The “Wind And Solar Will Save Us” Delusion

The “Wind and Solar Will Save Us” story is based on a long list of misunderstandings and apples to oranges comparisons. Somehow, people seem to believe that our economy of 7.5 billion people can get along with a very short list of energy supplies. This short list will not include fossil fuels. Some would exclude nuclear, as well. Without these energy types, we find ourselves with a short list of types of energy — what BP calls Hydroelectric, Geobiomass (geothermal, wood, wood waste, and other miscellaneous types; also liquid fuels from plants), Wind, and Solar.

Unfortunately, a transition to such a short list of fuels can’t really work. These are a few of the problems we encounter:

[1] Wind and solar are making extremely slow progress in helping the world move away from fossil fuel dependence.

In 2015, fossil fuels accounted for 86% of the world’s energy consumption, and nuclear added another 4%, based on data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Thus, the world’s “preferred fuels” made up only 10% of the total. Wind and solar together accounted for a little less than 2% of world energy consumption.

Figure 1. World energy consumption based on data from BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Our progress in getting away from fossil fuels has not been very fast, either. Going back to 1985, fossil fuels made up 89% of the total, and wind and solar were both insignificant. As indicated above, fossil fuels today comprise 86% of total energy consumption. Thus, in 30 years, we have managed to reduce fossil fuel consumption by 3% (=89% – 86%). Growth in wind and solar contributed 2% of this 3% reduction. At the rate of a 3% reduction every 30 years (or 1% reduction every ten years), it will take 860 years, or until the year 2877 to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels. And the “improvement” made to date was made with huge subsidies for wind and solar.

Figure 2. World electricity generation by source, based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The situation is a little less bad when looking at the electricity portion alone (Figure 2). In this case, wind amounts to 3.5% of electricity generated in 2015, and solar amounts to 1.1%, making a total of 4.6%. Fossil fuels account for “only” 66% of the total, so this portion seems to be the place where changes can be made. But replacing all fossil fuels, or all fossil fuels plus nuclear, with preferred fuels seems impossible.

[2] Grid electricity is probably the least sustainable form of energy we have.

If we are to transition to a renewables-based economy, we will need to transition to an electricity-based economy, since most of today’s renewables use electricity. Such an economy will need to depend on the electric grid.

The US electric grid is often called the “World’s Largest Machine.” The American Society of Civil Engineers gives a grade of D+ to America’s energy system. It says,

America relies on an aging electrical grid and pipeline distribution systems, some of which originated in the 1880s. Investment in power transmission has increased since 2005, but ongoing permitting issues, weather events, and limited maintenance have contributed to an increasing number of failures and power interruptions.

Simply maintaining the electric grid is difficult. One author writes about the challenges of replacing aging steel structures holding up power lines. Another writes about the need to replace transformers, before they fail catastrophically and interrupt services. The technology to maintain and repair the transmission lines demands that fossil fuels remain available. For one thing, helicopters are sometimes needed to install or repair transmission lines. Even if repairs are done by truck, oil products are needed to operate the trucks, and to keep the roads in good repair.

Electricity and, in fact, electricity dispensed by an electric grid, is in some sense the high point in our ability to create an energy product that “does more” than fossil fuels. Grid electricity allows electric machines of all types to work. It allows industrial users to create very high temperatures, and to hold them as needed. It allows computerization of processes. It is not surprising that people who are concerned about energy consumption in the future would want to keep heading in the same direction as we have been heading in the past. Unfortunately, this is the expensive, hard-to-maintain direction. Storms often cause electrical outages. We have a never-ending battle trying to keep the system operating.

[3] Our big need for energy is in the winter, when the sun doesn’t shine as much, and we can’t count on the wind blowing.

Clearly, we use a lot of electricity for air conditioning. It is difficult to imagine that air conditioning will be a major energy use for the long-term, however, if we are headed for an energy bottleneck. There is always the possibility of using fans instead, and living with higher indoor temperatures.

In parts of the world where it gets cold, it seems likely that a large share of future energy use will be to heat homes and businesses in winter. To illustrate the kind of seasonality that can result from the use of fuels for heating, Figure 3 shows a chart of US natural gas consumption by month. US natural gas is used for some (but not all) home heating. Natural gas is also used for electricity and industrial uses.

Figure 3. US natural gas consumption by month, based on US Energy Information Administration.

Clearly, natural gas consumption shows great variability, with peaks in usage during the winter. The challenge is to provide electrical supply that varies in a similar fashion, without using a lot of fossil fuels.

[4] If a family burns coal or natural gas directly for winter heat, but then switches to electric heat that is produced using the same fuel, the cost is likely to be higher. If there is a second change to a higher-cost type of electricity, the cost of heat will be even greater.  

There is a loss of energy when fossil fuels or biomass are burned and transformed into electricity. BP tries to correct for this in its data, by showing the amount of fuel that would need to be burned to produce this amount of electricity, assuming a conversion efficiency of 38%. Thus, the energy amounts shown by BP for nuclear, hydro, wind and solar don’t represent the amount of heat that they could make, if used to heat apartments or to cook food. Instead, they reflect an amount 2.6 times as much (=1/38%), which is the amount of fossil fuels that would need to be burned in order to produce this electricity.

As a result, if a household changes from heat based on burning coal directly, to heat from coal-based electricity, the change tends to be very expensive. The Wall Street Journal reports, Beijing’s Plan for Cleaner Heat Leaves Villagers Cold:

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