Green Electricity Delusions
With global warming the alleged science is so complicated that nobody, including the global warming scientists, can really understand what is going on. Green electricity, mostly solar and wind, is different. It’s relatively clear cut. No supercomputers spewing out terabytes of confusing data are needed.
Green electricity is quite useless. The latest trend in green electricity is wind or solar with battery backup. This green electricity costs about nine times more than the fossil fuel electricity it displaces. The true cost is hidden from the public by hidden subsidies and fake accounting. (My book, Dumb Energy, goes into great analytical detail.)
Green electricity is ineffective for preventing climate change. The climate change alarmists James Hansen and Michael Shellenberger make the case forcefully in this video. Hansen is the most important and most famous scientist warning against climate change. His followers consider him to be the greatest authority on the dangers of climate change. He calls wind and solar energy a “grotesque idea” and a “fantasy.”
It’s true that we won’t run out of wind or sunshine. That doesn’t mean that wind and sunshine are effective tools for making electricity. They aren’t. The exhaustion of fossil fuels has been predicted many times. The current situation is that fossil fuels are in great over supply and the prices have crashed to low levels. Natural gas, currently the most economical fossil fuel for generating electricity, is painfully cheap and is being extensively exported from the United States to other countries. Natural gas from wells, not served by pipelines to take it to market, is burned or flared to get rid of it. Only the more valuable oil is kept. Thanks to fracking, we have plenty of natural gas for the next 100-years.
Promoters of quack medicine sell various pills guaranteed to improve your memory or your sex life. Green energy is quackery too. It is promoted by green organizations like the Sierra Club. At one time the Sierra Club was a harmless club of backpackers and bird watchers. But it was taken over by ideologues driven by the delusion that modern society is a destructive fraud that must be rescued by the adoption of green principles. These armchair green commandos are math handicapped. They regularly propose policies that make no sense. The green commandos pontificate confidently without real understanding.
Coal is an excellent fuel for generating electricity. Unlike natural gas or oil, coal has limited uses other than generating electricity. The Sierra Club hates coal because it competes successfully against their beloved green wind and solar. No lie is too outrageous as long as it is useful for discrediting coal. The Sierra Club uses trick photography to make it look like coal plants emit clouds of black smoke. The trick is to photograph clean white clouds of “steam” with the sun behind the plant. That makes the harmless white clouds look black. The exhaust products are composed of water vapor and carbon dioxide with very little pollution. As the exhaust mixes with the cool air, it condenses into a white cloud of clean water droplets commonly called steam.
In modern coal plants, almost all pollution is scrubbed away before the exhaust goes into the smokestack.
Residential rooftop solar energy is an uneconomic method for generating electricity but it sounds convincing to the naïve. Rooftop solar panels lack economy of scale. These small installations generate electricity for about three times more per kilowatt hour than the large-scale utility installations. The homeowner reduces his consumption of grid electricity, reducing his electric bill. Excess solar electricity is sold back to the utility, often at a price far higher than the cost of wholesale electricity. The beauty of this scheme is that if the rules are sufficiently rigged in favor of the homeowner, it is possible for the homeowner to save money. No one could complain if the homeowner disconnected from the electric utility. But no one is disconnecting unless they live off grid. The utility is expected to maintain a power line to the home and maintain excess generating capacity to take over supplying electricity if it is cloudy or it is nighttime. The true cost of maintaining this backup service, exclusive of any electricity sales, is around $100 per month, but utilities commonly charge only around $10 or $15 a month for a connection before the first kilowatt hour is sold. Every kilowatt hour of utility electricity displaced by solar costs the utility gross profit. If the utility is forced to buy the homeowner’s electricity at retail rates the utility may end up paying much more than the reasonable wholesale cost of the electricity. In some places the homeowner is even allowed to bank excess solar electricity and draw it at a later time. The utility doesn’t have a bank where it can store electricity. In short, rooftop solar is a scheme of making everyone else subsidize the homeowner. The homeowner is under the delusion that he has discovered cheaper electricity. It is cheaper only because everyone else bears the cost.
The crippling weakness of wind or solar electricity is their intermittent and erratic nature. A fossil-fuel generating plant can be fired up as needed and throttled up and down as the consumption of electricity changes. Wind or solar generates electricity according to the vagaries of the weather. The grid operators, except in extreme circumstances, are required to accept all the green electricity presented. In order to do this, fossil-fuel plants have to seesaw their output to compensate for the erratic wind or solar. Wind and solar plants can’t replace fossil-fuel plants for the simple reason that at times the wind and solar plants are not generating electricity. You must have enough fossil fuel along with hydro and nuclear to carry the full load. The consequence is that the system has to continue to maintain and pay for its traditional plants regardless of how much wind and solar is added to the grid. The only economic contribution of wind or solar is to reduce fuel consumption in the fossil-fuel plants during times when wind or solar electricity is being generated. The proper cost comparison is to compare the cost of green electricity versus the marginal cost (fuel) of operating the fossil-fuel plants. Natural-gas plants have a fuel cost of about $15 per megawatt hour. Wind or solar with battery backup costs about $130 per megawatt hour. For grid stability reasons new wind and solar plants are being equipped with battery storage, greatly increasing the cost. Without the battery backup wind or solar electricity costs around $75 per megawatt hour. To be clear, the electricity supplied by wind or solar at $75 to $130 per megawatt hour (not counting subsidies) could be generated in existing fossil fuel plants for $15 per megawatt hour.
Why the various states and the federal government continue to pursue, mandate, and subsidize green electricity is a mystery best explained by psychiatrists and students of propaganda.
Norman Rogers writes often about energy. He has a website.