A comparison of both the Capital Cost and Energy Production Effectiveness of the Renewable Energy in Europe.
The diagrams below collate the cost and capacity factors of European Renewable Energy power sources, Onshore and Off-shore Wind Farms and Large scale Photovoltaic Solar generation. They are compared to the cost and output capacity of conventional Gas Fired Electricity generation.
- capacity factor: installed nameplate capacity compared to the actual electrical energy output achieved
- capital cost: comparison with the cost of equivalent electrical output produced by Gas Fired electrical generation.
Overall European renewable Energy has almost 6 times lower capacity than conventional Gas Fired power generation and it costs about 16 times more in capital expenditure alone.
In all the capital costs expended by 2013 in Europe amounted to some €1/2 trillion for ~170 Gigawatts of “nominal” installed Renewable Energy generation. But because of the reduced capacity factor, those installations provide ~30 Gigawatts of real output electrical power. That output amounts to only about 2.9% of the total European generating capacity of 1024Gigawatts (1).
In addition Renewable Energy, Wind and Solar power, electrical output is intermittent and non dispatchable. Their output cannot respond to electricity demand as and when needed. Energy is contributed to the grid in a haphazard manner dependent on the weather, the time of day and the seasons. A thorough and very detailed examination of the policy errors and vast expense to the UK in particular can be see at:
Renewable Energy technologies
Onshore Wind power is the most effective form of Renewable Energy in capital cost terms. It is only costs ~9 times as much as conventional power generation. On average across Europe Capacity / effectiveness is ~21%.
Offshore Wind power is about ~17 times more expensive to install but its increased capacity factors mean that it should be significantly more productive than Onshore installations.
Nonetheless as well as the significant additional capital costs, Offshore Wind power appears to have major problems with costlier long term maintenance and questionable reliability (4).
Large scale photovoltaic Solar power is proven to be the least economic Renewable Energy source costing about 34 times more in terms of capital costs, but it usually has reasonable maintenance costs.
On average, in Europe Solar PV provides ~11% of its nameplate capacity.
As well as the impact of cloudy weather Photovoltaic units are susceptible to performance degradation from Ice or snow or obscuration with accumulating dust in drier climates.
Solar power might operate reasonably well at mid latitudes but it is inevitably a poor investment in Northern Europe where yields are low because of their latitude, the adverse weather, the seasons and the daily rotation of the earth.
The cost of the technical Photovoltaic elements of the systems are reducing, but these high-tech elements are becoming an ever smaller part of the final installation. The costs of the support infrastructure and linkages to the grid are irreducible. It is also clear that the service life of solar cells is limited, degrading over time.
System degradation of the DC to AC inverters is particularly significant, they are an expensive element in any solar system with a limited operational life.
An analogy for the Nationally mandated use of Renewable Energy.
By law a family has to purchase two cars, one works well all the time, is cheap to buy, is cheap to maintain and does not cost too much to run but the other is very expensive to buy and only works about 1/6th of the time although the fuel costs very little. But by law the family is forced to use the expensive car if it is working even though it may well let them down at any time. At the same time the cheap car must be kept ticking over using fuel but going nowhere in case the expensive car stops.
Renewable installations by committed European Nations (1)
Major commitments to Renewable Energy in Europe have been made by 15 Nations accounting in total for more than 95% of all European installations.
The mix of major Renewable Energy types in Europe is as follows.
And the extent of renewable installation measured in Megawatts / million head of population in each European nation is shown, with Denmark unsurprisingly just leading with the most intense usage. Denmark is closely followed by the vast commitments made in Germany.
Of these 15 nations only 5 have made the major commitments amounting to more than 80% of all European Renewable Energy installations.
- Germany 37.9%
- Spain 16.2%
- Italy 14.5%
- France 6.9%
- United Kingdom 6.5%.
- Denmark 2.7%
Capacity calculations are straightforward. Published figures from the 2013 version of “The State of Renewable Energies in Europe: EurOberv’ER Report”(1), give the installed base of Renewables Name Plate capacity in Megawatts by country and also their total annual energy output recorded in Gigawatt hours.
The report (1) does not include an output value for Offshore Wind power so an arbitrary but high end value of 30% capacity is used in these calculations.
Annual Gigawatt hours output can be translated to equivalent Megawatts of installed capacity by accounting for the 8760, (365 * 24), hours in the year (2). The reported output over the year converted to equivalent installed Megawatts of conventional generation capacity is then compared with the installed Nameplate capacity to give the capacity rating.
A yardstick of comparative capital costs, quoted in US$, but nonetheless useable for comparative purposes, is provided in the recent US Government Energy Information Association 2013 report table 1 (3). It gives “Overnight Capital Costs” / Gigawatt for each type of Renewable and Conventional Energy. In addition the table also gives comparative values for Operation and Maintenance, including fuel costs, for each type of generation.
