Klaus-Dieter Humpich: The Dirty Secret Of Renewables

When it comes to renewable energy, you can call them “Jesus technologies”. These are technologies that went the way of the dinosaurs a long time ago due to their inefficiency and impracticality. But in order to serve a political purpose, they seem to keep getting resurrected every 30 years or so. I came up with “Jesus technology” from Bishop Hill’s  Caspar and the Jesus-Paper, a paper that died often but kept coming back.

Sure in some cases these primitive technologies make sense, but for the wide-scale application in a power grid, they make little sense, cost the consumer dearly, and even put the energy supply at risk.

Klaus-Dieter Humpich of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation For Freedom has an excellent piece on renewable energy called The Dirty Secret of Wind and Solar. It’s in German, and so if you can read the language, it is worth taking the time to do so. What follows is a summary.

Humpich’s essay starts by reminding us that electrical energy is very difficult and enormously costly to store. Therefore, the wildly fluctuating supply of wind and solar energies requires having conventional back-up systems in place, ready to fire up or throttle down at a moment’s notice whenever the sun and wind intensities change. Humprich writes that solar and wind are referred to as “additive energy forms” in the energy business, and not as “alternatives”. Alternatives would suggest that they replace conventional fuels, which is not the case. They only add to conventional fuels, and hence they are called additive supplies.

Wind and solar are a nightmare to control

The problem with wind energy is that a wind generator’s output varies with the third power of the wind velocity, P = kV³. That means a wind generator produces only 1/8 of it’s rated energy if the wind speed is cut in half. So whenever the wind speed changes, the power grid must be compensated by conventional power plants that are on constant stand-by. On gusty days, as more wind parks get added to the grid, it becomes more and more of a nightmare to keep the grid stable. The result: you get a grid that behaves like a wild bronco. Humpich writes:

A power control engineer would say that these are real disturbances with steep gradients (e.g. changes in power output due to a wind gust through a wind park).”

The once easy-to-manage, steady, conventional-fuel power supply and corresponding consumption have since been intruded on by a third, highly unstable and unpredictable player.

Standby conventional power plants have low efficiencies

So when the wind suddenly dies down, reserve conventional plants have to jump in quickly, meaning they’ve got to be always on stand-by. These power plants thus rarely run at their peak efficiencies, and often at outputs well below their peak efficiency. The result? Little, if any, savings in fossil fuel consumption gets achieved. Now we know why the concept of wind being an alternative really isn’t so.

The energy that gets produced by a wind generator, is in part lost to reduced efficiencies by the standby conventional plants. All the investment and resources to install the massive system wind and solar park infrastructure has only lead to saving a fraction of what they originally were promised to save.

Humpich writes:

You always have to keep conventional power plants running alongside in order to keep the grid stable. That means it consumes fuel that does not even get used. Be it that the plant is running only at partial capacity – at a sub-optimal efficiency – or is “throttled”, which means the generated steam does not even get sent to the turbines to be converted into power but rather is simply sent back to the condenser.”

Result: consumption of fuel – for nothing.

Mixed power grids and systems are less efficient

So why go through all the trouble if it isn’t worth it? It’s all in the bookkeeping. As long as the energy from renewable sources gets accounted as having replaced the equivalent in conventional energy, then it appears interesting and the business of CO2 emission certificates looks especially lucrative.

As Humprich explains, it’s a bit like a brochure for a new car claiming the car gets 45 mpg. But as we know, that number is only under certain ideal conditions. In reality, with all the stop-and-go driving in city traffic, etc., the car’s fuel efficiency turns out to be much less.

It’s the same concept with a grid that is powered only using steady conventional fuel. An efficiency close to that advertised by the “manufacturer'” can indeed be reached when operated near ideal conditions. But when you mix in wind and solar parks, the efficiency is spoiled – you’re in “city traffic”. It drops considerably.

So what exacly is the efficiency of a conventional power plant operating on a “mixed grid”? Does the generated wind and solar energy replace a corresponding amount of fossil fuel? The answer is of course “no”. To determine the exact amount, it is necessary to conduct comprehensive simulations or actual field measurements. Humprich provides an example. A combination natural gas fired/steam typically has an efficiency of 57%. But when it is used as a back up for wind and solar energy, it no longer operates under ideal conditions, and so the efficiency drops to a measly 36%.

Rotten in Denmark

Denmark is a country that has a large supply of renewable energy. And it is also long known that when storms rage over Denmark, its power grid has to be stabilized by conventional power plants in neighboring Germany and Sweden.

Today wind and solar energy are incresingly being stabilized by gas-fired steam power plants, and so  it means more business for the gas industry. Humprich writes:

Maybe that’s why the two leading propagandists for wind and solar energy today are representatives of gas. In the USA, in any case, the gas industry is the leading sponsor of the ‘climate industry’. But this is not reprehensible. If you wish to promote another product (natural gas) onto an established market (coal and nuclear), then a lot of arm-twisting is needed. In this respect, gas-guys like Schröder, Fischer and Co. become real vacuum cleaner salespeople, who happen to get get paid generaously for their sales pitches.”

Further Literature:

Kent Hawkins: Wind Integration Realities – Case Studies of the Netherlands and of Colorado, Texas, Master Resource.

C. le Pair & K. de Groot: The impact of wind generated electricity on fossil fuel consumption.

K. de Groot & C. le Pair: The hidden fuel costs of wind generated electricity.

10 responses to “Klaus-Dieter Humpich: The Dirty Secret Of Renewables”

  1. Ed Caryl

    Now I know why our local power Co-op hates wind and solar. The state has mandated that every little windmill and solar panel that a consumer puts up be connected to the grid through the meter so excess power can be bought by the power company. This means they pay twice, once for the power from the “alternate” source, and again for the backup power. They do it, but you can tell they are not happy.

    1. DirkH

      The nuclear people *hate* wind. A few years ago i talked to people in a bavarian nuclear plant and they said that these days they have to ramp production up and down all the time when the wind starts or stops blowing in Northern Germany. They don’t like this at all – uranium reactors tend to suffer from Xenon poisoning which introduces a lag time in the reactivity so you have to take care when ramping reactivity up or down… Of course the nuclear plants are not capable to compensate very quickly for wind power anyway, that’s the job of the gas plants, but the thermal base load, of which nuclear is a part, has to follow the load curve within their means as well.

  2. R. de Haan

    As I said before.
    Renewables accelerate the speed we consume fossil fuels and resources.
    It’s the opposite of durable.
    It’s the opposite of sustainable.
    Making claims otherwise is a FRAUD.

  3. DirkH

    The power spikes by wind can be evil, as it ramps up and down with the 3rd power of changes in the wind speed and a radical cut-off when critical wind speed is exceeded (to protect the turbine, it switches off and moves into a neutral position). But power output by solar can also be radical, at least locally – cumulus clouds on a sunny day block out insolation immediately on a small PV plant, so you get local switches between full power and no power.

    An interesting market for storage develops – not storage to reduce our CO2 footprint or whatever; but storage that keeps the power alive for one household or one company – the grid becomes unreliable so people already overwhelm the makers of battery systems, generators and fuel cells for emergency supply with requests. There are, for instance, fuel cell systems for caravans running on bottled hydrogen. Expensive, but for some people cheaper than having an outage.

  4. DirkH

    Klaus-Dieter Humpich writes in his article that nuclear plants are BETTER suited to compensate renewables fluctuation than gas plants because they have a bigger thermal mass and are self-regulating through steam bubble formation… That’s new to me. Interesting.

  5. mindert eiting

    A lot of this knowledge must have been available to those pre-industrial wind millers in The Netherlands. No wind, no flower and no water regulation. Let’s live our lives as in those good old days. No wind, then we have to sit in the dark and illuminate our houses with romantic candles.

    1. mindert eiting

      I forgot to say that not many of those old windmills are left. With hard wind they got out of control and started burning like hell. That is the reason why they were banned from our cities because with lots of wooden houses in their environment they could initiate a complete destruction of a city.

  6. nofreewind

    And yet so many AGW skeptics are quick to say they “believe” in renewable and alternative energy.

  7. Brian G Valentine

    They don’t mention the worst problem with wind turbines on a national grid – and that is, the phase differences of wind turbines at different locations.

    Wind blowing in a direction at one wind farm can be a completely different speed and direction at another wind farm at a different location, putting the wind turbines at the different locations out of phase.

    The (real part of) the power factor is proportional to the cosine of the phase angle between the current and voltage, meaning that a phase lag of turbines can result in a (real) power loss to the grid that is larger than the power supplied to the grid by a turbine! Some turbines can be taken off line if that happens.

    How is it even known when it happens? Satellites – if the turbines are so instrumented. But a whole grid can go down if the change is too severe. For that reason, some people have concluded that a grid with more than 20% wind power is “unmanageable.”

    [This could be better controlled by allowing the frequency to vary from the normal 60 hz in the US or 50 hz in Europe but who wants that? Nobody.]