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Wind over math

29 Sep 2021 | OP ED Watch

Behind most economic mistakes is some kind of math error, technical or intuitive. And it’s certainly true of the energy crisis sweeping Britain and Europe. Terry Etam writes in BOE Report that enthusiasts for alternative energy in Britain were hypnotized by the average output of wind farms and did not consider the old joke about the statistician who “drowned because he forded a river that was only three feet deep, on average”. They really forgot, or chose to ignore, that wind blows hard on some days and not at all on others, even though demand exists on both. Which makes you wonder what else they don’t know.

As Etam writes, “The UK has 24 GW of wind power installed. The media loves to talk about total renewable GW installed as proof of progress, and the blindingly rapid pace of the energy transition. However over the past few weeks wind dropped almost to zero, and output from that 24 GW of installed capacity fell to about 1 or 2 GW. Ordinarily, that would be no problem – just fire up the gas fired power plants, or import power from elsewhere. But what happens when that isn’t available? More pertinently, what happens when the likelihood of near-zero output happens to coincide with the times when that power is needed most – in heat waves, or cold spells? That brings us to the current grave situation facing Europe as it heads towards winter.”

It is not some stuffy bourgeois prejudice to observe that a major advantage of certain types of power plants, mainly coal and natural gas (and some types of nuclear), is the seamless, rapid way they can increase or decrease power to meet demand and indeed smooth over external disruptions. Perhaps the lack of disruptions was one reason people didn’t notice this math problem about the wind not blowing and the sun not shining in a dependable, adjustable-as-needed way. (Another underappreciated aspect of conventional power that armchair geoengineers might not recognize is the dependence of actual civilization on high temperatures. We don’t mean in your living room or on the sidewalk outside. We mean in manufacturing, many of whose vital processes require the capacity to bring thousands of degrees to bear quickly and precisely. The kind of temperatures fossil fuels can deliver, particularly natural gas, but windmills cannot, even through batteries (unless they catch fire which has its own drawbacks.)

Etam doesn’t mince words: “The world has been sold a faulty bill of goods, based on a pathetically simplistic vision of how renewable energy works…. So they all start dismantling the natural gas system – not directly by ripping up pipelines, but indirectly by blocking new ones, by championing ‘fossil-fuel divestment campaigns’, by taking energy policy advice from Swedish teenagers – and then stand there shivering in dim-witted stupor when the wind stops blowing, and the world’s energy producers are not in any position to bring forth more natural gas.”

Again, the consequences are real, and dreadful to contemplate. As he says, “Hundreds of millions of people without adequate heating fuel in the dead of winter is not particularly funny. If a cold winter strikes, all the yappiest energy-transition-now dogs will fade into the woodwork, distancing themselves from the disinformation they’ve propagated and the disaster they’ve engineered.”

One hopes so. But so far it’s not happening. Some Australian guru just chirpily said his nation could be sitting pretty if it just spent a trillion dollars electrifying everything. Yes, a bargain at a mere $100,000 per household. And who among us isn’t sitting on that much cash wishing we could find a use for it? As for practical difficulties, he sneers that “It is an easy slam dunk. It’s not even particularly invasive to our quality of life. For every other country, including America, it’s much harder and the economics are not as good.”

People still get paid fancy speaking and consulting fees for peddling this stuff. Though that “not even particularly invasive” surely caused some suspicious ears to perk up. As did the apparent belief that the laws of economics and physics are quite different in Australia. As the news story itself noted, “Outside the suburbs, there would be enormous solar and wind utility projects, many of them exporting energy to countries with less land and larger populations. Many of these utilities would require new transmission lines. Heavy industries would also need to switch from fossil fuels to electricity.”

People like this “inventor” have endless fun flinging other people’s lives about. The other people, not so much.

3 comments on “Wind over math”

  1. Please take time to sit back and watch this recently released documentary.
    Headwind"21 [Documentary]
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RgyLDVlAg4
    Former London banker Alexander Pohl worked for years for one of the world's greenest banks. Idealistically driven he financed big wind and solar farms genuinely convinced he was making the world a better place.
    Then the reality of what he had enabled to happen hit him at a very deep level.
    This is the story that so many rural residents of Ontario have tried very hard to tell the people of Ontario who have no idea how devastating it is to experience the incursion of industrial scale wind turbines on their communities.

  2. The documentary is a powerful story. A bit long in some places but well worth the 1.5 hrs. viewing. Recommended.

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