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The seven reasons renewables are dominant today

It's clear why wind and solar are dominating new generation globally. They are flexible, cheap, low risk, reliable and predictable, fast to get onto the grid, can be installed in every country and don't foul our nest.


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Michael Barnard

2 years ago | 8 min read

Multiple factors determine success in any field and electrical generation is no different

Discussions of electrical generation technologies frequently fall into the trap of considering a single element of a complex equation. One way this occurs is with advocates of a specific legacy technology pointing out a single downside of wind or solar generation as if it’s a gotcha. This is equally true of wind and solar advocates who point at single-factor issues with nuclear or coal, as examples, making the comparison to the more virtuous renewables.

However, there is no single technology which will prevail on all grids in the future. There will be multiple generation technologies at any given time, the mix will change over time, and the specific mix will vary for specific geographies.

The following is a multi-factorial assessment for different forms of electrical generation. The assessment is a simple scale of 1 to 5, and is based on judgment of each of these technologies informed by knowledge, research, and a systems-thinking perspective. It is not a quantitative evaluation.

It is unweighted because weighting would be roughly equal on these points for North America or Europe, but the explicit weighting would vary substantially based on geography. The strict market cost of generation has far outweighed the other factors historically, and only wind and solar’s plummeting costs have made them expand as rapidly as they have recently.

Unsurprisingly, coal falls near the bottom of the rankings. Its challenges in terms of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, relatively low flexibility, and liabilities make it non-viable in a multi-factorial assessment, with only its position as a form of legacy generation and lower price point making it as dominant as it is. If someone suggested coal as a new form of generation today without its history, it’s hard to imagine the idea would gain traction.

Nuclear’s poor ranking is perhaps more surprising. It’s gained a good deal of favor among various former opponents over the past few years due to its lack of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. However, its inflexibility, the high impact of any failures, its high economic cost, and the limitation to roughly 30 countries globally make it much less attractive. In countries where it already exists, in general, very few new reactors are being considered compared to the amount of wind and solar being put on grids. Only China is expanding its nuclear fleet in any substantial way, and is still putting in more wind and solar generation annually.

Each of these factors is explained below with examples of the reasons for many of the rankings. Not all rankings are explicitly explained, but nuances which would assist in weighting for specific circumstances are discussed.

Note that ‘natural gas’ is ~90% methane which has a much higher greenhouse gas impact than carbon dioxide and for accuracy gas generation is referred to as methane gas generation for this discussion. This enables a more dispassionate view of negative externalities.

Economically Viable

This is straightforward. Society runs on energy and money. Given a choice between something which costs 3 cents per kWh (LCOE) and something which costs 15 cents, pretty much everything will favor the 3 cents option. (This is why it’s perplexing that the UK conservatives are still pushing for the Hinkley nuclear choice, which costs 15 cents USD per kWh.)

The least expensive forms of new generation today in strict market terms are wind, solar, and methane generation.

Low Negative Externalities

A negative externality is a cost of something which is not included in the dollars paid for it. With fossil fuel electrical generation, negative externalities include CO2 emissions and methane leaks which cause global warming, particulate matter and nitrous oxides emissions which impact lung health, and sulphur oxide emissions which kill trees and lakes. With wind energy, they make a little bit of noise, which some people who live close to them find annoying part of the time. With solar energy, there’s some mining and manufacturing pollution. Hydroelectricity in desert areas or the far north or south can be very low carbon, but may impact fish stocks or require population dislocation.

Negative externalities are dealt with by finding ways to include them in the cost of the product through regulation requiring that they eliminate the negative externality (e.g., sulphur scrubbers and low-sulphur coal for coal plants), or through market mechanisms which burden the cost of the externality and let people figure out how to deal with it (e.g., carbon pricing). In both cases, the cost of the negative externality needs to get added to cost of the form of generation so that market mechanisms can do their job, but in both cases, regulation is required in order to have that happen.

The best forms of generation today in this respect emit no CO2, particulate matter, NOx, hydrocarbons, or SOx during operation (e.g., wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, and nuclear). Large-scale carbon capture and sequestration has proven to be an economically non-viable pipe dream, as basic analysis of the underlying physics and economics made clear to dispassionate observers long ago, so fossil fuel generation will never be carbon neutral at any reasonable costs.

The best forms of generation today for negative externalities are wind, solar, tidal, and nuclear.

Broadly Deployable

The wind doesn’t blow equally everywhere, but can be harvested in every country in the world economically. The sun doesn’t shine as strongly in Alaska as in Florida (or in Germany as in most of the US, despite what some people say), but is a viable resource in most countries of the world.

There aren’t effective sequestration sites under most parts of the world that would make it somewhat cost effective to put coal plants there and capture the carbon emissions. There aren’t good hydroelectric sites in many countries. Natural gas isn’t cheap everywhere. Landlocked states have no option for tidal energy. Islands have lots of waves, but less land and expensive grid connections, so wave energy starts to be viable. Nuclear is restricted to 30 or so stable regimes which are already part of the nuclear club, and expansion of the club is unwise.

What this all means is that there will be different mixes of generation that make sense in different places. This is mitigated massively, however, by the emerging continent-scale grids, high-voltage DC transmission which vastly lowers transmission losses, and energy markets. It’s getting easier and easier on more developed continents to generate electricity almost anywhere on the continent and get it to the major consumers at a reasonable price.

Given the above, in terms of broad deployment, the best forms of generation today in most countries of the world are wind and solar.

Flexible

There are forms of generation which must run at 90% capacity factors in order to be economically viable (e.g., nuclear). There are forms of generation whose technology makes them very slow to respond to changes in demand or supply (e.g., nuclear). There are forms of generation which come onto the grid or fall off of the grid only in major increments of a GW or so, requiring substantial hot backups and contingencies (e.g., nuclear).

Then there are forms of generation which ramp up and down easily (e.g., wind, solar, gas, and hydro).

As economies develop, they go through a stage where 24/7 heavy manufacturing provides a very stable baseload demand which is easily met by inflexible generation. After that stage, they enter a consumer and knowledge worker economy where demand is much lower in the troughs and higher in the peaks. Too much inflexible generation, historically known as baseload generation, causes conditions of surplus baseload generation regularly for these economies. That occurs today in places like France and Ontario with their large nuclear fleets, requiring them to pay neighboring jurisdictions to take their electricity.

Given the above, on a flexibility basis, the best forms of generation in most places in the world are wind, solar, and methane generation.

Rapid to Build

There is a pressing need globally to decarbonize electrical generation, and in China, India, and many other places, to reduce pollution from electrical generation. A solution which takes 15 years on average to put in place from conception to commissioning (e.g., nuclear), isn’t a viable choice given the significance and urgency of the challenges. A solution which takes 1–3 years to put in place in utility scales (e.g., wind and solar) is much preferable.

Given the above, the best forms of generation in most places in the world are wind and solar.

Reliable & Predictable

A form of power which has a high likelihood of producing a certain number of MWH of generation in a certain period is reliable. A form of power whose availability can be determined with reasonable accuracy at longer time frames and high accuracy in shorter time frames is predictable. Grids require reliability and predictability.

Most classical forms of generation are reliable and predictable (e.g., coal, nuclear, gas, and hydro). Hydro is predictably better in the spring than fall, and reliable over the year.

New renewable forms of generation have proven themselves to be both reliable and predictable. Wind and solar are the fastest-growing forms of generation on every grid in the world today because they are sufficiently predictable and reliable that they do not destabilize grids in large volumes of generation. Their purported challenges in this regard are massively mitigated by wide area synchronous grids and markets. It’s only in isolationist and small grids that this is a challenge, but to be clear, there are enormous numbers of people living in archipelagos where this is a greater issue. High-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission offers a solution for archipelagos such as Indonesia due to its much lower losses underwater.

The most reliable and predictable generation in most places in the world today are wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, and methane gas. Coal is predictable and reliable, but at such great cost otherwise that it is impossible to recommend it.

Low Liability

Forms of generation which have operational or failure modes which cause massive economic disruption or health challenges, or which include potential for significant misuse of materials for terrorist ends, are high in liability in the event of a problem. Nuclear is the most obvious example of this, with very rare accidents on a per TWH basis, but very high impacts of those accidents. Fukushima is likely to cost closer to a trillion dollars (USD) for cleanup, economic disruption, replacement by expensive fossil fuels, etc. Coal has so many negative health and climate repercussions compared to alternatives that it must be considered a high liability form of generation.

The best forms of generation in most places in the world from this perspective are wind and solar.


It’s clear from this assessment why wind and solar are dominating new generation globally. They are flexible, cheap, low risk, reliable and predictable, fast to get onto the grid, can be installed in every country and don’t foul our nest. Historically, high prices and the inertia of legacy forms of generation prevented their broad deployment, but those barriers have fallen in most parts of the world. The next 50 years will see a transformation unlike anything seen since the introduction of coal generation in the first half of the 20th Century. We will all breathe better and while it’s too late to avoid negative impacts from global warming, this will reduce the worst possible outcomes significantly.

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Michael Barnard

I am Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy Inc, co-founder at distnc technologies and a Board Observer and Strategy Advisor at Agora Energy Technologies. I’m a C-level business and technology strategy consultant and communicator who works with existing organizations, startups and investors. I have depth and experience in clean tech, health care automation and complex technology transformation. I’m available through TFIE for consulting, Board positions, and speaking engagements. I can be reached via LinkedIn, email or Twitter.


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