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Author Norman Rogers: The Problem With Wind, Solar Power

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(Marian Mocanu/Dreamstime)

By    |   Tuesday, 12 March 2019 01:11 PM

Everyone needs access to reliable and affordable energy. This is especially important for struggling individuals and families. If we go overboard on green energy there is a great danger that the cost of electricity will skyrocket. Germany has gone overboard, and German electricity, even with government subsidies, costs three times as much as in the U.S.

Wind and solar energy are erratic energy sources and that’s a problem. Sometimes the wind blows and sometimes the sun shines. When the wind stops, or the sun sets, a conventional backup plant has to take over.

About one percent (1%) of our electricity comes from solar, compared to six percent (6%) from wind. More wind and solar is coming on line.

Neither wind, nor solar, is close to competitive with conventional power. Their competitiveness comes from the fact that they are 70% subsidized.

There is a slow decline in costs, but not enough to be important.

The green energy industry often claims that it is close to grid parity, meaning that unsubsidized wind or solar is cost competitive with conventional generation. These claims ignore the backup plants and usually gloss over some of less-known subsidies. If the cost of wind or solar could be reduced by a factor of three, grid parity would be approached. This is not remotely possible unless there is some amazing technological revolution that no one can imagine now.

The renewable energy industry has a financial stake in convincing us that a bright future is just around the corner as long as we keep subsidizing their industry by 70%. The environmental non-profits that promote green energy pursue idealistic schemes that lack real-world practicality.

The graph below illustrates the real-world erratic nature of wind power. The Texas wind system is huge, with thousands of turbines. The backup plants have to throttle up and throttle down rapidly to counter the rapid variability of wind generation.

Solar power has problems that are worse than for wind. Solar dies as the sun sets in the early evening. Unfortunately, this is often when demand for electricity peaks. In California they are running into a problem of too much solar at midday in the spring, before heavy air conditioning loads kick in. As a consequence, they have to curtail the solar, wasting electricity that is lost forever.

Residential rooftop solar is extremely wasteful and heavily subsidized. The small and expensive installations are accompanied by a full-service connection to the electric utility. The utility must provide full service with backup power instantaneously available. But the utility is deprived of its normal revenue. As a consequence, the other utility customers end up paying more. Even worse, in some jurisdictions a scheme called net metering allows the homeowner to “store” excess electricity fed back into the grid and then recover that electricity later at no cost. But there is no storage. The utility is really buying the excess electricity at retail, rather than wholesale rates. The homeowner may profit from rooftop solar due to the various subsidies and regulations. The homeowner’s solar hobby is supported by everyone else.

Storage of Electricity?

The industry often touts storage of electricity as a future solution to the erratic nature of wind and solar. Most commonly it is suggested that the cost of batteries is declining and that batteries could be used to smooth out the erratic nature of wind or solar. Batteries are only good at utility scale for storing electricity for 10 minutes, or perhaps a few hours. Batteries to smooth the output of the Texas wind system would increase the overall cost of the system by more than 10 times. It is vastly cheaper to use backup fossil fuel plants.

Using wind or solar to reduce CO2 emissions?

It is true that wind and solar do not generate CO2 emissions. On the other hand, burning natural gas in a backup plant does create CO2 emissions. In order to evaluate the cost of using wind or solar to reduce CO2 emissions we must compare the costs of various methods of reducing CO2 emissions.

There is a business that creates and trades carbon offsets. A carbon offset is a reduction of CO2 emissions by one metric ton. Carbon offsets are generated in various ways. For example, planting trees that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Carbon offsets, in the marketplace, cost approximately $10 per metric ton. Generating a kilowatt hour of electricity in a natural gas backup generating plant generates approximately 0.8 pounds of CO2. So, generating a kilowatt hour by wind or solar, reduces generation in the backup plant by one kilowatt hour and reduces CO2 emissions by 0.8 pounds. However, to generate a kilowatt hour of electricity by wind or solar requires a subsidy of about five cents per kilowatt hour. For five cents CO2 emissions are reduced by 0.8 pounds. The cost of reducing CO2 by a metric ton (2205 lbs.) is approximately $140. In other words, it costs 14 times as much to use wind or solar energy to reduce CO2 emissions compared to the methods used by vendors in the carbon offset market.

The limit on the use of wind and solar

As a practical matter it is difficult to supply more than half of the electricity with wind and solar. Overprovisioning the wind and solar will result in curtailing the green electricity when generation is strong. Curtailment causes electricity that could have been generated to be lost forever. That raises the cost of the green electricity. One hundred percent renewable electricity is impractical using wind or solar. Those towns and companies that claim to be 100% renewable are allocating the renewable power to themselves via a paper transaction. They actually use whatever comes out of the grid

The Road Ahead

Wind and solar are not cost effective, not for generating electricity and not for reducing CO2 emissions. Green electricity is propped up by subsidies and there is no possibility that the economics will change such that wind and solar can be competitive without subsidies.

That raises the question why are we subsidizing these methods of generating electricity? It would make sense to cut off the subsidizes and redirect that money to other, more useful goals.

Norman Rogers is the author of the book "Dumb Energy." 

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Wind and solar are not cost effective, not for generating electricity and not for reducing CO2 emissions. Green electricity is propped up by subsidies and there is no possibility that the economics will change such that wind and solar can be competitive without subsidies.
author, norman rogers, problem, wind, solar, power
Tuesday, 12 March 2019 01:11 PM
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