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Wind and solar are worst

The venerable (and somewhat woolly liberal) Brookings Institution in Washington DC has published a working paper on the most cost-effective way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Commendably, the paper eschews the dishonest levelised-cost (LCOE) approach used by DECC and its colleagues in the green movement. 

The author, Charles Frank, concludes that solar and wind power are the worst possible approach to the problem:

...nuclear, hydro, and natural gas combined cycle have far more net benefits than either wind or solar. This is the case because solar and wind facilities suffer from a very high capacity cost per megawatt, very low capacity factors and low reliability, which result in low avoided emissions and low avoided energy cost per dollar invested.

So DECC is promoting the least cost effective approach to emissions reduction and utilises a misleading metric to cover this up. Hmm.

In a similar vein, I came across this article at the GreenBiz website, which looked at levelised costs a few weeks ago:

Many people going solar are engaged customers and card-carrying members of the renewable energy choir. Or they're the energy-savvy commercial customers that have installed more than 3,300 MW of solar power through mid-2013 as a way to lower their energy costs, improve their bottom line and gain competitive advantage. They're going solar and reading about its LCOE — they hear that solar's LCOE is beating other forms of power generation, and they might come to believe that LCOE is the only metric that matters. And if you hang your hat on solar's LCOE, and that LCOE is favorable, why build anything other than solar?

Except that despite what LCOE might lead you to believe, things aren't that simple. If one generation source has a hypothetical LCOE of $60 per MWh but only produces power during the day and another source has a hypothetical LCOE of $80 per MWh but can produce power around the clock, if you need that power at night LCOE would suggest you should build one thing while in reality you needed the other.

Now in my book, if this hypothetical scenario exists in practice then its no different to fraud. You would not be allowed to sell anything else using such misleading metrics. The article speaks about a company called SolarCity that eschews levelised costs. No doubt there are others that are not so honest. But when you think about it, it's pretty appalling that the government is engaging in behaviour that most would consider fraudulent and even promoters of renewables think is misleading.

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Reader Comments (19)

"But when you think about it, it's pretty appalling that the government is engaging in behaviour that most would consider fraudulent and even promoters of renewables think is misleading

But the problem is that MOST don't appear to have enough mathematically ability, or even common sense, to see that this is one big "Con". All they see is the blatant lies claiming substantial returns on their investment, and they sign on the dotted line. How may folk continue to fall prey to email scams, or let "that nice gentleman from Windowsi" repair non-existent problems on their computer?

Jun 19, 2014 at 2:40 PM | Unregistered Commenterdave ward

When will people realize th at "cutting CO2 emissions" is irrelevant?
CO2 is NOT a pollutant and does NOT cause global warming; global climate change; global climate disruption; global climate weirding; global climate chaos or anthing harmful to the planet.

Jun 19, 2014 at 2:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterAl Shelton

Those not familiar with the various "study houses" in the US may not realize how significant the publication of this paper by Brookings Institute is likely to be. Brookings is a source trusted, I think, by most liberal politicians. The view expressed in the paper above is contrary to what many of them understand and may cause them to reconsider their approach to the "problem."

This revisionist analysis may penetrate even into Obama's nest of True Believers.

At last...

Jun 19, 2014 at 2:51 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

"Wind and Solar are worst"

What about biodiesel?

I thought it was the CO2 ADDING option.

Jun 19, 2014 at 3:02 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

You don't need to get nearly so technical. If solar power was about making electricity, the installations would follow the sun. If solar power was about raking in subsidies, you'd see the broadest installation where subsidies are highest. Guess where the installations are most prevalent?

Jun 19, 2014 at 3:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterSean

Even realistic analyses only give the price as cost pr kWh delivered ab plant.

1) For an offshore park the cost an undersea cable to get the power to the grid increases the real cost pr kWh. Less so for onshore.
2) Upgrading the transmission grid. In the UK and in many other places, the grid is weak and so are interconnects. That's ok when operating a power station in one place and using the power somewhere else. With wind this precondition is removed as the power comes from where there is sufficiently windy and the grid has to be able to cope with it. Connecting 600MW to the grid requires upgrades. Also upgrades or creation of interconnects to others countries. Thus also increases the costs.
3) Cost of backup power, that cannot be utilized 100% due to the fluctuations in demand.

Only by including the three above can you get the real total cost of the energy source for society and end-users.

Jun 19, 2014 at 3:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterHalken

...And STILL, with wind providing around 1-2% of (low, summer) electricity demand, the government has approved yet another huge wind farm off East Anglia... (A UKIP spokesman was furious on the telly..)
Someone is making a lot of money from this ludicrous way to produce subsidies - SORRY - electricity....

Jun 19, 2014 at 3:28 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

Some here perhaps don't realize that SolarCity is the third current startup company owned by Elon Musk, after Tesla cars and SpaceX. Although he pays a disappointing amount of lip service to climate change, his businesses are very much grounded in reality and well-judged engineering possibilities.

SolarCity is offering businesses (and now homeowners) leases on systems based on Tesla car batteries to shift electrical load between cheap and expensive times of the day (and of course to store solar). You get defined costs and benefits. SolarCity takes the risk on equipment lifetime etc.

Similarly, Tesla is using SolarCity equipment in their Supercharger electric car refueling stations.

Jun 19, 2014 at 5:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruce Hoult

The use of LCOE as a justifying tool for solar and wind power is in the same mental frame as speaking of the faceplate power costs instead of the as-productive power costs: a denial that TIME has an economic (or social) value.

The Russian Communists were well known for denying a time value to money. A dollar spent today but earned back over 20 years was the same dollar to them. You got your money back, right? Of course it was a disaster, but when you discount time, it makes sense.

The solar & wind power enthusiasts play the same game. They fail to recognize that all things deteriorate with time. Even the Earth does this: the river winding through your town today is not in the same position it was one hundred years ago and, given its preference, won't be in the same place one hundred years from now. The machine runs down and thus needs maintenance and replacement. That is the problem with not giving a value to time, you don't allow for "profit" to build to replace and rebuild as entropy takes its toll.

Strict socialism and communism see society as a stable circle of social energy in for received social energy out. There is no "frictional" loss or change from "kinetic" to "thermal" energy. Things don't run down and require constant input of new energy. "Harmony" and "sustainability" are nil profit concepts. You don't need to continually take more than you give. But you do. There is energy and effort loss in all things.

It is only in a world in which one is a tiny part that operates within the normal variations that you can go on forever without changing the system. When we were small tribes living in a large environment that provided all our needs, as long as the ups and downs - that included what we took/gave - was small enough, we would never have either excess nor inadequately met needs. But we didn't stay there, we grew and now exist at the limits of what is available to us. We are always taking more than we give back. The system must be capable of producing "profits", i.e. excess, to replace what we have taken. Animals have to breed faster than we eat them or maintain their numbers. Wind turbines must produce more "value" than they consume to be reproduced by the market later. When you discount time in the equations, you don't allow animals to breed at a sustainable rate and don't allow businesses to make the new turbine that you later need.

Being friends and feeling good about yourself isn't enough.

Jun 19, 2014 at 5:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterDoug Proctor

No surprise here. DECC have been immune to any criticisms of their policy on renewable energy (wind and solar especially). They have ignored all expert opinion.

Jun 19, 2014 at 5:42 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Jun 19, 2014 at 5:29 PM | Bruce Hoult

Elon Musk is an engineer at heart and people's lives are dependent on him getting things right. He knows there's no point in accountancy games when he's hoping to ride one of his own spacecraft to Mars, and back.

Jun 19, 2014 at 6:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterBloke down the pub

And no surprise here either. There's an excellent Levelised Costs study avaiable here:

complete with the spreadsheets used. This study comes to exactly the same conclusion as the article quoted above, The government know of the existence of this study but have rejected it out of hand for no given reason.

And yet, now the French are going to drop nuclear and convert to wind: they must be mad.

Jun 19, 2014 at 7:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterCapell

There is solar and...Spanish solar.

BP published their annual world energy statistics this week, which included data on solar capacity, which rose modestly from 4,685MW in 2012 to 4,828MW in 2013. Solar output was allegedly some 13.111TWh, or an average of 1,497MW 24 hours a day - or over 31% of capacity. Insolation maps show that even in Southern Spain the annual total is at best around 2,000kWh/m^2, which given peak energy of 1,000kW/m^2 implies a capacity factor of no more than 23%. In fact, neighbouring Portugal saw capacity rise from 226MW to 278MW, producing 448GWh for a capacity factor rather more in line with solar input (20.3% if you take the mean of the capacity measurements).

But then of course, we know it's true....

that you should never trust statistics about renewables.

Jun 19, 2014 at 8:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterIt doesn't add up...

P.S. some of the other countries seem to have suspiciously high levels of solar output relative to capacity (is it really sunnier in Denmark than Southern Germany?), while others are suspiciously low - such as India. You can be sure that tariffs and taxes and green commitments are at work in determining the statistics.

I haven't looked at the wind data yet, but I expect it may be equally entertaining.

Jun 19, 2014 at 8:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterIt doesn't add up...

Does anyone here really believe that FIT's will still be operative in 25 years' (5 elections!) time? Or that the equipment will be working..?

Jun 19, 2014 at 9:16 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp


Seen this?

"Bizarre Payback Analysis Being Used for Alternate Energy"

Jun 19, 2014 at 9:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnother IanAnother Ian

Meanwhile, back at the ranch.

Jun 19, 2014 at 11:17 PM | Unregistered Commenterclipe

The concept of the LCOE is just another dodge for scammers.
It reminds me of the old story of the Soviet nail factory that was paid by weight. They soon worked out that if they wanted to meet quota then the most efficient way was to mass produce 500Kg nails.

Jun 20, 2014 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterKeith L

"Soviet nail factory"

That conjures up a clear, if depressing, mental image. I recall the worker in a similar establishment who, when asked about the working environment, said: " we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us".

Jun 20, 2014 at 2:58 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

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