Ritchie wants to know when we start building more dams?

As the FT reports in an email this morning:

Renewables have overtaken coal as the world’s largest source of power capacity and the sector is growing far faster than anyone thought, according to the International Energy Agency, with half a million solar panels installed every day last year.

This was, of course, the dream of the Green New Deal group, of which I am a member.

But just imagine what could happen in the UK now if we really committed to this process and used a National Investment Bank to fund it? Another economy and a stronger future would then be possible.

Instead we sit in the sidelines, no doubt discussing austerity, Brexit and the failings of our economy.

Renewables including hydro, the bit that no one seems to be all that keen on pointing out. From the IEA itself:

The International Energy Agency said today that it was significantly increasing its five-year growth forecast for renewables thanks to strong policy support in key countries and sharp cost reductions. Renewables have surpassed coal last year to become the largest source of installed power capacity in the world.

The latest edition of the IEA’s Medium-Term Renewable Market Report now sees renewables growing 13% more between 2015 and 2021 than it did in last year’s forecast, due mostly to stronger policy backing in the United States, China, India and Mexico. Over the forecast period, costs are expected to drop by a quarter in solar PV and 15 percent for onshore wind.

Last year marked a turning point for renewables. Led by wind and solar, renewables represented more than half the new power capacity around the world, reaching a record 153 Gigawatt (GW), 15% more than the previous year. Most of these gains were driven by record-level wind additions of 66 GW and solar PV additions of 49 GW.

About half a million solar panels were installed every day around the world last year. In China, which accounted for about half the wind additions and 40% of all renewable capacity increases, two wind turbines were installed every hour in 2015.

Note the “led by” weaselery there. Coal has declined as a result (in the US at least) of fracking for gas, and here because of carbon taxes. Solar and wind have grown, sure they have, but from trivial bases. This is driven, in reality, by the decline in coal use bringing it down below that hydro base that was already there.

But I’m not paying €80 for a copy of the .pdf that actually details this.

54 thoughts on “Ritchie wants to know when we start building more dams?”

  1. Here in CH IIRC they’ve said no new small-scale hydro under 100kW, since they don’t want to repeatedly dam every single stream in the whole damn country for trivial amounts of power.

  2. ‘Renewables have surpassed coal last year to become the largest source of installed power capacity in the world.’

    Not believable. The U.S. got 5% of it’s electricity from wind/solar last year; 33% from coal.


    The word “capacity” cannot be used with wind/solar renewables. Their ability to produce is dependent on external, uncontrollable factors. Ipso facto, their capacity is double-ought zero.

  3. @ Gamecock
    Capacity is the key word for renewables and is used correctly – what needs to be broadcast is that *capacity utilisation* is small and uncorrelated with demand. In the absence of clouds the average capacity utilisation, over a year, of a solar panel would be 25% but less than that in winter when more electrical energy is needed.

  4. As Gamecock and john77 have said, the keyword here is “capacity”.

    I have the capacity to ask Maria Sharapova on a date via Twitter and having me walking around my kitchen on Sunday making me breakfast while wearing one of my t-shirts.

    But it’s probably not gonna happen: folk are more interested (or not, as the case may be) in what actually occurred when I Tweeted Miss Sharapova.

  5. @Tim Newman, @Gamecok, @john77. Quite so.

    I work in the field and this “capacity” legerdemain is one of the most common means that the Green PR people try to gull the ignorant into vastly overestimating the success of renewables (silently including the otherwise-hated-by-greens hydro in the category of course being the other one).

    Every power plant has a nameplate capacity. That is how much power that plant could possibly produce without melting down.

    For a 1,000-MW nameplate-capacity, nuke or coal plant, that is pretty much what you get. Apart from maintenance or upgrades, it will give you about 1,000 MW every hour of every day.

    A 100-MW solar or wind plant can in theory give you, and sometimes will in fact, give you 100 MW. But that is only under ideal sun and wind conditions. In any given hour, on average that 100-MW solar/wind project is going to give you about 25 MW. And you have absolutely no control over when you get that power.

    In some cases, like the UK, that makes solar even worse, because it produces the most power in the summer when it is least needed.

    In fairness, in the US with its hotter climate has air conditioning as one of the principal drivers of load variability; hence solar plants actually do tend to produce their output when it is most needed. (In most of the US, peak electricity demand is typically around 1 to 4 PM weekday afternoon in August).

  6. But just imagine what could happen in the UK now if we really committed to this process and used a National Investment Bank to fund it? Another economy and a stronger future would then be possible.

    Let’s just spend the money building giant pyramids. They’ll be just as useless now, but will bring in loads of tourists in 3,000 years time, thus providing a great boost to the economy.

  7. Whereas a calm, overcast day in winter in the UK and we have how much supply compared to demand?

    The problem with the variable renewables (as opposed to the non variable where the generation can be fixed such as hydro) is that you need sufficient generation capacity to provide what is needed even in poor conditions. A cold winter’s night that is very stormy? Nothing from solar or wind generators. Sure its not stormy over the entire country at the same time but its still dark.

  8. @ Martin
    “Whereas a calm, overcast day in winter in the UK and we have how much supply compared to demand?”
    For wind less than 1%, for solar more than 1% – National Grid records sectoral contribution to supply, so we do know the answer.

  9. ‘We never thought, way back in 2008 when we wrote the Green New Deal that eight tears later it wold (sic – is Stow on the Wold to be the trial location?) still, without any real alteration, be the best alternative economic plan for the UK, but the fact is that it still is.’

    Still as modest as ever – I don’t know if anyone has read the full paper – for students looking to analyse the economy of North Korea and despairing at the lack of official source material, this provides a very handy guide.

  10. Anyone know if ‘Pilgrim Slight Return’ or ‘PSR’ is a spoof – given the level of sycophancy I am questioning his/her authenticity. Noone can be that ignorant, can they?

  11. The Murphatollah is currently hosting a pub quiz.

    Apparently he has been doing ‘research’ on the Big 4 accountancy firms.

  12. @Tim N “In some cases, like the UK, that makes solar even worse, because it produces the most power in the summer when it is least needed.”

    Surely it’s not so bad in the UK with 30% baseload covered mostly by nuclear and solar (backed up by despatchable gas) kicking in during the day when it is needed.

    I would have though the bigger problem is that there just isn’t as much sun in the UK, and projhects generally reckon on an average of 960 hours a year in the southern UK (annual power output = 960hrs * rated output). It doesn’t make sense to put any solar panels in the UK until every available place in sunnier countries has been filled. A solar panel produces more power in sunnier conditions while a kg of coal, a lire of oil or a m3 of gas produces the same energy wherever it is burnt, so use the solar in sunny places and the other stuff here.

  13. @Pat
    “And since the costs are coming down there’s no more need for subsidies.”

    Only half the story. The main cost in solar projects is the capital expenditure, and on Chinese solar panels installed in the EU, nearly half of this is import duty. So we end up having tax breaks and feed-in tariffs to cover the cost of import duty handed over to the EU (or alternatively the higher cost of duty free German panels).

  14. Quite apart from their inability to deliver rated output when needed, PV panels installed at temperate latitudes will not (over their effective lifetime) generate as much energy as was consumed in their construction – their “energy return on energy invested” is negative. So we can think of them as a storage battery – charged up with energy (probably fossil fuel generated, since most of them are manufactured in China) during their construction which is then gradually released over the next few decades when the sun is shining. So they do absolutely nothing to reduce global CO2 emissions (if that sort of thing worries you).

    They may make sense in Arizona, where peak solar coincides with peak demand (for aircon), but in Germany or the UK they are only effective at harvesting subsidies.

  15. The keyword there is capacity.

    These things should be hyphenated. It would be easier for people to recognize that there’s not much real news here if they said “solar-capacity” exceeded “fossil-fuel-capacity”. No, duh, really?

  16. Bloke in Costa Rica

    This is going to get people killed, if it hasn’t already. Sooner or later we are going to lose the safety margin. Everyone knows about the problems with, say, a large stationary high pressure area being parked over the UK for an extended period meaning output from wind turbines drops to nil (as happens every winter), but I think the biggest issue is going to be grid stability. Motors and switch gear can handle a bit of undervoltage but they really don’t like phase and frequency going out of spec. If the grid people can’t whang a few hundred MVAR around when they need to, then we’re in a world of trouble.

    As for keeping prime mover stations as backup: that is doable for gas turbines and even combined cycle plants, but startup for a steam turbine is hours for a coal-fired plant and longer than that for nukes.

  17. Sub Specie Æternitatis,

    Peak consumption in the US is in the early evenings so 5-10 pm it the right window. The second largest peak is as people are getting ready for work in the 6-9 am range. Duck curve graphs illustrate the problem with solar, that it works best when we don’t really want the power.

  18. World energy consumption is estimated to be roughly 14TW per year(per wiki but a ballpark figure is good enough). 169GW of capacity was added in the best year ever. Assuming no storage or transmission loses it will only take us just short of a century to switch over assuming we also don’t want economic growth. Assuming real world conditions that allow for some growth(including things like solar panel factories) and we’re looking at close to five centuries using current tech. I’ll be generous and assume that we can actually average service lives of 30 years. Wake me when we get somewhere close to the 2.5TW of installed capacity(as well as the storage and transmission lines) we need per year.

  19. Bloke in Costa Rica – so makes sense to have the nuclear do base load and other, shorter time to bring online or more variable output generation to add on.

  20. That survation web-site is a laugh. The 2nd headline says 70% would like to pay more tax if it went to the NHS.
    There is nothing stopping them.
    All they need to do is ditch the foreign holiday, fill the car with petrol, drive to oddbins, and fill the boot with UK distilled beverages. Plenty of the tax on that lot would go to the NHS. And if they really cared about the NHS they could stop being such a burden on it, and even spend the rest of their holiday cycling and walking in the parts of the countryside that haven’t been ruined by NP or AONB status.
    Revealed preferences suggest they would still prefer France, Spain and the USA FY over the NHS.
    What the survey really shows is that 70% would like to impose their views on those who don’t agree with them, and get the 30% to pay for it.

  21. I should really update this, but the math was too easy in 2010.

    Global energy consumption in 2010 was 523 quads (Quadrillion British Thermal Units, or BTUs).

    Of that 523, 52 were provided by renewable energy (not including nuclear).

    Of those 52 renewable quads, 50 were provided by hydropower.

    Numbers courtesy of the U.S. DOE Energy Information Administration

  22. @Liberal Yank Peak demand of course varies by location and season. So 5 to 10 PM may be peak demand in Maine on an average spring day.

    But according to every one of many, many electric price and consumption charts I’ve seen over the years, peak demand will be on a hot August afternoon.

    Foreigners, perhaps those in NW Europe more than most, often do not understand how uninhabitably hot most of the US gets during the summer. New York is on the same latitude as Rome and most of the US is further south than that. Moreover, most of the US has a continental climate which leads to more extreme seasonable variation. Add to this the relative wealth of the country and you get a country in which virtually everything is air conditioned, the way most places in Europe aren’t. And that is the big driver of variability of electric consumption.

    To add a note of personal experience: I live in Northern Virginia, not Mississippi, in a well-insulated modern home supplied with cheap power by the standards of most of the US and Europe (~$0.07/kWh). Yet every August, I can expect to pay a $600+ power bill, just to keep my home cold enough so that my brain doesn’t melt.

  23. @Dave Tufte Good to see a familiar name posting here!

    Professor, would you confirm for the doubters here that, for example, Southern Utah has a climate that would make most people yearn for air conditioning during the summer, in a way that, e.g., Glasgow wouldn’t?

  24. British Columbia has so much hydroelectric that the electricity company is called BC Hydro, but just look at how difficult it’s been to build a new dam and hydro facility.
    Like with all these fancy schemes Ritchie proposes the issue isn’t just finding the money it’s clearing all the environmental and other hurdles

  25. Bloke in Costa Rica

    Mathematica via Wolfram Alpha says global energy consumption is 538.7 EJ·a⁻¹ which is about 150 PWh or 17.1 TW.

  26. I can confirm that most of California(*) has afternoon temps intolerable over time without air conditioning, from April through October. There’s a reason Pacific Gas & Electric (sole utility supplier) charge peak electric rates 2pm to 7pm – and that’s with all the installed domestic solar that we currently have.

    (*) Except for San Francisco where Karl the Fog keeps things cool and damp for 360 days a year – on the other days, everyone migrates to the buildings with aircon.

  27. I said this years ago and it still holds true. From a personal green perspective we need 25%-30% nuclear as base load, 25%-30% coal for the heavy lifting, 25%-30% high-speed startup gas-type systems to manage demand fluctuations and 25%-30% mixed other including hydro, tidal, wind, biomass, waste conversion, etc. The insanity is attempting to go for universal provision from one supply sector.

  28. While warm temperatures would be nice I cannot see myself ever going to America in the summer then.
    Warm is nice, hot is nice. Aircon drives me out of the building when the local pharmacy puts theirs on.
    I heard that Qatar is a tad hotter than California, nice without the aircon. There are buildings using things known as ‘fans’ in some places.

  29. Sub Specie Æternitatis,

    Here is the first link containing a common graph related to electricity usage.


    That is the typical profile for an average day in California, not Maine. The day selected for one common graph was March, 31 2012. If you have any data that supports your claim over the course of a full year I’d love to see it. Please don’t bother cherry picking a single day in August that fits your narrative.

    Your electric bill seem rather high to me. My parents, in the Shenandoah Valley, pay a third of what you do. Have you considered planting some shade trees around your home? A couple, more depending on how big your mansion is, sugar maples near your southern wall will cut your bills dramatically. I recommend sugar maples in VA because they grow well in the climate and they are deciduous giving heating benefits in the winter. While it will take several years to see full benefits if you plant the trees yourself they should pay for themselves by the end of their second summer. An added bonuses is the trees will sequester some of the carbon.

  30. @ Sub Specie Aeternitas
    A dozen years ago I was saying that the no-brainer way forward was to decree that every new office building in the Southern USA had to fuel its air conditioning by solar panels. It is obvious from the lack of action that the federal bureaucracy has negative brain power.

  31. @Liberal Yank “That is the typical profile for an average day in California, not Maine. The day selected for one common graph was March, 31 2012.”

    Ah, that is where the misunderstanding comes from. I can believe that in March, the coincident peak, even in California, might be at 7 or 8 PM.

    But what matters for planning purposes (most importantly, the valuation of electric capacity) are the hours of peak demand over a lengthy period (typically, the engineers use a one loss-of-load-event per decade are criterion). And in California, just like in most of the rest of the US, that is during summer afternoons.

    For example, have a look at this CAISO chart: https://www.caiso.com/Documents/CaliforniaISOPeakLoadHistory.pdf It shows the date, time, and amount of peak electric consumption in California for the years from 1998 to 2015.

    Note that the average time of peak-demand is 3:56 PM and the average date of peak demand is August 8.

    It may seem counter-intuitive that we value capacity principally at brief periods of peak demand, rather than the rest of the time, but that is what standard microeconomics demands. I’d happy to provide the argument at length.

    As to my electric bill, shocking as it may seem, I am informed both by neighbors and the utility (which tries to “nudge” people to consume *less* power by sending comparisons) this is actually on the low side of average.

  32. Sub Specie Æternitatis,

    The date in March was chosen because it best fits what happens over the course of an entire year.

    I told you to not use cherry picked date that focuses on specific summertime issues. You link does exactly that. Granted it picks a range of summertime dates but there is nothing that tells us what happens in December. A breakdown by minute for every day of the year for a full calendar year is what you should have posted. As far as I am aware there is no large data set that supports your argument. Finally more than half of the peaks are after 1600 when solar is already well into decline for the day.

    Your electric bill is shocking. If you have 10,000 sq ft I can understand but then you have the money for the house in the first place so why are you complaining. If you have a more typical house size the only reason to pay that much is waste or rents. I am willing to listen to a rent argument but my guess is that you could easily drop your bill if you wanted to. Just replacing insulation in one attic section dropped my winter gas usage in half. Have you considered a heat pump? Using better windows and insulation could also be worth the trouble, especially if the builder cut corners like they so often do.

    Just to make you jealous my top electric bill this summer was $52 and I didn’t sweat to death.

  33. It occurs to me that there is a possibility you are just trolling. That would be a big relief. There are far too many ‘greens’ that actually believe things like you claim.

  34. A $600 a month electricity bill at 7 cents per kWh is about 8,500 kWh. The average US household uses 901 kWh a month, so yeah, you’re using a little more than average, LOL.

    You’re not growing pot or running a tanning salon, are you? That’s a hell of a lot of electricity to use.

  35. Gamecock,

    120% capacity is actually desirable. Plants do go down for maintenance. IIRC coal plants run around 87% of rated capacity. The extra 20% is to provide necessary backup.

    Solar and wind could get away with 400% on a large scale assuming we dump the needed trillions into storage and transmission. It is hard how to see how this won’t be a financial catastrophe.

  36. @Liberal Yank: “The date in March was chosen because it best fits what happens over the course of an entire year. I told you to not use cherry picked date that focuses on specific summertime issues. You link does exactly that. Granted it picks a range of summertime dates but there is nothing that tells us what happens in December. A breakdown by minute for every day of the year for a full calendar year is what you should have posted.””

    I didn’t cherry pick a date. I didn’t pick a representative date. I picked (or rather CAISO picked) the date and time of peak usage, because that is the only one that matter for purposes of the determining the value of capacity.

    As you know, the principal products sold by generators in most organized markets (including most of the US), are energy and capacity.

    Energy is just electric energy of which you buy as much as you need to fill current demand. Energy production varies vastly on an hour-to-hour basis.

    Capacity is the capability of producing a certain amount of electric energy, if requested. You buy that in order to make sure that there will be power to buy when you need it. Capacity increases or decreases slowly over years as new plants are built and old ones decommissioned.

    From that follows the, perhaps surprising conclusion, that the only capacity matters is the one provided at peak demand. You need to buy enough to cover your demand at that peak, or the lights go out. But if you have bougth enough capacity to meet your peak demand, what capacity is available at other times, when your spot demand is far from peak, is totally irrelevant.

    Consider a hypothetical 1,000 MW plant with produces energy reliably, except during the top 1% of demand hours, when it produces nothing. As a practical matter, it may meet much of your energy needs. But it will meet none of your capacity needs, because you’ll still need to build as much other capacity as you would if that hypothetical plant didn’t exist.

    @Liberal Yank: “Your electric bill is shocking.”

    Not all that terribly. Just a monthly reminder of what air conditioning costs.

    @Liberal Yank: “If you have 10,000 sq ft I can understand”

    +/- 10%.

    @Liberal Yank: “but then you have the money for the house in the first place so why are you complaining.”

    But I wasn’t complaining! Go back to the first mention. I only used this illustrate what a big part of electricity usage airconditioning is.

    @Liberal Yank: “It occurs to me that there is a possibility you are just trolling. That would be a big relief.”

    Unclear whom you are addressing. I hope it was not me.

    That is the usage during the peak month of the year, not the average. Winter bills are a fraction, again demonstrating the effect

  37. Sub Specie Æternitatis,

    It is you who I am hoping is trolling.

    What I would like you to do is to look at the thrid graph on:


    Notice how the Net Demand drops dramatically. That is because thermal plants take hours to heat up so they do not get shut down for the relatively small daily solar peak. Since solar energy can’t be easily stored for peak demand(coincidentally happening as I type, around 1900 local time) and nightly wind generation is just ramping up(wind conditions are best after 10 pm in California from what I’ve read) there is a big hole in generating capacity.

    I’d like to thank you for providing the link to the web site that disproves your point. Yes, picking the single day in each year that has the highest overall demand is cherry picking. The only other outlier that I can think of that would be as intellectually dishonest is if we looked at the day with the lowest electricity demand.

    Interestingly my position, that demand peaks in the evening after solar is done, happened to be correct today. I made the prediction well before afternoon rush hour without checking what the official projections were.

    Don’t let me stop you from promoting solar though. I actually do think it has value for some people even without better storage. I don’t mind net metering either as long as it is done based on spot prices and solar panel owners have to pay the grid to take electricity no one wants.

  38. @all the key term (besides capacity) is ‘dispatchable’.

    People choose when coal is at full capacity. Nature chooses for solar/wind.

  39. @Liberal Yank “It is you who I am hoping is trolling.”

    This is a novelty to me; first time in 3 decades of Usenet, forums, and twitter of being accused of being a troll. Everything else, sure, but this is a new one.

    As for promoting solar, nothing could be further from my intention. I’m an advocate of free markets and competition so extreme that calling me a “market fundamentalist” might not actually be inaccurate. I’ve spent many years professionally arguing for freer, less distorted, markets in energy.

    So *of*course* I am against all subsidies to solar and wind power and all the damage they do to rate payer’s pocketbooks and the functioning of electric markets and have so argued many times in public. If SEIA or AWEA have an enemies list, I trust my name is on it.

    All I did in this thread was argue that the peaking profile of solar panels is better in hot climates, like the US, than in cold ones, like the UK. I didn’t so argue in order to push solar, but only mentioned it as an aside in my original post, because it is true and I thought interesting.

    I regret wasting so much time writing to @Liberal Yank only to leave the impression that I am a pro-solar troll.

  40. ‘120% capacity is actually desirable.’

    No, it is extremely expensive. Capital and fixed cost.

    Manageable with both gas (because flexibility and having one or two sets idle) and nuclear (because the generating plant costs are a comparatively small proportion of the plant costs). Disastrous for everything else.

  41. @Surreptitious Evil

    For what it is worth, the engineers who run simulations of electric markets calculate a reserve margin of typically about 17% to achieve less than one LOLE (loss of load event–lights going out) every ten years. In other words, buy enough nominal capacity to cover 117% of peak demand, and chances are you’ll only run out of power less than once a decade.

  42. Sub Specie Æternitatis,

    Fair enough. I still contend that peak demand on most days, in most parts of the US, happen after everyone gets home from work. Today’s California peak is scheduled to happen at 2000. If the sun was out from 5pm to midnight they could be used for peaking. Solar thermal could work but I prefer to use the plants we have to test our sodium firefighting capabilities. We’ll want the practice when we start buying molten sodium nuclear from Russia, China, or India.

    I do agree that solar makes more sense in the US than it does in the UK. Until we have better storage solar is only a niche application in either country though. Since solar without storage is worse than no solar at all for our grid there is no reason to even consider subsidies. Whether we should use subsidies should only be debated once we know that they at least have a chance of working.

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