Drowning in the Big Green Pond.
This is another guest article by Graeme, one of our regular contributing authors. It deals with the innate limiting factors of renewable energy sources, and though such considerations can be quite technical, it describes them in clear everyday language for the benefit of anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of the salient issues without first studying for a degree in electrical engineering – which I think covers most of us.
What does come across to me is how delicate a balance must be maintained to deliver a steady supply of electricity, and increasingly the intermittency of renewables is destabilising that equilibrium.
Most of the Greens calling for more renewable energy capacity believe that somewhere there is a big pond of electricity, and so long as you feed in enough power to keep the level in the pond above zero, then it will keep flowing from that hole in the wall. That, they assume, will keep them warm in winter along with that smug glow of self-satisfaction at “saving the World”.
Any debate is stifled by their belief that carbon dioxide causes the Earth to warm, and also that renewable energy is the only way to reduce emissions. Thus they swiftly move to abusing anybody questioning their beliefs as evil deniers. There is no problem, they claim, in moving to 100% renewables for the electricity grid, thus exposing their ignorance. The concepts of reliability, base load and adaptability are foreign to their thinking, and they take for granted an inherent robustness that no experience can upset. Rational debate is avoided.
What is this Electricity Grid of which they are so ignorant? It is the result of 150 years of technical development with the aim of supplying a continuous supply of electricity to millions of customers. Over the years of successful operation it has become a reliable and necessary part of modern life. Not only does the right amount of electricity flow at the right voltage, the right amperage, and the right phase angle every second of every hour of every day of every year, but it is so reliable that various signals have been ‘grafted‘ onto it. Does your electric clock keep time, does your DVD player display the same time, do the street lights come on as it gets dark? Does your electric hot water service know when it can use cheaper overnight electricity to heat your morning wash? Say thank you to the grid regulators.
The misunderstood phrase ‘base load’ merely means the amount of electricity that MUST be available at any time of the day. It varies from day to night, from season to season but it has to be there at any time or there will be a blackout. Too little and the lights go out, too much electricity and the lights don’t work, nor do your clocks, TV, DVD, computer, refrigerator, washing machine or your microwave oven. To supply this the authorities use huge machines in various power stations all synchronized to a common degree.
As people turn off the entertainment and head for bed, some of the machines are set to deliver less power. They don’t stop, the generators don’t slow but continue to run at the same speed (3000 rpm. or 50 cycles usually outside of the USA). This is the rolling backup, ready to start supplying power at short notice, and this group comprises the coal, oil, nuclear and closed cycle gas turbines. They aren’t stopped and the boilers allowed to cool because it takes up to 3 days to ‘bring them back on-line’. A matter that comes into consideration when a complete unit is taken off-line for maintenance, hence the usual scheduling of that in parts of the year with lower demand.
The second ‘trick’ available is the reverse. These generators start (and stop) quite quickly. Open cycle gas turbines can be operating within minutes, as can diesel generators. Hydroelectricity operates within 30 seconds. Intelligent anticipation eliminates any stoppage in supply. Hydroelectricity has the additional benefit in many cases of being able to use excess electricity to ‘pump water back up hill’ for re-use. The only large-scale method of storing electricity.
It isn’t anywhere near as efficient as we would like, but 75% saving of what would be thrown away is very useful, as is the overall smoothing of demand and supply. It is very hard to run a grid without some percentage of hydro being available, and some lucky countries in Europe run with very high percentages (Norway and Iceland). Its balancing abilities are seen in Sweden, Switzerland and France where high percentages of nuclear power are used. Nuclear is cheapest when run almost all the time and the least able to accommodate fluctuations in demand. Hydro is the perfect foil. The same would apply to those countries running coal-fired plants except they rarely have the necessary amounts of hydro to rely on, hence the use of short-term generators.
Supply must always equal demand at all times, so there are constant adjustments. Into this finely tuned process the Greens have introduced a variable amount at a variable time. Neither wind turbines nor solar are predictable a week ahead, let alone by the season, nor even what will be delivered each year. The flexibility built into the running of the grid has accommodated small amounts; after all it has been designed to be flexible. But success has rendered the Greens arrogant. More and more they cry; some on the lunatic edge even claiming that 100% renewables are possible. When someone says that, you can recognize someone with very little knowledge and very dangerous.
The problem is that the grid regulators no longer control the supply. The wind farms (and solar versions) are free to dump as much power as they can, whenever they like. Not only does this put the grid under stress, but the costs of the necessary adjustments are loaded onto the conventional generators. And as a further mistake, the increased cost of the renewables is disguised by separate subsidies, so the price received for their output depends less on what it is sold for, and more on the capacity of the customer to pay the increased bills.
I repeat, the grid has to be balanced at all times, supply equalling demand, so when the wind blows the dumped power has to be used somehow. Some goes into pumped storage, but that is not always available, so the selling price is reduced to stimulate usage of the excess supply.
The Greens see this as a great victory, “look” they say, “wind causes the wholesale price to drop. Wind is cheap.” A Rolls Royce would be cheap if the price was subsidized and the running costs charged to all other car types.
While they retain their influence with politicians and public servants the Greens will continue to push and push for wind and solar. Why? I am not sure, but obviously not for any rational reason. More and more evidence piles up showing wind farms are a very inefficient and costly way of cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Germany has a lot of wind capacity available, giving low amounts of usable electricity, rising costs AND rising emissions. And while that rise in emissions is partially due to the closure of nuclear plants, it started before any were closed.
Denmark is the poster girl of the wind farm lovers but hasn’t shut down a coal-fired station since 1992. It does have lots of very efficient combined heat and power plants, which recover the waste heat and use it for heating houses and de-icing roads with circulating hot water. But every time the wind blows those plants suffer, they have to stop generating electricity to make room for wind power but have to go on using fuel as the hot water is still needed. Even shutting down those 600 odd plants isn’t enough to accommodate the burst of wind energy, so it is exported.
To where? To any available hydro plants, and as it happens Denmark is blest with two neighbours with substantial pumped storage capacity. That was fine as a political solution, Denmark sold excess wind energy to Norway at a low price, and when the wind stopped bought it back at a much higher price. The Norwegians are descendants of Vikings and know how to loot and pillage, so Denmark has electricity even more expensive than in Germany.
All that pumped storage in Norway and Sweden was fine while only Denmark was throwing money away, but Germany joined the delusion. Sweden also went berserk and decided that it too would join in. Suddenly there was an oversupply of wind and not enough pumped storage to go around. Most politicians have trouble understanding the law of supply and demand, so would have been surprised at what happened.
The price you could sell excess wind energy dropped – to screams of delight from gullible greens – and the amount offered by the hydro firms plummeted into negative levels. Yes, wind is cheap, but not so when you have to pay people to use it. With reduced income but the same costs, wind farms became less profitable. So there are reports of turbines no longer supplying in Germany and Denmark, but for some reason the Greens never mention that.
The first effect from that excess is that wind drives out the more expensive variable sources, gas turbines, hydro, pumped storage out of the market, as has happened in Germany. Thus one and two year old gas-fired plants have gone out of service, and are being sold to countries outside the EU. Siemens no longer offers their very efficient, and low emissions, plants in Germany, indeed is moving some to Turkey. But it leaves the cheaper but less flexible coal-fired plants, which then have to run less efficiently because of the interruptions from wind supply.
With the disruption comes increased cost, lower profit and no incentive to upgrade or replace older plants. Indeed older plants are being forced by Government decree to continue operating as part-time backup reserves. So you get 24 hours of emissions – and higher ones than the newer plants give – to provide a few hours supply when the wind fails to blow or the sun to shine.
Meanwhile Germany’s neighbours became annoyed with the disruption to their grids, coal-fired for Poland and nuclear based in the Czech Republic. Both countries decided that what their people wanted was a stable electricity supply at a reasonable price, rather than blackouts and a much higher price, so both countries have installed phase shifting transformers at their borders to block sudden surges in electricity.
This leaves even less customers for german wind farms, so they are pressuring the german government to install hundreds of kilometres of high tension lines to bring the joy of blackout to Bavaria and southern Europe. It means destroying huge areas of forests but this is excused as “saving them”.
For all the self-delusion of the Greens, this is the case; wind (and solar) do not work all the time. Unfortunately incompetent governments with no ability to look ahead, have seized the “opportunity” to license more wind farms, and exacerbate the problem. No coal or gas-fired, nor nuclear plant will be able to operate profitably under the extra burden. Expect there to be spin and waffle about imaginary lower emissions, and excuses for the inevitable rising electricity bills. Explanations for blackouts will be convoluted and ignore the obvious causes.
The next stage of delusion will be talk of storage from batteries which haven’t been invented yet, for the Greens are most unlikely to have any experience in industrial or large commercial enterprises, and their views are shaped by their household supply and the regular announcements of “breakthroughs” that fill any space left after the actual news. Exhortations to go renewables at any cost to “save the Earth” are enough to prevent them ever doing an elementary costing exercise, and their lack of practical knowledge will cause speculative – even lunatic – schemes for storing electricity to be considered as a sure solution.
The recent announcement of lithium battery packs for homes has sent a frisson of excitement through green ranks. Not one seems to have asked how many packs will I need? How long will the wind not supply? Look at the record of the last 7 winter years in the UK; weeks without wind. Where would you put 20 or 30 of these packs on your property? And don’t forget the inverter(s) and the necessary control system. And do you have the money spare for this? The cost is $US10,000, £6,500 or €9,000 PER PACK. At least the believers mark themselves as natural prey for those selling perpetual motion machines.
But two-thirds of electricity doesn’t go to households, it goes to industry and commerce. The cost of electricity will climb and climb, along with the number of blackouts, until even those insulated from reality and thinking they are safe in the public service will realize that something must be done. Expect announcements of new schemes – and that is the right word – to supply “renewables” from vast projects at vast cost. Electricity at 4 or 6 times the current rate will be accepted as “a small price to pay”, but those who will have to pay will not be asked for their approval.
By the time that happens, any industry will be shut down or relocated elsewhere to countries that want employment and an improved economy. The higher cost will be born by retailers e.g. supermarkets, who will pass them on to the customers. Expect unemployment to climb further, while income and company taxes bring in less. Eventually the politicians will find that they have a choice of being hung from a lamppost or getting rid of a lot of public servants. Guess what they will choose. The Green Goose will be cooked.