrial powerhouse using cheap and abundant coal (causing much environmental devastation) but now China’s coal production is declining. Gasoline production, worldwide, peaked around 2006. Heavy oil, and diesel production with it, appears to have peaked in 2018. Natural gas production is still growing, but mostly thanks to new Russian liquefied natural gas production, and to shale gas production in the US, but the latter suffers from very high depletion rates and an overall lack profitability. Though everyone involved in the fossil fuel industry is compelled to paint a rosy picture (lest the investment money dry up) and we are being constantly barraged with optimistic projections, these often turn out to be exaggerated when reexamined in the rear view mirror. In short, we may be more blessed than we know.
But the blessing is also a curse, since a lack of stable, reliable, affordable energy pretty much spells the end of the world as we know it. Perhaps it will make you feel better knowing that you are no longer destroying our home planet as you wander up and down a stretch of abandoned highway collecting dry tree branches for your campfire, on which to cook some rodents you caught with a forked stick, but wouldn’t it make you feel even better if there were a way to keep the lights on without destroying the planet?
It is at this point that many people go off the rails, shoot off into the green energy weeds, and get stuck there. The most heavily hyped forms of green energy are wind, solar and biomass, followed by tidal energy, run-of-the-river micro-hydro and other exotics. I am certainly no enemy to any of these, having spent months living off-grid using various such devices. I have installed and maintained wind generators and solar panels, and will probably do so again if the situation calls for them. I am particularly fond of biomass and have an entire woodshed stacked with seasoned split alder logs to prove it. Stoking a wood fire is pure joy. I am less fond of the chores of going through battery banks, topping off electrolyte and looking for shorted cells to bypass, climbing masts to service wind generators or going over solar panels with a spray bottle and a squeegee.
But I have also looked at the economics of it, and have discovered that there is only one situation where wind generators and solar panels make sense: where the need for power is very modest and there is no electric grid to connect to. They are also pointless as far as replacing fossil fuel energy, because they cannot be manufactured, transported and maintained using anything other than energy and materials from petrochemical sources. Add up all the numbers, and what you end up with is this: wind and solar provide reasonably good ways of storing and transporting small amounts of fossil fuel energy using wind and sunlight as an assist.
Wind and solar alone cannot be used to power the electric grid because the power they produce is intermittent and is either too much or too little. And since the electric grid has no way of storing energy (supply and demand must remain in balance at all times) both surpluses and shortfalls are bad. Therefore, other, stable generating capacity (based on fossil fuels, of course) must also be provided. How much additional generating capacity is needed? Rather unsurprisingly, pretty much all of it. That is, you have to build and maintain the same generating capacity as you would have to otherwise, except that you will now also have to pay for wind generators and solar panels. You will save some on fossil fuels, but then you will squander most of these savings on efficiency losses because, you see, rapidly throttling down your generating capacity to compensate for wind storms and sunny spells will waste a lot of energy (in the form of precious compressed steam loudly, stupidly vented to the atmosphere).
As a side note, one point about wind and solar that seems to confuse everyone is the difference between rated power and actual power. I installed a 400W wind generator on two separate boats. It generated, on average, around 30W. A large part of the time it generated 0W and a smaller part of the time it was too windy for it and it screamed like a banshee, then went into self-braking mode and also generated 0W. I also installed 200W of solar panels. These generated somewhere near 150W around mid-day when the sky was cloudless and their angle to the sun was close to perfect and much less—again, averaging out to around 30W—the rest of the time. If there was tree pollen in the air and I hadn’t bothered to squeegee off the dust and the pollen, they produced significantly less.
Now let’s do the math. A 1.5kW (that’s 1500 Watts) gasoline-powered generator on Alibaba is $250 US (and you know you’ll need one for those windless, sunless days). A 200W solar panel kit is also around $250. And a 400W wind generator is $300. Suppose you need to be able to count on having 1kW of power, generated “renewably” to the greatest extent possible, if you please. Well then, based on my numbers, you will need 33 wind generators and 33 solar panels, for a total outlay of $15,000 US. Batteries, cables, masts, solar panel frames, battery racks, charge controllers, inverters, etc., are not included, but they will add up to almost as much. Labor for installation and maintenance is also not included, and it is likely to be again as much. You are then looking at an outlay of $45,000 for 1kW. If you are in California, with its outrageous electricity rates ($0.1523/kWh), this will pay for itself in about 300000 hours, or 33 years.
Or you could just spend $250 on a 1.5kW gasoline-powered generator and be done with it. The $45,000 you save would buy you more than 10,000 gallons of gasoline (in California, which has the highest gas prices in the US). The generator consumes somewhere around gallon every 4 hours, giving you around 45,000 hours (or 5 years) of continuous operation at full power. You will need to replace the generator sooner than that, cutting into your savings somewhat, but on the other hand you are unlikely to have to run the generator flat out 24/7.
