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

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:

  1. We don’t need to be 100% carbon-free by 2030 — though that would be a good idea.
  2. 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.
  3. We could easily keep demand flat using the most cost-effective source of energy there is — efficiency.
  4. 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)
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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).

71 Responses to In Search Of Energy Metaphors: Debunking The Myth Of The Inadequacy Of ‘Current Renewables’

  1. Theodore says:

    My experience in industry has shown me that best ideas come almost exclusively from those who have an intimate and very detailed knowledge of the existing technology, and not from outside the industry. Daily contact with details provides a context for creative innovation unavailable to the inexperienced. Good ideas come from having time to think and lots of details to think about. I have little confidence in the value of government or university research efforts detached from the hands-on experience. This is why deployment is essential to innovation. It provides a context for creative minds at work, and a set of facts with which those minds can work.

  2. Solar Jim says:

    As David Freeman, formerly of TVA and SMUD, just said at the NYC Fuckushima conference we can economically invest in 100% clean renewable, non-nuclear, non-fossil, electric-efficiency-fuels starting now, except for entrenched financial interests. These entities, by the way, survive substantially by gaming the system, avoiding fair taxation, and being on the dole or “gravy train.”

    Thanks for the post. Please also check out the 100% utility scenario for the PJM interconnection grid (in one generation at today’s utility rate cost) by researchers from Delaware, as discussed at CleanTechnica.

  3. Paul Klinkman says:

    Joe, I’m a solar inventor. I’m going to put solar in about the sixth grade. It’s much better than it was half a century ago, and I applaud its growth, but it should be perhaps a factor of ten more cost-efficient in another 50 years. Houses, stores, office buildings and industrial plants simply shouldn’t be burning much stored fuel now because it should be uneconomical now.

  4. CW says:

    Thanks so much for this. Great post.

    The growing kid metaphor seems good. A skinny little kid spinning circles around the fat, dirty old nuclear man?

    Love the key points on the pathway list. A bit surprised to see the timelines — they seemed long to me intuitively. But I’ll trust ya on those.

    Seems like lots of folks have done the “100% renewables blueprint/plan/path/solution”. Maybe you’d be interested in doing an analysis of those for us? Which ones are more credible to you? Questions or assumptions that are under-explored amongst them? Etc.

  5. Can’t get there if don’t try, and so far not trying nearly hard enough. Obama’s ‘All of the above’ energy policy won’t do it –cause its not a level playing field w out a price on carbon.

  6. James Salsman says:

    This article is somewhat self-contradictory. It states that we need to aggressively pursue both deployment and R&D, but then goes on to present data showing that current technology is sufficient for a complete switch-over from fossil to renewable.

    So, why isn’t R&D spending riskier than spending R&D funds on faster deployment instead?

  7. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    The grid cannot properly cope with today, let alone tomorrow. So much of it is just patches upon patches. So much is running at designed capacity or even beyond.

    If we are going to upgrade the grid it should be to a smart grid, then many of the problems with renewables go away. So much demand could be managed even in the home, smart houses and smart business could smooth demand considerably.

    All doable now.

  8. It’s all about money.

    That said, money is important. There are the vested interests, who are powerful and need to be bargained with.

    Then there are large swaths of society who will bear the brunt of the transition costs (e.g., the smart grid, the stranded investment in fossil plants). Like the state of Indiana.

    We have to pony up through a carbon tax to spread the pain equitably across the country.

  9. Omega Centauri says:

    So, why isn’t R&D spending riskier than spending R&D funds on faster deployment instead?
    With a balanced program, research funding is relatively small compared to the capital investment in deployment. Continued research will very likely reduce the cost and increase the quality of the future part of the deployment. So for the first third of the deployment, we deploy current tech, and develop and optimize it for the second third, and so on. This project will take more than a quarter century, so continuing research still has time to lay some golden eggs. But as everyone here says, the biggest component of the plan needs to be aggressive deployment starting yesterday. This includes grid and storage upgrades as well as generation and efficiency.

