The Lunacy of Pledging to Eliminate Fossil Fuel Use since Wind and Solar Are Not the Answer to Much of AnythingAlan Carlin | August 5, 2016
Greatly increased human prosperity in some areas of the world over the last 150 years can be traced in large part to progressively greater access to and use of more efficient and more reliable energy sources to supplement human efforts. This progress has been encouraged and shaped by the market economy because it met human needs. If left entirely to market forces, wind and solar energy would only fill a few niche markets rather than being the Democratic Party’s primary means for implementing its energy policy objectives.
Recent increased government interference in energy markets has already brought many of the well known problems that often result from such interference such as political opportunism (think corn ethanol), taxpayer subsidies for the wealthy (electric cars), inefficiency, increased electricity costs, crony capitalism (corn ethanol), and bad technology bets (Solyndra). Proponents claim that wind and solar are the wave of the future when in reality they are a regression to less useful and more expensive energy and thus a lower standard of living. They even damage the environment by killing vast numbers of birds and bats and disfiguring the landscape.
Their New Goal is Fossil Fuel Free by 2050
The Democratic Party 2016 Platform has now pledged to go much further than previous preferences and subsidies for wind and solar and end the use of fossil fuels altogether by 2050. This would require very costly retrofits of most buildings, replacement of most of the motor vehicle fleet and the infrastructure required to make, repair, and fuel their engines, an end to most aviation, and a vast expansion of wind and solar in order to try to substitute for all fossil fuels used in all sectors, among many other changes. 2050 may seem very distant, but a serious attempt to meet this goal would have to start almost immediately because of the long life of these assets. Waiting until the 2040s to start such an effort would guarantee failure. It would also seriously compromise military effectiveness for assets that use fossil fuels, such as warplanes and tanks.
Although it does not appear to have been carefully researched, it is clear that the cost of eliminating all fossil fuels would be astronomical and would be progressively higher the longer the effort is postponed assuming that the goal is unchanged. Presumably the approach pursued by the Democratic Party would be to substitute electricity for fossil fuels used in each sector (such as housing or vehicles) and then substitute all fossil fuels used for electricity generation with wind and solar. If so, it is this second substitution that would determine the success or failure of the entire decarbonization enterprise. This second substitution will be the subject of most the remainder of this post.
Because of the lack of any inexpensive way to store large quantities of electrical energy it is necessary to balance generation and use at all times in order to avoid the very expensive and disruptive collapse of electrical grids. As discussed in February, wind and solar are not well suited to meeting the demands on such grids, which in turn meet the critical needs that electricity plays in modern society.
Wind and Solar Are Very Inefficient and Unreliable
Wind energy is not a very efficient way to move ships engaged in international commerce, and was abandoned for this purpose through market forces soon after fossil fuel energy could be substituted. Until recent decades, windmills had also largely been abandoned for land energy generation for similar reasons. Windmills have become somewhat more efficient since then, but the basic problems that caused their demise have not. Photo-voltaic solar is a newer but even more expensive and unreliable technology.
The great advantage of letting the market mechanism make such decisions is that it takes into account all the relevant factors to determine demand for various sources of energy and minimizes costs without intervention by government, which too often has a very different agenda. It does not take into account the alleged effects of higher atmospheric CO2 levels on global temperatures, of course, but this effect has been shown to be minor at most.
Unfortunately, the sun usually does not shine and the wind does not blow just when electrical energy demand happens to be high. What extensive use of wind and solar do in the case of electricity generation is to add another and very expensive variable that must be taken into account in addition to the normal fluctuations in electricity demand and supply by day, week, and time of year. This increases the need for expensive “peaking power” beyond what it would otherwise be.
Government favoritism towards wind and solar may result in a small reduction in human-caused CO2 emissions, but in recent years US human emissions have been reduced much more than in Western Europe with its very extensive Government regulation of energy sources. This is primarily the result of substitution of natural gas for coal in recent years through the operation of the market mechanism due to lower prices for natural gas due to increasing use of fracking. So if human-caused CO2 emissions reductions is the objective, natural gas is the answer, not wind and solar.
The Big Problem Is that Wind and Solar Die Completely at Times
Even worse, both wind and solar sometimes die completely in terms of producing useful quantities of electricity. This often occurs only for a few seconds or minutes, but sometimes for as long as a week. An all wind and solar electrical network will collapse at huge cost during these periods unless other sources are available or arbitrary reductions in usage are immediately implemented, usually without regard for their costly effects. Hospitals, traffic lights, computer systems, and manufacturing plants find it difficult to fulfill their responsibilities without continuous, reliable electric power.
In addition to their higher initial cost, one of the reasons why solar and wind are so expensive is that they are available when needed for much less of the year than fossil fuel sources. The Western European experience shows just how expensive wind and solar can be.
Given all this, one would expect that electricity prices would vary significantly with the extent of use of wind and solar. In fact, a simple comparison of electricity prices in Western European countries, where wind and solar are used to greatly varying degrees, suggests that the Obama Administration’s “Clean Power Plan” is likely to raise prices by a factor of between three and four. Thus, if you now pay $100 per month for electricity in the US, you will end up paying $300 to $400 when these EPA regulations are fully implemented. Ratepayers, particularly less than wealthy ones, are very likely to react unfavorably to this when they start paying for this, as they already have in some Western European countries such as Germany.
In Most Cases the Cost of an All Wind and Solar Generating Network Would Be Infinite
The cost of creating an all wind and solar generating network would in most cases prove to be infinite except where abundant hydropower is available. During periods of low wind and solar output, many additional such generators have to be available even though used only briefly. Building enough capacity to meet demand during such periods becomes ever more expensive as the percentage of wind and solar increases, and ultimately becomes infinite when wind and solar are fully substituted because of the very low or non-existent generation during these periods. If generating sources produce very little or nothing, many sources are required, and are unlikely to fill all the gaps even if a great many are built. During such periods, more wind and solar plants just sit idle, just like the existing ones, or at best generate minor amounts for at most a second, minute, or a week at a time.
Bill Gates Agrees
I am not alone in these views concerning the limitations of wind and solar. Bill Gates, for example, is putting substantial resources into trying to solve some of these problems. He is not known for foolish or outlandish statements (except maybe how soon Windows would become available many years ago), and has said that wind and solar sources “aren’t a viable solution for reducing CO2 levels and that power coming mainly from solar and wind energy “would be beyond astronomical.” He explained that “There’s no battery technology that’s even close to allowing us to take all of our energy from renewables,” pointing out that it’s necessary “to deal not only with the 24-hour cycle but also with long periods of time where it’s cloudy and you don’t have sun or you don’t have wind.” I strongly agree.
The only reasonable conclusion is that at least this one section of the Democratic Platform is pure lunacy. The goal cannot be achieved by any reasonable means and would be astronomically expensive even if it could.
Conclusion: Get the Federal Government Out of Energy Source Selection
So what should be done? Let market forces, not the Federal Government, determine the energy sources built and used. Increased use of wind and solar by the US will make no measurable difference in world CO2 levels and therefore not in world climate even in the very unlikely case that the current computer model-based climate projections should actually prove to be accurate. In the far more likely circumstance that CO2 levels have little or no influence on global temperatures, increased wind and solar will have little or no influence on anything.