Virginia, Denmark & Putin

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 01-30-2022

         A few weeks ago I was driving across New England, and found myself among some mountains. I hadn’t been on that particular road in a number of years and I was struck by how the once beautiful mountain scenery was now cluttered up with towering windmills, each several hundred feet high. It had snowed just a few days early and the tops of the mountains were a brilliant white in the sunlight, but the almost fairy-tale beauty was now cluttered up by these huge eyesores.


         And the blades were still. Not one was moving. As often happens, in deep colds, or after a storm, the air was still. There was no wind, not a breath of air, and hence the windmills weren’t turning, and thus were producing no power. Thankfully, nearby there was a large solar panel “farm.” That would help provide power for heating on this brilliantly clear sunny day. Except that the panels were all covered in snow.


         The local paper this past week carried an article about officials from the Commonwealth of Virginia meeting with officials from Denmark to discuss electric power and the generation of power by wind turbines. The article noted that: "Denmark is far ahead of Virginia on offshore wind.” The Commonwealth wants a large offshore “wind farm” to provide energy to Virginia, just like Denmark.


         Indeed. Denmark operates some 6,000 wind turbines. 


         So perhaps it’s also worth noting that the cost of electricity in Denmark is roughly three times what it is in Virginia, 34 cents per kilowatt hour vice 12.5 cents per kilowatt hour here in Ole Virginie. That’s something else that Denmark is “far ahead of Virginia on.”


         Why is that?


         There are several reasons. Among them is that wind turbines don’t last as long as folks would like. Cables rub against rocks, seals break down, blades get covered in salt crystals, etc. It’s been observed that a turbine blade at sea loses 4.5% of its effectiveness (measured in power generated) per year. And, as one study that delved into the issue of rising electricity costs summed it up, the problem with wind power (and solar) is that it produces too much energy when no one needs it and not enough when they do. 


         So, what makes up the difference? How do well-managed power grids compensate for days when there is no wind, for cloudy days, for nighttime?


         In the old days that would mean the baseline power systems, which usually consisted of either hydro-electric power stations, coal-fired power stations, or nuclear power stations, and there was no need for wind farms. All three are pretty much anathema to the modern age. And so, they are being shut down. And what is replacing them? Well, as mentioned, huge wind farms such as Denmark operates; which don’t produce a whole lot of electricity when it’s calm (or excessively windy). And solar panel farms, which don’t produce much electricity at night… Or after snow. Or on cloudy days. 


         And then what? Then power is generated by gas turbine generators, each really a large jet engine driving a generator. They’re quite efficient and clean, but nowhere near as efficient as the very large coal or nuclear power stations. 


         And they do need natural gas.


         And because the sun does, in fact, go away at night, and the wind often is too little or too much, that extra capacity - natural gas powered turbine generators - needs to be purchased and held at the ready, ready to compensate for no wind or no sun or both. This means that there must be substantially more total capacity than under the old way of doing business. Which is expensive.


         And it also means that there must be a large supply of natural gas. And Europe’s natural gas production has been steadily falling for the last several years, while its consumption of natural gas has been slowly but steadily rising.


         So, where will Europe get their natural gas? It might have been possible to import it from the US, if the US hadn’t drastically changed its energy policies a bit over year ago. But, thankfully, Russia has natural gas, a lot of natural gas.


         Which leads to Germany’s kowtowing to the Kremlin.


         You see, over the last few years Europe has not only been building wind and solar farms, they’ve been decommissioning nuclear and coal-fired power plants. And the pace is accelerating. And so is the amount of natural gas Germany and others are purchasing from Russia.


         Meanwhile, it’s estimated that global electricity consumption will grow by 75% by 2050. Where is that energy going to come from? Are we going to pray to God for more wind and more sun?


         And while we’re at it, it might be worth noting that the requirement for storing power hasn’t really gone away. Perhaps we could build a stack of batteries to take care of storing power at night. Of course, we’ll need a few batteries. In fact, if you were to use every battery on the planet (given current production forecasts) in 2030, you could store 1% (one percent) of the electricity needs of the state of Minnesota (and only Minnesota, the other 49 States, and the rest of the world would just have to go without). Said differently, every battery in the world would hold slightly less than 90 hours of electricity for the state of Minnesota alone. Every battery.


         What does this all really mean? It means that Vladimir Putin, sitting on top of more than 8 million square miles of terrain, terrain that is loaded with natural gas and oil, is really the most powerful man in the world. And his successor will be as well. Europe and much of the world will go hat in hand to ask for favorable purchase arrangements because they will need the natural gas so that they have power every time the wind doesn’t blow (or blows too much), the sun doesn’t shine, there are clouds, or snow or rain…


         Whatever Putin’s goals and desires vis-a-vis Ukraine, Europe, NATO, the US and the world may be, the fact is that the various green initiatives, and a series of foolish policy decisions have handed him control of the “game-board.” So, he may not get everything he wants this time around. But horrible policy choices have virtually guaranteed that he will get what he wants unless we change course.