Interminable innumeracy: ‘renewables’ versus nuclear

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In an effort to help the all-renewables advocates correct their innumeracy, Steve Skutnik wrote one of my favorite posts for the month (January).

(…) Whenever the topic of renewable energy sources comes up, invariably a spurious comparison to the generating capacity to nuclear plants will come up. For example, identified resources for say, offshore wind will be identified somewhere in the realm of tens of gigawatts, to which the guest will inevitably state, “That’s the equivalent of dozens of nuclear plants!” (…)

A basic unfamiliarity with these concepts (i.e., the scale of individual energy generators and their respective availability factors) tends to produce a pervasive level of innumeracy, which in turn leads to genuinely terrible energy policy positions, such attempting to displace some or all of baseload capacity (including nuclear) with intermittent sources. In an effort to combat this epidemic (and inspired by the old Total cereal commercials which used to air back when I was growing up) I’ve put together an infographic to demonstrate just how many of these types of generators one needs to replace just one baseload unit.

(…)

Please refer to Steve’s original post for his full explanation. My main comment is that the infographic doesn’t account for the overbuilding required to compensate for the intermittency. Should these intermittent sources grow a total size exceeding about 15% of interconnected market peak demand, then a dispatchable capacity of the same size will have to be built to cover demand when the renewable sources are “off duty” for days at a time.

2 thoughts on “Interminable innumeracy: ‘renewables’ versus nuclear

  1. Very good!! However, your capacity factor for wind is probably unrealistically high; probably it should be less than 30%.

    Obviously it would be impossible to cover the subject with adequate thoroughness in a short blog, but here is something you should probably add.

    Renewable power fans assume, without proof, that if a large number of wind farms and solar installations are interconnected, reliable power will result. 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.

    It is just plane stupidity to advocate an energy system without first doing adequate research and running the numbers. It could result in spending hundreds of billions of dollars and still not save enough fossil fuel to matter. If enough extremely expensive storage were added, and if the grid were almost totally redesigned to accept power form widely spread out sources, it might be possible to make it work, but not at a price that would be politically acceptable.

    Those advocating wind and solar power usually have not done their homework. They are generally unfamiliar with such basic concepts as base load, load following, spinning reserve, peaking plants, etc. Also, when people don’t understand something, they often assume that there is no need to because it is not important.

    Probably the ONLY practical solution is nuclear power but again, I believe that choosing uranium was a mistake and that we should be shifting to thorium instead by developing the liquid fluoride thorium reactor.

  2. 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 could certainly do your instrumented experiment – but do you think they would want the results to be public?

    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 this 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, data chosen to be extremely favorable to wind and solar, the simulations indicate that best case, the reliable, dispatchable power sources 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. These policies 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.

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