From the Manhattan Contrarian
May 17, 2021 / Francis Menton
Let’s face it, a lot of people aren’t very good at math, even basic math. On the other hand, some people are pretty good at it. If you’re not very good at math, there are plenty of other things you can do in life. My own area of law usually doesn’t require a lot of math, and there are a lot of people with math challenges who are still very good lawyers.
However, some big societal decisions require a certain level of math skills. Some of these decisions can run into hundreds of billions of dollars or even billions of dollars. For example, consider whether the proposed power generation system X is capable of delivering the amount of electricity a state or region needs and at the times when it is needed. The answer to this question is only a question of the basic arithmetic used. Given the dollars involved, you would think if such a question is answered, it would be time to bring in some people who could do the math, or at least would be willing to try.
However, when it comes to replacing fossil fuel generation with “renewable” generation, the need to believe that renewables work and are inexpensive seems so great that efforts to do the arithmetic are ruined become. I last saw this problem last week in a post titled “California’s Zero Carbon Plans: Can Someone Here Do Basic Calculations?” The answer for the California government’s power planners was a resounding “NO”. Today the Wall Street Journal joins the math-challenged club with a cover story titled “Batteries Call For Natural Gas As America’s # 1 Power Source”. (probably behind the wage wall)
The theme of the story is that “renewable” energy sources like solar power, paired with batteries to make up for periods of low production, are quickly becoming so cheap that they are likely to “disrupt” recently built natural gas facilities:
[T]The combination of batteries and renewable energy threatens to make billions in natural gas investments and raises concerns about whether power plants built in the past 10 years – financed with the expectation that they would run for decades – will become “stranded assets”. Institutions that retire before they pay for themselves. . . . In recent years, however, renewable energies have become increasingly cost-effective without subsidies, prompting more companies to voluntarily reduce CO2 emissions by investing in wind and solar power at the expense of fossil fuel energy.
To underpin the theme, we are introduced to industry executives who are shifting their investment strategies away from natural gas to catch the new wave of renewable energies plus batteries. For example:
Vistra Corp. owns 36 natural gas power plants, one of the largest fleets in America. There is no longer any plan to buy or build anything. Instead, Vistra plans to invest more than $ 1 billion in solar farms and battery storage in Texas and California to transform its business and survive in an electricity industry reshaped by new technologies. “I’m really excited about not becoming the next blockbuster video,” said Curt Morgan, Vistra’s chief executive.
But how does one of these Solar Plus battery systems work? Or how does a wind-plus-battery system work? Can someone do the math here to demonstrate how much battery capacity (both in MW and MWH) it takes to balance a given set of solar cells in a given location so that no fossil fuel backup is required? You won’t find that in this article.
It should be obvious that solar panels anywhere in the northern hemisphere produce less electricity in winter than in summer. The days are shorter and the sun is lower in the sky and therefore weaker. Therefore, any system that consists entirely of solar panels and batteries and where the batteries attempt to balance the system over a period of a year will continuously discharge the batteries from September to March and then recharge them from March to September. Are there any batteries that can handle such an annual cycle of the year? From the diary:
And while batteries can provide stored power when other sources fail, most current batteries can only provide power for a few hours before needing to be charged. This makes them almost unusable in the event of longer failures. . . . Most current batteries can discharge for a maximum of four hours before they need to be charged.
OK, so if Solar Plus battery systems are to displace natural gas systems, what is the plan for the winter? You won’t tell. The fact is, the only possible plans are either fossil fuel backup or trillions of trillions of dollars in batteries. But the author doesn’t mention anything about it. How Much Fossil Fuel Backup? This is an arithmetic calculation that is not difficult to perform. However, the calculation process forces you to actually suggest the characteristics of your Solar Plus battery system, which makes the cost obvious. How much overcapacity of solar panels and batteries do you plan to build to minimize downtime? Do you need a solar module capacity with four or ten times the peak utilization? Do you need an average battery capacity of one week (in GWH) or two weeks or a whole month?
The simple fact is that wind / solar plus battery systems wouldn’t need government subsidies if they were inexpensive. The Biden administration is proposing to spend many, many tens of billions of dollars subsidizing the construction of these systems. They are clearly not inexpensive and not even close. But no one who is able to know is going to do the relatively simple calculations to let us know how much it will cost.
Read the full article here.