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A Detailed Look at Renewable Baseload Energy

Posted on 25 June 2011 by Mark Diesendorf, dana1981

The myth that renewable energy sources can't meet baseload (24-hour per day) demand has become quite widespread and widely-accepted.  After all, the wind doesn't blow all the time, and there's no sunlight at night.  However, detailed computer simulations, backed up by real-world experience with wind power, demonstrate that a transition to 100% energy production from renewable sources is possible within the next few decades.

Reducing Baseload Demand

Firstly, we currently do not use our energy very efficiently.  For example, nighttime energy demand is much lower than during the day, and yet we waste a great deal of energy from coal and nuclear power plants, which are difficult to power up quickly, and are thus left running at high capacity even when demand is low.  Baseload demand can be further reduced by increasing the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings.

Renewable Baseload Sources

Secondly, some renewable energy sources are just as reliable for baseload energy as fossil fuels.  For example, bio-electricity generated from burning the residues of crops and plantation forests, concentrated solar thermal power with low-cost thermal storage (such as in molten salt), and hot-rock geothermal power.  In fact, bio-electricity from residues already contributes to both baseload and peak-load power in parts of Europe and the USA, and is poised for rapid growth.  Concentrated solar thermal technology is advancing rapidly, and a 19.9-megawatt solar thermal plant opened in Spain in 2011 (Gemasolar), which stores energy in molten salt for up to 15 hours, and is thus able to provide energy 24 hours per day for a minimum of 270 days per year (74% of the year). 

Addressing Intermittency from Wind and Solar

Wind power is currently the cheapest source of renewable energy, but presents the challenge of dealing with the intermittency of windspeed.  Nevertheless, as of 2011, wind already supplies 24% of Denmark's electricity generation, and over 14% of Spain and Portugal's.

Although the output of a single wind farm will fluctuate greatly, the fluctuations in the total output from a number of wind farms geographically distributed in different wind regimes will be much smaller and partially predictable.  Modeling has also shown that it's relatively inexpensive to increase the reliability of the total wind output to a level equivalent to a coal-fired power station by adding a few low-cost peak-load gas turbines that are opearated infrequently, to fill in the gaps when the wind farm production is low (Diesendorf 2010).  Additionally, in many regions, peak wind (see Figure 4 below) and solar production match up well with peak electricity demand.

Current power grid systems are already built to handle fluctuations in supply and demand with peak-load plants such as hydroelectric and gas turbines which can be switched on and off quickly, and by reserve baseload plants that are kept hot.  Adding wind and solar photovoltaic capacity to the grid may require augmenting the amount of peak-load plants, which can be done relatively cheaply by adding gas turbines, which can be fueled by sustainably-produced biofuels or natural gas.  Recent studies by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that wind could supply 20-30% of electricity, given improved transmission links and a little low-cost flexible back-up.

As mentioned above, there have been numerous regional and global case studies demonstrating that renewable sources can meet all energy needs within a few decades.  Some of these case studies are summarized below.

Global Case Studies

Energy consulting firm Ecofys produced a report detailing how we can meet nearly 100% of global energy needs with renewable sources by 2050.  Approximately half of the goal is met through increased energy efficiency to first reduce energy demands, and the other half is achieved by switching to renewable energy sources for electricity production (Figure 1).

ecofys fig 1

Figure 1: Ecofys projected global energy consumption between 2000 and 2050

Stanford's Mark Jacobson and UC Davis' Mark Delucchi (J&D) published a study in 2010 in the journal Energy Policy examining the possibility of meeting all global energy needs with wind, water, and solar (WWS) power.  They find that it would be plausible to produce all new energy from WWS in 2030, and replace all pre-existing energy with WWS by 2050

In Part I of their study, J&D examine the technologies, energy resources, infrastructure, and materials necessary to provide all energy from WWS sources.  In Part II of the study, J&D examine the variability of WWS energy, and the costs of their proposal.  J&D project that when accounting for the costs associated with air pollution and climate change, all the WWS technologies they consider will be cheaper than conventional energy sources (including coal) by 2020 or 2030, and in fact onshore wind is already cheaper. 

European Union Case Study

The European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) prepared a plan for the European Union (EU) to meet 100% of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2050, entitled Re-Thinking 2050.  The EREC plan begins with an average annual growth rate of renewable electricity capacity of 14% between 2007 and 2020.  Total EU renewable power production increases from 185 GW in 2007 to 521.5 GW in 2020, 965.2 GW in 2030, and finally 1,956 GW in 2050.  In 2050, the proposed EU energy production breakdown is:  31% from wind, 27% from solar PV, 12% from geothermal, 10% from biomass, 9% from hydroelectric,   8% from solar thermal, and 3% from the ocean (Figure 2).

EU Renewables

Figure 2: EREC report breakdown of EU energy production in 2020, 2030, and 2050

Northern Europe Case Study

Sørensen (2008) developed a plan through which a group of northern European countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Germany) could meet its energy needs using primarily wind, hydropower, and biofuels.  Due to the high latitudes of these countries, solar is only a significant contributor to electricity and heat production in Germany.  In order to address the intermittency of wind power, Sørensen proposes either utilizing hydro reservoir or hydrogen for energy storage, or importing and exporting energy between the northern European nations to meet the varying demand.  However, Sørensen finds:

"The intermittency of wind energy turns out not to be so large, that any substantial trade of electric power between the Nordic countries is called for.  The reasons are first the difference in wind regimes...and second the establishment of a level of wind exploitation considerably greater that that required by dedicated electricity demands.  The latter choice implies that a part of the wind power generated does not have time-urgent uses but may be converted (e.g. to hydrogen) at variable rates, leaving a base-production of wind power sufficient to cover the time-urgent demands."

Britain Case Study

The Centre for Alternative Technology prepared a plan entitled Zero Carbon Britain 2030.  The report details a comprehensive plan through which Britain  could reduce its CO2-equivalent emissions 90% by the year 2030 (in comparison to 2007 levels).  The report proposes to achieve the final 10% emissions reduction through carbon sequestration.

In terms of energy production, the report proposes to provide nearly 100% of UK energy demands by 2030 from renewable sources.  In their plan, 82% of the British electricity demand is supplied through wind (73% from offshore turbines, 9% from onshore), 5% from wave and tidal stream, 4.5% from fixed tidal, 4% from biomass, 3% from biogas, 0.9% each from nuclear and hydroelectric, and 0.5% from solar photovoltaic (PV) (Figure 3).  In this plan, the UK also generates enough electricity to become a significant energy exporter (174 GW and 150 terawatt-hours exported, for approximately £6.37 billion income per year).

UK Renewables

Figure 3: British electricity generation breakdown in 2030

In order to address the intermittency associated with the heavy proposed use of wind power, the report proposes to deploy offshore turbines dispersed in locations all around the country (when there is little windspeed in one location, there is likely to be high windspeed in other locations), and implement backup generation consisting of biogas, biomass, hydro, and imports to manage the remaining variability.  Management of electricity demand must also become more efficient, for example through the implementation of smart grids

The heavy reliance on wind is also plausible because peak electricity demand matches up well with peak wind availability in the UK (Figure 4, UK Committee on Climate Change 2011).

UK wind seasonality

Figure 4: Monthly wind output vs. electricity demand in the UK

The plan was tested by the “Future Energy Scenario Assessment” (FESA) software. This combines weather and demand data, and tests whether there is enough dispatchable generation to manage the variable base supply of renewable electricity with the variable demand.  The Zero Carbon Britain proposal passed this test.

Other Individual Nation Case Studies

Plans to meet 100% of energy needs from renewable sources have also been proposed for various other individual countries such as Denmark (Lund and Mathiessen 2009), Germany (Klaus 2010), Portugal (Krajačić et al 2010), Ireland (Connolly et al 2010), Australia (Zero Carbon Australia 2020), and New Zealand (Mason et al. 2010).  In another study focusing on Denmark, Mathiesen et al 2010 found that not only could the country meet 85% of its electricity demands with renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2050 (63% from wind, 22% from biomass, 9% from solar PV), but the authors also concluded doing so may be economically beneficial:

"implementing energy savings, renewable energy and more efficient conversion technologies can have positive socio-economic effects, create employment and potentially lead to large earnings on exports. If externalities such as health effects are included, even more benefits can be expected. 100% Renewable energy systems will be technically possible in the future, and may even be economically beneficial compared to the business-as-usual energy system."



Summary

Arguments that renewable energy isn't up to the task because "the Sun doesn't shine at night and the wind doesn't blow all the time" are overly simplistic.

There are a number of renewable energy technologies which can supply baseload power.   The intermittency of other sources such as wind and solar photovoltaic can be addressed by interconnecting power plants which are widely geographically distributed, and by coupling them with peak-load plants such as gas turbines fueled by biofuels or natural gas which can quickly be switched on to fill in gaps of low wind or solar production.  Numerous regional and global case studies – some incorporating modeling to demonstrate their feasibility – have provided plausible plans to meet 100% of energy demand with renewable sources.

NOTE: This post is also the Advanced rebuttal to "Renewables can't provide baseload power".

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Comments 51 to 100 out of 440:

  1. okatiniko... Whether there are any 100% renewable markets is a rather pointless argument. It's like complaining that no one has ever walked on the moon at the point when Neal Armstrong was in the capsule sitting on top of his Saturn 5 rocket. Like it or not there are a lot of people working on creating a 100% renewable energy grid. There are billions of investor dollars flowing into this effort. You might not think it's possible but those billions of investor dollar are all saying they don't agree with you.
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  2. okatiniko said: "...there is no country with almost 100 % renewable electricity without a large part of hydropower..." Maybe, but that is based on current renewable technologies and grid systems that were designed with large central power stations in mind.
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  3. @dana1981 #22: Carbon is carbon, and carbon is what we put too much of in the air. It doesn't matter whether it was trapped underground for millions of years or not before, it will have a greenhouse effect. So that is why I have to shake my head when people insist that carbon from renewable sources is OK. But I also have to wonder: this article boldly proclaims early on that "a transition to 100% energy production from renewable sources is possible within the next few decades", but then in several examples, shows baseload met only by assisting with gas turbines or the like. So where is the 100%? Finally, we have to beware of generalizations that held up fine in the case of small countries with special geography, but fail when generalized to big ones like the US. Even in Kansas, the wind does not blow all the time, and sometimes it blows too much, risking damaging the wind farms. Has anyone yet made a wind farm that can withstand a Kansas tornado? Likewise for solar: Spain may do fine with molten salt to cover the night time, but countries at higher latitudes, like Canada and Russia will not. And they need to distribute that power over a much wider geographic region while it is available, too. Suddenly, line-loss becomes a significant factor. Did your simulations take all these into account? I can't tell from the article.
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  4. @quokka #31 France sells its excess electric power during the night to Britain, where they store it by pumping water up into towers. Then just in time for morning tea, the British recover the power by letting the water flow down. So although they do not turn down the power as much as you seem to imply, they don't let it go to waste either (except for cross-Channel line-loss), as the article implies for other baseload generators.
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  5. Great summary Dana. Okatiniko's main objection seems to be a dislike of computer simulations which most of these studies did not use, certainly not in the sense of computer modelling. A lot of very smart people spent months and even years working on those studies and they were already critiqued by independent experts before release. So Okatiniko's objections are well... I do agree implementation is the real challenge. That said Germany is going for 80% renewable (no hydro is speak of there) by 2050. Germany is doing it for the economic and tech advantages it will give them. My article on Europe's commitment to renewables for the $$$ Postponing Emissions Cuts Carries Steep Price
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  6. It's also early days for renewables. A mere pittance has been invested in R&D compared the the multi-billions nuclear energy has received from governments since 1950.
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  7. MattJ - there's a big difference between releasing carbon which is already circulating in the natural carbon cycle, and releasing carbon from fossil fuels. As for "where is the 100%?", you answered that yourself. Some of the plans and case studies include gas turbines - which as the article notes, can burn renewable bio materials - and some don't. I have to say, it surprises me how many commenters have a "can't do" attitude.
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  8. "@ okatiniko, you asked which countries had *stable* sources of renewable energy-namely sources capable of producing 24/7 power-" I asked which countries had stable power without hydro or fossil fuel , and Iceland definitely doesn't fits the description since it has also a lot of hydro power. Now don't ask me to prove it is impossible, because I never claimed that. I just said it is still to be proved. Man has walked to the moon, but didn't go to other stars, although many people think it could. This is also yet to be proved. You're inverting the burden of the proof. "The point is that any lack of 100% Renewable Energy has much more to do with a lack of political will than a lack of technical feasibility" And so magically this lack of political will didn't prevent countries like Norway and Iceland to have 100 % renewable energy ? how do you explain that policymakers love water, but not air and sun ?
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  9. okatiniko, I have noticed that no nation without large scale hydro or geothermal power has yet tried to convert to 100% renewable electricity generation. Therefore the notion that there is some inordinate difficulty in doing so is entirely theoretical, and is not based on empirical observations, at least as you judge these things. Therefore, logically your entire opinion on this subject is that you have no opinion one way or the other. One wonders then why you keep flapping your jaws. If perhaps, you have noted that wind power is intermittent and that solar power is intermittent, and concluded there may be some difficulty, that is very interesting, but invokes a different standard of evidence to that which you invoke to maintain your supposedly agnostic position. Allowing the same standard of evidence, we can then note that there are currently operational solar power plants that can operate in hours of darkness by means of thermal storage of energy. Examining the details of current technology, therefore, shows no impediment to 100% renewable electricity. This point has now been raised several times by several people, and you have just ignored it, and restated your original, and irrelevant objection. That sort of response is called "trolling".
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  10. MattJ, as Dana rightly points out, there is a massive difference between CO2 that is part of the natural Carbon Cycle, & the CO2 that was part of a Carbon Cycle from millions of years ago. If a power station is converting more harmful methane to CO2, then its doing us a favor-especially if we also make the effort to capture & re-use some of the CO2 produced as either fuel or electricity. Additionally, if it prevents the combustion of fossil fuels, then this is also a good thing. Obviously I'd rather we rely more on truly zero emission technologies, but I still thing bio-electricity has a place in future energy grids.
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  11. @ okatiniko. At present, most renewable energy around the world is set up strictly with *peak* power production in mind-which is fine when it only makes up 5%-15% of total demand. However, as the proportion of electricity obtained from renewable sources continues to grow, you'll see a switch towards stable base-load capable versions of existing forms of renewable energy. Of course you continue to refuse to even admit that the Geothermal Power of Iceland, Hawaii & New Zealand all meet the criteria of *stable* base-load power...i.e. that it is power that doesn't vary in output regardless of the time of day or night. Germany & the State of Texas are already making moves towards making their renewable energy sources more stable-with Germany switching to pumped storage & Texas switching to Compressed Air. So you see that Governments are already waking up to the Fossil Fuel Industry lie that renewable energy can't generate stable, base-load power.
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  12. Tom#59 since nations having a lot of hydro potential have achieved a 100% or almost 100 % renewable power for years, there is obviously inordinate difficulty in doing that without it, or you can't explain why those deprived of enough hydro power haven't. I know of course that geothermal is stable, also it is not the only criterium : the power generation must be able to react quickly to peak demand, which implies the possibility of extra power generation at moderate cost. Hydro (or thermal fuel) storage makes it possible to adjust the instantaneous power without loss of total integrated production, which is not the case for intermittent energy or geothermal. So you can admit a part of renewables (except hydro), but nobody has ever succeeded in doing that entirely, and again, even countries with a lot of renewable power have still a high carbon intensity. The amount of renewable energy, w/o hydro, has increased in 2010 from 137 Mtoe to 159 Mtoe (source BP statistitical review). That's a lot, but it represents only an increase of 0,1 % of the total share of energy (1,2 to 1,3 %). Obviously if you want to reach 100 % before the total exhaustion of fossil fuels, you need a serious acceleration by at least a factor ten or more. I will start to believe in computer simulation when the increase will reach more than a few % a year .
