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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Europe’s Unforeseen Renewables Problem


Earlier this month, something happened in Europe. It didn’t get as much media attention as the EU’s massive funding plans for its energy transition, but it was arguably as important, if not more. A fault occurred at a substation in Croatia and caused an overload in parts of the grid, which spread beyond the country’s borders. This created a domino effect that caused a blackout and prompted electricity supply reductions as far as France and Italy. The problem was dealt with, but it’s only a matter of time before more problems like this occur—the reason: the rise of renewables in the energy mix.

Bloomberg reported on the incident citing several sources from Europe’s utility sector. While no one would directly blame the blackout and the increased risk of more blackouts on renewables, it is evident that Europe’s change in the energy mix is raising this risk.

The problem has to do with grid frequency. Normally, it is 50 hertz, Bloomberg’s Jesper Starn, Brian Parkin, and Irina Vilcu explain. If the frequency deviates from this level, connected equipment gets damaged, and power outages follow. The frequency is normally maintained by the inertia created by the spinning turbines of fossil fuel—or nuclear, or hydro—power plants. With Europe cutting its coal and nuclear capacity, this inertia declines as well, exposing the grid to frequency deviations.

“The problem isn’t posed by growing green electricity directly but by shrinking conventional capacity,” the chief electricity system modeler at Cologne University’s EWI Institute of Energy Economics told Bloomberg.

This is pretty much the same as saying it is not the pandemic that is wreaking havoc on the global economy, but the lack of enough healthy people to keep it going. Wind and solar power, for all their benefits, such as a much lower emissions footprint, do have drawbacks, as does every source of energy. In this case, the drawback is the intermittency of generation. This intermittency cannot maintain the inertia necessary to keep the grid at 50 hertz.

Related: Can Big Oil Surprise This Earnings Season?

Utilities know about the problem. “It is not a question about if a blackout in some European regions will happen, it is only a question of when it will happen,” said Stefan Zach, head of communication at Austrian utility EVN, told Bloomberg. “A blackout might happen even in countries with high standards in electricity grid security.”

But the problem is not being publicized enough to spur those in charge of decision-making into action. The Bloomberg report mentions things like energy storage and batteries, yet batteries—where they are now—cannot replace the inertia-creating turbines of coal-fired power plants, which keep the grid buzzing at 50 hertz. They would help in a brief outage, but they can’t keep millions of households and industrial facilities running. Take the world’s biggest battery to date, currently in construction in Australia: with its capacity of 300 MW/450 MWh, the battery can power half a million households. For an hour.

Problems such as what happened at the Croatian substation highlight one fact that few of those riding on the renewables bandwagon would like to talk about: that solar and wind capacity is maybe being added a little too quickly, while fossil fuel capacity is being retired a little too quickly.

Take Germany: it is fast reducing its nuclear and coal generating capacity. And yet, the country, which is the poster boy for renewable energy in the EU, is currently generating more energy from coal than from wind, simply because the wind does not blow permanently. It is also generating zero energy from solar at the moment because it’s winter, which does not make for the optimal conditions for solar farms.

Or take California and its rolling blackouts last summer when heat waves hit the state that gets a third of its electricity from renewable sources. At the time, officials refused to acknowledge this fact as a potential cause of the blackouts, but with or without acknowledgment, the fact remained: electricity output from solar farms declines as the sun goes down just when there is a surge in demand from households. At the same time, as it retires its natural gas plants, the state did not have enough backup generation capacity to make up for the lost supply.

Or here’s another example: back in 2018, the UK went for nine days with zero power generations from wind farms. Why? Because of something called a wind draught. At the time, this event led to a spike in next-day electricity prices, and forecasts for calm weather for two weeks did not help. The UK government now wants to power the whole country with wind power, which in light of past events might be a little bit risky.

Renewable energy is a great thing. Once they’re manufactured, solar panels and wind turbines do not emit greenhouse gases for the duration of their production life. Solar specifically has become a cheap way to become relatively independent in terms of electricity supply if you happen to live in a sunny part of the world.

Yet solar and wind have been touted as a silver bullet solution to the emissions problem the planet is having, and they are not a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet solution. The sooner decision-makers realize this, the sooner they can start working on ways to reconcile renewables with grid reliability. Otherwise, we might see an unwelcome repeat of what many Soviet bloc countries experienced in the 1980s—timed blackouts lasting months and even years.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on January 31 2021 said:
    Actually the unforeseen renewables’ shortcomings have been highlighted so many times. Yet environmental activists, hydrocarbon asset divestment campaigners, some investment banks, vested interests and some renewable-oriented analysts chose to ignore it.

