The road to a sustainable energy environment in Canada will require complex and politically untenable policy changes and will take decades to implement – right?
Maybe not! Here are four government policies that can be implemented in short order that would begin a radical de-carbonization of the Canadian economy. And none of them involve a carbon tax or huge government investments.
Policy: Update building codes to require that all new commercial/industrial buildings and all new residential housing developments implement geoexchange. Provide low-interest loans for retrofitting existing buildings with this technology.
Impact: All impacted buildings would use approximately 50% as much electricity as compared to traditional HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning) systems.
Cost: Essentially no cost. The increased up-front cost to developers would be repaid through lower utility bills over the life of the building.
Policy: Impose a fee for single-occupancy vehicles entering the downtown cores of major Canadian cities (similar to the London, England congestion fee). At the same time create a government vetted registry for car-pooling and expand funding for public transit.
Impact: Substantial reduction in congestion and commute times recovering lost productivity as well as resulting in lower taxi fares and reduced pollution and related health issues.
Cost: The initial cost of setting up the system will be recovered within a few years of operation and will then generate revenues going forward based upon the London experience.
Policy: Establish a Federally funded “regional grid balancing” initiative that will coordinate large-scale hydro developments with expansion of wind generation. For example, Site “C” in BC as well as potential hydro projects in Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba could provide balancing services for vastly expanded wind development in the prairies. Implement “Unpumped Storage” to increase the ability of the hydro projects to support wind.
Impact: Expanded wind generation with reliable hydro backup will result in the reduction and eventual elimination of coal-fired generation in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Cost: These projects can be self-financing through a combination of modest electricity rate increases and direct Federal and Provincial support through long-term, low interest loans for construction of the projects.
Policy: Provide support for the development of energy storage solutions through the elimination of grid transit fees for electricity going into storage and by providing a feed-in-tarrif for electricity retrieved from storage.
Impact: This policy will attract private capital to large-scale storage projects by supporting viable business cases. Utility-scale storage would support further expansion of wind energy which will be the primary source of energy in a de-carbonized Canadian economy. Canada will become a world leader in the development of energy storage technologies.
Cost: Minimal cost. The introduction of higher cost (because of the FIT) energy from storage will be offset by the declining wholesale cost of electricity that is associated with introducing large amounts of wind generation.
Hawaiian Transformation to Renewable Energy Sources
Hawaii Renewables facing Cross-currents and Headwinds
Hawaii represents perhaps the most important case study when it comes to integrating solar energy into the generation fleet. My first post on the topic reviewed significant obstacles and unrealistic plans for this transformation. I make some recommendations regarding the expansion of geothermal on the Big Island as well as the establishment of CSP plants.
Hawaiian Electric Company’s Integrated Resource Plan – Welcome to Fantasy Island!
The second in the series was a fairly harsh criticism of the Integrated Resource Plan put forward by the Hawaiian Electric company in June, 2013. This plan has subsequently been abandoned and NextEra proposed purchasing HEI. That deal fell apart in 2016 and so HEI is essentially back to square one.
There is a movement in Hawaii to convert the different operating units of HEI into a community owned co-operative.
Renewable Energy Highlights for the 2nd half of 2014 – Few and Far Between
This post discusses an evaluation of the effectiveness of wind generation in Texas in terms of how much generation can be relied upon in Winter and Summer for onshore and offshore wind farms.
The second part of the post discusses the rapidly declining permits to install roof-top solar in Hawaii and the success of the Kauai Island Utility Co-operative’s utility solar farm developments.
The German Energy Transformation
Germany At The Crossroads
This 2013 post discusses some of the challenges being faced by Germany as it builds out its renewable energy portfolio. In particular, the commitment to decommission the remaining nuclear power stations in the country, that currently represent about 15% of the electricity generation in the country, will make it very difficult for Germany to meet its long-term obligations to reduce CO2 emissions.
The German Energiewende – Modern Miracle or Major Misstep
This 2015 post discusses the considerable achievements of the German Energiewende but also identifies the problems with the way renewable energy has been developed in Germany. It points out that Germany is burning more hydro-carbons today to generate electricity than it was 25 years ago and that coal consumption has declined very marginally. It concludes by examining the financial health of utilities in Germany and predicts that further development of renewable energy in Germany will be constrained by grid security and economic issues.
The Problems With Roof-Top Solar Panels
Roof-top Solar Panels – Who Pays? Who Saves?
This post documents the financial inequities associated with tax-payer and/or rate-payer subsidization of roof-top solar. This inequity results from the significant capital expense required to install the solar panels and the fact that renters and those living in multi-family apartments cannot benefit from such subsidies.
No “Soft Landing” for PV solar industry
This post argues that the economics of roof-top solar panels ultimately do not work. Solar generation curves are compared to typical load curves resulting in the conclusion that as more and more solar power is developed the value of roof-top solar panel output decreases. The post predicts a rapid decline in the installation of roof-top solar panels once solar generation becomes a significant fraction of mid-day demand. This decline is already evident in Hawaii and Germany.
Why roof-top solar panels really don’t make sense
This post describes more problems with roof-top solar and compares roof-top solar to utility-scale solar farms. A link to a comprehensive study by the Brattle Group is provided.
Dark Days Ahead for Roof-top Solar
This post describes how the pace of photo-voltaic roof-top solar panel deployment has slowed dramatically in jurisdictions that were former leaders with this technology, Germany and Hawaii. The conclusion of the post is that as roof-top solar power generation becomes a significant fraction of total generation it becomes more and more to accommodate additional deployments. The last section of the post discusses the successful efforts of the Kauai Island Utility Co-op in developing utility-scale solar farms.
Concentrated Solar Power
We should use Concentrated Solar Power ONLY after sunset
This post discusses how utility-scale photo-voltaic solar farms could be combined with a Concentrated Solar Power facility in order to provide 24×365 electricity generation only from solar power.
Solar Power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – Believe It Or Not
This post discusses the Gemasolar power plant in Spain that utilizes molten salt thermal energy storage to generate electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year powered only by solar energy.
Arnold Goldman – A living, breathing “Black Swan”
This post presents a short biography of Arnold Goldman, one of the pioneers of the Concentrated Solar Power industry. From his development of the first utility-scale plants in the 1980’s to his recent involvement with Brightsource Energy, Arnold has demonstrated a commitment to innovation while always addressing practical considerations.
Unconventional Solar Generation and Applications
Non-Thermal Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)
This post discusses some unconventional technologies used to capture solar energy. Two companies (Stirling Energy Systems and Infinia) developed and deployed technology using parabolic disks to concentrate solar energy onto a Stirling Engine which then generated electricity. Both companies have subsequently gone bankrupt.
Another company, based in Australia, developed a highly efficient solar power receptor which also used parabolic disks to concentrate solar energy. It ceased operations in July, 2015.
The take-away from this post is that true innovation is both difficult and risky. While billions of dollars are spent on subsidizing wind turbines and photo-voltaic solar panels very little Research and Development funding is available for other innovations in alternative energy.
Solar Updraft – Inefficient but Effective
This post discusses a technology that makes use of temperature differences caused by solar heating to generate electricity 24 hours a day. A pilot project ran successfully in Spain in the 1980’s and there are proposals for much larger implementations. As with all new technologies there is significant “first mover” inertia as well as economic and technical challenges that need to be overcome in order to achieve commercialization of this technology.
Solar Power – From Rooftops to the Oceans and the Sky
This post briefly mentions some developments with Concentrated Solar Power. The bulk of the discussion focuses on very unconventional applications for solar panels including powering large sea-going vessels and aircraft.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth about Batteries
This post discusses several of the largest utility-scale battery deployments that have taken place around the world in the last ten years. The failure of any of these projects to replace non-renewable generation assets is documented. The post concludes by identifying some of the very significant financial and technical challenges that need to be overcome in order for battery technology to be a significant factor back-stopping renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
How Much Battery Storage is Enough for Roof-Top Solar Panels?
This post describes some of the complications associated with calculating the amount of solar insolation that will be received at any point on earth on a particular day. It also describes how a smart micro-grid could control the ebb and flow of electricity between a set of rooftop solar panels, a battery array, and the local utility grid. I provide a link to a calculator that I built that can be used to determine the amount of battery storage required to reduce or eliminate the need to connect to the grid.
The Transition to Electric Cars
Electric Vehicles – The Promise and the Problems
This post from 2012 discusses the rationale behind a transition from cars powered by internal combustion engines to electric cars. It also identifies the environmental issue posed by potentially millions of very large batteries that no longer charge well enough to be used to power those cars. A research project by the University of Western Michigan that proposes using those batteries for utility-scale storage is described.
How Quickly will the Electric Vehicle Revolution Come?
This post from 2014 discusses the lack of progress in the transition to electric cars and some of the difficulties that continue to prevent the widespread adoption of this technology. The experiences of two individual electric car owners (a Tesla owner in Vancouver, Canada and a Nissan Leaf owner in Anaheim, California) are described.
Demand Response and Conservation
Can we control our addiction to electricity? Should we?
This post discusses the strategy referred to as “Demand Response” which involves having businesses and residential energy users voluntarily reduce their requirements for energy at times of high demand. Some early programs have not lived up to expectations but there is clearly a huge upside to successful implementations of this type of program.
Your Speed – 32 mph – Slow Down
This post discusses the importance of consumer awareness when it comes to energy use. The example sited is regarding flashing traffic speed lights which have been shown to change driver behaviour in a positive way that actually becomes increasingly effective with the passage of time. A similar approach has been used with regards to energy use and conservation in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Creating a True Partnership between Consumers and Utility Companies
This is another post discussing the potential effectiveness of Demand Response programs. A J.D. Powers study of consumer behaviour is sited and the success of the program instituted by Oklahoma Gas & Electric is described in detail.
Harvesting the Energy Stored in the Ground Below Us
This post discusses the huge advantages to implementing geoexchange for heating and cooling buildings. An explanation of how such systems work is provided as well as examples of successful implementations.
The Sharing Economy (4 posts)
Imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can?
This post discusses the growing phenomenon of the “sharing economy” and what a positive impact it will ultimately have on energy consumption in modern society.
Bike Share/Rent in Northern Europe – a sampler
This post describes my experiences with bike sharing in a number of Northern European countries. I identify some issues with the various programs but overall I endorse the concept very enthusiastically.
Car Pooling Part I: Treading Water
This post discusses the state of car-pooling in North America. This very effective way to reduce traffic congestion, pollution and energy consumption has not been widely adopted and adoption rates have been essentially static for many years. The post describes some of the psychological and technical challenges that need to be overcome.
Car Pooling Part II: Going for Gold
In this second post in the series a number of suggestions are put forward that might significantly reduce single-occupancy vehicles in urban areas.
Why Energy Storage Should be the #1 Priority (2 posts)
It’s time to do the right things “not because they are easy but because they are hard”
This post discusses two difficult engineering projects – lunar landings during the Apollo Program and the building of the transcontinental railway in Canada. In both cases the most difficult challenges were the first ones to be worked on. These are valuable lessons that need to be applied to the development of renewable energy resources.
“Start off the development with the most difficult elements of the design” – Elon Musk
On September 29, 2016 Elon Musk made a presentation on his proposal to colonize Mars. While the concept is definitely “out there” the attention to detail in terms of addressing engineering challenges is admirable. And as with the other projects I have blogged about SpaceX is tackling the most difficult engineering challenges first.
Energy Storage Projects and Proposals (5 posts)
Funicular Power – Newton’s Apple to the rescue
This post discusses an approach to energy storage that involves lifting a large weight (railway cars filled with ballast) using excess energy from wind in most cases at night and releasing that energy the next day. A link is provided to a company attempting to commercialize this technology.
Hydraulic Energy Storage – Another Way to Use Gravity
This post discusses a method of storing energy using a large gravity piston which moves up and down inside a reservoir. A link is provided to a company attempting to commercialize a variation of this technology.
Compressed Hydrogen – A Viable Solution for Long-term Energy Storage
This post discusses a number of projects that aim to use compressed hydrogen as a long term energy storage mechanism. Although compressed hydrogen represents one of the only viable methods to achieve long-term energy storage commercialization of the technology faces numerous economic and technical challenges.
This post discusses a proposal to build additional capacity into existing hydro-electric facilities in order to provide short duration generation in excess of what the reservoir can deliver over the long term. This approach would be used to counter-balance variations in wind generation.
The Panama Canal, Apollo 11, ISS … Energy Storage
This blog post suggests that a coordinated and well-funded international effort will be required in order to develop economical and reliable energy storage solutions at the scale required to support the transition to a sustainable energy environment.
Wind Energy Headlines Need Scrutiny
This post discusses some of the very common misrepresentations promoted by Greentech writers about wind energy. The point of the post is that by exaggerating the value and achievements of wind energy and minimizing the significant technical problems yet to be overcome these statements lead to complacence and undermine efforts to obtain appropriate levels of Research and Development and financial support.
Alberta – A Case Study in Wind Energy Management
This post discusses some of the challenges being faced by Alberta, Canada as it integrates wind energy generation into the provincial grid.
The Wind Production Tax Credit should not be renewed
This October, 2013 post argued that the PTC had reached the end of its useful life and that the funds allocated to the PTC should be redirected towards energy storage research and financial support mechanisms for energy storage projects. In December, 2015 the U.S. Congress approved an extension of the PTC until 2020 at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to American taxpayers. No additional funding has been provided for energy storage projects.
The California Electrodox
In this post I discuss the Electricity Paradox that is happening in California (and elsewhere). The paradox is that electricity imports and retail prices increase at the same time as total generation capacity is also going up so that there is an over-abundance of available electricity most of the time. A surplus of any commodity normally drives prices down but not in the case of the Electrodox.
Hydro-kinetics and Dam Conversions
An Ancient Energy Source Re-Imagined
This post discusses the potential of river flows to generate electricity. Subsequent to publishing that post I researched the topic thoroughly and found that there have been more than half a dozen successful pilot projects demonstrating the viability of this technology. Unfortunately, there has yet to be a successful commercialization of hydro-kinetics and several very promising companies have gone bankrupt.
Dam Conversion and Hydro-Kinetics – 25 GW of potential to be tapped
This post describes the very significant potential of hydro-kinetics in North America as well as a number of promising pilot projects that have demonstrated that this renewable and reliable technology can play a significant role in our transition to a sustainable energy environment.
Editorials (7 posts)
Introducing the Black Swan blog
This post from September, 2012 explains why I decided to start the Black Swan Blog. Although it has not garnered even a tiny fraction of the interest shown in the latest Hollywood wardrobe malfunction it has been read by tens of thousands of people. From the feedback I have had from readers all over the world I feel it has made a useful contribution to the conversation about renewable energy.
A Sustainable Energy Manifesto
This post summarizes what I believe would be the most effective policies to achieve a sustainable energy environment.
Imagine a World of Abundant Inexpensive Energy
This post discusses the very positive consequences of attaining a sustainable energy environment. This includes shifting a significant amount of agricultural production to greenhouses in Northern areas and providing plentiful fresh water through water desalination.
COP21 – Turning Good Intentions into Concrete Actions
This post discusses the measures that need to be put in place to meet the commitments made by world leaders as part of the COP21 agreements made in Paris in November, 2015.
Lights Out: The coming crisis in electricity generation
This blog highlights some structural issues in the electricity generation industry that are being introduced by the integration of renewables. Ignoring these issues may put the stability of the electrical grid at risk.
The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be
This blog post builds upon some observations by keynote speakers at a technology conference held in May, 2014. They described a shift in the way people gather information as well as which sources of information are trusted by the public. They also pointed out the desirability, perhaps even the responsibility of people like myself that distribute information on the Internet to be thoughtful, respectful, and as accurate as possible. They also suggested that some level of “digital curation” should be practiced by authors in order to help readers find information quickly. That blog post provided the motivation for me to (eventually) create this page of abstracts.
BC’s Electricity Conundrum – Politics, Profits, and Potential Partnerships
This post discusses the confusing state of electricity supply and demand in British Columbia. The complexities arise from the fact that BC is entitled to electricity actually produced in the U.S. under the Columbia River Treaty, as well as the significant amounts of private power generation that exists in the province with Fortis BC, Alcan, and PPP’s. Questionable forecasts of demand growth and the existence of the Burrard Generating station as a peak demand supply make it very difficult to definitively state that BC needs the Site C dam. However, using Site C as backup for Alberta wind generation might make sense.
Green Energy, Schmeen Energy – Nobody Cares!
This rather facetious post that suggests that although the majority of the inhabitants of Spaceship earth have a vague desire to treat the planet better there are many other interests and issues that bubble up to be attention grabbers – some trivial, some serious. The post discusses a psychological study that investigated communications and actions taken during “Demand Response” events and the conclusions are encouraging.
Reflections on one year of blogging
Written in 2013, these were my observations after my first year of blogging.
Just For Fun
Scary Energy Scenarios (Hallowe’en 2012)
In the spirit of trying to scare the dickens out of readers this post identifies 3 hypothetical disasters related to energy development. Thankfully none have come to pass.
Hallowe’en 2013: Nightmare on Main Street
OK – so this was supposed to be scary but in hindsight is a bit comical. The post speculates about the possibility of skyrocketing oil prices and the geopolitical ramifications. Of course, just the opposite has happened and the collapse of oil prices has had different global implications. I must say that I still think we have passed “peak oil” at least in an economic sense and a future oil price crisis may still be on the horizon.
The Fright Before Christmas
This has been consistently one of my most popular blog postings. It describes a scenario where there is a dead calm across much of North America on Christmas eve.
Doing the “Green” thing on 2 wheels for the environment and for charity
This post describes my personal experiences with an electric bicycle. It has allowed me to commute more using both it and my road bicycle.
Until September 29, 2016 I was not a big fan of Elon Musk. Not that I had anything against him. But I put him in the same camp as Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg – guys that had made a fortune in tech and were doing some interesting things with electric cars, self-driving cars, and delivering internet service to rural and remote areas.
But when I listened to Elon’s talk on the colonization of Mars my perspective changed (I have put together a transcript of the presentation with his slides embedded and extra graphics and uploaded it to the Black Swan Blog Library).
Not that I think colonization of Mars is the most important goal for the human race at this time. As a Geophysicist I acknowledge the possibility that there could be a large asteroid or comet heading for earth right now and that there is nothing that we could do to stop it and avoid a possible extinction event. So from that perspective becoming a multi-planet species makes sense. However, I think that possibility is quite remote and I feel that there are big problems to solve here on earth before we start exporting our issues to other planets.
So the end goal of Elon’s talk is not what impressed me. What impressed me was the precision of the logic that he used to attack every potential barrier to the success of his mission. In essence he has taken all the lessons learned from more than a hundred years of development in the air travel industry and intends to apply all those lessons to Martian colonization in less than a decade.
What is the relevance of Elon’s talk to the development of a sustainable energy environment? I would site one statement that epitomizes the approach that is required to achieve that desirable end result.
“To talk about some of the key elements of the interplanetary spaceship and rocket booster, we decided to start off the development with what we think are probably the two most difficult elements of the design.”
These are not just words. The two elements Elon is referring to are the development of an extremely powerful rocket motor that is fueled by a methanol based fuel (which could be produced from resources available on Mars) and a carbon fibre fuel tank that is impervious to gas and extremely cold, liquefied methanol fuel.
Without the Raptor engine SpaceX could not build a ship that can return from Mars by creating fuel in situ. And without a lightweight yet incredibly strong carbon fibre fuel tank the inter-planetary ship would be too heavy to make the journey possible.
Neither of these elements are helping SpaceX achieve its near-term goals. In fact, quite the opposite. Key engineering staff resources and enormous sums of money are being diverted from near-term goals to demonstrate the feasibility of manufacturing the Raptor engine and carbon fibre fuel tank.
But the harsh reality is that if you cannot solve the most difficult engineering problems there is no point to working on anything else. This is exactly the issue I raised in a blog post more than three years ago.
The most difficult task we have before us with regards to sustainable energy is energy storage. Once we solve that issue everything else becomes easy. Without storage no amount of renewable energy development can wean us off the burning of hydrocarbons. It’s really that simple.
And yet, politicians and regulators continue to put up roadblocks to the development of energy storage systems.
There is no financial support available for stand-alone energy storage systems and politicians and even academics continue to debate the need for such support. There is no debate. As demonstrated by Denmark, Germany, and Hawaii, the development of renewables hits a wall when it becomes a significant percentage of total generation.
The 2013 California mandate requiring 1.3 GW of storage was met with hyperbolic excitement within the Greentech community. But what does it really mean?
By intentionally not specifying the mandate in GW-Hours the California Public Utilities Commission made it clear that this was not a mandate to take energy storage seriously as a generation source. A few large battery complexes like the Notrees complex (where all the batteries have to be replaced after less than 3 years of service) in Texas or the facility planned for the Alamitos Power Center could provide 1.3 GW for anywhere from 15 minutes to four hours. That might be useful for the purposes of grid stabilization but it will not make any significant contribution to the generation of electricity in California.
The California mandate will in all likelihood result in less than 2 GW-hours of energy storage by 2020. That’s about the same amount of storage that is built into one Concentrated Solar Power plant in Arizona.
Building energy storage with a capacity of 1 GW-hour is hard. There is no battery complex, flywheel facility, Compressed Air Energy Storage System, or any other type of energy storage technology facility in the world that has a capacity close to that. But if California really wants to be powered by renewables at some point in the future the energy storage requirement would be more than 170 GW-Hours based upon the California “duck curve”.
Maybe someday we will get serious about energy storage. The enormous benefits to people all over the world that would result should be motivation enough.
However, I worry that at the rate we’re going Elon will have established a thriving Mars colony before we have an economical and reliable energy storage system.
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 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 Idaho 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.
The Black Swan Blog posts have covered a wide variety of topics related to renewable energy. Many of those posts have focused on the need to develop reliable and affordable energy storage options so that wind and solar power generation can be time-shifted to match demand. No such energy storage technology is viable today but I am convinced that a number of technologies will become mainstream within 20-30 years – possibly more quickly than that.
Without in any way minimizing the challenges that lay ahead with energy storage (which I think should get vastly more R&D funding than is the case today) I thought it would be interesting to imagine what the world would be like when electricity is being generated primarily from renewable sources.
Renewables, whether they be always available such as hydro, hydro-kinetics, or geothermal, or whether they need support in the form of energy storage (wind and solar) all have very low long-term operating costs. Because they do not require any input fuel the only ongoing costs are operations and maintenance which are, in most cases, quite low. So what would be the impact of abundant and cheap electricity that has minimal negative environmental impacts?
About half of the world’s population live north of 27 degrees latitude. That means that there are a lot of people living in areas where crops cannot grow for 1/3 of the year or more. As a result many large population centers are completely dependent upon agricultural production from areas farther south.
The transportation of these agricultural products requires large amounts of energy and inevitably results in a great deal of spoilage. In a world where electricity is abundant and inexpensive there would likely be a significant shift of food production to greenhouses in more northern areas. The result would be fresher produce and lower carbon emissions from the transportation sector.
Water through Desalination
Throughout human history there have been areas of the world experiencing drought. From the dust-bowels of the 1930’s in North America to the more recent dry spells in Australia and California a lack of fresh water can severely reduce food production as well as causing a variety of other problems.
Because transportation and trade via ocean-going vessels has been important to human settlements for millenia many large cities are located on the coastline. For those populations desalination would provide all the fresh water needed. Although such plants have been deployed quite extensively, notably in the Middle East, the cost of energy required for these plants has been a significant deterrent. It should be noted that more than 1% of the world’s daily oil production is burnt in the Middle East to desalinate sea water. In a world where electricity is abundant and inexpensive desalination would become a viable option everywhere.
Areas such as North Africa could possibly be transformed to conditions similar to those experienced during the last “Green Sahara” period which ended about 5,500 years ago. The result would be greater self-sufficiency and improved living conditions for the millions of people suffering through the repeated droughts that have afflicted Sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade.
The Al Khafji Solar-powered desalination plant in Saudi Arabia may be a “postcard from the future”. Using the power of the intense solar radiation common in the area this plant will replace the burning of oil to produce 60,000 cubic metres of water a day.
Inexpensive electricity could be used to power vastly expanded mass transit systems as well as the factories that will manufacture the trolleys and trains that will be used in those systems. Inexpensive electricity will reduce the costs of heating and cooling homes and offices with the result that families and businesses will have more disposable income. It is a fact that inexpensive electricity will transform human society in ways as significant and unimaginable as any technological innovation that has been experienced to date.
And that does raise a concern.
On ancient maps and globes uncharted territory was annotated with warnings such as “here be dragons” or “here be lions”, the intention being to discourage potential explorers or at least advise them to be well armed! A world of abundant and inexpensive energy may also have dragons that we need to guard against. As far as I am concerned the largest and most deadly of these would be the concentration of ownership of this energy by organizations that were not acting in the public good.
In most jurisdictions in the world electricity production is either publicly owned or managed by organizations that are monitored and controlled by public utility commissions or similar bodies. This system, although it suffers from inertia in some cases, has by and large worked quite effectively. As long as the new renewable energy sources continue to be part of this type of structure there is no real danger.
Considering all the positive consequences that could be realized in a world fueled by renewable energy it is reasonable to try and map out the path to get us to that blissful state as quickly as possible.
In my postings here at the Black Swan Blog I have identified numerous technologies that can be used today to store energy. I have also identified the problems associated with each of them. The bottom line, which few green energy advocates are honest enough to admit, is that energy storage on the scale required to transition to 100% wind and solar is not even close to being a reality. Euan Mearns has conducted detailed technical analyses on several real world scenarios. His summary post is a worthwhile read.
As daunting as the technical challenges are the real problem with energy storage is political will and funding. Politicians, with the best of intentions, continue to chase energy mirages such as roof-top solar and wind without storage under the entirely false theory that those approaches can achieve the desired result – a world powered by renewable energy sources.
The intermittent and unpredictable nature of those sources causes escalating problems when implemented to any significant degree. Denmark, Germany, and Hawaii represent well documented case studies that prove without any doubt that every step forward in the development of renewables increases the difficulty of taking the next step.
Having said that, one or more viable and economical energy storage systems would make all the problems go away. A large portion of the solar energy received at mid-day could be shifted to the evening and night. The huge variability of wind energy could be reshaped to better match demand curves. Regulation of electricity flowing into regional grids would mean that costly upgrades would not be necessary.
But in today’s world it is impossible to make a business case for a utility-scale energy storage solution.
In almost every jurisdiction there is little or no support for energy storage solutions. Instead, energy storage developers are faced with having to purchase electricity from local utilities, including paying a grid transmission fee, then store the electricity using some hugely expensive and largely unproven technology, then try and resell the electricity back into the grid in competition with other sources including cheap coal and natural gas-fired plants. Just as in the 1951 cartoon “Cheese Chasers” this scenario just don’t add up!.
Substantially increased R&D funding and operational support for energy storage are essential. A Feed-In-Tarriff for energy retrieved from storage should be provided.
In the short term, as energy storage solutions mature, more support should be provided for existing dispatchable energy sources such as geothermal and hydro-kinetics. These are sources that, despite very compelling attributes, also continue to suffer from a lack of R&D funding and direct financial support.
A sustainable energy future is possible with all the positive benefits that come with it. We just need to want it badly enough to make the best investments possible to achieve the desired result. There are more ideas discussed in my Sustainable Energy Manifesto.
