If more wind is the answer, what was the question?

So false solutions like divestment or “Oh, it’s easy to do” hurt our ability to fix the problems. Distinguishing a real solution from a false solution is actually very complicated. – Bill Gates, from the Atlantic, Nov. 2015

The plans

No. This post isn’t about the game of Jeopardy. That’s not the question. The question is about roll-out of renewables. And how reality factors into that.

Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University has written a document about renewables. In The Solutions Project, Jacobson describes how each of the 50 states can switch to 100 percent renewables for all energy use by 2050. If you go to the project website and look at the team section, you will see Professor Jacobson (who is a professor of engineering), with a board of directors filled by solar company executives, lawyers and filmmakers.

Well, that’s the board, and boards don’t need have to have technical expertise in the company’s technology. Let’s look at the staff leadership section, instead. In a renewable-energy not-for-profit, I would expect to see an executive director, an engineering group leader, and a communication group leader. There might be more groups, too, such as HR and fundraising. However, this project has four leaders: an executive director (of course), a creative director (huh?), an executive producer (huh?) and a state program director.

This organization sounds more like a film making company than an engineering organization. I don’t think a “creative director” and a “producer” are the most useful titles, if the goal is changing the energy mix in the United States.

I can’t call the Jacobson document a plan. It’s not a plan. (Maybe it’s a film.) Anyhow, I am going to call the Jacobson scenario “the untested vision.” Let’s look at this “vision” for Washington state, and compare it with the real world of that state.

The untested vision for Washington state

When you visit the Solutions Project and click on Washington state, the infographic shows the state relying on 100 percent Wind Water and Solar (WWS) for all energy purposes in 2050. Yes, WWS is supposed to provide energy for electricity, and transportation, and heating/cooling, and industry.

Credit: The Solutions Project

Credit: The Solutions Project

For 2050, the infographic shows the energy mix as approximately 35 percent hydro, 35 percent electricity from on-shore wind, 13 percent from offshore wind, 15 percent photovoltaic electricity, and a smattering of geothermal, tidal and wave devices. Since there is no biomass and no solar-hot-water or anything like that, it looks as if everything (heating, transportation, industry) will be based on generating electricity.

In another section, Jacobson describes the “ramp-up” to renewables for the state. In this document, he keeps the current level of hydro power for Washington, but phases out nuclear and fossil electricity with an array of wind turbines etc. Then he adds renewables for everything else.

Except for phasing out the clean-air nuclear plant and a small amount of fossil electricity, all the new renewables will go to substituting for gasoline, diesel fuel, home heating fuels, and fuels used in industrial processes. Also, by not including biomass in his plan, Jacobson basically excludes burning any fuel to make power or heat a home. He does imagine a hydrogen-based workaround, starting by making hydrogen with electricity, for some of the transportation sector. However, his transportation sector is mainly electric vehicles, as far as I can tell.

Wow. How to start reviewing this? Okay. Instead of trying to review the whole Untested Vision, I will just look at the wind turbines. (Some critiques of the entire scenario are at the bottom of this blog post.)

In the infographics for the Untested Vision for Washington state, onshore wind will equal current hydropower (35 percent of energy use), and offshore wind will add another 13 percent of the energy. Current hydropower makes about 80,000 GWh per year in Washington state. (For the calculations, see the note at the end of the article). A 3 MW wind turbine with a 33 percent capacity factor can be expected to make 8.7 GWh per year. Therefore, 80,000 GWh from on-shore wind would require something close to 10,000 turbines, 3 MW each, in Washington state. Please note that these are huge turbines (in contrast, the largest turbines at Energy Northwest’s Nine Canyon Wind Project are 2.3 MW), and I have also assumed a healthy capacity factor.

Wind TurbinesThat’s a lot of turbines.

I think it is time to turn away from the Untested Vision and look at the real world.

The real-world thing

In the real world, a small nuclear plant (600 MW, 90 percent capacity factor) can make 4,700 GWh per year with no pollution and very little effect on the landscape. This is one of the reasons that Energy Northwest believes in the technology behind small modular reactors, and has first right of refusal to operate a planned NuScale SMR. The reactor will be built in Idaho.

However, Jacobson rejects nuclear as part of his Utopian Untested Vision, so let’s get back to those wind turbines.

First of all, as I have written in other blog posts, the intermittency of wind means that it must be backed up with other sources of electricity. Hydro is the most common back up, because it can ramp up and down quickly, to balance the wind. Hydro can come up quickly when the wind dies down. However, if there is enough wind, it will not be possible to manage the river as a wind-turbine backup. There are many other constraints on managing a river. Studies are showing the Columbia River as close to topped-out for wind-turbine backup.

Adding a great deal of wind to the Northwest grid probably can not be accommodated without adding fast-ramping gas turbines, also.

