2020 in power industry was the worst for coal, doubtful for gas, but it was very successful for the renewables. Renewable power set some records and already practically won against traditional energy carriers, but unexpectedly it became clear that it happens cold in winter. This phenomenal news suddenly fell upon inhabitants of Europe, Japan and the USA. In this article we will try to understand as cold weather in Texas is connected with power transition, hydrogen power, stores of the electric power and German coal.
Last year was, to put it mildly, fascinating. It walked on the world power, having brought down demand for oil, gas and coal. In some regions the renewables started restricting fossil fuel on all fronts. The voices predicting the end of an oil era and general transition to pure, «green», carbon-free electricity began to sound with a new force. It was started talking more loudly and more surely about the concept of power transition.

The concept of new, «green» power transition is one of the most discussed subjects in the world of power. It assumes decrease in a share of fossil fuels in global fuel and energy complex and more and more broad usage of renewables. One of the main components of this concept is more and more wide use of electricity, including its application as motor fuel and a source of heat.
Power transition is considered inevitable and necessary as, according to the Executive Director of the International Power Agency (IPA) Fatikh Birol, energy providing our everyday life makes 75% of global emissions. And it is necessary to fight against emissions to minimize impact of mankind on climate of the Earth. Let’s leave behind brackets a question of global climate changes which happened for hundreds of millions years before appearance of a man, and about climate changes which happened even for the last one thousand years that is until when economic activity of our civilization could make noticeable impact on the planet. In the modern world this question has purely philosophical character.

The most obvious risk for our country in this regard is decrease in export revenue because of reduction of demand for hydrocarbon raw materials and coal in the target markets. But there are also less obvious risks. For example, an opinion was constantly expressed that the all-Russian modernization of oil refineries happening the last ten years is a senseless expenditure of money as internal combustion engines will be refused in Europe soon, therefore allegedly the investment will never manage to be returned. And it is worth reminding that the land transport, according to MEA, consumes more than 49% of all oil. In the same context questions of pipeline projects and projects in the field of the liquefied natural gas are brought up. If «gardening» approaches, what is the purpose of all these? And if this entire infrastructure is constructed, whether it is possible to adapt it for needs of a power supply system of the future?

The Stone Age ended

«The Stone Age ended not because stones ended». This phrase usually proves a need of transition to renewables in the conditions of the remaining surplus of traditional energy carriers. This statement perfectly illustrates discrepancy of the concept of power transition. The matter is that, having mastered a certain power source, the mankind does not refuse it after transition to more effective analogs.
Consumption of coal grew after transition to oil and gas, consumption of oil and gas grew after development of atomic energy (by the way, supporters of the concept of «green» power transition diligently forget about an atom era). Even firewood today is not simple fuel in not gasified regions; it is an expensive renewable source of energy occupying a significant share in power supply systems of a number of the developed countries (for example, the USA).
Let’s notice that it is impossible to create the future for the sake of the future. The new directions in power have a serious economic and historical base often going to depth of centuries. In a broad sense the word renewables were used by ancient Romans (see water-mills), and commercial electric cars appeared and widely for the time were used in the XIX century. Even the modern electro bus is the guest from the end of the XIX century. Wind farms (VES) in our country existed in the 1930s. Even a concept of hydrogen power which arose in connection with power transition was already studied more than 40 years ago. That is dust of centuries lies on all modern concepts. And there is nothing bad in it. If a technology has not been widely adopted before, it does not mean that now there are no conditions for its universal introduction. The question is only in, whether these conditions have already come today?

Coal with the wind

In the 2020s the situation in the energy markets was so favorably disposed towards RES that in the middle of the year there were victorious reports noting unreal progress of solar and wind power stations. So, the Ember Company reported that from January to June of last year a share of renewable sources in production of electricity reached 40% for the first time in the history of the European power industry! However, the sun and the wind gave 22%, and the rest was given with water and biomass.

Following the results of 2020 the same company counted that a share of renewable sources made 38% in total power generation in Europe (in 2019 – 34.6%), and generation on coal and gas was reduced to 37%. However, and demand for the electric power was on 4% lower than in the previous year. Coal appeared the most affected party of the European energy balance — falling of production on 20% (to 365 terawatt-hours) in comparison with 2019 (455 terawatt-hours). But in this case you should not blame only COVID-19 or the competition to RES. Europe consistently refuses coal generation. Just at the beginning of 2020 coal power plants were closed in Austria and Sweden.

Electricity generation on the European NPPs fell on record 10%. First of all it is connected with exclusion from operation of nuclear power plants in Germany and Sweden. The NPP of France and Belgium temporarily reduced electricity generation.

And here electricity generation at gas power plants was reduced only on 4%. By the way, this indicator was on 14% higher than in 2015. Natural gas restores the positions lost in the first half of the 2010s. For example, in Germany a gas share in electro generation of the beginning grow since 2016, having reached in 2020 the maximum value for the last eight years. If in 2019 gas power plants of Germany provided 10.2% of the electric power (52.9 terawatt-hours), in the 2020s the same power plants gave 12.1% (59 terawatt-hours). It is already quite close to very high rates of the end of the 2000s — the beginnings of the 2010s.

Electricity generation from the sun and a wind in Europe last year grew on 10% (51 terawatt-hours). Let’s make a reservation that data of Ember have estimated character, and Eurostat traditionally does not hurry with the publication of fresh data.

And here it is worth asking a question: why have RES so grown? If it is about the so-called honest competition, it is necessary to remember that energy costs in the second quarter of last year of drop to record-breaking low values. For example, gas could be bought almost for nothing — 40 dollars for 1 thousand CBM. How renewable sources could compete with such a favorable price offer? Really is the secret only in priority access to networks which RES possess in the European Union? No, of course, the matter is not only in priority access but also in commissioning of new capacities.
For example, 14.7 GW of new wind power stations were put into operation last year in EU countries and Great Britain. It, according to Wind Europe, is n 6% less than the same indicator of 2019. Surprisingly, but not Germany (1.65 GW), but the Netherlands (1.98 GW) became the champion. Most likely, thus the Netherlands prepare for exclusion of a gas field Groningen from operation. By the way, Germany last year established an anti-record: only 219 MW of the new sea renewable energy sources. This is minimum value over the last ten years.

Let hundred flowers blossom

On this background there were next convincing reports in which it was proved that the solar and wind electric power are cheaper than the electric power received from gas and coal. Similar products appear with an enviable regularity. If to trust them (and supporters of «green» power have no reasons to embellish the situation), it was necessary to reject construction of coal power plants two years ago. It is more (much more!) favorable to build, for example, wind generation instead of it.

It is strange that China, which declared plans to reach peak of emissions of carbon dioxide by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060, continues building coal power plants.
According to the power forecast of Bloomberg NEF (BNEF) published in October of last year, demand for coal reached peak in 2018. By 2050 its share in primary energy will fall from present 26% to 18%. The main regions providing decline in demand are Europe and the USA. It quite corresponds to the current dynamics in these regions. Let’s notice that Canada plans to refuse coal generation by 2030 too.

BNEF believes that consumption of coal in China will reach peak in 2027 and in India in 2030. The only point of increase in demand for this energy carrier is industry.
The same forecast promises that to the middle of the current century the wind and the sun will satisfy 56% of the world demand for the electric power. In 2025 electric cars are obliged to reach price parity with traditional cars. Victorious procession of so-called green hydrogen will begin. The only fossil fuel, demand on which will grow by 2050, according to analysts of BNEF, is natural gas.
As for emissions from burning of fossil fuel, they reached the peak in 2019 and will never return to the same levels. If in 2020 they fell to 8% because of pandemic consequences, since 2021 against new records they will be preserved by «building of super competitive wind and solar energy», distribution of electric cars and also by growth of energy efficiency in various industries. Electric cars are fine, but even in not the most successful for an automobile industry last year they occupied only a small share in total sales of vehicles. It is not clear how they must also significantly influence volumes of the oil products burned in internal combustion engines. And it is twice not clear if to consider that about 40% of electric cars are equipped with these internal combustion engines. But probably in the forecast it is talked about the future breaks and sharp change of consumer preferences, as usual.

As for distressful coal, it is really appeared the most damaged energy carrier in 2020. But this in itself does not speak about the reached consumption peak in any way. According to Global Energy Monitor, last year 50.3 GW put into operation accounted for a share of 37.75 GW of the coal power plants taken out of service. Of course, if to look more attentively, in favor of conclusions of the forecast of BNEF it is possible to notice the following: the main number of new coal power plants accounted for a share of China – 38.4 GW. In this country the program of modernization of generation of this type within which a part of outdated objects is closed (last year – 8.6 GW) is realized. One of consequences of implementation of this program is decrease in specific consumption of coal for production of 1 megawatt hour of electric power. That is in process of updating of stations demand for coal nationally can fall in comparison with indicators 2019 and 2020. Today a share of coal power plants younger than ten years in the People’s Republic of China makes about 40%.
We constantly repeat that China obviously and unambiguously keeps the extremely balanced policy for the power industry. In other words, it seeks for development of all possible directions. Let hundred flowers as the classic spoke blossom.

