Snippets on Energy #6
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Frank Sinatra had a famous line about New York, ‘the city that never sleeps’ — but he might as well sang about this modern world. At any given moment there are millions and millions of people doing their daily business, or enjoying some sort of entertainment (at least a lucky few). In the end — as always though— it all comes down to using energy: to power those machines mining, transporting, manufacturing things we consume, to electrify our digital gadgets on which we watch Bitcoin’s exchange rate to rise into infinity, or the latest episode of our favorite show.
Among these many processes there are quite some which requires an absolute secure power supply. Data centers, microchip manufacturing, furnaces — just to name a few. These processes were designed with a ceaseless supply of electricity, coming from coal, nuclear and natural gas, as well as the direct heat coming from fossil fuels in mind. In case of a power outage (or a sudden loss of gas or coal supply) furnaces — for example — would clog with unprocessed material, and would have to be scrapped at a huge cost… making the economics of running steel, glass or chemical feed-stock manufacturing questionable, if not outright impossible to manage. In the past, this never used to be a major problem, since the economy could always be run 24/7 on fossil fuels and nuclear: day or night, rain or shine.
Enter resource shortages due to depletion, and climate change from burning fossil fuels. Our response of adding “renewables” in the mix, including hydro-electric dams seemed to be a good idea, but above a certain threshold all sorts of problems can be expected to occur. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not advocating for the continued use of fossil fuels, knowing the damage they have done already. They are depleting anyway, so we must find a way around them (the sooner the better). I must also warn you in advance: “renewables” will most probably not be able to deliver the lifestyle we “enjoy” today with the use of their dirty counterparts.
It is better to be prepared, than surprised.
“Renewable” sources are providing an intermittent, almost incalculable source of power — by nature. In case of solar there is no energy production at night (where most people and manufacturing processes still need energy), and daytime production varies greatly based on the weather. In higher latitudes (where most affluent people live and where most of the energy is consumed) days are much shorter and cloudier during winter and much longer in summer. The same variability is true for wind, and to some extent hydro as well (both being highly dependent on the weather and the amount of rainfall). Knowing all this, one question pops to my mind here:
Since the weather is going to get weirder and weirder due to climate change, why should we put all our faith in weather dependent “renewable” electricity…?
Electric grids require a high level of stability in order to function properly and to avoid blackouts. First of all, they need to have a constant baseload power, which must be supplied at any given time. Day or night, rain or shine. Needless to say “renewables” cannot fulfill this role by definition. Only coal or gas fired and nuclear power plants can provide this. At our current state of affairs however I’m afraid that we have far too little nuclear capacity (except maybe for France) to rely on during this “transitional decade”, and the little we have left in Europe are about to close soon due to its age, or for political reasons (1). Maybe, if we were to build more nuclear (taking 10–15 years to start up from announcement) we could solve the baseload problem, but in the near term (this decade) we will be having more and more issues on this front. I would not be surprised at all, if all those recently closed coal fired power plants would suddenly find themselves providing a major part of electricity production — again.
Even if the question of baseload power gets resolved in the medium term, the intermittency of “renewables”— will still pose a major challenge to grid stability. Since the wind can cease blowing and the sun can be blocked by clouds in any minute, only to come back at full force in the next, then disappear for a week, we would need overcapacity and storage at an unprecedented scale: capable to bridge bad weather and seasonal variability too. Many solutions are on the table these days to address this issue — but none scale up really well: in the end all of them turn out to be very resource intensive (see the previous post on batteries) or limited by geography (pumped hydro). Needless to say: none of these costs and tough to crack problems are considered when proposing a new solar or wind facility, leaving electric utility providers with an ever greater challenge to solve.
In order to have a fair comparison on an equal basis with nuclear and fossil fuels, we would definitely need to know the cost, resource and energy requirements of grid level storage solutions, as traditional sources need none of them. Chances are, that calculating these factors into energy returns (EROEI calculations) would turn out really sour for complex societies. It is perfectly understandable, that no one really wants to talk about this issue, because it would endanger the narrative, insisting that we must go full steam ahead with “renewables”, no matter what.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, that the only economically viable solution remaining to “solve” this intermittency/storage dilemma is to burn even more fossil fuels (natural gas). A gas turbine can be brought online in a matter of minutes to balance out unfavorable weather or to provide electricity for the evenings (something which cannot be told about nuclear). Fossil fuel companies are trying to sell natural gas as a bridge fuel, but — knowing that we are soon to pass a point when the rising demand could no longer be met — this is a bridge to nowhere. Besides the already daunting issue of depletion, and as the “renewable” transition gains speed, the fluctuation in power (2) could prove to be too high even for gas power stations to handle, leading to random blackouts and sudden overloads in the system. Again, a systemic risk rarely discussed in public.
We are thus facing a double whammy with balancing renewables by the use of gas fired power plants. On one hand, as renewables grow in scale, coal gets phased out and the weather gets more and more unreliable, we would need more and more power plants consuming more and more natural gas to balance intermittency and to provide a stable baseload. On the other hand, natural gas is a finite resource, which is about to peak in extraction, then gradually decline... If this hasn’t happened already — contributing greatly to the energy crisis in Europe. The result? Soaring natural gas and electricity prices.
Without solid, scientific information on the true cost of a stable “renewable” power grid (if it is possible at all without the use of fossil fuels), we are flying blind on bold assumptions. Like: “the market will figure out”, or “experts will know how to deal with” this… Sure, but at what cost? Will their solution scale up? And who will be able to afford it?
I’m not saying that we should not stop burning fossil fuels. We must and we will. If not because of climate change, then because of their gradual depletion. I’m questioning the approach here: the massive rollout of technologies, unproven on an industrial scale, using up finite resources and a ton of subsidies, instead of focusing on their proven strengths and coming up with a true, honest transition plan.
You might be surprised, but I’m all in for rooftop solar, and tiny-scale wind generators. Wind and solar is the future, there is no other way. But — and this is the biggest buts of all buts — this should not happen as part of the current consumer economy. What do I mean by that? Low scale, low tech, low impact solutions. Like a low voltage direct current network in your house with cheap DC equipment. Solar water heaters. Wind powered mechanical water pumps. Local (neighborhood sized) small electric grids, with only a minimal amount of emergency storage.
We have to rethink our approach to energy, and ultimately to the economy: using electricity and resources when, and only as much as it is available. Not this full blown, mindless, pedal to the metal consumption driven approach exacerbating our environmental problems and not solving anything.
Until next time,
(1) Germany could shut down its nuclear fleet together with phasing out coal, only because they have France as a neighbor, and because they are effectively on the same grid together with the rest of Europe (including Norway with their wast hydro capacity, and the UK desperately needing surplus electricity). This is not to say that this was a good idea. Far from it.
(2) The electric grid was designed with huge magnets (aka generators) spinning at a very stable, constant speed in mind — providing it with 50/60 Hz frequency. In fact, it is this frequency which measures the stability of the grid. Any minor deviation up and down can damage sensitive devices and force the system to shut down major areas. Renewables try and simulate this frequency (via inverters) but they are far from being perfect, thus decreasing the stability of the grid.