Nevertheless, Jacobson imagines more wind turbines on the grid than total hydropower. And the wind back-up will be what kind of energy? I have no idea under what balancing scenario Jacobson expects this to work.

What about current reality, though? Is wind being added to the local grid right now? Yes and no. Basically, it isn’t easy.

In the real world, in Washington state, there is an excellent wind turbine site at Whistling Ridge, and some people want a set of wind turbines at the site. A project with just 35 wind turbines has been planned since 2007, but it has always been blocked. Two years ago, in federal circuit court, the wind project won the right to connect to the grid. However, right now, the project is facing another challenge in federal appeals court.

This is not an assessment about this particular project. I am just showing that, in the real world, wind projects can be very hard to site and to permit. I don’t think that thousands of wind turbines are likely to be placed in Washington state over the next few years – or even decades.

If wind is the answer, what was the question?

Why is anyone proposing so many renewables? That is a question, and it has a clear answer. We hope to use renewables instead of fossil to achieve clean air and a low carbon footprint. However, Washington state’s electricity sector is already a leader in clean air power production, with hydro, nuclear and some wind. Only about 14 percent of Washington’s electricity comes from combustion sources: the rest is clean-air.

In Washington, the “dirty-fossil” part of the state energy mix is largely in the transportation sector.

However, despite Tesla’s fast-recharge stations (which are still much slower than filing a tank with gas), the transportation sector has not changed substantially. Moving the transportation sector away from fossil fuels would be a victory for clean air. But this victory would have nothing to do with wind turbines. It wouldn’t even have very much to do with adding Small Modular Reactors, which would be far more environmentally friendly than thousands of wind turbines.

The problem with changing the transportation sector away from fossil isn’t the availability of electricity: the problem (basically the “question”) is the price and range of the cars.

So, Jacobson has an unrealistic answer. However, worse than that, it is the answer to the wrong question.

When someone describes an answer, it is worth being certain that they have asked the right question. Thousands of wind turbines are the wrong answer to the wrong question.

(Post by Meredith Angwin)

Notes and links

Hydro calculation: Hydro calculation: The EIA shows Washington as generating 89,000 GWh of hydro in 2012, but only 78,000 in 2013. I have used 80,000 GWh as my rough estimate. EIA also shows Washington as generating a total of 114,000 GWh in 2013. In 2013, hydro generated 68 percent of Washington’s electricity
Two reviews of Jacobson’s Untested Vision:

1) Critical Review of Global Decarbonization Scenarios: What Do They Tell Us about Feasibility? Loftus et al, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews, November 2014. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wcc.324/full

Of the various studies reviewed in the document, the Jacobson studies were among the least feasible. The Jacobson studies required very rapid growth of energy efficiency and renewable energy installations. These growth rates were far above anything that has been experienced in the world of energy technology change.

2) Andrew Revkin of the New York Times on how to tell an Energy Thought Experiment from a Roadmap, January 2015:

A Climate Hawk Separates Energy Thought Experiments from Road Maps.

4 thoughts on “If more wind is the answer, what was the question?

  1. Meredith:

    I’ve done some digging to find out who funds Jacobson’s “Untested Vision.” Other words to describe his “plan” are fantasy or a mirage.

    Jacobson’s research funding comes through the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford.

    Jay Precourt is a wealthy alum who earned his BS and MS in petroleum engineering in ’59 and ’60. He made his fortune in the oil and gas industry, which was a very lucrative place to be, even when he first started working.

    Some might read his support for energy research like Jacobson’s as paying penance and trying to move the world to a better energy system than the one that helped him make billions, but I see it as cementing the long term position of fossil fuel as the primary source of energy. In grids where unreliables play a large role, fossil fuel supplies MOST of the power.

    When unreliables provide more than about 20% of the total supply of electricity, it becomes very difficult and expensive to keep the system functioning reliably.

    I produced a series of posts about the money trail between Precourt, Stanford and Jacobson on Atomic Insights. This one includes links to the others.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. The world has built expensive hardware to answer the wrong question before. It was the Super Sonic Transport (SST), a passenger plane faster than sound. The question it answered was “Can we get there faster?” The answer was “Yes.” After the plane was in service for a while, it turned out the question that also should have been asked was “Do we need to get there faster?” Turned out the answer was “No.”

    What question is “more renewables” answering? I heard Anna Gyorgy (author of “No Nukes”) state it “What can replace nuclear power?” Some have not asked “Do we need to?”

    We are in the situation where all the right questions may not have been asked, and if they have the answers to some may have been assumed. Those who say the answer to “Do we need nuclear power (except for ships, submarines, and space)” is “No” forgot to ask “How do we get there from here?” Turns out that part of the answer is knowing how the grid we have works, and they apparently don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Reality: less nuclear means more natural gas | Northwest Clean Energy

  4. Pingback: Helgläsning v8 | Nej, det kan vi inte

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