Previously published in October 2020, edition of International Cement Review
Can renewable energy sources provide the world with much of the energy it needs? While some environmentalists advocate the complete replacement of fossil fuels with solar, wind, and battery power, Dr. Lars Schernikau, why this is impossible.
by Dr. Lars Schernikau, HMS Bergbau Group, Germany & Singapore
About the author:
Dr. Lars Schernikau, born and raised in Berlin, studied at New York University and INSEAD in France before receiving a doctorate in energy management from the Technical University in Berlin. Lars has extensive knowledge and experience in the raw materials and energy sectors. Lars has founded, worked for and advised a number of companies and organizations in the energy, raw materials and coal sectors in Asia, Europe, Africa and America. Before entering the world of energy and raw materials over 15 years ago, he worked for the Boston Consulting Group in the USA and Germany. In 2010 and 2017 he published two business books on the economics of the international coal trade (Springer, available from Amazon). He is a member of various business, energy and environmental associations, including the nonprofit CO2 coalition in the USA. He regularly lectures at international energy and coal conferences and advised governments and leading energy organizations on energy policy issues. Lars can be reached at [email protected]
Photo: A young man who burns electrical cables to mine copper in Agbogbloshie in September 2019; Wikipedia Free License
Today we hear and read about the climate crisis every day, driven by well-funded campaigns. However, we hear little about the dangers of switching from conventional energy to wind, solar, and battery-powered vehicles. It seems that every second person has become an atmospheric physicist who understands that carbon dioxide is the main driver of global warming and the switch to renewable energy will save us from devastating hurricanes and floods that hit the ceilings of our dream oceanfront properties. Every other person seems to be an energy specialist who is certain that wind, solar, and battery powered vehicles are a happy, safe, and environmentally friendly way to meet our daily electricity and transportation needs. However, less could be further from the truth.
The author is everything for the sensible use of renewable energies and for reducing the daily waste of energy. Society needs to invest in additional filtration systems, cleaner transportation and mining operations to minimize the negative impact on the planet. In addition, a lot of trees should be planted. But are current climate protection measures good for the environment? Are today's wind and solar technologies the solution to our energy problems? This article is intended to take the reader on a journey away from current standard thinking.
Current and future energy needs
Today almost 8 billion people live on earth and feed 80 percent of their energy hunger with hydrocarbons or fossil fuels (see Figure 1). Wind and sun account for an estimated two percent of the primary energy in 2018, the rest largely comes from nuclear power, hydropower and some biomass. This is in sharp contrast to the 2 billion people who lived on earth 100 years ago and had just learned to spell “oil and gas”. Of today's world population, there are at least 3 billion people who have no or only irregular access to power. There could be an additional +3 billion people in the next 50 years, and as a result, the sheer number of people plus additional air conditioning, new electronics, automobiles, planes, and space travel will increase energy demands dramatically.
If one extrapolates the trends shown in Figure 1 to the future, it becomes questionable whether non-hydropower renewable sources such as wind and sun provide the required energy in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.
The media say the share of sun and wind will grow exponentially, but doesn't mention the growth in electronic waste being shipped to Africa. And it certainly goes unnoticed that solar and wind technology can literally never be the main source of power generation in the world because of their low energy density and the problems described below.
Figure 1: A life without fossils is decades away (1)
ERoEI, energy density and intermittency: The mass use of wind and sun is disadvantageous
Michael Moore's now famous documentary “Planet der Menschen”, which has 9 million views on YouTube, illustrates this problem very well.
Solar and wind power are not new sources of energy – we had to “wean” low-efficiency wind and solar energy in order to drive the technological revolution in the humanities. While these power sources are nothing out of the ordinary or revolutionary, their efficiency has improved significantly over the past few decades. In addition, these sources are approaching their physical limits. The Schockley-Queisser law states that a maximum of 33 percent of the incident photons in silicon photovoltaics (PV) can be converted into electrons, with modern PV reaching 26 percent. In wind power, the Betz law states that a blade can absorb up to 60 percent of the kinetic energy in the air. Modern wind turbines achieved 45 percent.
The era of 10x profit is over. (2) There is no Moore's law regarding energy, and therefore what is seen in the field of computers cannot be expected from energy. Costs won't go down any further and it is time to take an overall systems view when considering solar and wind or some form of power generation.
The three main problems of wind and solar power generation are:
- their variability or intermittency
- extremely low return on energy invested (ERoEI)
- low energy density (see also Figure 2).
Figure 2: Wind has a very low energy density, whereby the density in Asia is even lower than in Europe (3).
Practically every solar panel and windmill needs a backup for times when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining. The German press proudly presented that on July 4, 2020 at around 1 p.m., 97 percent of German electricity demand for one hour was obtained from renewable energies (see Figure 3). However, it has not been reported that:
- In the same hour, 22 percent (~ 15 GW) of electricity demand was wasted on energy that had to be exported or dumped across German borders, probably at negative prices.
- On July 18, 2020 around 9 p.m., ~ 16 percent of Germany's electricity demand for one hour was obtained from renewable energies (zero percent from wind and sun, all from reliable biomass and hydropower).
- During this hour on July 18, 2020, around nine percent (~ 4 GW) had to be imported at high prices from the surrounding countries because Germany was not producing enough electricity (see Figure 3).
There is no area that is practically large enough to always have wind or sun. It happens every couple of years, probably at least once a decade, when a continent like North America experiences a day or two with no sun or wind.
The logical requirement for reserve capacity for all variable renewable energies (VRE) and all related consequences must be taken into account when comparing the costs with fossil or nuclear energy. However, almost all published cost comparisons use the so-called LCOE measurement (Levelized Cost of Electric), in which only investment, operating and fuel costs are taken into account. The fuel costs for wind and sun are of course practically zero. However, LCOE does not take into account the other cost categories.
Figure 3: Record: 97.2% renewable energy in Germany on July 4, 2020 (left) compared to a typical summer period in Germany in July 2020 (4)
The real cost of solar and wind must include:
- Security costs (profile costs): costs that result from the "temporal" deviation between generation and demand. Includes the cost of batteries, the decline in conventional electricity use, the increase in ramps, and cycling.
- Interconnection costs: costs arising from the “spatial” discrepancy between the generation of variable renewable energies (VRE) and the demand for electricity, including costs for network / interconnection management and compensation costs.
- Material and energy costs: Costs for energy and materials to build up solar and wind capacity (the ERoEI is far too low for wind and solar).
- Loss of efficiency: Costs associated with loss of efficiency due to insufficient utilization of conventional emergency power supply.
- Space costs: costs related to the space required for VRE (energy density is far too low), arable land, forests, affected bird and animal life, changing wind and local climate, noise pollution, etc.
- Recycling costs: higher recycling costs for VRE and backup capacity after its useful life.
Contrary to popular opinion and the press, the costs of conventional energy as a backup and the resulting efficiency losses of conventional energy explain, among other things, why the total costs for variable renewable energies always rise above a certain point with increasing installed capacity. This point varies by country and region, but one thing is certain: Germany is way beyond this point, which explains the country's high electricity prices (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: Worldwide electricity prices – electricity in Germany is the most expensive (5)
Figure 5 shows the misleading LCOE measure used in the popular press and by most governments and compares it to the IEA's still incomplete but better value-adjusted LCOE (VALCOE), first published in 2019. In January 2020, the prestigious Institute of Energy Economics Japan (IEEJ) published its 280-page “IEEJ Energy Outlook 2020” and raised concerns about the increasing disregarded integration costs for renewable energies. He concluded that LCOE is unable to capture the real cost of wind and solar.
Germany has become aware that it needs conventional electricity despite its large installed wind and solar capacity. However, Germany has decided to abandon coal-fired power in addition to phasing out nuclear power. Despite the German Environment Minister Svenja Schultze, who proudly claimed in July 2020: "We will rely solely on wind and sun to generate electricity in our country," Germany is quietly building new gas-fired power plants to replace them. Gas is a legitimate fuel with many positive properties, but Germany doesn't have one of its own. Despite the "clean" transportation and burning of gas, we know that gas is usually more expensive than coal, more difficult and expensive to transport than coal, as it requires pipelines or LNG, and is generally more difficult and sometimes dangerous to store. Why is Germany closing its existing coal mines, coal-fired power plants and nuclear power plants and now building new, gas-fired ones? The reaction is usually greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as gas emits around half the CO2 / kWh when burned than coal, so the switch is supposed to save the climate.
If we stick to the popular but, according to the author, misinterpreted theory of global warming, a lesser-known fact seems to be that gas supplies lead to methane leaks during production, processing and transportation (methane is 84 times more powerful Greenhouse gas) over 20 years than CO2 and over 100 years 28 times more effective). This has been documented in several studies, including the German study by Poyry from 2016 on “Comparing greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants. It was also picked up by Bloomberg in a January 2020 article that discussed methane leaks related to LNG. Methane emissions vary widely, but there are many cases – as shown in a 2016 study sponsored by Total Gas – where greenhouse gas emissions are higher for gas than for coal. The study states: "With 95 percent confidence, US shale gas can emit more greenhouse gases than Colombian hard coal."
- When burned, gas emits around half of the CO2 compared to coal.
- Gas emits more CO2eq (mostly in the form of methane) during production, processing and transport. This includes, but is not limited to, leaks and energy requirements for processing and transporting LNG.
- The total CO2eq emissions of the gas are the same or higher than those of coal, depending on the turbine type, location and source and type of gas.
Gas is a good and necessary fuel in the electricity mix, but if you want to believe in the theory of global warming, you have to be consistent and not spend taxpayers' money to switch from coal and nuclear power to gas, if by your own account Will be the case No positive impact on the climate. Methane emissions are neither measured nor taxed. Is that fair for coal or for the environment or for the ordinary citizen who pays the taxes?
Figure 5: Leveled electricity costs (LCOE) and value-adjusted LCOE (VALCOE) for solar PV and coal power plants in India (6)
Battery technology cannot store a power grid
If gas isn't the answer, what is? What about those great batteries? It is true that an affordable and sustainable storage system would be the solution to the intermittency problem of wind and sun (but not to the problems of energy density or the ERoEI). Batteries have become far more efficient over the years, and the recent switch to electric vehicles has resulted in large investments in battery giant factories around the world.
The largest known and discussed factory for batteries is Tesla's $ 5 billion Gigafactory in Nevada, which is expected to deliver 50 GWh of annual battery production in 2020. CATL in China is expected to double this by 2021. The Berlin Gigafactory 4 will start producing electric vehicles in 2021-22. These factories will supply the batteries for our future cars as well as replacement batteries for homes, but what about their environmental and economic impact? Figures 6 and 7 summarize the environmental challenges of today's battery technology. The three main problems with any known battery technology are:
- Energy density
- required materials
Figure 6: Comparison of mineral requirements for renewable technologies (data from IEA 2019) (7)
Hydrocarbons like oil, gas and coal are one of nature's most efficient ways to store energy. Today's most advanced battery technology can only store 2.5 percent of the energy that coal can store. The energy that a Tesla battery with 540 kg and 85 kWh can store corresponds to 30 kg of coal energy after combustion. A Tesla battery then has to be charged with electricity (often via the grid) while the coal is already “charged”, even if only once.
Additionally, you can calculate that an annual gigafabrik production of 50 GWh Tesla batteries is enough to save 6 minutes for all US electricity consumption (and then no Tesla to drive). Today's battery technology cannot be a solution to the disruption.
Material and energy requirements
Next comes the question of the use of energy and the materials required to manufacture a battery. The materials required include lithium, copper, cobalt, nickel, graphite, rare earths and bauxite, coal and iron ore (for aluminum and steel).
In addition, 10 to 18 MWh of energy is required to build a Tesla battery, which results in 15 to 20 t of CO2 emissions if 50 percent renewable electricity is assumed. Under the conservative assumption that 1-2 percent of the mined ores end up in the battery in the form of metals, 25-50 t of raw materials must be mined, transported and processed for a Tesla battery (see Figure 7)
This is slowly hitting the main media. (8) The first larger batches of decommissioned and unusable wind farms and solar collectors encounter landfills and insufficient capacities for recycling plants. There is still no affordable, large-scale way to recycle wind blades. The electronic waste we generate is already a devastating problem for landfills outside Accra, Ghana, Nairobi, Kenya, and Mombasa, Mozambique.
Figure 7: Example: Energy density and environmental impact of Tesla batteries
A new energy transition
"What do we do now? Are we all doomed?" A young engineer asked the author this question after one of his presentations when he discovered that there is currently simply no alternative to conventional energy from coal, oil, gas and nuclear power. It is worrying that schools are teaching young people to fear the slight warming of around 1 ° C over the past 150 years. At least half of the past warming is natural and is caused by the sun as we get out of the Little Ice Age that ended about 300 years ago. The other half or less can be "man-made," including the heat that creates all of the energy consumed that is released into the biosphere, as well as the greenhouse gas CO2. The additional greening – and thus the biomass – that is created by this additional CO2 is rarely mentioned. The mainstream media do not publish the fact that the warming effect of CO2 decreases logarithmically with higher CO2 values. There is no impending disaster, but real pollutants to the environment and man-made waste are a problem – and this is where resources should be concentrated. (9)
Regarding global warming and the impending disaster, the IPCC confirms the following:
- IPCC 2020 Climate Change and Land, p. 9, A2.3: “Satellite observations have shown that the vegetation has turned green in the last three decades…. Causes for the greening are combinations of a longer vegetation period, nitrogen deposition, carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilization … "
- IPCC 2013 Climate Change, Chapter 2, p. 235: “There is only limited evidence of changes in the extremes that have been associated with other climate variables since the middle of the 20th century.” Ȗ IPCC 2018 Third Assessment Report 14, p. 771: “ In climate research and modeling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system and that therefore a long-term prediction of future climate conditions is not possible. "
- The Max Planck Institute wrote in April 2020 about the coordination of climate models – which form the sole basis for today's energy policy: “When we were confronted with a model system that could not reproduce the warming of the instrumental records, we had an explicit one Approach chosen in which the past temperature trend is a coordination target. “In addition, Bjørn Lomborg, who heads the think tank at the Copenhagen Consensus Center, explains a lot of interesting scientific facts in his recently published book“ False Alarm ”. He says, "Climate change is real, but it's not the apocalyptic threat we've been told."
Even if people think catastrophic predictions for global warming are the right way to deal with the environment, this article highlights wind and sun – and is certainly good for uses like heating a pool to get yourself a spot in the energy mix – cannot and will not replace conventional power supply.
Michael Shellenberger, Time Magazine's Hero of the Environment 2008, said in an article published in Forbes in May 2019, “The reason renewable energies fail to power modern civilization is because they were never meant to be. An interesting question is why anyone ever thought they could. “His recently published book" Never Apocalypse: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All "describes his reasons.
What is needed in the next century or two is a “new energy transition”. Future energy may be entirely new, possibly more renewable and fusion or crevice based, but has little to do with wind and photovoltaics. To achieve this new energy transition, more must be invested in education and basic research (power generation, storage, superconductors, etc.), while at the same time investing in conventional energy to make it more efficient and environmentally friendly. It will be necessary to invest in fossils to get rid of them, not separate them from them. This is the most sensible way to save the planet from the negative effects of human existence on it. Please keep in mind, however, that humanity has never been better off than it is today. Shouldn't we celebrate this fact?
(1) Manufactured by Lars Schernikau: primary current that is converted using the direct equivalent method. Source: Data compiled by J David Hughes. Data before 1965 by GRUBLER, A (1998) Technology and global change: data appendix. Post 1965 data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy (published annually).
(2) MILLS, M (2019): The “New Energy Industry”: An Exercise in Magical Thinking. New York, USA: Manhattan Institute, March 26th. www. manhattan-institute.org/green-energy-revolution-near-impossible
(3) Global Windatlas: www.globalwindatlas.info (accessed April 24, 2020)
(4) Schernikau analysis based on Agora Energiewende – https://www.agora-energiewende.de/ (accessed July 20, 2020)
(5) STATISTA (2019): Global electricity prices in 2018 by selected countries – www.statista.com/statistik/263492/ Electricity prices in selected countries /
(6) WANNER, B (2019): Is the exponential growth of solar PV the obvious conclusion? – www.iea.org/ commentaries / is-exponential-growth-of-solar-pv-the-obvious-conclusion
(7) IEA (2020): The progress of clean energy after the Covid-19 crisis requires a reliable supply of critical minerals – www.iea.org/articles/clean-energy-progress-after-the-covid-19-crisis -willneed -reliable-supplies-of-critical-minerals
(8) MARTIN, C (2020): Wind turbine blades cannot be recycled, so they accumulate in landfills – www. bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-02-05/ Wind turbine blades cannot be recycled so they can pile up again in landfills
(9) PETERSON, J (2020): What Greta Thunberg does not understand about climate change – https: // youtu.be/y564PsKvNZs ”.