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: