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By Robert Rapier on Jun 25, 2013 with 13 responses

Avoiding Energy’s Big Buts

This past week I posted the following graphic on my Twitter account (@RRapier) showing the explosive growth of renewable electricity, particularly over the past decade:

renewable power

The first response to this graphic was “But…INTERMITTENT!”

It is true that wind and solar power are intermittent — points I have discussed on several occasions. Biomass and geothermal power, on the other hand would be considered firm power (i.e, power that can be counted on to be available whenever it is needed).

However, we do not have a single energy source that doesn’t have a “but” associated with it. Every one of them. Even renewable energy sources have “buts” associated with them.

For example, oil has provided us unprecedented mobility at an affordable price, but it has also enriched terrorist regimes and polluted the environment.

Of course the size of a but is also in the eye of the beholder, and that’s why there are such passionate disagreements over energy policy. Someone from the ethanol lobby might claim that their but is tiny, whereas someone from the oil industry might complain that ethanol’s but is huge. Sometimes court battles are even fought over the size of a but, as happened this week when the Supreme Court rejected arguments that ethanol’s but could be problematic for consumers.

The key is to balance the buts with the benefits, and to focus on those energy sources with the smallest buts.

Link to Original Article: Avoiding Energy’s Big Buts

By Robert Rapier. You can find me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.

  1. By shecky vegas on June 26, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    To quote PeeWee Herman, “Everybody I know has a big But.”

  2. By Andrew Holland on June 26, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    I like the term ‘variable’ better than intermittent. What utilities are learning in Germany, where renewable energy is coming onto the grid even faster, is that you can actually predict pretty accurately several days out what your power production spectrum will look like.

    Real intermittency is what happens when your big 1GW baseload power plant conks out entirely because of a maintenance issue (or a drought that limits your ability to get cooling water).

    Its good to have a variety of choices.

  3. By ben on June 27, 2013 at 9:55 am

    I like this trend in renewable electricity consumption, as it confirms that the long overdue transition to a more sustainable arrangement is picking up steam and should survive the unproductive BUTTS among Washington policymakers and their offspring of bureaucrats and lobbyists.
    There will be a great deal of fuel-switching in the years ahead. This will add to uncertainty about supply/demand, as the flexibility to switch between energy supplies and suppliers becomes a common feature among institutional customers and, increasingly, individual households. An ability to choose should contribute significantly to efficiencies despite what those wed to the status quo might otherwise lead us to believe. Natural gas seems to be in vanguard of this transition into a new era of choice.
    One that promises to introduce both challenges and opportunities for the US economy and global trading patterns. DOE’s pending decisions about the exportation of natural gas points to the wave that continues to swell out in some of America’s largely undeveloped spaces. If past is prologue, we are surely not about to resist the siren song of increased production thereby ensuring the lifeblood of a growing economy. The debate about “growth” itself or, more specifically, sustainable growth, remains an open question that the west must resolve even as the Asian Tigers continue their hunt with hungry eyes.

  4. By Michael Pawluk on June 29, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Sir Mix-A-Lot would not be pleased with this at all.

    • By Tom G. on June 29, 2013 at 2:49 pm

      The song Big Butts probably made him famous. While rap is not my favorite music I really do like the beat. You can actually dance to most rap which is more than I can say for some other forms of music

      I am sure there is some connection to this piece but for the life of me I just don’t get it. Must be the fact I turned 73 this year, LOL.

      Oh I just got it, 5 minutes later – butt its intermittent.

      • By Michael Pawluk on June 30, 2013 at 9:52 am

        Tom, I’m sure a lot of people either don’t get, or just don’t like, my humor. At least I amuse myself I guess.

        • By Tom G. on June 30, 2013 at 11:03 am

          I find nothing wrong with your humor. Its the one thing that can bring a smile to most peoples faces. Brought a smile to my face.

    • By Robert Rapier on June 29, 2013 at 3:11 pm

      That song was constantly bouncing around in my head as I wrote this. I almost used “I Don’t Like Big Buts and I Cannot Lie” as the title. I wasn’t sure how much of my audience would appreciate the reference.

      • By Michael Pawluk on June 30, 2013 at 9:50 am

        Energy and humor, two of my favorite things.

  5. By Tom G. on June 29, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    I couldn’t resist posting on this topic.

    “But its intermittent” to which I usually respond with “well o. k. so what.”

    This is usually just one of many lame excuses some people use when talking about renewable energy. “The sun only shines during the day” or “the wind doesn’t blow when
    its hot”. I sometimes wonder where these people were when they should have been in High School Science class.

    Anyway, after working in the public utility sector for about 25 years every power source I can think of including solar, wind, natural gas peaking, co-gen, nuclear, coal, geothermal, hydro, bio-mass and the burning of pig poop are all intermittent to some degree. But some public utilities still cling to the old belief that some power systems are better because they can run longer or are considered to be a more reliable source. For example, mother nature shuts down solar panels every day when the sun goes down. About the same can be said for wind turbines. It doesn’t take any human intervention at all; it just happens and will probably continue happening for another 2 or 3 billion years. So this automatic shutdown function can be said to be very reliable. However, the old utility way of thinking was that nuclear runs longer therefor it must be better. Today we are learning that this may be a flawed concept.

    Many utility today have a much better understanding of how the grid works when for example a 100 MW solar power plant in Arizona trips offline instead of a 2,100 MW nuclear
    plant. They are also learning that spreading smaller and more distributed power stations around the country is a lot less complex than they thought. Utilities are beginning to understand that it really doesn’t matter if it is raining in Arizona since it is probably sunny in California, Nevada and New Mexico. Same thing with wind. If its not blowing in California it probably is blowing in Nevada, New Mexico, Washington state and Iowa. We have been shipping power around the country for about a hundred years now so at least we
    have figured out how that process works, LOL

    There are many reasons why the above graphs posted by Robert look the way they do. People are realizing that all you have to do is sit a solar panel in the sun on a structure pointed South and it generates electricity all by itself. It doesn’t require a union contract. It doesn’t require an operator. It doesn’t need emergency shut down procedures or safety injection pumps or even a standby diesel generator. A solar plant with a defective solar panel can be repaired by one or two technicians while the plant continues to run. Did I mention that solar panels don’t go on strike or require medical and dental plans? I almost forgot to mention that they are silent; last at least 30 years and can go on
    your roof or in a field. And I guess you could say that to a somewhat lesser degree, wind, hydro, geothermal and bio-mass are in many respects like solar.

    I don’t have to convince anyone that solar, wind, geothermal, solar thermal or any other form of renewable power is going to be big going forward. All you have to do is look around and see what a lot of utilities are building. They are building stuff that results in clean air to breath and clan water to drink and to me that is a very good thing.

  6. By Benjamin Cole on June 30, 2013 at 10:20 am

    It will be fascinating to watch Germany in the years ahead. I suspect they will make their grid work—not because it is necessarily a good idea, but because they are Germans.

    BTW, large solar farms scarify the Mojave Desert, a place I love. So there is always a but….

    I know economists have their slide rules and “present value of money” etc.

    But I have wonders if installation of power systems that do not use fuels—and thus result in permanent reductions in fuel demand—pay for themselves somehow over the longer run.

    Is maintenance of solar and wind farms really a lot less than fuel or nuke plants?

    I will tell you this: The USA spends $1 trillion a year on Defense, the VA and Homeland Security. In just one year that would probably build enough renewable power plants to see us to the end of time…..

  7. By Russ Finley on June 30, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    I’m a big fan of renewable energy when intelligently deployed (do not usurp or degrade ecosystems). A diverse mix where each source can find its niche (windy places, sunny places, rainy places) is all important to reduce costs. However, the idea that all of our energy needs can come from renewables is an untested hypothesis. You don’t want to bet your children’s futures on untested hypothesis.

  8. By Powertrain on June 30, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    I like your site. All the columnists do good research, address the pluses and minuses of each energy source/technology, and speak with data.

    As far as my views go, I mostly stick to the automotive side of things, because that’s where all my background is.

    I don’t like demonizing fossil fuels. They’ve done a lot of good for this world. Henry Ford famously described the automobile (and its fuels) as “opening the highways to all mankind”. This fossil fuel-powered automobile has certainly been a most important key to opportunity for countless good causes and good people.

    Having said that, I don’t like the biggest downside of fossil fuels, which in my book are its nasty emissions. So I favor E10 as a road fuel additive because it appears to help reduce emissions some.

    My opinion is the jury isn’t even deliberating on the rest of the case of fossil fuels vs. biofuels. There’s a lot of inconclusive information out there, and a lot of arguments yet to be presented.

    Thanks again for setting up this site. I look forward to participating more.

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