Renewable Energy is the Work of Generations of Engineers?

Fresh from bemoaning the lack of grid-scale energy storage to support all the large scale solar PV parks currently being proposed here in not so sunny South West England, the latest edition of the IEEE Spectrum magazine landed on my doormat this morning.  In all the circumstances it would have been very handy if it had arrived this time last week, since it contains all sorts of statistics and arguments derived therefrom that support my position on that locally contentious issue!

In an article entitled “A Skeptic Looks at Alternative EnergyVaclav Smil, a distinguished professor in the department of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba, bemoans (amongst other things) solar PV subsidies here in Northern Europe:

In June 2004 the editor of an energy journal called to ask me to comment on a just-announced plan to build the world’s largest photovoltaic electric generating plant. Where would it be, I asked—Arizona? Spain? North Africa? No, it was to be spread among three locations in rural Bavaria, southeast of Nuremberg.

I said there must be some mistake. I grew up not far from that place, just across the border with the Czech Republic, and I will never forget those seemingly endless days of summer spent inside while it rained incessantly. Bavaria is like Seattle in the United States or Sichuan province in China. You don’t want to put a solar plant in Bavaria, but that is exactly where the Germans put it. It happened for the best reason there is in politics: money. Welcome to the world of new renewable energies, where the subsidies rule—and consumers pay.

After laying his cards on the table at the outset Vaclav then lays into a wide range of renewable energy subsidies, making only two exceptions:

Without these subsidies, renewable energy plants other than hydroelectric and geothermal ones can’t yet compete with conventional generators. There are several reasons, starting with relatively low capacity factors—the most electricity a plant can actually produce divided by what it would produce if it could be run full time. The capacity factor of a typical nuclear power plant is more than 90 percent; for a coal-fired generating plant it’s about 65 to 70 percent. A photovoltaic installation can get close to 20 percent—in sunny Spain—and a wind turbine, well placed on dry land, from 25 to 30 percent. Put it offshore and it may even reach 40 percent. To convert to either of the latter two technologies, you must also figure in the need to string entirely new transmission lines to places where sun and wind abound, as well as the need to manage a more variable system load, due to the intermittent nature of the power.

I couldn’t have put it better myself, and I couldn’t have fitted it all into 5 minutes last Monday  either. If you have any interest in learning how to discern the difference between Green Energy and GreenWash I heartily recommend you read the article in full. Several times if necessary, until Vaclav’s message makes sense to you. To summarise, here’s his closing remark:

It is impossible to displace [the world’s fossil-fuel-based energy system] in a decade or two—or five, for that matter. Replacing it with an equally extensive and reliable alternative based on renewable energy flows is a task that will require decades of expensive commitment. It is the work of generations of engineers.

As if all that wasn’t enough, here’s a 45 minute video in which Bill Gates presents his views on energy policy in general, and Vaclav Smil in particular:

Finally here’s David MacKay’s “brilliant book” that Bill refers to around 18 minutes into his presentation. Sustainable energy, without the hot air.

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