Let’s not forget that building of a share of RES in the world energy balance is the cornerstone not so much humanistic, how many economic prerequisites. Most roughly transition to renewable sources happens in regions which at the same time are power scarce and thus the possessing capacities, necessary for transition to RES. So, last year in China, according to Management on power of the State Committee on Affairs of Development and Reform of the People’s Republic of China, commissioning of new wind farms reached 71.7 GW that is an absolute world record. And solar power stations grew on 48.2 GW. By the beginning of 2021 the rated capacity of wind farms in the People’s Republic of China reached 281.5 GW and solar – 253.4 GW. According to the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, by 2030 a share of not fossil fuel in consumption of primary energy of the People’s Republic of China will make about 25%. General rated capacity of wind and solar power stations will exceed 1.2 terawatt-hours. That is it will grow up a little more than twice rather current indicators.
But at the same time China increases electricity consumption, develops the most depressive regions. It means that demand for fossil fuel even after implementation of all plans for renewables and modernization actions at traditional power plants can grow.

New method, new thinking

Records were diligently set in the United States as well, not the world but local character. According to Management of power information of the USA (EIA), in 2020 the volume of new wind farms was higher than the volume of the generating capacities working at other sources and broke the last local record (13.2 GW in 2012), having reached 14.2 GW. Total rated capacity of the American renewables makes 118 GW now. It is remarkable that record volumes of input of new capacities are connected with the planned reduction of tax privileges.

In general it is necessary to recognize amusing that two records in the field of investments into renewable energy sources accounted for years of presidency of Donald Trump who was positioned as a supporter of oil, coal and gas.

Joe Biden who replaced him on the post used a lot of «green» rhetoric in election campaign. He opposed the corporations which are enriched due to reduction of workplaces to the USA and deteriorations of environment, criticized Trump for cancellation of tax privileges for «environmentally friendly» power and suggested to fight against climate changes more actively.
At some point the public consciousness blew up Biden’s promise about investments into renewable power. It is retold in that key that the new president of the United States will invest 2 trillion dollars in renewable energy sources. In the original the promise was in a candidate way foggy, but optimistic: allegedly Biden’s proposals in the field of protection of climate and «ecological justice» can attract federal investments of 1.7 trillion dollars in ten years. By the way, Biden’s team designated intention to achieve additional investments into «green» power of 5 trillion dollars from the private sector, budgets of states and local authorities. It is the enormous sum but declared not as a program but as a promise. And here as far as this sum is great, we can understand, having compared it to total investments into renewables for 2020.

Annually published BNEF statistics will help with it. However we will notice that current year experts of Bloomberg decided to estimate investments not simply at renewable or carbon-free power but at power transition. Certainly, it is very convenient. After all it was necessary we had to speak about the sums to 360 billion dollars earlier, besides they with an enviable frequency strove to cavort down. And now after change of the concept it is possible to declare record investments into 501.3 billion dollars that is 9% more than the indicators of 2019. In this sum investments in the new generating capacities (303.5 billion dollars), electric cars and charging infrastructure (139 billion dollars), power effective thermal pumps (50,8 billion dollars), technologies of storage of energy (3,6 billion dollars), investments into picking up and storage of carbon (3 billion dollars), hydrogen technologies (1.5 billion dollars) are considered. By the way, investments in hydrogen were reduced on 20% though just last year the all-European and German hydrogen strategy were accepted with pomp.

Thanks to change of system of calculation Europe pulled ahead in 2020. 166.2 billion dollars of investments fell to its share (67% more than in 2019). China was displaced on the second place – 134.8 billion dollars (decrease on 12%). And the USA invested 85.3 billion dollars (decrease on 11%). In other words, if there were no new system of calculation of investments, it should show considerable falling. And the phenomenal growth of investments from Europe is caused by new requirements to motor transport which against a pandemic led to sales of electric cars, record for the region. Their number includes the loaded hybrids (electric cars with internal combustion engine). That makes this statistics a little ironic.
However, it appeared already enough occasions this winter to sneer bitterly on power transition and progress of renewables.

Calm, the wind is silent

The correct weather forecast is extremely important for an assessment of demand for the electric power. But even the most correct weather forecast will not help you if there are fundamental problems in your power supply system. And that fact that problems exist, eloquently showed at once some countries in different corners of the world.