I am quite sure that you could scale up this calculation to any size and the results would be similar, and the economic results bear this out: nobody has ever managed to keep electricity rates internationally competitive by going this route. And if you make yourself noncompetitive, then you will no longer have to solve this problem because your companies and your workers will either relocate to a place that has competitive electricity rates, or they will just sit around and get drunk all the time like many of the Lithuanians are currently doing, consuming very little electricity in the process. All of this seems rather straightforward to me, but I am sure that I will fail to convince certain people, probably because they think that wind generators and solar panels are ecological and can save the planet, generators are noisy and redneck, and doing the math is for nerds.
Be that as it may. If you are not convinced, then please do some research on your own and convince yourself. I understand that for many people “green tech” is a matter of faith, and I do not wish to hurt the feelings of the faithful. I submit to you that there are major problems with fossil fuels in terms of their above-ground availability and affordability, rosy pictures drawn by certain petroleum geologists and energy information agencies notwithstanding (they have to feign optimism in order to continue to get paid). I also submit to you that wind, solar, biomass and other such “green” technologies do not offer a solution (but do offer a way to squander even more natural resources and to waste people’s money while making them feel green and virtuous). Add to this the fact that the burning of fossil fuels is causing major environmental problems. To top it off, take on board the fact that affordable, reliable electricity is the sine qua non of civilized existence.
Does this problem have a solution. Well, yes it does, which is why I believe that the future of energy is in fact so bright that you’ll need specialized protective gear just to look at it. It is also very complicated, full of scientific, technical and political challenges, and fraught with great dangers. I will explain how that can be next.
A typo "without hear or air conditioning" should "without heat or air conditioning"...
"reliable electricity is the sine qua non of civilized existence" Is this true? Didn't the Romans have a civilization without electricity? The being competitive part does factor in here, I guess. If nobody has electricity, that's one thing, but if one is competing with folks who do...
Thanks for such a concise and clear-eyed look at our current energy situation.
My guess is that the closest to practical solution is for everyone to use less energy, especially less electrical energy; i.e., conservation. But I doubt this is politically possible.
Some expat neighbors here in rural Mexico run a off-grid house with a massive solar bank (because they want all of the usual western world appliance luxury), roof catch water with huge below house cistern (really wise and works great), composting toilets, etc.. While kindly showing me around their systems I mentioned that in our own little cement house (killer $120/mo. rent by the way) that since we ran just a small refrigerator, a few lights, and our two laptops that we qualified for the lowest of the local electric companies three tiers of pricing (subsidized for the ultra poor in mexico) and that our every 2 month bill was only 127 pesos this time..... or about $6.35 US. My friend looked over at his wife and proudly said "Honey, how much was OUR bill this month?" to which she replied "Zero!" but then she added "but we do have to buy new batteries every once in awhile". Meanwhile I still have my small, trusty solar panel and gear plus my wind generator off my last liveaboard sailboat and treat it like pure treasure so I can proudly shine it on to some land bound guy some day and quip "Honey.... tell Leroy here how much we paid for OUR electric bill last month!!!!!!"
Way to leave us hanging. I loved the line about catching rodents with a forked stick :)
To unknown: the Romans had the energy of slaves. That is how they did it.
The good- There are places where the "average use" case can work out (lets say 66%+ renewable), with respect to energy storage. Where there is a combination of wind and large scale hydro (e.g. Northeast and Northwest US). In deserts at low latitudes (where electric use peaks during daytime hours due to Air Conditioning needs). In places with both wind and solar and weather patterns that seasonally complement each other.
The bad - an enormous part of energy use is home heating. The biggest per capita users of energy: US, Canada, Russia, Norway... all have big heating use. Unfortunately, these places overlap with the places where large scale hydro is available.
The need to build systems for worst-case use rather than average use: yes. unfortunately most people miss this. This is one reason nuclear electric is non-competitive -- If wind/solar is brought online in the same market, they will drive down the nuke's capacity utilization, ruining its high-upfront-cost economics. But natgas is okay in this respect, albeit a fossil fuel (low upfront cost).
Also along this line of thought (economics dominated by payments on the financing), large scale wind/solar will always require subsidy - because otherwise a wind/solar farm built today will, in 10 years, have to compete with a brand-new wind/solar farm of the future, that will enjoy a lower cost (dominated by lower financing payments), due to lower upfront cost for newer tech that will be there in 10 years. So it you want to have wind/solar at all in a market system you have to subsidize it, but then you kill off nuclear (unless you then subsidize that too!). This all happened in the last 10 years in the US.
Great article Dimitry. As as a electrical power engineer I concur with your analysis. I'm also a sail-boat owner, and presently upgrading the boats power system to include 2 x 240W solar panels for battery charging. As part of this upgrade I'm conducting tests on one of the panels to ascertain it's true output under real-life conditions. Last week, under an overcast mid-day sky in the normally sun-drenched, almost-sub-tropical, state of Texas, the output was 5W. And it is for this reason, and those articulated in your article, that I won't be getting rid of the on-board 4kW diesel generator.
initial investment is high but nuclear power has all the potential to sustain our needs for centuries to come even with current technology. Don't know why this road is deliberately blocked.
Good comments, all!
@Ed, thanks for proofreading.
@Unkonown: "reliable electricity is the sine qua non of civilized existence" Is this true? Yes, the Romans did without electricity, but then they used wax tablets and we use smartphones. If we had to go back to wax tablets, we'd be screwed.
@JeanDavid: you are right, of course. But even if we economize down to one smartphone/tablet and one LED lamp, we will still need some amount of stable, reliable electricity to charge the batteries.
@aaa: heating with electricity is a really bad approach. In Russian cities they heat using waste steam from electric generation—a much better approach.
@Mark: Solar panels are good for keeping batteries charged and periodically running the bilge pump while the boat is sitting at anchor. They are marginal for running nav lights (OK if they are LEDs), radio and chartplotter. But that's really about it, in my experience.
@kem.erd: You are on to something. Stay tuned.
Can't argue, but as an individual you're forced into investing in solar panels etc because 'the grid' just gets dearer and less reliable. WE run and live on a farm, so I cut wood for winter house warmth (biomass), have solar hot water and solar panels plus a Tesla battery to keep the house going during blackouts. We also have solar panels to support the water bore pumps for stock water. Electricity is AUD31c/kWh plus the quarterly 'supply availability charge'of AUD$170 just to stay connected. Petrol is about AUD$155/litre (US$4.25/USGallon) and diesel similar where I live. As a child I remember going to bed by kerosene lamp, and then the State owned utility company came through connecting everyone up for nothing to the grid - new power stations, new power lines, no connection charges and cheap electricity (10 years ago we had a new transformer pole installed for a bore pump - AUD$22000). Everyone was on the grid, and collectively it made sense for power stations and industry, and we were better off domestically. Then the privatisation of government businesses came along, and all the assets were sold off. Electricity prices went up, industry has died and moved O/S. The utilities complain that they can't afford to keep ALL THE OUTLYING USERS CONNECTED and so must charge more...etc etc. Personally, as the power generation and distribution infrastructure is no longer owned by 'me' and there to provide for all at a just price, but rather to provide a profit to a monoploy business, I feel no social obligation to pay to maintain a 'base load' for industry or city dwellers. You can only vote with your feet or or wallet.
Dmitri, solar and wind energy both perform far better when implemented at utility scale. Large-scale PV solar systems are coming in at $1.03 per watt inclusive of all costs: panels, inverters, labor, and land acquisition. Large wind turbines cost about $1.50 to $2 per watt, and they produce far more actual power as a fraction of installed capacity, because winds are more powerful & consistent at a height of several hundred feet off the ground. So for your example system capacity of 6600 W solar and 13200 W wind, the utility would pay $26,400; not $45,000.
But your estimates of actual power produced by such a system are way too low. Average capacity factors for solar PV are around 25% in sunny climates, and average capacity factors for wind power in the US are around 34%. (Of course, utilities install these giant towers in windy locales.) So the system would generate an average of 1650 watts of solar power plus 4500 watts of wind power; that's 6150 watts, not 1 kilowatt. (For that matter, even using your figures of 15% capacity factor for solar and 7.5% for wind, your home system generates 2kw, not 1kw.)
At 0.1523 per KWH, the utility's payback time is 28,185 hours, or 3.2 years. NREL says that solar PV energy can be delivered to the consumer at a cost of ~5 cents per KWH.
Of course you're right that if you're on a boat in bad weather, you're better off with a diesel generator. But that isn't the full story, and I'd like to see you get your numbers right if you're going to advocate for a nuclear-power solution to the problem.
@Jerry: Thank you for this ridiculous bunch of industry disinformation. Of course, if you cite "green" this and "wind" that, you'll get their propaganda and nothing else. The contribution of wind and solar to world energy mix is approximately zero. Meanwhile, 20% of energy investment is going into alt energy. That ~0 is turning out to be pretty expensive, no? If you want to be taken seriously ever again, please show how investment in wind and solar has substantially reduced electricity rates anywhere on earth.
Does anyone know if grid-level energy storage (other than hydro) is ready for prime time? It could offer a way to get around the intermittent nature of solar and wind, making these sources of energy more useful. No panacea, of course, but every little bit helps.
When it comes to "substantially reduced electricity rates anywhere on earth", I spoke too soon. Here's an example for you.
Quote: "Unsurprisingly the development of the wind industry in the Lone Star State has had considerable influence on electricity prices over the years, pushing them ever lower."
In 2015, wholesale prices for electricity in Texas even went negative. I think the same thing has happened elsewhere; in general, if you have an industrial process that can deal with an intermittent energy source, it's possible to get very cheap electricity.
@Jerry, dig into the details, there are hidden costs
@Dmitri, dig in also and look at it, the prices have really fallen in a few years and utility scale solar/wind is competitive now in a low-interest-rate environment in an awful lot of locations.
First report showing utility PV at about 5 cents per kWh LCOE, with nationwide variation about +/- 1.5 cents. That is LCOE, a measure of projected average all-in cost, (for utility, not consumer!) during project lifetime. This is without the tax credit assumption which lowers it but which you should ignore if thinking about cost to society. But, it does maybe include loan guarantees I think. The interest rate seems very favorable. In the fine print: 30 year project life, 18 year financing term, 40% debt fraction, 4.5% interest rate, ~6.5% equity discount rate.
In any case that is competitive. So much so that when it turns on, it will be more competitive than any other generation technology other than natgas.
So as mentioned in the article, you still have to build 100% of the capacity for when the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow... that generation source will now have low capacity utilization -> higher LCOE -> will become uneconomic, and will require subsidy to get built - either the taxpayer or the regional utility will distribute out that cost to everyone in the region.
If we further stipulate that the non-renewable minimize its carbon output, this effect gets worse.
"If you want to be taken seriously ever again, please show how investment in wind and solar has substantially reduced electricity rates anywhere on earth."
I dunno. Maybe Jerry has other things to be taken seriously. Maybe he distills a mean home-brew vodka. Or maybe he's wicked good with a cudgel. I know people who'd take that very seriously.
Having pointlessly picked that nit for no important reason to be taken at all seriously, I'll make a serious attempt at slight humor and note that the current prevailing use of solar/wind power provides enough energy to blow fossil-fueled smoke up our ass?
"If you are in California, with its outrageous electricity rates ($0.1523/kWh)..."
O how I long for Californian electricity rates! Alas, I am in South Australia, where we must pay US$0.2717/kWh. Pretty close to double the price. We also have a climate that is hot and dry, so plenty of aircon humming away all year round.
Actually, O how I also long for Californian gasoline prices! Here, we pay on average US$4.05 per gallon for the cheapest 91 octane.
What are those Lithuanians being charged?
...Oh, forgot to say, we have those spectacular prices here in South Australia, despite also having a giant wind farm hooked up to the World's Biggest Battery(tm) courtesy of Elon Musk.
I agree regarding solar and wind. I live off grid (The math of paying for the poles and wires was such it was a non starter that in these days of privatised power I also had to pay for the maintenance at exhorbitant labour rates). Living in the mountains in the land blessed with solar (Australia) would lead you to believe that bountiful solar energy would grace our solar system and keep us nice and happy - wrong. Climate has changed so we get more cloudy days, less solar input, winter turned out to be a complete bust because it was cloudy 80% of the time, so those bank of batteries were good for the lights at night and maybe the computer for several hours. The checking maintenance etc was a pain and a chore and it the gizmo to change 12V to 240V failed with regular monotony. So we had a back up generator. The first one was a dud (American engine), the second had a reliable japanese engine and ran for 5 years (total cost per year of about $200 depreciated) I produced a reliable constant 10.5 kw of power day in day out sometimes it ran for days non stop. When it finally broke I replaced with a much improved german version using the same reliable japanese engine. I expect to get another 5 years out of it. Our power costs work out at $1.20 per kw/hr. So the fossil fuel powered generator won on output, reliability and cost.
Not that I am not against alternatives but the issue of sunlight hours, winter v summer, maintenance etc does not stack up. Especially battery storage a veritable nightmare.
Look forward to your thoughts on part 2.
@Jerry,: Your quote “In 2015, wholesale prices for electricity in Texas even went negative” is a great example of how an event can be purposely spun to portray a positive image from a negative reality.
Electricity trading is a highly complex subject where anomalous situations can arise. And the situation described would have been one of those anomalous situations where the grid operator would have been forced to buy electricity at selected points on the grid to maintain voltage balance and power stability. This therefore is an example of how the unpredictability of wind, where gust speeds can generate enormous amounts of short-lived excess power, can actually destabilize the electricity grid without active intervention – like negative pricing. It is worth bearing in mind that no commercial company is in business to sell its product at a loss. And when it ends up doing so, you can be sure that something is wrong.
We're a hive-mind civilization. The idea of living 'off the grid' is like a honeybee living without a colony hive. We're honeycomb addicts.
@Mark Carroll, of course you're right that the negative electricity price event in Texas was a "negative reality". The article goes on to explain that it was made possible by a 2.3 cents per KWH federal subsidy to wind generators. It also notes "that cheap wind power continues to push electricity prices down can have a deleterious effect on energy markets, and the wind industry itself for that matter. It can for instance, leave investors more reluctant to invest in projects with such low returns." But, the article also states that wind turbines generated 9% of Texas's electrical energy supply in 2014, and that the abundant supply of cheap wind energy has driven energy prices downward. So, in terms of Dmitri's challenge to me: QED.
Furthermore, Dmitri's statement that wind & solar contribute "zero" to the US energy supply, is false. Here's a source indicating that the actual figure may be closer to 6%.
If you could analyze solar heating, it would be appreciated.
I am going to be brave and display either my lack of logical analytical rigor or lack of reading comprehension skills or a blend thereof: the logic I read in Erik Sauar's article seems backward.
