Energy & Environment

Renewables are incapable of replacing hydrocarbons at scale

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Conspicuously missing from public chatter about the climate issue is recognition of the staggering costs and likely insurmountable engineering challenges of these grand plans to decarbonize human society within several decades.

{mosads}Policymakers intent on imposing a swift end to the era of fossil fuels, such as President Obama and Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are either unaware or indifferent to the colossal scale, futility and economic risks of a forced transition from energy-dense fossil fuels to the relatively diluted renewable energy sources (wind, solar and biomass).

The U.N. pact sealed in Paris, as well as the climate goals of the EU, California and the White House, assume that carbon dioxide emissions — a ubiquitous byproduct of human activity — can be reduced 95 percent by 2050.

For a dose of reality, consider master energy number-cruncher Vaclav Smil’s estimate of a cost approaching $2.5 trillion to build enough new wind and solar facilities in the United States to replace the 1,100 gigawatt (GW) generating capacity of our fossil-fueled electric system. And couple that colossal sum with another $2 trillion in capital assets now imbedded in fossil-fueled generating hardware and related infrastructure. With a national debt of $19 trillion that is increasing $2 trillion a year, an anemic economy and a shrinking middle class, how can taxpayers afford to subsidize such wasteful projects?

The viability of plans to power our energy-intensive society exclusively with renewables is defied by simple arithmetic and basic physical laws. Yet, policies to avoid dangerous global warming all assume that a mass deployment of renewable energies can replace fossil fuels and still provide abundant, affordable and diverse energy services on which modern societies are utterly dependent. The climate scientists and policy wonks who developed these energy plans remain oblivious to what is increasingly obvious to the engineers who make such things work. As the engineers tasked by Google to develop a realistic, affordable plan to decarbonize concluded: Renewables are a false hope that simply won’t work.

Michael Kelly, Prince Philip Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University and member of Britain’s Royal Society, notes: “If the climate scientist community was to learn that engineering will not be able to 80% mitigate CO2 emissions by 2050 without inflicting massive harm on the global economy and mankind in general, it might improve the quality of the public debate.” Renewable energy from wind, sunshine and biomass are inherently ill-suited to replace the energy service now handily delivered by coal, natural gas, oil and uranium. Renewables are inherently diffuse and uncontrollable in energy content and power density, while fossil fuels are highly concentrated, reliable and versatile.

Over the last decade, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to subsidize aggressive installation of renewable facilities in Europe and the United States. Yet, the share of energy contributed by wind and solar farms remains minute. In 1990, wind and solar energies accounted for 0.45 percent of global primary energy. In 2010, after deployment of thousands of wind turbines, the renewable share rose only to 0.75 percent of the energy pie. By 2014, the renewable share rose only to 1 percent — barely a dent in the world’s energy mix still dominated by fossil fuels contributing 85 to 90 percent of global energy. In spite of 20 years of subsidy, lavishly amplified over the last seven years by the president’s almost $800 billion stash of stimulus funds, wind and solar in the U.S. supplied slightly less than 2 percent of energy consumption in 2013.

As a generating system, renewables cannot claim zero-carbon status. Wind and sunshine may be carbon-free, but they require more hardware to generate electricity than energy-dense fossil fuels. As Professor Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University notes: “Although a present natural gas-fired combined-cycle plant uses about 3 metric tons of steel and 27 cubic meters of concrete per average megawatt electric, a typical wind-energy system uses 460 metric tons of steel and 870 cubic meters of concrete.”

Because wind and solar are intermittent and unpredictable, it takes two to three units of wind generating capacity to replace one unit of capacity from reliable fossil fuels. Renewable advocates tout the “installed capacity” of wind or solar — a measure of the maximum sustained output of electric power from a given facility. They typically omit, however, the far lower numbers for “capacity factor” — a measure of actual generating performance. Coal and nuclear plants can generate electricity all night long, any time of the year. Wind- and solar-fueled electric generation obviously cannot do so.

For this reason, intermittent renewables are parasitic on back-up power from reliable fossil fuels — a hidden but highly expensive inefficiency. With years of experience in Europe, the EU estimates the average capacity factor for wind at only 20 percent. For the United States, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) assigns a capacity factor of 90 percent for nuclear power plants, 60 to 70 percent for coal plants and 30 percent for wind facilities.

The much larger spatial requirements for wind and solar generating facilities — covering areas thousands of times larger than needed for hydrocarbon or nuclear fueled plants — do not bode well for using renewables to power huge cities or to preserve natural ecosystems. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan envisions new wind farms that would cover 7 million acres of the U.S., but they would only meet a small fraction of total electric demand.

Living generations are the first beneficiaries of a vast energy system developed across the world over the last century. The components of this system number in the tens of thousands. Mines, oil and gas wells, pipelines, transmission and distribution lines, electric grids, fuel terminals, ports, trains, trucks, tankers, fueling stations, extraction hardware, processing and refining facilities, power plants, petrochemical manufacturing: This energy infrastructure is all designed around fossil fuels. The system is present in all prosperous countries and developing countries long to replicate such infrastructure.

Prevailing climate policies presume we will simply abandon fossil fuels and the existing energy system. Mass operation of renewables would demand that extensive new infrastructure be designed to concentrate the diffused energy in contrast to the current system designed to diffuse the energy in fossil fuels.

As Lewis Page notes in The Register:

Far from achieving massive energy savings, which most plans for a renewable future rely on implicitly, we would end up needing far more energy, which would mean even more vast renewable farms — and even more materials and energy to make and maintain them and so on. The scale of the building would be like nothing ever attempted by the human race.

A wholesale shift from hydrocarbons to renewables presage energy scarcity and exorbitant price, as has already occurred in Germany and the U.K. As Smil reminds us, “Any rapid substitution by low power renewable densities is illusory without dismantling existing urban societies,” and such is the path on which developed world has now set itself.

The climate crusaders need to listen from the engineers and to be upfront about the scale, risks, costs and likely futility of grand green plans. Economy-wide impacts and human pain are already palpable in European countries, whose officials are nonetheless determined to pursue even more draconian climate goals like prohibiting vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine!

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has stayed the legal fate of EPA’s Clean Power Plan likely for a couple of years, the wind industry is accelerating installation of renewable facilities owing to the multi-year extension of renewable subsidies approved by Congress in the spending package for 2016. Likely a political tradeoff for repealing the 40-year ban on oil exports, the subsidies for wind and solar mask what the engineers have revealed.

Without subsidies, renewable systems could find useful niches, but if they are deployed as a means of replacing fossil fuels, they simply won’t work. Just ask the almost 1 million households in Germany that no longer can afford electricity at rates three times higher than the average U.S. rate.

White joined the Texas Public Policy Foundation in January 2008. She is a distinguished senior fellow-in-residence and director of the Armstrong Center for Energy & the Environment. She is the author, with Steve Moore, of the forthcoming “Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy,” (Regnery Publishing, May 2016).

Tags Fossil fuel Gina McCarthy Renewable energy Solar power Wind power

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