Monthly Archives: August 2014

We don’t need no stinkin’ baseload

Since I wrote the story about an environmentalist who wants more green power in order to have less black-outs and the one that claimed that there were absolutely no issues with wind and solar energy, some words kept on resonating in my head. I found it really strange that two, I think, intelligent persons who should have some insight in the Belgian energy production situation, (mis)represent their case in such a way by stating that the base load of our nuclear plants was the cause of the near black-out that we had last year. That seems putting the reality upside down.

They should know that we have a nuclear base load. My thought was that they probably didn’t really accept the concept of base load and that their reactions came from this. I became curious how they looked at it, so I fired up Google and searched for instances where they talked about base load. I started with Chris Derde and in no time I found his twitter account. His tweets were as one-sided as his comment on the VRT opinion blog. I would have material enough for a separate blog…

On it I found a retweet of a tweet by Chris Nelder with a link to the blogpost Why baseload power is doomed.


I heard such things before, that continuous electricity production is possible with only wind, solar and initially some biomass. What I remembered about this is that it was based on a radical change in society, how we work and live. Not exactly realistic. This was no different in the blogpost. This is how they put it:

The notion that renewables cannot provide baseload power is really an artifact of the way the grid and its regulators have evolved. If all generators were able to ramp up and down on demand, and if grid operators were able to predict reliably when and where the sun would be shining and the wind would be blowing, accommodating any amount of power from renewables would be no problem.

Sounds very nice of course. IF, and only IF, they really can ramp up and down on demand.

They give a example of how a grid should work with wind and solar energy: Texas. They called it the “best example in the United States”. Surprising for me. I associate Texas with oil and gas, not with green sources. But indeed, when googling it, it showed a lot of links to sites that glorify the Texan power grid for its large contribution of wind and solar.

In a way I could see this work in Texas, at least more than here. Texas is situated much more south, there is more sun & wind there and peak demand might be closer to peak production. Compare that to our cold and rainy Belgium in which production of wind and solar is the lowest when demand is highest. So, even if this is a good example of integrating green power in a grid, I am not really sure if the Texan example could be made to work here in Belgium.

Coming back to the idea of those who blame the base load power for destabilizing our grid. They don’t seem to realize that we have an old-style grid and we will have to play with the rules of that old-style grid. However superior their ideology might be, however good their proposed solution might be, in the CURRENT grid it is THEY who are making the grid unstable by adding an variable amount of power on a grid that is not adapted to take this.

Saving electricity in a hurry. Not so fast…

In the last weeks we heard a lot about the looming electricity shortage next winter, mostly devastating messages. Last Monday I noticed two different voices that seem to suggest that this could be solved with green technology. Previous post was about the first message (the restart of the “green” biomass plant at a high cost and minimal capacity). This post will be about the second message, a press release from Bond Beter Leefmilieu (could be translated as “Federation Better Environment”), titled Bond Beter Leefmilieu asks rapid change of lighting. At the bottom it links to a report called Saving electricity in a hurry, which seems a bit lacking in substance.

That hurry apparently because of the electricity shortage that our country could experience next winter and this savings could supposedly help us with our energy security at peak demand.

This is how the press release begins (translated from Dutch):

Changing lighting in Service sector buildings saves 800 MW.

Everyone is looking frantically for solutions now that the supply this winter is under pressure, The attention to saving is minimal. However, for example changing lighting in the service sector can give significant savings on the fairly short term.

A savings of more than 800MW on peak demand can be realized with efficient lighting on a large scale in the service sector, with 40% of electricity in 75% of the buildings saved on lighting. We are thinking about office buildings, schools, hospitals, banks, etcetera. “A relighting can be performed within two months and a savings of 50 to 70% can be expected. Earn-back time of investment is between one and four years. Nothing but advantages, “confirms Robin Bruninx of energy consulting firm Encon. “Companies have to be convinced with targeted counseling and financial support.”

I recognize the numbers the author is using. I already heard about a 812 MW savings from renovating lighting in the service sector in a report from 3E from 2013 (that was build on a report from 2006). The argument was almost identically used for convincing that we could do with less or no coal and/or nuclear plants, that we need less import and now that we can cope with the potential shortage next winter(s). It was not clear from the press release, but the dossier was build on this earlier report. But as far as I know this report was more than just the 812 MW of savings by changing the lighting of buildings. It also looked at two other measures: renewal of electric heating systems and more efficient pumps in the industry. Together they add to 1.116 MW of savings. Why only focusing on one of the measures in the press release? Probably will have to do with politics, but I can’t see the reason yet.

