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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

“Sustainable energy” just isn’t …. well, sustainable

April 25th: At the Vaasa event with Romana Jordan MEP (Slovenia). Very sound on nuclear
I’ve just returned from a flying visit to Vaasa, Finland, with the European Energy Forum.  The delegation was led by Slovenian MEP Romana Jordan.  Vaasa boasts an “energy cluster” of cutting-edge companies in the energy field, and we spent a very solid day with Wärtsilä, a global Finnish company developing and making very large internal combustion engines.  These have been widely used in shipbuilding, where the company has a substantial market share, and has production and assembly operations around the world, including key ship-building nations like China and Korea.
But increasingly, engines of this type are also used for power generation, especially as back-up for wind.  I’d always assumed that conventional gas-fired generation was the natural back-up for wind, but it seems that these machines are also ideal for the purpose.  They can run on heavy or light fuel oil, or natural gas (think shale gas), and on bio-fuels and some oil wastes.  They ramp up rapidly as the wind drops, and can switch instantly — literally instantly, we saw it done — from gas to diesel.
Wärtsilä has made a rational commercial decision to market these machines as back-up for wind, given the commitment of European governments to renewables.  But the message I took away was that wind, as a significant contributor to power generation, absolutely requires back-up.  Otherwise, when the wind drops, the lights go out.  We were shown a series of graphs clearly demonstrating the need for additional conventional back-up capacity in the mix, given the typical pattern of wind speeds.  (We also saw a graph that destroyed the myth of the Greens, that intermittency can be solved with a European super-grid because “over such a big area, the wind is always blowing somewhere”.  No it isn’t.  We saw a graph of aggregate wind output over a month in Spain plus Denmark plus Germany, which showed massive variation day-by-day and hour-by-hour, absolutely requiring back-up).
We are hearing in the media that the cost of wind-generated electricity is coming down, and may reach parity with coal and nuclear (although not gas).  David Cameron, speaking on April 26th, reaffirmed his faith in renewables and called for prices to come down.  “I really believe that renewables can be among our cheapest energy sources in years, not decades”, he said. I mean no disrespect to our Prime Minister, but the level of ignorance and complacency shown by his remarks is truly frightening.
Let’s get back to reality.  If you want wind to deliver, say, a megawatt, you need four megawatts of installed capacity (because the load factor is likely to be around 25%).  But you also need to build a megawatt of conventional back-up, either Wärtsilä’s internal combustion engines, or conventional gas.  You’ve paid the capital cost twice, for the same generating capacity.
But it gets worse.  Whichever back-up you use, it will run much less efficiently when it’s substituting variable wind, than if it ran continuously.  So its output will cost more, and create higher emissionsA couple of recent reports indicated that the emissions saving of wind plus back-up might be trivial or zero.  We’re spending double the money, yet saving little or no CO2.  A Wärtsilä presenter put it well, and I wrote down his phrase: because the back-up would be run occasionally, not continuously, its output in relation to capital investment was “not investment feasible”.  In other words, you’ve got to pay way over the odds on the output of the back-up, because you’re not just buying electricity — you’re buying insurance against the wind dropping.  You’re paying a huge premium for continuity, to prevent black-outs.
Let me offer you an heretical idea: why not just build the back-up, and forget the wind?
Neither government planners nor those who calculate the relative costs of wind and other generating technologies seem to have got a grip on the back-up issue.  Estimates of the cost of wind generation make no allowance for double capital requirements, nor for the enhanced costs of intermittent running.  And our government, while planning that 30% of our generation by 2020 should come from wind, to meet the EU’s risible emissions targets, seems unaware of the back-up issue.
The best answer you get is that “We have lots of gas, so we can use that for balancing the grid”.  But with nuclear power stations phased out with age, and coal-fired power stations being banned by EU regulations, we’ll need all the gas we have just for base-load.  We’ll need 30% extra capacity for back-up, otherwise the lights will go out, and we’re not building it.  This is a disaster in the making.
The huge costs of capital, and excess production costs from conventional back-up run intermittently, will eventually be passed on to business and domestic consumers.  Meantime China and India build cheap coal-fired power stations (no EU regulations there), and America is enjoying a shale-gas bonanza.  Energy intensive industries will simply move out of Britain, and out of the EU, to lower-cost areas.  Renewables will ensure that the UK economy is no longer economically sustainable.  Sustainable energy is not sustainable in economic terms.
Coalition energy policy is a double-whammy.  It will destroy the competitiveness of the British economy, while ensuring that black-outs become commonplace by the end of the decade.  That’s what the Greens call “Sustainability”.