Renewables are so cheap (define “cheap”)

Is renewable energy cheap? I often heard this claim in the past, mostly from politicians who want to justify their policies, but also from scientists. I then assumed that not all costs were counted, but had no clue what their specific arguments were.

The claim was also made in the current events lecture “A Sustainable Energy Supply for Belgium” (see previous post), specifically in the second lecture. The claim was that renewables are so cheap that they push fossil-fuel fired power plants out of the market. Odd, because subsidies for for example wind energy still exist in Belgium. If wind energy is really cheaper than fossil-fuel energy, then those subsidies don’t make much sense. Luckily, the speaker (Johan Driesen) took some time to explain his arguments in support of his claim and that made it very clear what he exactly meant by being “cheap”.

This is the part where he explains his reasoning (Dunglish not mine):

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Solar and wind power doing “extremely well” in Belgium (while facing blackouts)

Metaforum, an interdisciplinary think-tank of the University of Leuven, organized a Current Events Lecture on a Sustainable Energy Supply for Belgium last Monday (the video is available here). The incentive for this lecture was the unavailability of the majority of our nuclear power plants and the spectre of an electricity shortage this winter.

The speakers are a very diverse bunch: there are two electrical engineers, one economist and one philosopher. The title suggested that the focus was on sustainable energy sources, so I was especially interested in the lectures presented by the two engineers (first hour of the video).

The first speaker (Dirk Van Hertem) is a professor at the division of electrical energy and computer architectures (Faculty of Engineering Science) and gave a balanced overview of the current Belgian energy situation.

It was different for the second speaker (Johan Driesen), also a professor at the same division. He started with:

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A website actually powered by solar power

Low-tech magazine renewed the design of its website. At such not a world shocking event, but this design reflects the vision of the low-tech magazine and that is where it gets really interesting.

They understood that the internet became a rapidly growing power consumer, power that for a large part is created by using conventional power sources. Therefor they build a low-energy, self-hosted website actually powered solely by … solar power. Not in the way Google is doing (offsetting their power consumption, meaning buying their average power consumption from renewable power providers), but actually powering it by a solar panel.

This is the 50 Wp solar panel that is placed on the balcony of the founder of low-tech magazine, Dirk Dedecker, in Barcelona:

and this is the web server:

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“Energy” or “Electricity”, that is the question

When I was watching the NOS news flash in which the news anchor confused “electricity” with “energy needs” (see previous post), I initially assumed that this probably just was an unfortunate mistake, but when I went back to the tweet and scrolled down, I found this comment (translated from Dutch):

I have a strong suspicion that energy needs and electricity consumption are mixed up once again. Happens all the time.

Happens all the time? That sounds interesting! It could shed a new light on that news flash if the news crew not only produced the mixed up statement, but also are repeating it on a regular basis.

So I fired up a search engine and searched for instances of statements confusing energy needs and electricity consumption. I was very surprised how incredibly easy it was to find examples of such instances where both are mixed up…

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Electricity is (only part of) energy demand

A couple days ago, I came across this tweet documenting a statement from a news anchorman of the Dutch state television (NOS). He made the claim that “Solar panels provide about 2% of our energy needs” [of the Netherlands] (translated from Dutch):

No, @NOS, solar panels do not provide “about 2% of our energy needs”. It was 0.42% in 2017. This year it will surely be more, but not five times as much. #electricityandenergyarenotthesame

That is what I was thinking too. Two percent of the energy needs of the Netherlands seems to be a lot. Last time I looked at those numbers, it was closer to 0.5% than to 1%. It would be rather unlikely that this number rose to “about” two percent in roughly one year.

The clip in the tweet came from the NOS news of October 21, 2018 (Dutch). The subject of that news flash was how good the solar generation already was this year. The actual claim was made in the closing words of the news flash (see the screenshot in the tweet).

If that was the only thing in this tweet, then I wouldn’t even bother about it. But when I scrolled down, I stumbled on this response from a Flemish energy expert (translated from Dutch):

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Meaningless metrics, episode umpteen

We got some pretty confusing information in the last few weeks. On the one hand, we got to hear that there is no long term vision for energy policy by our politicians and that this leads to the increased risk of having blackouts in winter. We were in this situation before. In the last several years we got to hear in autumn that we risk having blackouts in the next winter.

On the other hand, there was the communication that Belgium is doing just fine and is even at the top when it comes to energy policy! An example of this is a tweet from Bart Tommelein (Flemish Minister of Energy), reacting to the claim that our politicians have no long term vision on energy (translated from Dutch):

The best interconnected country in Europe, 2nd country per km2 for solar energy, 3th country in Europe per km2 for wind energy and pioneer in offshore wind. It is really not that bad. But these nuclear power plants surely need to be replaced.

Which is of course a completely meaningless answer. Even if we assume that this energy-per-km2 metric is somehow meaningful, solar and wind will not help us much in winter. Solar is not available at peak demand and wind is not reliable enough to keep us from blackouts.

It was however the claim that we are in second and third position that caught my attention. Initially, I assumed it was the same (meaningless) metric he used in the beginning of this year. Back then in January, he claimed that Belgium was in third position when it comes to solar energy per km2 and the fourth position when it comes to wind energy. Back then, it became clear that he meant that we were among the best in consumption of solar/wind energy per area (in MWh/km2).

In that post, I already mentioned that this is a meaningless metric since it depends on the area and population density of a certain country. Belgium, being a small and densely populated country, will always being in the advantage when it comes to energy consumption per area. Not just solar or wind, but any energy source.

Compare this with the recent tweet that states that we now are in second position when it comes to “solar energy” and third when it comes to “wind energy” in Europe (EU?). Hey, did we advance one position for solar as well as wind in the last eight to nine months?

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Solar and wind power through the eyes of an investor

It is the time of the year again. Autumn had just started and the media was flooded with stories about possible power failures this winter. Under the current circumstances a power failure seems rather plausible. Nuclear power delivers 50-60% of our electricity and six of the seven nuclear reactors will be scheduled for maintenance this winter. This could become a real issue in the coming months.

The reason that we are in such a pickle right now is because the last seven governments had no strategic energy policy vision. The initial decision to phase out nuclear power was taken in 2003, but until now there are no concrete plans to actually replace it with something else. Okay, maybe that is not entirely true: enormous investments were made in solar and wind power. Maybe that was just the plan, replacing nuclear with solar and wind power? The problem is that these investments will not help us with the current problem. Production of solar energy is limited during winter and it is even non-existing during peak hours. Wind power is intermittent and there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will be available when needed.

There are however people who don’t agree and claim that we now should invest even more in renewable energy. One of them is Marc-Philippe Botte who works for an investment company in renewable energy and wrote an opinion piece (Dutch) published on the website of our Flemish Radio and Television (VRT) in which he defends more investments in solar and wind energy.

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