@MartialData1, @Mining_Atoms, B. F. Randall, Baseload Power, Blake Lovewall, Carbon Credits, Carbon Sink, Dispatchable Power, Fossil fuels, Greenwashing, Grid Stability, Intermittency, Land Use, Martian Data, Nuclear power, Plant Life Cycle, Polysilicons, Renewable energy, Solar Power, Turbine Blades, Wind Power, Zero-Carbon
Just how renewable is “renewable” energy, or more specifically solar and wind power? Intermittent though they are, the wind will always blow and the sun will shine (well, half a day with no clouds). So the possibility of harvesting energy from these sources is truly inexhaustible. Obviously, it also takes man-made hardware to extract electric power from sunshine and wind — physical capital— and it is quite costly in several respects, though taxpayer subsidies might make it appear cheaper to investors and (ultimately) users. Man-made hardware is damaged, wears out, malfunctions, or simply fails for all sorts of reasons, and it must be replaced from time to time. Furthermore, man-made hardware such as solar panels, wind turbines, and the expansions to the electric grid needed to bring the power to users requires vast resources and not a little in the way of fossil fuels. The word “renewable” is therefore something of a misnomer when it comes to solar and wind facilities.
B. F. Randall (@Mining_Atoms) has a Twitter thread on this topic, or actually several threads (see below). The first thing he notes is that solar panels require polysilicon, which not recyclable. Disposal presents severe hazards of its own, and to replace old solar panels, polysilicon must be produced. For that, Randall says you need high-purity silica from quartzite rock, high-purity coking coal, diesel fuel, and large flows of dispatchable (not intermittent) electric power. To get quartzite, you need carbide drilling tools, which are not renewable. You also need to blast rock using ammonium nitrate fuel oil derived from fossil fuels. Then the rock must be crushed and often milled into fine sand, which requires continuous power. The high temperatures required to create silicon are achieved with coking coal, which is also used in iron and steel making, but coking coal is non-renewable. The whole process requires massive amounts of electricity generated with fossil fuels. Randall calls polysilicon production “an electricity beast”.
The resulting carbon emissions are, in reality, unlikely to be offset by any quantity of carbon credits these firms might purchase, which allow them to claim a “zero footprint”. Blake Lovewall describes the sham in play here:
“The biggest and most common Carbon offset schemes are simply forests. Most of the offerings in Carbon marketplaces are forests, particularly in East Asian, African and South American nations. …
The only value being packaged and sold on these marketplaces is not cutting down the trees. Therefore, by not cutting down a forest, the company is maintaining a ‘Carbon sink’ …. One is paying the landowner for doing nothing. This logic has an acronym, and it is slapped all over these heralded offset projects: REDD. That is a UN scheme called ‘Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’. I would re-name it to, ‘Sell off indigenous forests to global investors’.”
Lovewall goes on to explain that these carbon offset investments do not ensure that forests remain pristine by any stretch of the imagination. For one thing, the requirements for managing these “preserves” are often subject to manipulation by investors working with government; as such, the credits are often vehicle for graft. In Indonesia, for example, carbon credited forests have been converted to palm oil plantations without any loss of value to the credits! Lovewall also cites a story about carbon offset investments in Brazil, where the credits provided capital for a massive dam in the middle of the rainforest. This had severe environmental and social consequences for indigenous peoples. It’s also worth noting that planting trees, wherever that might occur under carbon credits, takes many years to become a real carbon sink.
While I can’t endorse all of Lovewall’s points of view, he makes a strong case that carbon credits are a huge fraud. They do little to offset carbon generated by entities that purchase them as offsets. Again, the credits are very popular with the manufacturers and miners who participate in the fabrication of physical capital for renewable energy installations who wish to “greenwash” their activities.
Randall discusses the non-renewability of wind turbines in a separate thread. Turbine blades, he writes, are made from epoxy resins, balsa wood, and thermoplastics. They wear out, along with gears and other internal parts, and must be replaced. Land disposal is safe and cheap, but recycling is costly and requires even greater energy input than the use of virgin feedstocks. Randall’s thread on turbines raised some hackles among wind energy defenders and even a few detractors, and Randall might have overstated his case in one instance, but the main thrust of his argument is irrefutable: it’s very costly to recycle these components into other usable products. Entrepreneurs are still trying to work out processes for doing so. It’s not clear that recycling the blades into other products is more efficient than sending them to landfills, as the recycling processes are resource intensive.
But even then, the turbines must be replaced. Recycling the old blades into crates and flooring and what have you, and producing new wind turbines, requires lots of power. And as Randall says, replacement turbines require huge ongoing quantities of zinc, copper, cement, and fossil fuel feedstocks.
The Non-Renewability of Plant
It shouldn’t be too surprising that renewable power machinery is not “renewable” in any sense, despite the best efforts of advocates to convince us of their ecological neutrality. Furthermore, the idea that the production of this machinery will be “zero carbon” any time in the foreseeable future is absurd. In that respect, this is about like the ridiculous claim that electric vehicles (EVs) are “zero emission”, or the fallacy that we can achieve a zero carbon world based on renewable power.
It’s time the public came to grips with the reality that our heavy investments in renewables are not “renewable” in the ecological sense. Those investments, and reinvestments, merely buy us what Randall calls “garbage energy”, by which he means that it cannot be relied upon. Burning garbage to create steam is actually a more reliable power source.
Highly Variable With Low Utilization
Randall links to information provided by Martian Data (@MartianManiac1) on Europe’s wind energy generation as of September 22, 2022 (see the tweet for Martian Data’s sources):
“Hourly wind generation in Europe for past 6 months:
Installed capacity: ~236GW”
That’s a whopping 17.4% utilization factor! That’s pathetic, and it means the effective cost is quintuple the value at nameplate capacity. Take a look at this chart comparing the levels and variations in European power demand, nuclear generation, and wind generation over the six months ending September 22nd (if you have trouble zooming in here, try going to the thread):
The various colors represent different countries. Here’s a larger view of the wind component:
A stable power grid cannot be built upon this kind of intermittency. Here is another comparison that includes solar power. This chart is daily covering 2021 through about May 26, 2022.
As for solar capacity utilization, it too is unimpressive. Here is Martian Data’s note on this point, followed by a chart of solar generation over the course of a few days in June:
“so ~15% solar capacity is whole year average. ~5% winter ~20% summer. And solar is brief in summer too…, it misses both both morning and evening peaks in demand.”
Like wind, the intermittency of solar power makes it an impractical substitute for traditional power sources. Check out Martian Data’s Twitter feed for updates and charts from other parts of the world.
Nuclear power generation is an excellent source of baseload power. It is dispatchable and zero carbon except at plant construction. It also has an excellent safety record, and newer, modular reactor technologies are safer yet. It is cheaper in terms of generating capacity and it is more flexible than renewables. In fact, in terms of the resource costs of nuclear power vs. renewables over plant cycles, it’s not even close. Here’s a chart recently posted by Randall showing input quantities per megawatt hour produced over the expected life of each kind of power facility (different power sources are labeled at bottom, where PV = photovoltaic (solar)):
In fairness, I’m not completely satisfied with these comparisons. They should be stated in terms of current dollar costs, which would neutralize differences in input densities and reflect relative scarcities. Nevertheless, the differences in the chart are stark. Nuclear produces cheap, reliable power.
The Real Dirt
Solar and wind power are low utilization power sources and they are intermittent. Heavy reliance on these sources creates an extremely brittle power grid. Also, we should be mindful of the vast environmental degradation caused by the mining of minerals needed to produce solar panels and wind turbines, including their inevitable replacements, not to mention the massive land use requirements of wind and solar power. Also disturbing is the hazardous dumping of old solar panels from the “first world” now taking place in less developed countries. These so-called clean-energy sources are anything but clean or efficient.