Streetwise Professor

March 11, 2019

Another Data Point on the Renewables Fairy Tale

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:39 pm

A coda to yesterday’s post. The EIA announced that in 2018 60 percent of new US electricity generating capacity was fueled by natural gas. This outstripped wind by a factor of almost 3, and solar by a factor of almost 5.

But those ratios understate matters, given that capacity factors for natural gas are about double those for renewables. Thus, in terms of actual real generation, natural gas added about four times as much effective capacity in 2018 as renewables. Not to mention that combined cycle plants are available pretty much on demand, rain or shine, day or night. Unlike the wind and the sun.

This despite the continued subsidization of renewables.

So tell me again how renewables will permit the fossil fuel-free electrification of the economy. I like fairy tales.

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  1. I think you might have understated the disadvantage to renewables. Capacity factors for wind are 20% at best, and 15% is more likely. Capacity factors for simple-cycle gas might be south of 50%, but combined-cycle plants are built as base-load, and they will have capacity factors in the high 80% range as a minimum. I don’t know the mix of simple- and combined-cycle (and can’t be arsed to look it up) but I’d be pretty comfortable with the assertion that gas-fired plants have at least 3x the capacity factor of renewables, and more likely 4x. Not to mention the small advantage of dispatchability – you know, so the lights actually go on when you flick the switch.

    Comment by dcardno — March 12, 2019 @ 1:58 pm

  2. @dcardno–Your numbers are in accord with my understanding, but I erred on the side of caution. EIA and DOE report renewable capacity factors ~40 pct for wind. I don’t believe that, but rather than risk being accused of stacking the case against renewables, went with their numbers. Similarly, EIA reports gas generation capacity factors of ~55 pct. I also understand that mixes simple- and combined-cycle, but again I attempted to be conservative.

    The comparison is bad enough using EIA/DOE numbers–it’s appalling use the more realistic figures you mention.

    And yes, the fact that gas generation is controllable, rather than operating at the whims of the weather, is a huge difference–as I point out in the post.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 12, 2019 @ 6:11 pm

  3. Capacity factor for UK offshore wind is reported to be about 37% (rising to 41% for more recent (i.e. taller) units). I can’t imagine that hilltop turbines are any worse, and they’re cheaper to install anyway. Dispatchability is easily solved with batteries (for small peaks) and pumped-storage (already widely used for larger peaks).

    I’m actually not in favour of a wholesale changeover to Wind and Solar (except for low-population density countries with good wind/sun, or where micro-grids are a necessity) but with the technology available we can safely add them to the energy mix in meaningful quantity… if only the green-washers would stop saying that we can go full renewable (the physics are impossible with our current patterns of consumption and current tech) but also if sceptics would stop arbitrarily slashing capacity factors in half.

    Now, whether you WANT to add them to the grid is a political question for which nobody has a 100% guaranteed answer, but we need to stop saying that we CAN’T..

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 15, 2019 @ 5:14 am

  4. Hiberno – Actually, hilltop turbines *are* worse, for both Cap Factor and average wind speed (and thus power production) – otherwise there’s no incentive to build off-shore, which as you note is much (much) more expensive – both for overnight cost and ongoing operations and maintenance. I went and looked at some data for two on-shore wind farms, one of ~150MW and the other of ~100MW nominal capacity. The bigger one averaged 24% Cap Factor and the smaller one 17% over a six and eight year period, respectively. I don’t claim that they are representative, but at least it’s a couple of data points.
    Batteries and pumped storage can’t come close to smoothing out the peaks and valleys, let alone ‘easily’ – batteries don’t have the capacity at any sort of economic cost, and there isn’t enough pumped storage capacity. Expansion of pumped storage is difficult; it’s obviously site-specific, and the round-trip energy loss is 10-15% between pumping and generating efficiency and head losses in the penstocks. That loss has to be charged against the Cap Factor of the intermittent resource (we don’t do that now when we talk about Cap Factors, but it is an economic cost whether we talk about it or not). Euan Mearns has done some interesting work on storage requirements for intermittents and the feasibility of an all-renewable / storage back-up grid arrangement.

    Comment by dcardno — March 15, 2019 @ 10:12 am

  5. The hazards of being (more than) a little OCD…
    I went to bmreports, which reports aggregated UK electricity market data. The average half-hourly MW wind output in the UK for 2018 was 4,498MW, from a total installed capacity of 18,215MW. The generation isn’t broken down between on-shore and off-shore, although the capacity is – it’s about 2/3rds on-shore, 1/3rd off-shore. The average Capacity Factor is a shade under 25% – of course we don’t know the split between on- and off-shore.
    The maximum CF for the year was 12,073MW, or a CF of ~66%.
    Maybe 2018 was an unusual year in the UK – fewer storms, less wind, long calm periods, etc – I have no idea, but I find a reported ~40% CF to be pretty optimistic. The installed capacity will, of course, include some older and possibly less-efficient turbines, but I doubt that turbine efficiency (as opposed to scale) has improved *that* much over the 15 or 20 year history of large-scale wind generation.

    Comment by dcardno — March 15, 2019 @ 11:36 am

  6. I bet the offshore maintenance costs haven’t been fully admitted over the full life cycle either, especially the decommissioning costs. These used to scare oil companies, so I can’t imagine what subsidy-reliant wind farm owners are doing to the numbers to make them seem palatable. And of course, if the oil price picks up again they’ll be back to competing for vessels and rope-access crews with outfits that lose $10m+ down the back of sofas.

    Comment by Tim Newman — March 18, 2019 @ 6:32 am

  7. Tim – from your lips to Gods ear!
    Yoiu hear about these things from time-to-time, but it just seemed appropriate to include this link:

    Comment by dcardno — March 18, 2019 @ 1:06 pm

  8. If renewables were economic they would not require subsidies, Usage of sourcing mandates, etc. and electricity costs would not being increased. As this is not the case the % of capacity of any other argument is bootless: the current regime is an excellent excuse in state power enforcing the nominally secular but actually religious beliefs of the elites. This could change in the future but is the case now.

    Comment by Sotos — March 19, 2019 @ 10:36 am

  9. Sorry for the UK-bias, in my answers, but I’m more interested in Europe, and the UK data are in English. In the USA, as the Prof notes, natural gas is available domestically, has low particulate emissions and is cheap, cheap, cheap!

    @Sotos: The UK doesn’t subsidise on-shore wind at all. But also, they don’t seem to build any – this definitely agrees with your position that they’d be built if they were economic. However, when you look at the subsidies the UK does offer, it comes in the form of a guaranteed minimum price: £120 /MWh for current projects, and just over £60 from 2021. That’s right at the upper end of the price-range in that market: , so it is again a subsidy. But that hides two remarkable facts: That guaranteed price has halved in just a few years (similar to what’s happening in solar) and it’s actually less than what was being offered to conventional nuclear plants to attract them to operate in the UK market (albeit as super-helpful baseload, rather than intermittent wind – though the offshore wind is quite reliable).

    @Tim: Offshore turbines are usually installed by specialised ships, wouldn’t that partially insulate them from labour competition from off-shore oil? As for decommissioning costs: In theory they could just keep using the foundations indefinitely, no? (Unlike an oil platform, which I know has to be removed when the oil is gone/lease is expired – there’s a fascinating episode of the Podcast 99% Invisible (“Crude Habitat”) about whether to fully remove some platforms in California, because the fish have taken a liking to them). I know you’re the expert in this…

    @Dcardno: I got the UK offshore-wind capacity factors from here: I’ll take your word for it on the on-shore, and as commenter Sotos notes, there aren’t many being built without subsidies. But the first few unsubsidised projects (on and off shore) are alreay going ahead in Europe right now, so maybe change is coming. It’ll be interesting to watch.
    When I say “batteries”, I’m not really thinking about bulk power: Batteries would only be appropriate to support the grid on the order of seconds, while the rest of the generation hardware adjusts (this is what the Tesla battery is doing in Australia – they had plenty of power, they just weren’t managing it properly). Something similar is done on aircraft, if anybody’s interested in a briefing 🙂
    Pumped storage isn’t that difficult: All you need is a hill and some turbines. If 1970s Ireland could manage to build one, anybody can! They’ve been used for decades and I think that most grids could find suitable terrain in or around their territory. Granted there are losses, but I bet those can be usefully offset by not having to pay users to accept excess electricity. They also provide baseload power (albeit only for a day) and they cost a hell of a lot less than a nuclear plant (and again, understood that this isn’t the same thing, but it goes a long way towards offsetting…).
    You’re right that efficiency hasn’t changed much over the years, but as the turbines get taller, the wind gets more reliable and so the capacity factor goes up.
    Stop calling it OCD. Call it CDO – that’s the correct order 😛

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 20, 2019 @ 4:49 am

  10. I wrote a detailed response, with references… which I suspect means it is now in spam-purgatory. Any chance it can be released?

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 20, 2019 @ 4:56 am

  11. @dcardno & others. According to a reliable source, capacity factors in China–the supposed trend-setter in large scale adoption of wind to deal with its horrific pollution problems–are on the order of 10-15 percent. This is in part due to transmission limitations, which reflects the fact that where the wind blows and where the power is demanded are typically quite far apart. Meaning that the total cost of wind includes the substantial investment in transmission necessary to bring the power from the windy boonies to the energy-hungry cities.

    Transmission issues have also been a contributor to high costs and inefficient utilization in Germany: due to NIMBY problems and cost, Germany has been slow to invest in the transmission necessary to bring offshore wind generated power from the North Sea to the demand areas in Bavaria.

    It’s also worth noting that wind power is of lower quality due to greater variations in frequency, which wreaks havoc with precision manufacturing applications.

    What’s not to like?

    But stupidity is apparently contagious. The UK just announced that it too would ban all use of natural gas heating in construction starting in 2025.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 20, 2019 @ 8:35 pm

  12. @HibernoFrog–Done.

    Comment by cpirrong — March 20, 2019 @ 9:23 pm

  13. @HibernoFrog–I appreciate very much your thoughtful and detailed response. I have no idea why the spam filter didn’t feel the same way 😛

    Comment by cpirrong — March 20, 2019 @ 9:24 pm

  14. @Prof:

    Thanks for the unblock! I spent a while on that post!

    Yeah, well, China announces and executes all kinds of plans that don’t match up with reality… They are doing something useful though: They have taken up the research into Thorium nuclear reactors that the USA abandoned in the 60s (More readily available fuel, operates with a molten core and therefore can’t meltdown, uses fuel more efficiently, can’t be used to make bombs, creates much shorter-lived waste and can produce super-useful medical and scientific isotopes. It’s still probably decades away, but is amazing stuff).

    It’s not necessarily stupid to ban fossil-fuel heating (If the sun isn’t shining, my house only needs 2kW of space heating and 2.5kW of water heating – this is more cost-effectively done with electricity) but it’s really quite an illiberal way to go about it. I guess it looks decisive, so that’s why politicians do it. The dirigisme-loving French actually do it better: They set an easily-achieved max energy consumption per square metre (for new buildings) and you achieve that however you wish. No bans needed: The market chooses the best solution.
    However, I suspect that UK builders will simply replace the clean-burning gas with particulate-belching (and questionable CO2-neutrality) wood pellet boilers. This is not a step forwards…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 21, 2019 @ 5:42 am

  15. Hi Hiberno – thanks for that link; it is a good site. I tried to compare their figures with the stuff from BMReports, and… ran into some problems. EnergyNumbers reports total off-shore wind generation of ~113,000 GWh – they claim their source is Elexon (runs the energy balancing mechanism for theUK grid).My calcuation from BMReports is total wind (on- and off-shore) of ~39,000 GWh (both for 2018) – and BMReports is Elexon. I have sent a not to BMReports to ask if they can explain the difference. I couldn’t find a contact for EnergyNumbers, but if I see one I will ask them as well.

    I’m sure everyone is just as fascinated withthis as I am, so I will et you all know what comes of it.

    Comment by dcardno — March 21, 2019 @ 6:13 pm

  16. Right – of course, just after I posted that, I realized I was reading the energynumbers table incorrectly – what I thought meant annual generation was actually lifetime generation for each facility.
    Interesting – the offshore CF is running ~37%, while on-shore is much lower. There are some differences in the data so I can’t get a precise value, but it looks to be 10% – 20%. No wonder they don’t build ’em anymore. I knew off-shore was higher, but I didn’t realize by how much.

    Comment by dcardno — March 21, 2019 @ 6:35 pm

  17. So if the guaranteed feed-in tariff continues to fall, then this looks like a competitive option in many places, and at least a viable option in the US…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — March 25, 2019 @ 4:29 am

  18. I just completed a look into wind power, during a debate with a citizen of San Francisco. From the EIA, the average capacity factor for wind in the US, 2011-2017, was 31 percent.

    The year-to-year data show the seasonal rise-and-fall of wind power with weather. High in the Winter with capacity factor hitting 40 percent, low in the Summer with capacity factor hitting 23 percent.

    A closer look at intermittency, described best in published research literature, shows wind power spiking and falling across hours. From a grid perspective, wind power is a high-frequency variability that must be extremely difficult to compensate out.

    The intermittency problem especially produces a high levelized avoidance cost of energy (LACE), that is pretty much never discussed in the glowing press reports of wind power that’s now cheaper than coal.

    The cheaper-than-coal claim takes into account only the levelized cost of energy (LCOE), that reflects the cost of building and running the plant. Wind power has no fuel costs, so running the plant is cheap. No fuel cost lowers the LCOE and allows activists to claim wind is economically competitive. It’s not. At all.

    You mentioned diffuse power. The Horse Hollow wind project in Texas generates 735 MW from wind, but needs 47,000 acres to do it.

    That’s the story for the US. The story for Europe is far worse, with typical average wind capacity factors running around 21 percent. Principia Scientific has quite a run-down on it, using EIA and national data at their post eu-weather-dependent-renewable-energy-2008-2017-performance-and-costings-2.

    The entire industry is a money loser. The entire push for renewables is a prescription for fuel poverty, and a money trough for tax-farmers. The whole enterprise is utterly immoral.

    Comment by Pat Frank — March 26, 2019 @ 12:45 pm

  19. Here’s the Principia link

    For some reason, that link in my post caused conniptions with the SWP spam filter.

    Comment by Pat Frank — March 26, 2019 @ 12:48 pm

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