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  13. "Since nations having a lot of hydro potential have achieved a 100% or almost 100 % renewable power for years, there is obviously inordinate difficulty in doing that without it" Wow, more dodgy logic from the "We Hate Renewable Energy Crowd". The only reason it worked so easily for hydro-power is because Hydro-power provides its own storage, & always has done. Be warned though that even Hydro can run into problems if you have an extended drought. Of course Hydroelectricity has started moving into an age where the need for large storage capacity dams will become a thing of the past. Run-of-the-river & other Small Scale Hydro project means any nation with at least one river could provide renewable energy from Hydro without the need for large Dams. Geothermal power & bio-electricity also provide base-load capacity, & always have done-its now just a matter of expanding the size of these 2 sectors where they're available. As for other forms of renewable energy, they've really only been around since the mid to late 1980's, & base-load storage for them has only become available in the last 10-15 years. So its no surprise that most of them still lack base-load capacity. As I said above though, with various nations expanding their renewable sector beyond peaking capacity, they are increasingly starting to move towards the inclusion of base-load storage in most renewable energy systems. The fact that some Countries are starting to make the move *proves* that its feasible to do so.
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  14. @ okatiniko. I also have to point out that you appear ignorant as to what stable energy supply means. Its not a factor of what percentage of the total is provided by renewable energy-its whether the renewable energy component is capable of providing their energy to the grid almost 24/7-without the need for a back-up. In this regard, several Countries already have stable renewable energy in place, & several other Countries are moving to have this in place too. Of course even Coal & Nuclear aren't always available 24/7, & nor can their output be properly adjusted to fit with demand-which is the complete opposite of most renewable energy systems. Also, as I've pointed out above, what happens if the coal or nuclear power station breaks down for some reason? What if part of the T&D system fails? You could be blacking out an entire Town or City, whereas the loss of a single wind turbine or solar panel isn't going to be as disastrous. The fact is that in spite of your desperate attempts to disparage renewable energy, they're going to be a much better fit within a more efficient & distributed energy grid than Coal or Nuclear will ever be!
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  15. @ Okatiniko I am surprised that no one has raised with you the demonstrated prospects of heat storage associated with solar thermal. Tower power involves concentration of sunlight on a central point where it heats water producing steam used to generate electricity and a substance able to store heat, such as salt. Molten salt is able to retain sufficient heat to produce sufficient steam to produce electricity when sunlight is not available, making it possible to generate 24/7. The problem with solar thermal is not inability to produce base load electricity but to do so at a cost which is comparable with that produced from burning coal. The gap between the two will of course be narrowed by putting a price on carbon emissions and, over time, improving heat storage. Even so, there is some risk associated with solar thermal capacity to produce base load energy over a period of several days of cloud. Hence the need for gas fired back-up or improved storage. In the case of PVC’s, the situation is very different. No sunshine, no electricity. With PVC’s there is a need for greater efficiency in converting solar energy into electricity. While improvements in this area are being made, base load can not be achieved without development of storage capacity which, as pointed out by Adalady @ 30, is being made. Rather than endless and not well informed debate on technological solutions which exists now, it might be more fruitful to consider likely developments which will facilitate significant reduction in use of fossil fuels over the next decade or so. I think those developments will be made and that by 2050 solar will be the source of base load electricity particularly for countries which have long hours of sunshine.
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  16. "long hours of sunshine." And remember there are many structures with extensive roofs which use little or no power for their own purposes for long periods. We don't have to rely entirely on domestic, commercial or industrial roofs for a plentiful supply of power from PV. Schools, sports stadiums, churches and other community facilities have lengthy periods unoccupied or with little demand for the amount of power their large roofs can generate. Schools in particular reduce or cease their own power demand in the late afternoon which precisely matches increasing demand for domestic activities. Even if feed-in tariffs reduce substantially, such organisations could make a reasonable income from power generation as well as cutting their own consumption from the grid.
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  17. [ -snipped-] and although Okatiniko may not have expressed the issues particularly well, there is every reason to turn a critical eye on much of the material in a situation where non-hydro, non-biomass renewables currently supply such a tiny portion of world energy consumption. For me, and I suspect many people, that is simply common sense. It should be pointed out that documents such as the EREC "Re-thinking 2050" are not plans as referred to above. They are scenarios. There is a big difference. Although the EREC document is cited as supporting the claim that renewable energy can provide baseload electricity, as far as I can see, it does no such thing. It hardly mentions variability of electricity production. It just stacks up various resources and makes assumptions about projected growth in each. There is plenty of material in the EREC document to raise an eyebrow at. It projects 90 GWe of EGS (aka hot dry rock) geothermal electricity generation capacity by 2050. Until we see at least something like 500 - 1000 MW of EGS running commercially for a number of years, that sort of projection should be taken with a grain of salt. What could possibly go wrong 4 kms underground in hot granite? EGS theoretically ticks all the right boxes and is a very "likable" technology, but commercially completely unproved. There has been some interest and research for decades, that that is where we are today. Another and probably more serious issue with the EREC document is the huge fraction of bioenergy in their 2050 scenario at ~36% of their projected final energy consumption - more than wind, CSP and PV combined. Is this really where we want to be? How much land needs to be taken over for growing the feedstock? From memory, the Zero Carbon 2030 "Plan" for the UK advocates turning over 80% of the UK's grazing land to growing biomass. One might observe that restoration of some of that land to native broad leaf forests might be a better thing to do. It is not over generalizing to say that there is a tendency to take a cavalier attitude to "energy sprawl" in much of the advocacy for the renewables only line. This is not only a matter of aesthetics and nimbyism - there are also quite real ecological issues involved. But even if it were just a political issue, it still needs to be taken much more seriously. A bit of hand waving about "political will" does not cut it. There is political push back against energy sprawl from multiple sources, including conservationists, and there will be more of it. There is much more that could be said, but the bottom line is that there is much uncertainty in the future transition from fossil fuels. Furthermore the uncertainties come from multiple directions - not only the technologies for energy production, but also from population growth, magnitude and nature of economic growth, especially in the developing countries and claims of realizable energy efficiency. Ascribing unrealistic degrees of certainty to scenarios, and wrongly elevating them to "plans" very much looks like a politically driven agenda to shut out nuclear power. There is nothing scientific or skeptical about this and in view of the multiple uncertainties, the very least that could be said is that it is a high risk path.
