Solar PV, CO2 avoidance, and magic wands: attractive packaging and misleading advertising

The International Energy Agency’s Integrated Smart Grid Action Network—what does just the title of the organization say? To me, a cynical pro-nuke climate hawk, it connotes exactly the type of bureaucracy that is simultaneously useful and frustrating. Useful because it contains experts who produce and publish voluminous, informative, and well organized work and who know more than I do about things I need to know. Frustrating because it’s named after a magic wand touted and waved by people with whom I’m quite familiar, who inhabit a currently well-connected energy policy clique that I’m not part of and that I’d never join, even—and especially—if they would have me as a member. Which they wouldn’t.

The magic wand, of course, is the smart grid. Smart grid and magic wand are actually interchangeable terms, since each promises to solve intractable problems at a stroke and neither exists.

ISGAN released an interesting and informative 2019 discussion paper on the technical issues related to integrating “intermittent weather dependent power generation” into electricity grids. The part that interests me is their categorization of “flexibility needs, specifically flexibility for power.” Here’s what they say:

A functioning power system is required to maintain the equilibrium between power supply and power demand at all times. For the short term, this corresponds to maintaining the system frequency within pre-defined limits in order to prevent frequency instability (in an AC system).

—“Flexibility needs in the future power system.” ISGAN Discussion paper, March 2019, p. 15 of the PDF

How do you deal with intermittent weather dependent generation, which decreases the available “plannable generation, [and] increases the uncertainties and variability of the power supply”? The authors suggest the following:

  1. For the remaining plannable generation units, this may result in requirements of increased flexibility of e.g. thermal power plants to widen their operating ranges (minimum load levels and ramping rates) and shorten their start-up time.
  2. For the intermittent power generation units, flexibility requirements may result in a requirement to provide upward and downward balancing capability implying curtailment of renewable energy.
  3. To utilise a large number of small production units and loads, aggregated control of supply and demand may be used to provide flexibility solutions.
  4. Furthermore, solutions may involve the utilisation of short-term storage units and interaction between multi-energy carrier systems.
  5. Evaluating possibilities of increasing limits within which the system is operated, e.g.: minimum/maximum frequency deviation; speed of frequency changes (rate-ofchange-of-frequency); amount of time outside acceptable limits, may also prove to be suitable solutions for flexibility. Such changes may also cause altered requirements of the units and systems within the power system.
  6. —ibid, p. 15.

The first two points describe how system operators deal with the problem today. Thermal plants widening their operating ranges really means lowering their operating ranges, generating at smaller percentage of capacity. This, together with shortening start-up time, adds to higher emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gases per kilowatt generated. As for wind/solar facilities curtailing output, this is a polite way of saying they’re so erratic, disruptive, and, frankly, unreliable the system operator has to tell them to get out of the way, like the Amish barn builders told the bumbling pre-advertising David Ogilvy.

Are these intractable problems? Well, given suggestions 3, 4, and 5 in the litany, the answer looks to be yes. The first of those, point 3—utilizing a large number of small production units—works only if those production units are plannable generation! And if they’re fossil, how does this address climate change.

Suggestions 4 and 5 are unicorns. “Short term storage”—most would interpret this as “batteries”—is so ridiculously expensive that system operators use flexible thermal and renewables curtailment (suggestions 1 and 2) to cover renewables unreliability. And “increasing limits within which the system is operated” means… smart grid! Wave the magic wand and the problem is solved.

The other categories of flexibility are energy, transfer capacity, and voltage. While these are important, I won’t delve into them here. Flexibility of power is where this entire problem begins. If it’s not solved at the power level then the grid doesn’t work. The grid works when and only when supply equals demand, and that happens at the seconds/minutes/hours scale. If it’s not solved at that scale, it’s not solved.

Reading between the lines of the ISGAN discussion paper, you realize the authors are politely laying out the serious problems of increased penetration of renewable energy into grids. There are serious problems with getting rid of “unpopular” power generation like nuclear and coal. Essentially you have to find a thermal fossil fuel that for whatever reason is not so unpopular. Wind and solar cannot run a grid, and no amount of repetition that they can will change that.

This basic reality is the rock that wrecks renewable energy as a credible solution to climate change. Run the numbers, walk through the scenarios, run, walk… whatever you do you meet the reality that renewable energy proponents cannot argue around: wind and solar are popular, only. That’s all they have going for them. They do so poorly what other zero-carbon sources do well that they require fossil, the very thing they are supposed to replace. Experts in the bureaucracies that serve elected politicians who have staked careers on the foolhardy gamble that renewable energy fairy tales will magically come true have expertly hedged against the public backlash that will eventually doom the politicians’ favourite sons. That hedging is in black and white, and on full display in the ISGAN discussion paper. Albeit between the lines.

David Ogilvy said good advertising is the most efficient way to cull bad products from the marketplace. I guess that raises the question of whether the unabated decades-long run of wildly and uncritically good press renewables have received constitutes “good advertising.” I think Ogilvy was talking about a different phenomenon. I think he assumed that good advertising also meant honest advertising. I wonder if he would have considered the general adulation for renewables—and the generally favourable public view towards renewables’ commensal symbiont, natural gas—to be the outcome of advertising, or propaganda.

But speaking of advertising: there are financial securities, bonds, being issued these days, to finance clean energy projects. Some are beginning to claim certain specific tonnages of CO2 to have been avoided by the underwritten projects. The figure below is a look at yet a further version of the Ontario electricity situation of June 2019 I’ve been focusing on in the last series of articles. This time it shows one of the grid-connected solar farms in the province.

A bond that claimed, say, that the Grand Solar Farm avoided CO2 in the month of June 2019—would that claim be credible? As you can see, Ontario supply exceeded demand in nearly every hour of June 2019. Yet the Goreway gas plant produced power during many of those hours. The Grand Solar Farm also produced power during those same hours.

What portion of Ontario demand did Grand SF meet that obviated the need for Goreway? That’s a meaningless question, since both Goreway and Grand output in every hour appears to have been superfluous to Ontario demand. Unless you broaden the definition of demand to include the US (New York and Michigan) and Canadian (Quebec) export markets that for most hours of June 2019 were not clamouring for Ontario electricity—according to the purple curve on the top plot (Hourly Ontario Electricity Price, or HOEP).1

Grand SF was supplying what the ISGAN Discussion Paper authors would call “non-plannable” generation; and Goreway plannable. If there’s significant non-plannable generation at any given moment, then there must be yet more generation of the plannable type to make the non-plannable marketable. In which case the non-plannable needs the plannable. In which case, Grand SF wasn’t avoiding any CO2 at all. It was causing it.

The ISGAN authors say there is a renewable energy penetration limit above which conventional inertia is insufficient and “synthetic inertia” from RE is required but that there is in turn a limit to that, leading to battery-based measures (p. 37). Nobody has dared to go anywhere close to even the first of these limits, not even Germany. And the measures to support an all-RE grid would be so hard on the public pocketbook that even Germany, the heavyweight champion of renewables, builds new coal-fired plants because they are a far cheaper way to stickhandle around erratic wind and solar. The EU ETS cannot and will not force Germany do do anything different.

Hence my frustration, mentioned earlier. Instead of the expert diplomatic hedging, why can’t the ISGAN authors just out and say it: renewable energy is a waste of time and money.

  1. New York, Michigan, and Quebec were where Ontario sent its oversupply during June 2019. Did the Ontario system operator manufacture electrical demand in those markets with power-at-no-cost pricing? I think so. Ontario needed those markets to keep its own lights on. The long-term way to eliminate this problem wold be to simply cancel renewable energy contracts, and get wind and solar out of our grid. The legal basis for such a move is caveat venditor. It is well established, with lots of precedent.
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Todd De Ryck
3 years ago

“…Germany, the heavyweight champion of renewables, builds new coal-fired plants..” Also of note, look at the projected growth in (likely Russian) gas for Germany

3 years ago

Michigan has OTOO 2400 nameplate MW of wind power, which produced at an average of 608 MW by my last calculation.  Yet Michigan is due to close the Palisades NPP which is rated at 805 MW and certainly out-produces all the non-hydro “renewables” in the state by itself.

It’s insane, and it ought to be a felony.

3 years ago

Once again, Steve, your new template sets a ridiculously low-contrast text color.  Change it from #777777 to #000, please.

3 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

I meant the foreground, not background.

3 years ago

Same old same old….. One thing you`re missing .Solar operates on the distribution grid , not the transmission grid. Virtually 0% of solar is curtailed .Solar is produced locally and consumed locally . In Ontario wind and solar has brought demand down SO much, that the fixed costs(and always rising) of nuclear and gas has skyrocketed hydro rates. Not because solar is particularly cheaper but the rising costs of nuclear and lower output of nuclear, has caused rates to double and soon to triple. Seen a report where , if every house in Ontario had solar panels it would produce 68% of power needed during the day. Decentralized micro grids are the key to renewables not big centralized power plants. Curtailment is not an issue for solar or wind for that matter . As long as the microgrid is maintained . Power produced locally and consumed locally. Leave 1 nuclear or gas plant open …. get rid of the rest, save some money