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« An outbreak of sanity | Main | Science (it says here) »

Some weapons-grade sophistry

Take a look at Mark Lynas's latest piece in the Guardian, in which he tries to absolve the wind fleet of any part in the close call the electricity grid suffered last week. This is pretty remarkable, given that at the time - as readers will no doubt recall - the wind fleet was becalmed and delivering just 3% of its installed capacity. Meanwhile the ageing coal fleet was only delivering 65% of capacity because of breakdowns.

Lynas's position is that this was fine and dandy because the near-total failure of the wind fleet was predicted.

Grid managers...had a day or more’s warning that Wednesday was likely to see very little wind generation, and planned accordingly.

Which is an argument that I'm sure you will agree, would only convince someone who was extraordinarily slow on the uptake. I mean, it's all very well being able to plan, but you do actually need capacity to act on your plan. Lynas has spent his whole working life as a writer and campaigner, so you could imagine that little details like these might slip his notice.

However, in fact it seems that Lynas's co-author Chris Goodall is not wholly blind to the point, noting in the comments:

If you put a lot of renewables on a grid, then you make it impossible to finance new fossil fuel electricity generation in the current electricity market. Market reform is therefore vital, combined with a well-thought-through plan to move to 100% renewables with storage.

What a shameless piece of sophistry that is. You "put" a lot of renewables on the grid, do you? Of course you can't "put" wind power on a grid just like that - you have to bribe people to install wind turbines and coerce others into buying the output. Only then can you make fossil fuels look financially unviable. It's quite clear that the authors know that this is the case and that it's the subsidies that are causing the problem, but they are putting on a fine show of pretending otherwise. Nothing to do with wind power gov'nor, nothing at all.

That market reform is needed is undeniable, although you will note that Goodall says precisely nothing about what reforms he wants - more sophistry of course. Moreover, market reform is precisely what what the government is doing by cutting back the subsidies to renewables. Is Goodall in favour? Who knows, but one would guess that he thinks we should subsidise fossil fuels too. It is hard to get to grips with such foolishness.

As for his idea that the problem is going to be solved by storage at any time in the next few decades, this is completely crazy. The amount of pumped hydro you'd need to see the country through a five-day lull in wind is absurdly large. And what then happens when you have a lull in the wind that lasts longer than five days? In the cold winters of 2009-11 we had lulls lasting weeks.

But don't worry, if the lights go out it will be fine if was predicted.


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Reader Comments (110)

golf charlie
That wasn't dumb; that was exceptionally clever. Almost certainly thought up by an advertising executive.
How do you "sell" unreliable power? By making it sound sexy. We're into recycling to save on scarce and limited raw materials so power that is from "renewable" sources is going to benefit us all, isn't it?
So we're all buying into the idea of renewable energy, aren't we? Some of us are having it rammed down our throats, admittedly, but "renewables is where it's at today, baby"!

Nov 15, 2015 at 12:05 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Nov 15, 2015 at 10:07 AM Spectator

Poor old Frank, from the US Mid Atlantic, (see post at Nov 14, 2015 at 4:48 AM ) has been completely hoodwinked by some rent seeking charlatans who produced this "paper":

"Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage, powering the grid up to 99.9% of the time"

The gist of this claptrap is:

They have 200 GW of wind and solar connected to a grid which has a maximum demand of 73 GW (same as UK). The
UK is heading for 35 GW wind and 20 GW solar by 2030, total 55 GW, so nearly four times National Grid's wet dream.

They have a "load following" battery of 750 GWh capacity. A Tesla "Power Wall" gizmo is 7 kWh, so just 107 million pretty wall panels needed. Those panels, which are 1300 mm wide, require a wall 139,100 km long; the Equator is about 40,000 km.

They have 22 GW of CCGT standing idle for 99.9% of the time. This is 13 CCGT power stations like Pembroke (2,108 MW). So, hundreds of engineers on duty for 24 hours a day, year on year on year, just to cover the possibility of being required to run for 9 hours/year, at random.

Frank also thinks that the UK pumped storage fleet is like a load following battery - wrong, because by definition, they are in pumping mode from midnight to 06:00 hours.

Frank is beyond help.

Nov 15, 2015 at 12:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrownedoff

Mike Jackson, all the more reason for emphasising the total failure of Renewable, as well as Green. They chose the terms.

Unreliable Green technology has been incorporated into Government energy policy. Greens love to make political capital out of any disaster. Mark Lynas is just getting his excuses in, as the country got its first warnings of the disasters that have been made inevitable by Unreliable Greens. UGs want to return us to the stone age. Some are already in the Stoned Age, and have been for too long.

Nov 15, 2015 at 1:40 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Brownedoff quoted me as saying: "You actually need to build nameplate capacity that is about 10-fold larger than the demand that won't be met by renewables."

I should have said: Britain actually needs to build nameplate wind capacity that is about 10-fold larger than the average demand that can no longer be met by dispatchable generation - plus storage capacity to get through the gaps (of several days) that remain.

