I’m not sure about you, but the last thing I want to talk about is elections. When I think of how much of my precious time has been wasted hearing about politics in the last year, I want to puke. No more from pollsters, talking heads, or statisticians.
Well, maybe I’d like to talk about statisticians, as in the old joke about the one that drowned because he forded a river that was only three feet deep, on average. See, isn’t that better than politics already? However, as funny as a drowned statistician may be, there is a serious side to the problem with relying on averages. You really can die, for starters.
Before getting back to death and/or politics again (redundancy, I know), let’s think about the use of averages. A car may be designed for the average – one doesn’t find the tallest person on earth and design an interior to accommodate them. The exceptions get to either bang their shins or dangle their feet, but that’s the way it has to be.
In other areas, it can’t work that way. Do you insulate your house for average conditions? No, of course not. Do you install an air conditioner for average conditions? Same. And on it goes. When the risk of harm goes up, we design for the extremes, not the averages. Or we should.
A whole world of trouble will come your way if your plans are built on averages but you cannot live with the extremes. Or even with substantial variations. Europe, and other progressive energy parts of the world, are finding this out the hard way.
In the race to decarbonize the energy system, wind and solar have taken a dominant lead. Nuclear is widely despised. Hydrogen has potential, but is a long way out, as a major player. On the assumption that Hydrocarbons Must Go At Any Cost, wind and solar are the winners. Bring on the trillions. Throw up wind turbines everywhere. Blanket the countryside in solar panels.
The media loves the wattage count as fodder for headlines; big numbers dazzle people. “The United States is on pace to install record amounts of wind and solar this year, underscoring America’s capacity to build renewables at a level once considered impossible…The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the U.S. will install 37 gigawatts of new wind and solar capacity this year, obliterating the previous record of almost 17 GW in 2016,” bleated the ironically named Scientific American website. Wow, gigawatts. No idea what those are but they sound huge.
What is the problem with all that capacity? Well, how good is it? Let’s see…at a 33 per cent capacity factor (used by the US government as apparently reasonable), that 37 GW is just over 12 GW of power contributed to the grid, on average. The assumption seems to be then that 12 GW of dirty old hydrocarbons have been rendered obsolete, and, for the energy rube, the number is an even more righteous 37 GW, because, you know, some days it is really windy all over.
But, what happens when that load factor is…zero? Because it happens.
The current poster child for the issue is Great Britain. The UK has 24 GW of wind power installed. The media loves to talk about total renewable GW installed as proof of progress, and the blindingly rapid pace of the energy transition.
However over the past few weeks wind dropped almost to zero, and output from that 24 GW of installed capacity fell to about 1 or 2 GW.
Ordinarily, that would be no problem – just fire up the gas fired power plants, or import power from elsewhere.
But what happens when that isn’t available?
More pertinently, what happens when the likelihood of near-zero output happens to coincide with the times when that power is needed most – in heat waves, or cold spells? That brings us to the current grave situation facing Europe as it heads towards winter. Gas storage is supposed to be filling rapidly at this time of year, but it’s not, for a number of reasons.
Natural gas isn’t supposed to be on anyone’s roadmap, though. The culturally hip website Wired talked (in early September) about the imperative to limit global warming: “To make the switch we need to switch to renewable energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal, right now. We’re making good progress on this; solar and wind energy are now cheaper than fossil fuels, and renewable energy was responsible for around a third of global electricity production in 2020.” The first glimmer into the damage of relying on averages starts to show.
A few weeks later, Wired shows that a few light bulbs may be going on: “There’s a tendency for the government to say the power sector is done, the sector has been decarbonised, the renewables transition is going at pace and all of that good stuff,” the article quotes the head of Energy UK.
The article’s author, after musing that seven UK energy supply firms have gone out of business so far this year (a result of having to pay more to generate/acquire power than their locked in sales values), makes one of those profound British understatements of the my-arms-are-cut-off-and-I-appear-to-be-in-a-spot-of-trouble-old-chap variety: “And we’re reliant on gas more generally than we thought.” No, foul dullard, we are more reliant than you thought. Anyone in the business of providing energy could have told you that, but the simpleton army wouldn’t listen. And now you pay.
