U.S. Offshore Wind Prospects: Overblown Promises And Blown-Up Costs

In energy policy, it is physics that matters above all else. Executive Orders from the Oval Office, Directives of the European Union, or Acts of Parliament driven through with fanfare by Her Majesty’s Government in London may give the plausible appearance that wishes are horses and beggars may ride, and in comfort too, but it is no more than appearance.

As Richard Feynman, the great laughing natural-philosopher of our age, observed with savage economy after the Challenger disaster: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Physics matters. It was not a random or arbitrary fluctuation, much less political favor or the power of vested interest, that led coal to dominate British energy supply as early as 1700, eroding the status of a deeply resistant landed aristocracy and gentry.

It was not thanks to politicians that in the following centuries coal, oil, and gas established an overwhelming position in the global energy supply.

On the contrary, it was the intrinsic physical properties of those fuels that led to their preferment, properties which can be summed up in a single term: Fossil fuels are of low entropy.

They are, in the technical, thermodynamic sense, highly improbable, being dense stocks of energy, the improbability of which can be rendered in a multitude of changes to the world in accordance with human wishes, improbable changes that we call wealth.

And if the low-carbon candidates to replace those fossil fuels do not have similarly favorable or superior physical properties, no amount of policy support will be able to compensate for the deficiency. Nature cannot be fooled. Reality matters.

But what is the reality of renewable energy? In one of his first actions as president, Mr. Biden has expressed the wish to “double” offshore wind in the U.S. by 2030, an ambiguous phrase that probably means he and his advisers wish to see twice the current development portfolio of offshore wind capacity to be operational within a decade, or 18,000 MW rather than the present 9,000 MW in an advanced stage of preparation.

The attraction is easily explained. The U.S. already has a great deal of onshore wind power, 112,000 MW, subsidized through Production Tax Credits and mostly located on and around a line running from North Dakota to Texas, a broad belt characterized by strong winds, cheapish land, and low construction costs.

Unfortunately, it is also distant from the main corridors of demand on the East and West coasts. Offshore wind along the coasts, therefore, seems like a tempting option for expansion, but is it wise? […]

Real-world experience in the U.K. and indeed in Denmark, a country also analyzed in great detail in the Hughes study for REF, presents a stark warning to the United States; the costs of wind power have not been falling over the last heavily subsidized decade.

Indeed, they remain very high, particularly for offshore wind, with operational expenditure actually rising sharply.

While only now beginning to enter the public-policy debate, these points are in fact understood by many market and financial analysts, with fragments of the information circulating in confidential newsletters.

The markets know, however obscurely, and Mr. Biden should bear that in mind before putting the U.S. consumer and taxpayer on the hook for a large expansion of offshore wind.

This will be very expensive electricity, even before the cost of managing an increasingly stochastic grid network is taken into account.

The real puzzle here is how first-class scientific nations could have gone so far down a road that is intrinsically, physically, without strong promise.

Why did any policymaker think that it would be cheap to convert the high entropy, almost random heat of wind flows into the low entropy of the improbable, reliable, and timely electricity supply required by a sophisticated economy?

Large capital expenditure and operating costs, as well as significant grid costs, are inevitable if governments insist on making the sow’s ear of wind into the silk purse of modern energy.

This planning failure is more than a question of painful domestic economics and inadequate climate policy.

The broader hazards of driving the U.S. towards renewable energy are brought into sharp focus by increasingly intense competition from a China whose president has admitted that its emissions from low entropy, but high-emitting fossil fuels will continue to rise until 2030 and remain substantial for some considerable time thereafter, with the country only aspiring to become carbon neutral in 2060.

If China fulfills that aspiration, it will be on its own terms and no other: There is every reason to think that Beijing is making an end-run around renewables, dressing the window with what are—for that gargantuan national system—mere traces of wind and solar, while in reality concentrating on the accumulation of great wealth from fossil fuels, now rendered cheap by coerced exclusion from the Western markets.

With that wealth in hand, China will deploy advanced nuclear to generate both electricity and hydrogen on the largest possible scale so as to honor its longer-term climate change promises while simultaneously securing its economic, military, and geopolitical preeminence.

A nuclear China would be richer, stronger, and cleaner than any of its competitors.  The engineer bureaucrats of Beijing know nature far too well to think that she can be fooled. The lawyers and ideologues in the White House take a different view, for now.

h/t GWPF

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