    The facts of life about renewables in electricity generation are:

    1- An imminent global energy transition is an illusion.
    2- Natural gas is the quintessential pivot for any energy transition.
    3- Even a gradual energy transition can’t succeed without huge contributions from natural gas and nuclear power because of the intermittency of solar and wind generation.
    4- Replacing coal and nuclear energy should be synchronized meticulously with rising share of solar and wind electricity to avoid blackouts and rising levels of pollution from increasing coal use. Germany is a prime example.
    5- The notion of zero emissions is unachievable in 2050 or even 2010.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Rick Rickst29 on January 31 2021 said:
    I know a bit about Inverter technology. When the Grid is presenting a stable frequency clock to attached DC-->AC inverters (attached to Solar Panel Arrays, and to Large Battery storage systems) and to AC-->AC Converters involved in some grid-direct wind systems, the inverters and Converters very quickly adapt their outputs to match the 50 Hz AC supply frequency and phase, as presented by the Grid. (60-cycle in the USA in some other countries, of course)

    That is a basic requirement imposed on all grid connected Inverters (including my own).

    There is insufficient battery capacity to run grid loads from battery storage (alone) through the night in any large region of the Grid. While a Battery Array is able to provide energy at the correctly inverted frequency phase (SEE ABOVE), its inverters will provide that energy in-phase. If you try to overrun the battery, it should shut down. That Grid demand must be pulled in from elsewhere, or demand itself must be modified using brownouts and scheduled shut-off of compatible "smart devices" which can handle a power-off State for some period of time

    Fact: Nearly all of the rolling CA BLACKOUTS iduring last Summer (I live nearby, in Nevada) had nothing to do with the use of Solar as an energy source. They had everything to do with the risk of sparking new and dangerous wildfires from downed backbone Grid powerlines - and staying with NatGas or filthy Coal generation would have done NOTHING to prevent those Blackouts. The Brownouts were something else, and related to unbalanced power demand and supply on the somewhat primitive, somewhat underbuilt PGE grid. The article talk about this was hogwash. BTW, Some of you already know that Calfornia's single most stable backbone grid power transmission line is an HVDC interconnect from Washington State. NONE of that energy is associated with a specific VAC "frequency" and phase until after it has been "inverted" into AC power at 60 Hz. Nearly all of that energy goes reaches traditional "60 Hz" USA power customers by the exact same inversion processes being use with large Solar grids. This is NOT NEW, and most of the energy being delivered (to the inverters) originates in Northwest Nuclear and Hydro facilities. (And some large and forward thinking business consumers, who are able to use DC power, take it almost directly from the HVDC backbone, with much less conversion loss.)
    - - - -
    I am generally please to read articles at oilprice.com, and I sometimes learn things. This article, however, is nothing more than an incompetent and confusing set of lies about "evil renewable energy wrecking perfectly good grids". If inverters in Croatia are substandard, replace them. If the grid is simply unable to handle the more variable of nature of Wind and Solar electricity sources, then FIX THE GRID to acquire needed power from other places and possibly other power sources. The outage being described seems no different than the scenario of a "95% reliable" set of filthy coal burners, running in INSUFFICIENT QUANTITY. If one or two of those burners must be taken down for unexpected repair or cleaning, and if they didn't arrange to have reserve capacity from other sources make up for that loss offer power, then the grid in that Scenario goes down. It has very little to do with the kind of power source, it is the failure of the grid to handle its temporary loss.

    And if the Grid in France is so unreliable as to be pulled down by problem in Croatia, rather than disconnecting that area, FRANCE needs to fix that defensively. I will SWAG that both nations are running primitive grids near their maximum capacity at peak times, with no capability to handle higher demands or exceptional producer outages. Fix the grids, don't just cuss at renewable with fake arguments. These outages sound no different the the cascade of outages in the 'great blackout' in New York City and northeastern USA during 1965. A modern and smart grid should handle intermittent periods of supply and demand imbalance without failure: These clowns need to spend some money and get their acts back together, instead of taking home giant paychecks and paying exorbitant dividends.

    70 years after that blackout, a couple of so-called journalists want to blame the grid problem (all of them) on the arrival of lower-polluting energy sources. I'm calling BS, because extolling the non-existent virtues of filthy coal with buzzword phrases like "inertia-creating turbines" doesn't impress me: I have a degree in physics from a University you've heard of, and know more about this than these scare-mongering "writers".

    OilPrice.com should probably delete the article, and then delete my comment. Thank you for reading.
  • Ray on February 01 2021 said:
    yes not to mention the fact that most of the green technologies do not have the ability to be recycled at a profit at this time nor will they have it in the future is it is more costly to disassemble them then it is to recycle them . the materials involved in solar panels and windmills will not pay for the abandonment recovery and destruction of the materials . in addition these materials would be classified as a hazardous waste when put in landfills .
  • Arch Region on February 01 2021 said:
    I usually like the balanced reporting I find here but this report is slightly one sided, slightly hyperventilating, the sky is falling, the grid is collapsing.

    It reminds me of the early line of defense against clean renewables that the fossil fuel folks used to push that proved no better the impenetrable Maginot French line of defense in WWII. The coal executives used to go around telling anybody who would publish it (and that included the supposedly reliable New York Times) that it is impossible to go more than 20% wind power before you get instability in the grid. I talked to the NYTimes reporter who published a coal executive's claim that as you expand wind energy you need to proportionally build additional coal plants and he got very defensive confronted with science. This was back when the rest of the world was at less than 10% wind power. Only heroic Denmark had broken into the teens.

    I never saw the 20% imaginary number reference or the need for additional "baseload" plants needed, or threats to stability of the grid for a long time until this article. In fact grid stability is a real problem that adds real cost but it less than .5 cents per KWh. The 20% annual percent supposedly impenetrable wall has long fallen since many countries and states in the US (i.e. 42% Iowa, the Denmark of the US). This means there are some days that all thermal plants shut down and 100% of the grid runs on wind in some regions. Improved grid with electronic controls is needed but this also improves loses due to waste justifying the modernization cost of the grid. There is a lot that can be done to have a much more resilient grid. For instance hydroelectricity can be used as a backup battery to be used only when needed. Current pricing does not incentivize this.

    Some countries have already done the changes needed and have already arrived or approaching 100% renewable electricity: Iceland 100%, Paraguay 100%, Costa Rica 99%, Norway 98.5%, Austria 80%, Brazil 75%, and Denmark 69.4%. Denmark is approaching 50% just from wind. Of course as the cost of batteries comes down, batteries will become a cornerstone to grid stability. In Southern California batteries for pick-demand was less expensive than constructing a new gas plant. The cost associated with improving the grid adding batteries and electronic controls is a fraction of the many savings that will result. Let's take the biggest, medical cost savings from averted pollution. The US Army Corps of Engineers in the Environmental Impact Statement for Cape Wind conservative estimate was $53 million a year health savings from the 115 wind turbines that were to produce 1,500,000 MWh a year. If you do the math it comes to 3.7 cents a KWh.

    I want to conclude with my visit to Brayton Point that at one point generated 10% of New England's electricity. The 1,493 MW coal plant had gone off line suddenly and unexpectedly the day before because of a surge in the grid. There was no blackout because the rest of the grid took the slack. They were in the process of restarting the generators because coal plants take about 9 hours to build up the steam to start generating electricity. This near blackout did not even make the news. Blackouts were not unheard of when there was zero renewable energy in the mix. When electricity will be 100% renewable, blackouts will be much less common. Especially when 100% of the cars are electric because their batteries can be used to support the grid. They already have done successful experiments to demonstrate the validity of what they call V2G (vehicle to grid). So rest assured 100% clean renewable electricity is not only possible but will be more resilient to blackouts and probably will happen not long after the end of this decade if not sooner.
  • Peter Felstead on February 01 2021 said:
    "This intermittency cannot maintain the inertia necessary to keep the grid at 50 hertz."

    This issue was solved/and is being solved in Australia.

    In December 2017 the world's largest lithium-ion battery was opened in South Australia (commonly called the large Tesla battery) The battery was tasked with monitoring the frequency of the National Electrical Market (referred to as the NEM) an electricity gid, interconnected, stretching thousands of kilometres from North Queensland to western South Australia.

    Two weeks after the large Tesla battery a coal power station in Victoria suddenly lost 50% of it's output due to mechanical failure , creating(frequency) instability in the NEM.
    The Tesla battery, programmed to "watch" over the grid, reacted immediately (and I mean fast like 0.1 seconds) and injected the necessary amount of electricity into the grid to stabilize the frequency.
    Previously the system involved humans realising there is a frequency issue and phoning another power station to inject power into the grid to stabilize the system.

    This was such a success (and far cheaper than previous options) that it has become standard practice in Australia where batteries are available (and that will soon be all over the country)

    The issue of "grid strength" due to lack of spinning turbines will be directly addressed in South Australia in 2021 where 4 large sycon condensors are being installed in the electricity network to "mimic" spinning machines allowing more renewables to enter the grid without technical issues.

    In the last quarter of 2020 South Australia achieved 73% of energy production with solar and wind (there is no hydro/pumped hydro in the state). This achievement will probably be outshone by the strong possibility that South Australia will be able to achieve 100% solar and wind during daylight hours on numerous occasions during 2021.

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