In September 2016, tropical storm Hermine barreled out of the Caribbean and plowed through northern Florida, then parked off the Carolina coast for several wet, miserable days.
Meteorologists were baffled; the storm’s behavior was starkly different from anything in the historical record.
A few months later, they were caught flat-footed a second time when Hurricane Matthew came due north between Haiti and Cuba, churned along the east coast of Florida, and swamped the Carolinas all over again.
As we write this (autumn 2017), Hurricane Harvey has just dumped over four feet of rain on Houston, our national petroleum hub. Then Hurricane Irma chewed up the Virgin Islands and Florida, and Hurricane Maria wiped out Puerto Rico.
Global warming isn’t causing more storms. But it is making the storms that do exist more intense and much wetter: Warm water evaporates easier, and warm air holds more water. Which means more rain when it rains, and more snow when it snows.
There is a sobering graphic from the Washington Post that’s worth seeing. We call it “Thirty Cubic Miles of Harvey.” And nobody knew how bad it would be until three days before it hit. Check this out:1
Historical records are becoming less and less predictive, and as climate change progresses we can expect more and more surprises, along with more and more damaged wind and solar equipment. Like the solar farms in the Virgin Islands, or what’s left of them. Here’s one of several shredded by the 2017 hurricanes:2
Puerto Rico’s wind farms didn’t fare much better. Check out this video:3And yet, renewables fans are proposing that the island’s entire power grid should be rebuilt with wind and solar.
In stark contrast, the two reactors at STP (the South Texas
Project nuclear plant) operated at full capacity before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey, despite 130 mph winds, a sustained storm surge, and 60 inches of rain.4
The plant sustained zero damage, same as the Turkey Point nuclear plant south of Miami, and the St. Lucie nuclear plant up the coast. Florida Light and Power chose to shut their plants down for the storm, and that was their choice.
But just like the South Texas Project, Turkey Point and St. Lucie sustained no damage, and were back online shortly after the hurricane.
All of which raises an interesting question:
Since wind and solar are weather-dependent,
how can we depend on them
if we can’t depend on the weather?
Especially in a world of global warming, where storms will be wetter and wilder as the years roll on, as more heat energy is pumped into the oceans and atmosphere.
With a rapidly changing climate, is it wise to base the siting and stability of our entire national grid on historical weather charts? Particularly when the equipment is so vulnerable to unfavorable weather?
Stripped down to basics, that’s what the Roadmap seems to be proposing, with over 50,000 wind and solar farms in thousands of sweet spots around the country.
Any of which could turn sour in the decades to come, or be laid flat by a storm.
Well, it should, because climate change will also change our long-term wind patterns. Remember the Polar Vortex in early 2014?
The Jet Stream suddenly changed course and we were completely blind-sided, even with our libraries of historical weather data. The anomaly stuck around for weeks, altering wind and sun patterns in the lower 48 and pushing freezing temperatures as far south as Tampa.
At first frostbitten blush, a freight train of Arctic air roaring down from Canada seems to fly in the face of global warming theory. While some scientists contend that the two aren’t related, those who do see a connection explain it like this:
Melting sea ice lowers the albedo effect of the Arctic, reflecting less sunlight back into space. The darker, open water absorbs more heat, which warms the polar atmosphere above, causing the Jet Stream to behave erratically.5
Regardless of warming’s ultimate effect on the Vortex,
it’s a virtual certainty that all global climate data is herding in the same general direction, with a lot of unpredictable jostling going on.
Because this is so, we are nowhere near being able to dial in precise predictions about long-term weather, cloud, and wind patterns. Climate, yes, but weather, no. Which is precisely why 100% reliance on a fuel-free, weather-dependent grid would be a folly of historic proportions.
And yet, here are millions of sincere, die-hard WWS advocates, who accept the science on climate change (indeed, who have great respect for Science Itself), and have nevertheless embraced a multi-trillion-dollar strategy, the feasibility of which will utterly depend upon accurate long-term weather forecasting – not the climate, mind you, but the weather – in a future of ever-growing climate disruption.
The difference between a WWS grid and a nuclear grid couldn’t be more clear:
Given the Roadmap’s cost, interdependency, and scale, it had better last a long time, and it better work. Which means that nearly every farm will have to be kept up. That includes the farms in states that might lose interest in renewables.
Maintaining those farms could prove to be difficult if local opinion turns against the technologies. Being on state or federal land, sovereignty sentiments will undoubtedly clash with eminent domain, a conflict that’s right up the radical right’s alley.