  10. Omega Centauri says:

    A messaging suggestion, “current renewables are not sufficient” -“because we haven’t built nearly enough of them!”

  11. Sasparilla says:

    Great article Joe. I have to say one of the most gratifying things of the last 4 years is the fact that Wind has moved up into the big leagues in overall deployment size here in the U.S. with the largest deployment of any technology last year (I would never have guessed that was going to happen).

    Its great to see these rays of hope on the renewable scene to balance much of the climate news we have to digest (and need to of course).

  12. Mark E says:

    Here’s how to use eminent domain to
    (A) leave carbon in the ground
    (B) deploy deploy deploy

    1. US builds, at taxpayer expense and like it was the Manhattan Project all over again, numerous efficiency and renewable projects

    2. US creates US-owned corps to operate this infrastructure, and issues stock to itself

    3. US “takes” proven fossil fuel reserves under eminent domain, compensating the owners with stock in the new corps.

    Since the fossil fuel investor/owner expects an income stream from their property, this simply converts the nature of the property from pre-sequestered carbon into some form of clean or efficient tech. They can still have the profit stream.

  13. Ed Leaver says:

    Wind is cyclic. Turbine deployment waxes and wanes with the current and projected state of the Production Tax Credit. 2012 was a boom year out of fear the PTC would go away this year. It didn’t. 2013 is expected to be down again as result. 2015 up. Silly way to run a railroad. A long-term (permanent) carbon tax would be far better, but PTC is what we got. See
    Forecast Dims for Future Growth in Wind Power.

  14. We’ll have to buy the fossil companies out, and this is a potentially creative way to do it. It may not be dollar for dollar, but without a buyout, they can’t be brought in to the agreement to leave the coal, oil, and gas in the ground.

    Otherwise, they will resist with all their resources, which includes rallying the Tea Party and other right-wingers, hierarchists, free-marketers, Objectivists, and most importantly, their Second-Amendment-solution fellow travelers, who will regard nationalization of fossil resources (which is what “leaving them in the ground” means) as the “tyranny” they so fear.

  15. BobbyL says:

    It seems to me that if we follow the advice of Architecture 2030 and make buildings much more energy efficient there would be a sharp reduction in energy demand. I think reducing energy demand is key to reducing emissions, and retrofitting buildings and making new buildings extremely energy efficient is the key to reducing energy demand. The technology to do it exists. I find it hard to believe that the transformation needed can be made without a reduction in demand.

  16. Ed Leaver says:

    First Solar currently fabricates thin-film PV modules for “less than $0.70/watt”. Call it 60 cents for today’s argument. But that’s peak, so double that for sun-panel geometry averaged over a good day. [i]If[/i] you’re going to need stored night time-bad weather use, double that again: 2,400 USD/kW, batteries not included.

    Speaking of which, where does one get the idea that EV batteries are “already paid for and not being used >90% of the time”? They are not “already paid for”: some foresighted customer has paid an exorbitant premium for a battery pack highly optimized for energy density and to last 15 or 20 years at 80% initial capacity at typical automotive charge cycles and frequency. All batteries have a finite service lifetime. The EV owner paid for his. Any additional home or power-grid use will be an extra that he may or may not wish to pay. (And if the EV is at home, its probably there being charged.) I’m not a battery guru, but I’d expect there are far cheaper solutions for stationary storage than a specialized EV battery. More realistic estimates put a cost of “Solar Batteries” (lead-acid or Li-whatever for 20-year stationary use) at 1100 USD/kWhr, expected to drop by maybe half “within a few years”. See Solar Batteries Could Dramatically Alter Home Energy Use.

    NGCC is 600-750 USD/kW in capital construction cost, and about
    55 USD/MWhr
    amortized cost.

  17. Ed Leaver says:

    My mistake. In the hopefully near future EV’s will be charged during daylight hours at their owner’s place of employment. What they do after hours remains at the owner’s discretion.

  18. Addicted says:

    I always enjoying reading comments decrying government funding, and university research on the INTERNET!

    What you point out is correct enough. Research without deployment is not as effective as research with deployment. However, the source of the funding (government) or the location of the research (universities) has nothing to do with that. The only question is whether the research which is being funded has a deployment aspect to it.

    E.g. (Well, the Internet). But also, Unix which worked because univs were actually using it.

    Additionally, the research need not directly involve a deployment aspect, as long as there is a great pipeline between industry and the university. Which is why Stanford does fantastically well. They have so many avenues for the research to be converted into products.

  19. Paul Klinkman says:

    Give an oilfield owner or pipeline baron stock in a fledgling alternative energy company and they’ll vote their shares to board up the company’s doors.

  20. Paul Klinkman says:

    I’m sitting on (and doing nothing with) wind innovations also, and I know of at least one other innovator. I’ll put wind in the tenth grade in high school. We have nothing in wind turbine power to equal the complexity of the four masted schooners of the 19th century, and racing sailboat technology is just ripping along right now. Wind turbines need to be floating, with easy access for maintenance despite heavy seas, and they could use a much better balance between maximizing extremely light winds and surviving hurricane gusts.

  21. Paul Klinkman says:

    Nuclear needs to be expelled for violent behavior.

  22. ToddInNorway says:

    The only financial issue left really is cheap natural gas. This too will change radically soon. The number of rigs drilling for natural gas in the USA reached a 14-year low recently, and the current crop of shale gas wells have severe production declines by their very nature. The current natural gas glut will turn into a shortage in less than 5 years, and then only wind and solar will offer any hope of electricity price stability and emissions reductions.

  23. ToddInNorway says:

    Hi Ed, I agree. When PV deployment takes off in the USA like it has in Germany, it will essentially flood the mid-day electricity market with low-priced electricity which will be looking for end users. Charging EVs will be a perfect match. This is an unbeatable combination and it will really disrupt several markets and current incumbents who are unprepared. Any power utility that is currently making most of its money running peaking power plants for the current mid-day price peak will be very threatened, and it explains most of the industry resistance to PV, which will smash their entrenched business models.

  24. Paul says:

    Hi Joe, it seem kind of foolish to me that we are hoping to merely limit CO2 growth to 450PPM when we know that wont be nearly enough to stop runaway global warming which looks like it may have indeed already started.

    Do you know of any proposals on how we could mute or reverse the feedbacks which are being kicked into high gear?

  25. fj says:

    Imagine this planet’s heating bill without solar.

  26. fj says:

    We can definitely go net zero way before 2030 and literally save hundreds of trillions of dollars and untold billions of lives.

  27. Paul Klinkman says:

    Actually, I work with storing solar heat. A huge amount of power can be stored as heat for later direct use as heat. Heat for electric generating capacity, shipped hundreds of miles so that someone else can use electricity for heat is often three steps too many, and PV power has a fundamental issue of not being on 24/7, so that pumped hydro is needed for storage.

  28. fj says:

    Worldwide dictatorship by The Better Angels Of Our Nature would propel humanity into hyper-evolutionary advancement.

  29. Paul Klinkman says:

    No one’s bothered with the “sitting on (and doing nothing with)” part. Why?

    Can we call ourselves climate hawks if we actually have pretty poor vision? Is the cool name more important than our being what is required of us?

  30. fj says:

    The costs and environmental footprints of roads required by net zero vehicles are miniscule of those required by cars.

    Devil’s excrement dependency is obscene.

  31. fj says:

    Unilaterally accelerating American governance run by The Better Angels Of Our Nature would accelerate global influence and prosperity.

  32. Thank you, thank you for this article! It comes down to the ease that some people overlook the risks and problems with what we have – and they can’t see the huge advantages that renewable energy has. Part of the mindset is that we need a silver bullet solution – when the strength of renewables come from a diverse mix of sources that when they are used together, are far more resilient and more robust than what we have now.

    No power plant can run 24/7/365 – they all need to be maintained and/or refueled and/or repaired. Nuclear and coal plants cannot run if it gets too warm – irony alert!

    If Germany can move to renewables – and they are achieving their goals much more quickly than they had hoped – they are as sunny as Alaska! As we can add grid storage, this will help all power plants; not just renewables.

    As Voltaire wrote: “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good!”


  33. Mike Roddy says:

    Why should we give Exxon and Peabody anything? I prefer to give the CEO’s and their boards major fines, and liability for their misinformation campaigns and pollution of the air and water.

  34. Gingerbaker says:

    We’ll have to buy the fossil companies out, and this is a potentially creative way to do it. It may not be dollar for dollar, but without a buyout, they can’t be brought in to the agreement to leave the coal, oil, and gas in the ground.

    Otherwise, they will resist with all their resources, which includes rallying the Tea Party and other right-wingers, hierarchists, free-marketers, Objectivists, and most importantly, their Second-Amendment-solution fellow travelers, who will regard nationalization of fossil resources (which is what “leaving them in the ground” means) as the “tyranny” they so fear.

    We don’t have to buy them out. We don’t have to take them on. We don’t have to have a complicated plan to leave carbon fuels in the ground where they belong. We don’t have to regulate the carbon fuel industries at all. We don’t need a carbon tax.

    We simply have to make carbon fuels obsolete. And we do that by deploying renewable energy infrastructure, and offering the resulting electricity free of charge to the public.

    No matter what we do, the carbon fuel industry will fight us. They like fighting us the way we are approaching the problem now – piecemeal projects, piecemeal tweaks to the free market system to encourage renewables, thousands of piecemeal ideas scatter-shot into the capitalist markets.

    Won’t they wont like so much is a mass movement dedicated to one simple idea – A National Renewable Energy Utility Program. A single Federal umbrella project to construct and deploy large-scale renewable energy infrastructure, enough infrastructure to meet all of our nation’s energy needs without burning a single molecule of carbon. This is, after all, exactly what we need for our future – so why not build it now, as a Federal project? Sort of like the Hoover Dam project times 1000. Like the Rural Electrification project. Like the Interstate highway system.

    Build the infrastructure, and sell the electricity for the true cost of solar and wind fuel – zero. Exxon Mobil can do whatever they want with their gasoline – we will all be driving electric cars which get their power sent to them by induction coils under our highways. For free.

    Do the math! Building all this infrastructure, which would include a new smart grid, the cost of retrofitting all our homes,businesses, and transportation fleets to electricity-only energy use – will cost the nation roughly 1/100 of what it will cost simply to pay for the effects of climate change by year 2100 ($1240 trillion), if we do NOT reduce our CO2 emissions to zero.

    A Federal project to build and deploy today the infrastructure we need to ensure the continuation of civilization as we know it has a return on investment of 10,000 per cent!

    Our national energy future can be solved with a National Energy Utility.

  35. M Tucker says:

    The main problem, as I see it, is we do not have an integrated national grid so that we can take advantage of wind when the sun is not shining. That is a huge shortcoming and a very expensive and time-consuming fix. Since the existing grids are separate and since each municipality or county decides what the energy mix will be, we will probably see a continued increase in natural gas turbines with wind coming in second for new installations.

    As for solar and wind R&D, that seems to be continuing without a lot of incentive needed. When I hear people, policy makers, talk about the need for R&D for future renewables or next generation renewables I just consider them delayers. They do not want to commit to renewables and this is their way to pay lip service to the idea without actually doing anything. We have way too much of not doing anything, way too much delay and not enough action. I have no patients for the “we will do it in the future when we get a real breakthrough” crowd. Those deployment wimps ought to look into the history of the transistor.

    Yes! “Deployment must be ramped up again and again and again” Do it now. Do it aggressively.

