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German offshore wind turbines: hiding all the disadvantages

Most of the otherwise rational German nation was scared by the Fukushima non-disaster and decided to close all of its nuclear power plants by 2020 or so.

Germany is also at the top of the fight against the CO2 emissions so both major sources of electricity seem to be doomed. So far, the doom is hypothetical because the policies have actually led to an expansion of coal power plants. But we may imagine that Germany gets really serious about its drinking of the Green Kool-Aid.

Yesterday, the German government approved a plan to speed up the construction of offshore (i.e. on-the-sea) wind power plants, see e.g. DowJones/WSJ. What does the decision mean? Is it wise?

First, let me shock some full-fledged skeptical readers of this blog. I actually do think that in a few decades or a century, we will be surrounded by things like offshore wind turbines and solar panels on cars and roofs and all these individual sources of "renewable" energy will be connected to a grid, perhaps wirelessly, and there will be a sophisticated system that will calculate how much money is paid to the energy producers depending on the output and the demand (and expected demand).

To amplify the shock, I do think that it's very intriguing to be using energy that doesn't really depend on any "commodities". If I could buy an energy system that would allow me not to pay any energy bills for 50 years or so, and that would allow to store the energy for some time. I would pay $3,000 for each source of 100 W in average.

The only major problem I have with the renewable energy hype is that the renewable energy is simply not quite competitive yet. It makes no sense to subsidize it. It makes no sense to force people to use and support energy sources that are economically inferior at this moment. It's also unpleasant that the wind turbines kill birds and they look like needless that want to pierce your skin – I don't like to look at sharp things – but these disadvantages are secondary. It's the price that matters.

Imagine that I do agree that in 50 or 100 years, the world will be flooded by similar sources of energy and at the same time, they will start to be economically competitive, perhaps because the price of fossil fuels will have increased. Doesn't it make sense to build them already now, even though they're not competitive yet? My answer is a resounding No. Because it only takes a few years to build such wind farms, it only makes sense to build them a few years before the moment when they become economical. By waiting for this moment, you save for electricity itself; and you save once more because the wind power (or solar power) technology is getting more efficient, advanced, and cheaper, so the more you wait, the better product you get.

I think it's almost guaranteed – because of the newly found reserves of fossil fuels – that this moment won't arrive in the next 50 years. So it's nonsensical to build many such wind farms today. It is actually surprising that Germany isn't able to figure out these things. West Germany experienced the post-war boom partly because the factories were bombed out during the war which forced West Germany – and which allowed West Germany – to install the most modern machines and technologies after the war. The apparent disadvantage was soon transformed into an advantage – one of the sources of the German competitive edge. It makes sense to wait.

What did the German government proposed to do yesterday? The first sentence of the Dow Jones/WSJ article has an answer:

The German government Wednesday proposed to speed the expansion of offshore wind farms by limiting the liability of power network operators for delays and outages of grid connections.
That's pretty bad! The power network operators won't be fully responsible for something they should be primarily responsible for, e.g. outages of grid connections and delays. It's an obviously ideologically driven distortion of the free markets because for every consumer, the risk of outages actually plays a role when she is deciding about the best way to cover her electricity needs. Now, the power network operators won't be fully responsible for such things. They may lower the quality of their services without too many worries. They're just not fully responsible for their work. It's apparently more important that they're participating in an ideologically driven and economically misguided program to shift to renewable energy sources.

But if producers are not held responsible for their work, the efficiency of the market and the consumer's well-being always suffers. Such distortions of the markets may be harmful in many previously invisible ways. If the program to prefer wind or solar energy were really "inevitable", it would be cleanest to blindly pay a fixed amount of subsidies for each renewable kilowatt-hour and avoid all other random ad hoc interventions.

Now, unless e.g. my homeland becomes a protectorate of Germany again and unless the European unification will really start to resemble the "unification" that Europe experienced under the 1933-1945 German Chancellor, Czechia (and others) will of course not be constrained by the "limited liabilities" imposed inside Germany. If the German offshore wind experiment will lead to increased irregularities of the power or even blackouts and if we will have to work hard or install new things to save our grid, of course that we want to be nicely paid for that. If we're not sufficiently paid, we will just cut the German grid off and be sure that it would be a problem for Germany already today – and their dependence on the neighbors will be getting worse if they increase the percentage of wind energy in their mix.

So Germany may change the liability internally and impose unnaturally distorted rules of the game but its operators will still have the same responsibilities externally and Germany will still have to pay for things that cause problems, in one way or another.

The Dow Jones/WSJ article estimates that the electricity prices in Germany will grow by something like 10 percent from the current value around 20-25 eurocents per kWh during the next 8 years. Of course, the price will depend on many other factors as well so this surely can't be trusted as the final result. I think that a 10% increase wouldn't be catastrophic. You pay just a few dozens of dollars a month for your electric bills; but you shouldn't forget that many other products you're buying also depend on cheap electricity and they could get more expensive, too. Still, a 10% jump isn't catastrophic (but if 10% applied to all prices, it would be horrible – a one-time 10% hyperinflation). On the other hand, this 10% increase only corresponds to a minor increase in the role of the wind energy. If Germany wanted to get all the energy from wind farms, the price would be vastly higher.

Suggestions that nations should switch to "renewable" energy sources are omnipresent but it's actually extremely hard to find cold hard numbers about the expenses you have to pay to construct a 1,000 MW source of wind energy, the lifetime, and so on. It seems clear to me that these numbers are not being publicized simply because these cold hard numbers are not flattering for the "renewable" energy sources. People are maximally encouraged not to think or to think irrationally and ideologically. It shouldn't matter to you how much you pay.

Well, it surely matters to me and I will fight with all the weapons I can find against those super-arrogant individuals who would love to tell me what should matter to me. In a free society, each of us is free to sort his or her priorities. In a free society, everyone is allowed to assign any "subjective price" to various market products. Above a certain price, we wouldn't buy or use electricity for certain things. Most of us think that the market price of Al Gore is about $200 because the price of pork is around $1 per pound. It's utterly scandalous if someone suggests that we should believe that the price is any other number.

So I think the only acceptable attitude of the government is to acknowledge all the advantages and disadvantages of individual sources of energy and the companies' and individual consumers' right to quantify these advantages and disadvantages. Subsidies for "ideologically preferred" sources of energy are as pernicious as the attempts to take the responsibility for the disadvantages away from the producers of energy and the grid operators. Those things shouldn't happen in an ideal world because they're pretty much guaranteed to make the world less efficient, to make the people less wealthy and less happy.

The Czech trade minister wants to reduce renewable energy subsidies and replace them with type-of-source-blind insurance against future changes of the electricity prices which is important or useful for any long-term economic planning of the construction of new energy sources (including nuclear power plants) but which is fiscally neutral for the state budget in average. That sounds sensible. After all, we're forced to think about these things; just in our medium-size country, the 2012 subsidies just for the renewable energy are going to stand at $2 billion. That's one-third of our budget deficit or 1% of our GDP!

And the renewable energy is still just a few percent of our total energy production.

We may express those $2 billion in renewable subsidies in one more useful way: it's 3% of our $60 billion annual state budget. So 3% of our budget has to cover subsidies for renewable energy sources that only represent 10% of our electricity production. Relatively to other nations, 10% is a very large number so in this hysteria, we joined the "elite club" of the most insane "leaders". However, you must realize that much of this figure (8,500 GWh in 2011) of 10% comes from the hydroelectricity (2,000 GWh) – which is also counted as renewable – whose capacity can't be increased too much anymore (and the hydroelectricity production has been constant at least for 7 years) and which is probably not too subsidized, anyway. A comparable amount came from "biomass"; this is no longer fashionable so it won't increase.

If you count solar (2,200 GWh) and wind power plants (0.6 GWh) only, they produce 3% of the Czech electricity, despite our being co-leaders in that discipline, and these two sources probably grabbed almost all the subsidies. To mask the price increases from the wind and solar energy which represent 3% of the electricity production, they pretty much swallow 3% of the state budget. It's not hard to see that if we wanted to have 100% of the energy coming from renewable sources, the subsidies would require approximately 100% of the state budget. In a green world, tell good-bye to the state-subsidized education, healthcare, pensions, defense, and other obsolete details. ;-)

It's just an order-of-magnitude estimate showing that the transition to renewable sources of energy may eat pretty much all of your nation's wealth – without any improvement of the quality of your life or your environment or anything else that matters whatsoever. If you only switch a few percent to the renewable energy sources, it will only eat a few percent of your wealth. But it's still stupid to waste the money in this way even though it's less stupid than to waste 100% of your wealth. These are huge amounts of money. The governments of the world feel that they have the right to waste tens of billions of dollars for completely worthless rubbish as long as it has the right ideological color. That's one of the reasons why citizens of democratic countries must very carefully watch the stupid and arrogant policies that the governments are adopting.

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snail feedback (21) :

reader Shannon said...

Our French minister of "productive recovery" (no kidding), Arnaud Montebourg, said two days ago that "the nuclear industry is a promising field". It is now a big outcry in the government because our simpleton president Holland promised to switch from nuclear to offshore wind turbines by 2020, same as Germany. He also hired two green ministers in his government. My prediction is that this government won't go further than the end of this year. I miss Sarkozy :-(

reader Gene said...

In Iraq, the lack of reliable electricity feeds corruption and acts as a giant anchor that retards economic progress, the best hope for that country. Germany won’t see massive corruption but it surely will experience a slower economy.

In the US, except for the diminished looney left, our politicians, including Obama, don’t say much about wind power and nothing about solar, thanks to Solyndra. We will become energy independent within 20 years and fossil fuels will make it happen.

reader Gene said...

I hope the French are more rational than the
Germans, Shannon. Good luck!

reader Honza said...

Well, some data get published, they are just not popularized all that much.They seem to point to the fact that wind energy generation is actually worth than worthless.

Look here (and references within):

"Just recently, German figures were released on the actual productivity of the country’s wind power over the last ten years. The figure is 16.3 percent! "

"[A]s wind rarely produces more than 25% of its faceplate capacity it needs 75% backup – which due to the necessity of fast response times needs OCGT generation (CCGT can respond quickly but the heat-exchanger systems upon which their increased efficiency relies, cannot – so CCGT behaves like OCGT under these circumstances). CCGT produces 0.4 tonnes of CO2 per MWh, OCGT produces 0.6 tonnes. Thus 0.6 tonnes x 75% = 0.45 tonnes. Conclusion: Wind + OCGT backup produces more 0.05 tonnes of CO2 per MWh than continuous CCGT."

reader Energy Engineer said...

You write: "Because it only takes a few years to build such wind farms, it only makes sense to build them a few years before the moment when they become economical."
This implies that the technology is easy and just pops out when it is needed. But that is clearly wrong. Wind farm technology is complex and if you want it to be competitive you have to keep on improving the wind farms bit by bit over time by building them. That way wind farm technology will be competitive much earlier as if you start building them when conventional fuel is really running out, because then it is too late and the increasing energy hungry population will fight wars over the last remaining resources. Then is it has developed nothing, which could replace conventional energy generating technology. Most people have no understanding of technology development times (this is not achieved in "a few years"), what is possible (efficiency) and how it is possible.
The only thing in the quote above, that might be valid, is the amount of money that should be spent right now shouldn't be as high as it is in Germany for instance.

reader Hans said...

As a German, i can only shake my head at Germany's continual rally cry behind pointless 'causes'. The utter stupidity of it all is the desperate promotion of foolishness like 'wind farms' yet they ramp up coal fired generation to the nth degree under cover of the complicit media. Wind 'power' will never be an independent large scale solution to anything. The real world duty cycle is much less than 20%.

But such is the mental illness of environmentalism....invent problems that don't exist....then 'solve' them with things that don't work.

reader Honza said...

@Energy Engineer: You say "..when conventional fuel is really running out, because then it is too
late and the increasing energy hungry population will fight wars over
the last remaining resources."
Let me remind you that war is mostly about logistics and you need a lot of fuel to wage a war. So the beauty of running out of the fuel is, that it will practically prevent the war as we know it. Of course you still will be able to whack your neighbor over the head with a stone, but in only a very limited range. ;-) Try to load your guns and food on your back and see how far you will make it without any gasoline.

reader Eugene S said...

(1) The automobile industry largely developed from private efforts -- ingenuity, capital -- and not from government subsidies. But wait, you say: governments financed roads! Fine, so the analogy would be for governments today to subsidize construction of high-voltage cross-country power lines. But there is something wrong if windpower requires subsidies even after power lines are paid for by taxpayers.

(2) Windpower probably will not see huge efficiency gains. The crucial variable is: location, location, location -- you want to put those wind turbines where there are strong winds (but not hurricane-force) year-round, dependably. Not too many such places in the world. This company has project-managed construction of wind power plants all over the world. Notice how the actual yield as a function of installed capacity differs wildly from one location to another, with the best yield found in Costa Rica. That is because the turbines there are sited ideally to benefit from more or less constant strong winds. The yield in other locations is much less, due to the not-so-optimal wind conditions there.

reader Energy Engineer said...

Apart from technological progress, the power grid (other plants and the consumers) has to adapt to the intermittency: we have to find ways to learn to deal with the fluctuating weather. If we would suddenly built many wind turbines as in the scenario you described so that they contribute to a large fraction to the electricity generation, this is a major problem to the stability of the network, because of the bad batteries you mentioned ;). So it is better to ramp up the fraction of wind power gradually.
The technology may seem simple, but it isn't so simple: On the one hand, wind turbines are getting bigger and more powerful these days: e.g. there are 3 generations shifting from about 2 MW to 3 MW to (gear less) 6 MW in just a few years, that also leads to more watt per square meter and price cuts; gear less wind turbines are attractive for the higher power classes but do not exist very long and have to be developed, also promising are on sea wind turbines, which can float on deep oceans far from the coast where the wind is strong, but these are even more challenging. I admit that some technologies like batteries have made little progress with time, but some areas are more susceptible to progress than others. Sometimes breakthroughs happen, and you never know in which field it is possible. I wouldn't stop research because of that, but research also means learning how to scale up production, and to optimize the whole manufacturing technology.Lessons have already been learned (e.g. problems with mechanical durability in the past). Nobody (no company) wants to put money in only for research and then don't use that technology in order to earn money. I accept some of your points, but all in all it just does not work just having the government work on it, which would mean no real practical experience. And competitors in industry aren't just bad, because different companies often have different ideas, go different ways and the best (at least most often) succeed. Maybe the government paying some companies for researching would work ...
I often wonder how you make your living. May I ask is it from the advertisements of your blog and book translations?You seem to be a smart guy, why don't you publish anything about string theory anymore? But maybe someone who has the overview over the field is more useful than someone who spends much time on one subject, although both types are needed.

reader Energy Engineer said...

@Honza: Maybe the wars will be less deadly, but one can't be sure about that, as nuclear or biomass weapons could be used. But wars should be avoided, no matter how deadly they will be. Apart from that the living standard would decrease drastically all over the world. I don't think that is what everybody wants.

reader TC said...

I wonder if one could make a better use of renewables if there would be electricity consumers that may be able and willing to accept a lower “quality of service”, namely (some) outages or limited consumption at certain moments, while offering those consumers a good enough upfront discount. Some businesses, like agriculture, could be also suitable. I’m almost sure that would be difficult to fine-tune portions of the grid in such a way at this moment, but one may never know what could be invented.

reader Luboš Motl said...

You say that the power grid "has to" adapt to intermittency. But the key point is that it doesn't have to. Instead, we may – and we should – be working on ways that guarantee that the energy is produced in an ever more regular, reliable, uninterrupted way. If an energy source is unreliable and intermittent, it's just vastly more problematic, vastly less useful, and therefore may only compete if it's vastly cheaper.

What far left people like you don't understand is that you don't have the power to dictate the consumers whether they're ready to pay for unreliable energy that depends on the weather, whether they want to tolerate blackouts, and similar things, and whether they want to pay extra money for their identical energy in wires if it satisfies some idiotic ideological conditions.

Floating wind turbines on seas etc. are fun proposals but there are lots of such proposals and most of them will never become a reality and that's how it should be. Every mutation, every engineer's 1-minute thought that cannot and shouldn't become a thing that floods the oceans.

I wouldn't stop research because of that, but research also means learning how to scale up production, and to optimize the whole manufacturing technology.

If your "research" actually needs mass production, then it's not research. It's primarily mass production. Technological problems connected with scaling up of the production itself must obviously thought about theoretically only, and glitches that appear in the practice have to be solved along the way. I thought it was just some noise but you really do seem to "demand" that "researchers" are also given money to mass produce things. You are an insane lunatic. Insane lunatics are being literally "grown" like bacteria by the insane policies and irrational priorities that some politicians are trying to promote.

And competitors in industry aren't just bad, because different companies often have different ideas, go different ways and the best (at least most often) succeed.

Except that wind turbines aren't competitors and won't be competitors for many decades. It's just the outrageous distortion of the markets that some government use to make the wind energy companies *look* like competitors instead of what they are, fucked-up parasitic losers.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Of course that you could succeed with such energy sources if cheap enough (which may be hard to achieve). It's just not a business covering most of the mankind's consumption of electricity.

Most of the electricity is consumed in various factories to produce things or in electromotors inside streetcars for public transportation and trains. Those things have to work regularly according to a schedule, otherwise they cause lots of other problems. Even in recreational uses of energy, like watching TV, you want to be sure that you won't miss a program at 8 pm etc.

The irregularity isn't an insurmountable problem and may be fixed by other tools - not only by traditional coal/nuclear but also by various storage plants. I am just emphasizing that these extra adjustments that have to be paid for shouldn't be forgotten or overlooked.

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reader Graeme No.3 said...

