Foreign Affairs has run one of the most confused, out-of-date and error-riddled pieces ever seen on clean energy and climate change. I will fact check it here, since the editors apparently didn’t.
Despite the title, “The Clean Energy Revolution: Fighting Climate Change With Innovation,” it’s not about how the clean energy revolution of the last several years has been a game-changer for near-term climate action.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance: The “energy miracle” has arrived
Indeed, earlier this month, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Chairman Michael Liebreich, one of the world’s leading experts on the state of emerging clean energy, devoted his entire keynote address at BNEF’s annual conference to debunking the myth. His data- and chart-filled analysis explains how the energy miracle is already here: solar and wind and LED lighting and electric cars and advanced batteries and smart grids!
But since the high-profile publication Foreign Affairs has decided to publish a bunch of long-debunked arguments, I will debunk them again for the umpteenth time. In the spirit of William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this weekend, “once more unto the breach, dear friend.”
For literally a decade now, the “we can’t survive without miraculous energy breakthroughs” crowd has claimed we were doomed because we are wildly under-investing in basic energy R&D.; Yet, somehow the very thing these folks say they wanted — huge price drops in key low-carbon technologies (like renewables and efficiency) and key enabling technologies (like batteries for storage) — kept happening, as the DOE reported last November:
This “miracle” happened without breakthroughs. It instead made use of accelerated deployment policies around the world that created economies of scale and brought technologies rapidly down the learning curve.
But instead of celebrating this “miracle” and exploring what we can learn from it — and build from it — the “breakthrough bunch” have devoted more and more effort to arguing that this clean energy revolution didn’t happen, that the policies which brought us the revolution are “counterproductive” (!) and that our only hope remains an energy miracle.
The issue here is not — nor has it ever been — whether we need both R&D; and deployment policies. I have always advocated both, and I always will. Nor is the issue here that the authors briefly mention that a carbon price might be useful, as if that fig leaf somehow justifies their myriad unjustifiable assertions. The truth is we have dawdled for so long on serious climate action that we must rapidly slash CO2 emissions, which requires over 100 times more money be spent on deployment than R&D.;
“Globally, deployment costs will be in the trillions of dollars, while R&D; costs might be in the tens of billions,” as leading climate expert Ken Caldeira explained four years ago. “We are talking about the elephant and the mouse.” That kind of money must come primarily from the private sector, which can only happen when governments focus on intelligent deployment programs.
I can’t for the life of me figure out why people (and magazines like Foreign Affairs) seem to think that R&D; is so much more important than deployment that they publish entire articles bashing existing clean energy technologies, even going so far as to criticize wildly successful deployment programs like renewable portfolio standards for utilities as “counterproductive” because they supposedly “implicitly support already-mature technologies” like solar and wind! They are effectively (though perhaps unintentionally) arguing that we’re doomed, since the “energy miracle” stuff (if it were true) requires … a bunch of rapid-fire “miracles” that have never happened before in the energy arena and are exceedingly unlikely to happen fast enough to matter to the climate or humanity.
Inherent Delays In Transition To Energy Supply Technologies That Don’t Yet Exist
And that takes us straight to one of the biggest blunders in the piece, found in one of its central conclusions:
If the world is to avoid climate calamity, it needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by the middle of this century — a target that is simply out of reach with existing technology. But armed with a more potent low-carbon arsenal, countries could make pledges to cut emissions that were both ambitious and realistic.
OK, so that is two transparently absurd statements — plus one big blunder (the “80 percent” figure), which never should have gotten by the fact checkers.
First, I hope readers see how absurd it is to assert that the world could plausibly expect to make substantial reductions in CO2 by mid-century — aka 2050 — using technologies that do not exist today. The reality of the climate challenge is that only technologies that can be deployed at trillion-dollar scale in the next three decades can contribute to slashing CO2 by mid-century. But the technology development and deployment cycle is simply far too long for a technology that doesn’t exist today to plausibly make a vital contribution to cutting CO2 by mid-century.
So it’s no surprise the International Energy Agency concludes in its latest Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) report that “Achieving the ETP 2015 2°C Scenario (2DS) does not depend on the appearance of breakthrough technologies.”
Here is a theoretical — albeit VERY optimistic — development cycle for a hypothetical game-changing carbon-free technology (such as thorium-based nuclear power). It’s from the highly-regarded CO2 pathway and energy-technology modeling nonprofit Climate Interactive:
Note that this chart optimistically assumes that this hypothetical nonexistent technology actually achieves R&D; success by 2020! And Climate Interactive also assumes that this as-yet-nonexistent technology comes to market at half the price of new coal plants (something that no other large-scale energy technology has ever come close to pulling off).
And it doesn’t even include the time required for a technology that achieves initial marketplace success to go to mass deployment — or the possibility that, like a lot of new products, it still fails (I’m looking at you Betamax). In the energy arena, historical analysis has shown that all major energy supply forms have required many decades to go from initial success to large-scale success. This isn’t unsurprising given that they generally need a large accompanying infrastructure — and that they have to compete with multiple entrenched incumbents.
Second, I also hope readers can see how absurd it is for Foreign Affairs and the authors (Varun Sivaram and Teryn Norris) to assert that a country’s emissions reduction pledges — their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) — could possibly be affected any time in the foreseeable future by as-yet nonexistent technologies. A country’s INDC is a medium-term pledge, typically for 10 to 15 years in the future, and that is obviously driven almost entirely on technologies and strategies that have already been proven to work at large scale in major countries. Again, it takes decades for a zero-carbon energy supply technology that doesn’t exist today to go through the R&D; phase, the demonstration phase, the initial deployment phase, and finally enough deployment for any country to base a global commitment on.
As readers know, I have been pushing hard for increases in zero-carbon R&D; for longer than most. But as valuable as those increases are, it doesn’t change the central point: as-yet-nonexistent technology cannot possibly be the basis of climate policy because — in the absence of a genie to grant us three wishes (with one of those wishes being three more wishes) — it simply relies on way too many highly implausible assumptions to matter by mid-century. And to define my terms, I mean “implausible” in the sense that you are assuming this mystery technology will do things that no other energy supply technology has ever done in human history — AND you are simultaneously assuming that the existing technologies like solar, wind, and batteries pretty much stop making the kind of advances they have for decades.
The whole notion is absurd on the face of it — nobody else I have ever talked to who has actually run a major program to develop and deploy such technologies believes it for a minute. And frankly the whole effort to talk down what existing technology can do is somewhere between pointless and counterproductive.
The Biggest Blunder
And that brings us to the biggest blunder in the piece, “If the world is to avoid climate calamity, it needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 percent by the middle of this century.” Frankly, that mistake is so big I’m actually amazed no one caught it in the entire editorial review process. When Amory Lovins and I published a Foreign Affairs piece on a similar topic back in 1992 (!) — yes, I’m not young anymore — “Fueling a Competitive Economy,” it was thoroughly fact checked. We had to document every number and every claim.
Sadly, Foreign Affairs does not appear to be doing that anymore, otherwise it would have caught the fact that for the world to avoid calamity — meeting or preferably beating the 2°C target — the mid-century (i.e. 2050) carbon reduction requirement is 50 to 60 percent, not 80 percent. The authors may have gotten confused by the fact that the midcentury carbon target for Annex 1 (i.e. developed countries) is an 80 percent reduction, but the world target is much lower.
As an aside, if the figure were an 80 percent cut by 2050 then that would obviously make deployment that much more important and urgent.
Since ClimateProgress tries not to make hand-waving statements about hard numbers related to climate policy without highly-credible citations, here is a typical CO2 pathway chart from Climate Interactive, one of the few organizations in the world with energy and CO2 models that governments and others rely on for making decisions about CO2 pledges and what can plausibly be achieved through various energy technology options.
As you can see, the 2°C pathway requires us to start flattening out greenhouse gas emissions for a while starting ASAP (which thankfully appears to be happening) and then dropping about 50 percent by mid-century (or maybe a tad more if you want more confidence of beating 2°C). The IEA’s “2DS sets the target of cutting CO2 emissions (including emissions from fuel combustion and process and feedstock emissions in industry) by almost 60% by 2050.” As an aside, if you want something closer to 1.5°C, which is roughly the IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 2.6, then you need closer to a two-thirds reduction by 2050. But in any case, the Foreign Affairs authors are pushing the two degrees Celsius target, and that requires a 50 to 60 percent reduction.
And yes, as the IEA makes clear, we can meet that and even beat that with existing technology, primarily through focusing 99 percent of our efforts on the kind of steady, deployment-driven improvements in key technologies that we’ve achieved over the past decade.
I spent a lot of time this week talking with Andrew Jones of Climate Interactive, running through various scenarios for new technology that one might generously describe as highly optimistic. The analysis makes clear that any breakthrough technology that miraculously pops out of the R&D; pipeline really fast and miraculously enters the market at half the price of new coal plants and then miraculously achieves mass penetration decades faster than every other major energy source in history … has essentially no impact on emissions reduction by 2050 and very modest impact on global temperatures in 2100:
I’ll do a separate post expanding on this key point next week. I would urge anyone seeking to seriously engage in this crucial discussion of plausible CO2 and energy technology pathways — and the policies needed to achieve them — to spend some time running through the issue with one of the groups that has a credible model of those pathways and can compete energy technologies against each other. Climate Interactive’s model can do that. So can IEA’s.
Here’s the reality: To avoid calamity, the world faces two urgent tasks. The most urgent is we must peak/plateau coal emissions ASAP and then sharply cut coal emissions. That primarily requires shifting to (existing) carbon-free power sources over the next three decades. The second task, which is nearly as urgent, is to peak/plateau in oil by around 2030 and then achieve steady declines in oil. That primarily requires accelerated deployment of both increased fuel efficiency and electric vehicles. 4–22–16 UPDATE: Foreign Affairs replied to my assertion that 80% was a mistake:
Regarding your claim that Foreign Affairs published a factual error, the authors were referring to the 1.5-degree target, not the 2°C target. According to this Climate Analytics briefing, the 1.5 degree target requires 70%-95% reductions, which the authors simplified as 80%.
Personally, I’d be very delighted if Foreign Affairs — and the authors of this article — were in fact embracing the 1.5C goal as what is needed to avoid calamity. Significantly, the article never once mentions the 1.5C target, but does specifically mention the IEA’s scenario “to give the world a 50 percent chance of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius.” So readers can decide for themselves whether it is more likely the authors were talking about the 2C target and made the error of confusing what the world must do and what the U.S. must do — a confusion that appears to suffuse the article (see below) — or whether they were implicitly talking about the 1.5 target that is never explicitly mentioned once in the piece.
More Fact-Checking, Or, Can Foreign Affairs Be Revived?
Normally I would end the piece here, but since Foreign Affairs is (or at least was) a major prestige publication, widely-read in policy circles, and since it is seriously in danger of simply becoming utterly uncitable, I’m going to do some more fact-checking on this piece in the hopes that the editors will stop publishing such erroneous and out-of-date articles — especially ones, like this, where the authors offer very little if any independent recent analysis to support their largely hand-waving conclusions.
Early on, the authors write, “But without major advances in clean energy technology, the Paris agreement might lead countries to offer only modest improvements in their future climate plans.” I have kept the authors’ original citation link. If you click on it you will be taken — I kid you not — to a piece published four years ago (!) in Foreign Affairs (!!) titled “Tough Love for Renewable Energy” that purports to tell the story of — and I’m still not kidding — how the renewable energy revolution fizzled! Literally. It says of efforts by governments and the private sector to jump-start the renewables revolution: “Much of that enthusiasm has now fizzled.”
In fact, as I’ve reported, the International Energy Agency projected back in November: “Driven by continued policy support, renewables account for half of additional global generation, overtaking coal around 2030 to become the largest power source.”
As an aside, both four years ago and today, Foreign Affairs cites Solyndra as evidence of problems with solar energy, without apparently realizing that the primary reason for the failure of Solyndra — a novel approach to solar photovoltaics using less silicon — was that the traditional forms of silicon-based photovoltaics kept coming down in price so rapidly that Solyndra’s approach simply didn’t make economic sense. You might think of Solyndra as a case of how a novel technology underestimated what those boring old “existing” renewables could do.
So Foreign Affairs does not have a very good track record when it comes to renewable energy predictions and is, as of now, the last thing you’d want to cite as a source.
