The Manhattan Contrarian:
With war raging in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, there is a renewed concern in many quarters for “energy independence.” Until recently, the sophisticated countries of Europe had thought the whole idea to be passé. They built large numbers of wind turbines and solar arrays, while simultaneously banning fracking for natural gas and shuttering electricity plants that used coal and even those that used no-carbon nuclear. Suddenly, at the very worst possible time, they found themselves completely dependent on Russian gas for heat and reliable electricity. In the U.S. it’s not nearly so bad (yet), but the combination of the Ukraine invasion with the Biden administration’s resumption of Obama’s war on fossil fuels has also left the U.S. vulnerable to an oil and gas price spike on world markets, whose supply side has been artificially reduced by government hostility to production of fossil fuels.
So what’s the answer? If you are a member in good standing in American media/academia/environmentalist/Democratic Party society, the answer is obvious: Just build more wind turbines and solar arrays until you have enough. These facilities will count as “domestic” electricity generation, and therefore will quickly lead to “energy independence.” What could be easier?
So permit me to say the blindingly obvious: No amount of incremental wind and solar power can ever provide energy independence. Electricity gets consumed the instant it is generated. Electricity is consumed all the time, and therefore must be generated all the time. Indeed, some of the peak times for electricity consumption occur on winter evenings, when the sun has set, temperatures are very cold, the wind is often completely calm, and the need for energy for light, heat, cooking and more are high. During such times, a combined wind and solar generation system produces zero power. It doesn’t matter if you build a thousand wind turbines and solar panels, or a million, or a billion or a trillion. The output will still be zero.
And calm winter nights are just the most intense piece of the problem. A fully wind/solar generation system, with seemingly plenty of “capacity” to meet peak electricity demand, will also regularly and dramatically underproduce at random critical times throughout a year: for example, on heavily overcast and cold winter days; or on calm and hot summer evenings, when the sun has just set and air conditioning demand is high.
And thus it is time for a roundup of recent calls for massive building of wind and solar facilities in order to achieve energy independence.
From UK think tank Carbon Tracker, March 2: “It makes no sense to lock countries into fossil fuel dependent power grids over the medium term, . . . . Instead, Europe could rapidly reduce its reliance on Russian gas (and fossil fuels more broadly) by accelerating the implementation of . . . investments in renewable energy technologies as well as focusing on energy efficiency measures.”
From Sammy Roth at the LA Times, February 26: “[D]oubling down on oil and natural gas isn’t the answer [to dependence on Russia], some security experts say — and neither is energy independence. The war in Europe adds to the urgency of transitioning to clean energy sources such as solar and wind power that are harder for bad actors such as Russia to disrupt, those experts say.” (The article primarily relies on an “expert” named Erin Sikorsky of the Center for Climate and Security.)
From MarketWatch, February 26: “As grim as the reality of a conflict in Ukraine may be, economically, it may serve as a major catalyst for Europe’s decarbonization efforts, forcing governments to invest in earnest in greater zero-emissions renewable energy sources and the electrification of cars and homes. Doing so could secure energy independence from a Vladimir Putin-led Russia that’s proving to be a greater security threat by the day, say green-energy proponents and other global market-watchers.”
From Energy Monitor, March 7, reporting on statements from two think tanks called Ember and E3G: “Policies to further accelerate the roll-out of solar and wind power, and therefore reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, will not have any impact in the immediate term. ‘But renewables growth can be much higher than planned from 2024–25 onwards, provided the policy framework is put in place right now,’ says Moore [of Ember]. . . . In a briefing whose release coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the think tank E3G also advocates a ‘fast expansion of renewable energy and interconnections for the power sector”, which aims at “reducing structural gas dependence for system balancing.’”
From Scientific American, March 9, reporting on a statement from Frans Timmerman, chief “climate” official of the European Union: “The [EU’s] plan lends support to a package of legislation that aims to cut Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent by 2030, and it would also ease European concerns over its energy security, said E.U. climate chief Frans Timmermans. ‘Renewables give us the freedom to choose an energy source that is clean, cheap, reliable and ours,’ he told reporters yesterday.”
There is essentially an infinite supply of such completely ignorant statements out there on the internet if you choose to spend some time collecting them. The quoted statements and dozens or hundreds more of same just blithely assume, or assert without basis, that sufficient numbers of wind turbines and solar panels can liberate us from fossil fuels, without ever mentioning or discussing the issue of energy storage.
Continuing with what is completely obvious but unmentionable in polite society: Since combined wind and solar power facilities regularly produce no power at all when it is most needed, a wind and solar generation system will either be (1) dependent on fossil fuel backup, or (2) dependent on storage for backup, or (3) both. If it is taken as given that the whole idea is to move away from fossil fuel backup, then everything comes down to storage. A fossil-fuel-free system based on wind and solar generation is completely useless without sufficient storage to cover all times of insufficient simultaneous generation.
To propose energy independence based on wind and solar without fossil fuels, you must, repeat must, address storage. How much is needed? How much would that cost? What loss of energy will be incurred on the turnaround between charge and discharge? Is the cost feasible? How long must the energy be stored between generation and consumption? Do batteries or other storage devices exist that can store energy for such a period without most or all of it draining away? Has there ever been a demonstration of the feasibility of a fossil-fuel-free system based only on wind, solar and storage?
Try to find any mention of these issues in any of the pieces linked above, or in any of the many others you might find advocating more wind and solar facilities as the solution to dependence of Russian gas supplies. As to the feasibility and cost of a wind/solar generation system without fossil fuel backup, consider prior Manhattan Contrarian posts from February 1 here, and January 22 here.