“Sustainable energy” just isn’t …. well, sustainable


April 25th: At the Vaasa event with Romana Jordan MEP (Slovenia). Very sound on nuclear

I’ve just returned from a flying visit to Vaasa, Finland, with the European Energy Forum.  The delegation was led by Slovenian MEP Romana Jordan.  Vaasa boasts an “energy cluster” of cutting-edge companies in the energy field, and we spent a very solid day with Wärtsilä, a global Finnish company developing and making very large internal combustion engines.  These have been widely used in shipbuilding, where the company has a substantial market share, and has production and assembly operations around the world, including key ship-building nations like China and Korea.

But increasingly, engines of this type are also used for power generation, especially as back-up for wind.  I’d always assumed that conventional gas-fired generation was the natural back-up for wind, but it seems that these machines are also ideal for the purpose.  They can run on heavy or light fuel oil, or natural gas (think shale gas), and on bio-fuels and some oil wastes.  They ramp up rapidly as the wind drops, and can switch instantly — literally instantly, we saw it done — from gas to diesel.

Wärtsilä has made a rational commercial decision to market these machines as back-up for wind, given the commitment of European governments to renewables.  But the message I took away was that wind, as a significant contributor to power generation, absolutely requires back-up.  Otherwise, when the wind drops, the lights go out.  We were shown a series of graphs clearly demonstrating the need for additional conventional back-up capacity in the mix, given the typical pattern of wind speeds.  (We also saw a graph that destroyed the myth of the Greens, that intermittency can be solved with a European super-grid because “over such a big area, the wind is always blowing somewhere”.  No it isn’t.  We saw a graph of aggregate wind output over a month in Spain plus Denmark plus Germany, which showed massive variation day-by-day and hour-by-hour, absolutely requiring back-up).

We are hearing in the media that the cost of wind-generated electricity is coming down, and may reach parity with coal and nuclear (although not gas).  David Cameron, speaking on April 26th, reaffirmed his faith in renewables and called for prices to come down.  “I really believe that renewables can be among our cheapest energy sources in years, not decades”, he said. I mean no disrespect to our Prime Minister, but the level of ignorance and complacency shown by his remarks is truly frightening.

Let’s get back to reality.  If you want wind to deliver, say, a megawatt, you need four megawatts of installed capacity (because the load factor is likely to be around 25%).  But you also need to build a megawatt of conventional back-up, either Wärtsilä’s internal combustion engines, or conventional gas.  You’ve paid the capital cost twice, for the same generating capacity.

But it gets worse.  Whichever back-up you use, it will run much less efficiently when it’s substituting variable wind, than if it ran continuously.  So its output will cost more, and create higher emissionsA couple of recent reports indicated that the emissions saving of wind plus back-up might be trivial or zero.  We’re spending double the money, yet saving little or no CO2.  A Wärtsilä presenter put it well, and I wrote down his phrase: because the back-up would be run occasionally, not continuously, its output in relation to capital investment was “not investment feasible”.  In other words, you’ve got to pay way over the odds on the output of the back-up, because you’re not just buying electricity — you’re buying insurance against the wind dropping.  You’re paying a huge premium for continuity, to prevent black-outs.

Let me offer you an heretical idea: why not just build the back-up, and forget the wind?

Neither government planners nor those who calculate the relative costs of wind and other generating technologies seem to have got a grip on the back-up issue.  Estimates of the cost of wind generation make no allowance for double capital requirements, nor for the enhanced costs of intermittent running.  And our government, while planning that 30% of our generation by 2020 should come from wind, to meet the EU’s risible emissions targets, seems unaware of the back-up issue.

The best answer you get is that “We have lots of gas, so we can use that for balancing the grid”.  But with nuclear power stations phased out with age, and coal-fired power stations being banned by EU regulations, we’ll need all the gas we have just for base-load.  We’ll need 30% extra capacity for back-up, otherwise the lights will go out, and we’re not building it.  This is a disaster in the making.

The huge costs of capital, and excess production costs from conventional back-up run intermittently, will eventually be passed on to business and domestic consumers.  Meantime China and India build cheap coal-fired power stations (no EU regulations there), and America is enjoying a shale-gas bonanza.  Energy intensive industries will simply move out of Britain, and out of the EU, to lower-cost areas.  Renewables will ensure that the UK economy is no longer economically sustainable.  Sustainable energy is not sustainable in economic terms.

Coalition energy policy is a double-whammy.  It will destroy the competitiveness of the British economy, while ensuring that black-outs become commonplace by the end of the decade.  That’s what the Greens call “Sustainability”.

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22 Responses to “Sustainable energy” just isn’t …. well, sustainable

  1. John Russell says:

    I agree that renewables need back-up. But you’ve based your arguments just on the capital costs, Roger, and failed to account for the fact the ‘fuel’ for renewables is free. When we turn it round and see that renewables mean that we don’t need to run our fossil-fuelled generators all the time, then the sums add up — especially as ‘renewables’ means more than just wind (as you imply). Also with commitment and a push on R&D we’ll develop technologies to store electricity which will make them even more cost effective. There’s a real opportunity for business development and growth here which you’re turning your back on.

    As to why; take a look at what the International Energy Agency said a couple of days ago: http://www.iea.org/press/pressdetail.asp?PRESS_REL_ID=436

    • rfhmep says:

      With respect, John, no. You’ve fallen into the “Wind Is Free” fallacy. The question is the cost per unit of electricity over the lifetime of the infrastructure, taking into account both capital and running costs (and maintenance, back-up if needed etc). Wind energy is very expensive, even if you don’t pay for the wind as such. This argument applies to most renewables. I have nothing against renewables in principle — just the overall costs. Hydro, generally, is the only significant renewable that makes economic sense. As for “technologies to store electricity” — let’s build the renewables when those technologies become available. At the moment they’re little more than wishful thinking.

    • neilfutureboy says:

      “with commitment and a push on R&D we’ll develop technologies to store electricity which will make them even more cost effective.”

      I presume John that you don’t actually have any idea how to do that – otherwise you would know more than all the world’s engineers. This is typical of the “greens” and is a step beyond “If only I had lots of money, I’d be rich” since you are requiring 2 if only’s – both that we would have cheap renewable energy if there was a way to make cheap renewable energy and that we could store it if only there was a way to store it.

      Typical of the genre.

  2. Mike Spilligan says:

    The Wartsila i/c engines sound very interesting; typical of Finnish independent thinking I would say, and something we are most unlikely to hear or read about with our censored, one-track BBC and increasingly income-poor press. Please keep plugging away at “green” issues, Mr H, and at some stage someone is going to realise that the direction we’re heading in is just not affordable. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature but it seems as though we are deliberately corrupting our energy security strategies – assuming we have any.

  3. Simon CS says:

    Ah, but the wind can be used when it’s available, reducing the use of the conventional generators – well, that’s how the wind’ies spin it. Piffle!!

    Would it be possible to get and publish the graphs you mention? It would help demonstrate to those who refuse to accept anyone’s word on this that these are indeed the FACTs.

  4. Kevin says:

    Ten years is far to short a time to fix this, even if there was the political will. Expect those with money and/or talent to leave within that time frame. Even places like the Philippines are beginning to look attractive.

  5. Roberto says:

    There seems a bit of a myth about this so called super grid which will solve the intermittency of renewable s . Nobody could have a reliable power supply of 100% renewable s. Renewables need backup therefore they can only be part of a countries power supply, therefore it is unlikely that any country has power spare if it has renewables as part of their mix, it can only have spare from conventional sources such as gas coal or nuclear,Its illogical.
    As for the other myth of supplying Europe from African solar power then we really would be asking for trouble . As for storage systems liked pumping water when we have wind power spare, well we never do have spare wind power, we often have to pay for unwanted wind power because the grid is already set up with enough conventional power and cannot afford to turn on and of at a moments notice .Of course the wind industry likes to say it has to stop its turbines otherwise it will overload the grid but that’s absolute tosh , its a scheduling issue not a power issue.

  6. neilfutureboy says:

    Cheap Energy + Economic freedom = Economic Growth

    I have yet to see any politician willing to dispute that, they simply avoid the subject. This used to be acknowledged- indeed in the 1960s it was the basis of the government programme to change over to North Sea gas – that this would improve GDP by 20%. However if they know it then every politician who supports windmillery is knowingly promoting recession.

    We would be out of recession within days if the LadConDems wanted it.

    It is also obvious that anybody who says (A) windmills are cheaper & (B) they need massive subsidy, is personally wholly and completely corrupt, with all due respect to Cameron.

  7. Roger.
    Once again you have highlighted the nonsense (‘double costs’, intermittency, incomplete footprint data etc., etc.) that surrounds wind generation. The promotion of an energy ‘policy’ that is at best doubtful and at worst driven by salesmen from lobbying companies that are eager to grab the subsidies is a graphic example of Government ignoring the science and engineering. It was a Chief Government Scientist who stated eight years ago that windmills produce “piffling amounts” of energy – but very oddly that was ignored …
    Also ignored has been the dangerous pollution resulting from turbine fires that are totally out of reach as regards firefighters. Left to burn themselves out and releasing vast black clouds containing carcinogenic and mutagenic particles attached to the tiny fibres released from burning composite materials. Not to mention the deadly dioxins (from burning PVC insulation and other materials) released downwind onto land grazed by animals intended for the human food chain.
    Despite very worrying data being freely available from America, this issue has NOT been tackled by the Health & Safety Executive in the UK. Again DESPITE turbines having been installed in the UK for some 19 or 20 years.
    Local Authorities have ASSUMED (in complete ignorance as it turns out) that HSE were on top of this.
    Industrial-scale numbers of planned windmills has included applications to site them in forests. In view of the total inability to extinguish turbine fires, the total absence of fire hydrants in most forests …, the terrain making water bowsers of negligible use in a spreading wind-driven forest fire ….. you have to ask just what sort of ‘policy’ and risk assessment is involved ?

