Doomed Planet

‘Renewable Energy’ and its Four Icebergs

As Australian states compete to set the most ambitious emissions targets in the shortest possible time the prospect of a Green New Deal in the United States has driven the renewable energy (RE) boosters into a frenzy of excitement. Four obstacles stand in the way of these grand plans, however. Call them “icebergs” in the path of the RE Titanic.

1/ Wind droughts; frequent periods up to 30 hours in duration with next to no wind across the whole of SE Australia.

2/ The need to supply 100% of demand to the grid continuously 24 hours a day, every day.

3/ The island effect; Australia cannot run extension cords to neighbouring nations, as in Europe, to cover shortfalls.

4/ No grid-scale storage is available.

Back in June, I sketched the wind-drought problem for Quadrant Online readers under the headline No Gusts No Glory . Those droughts make nonsense of the idea that more “installed capacity” — what might be produced, but seldom is, under perfect condition on a perfect day — will maintain the necessary amount of power when we no longer have enough conventional sources to provide for our needs. In the early years of wind power it was assumed that the wind will always be blowing somewhere across SE Australia, the area covered by the integrated National Energy Market (NEM). Manifestly this is not the case. Possibly this information was not available when the RE program launched, or it was not provided by the most likely source, the Bureau of Meteorology,  or it was simly ignored. We now have an accurate measure of the wind across the country, provided by the thousands of wind turbines in the sixty-plus wind farms monitored by the Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

To grasp the significance of the low points in the wind supply it may help to compare the function of castle  walls (to keep invaders out), levees (for flood protection) and the wind supply (to keep the lights on). The effectiveness of the walls and the levees is determined by the lowest point of the structure, not the height of the castle towers or the average height of the levees. The invaders or the water will enter at the lowest point.

Similarly, the electric lights will go out when the supply is very low, regardless of the  “installed capacity” of the wind farms and their average output (29 per cent in recent years. Think of it this way: if your tank is empty, the size of the tank is irrelevant.

That is why the low point in the supply of wind power has persisted near zero while the number of windmills and the installed (maximum) capacity has grown steadily larger. The picture  tells the story, it is not up to date but it is obvious from the chart reproduced in No Gusts No Glory that the pattern is still the same. The minimum would be even lower if the data included June and July that are the worst months of the year.  The paper was concerned with the supply in the “five hot months”.

The text in the box near the bottom line contains a warning that close to nil output is “a challenge to be addressed as the penetration increases.”  Penetration has doubled since that time and the challenge is being addressed with talk — endless talk, in fact, about the dubious ‘solution’ of batteries and pumped hydro, as noted below.


Iceberg #2:  100% of demand 100% of the time

This hardly needs to be argued because, if not enough power is available to meet demand, then there must be disruptions, both large and small. Compulsory load-shedding under the direction of the market operator has so far shielded the precarious state of supply from public view. Like the other icebergs, this has been kept out of sight because we still have just enough conventional power to meet the demand, most of the time, with the help of load shedding. The balancing act will become harder each time we lose another coal-fired power station, starting with Liddell in 2022-23.


Iceberg #3:  the island effect.

Nobody will dispute the proposition that Australia is an island, and we urgently need to realise what this will mean for the power supply when we require a contribution from solar and wind to keep the lights on. We cannot run extension cords to other countries to obtain power. By contrast, other places with grand RE policies have access to power from neighbours with conventional power to spare. New Zealand and Norway are exceptions because their topography is especially favourable for hydro.

Here we might learn something from California, which would be in even more sorts of trouble if it were an island. America’s somewhat faded Golden State imports 30 per cent of its electricity, with no other state importing more. A third of the Californian power mix is natural gas (10% imported). A third is renewable with, 20% of their solar power imported and 60% of their wind power imported. During the state’s recent blackouts, the states exporting power to California had the same weather conditions that slashed California’s domestic production of wind and solar power. If those states run down their conventional power assets under the imperatives of the Green New Deal then they will have even less capacity to support the Golden State.

Denmark can produce up to 80 per cent of its electricity from the wind on a good day, but over the course of a typical 12 months, they import 45 per cent of their power. Somehow, when local RE spruikers and rent-seekers cite the Nordic nation as the example to follow, they always neglect to mention that inconvenient fact.

