This is the Executive Summary of a PDF document, “Lack of energy storage makes renewables-only grids a pipe dream,” that exposes the unrealistic assumption that there will be enough battery power to back up ‘green’ energy sources
By Francis Menton, Global Warming Policy Foundation, Dec. 1, 2022
Advanced economies – including most of Europe, much of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and others – have embarked upon a quest to ‘decarbonize’ their economies and achieve ‘Net Zero’ emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The Net Zero plans turn almost entirely on building large numbers of wind turbines and solar panels to replace generation facilities that use fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) to produce electricity. The idea is that, as enough wind turbines and solar panels are built, the former coal, oil, and gas-burning central stations can gradually be closed, leaving an emissions-free electricity system.
But wind and solar facilities provide only intermittent power, which must be fully backed up by something – fossil fuel generators, nuclear plants, batteries, or some other form of energy storage – so that customer demand can be matched at times of low wind and sun, thus keeping the grid from failing.
The governments in question have, then, mostly or entirely ruled out fossil fuels and nuclear as the backup, leaving some form of storage as the main or only remaining option. They have then simply assumed that storage in some form will become available. Their consideration of how much storage will be needed, how it will work, and how much it will cost has been entirely inadequate.
Energy storage to back up a predominantly wind/solar generation system to achieve Net Zero is an enormous problem, and very likely an unsolvable one. At this time, there is no proven and costed energy storage solution that can take a wind/solar electricity generation system all the way to Net Zero emissions, or anything close to it.
Governments are simply setting forth blindly, without any real idea of how or whether the system they mandate might ultimately work or how much it will cost. The truth is that, barring some sort of miracle, there is no possibility that any suitable storage technology will be feasible, let alone at affordable cost, in any time frame relevant to the announced plans of the politicians, if ever.
This report seeks to shine a light on the critical aspects of the energy storage problem that governments have been willfully ignoring.
Full backup for energy grid is indispensible
Section 1 shows that full backup is indispensable in an electricity grid powered mainly by intermittent generation. Without it, there would be frequent blackouts, if not grid collapse. It doesn’t matter if one builds wind and/or solar facilities with capacity of ten or one hundred or even one thousand times peak electricity usage. On a calm night, or during days or weeks of deep wind/sun drought, those facilities will produce nothing, or close to it, and only full backup of some sort – that is, backup sufficient to supply all of peak demand for as long as it takes – will keep the grid from failing.
Section 2 sets out realistic estimates, for several major countries, of the amount of energy storage required to get through the inevitable periods of insufficient generation from intermittent sources.
These calculations do not require any kind of fancy degree or engineering expertise to understand. Rather, they are a matter of basic arithmetic. And yet somehow, blinded by their zeal to pursue decarbonization of the energy system, government planners in essentially all developed countries have pushed forward with Net Zero plans without setting out these fundamental figures. The task has thus been left to independent analysts, often people who are retired and generally uncompensated, who have donated their time and skills to provide the basic information that the public, on the hook for the vast cost and risks of these schemes, has a right to know.
Section 3 looks at the current plans for acquisition of energy storage in some of the countries that say they are on the path to Net Zero. In all cases, the capacity that will be delivered by the 2030s is trivial – typically from around 0.1% to at most 0.2% of the amount that is necessary if Net Zero is to be achieved.
Section 4 considers the cost and feasibility of acquiring battery storage on the scale required to deliver Net Zero. We review recent government reports on the current and projected cost and capabilities of battery technologies that have been seriously proposed for grid backup in the absence of fossil fuels.
Cost of electrical backup could match a nation’s GDP
Even on the most optimistic assumptions, the cost could be as high as a country’s annual GDP, thus rendering the entire Net Zero project an impossibility. On less optimistic assumptions, the capital cost alone could be 15 times annual GDP.
In addition, it is not just costs that render the goal infeasible, but also practical limitations. Current battery technologies provide about four hours of discharge at maximum capacity, but weather patterns mean that grids need batteries that can store as much as a month’s demand, and then discharge that energy over the course of six months or more. Such ‘long duration’ batteries have not yet been invented.
‘Green’ hydrogen costly, inferior to natural gas
Section 5 examines the proposed alternative storage medium of ‘green’ hydrogen, produced by electrolysis of water. The best that can be said for the idea is that it is somewhat less absurd than grid backup with batteries.
Hydrogen does offer a potential solution to the problem of long-term (months rather than hours or days) storage of large amounts of energy. However, green hydrogen is very costly, particularly if the electricity used comes from the wind or sun; and once produced it is inferior to natural gas in every way as a means to power the economy: it is much less energy dense, more dangerous, subject to explosions, and more difficult to handle and to store.
While exact costs of a green hydrogen system are unknown because of the lack of any existing model, calculations based on reasonable assumptions indicate that electricity from a combination of solar panels and green hydrogen would be at least 5 and more likely 10 or more times as expensive as electricity from natural gas.
Section 6 looks at the studies that have calculated a so-called ‘levelized cost of storage’ and have suggested figures in a range that would be expensive but potentially affordable. It shows that the studies in question rely on assumptions about battery charge and discharge rates that are inapplicable to the problem of grid-scale storage.
Governments committed to Net Zero with no evidence it can work
Section 7 discusses the truly shocking fact that politicians and governments have committed their people to Net Zero goals without any kind of demonstration project that shows that the goal can be achieved technologically, let alone at reasonable cost. To date, no such project has achieved Net Zero emissions through intermittent renewable generation and energy storage backup; nor is there anything close to it. Half-hearted efforts to build such demonstration projects have incurred unaffordable costs, without getting close to the Net Zero goal, leaving no reason to think that such a system can ever succeed.
The push toward Net Zero without a fully demonstrated and costed solution to the energy storage conundrum is analogous to jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, and assuming that the parachute will be invented, delivered and strapped on in mid-air in time to save you before you hit the ground.
Now, before our advanced economies are destroyed, it is time to demand from our politicians and energy planners that they level with the public about the huge costs and the likely impossible technical requirements of the goals to which they have committed us.
Francis Menton is the President of the American Friends of the GWPF. He retired after 31 years as a partner of a major international law firm. He holds an undergraduate degree from Yale University (summa cum laude in mathematics) and a law degree from Harvard Law School. His blog can be found at www.manhattancontrarian.com. The full PDF document can be found at this link.