Since just about everything we do and the equipment needed to support it depends upon a source of energy, wouldn’t it be great if someone would invent perpetual motion machines that can generate all we want without consuming any resources or producing pollution? Okay, some of you are doubtless saying: “Yes, and they already exist. There are wind turbines and solar power systems that can do that if we build enough of them.”
Sorry…but it just isn’t that easy.
First of all, without reversing progress back to the Stone Age (and even then, remember those smoky caves), we couldn’t create adequate numbers of either or both to accommodate modern power demands regardless how much conservation we practiced. One constraint is suitable land area. There simply aren’t enough appropriate wind and solar site locations to make that happen. Another limitation is power supply unreliability. For example, recharging those nifty plug-in electric cars would present a big problem when the wind isn’t blowing, at night and when it’s cloudy.
There are also such unfortunate matters to consider as high development and operations costs, low output efficiencies, and the fact that environmental groups and near-by landowners fight them tooth-and-nail in the courts.
I’ve discussed all of these issues at some length in other articles, and won’t dwell on them again here. Instead, let’s revisit that previously mentioned output reliability limitation on renewable power dependence alone, and just hypothetically imagine that installations and outputs will be pretty much limitless.
In other words, contemplate renewable energy (wind + solar) as true power source “alternatives” to fossils, nuclear and hydro which currently provide more than 96% of all U.S. electricity. Only about 3.4% now comes from wind, and about 0.11% from solar.
Grid Balancing On a High Wire:
Managing the uninterrupted transfer of electrical power from myriad sources wherever and whenever it is needed is a hugely complicated challenge. It’s one thing when the principal supply sources use gas, heat or hydraulically driven turbines which provide constant, unfluctuating outputs that can be adjusted and counted upon independent of weather or season.
But circumstances become increasingly complex as more and more intermittent sources are added to the power supply mix. Difficulties arise as segments of the grid become overloaded or underserved by the renewables, requiring the conventional-source turbines which balance the grid to meet base demand loads be repeatedly throttled down and up. This reduces turbine operating efficiencies.
Utility grid operators are sometimes forced to dump wind energy produced on blustery days when regional power systems don’t have room for it. As Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, a board member of the California grid system management, commented: “We are getting to the point where we will have to pay people not to produce power.”
Consider results of enormous E.U. wind power investments as a lesson to us all. Their Network of Transmission System Operators President Daniel Dobbeni noted in a 2012 letter to the European Union commissioner that grid operators are “deeply concerned about differences in speed between the connection of very large capacities of renewable energy resources and the realization in due time of the grid investment needed to support the massive increase of power flows these new resources bring.”
Dobbeni also expressed great concern “about the potential destabilizing effect of outdated connection conditions for distributed generation that are not being retrofitted fast enough.” To address these problems, the International Energy Agency estimates that Germany will need to invest between $62.9 billion and $96 billion in transmission and distribution upgrades over the next decade.
In addition to paying three times more for electricity that we Americans do, the European romance with increasing reliance upon renewables is further strained by power brownouts and blackouts. That demand-response balance is less of a problem where reliable backup sources like hydropower, coal, and nuclear plants exist. However most of Europe lacks the former, and is intentionally – to its detriment – cutting back on both of the latter. Britain, for example, is closing down some of its older coal-fired plants – any one of which can produce nearly twice the electricity all of its 3,000 wind turbines combined.
Even Germany, formerly a strong “Green” power proponent, is now finally experiencing a great deal of buyer’s remorse. Having already invested more than $250 billion in “renewable energy,” Germany’s planned phase-out nuclear plants in a knee-jerk reaction to Japan’s Fukushima disaster is compounding the country’s self-inflicted economic injuries. They currently get approximately 12% of their electricity from wind and solar, and plan to increase that proportion to 35% by 2020.
Incidentally, that proportion of wind-generated electricity amounts only to about one-fifth of Germany’s installed capacity (not demand capacity) under “good” conditions. And ironically, since shutting down some of their older nuclear plants, they now have to import nuclear power from France and the Czech Republic.
German households now pay the second highest power costs in Europe…only the Danes pay more. Denmark, which produces between 20% and 30% of its electricity from wind and solar (estimates vary), hopes to produce half from those sources by 2020.
Since Denmark can’t use all the electricity it produces at night, it exports about half of its extra supply to Norway and Sweden, whose hydroelectric power plants can be switched on and off to balance their grids. Still, even with those export sales, government wind subsidies cause Danish customers to pay the highest electricity rates in Europe.
Owing to skyrocketing energy bills imposed upon households and businesses, German political winds are apparently shifting. Leading into to parliamentary elections last September, some traditional energy providers made this a major campaign issue.
The German energy industry group BDEW warned that the surge of renewables was increasingly clogging the power grid and eating into profits of large power stations. Following that cue, Chancellor Angela Merkel gained reelection after calling for a scale-back of renewable energy subsidies which spiraled to about $27 billion per year. She predicted that “If the renewables surcharge keeps rising like it did in recent years, we will have a problem in terms of energy supply.”
An Increasingly Uncertain and Dangerous Juggling Act:
Power grid development and management involves integration and control of vast patchwork of power lines and monitoring devices connecting industrial-scale fossil, nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar electricity-generating plants. All of this juggling is subject to hazards of tripping on a tangle of antiquated and changing legal market rules, operational formulas, and business models. Adding greatly to the challenge, uncertainty regarding large government subsidies and other industry perks essential to support renewables “competitive” in the marketplace makes long-term system infrastructure planning virtually impossible.
At least one U.S. Green energy developer recognizes that stimulus subsidy programs have a record of doing more harm than good. Patrick Jenevein, CEO of the Dallas-based Tang Energy Group, posted a Wall Street Journal article arguing that: “After the 2009 subsidy became available, wind farms were increasingly built in less-windy locations… The average wind-power project built in 2011 was located in an area with wind conditions 16% worse than those of the average… Meanwhile, wind-power prices have increased to an average $54 per megawatt-hour, compared with $37 in 2005.”
Subsidies obviously influence markets. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Evan Halper quotes Neil Fromer, the executive director of Caltech’s Resnic Sustainability Institute, who observed that: “One of the biggest challenges is you can’t create a market for the resources without solving the demands of moving electricity from one physical place to another. But you can’t solve that problem until you understand what the market structure will look like.”
Adding greatly to that uncertainty, Trieu Mai, a senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, laments, “The grid was not built for renewables.” Accordingly, as Halper notes, “Planners are struggling to plot where and when to deploy solar panels, wind turbines, and hydrogen fuel cells without knowing whether regulators will approve the transmission lines to support them.”
Nevertheless, the problems can only get worse as California leads other states in a rush to bring more and more wind and solar power onto grids that weren’t planned to accommodate it. A report by a group of Caltech scholars projects that the necessary upgrades to make a Green future work will be “one of the greatest technological challenges industrialized societies have undertaken.” They project this can be expected to cost about $1 trillion nationwide by 2030.
And what is likely to occur if that additional taxpayer and ratepayer subsidized cost burden isn’t covered? Jan Smuthy-Jones, executive director of Sacramento’s Independent Producers Association — which represents owners of renewable and gas power plants — presents an ugly scenario. He warns that current proposals to move California to as much as 80% renewable energy within the next two decades are bumping up against prospects of another San Diego-type blackout like the one that occurred in 2011.
On that blistering hot day streetlights went dark, flights were grounded, pumping station failures caused sewage to flow onto beaches, and people were trapped in office elevators and Sea World rides. All of those consequences, and more, were caused by an employee error at a power substation near Yuma, Arizona.
Will grid limitations put a damper on successes of climate alarmists and other anti-fossil activists to push costly non-alternative energy technologies into ever-more risk-prone grids? This remains to be seen. However as our older nuclear plants are decommissioned and new EPA regulations shutter coal-fired plants, one thing is certain. States like California that continue to increase renewable requirements are likely to resemble Europe in more ways than even they wish to emulate.