Reliability is the Fatal Flaw of Net Zero

The plan for New York’s  Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act (Climate Act) net zero transition is to electrify everything possible using wind and solar generating resources.   My primary concern is the reliability risks associated with the transition of the electric grid that took decades to develop based on dispatchable generating resources to one that depends upon intermittent and diffuse wind and solar by 2040.  This blog post highlights articles that reinforce my fear that the reliability of any electric grid that relies on wind and solar is fatally flawed.

I submitted comments on the Climate Act implementation plan and have written over 300 articles about New York’s net-zero transition because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that the net-zero transition will do more harm than good.  The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.

Climate Act Background

The Climate Act established a New York “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that outlines how to “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda.”  In brief, that plan is to electrify everything possible and power the electric gride with zero-emissions generating resources by 2040.  The Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants quantifies the impact of the electrification strategies.  That material was used to write a Draft Scoping Plan.  After a year-long review the Scoping Plan recommendations were finalized at the end of 2022.  In 2023 the Scoping Plan recommendations are supposed to be implemented through regulation and legislation.

Australian Renewables Integration

Chris Morris – a semi-retired power station engineer from New Zealand, and Russ Schussler – an electrical System Planning Engineer, have written a series of three articles about the unfolding disaster in Australia as they implement a net-zero electric grid. 

The first article explains what they are doing in Australia and what is happening to their electric grid.  Although there are significant differences between the Australian electric system and the North American system, there are proposals that will reduce those differences.  In particular, the Biden Administration plan to eliminate fossil fuels as a form of energy generation in the U.S. by 2035 with targets of 80% renewable energy generation by 2030 and 100% carbon-free electricity five years later, will inevitably lead to the same problems already observed.

The authors explain that:

Wind and solar, the unreliables, are now a significant part of the current NEM generation but the backbone is still coal – over 60% of the energy. Wind is less than 15% and grid solar 5%.

They note that “There is also the significant presence of domestic PV”.   Importantly. they found that:  “even at those levels, the intermittency and unpredictability has had major detrimental impacts on power stability.”  In particular, they state:

Management of the grid on a day-to-day basis depends on reliable generation and dispatchability. The renewables offer neither. For wind, there is often the mantra that the wind is blowing somewhere. The actual data does not back that up. A skeptic has for a number of years compiled the daily wind generation on the NEM. The results are revealing. The graph shown below is for just one month, June 2022. There is a synchronicity in the output of all the windfarms. To cope with the drop in those declines from wind, that is a lot of power that needs to be quickly ramped up.  If the wind isn’t blowing and it is night-time, where will the energy to make up the dip come from? The mainstay 400MW+ coal units that form the background of the energy supply can take three days to get to full load if cold.

I maintain that current wind, solar, and energy storage technology is inadequate to support an electric system that can maintain current standards of reliability.  The second article describes some of the innovations that are being tried in the Australian transition and note that they hype about “success” does not match reality.  Both authors are engineers and describe some issues associated with the required new technologies.  For example, there is a tendency to dismiss identified problems because there is a project or work by academics that claims industry changing innovations are just around the corner.  They show that these “claims are often overblown or misunderstood”.

Advocates make claims about the penetration of wind and solar resources in components of the grid without admitting that the numbers they cite are only possible because of support from outside the component traditional generating resources.  One major problem with wind and solar is that fossil-fired, nuclear, and hydro generating units produce electricity by spinning turbines that are synchronized to run at 3600 revolutions per minute.  That inherent characteristic provides necessary support to the transmission system.  Wind and solar generators are asynchronous and do not provide that service.  The authors explain the ramifications:

Not too long ago many pointed towards Germany as showing how a grid could accommodate high levels of renewables. This was a very misleading picture. The physics of the grid do not care who owns what. Synchronous resources from a neighbor’s generators provide support across the European grid, despite differences in language and nationality. Electricity flows quickly, approaching the speed of light, over every potential path to support all parts of the system regardless of who owns what. The German component is supported by conventional generation from neighboring systems including coal resources in Poland.

The article goes on to evaluate specific claims about the South Australian component of the grid related to synchronous power.  It turns out that in South Australia they have installed “synchronous condensers to maintain the grid without their synchronous gas generating units”. When anyone claims that wind and solar are cheaper than natural gas units, they are not incorporating the cost of some technology like synchronous condensers necessary to keep the lights on. 

Schussler has previously explained that there are two major problem areas with the net zero transition: getting energy from renewables instead of fossil fuels and having the grid work with intermittent asynchronous renewable resources.  Clearly if we are to have a working system it is necessary to address them together.  As it stands now the emphasis in Australia and New York for that matter, has been on the first problem.  The authors note “It is mind-boggling that an entity committed to an energy transition would seek to maximize efforts in regard to changing energy resources while hoping a miracle will occur allowing that energy to be delivered in an economic and reliable manner.”  They go on to say (their emphasis included):

It is simple to take out coal, if you don’t care what happens next. It is going to be incredibly difficult, if at all possible, to enable the replacement.  Significant roles will be demanded from all resources but that may not be enough. A lot of attention needs to be paid when baseload generation comes off, and a lot of challenges without practical solutions will likely emerge.  A lot of needed things needed don’t exist yet and may not ever exist. The energy system may be unrecognizable, maybe because it will no longer resembles an economic and reliable power system.

The third article discusses other ancillary services that are necessary to keep the electric system operating reliably and then goes on to see how the grid is being impacted by increasing levels of wind and solar resource deployment.  I am not going to describe their concerns about reactive power, frequency control, & inertia, reserves, load shedding, system functions during frequency excursions except to note that all these issues were ignored in the Scoping Plan.   If you are interested in reliability issues, I recommend the article.  The authors conclude:

The above is a simplified explanation of what is needed for reliable grid operation. Proponents of renewable energy do not want to discuss concerns of this sort, particularly the costs involved. When forced to address these issues, they rely on magical thinking, advocating for technologies that either do not yet exist or have not yet been proven to work reliably on a grid. The known solutions are expensive, but the renewable sector doesn’t want to pay for them – their mantra remains that renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels so the others should pay for them – hiding the expense. Add in the costs from the needed system support requirements described above, then renewables are significantly more expensive (and less reliable) than conventional generation. The extra costs of renewables support are being paid for a deteriorating quality of electricity supply. That is why there is a new industry adage – Cheap renewables are very expensive.

Futility of Wind Power

Francis Menton writing at the Manhattan Contrarian describes a new report by Bill Ponton that explores the effects and costs of continuing increases in generation of electricity from wind titled “The Cost of Increasing UK Wind Power Capacity: A Reality Check.” .  This analysis addresses what I call the ultimate problem of an electric grid relying on wind and solar.  The variability of those two resources is so great that there are huge issues trying to plan and develop the resources needed for periods when both resources are weak or nonexistent. 

Ponton examines the relationship between energy generation and power capacity for wind resources.  This is the same issue mentioned in the first article described above.  In particular, advocates claim that all that needs to be done is to have the political will to build enough renewable generation capacity.  What they don’t consider is just how much would be needed. In Ponton’s analysis he increases the wind generation capacity for every hour in a record of generation and load for 2022.  He finds that because the wind lulls cover so many facilities that doubling the generation capacity does not double the percent of UK electricity from wind from 24% to 48%, but only to 40%. He then goes on to triple and quadruple the wind resource capacity to produce the following graph:

Note that the percent of generation from wind approaches a limit asymptotically.  The percentage of electricity generated from wind deployment in any scenario still experience rapidly slowing increases as more wind capacity is added, and will approach a limit asymptotically. Menton points out that “This means that each incremental addition of wind generation capacity produces electricity that is more and more costly, with the costs accelerating rapidly after the tripling of existing capacity.”  Menton promises that he will follow up with more results from the Ponton report so stay tuned.

Conclusion

All of these articles raise significant reliability concerns that were ignored in the Scoping Plan.  Morris and Schussler believe it is “most likely that costs will increase significantly and reliability will degrade considerably” even if Australians do a great job of implementing all the planned changes. I agree with their conclusion that “Higher energy costs will hurt their consumers and industry while moving manufacturing and industry away from Australia to areas with cheaper (fossil fuel based) energy. The end result may cause far greater environmental harm.”  If New York fails to heed these warning the result will be the same.

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/) reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative (https://reformingtheenergyvisioninconvenienttruths.wordpress.com). Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

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