John Locke Update / Research Newsletter

Physics: another enemy of renewable energy. Oh, and forget about battery storage.

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A lengthy article in Forbes details why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s unprecedented "Clean Power Plan" (CPP) is not just a destructive and likely illegal regulatory overreach, but also impossible given what the author calls the "weird" physics of electricity.

As author Mark P. Mills puts it,

The idiosyncratic physics of electricity will ultimately doom the aspirational goals of the new 1,560 page Clean Power Plan, more than will an army of lobbyists, lawsuits and laborious studies. It is an inconvenient truth that electricity is profoundly different from every other energy source society uses; it is, in fact, weird.

What is "weird" about electricity is this: it has to be consumed at the moment it is generated. It cannot be tapped, stored, and used when needed. It can’t be saved up for a rainy day. It has to be used the instant it is produced.

Mills is CEO of Digital Power Group, a tech and investment advisory; a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a faculty fellow at the school of Engineering & Applied Science at Northwestern University, and a board member of the Marshall Institute and of Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology & Ethics.

Electricity facts worth knowing in North Carolina

Mills’s delving into the facts about electricity generation is applicable to public debate in North Carolina. As discussed in my previous newsletter, it’s not so simple a matter as just replacing one kind of electricity generation with another.

Nature, economics, and simple math make that simple, pat approach impossible. As the previous issue of this newsletter explained, solar and wind "aren’t a one-for-one tradeoff for traditional resources (coal, gas, nuclear)" but instead are "more of a one-third to one-fourth for one tradeoff," and that’s not even accounting for the inescapable fact that "wind and solar are unreliable resources — the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine, especially not in coordination with up-to-the-minute consumer energy needs."

Mills writes (emphasis added):

Simplistically, you need to build three wind or solar megawatts of capacity to equal the energy produced by one megawatt of turbine capacity. (Obviously the exact ratio depends on how windy or sunny the locale.) That means it is just nonsensical to claim a solar or wind plant with a capital cost per "nameplate" megawatt equal to a conventional power plant has achieved the Holy Grail of "grid parity." And even if you build extra wind and solar capacity, the extra capacity is worthless if it’s not available when needed.

It is availability that matters when it comes to the engineering, and derivatively economic challenge of keeping a grid continuously operating and stable (the latter no small feat). A stable continuous grid is utterly essential for modern society and the hallmark of modernity. Just ask anyone in India, or dozens of other countries plagued with episodic grids.

While Mills describes grid parity as the holy grail, I have used that term to describe "discovering ways to store generated energy." Mills’ discussion of the practical impossibility of effective battery storage is an unwelcome douse of cold water on that conceit.

It is nevertheless very important for policymakers, media, and voters to understand how virtually unreachable this dream of electricity storage is right now. Especially because many people seem to think that the energy is being stored already.

Mills writes (emphasis added):

The total amount of electricity stored at any given moment in all the batteries out there for all purposes is countable in minutes, not months, worth of annual demand.

Elon Musk has given us a way to illustrate the challenge to store power at grid levels. The astoundingly big $5 billion Tesla battery factory under construction in Nevada, the so-called "gigafactory," is slated to produce more than all of the world’s existing lithium battery factories combined. For battery cognoscenti, that represents a quantity of batteries each year that can store 30 billion watt-hours of electricity. A big number. But the United States consumes about 4,000,000 billion watt-hours a year. Thus the entire annual output of the gigafactory can store about five minutes’ worth of U.S. electric demand.

This says nothing about costs, or the lifespan of batteries that is counted in years not the decades needed for grid-scale power systems. It also says nothing about comparative costs of paying for availability. Storing electricity in expensive short-lived batteries is not a little more expensive but tens of thousands of times more expensive than storing gas in tanks or coal in piles adjacent to idle but readily available long-lived power plants.

But we are promised that better battery technology will continually emerge. Of course it will. But as has always been the case with batteries, newer tech is more expensive. There is, by the way, a market ready to pay up, big time, for better batteries. The cost of a battery in a smartphone measured in grid terms is $1000 per kilowatt-hour of capacity. This illustrates the problem. The target price that grid-scale storage needs to reach, according to the Department of Energy, is under $100 per kilowatt-hour — and for a system far more complex than the power unit in your phone. And even that is still too expensive for commodity storage by at least 10-fold.

Consider one more example of the scale challenge for storing electricity. Cushing, OK, is home to one of the nation’s preeminent, and numerous, tank farms to store oil. In order to build a ‘tank’ farm to store kilowatt-hours equivalent to the energy stored at Cushing, we’d need a quantity of batteries equal to 40 years of production from 100 gigafactories. Electricity is hard to store.

All of this debate surrounds a vital necessity, a good that we simply cannot do without. Political games, the strength of our passion, our concern for the environment, whatever, none of it can force Nature, economics, math, and physics to go along.

Essentially, this notion of a future electricity market where renewable energy production gives us reliable, affordable, and planet-friendly power is an expensive, destructive fairy tale.

It’s a preassembled Humpty-Dumpty. All the king’s subsidies and all the king’s men can’t make Humpty viable, friend.

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Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As Director of Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jon gets into the weeds in all kinds of policy areas, including electricity, occupational licensing, hydraulic… ...

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