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Renewables outstripping infrastructure

Image: True British Metal

Renewable energy is increasingly incompatible with our energy infrastructure and our economy; and the situation is getting critical.

It is common knowledge that renewable energy technologies (wind, solar, tidal, etc.) are not “firm.”  But firm is exactly how our economy needs energy.  In a just-in-time economy, it is extremely difficult for corporations to stop working when the wind stops blowing or to work twice as hard when the sun is shining.  The same goes for our households – we need heat and light during the long, dark winter evenings, not during balmy summer days.

We fully understand the solution to this problem – energy storage.  This is not just batteries.  Indeed, batteries are likely to be too expensive to resolve grid-level storage issues.  It is more likely that pumped hydro will be used.  Indeed, as its oil and gas reserves dwindle, Norway is seeking to become Europe’s pumped hydro capital.  Various types of flywheels, stored heat and compressed air systems may also have a role to play.  But the crucial fact at this stage is that (with the exception of pumped hydro, which is limited to mountainous regions) these storage technologies have yet to be deployed on anything more than an experimental scale.  Moreover, it is doubtful that we will have enough materials like lithium and cobalt to go around if at the same time we want them for grid storage we are also going to use them to power cars, ships, trucks and aeroplanes.

The work around that everyone politely refuses to mention in discussions about renewables is that, for the foreseeable future, they must be backed up with fossil fuel and nuclear generation.  The cost of this essential ‘balancing’ generation is not, however, added to the headline price of renewable electricity.  Nor is the cost of maintaining the grid infrastructure required to bring the renewable electricity from the remote locations (offshore, in deserts, on top of mountains, etc.) where it is generated to the towns and cities where it is used.

This sleight of hand has allowed renewable electricity generators to bring headline prices below those of coal and gas.  For example, Josh Gabbatiss in the Independent informs us that:

“Renewable energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels in two years, according to a new report.

“Experts predict that investment in green infrastructure projects will lead to decreases in the cost of energy for consumers.  Continuous technological improvements have led to a rapid fall in the cost of renewable energy in recent years, meaning some forms can already comfortably compete with fossil fuels.

“The report suggests this trend will continue, and that by 2020 ‘all the renewable power generation technologies that are now in commercial use are expected to fall within the fossil fuel-fired cost range’.”

This would be great news if grid scale electricity storage was already a thing rather than a poorly-funded project in a university laboratory.  As Akshat Rathi, covering the same story for Quartz, points out:

“Power from solar photovoltaics and the wind are intermittent. So even if the costs of generation fall, other sources of power—typically fossil fuels or nuclear—will be needed to fill in the gaps, and those producers will be able to charge more.

“Varun Sivaram, an expert in solar power at the Council on Foreign Relations, has shown that intermittent power sources suffer from value deflation as they become more important in the energy mix.”

Without cost effective grid-scale storage, renewables are like a parasite killing its fossil fuel host.  The more widespread they become, the harder they are to accommodate.  And behind the greenwash headlines proclaiming that this or that country just generated 100 percent of its power from renewables (which often include unsustainable waste and biofuel burning) is an ongoing collapse in fossil fuel back-up generation.

In the UK, coal generation has slumped in the face of a government decision to ban coal generation from 2025 – power stations have closed early rather than invest more money; forcing National Grid to pay some operators to stay open.  Less obviously, the planned expansion of gas generation (which was to be fuelled in part by fracking) has not happened because of a dearth of investment capital.  In part this is driven by fear of a future ban on fossil fuels; in part by the increasing cost of recovering gas in the face of ever cheaper renewables.

In the USA, something similar appears to be happening despite the Trump Administration’s pro-fossil fuel policies.  According to Jon Fingas at Engadget:

“Renewable energy played an important role in the US last year… although you might not want to cheer too loudly… that’s mainly because fossil fuel power continued to fade away. Electrek noted that plant closures removed 11.8GW of utility-scale fossil fuel power from the equation – this was more a testament to the decline of coal than a triumph for green tech.”

It is, of course, possible that someone will come up with some new storage technology that can be rapidly deployed at grid scale.  But no amount of wishful thinking is going to make that technology materialise overnight.  The reality is that renewable electricity and fossil fuel electricity are not separate things; for now at least they are two sides of the same machine.  Moreover, allowing renewables to undermine the fossil fuels that allow them to operate is madness until or unless grid scale storage has been deployed.

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