A utility-scale power plant can be relied upon to deliver
power as needed, day in and day out. The standard of the industry is 99.9% uptime. That’s what the word utility means, and the same concept holds true for water, sanitation, fire, police, etc.
There is no renewable energy system that comes any-
where close to this standard, without adequate backup
Renewable advocates like to tell you that the wind is always blowing somewhere, which is true as far as it goes.
But it doesn’t go very far, because until we have enough wind farms in Somewhere, Kansas and Somewhere, Wyoming and Somewhere Else offshore, we won’t have a self-supporting renewables grid.
Ideally, utility-scale power plants should be independent sources of rock-solid, reliable power, free from the vagaries of weather, climate, season, or time of day, and under the operator’s control at all times. In a word, they should be decoupled from the environment as much as possible.1
Since renewables are weather dependent, they can’t be separated from the environment. Like the weather they rely upon, renewables are interdependent, variable, and intermittent, unless they’re having a real good day.
As climate change evolves, the weather will be ever more
difficult to predict. Which is a problem, because wind and solar farms are more like actual green leafy plants than any traditional power plant we have.
Just like crops, wind and solar systems depend upon the whims of Mother Nature. And just like modern agriculture, the variables can be reduced but rarely eliminated.
Irrigation, crop rotation, fertilizer and pest control enable the mass production and consumption of crops. In the same way, backup and storage enable the mass production and consumption of renewable energy.
But at this point in time, and for the foreseeable future, practical energy storage technology for a nationwide 100% renewables grid simply does not exist. And the technology that does exist can’t be scaled up without bankrupting the nation.
Adequate backup technology exists, but most of it is in the exact form of energy production that renewables advocates seek to eliminate: Fast-start or always-on fossil-fueled power plants.
The Roadmap envisions a nationwide network of inter-dependent plants
(as distinct from in-dependent), each one oversized to compensate for its low capacity factor (see below), so the plants that are having a good day might back up their less fortunate fellows.
However, without adequate storage or backup, WWS farms can’t be thought of as actual utility power plants, unless they’re members of a widespread, interconnected, self-supporting nationwide renewables fleet.
Which is a dubious proposition, because that same interconnected, interdependent nationwide fleet has to actually be able to back itself up. Which has never been tested at scale.
Nevertheless, that’s the strategy behind the Roadmap: Build enough farms in
a variety of weather zones, and they should, in theory, be able to back each
This helps explain why the Roadmap calls for WWS in all 50 states. The other big reason may be politics:
Taking a cue from the defense industry, a WWS facility in every state would guarantee access and influence with local legislators. Or at least a seat at
As we said, the industry standard for utility plants is 99.9% uptime. Renewables are fundamentally incapable of meeting this standard, due to the intermittent nature of wind, water, and sunlight. So they can’t be considered true utilities without massive (and massively expensive) amounts of backup and storage.
In lieu of adequate storage, the Roadmap’s wind and
solar will need external backup from coal, gas, nuclear,
or pumped hydro during most of the 35-year buildout,
to serve as training wheels until there are enough renewables in enough regions to back each other up.
This highlights one of the major advantages of a fueled (“always-on”) baseload grid over a fuel-free WWS grid:
Coal, gas, hydro and nuclear plants can operate on their own, independent of any other power plant. But WWS plants need training wheels, until there are enough of them to get their collective act together and (hopefully) roll with
the big boys.
For these reasons and more, comparing always-on baseload plants with intermittent renewables can be an apples-and-oranges situation.
We can’t actually replace a reactor with a wind or solar farm unless that farm has sufficient backup or storage. Augmentation options for a renewables plant include:
We use the term oversize to refer to building a wind or solar farm with a much larger nameplate rating than the average power it’s expected to produce.
Nameplate rating refers to the peak, or highest, output of a power generator, traditionally stamped on its nameplate and often called its peak capacity. Which, when it comes to wind and solar, might only happen for a few minutes
(Sorry to throw all these terms at you at once, but hang in there . . .)
Because the weather varies and because the sun tends to set every day, a renewables farm will, on average, generate just 1/5th to 1/3rd of its peak capacity, meaning the most power the farm can produce under ideal (sunny or windy) conditions.
Over the course of a year, a U.S. solar or wind farm’s capacity factor (average output) is only 20–35% of its peak.2
To give you a good visual between the installed capacity and the actual performance of most renewable systems, here’s the installed capacity of German wind in 2014 (light blue), and the power that was actually delivered
by those wind machines in that same year (dark blue):
For a 1-GW solar farm with a 20% capacity factor to actually deliver a yearly average of one gigawatt, you have to oversize the farm by 5 times.
That is, you have to build it as
a 5-GW power plant, so it can deliver a yearly average of
one gig with a 20% CF (capacity factor).
If that’s not enough to make it perform as advertised – and it typically isn’t, due to seasonal variations (more on this later) – you have to back it up with external power or energy storage. Or both. Or we shouldn’t even be calling it a 1-GW power plant (more on this later, also too.)
Since non-fuel forms of energy storage (batteries, reservoirs, etc.) are expensive, the Roadmap’s approach is to build wind and solar in a variety of weather zones instead.
For a wind or solar farm, ideal conditions means that the equipment is clean and in perfect condition, and the wind is always blowing at the perfect speed or the sun is always overhead in a cloudless sky.
Which of course is impossible. So the CF of any WWS power plant will always be a fraction much less than 1, and is usually expressed as a percent. For example, a CF of 0.20 is a CF of 20%.
Due to wind and solar’s naturally low capacity factors, a typical solar farm should be oversized by about 5X, and a typical wind farm by 3X (2.5X for offshore wind.)
That way, the underproduction of one farm can be compensated by the overproduction of another farm – if the weather cooperates over yonder.
And in the absence of storage, the farm over yonder that’s having a good day has to be able to send its excess energy somewhere else.
The only alternative is to unplug their solar panels, or feather their turbine blades so they don’t catch the wind. Either of which is a sin, given the money, subsidies, and resources spent on building and maintaining the typical renewables farm.
Sorry to beat this to death, but most people don’t think it through. They just blithely assume that the one-gigawatt farm sold to their community will routinely deliver an average of one gigawatt.
The problem is, they were sold a 1,000-horsepower monster truck that averages 200 horses over the course of a year.
Industry professionals and savvy WWS advocates are well aware of the fact
that a 1,000-MW solar farm in a 20% average capacity region (which is just about everywhere on earth) is actually a 200-MW farm in need of some serious backup.
But they don’t make this perfectly clear to the general public or legislators, or even to most dedicated environmentalists, who think their community has a shiny new 1,000-MW farm.
That may seem like a forgivable bit of sales puffery (“your mileage may vary”), but when an industry is promoting a radical new energy paradigm for the entire nation – indeed, for the entire planet – the failure to clear up such a common misconception amounts to a massive form of deceptive advertising.
One admirable thing about the Roadmap is that the wind and solar it’s calling for is based on average, not peak, capacity. So when the Roadmap proposes a 1,591-GW national grid, realize that it isn’t calling for a wind and solar capacity of 1,591 GWs.
It’s actually proposing that we build 3–5 times that amount to deliver an average of 1,591 GWs, on the presumption that the farms will be able to back each other up in real-world conditions, year after year, with no storage to
Due to the yawning gap between average and peak
capacities, the Roadmap won’t result in a self-supporting, nationwide network of fuel-free power plants until the
35-year buildout is nearly complete.
A substantial amount of wind and solar will have to be built, in a variety of weather zones, before true interdependence starts to emerge. Until then, the wind and solar farms that are up and running will need training wheels.
Since coal is verboten, and nuclear is the work of the devil, and since we can’t build more rivers or call rain down from the sky, the only acceptable backup for the first half of the buildout, if not longer, is:
“We need about 3,000 feet of altitude, we need flat land,
we need 300 days of sunlight, and we need to be near a gas pipe. Because for all of these big utility-scale solar plants – whether it’s wind or solar – everybody is looking at gas as the supplementary fuel. The plants that we’re building, the wind plants and the solar plants, are gas plants.” 3
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Member of the board of Bright Source
Developers of the Ivanpah Solar-Thermal Station
On the California / Nevada border.
As luck would have it, Mr. Kennedy’s Ivanpah plant has had to burn 62% more methane than originally forecast by the builders, due to the unpredictability of relying on Mother Nature for energy.
In fact, Ivanpah has been burning so much methane that they’re facing the ironic prospect of paying a carbon tax.4 Let that sink in for a moment:
A solar plant that’s so dirty, it has to pay a penalty
for polluting the environment.
If it makes you feel any better, methane’s GWP mellows out over a 100-year span to “only” 28X, as the molecule breaks down and combines with oxygen to form CO2 and water vapor.
But since the next 20 years are the most critical in the fight against global warming, 84X is the number to focus on.
Like any gas, methane is an escape artist – remember the Porter Ranch leak? Using it as a bridge fuel to a clean, green future is a double-edged sword.
In fact, a 4% leak makes any gas plant, or the average
gas-backed wind or solar farm, as bad for the climate as
a coal plant. We call it the “Worth-It Threshold.”
That low number may sound like a wild claim, but in our 2016 paper “Wind and Solar’s Achilles’ Heel – the Meltdown at Porter Ranch” we have clearly shown it to be true, with some surprisingly simple high-school chemistry and math.6
(If anyone can disprove our formulas, please let us know.)
Here’s a graph from that paper:
To put Porter Ranch in perspective, its contribution to global warming was the equivalent of burning about 300 million gallons of gasoline,7 essentially wiping out the climate benefits from an entire year of California’s wind and solar.8
To further put it in perspective, the ongoing, business-as-usual national leak rate of the U.S. natural gas industry, according to the industry’s own estimate, is equal to more than 75 unplugged, continuous, year-round Porter Ranch leaks.9
But the industry’s low number is alarming enough – see the above graph.
Since methane has such a powerful GWP, a 1.6% leak rate wipes out 40% of the climate benefits we hope to derive from gas-backed wind and solar: 1.6 is 40% of 4, and 4% is the Worth-It Threshold for gas-backed renewables.
As RFK Jr correctly points out,
virtually all of our large wind and solar farms are backed by gas. What he doesn’t mention is that with a 4% leak in the methane infrastructure, gas-backed renewables simply aren’t worth the trouble.
In fact, you might as well be burning coal for all the good it’ll do (global-warming-wise, not total-pollution-wise: Methane is a lot cleaner than coal.)
As more renewables come online, their intermittent energy is having a greater impact on grid stability. Whenever clouds pass overhead or the wind dies down, backup or storage has to kick in to take up the slack, and do so within seconds.
Although it’s true that natural gas turbines can respond faster and easier than most reactors, there wouldn’t be much need for their heroic interventions if the intermittent energy of WWS wasn’t mandated to become a major part of our energy mix, and if it wasn’t prioritized to be used first.
State governments should require that wind and solar come to the party with their own backup and storage. But WWS advocates and lobbyists have successfully pushed “priority dispatch” policies that give renewable energy precedence over any other form of production.
This leaves the twin problems of backup and storage
for others to solve. In California, for example, any renewable power that’s generated, no matter how fleeting, is given priority to be consumed first.
This poses a major and growing problem for utility companies, since the grid was designed to import, synchronize, and dispatch the steady flows of high-quality energy generated by fueled plants and hydro.
A “renewables first” policy is like designating the fast lane of a freeway for bicycles.
Our existing Gen III reactors were designed to run flat-out for months at a time, day in and day out – the baseload behemoths of the grid. But with the increasing penetration of low-quality energy from renewables, more and more of our run-steady power plants are being called upon to act like fast-response backup systems.
Which poses a problem for these legacy plants: Ramping them up and down several times a day, on short notice, subjects them to stresses they were never designed to handle.
What gets lost (or dismissed) in the debate over carbon-free energy is that new reactors like the AP and the MSR are all-load plants, not just baseload plants.
Gen III+ and Gen IV reactors will be able to ramp up, or down, at power increments as fast as 5% per minute. That flexibility, plus some fast-response backups like hydroelectric dams, pumped hydro reservoirs, and gas turbines could power the grid.
But our existing reactors aren’t that flexible. So the “solution” (actually, the anti-nuclear excuse) is self-evident: Replace all reactors with natural gas plants.
This unfortunate decision obscures the larger point:
If California had never embarked on a wind and solar buildout, a carbon-free fleet of new and existing reactors could anchor their entire grid, and power the state’s pumped hydro for unexpected peak loads. Reactors could even power synfuel (synthetic fuel) factories to make carbon-neutral fuel for whatever backup gas plants they still need.
The truth is, California doesn’t have to shut down their existing reactors to go green. What they really need to do is expand and modernize their nuclear fleet.
The state has created their own problem, and now they’re “solving” it by getting rid of something that already works like a champ – the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which reliably generates 8.6% of California’s electricity.
Californians for Green Nuclear Power (CGNP) has shown that nearly half the natural gas burned in CA for energy is now being used to back up wind and solar:12
CGNP has also shown that when SONGS was shuttered in 2011 (the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station), California’s natural gas use sharply increased, while their zero- greenhouse-gas electric production plummeted:
In 2017, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) published their projection of a sharp increase in natural gas use, if the so-called bellwether state of California shuts down the Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DCPP) in 2025, and replaces it with a fleet of gas-fired plants, to back up their wind and solar:
Now that San Onofre is shuttered, Diablo Canyon is California’s last zero-emissions fueled power plant. But anti-nuke groups have persuaded Sacramento that renewables are the way to go.
Even though the direct result of implementing their “green” ideology over science-based reality will be a net increase in greenhouse gases, from methane combustion and leakage.13
Compounding this irony, a sizeable chunk of the climate benefits that California thinks it’s getting from the renewables industry, is actually being wiped out by leaks from an entirely different industry – the politically-incorrect fossil industry that fracks and extracts the methane California relies upon to back up their fossil-free renewables.
(To be fair, California’s gas leak rate is lower than the national average. So their natural gas industry is “only” wiping out one-third of the state’s WWS climate benefits, not the 40% average experienced nationally.)
And how exactly is this comedy of errors supposed to mitigate global warming?
We don’t know, either.
Renewables advocates like to cop a greener-than-thou attitude, but we’re not overly impressed. When you drive an EV, your tailpipe’s down at the power plant.
With anemic capacity factors of 20–35%, the WWS farms they envision powering the nation would effectively be gas plants supplemented with renewables.
That is, until that happy day when we finally have thousands of WWS plants scattered hither and yon (linked by thousands of miles of new transmission lines) that can back each other up without relying on gas
Without that backup, the farms will be one-fifth to one-third as productive as their advocates claim. And either way, the plants will have to be refurbished every 10–40 years.15 Plus, there’s the whole storage thing.
Not being up front on these fundamental issues can make a sensible conversation on energy choices far more difficult than it needs to be.
In theory, a tipping point should eventually occur when enough farms in enough regions start backing each other up. But the longer it takes to reach that point, the more methane we’ll have to frack, leak and burn.
Another problem with blowing through our natural gas reserves is that we don’t use methane just for electric power. We also use it to make fertilizer, plastic, pesticides, synthetic fabrics and pharmaceuticals.
Substitutes for methane can be found, but consuming mass quantities of a non-renewable resource to build a renewable energy system is a Faustian bargain that should give us pause.
Power to Gas (P2G) is a new technology that may be worth watching. With P2G, the overproduction of a wind or solar farm that would otherwise be wasted in the absence of batteries or pumped hydro can now be used to produce methane, to store the energy for later use. Like we’ve been saying, fuel is storage.
In an industrial P2G system, water is electrically split into oxygen and hydrogen. The oxygen is released to the atmosphere and the hydrogen, combined with CO2 that was scrubbed from a smoke stack or harvested from the atmosphere, is fed to microorganisms that excrete methane.
While it’s not carbon-free, P2G methane is carbon-neutral, since the carbon released by burning it was either harvested from the atmosphere, or would have wound up in the atmosphere anyway as power plant smog.
