In the earlier post I summarized my estimates on the limits to capacity utilization if production is done either with wind or solar power.  Here I will (over)think implication a bit further.  mthOn their own wind and solar power implied strong restrictions on achievable utilization rates. Overbuilding generation capacity (and associated distribution system) could increase utilization rates, but at the expense of ever increasing amount of wasted power and underutilized power lines. Storage could also help, but smoothing out the production profile would require large amount of underutilized storage capacity. There doesn’t seem to be away around this. Low capacity factor of variable power source has cascading effects elsewhere. If not fixed capacity utilization of end users would be strongly constrained and most likely too low to enable profitable business. On the other hand attempts to fix the problem would imply underutilized generators, power lines, and/or storage. Technical developments will not change this since the problem is not due to specific technology or costs.  Are there ways around these problems? Of course…

If you are planning to invest in a new plant producing for example solar panels and you find production to be unprofitable with utilizations rates implied by solar power, your first choice is simply not to invest. If economic preconditions do not exist, production never materializes even if we might find such production desirable or even critically important. Production would either not happen or move to a place where higher utilization rates are possible. Various shades of gray might also exists as they do today especially in the developing world. If production process is such that you could for example store some parts for later use, it might be possible to outsource only those phases which require reliable power elsewhere. Of course, this still opens up possibilities for those not saddled with the same constraints.

Another option is not to rely solely on variable renewables, but to have a fleet of dispatchable generators delivering the power services variable renewables cannot deliver. Today this most likely implies burning fossil fuels, but in principle hydro and nuclear power would work as well. This again implies overbuilding infrastructure and is unlikely to be economically optimal. However this fundamental reliance on existing infrastructure is the order of the day in the developed world.

Visions where variable renewables dominate are aspirational marketing material while on the ground unholy alliance seems to have quietly developed between many renewable and fossil fuel lobbyists. Cozy reliance on fossil fuels enables somewhat more variable renewables to be built before technical limitations become apparent. Supporting this modest buildup (with public money) buys fossil fuel industry social licence as well as removes long term threat of actual decarbonization. Petty about the climate, but the constituency for whom this is actually a priority is weak.  This is welcome also for many politicians who are only too happy to project an appearance of activity (at relatively low cost) while their policies imply changes which have a marginal impact on the actual problem. This relates to deep decarbonization in a same way as “champagne socialism” relates to revolution of the proletariat.

I recently read a very interesting book “Fossil Capital” by Andreas Malm on the history of industrial revolution in the United Kingdom. (Note: book is only worth reading until chapter 12. There the author got tired of thinking.)  Malm focused on the question of why coal and steam engine won over water power in the early decades of the 19th century. Remarkably coal did not win because water resource would have been insufficient. There was still plenty of untapped potential in the UK. Also coal did not win because it was cheaper. In fact, mechanical power from steam engines was more costly and many were of the opinion that it was also of worse quality. So what happened?

There were many overlapping reasons. For example, factories followed labour to the cities. In the early 19th century it was already clear from the demographics that labour was to be found in the cities. Water power was dispersed and getting meek labour to run the machines in the middle of nowhere was harder. In fact, owners of water powered factories were relatively more dependent on the apprenticeship system providing them with, what can apparently with some justification be called,  slave (child) labour. Water power was also more variable than steam, which made it even more important to have well behaved labour that would be willing to work long and irregular hours.

However, it turned out labour did not think their position was optimal (go figure) and started to make noise. This resulted in legal (and actually enforced) restrictions on working hours and gradual improvement on workers position. (It also induced technological change that made large number of especially troublesome workers redundant, but let us not talk about that here.) Owners did not of course like these limitations and lobbied against them, but relatively speaking those using steam found it easier to adapt. They could live with the shorter and more regular working week since reliable power could enable high productivity during working hours. Coal became the backbone of british industrial might and the road was opened for more broadly shared economic growth.

So can we learn something from this? I think we can since economic and social arguments for why coal won have not disappeared. If you listen to todays renewables promotion, you will be constantly bombarded with statements about how huge the potential energy resource is and how cheap it is…or is going to be any day now. Might it be a cause for concern that these two reasons were also promoted by water proponents in the 19th century Britain just when coal was taking over? Might there be a risk, we are discussing beside the point? If excessive reliance on variable renewables end up limiting capacity utilization, is there not a similar risk that water power faced in the 19th century? Who bears the cost of lower utilization? Labour? Lower salaries and/or more irregular working hours anyone? Vacations in the winter since solar power produces mainly in the summer?  If push comes to shove and such questions have to be asked, I am quite sure any techno-fetishes we might have, will evaporate.

To me conclusion seems clear. It is unlikely humanity will ever be primarily powered by variable renewables. If fuel etc. costs for dispatchable generators are high compared to the cost of electricity from variable renewables, wind and solar might be economically justified as a part of a more diverse fleet of generators. However, it is also possible that on economic grounds they will remain niche producers whose existence is dependent on subsidies and political good will. Future will tell.