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In Search Of Energy Metaphors: Debunking The Myth Of The Inadequacy Of 'Current Renewables'

Science & Tech  (tags: climate, business, green. concept, design, energy, environment, interesting, investigation, NewTechnology, research, technology, society )

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"There's no useful intellectual distinction between 'current' and 'future' renewables. It's like saying my daughter, who's six, is not the same person once she becomes an adult. The only way she won't grow is if I don't feed her."

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JL A (282)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 3:43 pm
In Search Of Energy Metaphors: Debunking The Myth Of The Inadequacy Of ‘Current Renewables’

By Joe Romm on Mar 12, 2013 at 7:29 pm

Last month, I was on a panel with someone who kept kept saying “current renewables” were inadequate to address the climate problem and what we needed to do is invest in ”future renewables.” By that he meant increased research and development, of course, and not continued aggressive deployment.

I began my comments with this metaphor:

“There’s no useful intellectual distinction between ‘current’ and ‘future’ renewables. It’s like saying my daughter, who’s six, is not the same person once she becomes an adult. The only way she won’t grow is if I don’t feed her.”

The point is that continuing the amazing price drops and learning curves for renewables requires that we keep feeding them and help them keep learning – by expanding production, as the International Energy Agency has explained (see “The breakthrough technology illusion“). Many other studies back this up (see “Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, R&D, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy“).

[In fairness to renewables, solar power is at least a junior in college, and wind power has already graduated. My daughter just happens to be six.]

Here’s a figure that shows what I’m talking about for solar power (learning curve in upper right):

Note that the price drop (and production increase) has continued since 2011 (see “Chinese Companies Projected To Make Solar Panels for 42 Cents Per Watt In 2015“). And we are also dropping the price of financing solar — see “How Crowdfunding Lowers The Cost Of Solar Energy” — which is just what you would expect as an industry becomes larger and more mature. Indeed, it’s one reason for learning curves — most things are cheaper when you scale up (except, sadly, nukes).

Similarly, a little over a year ago, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) analyzed the cost curve for wind projects since the mind-1980′s and found that the cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen 14% for every doubling of installation capacity.

So while I was glad to see the excellent NY Times climate reporter Justin Gillis launch his monthly print column for Science Times, I was disappointed that he rehashed the tired myth pushed by Bill Gates and a few others in his article, “In Search of Energy Miracles.”

First, though, the good news. Gillis doesn’t fall into the trap of most of the miracle mavens and breakthrough bunch — the trap of advocating an R&D-centered policy:

Two approaches to the issue — spending money on the technologies we have now, or investing in future breakthroughs — are sometimes portrayed as conflicting. In reality, that is a false dichotomy. The smartest experts say we have to pursue both tracks at once, and much more aggressively than we have been doing.

An ambitious national climate policy, anchored by a stiff price on carbon dioxide emissions, would serve both goals at once. In the short run, it would hasten a trend of supplanting coal-burning power plants with natural gas plants, which emit less carbon dioxide. It would drive investment into current low-carbon technologies like wind and solar power that, while not efficient enough, are steadily improving.

And it would also raise the economic rewards for developing new technologies that could disrupt and displace the ones of today. These might be new-age nuclear reactors, vastly improved solar cells, or something entirely unforeseen.

In effect, our national policy now is to sit on our hands hoping for energy miracles, without doing much to call them forth.

Actually, coal is being supplanted by gas and wind (see “Wind Beats Out Natural Gas To Become Top Source Of New Electricity Capacity For 2012“). And efficiency and demand response have slowed electricity demand growth to under 1% a year.

A stiff price for CO2 would tip the balance even more toward sources like wind that are carbon-free and hence don’t destroy a livable climate. After all, BNEF concluded its wind study:

Assuming specific learning rates for these components, we expect wind to become fully competitive with energy produced from combined-cycle gas turbines by 2016 in most regions offering fair wind conditions.… Any increase in the cost of gas, which will consequently raise the cost of energy of gas-fired turbines, would bring forward the timing of grid parity for wind.

And yes, I’ll get to the so-called intermittency problem.

Where Gillis goes astray is when he buys into Bill Gates’ energy miracles nonsense:

Many environmentalists believe that wind and solar power can be scaled to meet the rising demand, especially if coupled with aggressive efforts to cut waste. But a lot of energy analysts have crunched the numbers and concluded that today’s renewables, important as they are, cannot get us even halfway there.

“We need energy miracles,” Mr. Gates said in a speech three years ago introducing his approach, embodied in a company called TerraPower.

Let’s set aside the fact that Gates himself got rich through a deployment-centric innovation and learning curve strategy (see “Pro-geoengineering Bill Gates disses efficiency, ‘cute’ solar, deployment — and still doesn’t know how he got rich“).

The fact is that if “today’s renewables” — a meaningless distinction as I’ve said — could only get us a third of the way there, that would be fine through, say, 2025, since the carbon price and deployment effort would accelerate countless near-commercial technologies now in the pipeline into the market to next us the next third and then the final third.

Jigar Shah, a solar-industry rock star who founded the pioneering solar company SunEdison, explained to Climate Progress at length in 2011 why doubters of today’s renewable energy technologies are so wrong. I recommend the whole interview (Jigar is in the second half), where he explains that the only meaningful technologies for solving climate are those that can be scaled at the trillion-dollar level, and nobody puts a trillion-dollar bet on some brand new, breakthrough technology.

Jigar thinks we could reduce CO2 emissions about 50% cost-effectively with existing technologies, but that by the time we finished doing so in a couple of decades, we’d have another array of cost-effective strategies to take us down another 50%.

If you’d like to see a study of how New York could go 100% renewable in two decades, see ”Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water and Sunlight” by Stanford’s Marc Jacobson et al.

As for the U.S. as a whole, here are the key points to needed the 450 ppm pathway:

We don’t need to be 100% carbon-free by 2030 — though that would be a good idea.
We can keep nuclear for baseload and yes we can even keep much of current gas power through 2030 — we just shouldn’t build a lot of new gas-fired plants.
We could easily keep demand flat using the most cost-effective source of energy there is — efficiency.
New renewables can back out coal over the next couple of decades (assuming the coal industry continues to commit suicide by failing to develop carbon capture and storage)
Our renewable penetration rate is considerably lower than that of many European countries, so we have a long way to go before increased renewables would cause us problems.
As we get to higher and higher levels of renewable penetration, we deal with intermittency through a combination of demand response, grid storage (which is steadily improving and dropping in price), and plugged in elective vehicles (whose already paid-for batteries are not being used >90% of the time).
Half or more of the “intermittency problem” is really a “predictability problem” — that is, if we could predict with high accuracy wind availability and solar availability 24 to 36 hours in advance, then we can use demand response (aggregated demand reductions by commercial, industrial, and even residential customers, see “Top 5 Coolest Ways Companies are Integrating Renewable Energy into the Grid“). Fortunately, such prediction capability is already beginning developed (see, for instance, here).

I have discussed these with leading energy analysts and electric grid experts, and they agree this is all doable with existing and near-term technology, assuming we keep feeding our renewable children — and would go even faster if we had a stiff carbon price.

As for why folks don’t get this, Jigar Shah says:

For some people, technology is not their sweet spot. They have other skills. And so when someone tells them, “technology is not ready,” they just eat up those words … hook, line and sinker and then decide that’s what their talking points are going to be. And with those people it’s just sad that they don’t read more.

A major 2000 report by the International Energy Agency, Experience Curves for Energy Technology Policy, analyzed a variety of experience curves for various energy technologies. Their key conclusion has already been demonstrated, in part, by the massive investment in renewables we’ve seen in the past decade, but it bears repeating:

A general message to policy makers comes from the basic philosophy of the experience curve. Learning requires continuous action, and future opportunities are therefore strongly coupled to present activities. If we want cost-efficient, CO2-mitigation technologies available during the first decades of the new century, these technologies must be given the opportunity to learn in the current marketplace. Deferring decisions on deployment will risk lock-out of these technologies, i.e., lack of opportunities to learn will foreclose these options making them unavailable to the energy system.

Don’t lock our growing kids out of the job market by depriving them of food and learning. Deployment must be ramped up again and again and again (and yes, R&D, too).

Kit B (276)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 4:09 pm

I'm laughing, because this is the standard test for the "Free Market", can you offer a product that is desirable, safe, useful and compete on the open market. The next big step is education, it's amazing how many people just lack knowledge about solar or wind energy. The price of advertizing makes it nearly impossible to compete head on with the OIL, GAS and Coal companies. Though even a few ads would do much to help people see how much better will be without fossil fuels.

JL A (282)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 4:14 pm
Excellent observation Kit--so many of the naysayers are clueless about how the market actually works.You cannot currently send a star to Kit because you have done so within the last day.

Roger G (154)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 4:24 pm
noted, thanks!

JL A (282)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 4:30 pm
You are welcome Roger!

Terry V (30)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 4:45 pm

JL A (282)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 4:47 pm
You are welcome Terry!

Angelika R (143)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 6:04 pm
Excellent article. but Jigar Shah ither does not realize or for other reasons fails to mention that there is more than what he assumes
(As for why folks don’t get this, Jigar Shah says:
For some people, technology is not their sweet spot. They have other skills. And so when someone tells them, “technology is not ready,” they just eat up those words … hook, line and sinker and then decide that’s what their talking points are going to be. And with those people it’s just sad that they don’t read more. ")

"Other skills" is not exactly the way to describe corruption, big donor's manipulation, dictation and what else..
Today in Berlin the newest report by Energy Watch Group was introduced and released.
( it's in English if anyone is interested.
It states that all drilling and fracking will NOT be sufficient for long. -That's the short form. Thx JL

Actually, here in Germ. solar has NOT reduced prices, after the chinese flooded the market with their dumping prices PLUS our govt. decided to phase out/end the subsidies for solar, many companies closed and priced went UP.

JL A (282)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 6:25 pm
You are welcome Angelika. Thanks for highlighting the factors affecting German data and experience along with the link to further information. You cannot currently send a star to Angelika because you have done so within the last day.

Stephen B (23)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 6:59 pm
The relation between production and technology is non-linear. There are thresholds beyond which additional production does not help R&D nearly as much. To develop better technology, we need sufficient production to make flaws in current technology apparent, and enough funding for the research to get it to happen. Beyond that, additional production does not help. To make it cheaper, we need enough production to get a single production-facility for each producer near an optimum scale. Beyond that, additional production does not help. Going to the growing child-analogy, the child needs to spend enough time studying from schoolbooks to learn what she is covering in school. Beyond that, additional time spent staring at the same pages will not help, and that time could be much better-spent.

Intermittency is a very real problem, and the solutions proposed by ThinkPRogress won't work. Energy-storage and intelligent demand-response do not scale well. People in cold climates will want their heating and lights on at night, while those in warmer climates will want their air-conditioning on during the day, and everyone will want to cook their food at reasonable hours. For the really energy-intensive stuff, demand-response will not work for many people's homes. Factories will keep their machines running 24/7 to make a profitwhile keeping prices down. There are places where demand-management can work, but I doubt that it can be made to work for most of the grid without causing serious problems, so there is a hard limit beyond which demand-management cannot grow without severe side-effects. Energy-storage also doesn't scale up well. The more we store, the more we lose as we try to store even more. Trying to adapt to grid-fluctuations by changing charging-rates for electric vehicles runs into two problems: First, some people in cold climates need to drive to work in the morning, so they need their cars charging when their heating is on and demand is already highest. Second, current electric cars get around the energy-storage problem by using very light materials, having very low torque, and storing momentum in a flywheel. This is why they fail on extended inclines and, at least until recently, could not be used in hilly regions. We need electric cars that are at least near-universally usable before they can become a key to handling grid-fluctuations. I like the innovative ideas and they could be useful, but they won't solve the intermittency problem. Unless that problem can be solved, energy-harvesting stations (wind, solar, arguably hydro though energy-storage there is normally not a problem) will not scale up well.

Also, I think Bill Gates knows how he got rich better than just about anybody else. Deployment of his products only began when they were able to serve their purposes far better than anything else that existed at the time. There were annual updates to software but, as far as I remember, Microsoft never pushed for additional sales of a product without some important new feature or improvement in performance (for some tasks).

Anyways, I think a lot of this is moot: One of those "miracle" technologies apparently came out in 2011 and is undergoing pilot-projects. I am currently gathering technical information to present to a major player in Canada to try to get some major coal-burning plants converted to the new thing, with my sights currently set on reactivating 2 Gw-worth of permanently shutdown turbines in Ontario with the new technology. I'll keep everybody posted if it goes anywhere.

