Tag Archives: Wind energy

Solar and wind replace nuclear?

A small interruption from my 6-years-of-blogging series. This blog documented several meaningless (or even wrong) remarks from our (now former) Flemish Minister of Energy. I was a bit sad when I heard that he chose to be mayor of Ostend in stead of Minister of Energy, but apparently he doesn’t have to be Minister to utter such remarks. On a congress organized by his party (OpenVLD) he made following claim (translated from Dutch):

Today, offshore wind turbines provide 1.2 GW of energy production.

That is not even remotely true. Belgian offshore wind provides much less than that. The 1.2 GW is the capacity. The real production will vary, but will be on average a fraction of that number.

He obviously is confusing capacity with production. Why am I not surprised? Strange however is that the error is still not corrected yet at the time I published this post (now more than a week later). Didn’t they notice it? Or do all the energy experts of that political party stand behind this number?

Then comes the interesting part that leads to the subject of this post (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

“By 2026 we will increase this to 4GW without subsidies. From then on, the offshore wind farms will provide 20% of the total electricity requirement. This is just as much as the total electricity consumption of all Belgian families, “says Bart Tommelein.

This claim reminded me of the new energy pact made by the Flemish Green party, published a few days before the congress. It has a similar claim (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

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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 is 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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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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