Green Illusions Green Illusions – Why Wind and Solar Power Cannot Displace Coal
We live in a crazy mixed-up world where half-truths abound as politicians, stock promoters, forecasters and advocates of all stripes blithely ignore the vulgar exigencies of objective truth when it comes to the energy supplies that make our industrialized economies and comfortable lives possible. It’s a golden age of green illusions, a/k/a alternative energy fairy tales.
Since this series of articles will focus on the contrast between objective truths and green illusions, I can’t think of a better way to kick it off than a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said, “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The modern electric grid is a technological marvel that instantaneously balances supply and demand 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There are three basic classes of generating assets.
“Base-load power plants” provide dependable, consistent and stable electric power. They operate at a steady state day-in and day-out and that makes base-load power plants highly efficient. As a result, base-load power plants typically produce the cheapest electricity. The principal base-load power technologies used in North America are coal, nuclear and combined cycle natural gas plants, although the class does include modest amounts of hydroelectric power.
“Peaking power plants” only operate when the power demand in a region exceeds the available supplies. Some peaking power plants operate for several hours a day, while others only operate for a few hours a year. Since peaking power plants have widely variable operating schedules and must produce power on demand, they’re usually less efficient than base load power plants, which makes electricity from peaking plants more expensive. The principal peaking power technology used in North America is the natural gas turbine, but the class does include modest amounts of hydroelectric power.
“Intermittent power sources” are generating assets that are not continuously available due to factors outside the operator’s control. The principal intermittent power sources used in North America are wind turbines and solar panels. The main advantage of intermittent power sources is that they don’t consume fuel or emit CO2.The disadvantages include:
Intermittent power sources must have conventional backup for frequent periods when the wind and sun aren’t feeling particularly cooperative;
Cannibalization of peaking plant revenue streams results in higher electric costs for all because interest, depreciation, overhead and other fixed operating expenses must be recovered from fewer units of production;
When utilities pay premium prices for renewables, that indirectly increases electricity prices for all; and
When Federal, State and local treasuries subsidize the construction and operation of intermittent power sources, they indirectly increase everyone’s tax burden.
Since I’m an unapologetic climate change fatalist, the following discussion from Wikipedia strikes me as particularly apt at this point:
In biology, parasitism is a non-mutual symbiotic relationship between species, where one species, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other, the host. …
Unlike predators, parasites typically do not kill their host, are generally much smaller than their host, and will often live in or on their host for an extended period. … Classic examples of parasitism include interactions between vertebrate hosts and tapeworms, flukes, the Plasmodium species and fleas.
The following graph summarizes the hourly power demand in the ERCOT system on January 15th and July 15th of last year beginning at 7:00 AM and ending at 6:59 AM the next day. While my choice of January 15th and July 15th was arbitrary I think most will accept my assertion that they’re typical winter and summer days. In the graph, the orange block at the bottom represents base-load supply from nuclear, the yellow block in the middle represents base-load supply from coal and the white space between the yellow block and the total demand curves represents power from natural gas peaking plants with immaterial contributions from wind, solar, biomass, hydro and other sources.