The Cost of Sustainable Low-Carbon Electricity — Wind vs. Nuclear

By George Taylor July 28, 2009

United States Wind Resource Map (50 Meter Elevation)

  

 

Let’s assume that in order to reduce CO2 emissions and prepare for the day when fossil fuels run short, Congress decides to put a price on carbon, and thus coal and natural gas are no longer the lowest-cost ways to generate electricity, as they have been for many decades.

Given that assumption, we believe the public debate about renewable electricity has failed to recognize the following key points:

  1. that the public doesn’t want renewable electricity — it wants sustainable, secure, low-impact electricity at the lowest feasible price;
  2. that, although there could be six or seven new sources of sustainable carbon-free electricity over the next 10-20 years (hydro, biomass, wind, solar, nuclear, enhanced geothermal, and coal with carbon storage), the only scalable ones that we know how to build today are wind and nuclear;
  3. but wind turbines alone cost more than nuclear (on a full-time-equivalent basis);
  4. wind requires long new transmission lines which nuclear does not;
  5. and, in the absence of electricity storage, there is no such thing as wind by itself — there is only 30% wind combined with 70% natural gas, or 30% wind combined with 70% coal.
  6. Moreover, wind is not likely to benefit much from further economies of scale because it’s already a $50 billion global industry.

Consequently, wind is not a cost-effective solution for either CO2 emissions or the fossil-fuel shortage, and subsidizing it today is not likely to lead to cost reductions in the future.  Therefore, discriminating against nuclear power (or coal with carbon storage), as 27 states have chosen to do through renewable electricity standards, has to increase the price of electricity.

Electricity Demand and Baseload Sources

 Electricity demand typically follows a daily cycle which peaks in the afternoon and declines to a minimum overnight.  Wind and nuclear supply what is called baseload demand, or the level that’s present all the time.  Based on reports filed by the nation’s utilities with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, about 75% of electricity consumption is baseload and about 25% is intermediate or peak load.

Wind has to be counted as a baseload source because it’s mostly available outside the hours of higher demand.  Nuclear power is a baseload source because the plants need to run steady-state.

How Do We Produce Electricity Today?

According the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2008, 96% of U.S. electricity came from just four sources: coal 48%, natural gas 22%, nuclear 20% and hydro 6%.  The remaining 4% came from biomass (1.4%), wind (1.3%), oil (1.1%) and geothermal (0.4%).

 Demand is Full-Time, But Wind is Part-Time;  Demand is Local, But Wind is Remote

 All previous sources of electricity, except wind, could run full-time. Thus a nuclear plant could substitute for a coal-fired plant, but a wind farm could not, unless it were combined with a backup source or with electricity storage.  But due to both its cost and environmental impact, storage has not been proposed for any major wind development.

Likewise, all previous sources of electricity, except for some hydro and some wind, have been located near centers of demand.  But given the wind resource map shown above, we can see that any significant wind development will have to take place in remote locations on the Great Plains.

Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) Cost

Unlike electricity generation from fossil fuels, the economics of wind and nuclear are dominated by capital costs.  And, for baseload sources, the cost that matters is the full-time-equivalent cost, the one derived by dividing the nameplate cost by the capacity factor (the ratio of actual production to full-time production at nameplate capacity.)

The following table compares three recent estimates for the cost of new nuclear power with recent reports for the cost of wind, natural gas and coal, all in 2007 dollars.

[We can present a more traditional levelized cost of electricity analysis in a future post, but LCOE calculations often obscure the underlying information which we want to emphasize here.]

 

 

Dollars per Nameplate kilowatt

Capacity Factor

Dollars per Full-Time kilowatt

       
Combined Cycle Natural Gas

800

0.65

1200

Supercritical Coal

2200

0.85

2600

Nuclear Black &Veatch  10/07

3200

0.9

3600

Nuclear South Carolina Electric & Gas  5/08

3400

0.9

3800

Nuclear Electricite de France  12/08

3500

0.9

3900

 

 

 

 

Wind Class 3 Black & Veatch  10/07

1650

0.35

4700

Wind  Am Wind Energy Assoc / EIA 2008

2000

0.3

6700

Wind + 550 miles  Am Electric Power

3000

0.3

10,000

Wind + 1000 miles

4000?

0.3

13,000?

Description

The first three nameplate costs and the first nameplate cost for wind are from a study by Black & Veatch, commissioned by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) in 2007.  The remaining nameplate costs for nuclear are from Electricite de France (EdF) and South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G), and for wind are from data reported by AWEA.

All of the capacity factors are from Black & Veatch, except the one for wind, which was calculated from data reported by AWEA and EIA.

EdF’s and SCE&G’s cost estimates are from actual projects – Electricite de France’s most recent press release on the European Pressurized Reactor under construction in Flamanville, France; and South Carolina Electric and Gas’s engineering, procurement and construction contract for a reactor which it anticipates completing in 2016.

The costs of inflation, financing and transmission are not included, except for the rows labeled “Wind + 550 miles” and “Wind + 1000 miles.”

See the appendix for more information on sources and calculations.

Observations

The first observation is that wind’s cost and capacity factor are open to dispute, and seemingly modest differences in the assumptions can lead to large differences in the FTE cost.  While the nameplate cost increase from 2006 (the date of B&V’s data) to 2008 is probably not in dispute, the capacity factor for future projects is.  All we’re pointing out is what wind turbines actually delivered in 2008.

A second observation is that, on an FTE basis, the cost of wind turbines alone is higher than the current and projected cost of nuclear, even if we added finance costs to nuclear or assumed a higher capacity factor for wind.  At the very least, one would have to say that on the basis of generation cost alone, wind has no obvious advantage.

The third point to note is cost of transmission.  Even 550 miles of transmission (which is a conservative estimate for the distance from windy sites on the Great Plains back to major centers of demand) would raise wind’s cost by 50%.  1000 miles of transmission would most likely double it.  [High-voltage DC could perhaps reduce costs somewhat at the 1000-mile level.  More on that in another post.]

Reliable estimates for new long-distance transmission are difficult to find because the most advanced technologies have not been implemented on large scale in the U.S.  We picked the 550-mile data point to use here because it comes from one of the few large-capacity transmission proposals which is based on real experience, American Electric Power’s proposal for a 765-kilovolt AC connection from West Virginia to New Jersey.

Caveat

Of course, the difficulty in making these comparisons is that no nuclear plants have been built from scratch in the United States for 25 years and the small amount of wind power installed to date has piggy-backed on the existing grid.  Thus for nuclear we can draw conclusions only from experience in Europe or from early-stage contracts signed by U.S. utilities, and for wind we can draw conclusions only by reviewing proposals for new transmission projects.

But while these limitations should remind us to be cautious, they should not prevent us from making comparisons, because European nuclear regulations and labor rates are similar to those in the United States, and the proposed transmission lines are evolutionary extensions of what we have today.

Wind’s Capacity Factor

Although some studies have claimed onshore capacity factors of 40% or higher, production figures for 2008 from the EIA and AWEA show that the overall capacity factor for actual installations was 31%.  This was not a result of old technology.  Almost all U.S. capacity has been installed since 2001 and the majority has been installed since 2005.

According to the EIA, 2008 wind generation equaled 52 billion kilowatt-hours.
See table Net Generation by Other Renewables: Total (All Sectors)
eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_1_a.html

According to the AWEA 2008 Annual Wind Industry Report:
http://awea.org/publications/reports/AWEA-Annual-Wind-Report-2009.pdf
8500 MW of wind capacity was installed in the United States in 2008 at a cost of $17 billion.  Total U.S. wind capacity was 17GW at the end of 2007, 21GW at the end of Q3 2008 and 25.3GW at the end of 2008.  From that, we can deduce that the average installed capacity in 2008 was about 19GW.

Calculation: 52 billion kWh / (8760 hours * 19 GW) = 31%

Why Is Wind So Expensive?

Because wind is intermittent and the best sites are remote.  Remoteness and intermittency add three costs which no other sources of electricity have ever had: transmission, storage and backup.

Transmission

Contrary to popular belief, we have almost never transmitted power over long distances.  Our existing grid is primarily a local distribution network, not a transmission network.  And for good reason — transmission is expensive, and rights of ways are difficult to assemble.  In addition, the more tightly a system is connected, the larger the area that can go down in a major disruption.  Distributed generation is robust generation.

We have typically produced electricity within 100 miles of where it was consumed.  Therefore, if we had to build a national transmission grid, its cost should be counted against the technologies which require it (wind, solar and perhaps enhanced geothermal)

In contrast, nuclear plants can replace coal or natural gas-fired plants one for one, in nearby locations.  Thus the existing distribution grid can be re-used largely as it is.

Storage

Although we won’t examine electricity storage in detail here, the simple takeaway is that only one technology (pumped hydro) has ever been built at even modest scale, and environmental considerations would make it exceedingly difficult to build more.  Not to mention that suitable sites in the Appalachians are nowhere near the most desirable wind sites on the Great Plains.  Thus two different transmission systems would have to be built – one from the source to the storage facility and another from the storage facility to the load.

The only other technology which could scale to match the requirement is compressed air energy storage (CAES.)   Unfortunately, while CAES might make sense at small scale, it has a fundamental drawback at large scale – its heavy dependence on natural gas.  CAES plus wind would consume about 60% as much natural gas as the most efficient combined cycle gas turbine alone.  But since CCGT could operate without any wind turbines, compressed-air caverns or new transmission lines at all, why build them?

Backup

There is no such thing as wind power by itself.  There is only 30% wind combined with 70% backup, and the only feasible choices for backup are hydro, biomass, natural gas or coal.  (Nuclear can’t be a backup because it can’t ramp easily.)  But hydro supplies only 6% of our electricity today (almost none of which is near the Great Plains) and can’t be expanded, while biomass supplies only 1.3% of our electricity today and will be costly to increase.  Natural gas and coal were the fossil fuels that we set out to eliminate in the first place.

What’s the point of pursuing a technology that would lock us into 70% natural gas or 70% coal?

Conclusion

Power companies have never built remote, intermittent sources before because those sources didn’t make economic sense.

And if we had any other choices for the future, remote intermittent sources wouldn’t make economic sense today, either.  We do have other choices.  Nuclear is a proven, scalable full-time source today, and enhanced geothermal or coal with carbon storage may be one tomorrow.

———————————————————————————————

Why is the List of Scalable New Sources So Short?

Because both our population and our per capita consumption are so large relative to the size of the continent.

The only non-fossil sources which could plausibly join wind and nuclear include two which we use today — hydro and biomass — and three which are under development – thermal solar, enhanced geothermal (EGS), and coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS).  But all five of those are either limited in capacity or face long research and development cycles.

[Three additional sources are not plausible.  Natural geothermal sources have mostly been developed.  Photovoltaic solar is much more expensive than its thermal solar cousin.  And nuclear fusion is too far off in the future to evaluate.]

Hydro has been low cost, but no one believes that we could build much more.

Biomass-fired generation could be expanded, but nowhere close to the size of U.S. electricity demand and not at low cost (or low environmental impact (the soil loses nutrients.)  Think of biomass as a low-quality form of coal, widely dispersed, and sitting outside where it collects moisture.

Thermal solar has promise, but will face capacity factors of 20% or less outside the Southwest.

Enhanced (deep-drilled) geothermal is years away from feasibility and its costs have yet to be determined.

CCS coal could serve as a transition strategy, but the quantities of CO2 involved are so large that it may never be cost-effective to capture and store it, except in (relatively small) applications for enhanced oil recovery.  A one-gigawatt coal plant produces about 10 million tons of CO2 and 250,000 tons of ash per year, while the same size nuclear plant produces 20 tons of spent fuel and no ash or CO2.  Factors of 500,000 have consequences.

———————————————————————————————= 

Sources for the Table of FTE Capital Costs:

 Black and Veatch,
20% Wind Energy Penetration in the United States, October 2007,
a study commissioned by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).
www.20percentwind.org/Black_Veatch_20_Percent_Report.pdf

Electricite de France, December 4, 2008.  Press release announcing that the cost of the 1.6 gigawatt Flamanville-3 European Pressurized Reactor, scheduled for completion in 2012, had risen to 4 billion euros, or 2500 euros per gigawatt (3500 dollars per gigawatt at an exchange rate of 1.4 to 1)

http://weblog.greenpeace.org/nuclear-reaction/PR-EDF-Investor-day-nuclear-strategy-and-finance-04-12-08.pdf

South Carolina Electric and Gas Co., April 2009.
SCE&G Generation Strategy by Kevin Marsh, CEO.
Available on SCANA Corp. investor relations page:
http://www.scana.com/en/investor-relations/nuclear-financial-information/default.htm

American Wind Energy Association, 2008 Annual Wind Industry Report
http://awea.org/publications/reports/AWEA-Annual-Wind-Report-2009.pdf

Transmission cost:

American Electric Power, “Meeting America’s Future Electric Needs”, 2006
http://www.aep.com/about/i765project/technicalpapers.aspx
Several papers on this page refer to the following paper, for which there is no link:
“The AEP Interstate Project Proposal – A 765 kV Transmission Line from West Virginia to New Jersey,” January 31, 2006.

Calculation: Assume N-1 contingency — must build 3 lines in order to have 2 in operation after an outage.
Capacity: 2 lines * 5000 MW maximum load per line = 10GW.
Assume capacity is limited by power factor support facilities and line losses rather than by heating.
Cost: 3 lines * $3 billion per line = $9 billion.
Result: $1 billion per gigawatt for 550 miles.

Notes for the Table of FTE Capital Costs:

 One could argue that inflation would affect all sources similarly, or nuclear might have an advantage because it uses 1/10th as much steel per FTE-watt as wind.

Financing costs favor wind because of its shorter construction time.  SCE&G’s capital spending timeline indicates an average borrowing period of about 3 years, compared with 1 year or less for wind.

Transmission costs favor nuclear.

SCE&G’s estimate excludes inflation (estimated at a time-weighted average of 30%), financing and transmission (estimated at 10% of plant cost), but includes owner’s costs (such as site preparation) and a 10% contingency factor.

All capacity factors represent maximum values.  When facilities are used to meet intermediate and peak loads, utilities will by necessity run them for fewer hours than their maximum capacity.

———————————————————————————————-

Dis-economies Of Scale

Unlike most industrial technologies, wind has dis-economies of scale.  That is, as more wind is added to a system, the cost per kilowatt-hour goes up.  Small amounts of wind, such as we have built to date, can piggyback on existing infrastructure.  But as more wind is added, new transmission lines must be built.  Once wind scales up to match peak demand, storage must be built.  In all cases, wind must be paired with a backup source whose capital costs must be paid for by ratepayers.

Competing full-time sources, on the other hand, do not require long-distance transmission, storage or backup.

———————————————————————————————

 Cost of Fuel

While wind’s fuel is free, that’s not much of an advantage.  Nuclear fuel costs about one half cent per kilowatt-hour, out of a total wholesale price of five to six cents per kilowatt-hour, in most parts of the country.

See post and more at http://www.palmettoenergy.org/

Advertisements

Forests of concrete and steel

By Paul Driessen
Boone Pickens, Nacel Energy, Vestas Iberia and others have been issuing statements and running ads, extolling the virtues of wind as an affordable, sustainable energy resource. Renewable energy reality is slowly taking hold, however.
Spain did increase its installed wind power capacity to 10% of its total electricity, although actual energy output is 10-30% of this, or 1-3% of total electricity, because the wind is intermittent and unreliable.

However, Spain spent $3.7 billion on the program in 2007 alone, King Juan Carlos University economics professor Gabriel Calzada determined. It created 50,000 jobs, mostly installing wind turbines, at $73,000 in annual subsidies per job – and10,000 of these jobs have already been terminated. The subsidies have been slashed, due to Spain’s growing economic problems, putting the remaining 40,000 jobs at risk.

Meanwhile, the cost of subsidized wind energy and carbon dioxide emission permits sent electricity prices soaring for other businesses – causing 2.2 jobs to be lost for every “green” job created, says Calzada. Spain’s unemployment rate is now 17% and rising. That’s hardly the “success” story so often cited by Congress and the Obama Administration.

Across the Channel, Britain’s biggest wind-energy projects are in trouble. Just as the UK government announced its goal of creating 400,000 eco-jobs by 2015, major green energy employer Vestas UK is ending production. All 7,000 turbines that Downing Street just committed to installing over the next decade will be manufactured – not in Britain, but in Germany, Denmark and China.

For businesses, existing global warming policies have added 21% to industrial electricity bills since 2001, and this will rise to 55% by 2020, the UK government admits. Its latest renewable energy strategy will add another 15% – meaning the total impact on British industry will likely be a prohibitive 70% cost increase over two decades. This is the result of the government’s plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions 34% below 1990 levels by 2020, and increase the share of renewables, especially wind, from 6% to 31% of Britain’s electricity.

These cost hikes could make British manufacturers uncompetitive, and send thousands more jobs overseas, the Energy Intensive Users Group reports. English steel mills could become “unable to compete globally, even at current domestic energy prices,” says British journalist Dominic Lawson; “but deliberately to make them uncompetitive is industrial vandalism – and even madness … a futile gesture …and immoral.”

On this side of the pond, President Obama and anti-hydrocarbon members of Congress are promoting  “green” energy and jobs, via new mandates, standards, tax breaks and subsidies. However, the United States would need 180,000 1.5-megawatt wind turbines by 2020, just to generate the 600 billion kilowatthours of electricity that compliance with the narrowly passed Waxman-Markey global warming bill would necessitate, retired energy and nuclear engineering professor James Rust calculates.

This would require millions of acres of scenic, habitat and agricultural lands, and 126 million tons of concrete, steel, fiberglass and “rare earth” minerals for the turbines, at 700 tons per turbine; prodigious quantities of concrete, steel, copper and land for new transmission lines; and still more land, fuel and raw materials for backup gas-fired generators. America’s new national forests will apparently be made of concrete and steel.

Those miners and drillers would likely be reclassified as “green” workers, based on the intended purpose of their output. However, the raw materials will probably not be produced in the States, because so many lands, prospects and deposits are off limits – and NIMBY litigation will further hamper resource extraction.

Air quality laws and skyrocketing energy costs (due to carbon taxes and expensive renewable energy mandates) will make wind turbine (and solar panel) manufacturing in the USA equally improbable. Thus, manufacturing could well be in China or India, and most “green” jobs could be for installers, as Spain and Britain discovered.

Posturing has already collided with reality in Texas, the nation’s wind energy capital. Austin’s GreenChoice program cannot find buyers for electricity generated entirely from wind and solar power. Its latest sales scheme has been a massive flop: after seven months, 99% of its recent electricity offering remains unsold.

Austin officials admit that “times have changed,” and the recession and falling energy prices may make it impossible for the city to meet its lofty goals. The company’s renewable electricity now costs almost three times more than standard electricity, and even eco-conscious consumers care more about the color of their money than the hue of their purported ideology.

Even worse for global warming alarmists and renewable energy advocates and rent seekers, global warming patterns have reversed during the past decade. Satellite data reveal that the planet is cooling, despite steadily rising carbon dioxide levels, and summertime low temperature records are being broken all over the United States.

“You’d better hope global warming is caused by manmade CO2 if you’re investing in [renewable] sectors,” says Daniel Rice, the past decade’s best-performing US equity fund manager (BlackRock Energy and Resources Fund). But evidence for manmade catastrophic global warming is dissipating faster than carbon dioxide from an open soda bottle on a hot summer day.

The crucial fact remains: wind and solar are simply not economical without major government subsidies or monstrous carbon taxes. Moreover, cap-and-tax legislation currently being promoted in the House and Senate is “not enough to do anything” about supposed global warming disasters notes Rice.

“All it does is provide Obama a pass to Copenhagen,” where the UN will host a climate change conference in December, Rice says. And those subsidies and taxes would drive energy prices still higher, killing jobs and skyrocketing the cost of everything we eat, drive, heat, cool, grow, make and do.

Congress and the Administration are dragging their feet on nuclear power, closing off access to more resource-rich lands, and imposing layers of new regulations on oil, gas and coal energy – denying Americans these vast stores of energy and hundreds of billions in revenue that developing them would generate. Meanwhile, slick wind turbine ad campaigns promote expensive, heavily subsidized, unreliable technologies that only climate activists and company lobbyists would describe as sustainable, affordable, eco-friendly or socially responsible.

The ads and lobbyists seek more mandates, tax breaks and subsidies. Wind promoters want to quiet opponents long enough to get energy and climate legislation enacted – before Americans realize how it  would drive the price of energy still higher, kill jobs, curtail living standards and liberties, and raise the cost of everything we eat, drive, heat, cool, grow, make and do. Read PDF here.

 

$550 billion solar farm in the Sahara

By Alex Salkever, Daily Finance

Last week came word that a number of German industrial and financial giants, including Siemens (SI) and Deutsche Bank (DB), are planning a massive solar farm to be built in the North African desert. The farm would supply roughly 15 percent of Europe’s power requirements. Power would flow through cables under the Mediterranean and into the European grid.

The kicker on all this? The farm would rely on a technology called Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) that involves using mirrors to collect and redirect the heat of the sun into a small beam that heats up a container of liquid (oil or water). Does this $550 billion plan signify a turning point with the world moving away from standard photovoltaic arrays that use silicon to produce energy and towards CSP?

The ambitious plan is being spearheaded by the DESERTEC Foundation, an organization founded to shepherd the massive solar effort. Already 12 major companies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to establish a DESERTEC Industrial Initiative (DII). The MOU is the first step in the initiative which remains in the very early stages. Signers included insurer Munich Re, Deutsche Bank, solar photovoltaic panel giant SCHOTT Solar, utility giant E.ON, and industrial conglomerate Siemens.

The choice of CSP over traditional panels is instructive. Unlike PV arrays, CSP installations can continue to produce power for a number of hours after the Sun has gone down. That’s because its fairly easy to insulate hot liquids, thus conserving the generating power of the installation. And because CSP plants rely on heat to turn turbines, in a pinch standard fossil fuels can be used to generate power and ensure an uninterrupted supply — something that is considered a major problem with photovoltaic systems. Also, CSP systems are not reliant on the supply of fluctuating commodities such as silicon and can be built without the use of toxic materials such as cadmium telluride, a heavy metal that is a key ingredient in many of the emerging thin-film photovoltaic panel technologies.

The logic behind putting this plant in the desert is simple. The Sahara is vast and empty. Yet it captures enormous solar energy — far more than even could be captured in the sunny confines of Southern Italy, Greece or Spain. According to DESERTEC’s website, the solar farm will cover 16,900 kilometers in the the North African desert. That might seem like a huge amount of land but its actually only a small portion of the Sahara.

While political instability could be a concern, a number of North African nations, including Tunisia, appear to be interested. And the economic benefits of the plants could prove a much more powerful benefit to North Africa than the oil wealth of the Middle East to the South. In theory, the plants would not only provide power to Europe but would also provide hundreds of thousands of new green jobs in Africa and Europe. Another key goal is to use the power to run massive desalination plants, addressing a key need of the region and potential allowing for a significant expansion of power in North Africa.

CSP is rapidly gaining speed and ground on photovoltaics. According to consulting company Emerging Energy Research, there are already 480 megawatts (mw) of CSP installed as of early 2009 with another 800 mw under construction. Over the next five years that will soar to roughly 15 gigawatts of CSP production capacity. That’s a small chunk of the entire segments and industry analysts emphasize that CSP will be dwarfed by standard photovoltaic technologies for some time to come. That being said, its quite possible that they were not counting on projects such as DESSERTEC or other massive initiatives that could make utility-scale CSP a far more dominant force in the fast growing renewable energy space. See post here.

When Wind Power Blows, Jobs Will Fall

By Dominic Lawson, UK Sunday Times

You may recall the Beyond the Fringe sketch in which Squadron Leader Peter Cook tells Jonathan Miller, the doleful pilot, that he must set out on a doomed mission because “we need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war”.

I was irresistibly reminded of this by Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, in his launch of plans to cut carbon emissions by switching to “renewables” for more than 30% of our energy use. This, he claimed, would “rise to the moral challenge of climate change”.

Miliband is of the generation of politicians struggling to find a great moral cause. Earlier in the Labour administration Tony Blair thought he had found it with wars of choice far from home, but that has, to put it mildly, lost its lustre. Now it is the “war against climate change”, given additional moral potency by the notion that the greatest concentration of sufferers from global rising temperatures would be among the world’s poorest.

Miliband’s citing of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in support of his policy of subsidising the construction of many thousands of otherwise uneconomic wind turbines might appear grotesque, even comical; but not if you genuinely believe that Britain’s switching from coal to wind power for its electricity generation will save the lives of countless Africans.

I have no idea whether Miliband truly believes that it will – but if he does, he is deluded. The UK is responsible for less than 2% of global carbon emissions – a figure set to fall sharply, regardless of what we do, as a result of the startlingly rapid industrial-isation of countries such as China and India: each year the increase in Chinese CO2 emissions alone is greater than those produced by the entire British economy. On the fashionable assumption that climate change is entirely driven by CO2 emissions, the effect on global temperatures of Britain closing every fossil fuel power station would be much smaller than the statistical margin of error: in effect, zero.

The scientists at the energy and climate change department know this, but their political masters see things differently. Gordon Brown claims: “Britain is leading the world in the battle against climate change.” Such remarks are regarded as absurd in the chancelleries of Europe: if you do take as a measure of such commitment the proportion of domestic energy already supplied by renewables, the UK occupies 25th place in the European Union league table, above only Malta and Luxembourg.

Nevertheless, there is one great merit in being a follower rather than a leader in renewable energy: we can see how other European countries have fared in the experiment. Germany has long been subsidising wind power to the extent of almost €5 billion a year. Yet recent German Green party internal e-mails leaked to Der Spiegel magazine show this has not led to a reduction of a single gram of CO2 emitted on the continent of Europe. The much-vaunted emissions trading system is one reason: Germany’s unused certificates were snapped up at negligible cost by coal producers in countries such as Poland and Slovakia, which were thus able to increase their output of greenhouse gases.

There is a second reason, which would remain even if the European emissions trading system were to be scrapped. Because the wind blows intermittently, and may be at its calmest at times of freezing weather, Germany has not been able to close a single one of its conventional power stations, despite its vast investment in wind power.

Indeed, Paul Golby, who runs the British operations of E.ON, Europe’s biggest wind-power producer, has told the government that a 90% fossil fuel or nuclear back-up will be needed for any of the National Grid’s future wind-power capacity. As Martin Fuchs, his German boss, pointed out: “The wind, sadly, does not blow where large quantities of power are required . . . on September 12 last year wind power contributed 38% of our grid power requirements at all times, but on September 30 the figure went down to 0.2%.”

The powerful wind-turbine lobby in Germany constantly harps on about the number of jobs “created” by its subsidised investment, quite ignoring the number of jobs destroyed by high-cost energy, or indeed the greater number of jobs that could be created if the same amounts were invested in more profitable activities. This is why the Bremen Energy Institute argues that “wind energy macro-economically has a negative employment impact”.

Given the run-down state of our conventional generating capacity, it is easy to see that the government’s suspiciously round number of a “£100 billion” expenditure on installing 7,000 offshore steel structures, each the height of Blackpool Tower, at a projected rate of more than two every working day over the next decade, does not begin to cover the real cost. This is why the overall price of wind energy is a multiple of that incurred by nuclear power, which is equally carbon-free but does not appeal to the moral vanity of politicians.

Admittedly, the Labour government has made a belated commitment to replacing our ageing nuclear reactors – far too late to fill the yawning energy gap that Britain faces in the coming decade. As Professor Ian Fells points out in the new Civitas pamphlet Nations Choose Prosperity: “The energy agenda is focused on carbon emissions rather than security of supply and potential costs. What is rarely considered is the consequential costs when power cuts are inflicted.” These costs are not just measured in the collapse of business, but also in human lives, especially of the elderly and infirm.

Miliband claimed last week that the result of his proposals would be an increase in costs to energy users of about 17%. However, the business and enterprise department admitted last year that Britain’s existing “climate policies” – even before Miliband’s latest Big New Idea – would add an extra 55% to energy bills. It’s obvious where this will lead: to the exit from Britain (and, indeed, Europe) of much of what remains of energy-intensive manufacturing industry – the euphemistic jargon term is “carbon leakage”.

Jeremy Nicholson, the director of the Energy Intensive Users Group, which represents such industries as steel and aluminium, is exasperated beyond measure: “A future administration will have to say in public what ministers and their officials already admit in private, that the renewables target is neither practical nor affordable. Outsourcing our emissions is not a solution to a global problem. Politicians need to understand that unilateral action will come at a terrible cost in terms of UK manufacturing jobs, investment and export revenue, for no discernible environmental gain – is that really what they want?”

On the day Nicholson said this to me, last Thursday, Anglesey Aluminium, the biggest consumer of electricity in Wales, announced that it would cease production, precisely because it could see no prospect of signing up to a long-term supply of electricity at a rate at which it could make a profit. And on the day of Miliband’s announcement, a group of Labour MPs presented a “Save Our Steel” petition, saying: “We need to make sure we act before the light goes out.”

It may well be that the English steel mills will become unable to compete globally, even at current domestic energy prices; but deliberately to make them uncompetitive is industrial vandalism – and even madness when the consequence of Miliband’s Martin Luther King moment may be the lights going out not just for producers but for all of us in our homes. This is worse than a futile gesture: it is immoral. See post here.

What is Regenerative Braking?

By the Wise Geek

Regenerative braking is used on hybrid gas/electric automobiles to recoup some of the energy lost during stopping. This energy is saved in a storage battery and used later to power the motor whenever the car is in electric mode.

Understanding how regenerative braking works may require a brief look at the system it replaces. Conventional braking systems use friction to counteract the forward momentum of a moving car. As the brake pads rub against the wheels (or a disc connected to the axle), excessive heat energy is also created. This heat energy dissipates into the air, wasting up to 30% of the car’s generated power. Over time, this cycle of friction and wasted heat energy reduces the car’s fuel efficiency. More energy from the engine is required to replace the energy lost by braking.

Hybrid gas/electric automobiles now use a completely different method of braking at slower speeds. While hybrid cars still use conventional brake pads at highway speeds, electric motors help the car brake during stop-and-go driving. As the driver applies the brakes through a conventional pedal, the electric motors reverse direction. The torque created by this reversal counteracts the forward momentum and eventually stops the car.

But regenerative braking does more than simply stop the car. Electric motors and electric generators (such as a car’s alternator) are essentially two sides of the same technology. Both use magnetic fields and coiled wires, but in different configurations. Regenerative braking systems take advantage of this duality. Whenever the electric motor of a hybrid car begins to reverse direction, it becomes an electric generator or dynamo. This generated electricity is fed into a chemical storage battery and used later to power the car at city speeds.

Regenerative braking takes energy normally wasted during braking and turns it into usable energy. It is not, however, a perpetual motion machine. Energy is still lost through friction with the road surface and other drains on the system. The energy collected during braking does not restore all the energy lost during driving. It does improve energy efficiency and assist the main alternator. See more and comments here.

Abundant energy will power future growth

By Lawrence Solomon
Up! Up! Up! The world is consuming more and more energy and, as if by miracle, the amount left to consume grows ever higher. Never before in human history has energy been accessible in greater abundance and in more regions, never before has mankind had more energy options and faced a brighter energy future.

Take oil, the scarcest of the major energy commodities. In the Americas, proven oil reserves have increased from 170 billion barrels to 180 billion barrels over the last two decades, according to the 2008 Statistical World Review from British Petroleum. In Europe and Eurasia, proven oil reserves almost doubled, from 76 billion barrels to 144. Africa’s proven oil reserves did double, from 58 billion barrels to 117. Even the Asia Pacific region, where China and India are reputed to be sucking up everything in sight, has increased its proven reserves. And the Middle East, the gas tank of the world, shows no sign of slowing down — its reserves soared by almost 200 billion barrels, from a whopping 567 billion barrels to a super-whopping 756.

Bottom line for the world: an incredible 36% increase in oil reserves during the two decades that saw the greatest globalization-spurred oil consumption in the history of mankind. And that doesn’t include the 152 billion barrels in proven oil reserves obtainable from Canada’s tar sands. Is there any reason to doubt that the next two decades won’t build on the steady growth of the last two?

Oil_Shale

These oil reserves aren’t the end of it. These figures — for the year ending December 2006 — represent oil that’s not only known to be available, but also economic at 2006 prices using 2006 technology. Since prices have soared in the last year, and technology has improved too, BP’s annual assessment for the 2007 year will show greater proven oil reserves still.

But this is still not the end of it. Unconventional oil reserves are now in play. In 2005, the Rand Corporation estimated that the oil shale in America’s Green River Formation, which covers portions of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, contains 1.5 to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, with as much as 1.1 trillion barrels of oil recoverable, an amount comparable to the reserves of four Saudi Arabias. Oil shale becomes recoverable at $95 a barrel, it determined. With oil now trading at $140 a barrel, oil shale

exploitation is now very much economic. Then there’s Canada’s tar sands, with its even greater potential–estimates of the total reserves that may be available top two trillion barrels, or eight Saudi Arabias.

image
Tar oil production at Athabasca Tar Sands, Alberta, Canada. (Photo courtesy Encyclopedia of Earth)

This is still not the end to it. Most of the oil we know about lies in the well travelled portions of the globe. But most of the world remains unexplored — the interiors of Africa, Asia and South America have seen relatively little oil exploration. Oil exploration in the oceans, too, is in its infancy. For all practical purposes, mankind has limitless oil supplies available to it. The story is similar for natural gas and coal, the other major nonrenewable sources of energy. And for nuclear power. And for the renewables.

