Alternative Facts on Alternative Energy

By Joseph Fournier, published in Western Standard, May 12th, 2023

Albertans are going to their voting stations May 29 and the pressing topic of affordability and government mandates for alternative energy production, caps on hydrocarbon production and climate taxation are front and centre.

I’ve written numerous articles for the Western Standard over the past nine months on topics relating to public policies specific to energy and climate science. I want to expand on that prior work by bringing new material into the election limelight, so people are better able to make informed choices.

The two topics that I will address in this article are:

1. Does hydrogen, wind and solar PV have the “climate-offsetting potential” that so many claim is inherent to these alternative energy sources?

2. If wind and solar PV are so “cheap,” why do retail prices explode wherever the technologies are deployed?

The irony of so many of the non-emitting alternatives like hydrogen, wind and solar PV technologies is they too alter the climate.

Starting first with hydrogen.

Hydrogen is the lightest of all molecules and it is notorious for its ability to leak from flanges, union joints in pipes and valves. In fact, it’s so small it’s able to migrate through many metals in a process that gives rise to a type of corrosion called hydrogen embrittlement. Once hydrogen escapes to the atmosphere, it rapidly reacts with and consumes natural oxidants like ozone and hydroxyl radicals.

Due to the “leaky” and “reactive” nature of hydrogen, fugitive emissions from production and storage vessels act to enhance the “global warming potential” of methane by consuming oxidants that function in removing methane from the atmosphere through photochemical oxidation reactions.

An example of hydrogen fugitive emissions is hydrogen boil-off from liquid hydrogen vessels, which is then vented to the atmosphere and by as much as 1% of the mass per day of the liquid volume in storage. Such boil-off is common in cryogenic fluids, and is produced in cryogenically stored liquid hydrogen vessels, due to its extremely low boiling point of -253C.

Likewise, normal purging and venting procedures used in large scale electrolysis plants can result in 4% to 9 % loss of all hydrogen produced. Such losses are the highest when electrolysis units are powered by intermittent sources such as wind and solar farms.

These fugitive losses are why recent studies estimate the indirect global warming potential of one tonne of hydrogen can be as high 11 times that of carbon dioxide. Ironically, the same advocates for hydrogen as a tool against anthropogenic global warming, rage against fugitive methane emission from oil and gas facilities as a major reason against continued reliance on natural gas.

Does wind power offset or cause climate change?

David Keith, professor of Applied Physics at Harvard`s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences produced a number of studies that suggest if wind power is expanded to the point of being the largest source of power generation in United States, the resulting slowing of surface wind speeds and alteration of atmospheric circulation would result in a nighttime warming of more than 1.5 C over the first century of operation at such a scale.

In fact, his work shows the produced warming over the first century would be larger than if coal power were the primary source of power generation.

David`s study highlights the “wind shadow effects” of large wind farms is over 100 times larger than the US EIA and the UN’s IPCC predicts, and thus the under estimation that this technology has on climate.

Similarly with solar PV, the climate warming potential associated with massive “black tops” is their color and shadow effect on underlying grass gives rise to warming of near surface air masses. The physics at work here is like the well-known Urban Heat Island effect that naturally develops as grasslands and forests are replaced by parking lots and black rooftops in urban and metropolitan city centres.

Next, if wind and solar PV are so cheap, why do retail prices explode wherever these technologies are deployed at large scale?

The wind and solar PV sector routinely use a metric called the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) to argue those weather dependent modes of electricity production will give rise to extremely low electricity prices once adopted in masse. LCOE is a calculation used by the power sector to calculate and compare the marginal cost of a given technology versus another and is often lower than the LCOE for conventional thermal power plants.

This is a slight of hand and arguably is akin to comparing apples with oranges. Conventional power plants are dispatchable, whereas wind and solar are intermittent. Thus, comparing their LCOEs is dubious as their designs and intended functions are so wildly different.

Most importantly, these arguments ignore empirical data, which shows  wherever wind and solar PV are added to the power pool, retail prices experience inflation at much higher rates. Joseph Toomey, an energy management consultant in United States, compiled public data to compare the retail electricity inflation rates in States with and without high wind power generation. Toomey’s illustration shows states with the highest rate of adoption of wind power are also the states with the greatest retail electricity inflation rate.

So, how do low LCOE technologies like wind and solar PV give rise to higher retail rates for consumers?

Robert Idel published an economic model in 2022 that compares LCOE versus the levelized full system cost of energy (LFSCOE) for the grid, which compares dispatchable and intermittent technologies using empirical data from German and Texan grids from 2010 to 2019.

Dispatchable technologies like nuclear, natural gas, coal and hydroelectric can respond to rising or falling demand. Intermittent technologies, like wind and solar PV, lack such control and thus give rise to grid voltage instabilities.

In this model, LFSCOE include both generation and grid integration costs that include expanded transmission, distribution and energy storage infrastructure that are required to deal with system instabilities. The higher the grid penetration of intermittent power facilities, the higher the integration costs for retail consumers.

This approach acknowledges a given power generation facility is part of a whole and the quality of its power production dictates the overall performance and cost of the system to which it is connected. Ultimately, grid operators amalgamate the total costs of the system and pass these onto the retail consumer.

Case in point, here in Alberta, transmission and distribution fees have rapidly risen to 40% to 60 % of the total retail costs of power consumption. This energy inflation started soon after the NDP ended long standing power production agreements with coal power producers and instituted ahead of the Federal Liberals, a mandate for minimum levels of wind and solar PV in Alberta’s grid.

Please see my December Western Standard article on this subject, titled There is nothing green about Alberta`s overbuilt transmission system.

The more I study climate alarmism and its consequences, the more I’m reminded of simple yet so often true concepts, like the “law of unintended consequences” and the fact there are “few solutions in life, but mostly trade-offs.”

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Wind Concerns is a collaboration of citizens of the Lakeland Alberta region against proposed wind turbine projects.

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