The countries of the world have agreed to reduce carbon emissions significantly by 2030. Although this agreement is designed to limit the forecast rise in global temperature I am more enthusiastic about the fact that it will result in reduced consumption of non-renewable hydro-carbons.
But now comes the hard part. How to decide which actions will produce the maximum benefits for the least cost and economic disruption.
I’ll start by listing a few things that I don’t think should be priorities.
Roof-top solar panels: there will be a great temptation for governments to jump on the roof-top solar bandwagon. It sounds like such a great idea – let people generate their own power. And many, many countries are doing it so it must surely be a good thing – right?
There is nothing evil about roof-top solar panels. But an objective analysis of all the possible ways that renewable energy can be generated would have to conclude that providing financial support for roof-top solar is one of the most expensive and least effective approaches available.
On the other hand I am an enthusiastic supporter of utility scale solar developments between latitudes 35 north and south such as those built over the past few years by Kauai Island Utility Co-op. Solar energy in the equatorial/subtropical regions is probably the best source of renewable energy available.
The reason I don’t support the development of solar energy north or south of 35 degrees is not because there isn’t solar energy potential at higher latitudes. Obviously there is. The problem is that at higher latitudes the electricity demand usually peaks in the winter and there is significantly less solar energy available in the winter outside the equatorial/subtropical regions. At 35 degrees winter insolation is theoretically about 75% of summer. At 45 degrees the ratio is 66%. But actual generation is much, much less than that because in the winter the low sun angles mean that nearby trees, buildings, and hills place the solar panels in the shade for much of the day. So, for example, in Germany the winter solar generation is 1/10 the summer generation.
Wind: There is no doubt that the extensive development of wind energy is already and will continue to be one of the cornerstones of a sustainable energy environment. The increasing capacity of individual turbines and the decreasing cost/MW make wind energy a very attractive option – when it is available. And that is the big problem with wind.
Although it is true on a global scale that “the wind is always blowing somewhere” it is a fact that calm winds can extend over very large geographic areas for hours or days at a time. It is not uncommon for wind generation to be at less than 10% of nameplate capacity for 30% of the hours in a year. Dealing with the variability of wind will be perhaps the biggest challenge to be overcome in order to meet the carbon emission reduction targets envisioned in the COP21 agreement. Until some progress is made in this regard the financial support provided to wind developers should be significantly reduced.
So much for what should not be priorities.
It is clear that solar and wind can be developed to whatever scale is required and that the cost to do so is not unreasonable. The only remaining problem is how to handle the times when solar and wind are not available. The vast majority of financial support and Research and Development should be directed towards addressing that single issue.
In equatorial and subtropical regions this problem is well defined and can be addressed through energy storage systems that exist today. Solar energy is very predictable and by building enough solar generation to simultaneously meet daytime needs and charge a storage system it is possible to release energy from storage to meet evening and night demand. The Gemasolar plant in Spain is already providing 24×365 electricity generation using only solar energy.
The proposed Kapaia power plant will use solar energy stored in batteries to provide electricity in the late afternoon, evening and through the night. The Noor1 plant in Morocco will have the largest molten salt storage capability in the world when it is completed in 2017.
These positive developments in short duration energy storage should be encouraged by providing the same kinds of financial and regulatory support currently used to encourage wind and solar developments.
Outside the equatorial/subtropical regions the problem is much more difficult.
Wind generation can never truly replace fossil fuel or nuclear generation – it can only displace those traditional sources. By that I mean that regardless of how much wind capacity is developed there will be times when there is simply no wind energy to be harvested. During those times dispatching fossil fuel generation is the only way to keep the lights on.
Energy storage systems will help cover short duration periods of calm winds but they will be unable to solve the problem completely anytime soon.
Roger Andrews and Euan Mearns have done a lot of detailed analyses on large scale energy storage scenarios and have demonstrated quite convincingly that the scale of storage required to truly address calm winds is impractical. I would have to agree.
So if storage can’t solve the wind intermittency problem what approaches might work? I see three possibilities all of which are deserving of investment and regulatory support;
- Development of reliable and renewable energy sources. This would include Geothermal Resources such as the potential 1.6 GW under the Salton Sea and the estimated 25 GW of hydro-kinetic energy available for development in the U.S. alone. These reliable sources of electricity should receive financial support through R&D grants, accelerated capital write-offs and feed-in-tariffs in recognition of their superior value as compared to wind. It would also be possible to implement additional generating capacity at large scale hydro developments that could be used for short durations when winds are calm in a concept I have referred to as unpumped storage.
- Demand response. Post-Fukushima Japan has demonstrated the true power of demand response with peak demand being reduced by as much as 10-15% through the direct action of individuals and businesses. The key ingredient to success is a broad engagement of the population through advertising, public service announcements, and educational programs. It is clear that people will modify their use of energy if they are mobilized when electricity is in short supply.
Another mechanism for reducing peak demand over the long term would be the widespread use of geoexchange technology in preference to traditional HVAC systems. Requiring that geoexchange be integrated into any new commercial and industrial buildings would be a very low cost and effective way to significantly reduce demand.
- Development of a capacity market: I stated before that wind generation displaces fossil-fuel generated electricity. That would not be particularly problematic except that it seriously impacts the profitability of operating those fossil-fuel plants.
In Texas utilities took out a full page ad describing the deterioration in reserve capacity that the increasing penetration of wind energy is causing.
In Germany the development of a “grid balancing market” is helping to deal with fluctuations in wind output but there are problems with this approach.
Although the idea of paying for a duplicate set of generation assets is not appealing it might well be the most effective way to increase the amount of renewable generation that can be developed.
How quickly Can These Measures Be Implemented?
Building code changes to encourage or require the use of geoexchange can be put in place almost immediately. The same is true of changes to the operating practices of Independent System Operators so that organizations storing energy for later use are not charged a grid transit fee.
A feed-in-tariff (FIT) for electricity produced from storage and for reliable renewables such as geothermal and hydro-kinetics would take a bit longer but can certainly be available in less than a year or two. Public education and awareness programs with real-time indications of energy use can be delivered in the same time frame.
Development of a capacity market will require investigation and a thorough analysis of options. But an early commitment to a capacity market would send a positive signal to the operators of the fossil-fuel generating plants that will be needed during the transition to more dependence upon renewable energy sources.
The COP21 agreement represents an historic opportunity to make real progress towards developing a truly sustainable energy environment. But it is quite likely that political leaders will continue to support strategies that are not optimal and could encounter very significant barriers as the amount of renewable generation increases.
To quote Yoda “if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did – you will become an agent of evil.” That may be a bit dramatic but I think the danger is real. As we move forward with the development of renewables the difficult challenges regarding energy storage need to be addressed as a priority.
There is a consensus in many countries that burning coal to generate electricity is something that needs to be phased out as quickly as possible. The Clean Power Plan in the U.S. has that as one of its most likely outcomes and there have been explicit commitments to retire coal-fired generation plants by governments all over the world.