    It has been 16 years since Kyoto with nothing to show for it with regard to increasing CO2 and increasing temperature and increasing extreme weather. I’m thinking in another 16 years we will be mighty close to 450ppm. How many more multi-year droughts can we get through? How many more Katrina’s and Sandi’s can we survive? People will be spending as much for food as they do for rent or a mortgage.

    Joe, did you see Maddow last night? She actually put up the “Carbon Pollution Set to End Era Of Stable Climate” graph. She even spent a few minutes discussing the problem. That is a rare event for Maddow.

  36. Calamity Jean says:

    Just being able to briefly interrupt EV charging from a central location would help with demand management. That wouldn’t increase wear on the batteries. EVs could be divided into groups (according to the last digit of their Vehicle Identification Numbers?) and one or more groups stopped from charging for a short time (~15 min.) If power production is still low when the first group(s) resume charging, more groups can be stopped. After all, if your car will take four hours to charge and you have seven hours available for charging, why would you care whether charging is finished in four hours or six?

  37. Calamity Jean says:

    Give them dividend-paying but non-voting shares.

  38. Spike says:

    Interesting article on Australian situation quoted below:

    “The addition of so much generation with negligible operating costs would effectively lower the volume of thermal plants dispatched and lower energy prices. In other words, RepuTex believes that with Australia’s reliance on coal set to decrease and the impending addition of greater amount of renewable energy capacity, the window for natural gas as a clean energy “transition fuel” is rapidly closing.

    According to Harper, the intermittency of renewables in Australia has also not been a major problem. “The states with high renewable penetration have seen their energy costs go down. Neighbouring states are sometimes restricted by transmission constrains from importing more renewable energy and this is being addressed by adding transmission capacity to areas of Australia where there is potential for even more new capacity,” he said.

  39. Ed Leaver says:

    You wouldn’t. But a smart grid can do better: when the owner parks he can punch in his estimated stay time, and the car can punch in its charge state. The rest is just math.

    But this whole EV thing is highly dependent on petrol prices. EV’s are expensive due to battery, and no where near as popular as manufacturers had hoped: Electric cars in shadows at Geneva car show.

    “There are three tasks we have to overcome when it comes to electric vehicles. One is pricing, second is the mileage they can cover and the third is infrastructure,” Osamu Masuko, the president of Japanese Mitsubishi, told AFP at the show. Mitsubishi has been providing PSA with electric cars, but last August the French carmaker halted the influx since it was unable to unload the ones it already had.

    I still think it may be a mistake to pin much hope on EV’s for grid storage. Residential use perhaps. We’ll see. But a battery is a battery, and all have finite lifetimes. As Paul observed, there are other options for grid storage, although last I checked pumped hydro was pretty pricey as well. Cost is always an object.

  40. John says:

    We need a new strategy for dealing with coal and gas. For gas electric generation we should be promoting carbon capture and converting the CO2 to viable commercial products. This has already been demonstrated in a few ways that I know of. One is to use nickel nano particles as a catalyst to create chalk. Another is to convert CO2 to alcohol as a precursor for many other products. We could continue to use methane as a fuel source as long as we don’t release the CO2 into the atmosphere.
    For coal we need to develop microbes to digest and produce hydrogen (for fuel cells) and pure carbon (possibly for carbon nano tubes and Buckyballs). The elements of coal are much more valuable than just burning the stuff. Once higher revenues can be obtained the opposition to renewable will diminish and not be a treat to the trillions of dollars invested in coal and gas.

  41. Bingo! We need to store excess energy gathered from the sun, wind and tides as heat so we can overcome intermittency problems.

    I’m surprised Joe didn’t mention concentrated solar thermal. Maybe that’s what he meant by “grid storage,” but I think he means shuttling energy around from one source to another.

    Can you get ahold of me? I’m working on this issue for a book I’m writing, and I need expert input. Reach me through my website at Thanks.

  42. Mark E says:


    If your pusher were willing to inject you with multivitamins instead of heroin for the same money, would you

    (A) Take the deal, or

    (B) Stubbornly insist that the police fine the pusher until the pusher decides to quit, even though pusher will still continue to inject you with heroin in the meantime?

  43. Mark E says:

    This is a premature idea because climate conditions have not turned a critical mass (like 70%) of the population into sign waving lunatics (an affectionate term of art for me and all my climate hawkish friends) demanding action.

    When it gets that bad, its sorta too late.

    So that leaves us where we are today, where your idea is great but premature because……

    Politics is the art of the possible.

  44. Mark E says:

    Don’t forget the grid backbone based on DC instead of AC, to prevent losses due to voltage drop?

  45. Mark E says:

    If we do carbon capture and “convert CO2 to alcohol”…..

    that’s what I’ll be using for Joe’s drinking game at the next SOTU address.

  46. wili says:

    Question: In item #6 you say:

    “plugged in elective vehicles”

    Did you mean electric vehicles?

    Good article, but I am not still not convinced that we can get where we need to be fast enough without some very major demand reduction. Could we have an article about how we might do that in the most humane way possible?

    Also, in a response to superman a while back, you said that Kevin Anderson was wrong. Could you elaborate? Or is this article itself your refutations of Anderson’s claim?

    Thanks again for a great blog. Hope you are recovering well.

  47. fj says:


    Just like the insurance industry the world’s largest wealthiest industries — including fossil fuels — are heavily exposed to climate change.

    It is totally not rational when they try to buck the system.

  48. Yes, a comprehensive projection suggests that we should be decarbonizing all sectors, and buildings represent an amazingly huge segment.

    You’ve touched on one of the deep flaws in the “current renewables aren’t enough mythology,” because demand can and should be slashed.

    Reduced demand from much more efficient buildings is a positive multiplier for current renewables. Getting halfway is plenty!

    This in turn is why getting moving, across sectors is so important to get to the 350 goal (not 450 which really doesn’t look viable anymore).

    And why naysayers are just so out of touch.

  49. To prevent climate feedbacks?

    Get back down to 350ppm fairly quickly – the ultimate, well-known, and fully-safe “geoengineering” solution.

  50. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Not really “voltage drop” per se. The I-R drop for DC and AC delivering the same current through the same transmission system are equal. The advantage of DC distribution over AC is in VARS (volt-amperes reactive). This is due to the capacitance of the transmission line. AC generators must continually charge, discharge, reverse charge, and once again discharge this capacitance once per line cycle. DC bears the burden of charging (or changing the capacitive charge of)the transmission line capacitance only when it experiences a change in potential. This is called “reactive” because the stored charge is always retrievable (action-reaction), and does not result in a heating loss (or voltage drop) along the transmission line. VARS are, however, bad for the generating equipment, which must sink and source all that extra current without delivering it to the load, where the real work gets done. All generating equipment has an equivalent source resistance which, in the AC case, results in an increased internal I-R (heating) loss in the generator.

  51. Gingerbaker says:

    70% of the population already supports fixing the problem, even if it costs money. And large-scale renewable is the least expensive way to achieve that goal.

    We need to have a national *conversation* about this idea – and people like you want to quash that conversation before it begins. Thanks for nothing.

  52. Gingerbaker says:

    “Also, in a response to superman a while back, you said that Kevin Anderson was wrong. Could you elaborate?”

    Kevin Anderson believes the only way to save humanity is to destroy our civilization – to deliberately crash the economy so that nobody can afford to buy anything, and eventually that will mean an end to manufacturing and transportation, which means no more burning of carbon.

    I believe he is insane.

    You imply that you want to have drastic demand reductions, so much so that the question is whether it is possible that this can be done “humanely”. I think you are deeply deeply wrong.

    Once we have 100% renewable energy utilization, there is no need to suffer depredations. Using energy will no longer have a negative stigma attached to it, because all energy will be clean, and have zero environmental consequence.

    Why you think people need to suffer to move to a sustainable future….. is beyond me.

  53. Daniel Coffey says:

    The simplest thing in the world is to just do it. The hardest thing in the world is to get enough people, most of which make a living on the status quo, to do the simplest thing when it will displace their living.

    Not only must the very rich need to be retrained, but organized labor and a whole host of ordinary folks who make their living off of the oil, natural gas, and coal industries – and all the industries that depend upon them.

    The de-carbonization of electricity and electrification of transportation is just a matter of “erect, connect, repeat” until the generation, transmission and storage capacities are in place, displacing other energy sources along the way.

  54. Daniel Coffey says:

    With respect to your “national utility” concept, I think it has merit. As for giving away electricity for nothing, that has complications which undermine a whole host of policies which would defeat the purpose of your initial idea.

    Now, all you need are the people inspired to carry it out who also have the skill set. That turns out to be few if any.

    The closest I have seen are the top administration in the San Diego Gas and Electric utility, where they are doing things unlike anyone else anywhere to advance renewable energy systems. They would do more but they are being blocked right and left by various groups.

  55. Jan says:

    I like the metaphor.

    Get well soon!

    Speaking of metaphors, I have to admit I haven’t read your book yet, though I have been owning a physical copy (right beside me on my desk, gift from my parents) for some months.

    I am looking forward to reviving and expanding my knowledge about figures of speech that I used to have from my ancient languages classes at school.

  56. wili says:

    I might be wrong. Can you accept that you might be wrong?

    “destroy our civilization – to deliberately crash the economy”

    Do you intend to equate our civilization with our economy?

    There are plenty of indications that it is very late in the day, indeed. Probably none of us know exactly how late. Developments in the Arctic, especially wrt permafrost melt, snow cover loss, ice cover loss, and seabed methane release, make me think that it is far later than most seem to believe.

    Kevin Anderson has considerable bonafides, as do people like Wadhams. I would rather hear specific reasons why someone thinks these scientists are wrong than just taking someone’s word for it.

  57. Gingerbaker says:

    “Do you intend to equate our civilization with our economy?”

    Yes. No economy, no food. No food, no civilization.

    This is the dumbest conversation about renewable energy I have ever had. You can’t really be serious, can you?

    “Kevin Anderson has considerable bonafides,”

    He’s a climate scientist, not an economist, criminologist, sociologist, or psychologist. Anyone proposing to crash the economy to save civilization is a crackpot. Because we do not have to do that to reduce our CO2 emissions. All we have to do is build renewables and switch to them.

  58. Gingerbaker says:

    As for giving away electricity for nothing, that has complications which undermine a whole host of policies which would defeat the purpose of your initial idea.

    Well, don’t keep them to yourself – share them. But keep in mind – no more utility bills is how the program gets sold to the public. So, you are going to have to counter that.

  59. Ed Leaver says:

    See The pros and cons of trying to adjust the global thermostat. As you observe, geoengineering is inevitable. The nightmare is that it will be used to perpetuate business as usual.

  60. wili says:

    James Hansen is not an economist or an energy analyst, but I listen seriously to what he has to say, anyway.

    You seem to be stuck in rather black and white thinking. First you equate our current economy with all of civilization. Then you claim that questioning this is calling for no economy at all. Can you imagine a no- or de-growth economy?

    But you have clearly made up your mind absolutely what is worth discussing and what is not, so perhaps we should not further engage?

    For the record, I agree with what Secular Animist recently posted over at RealClimate:

    “I’ll be the first to say that it is self-evidently impossible to prevent extremely destructive impacts from AGW, given that they are already occurring.

    I’ll also be the first to say that not only is the current situation with AGW much worse than most people realize, but it is getting worse much more rapidly than most people realize.

    I think it is extremely unlikely that we can avoid much more destructive impacts than we are seeing now, which will cause horrific harm to the Earth’s biosphere, not to mention incalculable human suffering, and will likely challenge human civilization to survive.”

    Faced with such an imminent existential threat to human civilization, I think it is worthwhile to consider even measures that would require some sacrifice and suffering if it has a chance of lowering the possibility of even worse and more permanent suffering and loss of life. I know you and perhaps Joe too think that we can save the world from the destructive processes we have unleashed without anyone having to make any significant sacrifices. That may make for a good sales pitch, but I’m afraid I’m not buying it.

