No Amount of Subsidies Will Ever Make a Wind/Solar Electricity System Economically Feasible

by Francis Menton

The COP 28 climate confab opened today in Dubai. Some 70,000 true believers in the energy transition are said to be gathering. And not one of them appears to be either willing or able to do the simple arithmetic that shows that this can’t possibly work.

So far, no country that has made a commitment to “net zero” has officially backed off. (Argentina may soon become the first.). Things proceed as if all that is needed is to build sufficient wind and solar generation facilities, until eventually you have enough of them to meet demand. But that’s not how this works. The absurdity becomes more obvious every day. Can somebody please tell the poor people making fools of themselves in Dubai?

Let’s consider the latest from Germany. According to Statista here, Germany consumed 511.59 TWh of electricity in 2021 (latest year given, although the numbers have recently changed very little from year to year). Divide by 8760 (number of hours in a year) and you learn that Germany’s average usage of electricity is 58.3 GW. So, can you just build 58.3 GW of wind and solar generators to supply Germany with electricity?

Absolutely not. In fact, Germany already has way more wind and solar electricity generation capacity than the 58.3 GW, but can’t come anywhere near getting all its electricity from those sources. As of June 2023 Germany had 59.3 GW of generation capacity from wind turbines alone, and (as of end 2022) another 67.4 GW of generation capacity from solar panels. The total of the two is 126.7 GW — which would supply more than double Germany’s usage at noon on a sunny and breezy June 21. But, according to Clean Energy Wire here, through the first three quarters of 2023, the percent of its electricity that Germany got from wind and solar was only 52%. Capacity seemingly sufficient to supply double the usage in fact only supplies half. That’s because the supply does not come at the same time as the demand, and the wind/solar generation system provides no mechanism to shift the supply to a time to meet the demand.

And why doesn’t Germany just double the amount of its wind/solar generation, so that those sources would go from supplying 52% of usage to 100%. Because it doesn’t work that way. If they double the wind and solar generation, then on the sunny/breezy June 21 mid-day they will now have over 250 GW of electricity generation — more than 4 times what they need — so they will have to discard or give away the rest. But on a calm night in January, they will still have nothing and need full backup from some other source. Multiplying the wind/solar generation capacity by 10 or even 100 (referred to as “overbuilding”) will increase the costs of the system exponentially, but will never be enough to keep the lights on all the time. Or you can try energy storage to save up the surpluses to cover the deficits, but that also multiplies the costs of the system exponentially. For more than you will ever want to know about energy storage and its costs, read my December 2022 energy storage report, “The Energy Storage Conundrum.”

Renewable energy promoters and governments committed to “net zero” are engaged in a gigantic exercise of self-deception. They have come up with a thoroughly misleading metric to compare the costs of generating electricity from various sources which they call “Levelized Cost of Electricity.” Reports that claim to calculate these LCOEs are published by various organizations, including notably the investment bank Lazard and the International Renewable Energy Agency or IRENA. Here is IRENA’s 2022 Report covering supposed renewable energy costs for 2021, title “Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2021.” Key quote from page 17:

In 2021, the global weighted average LCOE of new utility-scale solar PV and hydropower was 11% lower than the cheapest new fossil fuel-fired power generation option, whilst that of onshore wind was 39% lower.

Wow, solar is 11% cheaper than any fossil fuel alternative, and onshore wind 39% cheaper. Why would any dope ever look to fossil fuels again?

And here’s their key chart:

Incredible! Solar is under 5 cents per kWh, and onshore wind is even lower at 3.3 cents per kWh. And how much is in those numbers to account for the cost of either overbuilding or energy storage in order to make a system that works 24/7/365 without fossil fuel backup? The answer is, exactly nothing.

The fact is that building a wind/solar/storage electricity system without fossil fuel backup does not provide cheaper electricity than a predominantly fossil fuel system, but more expensive electricity. And the additional expense is not some small amount like 10 or 20 or 30 percent. It’s more like a multiple of 10 or 20. Nobody knows exactly how much, because there does not exist anywhere in the world a working demonstration project from which costs can be benchmarked and extrapolated. As you start to eliminate the fossil fuel backup from the system, far and away the predominant costs become the energy storage and/or overbuilding. The costs of the wind turbines and solar panels themselves become relatively insignificant. As noted, Germany has gotten to about 50% of its electricity generation from wind and solar, with so far about a 2 times overbuild of capacity, and almost no storage. With the next round of overbuild of capacity, should they do it, they will be lucky to get to 60% of electricity from renewables; and each successive round of overbuild adds less useful electricity and more that must be discarded. Meanwhile, storage is ruinously expensive in quantities that are meaningful to keeping the lights on year round.

In the real world of investment decisions, the costs are becoming increasingly obvious. Greg Ip has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, headline “Why No One Wants to Pay for the Green Transition.” Excerpt:

Investors and consumers balk at costs of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, highlighting painful economics of climate mitigation. . . . In the past few years, Washington and Wall Street started fantasizing that the transition to net-zero carbon emissions could be an economic bonanza. . . . This year the fantasy ended. . . . [T]he economics of getting to net zero remain, fundamentally, dismal: Someone has to pay for it, and shareholders and consumers decided this year it wouldn’t be them.

Of course consumers are never voluntarily going to pay $2 for energy that can be had for $1. Nor are investors ever going to invest to provide consumers the $2 energy when the consumers can go elsewhere for $1. As it becomes obvious that the whole LCOE “wind and solar are cheaper” thing is a transparent lie, all private money will exit the energy transition. The only possible way to get this wind/solar system built is government subsidies. Gigantic, massive government subsidies on a scale far greater than anything ever seen in human history. It’s a very safe bet that it will never happen.

Authored by CO2 Coalition Member Francis Menton, and first published at Manhattan Contrarian, November 30, 2023.

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