Thoughts on economics and liberty

Extracts from Dr. Lars Schernikau’s Why wind and solar energy cannot (yet) power modern civilization

This article provides valuable info to add to my list of data compiled here.

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  • Costs for renewable power generation have dropped faster than many anticipated, this is a good thing… but they will not improve 10-fold anymore, physical limits will be reached
  • Common comparisons of renewables vs. conventional power generation are misleading and wrong. You cannot simply compare marginal costs for intermittent power with costs for base power
  • Adding wind and solar to the power grid beyond a certain point is not only uneconomical but more importantly hurts the environment
  • Gas’ GHG emissions from production to combustion are essentially the same as for coal. Thus, replacing coal with gas will achieve nothing but increase costs
  • The material needs and thus the environmental impact of today’s renewables including batteries far out-shadow those for conventional power

“The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could.” (Forbes, May 2019).

Of today’s 8 billion people, there are at least 3 billion with no or only erratic access to power. We can expect to add another 3+ billion people in the next 50 years. Thus, we will have 6 billion new energy customers to join our increasingly loving planet.

Do you truly believe that non-hydro renewables wind and solar will give you the energy we need? Will we have enough space for windmills and solar panels? Can they sustainably and environmentally friendly power the future?

Comparing apples with oranges

The Betz Limit states that a blade can capture maximum 60% of kinetic energy in air – modern windmills have reached 45%. The Schockley-Queisser Limit states that at maximun 33% of incoming photons can be converted into electrons in silicon photovoltaic – modern PV reaches 26%. “The era of 10-fold gains is over”1. Don’t expect from energy what you see in computers. There is no Moore’s Law in energy. Costs will not continue dropping.

Today’s wind and solar are inherently intermittent means for power generation, they cannot and will never replace conventional power. That means they only work when the wind blows or the sun shines. There is no area practically large enough to ensure that there is always wind or sun. Over the entire continent of North America, there are frequent hour-long periods with no wind or sun anywhere. It happens every few years, probably at least once a decade, that the continent experiences a full day or two of no sun or wind anywhere1.

Thus, we need to account for the cost of batteries or the cost of conventional power as backup for wind and solar when comparing the cost of power. None of the current Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) measures account for this. Neither do standard LCOE measures account for (1) the additional cost of interconnections required, nor (2) the cost of managing networks with highly volatile energy inputs, nor (3) the efficiency losses resulting from keeping coal, gas, or nuclear power as backup.

Number (3) explains why the total cost of power goes up the more wind or solar you install beyond a certain point.

Only recently has the IEA developed a new way of measuring cost of electricity with what they call Value-Adjusted Levelized Cost of Electricity or VALCOE.

In February 2019, the IEA writes “In India for example, the LCOE of new solar PV is projected to drop below that of coal power plants by 2025. But the story is different using VALCOE. As the share of solar PV surpasses 10% in 2030, the value of [solar] daytime production drops and the value of flexibility increases.”  It is tragic that the awareness of the true cost of wind and solar is only becoming apparent now.

Coal vs. gas

Germany did not only decide to exit nuclear power after Fukushima but in 2019 also decided to exit coal power. Germany has realized they need backup power. Thus they decided to build new gas-fired power plants instead.

Today’s battery technology cannot save wind and solar

Over the years, batteries have become far more efficient and the recent move towards electrical vehicles has driven large investments in battery “Gigafactories” around the world.

The problem with current battery technology:

Energy density: The energy that a 540 kg Tesla battery can store equals the energy that 30 kg of coal store. The battery still has to be charged while coal is already “charged”. One annual Gigafactory production of 50 GWh of Tesla batteries would be enough to provide backup for 6 minutes for the entire US. Thus, today’s battery technology unfortunately cannot be the solution of intermittency.

Material requirements: Each Tesla battery of 85 kWh requires 25-50 tons of raw materials to be mined, moved and processed. Additionally, energy of 10-18 MWh is required to build one Tesla battery. It takes 50-100 tons of raw materials to be mined, processed and moved to create a medium that can be compared to 30 kg of coal. (Effectively) one Tesla battery requires 500-1,000 tons of materials to be moved/mined compared to coal which requires only 0.3 tons – a factor of 1,700 to 3,300.

“What do we do now? Are we all doomed?”

Students are (being) taught to urgently expand utilization of current solar, wind and battery technology without being made aware of their huge environmental burden.

Current battery technology, wind, and solar cannot and will not replace conventional power.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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