Blain’s Morning Porridge April 27 2022 – Wind, Carbon Life-Cycle Costs, and Why we need other renewables..
“If you chuck everything into the same basket, you can bet the handle will break!”
This morning: Wind power is the not the renewable energy panacea we are told it is. It is part of the climate change solution, but we need to understand it’s limitations, and not allow it to distort energy transition. More should be spent on alternatives like tide, hydro and thermal.
I’ve written many times how ESG investment principles threaten to distort markets – like many good intentions ESG is creating as many problematic consequences as it solves. Today, across the World’s investment desks, fund managers are struggling to comprehend International Sustainability Standards, fill in IFSR Climate-related Disclosures, EFRAG Climate Standard reporting, and a host of other stuff that induces narcolepsy… Occasionally, if they are very lucky, they even find time to address inflation and war threats on the investment portfolios they now can’t run due to the regulatory and reporting burden set upon them.
Fear not. Help is at hand. A whole new nomenklatura of ESG experts and consultants have emerged, ready to feast upon the regulatory opportunity. They will do an intimate examination of investment committee minutes, study deal analytics in fine detail, and cross reference them to reporting standards.. At the end of a very expensive process they will pronounce: “You need to invest more in renewable energy… I suggest a course of wind power.”
That’s the prescription for curing what ails the global environment. Long-term I expect its about as likely to work as a course of medieval leeches.
The reality is…. Wind Power is a miserable business.
Last night GE Renewable Energy posted a widening first quarter loss on the back of slowing offshore wind-sales in the US, and rising materials costs. Vestas, one of the largest OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), is trying to hike its prices by 20% as inflation bites. Just a few weeks ago Siemens Gamesa, the Siemens part-owned manufacturer of some of the largest offshore wind structures, gave its third profit warning in less than a year, saw its stock tumble, and warned of rising costs and supply chain issues. The company is struggling to buy out minority shareholders refocus the business.
Meanwhile, the latest 11 MW wind turbines are 225 meters tall with 200 meter rotors. They require a super-ship to transport them around the globe to site. Its big. It’s kind of spectacular.. but so was the Spruce Goose… which aviation buffs will know singularly failed to lay any golden eggs.
Regular readers of the Morning Porridge will know….. I am the Grinch. While everyone else is happy with the latest New, New thing, I have to ask awkward questions, express doubts and raise issues like how the “emperor’s new clothes” are apparently invisible.
Windfarms have issues..
As they get larger and larger to produce the amounts of “clean” renewable power we so anxiously desire, they get harder and harder to build, transport and install. They are incredibly difficult to dispose of – although you can recycle the steel and electrical stuff, the blades were built to last, and they probably will – as landfill.
We also don’t have nearly as much data as we should. Nothing is transparent about performance and maintenance. Early windfarm turbines are being replaced with bigger, more “efficient” models well before their expected end-of-service dates. I am told there is probably a compromise to achieve a most-efficient size for a wind turbine. This would optimise the high carbon costs of its construction, installation, maintenance and disposal against its long-term energy production – but at the moment, the wind industry isn’t interested in small – it’s all about bigger and (apparently) better…
The struggles of Wind Turbine makers sounds counter intuitive… WindEurope says Europe could be carbon neutral by 2030 if we just installed more of them. When everyone wants renewable energy, surely Windfarms must be making off like a butcher’s dog with the sausages? After all, we keep getting told that Windfarm are the global climate change solution, they will save the planet, and everyone wants to invest in them because it will enable owners to boast how ethically green their investment policies are.
What if they aren’t the solution…?
There was a fascinating article on Bloomberg yesterday: Wind Power’s “Colossal Market Failure” Threatens Climate Fight.
How I smiled reading it. It’s all about failure to deliver the wind turbines we apparently desparately need. (Lot of “apparentlys” today, apparently.) The argument is: if we don’t build 390 Gigawatts of wind farms every year, then we won’t avoid being fried by rising temperatures. And to build more we need more subsidies, permits and NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yarders) to be silenced. It warns: if the West doesn’t built them, then we will be swamped by cheap Chinese imports and lose energy security.
As always, let me stress I am not a climate change sceptic, and I want clean renewable power. But I want renewable power that makes sense, is long-term efficient, and won’t prove a massive disappointment in terms of how little carbon they actually save over their life-cycle. At the moment I’m a massive sceptic on lithium battery solutions, and would prefer to see more investment in hydro, thermal and tidal power. I support Nuclear.
And… I am thinking Wind Farms have become a distorted racket.
I can’t help but wonder if there is a parallel to the 1830s when Canals were the preferred transport infrastructure solution, while the much more efficient and ultimately successful railways were dismissed as too fast and dangerous.. Wind is hardly new.. the ancient Egyptians were using windmills 7000 years ago.. its tech that can go so far.. There is a time and place for them, and an efficiency curve where less might be more.
A few years ago, after expressing doubts about wind farms on a early morning TV slot, a BBC producer told me I was “Pale, Male and Stale” and I never got invited back. I got “cancelled” by Bloomberg – and I suspect it was due to my heretical thought-crime of suggesting Wind Farms might not be the perfect solution to Global Climate Change everyone was claiming them to be.
I’d reached my epiphany on Wind after going over the higher than-expected maintenance costs and lower than forecast energy sales, from a small UK site with a disappointed investor. The numbers didn’t add up. He wasn’t buying the windfarm developer’s explanations of how a larger than expected number of wind turbines had suffered unexpected blade problems, while the wind hadn’t blown quite as much as expected. These were dismissed as an unusual “3Sigma” type event, and wouldn’t be repeated – the developer said…
We’ve all seen spectacular videos of collapsing windfarms. I first raised the maintenance and cost issues of windfarms, the difficulties of smoothing their intermittent supply to National Grids a number of years ago. I then highlighted information showing large Wind Farms not only affect the wind speed and that windspeeds are reducing (its called friction). It’s actually become quite difficult to find information on current failure rates, and by just how much windfarms are underperforming in terms of energy delivery. We need transparency – not renewable hype.
There still isn’t enough transparency about their life cycle total carbon cost. If anyone has such data – I will delighted if will post it on the site for everyone to see. I would love to be proved wrong about windfarms.
Please remember, I am not a full time wind power analyst. I am just a concerned party – admittedly an increasingly sceptical one. I know enough to worry myself.
The number one reason Wind Turbines fail is because of cracks in the Turbine Blades – caused by the fibers in the glass or carbon debonding, or gel-coat cracks letting in water. Apparently there are in excess of 4000 fails per year. A few years ago I was shown drone technology that can detect hairline cracks before they become critical, but the only answer is then to feather (shut-down) the turbine – and wait for a replacement slot. That’s a problem when the industry is working flat out (but still unprofitably), especially at sea where all the available boats are booked to instal new turbines. Such a feathering is a massive lost generation issue, and can damage the other parts of the turbine.
Generators fail less often – but operating in low and high winds can cause bearings to seize, while high and low temperatures (as experienced up mountains or out to sea) can cause expansion of the joints causing excessive vibration. Often, I am told, the only solution is a complete rebuild. Generators need regular maintenance – which isn’t easy in stormy places like the North Sea on a 200m high rig.
The third source of failure are gear boxes. They are designed for a 20-year service life, but apparently few make it that long. Anything out at sea rots.
Yet still wind gets the focus. We need to spend as much energy investigating other forms of renewable power. Unlike wind, the tide is utterly reliable – I know that because I was swimming against it earlier this morning. Hydro energy is also reliable. And so is geo-thermal – but none of them attract a fraction of what is squandered and bigger windfarms.
Time for a rethink on Wind I think…
(No time for five things this morning.. .)
Out of time and back to the day job…
Strategist – Shard Capital
Bill, interesting article. One area for you to think about is that the offshore jackets are transported from yards in China where they are made on full emission vessels and are then installed using – you guessed it – high emission vessels!
Your point about rot is utterly accurate. Has anyone seen something that survives anything like a full life under the constant drive of salt water!
The problem with tide is essentially the same. Anything you stick in water – from a ship’s hull to a tidal barrage – instantly becomes prime real estate for anything organic, and anything suspectible to salt will rot – which basically everthing except glass.. The trick is easy maintenance – ie tidal energy that can be easily defouled and fixed..
All of that is assuming one buys into all the global warming, sorry, climate change nonsense, and the social credit score ESG puffery… Didn’t CO2 used to be known as plant food? And man-made CO2… according to the IPCC’s own data, output levels are 3% of 3% of 0.1% of the total Earth’s atmosphere. That’s 0.000009% or 9 millionths: https://shiftfrequency.com/man-made-co2-3-of-3-of-0-1/
It’s all smoke and mirrors, Ladies and Gentlemen, ALL of it.
Oh dear… been reading to much Atlas Shrugged again…
Climate Change? I will go with the science and believe what the experts tell me.
As usual – the naked truth. Well done!
Excellent, honest article, as always. My experience as an ex banker to small wind farms in Ireland has been very positive. But I agree they are only part of the solution. The evil war in Ukraine at least has the benefit of making people focus.
I see very little written about hydrogen power. Toyota has been selling (or at least trying to) the Mirai for several years.
I’d be interested in your thought about this technology and how it might fit into the climate change solutions.
Hydrogen! Basically its a great concept, but its far more difficult than just putting hydrogen into petrol infrastrucure…
I’ve written about Hydrogen a number of times – see the following
There is yet another fundamental problem due to the variability of the wind, and the fact that the power output available is related to a power of 3. Thus your 11 MW generator if it is designed to give maximum power at say 25 knots, would only give an output of just under 2.4 MW at 15 knots and only 0.7 MW at 10 knots of wind, and by the way would give nothing at all at 30 knots when it has to be feathered.
Large scale wind power, designed to produce a large proportion of the country’s demand, needs to be allied with hydrogen generation using electrolysis to absorb the huge amount of power available between the average wind speed of around say 15 knots, i.e. the 2.4 MW figure, and the maximum design output of 11 MW at 25 knots. This hydrogen would then be available for filling the gaps left when the wind drops below the average, by definition half of the time, and of course the massive gap left when the wind goes above the designed maximum wind speed and the turbine has to be totally shut down.
Investing in wind alone would mean that we have to maintain the full capacity gas generation back-up indefinitely!
Dear Bill, as always a sound opinion.
Indeed, renewables have their limitations just as EVs do. Full lifecycle analysis is becoming increasingly prevalent and will reveal some interesting facts soon.
You never write on the power from waste industry as another, important component of the overall energy mix. The logic is obvious, repurpose non-recyclable waste, of which we have too much, into carbon neutral energy. Technology has advanced tremendously and offers small, decentralised solutions in all shapes and sizes for any type of waste. Long gone are the days of huge incineration plants. Nobody need incineration anymore.
It may not be perfect, but before non-recyclable plastics – of which we definitely have too much (85% of all plastic) – goes to landfill, sits there for 400 years to degrade and give off methane gas, it is better turned into energy instead of extracting more oil from the ground.
I see the position of the environmental purists (“no waste at all, no nuclear, no …”). The reality is that we have to act now, accepting the imperfection. We are way out of time and every contribution to less fossil fuel, less CO2, less methane, less pollution of the oceans, less plastic in our food is valuable.
Let’s have a conversation, if you like, and you will see how large power from waste solutions can become.
More than happy to talk about waste. And plastics. I have looked at many waste to energy projects and the issue that usually holds me back is similar to my maintenance issues with Wind – they never seem to deliver what they promise – at least in the past. More than happy to be updated. Send me an email to email@example.com and lets chat.
(But if anyone mentions pyrolysis I will scream…)
Great article Bill (as ever),
I’m not fully onboard with climate change, well, that’s not strictly true, the climate is changing – it always has – but I’m a scientist myself and skeptical of ‘the science is settled’ approach that blames greenhouse gases and refuses to listen to any evidence/opinion that contradicts this claim.
However, that’s not the point I’d like to make; the problem is not power generation, there is plenty of renewable energy around: wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, tidal etc. What is missing is a way to store the stuff when the wind is blowing, the sun shining or the tide is running and being able to tap into this reservoir when needed. A lot of money is being spent on solving the problem but every ‘breakthough’ seems to fall short… Maybe one day the Holy Grail will be found but until then I’m hanging on to my Shell Shares.
Surely you must be aware that, whilst Nitrogen and Oxygen are both completely transparent to infrared radiation, this is not true of either Carbon Dioxide or Methane. Therefore, they tend to absorb the heat being radiated from the earth’s surface, and as the concentration of these gases rises in the atmosphere more and more heat will be trapped. QED
This might be a concept that is difficult to explain to someone who was unable to pass ANY exams in general science at school, but should not be difficult for someone calling himself a “Scientist” to grasp!
Good stuff, a real inconvenient truth, maybe EVs are next I recently read of a whole life analysis comparison of ice and evs and a diesel Skoda estate won out. Plus tbh its a long time since Mobil economy runs, who has given a monkeys over mpg for last few years, give Gordon Murray a call he has a product and factory to sell.
Bill, have you looked into solar thermal as an alternative? Basically it is just a series of mirrors which focus the sun onto a thermal collector which heats up and generates energy, just like any other power station. Unlike solar panels, it only uses mirrors so no messy recycling when decommissioning. Also they can generate power 24 hours a day. We know that such solar thermal power plants are more expensive to build but might they be cost competitive when we factor in lower maintenance and limited end-of-life-decommissioning costs? Perhaps you could look into that tech to see if it offers a better path?
Wasnt that in a James Bond film… I do remember a very interesting project back in 1970s in SPain or France that got me very excited. I would like to learn more…
I don’t quite understand how something with “solar” in its title, and which relies on reflecting the sun’s rays onto a thermal collector, can operate 24 hrs a day.
This would require a huge thermal reservoir of some sort which is capable of raising steam to several hundred degrees centigrade to run a steam turbine, not just overnight in winter time but for several days as well during cloudy weather.
Additionally – Let’s assume an average 40% ACF for a wind farm (yes I know there are a few operating at higher ACF’s but most of the best sites have now already been taken) then you need twice as may windfarms to provide the same power as a base loader only operating at an ACF of 80%…
Given the uncertainty of wind…you also need to build over an above your typical demand and use that excess power to charge batteries (lots of batteries) to power demand when the winds not blowing…that or pump lots of water up hill to be let down at a later stage…
Given peak demand in most markets is early in the morning and early evening when often the wind is not blowing and the sun is well past the yardarm….gas peakers kick in (or God knows how many batteries)
Given the political unwillingness to pursue nukes – get long gas
who’s going to tell them?
I found myself listening to the CEO this morning on Radio – sounds like he would listen…
Don’t worry so much about wind power. Let the private investors sort it out. They can either make or lose money. Your arguments about the removal of old windmills can be made against skyscrapers. No one plans on the cost of removing those and they are much more difficult to remove in urban areas. There should be no subsidies for alternative or renewable energy systems, just a predictable, gradually implemented carbon tax to help mitigate the damage done by carbon emissions. Government should promote good policy and let private enterprise risk money and develop solutions.
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