…Yet when the issue is replacing generation of electricity by fossil fuels with generation by “renewables,” it seems that the need to believe that the renewables will work and be cost effective is so powerful that all efforts to do the arithmetic get banished. I last considered this issue in a post last week titled “California’s Zero Carbon Plans: Can Anybody Here Do Basic Arithmetic?” The answer for the California government electricity planners was a resounding “NO.” Today, the Wall Street Journal joins the math-challenged club with a front page story headlined “Batteries Challenge Natural Gas As America’s No. 1 Power Source.” (probably behind pay wall)
The theme of the story is that “renewable” energy sources, such as solar, paired with batteries to balance periods of low production, are rapidly becoming so cheap that they are likely to “disrupt” natural gas plants that have only recently been constructed:
[T]he combination of batteries and renewable energy is threatening to upend billions of dollars in natural-gas investments, raising concerns about whether power plants built in the past 10 years—financed with the expectation that they would run for decades—will become “stranded assets,” facilities that retire before they pay for themselves. . . . But renewables have become increasingly cost-competitive without subsidies in recent years, spurring more companies to voluntarily cut carbon emissions by investing in wind and solar power at the expense of that generated from fossil fuels.
OK, then, so if solar-plus-battery systems are about to displace natural gas plants, what’s the plan for winter? They won’t say. The fact is, the only possible plans are either fossil fuel backup or trillions upon trillions of dollars worth of batteries. But the author never mentions any of that. How much fossil fuel backup? That’s an arithmetic calculation that is not difficult to make. But the process of making the calculation forces you to actually propose the characteristics of your solar-plus-battery system, which then makes the costs obvious. How much excess capacity of solar panels and batteries do you plan to build to minimize the down periods? Do you need solar panel capacity of four times peak usage, or ten times? Do you need battery capacity of one week’s average usage (in GWH) or two weeks or a full month?
The simple fact is that wind/solar plus battery systems would not need any government subsidies if they were cost effective. The Biden Administration is proposing to hand out many, many tens of billions of dollars to subsidize building these systems. They are clearly not cost-effective, and not even close. But no one in a position to know will make the relatively simple calculations to let us know how much this is going to cost. Even the Wall Street Journal can’t seem to grasp the math involved. And President Biden? It’s embarrassing even to ask the question.