The Industrial Revolution and the exploitation of fossil fuels has provided and can still provide an ample supply of abundant energy. Fossil fuels have advanced the quality of of life and the prosperity particularly of the Western world over the past 2 centuries. But there remains a very large proportion of the Global population who are yet to see similar advances in their wellbeing. Nonetheless, in spite of the rapid growth in the Global population there has still been a progressive decline in absolute poverty levels and climate related losses worldwide.
The ambition of having abundant energy is now being impeded by Green Thinking particularly amongst Western Nations trying to demonstrate their “Virtue” by demonising Carbon Dioxide CO2, the gas of life and thus tackling their idea of a putative Climate emergency and promoting the concept of “Net Zero”.
Real CO2 emissions reductions
The use of Weather-Dependent Renewable power generation to effect CO2 emissions reduction is a fallacy, although superficially attractive because the fuel is nominally “free”.
The only seriously effective and well proven solutions to Man-made CO2 emissions reduction at scale are:
- the use of Nuclear energy as in France ~-40% reduction since 1992: France now has CO2 emissions / head lower than anywhere in the developed world and ~15% lower than the Global average.
- the use of Natural gas substituting for Coal-fired power generation as has been achieved:
- in the USA ~-33% since 2000
- as in UK ~-53% since 1990.
But these real solutions to limiting Man-made CO2 emissions somehow always get rejected out of hand by those involved in Climate Change activism: these solutions do not accord with their “Green religion”. For example, the promotion and representation of Nuclear energy has been specifically excluded from the upcoming major Climate conference, COP26.
But the demonstrable CO2 emissions reductions shown above were also achieved by massively offshoring many heavy industries from the Western world. The consequent CO2 emissions from that manufacturing therefore still exist or are increased overall by exporting CO2 emissions to countries with the less onerous environmental concerns.
More recently as a result of the Covid effect in Western nations in 2020 their CO2 emissions were reduced. The Covid emissions reduction effect can be expected to be reinstated in coming years.
Overall since 1990 worldwide Man-made CO2 emissions have increased ~52%, even accounting for the 2020 Covid downturn.
The diagram below shows the proportions of CO2 emissions compared.
Coal-firing results in about twice the CO2 emissions of Gas-firing: this is the origin of the CO2 reductions achieved in the USA since 2000. Biomass producing ~3.6 times the CO2 emissions of Gas-firing is particularly self-defeating. In the UK and Germany this misguided use of imported Biomass has entirely negated any CO2 emissions savings that may have been achieved by the use of all other installed Weather-Dependent Renewables.
Considerations in this post
This post considers the following power generation technologies:
- Onshore Wind
- Offshore Wind
- Solar PV on grid
- Gas-fired CCGT
- Advanced Nuclear
- Coal / Lignite
- Hydro + Pumped.
This post examines the comparison between these power generation technologies from the following points of view:
- Energy Return on Energy Investment, ERoEI
- Mass of installations required for a comparable power output
- Tonnage of non fuel CO2 emissions embedded in various generation technologies for a comparable power output
- Cost comparisons between generation technologies
- Excess expenditures on Weather-Dependent Renewables in Europe.
Energy Return on Energy Invested ERoEI
The abundance of available energy is the source of Man-kind’s advancement and wellbeing, the greater the excess the better. Any power generation technology must return more energy to the system than it takes for its implementation and a great deal more to be truly viable.
ERoEI is the ratio of the Energy output over Energy expanded to create and maintain the generation technology. The diagram below shows the levels of excess energy required to support civilisation. It is generally accepted that any ERoEI ratio for a particular power generation technology less than 7 is insufficient to maintain the minimum wellbeing of Mankind. The greater the ERoEI ratio value above the economic threshold of 7 the better for the provision of abundant useful Energy for the benefit of civilisation and Man-kind.
The authors of these results assume that energy storage is provided by Pumped Storage, the least costly form of Energy storage. However the availability of Pumped Storage is severely limited by local terrains.
All other proposed means of grid scale Energy storage, for example Batteries, are grossly more expensive and can only ever operate for the very short-term. Note that conventional generation technologies at 90% productivity / capacity% have no need for ancillary storage: their back-up energy storage is in their stockpiles of fuel on site or immediately available..u
In effect these results indicate that, even if cost effective storage were available, neither Weather-Dependent Renewables nor imported Biomass can ever produce sufficient useful excess power to support civilisation. Accordingly all Weather-Dependent Renewables and Biomass are parasitic on other sources of power for their utilisation. As they are further imposed upon the power grid they increase the likelihood of Grid failure.
Without accounting for storage to cover the unreliability and intermittency of Wind power both Onshore and Offshore may exceed the economic threshold, (ERoEI 7), on occasions but because of their unreliability they are still comparatively ineffective when compared with conventional generation technologies.
Weight of materials for power generation installations per unit of power output
The weight of the material involved to install generation technologies gives an indication of the necessary scale of engineering enterprise they require. The bulk of the materials involved are concrete and steel: the following comments clarify the reasons for the comparative materials requirement:
- Onshore Wind: requires massive concrete foundations that combined with its moderate productivity results in relatively high materials requirement.
- Offshore Wind: has higher productivity and is not dependent on massive concrete emplacements. However the engineering requirements of installation and maintenance at sea are onerous and costly.
- Solar PV on grid: the low productivity of Solar energy in Europe and the widespread land use of the installations gathering this dilute, diurnally intermittent and distributed power source results in high material usage.
- Biomass: burning Biomass requires similar installation to conventional Coal-fired power. But in addition, it requires installations for timber processing, drying, pelletisation and shipment. This requires more extended installations both locally and overseas wherever the wood products are harvested.
- Gas-fired CCGT: the engineering resources necessary to use Natural Gas as a power source are minor in comparison with other generation technologies.
- Advanced Nuclear: involves more engineering works than classic Coal generation but not as much as Onshore Wind.
- Coal / Lignite: generation installations are similar to Biomass but the ancillary support infrastructure for local fuel sourcing are significantly lower.
- Hydro + Pumped: involves massive civil engineering works for its dams.
Tonnage of non-fuel CO2 emissions embedded in various generation technologies per unit of power output
- Onshore Wind: the embedded CO2 involved is accounted for by their the heavy but essential concrete foundations.
- Offshore Wind: does not require massive foundation but much more steel is involved.
- Solar PV on grid: the high CO2 emissions arise both from its low productivity, (~11%+ in EU(28)) and the excessive CO2 emissions from large scale Silicon chip manufacture.
- Biomass: burning Biomass requires similar installation to conventional Coal-fired power. But with additional installation for timber processing, drying , pelletisation and shipment. This requires more extended installations both locally and overseas wherever the wood product is harvested.
- Gas-fired CCGT: the embedded CO2 emissions for Natural Gas power generation are minor in comparison even with other conventional generation technologies.
- Advanced Nuclear: involves larger quantities of engineering materials than conventional generation.
- Coal / Lignite: installation of Coal-fired power is comparatively modest but not as limited as Gas-firing.
- Hydro + Pumped: involves massive civil engineering works with large quantities of mainly concrete for dams.
Cost comparisons between power generation technologies
The recent post below outlines a power generation costing model based on 2021 comparative data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).
That US EIA sourced data is condensed and summarised below.
This table assumes a modest service life of 40 years for all conventional power generation technologies, including Biomass. Lower but reasonable service lives are assumed for Weather-Dependent Renewables, Wind and Solar power. Their bare comparative capital costs are shown graphically below.
However in order to reach a comparison of the effective costs of the power supplied to the gird the productivity / capacity % of the power technologies has to be taken into account. All conventional generation and Biomass is counted at its full productivity / capacity potential of 90%, (accounting for maintenance), thus avoiding the possibility of any policy interference degrading the performance of conventional technologies by mandating obligations that give preference to Weather-Dependent Renewables, whenever they might be able to contribute.
The actual recorded annual productivity of EU(28) power generators in 2019 is shown below. Although annually based data records the overall productivity of Weather-Dependent Renewables, the data does not represent the scale of difficulties that the inherent intermittency and variability that Weather-Dependent Renewables inevitably introduce to managing the stability of the Grid.
The following graphic shows the scale of comparative effective costs when Weather-Dependent Renewable productivity / capacity % is taken into account.
Of course if a power source is non productive its costs will become virtually infinite.
However the sudden and precipitous unreliability of Weather-Dependent Renewables is better expressed when see on a 5 minute to 5 minute basis as shown below for example in the month of April 2021.
After the two peaks of Wind power output in Early April the subsequent low wind power output was the commencement of a six month long wind drought in Europe during the summer of 2021.
Cost comparisons with effective means of CO2 emissions reduction
The two main means of actually reducing CO2 emissions from Power generation are replacing Coal-firing by Gas-firing and by the use of Nuclear power. They are compared with the other Weather-Dependent Renewables and Biomass generation in the graphics below, accounting for the bare capital and running costs and then with comparisons accounting for productivity / capacity percentage.
The use of Gas-firing to provide the same level of power to the Grid is generally much cheaper the any Weather-Dependent Renewable or Biomass. In capital cost terms Solar power is only marginally dearer, whereas Onshore wind power is only about twice the cost to install. Offshore Wind power and Biomass are significantly more costly 5 -6 times on capital cost terms and 3- 4 times more costly respectfully.
However when their productivity / capacity % is taken into account Onshore wind power is 6 times more costly, Offshore wind is 14 – 18 times more costly, Solar PV because of it low productivity is 9 – 12 times more costly and Biomass is 3 – 4 times more expensive.
The use of Nuclear power to provide the same level of power to the Grid is generally dearer in capital terms than Weather-Dependent Renewables or Biomass except for Offshore Wind power which ~+30% more costly to install. In capital cost terms Solar power is about one fifth of the cost to install, whereas Onshore wind power is only about twice the cost to install. Offshore Wind power and Biomass are significantly more costly 5 -6 times on capital cost terms and 3- 4 times more costly respectively.
However when their productivity is taken into account Onshore wind power compares closely in cost, Offshore wind is 2 – 3.5 times more costly, Solar PV is 1.5 – 2.3 times more costly and Biomass is 0.4 – 0.1 times less expensive.
It is to be hoped that the development of Small Modular Reactors, (SMR), using current fission technologies will in due course mean that Nuclear power can become much cheaper to install and more widely employed. Fission power as an Energy source will become increasingly important as Fossil fuels become depleted. However, Fossil Fuel resources, if not maligned and negated by Climate Change alarmism, would be able to provide interim power and power for the developing world for several generations with Coal use at ever increasing levels. Thereafter Fusion power with no concern for Nuclear waste may become viable.
Excess costs of European Weather-Dependent Renewable generation over Gas-fired and Nuclear power technologies
In 2019 the installed European fleet of Weather-Dependent Renewables amounted to ~320 Gigawatts and produced as power output ~64 Gigawatts at an overall productivity / capacity of ~20%, costing in capital terms ~550€billion The long-term, (40 year), cost of the European Renewables fleet according to this US EIA cost model is ~1,470€billion, assuming the the US$ and the Euro have equivalent purchasing power. Weather-Dependent Renewables Solar PV and Wind power unreliably supplied about 20% of the European power in 2019.
The equivalent power output could have been reliably provided for ~68€billion capital cost and ~150€billion long-term costs using Gas-fired power and ~480€billion capital and ~830€billion long-term using Nuclear power.
The excess costs of not using Gas-firing as opposed to Weather-Dependent Renewables amount to ~530€billion in capital and ~1,320€billion long-term, or 9-10 times more.
The excess costs of not using Nuclear power as opposed to Weather-Dependent Renewables amount to ~120€billion in capital and ~650€billion long-term, or 1.2 – 1.8 times more.
For consideration of the UK position see:
These points can be summarised as follows:
- In ERoEI terms, Solar PV power and Biomass do not generate sufficient excess power to support society. As such they can only ever be a drain on the energy resources of any Nation opting by policy to use them.
- Wind power both Onshore and Offshore might generate some excess power for society in ERoEI terms on occasions. But as they are variable, unreliable and intermittent, they require the duplication by other power generation technologies within the Grid to maintain the service whenever they are unavailable.
- In 2019 the combined productivity of Weather-Dependent Renewables across Europe EU(28) achieved just ~20%. Gas-firing, Nuclear power and a diminishing amount of Coal / Lignite generation provided the essential power to maintain European society whenever Weather-Dependent Renewable energy failed.
As these conventional generation installations become underused by Green policy, they have generally become unprofitable and thus either require subsidy support to maintain their operation to sustain Grid viability or are subject to closure. Such closures seem to be an intended consequence of Western Government policies. As such those policies are rendering the power supplies in the Western nations more and more vulnerable.
That process of making power generation ever more unreliable, poses a real and existential danger to those Western societies. That immediate danger of loss or unreliability of electrical power is far in excess of the risk to those societies of any possible Man-made Global Warming far in the future.
- measured in terms of their sheer mass:
- Onshore Wind and Biomass require almost 20 times the scale of engineering installations than Gas-fired CCGT installations.
- Onshore Wind power and Solar PV power results in Engineering installations about twice the size required by Nuclear power facilities.
- Biomass requires about twice the size engineering installation as conventional Coal-firing.
- measured in terms of the non-fuel CO2 embedded in the technologies for their manufacture:
- Wind power has ~10 times the embedded CO2 of Gas-fired CCGT installations.
- Solar power requires ~25 times the embedded CO2 of Gas-fired CCGT installations, the bulk of this is associated with overseas chip fabrication
- Biomass requires about twice the embedded CO2 of Coal / Lignite.
- in terms of costs, by way of example in 2019 the European Weather-Dependent Renewable fleet amounted to the installed European fleet of Weather-Dependent Renewables amounted to ~320 Gigawatts and produced as power output ~64 Gigawatts at an overall productivity / capacity of ~20%.
- this level of power output amounted to ~20% of the total European power needs but the nominal Nameplate value of Weather-Dependent Renewables almost equalled the total European generation requirement, so in real terms the whole European fleet has been duplicated by comparatively unproductive Weather-Dependent Renewables.
- according to these estimates the European Weather-Dependent Renewables the fleet cost:
- in capital costs of the European Renewables fleet is ~550€billion or
- long-term, (40 year), costs of the European Renewables fleet is ~1,470€billion.
- the ~64 Gigawatts power output could have been replaced by:
- Gas-firing of ~68€billion in capital costs or 140€billion long-term
- Nuclear power of ~480€billion in capital costs or 650€billion long-term.
- the excess costs therefore expended and notionally wasted on Weather-Dependent Renewables in Europe were:
- Gas-firing ~530€billion in capital costs ~1,300€billion in 40 year long-term costs or
- Nuclear power ~120€billion in capital costs ~650€billion in 40 year long-term costs.
- however if Weather-Dependent Renewables are so unreliable as to be entirely non-productive for the extended periods, then the actual cost of the their power generation at those times should be regarded as being virtually infinite.
The estimates above show the true scale of the fiscal damage and also the actual failures to curtail actual CO2 emissions achieved by the obsessions of “Green Thinking” by:
- effectively banning fracking for Natural Gas in Europe
- the irrational demonisation and legislative obstruction of Nuclear power generation
- the use of imported Biomass for power generation.
The appalling delusion
The late Professor Sir David Mackay, (former chef scientific advisor of the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change), in a final interview before his untimely death in 2016 said that the concept of powering a developed country with Weather-Dependent Renewable energy was:
“an appalling delusion”
At the time Professor David Mackay also said:
“there’s so much delusion, it’s so dangerous for humanity that people allow themselves to have such delusions, that they are willing to not think carefully about the numbers, and the reality of the laws of physics and the reality of engineering….humanity does need to pay attention to arithmetic and the laws of physics.”
and later in the same interview he said:
“if it is possible to get through the winter in the UK with low CO2 Nuclear and possibly with Carbon Capture and Storage, there is no point in having any Wind or Solar power at all in the UK generation mix. This is especially so for Solar energy: the UK is one of the darkest nations on earth and produces about 1/7th of the power output in winter as in the summer.”
This post is submitted in much the same spirit as Professor Mackay with simple calculations to reach some indicative views on the effectiveness and costs of Weather-Dependent Renewable technologies.
The simple results here should raise serious questions for all emotionally based policies which are not supported by clear calculation.