    Keep in mind also that our ‘economy’ is trashing the planet even if you leave out its gw effects. We have to ask deeper questions about what an economy and a civilization are for if we want to avoid escaping the gw fire only to jump into the mass-extinction, totally-trashed-planet fire.

    But you clearly see any such conversation as dumb and not serious, so perhaps you are not the one to be trying to engage with on these points.

    Best wishes in interesting times.–wili

  61. Tom says:

    “have zero environmental consequence” is unfounded, as well as being impossible.

  62. Omega Centauri says:

    I think that 70% support is pretty thin. Start attaching costs that won’t be born by someone else, and the support falls off. This is why we have CAFE standards for cars, rather than a stiff gasoline tax, which would be more efficient and effective, because (most of) the people think they won’t have to pay for it.

  63. Omega Centauri says:

    A big part of the AC transmission problem is induced currents. Every current creates a magnetic field around it. The magnetic field is pure energy. Whenever the field changes -and with AC it goes from north to south and back 60 times a second, this induces an electric field, which causes currents in anything that conducts. So the ground underneath the power line has current running through it heating the ground. With DC the field only changes when the current changes, which isn’t very often.

  64. wili says:

    Good point.

    And much of the use to which that energy is put is pretty much guaranteed to have large, negative environmental consequences, unless we quickly devise a very different economy than the one we have, built as it is around consumption = using up as much of the natural world as quickly as possible.

  65. Gingerbaker says:

    you have me wrong. Kevin Anderson believes we should destroy our economy – deliberately cause it to fail. That is NOT the same thing as saying we should reconsider the idea that we must always have economic growth.

    I would like to see the human population become smaller, and have a sustainable future.

    But the issue that concerns us is global warming – and what is important is reducing CO2 emissions.

    We could do that be destroying the economy and people’s lives. But a better way would be to do it and improve people’s lives, and that is what a National energy utility could do – offer people a way to save a lot of money on their bills, and at the same time, reduce CO2 emissions to near zero.

    I would like to have the nation have a real conversation about the latter, not the former.

  66. Gingerbaker says:

    “have zero environmental consequence” is unfounded, as well as being impossible.

    You have just made a point without a distinction. Having a 100% renewable energy system is a gigantic improvement over a carbon-based energy system.

    And complaining about semantics is not being helpful – it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    And btw, there is no real environmental consequence of solar or wind – don’t confuse the environmental consequences of society’s bad decisions about consumption with clean sources of energy?

  67. Florence Eaise says:

    Is it too hard to go to the moon, eradicate smallpox or end apartheid? Is it too hard to build a computer that fits in your pocket? No? Then it’s not too hard to build a clean energy future, either.

  68. Yes, renewables are ready for prime time, which is why we don’t need natural gas as a bridge fuel — I blogged about this recently on the Mosaic blog.

  69. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And for crapping in the playground.

  70. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Sounds to me like Anderson is correct. It is the capitalist economy or humanity-take your pick. The trick is to demolish capitalism, not wreck it in a gigantic crash. Tricky, particularly with the tiny stratum of ‘winners’ under capitalism doing everything and anything to stop us. But any sort of ‘business as usual’ is suicide, and it is only a question of ‘When’.

  71. wili says:

    “you have me wrong”

    If so, then I apologize.

    What I hear Anderson saying is that the only way any economy has been able to shrink at the rates needed are in major economic downturns.

    I guess I didn’t read that to mean that he was sure that causing economic collapse was the absolutely only way possible to do it.

    But I may be wrong.

    I mostly see his contribution as stating clearly the severity of the issue that faces us now, rather than sugar coating it, or pretending that it is something easily solved.

    We are deep inside an earth- and future- destroying culture. GW is a big part of it, but only part. Technical adjustments to our energy sources will not address this underlying predicament.