Jun 30 2023

A Climate Rebuttal

The climate change discussion would benefit most from good-faith evidence and science-based discussion. Unfortunately, humans tend to prefer emotion, ideology, motivated reasoning, and confirmation bias. As an example, I was sent an excerpt from a climate change podcast as a “rebuttal” to my position. The content, however, does not address my actual position, and I find many of the arguments highly problematic. This one is coming from a perspective that climate change is real and a definite problem that needs to be addressed, but seems to be advocating that the best solution is to be all-in on wind and solar without needing other solutions.

The podcast is The Energy Transition Show and here is the episode I was sent: https://xenetwork.org/ets/episodes/episode-200-ets-retrospective/. As a rebuttal to my position and what seems to be the position of many experts, their arguments are strawmen, but a particular kind of strawmen. One way to create a strawman argument it to portray the most extreme position as “the” counter opinion to your own. This sets up a false dichotomy – either you agree with us or you are advocating for this extreme and easily refutable position, ignoring vast territory between two extremes. Here’s the beginning of the excerpt:

[00:34:15] ….this argument against the energy transition, which seems to be falling by the wayside since you started in 2015, is this claim that we could never run a power grid with a large share of renewables due to their quote unquote intermittency? Right. You know, back in 2015, there were a lot of people insisting that the power grid couldn’t support more than maybe a high single digit, low double digit percentage of renewable power due to this intermittency, and that we would need to maintain significant amounts of baseload generators that run close to full time, like coal, nuclear plants, to ensure reliable operation of the power grid. But that has not turned out to be true, at least not yet, at the levels of penetration we’re seeing and we’re seeing very high levels of penetration in California. A couple weeks ago, I think 97% renewables at one point in time. And so I don’t really hear those arguments nearly as often anymore. But I am very interested in where you think those arguments have gone.

[00:35:55] Chris Nelder: Yeah, well, we were just talking about terminology and the preference of some people to start calling natural gas fossil gas or methane. I have a strong aversion to the term intermittency. That’s a term that really I think came from the fossil fuel industry as a way of casting doubt on renewables and making them sound unreliable or hard to forecast or in some way or another, not something that we can count on. And that’s just not the case.

The notion that the grid cannot take more than single digits or low double digits of intermittent sources may be a talking point on the climate change denial end of the spectrum, but that is not the mainstream perspective arguing that we should not rely entirely one wind and solar. Also, I have never read the argument from any expert that the grid cannot function with high penetration of wind and solar, only that it becomes more challenging and high penetration. One side note, many sources use the term “renewable” source or explicitly refer to WWS – wind, water, and solar. But hydropower is not intermittent, it can be dispatchable, and can be use for grid storage through pumped hydro. So including that in the discussion muddies the waters.

In any case, the real argument is that because wind and solar are intermittent (most sources I find use “intermittent” and “variable” interchangeably) there are two main ways to balance the grid with such sources. One is grid storage, which allows you to store excess energy when production is high, and then dispatch that energy when production is low. The other is to have lots of intermittent sources connected on the grid so that their intermittent production balances out over time. The more sources you have connected together, in fact, the more predictable they become in the aggregate. Also, algorithms are getting better at predicting net energy production throughout the day.

But the discussion above ignores the real issue here. This approach further depends on two things – increasing overcapacity and an increasingly robust, integrated, and smart electricity grid. Again – this does not mean it’s not possible, even to have a 100% wind and solar grid, just that it gets more expensive as you try to push penetration closer and closer to 100%. And it’s not only about money – it’s about time as well. If our goal is to decarbonize the grid as fast as possible, taking a strategy that requires a massive decades-long grid upgrade may not be the optimal approach, even if it ultimately will work.

Already we are seeing 10-15 year backlogs in requests to connect renewable sources to the grid, and similar backlogs in plans to upgrade the grid so that renewable sources can be connected to where the energy demand is. And again, none of this means it is not possible. It’s about time and money. A lot of the hurdles can be overcome simply with regulation changes. Right now it is really hard to build a transmission line through multiple jurisdictions. We need a federal agency with the power and eminent domain to bypass all the local jurisdictions. We also need to invest a lot of money in upgrading the grid. Balances a distributed grid of intermittent (or variable) sources requires a lot of upgrades.

The quote above, however, whitewashes these issues with a specious argument – that California at one point in time was run on 97% renewables. This is confusing energy capacity with energy production. This does not mean we can produce 97% of the total energy that California consumes with renewable sources with the existing grid. That is not what we mean by “penetration”, but I often see that put forward as an argument for wind and solar. It’s deceptive. The question is – where is the energy coming from when intermittent sources are not putting out that much energy?

They go on:

Grid operators routinely forecast with incredible accuracy what the wind and solar generation is going to be tomorrow or in the next couple of hours. So on a terminology point, I think it’s important to reject the term intermittent and more accurately call them variable. Because it’s true that generation from wind and power generation generators does change. So it is variable, but it’s not suddenly intermittent. It doesn’t just suddenly blink out when you don’t expect it to. We know with incredible accuracy when the sun will rise and set every day. And in many ways wind and solar are complementary resources and that when the sun goes down, that’s when the wind tends to pick up. So, just a quick point on that terminology.