The amount of solar power landing on Earth could supply our current needs 10,000 times over. This potential will soon start to be realized on a large scale thanks to breakthroughs in the U. S. and Israel that have dramatically brought down the cost of solar technology. Wind also represents an inexhaustible resource, as seen in a 2005 NASA-funded study at Stanford University of viable wind sites worldwide. It found that wind power could satisfy global demand seven times over, assuming a realistic capture rate of 20%. Some European countries already meet a significant portion of their power needs with wind.

The world is awash with exploitable energy, both renewable and non-renewable. Availability is not at issue and never has been.

The only issue is the cost –both economic and environmental –at which it can be exploited.

Nuclear currently fails on economic grounds. But most fossil fuel technologies don’t need subsidies and soon, neither will most renewable technologies. That leaves the environment as the chief determinant of what energy we use, and where we use it. Thanks to environmental awareness and the high energy prices we now face, energy production has become ever cleaner, safer, and more efficient, giving us more meaningful options than ever before.

Whatever the outcome, whatever energy forms we ultimately rely on, the table is diverse and bountiful, allowing the world economy to grow large and to grow cleanly. And it will have been largely set by environmentalists. Read more about these are renewable sources here.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute. LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com

The Sierra Club versus Electricity

By Alan Caruba

In early July the Sierra Club celebrated the fact that, “Today, 100 of those planned coal plants have been defeated or abandoned.” They crowed over the fact that a year ago there were plans for 150 new plants and that they had successfully thwarted the provision of electrical power around the nation. As for as the Sierra Club is concerned, “This milestone marks a significant shift in the way Americans are looking at our energy choices. Cities, states, businesses and electric utilities are all moving away from the polluting coal power of the past.”

image

Today’s coal-fired plants are all equipped with very expensive technology that eliminates the pollution of the past, “scrubbing” their massive stacks before any is emitted. They are not polluting anything, but they are providing affordable electrical energy.

Coal represents just a shade over fifty percent of all the electricity Americans use. It is so abundant here in America that the provision of those 150 plants would have ensured that the nation had a significant portion of the additional power it requires for a growing population and our manufacturing sector.

Why does the Sierra Club oppose coal-fired plants? It says that “carbon dioxide pollution, a main cause of global warming” is the reason, but CO2 is not a pollutant. It is the gas of life because without it not one single blade of grass or any other vegetation grows on planet Earth. Our food supply, crops and the livestock that depend upon them, is the result of CO2.

And, of course, there is NO global warming. The planet has been cooling for the past decade and the science of CO2 demonstrates that it plays no role whatever with regard to major climate trends. The Sierra Club’s opposition to coal-fired plants is entirely based on a LIE.

It doesn’t stop there, however. As far back as 1974, the Sierra Club has been opposed to nuclear energy as well. They called for “adequate national and global policies to curb energy over-use and unnecessary economic growth.”

“Unnecessary economic growth”? If a nation does not maintain its economic growth is also does not provide jobs. It does not have the means by which to fund defense, infrastructure, and to compete globally in manufacturing and exports. This is an idiotic policy, but not if your aim, your purpose is to attack the most essential element of growth, the provision of energy.

A visit to the Sierra Club website provides ample evidence of its objection to all forms of energy except the least practical and effective, the so-called “renewable” forms such as wind and solar. Even T. Boone Pickens who gambled on the largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle has thrown in the towel, announcing that his $2 billion investment is now, in retrospect, rather foolish given the need to get the power from the farm to where it is needed. Pickens is now stuck with 687 giant wind turbines, each of which is taller than a 30-story building.

The same may be said of solar power that, like wind, is not dependable and must be located far from the transmission lines and the nation’s urban areas that are most in need of electricity. At what point will Americans begin to realize that the giant Green organizations like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and others stand in opposition to the very thing they most desperately need, energy? At what point will Americans begin to realize that failing to access its own vast natural resources, coal, oil and natural gas, is suicidal?

One hopes it will not be before the economy is so severely damaged that we cannot borrow or fund the coal-fired and nuclear plants that we need to keep us from being figuratively and literally in the dark? See blog post here.

Pickens calls off massive wind farm in Texas

By JOHN PORRETTO, AP Energy Writer Tue Jul 7, 5:29 pm ET

HOUSTON – Plans for the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle have been scrapped, energy baron T. Boone Pickens said Tuesday, and he’s looking for a home for 687 giant wind turbines.

Pickens has already ordered the turbines, which can stand 400 feet tall — taller than most 30-story buildings.

“When I start receiving those turbines, I’ve got to … like I said, my garage won’t hold them,” the legendary Texas oilman said. “They’ve got to go someplace.”

Pickens’ company Mesa Power ordered the turbines from General Electric Co. — a $2 billion investment — a little more than a year ago. Pickens said he has leases on about 200,000 acres in Texas that were planned for the project, and he might place some of the turbines there, but he’s also looking for smaller wind projects to participate in. He said he’s looking at potential sites in the Midwest and Canada.

In Texas, the problem lies in getting power from the proposed site in the Panhandle to a distribution system, Pickens said in an interview with The Associated Press in New York. He’d hoped to build his own transmission lines but he said there were technical problems.

Wind power is a big part of the “Pickens Plan,” which was announced a year ago Wednesday. Pickens has spent $60 million crisscrossing the country and buying advertising in an effort to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil.

“It doesn’t mean that wind is dead,” said Pickens, who runs the Dallas-based energy investment fund BP Capital. “It just means we got a little bit too quick off the blocks.”

Pickens announced in 2007 plans to install the turbines in parts of four Texas Panhandle counties.

He had hoped to complete the four-phase project in 2014 and eventually have 4,000 megawatts of capacity, enough to power more than one million homes. The total cost was expected to approach $12 billion.

Renewable energy provides a small fraction of electricity used today, but the wind and solar sectors are the fastest growing in the U.S. In 2008, the U.S. became the world’s leading provider of wind power.

Windpowerfarm

Like most industries around the world, the recession has hurt wind turbine manufacturers and wind farm developers. Companies have shelved development plans and laid off workers.

Read more here.

Solar Power – a Subsidized Appendage

By Viv Forbes, Chairman, The Carbon Sense Coalition

Australian electricity consumers can look forward to soaring charges for electricity and blackouts if state and federal politicians continue to undermine the power grid by mandating and subsidising solar power generation.

Solar power can never produce continuous, predictable low cost power. It must always be supported by expensive power storage systems or by reliable power sources such as coal, gas, hydro or nuclear.

No matter how many millions of taxpayer money is poured into “research”, it can never solve the two fatal flaws of solar power.

Firstly, sunlight energy arrives in very dilute form, and thus needs vast areas of collectors to harvest significant energy. This results in high capital costs and much environmental disturbance. Solar power can light one 75-watt bulb for every card table of collectors (in the middle of the day only). How many card tables do we need to run the trains, factories, fridges, homes, heaters, hospitals and tools of a big city?

image

Secondly, the solar energy produced during daylight hours is constantly variable and unpredictable, and zero power is generated at night. As a result, solar power farms seldom produce more than an average of 15% of their rated capacity over a year and as low as 1% for a day or so.

In Australia, the maximum electricity demand occurs at about 6.30 pm in mid-winter in the big southern cities. The maximum solar power is generated at noon in mid-summer in clear northern deserts. If the nightly solar curfew is to be covered by solar power alone, this necessitates a vast area of collectors to provide grid power as well as charge a storage backup during the day and run it down at night. The scattered solar collectors also need a huge new transmission network. Such a system is inefficient and very costly.

More likely, however, is that the solar farms will be backed up by gas or coal power stations running on idle and wasting fuel and capital until they are needed to supply power during the nightly solar blackouts.

Solar energy has useful applications, but supplying the power grid is NOT one of them. Solar power can never supply the reliable low cost electricity needed for Australian cities and industries. In that application, it can only exist as a subsidised and troublesome appendage propped up by serious power sources such as coal, gas, nuclear or hydro.

For a detailed look at Solar Power Realities, with actual performance figures see this. And some home solar economics here.

Not Easy Being Green

By Sam Mamudi, MarketWatch

Following President Barack Obama’s election and Democratic congressional victories in November, many investors expected strong political action to combat climate change and turned bullish on the green-energy sector.

But such optimism has since softened as political realities and the impact of the frozen credit markets hit the sector, also known as cleantech.

The Obama administration hasn’t moved as far or as fast on green energy as hoped, while cleantech companies, especially in the wind and solar areas, have found it hard to secure financing to build their infrastructure.

“A lot of folks thought that the minute we had a new administration, these companies would take off,” said Paul Hilton, director of advanced equities research at Calvert Investments, which invests according to socially responsible principles.

While there has been a rally in the stocks, some managers think that it’s still too early to be heavy in cleantech companies.

“We’re hesitant to move into pure play names in the renewables area,” said Andrea Reichert, research analyst at the Parnassus Funds, another socially conscious fund group.

There’s also the question of just how much cleantech can grow.

“I appreciate that cleantech is going to gain market share, but there are limits to what a lot of these technologies can bring to the utility grid,” said Brian Angerame, manager of Legg Mason Partners Capital Fund, a go-anywhere stock fund. For instance, reaping wind and solar energy can be inconsistent due to the weather, he said.

“As investors we’ve had a hard time justifying the prices that solar and wind companies have been trading at,” he said. In particular, he said it’s very difficult to calculate the returns that these companies can expect.

Political headwinds are another obstacle. While the passage of the Waxman-Markey bill through the House of Representatives was historic — committing the U.S. to emissions limits for the first time — it wasn’t as strong as first hoped.

The bill initially proposed that a minimum of 25% of U.S. energy come from renewable sources by 2020, but the final in the version that figure is effectively 15%. Much of the bill’s contents are widely expected to be watered-down further as it passes through the Senate.

Still, Calvert’s Hilton said, even the 15% standard will help cleantech companies: in 2006 just 2.4% of the U.S.’s energy was provided by renewable sources.

Old versus new

When it comes to energy, Richard Davis, London-based manager of BlackRock Commodities Income Investment Trust, is a believer in traditional sources such as oil and gas.

“The prospects for traditional energy are absolutely fantastic, and that won’t go away,” he said. “Once demand growth comes back, supply growth will still be limited.”

Angerame said that because it will take a while for clean energy to have a broad impact, so-called dirty energy will remain important. What’s more, demand from emerging markets is likely to stay high, if not increase, as those countries develop, he said.

Traditional energy suffered more in 2008 than cleantech stocks, as commodity prices tumbled in the second half of the year. Over the past 12 months, United States Oil Fund ETF  is down more than 65%, trailing iShares S&P Global Clean Energy Index ETF , which is down about 55%, and PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy is off about 50% in the same period.

But in the first six months of 2009, the Oil ETF outperformed its clean energy counterparts, up 24%, while the PowerShares and iShares ETFs were up 19% and 18%, respectively. Read more here.