Climate change

May 5, 2011

Energy debates in Wonderland

 by Barry Brook

My position on wind energy is quite ambivalent. I really do want it (and solar) to play an effective role in displacing fossil fuels, because to do this, we need every tool at our disposal (witness the Open Science project I kick started in 2009 [and found funding for], in order to investigate the real potential of renewables, Oz-Energy-Analysis.Org).

However, I think there is far too much wishful thinking wrapped up in the proclamations by the “100% renewables” crowd(most of who are unfortunately also anti-nuclear advocates), that wind somehow offers both a halcyon choice and an ‘industrial-strength’ solution to our energy dilemma. In contrast, my TCASE series (thinking critically about sustainable energy) illustrates that, pound-for-pound, wind certainty does NOT punch above it’s weight as a clean-energy fighter; indeed, it’s very much a journeyman performer.

The following guest post, by Jon Boone, looks at wind energy with a critical eye and a witty turn of phrase. I don’t offer it as a comprehensive technical critique — rather it’s more a philosophical reflection on past performance and fundamental limits. Whatever your view of wind, I think you’ll find it interesting.


Energy debates in Wonderland

Guest Post by Jon Boone. Jon is a former university administrator and longtime environmentalist who seeks more more informed, effective energy policy in ways that expand and enhance modernity, increase civility, and demand stewardship on behalf of biodiversity and sensitive ecosystems. His brand of environmentalism eschews wishful thinking because it is aware of the unintended adverse consequences flowing from uninformed decisions. He produced and directed the documentary, Life Under a Windplant, which has been freely distributed within the United States and many countries throughout the world. He also developed the website Stop Ill Wind as an educational resource, posting there copies of his most salient articles and speeches. He receives no income from his work on wind technology.

March Hare (to Alice): Have some wine.

(Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.)

Alice: I don’t see any wine.

March Hare: There isn’t any.

Alice: Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it.

March Hare: It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited.

— From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Energy journalist Robert Bryce, whose latest book, Power Hungry, admirably foretells an electricity future anchored by natural gas from Marcellus Shale that will eventually bridge to pervasive use of nuclear power, has recently been involved in two prominent debates. In the first, conducted by The Economist, Bryce argued for the proposition that “natural gas will do more than renewables to limit the world’s carbon emissions.” In the second, an Intelligence Squared forum sponsored by the Rosenkranz Foundation, he and American Enterprise Institute scholar Steven Hayward argued against the proposition that “Clean Energy can drive America’s economic recovery.”

Since there’s more evidence a friendly bunny brought children multi-colored eggs on Easter Sunday than there is that those renewables darlings, wind and solar, can put much of a dent in CO2 emissions anywhere, despite their massively intrusive industrial presence, the first debate was little more than a curiosity. No one mentioned hydroelectric, which has been the most widely effective “renewable”—ostensibly because it continues to lose marketshare (it now provides the nation with about 7% of its electricity generation), is an environmental pariah to the likes of The Sierra Club, and has little prospect for growth. Nuclear, which provides the nation’s largest grid, the PJM, with about 40% of its electricity, is not considered a renewable, despite producing no carbon emissions; it is also on The Sierra Club’s hit list. Geothermal and biomass, those minor league renewables, were given short shrift, perhaps because no one thought they were sufficiently scalable to achieve the objective.

So it was a wind versus gas scrum played out as if the two contenders were equally matched as producers of power. Bryce pointed out wind’s puny energy density, how its noise harms health and safety, its threat to birds and bats, and how natural gas’s newfound abundance continues to decrease its costs—and its price. His opponent carried the argument that wind and solar would one day be economically competitive with natural gas, such that the former, since they produced no greenhouse gasses, would be the preferred choice over the latter, which does emit carbon and, as a non renewable, will one day become depleted.

Such a discussion is absurd at a number of levels, mirroring Alice’s small talk with the March Hare. One of the troubling things about the way wind is vetted in public discourse is how “debate” is framed to ensure that wind has modern power and economic value. It does not. Should we debate whether the 747 would do more than gliders in transporting large quantities of freight? Bryce could have reframed the discussion to ask whether wind is better than cumquats as a means of emissions reductions. But he didn’t. And the outcome of this debate, according to the vote, was a virtual draw.

Ironically, the American Natural Gas Association is perking up its louche ad slogan: “The success of wind and solar depends on natural gas.” Eureka! To ANGA, wind particularly is not an either to natural gas’s or. Rather, the renewables du jour will join forces with natural gas to reduce carbon emissions in a way that increases marketshare for all. With natural gas, wind would be an additive—not an alternative—energy source. Bryce might have made this clear.

What ANGA and industry trade groups like the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (see its latest paper) don’t say is that virtually all emissions reductions in a wind/gas tandem would come from natural gas—not wind. But, as Bryce should also be encouraged to say, such a pretension is a swell way for the natural gas industry to shelter income via wind’s tax avoidance power. And to create a PR slogan based upon the deception of half-truths. Although natural gas can indeed infill wind’s relentless volatility, the costs would be enormous while the benefit would be inconsequential. Rate and taxpayers would ultimately pay the substantial capital expenses of supernumerary generation.

Beyond Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

The Oxford-style Economist debate, which by all accounts Bryce and Hayward won with ease, nonetheless woozled around in a landscape worthy of Carroll’s Jabberwocky, complete with methodological slips, definitional slides, sloganeering, and commentary that often devolved into meaningless language—utter nonsense. It was as if Pixar had for the occasion magically incarnated the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, and Humpty Dumpty, who once said in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Dumpty also said, “When I make a word do a lot of work … I always pay it extra.”

Those promoting “clean” were paying that word extra—and over the top, as Hayward frequently reminded by demanding a clear, consistent definition of clean technology.

Proponents frequently defined clean energy differently depending upon what they chose to mean. At times, they meant acts of commission in the form of “clean coal,” wind, solar, biomass (although ethanol was roundly condemned), and increased use of natural gas. Indeed, natural gas in the discussion became reified, in the best Nancy Pelosi/T. Boone Pickens tradition, as a clean source of energy on a par with wind and solar. At one time, clean also referred to nuclear—but the topic quickly changed back to wind and natural gas. At other times, clean referred to acts of omission, such as reducing demand with more efficient appliances, smarter systems of transmission, and more discerning lifestyle choices.

Shifting definitions about what was “clean” made for a target that was hard to hit. Bryce mentioned Jevon’s Paradox. Bulls eye. So much for increased efficiency. Hayward demonstrated that the US electricity sector has already cut SO2 and NOx emissions nearly 60% over the last 40 years, and reduced mercury emissions by about 40% over this time, despite tripling coal use from 1970 to 2005. Zap. All this without wind and solar. Green jobs from clean industry?  It would have been fruitful to have invoked Henry Hazlitt’s Broken Window fallacy, which illustrates the likelihood of few net new jobs because of the opportunities lost for other, more productive investment. Also welcoming would have been remarks about how more jobs in the electricity sector must translate into increased costs, making electricity less affordable. Such a development would substantially subvert prospects for economic recovery.

In arguing against the proposition that clean energy could be a force for economic recovery, Bryce and Hayward did clean the opposition’s clock (they had, as everyone agreed, the numbers on their side). But they also let the opposition off the hook by not exposing the worms at the core of the proposition. Yes, the numbers overwhelmingly suggest that coal and natural gas are going to be around for a long time, and that they will continue to be the primary fuels, along with oil, to energize the American economy.** They can be, as they have been, made cleaner by reducing their carbon emissions even more. But they won’t be clean. Outside Wonderland, cleaner is still not clean.

The proposition therefore had to fail. Even in Wonderland.

Example of the twinning between natural gas and renewable energy – unacceptable from a greenhouse gas mitigation perspective

Capacity Matters

These arguments, however, are mere body blows. Bryce should have supplied the knockout punch by reminding that any meaningful discussion of electricity production, which could soon embrace 50% of our overall energy use, must consider the entwined goals of reliability, security, and affordability, since reliable, secure, affordable electricity is the lynchpin of our modernity. Economic recovery must be built upon such a foundation. At the core of this triad, however, resides the idea of effective capacity—the ability of energy suppliers to provide just the right amount of controllable power at any specified time to match demand at all times. It is the fount of modern power applications.

By insisting that any future technology—clean, cleaner, or otherwise, particularly in the electricity sector—must produce effective capacity, Bryce would have come quickly to the central point, moving the debate out of Wonderland and into sensible colloquy.

