October 20th, 2020

‘Green’ energy won’t meet needs


By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on April 7, 2020.

Cosmos Voutsinos

The recent column by the Southern Alberta Group for the Environment (SAGE) promoted wind and solar technologies, based on a series of half truths and omissions. SAGE stated that renewable technologies generate more energy per energy input, ignoring the energy needed to build, operate, maintain and decommission all “backup” electricity generation facilities that renewables need. In addition, it claimed that renewables make fossil fuels more productive. Unfortunately, nothing can be further from the truth.

Relative to the energy needed to build them, wind and solar produce the least amount of electrical energy compared to any other technology. This is called Energy Return On Energy Invested, (EROEI). Wind and solar lifetime production is only 3.9 times the energy that went to build them (EROEI = 3.9). By comparison, gas turbines have EROEI = 28, coal EROEI = 30, hydro EROEI = 35, and nuclear EROEI =75. Professor Michael Kelly of Cambridge University considers renewables below the threshold to support a modern economy.

This poor energy return of wind and solar is the result of converting low grade energies, exacerbated by the short, 20-year lifetime for windmills and solar panels. EROEI for the other power supplies range up to 75 because they have a lifespan of between 40 to 100 years. Also, these long-life facilities can produce electricity between 85 to 95 per cent of the time and are available on demand, whereas wind and solar produce on average of 30 per cent and 17 per cent of the time respectively, and don’t respond to demand.

Thermodynamically speaking, the purpose of the wind is to remove heat from the Earth’s surface. In the dead of the winter when it is bitterly cold and demand is high, wind facilities tend to produce little power because there isn’t much spare heat to remove. So, they can often go days with low or no production. Output from large solar arrays in Alberta is far worse at only about 17 per cent of capacity on an annual basis. This output varies from 30 per cent in the summer to under four per cent in the winter. Such variation is also exacerbated by the reduction of daylight hours, from 18 during the summer to eight in the winter for Alberta latitudes.

Adding more and more solar capacity in Alberta is nothing more than a green dream. From last November to February, Alberta’s one $30-million solar facility produced total electricity of 5.5 per cent of its capacity which is essentially zero power compared to the demand. (2.3 GWh/30,000 GWh). So we get little power when needed most from either one of wind or solar technologies.

The low, intermittent output from wind and solar necessitates adequate backup from fossil-fuel power plants, for most of the time. Essentially, as more wind and solar enter our grid a similar amount of fossil-fuelled plants must be built to support renewables. The duplication of power plants and the lengthy operation of back up fossil fueled plants, works against SAGE’s goal to reduce pollution. In fact, when a backup gas turbine operates for 83 per cent of the year and a renewable operates for only 17 per cent, the renewable could be called “redundant.”

The switch to renewables is not as inevitable as SAGE claims. In Alberta our electricity production accounts for only 17 per cent of our energy needs. The remaining 83 per cent includes heating, manufacturing, transportation of people and goods, services, etc. It has not been appreciated that cities provide an artificial environment for humanity; it is made possible only by the supply of massive consumption of uninterrupted electricity, gas, water, manufactured goods, food and transportation, all of which require energy. Try to imagine what a city would look like if we stopped the flow of all these forms of energy.

It is inevitable that one day Alberta and the rest of the world will stop using fossil fuels. However, before that happens, we will have to replace all cars, trucks, ships, trains, planes, gas stations, most industrial processes, all engines, manufacturing, construction, farming and mining equipment, and all energy production processes. This unimaginable undertaking will require mining, refining, processing, manufacturing and transporting millions of tonnes of materials. The transition will require trillions of dollars in annual financing, millions of re-trained people and a significant increase in our energy consumption. The limitations of our resources will delay completion for more than a century.

At present, our world gets 85 per cent of its energy from fossil fuels. If we drive away investors in the oilsands, where we will get the energy and the money needed for the transition here in Alberta? Irresponsible actions are leading us to collapse into energy poverty exactly at a time when we need to increase fossil-fuel production in order to decarbonize, especially while oil prices are low.

Most of the emissions from hydrocarbons take place when we consume fuel, not when we produce it. Yet, Quebec, B.C. and the rest of Canada consume fossil fuels like drunken sailors and are concerned for our globe only when it comes to Alberta’s production.

As J. Constable recently wrote: “In a world of renewable energy nothing is what it seems.” “Environmentally friendly” turns out to be devastating to the natural wold. “Cheap” is expensive. “Local support” is found at a distance. “Sustainable” is strange to say, short lived and unaffordable. A “contract” is not binding, “secure” is actually unreliable. “Love” is hate, “black” is white, and “green” is a murky shade of brown.

Perhaps it is time for SAGE to meet with other groups, including non-dreamers, such as the Energy Collegium and Friends of Science, and start working productively, together. During the CONVI-19 isolation period, let’s start a communication process to organize a friendly discussion in a future conference meeting, where each participant group will be called on to explain and defend their ideas with rational debate and clarify the opposing ideas with sound science. In the end there will not be any losers, we will all be winners, especially our youth. Yes, we can do it.

Cosmos Voutsinos is a Lethbridge-based professional engineer whose career included work ranging from system designs in the Canadian nuclear industry to construction management of U.S. power plants in Taiwan.

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Seth Anthony

Slow clap Cosmos.

SAGE Chair

It seems that there is some shadow-boxing going on in this letter, as it argues many things that were not discussed in our Herald article (https://lethbridgeherald.com/news/lethbridge-news/2020/03/23/what-is-renewable-energy/)

Beginning with EROEI, there is certainly a variation of values based on the technology, location, manufacturing processes, transportation, and so on. Unfortunately, the values provided by Cosmos are not supported by any recent analysis, which has been standardized internationally. A peer-reviewed metastudy of electricity generation can be found at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1364032113005534 which supports the values for wind and solar PV as presented by SAGE.

Cosmos then seems to argue that wind and solar PV technologies provide intermittent production, as the sun sets and the wind sometimes doesn’t blow. I think everyone knows that an optimum use of renewable energy requires a functioning grid that can provide electricity upon demand. I can see nowhere in our article or information on the SAGE website that would suggest otherwise. Intermittency is certainly a (known) challenge but it is not an argument against renewable energy as it relates to our main point: that is, over their lifespan renewable energy produces 5 to 25 times more energy than it takes to manufacture, transport, install, and maintain them.

That infrastructure is required to run an electricity grid – transmission lines, spinning reserves, etc. – is also expected, but the amount of ‘additional’ infrastructure will depend largely on the amount of renewables energy being produced to the grid. I can see no argument not to increase renewable energy production to reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to the point where the operation of the grid requires dedicated back-up or transformation. At this point, Cosmos’ argument that the ‘additional’ infrastructure required to expand renewable energy should be included in EROEI is correct from our estimation.

Again, SAGE made no comments in our article with respect to the total energy requirements of Alberta including home heating and fuel. Our point was more modest – begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by installing as much renewable energy as feasibly possible. There is no dispute from SAGE that the transition away from the combustion of fossil fuels will be a substantial challenge. But this is not a reason to stand paralyzed – reducing energy demand, improved efficiency of energy use, and transitioning to lower emission generating technologies are proven paths available to us today. Not reducing our greenhouse gas emissions will have foreseeably negative repercussions according to the extant science, as compiled through scientific consensus by the IPCC. We are between a rock and a hard place, for sure.

The so-called efficiencies presented in this letter seem to indicate a confusion between conversion efficiency and boilerplate ratings. It is kind of like saying the fuel efficiency of your car is 5% because it has 200 horsepower and you only use 10 horsepower to putt around town. Better to stick with EROEIs to avoid this confusion.

It is also a dubious practice to pick a winter month to talk about solar PV output. The engineering designers are aware of the seasonal fluctuations of output. In the same vein, I’m sure Cosmos would object if one were to publicly celebrate the extremely high production in mid-summer. These are not really the objective arguments that are required in a discussion to transition society from fossil fuels.

To reiterate the main points from SAGE’s article: renewable energy technologies make more energy over their life-cycles than it takes to manufacture and operate them; and, because of this, the greenhouse gas emissions per energy produced is lower. As such, they should be no more objectionable than any energy-efficiency device. If Cosmos feels this contains ‘half-truths and omissions’, I can find nothing in his letter that substantiates it.

