Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More on "renewable" energy

Yet another article that demonstrates how so-called "renewable" energy cannot possibly be renewable has come to my attention. The American Spectator has published a review of an article at Insight, an energy website. I'll focus on the American Spectator.

The bone of contention is all the money we are throwing at wind energy, which as "anybody who understands electricity" (like me) knows only causes problems on the grid. As the article explains:

The major limitation, of course, is wind's intermittency -- its lack of "dispatchability." Quite simply, you can never count on it. You can't even predict it from hour to hour with 100 percent accuracy.
I'm glad somebody finally had the guts to call a spade a spade. I have been in Germany since 1992, and I can tell you that people over here are suffering greatly from all of this wind power. In fact, back in June of 2008, the situation in Germany had gotten so bad that the German Environmental Ministry published its final report on "Improved grid integration of wind turbines" (here is the website in German). According to the report, wind turbines now have to stay on the grid when the grid is destabilized and provide more "reactive power" -- essentially, the turbines have to help make sure that the phases of alternating current remain in pure sine waves so that the grid does not lose power or cause damage to electrical equipment by providing electricity outside of the defined range (see, I told you I understood electricity).

Until recently, wind turbines and solar panels both had to automatically disconnect from the grid completely whenever the grid became destabilized -- after all, these so-called "electricity generators" are not dispatchable -- but it turns out that they can indeed help stabilize the grid, though only at the cost of lower "real power output", which is the wattage that turbines and solar power owners get paid for. In other words, they stabilize the grid in the same way that a central power plant does. Because wind turbines make up such a big chunk of Germany's power supply, they have to help stabilize the grid first, but in a couple of years German law will also force solar arrays of a certain size to stay on the grid and stabilize the flow of electricity when the going gets rough.

That's the price you pay for being a major electricity producer.

The German Association of Grid Operators has published some pretty harsh statistics showing what the effect is of wind power on grid reliability.

The first chart is from this report, which is a few years old, but it is unfortunately the most recent comparative study that this organization has produced. For each country (click on the picture to enlarge it), there are two bars: the left one is excluding "acts of God/force majeure"; the right one, including. As anyone who understands electricity can see, the number of minutes of power outages over the year on the average goes hand-in-hand with wind production. So Germany actually fares pretty well at around 20 or 30 minutes of outages per year compared to countries like France, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain, which have far more installed wind turbines.

The next chart shows the trend in Germany, albeit for just two years -- 2004 and 2005. While you might think that minutes of power outages are actually decreasing as more wind turbines are installed, the latest information available (for 2006) makes the whole issue of the more problematic, as our third chart from this report published in the fall of 2007 shows.

Here, we can see clearly that Germany once again rose above 20 minutes of outages on the average in 2006. Unfortunately, I was not able to come up with a nice colorful chart for the number of minutes of power outages in the US, but according to this report the Electric Power Research Institute puts the figure for the US at 214 minutes. Clearly, Americans know a lot more about electricity than Germans. About 10 times as much, in fact.

While there is no report on power outages in 2007, the German Association of Grid Operators does have the fourth chart in our blog entry on its website. Once again, Germany remains at the bottom of the pack in terms of the number of minutes without power. As you can see, the number of minutes of power outages not caused by force majeure (the ones at least potentially related to wind power) dropped back down a bit closer to 20 minutes on average for the year, but the overall number of minutes skyrocketed because a major storm called Kyrill blew across northern Europe that January, causing five billion euros in damage in Germany alone. In each of those years from 2004 to 2007, wind power grew by more than 10 percent on the average. Clearly, wind is wreaking havoc on the German grid.

Finally, I'd like to come back to the point about "You can't even predict [wind] from hour to hour with 100 percent accuracy." This is a crucial point, and I'm really glad that it has been brought up. The matter is actually much worse than the author suggests. It seems that so-called "wind forecasting companies" have given up trying to predict wind from hour to hour with 100 percent accuracy. This company unabashedly writes:

"EuroWind provides you with accurate 8-day forecasts of the wind- and solar power generation for any country, region, supply area, or wind farm in Europe, the USA, or Canada."
They are not even shooting for hour-to-hour forecasts. These other guys offer a five-day forecast. Would somebody please tell these people we want hour-by-hour forecasts, not eight days and five days?

Of course, neither of these companies put their accuracy into a specific percentage, but we know it's not 100 percent. But other media reports provide a fuller picture, such as this one from 2007 on Germany's ISET in Kassel:

Windgeschwindigkeit 12 Meter pro Sekunde, Windrichtung West. Das Rechenmodell nutzt diese Daten und zeigt, wie der Wind morgen sein wird. Kilowatt-genau. Für jede einzelne Viertelstunde – einen Tag im Voraus.
That translates as: "Wind velocity 12 meters per second, direction west. The software uses this data and shows what the wind will be like tomorrow. Down to the kilowatt. For each quarter hour -- a day in advance."

As anyone who understands electricity can see, the companies continue to miss the mark. They either provide forecasts for the next eight days, five days, or for every quarter hour for tomorrow accurate down to the kilowatt, but they do not provide hour-by-hour forecasts that are 100 percent accurate. 99% maybe, but not 100 percent.

Of course, conventional power plants of all types are 100 percent accurate. They never break down, there are never any unplanned repairs or maintenance work, and there is absolutely no need for backup power plants (= "reserve capacity"). We have always had exactly the generating capacity installed that we need to meet peak demand and not a megawatt more -- at least, not until all of these wind turbines started going up.

In closing, I think the American Spectator's ultimate point is well taken:

In other words, thanks to government mandates and subsidies, wind will be there to throw power onto the market any time the wind blows. This will not replace base load plants but will only drive down prices, cutting into their revenues.... And so coal and nuclear will become less profitable.

There you have it: wind will drive down the price of electricity. Of course, coal and nuclear have never been subsidized, and no government funding is going to the coal sector for its R&D into carbon sequestration and storage; why on earth would the coal sector need government support anyway after 150 years of profitability? But the author's other point should also be heeded. The more renewables we have, the more we will have to run our conventional power plants below capacity, and that will cut into the profit margins of utilities. In my book (see the column to the right), I propose a simple solution based on the German model: pay them. Have some accountants calculate the difference, pass it by the grid regulators, and pass the extra costs onto consumers. That approach works quite well in Germany, where government officials are competent and the business world does not cook its books. I don't see any reason why it wouldn't work in the US.

The alternative, of course, is also attractive - at least as seen from Germany. America, do not throw all of this money at wind power. Wait until conventional, reliable sources of energy -- such as gas, nuclear, and coal -- become scarcer and hence more expensive, and wait until the price of wind power has come down. Germany and a few other European countries will be happy to sell you these products when you are caught in a pinch somewhere between skyrocketing fuel prices and a lack of domestic renewable manufacturing industry. Just stick to iPods and Segways, ok? Let Europe do the unnecessary stuff.

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