The brutal cold wave that just struck America provides a stark example of why 100% renewables cannot possibly work. Once the massive high pressure system was in place there was almost no wind, so no significant wind power. And the coldest temperatures by far were at night or early morning, when there was no solar power either.

For example, take the Mid Atlantic region overseen by the PJM regional transmission organization. PJM coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. They also monitor system reliability.

At 8 am on January 31, PJM was in the deep freeze. Total electric power usage was reported to be roughly a whopping 140,000 MW. Of that wind provided just over 1,000 MW (next to nothing) and solar provided nothing at all. There was basically no wind power and no solar. Nor would there have been no matter how much wind and solar generating capacity was built, because the wind was not blowing and the sun was not yet shining. Freezing to death in the dark comes to mind. Fortunately reliable coal, gas and nuclear did the trick.

It is obvious that under these sorts of severe conditions, which are by no means rare, renewables are useless. Protracted high pressure cold or hot waves occur every few years almost everywhere in America.

The 100% renewables people (including Green New Dealers) claim to have two solutions to this deep intermittency problem, but both solutions are fantasies.

The first is what I call the super grid. Here the idea is that the wind must be blowing someplace, so all we have to do is generate the power there and wire it in. The killer problem is that these high pressure systems are truly monstrous. In the present case PJM might have been able to get some wind power out of the Rockies, but over half of the country is in between and it would have been in line for juice too. (Plus there is no solar anywhere at night.)

But the western states are also subject to monster hot and cold high pressure systems that cause peak need for electricity. So to make the super grid work we would need enough wind generating capacity to supply the entire country replicated several times, perhaps in each of the four corners of the lower 48. We would also need a transmission system that got the power from each corner to the entire country. This is the super grid.

I doubt that this much reliable wind potential is even there, but it does not matter, because the cost of this monstrosity would be fantastic. Powering New York from Denver, and then Denver from New York, and so on for all possible cross country combinations, is absurd.

The second fantasy solution to deep intermittency is called storage, which mostly means batteries. Here the cost is if anything greater than the super grid, plus we are dealing with huge quantities of toxic chemicals.

We are in fact installing utility scale battery arrays with some major solar generating systems, so this may be fooling people into thinking that batteries can overcome intermittency. But these battery systems are for dealing with short term fluctuations, for grid stabilization. Despite costing hundreds of millions of dollars, they store less than an hour’s generator output and 200 MW is a big system.

Having enough batteries to serve just PJM with wind and solar would probably cost several trillion dollars, if it could be made to work. Once again the cost for making America 100% renewable powered would be astronomical.

If these fantastical so-called solutions to deep intermittency were paid for by electricity users then only the rich could afford the juice. Doing it with carbon taxes would be even more regressive. Then too, these monster solutions are probably infeasible from an engineering point of view as well, not to mention unbuildable.

None of this impossibility bothers the politicians, including the Green New Dealers. The people, or at least the Democrats among them, have been sold a pack of green fantasies, which they now want delivered. Stay tuned.

Author

  • David Wojick, Ph.D. is an independent analyst working at the intersection of science, technology and policy. For origins see http://www.stemed.info/engineer_tackles_confusion.html For over 100 prior articles for CFACT see http://www.cfact.org/author/david-wojick-ph-d/ Available for confidential research and consulting.