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The Intermittency Problem
Renewables Fail Even When They Succeed

The costs of renewables are dropping, thanks in large part to generous state subsidies and production chains that have helped to drive down prices of solar panels and to a lesser extent wind turbines. But cheaper doesn’t yet mean cheap—renewables still rely on government support to help them fight fossil fuels for market share—and up-front costs aren’t the only thing holding us back from a 100 percent wind-and-solar-powered society. Intermittency, the notion that wind and solar can only generate power when it’s windy or sunny, sets a limit to how much we can rely on renewables. During windless nights, we need backups (read: nuclear or fossil fuel plants) ready to come online, but the Economist notes that “it is hard to get people to build gas-fired power stations that will not be used very much—which in markets with a lot of renewables is their inevitable fate.”

That’s not the only way in which intermittency hamstrings renewables. The FT today highlights research by German economist Lion Hirth, who has argued that intermittency also consigns renewable power generators to “price cannibalization”. The upshot: when renewables hit peak production they effectively flood the wholesale electricity market, depressing prices and hurting their own bottom line. Intermittency, it seems, has yet another ugly side effect.

It’s therefore not enough to focus solely on further depressing the price of solar panels or wind turbines. Power generation needs to be, above all, consistent, and the vagaries of weather prevent renewables from being so. Finding a way cheaply and efficiently to store wind and solar power on a commercial scale would, of course, solve most of these problems (though grids will still need updating to account for the more distributed nature of these new power sources). To that end, and as the Economist argues, we’d be better served diverting money away from the propping up of less efficient current-generation renewables and towards the research and development of technologies that will allow wind and solar to out-muscle fossil fuels on their own merits.

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  • Fat_Man

    “the research and development of technologies that will allow wind and solar to out-muscle fossil fuels on their own merits.”

    Please stop. There is nothing that anyone knows about that can do that job economically. And, that is not going to change.

    • JR

      Sorry, I have to disagree with you there. There is nothing that anyone knows about renewables that can do that job economically RIGHT NOW. I firmly believe that at some point some kind of mobile renewable energy tech will emerge. I have no idea how fast that will occur because human beings are notoriously horrible at correctly contextualizing time.

      • Fat_Man

        I find you faith very touching.

        • JR

          It’s that or extinction. You can say that I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

          • Fat_Man

            God bless you my child.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Why is it ‘that or extinction’?

          • JR

            non-renewable fuels are by definition finite. Also, I don’t see how we can establish feasible extra-terrestial habitats (a pre-req in my mind for continuous existence of the species in the future) without first mastering renewable energy. Now, this is not an endorsement of Obama’s power grab, or Solyndra, or any of that other crap. This is more of a philosophical point.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Nuclear (by which I mean both fission and fusion) is essentially infinite by any rational standard, and without that you don’t get your extra-terrestrial habitats (by the way, we agree on the necessity of those for survival) anyway. Solar, wind, and the rest are simply too limited, too diffiuse, and impractical for anything other than a peasant’s existence, which is why I expect the greenies like them so much.
            Fat Man’s point is that the limiting factors here are physical constants (notably electrochemistry) and no amount of clever innovation is going to change that. I am a tad more optimistic than he is regarding power storage (supercapcitors, for instance, can finesse the issue to some extent, but there are problems with this as well), but ultimately his objections are well-founded. Technology has worked miracles, but there are limits to all of these things…

          • CapitalHawk

            Ah, quoting a paean to socialism. That will surely win you converts.

          • JR

            Umm, anybody who knows me knows my deep hatred for socialism. But not everything is about politics. Sometimes it is nice to take a step back and marvel at the ingenuity the top .001% of our species possesses.

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    • Andrew Allison

      I have to agree with JR about “that is not going to change”. As Yogi Berra famously observed, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” It is, however, perfectly clear that the emission reductions by today’s alternative energy solutions are ridiculously costly.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The “cost” of renewables should include all the subsidies, tax credits, increased electricity prices, etc., involved. It’s just like the so-called “emission free” electric vehicle which, in addition to restricting the mobility of its owner, actually pollutes more than its IC-powered equivalent (http://fuelfix.com/blog/2013/08/15/electric-cars-are-often-worse-for-climate-report-says/).

  • CaliforniaStark

    Agree with the post. The intermittancy of wind and solar, together with their low energy generation capacity, means they will likely top out at only being able to provide 20-25% of the country’s total energy need (and this is an optimistic assumption). Rather than continue pouring subsidies into wind and solar, research should focus on developing a new generation of renewables — such as hydrogen, thorium-based nuclear, and biomethane from agricultural waste and manure, which can provide power 24/7.

    Instead, we have Obama promoting a so-called clean energy plan, which commits the nation to spending additional billions of dollars for wind and solar subsidies, despite their obvious limitations. The result will be American consumers paying substantially more for energy, which will still be provided primarily by fossil fuels (as is currently happening in Germany). Obama will reward the wind and solar special interests that helped fund his campaigns, to the detriment of the American people and the environment.

  • Fat_Man

    Great post on the impact of Obama’s “renewable” power plan at Watt’s Up With That.

    “Obama May Finally Succeed!” by Willis Eschenbach on August 3, 2015
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2015/08/03/obama-may-finally-succeed/
    Mr. Eschenbach analyized data about the cost of electric power and the amount of electrcity produced by “renewables” in Europe. He concluded:

    “Per capita installed renewable capacity by itself explains 84% of the variation in electricity costs.”

    and that:

    ” … the average price of electricity in the US will perforce go up to no less than 43 cents per kilowatt-hour … Since the current average US price of electricity is about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour … that means the true price of electricity is likely to almost quadruple in the next 15 years.”

    “And given that President Obama famously predicted that under his energy plan electricity prices would necessarily “skyrocket” … it looks like he finally might actually succeed at something.”

  • Blackbeard

    The idea that we are entitled to cheap reliable electricity 24/7 is a typical arrogant, racist, capitalist conceit and one that we in the West need to get over quickly.

    Check your privilege!

  • EDMH

    A few real numbers for renewables from Europe.
    Using Renewable Energy Industry data sources, by 2014 European Union countries had invested approximately €1 trillion in large scale Renewable Energy installations. This may well be an underestimate.
    This has provided a nameplate electrical generating capacity of about 216 Gigawatts, nominally about ~22% of the total European generation needs of some 1000 Gigawatts.
    The actual measured output by 2014 has been 38 Gigawatts or 3.8% of Europe’s electricity requirement, at a capacity factor of ~18% overall.
    Accounting for capacity factors the capital cost of these Renewable Energy installations is about €29billion / Gigawatt. That capital cost should be compared with conventional gas-fired electricity generation costing about €1billion / Gigawatt.
    The whole 1000 Gigawatt fleet of European electricity generation installations could have been replaced with lower capital cost Gas-fired installations for the €1trillion of capital costs already expended on Renewable Energy in Europe.
    However Renewable Energy production is dependent on the seasons, local weather conditions and the rotation of the earth, day and night.
    So the Renewable Energy contribution to the electricity supply grid is inevitably erratic, intermittent and non-dispatchable. It is therefore much less useful than dispatchable sources of electricity, which can be engaged whenever necessary to match demand and maintain grid stability. That 3.8% Renewable Energy contribution to the grid is often not available when needed and obversely its mandatory use can cause major grid disruption if the Renewable Energy contribution is suddenly over abundant.
    The Renewable Energy industry could not exist without the Government mandated subsidies and preferential tariffs on which it depends. It is not a viable business proposition
    Viewed from the point of view of the viability of the nation’s electrical grid, Renewable Energy would never be part of the generating mix without its Government mandate and Government market interference.
    https://edmhdotme.wordpress.com/european-renewable-energy-costs-and-performance-2014/

  • EDMH

    Here are some estimates of the real Renewable costs and performance in Europe for 2014

    https://edmhdotme.wordpress.com/european-renewable-energy-costs-and-performance-2014/

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