Intermittent Renewables Can’t Favorably Transform Grid Electricity

If you’ve never read Gail Tverberg, this would be a good place to start.

Our Finite World

Many people are hoping for wind and solar PV to transform grid electricity in a favorable way. Is this really possible? Is it really feasible for intermittent renewables to generate a large share of grid electricity? The answer increasingly looks as if it is, “No, the costs are too great, and the return on investment would be way too low.” We are already encountering major grid problems, even with low penetrations of intermittent renewable electricity: US, 5.4% of 2015 electricity consumption; China, 3.9%; Germany, 19.5%; Australia, 6.6%.

In fact, I have come to the rather astounding conclusion that even if wind turbines and solar PV could be built at zero cost, it would not make sense to continue to add them to the electric grid in the absence of very much better and cheaper electricity storage than we have today. There are too many costs outside building the devices themselves. It…

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4 thoughts on “Intermittent Renewables Can’t Favorably Transform Grid Electricity

  1. You should probably start by saying that Gail Tverberg is a strong proponent of continued burning of fossil fuels. Her bias shows in this article. If you read the full article, you see, for example:

    “To sum up, when intermittent electricity is added to the electric grid, the primary savings are fuel savings. At the same time, significant costs of many different types are added, acting to offset these savings.”

    This entirely misses the point. The reason to go to renewables is the environment. The “primary savings” are that we are saving the environment.

    We have basically four choices to generate electricity: nuclear, fossil fuels, hydroelectric, and new renewables (wind/solar/wavepower/tidalpower, etc.).

    We can (mostly) all agree that, considering all things, hydroelectric has the best balance of cost, dispatchability, and environmental impacts. Let’s get as much of that as we can, but of course there’s not enough. Look at the remaining problem as one of delivering the electricity that we can’t get from hydroelectric.

    Nuclear is much higher cost than we ever thought – probably 20 cents a kwh in the next ten years, and 40 cents delivered cost – , and it also has dispatchability issues (same as renewables). Where renewables can’t be turned on, nuclear can’t be turned off. The other side of the same problem. Nuclear is not a reasonable answer.

    Fossil fuels are the cheapest, as long as we don’t mind the environmental impacts. Ah, but we probably don’t want to render the earth uninhabitable, so fossil fuels are, like tobacco, a thing of the past.

    Thus, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that what we have left, after eliminating the other options, is the right answer. Renewables are necessary, and our job today is to make them cheaper, and pair them with cost-effective storage. Is that solar? Wind? Tidal power? Biological methanes? Or some combination of all of them? Unless you have another suggestion, we are stuck with renewables+storage.

    Writers like Ms. Tverberg need to stop whining about the cost of renewables. We will have renewables in our future. We have to optimize the solution available to us.


  2. That’s quite a long comment to a single sentence post.
    I’ll reiterate – I recommend Tverberg’s interesting post featuring citations (of some of my favourite blogs in PF Bach’s and Energy Matters) and accounting (maybe I should mention she’s an accountant).

    I don’t think Tverberg’s view is much different than that from the Google engineers of the abandoned RE<C project – which I nearly linked to in the post, but following your comment I'll include now:

    The old joke was the requirement is for clean, plentiful and cheap, but only have 2 out of 3 could be had.
    I doubt 2 out of 3 works for global emissions.
    I don't believe hiding the low value of low value power is going to reduce global emissions.


  3. I agree. Gail Tverberg’s posts at The Energy Collective are always informative and on point. I’ve never sensed her to favour one energy source over another; she just tells it as it is. Her latest post doesn’t disappoint and I shared it as soon as I read it.


  4. News from Ontario, Canada. Wind and Solar are not reducing C02. Ontario’s own Engineering Society is telling us this. See the report, “Ontario’s Electricity Dilemma – Achieving Low Emissions at Reasonable Electricity Rates”. Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE). April 2015.
    (Archived at:

    Page 15 of 23. “Why Will Emissions Double as We Add Wind and Solar Plants ?”

    – Wind and Solar require flexible backup generation.

    – Nuclear is too inflexible to backup renewables without expensive engineering changes to the reactors.

    – Flexible electric storage is too expensive at the moment.

    – Consequently natural gas provides the backup for wind and solar in North America.

    – When you add wind and solar you are actually forced to reduce nuclear generation to make room for more natural gas generation to provide flexible backup.

    – Ontario currently produces electricity at less than 40 grams of CO2 emissions/kWh.

    – Wind and solar with natural gas backup produces electricity at about 200 grams of CO2 emissions/kWh. Therefore adding wind and solar to Ontario’s grid drives CO2 emissions higher. From 2016 to 2032 as Ontario phases out nuclear capacity to make room for wind and solar, CO2 emissions will double (2013 LTEP data).

    – In Ontario, with limited economic hydro and expensive storage, it is mathematically impossible to achieve low CO2 emissions at reasonable electricity prices without nuclear generation.

    Liked by 1 person

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