While I agree that 800 MW is substantial savings, there is a pesky thing called reality. That 800 MW is potential, not something that is certainly achievable within a couple months. It starts from the assumption that 75% of the buildings will save 40% of electricity. The big question is how much of that is realistically possible.

Sure, relighting can be possible within a couple months. On an individual case that is. But on a large scale…really? I don’t think it will help our electricity security next winter. Whether the government takes action or not.

That is not difficult to understand. The author obviously want the government to take control of this. But our government has more pressing things to do. They need to find 17 billion euro just to balance the books. I don’t think they are really keen on investing in relighting with a pay-back time of one to four years.

Even if our government is taken this seriously and want to spend money on it now, it will still take a really long time before action can be taken. Without even thinking about the fact that all that lighting equipment has to be available on the short term, the lighting consulting firms have to cope with the work, together with the technicians doing the replacement/renovation in those 75% of the buildings of the service sector. If one want to do a relighting in building on a large scale, one have to have all those on a large scale too.

So I don’t really believe the insinuation that this savings can make the difference next winter. They backpedal at the end that it “might be unthinkable, but as long as there is political will a lot is possible”…

The author seems to be challenged by the term “potential”. Just as the reporter that thinks that the full amount of installed capacity is continuously available, this advisor is counting on the 800 MW of potential savings.

To be clear, I have no problem with saving energy. On the contrary. But in reality the proposed solution is highly exaggerating its impact. However nice the plan may be, it is not exactly presented realistically.

Max Green is in fact Min Green

The potential shortage of electricity on peak moments in winter keeps the media busy. Two messages caught my attention. The first one is the subject of this post.

It is the message of a biomass plant that was closed, but could be restarted in the next month (Dutch). The plant is called Max Green and is the biggest biomass plant in Belgium. It was said it could deliver “green” power for 320,000 families by burning wood pellets. It was said it is a stroke of luck for our energy security in winter.

When looking a bit deeper a different picture comes clear. The plant was converted into a biomass plant in 2011 and was closed in 2013. The reason is recognizable for those who follow the green energy production story. Because it was a renewable energy plant they got subsidies. 8 million euro per month, meaning 96 million per year. That is a bit less than 1/10 of all subsidies in Flanders for biomass, solar and inland wind together.

In principle they weren’t entitled for subsidies, because subsidies are only given for biomass plants that burn waste materials like bark, pruned branches, twigs, root woods and so on. Initially they got permission to burn wood pellets, but the wood processing industry objected the decision because it was unfair competition.

The market disturbed by subsidizing of economically inviable “green” energy. Where did we hear that before?

The subsidies were retracted and Electrabel, the owner, closed it. Without subsidies the plant will run at a loss.

Also no surprises here.

Now a solution was found. Max Green will get subsidies again, but they had to guarantee that they would only use wood from abroad.

Importing wood from abroad. Do they still call that green energy?

In the end, how much energy does that largest biomass plant of Belgium produces that we should call us lucky for it restarting, mostly unreported, wait for it … 180 MW. We need additionally more than 2,000 MW on peak moments and if it is true that our import from abroad is compromised, we are looking at much more than that. 180 MW will hardly make a dent, a very expensive one that is. Why is the media cheering an economically not viable solution with a minimal result that disrupt the market of those that do make sense?

“Installed capacity” versus “electricity produced”

One thing that I notice in the media is how easy it is to confuse “installed capacity” and “electricity produced”. An example is an article in the printed edition of “Het Laatste Nieuws” (a Belgian newspaper) about our looming shortage of electricity next winter. The journalist made the following calculation:

Wind and water 1,800 MW
Fossil fuels 5,500 MW
Nuclear power 1,912 MW
Import from abroad 3,500 MW (?)

In a very cold winter we need about 14,000 MW at peak moments. With the remark that we still have no idea if we can trust having the much needed 3,500 MW import from abroad. Even if we could trust having this imported electricity, we fall short about 1,300 MW according to these numbers.

The problem is the 1,800 MW number for “wind and water”. As it is used, one would think that this 1,800 MW is something to count on. It is assumed it is as reliable as the other numbers. Yet that is not the case. Meaning that the journalist is lowballing the shortage.

That 1,800 MW seems familiar to me. 1,778.95 MW to be exact, is the current nameplate capacity of wind energy, not the real output that we would expect. It doesn’t mean we get that much electricity from wind. It is the number that we expect when the wind blows optimal across the whole country and only for that long. This hasn’t happened before.

Let’s look at the real number of the production of electricity by wind and water in Belgium. It can be found on the Elia website I started making screenshots the day I started to write this post:

Source: Elia

Source: Elia

The water-part of this is probably from the pumped storage power station of Coo that is pumping water to a higher basin (therefor the negative production at some moments) and later producing power when it is needed by letting the water flow in the lower basin again.

It is obvious from these graphs that nowhere in this period there was a production of 1,800 MW by wind and water. Not even close. The first day there was a peak of about 800 MW for a few hours. The second day around 400 MW for some brief moments. The third day there was a peak of somewhat more than 1,000 MW but only for a very, very brief moment. If we ignore the fact that the water-part sometimes uses electricity, the wind/water power source goes from about 10 MW to about 1,000 MW. And those peaks were only for a very short short time. Far from being 1,800 MW continuously.

This also clearly shows the intermittent nature of wind power. In those three days there were several periods that there was hardly any electricity production by wind. For example on the 20th the generation of electricity was extremely low, also at peak hours. The same with the production on the 21th before noon. Suppose this was winter and suppose we would solely rely on wind (and solar) as some think is plausible, at that time we would need as much capacity from conventional sources as there is consumption to fill in that gap. If that conventional power would not available, we would experience a blackout. That is the Achilles heel of wind and solar power. Backup is needed for those times that there is little wind and solar. Like at peak hours in winter.

People often confuse between installed capacity and actual production. Even journalists and politicians alike. Proven by this article in the newspaper. They assume that renewable energy is the same as its conventional counterpart. But renewables are a completely other beast with specific properties, such as intermittency.

It is not because 1,800 MW is installed that 1,800 MW is produced continuously.

Why the media only talks about blackouts and not about the cause?

why only telling about blackouts and not about the cause

Since last week we got to hear a lot of news stories about our country not been able to provide electricity to its citizens next winter. Elia, our power grid operator created a list of villages that could be cut off from the power grid in case of an imminent power outage. That the government and the net operator were contemplating cutting rural villages off the grid was already known for a couple years by now. What was new is that an actual list was made. It contains a number of villages divided into six areas. According to the severity of the blackout threat the net operator can cut power in one or more of those areas. The mayors of some villages were obviously not amused. The list was not publicized, so they don’t know if their village is on the list and risk being cut off next winter.

Some background. In the past our country was powered for the biggest part by nuclear power plants. They produced about 55% of our electricity. They were planned to be closed in next years, but because our power infrastructure was old, that date was postponed several times. In the meanwhile small cracks were found in the cooling water basin of two of them and they were closed, another plant was temporary closed for maintenance and a week ago one came to an emergency stop, suspected due to sabotage.

This meant that we now only have one third of our nuclear capacity (base load) left. Now electricity consumption is still low, there seems to be no problem yet. But this could change in winter time when wind and solar sources underperform during our biggest consumption of the year and our neighbors (except France) have the same problem. This meant that our government and our grid operator Elia decided to cut some communities off the grid when an outage is eminent and other measures didn’t work.

People got angry when they heard there was a list made, but was not publicized. That is not hard to understand, if those people knew they are on that list and having a high risk of being cut off the grid, those citizens could prepare should the situation occur. Which is not possible if they are unsure about being on the list or whether Elia will cut off the whole of that village or just a part. Interesting information to get when one want to be prepared.

A Belgian newspaper asked cities and villages whether they knew they are in a risk zone and if they were taking measures already. Some did know that they live in a risky area and some of those already have emergency plans, like emergency generators. But most of the villages that responded didn’t even know if they are at risk or not. The village that I live in doesn’t know whether they are on that list, but have some emergency plans when it would happen. Next month they will get to know if they are on that list or not.

What I missed in all the reporting on this issue is that there was no mention whatsoever about the cause: the renewable energy policy of our country. Those wind/solar policies have a disruptive effect on other sources of electricity. Generous subsidies and the priority rule that make other power sources unprofitable. Which means no upgrade or building new power plants and sticking with our old, less reliable, infrastructure. We are now paying the price for this. There is of course also the missmatch of wind and solar versus consumption in winter, which will make the situation worse if it happens.

