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.
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.”