Electric grid expert lays out why it’s basically impossible to use 100% “green energy”

Powering the grid with 100 percent green energy may sound like a nice idea, but it would actually be extremely difficult to do, a electric grid expert told Greentech Media in an interview Wednesday.

“Let’s say we have a 100% [renewables] system, hypothetically,” Christopher Clack, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mathematician, said in the interview.

“Now you have got think about working out forecasting of load and of the weather, because that’s your fuel source now, seasons or years ahead of time with really good accuracy so that you know how much energy to store, how much to shed, how much to transmit, how much to consume, and you need to do that all the time, predicting far enough ahead that you will never run out of power, because you have got nothing there as backup,” Clack said.

Clack made waves with a recent study that challenged a widely-cited 2015 study claiming the U.S. could run on 100 percent green energy. Clack and 20 colleagues argued the 2015 research “used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.”

“Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power,” wrote the 21 experts, led by Clack. Clack was worried politicians took the 2015 study too seriously, and 2016 Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders touted the study in his promise to move the U.S. off fossil fuels.

Using 100 percent green energy would require a total restructuring of the world’s economy that’s “unnecessarily daunting” compared to simply adapting to global warming or reducing emissions via other methods, according to Clack.

Clack said low-emissions technologies, like nuclear power and natural gas, would be more cost effective for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

To function, power grids require demand to exactly match supply, which is an enormous problem for variable wind and solar power.

Wind and solar can also burn out the grid if they produce too much, or not enough, electricity, leading to brownouts or blackouts. Such damage has already occurred in power grids relying too much on solar and wind power — for example, in California and Germany.

When the islands of Tasmania and El Hierro tried to power their economies with 100 percent green energy, both islands quickly switched back to diesel generators after suffering from reliability problems and soaring costs. The analysis suggests it would have taken 84 years for El Hierro’s wind and hydropower systems to simply pay back their capital costs.

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This article originally appeared in The Daily Caller

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About the Author: Andrew Follett

Andrew Follett covers energy and the environment for the Daily Caller.

  • Brin Jenkins

    Its further complicated as the power of the wind is variable on a log scale, not linear. At 6 mph the blades of a turbine may well turn but any significant load will stall it. They are designed for around 24 mph for 100% efficiency at 12 mph its only a small fraction. As this changes rapidly how can you run a railway system reliably? UK loads and supply data can be found at Gridwatch UK.

  • MikeW

    Unfortunately, with current technologies, wind turbines and solar panels consume more energy in their construction, maintenance, backup and decommissioning than they can ever produce in their lifetimes. That’s why they always lose money without
    subsidies or set-asides. In wide-boundary energy return on investment analyses (EROI) that include both direct and indirect energy costs (including land, labor and dependents), wind and solar industry energy costs are always higher than their energy revenues (especially in the U.S. where labor energy costs are especially high). In narrow-boundary energy analyses that consider only direct energy costs, wind and solar power actual delivered energy production-to-consumption EROI is always less than the minimum required to run a modern advanced economy, which ironically is the only economy that can support wind and solar power industries.

    In addition, wind and solar power are environmental disasters. They destroy acres of
    wildlife habitat, kill millions of birds and bats, cause health problems for anyone unfortunate enough to live nearby, pollute landfills, despoil the landscape, and poison vast amounts of ground water with their mining operations for lithium and rare earth metals. There is nothing economical nor environmental about wind and solar power. They can only be tolerated by societies that have other energy surpluses to spend on them, and by those that value “feel-good” talking points over actual conomic and environmental liabilities.

    • gasdive

      Sounds reasonable, and hard to check… The idea that it takes more energy to make, say a solar panel, than it can ever produce…

      But it’s not hard to check. Solar panels now cost about 0.25 USD per watt. So even if the ONLY input into making them was electricity, then the absolute maximum electricity they could take to manufacture (including sourcing and refining ALL the raw materials) is that figure divided by the retail cost of electricity in China. Chinese power is a bit less than 0.1 USD/kWh. So the limit of what went into making them is 2.5 kWh of electricity. It’s probably far less than that because obviously there are other, non electrical costs on manufacturing.
      So knowing that the outer limit of the energy in is 2.5 kWh, we just need to work out how much electricity 1 watt of solar will output in its lifetime. Life of a panel is about 30 years, times 365 times 5 (panels produce about 6.5 times their rated power in Wh/day). So that’s 54750 Wh or about 55 kWh for an EROEI of about 25. Wind is similar but the calculations aren’t as easy to follow.

      • gasdive

        The above case of course takes the absurd position that the only input into a solar panel is electricity. Clearly there are costs like the cost of finance R&D, rent on land, labour, transport etc that are not electrical in nature. A more reasonable and more likely estimate would be that energy costs of manufacture are in the order of 1/4 of the total cost (that’s probably still an over estimate). The life of a panel would be at least 30 years, after all that’s the warranted life of most panels these days. The actual life would probably average 50 years or more. 5 Wh/d per W installed is pretty low. An ideal site would produce about 6.5 Wh/d. So redoing the calculation with sensible numbers. we get around 625 Wh to manufacture one watt of PV. 50 x 365 x 6.5 is 118625 Wh. Divide the Wh produced by the Wh for manufacture and supply. and you get the ERoEI of 189. Significantly better than oil, coal, or nuclear.

        • Michael Castillo

          The absurd assumption is that solar panels have a 30 year life span. I know people who purchased solar panel systems and the panels began to fail in FOUR years.

          • Taylor Bixler

            I know a guy? lulz. Anecdotes are super helpful for policy development, but sure, let’s play with anecdotes.

            https://cleantechnica.com/2012/10/30/30-year-old-solar-module-performing-to-factory-specs/

            • Michael Castillo

              Your reference is to a system that barely powers a few light bulbs. The results of his system should be researched, but you cannot extrapolate those results to a large system without the research. The people I referred to were my next door neighbors.

              • gasdive

                Michael Castillo. Good point….

                I’ll fix that for you then shall I?

                Sounds reasonable, and hard to check… The idea that it takes more energy to make, say a solar panel, than it can ever produce…

                But it’s not hard to check. Solar panels now cost about 250 million USD per Gigawatt. So even if the ONLY input into making them was electricity, then the absolute maximum electricity they could take to manufacture (including sourcing and refining ALL the raw materials) is that figure divided by the retail cost of electricity in China. Chinese power is a bit less than 100000 USD/GWh. So the limit of what went into making them is 2500 GWh of electricity. It’s probably far less than that because obviously there are other, non electrical costs on manufacturing. So knowing that the outer limit of the energy in is 2500 GWh, we just need to work out how much electricity 1 Gigawatt of solar will output in its lifetime. Life of a panel is about 30 years, times 365 times 5 (panels produce about 6.5 times their rated power in Wh/day). So that’s 54750 GWh or about 55 TWh for an EROEI of about 25. Wind is similar but the calculations aren’t as easy to follow.

                The above case of course takes the absurd position that the only input into a solar panel is electricity. Clearly there are costs like the cost of finance R&D, rent on land, labour, transport etc that are not electrical in nature. A more reasonable and more likely estimate would be that energy costs of manufacture are in the order of 1/4 of the total cost (that’s probably still an over estimate). The life of a panel would be at least 30 years, after all that’s the warranted life of most panels these days. The actual life would probably average 50 years or more. 5 GWh/d per GW installed is pretty low. An ideal site would produce about 6.5 GWh/d. So redoing the calculation with sensible numbers. we get around 625 GWh to manufacture one Gigawatt of PV. 50 x 365 x 6.5 is 118625 GWh. Divide the GWh produced by the GWh for manufacture and supply. and you get the ERoEI of 189.
                Significantly better than oil, coal, or nuclear.

                So, Michael, did you find that easier to understand? No? Do you want me to redo that with TW instead of GW? The final numbers come out the same of course, EROEI of about 190.

                • Michael Castillo

                  I support the use of solar panels for specific applications such as isolated stand alone sites including highway signage. Solar panels have been in use long enough to state that the theoretical life span of 30 years is not realistic. In the Houston, TX suburb of Spring an entire neighborhood was built with solar panels on the houses. The general life span of the panels was 14-15 years. Even without factoring in all the other costs I believe natural gas is the better choice for most applications.

                • Brin Jenkins

                  The main problem in the UK is an array only gives 12% of its July’s output in Feb. This is of course only in day light, so how do we run an Electric train on a windless night?

                  • gasdive

                    Well there’s literally a myriad of ways…

                    To start, 12% in winter? Over build by a factor of 8. There, you’ve covered your winter needs. Since solar is far less than 1/10th of the price of Nuclear you’re still miles ahead of the only other zero carbon generation option (other than wind and solar). As a bonus you have lots of spare capacity in Summer that you can sell or use for energy (carbon) intensive industries that are happy to work 6 months per year if the price of electricity is minimal. (Steel making, cement production, aluminium smelting, Hydrogen production) This also stops those industries from producing carbon.

                    Build more interconnects with the rest of Europe. Sell electricity during daytime (when it’s valuable), buy it during night (when it’s cheap). HVDC is essentially a semiconductor technology, and like other semiconductors it’s been subject to Moore’s Law. Capacity has been doubling about every 3 years and cost has been halving about every 3 years.

                    Build pumped storage. There’s a site near Loch Ness that could provide overnight storage for the whole of Europe, let alone the UK. 6800 Gigawatt hours worth. Enough for the whole UK’s winter electricity load for 8 days. You only need 16 hours.

                    Build molten salt heat storage. Most of the UK’s winter load is heating. Build tanks (about the size of a gas retort) full of salt. Melt the salt in summer. In winter you can use the heat to generate electricity and the waste heat can provide heat for whole towns. At a stroke you eliminate most of the winter electricity load (as heating is already provided) and cut out most of the gas import costs. Immediately this impacts on the UK balance of trade. More jobs in the UK.

                    Batteries for the trains, they can be beside the tracks. Because they’re not moving they can be cheap and heavy. NiFe batteries aren’t terribly efficient, but they’re cheap (in bulk) and they last for at least 100 years, so that cost over the life of the battery is negligible.

                    There are other storage systems beyond that… Dozens of them but they’re the main ones.

          • Brin Jenkins

            Good off grid but no where else.

        • Brin Jenkins

          But only when the Sun shines. Other than that its must be covered by instant backup which just seems to be the most inefficient.

          • gasdive

            Irrelevant to the point, which is that the EROEI not as claimed, insufficient to be useful.

            Solar doesn’t claim to be the right solution if one self limits to a single source of energy. However if deployed in sufficient quantities, it does mean that sources such as hydro don’t need to be used during the day. This means that the water in the reservoirs is retained for the demands of night, which are much lower than the day demands. Also night demands are artificially increased by lower prices for electricity at night, often negative prices. Without that artificial subsidy on night use, demand at night would be much lower. Moreover, negative prices will occur during the day (when it’s needed) rather than at night (when it’s not). Reduced costs to industry mean more profit, so more industry, and probably more jobs (barring automation).

            Of course Coal and Nuclear also need to be covered by instant backup as they stop working too. Unlike solar they do so unpredictably and suddenly rather than gradually and predictably.

            • Brin Jenkins

              Nuclear is run flat out as the price is immaterial to the economics and what ever price is available is taken. It runs from day one of commissioning until its to hot to stay in service flat out. Fuel is not a consideration unlike other generators and its on a linear output scale unlike wind or solar.

    • A Blot

      Love these comments with alternative facts.

      • Brin Jenkins

        Well ok, we know the wind power is on a log scale. So with this drawn on a graph paper examine what the power developed from any turbine generator is when the wind falls from 24 knots to 12. Its not half, or anything near but just a very small fraction. So how do you balance loads with such fluctuations. Please tell us?

  • A Blot

    Correction: Tasmania’s power comes from mainly hydro. There is a couple natural gas generators, but no diesel generators

    • Brin Jenkins

      Wonderfull, if only we could all do this. However we can’t.

  • A Blot

    As for renewables burning out the grid, please explain why Coal fires generators don’t do this as they are extremely slow to react to grid flucuations.

    • Brin Jenkins

      One might vent steam to not generate?

      • gasdive

        No.

        • Brin Jenkins

          Good explanation of why one may not? You asked how you might. If you know tell us?

          Now fuel with nukes is not a consideration as its so cheap and reliable. Good cover for the base load but wind and solar is too variable. more expensive gas oil or coal may be required to top up as required. The Chinese are building 47 new coal stations every year so why do you wish to tie our hans together economically now? They will not for sure. do look at grid watch UK this is live data from the industry.

          • gasdive

            Heat cycling the turbines wrecks them. It’s cheaper to continue to produce electricity and pay people to take it away and dispose of it. You can build peaking coal, but it’s far more expensive than simply throwing the electricity away and it’s less efficient so in the end, it’s actually more efficient to make too much and throw away what you don’t need.

            Again, we have people who literally don’t know the first thing about how a coal fired network operates, but who feel qualified to make pronouncements about how it should work. Still, that’s little different from our politicians (all countries).

            China is a special case. They’ve made the conscious decision to plan their networks (rather than sleepwalking into decisions the way the West has). They are building out Coal, with the intention to raise their wealth to the point that they can bootstrap their renewables, and get rich on cheap energy. They couldn’t get there from where they were. We could blindly follow their lead, and thereby put ourselves back 30 years, or we could get to where they’re heading before them. To build out coal now would be as stupid as someone near the summit of a mountain, looking down and seeing another party climbing faster on a different route, and then turning around, going back to the bottom of the mountain and copying their rival’s route. There’s no need. We’re *already there*. Why would we go back to where they are?

  • Taylor Bixler

    Water is wet. The sky is blue.

    And Tasmania as a reference point for an argument? ROFL. Um. Ok.

  • Edohiguma

    Apart from all this, to run a modern power grid, you need a stable base load, which “renewable” cannot deliver. You need stable frequencies, otherwise you start frying your hardware, which “renewable” cannot deliver.

    Yet our governments keep sinking billions into solar and wind, which only work then the wind blows and the sun shines.

    Then people talk about “solutions” for storage, like pump storage”. Great. And how exactly are you going to store hundreds of GWh for unknown amounts of time with that?

    Solar and wind are a scam. They are cute for individuals, but you cannot feed a country from them. The people, who keep pushing for this rubbish as great solution, should be in jail for fraud.

    • gasdive

      “And how exactly are you going to store hundreds of GWh”

      You do it exactly like this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pumped-storage_hydroelectricity

      • Brin Jenkins

        Yes we have one in the UK it stores enough to power the extra load when the TV program Coronation St finishes and the electric kettle is switched on. Big deal a few mins and it takes all night to pump water uphill for the following evening.