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  18. dana1981 Thanks for linking to this article and inviting me to comment. There is much to say. I dislike comments which set lots of ‘homework’ but in this case it’s unavoidable. I’ve split my response up , but I don’t know how sensitive your spamometer is to links so some of it might get filtered.
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  19. 1. Context and scale Let’s start off with a reminder of what it was that James Hansen said in his letter to President Obama (emphasis added):
    Energy efficiency, renewable energies, and an improved grid deserve priority and there is a hope that they could provide all of our electric power requirements. However, the greatest threat to the planet may be the potential gap between that presumption (100% “soft” energy) and reality, with the gap filled by continued use of coal-fired power. Therefore it is important to undertake urgent focused R&D programs in both next generation nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration. These programs could be carried out most rapidly and effectively in full cooperation with China and/or India, and other countries. Given appropriate priority and resources, the option of secure, low-waste 4th generation nuclear power (see below) could be available within a decade. If, by then, wind, solar, other renewables, and an improved grid prove that they are capable of handling all of our electrical energy needs, then there may be no need to construct nuclear plants in the United States. Many energy experts consider an all-renewable scenario to be implausible in the time-frame when coal emissions must be phased out, but it is not necessary to debate that matter. However, it would be exceedingly dangerous to make the presumption today that we will soon have all-renewable electric power. Also it would be inappropriate to impose a similar presumption on China and India. Both countries project large increases in their energy needs, both countries have highly polluted atmospheres primarily due to excessive coal use, and both countries stand to suffer inordinately if global climate change continues.
    With Hansen’s cautionary words in mind, it’s time to start thinking about scale. Here’s Stewart Brand writing on Saul Griffith and the scale problem. Welcome to Renewistan:
    The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy, most of it burning fossil fuels. To level off at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to reduce the fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy, and we have to do it in 25 years or it’s too late. Currently about half a terrawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources. That would mean the following. (Here I’m drawing on notes and extrapolations I’ve written up previously from discussion with Griffith): “Two terawatts of photovoltaic would require installing 100 square meters of 15-percent-efficient solar cells every second, second after second, for the next 25 years. (That’s about 1,200 square miles of solar cells a year, times 25 equals 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic cells.) Two terawatts of solar thermal? If it’s 30 percent efficient all told, we’ll need 50 square meters of highly reflective mirrors every second. (Some 600 square miles a year, times 25.) Half a terawatt of biofuels? Something like one Olympic swimming pools of genetically engineered algae, installed every second. (About 15,250 square miles a year, times 25.) Two terawatts of wind? That’s a 300-foot-diameter wind turbine every 5 minutes. (Install 105,000 turbines a year in good wind locations, times 25.) Two terawatts of geothermal? Build 3 100-megawatt steam turbines every day-1,095 a year, times 25. Three terawatts of new nuclear? That’s a 3-reactor, 3-gigawatt plant every week-52 a year, times 25.” In other words, the land area dedicated to renewable energy (”Renewistan”) would occupy a space about the size of Australia to keep the carbon dioxide level at 450 ppm. To get to Hanson’s goal of 350 ppm of carbon dioxide, fossil fuel burning would have to be cut to ZERO, which means another 3 terawatts would have to come from renewables, expanding the size of Renewistan further by 26 percent. Meanwhile for individuals, to stay at the world’s energy budget at 16 terawatts, while many of the poorest in the world might raise their standard of living to 2,200 watts, everyone now above that level would have to drop down to it. Griffith determined that most of his energy use was coming from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff, along with his diet. Now he drives the speed limit (and he has passed no one in six months), seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. He’s healthier, eats better, has more time with his family, and the stuff he has he cherishes. Can the world actually build Renewistan? Griffeth said it’s not like the Manhattan Project, it’s like the whole of World War II, only with all the antagonists on the same side this time. It’s damn near impossible, but it is necessary. And the world has to decide to do it. Griffith’s audience was strangely exhilerated by the prospect.
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  20. 2. Renewable limits Jacobson & Delucchi’s WWS proposal is a much-cited example of a number of studies claiming that very substantial contributions to the energy mix are possible from renewables. As such, it needs close critical scrutiny - under which it fails dramatically. Professor Barry Brook finds much at fault with Jacobson & Delucchi. Be sure to follow the links in Brook's review to further critiques of by Charles Barton and Gene Preston. Brook is unsparing, and rightly so:
    They make a token attempt to price in storage (e.g., compressed air for solar PV, hot salts for CSP). But tellingly, they never say HOW MUCH storage they are costing in this analysis (see table 6 of tech paper), nor how much extra peak generating capacity these energy stores will require in order to be recharged, especially on low yield days (cloudy, calm, etc). Yet, this is an absolutely critical consideration for large-scale intermittent technologies, as Peter Lang has clearly demonstrated here. Without factoring in these sort of fundamental ‘details’ — and in the absence of crunching any actual numbers in regards to the total amount of storage/backup/overbuild required to make WWS 24/365 — the whole economic and logistical foundation of the grand WWS scheme crumbles to dust. It sum, the WWS 100% renewables by 2030 vision is nothing more than an illusory fantasy. It is not a feasible, real-world energy plan.
    Power transmission consultant Dr Preston is equally sceptical:
    In sum, I do not believe this is achievable at all. Therefore the concept envisioned in the SA [Scientific American] article [summarising the J&D paper inEnergy Policy] is not a workable plan because the transmission problems have not been addressed. The lines aren’t going to get built. The wind is not going to interconnect. The SA article plan is not even a desirable plan. The environmental impact and cost would be horrendous. Lets get realistic.
    A summary of the constraints on a rapid increase of renewables in the energy mix is provided here: Renewables and efficiency cannot fix the energy and climate crises (part1) and (part 2). Brook and others examine the limits to renewables in greater detail in a series of twelve articles here. If you really want to understand why renewables are not going to displace coal from the global energy mix to a significant extent, the above is essential reading.
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  21. 3. Renewable scenarios in the UK David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (full text; html) is excellent, although focussed on the UK. MacKay is an ardent advocate of both renewables and decarbonisation, but a critical reading of his book shows, once again, just what we are up against. Note how conservative MacKay’s still extremely optimistic scenarios look next to Jacobson & Delucchi (2010). You can get a handle on the possible ways the UK might increase the proportion of renewables here, here and here. You can decide for yourself how politically, socially and technically feasible you find the various scenarios. MacKay’s take on the bigger picture is here. MacKay is the chief scientific advisor to the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
