Yes I sometimes feel lonely harping away at the huge costs of trying to make a functioning electrical grid out of intermittent wind and solar sources. For a few of my posts on the subject, see here, here, and here. Maybe with President Trump's dramatic move yesterday to back away from fossil fuel suppression under the guise of "climate" control, this whole thing will quickly fade away. But as of now, many states, not the least California and my own home state of New York, soldier on with so-called "renewable portfolio standards" for electric utilities, requiring ever increasing amounts of generation from the unreliable renewables.
I start from the proposition that, in the world of intentionally deceptive and fraudulent government data on virtually everything important (GDP, poverty, government debt, temperature records, etc.), it is still almost impossible to top the intentional deception that the government puts out on the subject of the cost of obtaining electricity from the intermittent sources. (OK, I have dubbed the temperature data tampering fraud the "Greatest Scientific Fraud Of All Time." But the fraud on the subject of the cost of wind and solar power is not technically a scientific fraud.) The idea as to the energy costs is to put out numbers purporting to show that wind and solar power are no more expensive than, or possibly even cheaper than, reliable and dispatchable sources like natural gas and coal. This is done by creating an arbitrary and useless concept known as the "levelized cost of energy" ("LCOE") that simply leaves out all of the massive extra costs that use of intermittent sources requires if you want a system that actually works 24/7/365 -- costs of things like backup from dispatchable sources, storage, extra transmission costs, and extra costs from running backup plants in a mode of constantly cycling up and down. Thus the government's annual Energy Information Agency report, most recently issued in August 2016, shows the LCOE from wind turbines as much less than nuclear and just slightly higher than natural gas -- and actually cheaper than natural gas once you take into account the tax credits! Their chart of comparative costs on page 6 at the link does not even deign to put a cost on new coal facilities. Hey, this was the Age of Obama! Coal was to be verboten!
The LCOE concept at best addresses the costs associated with adding one facility of any one of the generation types to our massive existing infrastructure. But suppose that instead of adding a few more wind turbines, we actually propose to take wind-generated electricity up to 30%, or 50%, or even 90% of all generation. What then? EIA's LCOE numbers do not remotely address that question. Back of the envelope calculations at some of my previous posts (linked above) suggest that such an effort could multiply the cost of electricity by a factor of five, or ten, or even more. Moreover, this would be one of those unbelievably giant engineering projects -- orders of magnitude bigger than, say, the California bullet train -- that inevitably have massive cost overruns. Can somebody other than yours truly please pay attention to this subject?
A couple of things in the last week indicate that a few people are beginning to wake up at least a little. But unfortunately "little" is the operative word.
Last week I attended the International Conference on Climate Change in Washington, put on by the Heartland Institute. One of the panels addressed the cost of alternative sources of energy, and one of the three panelists on the panel addressed, at least to some extent, the incremental costs of adding wind and solar sources to an electric grid. That panelist was Mary Hutzler, who appears to be employed by a think tank called the Institute for Energy Research. Ms. Hutzler has actually done research aimed at correcting some of the more egregious omissions from the EIA's LCOE calculations, including a fairly detailed report from 2015 titled "The Levelized Cost of Electricity from Existing Generation Resources." Her presentation at the Conference is available at the Heartland site here. Comparing her presentation to the Report, it seems that most of the presentation came from the Report, including many of the charts.
Frankly, I found Ms. Hutzler's presentation extremely disappointing. The basic thing that she and co-authors had tried to do in the Report was to add in to EIA's LCOE numbers some obvious adjustments to account for things that EIA just fraudulently left out, even at today's low levels of generation from intermittent sources -- things like capacity factor adjustments to the actual capacities that wind turbines have achieved, adjustments of the assumed lifetime of wind turbines to match real experience, and attribution to the cost of power from wind of at least some of the costs of backup fossil fuel power. With these adjustments, wind power suddenly becomes about 50% more expensive than combined cycle natural gas, according to a chart on page 26 in the Report.
Fair enough. But what additional costs would be needed if we tried to make a fully functioning electricity system where the electricity itself comes out of predominantly wind, say 70% or 90%? That question was not addressed by Ms. Hutzler in her presentation, nor is it addressed in the Report. Nor was it clear from the presentation that that question was not addressed. You had to get the underlying Report and study it. And when you study it you find that it basically addresses scenarios where wind turbines are matched with gas plants of similar "capacity," so that the gas plant can cycle up and down as the wind blows less and more. Those scenarios will never get the generation from wind up much above 30%. To get higher you will need to avoid calling on the fossil fuel backup as much as possible. You will thus need multiple times excess wind turbine capacity, plus some combination of vastly increased transmission capacity or storage capacity or both. To find out how much you will have to pay for four times excess capacity in wind generation, tens of millions of Teslas worth of batteries, and massive new transmission capacity (and, of course, full fossil fuel backup -- just in case!), you will have to look elsewhere.
Well, you could try looking in the new report just out from the UK's Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, written by a consultancy called Frontier Economics. The report has long been known to be in the works, and supposedly was to address the "total system costs" of variable renewable electricity generators. It had been expected out about a year ago, but then ran into a long unexplained delay, and finally came out last Friday. Oh, according to the press release from the Global Warming Policy Foundation, "The study is not only very late, but contains no quantitative estimates of additional system costs."
What? Wasn't that the whole point? It gets worse. They include in the released material some peer review comments, from which one can infer that quantitative estimates of those additional costs were in the drafts but have been deleted from the final. Here is the comment from GWPF, titled "Is the UK Concealing 'Very High' Renewables System Cost Estimates." Excerpt:
After an unexplained delay of a year since completion the UK’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has published (24.03.17) a report by Frontier Economics on the total system costs of uncontrollably variable renewable generators, a topic of crucial importance in understanding the cost-effectiveness of current climate policies. The study is not only very late, but entirely qualitative, and contains no quantitative estimates of additional system costs per megawatt hour (i.e. £/MWh), figures which would normally be considered the principal output of such work. However, examination of the peer reviews, which are published with the study, reveals that an entire table of numerical cost estimates, some of which were described by the external reviewer as “very high”, were in fact present in the version sent out for comment in mid 2015, but have been subsequently removed. This does not smell right and BEIS should release the original draft.
If you are starting to get the impression that you are being defrauded, you are right. Kudos to the GWPF for joining in the small and still nascent efforts to hold the crooks to account. But, when will any government put out a remotely honest effort to calculate the real cost of the mostly-wind-and-solar generation system that they are busy trying to force on the people? Probably, not before the entire current crop of bureaucrats in the field have been fired and/or jailed.