High renewables penetration means eye-watering costs and massive overbuilding

Figure 5: Solar capacity is 21% of the wind capacity. Weekly snapshot.

In comments on Steve Skutnik’s “Interminable innumeracy” Frank Eggers made the case for a real-world instrumented test of the popular thesis that “smart grids and geographic dispersion” will allow large scale deployment of unreliable renewables:

(…) As I see it, to prove that, it would be necessary to have sensors at all locations (or at least a large number of locations) where it would be reasonably possible to have wind and solar power installations. The data would have to be transmitted, in real-time, to a central location where it would be continuously analyzed to see how much power would be available reliably with no interruptions. So far as I know, that has never been done.

Thanks Frank, all good comments. Germany is well-situated to perform your instrumented experiment – but do you think they would want the results to be public? E.g., see Eye-watering cost of renewable revolution.

While not as good as real-world instrumentation, but in my view very persuasive, are the simulations published by Finnish physicist Jani-Petri Martikainen at BraveNewClimate. I think his two guest posts are an important contribution to the study of how costly will be large scale wind and solar deployment. There are two posts, intended to be read in the following order, where the first analysis examines unreliable wind added to an existing reliable grid, the second analysis adds solar to the mix:

[1] Geographical wind smoothing, supergrids and energy storage

[2] Solar combined with wind power: a way to get rid of fossil fuels?

Based upon real-world data sets, with the data chosen to be extremely favorable to wind and solar, the simulations indicate that an idealized case of optimal solar/wind deployment requires a massive overbuilding of dispatchable power sources. The total magnitude of the dispatchable power will need to be about 90% of peak demand. This supports the rough rule of thumb that high unreliable penetration will require overbuilding capacity by about 2x. Given the speed at which such as Germany are spending on wind/solar, that reliable power will be mostly fossil. Policies such as Germany’s are a creating an enormous fossil lock-in and hence a climate train wreck.

To summarize Dr. Martikainen’s conclusions I will cherry-pick from concluding paragraphs:

Only scenarios which are based on reliable energy sources from the beginning seem to avoid the problems discussed here. Scenarios based on unreliable sources become progressively harder as their share of electricity supply increase. Reducing GHG emissions sufficiently requires, in practice, total decarbonization of the electricity supply, and the emissions reductions achieved by the time erratic sources run into trouble are far too low. I cannot avoid the conclusion that approaches based on renewables will mainly, at a very large expense, end up delaying the real decisions we must eventually make to lower emissions to acceptable levels. The alternative zero-carbon baseload source seems rather obvious…

(…) How about choosing the solar capacity to be the “optimal” 0.21 of wind power capacity? Then we need reliable power plants with a capacity of 89% of peak demand. They will have a capacity factor of 14% and amount to 19% of total production. So, yes! Adding solar power to the mix can sometimes help, by reducing the electricity produced with fossil fuels from 21% to 19%. Unfortunately, the required capacity of reliable power plants is actually slightly higher than with wind only. I will not dare to compute the cost of CO2 abatement under such a scenario.

(…) To conclude, I note that adding solar power and wind without massive storage to the mix does next to nothing to remove the need for fossil fuel based energy infrastructure. Scenarios based on wind and solar power are fundamentally reliant on fossil fuels and sooner this is understood the better it is for climate. Currently the mirage of purely unreliables based energy production essentially maintains the use of fossil fuels for as long as the eye can see both for technical and financial reasons.

While doing these exercises I occasionally get a feeling that I am fencing with a tetraplegic. You might say this is not sportsmanlike, but unfortunately the political reality is that the mirage of solar and wind based solutions is a tetraplegic which hampers us from confronting the real and difficult issues with respect to climate change. By offering an easy “alternative” this mirage effectively acts as a cover for the damage anti-nuclear activities are causing for attempts to mitigate climate change. Unfortunately fencing must continue since this cover must be removed.