I mean, I’ve only been saying this forever.
How should electricity from wind turbines and solar panels be evaluated? Should it be evaluated as if these devices are stand-alone devices? Or do these devices provide electricity that is of such low quality, because of its intermittency and other factors, that we should recognize the need for supporting services associated with actually putting the electricity on the grid? This question comes up in many types of evaluations, including Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE), Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI), Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), and Energy Payback Period (EPP).
I recently gave a talk called The Problem of Properly Evaluating Intermittent Renewable Resources (PDF) at a BioPhysical Economics Conference in Montana. As many of you know, this is the group that is concerned about Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI). As you might guess, my conclusion is that the current methodology is quite misleading. Wind and solar are not really stand-alone devices when it comes to providing the kind of electricity that is needed by the grid. Grid operators, utilities, and backup electricity providers must provide hidden subsidies to make the system really work.
This problem is currently not being recognized by any of the groups evaluating wind and solar, using techniques such as LCOE, EROI, LCA, and EPP. As a result, published results suggest that wind and solar are much more beneficial than they really are. The distortion affects both pricing and the amount of supposed CO2 savings.
First, if you are serious about saving CO2, you must evaluate the entire system, not just cherry pick the data.
This is important because until now we’ve glossed over the real problems the intermittent nature of wind and solar–including “hot standby” coal and natural gas power plants, which are spewing CO2 to keep their boilers hot in order to provide energy at a moments notice when a cloud drifts by or the wind stops blowing for a moment.
Remember: the electricity you are using right now in your computer was generated microseconds ago. Electricity is not stored in the grid in any meaningful way, so that means if there is an excess of energy from a solar station, or a cloud drifts by and stops generation for a moment–one of two things must happen.
Either you accept the quality of the electricity drops: the voltage swings wildly, lights dim, sometimes computers fail and reboot if not backed up by an expensive UPS. Or you have a “hot-standby” station momentarily spin up a generator and supply the extra missing energy.
So for every “clean” solar power station or “clean” wind mill, somewhere out of sight is a power plant belching out carbon dioxide, often wasted energy, waiting to engage the generator in order to provide energy to fill in the gaps.
It’s one reason, by the way, that Germany, in its headlong rush towards renewables, has been building coal-based power plants like crazy. They need the plants to back-stop the intermittent renewable energy sources they are building.
To ignore this fact is to ignore the CO2 costs of “renewable” policy. It’s to pretend you’re clean because you’ve pushed your shit down the road. The shit is still there; you’re just ignoring it.
Second, if you are serious about evaluating the environmental impact of your policies, you must also consider the energy required to build, install, maintain, and eventually dispose of your power plants.
The heavy metals, plastics, electronics, transformers and exotic materials do not simply materialize out of nowhere. The massive fins of a wind mill generator are trucked out in diesel-burning trucks, the massive coils hoisted up hundreds of feet are hoisted up by helicopters burning aviation gas. The plastics used to build the components come from the same crude oil that other plastics come from; the copper in the wire was mined at the same locations the copper in the wire used in traditional power plants came from.
And the cost of all these materials–the environmental impact of the generator–translates into the financial expense required to build your wind mill farm or solar farm.
If you require subsidies in the form of tax rebates in order to make your farm make financial sense–it implies strongly that your environmental impact is greater than other alternative means of generation.
That is, tax incentives are simply another way to pretend you’re clean by shoveling your financial shit down the road. You’re asking others to pay for your inefficiencies with money that could have been used to feed the hungry or help the poor. And your shit is still there; you’re just ignoring it.
My criticisms of renewables has never been a denial of the wish of having a better way to power our modern world.
My criticisms has always revolved around the idea that, in the end, renewables are not as clean as claimed, are not as cheap as claimed, and that powerful interests have been taking us for a ride while doing absolutely nothing–in the final analysis–about reducing greenhouse gasses.
And ultimately my criticism boils down to this: until we find a way to store massive amounts of energy in the power grid in an environmentally friendly way–enough to power the entire United States using stored energy for hours–intermittent renewable energy sources will always be an environmentally unfriendly solution.