Comparing—both economically and functionally—wind and solar with conventional generation is spurious work. Saying that the highly subsidized price of wind might, maybe, possibly become, one day, comparable to coal or natural gas may be true. But even if this happens, if, say, wind and coal prices become equivalent, paying anything for resources that yield no or little effective capacity seems deranged as a means of promoting economic recovery for the most dedicatedly modern country on the planet.

Subsidies for conventional fuels—coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydro—make sense because they promote high capacity generation. Subsidies for wind and solar, which are, as Bryce stated, many times greater on a unit of production basis than for conventional fuels, promote pretentious power that make everything else work harder simply to stand still.

Consider the following passage from Part II of my recent paper, which is pertinent in driving this point home:

Since reliable, affordable, secure electricity production has historically required the use of many kinds of generators, each designed to perform different but complementary roles, much like instruments in an orchestra, it is not unreasonable for companies in the power business to diversify their power portfolios. Thus, investment in an ensemble of nuclear and large coal plants to provide for baseload power, along with bringing on board smaller coal and natural gas plants to engage mid and peak load, makes a great deal of sense, providing for better quality and control while achieving economies of scale.

Traditional diversified power portfolios, however, insisted upon a key common denominator: their generating machines, virtually all fueled by coal, natural gas, nuclear, and/or hydro, had high unit availability and capacity value. That is, they all could be relied upon to perform when needed precisely as required.

How does adding wind—a source of energy that cannot of itself be converted to modern power, is rarely predictable, never reliable, always changing, is inimical to demand cycles, and, most importantly, produces no capacity value—make any sense at all? Particularly when placing such a volatile brew in an ensemble that insists upon reliable, controllable, dispatchable modes of operation. As a functional means of diversifying a modern power portfolio, wind is a howler.

Language Matters

All electricity suppliers are subsidized. But conventional generation provides copious capacity while wind supplies none and solar, very little. The central issue is capacity—or its absence. Only capacity generation will drive future economic recovery. And Bryce should say so in future debates. Birds and bats, community protests, health and safety—pale in contrast to wind technology’s lack of capacity. And Bryce should say so. Ditto for any contraption fueled by dilute energy sources that cannot be converted to modern power capacity—even if they produce no carbon emissions. Clean and green sloganeering should not be conflated with effective production.

Moreover, even if the definition of clean and/or renewable technology is stretched to mean reduced or eliminated carbon emissions caused by less consumption of fossil fuels, then where is the evidence that technologies like wind and solar are responsible for doing this? When in the debate former Colorado governor Bill Ritter claimed that the wind projects he helped build in his state were reducing California’s carbon emissions, why didn’t the Bryce/Hayward team demand proof? Which is non existent.

It’s not just wind’s wispy energy density that makes conversion to modern power impossible—without having it fortified by substantial amounts of inefficiently operating fossil-fired power, virtually dedicated transmission lines, and new voltage regulation, the costs of which must collectively be calculated as the price for integrating wind into an electricity grid. It is rather wind’s continuous skittering, which destabilizes the required match between supply and demand; it must be smoothed by all those add-ons. The vast amount of land wind gobbles up therefore hosts a dysfunctional, Rube Goldbergesque mechanism for energy conversion. Bryce and his confreres would do well to aim this bullet right between the eyes.

Robert Bryce remains a champion of reasoned discourse and enlightened energy policy. He is one of the few energy journalists committed to gleaning meaningful knowledge from a haze of data and mere information. His work is a wise undertaking in the best traditions of journalism in a democracy. As he prepares for future debates—although, given the wasteland of contemporary journalism, it is a tribute to his skills that he is even invited to the table—he must cut through the chaff surrounding our politicized energy environment, communicating instead the whole grained wheat of its essentials.

Endnote: You might also enjoy my other relatively recent paper, Oxymoronic Wind (13-page PDF). It covers a lot of ground but dwells on the relationship between wind and companies swaddled in coal and natural gas, which is the case worldwide.


** It was fascinating to note Hayward’s brief comment about China’s involvement with wind, no doubt because it seeks to increase its renewables’ manufacturing base and then export the bulk of the machines back to a gullible West. As journalist Bill Tucker said recently in a panel discussion about the future of nuclear technology on the Charlie Rose show, China (and India), evidently dedicated to achieve high levels of functional modernity, will soon lead the world in nuclear production as it slowly transitions from heavy use of coal over the next half-century.


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