The Quality Of Thinking About Climate And Economics At Pravda

On Monday the New York Times gave over its full unsigned editorial space to a single item, titled "5 Climate Truths Mr. Trump Doesn't Get."   In the full-page-length piece dripping with scorn, Pravda informs us how our ignoramus President just "doesn't get it" when it comes to energy policy.  It's not only that he's destroying the planet, but he also doesn't understand anything about basic economics:

Donald Trump promised he would be “an unbelievable positive” for the [coal] miners. Now he’s trying to deliver by repealing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and proposing to subsidize coal-fired power plants. These moves are, in fact, unbelievable: Not only are they a setback in the fight against climate change, but they also make no economic sense, since the cost of renewable energy is falling sharply.

So let's check out a few of their arguments.  Do they make any good points?

I'll start with their fifth point, which deals with advances in batteries that supposedly are going to make "renewables" like wind and solar power more "productive and reliable":

Wind turbines and solar panels cannot produce electricity at all times in all weather conditions. But there have been great technical strides that have improved their performance. . . .  What’s more, batteries have become much cheaper, making it less expensive to store electricity when it’s windy or sunny for times when it is not. The average cost of lithium-ion batteries fell 73 percent, to $273 per kilowatt-hour, between 2010 and 2016. . . .  

They then provide a chart showing costs of lithium-ion batteries per kilowatt hour dropping from close to $1000 in 2010 to only $273 today.  Wow!  That's cheap!  Or, at least, that is clearly the impression that you are intended to come away with.

So then, New York Times, can you kindly give us a calculation of how much it would cost for some random place -- say, New York City -- to buy enough batteries to cover a worst-case period of cloudy-and-calm-for-days-on-end-in-the-winter when we have an electric system that consists of nothing but wind, solar and batteries?  Of course not.  As always, you have to ask whether the failure to provide this information means that they have done the calculation and are concealing it as part of an intentional deception, or whether the basic arithmetic of the calculation is beyond their abilities.  Whichever it is, it's not good for them.  But fear not, the Manhattan Contrarian specializes in basic arithmetic.

So let's do the calculation.  From the New York ISO (Independent System Operator) we get load data for recent days for New York City.  The load varies over the course of a day, but averages about 5000 MW.  (This is actually a low time of year, due to mild temperatures.  Loads are higher in the summer, due to air conditioning, and in the winter, due to heat.)  Multiply by 24 to get the number of MWH used in a day:  about 120,000.  Multiply by another thousand to get the number of KWH used in a day:  about 120,000,000.  Multiply by $273 to get the cost of enough batteries to store the 120,000,000 KWH to cover one calm and dark day:  $32.76 billion.  (Whoa!)  Now, how many dark/calm days could you get in a row?  Five?  Now we're talking $163.8 billion, just for batteries for New York City.  (That's about double the total annual budget for the NYC government, which is about $80 billion.)  Reader Dennis Rushworth reported last week in a comment that on an island called El Hierro -- one of the Canary Islands that are part of Spain -- they are trying to establish an electrical system using only wind and storage -- and they just had a calm period of 11 days!  Rushworth provides this link to the actual data from El Hierro, but it's in Spanish so I can't read it.  Anyway, at these "greatly reduced" prices for batteries that the Times is crowing about, eleven day's storage for New York City would go for something like $370 billion!  And New York City is only about one-fortieth of the U.S. by population.  Multiply by 40 to get the price for the whole U.S.:  around $15 trillion.  Hey, it's less than annual GDP (although not by much -- U.S. annual GDP is running around $18.5 trillion.)  No problem!  So what if we have to give up literally everything else in our lives from housing to food to clothing in order to buy nothing but zillions of batteries stacked higher than the Empire State Building?  We're saving the planet!

Anyway, once you start doing these calculations, you quickly realize that this couldn't possibly make sense until the cost of the batteries falls by at least another order of magnitude (factor of ten) or, more likely, two orders of magnitude.  Good luck trying, but I think the chance of that happening any time soon is about zero.  And then, of course, plenty of other questions occur to me (although they never seem to occur to anyone at Pravda), such as:  Does the capacity remotely exist to produce batteries in the kinds of quantities that could power entire cities and states for a week?  If you tried to buy so many batteries, would supply shortages of raw materials cause prices to soar?  Does the engineering knowledge exist to turn all these batteries into a functional system?  And so forth.

Dare we now consider another of the points made by the Times in this editorial?  How about point 4:  "Wind and solar are becoming cheaper every year":

In some countries like India, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and Chile, auction prices for renewable energy have fallen so much that they are “comparable or lower than generation cost of newly built gas and coal power plants,” according to the agency, which researches the energy sector for 29 member countries, including the United States. Based on current trends, the agency forecasts that the cost of land-based wind turbines and utility-size solar projects will fall an additional 15 percent and 25 percent, respectively, in the next five years.        

That's interesting.  So then kindly explain why you are so upset by the Trump administration revoking the Clean Power Plan.  The point of the CPP is to force utilities to close plants burning coal and other fossil fuels.  If wind and solar are cheaper (without subsidies), then there would be no need for force, because the utilities will obviously turn to those sources and close the more expensive plants without any need for coercion.  What are we missing?  The answer is, we are missing that nobody will build wind and solar facilities without subsidies because they are known to be far more expensive despite what you are saying; and on top of that, wind and solar can't work on their own without either massive backup from fossil fuel plants and/or hundreds of billions of dollars worth of batteries, which costs are just being omitted when Pravda tells us that wind and solar costs are "comparable" to those of fossil fuel plants.  Where are those things mentioned in this editorial?  Nowhere.

The other points in the Pravda editorial are of comparable quality and deceptiveness.

So, maybe President Trump hasn't ever thought about this and just has decent instincts, or maybe he is a lot more intelligent than Pravda is giving him credit for.  That's not necessarily saying all that much.  You don't really have to be particularly intelligent to be a lot more intelligent than the New York Times on these subjects.