In February Europe unexpectedly realized that the winter came: sharply became cold, and demand for the electric power suddenly jumped up. Sweden which was promptly planting trees and shrubs in the power supply system faced unpleasant need to start reserve generation on fuel oil and to import electricity. Yes, citizens of the country started being asked to economize, for example, not to turn on vacuum cleaners. But Sweden ahead of schedule got rid of coal generation and the excess NPPs.

Japan also had problems with power supply. This country just only intends to return to pre Fukusima production of the electric power on the NPP. But thus it declared desire to close coal power plants and to replace them with generation with RES. So far against cold weather energy carriers multiply rose in price. The prices of natural gas started breaking long-term records.

Not so dramatically, but is more indicative affairs against cold weather were in Germany. If in January, 2020 in this country wind and solar power stations made 16.18 terawatt-hours and 1.23 terawatt-hours the electric power respectively, in January the 2021 wind provided 11.68 terawatt-hours and the sun – 0.69 terawatt-hours. At the same time gas power plants developed 7.73 terawatt hours. That is on 1.9 terawatt-hours more than in January 2020. Electricity generation from coal jumped up also (12.79 terawatt-hours in January 2020 and 15.5 terawatt-hours in 2021).
In February the situation repeated. The sun and a wind gave 2.24 terawatt hours and 11.31 terawatt-hours against last year’s 1.88 terawatt-hours and 20.56 terawatt-hours respectively. And gas and coal gave 6.87 terawatt-hours and 11.5 terawatt-hours against 4.37 terawatt-hours and 7.64 terawatt-hours.

Difference between Germany and the same Sweden was that Germany a few years ago already endured the deficiency of the electric power connected with inaction of RES. For description of such a state was invented the term Dunkelflaute (a dark calm). Besides, Dunkelflaute happens to enviable frequency, and with a growth of a share of renewable generation its influence on the German economy and the population will amplify. Not to bring the situation to such a state, Germans increased capacities of a hot reserve — the gas power plants ready at any time to compensate the dropping-out «green» power.

On strange combination of circumstances Germany is not only the European champion on the volume of RES in the rated capacity of power plants but also the world record-holder at the electric power price for households.

We repeatedly indicated the vital need of reservations at a high share of RES in energy balance. After these words it would be worth passing to conclusions. But while this article was written, life brought one more very and very colorful example — Texas.

Loneliness in a network

Texas is called a Staff of a lonely star. It has the biggest rated capacity of wind farms in the USA – 30.2 GW. At the same time Texas, according to EIA, makes and consumes more electric power than any other staff. The wind occupies about 20% of electric power total production.

Unexpectedly Texas was covered by the «Arctic frosts» (10-15 degrees below zero Celsius). Demand for the electric power sharply jumped up. The weather forecast did not let down, as well as the experts estimating perspective demand did not let down. But suddenly (!) it turned out that it is necessary to prepare for winter. For example, it is necessary to have a possibility to put quickly into operation not involved earlier generating capacities. But nobody prepared for winter. Sharp falling of electricity generation on wind farms became the last straw which broke a back to a camel of the Texas power supply system. The dispersion between real and expected demand made 20-30 GW, according to the local network operator ERCOT.

It would seem, anything terrible: cannot happen — buy electric power from neighbors. But power supply system of Texas is isolated from power supply systems of other states to achieve «the honest competition» and low prices. «It is design of the market of the Wild West», as American press notes. In view of an acute shortage wholesale price for the electric power jumped up. So, in Houston it jumped up from 22 dollars for 1 megawatt-hour to 9 thousand dollars for 1 megawatt-hour.

For the consumer the situation looked as follows: it had to pay more per day than until recently he paid per year and one and a half months. But position of the consumer could be even worse: from 3 million to 4.5 million people were without light and heating. The infrastructure was not ready to such weather tests, both municipal and industrial. According to EIA, gas and oil production suffered from low temperatures, oil refineries stopped production.

On this background the news about rolling blackouts in other states somehow grew dim. According to them everything passed based on the plan and not so dramatically. Only a question hung in frosty mid-air now: where to charge electric cars and how much it will cost if it is frosty in the street and a kilowatt costs pretty penny. However, the answer is obvious: it is necessary to buy not a pure electric car but a chargeable hybrid.

It’s all right as it is

Will some reasonable conclusions be drawn from this? No way.

There are already explanations that RES are not guilty and on the contrary, it is a fault of gas. And there is nothing unusual in such explanations. They sounded earlier — after deficiency in Germany and mass shutdowns in Australia. Renewable generation is never guilty. Traditional power plants which did not hold at own expense the hot reserve, sufficient always to be a backup to the sun and a wind. If to trust American mass media, the financial structure, which does not stimulate the Texas power plants to prepare for winter, is a little guilty in case of Texas, as well as republicans standing behind thermal generation.

