News of the day claims the world is shifting off fossil fuels and Canada is being left behind. Nothing could be further from the truth. Energy economist Robert Lyman deconstructs the extreme costs and challenges of attempting to actualize the so-called “WWS – Wind Water Sunlight – vision of renewable energy. Renewable NOT doable.
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A Reality Check
Contributed by Robert Lyman @ May 2016
Humanity is owed a serious investigation of how we have gone so far with the decarbonization project without a serious challenge in terms of engineering reality.
A number of environmental groups in Canada and other countries have recently endorsed the “100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water and Sunlight (WWS)” vision articulated in reports written by Mark Jacobson, Mark Delucci and others. This vision seeks to eliminate the use of all fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) in the world by 2050. Jacobson, Delucci et. al. have published “all-sector energy roadmaps” in which they purport to show how each of 139 countries could attain the WWS goal. The purpose of this paper is to examine whether the 100% goal is feasible.
While a range of renewable energy technologies (e.g. geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal, and wave energy) could play a role in the global transformation, the world foreseen in the WWS vision would be dominated by wind and solar energy. Of 53,535 gigawatts (GW) of new electrical energy generation sources to be built, onshore and offshore wind turbines would supply 19,000 GW (35.4%), solar photovoltaic (PV) plants would supply 17,100 GW (32%) and Concentrated Solar Power plants (CSP) would supply 14,700 GW (27.5%). This would cost $100 trillion, or $3,571 for every household on the planet.
Western Europe has extensive experience with investments in renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. By the end of 2014, the generating capacity of renewable energy plants there was about 216 GW, 22% of Europe’s capacity, but because of the intermittent nature of renewable energy production, the actual output was only 3.8% of Europe’s requirements. The capital costs of renewable energy plants are almost 30 times as high as those of the natural gas plants that could have been built instead; when operating costs are also taken into account, onshore wind plants are 4.6 times as expensive as gas plants and large-scale PV plants are 14.1 times as expensive as gas plants. Wind and solar energy is not “dispatchable” (i.e. capable of varying production quickly to meet changing demand), which results in serious problems – the need to back up renewables with conventional generation plants to avoid shortfalls in supply, and the frequent need to dump surplus generation on the export market at a loss.
The current energy system in the United States, Canada and globally is heavily dependent on fossil fuels – they generally supply over 80% of existing energy needs in developed countries and over 87% in the world as a whole. Currently, wind and solar energy sources constitute only one-third of one percent of global energy supply.
The financial costs of building the 100% renewable energy world are enormous, but the land area needed to accommodate such diffuse sources of energy supply is just as daunting.
Accommodating the 46,480 solar PV plants envisioned for the U.S. in the WWS vision would take up 650,720 square miles, almost 20% of the lower 48 states. This is close in size to the combined areas of Texas, California, Arizona, and Nevada.
A 1000-megawatt (MV) wind farm would use up to 360 square miles of land to produce the same amount of energy as a 1000-MV nuclear plant.
To meet 8% of the U.K.’s energy needs, one would have to build 44,000 offshore wind turbines; these would have an area of 13,000 square miles, which would fill the entire 3000 km coastline of the U.K. with a strip 4 km wide.
To replace the 440 MW of U.S. generation expected to be retired over the next 25 years, it would take 29.3 billion solar PV panels and 4.4 million battery modules. The area covered by these panels would be equal to that of the state of New Jersey. To produce this many panels, it would take 929 years, assuming they could be built at the pace of one per second.
The WWS roadmap for the U.S. calls for 3,637 CSP plants to be built. It would be extremely difficult to find that many sites suitable for a CSP plant. Packed together, they would fill an area of 8,439 square miles, about the area of Metropolitan New York. They would require the manufacture of 63,647,500 mirrors; if they could be manufactured one every ten seconds, it would take 21 years to build that many mirrors.
A central component of the WWS vision is the electrification of all transportation uses. This is technically impossible right now, as the technologies have not yet been developed that would allow battery storage applicable to heavy-duty trucks, marine vessels and aircraft. Even in the case of automobiles, despite taxpayer subsidies of $7,500 per vehicle and up, the number of all-electric vehicles sold has consistently fallen far short of governments’ goals.
The costs of electrifying passenger rail systems are so high that no private railway would ever take them on. Electrification of a freight railway system makes even less sense, and would cost at least $1 trillion each.
The diversion of crops to make biofuels already is raising the cost of food for the world’s poor. The World Resources Institute estimates that if this practice is expanded, it will significantly worsen the world’s ability to meet the calorie requirements of the world’s population by 2050.
Scientists and governments have been guilty of the “Apollo Fallacy”; i.e. of thinking that the space race is a model for the development of renewable energy. The Apollo program cost billions of dollars to demonstrate U.S. engineering prowess during the Cold War; costs, and commercial considerations, were secondary considerations, if they counted at all.
The proponents of WWS grossly under-estimate the costs of integrating renewable energy sources into the electricity system. The additional costs of backup generation, storage, load balancing and transmission would be enormous.
The WWS scenario calls for 39,263 5-MW wind installations in Canada at a cost of $273 billion for the onshore wind generation alone. Building a national backbone of 735 kV transmission lines would cost at least CDN $104 billion and take 20 years to complete.
The WWS includes a call to shut down all coal, oil and natural gas production. It implies the closing of all emissions intensive industries, such as mining, petrochemicals, refining, cement, and auto and parts manufacturing. The political and regional backlash against such policies in a country like Canada would threaten Confederation. In short, the WWS vision is based on an unrealistic assessment of the market readiness of a wide range of key technologies. Attaining the vision is not feasible today in technological, economic or political terms.
Robert Lyman is an energy economist with 27 years’ experience, former public servant and he served as a diplomat for a decade.