Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Need for Serious Analysis of Wind and Solar in the Future

Carbon mitigation is essential to limit any detrimental significant damage to the environment and by extension human civilization. However, carbon mitigation requires intelligent planning and forethought not a simple scratch-the-surface methodology buttressed by good intentions and hope. Sadly most of the individuals that place significant hope in a vast deployment of solar and wind power behave in this very manner when it comes to the incorporation and maintenance of such an idea. The hard questions are either outright ignored with a sporadic scolding of those asking along with labeling as ‘anti-renewable’ or ‘anti-Earth’ or these questions are addressed through the use of inappropriately isolated or small examples, which only brush the outside of the core inquiry. What follows is a group of questions that everyone who supports the massive deployment of solar and wind power in the eventual representation of over 80+% of energy consumption should be able to answer in nauseating detail and specifics in order to justify the legitimacy of their beliefs that such widespread deployment is the appropriate strategy.

As France is the model country for nuclear power, many solar proponents are looking towards Germany as the model country for solar power [of course the solar strategy embarked on by Germany has always been confusing due to the below average capacity ratings (5-20%)]. In addition, due to political pressure, Germany as also begun to rapidly decommission existing nuclear power plants before eliminating coal power plants. While combining the loss of the trace emission nuclear plants with the below average capacity of solar power make little sense in a centralized power structure, solar proponents that support Germany have quickly sought to explain this behavior with the contention that Germany is exploring decentralization of their electricity grid, which requires the elimination of baseload in favor of load following plants to augment the energy from renewables.

The problem with decentralization is that no one has actually explained why it is superior to a centralized system consisting of nuclear and/or enhanced geothermal system baseload. The two immediate looming problems in a decentralized system is first based on economic theory the overall costs of such a decentralized system greatly exceeds a centralized system largely due to the increased transport costs (multiple build sites versus one) and adjustment for terrain inefficiencies resulting in redundant builds. Second, intermittent energy sources (solar and wind) require storage backup, but in a decentralized model this storage backup can lack multi-modal storage inputs, thus it would demand more redundancies in the system, which would further increase costs.

So those individuals that support a decentralized model of energy need to demonstrate the justifications for the incredible increase in costs over a centralized model governed by nuclear or enhanced geothermal as well as document how effective storage systems for each decentralized unit will be developed as it is assumed that individuals would want on-demand electricity availability.

Another potential problem that solar proponents avoid is the relationship between solar radiation management geo-engineering and solar energy. Most solar proponents would suggest that this confliction is irrelevant because it would be dangerous to undertake solar radiation management based geo-engineering methodologies. Unfortunately the slow global response to carbon mitigation increases the probability that solar radiation management techniques need to be utilized despite questions of uncertainty. For example at the moment global temperatures have increased approximately 0.9 degrees C. If one believes the conclusions of Dr. James Hansen, one of the grandfathers of climate science, this temperature increase only represents approximately 50% of the anticipated warming associated with the concentration increases of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due a two tiered (one slow and one fast) feedback effect. Thus, another 0.8-1 degree C temperature increase is expected in the future even if carbon emissions were reduced to generate a net mass balance difference of 0 tomorrow (basically the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere equaled the amount of carbon removed by carbon sinks).

At this moment expecting such a result is completely unrealistic and most individuals believe global emissions will continue to rise, largely due to the growth in China, India and Brazil and mitigation resistance from more developed countries like Canada and the United States; therefore, it would be reasonable to add at least another 0.8-1 degree C temperature increase to the 0.9 that has already occurred and the 0.8-1 that is already expected for a total increase of 2.5 – 2.9 degree C. Working from existing information and behaviors this is the best possible case for warming at the moment. Even this ‘best-case’ will place significant strain on both the environment and society that solar radiation management geo-engineering strategies will more than likely be needed.

Due to the fact that all solar radiation management techniques will reduce the volume or intensity of solar energy striking the earth what strategies do solar proponents have that will address how this reduction will influence available solar energy and electricity when solar consists of 40+% of the grid as dreamed of by solar proponents? As discussed above, simply saying that it will not happen is not a viable strategy because logic dictates that it probably will happen.

The most important issue that solar and wind supporters refuse to address is the realistic long-term shortage of rare earths, which depending on the type of rare earth will either result in higher mining and building costs or the inability to construct the particular renewable source. It is surprising that solar and wind proponents do not address the central question of whether or not enough materials even exist to construct their desired trace emission energy infrastructure. This reluctance implies either ignorance to the fact that rare earth supply is actually an issue or fear as answering the question of rare earths will lead to an answer that will not be liked. Look at this blog post for an excellent place to understand the rare earth issue.

Returning to one of the central problems with the arguments of solar and wind proponents is a matter of scale relative to intermittence. It stands to reason that wind and solar supporters are tired of hearing about intermittence as a problem, but that characteristic is the greatest weakness of solar and wind power. Sadly the more pressing problem almost seems to be the way proponents are responding to this weakness with inappropriate exaltations of very small and sheltered proof-of-concept test storage plants like Gemasolar (19.9 MW). No realistic individual can conclude that an effective solar infrastructure can be developed by building millions of 20-50 MW solar plants, thus these small proof-of-concept plants cannot be touted as the solution to the intermittence problem.

Another problem pertaining to intermittence is transmission loss. In a more centralized model for solar and wind power generation a vast majority of the production occurs in low population areas, which will result in meaningful transmission losses. Unfortunately for the most part the extent of these losses is unclear. Thus solar and wind proponents need to understand how the scale and nature of these losses of these low population infrastructure plans they have devised are appropriate.

For example all three types of plants (baseload, load-following and peak) operate on a general level of consistency based on usage trends. However, they are able to do so because they are dispatchable in various ways whereas wind and solar are not. Thus, transmission losses may provide more influence to wind and solar transfer versus current sources because those losses are more sporadic and non-linear than the more linear losses of baseload plants. Within the vein of transmission loss is the unfortunate crutch of a smart grid. While the full incorporation of a smart grid would be great, too many renewable proponents view it as inevitable and as a panacea for all intermittence and transmission problems, which it is not on both accords. Thus, renewable proponents must make contingency plans in case smart grids do not emerge in the ubiquitous nature solar and wind proponents dream.

Another big problem for proponents is storage, but not in the limits maximums demonstrated so far, but the demands that will be required. One must recall that the storage components to these plants start empty and need to be charged. Clearly this charge comes from surplus generated by the system. Most proponents believe that this surplus will be widely available, but there is a concern that these proponents are misleading themselves because their conclusions come based on observations of the existing energy infrastructure where significant overage is created by solar and wind sources due to existing fossil fuel baseload. However, if that fossil fuel baseload is removed then the probability for surplus is dramatically reduced. Therefore, in a trace emission energy world heavy redundancy of solar and wind constructions will be required to ensure sufficient storage during the ‘bleaker’ times. The concern is that not only will this excess redundancy increase costs, but is it even possible to construct due to rare earth shortages?

For example suppose renewables are to replace 500 MW from a baseload plant. If renewable sources function at an average capacitance of 25% with a 100% penetration one would initially suggest more than 500 MW of name-plate capacity is required (probably somewhere between 750-850 MW) to effectively cover the replaced baseload amount. Unfortunately the unpredictability of intermittence along with the maximum ceilings on storage elements (due to cost even if a surplus of 124 MW may exist over the period of a month only 50 MW may be available for storage) will demand that an even greater redundancy be developed to ensure available electricity. Basically if one could plan out all weather over the course of a year and how much electricity would be demanded every minute or so over that year then redundancy would be more controllable, but because this is not the case more source is required to cover the uncertainty.

Some proponents argue that biomass based energy, which can be better controlled, will act as a counterweight limiting the amount of redundancy required. The problem is that individuals who make this argument do not discuss how a steady supply of biomass will be cultivated over years and years because most of the biomass supply utilizes land that will compete or complicate food production. For example one idea is to use grain and forest residues because no animals consume them, but people forget about bacteria and how the bacterial-based decomposition of these residues aid soil quality; take away these residues and soil becomes more exposed to water and wind erosion in addition to being stripped of nutrient rejuvenation.

Wind and solar proponents largely have a problem with details and specifics when it comes to their ideas for a future trace infrastructure governed principally by these two generating sources. When planning for the future the details need to rival that of the Sistine Chapel not ‘Connect the dots to see an outline of an elephant’. The two biggest problems seem to be that most proponent tie cost, name-plate and storage estimations of wind and solar to the present system with fossil fuel baseload instead of the future system where fossil fuels and (for most of them nuclear) will not be contributing to the energy mix. Also proponents have not appropriately addressed the availability of rare earths both from a cost structure and a simple supply amount. Part of this problem is that rare earths that are used in wind turbines and solar cells are not exclusive to these elements, but are also utilized in other commercial products. The looming potential of solar radiation management strategies is also ignored in general under the increasingly less realistic belief that they will never be utilized.

Overall wind and solar proponents need to start getting serious when it comes to the details and future planning of their intended energy infrastructure; just looking at Germany and saying ‘that’s the model’ is not good enough because the German system is not mature or independent enough to warrant it as a model.

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