THE TECHNOLOGICALLY ADVANCED states around the world enjoy a high standard of living. Their priorities vary – European countries, North America, Australia, Japan expend their wealth differently, but have one important characteristic in common. They all have a small fraction of their populations in the productive industries and a large fraction of the population who are non-producers. These include such roles as the health service; education; entertainment; communications and hospitality as well as students and retired people. This arrangement has developed progressively since the start of the industrial revolution as human nature has accepted the benefits of industrial technology.
By using steam power, the internal combustion engine and electricity, the personnel in factories, transport and related services can multiply their productive capacity and by mass production and efficient distribution, generate prosperity and the enormous range of items that are available to us – from a hybrid car down to paper clip. These can be made in their millions and can be sold at low prices to be made available to almost everyone.
The people who live in Central Africa or rural India are no less intelligent or capable than we citizens in the west, but they have not yet acquired the productive power and the infrastructure to provide affordable goods and reduce poverty. They aspire to reach our level of wealth.
Countries such as South Korea have achieved prosperity in a faster time than those in Europe, but it still required decades. A brief examination of the energy consumption per capita reveals that their success involved a very marked rise in energy use. There is invariably a very close link between energy consumption and the standard of living. South Korea is now very prosperous and consumes about twice the energy per capita as does the UK. There are two particular commodities that enable us to support this arrangement, with a minority of workers supporting a large number of non-producers. They are oil and electricity. Until twenty years ago, coal might have been included, but its role is very much reduced in the UK, but not everywhere.
There are many pressure groups in the west who see severe adverse effects from high energy use. They claim that global warming from oil and from the fossil fuels used to generate electricity [with their associated CO2 emissions] is damaging the environment and ultimately the human population. They have been pressing governments and companies to progressively eliminate carbon-based fuels wherever they are used. This embraces electricity generation, motor vehicles, aircraft and domestic heating. Their preferred solution is the widespread adoption of renewable energy in all its forms. Essentially for the UK, this means wind turbines plus solar power with small contributions from hydroelectricity and the sea. Is there any evidence that this replacement process is achieving its objectives?
There are now more than ten thousand wind turbines on the uplands and around the coast of Great Britain and their performance can be monitored daily on the Gridwatch Templarwebsite. June 14th this year was a particularly favourable day for wind power. The Gridwatch spreadsheet shows that the aggregate output was in excess of 9000 MW between 0650 and 1250 hrs - producing 35 per cent of our electricity.
This achievement was greeted with great adulation at the time. One might be deluded into thinking that based on such data, the leap from 35 to 100 per cent would involve only a modest threefold increase in turbine numbers to reach the promised land of abundant and cheap renewable power in place of dirty coal and gas. Unfortunately a rigorous analysis reveals that this performance was exceptional and that the change to a renewable power system looks not merely profoundly challenging but potentially catastrophic. Renewable output is high only infrequently but declines to very low levels too regularly.
Our society demands electricity and essential services twenty-four hours per day for 365 days per year. We cannot support our way of life if there are lengthy power cuts. The PR staff in the renewables sector may feel that their objective has been achieved with a good performance on a few favourable days but our services and facilities are required to function on all the unfavourable days as well.
Our climate varies throughout the year and it is often difficult to say what is normal and what exceptional. There have been some record high temperatures this summer and some long periods of warm calm weather, but such episodes occur every year. It is instructive to examine the aggregate output of the ten thousand wind turbines over a period of calm weather such as the ten days from 4th July to 13th. Over these ten days, Gridwatch presented the following data:-
It also has to be factored in that electricity demand in the summer is only about half the winter maximum.
It is irrelevant how many resolutions are passed at Party Conferences, the laws of nature are quite clear. If wind speeds are low, there is very little wind power; if wind speeds are very low, the waves are small and there is very little wave power; when the sun has set, there is no solar power. We survived this summer because we continue to have power stations available to back-up renewables. More importantly, if we wish to maintain our way of life, we will always need to retain them.
There were two earlier periods this summer – separate weeks in June, when anticyclones brought very low wind speeds and hence very little renewable electricity generation. These saw a variation in wind power over a range of 100 over two days, but it was accommodated by the power companies.
It is imperative that the groups that propose to substitute renewables in place of our carbon-based fuels, present their calculations showing how our society will cope without backup during these unfavourable weeks, when our principal renewable power source is producing only 2 per cent of electricity demand for days at a time.
The increase in atmospheric CO2 levels may justify reducing fossil fuel use, but any alternative has to be fully feasible. For renewables, that necessitates backup fossil fuel almost equal to the renewable capacity. It is not the only option however. Sweden, where almost all electricity is generated by nuclear and hydro plants (with extremely low CO2 emissions), has reduced its CO2 emissions by about 70 per cent from its peak… down to 4.6 te/capita. France and Switzerland with similar technology also have low emissions. In contrast, Germany is committed to reducing its emissions by expanding renewables, but also proposes to phase out its nuclear plants so requires coal plants to backup its renewable generators. Emissions in Germany have been on a plateau for almost ten years. In 2009, their total emissions were 907 million te. In 2016 and 17 about 910 mte. Per capita emissions were about 9.4 te – twice those of Sweden.
Since the use of hydro plants and nuclear stations are incompatible with mainstream environmentalist dogma, Germany and some other European states are rejecting the best options and their CO2 emissions continue to rise.
How much longer can such governments bury their heads in the sand and refuse to accept that unwavering support for renewable power is not only harming CO2 reduction but courting wider disaster?
Paul Spare CEng FEI FIMechE