Renewable Power Subsidies

Photo: Bloomberg/Ken James
Photo: Bloomberg/Ken James

The Los Angeles Times is trumpeting, “Renewable power trumps fossil fuels for first time.” From the article:

Renewable energy is surpassing fossil fuels for the first time in new power-plant investments, shaking off setbacks from the financial crisis and an impasse at the United Nations global warming talks. Electricity from the wind, sun, waves and biomass drew $187 billion last year compared with $157 billion for natural gas, oil and coal, according to calculations by Bloomberg New Energy Finance using the latest data. Accelerating installations of solar- and wind-power plants led to lower equipment prices, making clean energy more competitive with coal.

Much further down is the crux of the issue and why I am presenting this information to you (bold emphasis is mine): The renewables boom, spurred by about $66 billion of subsidies last year, intensified competition between wind- turbine and solar-panel manufacturers, gutting margins from the biggest producers led by Vestas Wind Systems A/S and First Solar Inc.

Humanity will benefit and has always benefitted from renewable, non-hydrocarbon energy sources like hydro power, geothermal, wind, and solar. Historically these were the water mill for milling grain, hot springs, a windmill in the plains for pumping water, and passive solar for heating and cooling. Nowadays it all gets tied to the electrical grid which leads to new and vexing problems. The current problems center around a lack of storage and government tinkering at the behest of profit seeking companies.

The way our electrical grid works is based on a series of complex Alternating Current (AC) electrical grids, with congratulations to George Westinghouse for beating Thomas Edison’s Direct Current (DC) systems. These AC power grids require a constant 60 Hz frequency to operate correctly. As you turn on appliances which are typically measure in watts of electrical consumption, watts equals volts times amps, these take a bit of the electricity on the grid. The grid must always have a certain amount of wattage in surplus to maintain the 60 Hz frequency and voltage to the transformers in your neighborhood.

The problem with wind and solar in particular is that they are inconsistent. The grid needs a baseload power source to function correctly without brownouts or blackouts. Renewable solar and wind can never provide this terrestrially without a method to store large amounts of energy.

As of today there is no storage system in existence that can provide the energy storage necessary to replace hydrocarbon or nuclear baseload sources that provide that consistent energy needed.

Government tinkering in this marketplace is not moving the industry into a place to be free of subsidies. That number of $66 billion above is not going down, and when it goes down the renewable industries collapse. Going back to the post OPEC crisis of the mid to late 1970s the US government tried subsidies under the Carter administration. The industry boomed. The Reagan administration took over and cut the subsidies and the industry nearly failed entirely.

Recently we have observed the same phenomenon in Spain. During financial good times the government subsidized heavily and Spain became a hotbed of solar and wind farms. Then the credit crisis caused a massive cutback of subsidies and the vast majority of the projects in Spain ground to a halt. The industry cannot become successful until they quickly figure out how to become economically competitive.

Finally, we need to focus on geothermal here in the United States. There is massive potential to move to geothermal based on recent information which doesn’t require a non-existent storage location and is a proven technology to replace a large amount of hydrocarbon baseload sources.