They always let me down. Every time I see a headline about a big breakthrough in renewable-energy production or energy storage, it turns out to be nothing more than a press release or evangelism. This is not to say that we are not making good incremental progress in many areas, just that the headlines never match the facts.
It happened today when I read an article in Le Monde* claiming that national security in France depends upon the rapid conversion to windmills and photovoltaic electricity. Like the story recounted by Samuel Johnson about a man who remarries after a long and unhappy marriage, the article proved to be the “triumph of hope over experience.”
The Le Monde tract encouraged me to do some quick math on windmills by using our local nuclear power plant operated by FPL. The plant produces net electrical output of 1,821 megawatts.** I know from reading Bill Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster*** that a windmill produces approximately 1-2 watts per square meter of land. A megawatt is 1 million watts. Even assuming that windmills operated at the low-end of land use, 351 square miles would be required to replace the plant. It could be twice that.
There are only 503 square miles of land in my county. If we include water, we have 617 square miles. We can build windmills in the ocean and a project called Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts does just that. Vineyard Wind is expected to generate 800 megawatts from a 261 square mile area. That isn’t too bad, but replacing 1,821 megawatts would require almost 600 square miles. I also do not know how the project will do during hurricanes. We shall see. Nevertheless, even if we did put all of the windmills in the Atlantic, providing Florida’s total electricity needs through windmills would require thousands of square miles of ocean.
Our local power plant occupies 1.77 square miles. Compared to Europe, we have amazing amounts of land in Florida and in the United States. Yet, there is zero chance that windmills as they currently exist will be sufficient to provide power to our densely populated regions. Due to intermittency, we will need to have a traditional plant anyway to provide electricity when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Some day we may have sufficient battery storage to solve that problem. We might even be able to use the batteries in our cars. Until then, wind is a supplementary power source suitable for unique regions. There is plenty of growth potential there, just not what is claimed.
Solar is a little better, producing as much as 20 watts per square meter. Bill Gates thinks that we could get to 100 watts/square meter. Still, we have a worse intermittency problem with solar, since it is always dark at night. Once again, we need a traditional power plant to provide power until we have overcome the technological challenges necessary for sufficient battery storage. That plant needs to be able to quickly ramp up and down its power output to offset intermittency. We are not close to getting there yet with renewables. A sufficient electrical grid properly networked can reduce the challenge. However, a singular focus on wind and photovoltaics will not get us to national security any time soon. In fact, it could launch a global competition for resources reminiscent of the years leading up to World War I. The Europeans have done that twice now. If we count Ukraine, that might be thrice.
I lament the terrible construction practices that continue to destroy our environment and waste resources. We could do a lot better without much in the way of new technologies. I know people who have built amazingly energy-efficient homes. I also love to read articles about new energy technologies that could make for a safer and cleaner world. So, I shall continue to be lulled into the “triumph of hope over experience.”
* “Renewable energies are a shock absorber and a sustainable investment”. Le Monde, July 26,2022. https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2022/07/25/les-energies-renouvelables-sont-un-amortisseur-de-crises-et-un-investissement-durable_6136052_3232.html. Accessed on 07.29.2022. ** chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://www.fpl.com/content/dam/fplgp/us/en/clean-energy/pdf/st-lucie-factsheet.pdf. ***Gates, B. (2021). How to avoid a climate disaster: The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need. Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.