It takes big energy to back up little wind and solar

What happens if  wind and solar can’t meet peak demand? The plan is to buy all the minimum backup requirement (MBR) juice from the neighbors! But if everyone is going wind and solar, no one will have juice to sell. In fact they will all be trying to buy power – which cannot possibly work.
David Wojick
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“You’ve probably never heard of “minimum backup requirement” for wind and solar,” writes Paul Driessen. “Neither have most people – including Joe Biden and the other politicians who are constantly demanding that we get rid of fossil fuel electricity generation … and replace it with wind and solar. But it’s a vitally important concept – one that these politicians don’t want us to discuss.”

“It’s the amount of generating capacity a local, state or regional power system must have if it is to reliably produce the electricity we need when wind and solar don’t produce enough (or any). In this article Dave Wojick explains what it is – and why all of us better get a good handle on the subject … before our political classes condemn us to repeated blackouts, in the name of saving people and planet from “dangerous manmade global warming and climate change.”

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It takes big energy to back up little wind and solar

Depending on weather-dependent energy for jobs and living standards takes money, resources 

David Wojick

Power system design can be extremely complex, but one simple number is painfully obvious. At least it’s painful (and terribly inconvenient) to advocates of wind and solar power – which may be why we never hear about it, why it too often gets deliberately hidden from view. It is a big, bad number. 

To my knowledge, this big number has no name, but it should. Let’s call it the “minimum backup requirement” for wind and solar, or MBR. The minimum backup requirement is how much generating capacity a system must have if it is to reliably produce the electricity we need when wind and solar don’t. 

For most places, the magnitude of MBR is very simple. It is all the juice needed on the hottest or coldest low wind nights. It is night, so there is no solar. Sustained wind is less than eight miles per hour, so there is no wind power. It is very hot or very cold, so the need for power is very high. 

In many places, MBR will be close to the maximum power the system ever needs, because heat waves and cold spells are often low wind events, as well. Both heat and cold are often caused by large high pressure systems that have very little wind in them. 

Think Texas

During heat waves, it may be a bit hotter during the day but not that much. During cold spells, it is often coldest at night, when people need power the most, so they don’t freeze to death in the dark. Think Texas. 

Thus what is called “peak demand” is a good approximation for the maximum backup requirement. In other words, there has to be enough reliable generating capacity to provide all the maximum power the system will ever need. For any public power system, that is a very big number; as big as it gets, in fact. 

Actually, it’s even a bit bigger, because there also has to be margin of safety, or what is called “reserve capacity.” This is to account for something not working as and when it should. Fifteen percent is a typical reserve in American systems. This makes the minimum backup requirement something like 115% of peak demand. 

We’re often told wind and solar are cheaper than coal, gas and nuclear power. But that does not include the MBR for wind and solar. What is relatively cheap for wind and solar is the cost to produce a unit of electricity under optimal conditions. This is often called LCOE or the “levelized cost of energy.” 

The total cost makes wind and solar very expensive

What we really need to be talking about has to reflect the need to add reliable backup energy to give people the power they need, when they need it. This total cost makes wind and solar very expensive. 

In short, the true cost of wind and solar is LCOE + MBR. This is the huge cost you never hear about. But if every state goes to wind and solar, then each one will need to have MBR for roughly its entire peak demand. That is an enormous amount of generating capacity. 

It means more than doubling the normally needed generating capacity … the raw materials to build that dual capacity … and the real costs of having insufficient, widely dispersed, land-intensive, weather dependent, unreliable wind and solar, plus that minimum backup requirement. Simply put, it takes big energy to back up what is often too little wind and solar power. 

Of course, the cost of MBR depends on the generating technology. Battery storage is out, because the cost is astronomical for the billions of half-ton battery modules that would be needed to store enough power for a city, state, region or country during multiple days of low wind and low sun. 

Gas fired generation might be best, but it is fossil fueled, as is coal. If one insists on zero fossil fuel, then nuclear is probably the only option. Operating nuclear plants as intermittent backup is stupid and expensive, but so is no fossil fuel generation – or no electricity generation. And getting new nuclear plants built almost anywhere on Planet Earth is all but impossible in today’s political climate. 

What is clearly ruled out is 100% renewables, because there would frequently be no electricity at all. That is unless geothermal could be made to work on an enormous scale, which would take many decades to develop. (And many of the best traditional geothermal sites are in or near national parks, and other scenic or natural areas, like Yellowstone, making environmentalist opposition a foregone conclusion.) 

It is clear that the Biden Administration’s goal of zero fossil fuel electricity by 2035 (without nuclear) is economically impossible because of the minimum backup requirements for wind and solar. You can’t get there from here. 

We shouldn’t have to wonder why we almost never hear about this obviously enormous cost for wind and solar. Bringing it into the open would seriously undermine the case for “affordable, clean, green, renewable, sustainable” energy. So the utility companies I’ve looked at avoid it with a clever trick. 

Dominion Energy, which supplies most of Virginia’s juice, is a good example. The Virginia Legislature passed a law (the 2020 Virginia Clean Energy Act) saying Dominion’s power generation had to be zero fossil-fueled by 2045. Dominion developed a Plan explaining how they would supposedly do this. 

Tucked away in passing on page 119, the company says it will expand its capacity for importing power purchased from other utilities. This increase happens to be to an amount equal to their peak demand. 

Buy the needed power from the neighbors

The plan is to buy all the MBR juice from the neighbors! But if everyone is going wind and solar, no one will have juice to sell. In fact they will all be trying to buy power – which cannot possibly work. 

Don’t forget, the high pressure systems that cause low wind can be huge, covering a dozen or more states. They can last for days. For that matter, no one has that kind of excess generating capacity today, when we still have abundant coal, gas and nuclear power for primary electricity generation and backup. 

Most utilities are barely covering their own needs as it is. Once every utility, in every state, is required to go 100% zero fossil fuel, it will be a guaranteed debacle, over and over. 

Big cities like New York won’t be able to buy their way out of repeated blackouts. 

To summarize, for every utility there will be times when there is zero wind and solar power, combined with near peak demand. Meeting this huge need is the minimum backup requirement. The huge cost of meeting this requirement is part of the cost of wind and solar power – the part nobody wants to talk about, especially politicians, environmentalists and utilities. MBR makes wind and solar extremely expensive.

The simple question to ask the Biden Administration, the states and their power utilities is this: How will you provide power on hot or cold low-wind nights?

When you ask that question, stay by the microphone, so that you can demand more than the doubletalk, phony assurances and outright lies you will assuredly get when they first respond to this vitally important, inconvenient, anti-woke question.

David Wojick is an independent analyst specializing in science, logic and human rights in public policy, and author of numerous articles on these topics.


21 thoughts on “It takes big energy to back up little wind and solar”

  1. How much energy will be required if this infrastructure bill passes? Just imagine trying to manufacture concrete, steel, asphalt, and other building/construction products if you had to rely just on wind and solar!

    • They are going to use Green Steel, Green Asphalt. And, Kellogg is coming out with a Cereal called “Soylent Green” to solve hunger….

      All Steel, Oil, Asphalt, Concrete, etc. will be built in Green Factories, trust me. The wood is already Green.

      Oh yeah of little faith. It is different this time. Tesla dump truck will deliver the products. Tesla Concrete mixers will deliver the Green Concrete. Prius and EV Amazon Vans will provide Green Transportation for the new American Immigrants who will gladly work for the “Green Backs” (you have to be my age to get that one).

      You actually think any of this digital “money” will be used for infrastructure? Really?

  2. A couple of things missing, really, is that the minimum backup requirement (MBR), if it is within the province or state, has to be “spinning” at all times so that it can be able to be cut in virtually instantly when the wind power output suddenly drops, or the sun sets, or what have you. Thus, this is greenhouse gas output without productivity if it isn’t needed, but can’t be avoided.

    Also, especially when you are talking cold, you have to be able to heat those generators on the wind mills to insure they don’t freeze up, and you have to be able to have power to turn the blades to get them started up in order to get output from those 8 to 15 mph winds they need in order to have any output at all, or at least that was how I understood it to be.

    We need to get over the “nuclear fear” that is almost as fake as the “covid fear,” if they truly want to stop putting plant food into the air to stop globull warming.

    • Right. You’re referring to ‘parasitic’ loads. The generators may not require heating, but the gearbox oil sure does. And you have heaters in electrical cabinets (and fans). You have power running to every computer in the unit. Which are several – outside the tower (pad-mount transform is energized) with computers at the base, in the nacelle, and in the hub.

      I’ve been in commercial wind power for thirty years. Windpower could and should augment the grid, nothing more. I laugh when people tell me “we need wind to replace fossil fuels.”

      Aside from the problems this author highlights so well, there are many others. For example, the tons of steel to make a single tower. That wasn’t done in a factory power by photovoltaics. The energy that goes into manufacturing is substantial. Mining of all the copper and other metals; fosses fuels. Shipping the blades on asphalt roads? Keeping them going with global just-in-time inventory system? Fleets of F-150s to service? Jesus, oil made commercial Windpower.

      Anyway, good article…

      • That’s interesting, Dale! You say you’ve”been in commercial wind power for 30 years”. Yet here you are AGREEING with its many fallibilities !
        Why were you IN wind power for 30 YEARS?
        Just for the money? What has made you criticise it so strongly?
        Will you write to the Daily Mail in London , England please….and state your case against wind energy…….after THREE DECADES of involvement?

        • Commercial Windpower has its place. Power factor correction is one ancillary service that can be provided to the grid.

          Commercial Windpower is far from evil, it’s simply that it cannot replace fossil fuels at the rate the world consumes them. And it’s intermittent nature is a problem that must also be dealt with.

          In California, as the interior heats up, during the day the air rises, and this pulls in cooler air through the passes. In Palm Springs, Tehachapi, and the Altamonte Pass. This happens just as air conditioning power usage is ramped up. To a degree, it’s complementary there.

  3. Spot on.
    In my former life as Quality Engineer/ Manager in manufacturing, the key question was always: “what is the root cause?”.

    Or for this posted subject, “what is the actual cost?”.

    Ice Age Now has posted excellent drill-down articles on actual cost of this ‘green only’ nonsense including disposal costs, replacement costs of current energy consumption, mining (environment) costs, etc.

    Now this important article on the behind the scenes backup required to cover intermittent ‘green’ energy.

    Greg Abbott et al; are you paying attention?

  4. You have a very important paragraph there :-

    To summarize, for every utility there will be times when there is zero wind and solar power, combined with near peak demand. Meeting this huge need is the minimum backup requirement. The huge cost of meeting this requirement is part of the cost of wind and solar power – the part nobody wants to talk about, especially politicians, environmentalists and utilities. MBR makes wind and solar extremely expensive.

    In Wales, companies are being PAID to set up :-
    [a] Gas fired power stations.
    [b] Diesel generators.
    as BACK-UP for Wind turbines and solar plants……because they simply cannot generate 24/7 , no matter HOW MANY you have !!

    There is an ABSOLUTE SCANDAL in the UK, because a company called Green Frog has set up many Diesel engine generators as back-up for wind farms.So they are PAID 24/7 even though they switch to diesel intermittently. This is very costly…..and defeats the object of the exercise!

    • Yes, it is called the Short Term Operating Reserve which was created a few years back and seems to be still expanding. The function as I understand it is to buy the time needed to ramp up proper generation capacity when the windmills drop off. Some gas plant can start quite quickly but with others there needs to be a thermal build up to avoid damage.

  5. The author assumes you know what “MBR” stand for. I can’t even venture a guess. As a computer nerd the only thing it has ever meant to me is ‘Master Boot Record’!!!

    • To my knowledge, this big number has no name, but it should. Let’s call it the “minimum brain-cognition-backup requirement” for literacy, or MBR. The minimum backup requirement is how much cognitive ability a system must have if it is to reliably produce the intellect needed or required when the MSM and TV don’t.

    • Minimum Backup Requirement

      You’re welcome.

      (PS: I wish all blog owners would DISALLOW any acronyms. Spell out the damn words!!!)

    • No, the author doesn’t assume you know what MBR means. He coined the term, suggesting that it’s a valid and necessary concept. And I agree. Minimum Backup Requirement; excellent, drills down to the main problem intermittent power introduces to the grid.

  6. One other detail to add: Once MBR is built out, the costs to generate non-renewable power goes up because of the loss of economy of scale since non-renewables purchase smaller quantities of fuel at higher cost, and need to provide for startup which can consume a considerable amount of energy. It takes a coal plant 4 to 8 hours to start up from cold start. An enormous waste. Nuclear cannot cycle from a cold start in days. Gas plants typically an hour depending on mode.

    And let’s not forget the dead eagles and endangered species cleared every morning by crews under wind generators. Nice to have the wind plants out to sea like Nantucket where the birds float away unseen. Never mind all the habitat and scenery scourged by wind and solar. And the enormous costs in roof installations and power systems management.
    We live in a world of fabulists, where unicorns roam the earth.

  7. i lived in western ND near wind towers, the local Coyotes
    hunt the Same ridges the wind towers are placed on. Food is food ,free food is even better if you are a coyote. the food is gone before the crew shows up..

  8. One important lesson from Texas is that you need a secure power supply at gas generation plant or that plant will fail, unlike a coal fired plant. You also need to make sure the gas supply line is secure otherwise the flow will stop. Nothing affects a large pile of coal from being used though.

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