I mean, the supply of fossil fuels is finite and consumption thereof is easily tracked (as the article mentions) by counting how much fuel is consumed, how much essential (I hate the word primary in this usage) energy x amount of said fuel is reliably known to release, and how much of that energy actually makes it to the user as usable energy after various conversion, transmission, and other such, considerations take their entropic toll.
But solar and wind are virtually infinite (compared to fossil fuel): the sun has a few billion years left and it drives the wind. We don't anticipate any major increases or reduction in solar energy delivered to our planet for billions of years (or, as some call it, a "Sagan";) ).
So it comes down to sheer efficiency of conversion. The fact that you can burn more fossil fuel to make more energy, but can't turn up the sun or the wind (or are we drilling for solar energy on the sun and just need to drill more? I'm confused) is just the nature of physical reality. It's not how much sun/wind we receive: that's fairly reliable to predict overall, but how much of it can we catch, and how efficiently convert it to usable energy?
If solar and wind become more efficient, their net downstream energy increases proportionately, jah? But that doesn't increase the amount of primary solar/wind energy hitting the photovoltaics array or the turbine blades (I live in wind turbine country: eastern Washington. Pretty little things. I doubt they'll be spinning 30 years from now.)
So, sayeth the solar/wind gang, we just build more and more solar/wind power generators and get direct increase in net downstream power aided by:
a) increased efficiency from research, which is certainly plausible but far from guaranteed; see: atomic energy, power to cheap to bother metering, etc., as preached by the energy boys in the 50s/60s), and
b) 'economies of scale' -- a term I'm personally leery of; it's painted with much too wide a brush for me: 'bigger/more' is NOT always 'more efficient'. That's market logic not physics, and energy production is physics not market logic.
Meanwhile, climate change makes efficient placement of wind/solar arrays a gamble. Imagine not knowing if your coal would burn at the standard BTU conversion rate but, instead, would somedays sulk and barely fizzle while other days attempting to be the brightest flame around? That's could cover/wind patterns for you.
The author writes: "The difference is more than significant, with wind and solar energy now clearly taking the role as the largest source of primary energy."
Well, doh, numbnuts. Everyone knows there's a colossal amount of energy bombarding Terra as solar photons, and this in turn makes wind a power expression that will not stop until the sun stops. We're not running out of wind or sunshine on the global scale. This is not exactly a novel idea. It is in fact the initial argument for solar/wind in the first place, an argument initially based on finding a way to continue enjoying modern levels of energy supply as fossil fuels deplete, not on reducing carbon emissions.
This clown (as I read him) wants us to account solar/wind energy the same way we count oil/coal/gas? When oil/coal/gas are merely biochemically stored solar energy? Let's see, a few dozen or hundred million years to create a finite amount of fossil fuels, that's not a very efficient production of energy rate... but it's super efficient as a finished product. Or was for about 100 years until the wells started drying up. Wait a few more dozen or hundred millioin years, and voila!
But the efficiency of the sun as a photon radiator is not in question, right? There's no reason to count primary solar power because we get a steady, nearly infinite supply of that stuff. All that matters is conversion.
Get back to me, I sez, when you have a finished solar/wind array that can actually replace fossil fuels, because that is the One True Goal if we are not to experiemnce the most dramatic homo sapiens dieoff in history (along with wiping out most animal life).
As I read it, the IEA IS accurately reporting net energy produced by solar/wind, right?
Net is all that matters, nyet?
On the path to that elusive, probably Quixotic goal, all that matters is how much energy you get from what you build, period.
And really, whio gives a fuck that cars can use stored energy better than baseboard heaters and AC units? (The author mentions this notion in the article.) All cars do is haul our fat asses around, and moving from today's 'just-in-time' production/delivery system to slower modes (like wind power cargo ships and megablimps) will make more difference, I imagine, than continuing to believe that all the moving about at high speeds that we do today is good or necessary.
Also, 1 to 5 isn't good. We built this technoculture on fossil fuel conversion ratios closer to 1 to 50. Matching current fossil fuel energy production is not going to sustain our culture, which would need much more to keep things in repair as we grow ever more people and accommodating infrastructure.
I've probably got this all wrong, but then, does anyone have it right yet?
Sorry, but this completely ignores solar thermal, which: 1) allows for easy storage, 2) Is the least expensive of the alternative energy options, 3) Can account for a large percentage of the total energy load. Take that off the table, and I will grant you some of what you say, but it isn't right to do so. My chops in this are that I built and (rent) a cottage with a solar drainback system where most of the heat load and hot water come from stored energy (about 80-90%). Radiant flooring makes the distribution super easy, and materials were inexpensive.
@Jerry: What are your qualifications to interrogate the veracity of the articles you cite as evidence? You are no doubt aware of the propensity for government-media bias, and given the large government subsidies for wind and solar that took place over the preceding decade, what makes you think these articles tell the whole story?
@ Robin: "Net is all that matters, nyet?"
No, net energy produced, is not all that matters. There are three imperatives that superseded this aspiration. The first is: return on investment after accounting for capital cost amortisation (including the infrastructure to transmit power to the customer), and the operating costs and maintenance; second is security of supply, as power outage beyond a few AC cycles causes disruption that increases with time; and power availability on demand, as everyone wants the light to go on when you flick that switch.
The cold hard reality is that, to sustain the lifestyle that the post-industrialised world has become accustom to, there are only two know sources of electricity production that meet these criteria. Hydrocarbons (coal, oil, gas) and nuclear fission - and the latter often fails the first criteria.
@Nathan: Here in Lithuania we are charged about $0.12/kWh and gasoline is about $5/gallon (1.2EUR/L).
@ Robin: "Net is all that matters, nyet?"
"There are three imperatives that superseded this aspiration. The first is: return on investment after accounting for capital cost amortisation (including the infrastructure to transmit power to the customer), and the operating costs and maintenance; second is security of supply, as power outage beyond a few AC cycles causes disruption that increases with time; and power availability on demand, as everyone wants the light to go on when you flick that switch."
That is the gross cost to be extracted before one receives a net. You know, the end result. The net. I think most of us here know that we don't produce energy by snapping our fingers or performing magical dances, but rather, by investing various forms of resources to produce a desired outcome. You are actually making my case for me while deeming it fallacious. The internet is filled with such wonders... including the deliciously prissy vocabulary of your first sentence: "There are three imperatives that superseded this aspiration." Well done.
Nice to see that, next to horny autoerotic impulses, the second main driving of the internet is raw unbridled ego. Tune in tomorrow when Mark Carroll explains where babies come from!
"...initial investment is high but nuclear power has all the potential to sustain our needs for centuries to come even with current technology. Don't know why this road is deliberately blocked."
Please correct me if I'm wrong (it's my hobby, being wrong), but my impression has been that there isn't enough efficiently obtainable uraniumuranium (that's uranium processed by spellcheck?) to provide. But I would very much like to be wrong in this regard, and am sincerely open to being corrected in any false understandings I have on this matter. Mongo like 'lectricity.
@Robin Morrison, as far as I know, the IEA is indeed accurately reporting the net energy produced by solar/wind (that is, the energy contributed to end uses and to the grid.) Erik Sauer is saying it isn't fair to compare net energy from solar/wind, to primary energy used by coal-fired power plants or gasoline-fueled automobiles. The power plant uses 3 units of primary energy to create 1 unit of electric power. Similarly, the automobile needs 3 units of primary energy in gasoline form, to do the same work as an electric car could do with 1 unit of electricity. (The same argument applies whether the unit of energy is expressed in tons of oil equivalent, or megawatt-hours, or horse feed.) So the IEA figures are grossly unfair to solar and wind. Why would that be, especially when the government is heavily subsidizing those greedy, worthless solar energy manufacturers? Could it be that fossil fuels & nuclear get even bigger subsidies? Perish the thought.
@Derryl Hermanutz, we've been working with a dollar-return-on-dollar-invested analysis. You're correct that an EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Investment) would give different results. And, I agree that end-of-life decommissioning costs should be included. But where's the basis for your argument that if all those factors were considered, the end result would be so much worse for solar/wind? Remember that the competitive analysis for both fossil fuels & nuclear often omits those factors.
@Mark Carroll, I agree that power availability on demand is an unsolved problem with solar & wind energy. Batteries are not cost-effective for long term storage, and hydro pumping has limited geographical availability. Until there's a solution, wind & solar can't completely replace fossil fuels & nuclear. Flow batteries look like they might be a workable solution, see:
About my qualifications: I have an MS degree in electrical engineering, and worked in the solar industry for a few years back in the 1970's. Also, I have a 9KW solar system with batteries on my house. It performs a bit better than Dmitri's, but not so well as NREL claims for California utility-scale systems. But what does that have to do with anything? Aside from casting aspersions, do you see anything specifically wrong with the NREL report, or Sauer's paper?
One thing's for sure, we can't keep on doing what we've been doing with fossil fuels. We'll eventually run out, if we don't ruin the climate first. And we can't keep growing the population & economy to infinity, not even with solar power. As to nuclear, I'm willing to wait to see what Dmitry has to say in part 2...
The situation is manageable if we continue the boring and dull efficiency improvements that have surprisingly reduced power demand in the advanced societies by 1-2% year. If we push the efficiency improvements we might get to power demand declines of 3-5% annually in advanced societies.
Of course, in much of the US southwest and south; the people are going to have to transition to living with little or no A/C. That transition might take a generation, but it can happen.
Finally; regarding transportation. A few factors are combining to buy us a couple of decades. First, efficiency of automobiles has skyrocketed in the last decade. As the older vehicles get scrapped, we should see oil demand for transport decline. Second, VMT among the under 40 age group in adanced societies is less than 80% of Boomer VMT (at the same stage of life ). These 2 changes should help us buy a couple of decades transition time.