The most interesting are those articles in which it was possible to comment. Reading those comments it was clear that the public knows exactly what the issue is all about.

Here you have it. The media doesn’t know about the issue or doesn’t want to tell about it, while members of the public already figured it out. Even despite the persistent failure of the media and our politicians to report on it.

Update 1
Currently there also seems to be a problem with our ability to import electricity from abroad. The high voltage transmission station that connects us with the French power grid failed last March and is still in repair, probably finished next year. It failed by a lack of lubricating oil. This seems similar to the problem of the now non-active nuclear plant Doel 4. Also a lack of lubricating oil was the cause why the plant came to an emergency stop. Some think it could be an act of malice.

Whatever the cause, it decreases our ability to receive power from France when we will need it most. If we were in a pickle by the close down of those four nuclear plants, then we are in deep shit now.

Update 2
Another transmission station, this time one that is connecting our country with The Netherlands, is in maintenance, therefor also limiting the import from there.

Update 3
There was a lot of cheering that a solution was found. The reactor Tihange 1 would be active from November on, so will be available in winter in stead of being in maintenance. Nice of course, but as far as I know this was not even the problem. The problem was that 3 reactors were closed in quick succession. Sure, it would help that Tihange 1 will be back in production, but this wasn’t the problem in the first place.

Not knowing both sides of the issue means any decision made is uninformed

In last post I gave examples of the very one-sided arguments used pro wind and solar energy. One could say: what is all that fuss about? Renewable sources are definitely not perfect, but could be used in our electricity needs. When we tell about the disadvantages, policy makers may be not as keen to invest in them. Kind of throwing out the good with the bad.

On the other hand, what if our policy makers only hear this:

  • Renewables are cheap
  • They are clean
  • Using them prevent emissions
  • They can be treated as fossil fuel energy sources
  • They can be fitted in our current grid
  • They can replace fossil fuels
  • We can switch now with the current technology
  • We have to subsidize them in order to promote their use

and do not hear this:

  • Wind and solar have low energy density and the devices that catch them are very expensive
  • There are emissions in all stages: production, transportation, construction, producing electricity and scrapping.
  • One also needs to account for the backup power needed and that backup plant will probably use conventional fuels
  • It is intermittent, so the statement that “windmill x can provide electricity for y number of people” is flawed
  • It can destabilize a grid when for example production of renewables is high and consumption is low. Or vice versa
  • Renewables have a low energy density and can not replace a fuel with high energy density
  • Our current society is highly dependent on fossil fuel
  • Subsidizing can disrupt the other power sources in our grid by making them unprofitable

How could you expect them to take well-grounded decisions in integrating intermittent power into our society? They need to know the pros and cons to be able to balance them. If they don’t know both sides of the issue, any decision they make about it is uninformed.

Move along, there are absolutely no issues with wind and solar energy

The opinion piece by Luc Pauwels about the specter of the black-out was not only interesting because of what it said, but also for its comments. Those were remarkably on topic and valuable points were raised. Yet, one of the comments stood out of the rest. It is the prefect example of the one-sidedness of the arguments used by the supporters of green energy.

That particular comment was made by Chris Derde. He seems to be the director of Fortech (a company that operates wind mills) and manager of “Wase wind” (idem dito). He obviously tries to defend the standpoint of green energy production and seemingly doing it in extremes.

Before we go to the comment, let’s first summarize what the opinion piece was about: the increase of electricity of wind and solar put a strain on the Belgian power grid. The grid manager, Elia, is having more difficulties to balance the load and in the last years our grid came very close to a black-out several times.

The comment is originally in Dutch, but I translated it to English. This is how it starts:

There has never been too much green power in Belgium or the EU. Although at times with the free pure fuel wind and solar, there still has been nuclear waste produced, coal and gas burned to generate electricity. That’s a shame!

That there hasn’t been an overproduction of green power is just a perception that not everybody seems to share. For example, those who actually deliver electricity in a continuous way to the grid don’t really agree. Before the use of renewables our grid did just fine. It is when renewables entered the market that the difficulties to balance the load started. So what was the real reason for the pressure put on the grid? Were it the conventional sources (that did just fine before that)? Or the renewables with its intermittent nature?

The second sentence makes it understandable were that comes from. The gratis and pure argument. If renewables are pure, gratis and have the same properties as conventional generated energy, then it would surprise nobody to say that there can’t be enough green energy and and it are conventional sources are the problem. But are renewables really free of charge, so very pure and have the same properties? Well, it depends how one looks at it.

Sure, the wind is blowing free of charge, but the devices that catch that energy and convert it to electricity certainly aren’t! On the contrary, they are very expensive, Just look at the plentiful of subsidies they need to be able to exist. That is not hard to understand. Wind and solar energy have a low energy density, therefor needing large and expensive contraptions in remote areas to be able to catch that energy.

Sure, they are pure, but only if you don’t look at the pollution to make them, the energy used in their construction, transportation and also the backup power plants that run at suboptimal speed and will pollute then even more.

Sure, electricity of wind and solar isn’t distinguishable from conventional sources. It are the same electrons, but they are produced in an intermittent way. You probably heard that many times before on this blog.

That is the shortsightedness of those who promote these solutions. Renewables has also a black side, not acknowledged by their promoters and the media. Ignoring important issues that need to be understood in order to make balanced decisions about using wind and solar energy to “cut emissions” or to “save fossil fuels”.

But I digress. The comment continues:

Besides, solar and wind power appears certainly predictable (see the website of ELIA). Electricity can be saved. For nuclear power plants there has been build pumped storage power plant in Coo. That would be better used for renewables. Besides, a lot can be done by bringing consumption in accordance with electricity supply.

I know that Elia is predicting wind, but I don’t know their accuracy. But the fact that they are saying that it is becoming more and more difficult to balance the grid does mean they are not as good as they need to be. The same with near black outs. If they knew that there would be a lot of wind and sun on April 1th of last year, then they could have taken precautions. They obviously didn’t and could just avert black out by exporting energy to France, that was able to absorb it into its grid.

True, electricity can be saved, even in our little country. We indeed have the pumped storage of Coo. But this has a rather limited in capacity to say four-five hours until the reservoir is empty. It can shave off peaks by pumping up water and use that water later to produce electricity if it is needed.

I agree that a lot can be done to bring consumption in accordance with the intermittent supply, but this also shows the failure of green energy as a continuous energy source. It is not a matter of better technology that improves our live, but a technology that needs our adaptation to the quirkiness of green power generation.

The hours that the Belgian grid was under high pressure or came close to a black-out, never had to do with renewables, but always with the unexpected failure of a large nuclear power plant or even two on the same day. The moments of excess power production had to do with the inability of powering down nuclear power plants. Indeed, technically it could be done, but they don’t do it for financial reasons and now wind energy is asked to power back.

So it is always the fault of the conventional energy sources, whatever the problem. It is easier to blame something else. If the problem of blackouts is the unexpected failure of one or more large power plants, then doesn’t this mean that those conventional power plants have a very big influence on our power supply? So big that when one or more fail our energy stability is in danger. Wouldn’t that be an argument to keep them running, at least until something with the same reliability can replace it?

Currently only one third of our nuclear capacity is online. This should be the opportunity for green electricity to prove their case. This would be their chance to proof that renewables are trustworthy and can be relied on. Yet, the reality is that in this situation we don’t rely on renewables to supply us with plentiful energy, but we rely on import from abroad. More specifically France that relies for 90+ percent on nuclear energy. So in the end it all stays the same. We still rely mostly on nuclear energy. This time not nuclear from our own production in Belgium, but those produced in France. To fit in when wind and solar fail to do so.

It is hard to understand that in the past few weeks the conventional electricity companies warn about electricity shortage and simultaneously announcing to close gas plants. Putting the knife on the throat of the community and letting them pay for their own bad choices.

This is an ugly one. While it is true that conventional power companies warn us about electricity shortage (in winter) and that it is announced that gas plants will get closed in the near future, he fails to show the reason for this: because of the huge subsidies for renewables the conventional power plants become less profitable for those who operate them. Therefor some of them will have to close their doors. For the same reason there is also no incentive to build new power plants, which is not a good thing in a country with an old power infrastructure.

It are the same renewables he is defending that force the (gas) power plants out of business. In a economy where renewables would be used in a supply & demand-system, they wouldn’t even survive and conventional energy plants would be thriving. It is this unfair competition that drives them out of the market, not a failure to perform.

Sure, the community is paying for bad choices, but not the ones he is thinking about 😉