We are ready to agree that RES are not guilty: it would be strange to wait from them something that they cannot give a priori. It would seem a simple fact that the wind has an unpleasant quality not to blow 24 hours per day does not demand proofs. Moreover, wind’s speed changes too, as well as changes the power which is given out in a network, besides, the wind blows randomly and not when it is necessary for a consumer. Fundamental problems will be the same for solar power stations.

It is possible to point to high technologies and future breakthroughs as much as necessary, but the fact remains: if you build within the power supply system a lot of the generating capacities working at RES, you should have a hot reserve (or an opportunity to receive quickly the electric power at neighbors). Let this reserve will not cover 100% of the power, which is given out by wind and solar power stations, but it has to be enough to ensure functioning of system in case of loss of RES. By the way, the most striking fact is that traditional power needs nothing of these. Gas, nuclear, coal and to hydroelectric power stations should not have one more station of comparable power nearby on the safe side. Besides this «safe side» inevitably will occur. After all that very Texas did not need to look across the ocean at Europe or Australia. There are already periodical shutdowns of this sort. And conclusions nobody has made before. Why should they do them now?

The system can steadily work for years and then it will face the crisis similar to what has covered Texas. But the problem is that a probability of this crisis in medium-term prospect is equal 100%. It surely happens. And, as this winter showed, crisis can capture some regions at once. Let with different consequences. And every system has to be under construction with a calculation that it could cope with a crisis.

Let’s imagine that some person suggested to build houses in the seismically dangerous area where sometimes earthquakes reach 8 points, which can maintain pushes in 6 points, motivating it with that it is cheaper, and eight-mark fluctuations happen exclusively seldom. According to the article 4 of the law «About Mass Media» («Inadmissibility of abuse of freedom of mass information») we cannot print the words with which it would be possible to characterize isolation of mental capacities of such a person from requirements of objectively existing reality. Therefore we will leave it to the imagination of our dear readers. But we will notice that the offers absolutely similar in character concerning power industry are not only perceived with unreasonable favor but also find full support from the state and society in many countries. «Yes, the risks exist, but all problems will be solved by development of technologies. Especially RES become cheaper every year!» You must admit that it is convenient when in prime cost of production made by you neither necessary reserve capacities nor capacities for accumulation are considered.

Meanwhile the same Texas intends to increase only the volume of RES in the energy balance. And Europe is criticized for insufficient volumes of input of the generating capacities on a wind and the sun for achievement of the objectives «on protection of climate». Volumes are offered to be increased twice.

Fragile blade at the cost of hundreds billions

RES in public consciousness still keep image of fragile blades in the middle of an ominous oak grove of the oil and gas industry. Actually «green» generation is a branch where hundreds of billions dollars rotate. And large sums are still expected in the near future. Respectively, fight for financing is conducted under the slogan of fight for the bright carbon-free future. Of course, there are people who are sincerely trusting in the «green» future with a fanatical sparkle in eyes, but we are not talking about them. The point is the reason for which it will not be drawn adequate conclusions. At most on what it is possible to count is the next patch which will be put on affected electrical power system.

The United States and Europe see in «green» generation and the accompanying infrastructure growth point for the industry. The ideas about reindustrialization of these regions are cherished more than ten years. Now they included also technologies of accumulation of energy, solar panels, wind generators, etc. This circumstance also prevents to approach development of RES more pragmatically. Especially as now break in the storage site of energy which will allow to get rid of the problems connected with inconstancy of solar and wind generation is really expected. This time the future is connected not with the next development of «Japanese scientists» and with hydrogen.

In fact, so-called green hydrogen in Europe and the USA is considered as the battery for RES. But it is worth speaking about prospects of this direction with care. For the next some years will work the pioneer’s damnation: the first «hydrogen» companies will be responsible for it. The real, but not declared rates of realization of hydrogen strategy and reaction to them of large European business will become obvious, as well as reaction of the population. It is possibly, within the ecological agenda it will be reasonable to create the Russian projects in the territory of the EU where hydrogen will be made from the methane arriving, for example, on the Nord Stream.

As for power transition, it goes most dynamic and balanced in the regions where electricity consumption grows and harmoniously all types of generation develop, for example, in China. And still the real type of power transition strongly differs from the most radical «green» scenarios. And the regions which are persistently following such scenarios, which try to create «the future for the sake of the future», ignoring advantages and potential of traditional generation, are bound to crises in power industry.