Seth Anthony

One can argue the methodology used to determine EROEI until the cows come home. Look, here’s just one example of that:

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2016/12/21/eroei-calculations-for-solar-pv-are-misleading/

Viability is the main concern, and solar/wind is simply put, a very intermittent and weak energy source. It’s somewhat viable (if one can afford it) for powering low wattage devices, and that’s about it. That in of itself, is just one major drawback of this type of energy production, and just one major reason why almost no one installs solar panels on their roof. Very high cost intermittent output and poor storage.

chinook

No amount of evidence gets through to some people. Cosmos is one. He refuses to accept the reality that climate change driven by decades of producing, transporting and burning fossil fuel is killing our air, water, soil; wildlife; taking its toll on every living thing and with that, the *urgency* to switch to renewable energy with the same global thrust as we are doing with the Covid crisis. Difference is Covid will subside; destruction of our environment due to fossil fuel will not. The picture he focuses on is economics; the sky is falling; jobs will be lost. But just as corrections happen in the market place from time to time; a correction in how we produce energy is long overdue. While it may cost jobs in the short term; the long term benefits outweigh the immediate hardships. On top of it, Cosmos doesn’t seem to realize the need to preserve fossil fuel. Millions of years in the making, oil is about the most concentrated type of energy we currently know of and we should be saving it vs squandering it heating our homes and powering our cities and vehicles because down the road we might really need it. Many cities have already switched to run 100% on renewables and find it’s working well. With all the natural (and un-natural) resources we have in our locale, Lethbridge could be a self sufficient city also run entirely on renewable energy. That’s the future whether dear fossils like Cosmos approve or not.

Jersey44

I am not against renewable energy by any means and would love to see the day I could remove my farm from the grid. I would like to know, however, how Lethbridge could be self sufficient and run entirely on renewable energy. I don’t see how this is possible at this time. Please explain.

Seth Anthony

Wow chinook, you seem to have gotten something out of the letter that isn’t there.

Anyway, oil is not the most concentrated type of energy as you say. The most concentrated is the atom (nuclear).

Also, you said, “there are many cities that have already switched to run 100% on renewables”. Ummm, no there isn’t for the reasons I stated in my previous post.

chinook

Yes, I’m adding information to the letter.

IF you had read my letter what I said is, “oil is *about* the most concentrated type of energy – NOT the most concentrated form. At current rate of consumption we have less than 50 years supply of oil and 5-80 of nuclear.

AND YES – running our cities on 100% renewable energy is possible and urgent.
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/03/clean-energy-can-provide-100-of-a-city-s-electricity-here-s-how/
Raymond Alberta … https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/raymond-solar-panels-net-zero-1.5190933

https://www.renewablecities.ca/articles/100-per-cent-renewable-energy-and-canadian-cities

Jersey44

Chinook, none of your links explain how a city the size of Lethbridge can be powered with renewable electricity. Raymond is not powering the whole town with renewables, only the actual municipal owned infrastructure. And that infrastructure will still be connected to the grid. It is a good thing, but a drop in the bucket compared to powering the whole town. The other articles talk about towns that are doing the same thing as Raymond, or towns that have made commitments over the next 30 years. You say it’s possible now for Lethbridge. I don’t think you understand what that entails.

Michelle Stirling

The production of renewables is THE MOST WASTEFUL use of precious fossil fuels that you could ever think of. https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/to-get-wind-power-you-need-oil The energy return on energy invested in renewables is too low to even support basic society. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/mrs-energy-and-sustainability/article/lessons-from-technology-development-for-energy-and-sustainability/2D40F35844FEFEC37FDC62499DDBD4DC/core-reader The reduction in emissions from use of wind and solar is negligible because of the need to ramp up and down the combined cycle natural gas turbines to fill the ‘gap. This from a power generation engineer: “The problem with wind is its randomness, wind is completely uncorrelated with demand. If the Alberta gov’t adds another 5,000 MW then the total wind capacity would be ~6,500 MW. Typically this amount of wind would randomly experience 80% or higher ramps one or more times per week. This would be the equivalent of ramping 6.5 Shepard natural gas plants from off to full to off again. These plants are unable to do this over the long term. They may end up having to put in simple cycle units instead which, from a CO2 perspective, would pretty much defeat the purpose of adding wind. But it’s never really been about reducing CO2, it’s all about building wind.”

chinook

The most wasteful use of ‘precious fossil fuel’ is heating our dwellings.
Oil and gas production has about destroyed our planet and launched us into climate crisis as never before. Are you suggesting we stop trying to find better ways of producing energy and continue down the path of drill baby drill? omg!

Michelle Stirling

Don’t be IN THE DARK on Renewables. https://blog.friendsofscience.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/In-the-Dark-on-Renewables-FINAL-Nov-18-2018.pdf and a short video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7ZUiz-vQgA&t=109s I am posting these as the Communications Manager for Friends of Science Society.