Renewable Energy

I hear the argument all the time to just take the money invested in the other energy sources and put it all into renewables and hope for the best.  The renewables technology isn't able to handle 100% of the power capacity required now, let alone with the future increases in demand, but in a laid back approach it is always said "don't worry something is sure to happen or someone will do this or that and it will work out."  It is estimated that by the year 2030 the world energy demand will have increased by 74%.

World demand for electricity quadrupled from 1900 to 1950 and then quadrupled again by 1975 and then doubled between 1980 to 2002. The world can't honestly expect renewables to handle these increases in demand and also the reduction in nuclear power and fossil fuels.


The capabilities of renewables such as wind and solar have been exagerated in the past and haven't lived up to what was promised which is why Denmark,  Germany and the United States has mandated their use by law.  Electricity companies are forced to use wind and solar energy and enter into long term contracts for set amounts of energy generation.   They don't use wind and solar because they are efficient, cheap and reliable sources of energy but because they are forced by government legislation.


A lot of advocates of renewable energy promote the power outputs as though they will generate at  peak capacity permanently.  For example the solar energy systems can only operate at peak capacity when optimally exposed to the sun's rays (1,000 watts per square meter), at an optimum angle (48.2 degrees) and at the ideal solar module temperature (25 degrees Celsius, or 77 degrees Fahrenheit)  in other words, under conditions that hardly ever exist outside a laboratory.


The capacity factor is the ratio of the average actual power output to peak power capacity.  The average capacity factor for nuclear power plants in the United States in 1980 was 56.3%, in 1990 it rose to 66 percent and in 2010 it was 91.2%.  Figures from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) state the worldwide nuclear capacity factor is 91.8% and both wind is 20%-40% and solar PV is 10%-20%.  Coal-fired plants have load capacities of 85% and gas-fired plants of 95%. 


Countries with well exploited wind resources tend to have a lower capacity factor such as Germany which has a capacity factor of only 16.9%. This is because the best sites get developed first, and subsequent development goes onto sites with poorer wind characteristics, thus reducing the average capacity factor. Germany used to have a load factor of 35%.   

A study of almost 3000 wind turbines in Britain found that they will only produce viable energy for 12 years,  not 25 years as the wind turbine manufacturers claim and which was used by the British government to calculate subsidies.  Professor Gordon Hughes, from Edinborough University and former energy advisor to the World Bank, says there will be a need for further investment in wind turbines which will result in higher electricity bills. The study also found that large wind turbines are more ineffective than smaller ones. 

The load factors for onshore wind turbines dropped from a high of 24% in the first year after construction to 11% after 15 years and offshore turbines declined from 40% at the beginning to 15% after 10 years.  Professor Hughes  believes they become uneconomical after 12 years

Stephan Kohler, the head of the German Energy Agency, said in an interview in November 2012 that "when a new wind farm is opened and we're told how many thousands of households it can supply with electricity, that number applies to only a quarter of our demand. In Germany, 75 percent of electricity goes to industry, for which a secure supply -- that is, at every second, and with constant voltage -- is indispensable. Neither solar nor wind power are suitable for that purpose today. Both fluctuate and provide either no secure supply or only a small fraction of a secure supply. Solar energy has a load factor of about 1,000 hours a year. But there are 8,670 hours in a year." 

When told that on some days solar power is already enough to supply all of Germany with electricity Kohler responded "Photovoltaic systems are distributed across hundreds of thousands of small power plants, which sounds nice. But when the sky is blue over Germany, these hundreds of thousands of decentralized plants act like a single, large power plant. All of the sudden we have 30,000 megawatts coming into the grid, which, in many cases, we can't use."

Kohler also stated "In the 1970s, they believed that there is an annual 6-percent linear increase in the demand for electricity. That number was used to estimate how many nuclear power plants had to be built. It was also the reason I went to work for the Institute for Applied Ecology (├ľko Institut) in Freiburg at the time. I thought the calculations were fundamentally wrong. Today we have a solar and wind euphoria, instead of a nuclear euphoria. We believe that there will be a 10-percent decline in electricity consumption by 2020. And, once again, we assume that this change will be linear. But I'm sure that we're probably going to be wrong this time, too." 

All solar panels degrade and gradually generate less electricity over time. But a review of 30,000 installations in Europe by the German solar monitoring firm Meteocontrol found 80 percent were underperforming. Testing of six manufacturers’ solar panels at two Spanish power plants by Enertis Solar in 2010 found defect rates as high as 34.5 percent.
 
Germany is a leader in renewable technology and installations and has the second most expensive electricity in Europe at 37 cents a kWh while France is 80% nuclear and has the cheapest electricity in Europe with 8 cents a kWh. Denmark,  another leader in renewable technology,
pay the developed world’s highest power prices — about 40 cents a kilowatt hour, or three to four times what North Americans pay today. Yet some people are adamant nuclear power is the most expensive form of energy generation and hypocritically point to subsidies they say hide the true cost eventhough both nuclear and renewable recieve them. When comparing subsidies with the amount of electricity the different sources produce (per kWh) then renewables recieves 5 cents per kWh in subsidies and nuclear power recieves 1.08 cents per kWh.  Wind on its own recieves 6.8 cents per kWh in subsidies. (http://www.iisd.org/gsi/sites/default/files/relative_energy_subsidies.pdf)

The potential for wind and solar power are often exagerated because huge government subsidies are up for grabs.  People percieve wind and solar companies as friendly and environmentally passionate who are doing charity work for the environment, but these companies are on the stock exchange with shareholders who want big returns on their investments. Having an environmentally friendly product is a marketing and PR bonus that means big bucks in subsidies and people spending cash wanting to help the environment,  but unfortunately often the cash could have done a lot more good if spent elsewhere.  At the present time renewables are a politicians tool so they can say they are proactive in doing something about climate change and win votes,  hoping that when disaster does strike someone else will clean it up and get the blame.  


Politicians in the US have been caught out using the "Green Jobs" slogan with the US Committee on Oversight and Government Reform revealing that the apparent creation of jobs is misleading the public.  It discovered that the public transport system,  such as bus drivers,  would simply be relabelled as "Green jobs".  If office workers are given LED computer screens they are "Green workers",  a college professor teaching environmental studies will be classified as a "Green job", an employee in a bicycle shop also becomes a "Green job".  The illusion painted by politicians is that the Green industry is going to "create" new jobs,  not simply recategorise old ones. 

Some examples of solar companies that are bankrupt or cutting jobs:
  • SunPower, after receiving $1.5 billion from DOE, is reorganizing, cutting jobs.
  • First Solar, after receiving $1.46 billion from DOE, is reorganizing, cutting jobs.
  • Solyndra, after receiving $535 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • Ener1, after receiving $118.5 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • Evergreen Solar, after receiving millions of dollars from the state of Massachusetts, filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • SpectraWatt, backed by Intel and Goldman Sachs, filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • Beacon Power, after receiving $43 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • Abound Solar, after receiving $400 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • Amonix, after receiving $5.9 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • Babcock & Brown (Australian company), after receiving $178 million from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • A123 Systems, after receiving $279 million from DOE, shipped some bad batteries and is barely operating. It cut jobs.
  • Solar Trust for America, after receiving a $2.1-billion loan guarantee from DOE, filed for bankruptcy protection.
  • Nevada Geothermal, after receiving $98.5 million from DOE, warns of potential defaults in new SEC filings.

Solar farm operators and homeowners with solar panels on their roofs in Germany collected more than €8 billion (US$10.2 billion) in subsidies in 2011, but the electricity they generated made up only about 3 percent of the total power supply
.

There is also some debate on exactly how much waste renewables will create as they require large batteries to make them feasible. One nuclear plant with 50 years of operation will produce 77,000 tons of waste (1,540 tons annually) and the United States annually discards 177,000 tons of batteries that contain toxic heavy metals.  Eventhough nuclear waste is more toxic it is a huge difference in quantities.

I do believe renewables should be a large part of the energy mix but I also believe nuclear power has just as much, if not an even greater role to play.  It's funny to notice people endorse remewable energy like wind and solar but asked what source of energy they use it is rarely the case.  Such as Christie Brinkley who is anti-nuclear and pro-renewable states she can't use solar or wind because she has too many trees on her Hamptons property.  Or Barbara Streisand who advises people to hang their washing in the sun instead of using a dryer but admitting to the New York Post "she never meant that it necessarily applied to her".  Or that the nobel prize winner Al Gore who advises everyone to cut back on their energy consumption by living in smaller homes and buying smaller cars but he personally uses enough electricity at his mansion to power 232 households and has a limosine and private jet.

Until smart-grid technologies and energy storage systems improve and spread widely, wind and solar energy will be too intermittent to provide anything like the reliable base-load power offered by nuclear and fossil fuels. As mentioned in this blog under Nuclear Waste the solutions to making renewables more intermittent itself may create more waste than nuclear power. Hydropower plays a significant role in the energy mix of the United States and several other countries, but environmental concerns about the damage caused by dams have severely limited its growth. Hydropwer is certainly the backbone of the renewable sector and can produce mass amounts of energy cheaply.  It is wind and solar power that may not be worth the power they generate.  Time will tell. Nuclear power generates about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States and 64 percent of all the carbon-free generation.

Chris Neider, an energy analyst and consultant aswell as an author of two books on energy and investing, optimistically says that somehow we will figure out grid optimization and storage issues. But while the power industry is hard at work on these issues, they still have no satisfactory answers. We still have no cheap way to store intermittent power from renewables, for example. Because electric generation is so critical to our economy, it would be folly to bet our future on technologies that have yet to invented.

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