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New York can’t buy its way out of blackouts

David Wojick, Ph.D.'s picture

Independent expert on the interface between science, technology and Federal policy. Projects include research, complex issue analysis and writing. Former faculty Carnegie Mellon, also Senior...

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  • Dec 29, 2020

New York City will soon be home to the world’s biggest industrial-scale battery system. It’s designed to back up the city’s growing reliance on intermittent “renewable” electricity. At 400 megawatt-hours (MWh), this cluster of batteries will be more than triple the 129 MWh world leader in Australia.

Mark Chambers, NYC’s Director of Sustainability (I am not making this title up), is ecstatic.“Expanding battery storage is a critical part of how we advance momentum to confront the climate emergency,” he brags," while meeting the energy needs of all New Yorkers. Today's announcement demonstrates how we can deliver this need at significant scale.”[Emphasis added]

In the same nonsensical way, Tim Cawley, president of Con Edison, New York state’s power utility, gushes thus: “Utility-scale battery storage will play a vital role in New York’s clean energy future, especially in New York City, where it will help to maximize the benefit of the wind power being developed offshore.”

In reality, the scale here is vanishingly insignificant. The official enthusiasm puts the Con in Con Edison.(And few New Yorkers and other East Coast residents are going to tolerate thousands of 850-foot-tall wind turbines off their shores. People don’t want them in their onshore backyards either. ) 

When it comes to the scale needed to reliably back up unreliable pretend-renewable electricity generation– and keep business, industry, social media and civilization functioning – New York’s and America’s policy makers need to start living in the Real World. Otherwise blackouts will become common.

For simplicity, let’s suppose New York City is 100% wind powered. (Including solar in the generating mix makes it more complicated but does not change the unhappy outcome very much.)

NYC currently peaks at around 13,000 MW– just to keep the city running. If Mr. Biden makes all the cars and trucks electric, total demand could eventually hit 20,000 MW. But let’s stick to present day reality.

This peak occurs because of enormous air conditioning demand during summer heat waves, which is bad enough. But to make matters even worse, those heat waves are caused by stagnant high pressure systems called Bermuda highs. These highs often last for a week and because they involve stagnant air masses – and an absence of breezes – there is no wind power generation.

Wind turbines require something like sustained winds of 10 mph to move the blades and more like a whistling 30 mph to generate full power. During a Bermuda high, folks are happy to get the occasional 5 mph breeze. These huge highs cover many states, so it is not like we can get the juice from next door.

So for reliability we need, say, seven days of backup: 168 hours. Here’s the math:

13,000 MW x 168 hours = 2,184,000 MWh of stored juice needed to just make it. Mind you, for normal reliability we usually add 20% or so as a safety measure. Did I mention electric cars? Replacing natural gas with electricity for cooking, water heating and other needs? Charging all those batteries? Maybe they need to add 40% to account for emergency circumstances. But let’s ignore that for now.

It is easy to see that 400 MWh is not “significant scale.” It is trivial, infinitesimal scale. Virtually nothing.

Nada. It might as well not exist. It might be enough to power Gracie Mansion and City government offices during a summer heat wave, but that’s about it.

More specifically, 2,184,000 divided by 400 = 5,460. That means New York City just needs another 5,459 additional battery clusters to meet those peak needs.

On the other hand, this measly 400 MWh battery array may well cost half a billion dollars, which is significant, especially to the New Yorkers who will pay for it. No cost figures were given, because the system is privately owned.

However, the Energy Information Administration says the average utility scale battery system runs around $1.5 million per MWh of storage capacity. That works out to $600 million for this insignificant climate-obsessing toy.

So what would it cost to reliably back up wind power, at this MWh cost and NYC scale? Just over $3,000,000,000,000.THREE TRILLION DOLLARS! I have not seen this stupendous sum reported in the media. Perhaps Con Ed has not mentioned it. They certainly know about it.

But hey, maybe the cost will come down a trillion – though not if we create a seller’s market by rushing into intermittent renewables, which is certainly where we are headed. After all, this is just New York City. Imagine what backing up America with batteries might cost. Don’t bother because it is impossible.

I should also add that we have no idea how to make 2 million MWh of batteries work together. The tiny 400 will be a challenge. Millions of megawatt hours on demand may not be possible.

Then too, New York State has the same problem. Only much bigger if New York City is included, which it often is. New York State peaks at about 32,000 MW, which works out to 5,376,000 MWh of stored juice at a cost of EIGHT TRILLION DOLLARS for enough batteries to make 100% wind reliable. And again, this is without phasing in electric cars and trucks, phasing out gas heat, a 20% reserve, etc.

Note that New York State has a law saying they will build at least 3,000 MWh of batteries over the next decade. Like NYC’s grand 400 MWh battery system, this is as nothing compared to what is needed to keep the lights on. Nor does the New York Power Authority mention the many trillions of dollars needed to make renewables reliable.

All of this battery backup hype is a scam, and not just in New York. The papers are full of this con, from coast to coast. Solar plus batteries or wind plus batteries, as though the batteries mattered, when they do not. The utilities know perfectly well that these loudly touted battery buys are a hoax, but they are getting rich building the mandated and subsidized wind and solar systems the politicians are calling for. Adding a trivial battery makes it sound like renewables work. Which they don’t.

On a larger scale, consider PJM. This is the electric power coordinating group of utilities that oversees the central part of the Eastern USA (not including New York State). Its primary mission is system reliability, so it should be very interested in this impossible battery-cost problem. This includes big cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington DC

PJM peaks at around 150,000 MW, so a week of backup battery juice is 25,200,000 MWh. At $1,500,000 per MWh, that is just under a mere THIRTY-EIGHT TRILLION DOLLARS! This too is without electrifying all our fossil fueled cars, trucks, buildings, appliances and whatever else the climate emergency central planners can think of. Yet PJM says not a mumbling word about the impossibility of delivering reliability using all renewables and batteries.

Note that PJM plus New York is $46 tillion and this is just a small part of America. The voters are oblivious to these impossible numbers, since they are repeatedly told that intermittent wind and solar are cheaper than reliable coal, gas and nuclear. Only when the sun shines bright and the wind blows hard, which is not all that often.

Maybe fracked geothermal, the reliable renewable, is the answer. Or how about reliable coal, oil, gas and nuclear power? Too bad they are all out of fashion.

Reality is just sitting there, waiting. 100% renewables cannot work, so it will not work. At this point it is just a question of how and when we find out the hard way. The key then is for voters and electricity users to learn this stuff, ask hard questions, demand honest answers, and not be Conned any longer.

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

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 29, 2020

David, as it does in cinema, suspension of disbelief plays an important part in the Energy Transition. When you force upon it principles of science, math, and physics, you present it in a negative light.

Renewable Energy represents hope, optimism, and all other positive elements of human nature, and can escape those technical shackles if we only believe! </sarcasm>

(Thank you - your accurate analysis and intellectual honesty are sorely lacking in contemporary discussions of energy. You will find, however, suspension of disbelief has a remarkable correlation with profit potential - i.e., it's an uphill battle).

donn dears's picture
donn dears on Dec 31, 2020

For another view on how the transition to renewables will cause blackouts, read my book, TheLooming Energy Crisis, Are Blackouts Inevitable?. Renewables and storage are threatening grid reliability.

Ben Ettlinger's picture
Ben Ettlinger on Jan 4, 2021

Thanks for your post. I find the numbers very compelling. However are you saying that because the numbers the way conditions are currently don't make sense, then just throw in the towel and don't experiment with anything? Ask Jeff Bezos. You cant always go by the numbers. "He accepted an estimated $300,000 from his parents and invested in Amazon. He warned many early investors that there was a 70% chance that Amazon would fail or go bankrupt."

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 4, 2021

However are you saying that because the numbers the way conditions are currently don't make sense, then just throw in the towel and don't experiment with anything?

If anything, it seems like that's the line of thinking that gave the utility sector a reputation of being stagnant and slow to move or innovate-- but of course it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Don't waste money by throwing it at projects that don't have reasonable potential, but don't be so tight as to not explore the potentially transformative projects that have shown promise. Being prudent and responsible, but not reckless, is certainly an attainable sweet spot!

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jan 4, 2021

I love how you just stick the correction for NYC at the end without tagging the original analysis above as junk...

But then again this entire analysis is junk.

You guys at Heartland Institute must really be hurting from the relentless destruction of coal by renewables across the US. Ouch.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 5, 2021

"But then again this entire analysis is junk."

That's what renewables disciples say about Michael Moore's film Planet of the Humans, too...we might call it a "knee-junk" reaction. And if I'm not mistaken, Michael Moore has nothing to do with the Heartland Institute. Maybe facts are facts, whatever your political persuasion?

If you're going to call it junk, you're going to have to tell us why, Joe. David has numbers, you have insults. I'll even give you a head start - David's number for the cost of installed grid-scale batteries is 70% high:

Utility-scale battery storage costs decreased nearly 70% between 2015 and 2018

Now you can explain to us where we're going to find $1,365 trillion - more than the entire U.S. annual budget - just to get New York through a week of cloudy weather. Then kick in, oh, $100 billion in added wind and solar, and the fifty square miles of the land it will occupy, just to charge the batteries (you didn't want coal plants to charge them, did you?).

Renewables + batteries = pixie dust.

John Simonelli's picture
John Simonelli on Jan 5, 2021

The reality is for large scale, long duration storage, batteries are not the answer. They are however especially useful in operating a power system by either providing regulation service or as reserves for contingencies. The only workable large scale long-duration storage available today is hydro pumped storage, which New York currently has a facility north of the city. The problem is building enough hydro pumped storage facilities to augment all the proposed renewables. The answer may be found in a diversified storage portfolio which has additional hydro pumped storage, battery storage, and other potential storage mediums like hydrogen or compressed gas. Of course, all of these will cost serious money and will probably be opposed by someone for one reason or another.

David Wojick, Ph.D.'s picture
Thank David for the Post!
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