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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The Sahara or not the Sahara, that is the question

Another thing that I wanted to write about in the solar-and-wind-will-green-the desert story is the region that was modeled by the researchers. I understood from the BBC article that the researchers distinguished two regions: the Sahara and the Sahel. Which puzzled me at the time. These are two distinct regions. The Sahara is a desert, while the Sahel is a transitional zone between the Sahara Desert to the north and the more humid savanna belt to the south.

It is not very clear from the BBC article what the exact relationship is between the two in that paper. For example this statement (my emphasis):

“Our model results show that large-scale solar and wind farms in the Sahara would more than double the precipitation, especially in the Sahel, where the magnitude of rainfall increase is between 20mm and 500mm per year,” said Dr Yan Li, the lead author of the paper from the University of Illinois, US.

That is rather confusing. The title is “Large-scale wind and solar power ‘could green the Sahara'”, but this quote seems to suggest that the large-scale installation in the Sahara would have the most effect in the Sahel, which seems to contradict the title since the biggest effect is not in the Sahara, but in a nearby region of the Sahara.

Also what was found is rather confusing. I can understand the bottom value of 20 mm (probably the northern part of the Sahel/southern part of the Sahara). If a region is a desert, then a precipitation increase of 20 mm/year will not change much. Unless the precipitation is close to 250 mm/year (which is widely taken as the upper limit of being a desert). On the other part of the spectrum there is the 500 mm/year increase (probably the southern part of the Sahel). That much precipitation increase would make a desert green, but the Sahel is not really a desert.

There was however a graph in the BBC article that contained some numbers that I could use to shed some light on the issue. Let’s go back to that graph:

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Large-scale wind and solar power ‘could green the Sahara’

That is the promising headline of a BBC news article. They referred to a paper in Science from the University of Illinois. Lead author Yan Li explains that they modelled what would happen if (really) huge parts of the Sahara desert are covered by renewable energy sources. They calculated that if 9 million km2 of the Sahara is covered, then precipitation would more than double and vegetation cover fraction would increase by about 20%. It has to be of that scale, fewer panels and turbines would have a limited effect.

The researchers focused on this region because it is close to large energy markets in Europe and the Middle East (weird, the journalist forget Africa as a close-by energy market) and they add that such “a massive installation in the desert would generate four times the amount of energy that the world currently uses every year”.

The impact on humans living there would be “mostly positive”: the extra rain will improve agriculture and growth in production of livestock.

Now my head begins to spin. It solves the EU energy transition, optimizes land use, creates more precipitation therefor greening the desert & beneficial for agriculture/livestock and, in one fell swoop, it fixes the climate. Everybody wins.

Not so fast! It seems pretty straight forward to look at the Sahara as a potential energy provider able to deliver plentiful solar and wind power, but it is anything but. There are some things that the journalist is rather silent about.

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We are doomed!

We are doomed! I kid you not. We are doomed!

This is how the onehundredmonths.org campaign page looked like in its heyday:

The button “Read the report” goes to the New Economics Foundation where you can download the 100 months – Technical note document that explained the urgency (my emphasis):

O M G, they made a calculation!

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Record hunting continues: a contribution of … 85%!

Hopefully it is not getting boring by now, this is another post on the meaningless metric of contribution of solar and wind. For those who have had enough of it, some reassurance, it will probably be the last on this subject and I will keep it as short as possible.

In this post, I am going to mine for an inconvenient example again. There are other energy sources in Belgium than solar and wind. The most interesting is nuclear. Half of our electricity comes is produced by nuclear power plants. If we do the same as solar and wind (look for record contribution), then this might get us some interesting numbers. Since total load varies throughout the day/the week/the seasons, we are bound to to find some high numbers, maybe even really high numbers.

And yes, when I calculated the contribution of nuclear in the period September 2017 – July 2018, the record value was …

… wait for it …

85%!

Eighty five percent? Where were the Minister and Elia on September 11, 2017? I also didn’t hear anything on the news either. If we have to cheer for the 45% contribution of solar PLUS wind, why was there not a peep about a 85% contribution of nuclear, all on its own?

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A new record: 0.016% contribution of solar and wind to total load!

Can’t get enough of the (meaningless) metric of record contribution of solar and wind to total load. This time, I will go hunting for another such record myself, using the exact same data that leads to that cheered record.

Remember from previous posts that the claim was made that Belgian solar and wind contributed 45% of total load on July 28 and that it was brought as something significant. Also remember that July 28, 2018 is a Saturday and that there was coincidentally a lot of solar PV and wind energy production, leading to a big contribution of solar and wind to total load. When it comes to intermittent power sources, that record is basically meaningless.

There was also this graph from Elia (our network manager) that showed other similar records of the last 11 months (see also this post):

As I explained in my first post on the subject, it suggests a steady increase. Until you realize that these are spot counts of coincidental high values, it is no less than cherry picking.

But if our Minister (and the network manager) are allowed to cherry pick, so am I! Solar and wind are intermittent energy sources and the record values are directly related to the failure to follow demand by those sources. Therefor, if there are records of maximum contribution (low demand at times of high production), then there are also records of MINIMUM contribution (huge demand at times of low production).

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