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  22. 4. The UK experience so far The UK is already embarked on a huge shift toward on- and offshore wind, mandated by emissions reduction commitments set out in the UK Climate Change Act 2008. We are in the unhappy position of front-row observers as unworkable policy begins to break. For example, there is this:
    2010 Renewables Target Missed by Large Margin The Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) today published an Information Note on the performance of the UK renewables sector in 2010 based on analysis of new DECC and Ofgem data (see www.ref.org.uk). The work shows that the 2010 target for renewable electricity has been missed by a large margin, and confirms longstanding doubts as to the feasibility of this target, and the still more ambitious target for 2020. The key findings are: • The UK failed to reach its 10% renewable electricity target for 2010, producing only 6.5% of electricity from renewable sources, in spite of a subsidy to renewable generators amounting to approximately £5 billion in the period 2002 to 2010, and £1.1 billion in 2010. • Onshore wind Load Factor in 2010 fell to 21%, as opposed to 27% in 2009, while offshore fared better declining from 30% in 2009 to 29% in 2010. • Although low wind in 2010 accounts for some part of the target shortfall, it is clear that the target would have been missed by a large margin even if wind speeds had exceeded the highest annual average in the last 10 years. • The substantial variation in annual on-shore wind farm load factors is significant for project economics, particularly Internal Rate of Return (IRR), and future cost of capital. • Planning delays do not appear to have been responsible for the missed target, with large capacities of wind farms, both on and offshore, consented but unbuilt.* • The failure to meet the 2010 target confirms doubts as to the UK’s ability to reach the 2020 EU Renewable Energy Directive target for 15% of Final Energy Consumption, a level requiring at least 30% of UK electricity to be generated from renewable sources.
    This is the sort of thing that has prompted Professor Roger Kemp to write an ominous letter to the Guardian newspaper (see original for links):
    What is missing is recognition of the scale of technical challenges involved in decarbonising Britain's energy supply infrastructure. The fourth carbon budget said that 60% of new cars should be electric by 2030, a figure far higher than industry's most optimistic projections. The document also planned for gas boilers to be replaced by heat pumps in 25% of houses in the same time. These represent huge engineering programmes where the solutions have to be tailored to households and geographical areas. We also need to rebuild our electricity generation and transmission infrastructure, subject of the CCC's [Committee on Climate Change] December 2010 report. In the next 20 years, the coal-fired power stations, which provided more than half our electricity last winter, will be closed. All but one of the existing nuclear stations will expire. The CCC's plans say that, by 2030, renewable energy should supply 45% of our needs, compared with 3% today. Given that energy infrastructure is designed for a life of 30 plus years, this is a massive engineering challenge. We have not run large fleets of offshore wind turbines long enough to understand maintenance needs; our experience of wave energy is restricted to a few prototypes; carbon capture has, so far, been limited to a few megawatt prototypes, not the tens of gigawatts that will be required. The CCC should be more upfront about the challenges it is creating.
    Professor Roger Kemp Institution of Engineering and Technology And with Diesendorf (2010) in mind, there is more worrying news in this recent study conducted by energy consultancy Pöyry:
    The creation of an offshore 'super grid' and a major upgrade of energy interconnections are not the silver bullet solutions to Europe's energy needs, an independent study published by Pöyry has found. The report has found that the introduction of improved connectivity would only partially alleviate the volatility of increased renewable energy generation. In the North European Wind and Solar Intermittency Study (NEWSIS) Pöyry conducted detailed market analysis of the future impacts wind and solar energy have on the electricity markets across Northern Europe as it heads towards the 2020 decarbonisation targets and beyond. The study also concluded that weather is going to play a major role in determining how much electricity is generated and supplied to home and businesses throughout Europe, with electricity prices much lower when it is very windy, but unfortunately higher when it is still.
    I could, literally, go on all day, but this should give you an idea of the way things are already starting to look rather less rosy than the advocates for wind would have us believe. As I said, we in the UK have front-row seats. You can see very clearly from them.
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  23. 5. Conclusion - Renewables are not the correct choice for the rapid displacement of coal from the global energy mix. - Promoting renewables as the ‘solution’ to global warming is mistaken and misleading. - Advocacy pushing global energy policy in the wrong direction is dangerous. - Studies advocating a substantial expansion of renewables within the energy mix must be subject to close critical scrutiny. - A far better understanding of the limitations of renewables is required for a balanced evaluation of what contribution they can make to progressive decarbonisation of the global energy supply.
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  24. BBD @69, I'm not going to go through all those numbers. Instead, I will introduce a few of my own. You indicate in 72 that energy infrastructure has a life of "thirty years plus". The plus is not to large in that by the time a power station is thirty years old, it requires significant and ongoing refurbishment to remain efficient. So, for the sake of discussion, I will assume an average life span of thirty five years. That means that in 25 years time, 70% of our existing generation capacity will be replaced, or upgraded at a similar cost to replacement. In terms of generation capacity, that is 11.2 terrawatts, or about the capacity that you indicate needs to be replaced by renewables. At this point I don't see why I should bother going through your numbers on scale. Evidently, the scale of the task is similar to the scale of the task of ongoing business as usual. Yes, that is a huge task, but we are a busy, productive, and numerous species, and the task is not greater in scale than any we are not already committed to.
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  25. BBD wrote: "Two terawatts of photovoltaic would require installing 100 square meters of 15-percent-efficient solar cells every second, second after second, for the next 25 years. (That’s about 1,200 square miles of solar cells a year, times 25 equals 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic cells.)" '100 square meters every second, second after second, for the next 25 years' Wow. That sounds bad. Except, of course, there is no logical reason that the installation would have to proceed sequentially. Instead, let's say that 1% of the people on the planet go out and install 100 square meters (i.e. 10' x 10') panels. Let's further say the installation is really slow and takes a full day. ~700,000,000 people / 86,400 seconds in a day = 8,101 panels per second Huh. That one per second thing doesn't seem quite as impossible anymore. '30,000 square miles' and 'Renewistan' Gee. That sounds bad too. Except, of course, that it is entirely possible to put solar panels on the roofs of buildings, over parking lots, on telephone poles, et cetera. Human beings are already using ALOT more than 30,000 square miles of land in ways that could be dual-purposed to also hold solar panels.
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  26. Hi BBD. Thanks for the links, it will take me a while took look through all of those. I tend to focus on what's technically feasible, and I think 100% renewable energy by 2050 is technically feasible. What's practically feasible is another question, the main difference being the amount of effort we're willing to put into the transition, with the range anywhere from zero to WWII-style effort. Practically speaking it's going to be somewhere in the middle. However, I don't see nuclear as the solution either. In the USA, it takes 1-2 decades from conception until a single new nuclear plant is fully constructed, and new nuclear energy is currently very expensive, with costs rising as renewable costs drop. The way I see it, as current power plants age, they need to be replaced with something, and that something should be some form of renewable energy. Current coal plants can also be retrofitted to burn bio waste, as some utilities are already doing. As for land space, there's more than enough desert in Arizona to meet the USA's energy needs, and in the Sahara to meet Europe's. Of course you have to deal with long distance transmission, but I don't think land area is an issue. Plus there's offshore wind power as well. That's a major option for the UK in particular. Will be interesting to see how much offshore wind development your country goes for.
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  27. Tom Curtis CBDunkerson I think you may need to look at the links to Brook's analysis of the limits of renewable energy before diving straight in with an argument based on plant life-cycle or land-use.
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  28. dana1981 Not an auspicious start. You do not so much as acknowledge the core engineering problems with renewables which effectively prevent them from displacing coal as a baseload generation technology. I'm not going further until you go back. One other thing. We are both concerned about what is technically feasible. What are the problems, in your view, with HVDC interconnectors stretching from N Africa to the UK? Further, what are the security of supply issues associated with solar installations totalling the size of Germany sited in N Africa? You are no doubt aware of what is currently happening in N Africa, and it does not encourage confidence in the potential for long-term stability in the region. Furthermore, Europe would, effectively, be at the mercy of whoever had boots on the ground in NA. If this reminds you of the current situation with oil and natural gas, it is meant to.
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  29. BBD - that's because I don't think there are core engineering problems preventing renewables from providing baseload power. That's what this post was all about. Maybe your links provide a convincing case otherwise. We'll see. My point about the Sahara was with regards to the required size of land use. The long distance transmission infrastructure will be a challenge (assuming the proposed project gets off the ground). Security and politics are not technical issues, they're practicality issues. The difference between solar and fossil fuels is that once the plant is built, it simply requires upkeep, as opposed to constant drilling for new fuel.
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  30. I have to say I haven't been impressed from what I read at brave new climate so far. Firstly, he needs to get to the damn point. If I was writing that 2 part 'cannot fix the energy crisis' post, I would have done it in about one-third the number of words in his posts. Just sayin'. As to the content, I think he's way off on the economics. He seems to grossly underestimate the cost of new nuclear power, and I also think he's way off on the future costs of solar thermal. He assumes solar thermal and nuclear power costs will decline at the same rate, but that makes no sense. Solar thermal is a relatively new technology, nuclear is not. I also think he underestimates the opportunities to increase energy efficiency.
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  31. dana1981 Sorry. Abrupt above. #79 You're right, I've conflated security and politics with technical possibility. Let me try again. Security and regional politics are real constraints on what is actually likely to happen. This is absolutely central to coherent policy-making. Including energy policy. Without real guarantees of security for hundreds of huge arrays in NA, presumably in remote desert locations, the Saharan solar pitch falls down. Worse by far, without real guarantees of security for every mile of cable from within NA, across Europe and to the UK, the Saharan solar pitch falls down. A few (possibly suicidal) idiots with some simple explosive could cut the HVDC links at any point. There's no engineering solution. Multiple interconnectors are disqualified both by cost and transmission loss overheads. We have to think about this. The situation in the US is different in some ways, but global strategies for decarbonisation of supply have to acknowledge this and many other problems. #80 Brook's prose style is a bit beside his point, I think ;-) As you say, there is a large amount of linked material. And you need time to read it properly. I don't expect you to mount a spirited critique just yet. Also, that's not the point. I simply wanted to provide a counterbalance to the apparently unquestioned view that renewables are going to solve the energy and climate problem.
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  32. Here's a general idea of how the Saharan solar concept looks on a map.
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  33. BBD wrote : "A few (possibly suicidal) idiots with some simple explosive could cut the HVDC links at any point." And how much damage would those "idiots" cause in a nuclear power station ? More than an invasion of jellyfish ? More generally, why is the UK government cosying up to the nuclear power industry ? Can't nuclear stand on its own, without subsidy and government support all the time ?
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  34. JMurphy I suspect the UK government is cosying up to the nuclear industry because there is disquiet about the emerging problems with renewables (which really means wind, in the UK).
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  35. jMurphy
    And how much damage would those "idiots" cause in a nuclear power station ?
    I take your point, but what about mine: - It is impossible to secure an intercontinental network of HVDC interconnectors - It is impossible to secure a nuclear power station, but it can be made significantly more secure than interconnectors If we are concerned about security of supply, this has to be weighed. We hear nothing about it, which is surprising.
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  36. I also haven't yet seen any discussion of gas turbines, which can provide peak demand power and burn either biofuel or natural gas at relatively low cost. I think that's a key component which seems to be missing, at least from bravenewclimate.
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  37. BBD @77, it was late and I was tired, so I did not go through all the links, nor comment on any but the one post. That post contained some good advise by Hansen, and a stack of numbers use to build up emotional weight, but no analysis. Without analysis of the equivalent production commitments of continuing the current energy mix, or switching to a primary nuclear economy, the numbers cannot be analysis. They can only be an appeal to emotion as a substitute for analysis. So, how do you show the numbers to be just an appeal to emotion? By benchmarking the numbers against our current commitment in construction if we make no switch in the energy mix. Turns out, by a rough measure, the construction commitments are the same. DBDunkerson took a different rout to make the same point. Your numbers were stacked high to deflect thought rather than to aid it. The correct response it to put the discussion into terms of the proportion of world economic resources needed to make the switch, vs those for a switch to nuclear, vs continuing the current energy mix. With cited sources from the peer reviewed literature or other credible bodies. Instead you choose to dismiss our responses because we did not respond to other points you made. Well, all in good time, but your apparent inability to defend your stack of high numbers suggests that actual analysis would not bear out their visceral impression.
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  38. BBD @85, it is also "impossible to secure" an international network of transported nuclear fuel and waste. So, given that, what are the geopolitical risks of the widespread adoption of nuclear power in the third world?
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  39. Natural gas is of course a fossil fuel. What interests me is the full carbon accounting for biomass, which is low energy density/high volume. - Very large volumes of biomass have to be collected (energy intensive) - Huge volumes of biomass must be transported to GT plant sites (energy intensive) EROEI? Because biofuels
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  40. BBD @85, The recent experience in Japan shows that if a nuclear plant is isolated from the grid for as little as 5-7 days it can melt down. How difficult would it be for a determined group of terrorists to cut off a nuclear plant from the grid for a week, and keep out supplemental fuel so the cooling pumps shut down? If a HVDC transmission line gets taken out the only problem is lack of electricity at the destination. That can be fixed much more easily that a melt down in a reactor. How could a reactor be kept from meltdown in a situation like currently exists in Libia? In Japan, even one of the reactors that was not critical when the tsuanmi hit melted down, not to mention the fuel storage pools. I used to be agnostic about nuclear, but the demonstration of how easy it is for a nuclear plant to lose cooling was shocking for me.
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  41. Tom Curtis Are you perhaps a little anti-nuclear? Dr Hansen asks President Obama:
    However, it would be exceedingly dangerous to make the presumption today that we will soon have all-renewable electric power. Also it would be inappropriate to impose a similar presumption on China and India.
    This is good advice. Hansen has previously posed the question:
    However, the greatest threat to the planet may be the potential gap between that presumption (100% “soft” energy) and reality, with the gap filled by continued use of coal-fired power.
    Why do you think he is so concerned about energy policy predicated on the dominance of renewables? Late here, so back tomorrow.
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  42. michael sweet
    How could a reactor be kept from meltdown in a situation like currently exists in Libia? In Japan, even one of the reactors that was not critical when the tsuanmi hit melted down, not to mention the fuel storage pools.
    Some of what you say confuses me, but Fukushima 1 was 40 years old and badly designed. And it still worked fine until hit by a massive earthquake and inundated by the consequent tsunami. Things have moved on since the 1970s. Now I really am going to bed.
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  43. Tom Curtis #88 I'm sorry, I meant to respond earlier:
    So, given that, what are the geopolitical risks of the widespread adoption of nuclear power in the third world?
    What are the geopolitical risks of population growth in the developing world if unchecked by a fall in child mortality? Which we get, basically, through electrification and urbanisation? I'm not trying to over-simplify the problems here. That's the point. Now I really, really am going to bed ;-)
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  44. BBD - remember these gas turbines are just intended for peak load production to fill gaps when renewables aren't meeting demand. I think it's a good intermittency solution. As for transporting biofuels, well there's the same energy issue with coal and even nuclear to a lesser degree. Carbon accounting depends on the source crop. It's a technology still in the relatively early stages of development. As for natural gas, sure it's still a fossil fuel, but better than coal if we need it as a stopgap while biofuels are being developed. Especially since it's just providing peak load, not baseload power (less required).
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  45. dana1981 wrote: "...remember these gas turbines are just intended for peak load production to fill gaps when renewables aren't meeting demand." The SEGS facility in California is designed this way. At 354 MW it is the largest solar plant in the world (though several larger are now being built), but generates just 10% of its power output from the natural gas backups. And that's using 20+ year old technology.
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  46. CBDunkerson SEGS: - 1,600 acres of the Mohave - best insolation in US - Capacity 354MW - Claimed output (unverified) 75MWe - Load factor 21% See the problem? You aren't going to power the planet with solar. It's wishful thinking.
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  47. dana1981 How fast can they spin up? It would have to be near-instantaneous for peak. What about thermal stress on the plant? You seem to think you can go from cold shutdown to operating capacity at the flick of a switch. You can't. What is the mass/joules conversion ratio for the plant you have in mind? How many tons of biofuels will be required, per hour to deliver the specified capacity? We need to look at the numbers now. Thanks - D
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  48. I have just read your article co-author Dr Diesendorf's 2010 paper. If Dr Diesendorf thinks that including the phrase 'Renewable Energy Deniers' in the title adds to the credibility of what follows, he is deeply mistaken. This is exactly the sort of poisonously defensive rhetoric that hardens opposition. It certainly does not persuade. A note: here in the UK, we experience winter anti-cyclones lasting for days. The geographic extent is often the entire British Isles (as occurred during the extremely cold period in December 2010). Wind speed falls below the operating threshold for wind generation over the entire country. The entire of Northern Europe can experience very low wind speeds during anti-cyclonic conditions. This is not rare, nor is it unacknowledged. That's why there's talk of hollowing out mountains to build the level of pumped hydro backup required to manage intermittency and grid balancing when we have 30GW of installed wind capacity. The costing of the proposed massive expansion of wind in the UK energy mix does not include either the very considerable grid extensions necessary (including offshore connectors), nor the humblingly vast sums required to create a huge pumped hydro backup. In fact the whole proposal is viewed by many familiar with the deeply worrying detail as a policy disaster of unparalleled proportions. JMurphy at 84 asked why the UK government was 'cosying up to nuclear'. It's really very obvious if you know what's actually going on.
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  49. dana1981 A more constructive discussion of managing intermittency will probably occur if you can find 20 minutes to read MacKay's chapter on Fluctuations and Storage in Sustainable Energy. This provides insight into why I find the discussion of biofuel/gas-fired turbines as peak handling modules in a proposed baseload renewables plant troubling. What happens when you experience peaking demand during a prolonged lull or a period of intermittency sufficient to deplete whatever energetic storage you have in place? (Please recall that here in the UK at ~52N to62N in a maritime climate, solar is not a reliable alternative to wind, even during daylight hours). The answer is not 'import via grid interconnector'. One of the defining characteristics of all high-renewables energy mix projections is that they are barely capable of meeting peaking demand even with sophisticated and some would argue fairly aggressive demand-side management. All spare capacity is directed into local energetic storage as a hedge against local or regional intermittency/variability. With a conversion loss overhead of ca 30%, let's not forget. The point I am labouring towards is that there is no spare capacity elsewhere. An interconnector is not much help in a world where there is no true 'surplus' capacity. This important consideration is peculiarly absent from discussions of grid interconnectors and intermittency. It's another reason why you will find many in the energy industry privately sceptical - even scornful - of high-renewables scenarios.
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  50. BBD wrote : "It is impossible to secure a nuclear power station, but it can be made significantly more secure than interconnectors." Perhaps, but which security breach would cause more long-standing problems over a longer period of time, especially if you cannot even get near the problem and have to evacuate a large surrounding area, as would be the case with nuclear ? Which breach would be more quickly alleviated ? (Cesium found in child urine tests) I also agree with what michael sweet wrote : If a HVDC transmission line gets taken out the only problem is lack of electricity at the destination. That can be fixed much more easily that a melt down in a reactor. You also wrote : "JMurphy at 84 asked why the UK government was 'cosying up to nuclear'. It's really very obvious if you know what's actually going on." Indeed. Within two days of the disaster, they really 'knew' what was going on when they stated : "We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this. We need to occupy the territory and hold it. We really need to show the safety of nuclear." And, later : "We need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl."
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