Friday, 14 October 2016

Our Planet - Part 2 Energiewende

I started this series with a discussion on the arguments for and against Anthropogenic Climate Change. My view is that it is real, backed up by the majority of scientific evidence that supports the fact we are warming the planet by emitting CO2. If we accept this premise then the next question is what do we do? The first point to understand is the problem is above politics. It is a failure of both Government policy and Free Markets to come up with a solution, its represents a limit in our knowledge of how to generate power. What I want to examine in this post is proposed solutions that revolve around so called "Green" energy; wind, solar in particular. For the past 40 years this has been pushed and pursued with the aid of Government subsidies and funds in an attempt to move away from fossil fuels to such alternatives. So far they have not succeeded. I'd like to discuss the recent German model of Energiewende, where the country has set out to reduce its CO2 emissions and move to a low carbon energy policy.

For a number of years now the German Government has pursed a policy to replace its Nuclear and fossil fuel power plants with power obtained from wind, biogas and solar. Many in the public see wind and solar as inevitable replacements and believe the only reason they are not already widely used are because "big oil" is in cahoots to stop it taking off. Not only are these energy sources fairly useless but they are not as green as people make out and can never sustain a developed economy on their own.

The first thing to mention about these technologies, in particular wind and solar, is there is a natural phenomenon on the planet called night time. There are also times when the wind just doesn't blow and it just so happens that both these events can happen simultaneously. Imagine in the winter months at peak time around 6-8pm, people coming home switching on TVs, ovens, computers, lights and so on. Now imagine the wind is not blowing. No one will be watching Coronation Street tonight. Now this is an obvious flaw with these power sources and only an idiot would argue another case (I have seen a presentation when someone showed a perfect graph of solar covering daytime with wind peaking during the night. It was like a piece of North Korean propaganda). Many will know this already however there are many other subtle problems that the German Government has encountered. They have encountered so many that most people believe the "Green" energy transition should now be halted and abandoned.

One thing Germany decided early on was to close all its nuclear plants (in a later post I will come back to nuclear but I will make one point now. Nuclear is the only option we currently have to solve climate change and its potential as an energy source is huge). Now nuclear unlike wind and solar is stable and concentrated. What I mean by that is we can predictably generate a fixed amount of electricity day and night, cloudy or sunny. It also generates a lot of power from a single power plant. Its what's known as a baseload power plant. As listed above when we don't have sun or wind or we have both but not quite enough to meet the current demand then we need reliable baseload power in order to ensure the power doesn't go out. We are talking about refrigeration of our food, critical medical procedures, equipment we depend, lights so we can see at night to make our streets safer and so on.

Germany decided to turn to gas and coal in order to provide their baseload power to cover periods when wind and solar didn't meet demand. If this is starting to sound a bit strange as their end goal is to reduce CO2 theres plenty more twists in the story. Now gas and coal, like nuclear can start up on demand and are reliable. Germany in fact has lots of gas and coal plants, many of which when the wind and sun are shinning are not used as much, however at night and with no wind, there must be enough redundant stations in order to provide power. In other words what we have is a dual grid with twice as much power stations as Germany needs.

In order to build as much wind and solar the German Government created generous subsidies. So generous that when power is generated by such sources the grid must accept the power for an artificially low price. In fact the Government pays for electricity when there is no real demand for it. If you google you will see headlines such as "They sold the wind power back to the grid for a negative amount". Many in forums believe this is how effective renewable's are, there is a free lunch and its big oil that has stopped such innovation. The reality is rather different. The price they talk about is not the retail price that you or I pay, its the wholesale price that various energy companies pay, like the price a supermarket pays for milk will be different than what you pay for it in the shop. What happens is the people who own the wind power dump the energy on the grid that is not needed. They don't care as the Government still pays them a fixed amount regardless of if it will be used or not. Its then up to the energy companies to take this as loss, or eventually pass the bill onto the consumer. They pay others to take the energy off them to dispose off. This is nothing new either. Nuclear has the same phenomenon. It can't be easily be ramped up and down to track demand, so power is still generated at constant rate. Consequently in quiet periods owners of nuclear will sell the power for a loss to the grid and make it back at times of demand. Its one of the many reasons nuclear is more expensive then Gas and Coal, it can't scale up/down with demand as well. So there is no "free energy" (I will come back to consumers price, suffice to say German energy prices are some of the highest in Europe). Later I will go into detail what happens with this excess energy, when going through the intermittent issue.

These subsidies also have other unintended consequences. German started with gas and coal but as it has become so unprofitable to run these plants in the face of mounting Government subsidies for wind and solar Germany has turned to whats known as "Dirty" coal. Gas proved so expensive to run and cleaner forms of coal proved tricky so Germany now has a lot of cost effective power plants emitting all sorts of pollutants in order to avoid its power grid collapsing. Originally when Germany was using more gas power they had to import much of it from Russia. Russia liked selling the Germans so much gas that they decided to extend the life of some of their old nuclear reactors. So the German policy of not using nuclear actually enabled the Russians to use some old ones instead.