Germany has made a massive investment in the Energiewende, the green energy transition. When the wind is blowing strongly Germany exports power, often at negative prices. She was a net exporter for many years but when the wind isn’t blowing, there is nuclear power available on demand from France. In June 2019, Germany became a net importer for the first time since 2014. That’s something else you’ll never hear mentioned by the RE lobby’s Australian shills.

The Netherlands has carpeted the countryside with wind farms and solar panels, but these  provide just 2.7 per cent of final total energy consumption. As for electricity, wind provides 10 per cent and solar 5 per cent.  When the wind is off duty, power is imported from Germany, when available, and France, where nuclear makes its availability a given.

Britain exports power when the conditions are favourable (hence the French threat to undermine the trade by cutting the the-Channel interconnector), but she also imports during the periods when there is little or no wind.

There is a power crisis across the whole of Western Europe at present thanks to a long spell with next to no wind. France has even fired up some old coal stations because they have unbelievably moved towards RE and run down some of their nuclear capacity!

Closer to home,  King Island (population 1600) offers a salutary lesson. The Clean Energy Authority has advised that some 20 million dollars were spent on a “fully functioning RE microgrid”,  with integrated wind, solar, biodiesel and battery storage. That is over $10,000 per head of population, but notice that inconguous word ‘diesel’. For all the money spent and RE sources installed, diesel is still essential, providing a third of the island’s power. On Flinders Island, a similar story: the 40 per cent RE shortfall is covered by diesel. The mayor is optimistic that the tidal power might be used to make the power supply 100% RE. Across the country, Rottnest Island is another showpiece for the Clean Energy Authority — and, as usual, blackouts would be a constant were it not for the customary, and essential, diesel backup.

The take-away lesson here is to fear the consequences when we no longer have enough conventional power to provide 100 per cent of our needs.


Iceberg #4.  no grid-scale storage

Ultimately, the RE transition depends on storing energy for later use when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Vast amounts of storage are required to fill in the troughs between the peaks of supply, yet RE advocates offer no more than the illusion that batteries, such as the Elon Musk-built Tesla facility in South Australia, can perform that function. So-called “big batteries” are proliferating around the country but  cannot be regarded as mass storage because they do not have enough capacity to fill the gap in supply during wind droughts. Their main functions are  to cushion the impact of the chaotic voltage fluctuations  caused by the intrusion of intermittent energy into the grid, and to generate revenue by charging when the price of power is low, then discharging into the market when the price is high.

Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel issued a very clear statement on the capacity of  batteries to provide mass storage “…maybe, 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll have new kinds of batteries, vastly powerful, more extensive batteries and we can do [storage] with batteries.”  Moore’s Law (“capacity doubles every couple of years”) applies to data storage but does not work for storing energy due to the fundamental difference between storing electronic data and storing energy.

The first Musk battery attached to South Australia’s Hornsdale No 3-wind farm occupies a hectare, with a capacity of 129MWhrs and a $90 million price tag. It has been upgraded to 190MWhrs at a cost of $70 million, but compare those numbers with the demand of the SA grid, ranging  from 800MWh to 25,000MWh per hour depending on the season and the time of day. The amount of power that the battery can deliver is clearly negligible by comparison.

Pumped hydro is the other great hope for storage, but this can only end in tears due to the massive capital expense and the need to use between 30 per cent and 40 percent of the power generated to pump the water to the upper reservoir,  the first stage of  the process. Many, if not most, pumped  hydro schemes around the world use conventional power to top up the reservoir during periods when RE is in short supply. The biggest scheme in the world at Bath, Virginia, does not use RE at all, it takes power from conventional coal and nuclear power stations to allow them to run continuously at the optimum level of efficiency.

Truly, we live in interesting times, the grand scheme to run an industrial civilisation without the 24-hour contribution of conventional power sources being the most interesting of all.

Get in early and beat the rush. Install a diesel generator today!

Rafe Champion writes often about energy issues, especially wind droughts

  • Peter Smith

    Good stuff Rafe. Pity the political class don’t take time to understand the problem of RE. Maybe a few will read this. Hopefully.

  • Jim Simpson

    Industry should be left to decide that which best suits their individual Business Plans (we ought be technology neutral – all options in the mix ie wind, solar, fossil fuels, nuclear, Bio, Pumped Hydro, whatever) based upon a simple, clearly defined Energy Policy.
    In the absence of empirical evidence proving the case against CO2 (it’s just an unproven hypothesis based upon speculative computer models), Australia should;
    1. Withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.
    2. Terminate all subsidies for wind & solar technologies. No favourites. A level playing field.
    3. Introduce 100% Quality of Service (QOS) standard for ALL energy suppliers (force majeure eg; earthquakes, bushfires, floods accepted) to ensure 24h reliability of supply for an ESSENTIAL SERVICE.
    4. Clearly define & impose substantial financial penalties upon energy suppliers who fail to meet prescribed minimum QOS ie; They must Perform, or Perish!
    5. Revisit wholesale pricing to ensure they are common & fair to all energy suppliers.
    6. Remove the ban on nuclear to enable industry to make their own decisions as to the merits, or otherwise, of nuclear energy.
    7. Repeal the Governments Direct-Action Plan & related Safeguard Mechanism legislation that’s driving up Australia’s energy costs.

    If these policies are unattractive to the electricity generators, tough… just re-nationalise the industry & return it to respective State Govts.

    If these principles were adopted, Australia would not need the plethora of parasitic Govt bureaucracies that burden the industry. Just one (the AEMO perhaps), to ensure QOS standards are met, an adequate ROI is provided & substantial financial penalties are applied for any failure to perform.

    Australia would then have a future (as we once did) as a world-class, low cost energy producer. Essential if we’re to compete globally.

    And there would not be any adverse impact upon the world’s climate!

  • IainC

    You neglected a fifth iceberg – doubling electricity requirements in a decade or so to accommodate compulsory electric vehicle use. Not so much a problem yet here in Australia in 2020 (but could be imposed by a religious zealot Labor government in a few short years), but PM Johnson in the UK has ignored the science and technology and proposed compulsory electric vehicle purchases by 2030. What is NEVER discussed in articles involving this type of scheme is that the electric power demands of a modern society are only 20-25% of the total power requirements. Transport is another 20-25% again, so swapping from liquid fuels to electricity now doubles the grid requirement. Last time I checked, 1×0 power from becalmed wind turbines is the same as 2×0. To replace all out energy usage by electric power needs a 4-5x increase in power output, 24/7/52.
    It’s obvious to all that wind and solar are not yet grid-worthy, and probably won’t be for decades, so it amazes me that so many people in positions of power and command don’t, can’t or won’t ask for some numbers, performance data and proof of concept for solar and especially wind. Maybe the size of the money pool induces silence.

  • ianl

    Numbers 1), 3) and 4) of the “icebergs” are considerably reduced in impact if 2) – demand – is perforce reduced. The aim of the zealots is to reduce demand, not increase supply. To those who think this unlikely, just watch and on a daily basis. NSW is almost always short by about 1GW, made up currently from Q’ld’s black coal excess, with 1.8GW from Liddell due to disappear in about 18 months, replaced by about 0.7GW of wind and gas.
    This reduction in supply does not apply to the self-defined elites, who have already installed diesel generators for their use, especially in Govt buildings.
    The spasmodicity of wind and the intermittency of solar were obvious 3-4 decades ago. This has been so obviously ignored that reduced supply can be only be deliberate. Pumped hydro suffers from more than Rafe Champion lists here – construction of even medium sized dams will cause unresolvable conflict.
    Democracy has become a fake word; the Enlightenment has become Disenlightenment.

  • Rafe Champion

    Yes but we shouldn’t have to wait long to see the crunch that is coming all over the western world where conventional power supplies have been run down. Some countries in Europe and some US states like California are probably at a tipping point and any more “progress” in that direction and any increase in demand from EVs will have a really dramatic effect.

  • John Reid

    “8,00MW to 25,000MW per hour” ? A Megawatt is a million Joules of energy per second, i.e. it measures power. “MW per hour” is therefore a rate of change of power and is meaningless in this context. This is common error among non-technical writers on this topic and mars an otherwise excellent article.

  • Rafe Champion

    Thanks for the heads up John, it should read 800 to 2,500 MW depending…and I am trying to explain that a continuous flow of power in that range is required, to keep the lights on. The modest number of MWhr stored in the battery is a drop in the ocean by comparison. I appreciate the need for more clarity on this point and I will talk to someone about it!

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