The Wall Street Journal Embarrasses Itself On The Economics Of 100% Intermittent Renewable Energy

Here on this site there is a section called “Articles,” where I have posted several pieces that are longer than my typical blog post of about 1000 words. Except that I haven’t actually posted any new Articles there in several years. The reason is that I couldn’t figure out how to do it. But a couple of weeks ago I got a young consultant to give me a step by step procedure. And voilá! I have now posted a new Article. Go to the Articles section to check it out.

The subject of the new Article is the economics for a country of trying to get 100% of its electricity from the intermittent renewables, wind and solar. You will get a feel for my take on the situation from the title: “The Disastrous Economics Of Trying To Power An Electrical Grid With 100% Intermittent Renewables.” This Article is a slightly-modified version of a section of a Comment that some colleagues and I filed with the EPA with respect to some of its recent regulatory initiatives.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal chose this Saturday to attempt to tackle the same subject, covering the front page of its second section (“Exchange”) with a huge feature article headlined “Plugging In the Wind,” by a guy named Russell Gold. So does Mr. Gold of the Journal agree with me that the economics of trying to power an electrical grid with 100% intermittent renewables would be “disastrous”? Actually, the opposite. According to Gold:

For years, the wind and the sun were widely dismissed as niche sources of power that could never fill America’s vast need for energy. But now the cost of solar and wind power ha[s] fallen so much that the U.S. could substantially reduce harmful emissions while also lowering the price of electricity. . . . Renewable energy sources now provide the cheapest power in windy and sunny parts of the country.

Is there anything to that? Or is it complete pie-in-the-sky? In my view, this piece is a total embarrassment to the Journal. It completely ignores available data on the extent of the intermittency problem, as well as the serious efforts of people who have done the hard work to demonstrate the problems that intermittent wind and solar sources pose as they provide an increasing share of power to a grid that requires stable inputs at all times.

Let’s start with a summary from my new Article as to why, as generation from intermittent wind and solar sources increases, the price of electricity to consumers will necessarily soar:

In those jurisdictions that have succeeded in getting generation from renewables up to as high as about 30% of their total electricity supply, the result has been an approximate tripling in the price of electricity for their consumers. . . . No jurisdiction – even an experimental one – has yet succeeded in getting the percentage of its electricity generated from the intermittent renewables up much past 50% on an annualized basis. To accomplish the feat of getting beyond 50% and on closer to 100%, the grid operator must cease relying on fossil fuel backup power for times of dark and calm, and move instead to some form of storage, most likely very large batteries. The cost of such batteries sufficient to power a jurisdiction of millions of people is enormous, and quickly comes to be the dominant cost of the system. Relatively simple calculations of the cost of batteries sufficient to get through a year for a modern industrialized area show that this cost would imply an increase in the price of electricity by a factor of some 15 or 20, or perhaps even more.

That summary is then backed up in my Article by the detailed quantitative work of a guy named Roger Andrews, who got hour-by-hour generation and consumption data for Germany and for California and then did the mathematical work to figure out how much storage would be needed to save up enough power from sunny and windy times to carry either of those jurisdictions through an entire year.

What is the answer of Mr. Gold to these points? He has two responses. The first is that, according to a guy named Skelly who is a featured subject of the article, there are some areas — he particularly focuses on West Texas and the panhandle of Oklahoma — where the wind blows very reliably all the time.

In Oklahoma, Skelly knew the wind rarely stopped blowing. A midcentury travelogue joked that homes had a “crowbar hole…designed to check on the weather. You shove a crowbar through the hole: if it bends, the wind velocity outside is normal; if the bar breaks off, ‘it is better to stay in the house.’ ” You could build renewable energy here, [Skelly] thought, on a scale that could change the country and maybe even the planet.

Well, baloney. Wind data for Oklahoma and West Texas are easily available. Those data show that, although those are very windy areas, the availability of wind power in those places swings wildly back and forth from full generation to next-to-nothing, just like it does everyplace else. Here is a site with hourly wind power generation data from Texas, provided by the Texas grid operator known as ERCOT. Those data are not in graphic form. The most recent data I can find in graphic form dates from 2014, but I have no reason to believe that the situation would be any different today:

Texas Hourly Wind Generation.png

The second reason given by Mr. Gold for believing that a system powered by the wind and sun can be cheaper than one powered by fossil fuels is that, supposedly, the wind and sun will always provide power somewhere, so the only question is building enough transmission capacity:

Put it all on a big enough grid, one that could use the ample sunshine from the desert Southwest to keep Atlanta’s office towers cool, or the persistent wind in the Great Plains to run Midwestern factories, and you’d address the often-repeated critique of renewable energy: The sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing. On a big enough grid, that’s not an issue. There is wind somewhere and the clouds don’t cover the entire U.S.

Remarkably, Gold just floats that last assertion as if it is obviously true, without feeling any need for any kind of quantitative demonstration. But is it really true that, as you increase the interconnected area of a grid, the highs and lows of generation from the wind and sun balance out? You get a first inkling that Gold is blowing smoke from that last line there, that “clouds don’t cover the entire U.S.” — as if that is an answer to the intermittency of the sun. If you think about it, you quickly realize that the main intermittencies of the sun are between day and night, and between winter and summer. To try to even those out with transmission lines, you would need to massively interconnect the eastern and western hemispheres of the earth (for day and night) and the northern and southern hemispheres (for winter and summer). Suddenly it doesn’t sound so inexpensive any more.

And do the intermittencies of the wind even out as you interconnect larger and larger areas? Before just accepting this as obviously true, wouldn’t you like to see some quantitative demonstration? Gold doesn’t provide any. But back in 2015 the same Roger Andrews whom I cited above did a big project of collecting detailed hour-by-hour data for wind generation for nine European countries, specifically to see if the intermittency problem gradually went away as the area covered went from just one country to two, and three, and up to all nine. The nine countries that Andrews analyzed were Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Germany, Spain and the UK. Those countries were selected because they all were engaged in efforts to generate large amounts of power from the wind, and because they had good hour-by-hour data. Overall, the nine countries cover an area some 1250 miles from east to west, and 2000 miles from north to south.

So did combining the data from all these nine countries smooth out the levels of generation of power from the wind? Basically, not at all. Here is Andrews’s chart of wind generation from the nine countries for the year 2013:

Western Europe Wind Generation.png

Not only does the aggregate generation swing wildly from hour to hour and from day to day, but it is very seasonal, with much more generation in the winter than in the summer. Sorry, but you are going to need a month’s or so worth of battery storage to get you through the year. The cost of that will be in the many trillions.

Basically, the Gold article is nothing more than innumerate hand-waving. I’ll believe this bit about wind and solar generation being cheaper than gas or coal when I see a working unsubsidized demonstration project. Meanwhile, we all should notice the clear correlation between those jurisdictions that get more of their power from renewables, and the price that their consumers pay: