"None of This is Real"
Some of the best critical discussions of energy storage online are coming from obscure retirees and a blog called Manhattan Contrarian
Manhattan Contrarian (Francis Menton) has been a go-to source in recent months with regard to energy storage and “energy transition” skepticism. I count at least 10 posts this year where he calls into question the feasibility of energy storage at scale.
I read all 10 pieces; here are the highlights (1-10).
Menton calls attention to a glaring engineering issue that is conspicuous by its absence in New York’s Climate Action Scoping Plan, California’s Assembly Bill 32 Climate Change Scoping Plan and similar technocratic roadmaps: apparently no government or government-sanctioned authority has studied actual generation from wind and sun hour-by-hour (or minute-by-minute) over the course of a year and calculated how much storage will be necessary for periods when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
Some obscure guys online have pursued this task, though. Among them is a retired engineer named Ken Gregory. Gregory determined that full electrification of the U.S. economy with a wind/solar/battery system would cost $433 trillion. Gregory’s report estimates that $433 trillion is equivalent to over 20 times the US 2019 GDP and would cost every adult a total of $1.7 million.
2 — Two More Contributions On The Impossibility Of Electrifying Everything Using Only Wind, Solar And Batteries
Menton cites two papers by colleagues at the Co2 Coalition who’ve done similar work to that of Ken Gregory. “Both pieces,” says Menton, “consider various cost and engineering issues involved in trying to develop a fully solar/battery or wind/solar/battery system to power a modern economy; and both quickly conclude for many reasons that such a project is completely infeasible and will surely fail.”
One of the papers, which considers the case of powering Germany with solar power generated in Spain, says that to produce sufficient storage capacity from batteries with today’s technology would require the full output of 900 Tesla Gigafactories working at full capacity for one year, not counting the replacement of batteries every 20 years...
A 14-day battery storage solution for Germany would exceed the 2020 global battery production by a factor of 4 to 5x. To produce the required batteries for Germany alone (or over 15% of EU’s electricity demand) would require mining, transportation and processing of 0,4-0,8 billion tons of raw materials every year (7 to 13 billion tons for one-time setup), and 6x more for Europe…The 2020 global production of lithium, graphite anodes, cobalt or nickel would not nearly suffice by a multiple factor to produce the batteries for Germany alone.
Menton addresses arguments advanced by some of his dissenting readers, who claim that renewables are rapidly becoming cheaper than fossil fuels — and might already be there — thus, the fossil-fuel industry is obsolete. In Menton’s view, these readers’ arguments rest on an assumption that a government-mandated transformation of the entire energy system will succeed by using one or two not-yet-invented technologies (or technologies that have not been demonstrated at scale). These technologies may (or may not) work and their cost projections may be wildly off.
4 — How About A Pilot Project To Demonstrate The Feasibility Of Fully Wind/Solar/Battery Electricity Generation?
Menton explores the idea of a pilot program to demonstrate the feasibility of a wind/solar/battery electricity generation system:
A reasonable question is, has anybody thought to construct a small-to-moderate scale pilot project to demonstrate that this is feasible? Before embarking on “net zero” for a billion people, how about trying it out in a place with, say, 10,000, or 50,000, or 100,000 people. See if it can actually work, and how much it will cost. Then, if it works at reasonable cost, start expanding it.
Menton explains that the closest approximation to a real-life pilot was undertaken at El Hierro, which is one of the Canary Islands in Spain (population: 11,000). Over a decade ago, El Hierro began constructing an electricity system consisting only of wind turbines and a pumped-storage water reservoir.
Apparently things haven’t gone well — Menton cites the analysis of Roger Andrews at a website called Energy Matters, who concludes that for El Hierro to do away with its diesel backup generation, it would need a pumped-storage reservoir about 40 times the size of the one it currently has.
Menton discovers another guy online named Roger, Roger Caiazza, who has been studying the feasibility of a fully wind/solar/battery energy system. Caiazza offers a simple thought experiment and arithmetic problem, i.e., calculating the cost of getting through one “worst-case” week in a New York winter with a fully wind/solar/battery energy system. Caiazza determined that the price tag for such a week would be $3.822 trillion. For comparison, note that the annual GDP of New York State is $1.75 trillion.
Here Menton examines the work of German authors Oliver Ruhnau and Staffan Qvist and their analysis of the feasibility of a wind/solar/storage electricity system. R&Q, as Menton calls them, produced a paper entitled “Storage requirements in a 100% renewable electricity system: Extreme events and inter-annual variability.”
R&Q use Germany as a case study. Menton concludes that R&Q’s findings are not dissimilar to the findings of the other analysts Menton has read. However, R&Q are compelled by the use of hydrogen for storage purposes more so than batteries. (For what it’s worth, we’ve noted previously on this blog that Elon Musk doesn’t think much of hydrogen as a storage tool). “In their model,” Menton says, “almost all (54.8 TWh out of the 56 TWh) of the storage comes from hydrogen.”
Menton goes on to mention the problems that arise with using hydrogen in a storage scenario:
Natural gas can effectively be stored in non-airtight things like salt caverns because it does not ignite when it goes above about a 15% concentration in the air. Sadly, not so for hydrogen. Hydrogen also rapidly corrodes and leaks from pipelines and containers, causing potentially extreme hazards. I don’t claim to know all the engineering challenges of making a safe hydrogen-based electricity system, but they are clearly huge. If dealing with hydrogen in massive quantities were safe and easy, plenty would be doing it already. There is a reason that no massive hydrogen storage facilities or hydrogen pipelines exist.
Menton looks at three major “net-zero” aspirants: California, New York, and Australia. He notes that some fawning reverence online for California’s recent storage explosion is focused almost entirely on gigawatts, “when the focus should be on the amount of GWH that California will need.”
The reverence comes from PV Magazine, which discusses how the amount of solar-plus-storage in the California Independent System Operator’s queue (72 GW of solar and 64 GW of batteries) dwarves the amount of other hybrid projects in the queue (i.e., solar-plus-wind and wind-plus-storage projects).
In response, Menton says:
Sorry, but if those 64 GW of batteries you are planning to buy only store energy for one hour, then you will need to multiply your purchase by about a factor of a thousand. If they store energy for about four hours (typical of what you might be able to buy today), then multiply your purchase by a factor of 250.
With regard to GWH, Menton says that Australia, like California, is “off by about a factor of 1000.” And again citing Roger Caiazza, Menton says New York’s plans rest on a technology that hasn’t been invented yet — the Dispatchable Emissions Free Resource, or “DERF.” The New York ISO’s own website attests to DERFs not actually being a thing; it says “[r]esources with this combination of attributes are not commercially available, but will be critical to future grid reliability. In order to phase down the fossil fuel resources currently providing these services, new technologies will be needed.”
This recklessly aspirational approach marches onward, undeterred, Menton speculates, because if “you work at the ISO and open your mouth and say ‘this can’t possibly work,’ you will be immediately fired.”
Menton seems increasingly awed and confused by the unreality of what he’s observing. “None of this is real” he says.
Menton dives into a New York Times piece on energy storage:
The high status people like Times reporters and government functionaries have decided that the planet must be saved; and they assure us that “fixes exist.” It is now up to someone else to put up the money so that the low status people can do the menial task of working out the details.
The Times piece quotes several un-named “experts” who alert us to the availability of existing fixes. Menton then goes on to discuss a potentially revealing indicator — investors don’t seem to be lining up to finance battery projects right now.
“According to the Times,” says Menton, “it’s because those stupid venture capitalists have turned their attention to making a quick buck on the latest worthless fads, while the planet suffers.”
Menton sees it differently though. “Could it be,” he says, “that the smart investors take a look at these proposed new battery technologies and immediately realize that they cannot deliver the necessary storage at affordable cost, or that they cannot meet the tests of being able to store energy for months and discharge over the course of months?”
Last, Menton discusses the vaunted Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a 378-page, MIT-produced report called “The Future of Energy Storage.”
…I am not impressed. The Report is an exercise by genius would-be central planners concocting enormously complex models that just happen to come to the results that the authors are hoping for, while at the same time they avoid ever directly addressing the critical question, namely what is the plan to get through that worst case sun/wind drought. Implicit in every page of the Report is that it is an advocacy document for the proposition that the U.S. should embark full speed ahead on crash “net zero” plans for our multi-tens-of-trillions-of-dollars economy without ever doing any kind of demonstration project to show it can work on any scale no matter how small.
Notably, the document’s “Advisory Committee” page lists notorious lizard person John Podesta among a host of other important-sounding bigwigs. A strong indicator that the report itself is bullshit.
However, interestingly, the report concedes “that the only battery storage technology currently being deployed in large amounts in commercial applications — namely Lithium Ion — cannot provide backup for periods longer than about 12 hours…”
As a solution, the report recommends:
…the DOE should support research, development, and demonstration to advance alternative electrochemical storage technologies that rely on earth-abundant materials. Cost, lifetime, and manufacturing scale requirements for long-duration energy storage favor the exploration of novel electro-chemical technologies, such as redox-flow and metal-air batteries that use inexpensive charge-storage materials and battery designs that are better suited for long-duration applications.
Stated differently, MIT recommends the development of a technology that does not exist for key use in a complex remake of our entire energy system. The same old song, apparently.
I like Menton, he’s great at pointing out the most absurd elements of a fully wind/solar/storage electric system. He’s got some cranky Boomer qualities that will not endear him to proponents of a wind/solar/storage system.
But I’d also be interested in hearing the perspective of someone who is bullish on this system. A true believer. I would gladly publish a screed by anyone who fits this description.
In the meantime, I tip my hat to the obscure retirees and armchair analysts cited by Menton, who seem to be doing much better work than the credentialed technocrats who create net-zero emissions roadmaps.
To quote L0m3z for the second blog post in a row: