How Self-Delusional Can We Be On The Cost Of Electricity From "Renewables"?

With the New York Times, when it comes to promotion of the climate sin and redemption narrative, the big question is always the same:  Are they completely ignorant of the subject matter, or do they understand the subject matter, in which case they are intentionally trying to deceive you and their other readers?  It ought to be obvious which of the two it is, but incredibly it is not.  Could there even be a third alternative?  The only one I can think of is that what we have here is an extreme case of self-delusion, brought about by a need to believe in the official religion so overpowering that it prevents any consideration of actual facts or evidence.  

Today's example, a truly astounding instance of this phenomenon, comes not from the "sin" side of the narrative, but rather from the "redemption" side -- that is, from the side of saving ourselves from global warming hell by switching energy production away from sinful fossil fuels and over to "clean" and "renewable" wind and solar.  Understanding this redemption side of the narrative does not require getting into sophisticated matters of the science of the "greenhouse effect," or analysis of the complex computer models that predict future catastrophic warming, or mumbo jumbo about "attribution" of warming to human influences.  There is actually quite a bit of practical experience out there as to what happens when a region or country tries to integrate large amounts of intermittent wind and solar-generated electricity into an electrical grid.  Surely, this empirical knowledge must be recognized and considered in a piece telling us how wind and solar can redeem us.  

Well, you are forgetting that this is the New York Times.  In Wednesday's print edition there appeared an op-ed by Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey headlined "Clean Power Becomes Cheap Power."  You will recognize Gillis as the number one zealot among the various Times staffers covering the climate beat.  Harvey is head of some firm promoting the "renewables."  The gist of the article is that the cost of wind turbines and solar panels has now dropped so much that they have become "even cheaper than coal."  Barring obstruction by evil legacy dirty energy interests, the path to redemption is now wide open!  You can feel the excitement:

Xcel Energy is a utility company with millions of electric customers in the middle of the country, from Texas to Michigan. In booming Colorado, the company asked for proposals to construct big power plants using wind turbines and solar panels.  The bids have come in so low that the company will be able to build and operate the new plants for less money than it would have to pay just to keep running its old, coal-burning power plants.  You read that right: In parts of the country, wind and solar plants built from scratch now offer the cheapest power available, even counting old coal, which was long seen as unbeatable.

Sounds great!  But then, there is this chart, of which I have seen multiple versions at many sites, that shows the correlation between a country's installed renewable (wind and solar) capacity and the cost of electricity paid by that country's consumers.  Here is a version that appeared on the website of Australian skeptic Joanne Nova on January 25:


Not meaning to throw cold water on Gillis's and Harvey's party, but if generation of electricity from renewables is now so cheap, why does the cost of electricity to consumers seem go up more or less on a straight-line slope as the installed capacity of renewable sources increases?  Possibly, these high-cost countries installed their renewables before the recent price decreases described by Gillis and Harvey, and maybe that has something to do with it.  But could that one factor really explain why consumers in Germany and Denmark pay close to triple what U.S. consumers pay per kilowatt hour?

Let's take a closer look at Germany.  Germany -- way out there with Denmark as having the most installed renewable capacity per capita combined with an astronomical consumer cost of electricity of around 30 cents per kWh -- is a country about which you can find a lot of data if you take the time to look around.  For example, a German think tank called Agora Energiewende put out a big "Report on the German power system" in 2015.  On page 13 we learn that Germany's peak electricity demand in 2013 was 83.3 GW.  And right below that we learn that in 2014 Germany had installed capacity (all types) of 192 GW.  Wait a minute -- they have capacity of almost two and a half times peak usage?  A normally-functioning system based entirely on fossil fuels would only require capacity of about 1.2 times peak usage -- a 20% cushion to provide for things like maintenance outages and possible emergencies.  So Germany has about double the generation capacity it would have in a fossil fuel-only system.  Obviously, that's extremely costly.

Another chart on the same page 13 shows the amounts of "renewable" versus "conventional" capacity.  The total for all "renewables" is 83.8 GW -- a figure higher than the peak demand of 83.3 GW.  But, then there's also the fossil fuel and "conventional" capacity of 108.4 GW.  That's essentially the same amount you would have if you had no wind or solar capacity at all.  To put it another way, despite having built what would seem to be enough wind and solar capacity to supply all the electricity needs of the country, they have not been able to get rid of any of their fossil fuel generation capacity.  They need all of it as back-up for when the wind and solar go dead. 

Are wind and solar sources really so unreliable that you can't use them to replace any fossil fuel facilities at all?  Yes.  For example, in this post from 2016 I reported on other information from Agora Energiewende showing that in December of that year Germany had some nine days where the wind was so calm and the sun so dim that the wind and solar facilities produced only between 3% and 7% of installed capacity.  On the other hand, this article from Clean Energy Wire on January 5, 2018 indicates that on the morning of New Year's Day this year the wind was so strong that Germany briefly (and for the first time ever) got all of its electricity from the renewables (mostly wind in this case).

And then there are two other factors by which the renewables lead to increasing the cost of electricity in Germany.  One is that wild swings in production from wind and solar facilities cause comparably wild swings in the spot market where utilities buy power to balance supply with demand at the last minute.  When the wind is blowing strongly, that spot price can actually turn negative, meaning that the Germans must pay neighboring countries like Poland to take surplus power off their hands.  At other times when the wind dies at night and a conventional plant cannot be ramped up quickly enough to take over, the spot price can spike to over $10,000 per MWH.  The final factor going into the Germans' cost of electricity is the close to $200 billion or so that they have spent in subsidies for renewables.  Much of that may actually show up in their taxes rather than their electricity bills.

Now, how much of Germany's sky-high electricity costs can be attributed to each factor?  I can't find any data with enough detail to let me answer that question.  But here's what we do know with crystal clarity:  no matter how cheaply you might be able to buy some more wind or solar "capacity," you will only drive the cost of electricity up, not down.

For other examples of the disaster of trying to get cheaper electricity from "renewables," see my posts on Gapa Island, South Korea here, and South Australia here.  In each instance, as the capacity of renewables feeding into the grid increases, the need to add fossil fuel back-up and/or storage ends up driving the cost of electricity up dramatically.  And, even with tripling of consumer electricity bills, nobody has succeeded in getting the percentage of electricity from renewables up much past 40%.  South Australia is not broken out separately from the rest of Australia in my chart above.  According to a report from the Grattan Institute in 2016, South Australia is the world champion in getting electricity from renewables, at around 40% of its total supply over the course of a year.  And according to this article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in June 2017, South Australia has been rewarded with consumer electricity prices that are "the highest in the world."  It has also suffered a series of disastrous blackouts.  

Don't get me wrong.  If somebody can figure out how to make a functional electrical grid with renewables that are "cheaper than coal," I will be the first one to support it.  Right now, nobody has a clue how to do it.  Shouldn't Gillis and Harvey inform their readers about these facts?