Why can’t we be truthful about Renewable Energy?

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:12 pm by Administrator

I truly believe that we need to transition to a sustainable energy environment.  If you have read posts on the Black Swan Blog you know that.  And when I say “sustainable” I mean “sustainable for millennia” – an environment where all the inhabitants of planet earth have abundant and affordable energy for thousands of years.  That means, in essence, eliminating the consumption of non-renewable energy resources (which includes uranium in the long term so I only support nuclear fission power as a bridging technology – viable fusion would be a different story).

As a result I advocate for alternative energy solutions in whatever form they take.  But I avoid exaggerating the achievements of any renewable energy technology or project.  More importantly, I do not try and minimize the immense difficulties that have yet to be overcome in making the transition to a sustainable energy environment.  There is much work to do and some sacrifices to be made.  Any statements to the contrary are not helpful in my opinion.

So it irks me to no end to constantly see statements that are, to be charitable, misrepresentations of the facts.  I am convinced that these kinds of statements make politicians and decision-makers either complacent or encourage their support of ineffective policies.  This blog addresses some recent statements and why I believe they are so destructive.

Solar accounted for 32 percent of the nation’s new generating capacity in 2014, beating out both wind energy and coal for the second year in a row.

This statement is only true with regards to what is known as the “nameplate” capacity of a generation source – the theoretical maximum output that could be obtained from the source.  The actual output from a solar panel comes close to the “nameplate” capacity for only a few hours around noon each day in the summer.

A true measure of the contribution that a solar panel can make can be obtained by dividing the actual energy production of a solar panel by the theoretical maximum if it could generate electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  This is known as the capacity factor.

Statements regarding capacity factors, even from relatively reliable sources, are typically very optimistic and therefore misleading.

In the latest publication from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (“Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2016) the capacity factor for solar is listed as 25% on page 7.  That is a ludicrous number.  Although it might be achievable with utility-scale solar farms with dual-axis sun tracking located in the southern U.S. it does not represent the average attainable from most re-world installations.

I prefer to use actual production numbers when determining capacity factors.

In Germany, with 38 GW of solar capacity, the second largest in the world, the average capacity factor is about 11% (source: Fraunhofer – 33.3TW-Hours generated in 2014). In the winter it was more like 3%.   Applying those capacity factors to the U.S. it would probably be fair to say that it would take at least 8x as much solar “nameplate capacity” to match the equivalent nuclear or fossil fuel generation. On that basis a more reasonable statement would be that effective solar generation added in 2014 was 1/8 that of coal generation.

Why does it matter if the figures published for solar are misleading?  Because those deceptive numbers undermine the business cases for much more valuable renewable energy technologies such as geothermal and hydro-kinetics.

The Kauai Island Utility Co-operative commissioned one of the world’s largest utility-scale solar farms in 2015 – a 12 MW facility which cost $40 Million.  Therefore the installation cost for this landmark facility is $3.33/W (Nameplate capacity) which is in line with figures presented by NREL.

Recent communications with KIUC indicate that the Koloa solar farm has achieved an average capacity factor of 21% over the past two years. That makes the cost per effective Watt for this solar farm almost 5 times higher; more than $16/Watt.

The only number you will ever see quoted for a solar installation is something like $3-4/Watt.  The very poor capacity factor for solar is conveniently ignored.

Effective costs of greater than $16/Watt would make most geothermal and hydro-kinetics projects viable.   Those technologies are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with capacity factors typically greater than 80-90%.

But even comparing installation costs/Watt is optimistic with regards to the cost of solar.

Very little solar power is available after 6:00 pm which is a very high demand period of time in most locations.  As a result, it would not matter how much solar power was developed.  Without economical storage solutions there would still be no power available in the evening and overnight.  Should there not be some recognition of the cost to provide an alternative, backup source of power when solar is unavailable?  And given that the backup power source today would probably be fueled by natural gas, how does the development of solar power without storage move us to a truly sustainable energy environment?  What is the end-game?

Statements about wind generation are equally misleading.

The EIA report lists a capacity factor for onshore wind as 40%.  The average capacity factor of wind in Germany (with an installed nameplate capacity of greater than 35 GW) based upon actual production numbers, was 13.5% in 2014.   Installation of high capacity wind turbines is currently running around $2-3/Watt of nameplate capacity.  Taking into account the capacity factor the cost/effective Watt is once again north of $10.

In terms of having to provide a backup power source the situation with wind is even worse than with solar which is at least predictable.  Once wind becomes a major source of generation in any jurisdiction the problems begin in earnest.

In Denmark, with about 4.5 GW of nameplate wind capacity (as compared to peak demand requirements of just over 6 GW) when the winds are blowing strongly Danish wind generators are being paid not to generate.  In fact, most statements about the miracle of wind power in Denmark are exceptionally misleading and unhelpful.  Denmark continues to burn coal to generate electricity despite having more than 100% excess generation capacity.  Denmark wind generation is greater than 40% of the total electricity produced in Denmark but only a fraction of that wind generation is actually consumed in Denmark, the remainder being dumped onto Nordic and European grids which Denmark uses as a giant battery.  Some interesting observations on the Danish situation can be found in posts here at the Black Swan blog as well as at the Energy Matters blog.  The master of all wind data for Denmark and Germany is Paul-Frederik Bach.

The bottom line is that the true costs of wind and solar are minimized and obscured while the benefits are exaggerated.  A watt of solar energy generated at noon in Hawaii when that watt is not required is considered to be equal to a watt generated at a peak demand time in the evening from a reliable source such as hydro, nuclear, coal, or natural gas.  A watt generated by a wind turbine in the middle of the night is considered to be of equal value as well.   This is not reasonable and these attitudes represent a significant barrier to the development of energy storage solutions and reliable and renewable sources such as hydro-kinetics or geothermal.  Even as tens of $billions are poured into wind and solar subsidies each year more effective alternative energy sources get little or no support.

The impact is not hypothetical.  In California, which prides itself on being a leader in the “green energy” revolution, almost 2 GW of geothermal energy remains undeveloped under the Salton Sea because of regulatory and financing hurdles.  That is the equivalent of two large nuclear plants or at least 1,000 wind turbines (if you could get them to generate when electricity was needed).

In Northern California the Iowa Hill pumped storage facility with 3.2 GW-Hours of capacity is not being built because the local utility cannot justify the cost (which at about $440/KW-hour is lower than any other energy storage technology available).  That despite California’s mandated development of 1 GW of energy storage by local utilities. Why? Because that mandate specifically excluded pumped storage.

A 2015 research paper identifies the need for a diverse portfolio of renewable generation assets and confirms the need for baseload renewables such as geothermal and hydro-kinetics.

I am getting the distinct impression that the solar and wind industries in the U.S. are now such strong lobby groups that any message that might temper the enthusiasm for these technologies (and therefore might impact the profitability of these industries) is not being heard.  The predictable result, in my opinion, is that the technologies that need to get developed to transition to a sustainable energy environment are simply not being given the support they deserve.

All the hyperbole and disinformation about wind and solar makes me wish that George Washington was still President. He would have to tell the truth about the various forms of alternative energy and allocate resources accordingly.

A future blog will provide more details regarding the potential of geothermal and hydro-kinetics.  Some other initiatives are outlined in my Sustainable Energy Manifesto.

Update: The other type of dishonest statement which frequently appears is the claim that this company or that facility is 100% powered by wind and/or solar. This is also nonsense and makes it seem that it is possible to depend upon intermittent renewables for power generation. It is not possible. For a more detailed analysis read this article that picks apart a phoney claim made by Amazon. There are plenty of others.