Ramping Up Renewables Won’t Save The World From A Cold Winter

John here. This piece looks at the wide variety of technical and economic reasons why renewables alone won’t be able to supply our coming energy needs. Among other important points that Tverberg makes, she highlights that the way the markets were structured often led to renewables replacing nuclear power. This was also associated with a decline in local production and storage of natural gas, leaving places like Europe particularly vulnerable to energy shortages in the winter when renewable sources are often at their weakest.

By Gail Tverberg, an actuary interested in finite world issues – oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Originally published at OilPrice

  • Winter is coming, and it could add even more pressure on the world, which is already grappling with an ongoing energy crisis.
  • Some analysts and officials believe renewable energy could help ease energy pains, but their models may be short-sighted.
  • Energy models don’t take into account the way wind turbines and solar panels perform in “real life.”

We usually don’t think about the wonderful service fossil fuels provide in terms of being a store of heat energy for winter, the time when there is a greater need for heat energy. Figure 1 shows dramatically how, in the US, the residential usage of heating fuels spikes during the winter months.

Figure 1. US residential use of energy, based on EIA data. The category “Natural Gas, etc.” includes all fuels bought directly by households and burned. This is primarily natural gas, but also includes small amounts of propane and diesel burned as heating oil. Wood chips or other commercial wood purchased to be burned is also in this category.

Solar energy is most abundantly available in the May-June-July period, making it a poor candidate for fixing the problem of the need for winter heat.

Figure 2. California solar electricity production by month through June 30, 2022, based on EIA data. Amounts are for utility scale and small scale solar combined.

In some ways, the lack of availability of fuels for winter is a canary in the coal mine regarding future energy shortages. People have been concerned about oil shortages, but winter fuel shortages are, in many ways, just as bad. They can result in people “freezing in the dark.”

In this post, I will look at some of the issues involved.

[1] Batteries are suitable for fine-tuning the precise time during a 24-hour period solar electricity is used. They cannot be scaled up to store solar energy from summer to winter.

In today’s world, batteries can be used to delay the use of solar electricity for at most a few hours. In exceptional situations, perhaps the holding period can be increased to a few days.

California is known both for its high level of battery storage and its high level of renewables. These renewables include both solar and wind energy, plus smaller amounts of electricity generated in geothermal plants and electricity generated by burning biomass. The problem encountered is that the electricity generated by solar panels tends to start and end too early in the day, relative to when citizens want to use this electricity. After citizens return home after work, they would like to cook their dinners and use their air conditioning, leading to considerable demand after the sun sets.

Figure 3. Illustration by Inside Climate News showing the combination of resources utilized during July 9, 2022, which was a day of peak electricity consumption. Imports refer to electricity purchased from outside the State of California.

Figure 3 illustrates how batteries in combination with hydroelectric generation (hydro) are used to save electricity generation from early in the day for use in the evening hours. While battery use is suitable for fine tuning exactly when, during a 24-hour period, solar energy will be used, the quantity of batteries cannot be ramped up sufficiently to save electricity from summer to winter. The world would run out of battery-making materials, if nothing else.

[2] Ramping up hydro is not a solution to our problem of inadequate energy for heat in winter.

One problem is that, in long-industrialized economies, hydro capabilities were built out years ago.

Figure 4. Annual hydro generation based on data of BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy.

It is difficult to believe that much more buildout is available in these countries.

Another issue is that hydro tends to be quite variable from year to year, even over an area as large as the United States, as shown in Figure 4 above. When the variability is viewed over a smaller area, the year-to-year variability is even higher, as illustrated in Figure 5 below.

Figure 5. Monthly California hydroelectric generation through June 30, 2022, based on EIA data.

The pattern shown reflects peak generation in the spring, when the ice pack is melting. Low generation generally occurs during the winter, when the ice pack is frozen. Thus, hydro tends not be helpful for raising winter energy supplies. A similar pattern tends to happen in other temperate areas.

A third issue is that variability in hydro supply is already causing problems. Norway has recently reported that it may need to limit hydro exports in coming months because water reservoirs are low. Norway’s exports of electricity are used to help balance Europe’s wind and solar electricity. Thus, this issue may lead to yet another energy problem for Europe.

As another example, China reports a severe power crunch in its Sichuan Province, related to low rainfall and high temperatures. Fossil fuel generation is not available to fill the gap.

[3] Wind energy is not a greatly better than hydro and solar, in terms of variability and poor timing of supply.

For example, Europe experienced a power crunch in the third quarter of 2021 related to weak winds. Europe’s largest wind producers (Britain, Germany and France) produced only 14% of their rated capacity during this period, compared with an average of 20% to 26% in previous years. No one had planned for this kind of three-month shortfall.

In 2021, China experienced dry, windless weather, resulting in both its generation from wind and hydro being low. The country found it needed to use rolling blackouts to deal with the situation. This led to traffic lights failing and many families needing to eat candle-lit dinners.

Even viewed on a nationwide basis, US wind generation varies considerably from month to month.

Figure 6. Total US wind electricity generation through June 20, 2022, based on EIA data.

US total wind electricity generation tends to be highest in April or May. This can cause oversupply issues because hydro generation tends to be high about the same time. The demand for electricity tends to be low because of generally mild weather. The result is that even at today’s renewable levels, a wet, windy spring can lead to a situation in which the combination of hydro and wind electricity supply exceeds total local demand for electricity.

