Energy Sense from an Unlikely Source

In preparing for this week’s session of my graduate course on energy policy, I happened to stumble across a very sound discussion of why the energy romanticism of the Climate Haters (I think I’m going to retire “climatistas” and go with the more accurate Climate Haters instead, because settled science!) makes no sense. It is in a series called “Getting to Zero” (as in zero carbon emissions), written by a self-described liberal convinced about climate change disaster, and described thusly:

In this series GETTING TO ZERO we will take a very hard-headed look at current energy policy and energy strategies. We will ask hard questions: does this really get us to zero? How much would it cost? How rapidly can it be deployed? We may find some answers along the way, but don’t expect them to be easy.

We’ve all read those rosy optimistic stories about renewable energy, and how in some given month 100% of new electrical capacity in the US was all renewable; or about how during some hour in the dead of night all of the electricity demand in Denmark was met by wind. You read those stories and you think, “Hey! We’re making progress in the climate fight!”

And that impression is dead wrong.

The second installment of this series looks at the economics of renewable energy and, citing a study in the journal Energy, concludes that it really blows (so to speak). The discussion gets a bit technical at this point, with an extended discussion about EROI (energy return on investment) and “buffering” (meaning essentially backup supply for sources like wind and solar that are intermittent) along with some very interesting charts, but the author ends up concluding that wide scale adoption of renewable energy “will reduce GDP. The economy becomes less efficient as we deploy less efficient energy sources to run it.”

The discussion of wind power is especially interesting:

Wind is a tricky case. If you ask most people, they will tell you that we don’t currently have energy storage for wind. In fact we do, but the buffering for wind comes from natural gas powerplants, which are typically built at the same time wind is deployed. When the wind dies, the backup gas plants are turned on, to keep the grid power reliable. Thus the energy storage for wind is embodied in the natural gas that isn’t burned when the wind turbine is producing peak output.

This means that wind, as it’s used now in the US, isn’t really zero-fossil. It’s a hybrid system that’s part wind, part natural gas. And considering the availability of wind (30% is typical for a wind turbine), most of the energy actually comes from the fossil side of the equation. We’re using the wind to offset some of the CO2 emissions from the gas plant (which is good), but instead of getting to zero, we’re just walking toward the cliff instead of running toward it.

Denmark currently is one of the most wind-energy-intensive countries in the world, which works because they buffer their wind energy against hydroelectric power from Norway and Sweden. When the wind is blowing in Denmark, they export electricity to Sweden, which then can turn down its hydro plants (thus keeping more water stored in the reservoirs behind the dam). When the wind dies, Sweden turns up the taps on the hydroelectric production, and exports that stored energy back to Denmark. It’s a great zero-fossil system, but it’s only possible because of the unique geography that places a flat windy country right next to a couple of wet mountainous countries.

The author concludes that we need a lot more hydropower and nuclear power—both forms of energy that environmentalists hate. (In fact, most state “renewable portfolio standards” specifically exclude hydropower as an option to satisfy the RPS mandate.)

The third segment in this series looks at energy efficiency, which many greens seem to think is the magical pathway to a carbon-free future. Here the author is even more scathing:

There’s just one problem. They [the efficiency/conservation advocates] are all completely and totally wrong. Increasing energy efficiency does not, has not, and will not ever reduce overall demand for energy. This is not just an opinion; it has been demonstrated with the cold hard equations of physics, based on the second law of thermodynamics.

Now don’t get me wrong. Energy efficiency has obvious economic benefits, and those benefits are often enough to make such improvements worthwhile. It’s not that we should stop being more efficient. It’s just that we should not expect those improvements to reduce energy demand or carbon emissions. Because they won’t do that.

So what Koch-supported, flat earth, denialist site hosted these sensible reflections?

The Daily Kos.

You read that right. Here are Part I, Part II, and Part III. I’ve never heard of the author, Keith Pickering, but if he keeps this up, he’s going to get “investigated” by House Democrats for departing from the script.

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