I’ll discuss additional out-of-date and inaccurate claims below, but sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Here is a screen-shot of the lead picture of the new article:
Yes, this is a nine-year-old photo of a “A soon-to-be completed solar park at Sanlucar La Mayor.” For the record, that plant went operational in 2009 and was the largest concentrating solar thermal planet until 2014. It is an unintentionally ironic choice for a lead picture for another reason, too, as we’ll see.
The Foreign Affairs existing-technology bashing boils down to this: The IEA says fossil fuel power must drop from providing 70 percent of electricity to 7 percent by 2050 — and the authors claim existing technology isn’t up to the task. They argue:
The costs of solar and wind power, for example, are falling closer to those of natural gas and coal in the United States, but this has been possible because of flexible fossil fuel generators, which smooth out the highly variable power produced by the sun and wind. Ramping up the supply of these intermittent sources will oversupply the electrical grid at certain times, making renewable power less valuable and requiring extreme swings in the dwindling output of fossil fuel generators. Nuclear and hydroelectric power, for their part, are more reliable, but both have run into stiff environmental opposition. As a result, trying to create a zero-carbon power grid with only existing technologies would be expensive, complicated, and unpopular.
Foreign Affairs repeats the last line as a large pull-quote as if it had any basis in fact. It doesn’t, and the authors provide not one single citation to defend that claim. Here are some citations that eviscerate that claim.
Creating a Zero-Carbon Power Grid with Existing Technologies Would Be Affordable, Straightforward, and Popular.
Back in January, a widely reported NOAA study concluded that “with improvements in transmission infrastructure, weather-driven renewable resources could supply most of the nation’s electricity at costs similar to today’s.” According to Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory: “Our research shows a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years.”
So NOAA says we could cut CO2 emissions from power production 78 percent by 2030 using existing technology with no increase in cost or loss in reliability. And NOAA doesn’t even look at the remarkable advances in battery storage, forecasting of solar and wind availability, demand response, and the like that I discussed in my February post “Why The Renewables Revolution Is Now Unstoppable.” When you look at all the steady improvements in price and performance of all those technologies and strategies, it’s clear we don’t need “extreme swings in the dwindling output of fossil fuel generators” to keep increasing the grid’s use of renewable generation.
But while the authors of the new Foreign Affairs piece are wildly optimistic (to the point of implausibility) about the amazing advances in price and performance that are going to be achieved by some mysterious nonexistent technology, they are incredibly pessimistic (to the point of implausibility) about both the future of existing technology and humanity’s ability to solve the fairly straightforward engineering problem of steadily increasing the fraction of carbon-free power used by the grid.
Ironically, the first link in the paragraph quoted above is to … wait for it … a 2015 Foreign Affairs piece. But here’s the twist. That article is “Solar Power Comes of Age: How Harnessing the Sun Got Cheap and Practical” — and it doesn’t appear to provide any support for the current article’s techno-pessimism. In fact, that article, which comes two years after Foreign Affairs said the renewable energy revolution “fizzled,” explains why “this time really is different: solar power is ready to compete on its own terms.”
The 2015 article correctly states, “The momentum behind solar power is a result of innovations in regulation, industry, technology, and financing. In a number of markets, it no longer needs public subsidies to compete on price with conventional power sources, such as coal, natural gas, and nuclear power.”
It goes on to explain: “The International Energy Agency, which has historically taken a conservative approach to evaluating solar power’s prospects, has projected that by 2050, in the best-case scenario, solar energy could be the single biggest source of power, generating as much as 27 percent of electricity worldwide.”
Ironically, in that IEA forecast, 11 of the 27 percent is from concentrated solar thermal power (CSP) — which can incorporate low-cost thermal storage and doesn’t have the variability problem that solar PV does! Yes, the lead image of the new Foreign Affairs piece is of an EXISTING technology that the EIA believes can help integrate vastly more renewables into the grid.
The IEA explains that when solar PV hits 10 percent to 15 percent of annual electric generation in a region, PV can become less valuable. The IEA projects that when that occurs, perhaps around 2030, “Massive-scale STE [solar thermal electric] deployment takes off at this stage thanks to CSP plants’ built-in thermal storage, which allows for generation of electricity when demand peaks in late afternoon and in the evening, thus complementing PV generation.”
In short, if you want another “energy miracle,” then one of your top priorities should be a deployment effort aimed at steadily bringing the century-old CSP technology down the learning curve over the next 10 to 15 years.
This line by the authors is especially revealing: “Nuclear and hydroelectric power, for their part, are more reliable, but both have run into stiff environmental opposition.” The authors apparently want you to believe that if not for those pesky enviros, we’d be awash in new nukes (and new hydro). They never bother mentioning what’s really holding nuclear power back: the nuclear industry pricing itself out of the market for new power plants.
The cost of new nuclear plants has been rising for decades, which is why there is no market economy in the world building many new nukes. Even the French can’t build an affordable, on-schedule next generation nuclear plant in their own nuclear-friendly country.
As for hydro, few developed countries have lots of untapped hydro resources. But many developing countries, like China, have been rapidly expanding hydro — along with the high-efficiency, low-cost pumped storage hydro can provide — since that is yet another strategy for incorporating larger amounts of variable sources like wind and solar PV.
Finally, Yet More Errors About Clean Transportation
A high fraction of paragraphs in the Foreign Affairs piece are chock-full of dubious and inaccurate statements that are at odds with the literature or independent expert analysis (like the IEA’s) — including the ones about the history of clean energy R&D; in this country.
But let me end by focusing on just one more — the key transportation paragraph, which follows the zero-carbon grid paragraph debunked above:
Similarly, cleaning up the transportation sector will require great technological leaps forward. Alternative fuels are barely competitive when oil prices are high, and in the coming decades, if climate policies succeed in reducing the demand for oil, its price will fall, making it even harder for alternative fuels to compete. The recent plunge in oil prices may offer a mere foretaste of problems to come: it has already put biofuel companies out of business and lured consumers away from electric vehicles.
The bold-faced statement is simply untrue. Ironically, while it is generally true for the vast majority of alternative fuels, it is not at all true for electricity (as I’ve discussed in both peer-reviewed journals and books). Electric motors are incredibly efficient, and gasoline engines are incredibly inefficient. So, not only have electric cars running on grid electricity had a lower per-mile fuel cost than comparable gasoline cars for decades, they still do even at current U.S. gasoline prices.
And while gasoline prices have come down by a large percentage (particularly in countries like ours with a low gas tax), the price of renewables, particularly solar, has come down at a much faster rate.
Indeed it is bizarre, to say the least, for the authors to argue in one paragraph that “Ramping up the supply of these intermittent sources will oversupply the electrical grid at certain times” — which is to say that renewables will become ridiculously cheap at certain times of the day because of oversupply — but to argue in the very next paragraph that vehicles running on that power won’t be able to compete with oil! That is a fairly blatant self-contradiction. In reality, there are lots of things utilities are starting to do to deal with the times when variable renewables are in oversupply — but both utilities and electric car companies are very excited at the prospect that electric cars will in fact help enable more renewables to be integrated into the grid even as the price of renewable power continues to drop. You might even call this “yet another miracle of existing technology.”
Finally, one of the biggest flaws in the Foreign Affairs article is that it often makes sweeping statements about the entire world (many of which are not true) — but it doesn’t explain that some of its other sweeping statements are only meant to apply to the United States.
After all, “the recent plunge in oil” has not lured global consumers away from electric vehicles. Unless this is “opposite day,” as my daughter would say:
Hmm. That data appears to eviscerate the authors’ techno-pessimism about electric cars in the era of cheap gas.
And while it is true that the EV market did drop 3 percent in this country from 2014 to 2015, and while low gas prices might have played a role, it’s equally likely that U.S. consumers were lured away from buying electric cars last year because they knew that vastly better ones — with a much longer range and much lower cost — were about to come on the market!
Indeed, the unprecedented pre-sales of Tesla’s Model 3 — for a staggering $12 billion in vehicles in just the first weekend — pretty much undercuts even the claim that U.S. consumers were lured away from electric vehicles by the recent plunge in oil prices.
But that’s the thing about existing technology — it can surprise you a lot faster than non-existing technology can.