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Sunday, January 1, 2017

CleanTechnica—Does Solar and Wind Really Crush Coal and Nuclear, Promote National Energy Freedom (aka Energy Independence), Improve the Economy?

Although solar and wind will be a major part of future low carbon energy grids, they have their limits. If that were not true, why would we bother with both when we could just pick one or the other? Future low carbon energy grids will be a mix of nuclear, wind, solar, hydro, biomass, etc, with just enough natural gas to stitch the various sources together.

Zachary Shahan begins his article with screenshots of the Lazards 10.0 LCOE study with two vertical lines drawn on it in an attempt to demonstrate that wind and solar are typically cheaper than new coal, natural gas, or nuclear power plants.”

If by typical, he means cheaper regardless of where in the country they might be installed, he’s wrong.

If he meant cheaper only in the sunniest and windiest of places, then obviously, they will not always be cheaper than other energy sources. And even if they were the cheapest regardless of where they are installed, a grid using them would still require several other types of energy sources, more expensive or not, to provide the lowest overall cost to consumers. Be it the mother board in your computer or an electrical grid, some components will cost more than others to provide the lowest overall cost of the final product.

I created Figure 1 below to explain why he is wrong. Hydro, wind, and solar are natural resources and they are not equally plentiful everywhere. Lazards states that the solar prices are only for areas of high solar insolence (the Southwest) and in the case of wind, only where it blows hard enough to use 35% to 50% of rated capactiy (windy places) and that the prices don’t include things like extra transmission lines. Read the disclaimer at the top of Figure 1.

Figure 1: Explanation of the limits of the Lazards LCOE chart.

The author presents (largely incorrect) messages for anyone wanting a better US economy …anyone wanting national energy freedom (aka energy independence), anyone wanting to advance the most cost-effective choices for electricity generation, and anyone wanting to make logical energy decisions ...[to] share with others.”

I would advise anyone reading that article to think twice before sharing it with others for the following reasons:

National Energy Freedom

The author’s “national energy freedom (aka energy independence)” argument was used to support corn ethanol, which ostensibly reduced the amount of oil imported, which made some sense at the time.

But only a percent or so of our electricity is made with oil, not to mention, we are on the verge of being oil independent.  Except for the 4% from wind and 1% from solar and oil, our electricity comes from biomass, hydro, nuclear, coal and gas, none of which are particularly dependent on imports. In short, this argument is utterly nonsensical.

A Better US Economy

The author argues that “anyone wanting a better US economy” should support wind and solar. One claim made to support this is that the combination of solar and wind is replacing coal, which the author says is costing a half-trillion dollars a year in health costs. Three problems:

1.     Solar and wind are not displacing coal (they are displacing natural gas)
2.     Nuclear displaces coal
3.     Wind and solar are not always the cheapest source

Since nuclear has been displacing coal for the last several decades it gets to claim trillions of dollars in averted health care costs.

If a massive transition to a grid dominated by wind and solar will help the economy, what is Germany doing wrong?

From the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, second in command to Merkel, who was also the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 2005 to 2009:

I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden [$30billion a year]...We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it. Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices."

While renewable aid costs are at the “limit” of what the economy can bear, Germany will keep pushing wind and solar power, the most cost-effective renewable sources, Gabriel said.

The most cost-effective choices

Shahan presents two maps generated by “a tool from the Energy Institute of the University of Texas [which he thinks] shows the cheapest kind of new power plant by county, accounting for land available to deploy a particular technology.”

However, he’s wrong about what the maps show. According to the study authors, those maps are only showing “availability zones” which “are locations where we predict where you could build a given technology.”

The maps rely on hundreds of variables. Shahan makes no mention of the values used to generate his maps but I was able to roughly sleuth out which variables were used for his first map and used them for Figure 3 below.

In Figure 2, I show the real map of the cheapest kind of new power plants by county based on the default values put in place by the researchers but I adjusted the cost of gas to $2.65/MM Btu to reflect the average in 2016. Figure 3 has the price of gas double that of 2016.

Note in both cases that the only low carbon sources visible to the naked eye are wind in the Great Plains states and nuclear.

Figure 2: Cheapest Technology In the United States by County Gas at $2.65/MMBtu

Figure 3: Cheapest Technology In the United States by County Gas at $5.3/MMBtu

I have just scratched the surface of this article but I think you get the picture by now. Debunking the rest of it would not be particularly productive.   

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