The base for these comparisons is Gas fired power generation costing about €1,000,000,000/Gigawatt
“Overnight Capital Cost” is the standard comparative measure for capital costs used in energy industries. The specific Overnight Capital Costs used include:
- Civil and structural costs
- Mechanical equipment supply and installation
- Electrical and instrumentation and control
- Project indirect costs
- Other owners costs: design studies, legal fees, insurance costs, property taxes and local electrical linkages to the Grid.
However and very importantly “Overnight Capital Costs” specifically do not include:
- Remote access costs, which for Renewable Energy in many cases will be very onerous
- Extended electrical linkages to the Grid from remote locations.
- Provision of Back-up power supply, “spinning reserve” for times when renewable power is unavailable.
- Fuel costs for actual generation and the spinning reserve.
- Maintenance, including electrical input necessary sustain wind turbines when idle.
- Financing etc.
These further costs, excluded from “Overnight Capital Costs”, mean that the additional capital commitment for Renewable Energy is certainly significantly more than the simple capital cost comparisons presented here.
Intermittency and Non-dipatchability
The major problem with Wind and Solar Energy sources is that their electrical output is intermittent and non-dispatchable.
Renewable Energy electricity output is unable respond to electricity demand as and when needed. Power is contributed to the grid in a haphazard manner dependent on the time of day, the season and the weather.
The variability of Renewable Energy combined with the “Renewables Obligation”, which mandates that the electricity grid must take high cost energy from Renewable sources preferentially, if available.
Such legislation can easily result in the demand on conventional generation in for example Germany varying widely by about 25 Gigawatts over short periods. In addition it has the effect of making conventional uneconomic so that base load capacity is having to be shut down and lost from the grid.
This variable use of conventional power sources is inherently inefficient and results in wasteful use of conventional fuels and thus an unnecessary excess of CO2 emissions as back-up power must be available full time.
These extra inefficiency emissions can easily exceed any of the CO2 savings made by the use Renewable Energy sources.
The following charts from “agora-energiewende” the show the magnitude of the problem of intermittency and non-dispatchability associated with Renewables in Germany and the UK (5) (6).
Typical 10 day charts for summer and winter in Germany:
The electricity output from wind power can equally be very variable. Electricity generation from wind turbines is fickle, as in the week in July 2014, clearly shown above, where Wind-Power input across Germany was close to zero for several days. Similarly an established high pressure system, with little wind over the whole of Northern Europe is a common occurrence in winter months, when electricity demand is at its highest.
In Germany, its massive commitment to solar energy can briefly provide up to ~20% of country wide demand for a few hours either side of noon on some fine summer days as can be seen in the graph above.
But at the time of maximum power demand on winter evenings Solar energy grid input is nil of necessity. But Solar energy has absorbed ~65% of total German Renewable investment.
In the Summer example in July 2014 Wind Power input varied from 15.5 GW to 0.18 GW and the Solar contribution varied from nil to some 15 GW.
Germany has similar insolation and cloudiness characteristics as Alaska and the UK being even further North has an even worse solar energy performance.
Solar power inevitably varies according to the time of day, the state of the weather and also of course radically with the seasons. Solar power works most effectively in latitudes nearer the equator and it certainly cannot be seriously effective and useful full time in Northern Europe.
A further UK example of the failure of Renewable Energy at a time of peak electricity demand is shown below, the ~11Gigawatt Wind Power fleet contributed just 0.19GW for the actual demand of 53.5GW, or only 0.36% (7). Electrical input from the UK Solar power installations in the same period was nil.
Conversely, on occasions Renewable Energy output may be in excess of demand and this has to dumped expensively and unproductively. This is especially so, as there is still no viable and cost effective solution to electrical energy storage on an industrial scale.
It is for this reason that the word “nominally” is used throughout these notes in relation to the name plate capacity outputs from Renewable Energy sources.
Renewable Energy performance in five European Nations with major commitments
At 37.9% of the total European commitment and at a capital cost of ~€200 billion Germany is the leader of Renewable Energy promotion and installation in Europe.
But comparatively its investment in Renewables has been both the most expensive and also the least efficient overall. This is primarily because of its excessive commitment, more than 50% of its installed Renewables, to Solar Photovoltaic power.
Germany has made these investments in the expectation that that its “Energiewende Energy Transition” policy would make the country a world leader in advances in Renewables.
This optimistic approach is not being justified (9) (10).
Onshore wind power in Germany accounts for ~35% of its massive Renewable investment but about half of its Renewable electricity output. German wind power operates at a relatively low level of capacity at ~18% or even less (17). Unsurprisingly Germany has almost the highest installation of Renewables / head of the European population.
Large scale photovoltaics have cost some ~64% of Germany’s Renewable investment (16). But because of Germany northern latitude and its often cloudy skies, photovoltaics operate with a capacity factor a capacity factor of only ~9%. As a result overall Germany’s renewables operate at an overall capacity factor of less than 14%.
It seems incredible that Germany, a Nation with such great engineering and pragmatic prowess, could have become so convinced about Renewable Energy especially the use of Solar Energy (13) (14) to make such a grossly unwise investments.
In addition Germany, by policy, is withdrawing from Nuclear electricity generation after the Fukushima tsunami. As a result Germany is now installing coal fired generating plant as rapidly as possible to maintain base load power. These new plants burn either lignite, (the most polluting type of coal and CO2 emissive fuel), or ordinary coal.
These plants have no facility for Carbon Capture and Storage, probably because German engineers have realised that CCS in operation is a costly engineering fallacy.
Note: Were it to work at all, Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS, can be viewed as a costly way to throw away comparatively miniscule amounts of useful plant food.
In spite of the fact that Renewable Energy output has grown about fourfold, there has been an overall increase of CO2 emissions from Germany since the year 2010, see graph of emissions / head under France later.
Germany has invested very little, less than 1%, in Offshore Wind Power development and so far its experience has been poor (11), emphasising the technical difficulties of ever making large scale Offshore power fully operational.
Even if large scale Offshore wind power in the North sea were eventually successful there is also a major question about the lack of suitable high capacity transmission lines across Germany from the North to its Southern industrial heartlands (12).
Spain has made the second largest commitment to Renewable Energy in Europe at ~16% of the European installation in total. Even though Spain has a southerly position in Europe, unlike Germany, it has invested in a preponderance of Wind power, (~75%), rather than Solar power.
Renewables subsidies have been a significant contributor to the Spanish financial crisis and that they are now being cut back substantially.
In spite of its long coastline Spain has not invested in Offshore Wind Power.
At ~14.5% of the European total Italy has made the third largest commitment to Renewable Energy in Europe.
Not unreasonably with its southerly location this investment is largely in Solar power ~68%.
It is believed that Renewable Energy subsidies are contributing to the poor financial position of the country. Renewables in Italy are close to being the least cost effective in Europe.
In spite of its long coastline Italy has not invested in Offshore Wind Power.
At 6.9% France has made a significant commitment to Renewable Energy, with about 65% allocated to wind Power.
France already has a lower CO2 output / head than China, (currently at ~75%, less), because of its 85% commitment to Nuclear power electricity generation.
So investment in Renewable Energy would seem to be an entirely pointless exercise as it is unlikely to reduce CO2 output any further.
The French CO2 output level / head at 5.50 tonnes/head is rapidly approaching the world-wide average at 4.9 tonnes/head (8).
In spite of its long coastline France has not invested in Offshore Wind Power.
At 6.3% of European installations the UK still only has a comparatively moderate commitment to Renewable Energy so far. But because of the legal obligations made in the 2008 Climate Change Act, this investment is expected to grow substantially, unless the Act is repealed.
The UK has encountered substantial resistance to on-shore Wind Power and has committed ~30% of its capacity and ~50% of its cost to investments offshore. These high cost installations are subject to the future reliability and maintenance problems of all off-shore wind generation (4).
Solar power is only ~17% of the UK investment and has a low capacity factor of ~8%.
In 2013 The UK was close to the Chinese emissions / head of ~ 7 tonnes / head / annum.
Denmark renewable installations are only 2.7% of the European total, so in terms of total installations it is a minor player.
But as a pioneer, with major industrial commitment to wind power, it has the highest installed base of Renewables per head (15).
Its Wind Power capacity record at 28% is the highest in Europe as opposed to the European average of ~22%.
Nonetheless Danish Renewable Energy is insignificant in saving CO2 emissions, being only 0.13% of current (2013) World CO2 emissions and only 1.14% of total EU emissions.
For its size, Denmark has also invested substantially in Offshore Wind Power.
European nations have already committed massive investments to Renewable Energy, Wind and Solar power.
According to Renewable Energy industry sources, conservatively in capital costs alone, this amounts to at least ~€0.5 trillion but this only provides ~2.9% of European Generating capacity.
Renewable Energy installation costs are about 16 times greater than comparable Gas Fired generation.
By 2013 his investment has resulted an installed Nameplate Capacity of ~169Gigawatts which is capable of producing a “nominal” ~30Gigawatts of electrical Generating Capacity in reality, that is 17.5% of the its nameplate capacity.
As is well proven in France, the most effective way of controlling and reducing CO2 emissions, if it were needed, is by using Nuclear power for electricity generation. CO2 emissions per head in France now stand at ~75% of those in China for the whole Chinese population of 1.4 billion.
At the resulting price €16.87 billion/Gigawatt for Renewable Energy, replacement of the 1024GW European Generating fleet would cost about €17.3trillion, a sum close to the whole annual GDP of the European Union. This capital sum should be compared to an approximate cost of about €1trillion for the replacement of the whole European generating capacity by conventional generation capacity.
But the “nominal” 30GW of Renewable Energy production is not really as useful as one would wish, because of its production is intermittent and non-dispatchable.
These uneconomic investments have been promoted and supported by government subsidies and other artificial government market manipulation.
Without its government subsidy structure Renewable Energy would not be financially viable as a source of electrical energy.
But the expense of those policies has been loaded mainly on the electrical bills of Electricity customers, private individuals or industry:
these policies have already caused very substantial hardship to poorer individuals in European society
these policies are severely damaging the competitiveness of European industries.
(2) Prof David MacKay in “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”, page 334