When considering the options for replacing the electricity generated by coal-fired plants there are two characteristics of these plants that need to be considered. The first is that coal is the cheapest and most abundant non-renewable fuel available. The second is that coal-fired plants are very reliable – more reliable even than natural gas-fired plants because they can stockpile fuel on site so that they are not subject to pipeline congestion problems. And getting approval to build new pipelines is not easy these days.
One of the strategies for replacement of coal-fired generation is the development of more wind and solar power. This approach is not without its problems because of the inability to store energy from these sources which are often not available during peak demand times of the day. Matching the 24×365 reliability of coal-fired plants using renewables would be very challenging.
When you think about it the only thing wrong with coal-fired plants is the fact they burn coal to produce the steam used to drive turbines. If a renewable source of heat could be supplied to these plants they could continue providing reliable power and the negative aspects of burning coal would be eliminated.
In jurisdictions where renewable energy sources have been developed extensively the disconnect between electricity production and system load is starting to become problematic. For example, on many circuits on Oahu the amount of electricity generated by roof-top solar panels actually exceeds system demand mid-day some days. Although there is plenty of potential to expand solar power in Hawaii from a resource standpoint it will not be possible without the ability to time-shift production to match demand through the use of energy storage. As a result solar panel permits have been falling for the past two years.
In Denmark, where the nameplate capacity of wind turbines is approximately 1/3 of total generation capacity in the country, wind generation frequently exceeds domestic demand which requires the export of the excess to neighbouring countries. Obviously if all of Denmark’s neighbours also developed a similar amount of wind capacity there would be nowhere to export the electricity to. Texas and parts of the American Mid-West are facing similar issues.
So we are faced with two different problems;
- The need to stop burning coal to generate electricity
- The need to store excess electricity generated from wind and solar
Fortunately, there is a combination of field-proven technologies available today that can solve both problems. I will refer to this combination of technologies as “Thermelectric Power”.
Thermelectric Power provides a large rapid response load which can be used to stabilize the grid when there are variations in renewable energy generation. It also stores renewable energy by converting it to thermal energy.
The mechanism for storing the energy is molten salt – a mixture of 60 percent sodium nitrate and 40 percent potassium. Thermal Energy Storage (TES) systems using molten salt have been used for more than 10 years as a way to extend the hours that Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants can deliver electricity.
The initial research was done at the Sandia National Solar Thermal Test Facility in New Mexico. The first large-scale commercial application of the technology was at the 50 MW Andasol CSP in Spain which came on-line in March, 2009. The Solana CSP plant commissioned in the fall of 2013 in Arizona includes the largest TES facility deployed to date, able to produce 280 MW of electricity for up to 6 hours after sunset.
Excess wind or solar generated electricity can be used to heat the molten salt to a temperature of more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit using industrial electric heating elements. During peak demand periods the molten salt would be circulated through a heat exchanger to transform water into the steam required to power conventional steam turbines. The infrastructure to support the conversion of thermal to electrical energy by means of steam turbines exists at every coal-fired electrical generating station which allows the re-use of these very expensive components with only minimal modifications.
Both the heating of the molten salt and the use of molten salt to generate electricity using steam turbines are proven technologies that are deployed today. By integrating Thermelectric Power into an existing coal-fired generation station it would be possible to phase out the burning of coal as more and more wind or solar generation is developed. This approach would also maintain energy security because it would be possible to switch the power source back to coal for short periods of time to deal with extended periods of calm winds. This dual source approach minimizes both CO2 emissions as well as any risk of power failures on a grid where the primary sources of electricity are renewable.
The cost to implement molten salt storage at an existing coal-fired plant would be $250-$350/kwh. This is a fraction of the cost of utility scale battery storage. More importantly molten salt storage does not suffer degradation in capacity over time. The molten salt can be heated and cooled over and over again so that the service life of this technology is measured in decades.
Thermelectric Power could transform the more than 500 coal-fired generating stations in the U.S. into “green” energy sources. More than 10% of those plants are combined heat and power (CHP) plants on University and College campuses. Students and faculty have been actively protesting to stop the burning of coal at these plants for years.
As rate-payers, tax-payers, and advocates for a sustainable energy future we have a choice to make.
We can demand that coal plants be decommissioned and dismantled at a cost of billions of dollars. That choice would require the construction of natural gas-fired plants or nuclear plants with approximately the same generation capacity in order to handle peak loads in the evening when winds are calm – construction that would require more billions of dollars and would continue to emit vast amounts of CO2 annually.
Or we can demand that our coal plants be converted to Thermelectric Power which would dramatically reduce the amount of coal being burnt to generate electricity. Coal would only be used as a fuel when electricity generation from renewable sources was not available for extended periods of time. But the flip side of that is that coal could be used in that way to back up renewable generation. As a result we could develop as much wind and solar energy as we wanted without worrying about dealing with excess when demand is low and without worrying about destabilizing the grid.
A future fueled by renewable energy is possible using technology that is available today. We just need to want it enough to make it happen.
There is an ongoing debate regarding the value and/or wisdom of the German Government’s implementation of an energy transformation – the Energiewende. The primary driver for this initiative was the policy decision, first made in 2000, to eliminate nuclear power in Germany. Nuclear generating stations contributed as much as 25% of the electricity supply in the late 1990’s.
Sorting out fact from fiction when assessing the Energiewende is not as easy as you might expect because most commentators put a significant “spin” on data that is admittedly subject to multiple interpretations. In this post I will try and summarize the most salient points regarding the Energiewende that can be supported by publicly available factual information. These are;
- Germany has successfully developed a very significant base of renewable energy over a sustained period of time without going bankrupt or causing unbearable economic hardship to electricity consumers whether they be residential or industrial. This is a very laudable achievement – one that many observers would have declared impossible.
- The Energiewende in and of itself represented enough of a demand for wind turbines and solar panels to have resulted in very significant decreases in the prices for all of the components associated with these technologies. As every country in the world develops their own renewable resources they will ultimately enjoy substantial cost savings due in large part to the Energiewende.
- Germany has spent far more public money, in the form of direct grants, tax incentives and utility rate increases than was needed in order to attain the same level of renewable energy generation that it enjoys today.
- Germany, like Denmark, has only been able to develop intermittent renewable energy resources because of the high capacity inter-connections with other large European energy providers/consumers. In effect, Germany and Denmark have used the European and Nordic grids as a large battery. It follows that if other European countries were to follow the path taken by Germany the system as a whole would soon run out of capacity to deal with the fluctuations in renewable energy production.
- The German Energiewende has not resulted in less dependence on the burning of coal to generate electricity and will not do so anytime soon.
- The preferential access to the grid that is given to renewable energy production has frequently pushed thermal generation off-line for extended periods of time, particularly at mid-day on windy days in the springtime. These base-load plants were designed to run 24×365 and the business cases underpinning the financing of these plants assumed high utilization factors. As a result these plants are marginally profitable at best. The market response to this situation would be to close many of these plants to reduce capacity and stabilize wholesale prices. That is not possible because all of the thermal capacity is required in the late afternoon and into the night on calm days.
These facts (see detailed discussion below) lead me to the conclusion that the Germany Energiewende has achieved remarkable changes to the energy economy of the largest country in Europe. Unfortunately, I believe that the approach taken was far from optimal and has influenced many other jurisdictions around the world to follow a similar non-optimal path. I also believe that without finding an economical and hugely scaleable energy storage system this approach cannot proceed much further.
The impact of the Energiewende on Wind and Solar Component Prices
I suppose you could argue that the impact of the Energiewende on Wind and Solar Component Prices has not been significant but given the scale of development and the timing it seems clear to me that there has been a large impact. Until China got moving on solar panel installations Germany was purchasing about half the worldwide supply and still represents about 25% of installed capacity.
Germany has also been one of the largest purchasers of wind turbines consuming about 10% of the worldwide supply from 2004-2010 dropping to about 5% more recently as other countries have accelerated their development of wind resources.
Roof-top Solar: $100 Billion plus lost in translation
The biggest failing of the Energiewende has been the investment in subsidies of roof-top solar panel installations.
As I have argued in another blog posting even under the best of conditions in arid regions between 35 degrees latitude north and south roof-top solar does not make sense. Installations are complicated and expensive, roof pitch and orientation is never ideal and there is no ability to implement sun tracking.
In the case of Germany which is located between 48 and 52 degrees north latitude subsidizing roof-top solar panels is pointless. The graph below summarizes electricity consumption and solar power production in Germany in 2013.
Solar power production peaks at about the same time German electricity consumption is at a minimum. For those months solar can meet about 11% of total demand (as much as 30-35% at mid-day on sunny days).
The real problem comes in the winter months when German consumption of electricity is highest. In the months of December and January German solar production is about 500 GW-Hours which meets about 1% of demand. Even if Germany was to double the number of solar panels that have been installed over the past 15 years it could meet only 2% of winter demand and in that situation there would be a huge surplus of solar power at mid-day in the summer. There is no solution to this imbalance between winter and summer insolation which is the primary reason that solar power is so ineffective in Germany.
I am not alone in my criticism of the German approach. A recent report states that Germany has in effect wasted over $100 billion by focusing on solar power. The study suggests that if the same amount of financial support had been directed towards developing solar power in Spain together with additional transmission capacity in central Europe then northern European Countries would have access to much more renewable energy when they need it most in the winter.
It is undeniable that solar panels generate a lot of electricity in Germany. But it is also true that the return on the investment made in solar power has been very poor both in financial and environmental terms.
“Green power sets new record at 78% of German supply!”
Statements similar to this come out on a regular basis, usually in June or July. They are factually correct and impressive but they can easily lead the reader to conclude that the majority of electricity in Germany can be generated from renewable sources quite often. It is in fact a very rare event.
On very low demand days between May and August when winds are blowing strongly Germany can see renewables reach those levels for a few hours at mid-day. However, there are many, many more days and even more late afternoons and evenings when renewables make almost no contribution to the electricity supply. This can be seen by the annual average generation by renewables which stands at about 25%.
Renewable penetration of 25% of total generation would be very impressive if it was actually used in Germany. However, just as in Denmark which makes similar claims regarding wind as a percentage of total generation, a large amount of renewable generation in Germany is of absolutely no value. This is solar energy at mid-day and wind energy at night when there is insufficient domestic demand. In those circumstances Germany has no choice but to export this surplus electricity at very low prices (sometimes negative) and Germany’s neighbours have to absorb this electricity whether they need it or not. The Czech Republic, France, Poland, and Switzerland have been complaining quite bitterly about the negative impacts of these exports. Stress on the regional grids, the need to cycle power sources in those countries in response to the fluctuations in German generation, and low wholesale spot prices are issues that are increasing in severity every year.
From the graph above you will note that German exports have increased about 35% since 2009 as more renewable energy has entered the market. Note however that imports have decreased less than 10% since 2009. This is because of the intermittent nature of renewables. Exports take place at times of low demand and garner low prices. Imports typically take place at peak demand times and at peak demand prices. As a result German retail electricity prices have continued to rise despite the fact that generation capacity has exceeded domestic demand for a number of years. In my blog I have called this combination of increasing supply, increasing or stable imports and increasing prices an Electricity Paradox – or Electrodox
Non-Renewable Sources Supplying More Electricity Than 25 Years Ago
One of the claims by supporters of the Energiewende is that the growth of renewables will allow Germany to reduce its dependence upon coal-fired generation thereby reducing CO2 emissions. That has not happened over the past fifteen years and reducing coal-fired generation will not take place anytime soon.
Source: Heinrich Böll Stiftung
Germany is burning almost exactly as much coal today as it was 10 years ago. A number of new coal-fired plants have actually come on stream in the last 5 years. The addition of natural gas fired plants means that Germany is now generating more electricity from burning hydro-carbons than it was 25 years ago.
From the graph it might appear that renewable generation has largely replaced nuclear generation but the situation is a bit more complicated than that.
Germany has had surplus capacity for many years (all responsibly regulated electricity markets have reserve capacity) and has exported electricity since before the turn of the century. In the past those exports were primarily nuclear power at peak demand times and prices and German nuclear was a welcome addition to the central European energy mix. Now those exports are renewables at off-peak times and very low prices which cause issues for Germany’s neighbours.
It is true that every day of the year renewables make a significant contribution to the electricity supply in Germany, reducing the need to burn hydro-carbons and/or generate power from nuclear stations. The positive impact on CO2 emissions and other forms of pollution is significant. But it is also true that there are many times when renewables contribute very little generation and Germany must make use of all its thermal generating capacity and import power from its neighbours. As a result it has not been possible to retire any significant amount of coal-fired or natural gas-fired generation capacity.
Can Price Volatility Guarantee Security of Supply?
With renewables pushing conventional generation off the grid frequently and with little notice it is very difficult to operate thermal power plants efficiently or profitably. Frequent and unpredictable cycling of coal-fired and natural-gas fired plants increases operating expenses, reduces service life, and introduces uncertainty into revenue projections.
In the absence of any kind of capacity plan utilities are making economic decisions that can be in conflict with the goals of the Energiewende. For example, highly efficient Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) facilities are being closed while lignite coal-fired plants remain open. Natural gas is simply more expensive than coal in Europe. As a result the rational economic choice favours plants that emit more than twice as much CO2 as well as harmful airborne pollutants.
The heated debate over the need for a capacity market in Germany has been going on for several years. For the time being nuclear plants contribute to a significant oversupply situation. That will change in 2022 when the remaining nuclear plants are due to be retired. Making sure that there is adequate and reliable generation capacity available to replace the loss of the nuclear plants remains a work in progress.
The government position at the moment is to allow high spot market prices to be the primary incentive for utilities to maintain adequate generation capacity. German Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has stated that “high prices at times of scarcity would ensure that conventional power plants would remain profitable”. The idea is that if prices are allowed to go high enough when renewables are not available (for example on calm nights), then it will still be possible to make a profit running a thermal generation station if only for a few hours on a few days.
This is the same approach taken by Texas which has raised its ceiling spot price to $9,000/MW (the average price paid is $45/MW). The response of Texas electricity utilities has been “That dog don’t hunt”. In January, 2014 they took out a full-page advertisement warning of a future plagued by blackouts and system failures.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Of course nobody can reliably predict the future so the following comments are pure speculation.
I cannot see how Germany can continue to develop significantly more wind and solar resources in the next few years. The imbalances between supply and demand at different times of the day and different months of the year are becoming too extreme. And with so much generating capacity in place it is difficult to imagine utilities building any new plants. What that means when the nuclear plants shut down is anyone’s guess but it does not look like a pretty picture to me.
The ability for other European countries to move aggressively with renewal energy development also appears to be constrained by the challenges to regional grid stability introduced by Germany. The need for a pan-European strategy seems clear.
Setting up a capacity market in Germany might address the profitability of existing thermal generation but would raise electricity prices. Despite a small decrease in 2014 Germany consumers still pay the second highest retail prices in Europe. Any further increase to support a capacity market would not be welcome.
There is certainly plenty of potential to continue developing solar power in southern Europe – particularly CSP plants that can provide power after sunset such as the Gemasolar plant that runs 24×365. The potential to make greater use of Nordic hydro resources through conventional pumped storage schemes or by adding generation capacity in a concept I have termed “unpumped storage” also exists. Both of these approaches would require significant investments in the European grid infrastructure as well as an increased level of political co-operation amongst Euro-zone members.
My assessment of the German Energiewende is mixed based upon what I feel is the ultimate goal – an end to the burning of hydro-carbons to generate electricity. Reducing hydro-carbon usage is not sufficient and will not transform us to a truly sustainable energy society.
What Germany has achieved so far is impressive. It is impossible to deny that. But I would have preferred to see even 20 GW of renewable energy equipped with storage of some sort so that some coal-fired or natural gas-fired generation could be permanently retired. A financial and policy commitment to storage technology that was as firm as the position taken by Germany with respect to solar panels would have been more constructive in my opinion.
If we had affordable and reliable utility-scale battery systems our energy problems would be over. We could easily develop enough wind and solar power to meet our energy demands by storing excess energy generated at mid-day and when the winds were blowing strongly. It would then be available to use at night and/or when the winds are calm.
Inexpensive and abundant energy from renewables would also go a long way to solving water shortages in coastal areas around the world because desalination on a large scale would become economically feasible.
One energy writer back in 2013 stated that we had already reached the promised land and that concerns about the reliability of wind were effectively over. She was talking about the building of the Notrees battery complex in Texas – the largest such facility in North America. At that time I pointed out the fact that the installed batteries could deliver only 25% of the capacity of the wind farm. More importantly, the batteries could deliver that power for a total of 15 minutes. The facility, which cost $44 million, was not designed to replace the energy output of the wind farm. It was intended to stabilize the output over very short periods of time and to allow for a few minutes to bring on other rapid response power sources when wind was ramping down such as when a weather front passes.
Despite the limitations of the Notrees battery complex it appeared to be a step in the right direction. That is, until it was announced that all of the batteries have to be replaced after less than 4 years of service.
Oh well, maybe they just got unlucky … or maybe not.
The Kauai Island Utility Co-operative also installed a large battery complex in 2012 using the same technology as that used at Notrees and all those batteries also have to be replaced. In both cases the replacement batteries will be lithium ion – from Samsung for Notrees and SAFT for KIUC. My personal experience with Lithium Ion batteries in laptops and smart phones does not make me confident that they can last more than 5 years but only time will tell.
Regardless of the potential longevity of large battery systems the cost of truly backing up renewable resources such as wind remains unacceptably high. It is worth considering a real world example in order to understand the scope of the problem.
Texas currently has over 12 GW of wind energy capacity, the largest amount of any state in the U.S. Many renewable energy advocates make the claim that “the wind is always blowing somewhere” so that periods of calm in one area can be handled by shipping electricity from distant locations where the wind is blowing. I would dispute that contention.
There are frequent occasions when large high pressure systems cover much of the North American continent resulting in calm conditions over very large areas. For example, from November 22 to 26, 2013 the winds across the whole of Texas were calm even as electricity demand increased.
The average capacity factor for Texas is about 28% so for this period of time there was a shortfall of at least 1.5 GW of wind generation. In order to replace this “missing” wind generation with energy produced from storage it would be necessary to have 4 days x 24 hours x 1.5 GW = 144 GW-Hours of energy storage. The battery complex at Notrees cost $44 million for 36 MW x 0.15 hours = 9 MW-Hours of storage which translates into about $4.8 Million/MW-hour or $4.8 Billion/GW-hour.
The bottom line? It would cost 144 x $4.8 Billion = $690 billion to provide backup for a relatively short period of calm weather for just the state of Texas. If that enormous capital expenditure could be amortized over 30 or 50 years (as can be done with a hydro dam or a coal or natural gas fired thermal plant) then it might make sense. But it seems unlikely that any batteries implemented today would last more than 10 years.
Despite the many problems that have been encountered with large scale battery installations and the rather daunting costs there are still interesting projects under development. Once again, Kauai Island Utility Co-operative is blazing new trails with the proposed 52 MW-hour array at Kapaia. The batteries will be charged using the output from a new solar array which, for the first time, will not be used to provide electricity to the grid during the daylight hours. The project is going to break ground in the spring of 2016.
If successful this project will be the new benchmark for renewable energy storage based upon MW-Hours (the largest such facility currently in operation that I am aware of is a 36 MW-Hour iron phosphate battery project in China).
22-Nov-15: Update: I noticed that another large LI-ion battery project was commissioned in the fall of 2014. The Tehachapi Energy Storage Project
came in at about $1.5/watt-hour, less than a third the cost of the Notrees complex so that is a major step in the right direction. Now if only the batteries can hold up we might be getting somewhere.
30-Nov-15: Update: I found another really interesting battery project – AES has been awarded a contract for a 100 MW facility
that can deliver power from storage for 4 hours – that’s a total of 400 MW-Hours which will be by far the largest battery storage project in the world. I have not been able to find a reference to the cost of this facility but from comments
made by the President of AES Storage the cost would be about $400 Million. Despite Mr. Shelton’s contention that the AES battery storage system is competitive with Natural Gas Peaker plants this would appear to require a very strange interpretation of costs. A recent Peaker plant in Texas is costing about $400/KW
of capacity and this plant has an unlimited ability to deliver continuous power. The AES battery solution costs $1,000/KW of capacity and can deliver for 4 hours. So the capital cost per KW-Hour is very much greater for the battery based system not to mention that the electricity to charge the battery has to be paid for and that cost will be larger than the equivalent cost of natural gas. This is a great project but like so many others is being oversold with questionable claims.
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