What if an entire region of the country backs out of the Roadmap? Could the Roadmap be re-drawn to work with the states that stay in the program?
Nobody knows, until we go down that road and see who’s in and who’s out.
And even if everyone hangs in there, and the Roadmap is built, and even if it does work, its success still might not be enough to inspire proper maintenance.
Eisenhower’s national highway system was a great idea that worked like gangbusters, and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that it’s still a vital part of our infrastructure. Even so, it’s starting to crumble after a half century of neglect.
Why should we assume that the Roadmap’s upkeep
would be any different, even if it’s a great idea (which it’s not)? And especially if we break the bank in the process of finding out?
By the time we realize our mistake, we’ll also be saddled with the hellacious expense that unmitigated climate change is sure to impose.
The last thing we’ll need is a herd of green elephants with training wheels, eating us out of house and home.
If there’s one key take-away from this book (besides fuel = storage) it’s this:
Wind and solar farms aren’t just weather dependent. They also operate on narrow margins of utility: Even a mild long-term change in the weather could render a farm, or an entire cluster of farms, essentially useless.
What if our wind-blown Northern Tier becomes the Northern Doldrums? What if Texas becomes the Monsoon State?
Floating offshore wind turbines have been developed that can be moved to chase the wind – if the seabed in the new sweet spot is conducive to anchoring the rigs.
Floating wind rigs are all well and good, but moving an
onshore wind farm, or a solar farm, would be out of the question. The expense would easily wipe out the farm’s already-meager EROEI – the Energy Returned On Energy Invested.
Stranded assets are another factor to consider when comparing energy systems: How much labor and resources are sitting idle?
The flip side of average capacity is under-production: If a farm’s capacity factor is 20%, it can be said that the farm is underproducing by 80%.
But there’s more to it than that – 80% of the labor and material invested in the farm are stranded as well.
And a low capacity factor isn’t the only way to strand assets. Equipment that operates at peak performance can still be a waste. “Steel-per-megawatt” is a good yardstick: A megawatt peak of wind power requires nearly 8X the steel of a megawatt peak of nuclear.6
But since wind typically has one-third the capacity factor of nuclear, the actual steel-per-megawatt gap between the two technologies is more like 24X.
Even a whopping 40% capacity factor at a state-of-the-art wind farm still amounts to 60% stranded assets, which is still a waste of resources.
As rich and powerful as this nation is, we don’t have an endless supply of labor, material, and money. Or time, for that matter.
When you’re powering a country of 320 million people, these things add up.7
A permanent weather shift could markedly degrade the long-term productivity of wind and solar in a wide geographic area.
Political flare-ups are likely to follow, when a fiercely independent region finds itself exporting gigawatt after gigawatt, to another region whose long-term weather luck has gone sour and stayed that way.
Some might call it Energy Welfare. Brexit comes to mind.
So does Texit.
The nationwide, we’re-all-in-this-together Kumbaya grid proposed in the Roadmap would make every region utterly dependent on each other – whether they like it or not.
When the public realizes what energy interdependence actually entails, the anti-collective streak in American politics could cripple the entire project.
There’s been some intense bickering lately over the management of federal land, and we’ll wager that most members of the Sagebrush Revolution aren’t real big renewables fans. As outlandish as their tactics were, expect more, since a lot of the buildout would occupy state and federal land fifty miles from nowhere.
And being fifty miles from nowhere, wind and solar farms will need new connecting corridors to the main trunk (the actual grid.) Many of those corridors will have to run through private property. Lawsuits and eminent-domain battles will delay some projects for years.
It’s already happening in Germany, where their state-sponsored buildout of wind and solar (Energiewende) is meeting vocal resistance from property owners, particularly in scenic regions.8
And that’s quite aside from the ruckus we can expect from efforts to save migratory birds, desert critters and oceanfront views. While desert turtles might have trouble finding a good lawyer, the critters dwelling in seaside mansions have them on retainer.9
In contrast, Generation 4 reactors could actually eliminate
most transmission corridors. That’s because most Gen IV reactors won’t need a body of water for cooling, which means they can be placed wherever power is needed.
Selling off corridor real estate could be a nice perk for the electric utilities, helping to defray the cost of switching to nuclear power. It would also allow formerly divided communities to reconnect and expand in place.
And if we don’t have to see a conga line of transmission towers traipsing across the fruited plain, so much the better (wind and solar farms don’t exactly enhance the landscape, either.
The more you think it through, the more obvious it becomes: The scale of the Roadmap is so enormous, its footprint so large, and its impact so invasive, that the actual construction of the farms – as daunting as the national project would be – might be the easiest part of the buildout.
Sorry, but the Roadmap is not going to be cobbled together by a distributed network of artisanal power cooperatives.
In fact, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) wants to initiate competitive bidding to award federal land for renewables, which up to now has been granted on a first come / first served basis.
Since low EROEIs mean narrow profit margins, competitive bidding on wind and solar acreage could eliminate all but the biggest deep-pocket outfits.
General Electric makes wind turbines, gas turbines, and nuclear reactors. So do GE hobbits make the wind turbines, while GE orcs make the gas turbines and reactors?
Another emotional selling point they like to use is freedom from Big Energy’s evil octopus of a national grid, through the generation of distributed local power.
Even though, in a WWS-powered world, a reliable renewables grid (even a local one) would depend upon viable grid-scale batteries (which don’t exist, and likely never will), or a nationwide network of tens of thousands of other wind and solar farms, with thousands of miles of new transmission corridors, to back each other up and deliver power to their local markets.
Fortune 500 companies, billion-dollar construction firms, and defense contractors are the only outfits with enough resources, engineering talent, and financing to get the job done.
While rooftop solar can be a decentralized and local (if intermittent) approach to carbon-free power for remote or off-grid areas, it won’t run the country.
The politically incorrect truth is:
A nationwide, carbon-free, renewables grid would be the very essence of Big Energy.
While most cities and towns haven’t been built in the most windacious places, wind farms will have to be. Long-distance transmission will be an integral part of a national renewables paradigm.
While it’s hard to calculate the total impact on the
Roadmap, long-distance ac (alternating current) transmission lines from rural wind or solar farms can have a line loss approaching 5% or more, reducing their net delivered power.
To ensure connectivity, and to mitigate the unavoidable loss from long-distance transmission, there’s been talk of building a “loss-less” (actually low-loss) HVDC national transmission grid (high voltage direct current) in parallel with our existing ac grid.
HVDC would enable any power plant to transmit long distance with minimal loss, and have its power converted to ac at the destination. In fact, HVDC already provides electric transmission from the Columbia River on the Washington / Oregon border to Southern California, a distance of more than 1,000 kilometers.
Regardless of how ac power is generated, the line loss for ac transmission is the same. So this isn’t just an issue for wind and solar – an all-nuclear grid could benefit from HVDC as well. But with renewable’s low EROEIs, line loss is a particularly important factor in assessing their ultimate worth.
Like we said, with over 50,000 wind and solar farms required for an all-renewables grid,10 we’ll probably need 500,000 miles or more of new transmission lines, at an average of about ten miles per farm, to move power from the farms to our long-distance trunk lines. That’s a lot of copper.
In the near future, we will also have to upgrade our long-distance ac grid to accommodate the Roadmap’s much greater power level. This would be an entirely separate expenditure, and even more copper.
Eventual construction by mid-century of a national HVDC grid, would be yet another separate undertaking.
The foregoing litany of hassles is completely aside from the fact that as global warming increases, there will likely be a 15% calming of worldwide wind by mid-century.11
Which will require 15% more wind turbines (which means 15% more money, material and land) to compensate for this reduction of “free fuel.”
To be more than fair, we didn’t factor wind calming into the bare-bones price tag. Mostly because no one can say exactly how the calming will play out. But since the poles are warming faster than the equator, calming is likely to occur.12
That’s because two things generate wind: The rotation of the earth (which is unlikely to change), and a temperature difference between two large masses of air.
As the Arctic warms, the temperature difference between the Arctic air mass and the Canadian air mass is reduced. Overall calming, and a shift in wind patterns, will likely result. (The Polar Vortex, the Northern Doldrums . . .)
So whatever long-term generating capacity we’re hoping to get from the half-million wind turbines recommended by the Roadmap, we should probably curb our enthusiasm by 15%. Or build 15% more.
And build a parallel HVDC grid for good measure.
Search for “115.6 tonnes / MWp”, or just “115.6”.
Then search for “15,500 tonnes”. Divide that by 1,040 MW per reactor: 15,500 ÷ 1,040 = 14.9 tonnes / MWp.
Then divide 115.6 t ÷ 14.9 t = 7.8.
See Frame 8, journal page 2098, Table 2. Use columns 2 and 6, for rows 1, 2, 9 and 10.
See pages 1594, 1595, 1599 See also: