The Ugly Truth About Renewable Power

Yves here. This post indirectly raises a critical problem with renewable energy sources, that they are intermittent and not hugely reliable. And that’s before getting to another issue that this article does not address head on: the need for load-shifting even within a day, since peak energy production for solar (the favored clean source for residential energy) is mid-day, when peak consumption is late afternoon-early evening. So users in theory need a combination of storage or a different source to provide base load requirements.

This piece puts too much emphasis on cost, as opposed to what ought to be the first line of attack, radical conservation. But it does in the end acknowledge that the stakes are too high to consider only consumer desires.

By Irina Slav, a writer for with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry. Originally published at OilPrice

When Texas literally froze this February, some blamed the blackouts that left millions of Texans in the dark on the wind turbines. Others blamed them on the gas-fired power plants.

The truth isn’t so politically simple. In truth, both wind turbines and gas plants froze because of the abnormal weather.

And when Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway said it had plans for additional generation capacity in Texas, it wasn’t talking about wind turbines. It was talking about more gas-fired power plants—ten more gigawatts of them.

While the Texas Freeze hogged headlines in the United States, across the Atlantic, the only European country producing any electricity from solar farms was teeny tiny Slovenia. And that’s not because Europe doesn’t have any solar capacity—on the contrary, it has a substantial amount. But Europe had a brutal winter with lots of snow and clouds. Despite the often-referenced fact that solar panels operate better in cooler weather, sub-zero temperatures are far more drastic than cool. This is not even to mention the cloud cover that, based on the Electricity Map data above, did not help.

If we go back a few more months, there were the California rolling blackouts of August that state officials and others insisted had nothing to do with the state’s substantial reliance on solar and wind power. The state’s own utilities commission disagrees.

This is what the California Public Utilities Commission and the state’s grid operator, CAISO, said in a joint letter to Governor Newsom following the blackouts:

“On August 15, the CAISO experienced similar [to August 14] supply conditions, as well as significant swings in wind resource output when evening demand was increasing. Wind resources first quickly increased output during the 4:00 pm hour (approximately 1,000 MW), then decreased rapidly the next hour. These factors, combined with another unexpected loss of generating resources, led to a sudden need to shed load to maintain system reliability.”

Further in the letter, CPUC and CAISO also had this to say:

“Another factor that appears to have contributed to resource shortages is California’s heavy reliance on import resources to meet increasing energy needs in the late afternoon and evening hours during summer. Some of these import resources bid into the CAISO energy markets but are not secured by long-term contracts. This poses a risk if import resources become unavailable when there are West-wide shortages due to an extreme heat event, such as the one we are currently experiencing.”

These lengthy quotes basically say one thing—and it is a well-known thing: wind and solar power generation are intermittent, and this intermittency is a problem. This problem continues to be neglected in the mainstream renewable energy narrative with only occasional talk about storage capacity. The reason? Battery storage is quite expensive and will increase the cost of solar and wind generation. Hence the blackout risk as renewable power capacity continues to rise.

“People wonder how we made it through the heat wave of 2006,” said CAISO’s chief executive Stephen Berberich last August. “The answer is that there was a lot more generating capacity in 2006 than in 2020…. We had San Onofre [nuclear plant] of 2,200 MW, and a number of other plants, totalling thousands of MW not there today.”

In a recent article for Forbes, environmentalist Michael Shellenberger cited both the Texas Freeze and the California August 2020 outages as examples of why there should be less solar and wind capacity added to the grid, not more: because the more renewable capacity there is, the higher the risk of blackouts.

Solar and wind are weather-dependent sources of electricity and, as the events in Texas and California show, they are unreliable, Shellenberger, who is the founder and president of Environmental Progress, a research nonprofit, wrote. He also pointed to Germany, where an audit of the country’s energy transition plans showed that some of the projections were overly optimistic, while others were outright implausible.

People in Germany, like people in California and New York, by the way, are paying more for electricity than people in places that are less dependent on renewable energy. While some may be perfectly fine with paying more for cleaner electricity, not everyone can afford it over the long term. And affordable energy is crucial for civilization, Shellenberger notes.

Affordability is one essential requirement for energy if it is to contribute to the improvement of living standards, even if we take economic growth out of the equation since it appears to be very passé these days amid the fight against climate change. Yet affordable energy is one of the driving forces of equality among different communities across the world. And so is reliable energy.

Affordability and reliability, then, are the two things good energy sources need to be. Solar and wind—unlike hydropower, which is also a renewable source—can only be one of these two things, and that’s if there is no storage included. They can be affordable, as we are often reminded. Yet, sadly, they cannot be reliable.

This means that the more billions are poured into boosting renewable capacity, the greater the risk of further blackouts. Perhaps at some point, if wind and solar become the main sources of electricity, authorities will need to institute planned outages.

The author of this article grew up in the 1980s in Bulgaria—a time when the country’s socialist government exported so much electricity for hard currency payments that blackouts were a part of life. It wasn’t a particularly convenient life, but millions of people lived that way in both Bulgaria and Romania. It’s worth mentioning, though, that back in the 1980s, people were not constantly online. Our energy consumption has soared since then.

To be fair, the limited availability of electricity would have an incredibly positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions. That is, if the limitation comes from the limited amount of energy generated rather than from excessive exports. In the end, from an environmental perspective, an overwhelming reliance on wind and solar, and the planned blackouts that are quite likely to result from this reliance, would go a long way towards the Paris Agreement targets. Of course, it would cost people certain inconvenience and loss of economic—and scientific, and medical—activity. But if priority number one is fighting climate change, then the end must surely justify the means.

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  1. Synoia

    1) Massive insulation retrofit – make all buildings super insulated.
    2) Phase out A/C. Open the window.
    3) Punitive tariffs for large users.

    1. Carolinian

      Here in the Sunbelt I manage with minimal house AC during the summer because I have lots of shady trees. But without a doubt the AC question has major implications for a country like the US where many find this region bearable only because of AC. Take it away and you might have a reverse migration back to a North of bearable summers and technologically less challenging winters (if you don’t mind chopping firewood).

      Conservation is obviously a goal that must be embraced but perhaps the hardest pull in getting the public to embrace it. Reforming our energy wasteful transportation surely easier.

      1. Pelham

        Good point re conservation as a hard sell. Theoretically, no problem. But when it comes to actual annoying or crippling cutbacks, it cuts directly across the deeply ingrained notion that the world should somehow be making positive material progress. In the US, adding such stringencies to the burdens that debt-ridden, impoverished, despairing and precariously employed Americans are already experiencing in ever growing numbers is not a winning formula.

        Someone needs to present a bright and brave way forward in which everyone stands to benefit at least a little bit. Finger wagging and scolding on the one hand and painful belt-tightening on the other paired with sustainable solutions that point to fewer jobs at lower pay and that, over 50 years so far, have yielded precious little progress on carbon emissions is not that way forward.

        1. heresy101

          Radical conservation isn’t that hard to achieve. All new construction and rebuild/modifications can be required to use heat pump heating and water heating. The results are basically the same but the use of electricity is up to 50% less than other electric heating.

          See a description from the EPA (prior to President Psychopath):

          “Today’s heat pump can reduce your electricity use for heating by approximately 50% compared to electric resistance heating such as furnaces and baseboard heaters. High-efficiency heat pumps also dehumidify better than standard central air conditioners, resulting in less energy usage and more cooling comfort in summer months.”
          “Geothermal (or ground source) heat pumps have some major advantages. They can reduce energy use by 30%-60%, control humidity, are sturdy and reliable, and fit in a wide variety of homes.”

          While the heat pumps may not be as cheap to operate as gas and oil sources, they can take their lesser energy from those “unreliable” non-GHG sources of solar and wind.

      2. JTMcPhee

        One wonders about reverse migration. I grew up in Chicago and went to school in Boston. Summers in both places include horribly hot weather, more so Chicago which has had killing heat waves that required refrigerated trucks to hold the corpses of mostly poor aging people who “cooked” in their non-air conditioned apartments and houses.

        I lived in Seattle for seven years and my sister is in Portland, OR. Housing out there has lacked air conditioning because the summers were generally pretty moderate. No longer the case, and of course that means more electric demand.

        There may be internal migrations of large numbers of people, but they will have to go a long way north of the northward-migrating margin of “unbearably hot” and one wonders if there will be a Great Wall of Canada to try to keep out the volkerwanderungen.

    2. Pelham

      A/C, however, is less energy intensive than heating. So shouldn’t we eliminate heating first? Also, how much carbon would be emitted in the massive effort to retrofit everything, not to mention the embedded carbon in all that material?

      Nuclear is highly problematic but also the best option — if we can overcome the superstitions that make nuclear seem more problematic than it actually is.

        1. John Rose

          It does not exist, I believe. High level waste can be reprocessed into more fuel and when that needs disposal, fracking technology and deep ocean mud beds provide disposal locations undisturbed for far longer than several half lives of any waste.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            James Hansen wrote about this in the middle of his book Storms Of My Granchildren.
            He devoted several pages to what he felt he could find out about semi-safe nuclear power as an admittedly self-educated layman on the subject.

    3. Susan the other

      Also recumbent-bike computer desks; heat pumps; and some serious development of geothermal… and maybe city planning to promote something like neighborhood backup energy generated by the main water pipes (gravity here) and energy designated for certain hours when water is being used? Thinking hot showers and coffee. Is it too impractical to have backup storage capacity per house which can be topped off, also with a stationary bicycle? It might even promote conservation because people get lazy… and oops, no electricity.

      1. Odysseus

        Is it too impractical to have backup storage capacity per house which can be topped off, also with a stationary bicycle?

        It’s a cute idea, but it is in fact wildly impractical. A human working pretty hard can generate 100W of power. That’s enough to run a cell phone in the wilderness, sure. It’s nowhere near enough to have any useful effect on the scale of a city.

        The effort required to create those bicycles is far more than any return you would ever get from them.

    4. Roquentin

      There is no way the Southern and Southwestern US giving up A/C voluntarily will every be even remotely possible politically. You can forget it. It’s even worse because migration patterns in the US are seeing a net gain in these same states which will be increasingly prone to droughts, heatwaves, and power generation issues. It’s a vicious cycle. Climate change increases average temperature making A/C even more necessary and even more an draw on the electric grid, and the burning of fossil fuels to power it increases global warming. It isn’t going to end well.

      No, this will not be dealt with rationally or gracefully I am sorry to say. This is without even stating the obvious, that states like Texas and Arizona are bastions of conservatism and climate change denial.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Enough Death Valley heat-waves in Texas and Arizona will make manmade global warming harder for the conservative bastionisers to deny, though I am sure they will try.


    5. d

      yeah, open the window in downtown baghdad in July when it’s +50 outside. the world is only getting hotter and people…well they want to live.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Its hard to give much credence to an article that describes Michael Shellenburger as an environmentalist. Writing a book with the word ‘environment’ in it does not make one an environmentalist. He is a climate change denier who shills for nuclear power – a classic concern troll.

    Its also hard to take an article seriously when it makes a statement like this:

    These lengthy quotes basically say one thing—and it is a well-known thing: wind and solar power generation are intermittent, and this intermittency is a problem. This problem continues to be neglected in the mainstream renewable energy narrative with only occasional talk about storage capacity. The reason? Battery storage is quite expensive and will increase the cost of solar and wind generation. Hence the blackout risk as renewable power capacity continues to rise.

    The notion that nobody wants to talk about it, or that batteries are the only solution, has been the subject of intense discussion and research not just since wind and solar became prominent, but well before then, it goes back to the very earliest days of constructing networks. It is not even remotely some sort of elephant in the room as the author is suggesting. Intermittency and load balancing is central to managing small to medium sized grids, and always has been. This is why smaller countries built massive storage facilities in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I hike regularly past the Turlough Hill pump storage station, a 290 MW installed capacity storage station that has been operating with minimal maintenance since 1968. This wasn’t the first – a nearby hydro system had a secondary storage dam built back in 1940. Many were built in this period, but as a technology it fell out of favour as extending networks using DC cables proved a cheaper alternative.

    Back in the 1970’s the Irish power company proposed a pair of linked light water nuclear reactors to provide baseline power for the country. The idea was rejected. Why? Because of intermittency. In a country where the base load was around 1.5GW, having 1.6GW of nuclear power on one site was too risky. Nukes are about 98% reliable in producing power. The problem for a country like Ireland is that this would mean blackouts 2% of the time. So to have nuclear, they would also have to invest in coal and oil burning stations, plus more storage to guarantee supply. They opted instead for a mix of sources and more interconnections, which proved more reliable, albeit at a high cost (but not as high as nuclear with backup).

    The point above about solar in Europe is also irrelevant. Solar is not installed for producing winter power in Europe because its rarely that sunny. Its installed in northern latitudes because it produces maximum power in the long days of summer, precisely when wind and hydro are at their lowest. It is also needed to balance out nuclear – why nuclear? Because in very hot summers inland nuclear plants frequently have to shut down because of a lack of cooling water. Sometimes hot summers also produce waves of jellyfish that also shut down coastal stations. Its also installed because… well, its very very cheap.

    Another factor favouring renewables is resilience. The Japanese tsunami devastated coastal thermal stations. But it caused barely a blip in wind and solar output (not that Japan had much at the time). Decentralised systems are inherently more resistant to natural disaster or warfare. The Texas situation proves this – wind power was brought online far quicker than the damaged gas infrastructure.

    Another important point is that even with highly aggressive energy saving policies, we still need to increase electricity power output. Why? Because the only hope for decarbonising our economy is to electrify it – to make all transport electric and to transform as many industrial processes to electricity (agriculture too, as far as that is possible). In the longer term there may be other alternatives such as hydrogen, but in the urgent timescales we are facing only electrifying transport and space heating, and making that electricity as low carbon as possible makes sense. This means an inevitable increase in electricity demand even if we manage to drastically lower energy usage, which is of course vital.

    This is not to deny the need for nuclear power in some circumstances. I’m not anti-nuclear – in fact I lost a lot of environmentalist friends 20 years ago for pointing out that there was no chance of renewables being able to provide the power needed, nuclear was the only technology available at the time that had any chance of reducing emissions. But technology and costs have moved on. Renewable sources are now far cheaper, far more reliable, and the balancing technology (not just storage, energy balancing is a complex network of techniques and technologies) is catching up very rapidly. Batteries are now economic in many situations. Nuclear power has failed repeatedly, its far too expensive. Even the Chinese and French are reducing their investments. If the Chinese can’t scale nuclear up to compete with alternatives then nobody can (and its not from their want of trying). The Gen III and IV reactors are F-35 scale catastrophes, they’ve swallowed up vast amounts of public subsidy with little to show for it. Maybe one of the tech geek billionaires with their fondness for modular reactors will come up with something, but given that the major militaries of the world have thrown countless billions at compact reactors since the 1950’s and still don’t have one that doesn’t cost vastly more than any energy alternative then I wouldn’t hold my breath. Fusion? 20 years away, just like it has been for the last 50 years.

    Blackouts and brownouts are a feature of any power system that has either poor quality internal or external grids, or a system where there is insufficient backup capacity to the main generators. Its a reality of life which will return to us (I well remember blackouts as a child in Ireland, mostly, it should be said, due to industrial actions). Climate change will cause chaos to our networks which are simply not designed for the weather extremes that will be thrown at them. They need massive investment worldwide, not just in the US, which has been free riding on historic investments for decades.

    The situation is very fluid, but right now wind and solar are by far the cheapest low fossil fuel source available to us, and amazingly, its getting cheaper year by year. We are not remotely close to maximising what most existing networks can take (it can vary from 30% to 70% depending on the type of network). Storage and other management technologies are advancing rapidly, and in the meantime cheap and widely available gas stations can take the loading for when we have freak events causing energy shortfalls. These can, over the longer term, be converted to hydrogen if suitable means of making it can be made economic. There is no one magic bullet, it takes a multiplicity of technologies, new and existing. Handwringing because, horror of horrors, sometimes the sun doesn’t shine is not an argument. We are well beyond that now.

      1. Code Name D

        I completely agree. This is a typical shill peace. The sentence below is a big red flag.

        The truth isn’t so politically simple. In truth, both wind turbines and gas plants froze because of the abnormal weather.

        This is patently false. Both wind and gas planets failed because the were not PREPARED for abnormal weather. Kansas was also hit with the same blast, and our gas and wind resources remained on line, despite being subjected to even colder temperatures and more ice precipitation. And why are we not attacking the reliability for the non-renewable systems? They failed too and consisted the majority of their resources.

        Natural gas systems failed – so wind power doesn’t work or something?

        What happened in Texas was a market failure, not renewables.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          What happened in Texas . . . must stay in Texas.

          Texas must never be allowed to make any contact whatsoever with the national grid.
          The only reason Texas would want to link up to the national grids would be to infiltrate them, subvert them, destroy them from within and tear and degrade the whole national grid all the way down to a Don’t Mess With Texas leve.

          Don’t texantaminate the national grids. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.

    1. upstater

      I am perplexed about the lack of pumped storage hydro in New York state. There are 2 huge facilities built in the late 1950s and 60s, but none since. Combined production is about 1500 MW. We have an abundance of natural water bodies close to huge elevation drops along the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. There is no shortage of land, particularly in upstate.

      Locally there are many grid scale solar projects being built on agricultural lands (why not use the abundant brownfield sites?). The largest nearby proposal is 140 MW on 1000 acres — that is huge. Obviously pump storage would be far more expensive, but the reliability benefit would be huge. I just don’t get it.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        So far as I’m aware, its primarily just a cost thing – frequently related to the use of discount rates in calculating investments which don’t take account of the very long life of pump storage stations. As I mentioned, the one in Ireland has been operating for half a century with the exact same turbines in place.

        What I think killed pump storage was cheap fossil fuels in the 1990’s onwards, along with the expansion of networks and better digitized control systems making load management a more precise science. Certainly the network I’m most familiar with, in Ireland, opted for cross-border cable links with the UK as a cheaper alternative to storage. Most small island nations do this now if at all possible, and even large European and Asian countries find it worthwhile. This has had the additional advantage of allowing overbuilding of wind turbines and exporting surpluses as the UK is chronically undersupplied with capacity.

      2. ObjectiveFunction

        An excellent question. Adding to PK’s comment, here are two macro observations that may shed some light:

        1. All power projects must start as land projects. The bigger the impact of siteworks (particularly where water is flowing!), the more expensive, lengthy and risky the process of securing site control, environmental permits, etc. That is all just as it should be, I should add.

        Thus, any kind of hydro, big or small, takes a bare minimum of 4 years from origination to breaking ground, and millions in studies, lawyers, etc. And usually it’s longer. Far longer when you’re in NIMBY or BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) places with intervenors skilled in using the process to delay projects to death (unless the sponsors buy off the politicians who appoint the regulators, of course).

        …. Compare this to solar and wind, where permitting and ESHS studies still take 2+ years, but actual construction is now measured in months (not counting lead time on turbine orders). Siteworks are highly efficient and equipment is increasingly modular, and cheap. And footprint on the land while definitely nonzero is comparatively light.

        2. A 3 year cycle offers the kind of instant gratification (plus giant margins, once levered up) private equity developers demand — recall infra funds run 6 years max. The only other power tech that offers so short a cycle is…. you guessed it! natgas (assuming nearby piped supply, not LNG).

        Meanwhile, 7+ year projects: hydro/PSH, ocean, geothermal and nuclear (20 years!), and the transmission upgrades the US so badly needs, require state or quasi-state (ratepayer funded utilities) sponsorship to get much beyond the idea stage.

        Notice that battery arrays, unlike pumped hydro, offer short cycles. So guess where the hot money is in storage today?

        Overall, there’s been a ‘dumbbell’ effect in all forms of infra investment for some time. At one end, VC folks make bets on ‘transformative’ Big Science (e.g. hydrogen, new battery chemistries). At the other the PE funds crowd in to established locations to place in-and-out margin compression bets on “near shovel ready” deals.

        In the middle of the dumbbell, as noted above, there’s relatively little investor money willing to do the hard yards of greenfield project origination and development. Especially if there’s no subsidy or scarcity premium at the end of the road.

        Even the 2000s fracking boom of recent memory was pretty wild and risk taking by comparison.

        I am painting with a broad brush here, and there are exceptions out there, but I hope that is useful.

        1. Felix_47

          I would add that no one seems to have mentioned gravity storage and from what I can tell it may end up being the most cost effective strategy of all for storage. Relatively high construction cost but nothing like battery. The big cost is land and legal issues.

    2. Peter

      Only on naked capitalism can you find comments better than the original articles. Not to bash the articles, but to compliment comments like this. Thanks!

    3. Bruce F

      There might be a better way to put this, but: I got a lot more out of your comment than the original post. Thanks!

    4. ennui

      You are constantly mixing intermittency of “load” with intermittency of “supply” and hand-waving all the way. The problem, as your Irish example shows, is that electrical supply has to, up to the minute, exactly match electrical demand. Having too much electricity is as big a problem as having too little, for the eletrical grid. If you have one nuclear power plant and demand drops below supply you have to be able to very quickly reduce the output from your plant or very quickly increase demand or everything will have to be shut down. You can’t just pretend this is a solved problem for a grid made up of many small intermittent suppliers just because it’s largely solved for a grid made up of a small number of constant suppliers with intermittent demand. And that’s not getting into all the distortions introduced by every aspect of the grid having to make a profit…

      The second thing illustrated by your Irish example is that, in the beginning, supply of electricity was driven by industrial demand. Energy policy is (or was) industrial policy. If Ireland had been capable of committing to increasing industrial output, then it could have had that nuclear plant.

      But, the fact about nuclear power is that the policy decision has already been made to not invest in nuclear power. Arguing about whether some new reactor technology would change everything is moot because those investments would have to have been made ten years ago to change what is coming by 2035.

      We are in the coping stage right now where lots of commentators are pretending that the future is going to look like the past, just greener. The fundamental political question is: who wants to hold onto the past and who stands to gain from the future?

      1. Rodeo Clownfish

        Your statement “Having too much electricity is as big a problem as having too little, for the eletrical grid” is not correct for all generating sources. Solar photovoltaic, for example, does not have to match exactly to a load. Modern equipment can take only what is needed from a PV array to supply a given load – the maximum available output does not have to be absorbed.

        I live off-grid with solar and batteries, and have done so for years. It is considered too expensive for a large scale electrical grid to oversize its PV and battery storage capacity in the same way that residential solar routinely does, but it is at least technologically feasible. The discussion in society is not really about whether we can solve the problem of future-proofing our electrical grids. Rather, the argument is about how best to do it, and at what price.

    5. tegnost

      Thank you PK for that comprehensive view. re nukes I think userfreindly and grumpy engineer weigh in thoughtfully on this topic. For my non scientist/engineer self my only notable contribution here echos something carolinian said the other day which resonates with me is while it looks bad in a snapshot, and this comes through in your piece, human ingenuity can’t be discounted, and I can actually provide one example that is often overlooked. On my little island it’s golf carts only. Some of the ingenious deplorables have set up their power such that in a outage they can plug the house into the golf cart….so electric vehicles also are a sink of storage, and it’s elegant in that everyone can have one, can charge it when there’s power. A fully charged 36v cart can run a house for a while, 48v even longer. Our little experiment also has RO water from the sound pumped with diesel generator. The latest popular upgrade is RO/UV filtration of rainwater catchment to get away from the volume restrictions which have led some unfortunate souls to be dinged with major bills by going over quota (the island uses price to control usage, cheap in the winter, more expensive in summer, $1 /gal if you go over quota so !ouch!) Rooftop requires very little energy, the volume of storage for the san juan islands, where it really doesn’t rain in the summer months, is 15,000-25,000 gals in the form of a series of water tanks. We’ll be fighting the entrenched interests every step of the way, though…

      1. John Rose

        If Biden is not blocked by McConnell, there will soon be millions of vehicle batteries sitting in garages plugged into the grid and therefore available for supplying backup power. It would take extensive ingenuity to make use of it when needed, but seems doable.

    6. FluffytheObeseCat

      Thank you. Another piece of nonsense in this article was the author’s choice of touting renewables use level in New York as significant. Rather that citing renewables contribution (mainly wind resources) to power production in a high plains states like Kansas, or Iowa. Where wind power accounts for >30% of production through much of the year, every year. Of course, their uneventful, very positive histories would not have bolstered her weak arguments.

    7. James Simpson

      I suspect that your blithe assumptions about batteries are misplaced, along with your lack of mentioning the many externalised costs of producing the huge numbers of them that are becoming necessary. The mining industry is salivating at the prospects of green new deals being implemented around the world. Indigenous peoples are not.

      1. Basil Pesto

        PlutoniumKun has posted at length about the issues with batteries and their resource costs. Your assumption that he is making blithe assumptions is, in fact, a blithe one.

    8. BlakeFelix

      Wood stoves are something that gets ignored also. You obviously can’t cool with them without getting fancy, and unless you get fancy they have terrible particulate emissions, but we are getting better at fancy and for localized temporary bulk heat generation they can’t be beat. My house has one and I consider it an important backup, if the primary heating system fails for some reason when it’s below freezing I build a fire and my pipes don’t freeze. I keep a stack of dry wood, and it rarely gets used, but the once every five or ten years that I need it I’m glad that I have it. I don’t even understand how you can treat electric heat as reliable enough to trust without some backup…

  3. cnchal

    > It’s worth mentioning, though, that back in the 1980s, people were not constantly online. Our energy consumption has soared since then.

    Do you know hwat we will never have enough of?

    Energy sucking data centers, to store all the ones and zeros generated at an exponentially increasing rate.

    Those zeros and ones represent the digital trivia mined for nuggets of digital gold so that for instance, right on this page, an advertisement for “Boundless Power Systems”, a fatuous claim only a marketing genius can come up with can be shown, in a futile attempt to induce me to buy something.

    Because those data centers suck so much energy, they get a giant discount on electricity. What should happen is they should be paying triple retail to discourage thier use. That worked for smoking cigarettes and data centers are the corporate version of smoking and we are going to be choked to death by their second hand smoke.

    Personally, I am already into radical conservation, by accident mostly, as I detest all this digital crapola, whether in late model dumbass smart phones, cars or toys, all designed to be obsolete shortly so that you are induced to replace that crap over and over again. When a virtue signaler says to me I recycle pop cans I say I recycle cars. Then comes the but . . . but, jawbs!

    radical conservation = wobbly mountain of contractual debt society has accumulated is no good anymore.

    1. tegnost

      yes. If you can run your house on the power stored in your car you don’t have a problem. Bezos, on the other hand, well that’s not gonna work, unless he has his employees charge their cars at home then bring their power source to work with them…but I shouldn’t give him any ideas…

  4. Taunger

    It seems that overbuilding capacity off the entire eastern seaboard could provide pretty reliable capacity.

    Nonetheless,no agree with yves that radical decrease in energy use is critical, but I don’t think that’s a choice we will make. Perhaps it will be made for us.

    1. John Siman

      “… Yves: *radical decrease in energy use* is critical, but I don’t think that’s a choice we will make.
      Perhaps it will be made for us.”

      That is, tragically, the very demoralizing possibility we need to face! When I spoke with Steve Keen about what he calls “The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change,” he told me that he expects that a radical decrease in energy use will soon enough be put in effect — by worldwide military dictatorships. For he is so pessimistic/realistic that he envisions that there can be no other way to make normal human beings cut their energy use in the massive amounts needed to respond to climate change.

      Here is the conclusion to his paper on appallingly bad neoclassical economics:

      “Drastically underestimating economic damages from global warming:

      “Were climate change an effectively trivial area of public policy, then the appallingly bad work done by Neoclassical economists on climate change would not matter greatly. It could be treated, like the intentional Sokal hoax (Sokal, 2008), as merely a salutary tale about the foibles of the Academy.

      “But the impact of climate change upon the economy, human society, and the viability of the Earth’s biosphere in general, are matters of the greatest importance. That work this bad has been done, and been taken seriously, is therefore not merely an intellectual travesty like the Sokal hoax. If climate change does lead to the catastrophic outcomes that some scientists now openly contemplate (Kulp & Strauss, 2019; Lenton et al., 2019; Lynas, 2020; Moses, 2020; Raymond et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2019; Xu et al., 2020; Yumashev et al., 2019), then these Neoclassical economists will be complicit in causing the greatest crisis, not merely in the history of capitalism, but potentially in the history of life on Earth.”

  5. marcel

    Intermittency of renewable sources is too often blown out of proportions.
    In most civilized countries, the power generating utilities have quite a good idea of the amount of power required for each of the next ~36 hours. They know this need varies depending on the time of day, the day in the year, local weather conditions etc..
    So they plan required energy production (import, gas, nuclear …) and in the balance they have ~95% of needs settled.
    Now add renewables in the mix.
    If you have only one solar or wind farm, or very few, capacity is a very small fraction of total needs, and production (or lack thereof) is part of the ~5% planning margin.
    If you start having many solar farms, wind farms, bio-energy or whatever, capacity may become a significant fraction of your power production, but it becomes part of planification. You can plan ahead for the amount of solar or wind energy to be produced over the next hours, and again, intermittency is not an issue.
    What *is* an issue, is the production mix. As PK illustrated for Ireland, a single nuclear power station carries a big risk. Going all solar is not good at night or during winters. Buying all your energy from imports or short-term contracts carries also risks. But having the right mix is a difficult technical decision process, and has little to do with the intermittency of renewables.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      I must beg to differ. The intermittency is a key issue. I agree with your assessment that we can predict energy demand quite accurately several days in advance, but that’s only half the equation. You must also have energy supply. And if unfavorable weather (be it stagnant air from a high-pressure zone, snow-covered panels, nighttime, or whatever) has rendered your renewable energy assets temporarily non-functional, then how will you provide the supply to match the demand?

      Some people would suggest batteries. But they’re still far too expensive. Some people would suggest nuclear. But it’s expensive and would handle the counter-intermittency swings poorly. Some people would suggest imports. But as neighboring countries increasingly try to do renewables, they’re increasingly likely have the same shortfalls at the same time. What’s left? Gas turbines fueled by fracked natural gas. They’re inexpensive and can reliably produce power, but they produce CO2 (and sometimes leak methane). Yes, you’ll be able to keep the grid up, but if you want to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 80%, you won’t get there taking this path.

    2. James Simpson

      I don’t know if you’ve ever made plans using even the next day’s weather forecast but you seem to be placing a lot of faith in something that is proven to be deeply unreliable. Unexpected changes are far more consequential for an energy grid relying on wind/solar than on one relying on other sources.

      1. vlade

        Your “next day forecast” is a generalised approximation/interpolation from one of a few globally run weather models (forgot the name now). It’s sort of right for general use, but anyone who depends on good weather forecast is getting specialised stuff, which costs money (often serious money).

        There is a whole industry doing that (site-specific forecasts), and for solar/wind they basically care about few things:
        – statistical year-long forecast, like sunny-days per Q, days with wind over 10mph but below 30mph etc. etc.
        – short term forecasts for extreme weather events.
        – and in general, extreme weather events likelyhood

        Then, they care about grid load (which translates into electricity prices), but that’s another cottage industry, which includes yet another type of weather forecasts. But that’s less important for them, as that’s stuff they can’t really affect. What they care about is long term demand, and avoiding damage to their sites. Which in Texas, they failed to do, with even basic stuff (the event wasn’t out-of-blue-sky).

  6. Chas

    This article has got me scratching my head. I’ve always thought hydropower was solar power. Wood is renewable. You cut a tree down and it grows back. What bothers me about renewables is that they still pollute. So why are renewables beneficial? Perhaps at this stage of advanced destruction of our atmosphere its best to save the trees to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

  7. KD

    Indonesia has a contract with a company to produce nuclear fission reactors using liquid floride salts based on a reactor design formerly operated in Oak Ridge, TN. It operates at low pressures and can’t explode like the conventional reactors using water at super-high pressure. The reactor is being designed to be capable of being mass produced in ship hulls.

    It may not be perfect, but fission is reliable and can be cheap if you go with newer reactor designs. If public policy were some kind of rational enterprise, this would be what the world would be developing (China BTW has a multimillion dollar research and development project exploring liquid floride reactors). However, the Greens are much closer to an apocalyptic doomsday cult than say a group of concerned scientists and engineers actually interested in creating a zero carbon infrastructure.

    The deeper you go, the more the “Greens” are just a scam. Renewables aren’t reliable, and grids based on renewable require basically an additional grid based primarily on natural gas to operate when the renewable sources aren’t working, and batteries made from rare earths destined to become toxic waste with large carbon foot prints. Not to mention all the waste and inefficiency in storing power. You end up with something approaching three energy grids (renewables, natural gas, batteries) and with all the energy waste in the system and your reliance on fossil fuels you are marginally better than if you burnt coal. Hence, why all the oil and gas companies have all embraced renewals, as it is sure to mean more natural gas consumption.

    Likewise, EVs are only as clean as the electricity that powers them. World governments have decided they will save us all, but its not very hard to calculate the capability of the current electrical grid in the US, and how much electricity demand large-scale adoption of EVs would create. If you were serious, you would be putting hundreds of billions into revamping your energy grid now, but its about virtue signaling and Nancy Pelosi’s call options and Goldman pumping ESG funds, not a serious energy plan.

    Green politics is essentially grift + virtue signaling + fake environmental “solutions” + creation of inevitable long term disasters. It embodies everything terrible about the neoliberal “progressive left”.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Indonesia has a contract with a company to produce nuclear fission reactors using liquid floride salts based on a reactor design formerly operated in Oak Ridge, TN. It operates at low pressures and can’t explode like the conventional reactors using water at super-high pressure. The reactor is being designed to be capable of being mass produced in ship hulls.

      If the Oak Ridge reactors worked, they’d be powering the latest Gerald Ford aircraft carriers and the new generation of US subs. Surprise surprise, they are not, they are using essentially 70 year old light water reactors. Why? Well maybe the US navy (and the Russians and the Chinese and the French and the British) just love their old style expensive, dangerous reactors and are resistant to adopting new, safe, cheap ones. Or maybe they just don’t work. But hey, the Indonesians obviously know all about ship power and design, far more than anyone else.

      t may not be perfect, but fission is reliable and can be cheap if you go with newer reactor designs.

      Yes indeed, thats why everyone is buying them and building them without needing billions in public subsidy. Oh wait, they aren’t.

      China BTW has a multimillion dollar research and development project exploring liquid floride reactors

      China has a massive nuclear research program, including conventional reactors, fast breeders, pebble bed reactors, etc., and they’ve decades of experience at it. They also have massive economies of scale that allow them to drive down the price of anything requiring very large scale engineering, including the crucial high pressure vessels that are needed for most nuclear designs. That, I assume, is why they are building out so many reactors. Oh wait no, they are building coal and wind and solar instead. I wonder why.

      Green politics is essentially grift + virtue signaling + fake environmental “solutions” + creation of inevitable long term disasters. It embodies everything terrible about the neoliberal “progressive left”.

      Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s the obvious explanation for why Green Parties worldwide are being submerged in millions of dollars of campaign contributions from big business.

      1. MickeyZ

        Do any of the alternative nuclear technologies have any long run potential or are they all turning out to be complete dead ends leaving us with nothing beyond designs from the 1950’s?

        1. PlutoniumKun

          The problem with assessing new nuclear reactors is similar to that for assessing new Silicon Valley startups. Behind all the marketing there may well be a few real business ideas, but its far too profitable for too many people to keep the unicorns flying to be able to decide which, if any, are worthwhile. There are some very smart people working on modular reactors of all types, and a number of countries have devoted massive resources to some Gen V designs. But so far, the only reactors that come even close to financial viability are essentially variations on those reactors developed 70 years ago, the light water reactors. And they have run out of steam, so to speak. They can be made marginally viable by doing what the French did in the 1970’s, and build them at scale in large numbers, but this has proven too costly with the latest version (the new European EPR reactor, which was intended to replace existing designs, is a gigantic disaster and black hole for money). Even relatively cheap, simple and clever designs, like the APR1000, just hasn’t lived up to its promise.

          As I keep telling people who bring up modular reactors – if they worked, the US, Russian, Chinese, French and British navies would have developed them long ago. Their military utility is gigantic, and we know all five of those countries have devoted the finest scientists and engineers and unlimited resources to the problem for more than half a century. And still they can’t make them work (and there are many, many failed variations that they’ve tried). The very latest nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers are all using the equivalent of souped up 1950’s tech. And they are enormously expensive, so much that even the US Navy won’t contemplate their use for anything but large submarines and aircraft carriers. Maybe someone in California or Beijing will have a breakthrough and solve the problem soon – but I doubt it.

          And before anyone goes on about how those dastardly Greens and Al Gore have destroyed any chance of developing them, there are no equivalents in China or Russia (and for that matter, they haven’t had much success in Japan or France either), but they haven’t succeeded either, despite the very high quality of their engineers. China has pretty much tried every design out there and has been announcing a massive expansion of nuclear in every 5 year plan since the 1980’s. But they haven’t done it, they are still playing with different designs. I very much doubt its because of lobbying by Green NGO’s, or a fear that the power is just too safe and cheap.

      2. ObjectiveFunction

        Yeah, I just stopped reading at “Indonesia has”.

        This amazing archipelago could deliver baseload for mainland Southeast Asia with its geothermal resources alone (not GHG free, but close). Multilaterals are keen to underwrite drill risk, and costs are dropping, but every small undertaking and permit gets mired in layer on layer of ‘gotcha’ red tape purposefully designed to fleece foreigners (the national sport!), on top of every other imaginable form of korupsi. The Wayang metaphor gets overused, but totally nails it. Even the Chinese get screwed out of big investments, early and often.

        …Plus, the local oligarchs would sooner push their latest wank, ‘biofuels’ made from, wait for it, palm oil (made from what used to be rainforest). Which, it just so happens, they are all heavily invested in. Ethanol corn lobby, move over!

        And of course there’s poor Borneo which has been dense rain forest since forever, geologically speaking. Up to now that is, since as a consequence the island is pretty much made of coal that can be bulldozed off after stripping the forest and topsoil. (and which the oligarchs are also heavily invested in, surprise)

        What now must we do?

        1. KD

          Here is a blurb on the project:

          There are several thorium prototypes under development. But even putting that aside, even if you use conventional nuclear, its safer than any other source if you consider lives lost per watt. There is the public relations problems that the occasional accident causes outcries, similar to the way that planes have much lower fatalities per mile than cars but some people won’t get in them.

          Much of the reasons relating to waste are a result of refusal to reprocess fuel in the U.S., and Thorcon was involved in a previous project where they demonstrated that nuclear waste can be burned in 90% thorium fuel rods to fuel a conventional reactor. You can burn transuranic “waste.”

          Its pretty easy to compare France to Germany. Germany has pushed renewables, they have a larger carbon footprint, their energy is more expensive, and they have to buy electricity in peak times because they can’t meet demand. France has a lower carbon footprint, cheaper power, and they can meet their demand because it is heavily nuclear. Its stuff like resistance to GMOs and nuclear energy (and eating overpriced organic vegetables) that really demonstrate a lot of the green movement is more of purity consumer cult than anything related to actually working toward an environmentally sustainable infrastructure. Blond girls in wool sweaters eating organic pears driving in EVs.

          The problems that fission faces are 90% political, and 10% engineering. Most of the technology that is being used on the civilian side was developed for military purposes, and simply applied in the civilian sector. Would that the same political will be applied to preserving human well being as has been used to develop weapons of mass slaughter.

    2. JohnnySacks

      Molten salt reactors, a favorite of our benevolent billionaires, so many attempts, so many failures. Even the local team Transatomic Power threw in the towel, here’s to hoping China or some other nation can pick up the ball and run with it so USA USA can at least become a customer.

      Transatomic has faced challenges. In 2016, we realized that there were mistakes in our original analyses, and the design would not be able to consume nuclear waste. This was a hard moment both for the company and for me personally – I started Transatomic specifically because I wanted to address the nuclear waste problem. Despite this setback, we continued working, and our updated reactor design still provides substantial and wide-ranging benefits: it produces less than half the waste of conventional nuclear reactors, has no risk of meltdown, and has the potential to make nuclear more economically viable than fossil fuels.

      We still strongly believe in our technology, and in advanced reactor technology as a whole. However, despite our best efforts, we haven’t been able to scale up the company rapidly enough to build our reactor in a reasonable timeframe. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I must announce that Transatomic will suspend operations.

    3. Alternate Delegate

      ‘Green politics is essentially grift + virtue signaling + fake environmental “solutions” + creation of inevitable long term disasters. It embodies everything terrible about the neoliberal “progressive left”.’

      Well, that’s a fairly overstated condemnation of Green politics.

      But while I keep hoping that something like organized resistance to neoliberal ideology will emerge from the green sector, there is something about this condemnation that does ring to me as “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea”.

      The 40-year saga of the German Green party, from the 1980’s battles between fundis and realos to coalition government in 11 of the 16 States, feels to me like a long journey from somewhere to nowhere.

      They were even in federal coalition government from 1998 to 2005, where they ended up supporting military action in Kosovo and Afghanistan (!) – And then they had their flagship issue, shutting down the nuclear plants, swiped from them by Angela Merkel after Fukushima. There is plenty of woke BS, but where is the organic vegan meat substitute?

      Colorless, is how I would describe them now. And yet – and yet – coming from a soft 9% position in parliament – they’re currently polling ahead of Merkel’s CDU, and might even furnish the next German Chancellor!

      How can this be? Because, frankly, everybody else is actually worse. It’s not just US politics where your choices are – not choices.

  8. Rod

    If you’re going to have to hand pick your tree fruit–you’ll want to start from the ground level with the easy stuff (it’s a practical matter–you don’t need to knock the lowers off getting to the highers).

    Yves constantly reminds and points to a stark truth:

    This piece puts too much emphasis on cost, as opposed to what ought to be the first line of attack, radical conservation.

    imo, The Author finally states some bottom-line truth we need to say Out Loud more often(my bold)— although “scientific and medical” seem like awkward, convenient, ‘stick-ons’.

    To be fair, the limited availability of electricity would have an incredibly positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions. That is, if the limitation comes… would go a long way towards the Paris Agreement targets. Of course, it would cost people certain inconvenience and loss of economic—and scientific, and medical—activity. But if priority number one is fighting climate change, then the end must surely justify the means.

  9. Larry Y

    The future, as it’s not evenly distributed, can be glimpsed in Hawaii, since all fuel has to be imported. For example, Hawaii has variable electricity rates to encourage time shifting.

    Granted, most of Hawaii doesn’t have to worry about freezing over…

    1. Dirk77

      His article reminded me that if humans were not the apex species, the ones who were would solve both global warming and planet destruction via overpopulation by executing humans, starting with the most polluting ones and working on down until at least carbon neutrality.

  10. Solar guy

    Dear Chas. The numbers for solar are about 3 years to produce as much energy as it took to make them. Wind is about 6 months. Pollution is a tiny fraction of a coal or NG power plant.

  11. jrkrideau

    In truth, both wind turbines and gas plants froze because of the abnormal weather.

    Well, if you build on the cheap, that is what happens. Texas seems to have ignored historical weather patterns.

    I live Canada and I have never noticed the local wind farm turbines freezing up.

  12. Ed Jones

    The Texas fiasco is no basis to knock intermittent renewables. What is intermittent in Texas is intelligent infrastructure management. Most of the natural gas and renewable supply chain was not winterized. Even though there have been freezing events every 10 years for a while. The failure to manage these assets is viewed as a success for the capitalist who own them. So what if they fail we have contracts that allow them to pass along the premium pricing we will have to charge to get them back on line. Now everyone will be bailed out by the citizens of Texas and of the United States and the original owners will be rolling in the dough. It is especially galling because doing a half-assed job was the point — not an accident. This whole mess should really be reviewed by Federal Law as a racketeering case.

    Intermittency is a utility wide problem. From day one in Edison NJ to today. The problem is not the power supply it is that we go to bed at night. No one really complained for 100 years that coal plants pulled generators off line at night but continued to burn the variable cost coal so that they could start up in the morning. The whole point of public utilities was to cover up these waste. In the process no real research was done. Utilities could maximize returns with in home battery storage since 1910. Because there was no incentive to do the research it did not get done. We could have had Tesla powerwalls 50 years ago in every home paid as part of our power bill if electricity was provided by a real free market.

    The US government has subsidized oil, gas, coal and nuclear production to keep it low cost for 120 years. This has led us to build crappy homes, crappy cars, and a crappy power grid. The problem is that we waste too much energy because of long term subsidies that we now think are part of the financial ecosystem. Renewables are low cost but we achieve little if we add renewables but still waste so much energy. We need to raise the price of energy and then add renewables. Germany uses 40% less energy to produce a dollar of GDP than we do. They pay the real price for energy then use much less.

  13. Solar Jay

    A few things to clear up.
    1 the reason the wind machines iced up is they didn’t build them with de icing blades, heaters, to save money. Lots of very cold places with wind machines that work.
    2. The NG froze for the same reason. Texas has a very wet kind of gas and that condensate will freeze the lines at the well heads and pipelines. Didn’t install filters, etc to save money.

    3. Solar panels love cold, the colder the better. There is a temperature compensation formula to account for additional performance during colder vs hotter weather. Yes it’s true they produce more power when cold vs hot. The statement below is 100% false in that it’s implying they didn’t work because they were too cold.

    “ Despite the often-referenced fact that solar panels operate better in cooler weather, sub-zero temperatures are far more drastic than cool”.

    Just one of too many twisted 1/4 truths to cover in this article.

    4. I’m a solar guy for 25 years, teaching, installing etc. We are only at 6% of US electricity production with solar. We won’t get there, there are too many people, powerful people pushing against renewables. I can only hope that CCS can be scaled up and installed in time to prevent the worst of climate change.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      Aye. Solar panels do work better in cold weather. But they don’t work at all when they’re covered by snow and/or a crusty layer of ice. That’s one of the mechanisms that took a chunk of Texas’ solar capacity offline. Another was significant cloud coverage. And when portions of the grid went offline, the solar inverters connected to those portions switched off, reducing the solar contribution even further. [This is a safety precaution, to prevent inverters from back-feeding a supposedly de-energized grid segment and electrocuting line workers. UL 1741 and other international standards require this.]

      1. FluffytheObeseCat

        And the reasons why the natty gas dependent Texas electric grid failed catastrophic ally were, as he indicated:

        …….wind machines iced up because they didn’t build them with de icing blades, heaters, to save money….
        …..NG froze for the same reason. Texas has a very wet kind of gas and that condensate will freeze the lines at the well heads and pipelines. Didn’t install filters, etc to save money….

        Choose to only rebut him on solar power is choosing to ignore why the Texas grid failed. A failure that will cost the people of that state and our nation billions going forward (billions that will be siphoned out of us in ways we do not see or notice).

        Solar power in Texas is a minor part of their energy mix, and even the oil shill Republican elite in Texas and the oil biz lackeys of our Fox/Newsmax “news” media machine didn’t pretend otherwise.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Um, I’m not sure I understand the point of your comment. I agree with Solar Jay’s comments that insufficient weatherization was the key culprit in the ERCOT grid failure. I never said or meant to imply otherwise. I even agree with him about the impact of sub-zero temperatures on solar panels. [Irina Slav is wrong here; it’s not a problem.]

          But if solar had been a big part of the Texas energy mix, it would have also been a major contributor to the outage, despite the favorable cold. Snow, ice, and clouds abounded. Solar performed quite poorly during the storm. But as you accurately note, solar is a small part of their mix today, so it had relatively little effect. Should we leave it that way to better protect the grid against future storms?

          1. FluffytheObeseCat

            Sorry, it seemed like you were trying to skim over the key issues in the Texas event. In re your take on solar power though,

            “But if solar had been a big part of the Texas energy mix, it would have also been a major contributor to the outage

            I don’t know if this would have been true. In a hypothetical future, if most arrays were located northwest of, say, Austin, then yes, they would be knocked out in a similar event. The ability of solar to compensate for extreme winter weather events would be contingent on where solar arrays get built out going forward. The deepest southwest of Texas was hit with anomalous cold and cloud cover, but little snow reached down into the Rio Grande area. The same is true for northern Mexico.

            Significant increases in solar capacity in the Chihuahuan Desert might well function as a bulwark against winter weather failures farther north. The key impediments to solar energy production in deepest southwestern Texas are the hellish heat, and dust. And dust. And dust. Also lack of transmission infrastructure.

            1. Edward Jones

              The max load in Texas is in the summer. The solar is designed to provide a big chunk in the summer not in the winter. The natural gas and wind are intended to do the winter work.

      2. fajensen

        In Scandinavia, solar panels comes with an option to run current through the panels so that the ice and snow melts off.

        Texas too stingy to buy that option == solar panels won’t work, because ice & snow!?

  14. Joe Johnson

    The Texas black out was not the result of technology. It was a the result of lax regulation and greed.

    We have wind power supply electricity for our bases in Antartica.

    We natural gas plants in cold climates.

    Winterization for both cost money that management of these utilities just didn’t bother to spend and there is no regulation by the state. Mark it down to greed of the owners and emphasis on stock holders over customers. I have 35 years of experience as an engineer in the Energy Industry and have seen this my whole career

  15. Michael von Plato

    Can someone please explain to me why these two energy-saving methods are rarely -if ever- addressed:
    1. Mechanical storage in place of batteries or pumped hydro.
    It seems to me that an appropriately heavy weight attached
    to a cable/pulley/generator/electric motor rig would do the job more efficiently than pumped hydro, where much expensive
    land needs to be flooded behind an expensive dam to
    provide the necessary reserve of potential power. Further,
    much of that power is lost due to turbulence encountered in
    the pumping phase. A vertical structure, ether as a tower or a shaft in the ground, or a rail-tracked weight on a slope, would be raised at times of low electricity use, then released when needed. The motor would then convert to a generator. The cost and maintenance of such a system would be a fraction of battery or hydro storage.

    2. Geothermal. Fifteen years ago, my son-in-law installed geothermal heating and cooling at his 2,000 sq. ft. house. He expected a payback of ten years. It took only five. Here in the Philadelphia PA area, where summer temperatures routinely go to 90 degrees+ with humidity to match, his AC is almost free. And in winter, with temps often in the teens or twenties, the constant 52 degree air from the bottom of the shaft requires considerably less (gas) energy to heat it to a comfortable level in the house.

    1. tegnost

      I am generally against tide based energy generation, however, using your weight dropping method a mass could be lifted by the rising tide then dropped slower than the falling tide this method would not have the problem of fish slicing turbines and tides are more extreme as you head towards the poles so farther north would generate more power

      1. Michael von Plato

        Tidal power is great because clean and perpetual; but it isn’t always locally available, and transmission of electric power is both capital and land intensive; nobody wants to live under high-tension wires. A weight traveling in a deep shaft could be located almost anywhere, and hilly and mountainous areas are more widespread than tidal areas.

    2. Grumpy Engineer

      For #1: Mechanical storage is too expensive. The technology has existed for decades, but nobody has bothered because of the cost. Batteries and pumped storage hydro are cheaper, despite the lower round-trip efficiencies.

      For #2: Geothermal heat pumps are a more viable option, but the cost of the initial installation makes it unattractive for most people. And there are technical constraints. They work well for single-family homes that are spread far apart, but if they’re deployed too tightly together, then you can end up cooking the ground during the summer time or excessively freezing it during the winter. Both can have negative impacts on the local ecosystem. And attempting to deploy geothermal heat pumps on large multi-story office or apartment buildings would pretty much guarantee unwanted ground temperature extremes.