  8. The real reason that nobody that is politically involved with”Green Energy”: will tell the truth that “renewable energy” is wrong on all counts is that the U.N.’s drive to implement Agenda 21 at the Rio+20 Summit this June is based on “Sustainable Development Goals” that have their basis in a “Green Economy”! Simple. Don’t go “off message” or the whole Agenda 21 Scam will come tumbling down!

  9. The Sun is also “free” in the green meanie lexacon. But photovoltaics is a one-time, direct current, molecular erosion PARLOR TRICK. You must use fossil fuel to mine, ship and refine hundreds of tons of raw material, Silicon, Boron and Phosporus to produce one ton of solar cells. You then get a few measily watts per sq foot output at 1.5 volts, for a few hours per day, for at MOST twenty years. This is desecribed in “Green Prince of Darkness”. Peak oil is a companion monopolist lie, as Hydrocarbons are a natural by-product of Earth’s variable fission process. The process of this Abiogenic Oil production is described in “Fossil Fuel is Nuclear Waste”. A good summary of these and other government funded Faux Science is in the article “Becoming a TOTAL Earth Science Skeptic”. It is time for a new Universal Magna Carta.

  10. jrwakefield says:

    If you like those graphs, you will love this: http://ontariowindperformance.wordpress.com. In the summer wind in Ontario produces less than 7% capacity. 30% of the time nothing.

  11. Pingback: Weekly Weather and Climate News Roundup | Watts Up With That?

  12. Pingback: Roger, Wilco, Over And OUT « Greenhouse Bullcrap

  13. georgyporgie says:

    Well done for an excellent observation and articulation.
    I was head of technical development and economics for frequency control and reserve services for the UK with National Grid from !989 to 2001 at the very centre of the balancing services market for the UK’s privitisation and then the revised NETA programme (new electricity trading arrangements UK). What are my observations, your findings with Wartsila, who I frequently receive their excellent development information from, are very true and sound.
    However, the level of carbon footprint wastages from the result of more and more deployment of wind-turbines is grossly underestimated and as the proportions of wind turbines grow the situation gets worse because the more you have, the more back-up reserves and regulating reserves you need. As you quite rightly state: the capacity cost factor for generation development has to at least double with the deployment of wind-turbines. Additionally, more and more transmission infrastructure has to be built which in itself costs us very dearly not only in real cash terms but also in carbon footprint terms. Then there are increased transmission losses for the transmission of power from the very remote connections of many wind-farms.
    Alex Salmond has this dream of Scotland becoming a major exporter of renewable energy form Scotland to England and also to Europe to earn revenue for Scotland. This would be sheer madness for England and Wales to subsidise renewables in Scotland for them to export the power back to England. The power transmission from Scotland to England, in particular from the very remote parts, would result in at least 15% transmission losses from an all ready inefficient wind energy source which at best only delivers 30% capacity to energy results. Alex Salmond even speculated developing pumped storage in Norway with a submarine cable linking Norway to Scotland for balancing the intermittancies of wind power, What absolute nonsense, the power exchanges from pumping to generation and then double transmissions from Scotland to Norway and back would result in a turnaround loss of efficiency of 50% making an all ready inefficient generation service lose a further 50%. A fully universal international power grid is absolute nonsense and no cost-benefit, if honestly appraised, would show that such a pipe-dream would be viable.
    Most politicians are talking absolute nonsense about the practicality of wind-turbine developments delivering a higher and higher proportion of our energy needs. It is as you say very, very costly and will make our UK manufacturing industries less and less competitive compared to China and India.
    All subsidies to wind turbines both on-shore and offshore should be stopped immediately!!!
    I offered DECC and the UK Government to set up an unbiased research team to get to the bottom of the total carbon emissions outcomes from the various generation options that would result in running a UK power system and the replies that I received were: from DECC that I had a biased opinion against wind-turbines, from Chris Huhne absolutely nothing and from Charles Hendry that every MW generated from wind-turbines was a MW reduction in carbon emissions from conventional generation sources. Jeremy Wright, my local MP just simply channelled the correspondence through his offices. I regarded these replies as an insult to my integrity and professionalism.

  14. Don’t confuse Green Sustainability with economic viability.

    The Greens are about taxing us back to the Stoneage, where subsistence is the only form of living we can aspire to.

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