Well, this is not entirely true. Wind is actually better than solar in this regard, because the wind is always blowing somewhere. You just needs a widely distributed grid of wind and it will balance out over time. But solar is only on during the day. And the farther away you get from the equator, the greater the seasonal variance. I have solar panels, and they product almost all of their energy in the summer, and essentially no energy in the dead of winter. But also – yes, the power generation does suddenly wink out. When clouds block out the sun, solar power suddenly dips, and this is hard to predict. It is also even harder to predict days ahead of time. It turns out, we are not very good at predicting the weather. There are some inherent limitations to our ability to make such predictions. Which again, can be compensated for by increasingly large grids.


And the same folks are the ones who made a lot of noise about this baseload concept. That’s not a term that grid operators actually use, and it’s not a way that they actually think about the way those generators behave. Again, that was a term that came out of those vested interests in the industry that want to make those plants sound super reliable. But what it really means is that those plants, those so-called baseload plants are always on, and they cannot act as good, flexible grid resources. And so that’s one of those other terminology points that I think has deliberately confused people about what’s reliable and what’s not.

Like most of the discussion, there is a kernel of truth that they then take out of context. It is true that it is difficult to incorporate older style power plants with the new flexible grid required by intermittent sources. But that is not what is being proposed, so again is a strawman. Newer power plants, especially natural gas, but also new small modular nuclear reactors, are designed to be more flexible. This means they can be turned on and off faster, and therefore can be used to backup intermittent sources and balance the grid. So I agree, we should not be building (and should be phasing out) big inflexible power plants. But that is not the alternative being proposed. They further show their bias as they continue:

Big coal and nuclear plants, which are inherently inflexible and not economic to operate at low capacity factors would find themselves poorly matched to the grid’s needs, and so they would become uneconomic and eventually get retired, which is exactly what has been happening. Opponents of the transition, which include a motley crew of fossil fuel industry supporters, people who mistakenly believe that the only answer is always more energy. And of course, the nuke nuts who believe in nukes a priori and who will never change their minds about its obvious superiority to everything else. These opponents have tried for years to turn that logic upside down by insisting that variable renewables must be adapted to the way that the inflexible coal and nuclear dominated grid worked. So they produced these ridiculous analyzes, saying that every renewable plant must be backed up 100% by other dispatchable fossil fuel plants or by battery storage.

And further, that they must have enough such backup to cover 100% of the grid’s needs for some ridiculously long period of time, like six weeks. For some reason, they think it’s reasonable to model a country as if it were a small island that had to be completely self-sufficient and rely only on a very discrete set of resources with badly estimated costs. But most countries are not islands, and their power grids aren’t operated as if they were. Nor are grid resources procured that way. It’s just silly.

They need to get their heads out of fossil fuel industry propaganda and engage with the experts who are presenting real alternatives to their all renewable vision. Maybe this discussion was more relevant in 2012, but I don’t read anyone arguing that we need six weeks of 100% backup power. In terms of how much grid storage backup we “need”, the answer is, it depends. Again, you need some combination of overcapacity and grid storage. The more grid storage we have, which can serve as dispatchable power and can replace the need for natural gas plants, then the less overcapacity we need. Even a few hours of grid storage seriously helps balance the grid. This can, for example, shift solar energy from peak production to peak demand. But we also have to consider seasonable variability. This would benefit from long term grid storage, like pumped hydro. Otherwise, don’t count on solar in the winter at high latitudes.

Here is the real alternate vision they seem to be ignoring. We should build out renewable and low carbon sources, like wind and solar, as much and as fast as possible, levering their advantages like low cost. To do this we need to invest heavily in grid upgrades, and we need to streamline regulation. We should also maximize hydro and geothermal, which are not intermittent and hydro can even be used for grid storage. These, however, are geologically limited.

Meanwhile, however, we also need to shut down coal plants as quickly as possible – whatever it takes, even if it means burning more natural gas. These plants already have connections to the grid, so if you could just swap them out with a green energy source, that would be ideal, and doesn’t require a grid upgrade which is a time limiting factor. Ideally we would build small nuclear reactors that are flexible and can be integrated with intermittent sources and use them to replace existing coal plants, and then eventually natural gas. Grid storage can also serve this function, as it is dispatchable and helps balance the grid.

Basically we need to do everything in order to remove fossil fuels from energy production as quickly as possible. We don’t really have the time to take the longer path to all wind and solar, even if we can theoretically eventually get there. Also, some experts are concerned that when we get to really high penetration of intermittent sources, north of 60% or so, (real penetration, not momentary production) we will run into increasingly difficult challenges. Maybe it won’t become serious until we get to 70% or even 80%. But the question is – where will that last 20-30% of energy come from if it turns out we are running up against the limits of renewable power? It better be grid storage, hydro, geothermal, or nuclear. If not, it’s going to be fossil fuel. And we won’t be able to go back in time to build those nuclear reactors we will wish we had.

Hopefully, this won’t happen. I actually hope that these fears are unfounded, and that we will build a super smart grid that can handle all the wind and solar we want, and quickly. But we are essentially out of time in terms of keeping to our climate goals. So I would rather do everything to hedge out bets, at the very least.

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