I am so tired of the Smithsonian’s unquestioning devotion of renewable energy in spite of obvious warning signs that I wrote a letter to the editor. In the April 2018 Smithsonian there is an article entitled “The Future’s so Bright (He’s Gotta Wear Shades)” by Dan Solomon and a related graphic article “Capture the Sun, Harness the Wind” by 5W Infographics. These articles are essentially puff publicity pieces for the renewable energy industry that clearly shows the bias in Smithsonian on renewable energy. Nonetheless they cannot escape inconvenient facts.
The most obvious problem with Solomon’s article on the bright future of renewable energy in Georgetown Texas is that renewable energy looks great for the early adopters but the reality of a 100% reliable electric system lies beneath that success. The situation is exactly the same as a pyramid scheme where the first ones in reap benefits. When Solomon’s article notes that “about 2% of the time the Georgetown utility draws electricity derived from fossil fuels”, an unbiased article would have followed up on the implications of that. The primary support for the fossil fuels necessary to keep Georgetown lights on comes from everybody else. As more rent-seekers pile onto the renewable energy bandwagon pyramid the costs necessarily increase for those on the outside. As you dig deeper it becomes apparent that price support for the rest of the electric system not only becomes more likely but because solar and wind don’t support grid services it becomes increasingly likely that another layer of support has to be added at some point over 30% renewable penetration. At this time Georgetown is not paying for that.
The first graph in the graphic article shows “The comparison to coal” which charts the 2016 actual coal and renewable sources electricity generation and projects changes in their use out to 2050. Comparing the 2016 coal use of 1,216 billion kwhr and 573 billion kwhr renewable source estimate of 573 with EIA numbers shows that those numbers are close enough to not quibble. However, the title of the article refers to sun and wind and the electricity generation in those categories is lumped together with hydro, biomass, geothermal, and other gases. As far as I can tell solar and wind account for less than half of the 573 billion kwhr number. On the other hand most of the future renewable growth will occur in the wind and solar sectors but the graphic does not provide that information. Neither article mentions just how much wind and solar generation will be needed to meet the projected 2050 number.
Another graphic notes that 800 MW of energy storage were built in the United States in the last five years and expects that amount will be built in just 2020. The important number is how many MW hours will be available from the energy storage built because that defines how much storage will be available to counteract renewable’s intermittency. Solomon’s article also did not address how much storage would be needed for Georgetown to get off the grid. Neglecting to point out that because intermittent renewables struggle to generate power over a third of the time we will likely have to over-build renewable capacity and add massive amounts of energy storage biases the renewable argument.
One of the inconvenient facts illustrated but not noted in the graphic article is jobs per energy produced. If you divide the number of coal-industry employees in 2016 into the total coal generation you get 24.3 million kWh produced per employee. If you divide the sum of the solar and wind employees in 2016 into half of the reported renewable sources generation you get 0.8 million kWh produced per employee. Coal is 30 times more man-power efficient. While that may be good for employment it does not portend well for cost.
Other than the fact that the duck curve is graphically interesting I am not sure why that was included in the graphics article. More importantly it illustrates a problem. When you have large amounts of solar on the system something has to be available to make up for the evening demand. That is where storage becomes necessary. In order to keep the lights on you also need enough storage to cover those days when there isn’t any sun. Dale Ross’s flippant we are in West Texas so “Cloudy, Really?” comment aside a quick check of the climatological data indicates that it is mostly cloudy 28% of the time in Georgetown. Obviously despite the claim that Georgetown is powered entirely by renewable energy the fact is that is not true.
The Solomon article has multiple instances of conveniently neglected facts to make the story. It notes that the City was able to get guaranteed rates of 20 years for wind power and 25 years for solar power. It would have been appropriate to note that these types of facilities have very little operational experience that long so the guarantees might not be as iron-clad as implied. Solomon quotes Adam Schultz as saying that solar and wind have gotten so much cheaper that “I can’t even tell you the costs because costs have been dropping so rapidly”. If that is the case then why do both solar and wind need direct subsidies? Finally, blowing off the environmental impact of renewables on birds by saying that more birds are killed by cats and buildings reminds me of the two wrongs don’t make a right parable. Furthermore, what about the bats? The fact is that because renewable energy is diffuse, wildlife issues are a legitimate concern.
Those are the superficial errors illustrating biases. The reality is that because wind and solar are diffuse the electric grid is essential for keeping the lights on. Digging down into this problem is more complicated but necessary for the complete unbiased story of renewables. I recommend this post by Planning Energy at the Climate Etc. blog for an overview of the transmission planning difficulties raised by wind and solar energy. In brief, the modern power grid is a connected complex machine that balances various electrical and mechanical properties over thousands of miles. The system must be stable that is to say stay in synchronism, balance loads and generation and maintain voltages following system disturbances. The grid is built upon heavy rotating machinery at hydro, nuclear, and fossil-fired generating stations that provides that stability. Wind and solar power do not provide any stability support. Up to some point the present day grid is resilient enough to overcome that problem but at some point it has to be addressed. I don’t doubt that it can be addressed successfully but the costs necessary to do that are unknown and were certainly not a consideration in either article.
The reality of solar and wind renewable power not addressed in this article is that it is likely only to completely supplant fossil fuels in limited locations where both solar and wind potential are high, industrial load requirements are negligible, and the weather is mild in the winter because both resources are intermittent and diffuse. Texas has large wind and solar resources because of geography and because it is so large there is enough space to generate significant amounts. Georgetown TX does not have heavy industry that requires high amounts of electricity constantly so they can pretend to be powered entirely be renewable energy. Finally, Georgetown does not have to contend with winter impacts of higher latitudes particularly home heating. The solar resource is much reduced simply because the days are shorter but you must also consider reductions due to snow covered rooftop solar cells.