Hopscotching the world for clean energy headlines the other day, I chanced upon an article by one Bryan Leyland at a website that calls itself The Energy Collective Group. Leyland bills himself as “a New Zealand-based electrical power engineer with world wide experience in power generation, power systems and electricity markets.” The article he wrote was entitled, “The wind and solar power myth has finally been exposed.”
Well, if there is a myth out there about wind and solar power, I certainly wanted to know more. Perhaps my whole career as a writer for CleanTechnica has been based on a lie. Perhaps if I knew the truth, I would mend my ways and start disseminating the straight skinny to my readers. The Energy Collective Group says it “brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.”
Okay, then. I’m interested in smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is going. So take me by the hand, Bryan. Let’s see what you’ve got. I dived into the story and here’s what I found.
The Wind & Solar Myth
After acknowledging that wind and solar are being prioritized by the governments of most countries as a way to slash emissions from generating electricity, Leyland writes, “These plans have a single, fatal flaw: they are reliant on the pipe-dream that there is some affordable way to store surplus electricity at scale.”
Not so, the widely experienced electrical power engineer claims. “In the real world, a wind farm’s output often drops below 10 per cent of its rated ‘capacity’ for days at a time. Solar power disappears completely every night and drops by 50 per cent or more during cloudy days. ‘Capacity’ being a largely meaningless figure for a wind or solar plant, about 3000 megawatts (MW) of wind and solar capacity is needed to replace a 1000 MW conventional power station in terms of energy over time. And in fact, as we shall see, the conventional power station or something very like it will still be needed frequently once the wind and solar are online.”
Leyland scoffs at the idea that the way to net zero is to simply build more wind and solar installations. We will soon come to find that we still need good old fashioned thermal generating stations to keep the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
“This brings with it a new operating regime where stations that were designed to operate continuously have to follow unpredictable fluctuations in wind and solar power,” Leyland writes. “As a result, operating and maintenance costs have increased and many stations have had to be shut down. In fact it’s already common to see efficient combined-cycle gas turbines replaced by open-cycle ones because they can be throttled up and down easily to back up the rapidly changing output of wind and solar farms. But open-cycle gas turbines burn about twice as much gas as combined cycle gas turbines. Switching to high-emissions machinery as part of an effort to reduce emissions is, frankly, madness!”
Wind & Solar Madness!
Leyland is just getting warmed up. Nations which used to supply electricity via cross border transmission lines will no longer be able to do so because all of their baseload thermal generators have been shut down due to surges in renewable energy, much of which will be squandered — curtailed is the word the industry uses — when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Power prices will soar, making more or less everything more expensive, and there will be frequent blackouts.
Building even more renewable capacity will not help. Even 10 or 100 times the nominally necessary “capacity” could never do the job on a cold, windless evening, Leyland points out. We will need large scale energy storage, sufficient to keep the lights on for several days. He calculates that California will need 200 MWh of installed storage for every MW of wind and solar power.
Since the cost of battery storage is currently $600,000 per MWh, that equates to $90 million needed for every MW of renewable energy generated in the Golden State. Since solar farms now cost $1.5 million per MW, by lightning-like calculation, storage will cost 80 times more than the cost of building a solar power plant in the first place.
But it gets worse. There is not enough lithium, cobalt, and rare earth minerals to make all the batteries that would be needed to store that much electricity, and the quest for more will push commodity prices into the stratosphere.
None Of The Alternatives Are Feasible
Leyland then catalogs all the possible alternative energy storage technologies and dismiss them all. Pumped hydro won’t save us because it can only supply power for 6 to 10 hours of operation. What’s worse, there are very few places where large hydro storage facilities can be built. “Hydro-pumped storage will seldom be a feasible option. It cannot solve the problem on a national scale even in countries like the USA which have a lot of mountains,” Leyland writes.
Carbon capture and storage is just wishful thinking. Not only does it consume most of the energy it saves, storing the carbon dioxide is a huge problem because three tons of carbon dioxide are produced for every ton of coal burned.
Hydrogen? Forget about it. Most of it is made from methane, so that’s a non-starter. Green hydrogen made by electrolyzing water uses huge amounts of electrical energy, 60% of which is lost in the process.
It gets worse. Storing and handling hydrogen is extremely difficult. It leaks from every available point, so by the time you go to use it, most of it has dissipated. The other downside is the risk of fire and explosion.
There Is Good News, However
Things are not hopeless, Leyland concludes. “There is one technology that can provide a cheap and reliable supply of low emissions electricity — nuclear power. Interest in nuclear power is increasing as more and more people realize that it is safe and reliable. If regulators and the public could be persuaded that modern stations are inherently safe and that low levels of nuclear radiation are not dangerous, nuclear power could provide all the low cost, low emissions electricity the world needs for hundreds or thousands of years.”
Here at long last is Leyland’s point. “If we had 100 percent nuclear backup for solar and wind, we wouldn’t need the wind and solar plants at all. Wind and solar are, in fact, completely pointless.”
So Who Is Bryan Leyland?
Leyland certainly talks a good game. He sounds authoritative and some of the points he makes about carbon capture and green hydrogen are valid. But who is this guy? A little digging on the internet brought me to the New Zealand Media Council, which has quite a file on Bryan Leyland. He has lodged a complaint with the Council against the New Zealand Herald, which he says is failing to report that global warming is not happening.
In his complaint, Leyland argued the reports in the Herald that referenced the consensus among climate scientists that human action is causing global heating without presenting dissenting opinions is irresponsible. “Consensus is all about politics and religion and not about science,” Leyland wrote. “Galileo was against the consensus of the time. Many scientific breakthroughs have been against the consensus.” He maintained the world has not warmed in recent years contrary to all predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By its failure to mention this absence of warming, the newspaper had been misleading its readers, he alleged.
The New Zealand Herald responded by saying it recognized its need for balance in coverage, but argued that such a balance needs to be in proportion. “Just because someone holds an eccentric view, it does not mean they are entitled to run in the paper.” The Herald reiterated its belief in “the state of the debate in peer-reviewed scientific literature, not the media. There may well be debate in cyber space and among letter writers but it is not occurring where it counts — peer reviewed scientific journals. “
The Media Council reviewed Leyland’s complaint carefully and decided the Herald is under no obligation to report on every dissenting opinion. It therefore dismissed Leyland’s complaint.
There are two takeaways from this tempest in a teapot. One, more countries should have a media council where actual journalists strive to protect the integrity of the press. Two, there actually is a potential solution to the need for zero carbon electricity that does not mar the landscape, does not depend on the wind, and does not need sunshine. It works 24 hours a day every day of the year and will for tens of thousands of years without the need for batteries or other energy storage techniques. In addition, it can be installed locally so it does not need to rely on high voltage transmission lines.
Want to know what this miracle power source is? It’s called geothermal energy, and it relies on the fact that temperatures below the Earth’s crust — which is about 12 miles thick — range from 1000º C to 3600º C. That’s hot enough to make supercritical steam that can power existing combined cycle turbines to make zero emissions energy.
Will the heat below the surface of the Earth ever run out? Yes it will, in a couple million years. It’s an idea that is being pursued by Quaise Energy and the US Department of Energy. It can also be used in district heating systems to warm and cool our homes and commercial buildings.
Just imagine a world with abundant, low cost electricity that doesn’t pollute the environment. No new nukes, coal- or gas-fired generating plants, no expensive transmission lines, no wind turbines and solar panels marching across the landscape from horizon to horizon. We wonder what Bryan Leyland would think of that?
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