They could easily have asked experts, like providers of hydrocarbons. But those people are today’s lepers. No one is interested in their opinion for fear of the appearance of collaboration. (Trudeau set up a “Net Zero Advisory Body” with the mandate to identify net-zero pathways; NZAB has posted the records of meetings to date (24); only once – once – has ‘oil and gas’ been mentioned in the records, and the context is dumbfounding: “Members received a foundational briefing on the oil & gas sector from federal officials.” FROM FEDERAL OFFICIALS. Meanwhile, the NZAB also heard a presentation directly from the David Suzuki Foundation. This should end well.)
Let’s drive this energy conundrum home a little better for all these people who are, as Principal Skinner put it on the Simpsons, “furrowing their brows in a vain attempt to comprehend the situation.”
The world has been sold a faulty bill of goods, based on a pathetically simplistic vision of how renewable energy works. A US government website highlights the problem with this example: “The mean turbine capacity in the U.S. Wind Turbine Database is 1.67 megawatts (MW), At a 33% capacity factor, that average turbine would generate over 402,000 kWh per month – enough for over 460 average U.S. homes.”
Thus armed, bureaucrats and morons head straight to the promised land by multiplying the number of wind turbines by 460 and shocking-and-awing themselves with the results. Holy crap, we don’t need natural gas anymore (as they tell me in exactly those words).
So they all start dismantling the natural gas system – not directly by ripping up pipelines, but indirectly by blocking new ones, by championing ‘fossil-fuel divestment campaigns’, by taking energy policy advice from Swedish teenagers – and then stand there shivering in dim-witted stupor when the wind stops blowing, and the world’s energy producers are not in any position to bring forth more natural gas.
It’s not just Britain that is squirming. A Bloomberg article (which I cannot link to as I will never willingly send Bloomberg a cent) notes the following unsettling news: “China is staring down another winter of power shortages that threaten to upend its economic recovery as a global energy supply crunch sends the price of fuels skyrocketing. The world’s second biggest economy is at risk of not having enough coal and natural gas – used to heat households and power factories – despite efforts over the past year to stockpile fuel as rivals in North Asia and Europe compete for a finite supply.”
It is profoundly important to recognize that these comments come from Bloomberg – a ‘news’ institution that is going far, far out of its way to demonize, deprecate, and decapitate the hydrocarbon industry. That hydrocarbon industry, by the way, is making major inroads in ways these demonizers deem impossible – developing carbon capture/storage, reducing methane emissions, working on hydrogen solutions, and even succeeding at First Nations inclusion such as demonstrated by groups like Project Reconciliation (trying to buy TransMountain) and the recent purchase of an oil sands pipeline by 8 local First Nations and Suncor. That same hydrocarbon industry is working overdrive to solve emissions problems and engage First Nations.
A lot of the global energy-transition-now madness stems from such a basic inability to grasp certain fundamentals, which are not at all hard to understand if one wants to, but are impossible for those who require an energy villain to add righteousness to their campaign. You can install all the wind and solar you want, but if their output can go to zero, and more importantly if their output is more likely to go to zero when most needed (extreme heat (low wind, inefficient solar panels) or extreme cold (low wind, obvious solar shortcomings)), then you don’t have an energy system at all. And don’t put up your hand to say batteries are coming someday soon. The math on that as a NG replacement is even more laughable.
Yeah, yeah, I can hear it already, how terrible, coming down so hard on a bunch of hapless bandwagon-jumping commentators. Yeah, about that. That bandwagon is cutting off the world’s fuel supply at its knees. There will be consequences. Serious ones.
Hundreds of millions of people without adequate heating fuel in the dead of winter is not particularly funny. If a cold winter strikes, all the yappiest energy-transition-now dogs will fade into the woodwork, distancing themselves from the disinformation they’ve propagated and the disaster they’ve engineered. People in position of responsibility will have no choice but to speak out loud the words they’ve dared not utter for a decade: you need hydrocarbons, today, tomorrow, and for a very long time yet. So start acting like it.