Efficiency isn’t going to solve every energy challenge, but it is going to help tremendously. The Japanese get by perfectly well on something like 4,000 kwh per capita energy use annually.
@Jerry: It so happens that I live in Texas and have driven through a number of those massive wind farms that contribute to the states’ 13% power generation. The wind farms I drove through, en-route to Colorado, were in the upper section of the pan-handle; and hundreds of miles away from any notable town or city. They were also (almost certainly) beyond the economically viable transmission distance to the major energy consumers in the state (Austin, Dallas and Houston). At the time, I couldn’t help from thinking: “ what an utter waste of money”, and “who might profit from this endeavor?”. If you then add to this that the state has a “Renewable Electricity Mandate” – which translates to a guaranteed tax-payer fund for an otherwise non-viable commercial venture - and that the manufacturer of the wind turbines and grid infra-structure is a major US corporation (who donate generously to the election campaigns of senior politicians) you can start to see a picture forming. This picture becomes a little clearer if you have general understanding if the commercial and technical aspects of power generation and transmission. As an electrical engineer you will be familiar with the representation of wind speed probability as a Weibull distribution, and that the generated output of a wind turbine, at speeds below the design rating, are a cubic function of wind speed. These two facts dictate that, for a large percentage of time, a wind generator produces very little power. And in Texas, this is shown by fact that the actual output of all wind generation is only 30% of capacity (which is actually quite impressive).
The point being: wind generation can not be relied upon to produce electricity on demand, and as such, regardless of how many wind farms are installed, sufficient non-renewable power stations must be held in continuous operation to maintain a spinning reserve. And it is this spinning reserve, necessary to preserve the expectation of power on demand, that is missing from the articles you cite. And it is this necessity that prevents non-renewables from ever replacing hydrocarbons and nuclear as a viable alternative. Renewables can certainly play a part, but they will never be a substitute.
The above then begs the questions: what is the purpose of spending (in the case of Texas) billions of dollars on wind generation to satisfy a government mandate, if all that is being achieved is a comparatively small saving on the non-renewable the fuel bill?
And the reason why qualifications are important when interrogating the veracity of online articles? It is because knowledge is you best accomplice when attempting to separate facts from fiction on reviewing these; and recommending them to others.
The problem is not with fossil fuels, the problem is our deadly, addictive, diseased preoccupation with the cars first transportation system. The fossil industry walks hand in hand with the automotive industry and the automobile makers are top dog in that relationship. It is just that the auto makers are better at marketing the perception that if we just switch to electric or self driving cars we can continue driving ourselves off the abyss of self-annailation. Electric cars are still just a car, a four wheeled box with a huge carbon foot print taking up too much room, usually with just one occupant. EV's are vapor-ware and the automakers know it. It doesn't matter whether the car is an EV or powered by gasoline, the automobile must die.
Perhaps in theory one could combine the use of wind, solar and nuclear power, and maybe finally add some pyramid power to it like ancient Egyptians did 50000 ago, and all this could mathematically add up to the required amount of energy to maintain our fossil-fuel-dependent civilization. On paper this might look optimistic if you do simple math.
But if you add up all the hidden costs and all the logistics of the modern supply chain, as well as the costs of making those new technologies and replacing the current ones; if you add to it the fact that the producers of solar and wind energy would want to make profit, as much of it as possible, then you are bound to see how the math is not going work out nicely. You don't need to be an engineer for that.
The entire infrastructure needs to be retooled and replaced inch by inch. This would require energy and resources. All of this new stuff cannot be replaced at once overnight everywhere, so it needs to be backward compatible with what's still there. How much software would need to be re-written. Just go back and see how long it took for cell phones to get adopted. Even now cell phones do not have 100% coverage, even now someone does not have a cell phone, if you can imagine. The rate of adoption if anything new, even something that is obviously convenient and useful, is always much slower in reality than we expect.
The green retooling is not going to happen fast and it is also unlikely to be economically feasible, even if your math looks fine on paper now at a high level.
I read that in reality, all the green energy would be able to provide 10-15% of our current energy needs. Even if you double that, accounting for efficiency and innovation, you are still not close to a comfortable replacement level. Add to that the fact that the energy needs grow, as population grows, I don't see how one can have an optimistic view under these conditions.
You also need to factor in cultural and psychological aspects of how energy is perceived and used. The young generation almost everywhere on the planet cannot be without their phones for more than hour without having a bout of nervous anxiety. Any meaningful reduction of energy consumption on a voluntary basis is wishful thinking. The only way the reduction can be achieved is by force, economically or physically, i.e. by imposing quotas and penalties for exceeding them or simply cutting off energy supply for periods at a time. Both methods are already being used in many locales.
There will undoubtedly be places where energy would be available for much longer. I hope that for the life spans of everyone who is alive now this would be the case everywhere. But going forward, I do not see how anyone can get you of this constraint: the surface of the earth is limited, the resources that are in there, which are necessary to make all the green tech, are limited as well. Batteries do not run on prana, they use minerals that are also limited to the same extent the earth is, and even if we manage to build some pyramids like ancient Egyptians, how many do we need to feed 7 billion people and more and more.. the bottom line there are only so many sq km of the whole planet, but the population is growing. Efficiency and innovation yes do help but to a point. There is still going to be a point somewhere in the future at which this constraint is going to change the face of human civilization as we know it. Some places would continue to fly jets for some decades or even centuries while others would have to go back to caves and forests. The current, nearly utopic, accessibility of energy to pretty much everyone on the planet (with variances of course but available nonetheless) is not going to last long, sadly. This much is clear.
Ist one should know that while there is a consensus of climate scientists that the greenhouse effect is real and that man is causing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to increase, causing warming - there is no large consensus that this will cause catastrophic climate change. You wouldn't know this from what you read in the mainstream media or talking to most lay believers. "In his book climate scientist Mike Hulme describes a step change towards the catastrophic in the ways that climate change risk was expressed in the public sphere, following an international climate change conference held in Exeter UK, in 2005. And to continue Hulme’s 2006 quote (via the BBC) from section 2: “This discourse is now characterized by phrases such as ‘climate change is worse than we thought’, that we are approaching ‘irreversible tipping in the Earth’s climate’, and that we are ‘at the point of no return’. I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric. It seems that it is we, the professional climate scientists, who are now the (catastrophe) skeptics. How the wheel turns… … Why is it not just campaigners, but politicians and scientists too, who are openly confusing the language of fear, terror and disaster with the observable physical reality of climate change, actively ignoring the careful hedging which surrounds science’s predictions?” (bold mine). Yet in the face of continuing emotive pressure, even 12 years later a wider acknowledgement of this issue is still weak25. Mike Hulme: Michael 'Mike' Hulme is Professor of Human Geography in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. He was formerly professor of Climate and Culture at King's College London and of Climate Change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia - notice that he is no longer a professor at the University of East Anglia - with him publicly stating views the climate alarmists don't want to hear it is probably not a coincidence.
2nd Sunny Spain has tried to use much solar in electricity production. Here is real life results to around 2010: “Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution. The Energy Return on Investment”, by Pedro Prieto and Charles A.S. Hall. 2013. Springer.
Conclusion: the EROI of solar photovoltaic is only 2.45, very low despite Spain’s ideal sunny climate. Germany’s EROI is probably 20 to 33% less (1.6 to 2), due to less sunlight and less efficient rooftop installations.
This book is the best EROI study that has ever been done. It is based on 3 years of real data from all the PV facilities in Spain. According to Charles Hall: “EROI values in many studies are too high because they used “nameplate” values (1,800 kWh/M2-year) for assessing electricity outputs from PV facilities rather than the actual output. Nameplate is inaccurate since the actual electricity output is reduced by clouds, bird droppings, overheating, dust accumulation, lightning, equipment failures, and degradations over time to less than “Nameplate” value. Also, too much output can fry electrical components at various locations in the grid. We found that the actual output for a facility in Spain with a nominal output of 1,800 kWh/m2-yr was measured at an actual 1,375 kWh/m2-year. Ferroni and Hopkirk (2016) also found measured values considerably less than nameplate values.”
It is the same in almost all large scale attempts at using solar. Wind is much the same. To continue our same level of civilization we need an EROI around 10.
I am not worried - there is abundant energy in the universe. well I am worried because a weirdo like Tesla would not get very far these days.
Excellent post Dimitri laying out the facts of wind and solar and the absurdity of assuming that we can ever go to 100% renewable energy. I see California will be going there in 2045 and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in her Green New Deal plan says we can do it in 11 years in the US. And she is not just talking about electrical energy but ALL energy. I just made a detailed look at just replacing the electrical end and reached the same conclusions as you. My data is from the end of 2017 courtesy of EIA. Wind and solar actual contributions(NOT nameplate rating) are not 6% worldwide as one post said or zero as you said but 3%, which is pretty close to zero I guess in view of the amount spent. The US is 8.9% if you count both styles of solar with wind. Very puny. My conclusion is that we should remove all wind and solar subsidies for grid supplied electricity before we make the whole situation any worse. They do work on off grid applications but as one post said the real extended amortized costs per kWh are really pretty high. We had solar on our boat along with big alternators at anchor and we never used the engine to charge the batteries for the next 3 years. We did have a lot of panels. We generated a lot of power sailing underway off our 24" propeller. I never bothered to calculate the eventual delivered cost per kWh but I'm sure it was high probably in excess of $1/kWh but I didn't have to listen to the damn engine or the screaming 400 watt wind spinner thing which I sold a month after I installed it. I critiqued the Green NEW Deal plan on my blog post and I remain stunned that anyone as charismatic and seemingly intelligent as Ocasio Cortez could actually believe that 100% green power could be a reality. Stupid. stupid .stupid. And what are Californians thinking? Ahhh. life at the end of empire. Sorry. gotta go. Now where did I put my yellow vest?
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