So what about if we just store the energy from wind and solar that we don't use? Well for a start we are already subsidising the heck out of wind and solar in all countries, its costing the German taxpayer hundreds of billions of Euros to just allow these sources to operate. To store the power we are talking a whole new set of numbers. No one knows of a way to economically store vast amounts of energy in the form of batteries or some other storage (water, air, hydrogen) to power a whole country. We can do a battery for a car but for 80 million homes? Plus there is a bigger point often missed here. If you are seriously suggesting batteries then you need to understand that batteries are not green or good for the environment, especially at this scale and with current technologies. We know transmitting power down power lines cause power loss, but storing onto batteries causes more loss meaning we need more power plants to generate the same power. Batteries also don't last long. They need replacing constantly, think of your phone or laptop. Batteries are not green, they require huge mining operations using all sorts of toxic processes and metals. The CO2 footprint just to mine and refine these metals is extensive, then to do this every 5-10 years for replacement, then to do this on a scale of 80 million homes? Its fantasy thinking. Its not economic and its not good for the environment which is the whole point in going to all this extra effort. There's a lot of research going into batteries, which is great, however the improvements required are of many factor's, not just in storage capacity but in price which makes it a very hard challenge.

I've only briefly listed the intermittent nature of Wind and Solar which consequently requires a stable baseload power source to back it up however the indeterminacy brings up another set of issues. Wind for example in every installation has its own power generator. We have no full control of each generator unlike traditional power plants. The wind could drop in certain areas and the grid has to power up gas quickly for example. The power could surge with a sudden gust of wind and the grid would need to deal with excess energy. The German power grid is in a state of Chaos, its a miracle it doesn't have more downtime. Engineers have to push excess power to neighboring countries, in fact they have done this so much recently that the Czech Government has now started to push back stating its causing them issues. If there's a lack of power then there can be blackouts with no power at all. Objections will be that we can predict the wind with new technology but that only gets you so far. With the windmills dispersed over vast areas and at any point a sudden burst of wind can cause a sudden torrent of power. Ironically if there is too much wind then the windmill will shut down completely with no warning. This is to ensure it doesn't blow over or ruin the gears that feed the generator. This happened recently in South Australia when a storm hit. Its still under discussion what caused the blackout, however it is clear the wind power was generating lots of power then all of a sudden shut down. For an electrical engineer this is a complete nightmare to all of a sudden loose all that power and have to boot us gas and coal plants at the drop of a hat. Of course this puts tremendous strain on the grid and transmission lines. Having 10-20% of your power with current wind and solar technology is fine, but any more than this creates big problems for delivering reliable energy on a national scale.

If you read the mainstream news headlines such as "Germany got 120% of its energy from renewables" you will be led to believe that we have cracked renewable's (despite all the above underlying problems) and wind along with solar can power a developed economy. Like with all headlines the devil is in the details. What usually happens in instances like this are when the Wind blows in the middle of night when there is very little electricity demand or when there is a warm summers day in the middle of the day and not at peak demand. As discussed this is natural for the energy sources as they are erratic. Most of the time wind and solar operate well below their installed maximum capacities. When someone states a windmill can produce 3MW of electricity in reality it will on average only achieve 10-20% of this. That's because most of the time we don't have blustery conditions and sometimes there is no wind at all. Similar stats apply to solar, in Germany the electricity generated from solar is negligible during Autumn and Winter months. Another point to bear in mind is that over time the generators in wind degrade and loose performance due to them being mechanical and they can degrade quite dramatically. In conventional power stations which are in a central accessible location there are engineers constantly on site to tune the various generators. In wind however that can sit 100 foot in the air or out at sea, it requires a lot of heavy machinery to go out there and tune the generator, in many cases you need to haul the thing down and take it back to a warehouse and swap it out completely. All of this requires more energy.

So far I've only gone through technical challenges but I'm now going to take point at solar and winds so called "green" credentials. A couple of points to begin with. For some reason solar and wind are somehow mistaken for new and cutting edge technologies when in reality they are not. They are both older than nuclear, we have known about solar for over a 100 years and wind for centuries. Another claim to dismiss is these technologies are not 100% safe compared to all other forms of energy generation. More Americans have died trying to install solar panels then people that have died from the production of nuclear energy. In fact only three people died in the US from nuclear and it was in the early sixties when working on an experimental plant due to a partial meltdown. Wind kills many rare birds and both technologies require huge amounts of raw materials due to their diluteness. These materials in many cases are mined which are dangerous jobs in itself.

On the materials side each wind assembly uses hundreds of tons of steel, contains a generator with half a ton of neodymium magnets, a rare earth metal which is mined in China with appalling disregard for human life and the environment. The concrete base of a single wind installation requires hundreds of tons in order to ensure it can survive the "gale force winds" that we are assured will happen at night when solar goes offline. The plastics that are involved in construction are made from oil (in case you didn't do basic chemistry and believed wind to be so green that their cases were fabricated from mother nature). Parts are shipped from all over the world using fossil fuels, its assembled using huge machinery that rely on oil. Due to their disperse nature they then need huge amounts of transmission lines to connect them all up, again using lots of materials. When all setup they will then generate around 10%-20% of their potential energy (what a waste of an un-environmentally friendly generator). Over time their gearboxes wear out or breakdown, requiring a crew with huge trucks and cranes to come and fix them. Generators will need replacing/fixing over time as they generate less and less energy again requiring a large crew to come out remotely with heavy machinery. Its a similar story for solar, lots of mined material go into the manufacture and over time they loose potential power generation. 

The Reality - CO2 Output
There a lot of factors that contribute towards a nations CO2 emissions. Was there a mild winter, have oil prices gone up or down, has a new energy efficient law come into play and so on. Depending on what years we look at, for example 2009 to 2015 CO2 levels didn't change. During 2010 to 2013 CO2 emissions went up during the Energiewende, so all this is open to interpretation. However we do know that Germany has used all the best sites for wind and solar, have spent billions on many such installations and yet the CO2 levels have not moved in any meaningful way. I would argue that we should have seen dramatic downtrends already occurring as all the renewable sources are now online but we haven't. Instead Germany looks set to miss its CO2 target by 2020 unless they change direction. Even then the target was set as a 40% drop since 1990, for 20 of those years until 2010 they didn't have Energiewende and yet saw steady falls in emissions due to cleaner and more efficient technologies. Since Energiewende the CO2 levels have stagnated within a range. Some argue the small variances each year are signs of success others argue its shown its failure. I'd argue if Germany had used Nuclear they wouldn't need Coal or Gas and emissions would have fallen very dramatically. All these numbers don't take into account the CO2 that is emitted to install and build all these disperse and numerous wind and solar plants. CO2 emissions were falling prior to wind and solar just due to more efficient market products such as cars that run on a better economy or lower power TV's which use LEDs and so on.

The Reality - Fuel Poverty For Millions
Not only did the Government fail to reduce CO2 emissions but in the process has driven millions of its citizens into fuel poverty. Germany now has some of the highest electricity prices in Western Europe, on average three and half times more expensive then the US. Vulnerable elderly people can't keep the heating on, others simply don't use electricity as they can't afford to. CO2 has not dropped off, despite for many their personal consumption has fallen. Its become such a farce that people have started to resort to burning wood and there are now regular occurrences of people stealing wood. Trees act as a CO2 sink yet Germany has restored to cutting them down (also done for biomass fuel) and burning them, creating ever more emissions and dirty air pollution.

In summary its like one big wind up, only it really did happen and is still ongoing. Not all Governments are pursuing the same strategies and many countries are now learning the right lessons from Germany. For example China are investing big in Nuclear and are on board with the majority of experts that this is the direction we need to take. Its politically easier there then many Western countries. Unfortunately in the West we have many anti-nuclear supporters who show no rational thinking and seemingly just object to nuclear because they associate it with nuclear weapons. As its been politicised for 40 years now, nuclear has been neglected in favour of the so called "Green" technologies listed above. This is the problem when all power and decisions are centralised. We have a monolithic entity that wastes hundreds of billions of Euros, it takes this through the form of taxation and concocts a policy that not only subjects many to fuel poverty, causes power chaos but barely reduces (can also be argued, increased) CO2. We have people here in the UK who believe we should follow the example of Germany, such as my old school friend Owen Jones.

Why not learn from Germany with an interventionist industrial policy, creating hundreds of thousands of renewable-energy jobs to fill in the “missing middle” of properly paid, secure jobs?

As well meaning as he may be this is the problem when people can lobby or obtain power that means they can dictate a whole nations energy policy. He's not done his homework, has no experience of energy matters but its people like him who shape a counties direction. Some German people in the renewable sector lobbied politicians, predominately centre-left organisations put pressure to go this route, despite all the contrary evidence with experts stating nuclear has far more potential and is far more practical in solving CO2 emissions. What we need are many projects all happening in parallel with each other in an attempt to move to a low carbon fuel. Not like what Germany has done, which is shut down Nuclear and put all its eggs in one basket in the intermittent wind and solar technologies with all their inherent problems. 

In the last post I will detail why it will be human ingenuity and freedom that will come up with solutions to our energy problems. It will be many different people who all at the same time will be trying many different approaches to try and solve the CO2 problem.