Power-2-Gas methane is less harmful than methane extracted from the ground, since the additional CO2 from burning newly extracted natural gas would further disrupt the planet’s Carbon Cycle.
P2G methane doesn’t disrupt the Cycle all that much, since it re-uses the CO2 that came from the prior burning of extracted fuel. But since any energy conversion results in a loss, the ultimate effect would be more carbon in the atmosphere.
The technology is still being tested, so don’t hold your breath. In fact, a cursory glance suggests that the process may only return about 25% of the energy fed into it. Which, by the way, is the same return on energy we get from electrically isolating hydrogen for vehicle fuel (more on that later.)
In the absence of any other mass energy storage technology, P2G (and hydrogen) are better than nothing. Not by much, but still . . .
Even so, there are three points about P2G methane to keep in mind:
Messing with the Carbon Cycle is the disruption in the term Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD.)
When you dig up a gazillion tons of carbon fuel in 150 years (a geologic blink of an eye) and burn it, weird things start happening to the climate. That’s because some of the carbon dioxide released in the combustion process will remain in the atmosphere for 100 years or more, trapping heat.
But this extra CO2 doesn’t just warm the atmosphere, which is one of the flimsiest substances on earth. Nearly all of the excess atmospheric heat (94%)
is being absorbed by the oceans, which cover 70% of the globe.16
That’s why it’s called global warming, not atmospheric warming.
And even if you don’t “believe” in all of this global warming stuff (or even if
you do, but think that a warmer climate and more atmospheric CO2 would be beneficial for crops and other flora), you should know that the oceans aren’t just absorbing heat from the atmosphere.
They’re also absorbing a lot of this excess CO2. Which isn’t surprising, since
the oceans already absorb atmospheric CO2 as a normal part of the planet’s
The problem is, with all the extra CO2 we’ve been
adding to the atmosphere, the oceans are absorbing
far more than they can process, becoming more acidic
(less alkaline) as a result.
Ocean acidification is global warming’s evil twin.
Even now, the increasing acidity of seawater is destroying the phytoplankton at the base of the oceanic food chain, by dissolving their calcium carbonate shells. Drop a piece of chalk (fossilized phytoplankton) into a mildly acidic liquid like vinegar or carbonated water, and watch what happens.17
Acidification is a huge problem, because no little critters for the fish to eat = no fish for us to eat, and no more whales to watch. Since the oceans provide about 15% of humanity’s dietary protein, the choice is clear: Reverse our carbon emissions, or acquire a taste for jellyfish.
Even more worrisome: Oceanic phytoplankton excretes about half of the world’s supply of atmospheric oxygen.18
So completely aside from the issues of smog, acid rain, global warming and climate change, if you’re partial to breathing air and if you enjoy seafood . . .
Download the Manifesto pdf.
See internal footnote No. 12
See paragraphs 6 and 7.
37,000 tonnes methane leaked is equivalent to annual emissions of 195,000 passenger cars.
Total amount of methane leaked from Porter Ranch was 94,000 tonnes, according to CARB.
By proportion, 94,000 tonnes / 37,000 t = 2.54.
Multiply 195,000 cars X 2.54 = 495,000 cars.
Assume 12,000 miles / yr @ 20 miles / gal;
495,000 cars X 12,000 mi / yr ÷ 20 mi / gallon = 297 million gallons of gasoline.
California wind and solar produced 20 million MW-hrs in 2013 (stated as billion kW-hrs in the fourth paragraph).
Therefore California’s wind and solar avoided 405 kg CO2 / MW-hr X 20 million MW-hr = 8.1e9 kg CO2 =
8.1 million tonnes CO2 avoided in 2013.
Per California Air Resources Board (CARB) the Porter Ranch total emission was 94,000 tonnes of methane.
At a GWP of 84X, that’s 7.9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2-e).
7.9 million tonnes ÷ 8.1 million tonnes avoided = 98%. Therefore nearly one year’s worth of emissions benefit was wasted by Porter Ranch.
See: “From Sea to Shining Sea.”
See 4th paragraph.
See Page 16.
See Page 2, note 4.