Here’s a fact you won’t see mentioned in the public policy debate over “alternative” energy:
There exists no alternative energy source, no combination of alternative energy sources, and no system of combinations of alternative energy sources that can fully replace a single, coal fired electric plant built with 1930s era technology.
Yet many want to make this group of functionally useless technologies the primary energy sources for our entire civilization.
Most discussions of alternative energy talk only about the cost and reliability of the electricity when it leaves the grounds of the alternative-energy installation. This is called the Point of Generation (POG). However, energy is useless unless you have it where you need it, when you need it. It does no good to have plenty of power in Arizona when your work and home are in Michigan. It does no good to have a roaring fire in July when you’re freezing in January. Therefore, the only real factors that count are the cost and reliability at the Point of Consumption (POC).
All current and forecast alternative energy sources fail miserably at POC. When you look at all the hurdles, redundancies and hypothetical/theoretical technologies you have to invoke to make alternative energy reliable at POC, you see they can’t even come close to matching the 80-year-old coal plant.
An obsolete coal plant using 80-year-old technology can provide power where and when you need it. It can be positioned almost anywhere from the equator to the tundra. (It will even work aboard ships.) It can be positioned immediately adjacent to the point of consumption. It works around the clock and in all types of weather. It can easily store weeks or months of coal reserves in a big pile outside. 99% of its offline time is scheduled and it is trivial to build in redundancy to compensate for both scheduled and unscheduled offline time. For the last 80 years, this type of technology has chugged out the electricity all over the world without pause.
“Alternative” energy sources have none of these attributes. They can only be built in specific locations, and those locations are wholly unrelated to the points of consumption. They can only operate under specific weather/environmental conditions, so they cannot fulfill the when of the point of consumption need.
They operate on nature’s schedule not ours. If we could easily operate on mother nature’s schedule, we wouldn’t need the energy in the first place, because we primarily use the energy to alter natural environmental conditions to keep ourselves alive.
“Alternative” energy is really Weather-Dependent Energy and it has all of the hazards posed by being exposed to the vagaries of weather. Wind turbines only generate power in certain locations, within certain wind speed ranges and only when the wind blows in the specified speed range. Solar panels only generates significant power in certain locations, in certain latitudes, in certain environmental conditions (deserts mostly). It only generates significant power in the daytime, only during certain hours in the day, and random weather conditions like thunderstorms, ice storms or sandstorms can knock it offline completely. (Even hydroelectric power is weather dependent and can be seriously crippled by drought or flood.)
To even begin to replace the 80-year-old coal plant with weather dependent technology, you have to invest resources on a massive scale.
A coal plant produces power around the clock and in all types of weather. To replace that functionality at POC, you have to build massive redundancy into the alternative power system. You can’t just stick up the number of wind turbines that on paper can crank out the same number of kilowatts generated by the coal plant. To compensate for the incessant variation in the wind, you have to put up at least three times that many turbines, in at least three different groups widely separated geographically. Even then it is far from certain you will have dependable power at POC. Every grid using significant amounts of wind power has suffered serious outages regardless of how large the dispersion of wind power. Solar power is even worse because it can under the best of conditions only produce power for around six hours a day. Half the time of course, it is dark and solar produces zero power at POC even when the solar panels are physically right above the POC.
Neither can we efficiently store solar and wind energy. The most effective method, thermal storage in molten salts, has only 20% recovery. That means to get 1 watt back out, you have to put five in. Worse, the storage system is more costly and complex than the alternative generators that produce the energy it stores.
A coal plant can operate anywhere, but since the alternative generators only work in certain locations, to replace the functionality of the coal plant you have to create a massive interconnected power grid to shift power from where nature provides the power to anywhere else a POC exists.
Let me emphasize this: In order to replace the functionality of a single 80-year-old coal plant anywhere in North America, you have to build a continent-spanning power grid that can efficiently and reliably transfer power from any single location in North America to any other location. The entire grid has to extend everywhere and work all of the time or it has no hope of providing power where and when you need it.
We have no such grid today, and it is not even certain that we could create such a grid at all given the severe problems of balancing such a massive system while its primary generator’s output goes up and down erratically as weather conditions change. Nobody has ever come close to creating such a grid and it might be physically impossible to do it.
Worse, it should be fairly obvious that such a grid would be very vulnerable to large-scale disasters such as ice storms, hurricanes, earthquakes etc. as well as presenting a tempting target for hackers. Remember, the entire grid has to function to switch power. It won’t be like today where we have a lot of largely isolated regional grids. A failure in Mississippi river valley will isolate the entire East Coast from power from power supplies in the Midwest and West.
Meanwhile, in the same scenario, our obsolete coal plant would keep chugging along cranking out power to the local grid.
To sum: Just to completely replace a single obsolete coal plant anywhere in the country, we have to reengineer the entire continent-wide power grid from the generators to the light bulbs.
And we have to do it all in one go. The non-alternative power system will have to remain online at full potential capacity to be able to step in and compensate for alternative power’s inability to provide power reliably at POC. We won’t be able to take any of the old plants off line without risking a fatal outage at some POC. We’ll have to build a massive parallel alternative system that will parasitize the non-alternative system until the alternative system reaches some critical size threshold that will allow the entire system to completely replace the functionality of a single 80-year-old coal plant.
This is never going to happen. It would take decades and by the time we got it done our grandchildren would be getting their power from feeding banana peels into their Mr. Fusions.
In the future, every time someone extols the supposed virtues of “alternative power” just ask them, “Can this system replace a single coal plant that uses 80-year-old technology?”
The honest answer will always be no. You most likely won’t get an honest answer but it will be interesting to see the expression on their face.