When I read the Bloomberg news article about solar capacity growing 50%, I was pretty disturbed. I was even more disturbed when I read its source: the IEA news article Solar PV grew faster than any other fuel in 2016, opening a new era for solar power.
I could understand that the Bloomberg journalist might have no clue what he was copying and pasting, but I expected much more from an organization like IEA.
The first sentence of the IEA news article sounds familiar for those who read previous two posts:
New solar PV capacity grew by 50% last year, with China accounting for almost half of the global expansion, according to the International Energy Agency’s latest renewables market analysis and forecast.
This was the subject of the last two posts, in which it is shown that the growth of installed capacity of photovoltaic is a meaningless metric for the growth of solar energy consumption. That 50% growth (which is in fact a 33% growth) translates to a 0.13 percentage point growth in solar energy consumption when compared to the total energy consumption worldwide.
This focus on the growth of installed capacity allowed the IEA to overstate the impact of solar energy. They even went a step further in the next paragraph(s) (my emphasis):
Reading previous post one could remark that a 33% growth in photovoltaics (PV) is already an excellent result and rather close to 50% anyway, so what is the big deal about the IEA inflating a 33% growth to 50%?
I think that none of the two numbers is representative for the impact PV has on energy use, but let me first show the story as it is brought. This is how PV growth looks like according the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017:
This looks quite impressive, even when PV grew “only” 33% in the last year. At first glance this seems to be a sign that PV is expanding rapidly. According tot the IEA news story, PV is growing stronger than other energy sources (in installed capacity). Which is mathematically true, but how relevant is it in the bigger picture?
Another tweet that grabbed my attention this week:
The text of the tweet:
Speed of energy transition every day more jaw dropping. Solar to surpass nuclear by end 2017.
That seems odd. In previous post I looked at the share of the different energy sources in worldwide primary energy use in 2006 and found that 11.6% was generated by nuclear and only 1.5% by solar in the EU. When I look at the BP figures for energy use worldwide (1,3276.3 Mtoe), then nuclear (592.1 Mtoe) has a share of 4.5% and solar (75.4 Mtoe) has a share of 0.6%.
Yet now we get to hear that solar will somehow surpass nuclear by the end of 2017…
The tweet linked to the slightly more nuanced article “Solar energy will surpass nuclear by the end of the year” and the included summary gives a glimpse of what is really meant by “solar that surpasses nuclear” (my emphasis):
From the half-news department comes the article titled Capacity of wind energy has overtaken coal in De Morgen (the Flemish Guardian).
This is how it is explained (translated from Dutch):
Last year, the installed capacity of wind power in Europe surpassed that of coal. This according to figures from the industry association WindEurope.
In terms of capacity, only gas-fired power plants preceded wind energy.
The source was an article with the same title from Belga (a news agency) and it was copied verbatim by a huge flock of news sites in Flanders.
The article in De Morgen jumped out as a sore thumb: it appeared in the section “Science”. Probably copied by a “science” journalist who had no clue that comparing installed capacity of wind with coal is meaningless and a direct comparison of the two is misleading.
The journalists of our beloved Flemish media seem to go ballistic lately. Yesterday there was the item in the VTM news about the current “drought” that was “direct result of climate change”. Today the VRT news felt it had to compete with that and went full stupid in an article with the sensational title:
Flemish windmills have almost the same capacity as a nuclear reactor
Apparently the onshore windmills in Flandres have a total capacity of 920 MW, which is only slightly below the capacity of (some of) our nuclear turbines (at somewhat above 1,000 MW).
I am afraid that I have to spoil that party…
Last Thursday, a Flemish newspaper brought the story that “the lights will go out in 2020”. We heard that many times before in the past. This time the statement was made by Andries Gryffroy, who was called the “energy expert” of N-VA (Flemish political party on the center right). He rightfully questioned the “energy plan” of current Flemish Minister of Energy, which is solely based on extra solar and wind energy. Even with those extra windmills and solar panels, we will not be able to produce enough energy to meet our demand in a few years and could face power shortages by 2020. More, several old conventional plants will need to be decommissioned in the next years and the new solar panels and wind mills need backup. He gave the example that in winter only 3% of nameplate power of solar energy is produced, while we use most energy in winter.
Okay, I dig that. Solar and wind provide less energy in the winter when we need most energy. Just adding more intermittent energy sources without backup and additionally decommissioning older conventional power plants, makes a good recipe for energy shortages. Especially in winter at peak demand. Especially with our aging power plants. Our politicians are talking about energy security for years now, but in the end go for extra windmills and solar panels. Probably to meet the EU goals.
Although I agree with what was being said, there were some things that seemed rather odd. For example, it was calculated that in winter we will have a shortage of 1,414 MWh and explained that this is the equivalent of 1.5 Belgian nuclear power plants. Which doesn’t make much sense. 1,414 MWh is the electricity that 1.5 nuclear power plants will produce in one hour. My guess was he was confused between “megawatt” (power) and “megawatt hours” (energy). Or was it the journalist that brought in the confusion?
Also the calculated number was puzzling. At first glance, it seems rather unrealistic. Apparently, we would be able to decommission older gas power plants PLUS arrange backup for a doubling of our capacity of intermittent energy sources, yet only need 1.5 conventional power plant to compensate for all that!?
Luckily, the paper version of the news paper mentioned how the calculation was actually done:
Last Friday, we had a (partial) solar eclipse of the sun visible in Belgium. The moon passed before the sun and covered about 80% of it. In the months before this event, there were several articles published in the media that worried that a possible blackout could be possible. Some were afraid that although we survived the energy crisis this winter, yet now we would get the fatal blow that would get our power grid on its knees. Some said we could lose a maximum of 3,000 MW generated electricity from solar installations in our country.
At the end of last year I made a blog post about this and remarked that these doom scenarios would be highly unlikely because of the tiny fraction electricity produced via solar panels in Belgium. I also remarked that 3,000 MW is the total installed capacity, so we would lose only a fraction of that and our grid would have no problem absorbing that.
Now the numbers are available, let’s have a look at it. First let’s look at the general figures of the electricity production in Belgium last Friday: