An important focus of this blog is on trying to find the true “climate leader” among all the world’s political jurisdictions. After all, somebody needs to get out front to save us from the climate crisis. But who? Germany? They adopted the Energiewende policy in 2010, and have since thrown hundreds of billions of dollars at transitioning to “renewable” energy. Result: windmills everywhere, consumer electricity bills triple the U.S. average per kWh, and emissions essentially flat since the 2010 start of the program. China? They were awarded the mantle of “climate leadership” by the New York Times back in March 2017, shortly before Pravda figured out that China had hundreds of gigawatts of coal power plants under construction in their own country, and many hundreds of more gigawatts of such plants under construction in other countries around the world. The talk of energy transition was all a charade.
So now it’s time for some real progressives to show how it’s done. As reported here on June 19, New York ‘s legislature has now passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The goals of the Act are to get 70% of electricity from “renewables” by 2030, followed by reduction of all carbon emissions — not just from the electricity sector — by 85% below 1990 levels by 2050. Admittedly, this new Act has just been passed. But we’ve been talking about transitioning to renewable energy for many years. Surely we should be setting the example for the world by now. Let’s take a look at where we are, and what the plans are from here.
For our electricity sector baseline, we have this Report from the U.S. Department of Energy that is undated, but appears to come from about 2016. Here are the percentages of electricity production for New York State by source: Natural gas 44%, nuclear 30%, hydro 18%, coal 3%, oil 1%, and “other renewables” 2%. They don’t tell us about the missing 2%. Presumably that 2% of “other renewables” includes the wind and solar. Pitiful, really. The 18% from hydro is almost entirely the huge power plant at Niagara Falls, which is a great thing to have, but we don’t have another Niagara Falls for the next such plant. Any increase in generation from “renewables” is going to have to come from wind and solar.
On the immediate horizon (2020), as also reported in my June 19 piece, is the closure of the Indian Point nuclear plant, which provides about half of that 30% of our electricity that comes from the nuclear source. The replacements are two new natural gas plants. So by some time next year, or 2021 at the latest, the percentages for electricity generation will be natural gas 59%, nuclear 15%, coal 3%, oil 1%, hydro 18%, and “other renewables” 2%. I don’t think that’s the “climate leadership” they have in mind.
Surely there must be a plan from there. As far as I can find, the big idea is so-called “offshore wind.” In 2018 the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency came out with its New York Offshore Wind Master Plan. Here’s the summary:
New York has set its sights squarely on offshore wind energy as a key component of the State’s clean energy strategy. Governor Cuomo directed the State to engage community members, environmental advocates, and government partners at all levels to create the New York Offshore Wind Master Plan. Then, as part of his 2017 State of the State Address, Governor Cuomo set a nation-leading offshore wind energy development goal of 2,400 MW by 2030, enough to power up to 1.2 millions households.
2400 MW of offshore wind by 2030! And this year, Governor Cuomo has started to talk up an even much larger goal of 9000 MW of offshore wind capacity by 2035. Does that sound like a lot? New York’s peak electricity demand is in the range of 32,000 MW. Given that wind turbines are lucky to generate about 35% of their nameplate capacity on an annualized basis, that means that even if we actually built the whole 9000 MW of that new capacity, we’ll be lucky to get as much as 10% of our electricity from those turbines. It’s not even in the ballpark of the goal of 70% from renewables.
And it’s not even clear that much if any of that offshore wind capacity will get built. This being New York, of course there are many lawsuits in the works to stop it. From Bloomberg, May 23:
Plans for offshore wind farms have run into all kinds of resistance, including from bird lovers, whale advocates and shipping companies. But the scallop lobby could be the biggest threat yet. The prospect of development in the wide triangle fanning out from Hudson Bay, called the New York Bight, has galvanized fishing interests that didn’t aggressively oppose the first round of lease auctions. They have a growing war chest they could use to fight the second round.
But let’s assume that all the lawsuits can be defeated, and we can build as much offshore wind capacity as we want. Play this out. Assume we do like Germany has done, and build wind (and maybe some solar) capacity all the way up to the whole 32,000 MW of our peak usage. Assume also that we give complete priority of dispatch to the wind and solar sources, whenever they may be available. But unfortunately, they will only provide power about a third of the time, and you don’t know which third. The result is that even with 32,000 MW of wind capacity built — more than triple the current proposal — only about 30% of our electricity will come from the wind and solar sources, as opposed to the 70% that they seem to be hoping for. Meanwhile, we will not be able to get rid of any of the fossil fuel sources, because we will need full backup for the calm nights. Result: we will be paying for two complete and fully-redundant sources of utility-scale electricity. Our bills will be at least double what they were before.
And where will we go from there? What is the possible route to get to 70% of electricity production from renewables? Is it to build yet another 32,000 MW of wind and solar capacity, in addition to the first 32,000? That will be next to useless. When the wind and sun go at full strength, we’ll have 32,000 MW of excess production to throw away, even with all the fossil fuel plants totally turned off; and on a calm night we will still need the full suite of fossil fuel plants for back up. By this time we’ll have three fully-redundant generation systems, and our electricity bills will be at least triple what they are now, and we’ll still have all the fossil fuel plants, and we’ll be very luck to have gotten our percentage of electricity from the renewables up to 40%. At somewhere around 40% of electricity from renewables, you hit a wall where building more windmills or solar panels, no matter how many, will not further increase the percentage of electricity that you can get from those sources. Has anyone in New York State government figured this out yet? Not that I can tell.
Batteries? Nobody has even started talking about that yet in any meaningful way, let alone considering the amount of capacity that would be necessary, or the cost. The cost, of course, would be in the trillions, even if there could be enough factory capacity to build the enormous numbers of batteries in question. Actually, it makes sense that nobody is talking about this, because we’re never going to get to the first 32,000 MW of renewable capacity. The enormous cost of this boondoggle, let alone the environmental damage of covering the sea with many thousands of wind turbines, will have become obvious long before we get that far. The whole thing is a big joke.