December 02, 2022
Last month, the CEO of Siemens Energy, Christian Bruch, appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” to talk about the myriad problems facing the wind industry. And during his appearance, he confirmed the Iron Law of Power Density.
Bruch said his firm was “in the heart of the energy transition” but there were “challenges” in wind energy, particularly with regard to supply chains. And this is where his comments revealed what I call the Iron Law of Power Density, which says the lower the power density of a given source, the higher the resource intensity. Bruch said: “Never forget, renewables like wind roughly, roughly, need 10 times the material [compared to] … what conventional technologies need…So if you have problems on the supply chain, it hits … wind extremely hard, and this is what we see.”
Siemens and other companies that produce wind turbines are being hammered by huge losses. Siemens just posted a net loss of 647 million euros, which was up from a 560 million euro loss in the previous year. In October, GE announced that its renewable energy business will lose a staggering $2 billion this year. Those losses are being driven in large part, by the surging cost of metals like zinc, nickel, neodymium, and copper.
If your power plant requires 10 times more of those commodities than other forms of power generation, it’s readily apparent why the Siemens boss is saying his company is having “problems on the supply chain.” And those problems are a direct result of wind energy’s low power density. If you skipped high school physics as I did, you may not understand why power density matters. But it is perhaps the single most important metric when it comes to explaining the size and shape of our energy and power networks.
Here’s a quick primer. Energy (measured in joules, or Btu) is the ability to do work. Power (measured in watts, or horsepower) is the rate at which work gets done. As I have said many times, we don’t care about energy. What we want is power. We don’t care what form of energy (oil, sun, coal, or gas) that’s being used to power our car, run our television, or cook our quinoa, we only care that we have the power we need to do the work at hand.
Power density is the measure of energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area, volume, or mass. Power density reveals how many watts we can get per square meter, liter, or kilogram from a given source. The concept of the Iron Law of Power Density is borrowed from author and University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr., who coined the Iron Law of Climate, which says that when forced to choose between economic growth and climate action, politicians and decision-makers will always choose economic growth.
The Iron Law of Power Density is a cousin of Pielke’s edict. If you are relying on a low-power-density source like corn ethanol (0.1 watt per square meter) or wind energy (1 watt per square meter) or solar (10 watts per square meter) you have to counteract those paltry energy flows with big inputs of other resources. For ethanol, that means using lots of land, fertilizer, and diesel fuel to grow enough corn to produce meaningful amounts of liquid fuel. Last year, Dave Merrill, an ace reporter and data analyst at Bloomberg, reported that “Two-thirds of America’s total energy footprint is devoted to…corn grown for ethanol. It requires more land than all other power sources combined.” Merrill determined that biofuels (mainly corn ethanol) use about 80,000 square miles, an area bigger than the state of Nebraska.
Like corn ethanol, the low power density of wind and solar requires huge amounts of land. But wind and solar also require vast amounts of steel, copper, and other things like polysilicon and neodymium. The staggering amounts of land required by those sources are fueling a raging backlash in rural America, and around the world, against Big Wind and Big Solar. I have documented most of those rejections in the Renewable Rejection Database. Since 2015, at least 373 government entities from Maine to Hawaii have rejected or restricted Big Wind. Since 2017, at least 103 solar projects have been rejected or restricted in the U.S. with 76 rejections this year alone.
Indeed, land-use conflicts, and material inputs, are the binding constraints on the expansion of renewable energy. In these pages in October, Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton University, admitted that the amount of land required to accommodate the roughly 800 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity that his computer model assumes will be built due to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act would require “37,000 square miles for wind farms and 4,700 square miles for solar PV. That’s roughly the area of Tennessee, so no joke, or 15% of the area of Texas.”
No joke, indeed. The last time I checked, the U.S. doesn’t have a spare Tennessee to accommodate all that wind and solar. But I digress.
Now back to Bruch. He told CNBC that there is “still a way to go” in the maturation of the wind industry and that there are problems with distributing “risk along the supply chain in a world which is much more volatile, much more difficult, much more multilateral than before.” He continued, saying “if we don’t resolve it as an industry, we are missing a substantial part of the energy transition, and we’ll fail with the energy transition.”
While Bruch didn’t say it, the obvious way forward is to quit throwing money and staggering amounts of resources at land-devouring-low-power-density — and incurably intermittent — sources like wind and solar. As can be seen in the graphic above, which uses numbers published by the Department of Energy, the energy sources with the lowest resource intensity are natural gas and nuclear energy. Indeed, the graphic proves that Bruch is correct when he says that wind energy takes about 10 times more materials than conventional forms of generation.
There are many reasons why N2N, natural gas to nuclear, is the obvious way forward if we are serious about reducing CO2 emissions. Low material intensity is just one of them. Add the fact that both sources are proven, low- or no-carbon, affordable, and scalable, and it quickly becomes clear why I’ve been advocating for N2N for more than a dozen years.
In summary, the Iron Law of Power Density will not be repealed. While it’s great that the CEO of Siemens is underscoring wind energy’s fatal flaw, his warnings need to be heeded by the policymakers, NGOs, and elite academics who continue hyping the dead end of wind energy.
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