[4] As more wind and solar are added to the grid, the challenges and costs become increasingly great.

There are a huge number of technical problems associated with trying to add a large amount of wind and solar energy to the grid. Some of them are outlined in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Introductory slide from a presentation by power engineers shown in this YouTube Video.

One of the issues is torque distortion, especially related to wind energy.

Figure 8. Slide describing torque distortion issues from the same presentation to power engineers as Figure 7. YouTube Video.

There are also many other issues, including some outlined on this Drax website. Wind and solar provide no “inertia” to the system. This makes me wonder whether the grid could even function without a substantial amount of fossil fuel or nuclear generation providing sufficient inertia.

Furthermore, wind and solar tend to make voltage fluctuate, necessitating systems to absorb and discharge something called “reactive power.”

[5] The word “sustainable” has created unrealistic expectations with respect to intermittent wind and solar electricity.

A person in the wind turbine repair industry once told me, “Wind turbines run on a steady supply of replacement parts.” Individual parts may be made to last 20-years, or even longer, but there are so many parts that some are likely to need replacement long before that time. An article in Windpower Engineering says, “Turbine gearboxes are typically given a design life of 20 years, but few make it past the 10-year mark.”

There is also the problem of wind damage, especially in the case of a severe storm.

Figure 9. Hurricane-damaged solar panels in Puerto Rico. Source.

Furthermore, the operational lives for fossil fuel and nuclear generating plants are typically much longer than those for wind and solar. In the US, some nuclear plants have licenses to operate for 60 years. Efforts are underway to extend some licenses to 80 years.

With the short life spans for wind and solar, constant rebuilding of wind turbines and solar generation is necessary, using fossil fuels. Between the rebuilding issue and the need for fossil fuels to maintain the electric grid, the output of wind turbines and solar panels cannot be expected to last any longer than fossil fuel supply.

[6] Energy modeling has led to unrealistic expectations for wind and solar.

Energy models don’t take into account all of the many adjustments to the transmission system that are needed to support wind and solar, and the resulting added costs. Besides the direct cost of the extra transmission required, there is an ongoing need to inspect parts for signs of wear. Brush around the transmission lines also needs to be cut back. If adequate maintenance is not performed, transmission lines can cause fires. Burying transmission lines is sometimes an option, but doing so is expensive, both in energy use and cost.

Energy models also don’t take into account the way wind turbines and solar panels perform in “real life.” In particular, most researchers miss the point that electricity from solar panels cannot be expected to be very helpful for meeting our need for heat energy in winter. If we want to add more summer air conditioning, solar panels can “sort of” support this effort, especially if batteries are also added to help fine tune when, during the 24-hour day, the solar electricity will be utilized. Unfortunately, we don’t have any realistic way of saving the output of solar panels from summer to winter. Related: Xi Set For Face Time With Putin In “Very Important” Meeting

It seems to me that supporting air conditioning is a rather frivolous use for what seems to be a dwindling quantity of available energy supply. In my opinion, our first two priorities should be adequate food supply and preventing freezing in the dark in winter. Solar, especially, does nothing for these issues. Wind can be used to pump water for crops and animals. In fact, an ordinary windmill, built 100 years ago, can also be used to provide this type of service.

Because of the intermittency issue, especially the “summer to winter” intermittency issue, wind and solar are not truly replacements for electricity produced by fossil fuels or nuclear. The problem is that most of the current system needs to remain in place, in addition to the renewable energy system. When researchers make cost comparisons, they should be comparing the cost of the intermittent energy, including necessary batteries and grid enhancements with the cost of the fuel saved by operating these devices.

[7] Competitive pricing plans that enable the growth of wind and solar electricity are part of what is pushing a number of areas in the world toward a “freezing-in-the-dark” problem.

In the early days of electricity production, “utility pricing” was generally used. With this approach, vertical integration of electricity supply was encouraged. A utility would make long term contracts with a number of providers and would set prices for customers based on the expected long-term cost of electricity production and distribution. The utility would make certain that transmission lines were properly repaired and would add new generation as needed.

Energy prices of all kinds spiked in the late 1970s. Not long afterward, in an attempt to prevent high electricity prices from causing inflation, a shift in pricing arrangements started taking place. More competition was encouraged, with the new approach called competitive pricing. Vertically integrated groups were broken up. Wholesale electricity prices started varying by time of day, based on which providers were willing to sell their production at the lowest price, for that particular time period. This approach encouraged providers to neglect maintaining their power lines and stop adding more storage capacity. Any kind of overhead expense was discouraged.

In fact, under this arrangement, wind and solar were also given the privilege of “going first.” If too much energy in total was produced, negative rates could result for other providers. This approach was especially harmful for nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants found that their overall price structure was too low. They sometimes closed because of inadequate profitability. New investments in nuclear energy were discouraged, as was proper maintenance. This effect has been especially noticeable in Europe.

Figure 10. Nuclear, wind and solar electricity generated in Europe, based on data of BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The result is that about a third of the gain from wind and solar energy has been offset by the decline in nuclear electricity generation. Of course, nuclear is another low-carbon form of electricity. It is a great deal more reliable than wind or solar. It can even help prevent freezing in the dark because it is likely to be available in winter, when more electricity for heating is likely to be needed.

Another issue is that competitive pricing discouraged the building of adequate storage facilities for natural gas. Also, it tended to discourage purchasing natural gas under long term contracts. The thinking went, “Rather than building storage, why not wait until the natural gas is needed, and then purchase it at the market rate?”

Unfortunately, producing natural gas requires long-term investments. Companies producing natural gas operate wells that produce approximately equal amounts year-round. The same pattern of high winter-consumption of natural gas tends to occur almost simultaneously in many Northern Hemisphere areas with cold winters. If the system is going to work, customers need to be purchasing natural gas, year-round, and stowing it away for winter.

Natural gas production has been falling in Europe, as has coal production (not shown), necessitating more imports of replacement fuel, often natural gas.

Figure 11. Natural gas production in Europe, based on data of BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy.

With competitive rating and LNG ships seeming to sell natural gas on an “as needed” basis, there has been a tendency in Europe to overlook the need for long term contracts and additional storage to go with rising natural gas imports. Now, Europe is starting to discover the folly of this approach. Solar is close to worthless for providing electricity in winter; wind cannot be relied upon. It doesn’t ramp up nearly quickly enough, in any reasonable timeframe. The danger is that countries will risk having their citizens freeze in the dark because of inadequate natural gas import availability.

[8] The world is a very long way from producing enough wind and solar to solve its energy problems, especially its need for heat in winter.

The energy supply that the world uses includes much more than electricity. It contains oil and fuels burned directly, such as natural gas. The percentage share of this total energy supply that wind and solar output provides depends on how it is counted. The International Energy Agency treats wind and solar as if they only replace fuel, rather than replacing dispatchable electricity.

Figure 12 Wind and solar generation for a category called “Wind, Solar, etc.” by the IEA. Amounts are for 2020 for Germany, the UK, Australia, Norway, the United States, and Japan. For other groups shown in this chart, the amounts are calculated using 2019 data.

On this basis, the share of total energy provided by the Wind and Solar category is very low, only 2.2% for the world as a whole. Germany comes out highest of the groups analyzed, but even it is replacing only 6.0% of its total energy consumed. It is difficult to imagine how the land and water around Germany could tolerate wind turbines and solar panels being ramped up sufficiently to cover such a shortfall. Other parts of the world are even farther from replacing current energy supplies with wind and solar.

Clearly, we cannot expect wind and solar to ever be ramped up to meet our energy needs, even in combination with hydro.

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  1. Henry Moon Pie

    “It seems to me that supporting air conditioning is a rather frivolous use for what seems to be a dwindling quantity of available energy supply. In my opinion, our first two priorities should be adequate food supply and preventing freezing in the dark in winter. Solar, especially, does nothing for these issues. Wind can be used to pump water for crops and animals. In fact, an ordinary windmill, built 100 years ago, can also be used to provide this type of service.”

    Very reasonable point. More generally, the choice seems to be between drastically cutting our use of energy or turning the planet into a human-killing weather machine.

    1. Earthling

      Reasonable if you live in a place which freezes much of the year and rarely gets too hot for living. People who died from heat events this year might have argued that summer cooling is not so frivolous, particularly in lower latitudes. More to the point, A/C is exactly where solar can, excuse the expression, shine, sparing the fossil fuels for other uses.

      Not arguing any of the truths in this good article, just the characterizing of a/c as ‘frivolous’. Tropic dwellers could as easily point to the jillions of trees and mountains of coal beds taken down through the centuries, to allow people to live in cold places maybe humans shouldn’t be.

      1. Felix_47

        Sadly here in Southern Cali the hottest time of day in buildings is between 4 and 8 and the sun is not very useful. Just as solar production is winding down the A/C demand is going way up. The buildings, the lumber and stucco get heated up all day and then radiate heat all afternoon and night. The power company and the state have managed to pare incentives for solar to the point that it makes little economic sense for individual homeowners to install solar. One thing that seems not to be thought about is building engineering and even things like underground living.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      I’ve heard many arguments against solar power, but ‘it will be used for purposes I consider frivolous’ to be quite a novel one.

  2. Chas

    The photo of the badly damaged photovoltaic array in Puerto Rico reminded me of a trip to Cuba just after she was hit with a hurricane because in Cuba they removed the solar panels before the storm and stored them in a safe place. Same with boats.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Repeated disasters have shown that decentralised renewables are more resilient than large, centralized thermal plants – as the Japanese discovered after Fukashima and Europe discovered this year when drought shut down inland thermal plants as there was insufficient water for cooling.

    2. p fitzsimon

      We live about a mile from the Atlantic coast. We have a 25000 panel solar array in the neighbourhood (6MW nameplate DC). I don’t think anyone is going to dismantle that array. Just getting boats out of the water or upriver is tough enough when a big storm is predicted

  3. steven

    It is way past time to face the music and stop growth in all forms except maybe Lovin’s ‘negagrowth’. (Under industrial capitalism, that used to mean ‘faster, better, cheaper’.) But in the meantime it is incumbent on us to do what we can to keep people from “freezing in the dark” and/or starving. That in my book means getting serious about gravity storage.

    Unlike suitable hydro sites, gravity is everywhere. There are so many diverse technologies for taking advantage of it (do a google search), it is hard to believe that at least some of the problems with renewable energy cataloged in this post could not at least partially be mitigated.

    We are not limited to batteries for energy storage but if we were allowing people like Elon Musk and the other auto majors to continue cranking out EVs without bidirectional charging, the ability to use their batteries to at a minimum provide power to the residences of their owners, suggests we are not serious about addressing grid vulnerabilities and global warming.

  4. Grumpy Engineer

    Tverberg describes California as being “known both for its high level of battery storage and its high level of renewables“, but it’s worth noting that their battery storage assets are deeply inadequate for even time-shifting within a 24-hour period. This can be seen by how often California must curtail (i.e., cut off) renewable energy assets because they’re providing too much power at the wrong time of day and the batteries are already full: http://www.caiso.com/informed/Pages/ManagingOversupply.aspx.

    In the past 8 months, California has already curtailed over 2 TWh of renewable energy production, which (if they’d had enough storage) could have supplanted an equal amount of gas-fired generation and reduced California’s CO2 emissions by over 800 million pounds. Ouch.

    Also, Figure 3 shows that California imports the least amount of power during daylight hours and imports the most at night. If California’s neighbors follow “the California example” and similarly deploy lots of solar, then they’ll end up in the same boat: surplus power available in the day, insufficient power available at night. Who then will have excess power capability at night to provide exports?

    1. ambrit

      Don’t laugh too hard, but I have read that an idea for using the Salton Sea as a very low head gravity storage site has been “floated.” Solar arrays power pumps that lift Gulf of California seawater into the Salton Trough by day, gravity does it’s thing with the water at night. A standard low flow hydropower facility at the outlet of the Trough does the power generation.
      You want a Megaproject? California can help!
      As an added bonus, a large body of water sited at the southern end of the California mini-climate will do things that can benefit the region just by being there. Daily heat retention and buffering, added humidity to the local atmosphere, increased bio-diversity from the revitalized wetlands, etc. etc.
      Think big.

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        You want a Megaproject? California can help!

        I, how I wish that were true, but it’s mostly not. For example, permitting for the 20+ GWh Eagle Mountain pumped storage facility in Southern California began in 2007. But they still haven’t commenced with construction. They’ve been planning, studying, permitting, and dealing with lawsuits for 15 years. Maybe they’ll start moving actual dirt in 2024? California sucks at megaprojects.

        And Eagle Mountain would really help, given that all of California’s battery facilities today add up to less than 12 GWh. They need at least 45 GWh to prevent curtailments in their grid today, and that need will only grow as they deploy more renewables.

        As for low-head pumped storage, I don’t like it. Low head implies low energy per cubic meter of water pumped, which means that if you want to storage a large amount of energy, you need to move tremendous volumes. That makes everything larger and more expensive, and it increases the side effects imposed on local ecologies.

    2. Rita

      Since the sun is shining somewhere at any hour, solar energy may need to be transported around the globe to become steady?

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        Intercontinental power transmission would be more difficult that most people realize. For example, if you wanted to ship 600 GW (~60% of US peak demand) from Asia to the US, you’d probably need 1200 cables, each rated for undersea duty at 500 kV and 1000 amps. If we assume a 5000-mile link, that means 6 million miles of cable that normally sells for $100+/foot. That works out to at least $3 trillion just for the cable, and it would consume several full years of worldwide copper production.

        And what happens if something goes wrong with a cable? Like damage from a earthquake, being struck by shipwreck debris, or an act of sabotage? HV cable is difficult enough to repair when it’s buried on land (you can’t just crimp on a splice and wrap it in electrical tape, not with the electric field strengths seen at 500 kV), but repairing a damaged link in the middle of the ocean is a whole different ballgame. Or what happens if somebody botches the insulation chemistry and all of the cables see internal cracking after 25 years?

          1. Grumpy Engineer

            That would certainly be cheaper, but it would also be less valuable. Particularly for solar. A few minutes before I typed this, the sun set below the horizon on the west coast, which means that 100% of solar arrays across the entire continental US are idle. And it’ll be nearly 8 hours until sunlight hits the very eastern-most panels in Maine early tomorrow morning. So unless your DC network spans the globe (which I don’t think we can afford to do), solar will remain a bust at night.

    3. jonboinAR

      Just ignorant and poorly informed here, but could not hydrogen production from renewables (solar, wind, etc.), stored locally for use, then used somehow to drive turbines when the renewables are not producing relative to demand, could not that be an effective form of “battery”? -Or would it be too hard to store enough to make a difference?

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        Yes. Hydrogen could be produced using renewable power and then used later in gas turbines. And that’s probably where we’re headed long-term. Some of the really big players in industry (Siemens, GE, and Mitsubishi) are already developing hydrogen-fueled gas turbines:


        But in addition to the gas turbines, we need electrolyzers, hydrogen storage facilities, and hydrogen pipelines linking everything together. These are all technically feasible, but I do worry about what the total cost would be. And if public opposition to the pipelines is too great, it might never come to fruition.

        1. jonboinAR

          How about if the hydrogen produced is only for mitigating periodic lack of “renewable” produced supply, like nightly, or something, weekly, but maybe not seasonally. Then, the hydrogen could be produced, stored, and consumed at approximately the same site, and not THAT much piping would be needed? Let’s say, produced hydrogen, plus all of the hydropower being dedicated to mitigating renewable shortfall, plus a relative modicum of mitigating natural gas electrical production, could that all possibly be used to balance the intermittency of renewable electrical production? Could that possibly be sufficient?

          1. tindrum

            The round-trip efficiency of hydrogen manufacture / storage is only about 30% so you need a lot of renewables in order to produce the hydrogen. Also hydrogen gas is very nasty and making steel pipelines that are resistant to the gas not trivial.

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              How about making NH4 pipelines to deliver NH4 to the target? When it reaches the target a single H can be stripped off of every NH4 and all the NH3s can be sent back to the point of surplus renewable energy origin for having Hs electrolized from water re-bonded to the NH3s to turn them into NH4s again. And round and round and round, for as long as the wind blows and the sun shines.

    4. drumlin woodchuckles

      If California’s renewable energy facilities are providing too much power to use at the particular time they are producing that power, are there things that power could be used to do which would be time-delayed useful when the renewable power facilities are not producing surplus power?

      Since air conditioning is not frivolous in the event of a “Death Valley Heat Wave” event, perhaps the surplus power which has nowhere else to go during times of high sun . . . could all be used to air-condition houses and buildings to a very cool temperature? If the people inside at the time feel too cold, they can put on sweaters. Then, when the solar power production reduces with the fading light, all those buildings can stay cool for several hours at least on their own stored up chill, made earlier in the day when the choice was between curtailing acceptance of solar power at all or at least sinking it into building cooldown when there was nowhere else for it to go.

      Thermal flywheeling — thermal “batteries”. Storing what electricity can do when we can’t store the electricity itself.

  5. PlutoniumKun

    I was going to try to write a rebuttal to this article, but really, life is too short, and its sunny outside.

    This is essentially a list of ‘things I found from google about problems with solar and/or wind’, plus a few straw men arguments that no serious person has ever put forward. Plus a few outright falsehoods, such as the idea that wind and solar has displaced nuclear power (in almost all grids, its gas that is being displaced).

    There are enormous problems with transitioning to renewables. But there are even bigger problems with sticking with fossil fuels. And as for nuclear – well, wake me up when the nuclear industry comes up with a reactor that is safe, economically viable, and can be built in the scale needed over the next 20 years. No unicorns please.

    Gail Tverberg did valuable work in the past, but increasingly her articles are little more than an out of date plea for nuclear – ignoring all the costs and issues with nuclear energy and the inevitable requirement for enormous investments in grids worldwide whichever option is taken.

      1. Tom Bradford

        I also concur. While the author is generally correct in the points she makes, using them to declare renewables a dead-end is lazy or dishonest.

        Until very recently hydro, solar, wind, has had to compete with generation based on cheap fossil fuels or heavily subsidised nuclear and as a result only the low, easy fruit has been picked. With fossil fuels no-longer cheap if not actually drying up, taking on the hard work of boldly going where renewables have never gone before (tidal? pumped storage? distributed? geothermal, tomorrow’s eureka?) is becoming economically feasible and viable, and with that incentive gathering pace.

        In the beginning of the internal-combustion-engine world, vehicles were slow, noisy, feeble and unreliable and could easily have been written off as never going to replace the horse.

        1. Tom Bradford again

          And, of course, the early generations of motor-cars and trucks were hugely expensive compared to the horse and cart.

    1. ambrit

      Please don’t swat me down too hard if I mention that all this will be rendered moot when the world population begins to shrink soon.
      Putting on my “Tin Foil Hat (TM)” I see that existing power generation facilities will be adequate for a world with half the present population and most of the “survivors” living at a Nineteenth Century level of technology and resources per person.
      We have yet to see a truly devastating pathogen emerge spontaneously, or be deployed.
      Do keep safe. That is now a species imperative.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        “Accidental Jackpot” looks more credible if it consists of many concurrent or overlapping causes each taking out a few million or tens of millions of people per cause.

        One single sudden devastating pathogen all at once would look so suspicious to so many non-rich non-powerful people all at once that they might start running amok beyond the ability of any security services to contain them.

        One suspects the Jackpot Design Engineers would like to avoid something that obvious for just now.

    2. Reaville

      PK: Absolutely right.

      OilPrice.com: your go-to source for why FF are the only answer and renewables suck. Too bored by the dullness ofr ebutting the article, but California’s battery storage was key to it NOT having to use rolling blackouts during the recent all time heat wave. I would point out that the renewables don’t “work because variability” graph showing California’s growth for installed wind shows that despite variability, power production is trending up overall (which implies that wind will be able to replace gas).

      Let’s see if EU has the guts to do a war-time mobilization of renewable investment. Past procrastination means this winter will be hard, regardless.

      1. heresy101

        This energy engineer agrees with both PK and Reaville but might reply in detail later.
        Oilprice is one of the better fossil fuel propagandists but nevertheless is still a shill for fossil fuels.
        I was going to provide a one time contribution to the fundraiser above my monthly donation but didn’t because of the anti-renewable and FF bias of NC. This article confirmed my action.
        The reason that the world is going to freeze and not have food this winter is due to the US warmongering through Ukraine to try to destroy and break up Russia and is not caused by renewables!!!

        1. Tom Pfotzer


          You said:

          anti-renewable and FF bias of NC.

          Remember: it’s NC’s job to report all perspectives. It’s their _job_. They most assuredly do not have a FF bias, and sure don’t have an anti-renewable bias.

          This article is Gail Tverberg talking, not NC, and certainly not the NC commentariat, and most definitely not me (a low-status, minor member of the NC readership).

          The role of NC is to present many sides (not all; they do exclude some of the egregiously stupid) and it’s our job to wail on what we don’t like.

          Now onto the thesis of your comment:

          The reason that the world is going to freeze and not have food this winter is due to the US warmongering through Ukraine to try to destroy and break up Russia and is not caused by renewables

          I totally agree with your thesis, so far as it went.

          The other reason the world is going to freeze and starve is because we’re not aggressively acting on what we already know.

          We know what to do, but most of us are temporizing. We’re hoping that someone will produce a magic wand, and save us from the individual effort and sacrifices and just raw adapting required to get out of this mess.

          The magic wand ain’t happening. Gail’s piece, as others have pointed out above, makes that very clear.

  6. The Rev Kev

    Seems that the long and the short of this all is that our power requirements have outstripped our wants and needs but with no new source of equivalent power sources on the horizon, that the only viable solution will be to cut back and I mean really cut back. Goodbye nighttime Las Vegas lights, goodbye Times Square lights at night. The party is over and after a big blowout, we are now going to have to cut back to what we can actually afford to keep going in the cold dawn. In the future, in each country you will be able to see who the rich people are. They will be the ones that can still keep their homes lit at night.

      1. ambrit

        Good point, and also, as I have observed over the years, being “rich” does not mean that one is smart. With second and third generations of wealth, the opposite can often be the case. Being rich without a sense of the obligations such imposes often leads to extravagance and ostentation.
        An educated public is a strong curb on excesses on the part of the wealthy. So, welcome to Private Academies of Career Orientation and Training and piss poor public schools.
        The “privatization” of the public schooling function is a double whammy. On one side, private capital makes big profits off of what was once a purely public endeavour. Secondly, the same private entities “dumb down” the average citizen/consumer to where said citizen/consumer does not realize where his or her true interests lie.
        A cynic would say, (who, me?) that the primary aim of any ‘public’ education system is the propagation and maintenance of the status quo, through ‘targeted’ education and indoctrination. I wish it wasn’t so, but there we are.
        Stay safe.

  7. Mike

    I think at this point the article is confirming what most people know already from this site on the topic of renewables. What supersedes the mechanisms of action discussed in this article first is simply the scale of problem. You can run off renewables, it just takes a different grid and way of life…. but even before that is simply that renewables at their current rate are barely lagging the growth of our demand. If you remove biofules then its not even close. And then the icing on the cake is we may not have enough resources to replace the whole system globally anyways. Simon Michaux of Finland geological survey has great work on this problem:


    Regardless of everything discussed in the current article, there is a value add from renewables for your individual household…My thesis is that if we continue down our current path in the US of attempting this renewable game, there will be massive power disruptions in our future that will only get worse. See Texas and California. If you have a decoupled solar system or wind you at least have SOMETHING if/when your grid starts to not function properly. People should look at this from, what do you need as an individual household or neighborhood?

  8. Tom Pfotzer

    This article is a litany of symptoms which are caused by these two fundamental problems:

    a. Building envelopes leak a great deal of heat, and
    b. The timing of renewables’ energy production isn’t matched with the timing of energy consumption

    I didn’t see much discussion in the article about addressing problem a) . Note that the word “insulation” doesn’t show up anywhere in the article.

    I didn’t see any new thinking about addressing problem b). This assertion, excerpted from the article, is posited as an absolute fact:

    Batteries … cannot be scaled up to store solar energy from summer to winter.

    That is not a fact, and ought not be presented as such.

    Batteries store energy in the form of chemical bonds. Charging the battery invests energy to create those bonds, and discharging (supplying electricity from the battery) breaks those bonds, and the released energy is moved elsewhere in the form of electricity.

    Fuels, including hydrocarbon-based fossil fuels can be viewed as “batteries”. They store energy in the form of chemical bonds.

    Liquid and solid fuels store an enormous amount of energy in a small volume. Those fuels are stable, and can be stored indefinitely.

    There has been some occasional discussion about how to convert variable-intensity, variable-timed renewable energy into a fuel, and then convert that fuel to electricity, on demand, as a strategy for matching the timing of supply with the timing of demand.

    There are many such strategies, and they are absent in the presentation offered above.

    That is an important omission. The so-called “hydrogen” economy is rapidly developing, and is an excellent example of one such strategy.

    The key problem with the electricity-to-fuel-back-to-electricity conversion process is that it has “efficiency losses”. Those losses take the form of radiated heat that is emitted from the conversion equipment.

    If that heat can be captured and utilized – and I assert that it certainly could be – then the “efficiency losses” can be very substantially minimized. One way to achieve this goal is to co-locate energy intensive industrial, agricultural, or even residential loads alongside the heat-emitting conversion equipment, and use that heat – possibly several times – before it’s allowed to radiate out into space.

    Note that this conversion equipment can be modular, distributed, and efficiently scaled from small to large.

    The article is incomplete, it omits several promising remedies, and takes a lot of space to not move the discussion frontier in a helpful direction.

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        Thanks, Ambrit.

        And to pick up on your lead, let’s follow the bouncing ball as it moves from a renewable energy production facility all the way through to end-point consumption in your town.

        Wind turbine gens electricity, distributed by high tension (efficient) wires to your town.

        Your town has a two-acre facility, that contains:

        * An electricity-to-fuel conversion apparatus. Few moving parts, no noise, no pollution, housed in a building about the size of two school busses. Runs whenever there’s more wind-produced electricity than can be used in that instant. Produces fuel and heat.

        * A big tank to store the fuel. 100′ tall, 50′ wide, painted white. Blends in.

        * A bank of fuel cells, which convert the stored fuel into electricity, on-demand. These run whenever there’s not enough wind-generated power to meet this instant’s demand. No noise, no pollution. Produces electricity and heat. All this is housed in structure the size of three school busses.

        This facility, which would cost between $10-20 million to construct, would smooth out the peaks and valleys of renewable generation.

        It would put a big stake right through the heart of the assertion “renewables aren’t reliable”.

        About that heat.

        The facility would produce heat continuously, and at the same quantity. The facility is generating heat when fuel is being made (energy is being stored) and when the fuel is being used to generate electricity.

        It’s always doing one or the other. The heat is likely to be constant.

        The heat can be used to heat buildings, greenhouses, and the feedstock for various (continuously running) industrial processes that produce products like glass, cement, steel, aluminum … all heavy users of energy, and often energy that creates a lot of CO2. The heat from the facility would directly displace existing demand for electricity and natural gas.

        This facility can be located in industrial centers, or in rural villages, or a neighborhood in any large city. All that’s needed is a grid-power connection and a small parcel of land.

        The facility could also be co-located with modest-to-large scale renewable sites – solar, wind, hydro, tide.

        How many 2-acre sites with grid-power connections are there? Many millions here in the U.S.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      @Tom Pfotzer,

      I suspect you are working harder on these things than most people are. A thought occurs to me . . . while everyone would ideally lift a finger towards the doing of some constructive activity, no one should feel they have to lift a second finger to cover for someone else who will not even lift a finger. Certainly no one who is already lifting a finger should feel compelled to lift nine more fingers to cover for nine other people who will not even lift finger one.

      I suspect that trying to enlist everyone towards a goal will result in no one getting enlisted and zero movement to that goal by anyone. Whereas if one merely reveals what one is doing towards a particular goal and is ready to share information with as many or as few other people who want the information to get to the same goal, some people will work towards the goal. Will that be a self-building self-feeding process of more people seeing a groupload of people working toward a goal and deciding to join that already-growing groupload of people? Maybe it will. It could be an approach worth trying.

      America as a country has a fossil fuel occupation regime government. That is just a fact. The national scale fossil fuel occupation regime will never ever permit conservation or the rollout of a single one of the approaches you describe at the national level. Never Ever. That is just a fact.

      But such methods could be rolled out at tiny scale in certain tiny localities which are not under fossil fuel owned local government. If one of the two-acre sites you describe for renewable energy feed-in and interconversion to the grid right around itself could be built in a conservation-friendly jurisdiction in the teeth of all the most vicious opposition from the national anti-conservation fossil fuel occupation regime and could make it work in the teeth of all the most desperate sabotage the fossil fuelists will throw against it, then perhaps a second micro-local jurisdiction will see that it is possible and will try to do the same thing. And then a third. And then a fourth and fifth. And then more and more at a time. It could spread like a Stain of Truth against the Bleachfield of Lies.

  9. Ignacio

    Well I thought that everyone knew that renewable sources were not going to save the day next winter or the following so this post states well… the obvious.
    Does this mean that investments in renewable should stop? Is this the hidden bottom-line of this post?

    I particularly opine that much of what is done with renewables doesn’t make the best of senses, but by any chance think that investments and improvements must go on. Most importantly at the level of individual buildings.

    It may seem playful to compare wind solar production with total energy consumed but this is also deceptive. Wind or solar are not suited, neither intended to supply energy intensive industries except for a fraction of it in the best case neither it is supposed that cars, trucks, ships or planes will run with solar panels or wind turbines. Basically cars are not electric to start with except a few. Not next winter, not the following etc.

    I don’t find this post constructive. At all.

    1. ambrit

      I must agree. Indeed, I consider this post as an exercise in “Social Systems Deconstructionism.”
      One big problem is that this subject has too many moving parts. (Pun intended.)
      As the song says:
      “Too fast to live,”
      “Too young to die,”
      “Bye, bye.”
      That could be the epitaph for Homo Economicus.
      James Dean, by The Eagles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldZtbxeIHHc

  10. John

    It is unfortunate that after all the analysis she does not go to the conclusion that extreme conservation will be the path we are heading down. Extreme conservation will come whether voluntary or forced by circumstance.
    We take our abundant energy lifestyles for granted as if by divine right. That is in the process of changing.
    I have the good fortune to have had grandparents who lived in spacious farm houses in a four season Virginia climate.
    Those houses were generally freezing cold in winter…with the exception of one or two rooms.
    I also spent a lot of time in the 1980s in high altitude Nepal. Only enough fuel for tiny cooking fires and subzero freezing at night.
    Your metabolism kept you warm and clothing stored it next to your body. They had been living there for hundreds of years.
    By high altitude Nepali standards, my grandparents lived grossly abundant energy lives. Both had good lives.
    Our energy use today is off the charts squandrous by their standards.
    Gail is just trying to say the party is about over.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Extreme conservation measures will be more possible before civilization collapses than after it has collapsed in part or in whole.

      For example, we still have industries which produce and apply insulation and which produce and install air-to-air heat exchangers. We could still super-insulate at least some buildings and houses and install air to air heat exchangers to permit enough air in-air out ventilation to prevent sick house/ sick building syndrome while extremely conserving the energy needed to keep the house or building warm.

      If we wait till after civilization has collapsed, then the method of extreme conservation will be freezing in the dark because that is all the energy we will have at our disposal to do anyway.

      Perhaps people in pro-conservation areas can find ways to build and install extreme conservation upgrades to facilities and infrastructure and behavior all at the same time so as to have decent warmth while conserving energy extremely. Anti-conservation people will never permit the whole country to adopt extreme conservation ( or any conservation at all) at the national level. But perhaps people in conservation-friendly zones might still apply their own extreme conservation upgrades for themselves and eachother before the only extreme conservation measure they have left to apply is freezing in the dark.

  11. Rod

    I guess I missed that sentence or two about ‘Lifestyle Changes’ or Radical Conservation.
    With some shade, sweat and a breeze I’m good to about 110* on the heat index. Dressed right and moving I’m good to about 15* without the breeze. But if relying on shivering to get to a sunrise is all I get, my time is short.
    But maybe I don’t remember how hardy those living above the 30th latitude are.
    Maybe that’s the point Tverberg was getting at.

  12. chris

    I agree with PK above.

    This is not a useful article and there’s beautiful fall weather outside that needs to be enjoyed.

    But to further the discussion, I suggest people get familiar with the times of peak usage throughout the regions of the country where they live. In the US, those vary during the year, with peak usage in winter being from 6 AM to 10 AM, with a peak around 8 AM, when there isn’t much sun. In summer, it’s from 5 PM to 10 PM, with a peak around 8 PM, when there isn’t much sun.

    However, people throughout the world have dealt with winter and solar heating or cooling for a long time. An easy way to get around this is to use passive systems, some of which can be retrofitted onto existing buildings or added at a minimal cost during renovations. For instance a Trombe wall is a concept for creating a passive solar heat source that would work very well in a lot of the US, even in apartment buildings.

    Energy use is a cultural matter as much as an engineering topic. If we all stop trying to charge things at night and we stop wanting to binge watch streaming shows after dinner, if we stop wanting to enjoy a 24/7 life style, it becomes a lot easier to supply the required load. But since people like their Netflix and want their cars and their phones to be ready for the next day, we have a different expectation for energy use now. Also, because we have facilities like hospitals, hotels, warehouses, and manufacturing sites that need reliable power for the night shift, we need baseload and load follow.

    Renewables have a hard time handling that currently.

  13. SocalJimObjects

    Some countries like those located in the equator don’t have winter. What they have is rainy season, but there’s still plenty of sun. At the very least, renewables should work very well for those countries.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      For most of the higher and lower latitudes you tend to get lots of wind when you don’t have a lot of sun, and vice versa. Certainly in Europe they balance out generally very well. The bigger the grid, the easier it is to balance out. Ireland is investing heavily in solar for the long summer days when wind generation is at its lowest.

      Even in the short days of winter solar can be very valuable for heating. My brother gets plenty of hot water even in mid winter in Ireland from his rooftop solar water heaters. A friend generates sufficient power in winter from her solar panels to pump enough from her ground source heat pump – sufficient to keep her quite large modern home comfortable all winter. You don’t need batteries to store solar power if its used correctly and integrated properly with other uses.

  14. dhm60

    Even considering nuclear energy’s still unresolved waste issues, the choice boils down to this fairly cold-blooded calculation:

    Is the any point in worrying about what to do with a ten thousand tonne pile of glowing plutonium (with a half-life 21,400 years) when the planet could reach an out of control and uninhabitable +7C environment in 200? A future is almost guaranteed if we keep burning coal and gas at our current pace. So……

    Thanks to decades of insane time wasting by “our” policy makers and their fossil fuel allies around the planet; nuclear has now become an unavoidable option. Renewables, it pains me, a long-term advocate for renewables, to say; are nowhere ready – neither are the smart grids that renewable’s supply variability dictate. (Watch the totally isolated Western Australian grid’s rush to try and adapt to its 100% renewable supply target here: http://www.wa.gov.au/organisation/energy-policy-wa)

    The cooling, build, cost and time issues of large, water-cooled nuclear plants are well known and increasingly unacceptable; so a global fleet of salt-cooled SMRs seems inevitable. Be they dangerous or not; a choice based on safety has past us by. As the panic of what a 2C, 3C, 4C future actually looks like, sets in, necessity will, increasingly, dictate nuclear path because

    Is the any point in worrying about what to do with a ten thousand tonne pile of glowing plutonium (with a half-life 21,400 years) when the planet could reach an out of control and uninhabitable +7C environment in 200?

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