      1. Edward H Jones

        There is much new technology to speed up and reduce the cost of ground water heat pumps. Large office buildings have been using ground water for heating and AC for 50 years. My family has sold ground water heat pumps and well pumps for 50 years and I have never heard of any negative environmental consequences.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          I’m guessing your family installs groundwater heat pumps in an area where groundwater is plentiful. Perhaps even accompanied by some net underground water flow (like in Florida). It’ll work well there.

          But in dryer locales where the groundwater is far underground (like New Mexico), you’ll have spend a lot more money on deeper wells and longer pipes, or content yourself with bigger temperature swings in the dry soil that’s used instead as the thermal mass for the system.

          Please don’t misunderstand. I like geothermal heat pump technology a lot, and we really ought to be using it more than we are today. But I’m not convinced it’ll work everywhere.

          1. Edward Jones

            The best residential applications today do not actually use the ground water, they just pull up the heat. You use close loop glycol based loops that drop down wells. Glycol goes through the heat pump. The company in this episode has packaged the entire deal. Lot of progress in this area. This is from the Boston area. Should work fine in most of North America. Ground temps are pretty consistent. There is a depth at which it will work everywhere.

    3. ObjectiveFunction

      To your points, in reverse order:

      Geothermal cooling is definitely feasible, it’s a question of drilling cost and lining the hole if there’s water table involved.

      Dropping a weight down a shaft (excavated, see prior): attached to a long cable which spins a shaft as it unspools, generating a current. All great, but for how long? That’s a loooooooooong cable. And, to quote the immortal Bill & Ted: “Dude, this is a totally deep hole.”

      1. Michael von Plato

        The depth of the hole or the height of the (much less desirable) tower would be determined by the KW desired, and the weight of the, uh, weight. Where feasible, mine shafts could be used. A simple transmission could adjust the velocity of the weight in either direction to coordinate with the current available for lifting and the current demanded during the descent.
        As for the water table: No reason the weight can’t sink into the water. Yes, its buoyancy might or will slow its descent, but so what? It’s still free juice! Ideally, we would put this Rube Goldberg (q.v.) device on a sturdy platform above the Marianas Trench, and use tidal power to lift the weight by way of a ratcheting mechanism.
        I think I’m on to something here. Anybody out there with GoFundMe experience?

        1. juno mas

          The issue with the water table is the reverse of what you’re thinking. The point of intersection could be under pressure and the water could rise some distance up AND down the shaft. The weight of the descending mass is reduced by ~62 lbs./cubic foot. Contamination of the groundwater (valuable resource) possible; that’s the rationale for lining the drilled shaft.

    4. Alternate Delegate

      Pulleys and weights don’t store enough energy. Example: take a storage system consisting of a one ton weight (1000 kg), which you hoist to your attic (2.5 meters) using chains.

      Taking 9.8 m/s^2 as Earth’s gravitational constant g, this system will store potential energy equal to m x g x l, e.g., 1000 x 9.8 x 2.5 = 24,500 Joules, or 0.0068 kWh.

      In contrast, the energy density of gasoline is 34.2 MJ/l. Note that there is a factor of a thousand between those two Joule numbers. So 24,500 Joules is stored in 0.7 ml of gasoline. A few drops that barely wet the bottom of my shotglass.

      This comparison seems extreme, but I’m reasonably confident I have the numbers correct. Fossil fuels pack a punch.

      1. Michael von Plato

        Alternate Delegate
        Thank you very much for the calculations that I could note readily make. Nevertheless, pumped hydro is used currently if not widely, and that method also runs up against the factors you listed.

  16. orlbucfan

    The nuclear industry still hasn’t figured out what to do with the radioactive waste. There are now disasters to review such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. Are there viable solutions?

    1. jhg

      Deep burial in geological formations in the Precambrian Canadian Shield has been suggested in the past. The Shield is between 2.5 to over 4 billion years. Certain geological formations there are very old, very stable and have little economic value and studies for a repository for High Level (irradiated fuel) waste have been done. There is currently little political will to carry on beyond the initial feasibility studies though.
      Currently (In Canada) the irradiated fuel is maintained for the long term in what is called Dry Fuel Storage. Specialized containers contain the spent fuel and are kept in a monitored and maintained site but this is only a stop-gap process.

    2. Michaelmas

      orlbuc: The nuclear industry still hasn’t figured out what to do with the radioactive waste … Are there viable solutions?

      You are to some extent the victim of propaganda. The nuclear industry has known since the first reactors in the 1950s what to do about radioactive waste.

      Reprocess. The French nuclear industry does it.

      But reprocessing is vastly more expensive — and non-profitable under a capitalist system like the U.S.’s — and inescapably means the proliferation of weapons-building capability. Indeed, the first reprocessing was done solely to extract plutonium for building nuclear weapons.

      So expanding reprocessing means a massive expansion in global risk. There’s no escape from that.

      Not incidentally, if you go back into nuclear history, nobody in the 1950s and 60s was talking about nuclear waste. That’s not because they were ignorant or heedless necessarily, but because there were less known uranium deposits, and they fully expected to reprocess.

      Then the U.S. moved from Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ policy in the 1950s to the Carter administration’s strong international anti-proliferation policies in the 1970s, which have continued. Not incidentally, that’s when the narrative about nuclear waste starts getting currency. Besides France, the UK, Russia, India, Japan, and China all reprocess to some extent, and you don’t find them worrying about nuclear waste to the same extent as the U.S. does.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Much of the problem is political. In the UK, for example, there is an ideal geological layer which would be perfect for long term storage. The problem can be seen from the common name for this strata: ‘The London Clays’. So instead they choose sub-optimal geologies such as around Sellafield and devote enormous energies and resources to trying to persuade everyone that they are suitable for storage (they are not). The same issues can be found in many nuclear countries – its rare that technically optimum solutions square with political realities.

  17. John

    To repeat again what Yves said “radical conservation”. There is so much to be discussed in that category rather than the endless banging on about varieties of supply.
    How about adaptability of human activity to intermittency of supply? No one talks about that at all. The author mentions intermittency in socialist Bulgaria.
    I lived with such intermittency of supply in south Asia in the early 1980’s and people adapted. It wasn’t that bad.

  18. Dave in Austin

    PlutoniumK and the rest of the crew answered the “frozen Texas renewables” charges.

    The fluorine cycle nuclear project reappears every decade-or-so. Pros: great heat transfer characteristics make the cycle very efficient; cons: The stuff is too reactive. Read the WWII history of uranium hexaflouride separation. Everybody always wants a better heat transfer system than good old water and steam. Maybe someday… but right now, no. Look at the wikipedia articles on Ft. Saint Vrain (helium cooled) and the fluorine cycle nuclear projects.

    Yves is right that that the production cycle for wind and solar doesn’t match up with the residential use cycle and both wind and solar are fundamentally unreliable. So we need backup. Battery backup is coming on strong but isn’t quite there yet for mass storage. Pump storage is great- where the geography cooperates. Texas has no lakes 1,000 ft above the lowlands like Bath, VA and Norway. The empty salt domes offer some possibilities. But, again, “Not there yet”.

    So the answer is cheap gas-fired turbines, basically airplane jet engines optimized for fast starting and relative efficiency. Here in Texas the issue is “Who pays?”. The gas people say “Intermittent energy from solar and wind is causing this problem so they should pay”. The solar/wind crowd says “But we are cheap electricity with no CO-2 so we’re the wave of the future. The public should pay.” Take your choice.

    One very real solution to the load time shifting problem sounds faintly Buck Rogers but the numbers look interesting. Those pesky Russians have pioneered very high voltage, DC current power lines with surprisingly low power loss/hundred miles. All that late afternoon power coming off the roofs of LA can potentially be transferred via the existing high tension right-of-way to Las Vegas and southern Colorado. A few hundred miles northeast of there the huge Powder River Basin coal mines of Wyoming found it cheaper to burn some of the coal locally and ship the power to Chicago via high tension lines. So potentially those sunny 4:00-5:00 pm LA rooftops could be heating 6:00-7:00 pm Chicago every winter. Continent-wide time shifting may be real. Two thirds of the right-of-way already exists and based on the Russian loss/100 miles numbers the project is technically feasible. Again, it sounds like Buck Rogers but the whispers in the power business- and the financial community who will be happy to fund and privatize the system- are pretty loud.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      On your final point, I’ve had several conversations with Irish engineers who have done study stints in California. They always come back saying ‘why on earth don’t they just connect with the mid-West with a few DC cables? It would solve nearly all their problems’. The issue is seems to be political, not technical. So many of the problems of intermittency can be solved relatively simply through more interconnections. The problems are political, regulatory and economic, not technical.

  19. Steven

    Cold is definitely THE problem. The need for air conditioning may soon go down substantially:

    New paint reflects 98% of sunlight as well as radiating infrared heat into space, reducing need for air conditioning”

    Currently available reflective white paints are far better than dark roofing materials, but only reflect 80-90% of sunlight and absorb UV light. This means they cannot cool surfaces below ambient temperatures. The new paint does this, leading to less need for air conditioning and the carbon emissions they produce, which are rising rapidly. … Ruan said painting a roof of 93 sq metres (1,000 sq ft) would give a cooling power of 10 kilowatts: “That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses.”

  20. Frank

    On the website in this link you can see Germany’s power consumption and generation, in nice graphs, going back years. The link gives you the past month. If you play around with this a bit, you will easilly notice the following things. Power consumption fluctuates, but just a little. Peak is about 75 GW midday, but at in the middle of the night, at 3-4 AM Germans still use 60GW. This, of course, is industrial usage, because allmost all residents are asleep, nobody uses air conditioning, and heating is non-electric. So what you do at home, doesn’t really matter all that much. You can also see clearly that sometimes wind plus solar covers almost 100% of German electric power consumption. However, quite frequently the wind stops blowing, clouds cover the sun, and then, for days, wind plus solar produce less then 5% of German power consumption. This is the challenge, denied by all enthousiast of renewables, including in these comments. The easy way to address this challenge is to let the Chinese do all the energy intensive process industry with either coal or nuclear. The alternative is to build really large amounts of pumped storage, which would have a dramatic impact on the German landscape. Claiming as PK does, that network balancing solves this, is nonsense. No one in Europe can ‘balance’ 60-75GW for several days.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Your comment sets me wondering about a few things that leave me puzzled. If renewable energy and batteries or other energy storage schemes are such an effective solution to providing renewable energy that reduces CO2 emissions … why is it so difficult to just hop on board the green deal bandwagon and create jobs, grow the economy, and consume energy into the future while reducing the rate that we add C02 to the atmosphere? What is different about China that in spite of pledges to cut emissions the Chinese continue to build “large numbers of coal-fired power plants to drive its post-pandemic economy”?

      1. Anders K

        AFAIK the main difference is that China builds out new production rather than trying to replace old production. Fewer issues, also helped by The State being very much in favour of more power.

        Another issue for hydro (both power and storage) is that quite a lot of the low hanging fruit have been picked, and then you have NIMBY – at times even with good objections, as environmentalist action has not been a hallmark of any organisation that handles power production or distribution.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          I think China is an Industrial Economy. China produces goods. The US is a “Service” or an “Information” economy or an Agricultural economy or ‘?’. China produces most of the solar panels and accouterments necessary to mount and adapt them to the electric Grid. I do not know whether China produces the blades and turbines for wind power, but if they do not they easily could, probably more cheaply than the US. [I do not know about the Economies of Europe and other countries.] If solar and wind power are so inexpensive and make such good sense, and China has committed to reducing CO2 emissions, I do not see how your answers explain why China continues to build “large numbers of coal-fired power plants to drive its post-pandemic economy”. If solar and wind power are not so inexpensive, but remain workable solutions for an Industrial Economy — like China’s Economy — and the problems of Climate Chaos and resource depletion threaten existential impacts to life and Industrial civilization in China and its very close neighbors, I do not see how low hanging fruit, NIMBY, building out new production, and the “favoring of more power” explain China’s actions.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            China plans to be the world’s metropole. China plans to make the world into its hinterland.

            China plans to have the only industrial production permitted on the earth. China plans to exterminate all industrial production everywhere outside of China. The abolition of industry outside of China will create the head room for sustainability pollutability within China, specifically in terms of artificially creating room for carbon emissions from within China.

            The International Free Trade Conspiracy supports this goal. Free Trade is the method to bring this about.

    2. fajensen

      This is the challenge, denied by all enthousiast of renewables, including in these comments.

      Could the alleged “denial” not instead be a profound lack of interest and novelty, perhaps because it is not actually one of the problems that Germany or the EU has?

      Unless we were to rely more on American gas supplies, which will fluctuate with sanctions!

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        EUrope and Germany have the power to build Nordstream 2, 3, 4 and 5 if EUrope and Germany want to. There is nothing America can do about that.

        If the EUropean and German leaderships pretend they “can’t” because America won’t “let” them, that means they are secret undercover American agents.

  21. Edward Jones

    The best residential applications today do not actually use the ground water, they just pull up the heat. You use close loop glycol based loops that drop down wells. Glycol goes through the heat pump. The company in this episode has packaged the entire deal. Lot of progress in this area. This is from the Boston area. Should work fine in most of North America. Ground temps are pretty consistent. There is a depth at which it will work everywhere.

  22. Jeremy Grimm

    I may have missed it, but I haven’t seen any comment that explores what I believe are the implications of the last sentence of Yves’s introduction:
    “… it does in the end acknowledge that the stakes are too high to consider only consumer desires.”
    I view the increasing Climate Chaos and future impacts of peak oil, peak fossil fuels, peak resources — as existential questions impacting the life and welfare of Humankind and the lives of countless other creatures and organisms on this planet. I believe matters of monetary cost, and “consumer desires” which I read as a euphemism for the ‘optimizations’ of consumer welfare as determined by the Market, ill-suit judging remedies for the problems of Climate Chaos and peak resources. Economic theory and the Market strangely measure the situation. The situation conjures memory of scenes from 14th Century Miracle Plays where a merchant meets Death and tries to bargain for his life. What is his demand curve for continuing to live; what is the elasticity of his demand curve for continuing to live. even a little while longer; what price in what currency can he offer Death; what goods might he instead purchase to substitute for living a little while longer.

    But the merchant bargaining with Death, though colorful and closer to the mark — is not fully apt. A War for existence is more apt … consider instead the actions a civilization might pursue to avoid defeat by a merciless enemy intent on on the total destruction of that civilization. What costs would the threatened civilization undertake and to what limit?

  23. Noone from Nowheresville

    I’ll believe global policy cares about climate change as soon as policy makers put restrict bitcoin mining due to resource usage / energy consumption. Otherwise I suppose the offset is we could just get rid of all the people in Argentina. people… digital currency / casino … climate change… people

    the policy choices they burn.

    April 27, 2021 at 8:42 am
    Yep on Ian’s take on the water drought, aquifer, and fracking / industrial contamination issues. Throw in those refugees he mentions and there will be breakups.

  24. TomR

    Renewable power advocates frequently talk about expected future power storage as a solution for their interminnency problem. But if cheap and eficient storage is developed then it is going to be used to export electrcity by transporting it on battery ships from places with low cost – like US – to places with high cost – like Germany. Which will make renewable power completly economically unviable.

  25. Larry Gilman


    Although I am like you a zealous supporter of radical conservation, this article is, alas, a complete crock, a tissue of of technical fallacies and untruths, BS of the purest ray serene, unworthy of promulgation on this excellent website. ( for insights into renewable technologies — really?) I’m an electrical engineer and this kind of disinformation about grids and renewables makes me want to bite my pillow and scream.

    The piece’s deceptiveness about energy costs is hair-raising but lest this message bloat to book length, I’ll stick to the point that the intermittency of an individual wind turbine’s output does not entail either intermittency or unreliability of wind power in grids at scale. This is one reason why battery storage or other dispatchable power sources do not need to be added to a grid at all as wind (and solar) generators are added, up to some large fraction of total supply — a fraction not yet reached in the United Sttes. European countries with far higher levels of reliance on solar and wind than the US have more reliable grids than we do (partly due to their heavy use of buried cable) — and none have yet installed large quantities of battery storage, which is only just beginning to be viable at utility scle.

    As implied above, “reliability” and “intermittency” are distinct. Reliability is a generator’s tendency produce power when one expects it to; intermittency is non-production of power at intervals. The two have no necessary connection. For example, a typical solar array is an intermittent generator with high reliability. It’s reliable because it is unlikely to fail unexpectedly (no moving parts) and because its intervals of non-generation, its intermittencies, can be accurately predicted on timescales ranging from minutes, hours, and days (the timescale of accurate weather forecasting) to perpetuity (the solar cycle). It does what you expect you to do when you expect it to do it.

    So, no, Yves, it’s not true that renewables are unreliable, nor is it true that their intermittency is an “ugly truth,” nor has their deployment decreased US (or European) grid reliability, nor is it bound to do so in future. The DOE’s 2017 Staff Report to the Secretary on Electricity Markets and Reliability ( ) did not find that renewables threaten US grid reliability; the variability of solar and wind primarily requires “dispatchable power plants to be operated more nimbly” (p. 11), not lockstep deployment of expensive batteries lest grids flicker and go dark.

    Texas? Those turbines froze because they weren’t winterized using standard methods. There is precisely nothing to learn about wind power from Texas utilities’ refusal to invest in off-the-shelf solutions.


    Larry Gilman

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