JL A (282)
Sunday March 31, 2013, 7:05 pm
CA has none of the intermittent and other issues with the systems already effectively in place regarding effective and efficient storage for solar moving through the power grid--so I believe those arguments are technologically Already obsolete Stephen.

paul m (93)
Monday April 1, 2013, 6:00 am


Michael Kirkby (99)
Monday April 1, 2013, 7:16 am
1932 Tesla displays AC current; safe for humans and a natural flow as occurs in nature as opposed to DC current. It doesn't require copper based systems which is why our present technology is so susceptible to a EMP strike or concentrated gamma waves.
He has also built with the assistance and cooperation of the Pierce Arrow and GM motor companies, a car that runs on scalar wave energy; energy that is universally abundant. The car creates no emissions. J.P. Morgan and the rest of the financiers side with Edison and Ford. After Tesla's New York apartment burns down the government boys come in and abscond with all remaining schemata; technical writings and experiments.
Tesla found a way to map the planetary scalar grid; stick an iron rod into the earth grid and harness scalar wave energy from the planetary grid without any emissions. Those schemata and technologies are still around today and functioning but are controlled by the Elite 1% of society.
Yes the Philadelphia Experiment went awry as they tested it against Tesla's warnings that the timing was wrong. Two weeks later another test was done with no deleterious results or loss of life but the public didn't hear about that.
The technology works. I would surmise that 90% of all the UFOs are actually built here on earth and operated by agencies or directly by humans under the control of the Elites. I would also surmise they are directly drawing power through converting scalar wave energy from the universal grid.
The sad part is that we will not see this technology. Those behind Big Energy have stated publicly that it will not be released until every last drop of oil and natural gas have been take from the ground and every last red cent squeezed out of the customer.
We have the solution. Unfortunately it is controlled by those who impose the Divine Right of Kings on this world they believe they are entitled to rule over and do as they wish with because of their lineage.

Stephen B (23)
Monday April 1, 2013, 8:10 am
Hi :)

In 2011, California got 8,652 GwH of electricity from wind and solar power, out of 284,953. Fluctuations in 3% of the supply are not going to cause serious problems.
Intermittency problems really get going when the fluctuations become larger than the amount by which controllable sources' production can be quickly changed to adapt to the fluctuations. Essentially, it's a scaling problem so while wind and solar can have a place in the mix, their production should not exceed half of the difference between baseload and peak energy, and the generating capacity for peak energy must suffice without them.

JL A (282)
Monday April 1, 2013, 8:23 am
Note that the CA Solar data is an under-report since only solar units beyond a certain size are included (e.g., residential all are excluded)

JL A (282)
Monday April 1, 2013, 9:03 am
Thank you Michael and Stephen for adding to the discussion with data supporting the position of the article writer,

Theodore Shayne (56)
Monday April 1, 2013, 10:38 am
We've come a long way but we have so much further to go. Think of where we would be if we had adopted Tesla's ideas.

JL A (282)
Monday April 1, 2013, 11:48 am
You cannot currently send a star to Theodore because you have done so within the last day.

Stephen B (23)
Monday April 1, 2013, 2:17 pm
Hi :)

Speaking of peak power and residential solar power in warm climates, there is an interesting coincidence: Because air-conditionining is so energy-intensive in warm areas, it looks like the peak power-demand would coincide with the peak production from solar power (though not wind). Other generating-capacity would still be needed because AC is even more important with high humidity, when clouds are more likely to be present, but aside from such severe cases, intermittency should not be a huge problem there. I still wouldn't use solar power for a grid, or to reduce demand on the grid, in a colder climate, but it does seem to have its place.

Birgit W (160)
Monday April 1, 2013, 2:38 pm

JL A (282)
Monday April 1, 2013, 3:01 pm
And most parts of CA are rarely humid (just before the rain at upper elevations that remain at cooler sometimes) Stephen--so not relevant for CA.

Past Member (0)
Monday April 1, 2013, 5:03 pm
We are getting a lot of wind power here now not sure about solar lucky to see the sun ! but its not making our bills any cheaper


JL A (282)
Monday April 1, 2013, 5:10 pm
Thanks for adding a UK perspective Carol. You cannot currently send a star to Carol because you have done so within the last day.

Sue M (79)
Monday April 1, 2013, 8:38 pm

Sue M (79)
Monday April 1, 2013, 8:39 pm

JL A (282)
Monday April 1, 2013, 8:47 pm
You are welcome Sue

Laurel Rohrer (0)
Tuesday April 2, 2013, 4:06 am
Good article.
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