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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).

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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.

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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”).

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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).