The total amount of electricity currently provided yearly by wind (discussed by you above) is irrelevant to reliability. So is the average amount of power provided by wind. For RELIABILITY, the issues are: 1) What is the maximum demand (including a reserve) that will no longer be met with dispatchable generation? 2) How do you RELIABLY fill that GAP in demand with a combination of electricity from wind and storage (and other renewables such as solar if you want to consider them)?

Britain has 13 GW of nameplate wind capacity Suppose your GAP is 4 GW (30% of 13 GW). The average output from wind farms is equal to this gap, but won't fill it for long periods of time. It is impractical to fill those gaps with stored power. Expecting 13 GW of nameplate wind capacity to reliably provide 4 GW of power is insane. Your political leaders who do so are leading you to disaster.

Suppose you only ask current wind power to fill a gap of 1.3 GW. (You slow down retirement of coal plants.) Your 13 GW of nameplate capacity produces 1.3 GW most of the time and the gaps when it doesn't will be relatively short. Can these short gaps be supplied from storage?

Dinorwig can put out a lot of power for a short period of time: a max of 1.8 GW - for 5 hours, 1.3 GW for 7 hours, 1 GW for 9 hours - 9 GWh. According to MacKay's 2005 book, Britain's total pumped hydro capacity was 2.8 GW and 30 GWh. So this storage capacity can produce 1.3 GW for 23 hours with negligible help from wind. If your current GAP were 1.3 GW, your power system would not be reliable. If you have built more pumped storage over the last decade or do so soon, you can count on wind to RELIABLY provide 1.3 GW of power.

How much more storage do you need? That depends on a number of factors: 1) The innate variability of your wind output. (You have a decade of output data defining this problem.) 2) The actual variability in demand. (You have plenty of data defining this problem and strategies for reducing demand when desirable.) 3) The cost of storing power. If storage becomes cheaper, you can afford to install more storage to bridge longer gaps in wind output. Your current 13 GW of nameplate capacity might reliably supply 1.6 GW of power in combination with a lot more storage. 4) How reliable do you want your electric power to be? Don't say 100%. The reliability of your current system would be improved by burying all power lines so that they can't be damaged by wind, trees, lightening, etc. That costs too much. One outage is year (99.7% reliability) is a normal level of performance. So you need storage capable of covering the gap about 364 out of 365 days a year. Since wind and demand vary hourly, it would be better to define how much storage is need to bridge the gap about 8750 out of 8760 hours per year (99.9% reliability). Furthermore, 10 hours of shortfall does not mean 10 hours with zero power. It means brownouts or rationing.

Britain has numerous other issues that you have discussed in your comments: Retirement of old coal plants and nuclear plants. Paying the owners of existing coal plants enough to keep them in business now that wind is reducing demand for their services. Building transmission lines capable of carrying electricity between customers, wind farms and storage facilities. These problems simply define the power GAP you are expecting wind power to fill right now and in the future.

Right now, your leaders see 13 GW of nameplate wind capacity and think 4 GW of power. Your leaders need to recognize that 13 GW of wind power plus about 10 Dinorwigs as represents perhaps 1.3 GW of RELIABLE power. Yes, you will get more power than this much of the time and it will reduce CO2 emissions, but it won't be reliable power.

Nov 16, 2015 at 10:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank

Spectator wrote: "Actually the real problems with "renewable energy" in the form of wind generation are : 1) it is unnecessary, 2) it is uneconomic, 3) it is unreliable,4) it is undespatchable, 5) it is unpredictabel,6) it needs reliable back up,7) it does not reduce CO2 emissions on a life cycle basis, 8) the technology is obsolete, 9) the turbines have a very short life and their output degrades rapidly, 10) it takes up a huge amount of land per unit of power generated.

When I mentioned cost as a problem, I covered your #2, #6 and your complaint that storage is expensive.
When I mentioned environmental footprint, I covered your #10 and storage.
When I mentioned a plan for dealing with intermittency through storage, I covered your #3, #4, #5, and #6.

As for #7, life cycle analysis shows wind power does reduces CO2 emissions - by a factor of 100 compared with coal.

Obsolescence (#8) is in the eye of the beholder. Today's wind turbines evolved from windmills that were used for a millennium. Today's 747 and 787 evolved from the biplane over the last century. Would you call these planes obsolete technology.

As for #1, God hasn't informed of the correct value for ECS and the cost of future warming. So, I don't know if renewable energy is necessary right now. I doubt it.

Unfortunately, the advocates of renewable power ARE convinced of the need for renewable power. The only thing that might dissuade them from building more is realistic information about the COST of RELIABLE wind power - especially if it gets into the hands of voters. They need to learn that 10 GW of nameplate wind capacity delivers about 1 GW of reliable electricity (not the average output of about 3 GW) - but only when expensive power storage is available. That raises the cost of wind power by a factor of about 5 above the levelized cost of generation.

Nov 17, 2015 at 11:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterFrank

Nov 16, 2015 at 10:25 PM Frank

Sorry, Frank but your latest essay is total GreenBlobbery and I shall not waste any more of my time on such gibberish.


However, let us return to your original post and deal with that, now that you corrected the message so that it makes your position clearer.

Nov 12, 2015 at 4:31 PM Frank

Britain is closing dispatchable generation plants and will no longer capable of meeting 100% of demand at any time (including a reserve for breakdowns and unexpected demand). In that case, renewable power (mostly wind) must be capable of RELIABLY delivering the rest. That obviously requires energy storage for periods of total calm. More importantly, it also requires recognition of the fact that there will be long periods when wind output is 10% or 20% of nameplate capacity. Storage is far too expensive to get through those periods. You actually need to build nameplate capacity that is about 10-fold larger than the demand that won't be met by renewables dispatchable generation. (correction posted at Nov 16, 2015 at 10:25 PM).


This year in the UK, the maximum metered demand of 53,498 MW occurred at 17:30 on Monday, 19 January 2015.

Records show that at that time the dispatchable generation was 50,122 MW**, a shortfall of 3,367 MW.

You say, we should have had a fleet of Windmills of nameplate capacity 10 fold that of the shortfall, 33,670 MW, so that the metered demand would have been satisfied.

At that time, the metered wind generation capacity was about 7,500 MW.

Unfortunately, there was a shortage of wind around the UK on that afternoon and the metered windmill generation at 17:30 on that day of maximum metered demand was, wait for it, a magnificent 414 MW generated by 7,500 MW nameplates worth of windmills (say 5% ).

So, on that day, your fleet of 33,000 MW could have probably provided 1,650 MW (5%) which still results in a shortfall of 1,717 MW.

So, we should have had at least 20 fold the shortfall, giving a fleet of 67,340 MW nameplate windmills on duty.

An interesting exercise, but I am now finished. I prefer herding cats.

Date Monday, 19 January 2015, 17:30 hours
Frequency 50

All in MW.

Metered Demand 53,498

Coal 15,708, Nuclear 8,780, CCGT 22,380, Pump Store 2,074, Hydro 1,039 Oil 0, OCGT 141, Total 50,122.

Wind 414

Nov 17, 2015 at 12:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrownedoff

Brownedoff: The study I cited is useful for defining what is needed to reliably generate electricity from wind and solar - whether your goal is 31 GW average demand in the Mid-Atlantic US or a few GW of power that Britain no longer generates from dispatchable sources. Their "lowest-cost" solution that makes renewable energy 99.9% reliable involves overbuilding renewable capacity and wasting about 2/3 of the power it generates. (See Table 8, average excess power.) Reliability also requires storage - about 12 hours worth of average demand in the Mid-Atlantic.

I don't know why this study didn't consider storing power via pumped hydro - it is cheaper than central batteries.

Brownedoff wrote: "Frank also thinks that the UK pumped storage fleet is like a load following battery - wrong, because by definition, they are in pumping mode from midnight to 06:00 hours."

Your pumped storage facilities ARE functioning like a load-following battery. They store power generated at night when demand is low and releases it during the day when demand is high. In the future, they can store power when the wind is blowing and release it when the wind is calm.

Brownedoff concludes: "Frank is beyond help." Probably. Frank thinks your leaders are going to ignore those who say wind power is unreliable, because they listen to experts who tell them that wind can be made reliable and that the levelized cost of generation is low. Frank thinks your leaders are smart enough to reject making wind power reliable by wasting about 2/3 of the power it generates AND adding expensive storage. That is the "lowest cost" way to make 100% wind power reliable. Otherwise they must spend even more on storage capacity. (They also won't like covering three times as much of the landscape with wind turbines either.)

Actually, Brownedoff is beyond help. He can't understand that discussing the real cost of reliable wind power doesn't mean I believe we should pay that cost. If we want to reduce CO2 emissions, build nuclear and pray that no accident is worse than Fukushima.

Nov 17, 2015 at 12:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank

Brownedoff: Thanks for the data and your patience. In your analysis, you didn't include any storage capacity. Dinorwig alone has the capacity to produce the missing 1.7 GW of power for about 5 hours. Your remaining pumped storage would extend this to 18 hours. The study I cited called for a reserve capable of meeting about 12 hours of the demand not met by dispatchable generation.

The study looked at the actual weather and demand every hour for four years and found that there would have been 5 shortfalls of power, despite the recommended reserve. 99.9% reliability means a shortage of less than 9 hours out of 8760 per year.

So this gives you a rough idea of how periods of low wind can be handled. (Or possibly not handled, since you would have entered the following day with depleted storage and could have received little wind.)

Nov 17, 2015 at 3:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank

I don't know why this study didn't consider storing power via pumped hydro - it is cheaper than central batteries.

Nov 17, 2015 at 12:20 PM Frank

Where would the pumped water be stored? [I'm asking - it's not apparent to me what the answer is]

Nov 17, 2015 at 4:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

Martin A: For a discussion of pumped storage by the former Chief Scientist for DECC, see the section beginning at:

This author did anticipate overbuilding wind power to deal with intermittency and therefore is anticipating a need for much more storage capacity (4 days) to cope with intermittency than Budischak's "lowest-cost" plan.

Nov 17, 2015 at 6:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank

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