Updates On the March to The Nice Inexperienced Power Future • Watts Up With That?


Francis Menton

The cries of climate alarm get ever louder and more urgent. (E.g., New York Times, January 9, “It’s confirmed: 2023 was the planet’s warmest year on record and perhaps in the last 100,000 years. By far.”). We’re all about to boil! Something must be done!

OK, but then there is the proposed solution: Order up by government fiat that our current fully working and inexpensive energy system must be replaced with a never-demonstrated pipe dream conjured up by political science and gender studies majors who know nothing about how an energy system works. We’re far enough into this by now that some of the pieces are starting to blow up in dramatic fashion. Are we allowed to notice?

Here in New York, we got into this game mainly with two pieces of legislation, both enacted in 2018 — at the state level, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act; and in the City, Local Law 97. With both laws the pols set the deadlines for compliance at dates seemingly far in the future, expecting that they would no longer be around to be held accountable. The first of those two laws ordered up state-wide mandates for “decarbonizing” the economy, starting with a requirement for 70% of electricity from “renewables” by 2030; and the second set limits for carbon emissions for buildings in New York City, some of which have just kicked in effective January 1, 2024. Sure enough, the Mayor at the time of enactment is gone, almost the entire City Council is gone (term limits), and the Governor at the time is also gone.

So where are we?

The Manhattan Contrarian Energy Storage Report of December 1, 2022, led off by sounding a clear alarm: getting electricity from intermittent wind and solar well past 50% of total generation would require enormous quantities of energy to be stored, with technical requirements, including duration of storage, well beyond the capability of any battery currently existing or likely to be invented any time soon. Essentially, if fossil fuels are to be eliminated, there is only one realistic possibility for meeting the storage requirements: hydrogen.

In mid-2023, the New York Independent System Operator, to its credit, recognized the problem — although it buried that recognition deep in a report when it should be shouting about the problem from the rooftops. From NYISO’s Power Trends 2023 Report, revised August 2023, page 7, starting in the middle of a paragraph and without any emphasis:

[T]o achieve the mandates of the CLCPA, new emission-free generating technologies with the necessary reliability service attributes will be needed to replace the flexible, dispatchable capabilities of fossil fuel generation and sustain production for extended periods of time. Such emission-free technologies, either individually or in aggregate, are not yet available on a commercial scale.

With hydrogen as the only possible such “emissions-free generating technology,” how much would hydrogen cost as the solution to this problem, particularly if one follows the hypothesis that it must be created without any use of fossil fuels? My Report, page 14, noted that existing commercial production of this so-called “green” hydrogen was “negligible,” leaving no good benchmark for understanding what the costs might be. As a substitute, I ran some rough numbers based on cost of wind and solar generators to make the electricity and efficiency of the electrolysis process. The result was a very rough estimate that this “green” hydrogen would cost “somewhere in the range of 5 to 10 times more” than natural gas (page 17).

Well, now some new precision has come into view. In July 2022 the UK government launched what it calls its First Hydrogen Allocation Round (HAR 1), to obtain bids and award contracts to produce this so-called “green” hydrogen using wind power. The process took a while, but here from December 14, 2023 is the announcement of the first round of contract awards. Excerpt:

Following the launch of the first hydrogen allocation round (HAR1) in July 2022, we have selected the successful projects to be offered contracts. We are pleased to announce 11 successful projects, totalling 125MW capacity. HAR1 puts the UK in a leading position internationally: this represents the largest number of commercial scale green hydrogen production projects announced at once anywhere in Europe. . . . The 11 projects have been agreed at a weighted average strike price of £241/MWh.

£241/MWh? At today’s exchange rate of 1.27 $/£, that would be $306/MWh. Prices of natural gas are generally quoted in $/MMBTU rather than per MWh, but here is EIA’s latest Electricity Monthly Update, dated December 21 and covering the month of October 2023. It gives natural gas prices in the per MWh units. The “price of natural gas at New York City” is given as $11.32/MWh. That would make the price that the UK has just agreed to pay to buy this “green” hydrogen stuff approximately 27 times what we can buy natural gas for here in New York to obtain the same energy content.

And that $306/MWh is just for the hydrogen. It includes nothing for the massive new facilities (underground salt caverns?) to store the stuff, for a new pipeline network to transport it, and for a new collection of power plants to burn it.

To be at least a little fair, natural gas prices do vary considerably by location. Even within the U.S., some prices per the EIA Report are about double the New York City price, and in Europe maybe four times the New York City price. But those prices are affected by European demand for LNG from the U.S., due to their own stupid decision to ban fracking for natural gas combined with the unpleasantness in Russia.

And even if you figure that green hydrogen can be produced for “only” 7 – 10 times what it costs to buy natural gas, rather than 25 – 30 times, is anybody really going to go forward with such a project to replace all natural gas in an entire modern economy? It would be completely nuts.

Finally, let’s take a look at how New York is progressing toward that 2030 mandated goal of 70% of electricity from renewables. Data on electricity production for New York State for 2023 are just out from the NYISO. The good people from Nuclear New York (advocates for more nuclear power plants) have compiled the ISO data into a helpful aggregate chart covering the years 2019 (immediately after enactment of the Climate Change Act) to 2023. Here is the chart:

Out of 152.3 TWh of electricity produced or imported in 2023, fossil fuels continued to provide 63.3 TWh (41.5%). Most of the imports (14.5%) are undoubtedly from fossil fuels as well. Wind/solar/other provided just 12.1 TWh, or 7.9% of the total, barely up from about 6% in 2019. And that’s now suddenly going to go to 70% by 2030? Ridiculous. Meanwhile, the big story leaps off the page, as the Nuclear New York guys emphasize in the headline. The State forced the premature closure of two nuclear plants in 2020 and 2021, which caused the (carbon free) nuclear share of the total to drop from about 29% to only 18%; and almost all of that was taken up by two new natural gas plants, causing the fossil fuel share of the total to soar from only 34% to 41.5%. No person looking at this chart would ever conclude that New York has spent the past five years embarked on a crash program to replace fossil fuels with wind and solar. That process is going absolutely nowhere.

The truth is that the march to the Great Green Energy Future is over, but no one is yet willing to admit that.

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