By Christopher Monckton of Brenchley
Climate skepticism has four failings: a lack of elementary professionalism; a tendency to be over-skeptical of both sides of the argument; a striking absence of the intuitive ability of the mathematician, who wanders cheerfully and competently from the concrete to the theoretical and back; and unjustifiable discourtesy towards the scientific labors of fellow-skeptics.
Therefore, the skeptical argument – which is, objectively speaking, correct – has gained a lot less traction that it deserves. An interesting instance of all four failings was a 2400-word rebuttal directed at me that was published here recently.
First, unprofessionalism. The author lacked the common sense to contact me for comment before publishing the rebuttal. However, this opportunity to reply, promptly granted when I asked for it, purges that lack of professional courtesy.
Secondly, over-skepticism. I had published a piece at WattsUpWithThat outlining a highly significant and useful result attained after careful research by Douglas Pollock, an expert on the scientific and economic impact of wind and solar power on national electricity grids.
Pollock consulted widely among grid operators, generators and academic experts. He found widespread puzzlement that after a certain point – varying from species to species and grid to grid – adding more renewables either did not increase that species’ share of total grid output or resulted in ever-growing capacity-constraint payments or do-not-generate orders to renewables generators at times of high wind, strong sun or low demand. He investigated, worked through the math and found he could answer the industry’s question. He proposes – justifiably, in my view – to submit his result to a leading journal for peer review.
He discovered a counter-intuitive and unexpected fact hitherto entirely unknown in the industry: namely, that the maximum national renewables fraction (the maximum share of total output on a national grid contributable by a weather-dependent renewable species without either prohibitively costly and logistically unfeasible static battery backup or wasted generation covered by cripplingly expensive capacity-constraint payments or disconnect orders) – is equal to the mean national capacity factor of that species (the average share of that species’ nameplate capacity that is achievable given national average annual weather patterns). Surprisingly, the mean national capacity factor of a renewable species – the greatest penetration achievable without great cost and waste – is its Pollock limit in that national grid.
Now, a true skeptic would have begun by reading through my article with due care and attention. The author of the rebuttal, like some of the commenters on my article here, chose not to do that. Instead, having cited a sentence without its context from my article, he then restated it in terms twice explicitly contradicted elsewhere in my article – a context that he regrettably withheld from his readers throughout, for without it his entire criticism would have been seen to be entirely without foundation:
“Monckton (and Pollock) thus seem to be saying that if (for example) a wind turbine system can only generate about 35% of nameplate capacity ‘realistically achievable under real-world conditions’, then it’s futile to build any more wind turbines once you get to 35% wind penetration into output, because the 35% penetration is a mathematical limit that cannot be exceeded.”
Just two sentences after the sentence he thus rewrote from my original article so that that he could more readily tilt against the straw man than against what I had actually written, I had written:
“What Douglas Pollock’s brilliant and, at first blush, unexpected result means is that the miserably low capacity factor R is in fact also the fundamental limit fmax on the contribution that unreliables can make to the grid without prohibitively expensive and logistically unachievable large-scale static-battery backup.”
To make sure there was no doubt as to my meaning, I went on to say: “This means that wind and solar power cannot contribute more than about a quarter of total electricity demand, unless there is battery backup. However, as Professor Michaux’s 1000-page paper of 2021 for the Finnish Geological Survey has established, there are nothing like enough techno-metals to provide battery backup of the entire grid worldwide.”
I did not need to state the corollary that, without battery backup, which Professor Michaux has proven to be impossible on the required scale, one would either need capacity-constraint payments or disconnect orders to subsidy farmers to stop their windmills and solar panels. Both capacity payments and disconnect orders are cripplingly expensive and dangerously wasteful given the growing scarcity and cost of energy.
The author of the rebuttal, when writing to give me this opportunity to reply, wrote that Mr Pollock’s result “does not address the questions of cost and waste of overbuilding”.
However, not only my original article but also this article, like Mr Pollock’s paper, had of course mentioned the “cost and waste of overbuilding”. In addition to the mention of “prohibitively expensive and logistically unachievable large-scale battery backup”, which appeared in both articles, I had made the following further references to cost in the original article:
“As a direct result of this fatuity, Britain now suffers the costliest electricity in the world.”
Next I explained that, as a result of our excessive electricity prices, “The manufacturing industries in which we once led the world have died or gone overseas to Communist-led China, India and Russia.”
Later in the article, I drew further attention to the cost and wastefulness of installing wind and solar capacity in excess of the Pollock limit by explaining that, to take one example, “just for the first generation of static-battery backup for the global grid, the Professor [Michaux] calculates that one would need the equivalent of 67,000 years’ total current production annual production of vanadium, to name but one of the scarce techno-metals that would be required in prodigious quantities.”
Having thus misrepresented my article, the author of the rebuttal said his immediate reaction was that I “couldn’t possibly be right”.
I have seldom seen a more blatant instance of the Aristotelian logical fallacy excoriated by the medieval schoolmen as argumentum ad ignorationem elenchi.
Thirdly, defective mathematical intuition. The author actually admits that it is his custom to avoid theory, which he calls “fancy proofs”, and to “stick to simple arithmetic”. As a result of his approach – all too common among skeptics – he entirely missed the main point of Mr Pollock’s result and, therefore, its importance. Instead, as shown above, he misrepresented it. So let me present the Pollock result, step by inexorable step. Judge for yourself, gentle reader. You will see that the conclusion is justifiable.
The mean national capacity factor R of a weather-dependent renewable species (typically wind or solar) is the ratio of generation achievable by that species in annual mean weather to its nameplate capacity. Capacity factors vary both from nation to nation (with varying weather) and from species to species. In the UK, to take one example, the mean national onshore-wind capacity factor is about 0.25. Note in passing that for several reasons one cannot, as the author did, naively add the capacity factors of wind and solar.
The minimum demand-satisfying nameplate capacity C of either wind or solar is the minimum installed nameplate capacityof that species that would be required to satisfy the mean demand D met by the national grid. It is simply the ratio of D to R. Thus –
C = D / R.
The national wind (or solar) fraction f is the fraction of national grid generation actually contributed by wind or solar power.
The fractional minimum demand-satisfying nameplate capacity N of wind (or solar) is the minimum installed nameplate capacity needed to generate f. It is the product of f and C:
N = f C = f D/ R.
The maximum national wind or solar fraction fmax occurs when N = D. Then:
N = D = D fmax / R, so that fmax = R.
Therefore, the maximum national wind fraction fmax is equal to the mean national capacity factor R for wind power, which is the Pollock limit: in this example, 0.25.
By now, most national grid authorities know what Ris for each renewable species. But hitherto they have not known that R is equal to the minimum installed demand-satisfying nameplate capacity. Install more than that iron limit R and the additional electricity generated will be cripplingly expensive, or wasted, or both. That new knowledge is valuable and readily usable.
Precisely because until now the Pollock limit was not known, several national grid authorities are already generating more electricity from renewables than the Pollock limit. In doing so, they are unwittingly subjecting customers to very heavy and needless additional costs, which could have been, and could henceforth be, avoided by knowing of and respecting the Pollock limit.
Yet, remarkably, the author of the rebuttal cited the existence of over-generation in various countries as evidence that Mr Pollock was wrong in that there is no Pollock limit. For good measure, he also said that I had “assumed that no overbuilding is allowed”. Neither I nor Mr Pollock had assumed, stated or implied any such thing. I had instead twice implied the opposite. The existence of overbuilding is evidence not that there is no Pollock limit but rather that grid authorities do not know of the Pollock limit.
Fourthly, ungenerosity towards the work of other skeptics. Mr Pollock’s result is proven above. He is to be congratulated, not condemned, for his insight. The equations are simple, as were Einstein’s, but originating them was very far from easy.
If the author of the rebuttal had not misrepresented Mr Pollock’s result, and if he had found a genuine error, it would have been fair enough to point that out. He found no error, but was discourteous anyway. He preached that I had “launched into a sad round of name-calling … [i]nstead of simply recognizing that a small modification to [my] conclusion was in order”. No “modification” was needed, since the original article had already covered the point.
Next, the author of the rebuttal says: “I think that Monckton ultimately concedes that his result only applies to a situation where overbuilding is not allowed.” As will be seen from the quotations above, in the original article I had explicitly pointed out, twice, that battery backup would be needed if wind or solar generation exceeded their Pollock limits: i.e., if overbuilding occurred. One would not need battery backup otherwise. I had not “ultimately conceded” anything: I had started out, in the original article, by stating, twice, what ought in any event to have been obvious from the outset.
The author ends with a discourtesy to the effect that I had gone “somewhat over the edge on this one”. And yet, in writing to grant me this opportunity to reply, for which I am grateful, he says: “I would strongly urge you that name-calling does not advance your argument.” Goose, gander. Pot, kettle. We skeptics do need to raise our game.