Assumption 1; CO2 controls the Earth's temperature.
Assumption 2; more CO2 warms the Earth, which will be a disaster.
Assumption 3; no matter what it costs, we must build generators that don't emit CO2 (except nuclear, hydro).
Assumption 4; Wind turbines will get cheaper as they get bigger and more are built.
Assumption 5; the electricity from wind turbines reduces CO2 emissions by that equivalent amount.
Assumption 6; (not really relevant to this discussion) the more wind turbines the less the fluctuation in output.

None of these have been proven. Leaving aside 1 & 2 which are matters of faith, and No. 3 which merely shows that the Greens aren't very logical (or want to have their cake and to eat it too) we have 3 that I would like to comment on.
No.4 - As turbines get bigger the tip speed of the blade increases, causing high load on the blade. This means either they must rotate more slowly and lose efficiency, or that special high strength materials have to be used in their construction. These will push up the cost. Switching from hand layup of unsat. polyester to autoclaving of anhydride cured epoxy will at least double the cost of raw materials, and the change of process even more. Check out the cost of carbon fibre versus glass fibre also (and C fibre is brittle so vibration fatigue becomes important).
No.5 comment by Honza; I'm afraid it isn't quite that simple. For a start some OC turbines would have to be kept as spinning reserve i.e. rotating at synchronous speed ready to be "ramped up" to load. This emits CO2 for no electricity generated. CCGT can start as OC, but that would take an hour from a cold start. The fastest startup for CCGT is 3 hours minimum. You can run CCGT at lower loads, but their CO2 efficiency suffers.i.e. run a CCGT at 40% and your CO2 goes up to 600-640kg per MWh. Also you must have very efficient OCGT in your system, a figure of 700 is more likely, and 760 if using oil.
There is another factor; wind turbines use power from the grid. When the wind doesn't blow strongly enough for generation, the control system in the turbine is still monitoring, using the yaw motor to move the nacelle to the right direction and, in the larger machines there are smaller motors to keep the power shaft rotating to prevent sagging. (Same as for steam turbines in coal fired stations which are rotated at ~3 rpm when off line).
The figures for CO2 saved by wind turbines are very hard to find. At best the savings are about 25% of that assumed.

No.6 is just plain wrong. Several studies have shown that widely separated ( 1600 km in 2 cases) turbines DON'T operate independently, i.e. if one lot is generating little power, the other lot won't help output.

reader Mavrick27 said...

"a few dozen dollars a month for electricity bills". I live in Australia where the nut-jobs have introduced a carbon tax. I pay $600 a month for electricity for a family of three. Sure i refuse to sit around in a blanket instead of turning the heater like "save the world sheep" would like me to. You only have to look at Australia to see what government's interfering with markets does.

reader Luboš Motl said...

$600, that's a lot! In the environment where I know the numbers, we pay about $15 per month per person in average for electricity. Your number is 14 times higher than that!

Is it the same Australia that has so much coal and other things? What's the price for 1 kWh?

reader Hans said...

In Alberta, Canada our last bill was for roughly 100$ for ~650kwh the actual power was charged at variable rate of 7.84-9.03 cents/kwh so the power came to about 58$ and they add 'distribution charges' , 'transmission charge' & 'access fee' for around another 45$ or so.

I don't know what i would do if i lived in AUS, beautiful country, but that eco-madness would drive me off the deep end i think. Is there a government change possible soon?....maybe the replacement can rescind the C tax??

reader Gene said...

Energy Engineer,

I have interviewed more than one hundred applicants for engineering positions over a four decade career in industry and have seen a good many that exhibited the pompous, know-it-all attitude of your TRF contributions. Of course the only possible response to such pretense is to politely show the candidate the door. Reading a few articles on the web does not make you an engineer. It does not qualify you for an intellectual exchange with Lubos, either.

If governments were not involved in wind power its investors would have to do what investors in other enterprises have to do. They would have to produce the product, electricity, and actually deliver it to someone willing to buy it while turning a profit. Of course there would be very, very few windmills in this the case.

reader Shannon said...

Our sénateurs are investigating the cost of switching from nuclear to offshore wind turbines (produced in France this time btw !). The Greens sénateurs are now "less in a hurry to switch than before". French would have to pay 5% more on their electricity bill to cover the cost of the dismantling + the burying of nuclear dump... It seems that the message is to get to an energy mix of 25% wind/solar power and 75% nuclear.

reader Izhtak Miller said...

I think it's counter productive to be discussing the relevance of nuclear energy on this post. We should be embracing wind turbines in any shape or form, whether it's these colossal sea monsters of the small domestic ones from companies like WDS Green Energy.