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Has Renewable Energy Finally Ended the Great Clean Energy Stagnation?

Putting Renewable Energy Growth into Perspective
Full Spectrum: Energy Analysis and Commentary with Jesse Jenkins

Fossil fuels have generated roughly two-thirds of the world’s electricity for the past three and a half decades.

Despite the expansion of nuclear power in the 1980s and recent year-after-year of “historic” growth in renewable energy, increasing supplies of low-carbon electricity have barely kept pace with the growth in global demand for electricity. As a result, the share of the global electricity mix provided by coal, gas, and oil has been remarkably constant over that time.

Fossil fuels provided about 70 percent of global electricity in 1980, 62 percent in 1990, 64 percent in 2000 and 65 percent in 2010.

In 2013, Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Colorado and author of The Climate Fix, dubbed this lack of progress towards a lower-carbon electricity mix “the Clean Energy Stagnation.”

But has the great Clean Energy Stagnation finally come to an end?

Renewable energy now growing at 100 gigawatts per year

The world added 103 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power capacity in 2014, according to a new report from the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). That figure excludes large hydropower projects (but includes small hydro less than 50 megawatts in capacity) and is dominated by wind and solar, which saw growth of 49 GW and 46GW, respectively, both record-setting figures.

More importantly, the share of renewable electricity (excluding large hydropower) in the global electricity mix ticked upwards from 8.5 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2014.

The combined share of wind, solar, biomass and waste-to-power, geothermal, small hydro and marine power is now nearly on par with the 10.5 percent of global electricity supplied by nuclear power.

The growth of renewables was enough to push fossil energy’s share of the mix down by 1.2 percentage points, according to data compiled by Jessica Lovering, a senior energy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, from International Energy Agency (IEA) and UNEP/BNEF reports. That follows a 2 percent decline in fossil energy’s share from 2012 to 2013.

Global Electricity Market Shares: 1980-2014

Is this a sign that renewable energy is finally growing fast enough to not only help meet growing global demand but also push down fossil fuels’ market share? 

Perhaps.

Two years is a short trend. For renewables to truly compete with fossil fuels in a fight for global market share, wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources will have to continue to expand at least 2.3 percent per year. That’s the compound annual rate of growth in global electricity demand forecast by the IEA’s latest central scenario (which, I might add, already bakes in some pretty ambitious energy efficiency goals).

To drive actual consumption of fossil fuels (and not just fossil electricity’s share of a growing global market) downwards, renewables would need to increase their annual output (in terawatt-hours) faster than the demand for electricity is growing.

How fast will renewable energy grow?

Getting into the prognostication game is a dangerous business of course. Instead of making my best guess forecast for renewable energy growth, I’ll instead give you two forecasts that are almost certainly wrong—but serve to bracket the realm of most likely outcomes.

Consider two future scenarios for global electricity supplies out to the year 2040.

In one future, renewable energy sources excluding large hydro continue to grow in absolute terms at the roughly 100 GW (or 183 terawatt-hours) per year rate achieved in 2014. This would imply linear growth in renewable energy capacity, and would mean that renewables would continue with strong percentage annual growth for the next few years, but see the growth rate decline over time.

Global Electricity Market Shares: Scenario 1, 2015-2040

Global electricity generation: Scenario 1, 2015-2040

In another future, global non-hydro renewable electricity generation continues expanding at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 10 percent per year. That would imply a doubling of generation roughly every 7 years.

Global Electricity Market Shares: Scenario 2, 2015-2040

Global electricity generation: Scenario 2, 2015-2040

In both scenarios, I’ll assume global electricity demand grows 80 percent by 2040, as per the IEA’s latest core scenario. And I use hydropower and nuclear power expansion forecasts from the IEA as well (hydro expands 35 percent and nuclear capacity grows 60 percent globally through 2040, after replacing retiring existing plants).

As I said, both of these scenarios are likely to be completely inaccurate forecasts. In reality, emerging technologies tend to follow an S-curve of adoption, starting out at rapid compound annual growth rates, leading to descritions of the “meteoric” or “exponential” rise of this or that technology. But these rates eventually slow as the industry reaches maturity, then begin to look more like linear growth with steadily declining relative growth rates. (Indeed, the IEA assumes fairly linear growth for hydropower and nuclear, which I adopt here for these scenarios).

S-curve Adoption Rates for Consumer Products in the United States, 1900-2005

S-curve consumer product adoption
Image source: New York Times.

It’s unlikely the global renewable energy industry will stop growing in scale and stay stuck at the 100 GW per year level for the foreseeable future.

Then again, you just can’t keep up exponential growth forever.

100 GW of new non-hydro renewables was enough to increase annual generation from these sources by nearly 10 percent in 2014, but it would take 286 GW—or almost 3 times as much annual installed capacity—to sustain a 10 percent growth rate if the industry keeps expanding at a 10 percent rate through 2025.

Indeed, the percent annual growth rate for non-hydro renewables has already declined from a peak of 19 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2014.

So these two scenarios are both wrong—but useful nonetheless. It’s likely that reality will fall somewhere in between these two cases, with annual percent growth rates slowly falling each year, but with growth in absolute terms expanding for quite a while longer at least.

Has the great Clean Energy Stagnation come to an end?

Where does that leave us then? Is the great Clean Energy Stagnation over? And can renewables grow fast enough to reduce fossil energy generation in absolute terms (i.e. in terawatt-hours), not just in percentage terms?

As these two scenarios illustrate, it all depends on how much longer the renewable energy industry can continue to expand at rapid compound annual growth rates.

If renewable capacity grows linearly, that won’t be fast enough to drive fossil energy out of the global energy mix, as illustrated by Scenario 1 above. Renewables will keep fossil energy’s share of the global electricity market from expanding much in this scenario, but as global demand is growing as well, fossil fueled electricity generation will continue to increase in absolute terms.

Only if renewables can continue to grow much faster than energy demand over the next two decades and beyond, as in Scenario 2, will they truly displace fossil fuels in the world’s electricity supply—in both market share and absolute terms.

Now I’ll hazard to present my best guess: renewables will follow a typical S-curve of adoption, continuing to experience strong compound annual growth over the next decade, but with a steadily declining rate of growth. Just as we’ve seen the compound annual growth rate decline from 19 percent to 10 percent from 2011 to 2014, this rate will continue to decline over the next decade or so.

The bad news here is that as soon as the growth rate for renewables declines below the rate of electricity demand growth, the market share of wind, solar, and other renewable sources in the global electricity supply will begin to stagnate and decline. And long before that point, total consumption of fossil fuels for electricity generation will begin to climb once again.

This is exactly what happened after nuclear energy’s initial expansion began to slow. Nuclear’s share grew from 8.5 percent in 1980 to a peak of 17.5 percent of global electricity by 1995, helping drive fossil energy’s share down from 69.4 percent to 60.5 percent over that period. Then as nuclear construction stalled out, and more recently as plants in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere were idled, nuclear’s share fell to 12 percent in 2011 and 10.5 percent by 2014.

Meanwhile, fossil-fueled electricity generation grew more than 150 percent from 1980 to 2014.

Global electricity generation: 1980-2014

Indeed, the stall-out in nuclear’s growth was one of the principal causes behind the ‘Clean Energy Stagnation’ of the last three decades.

Can renewable energy continue to grow exponentially?

Clearly the reasons behind the slow down in nuclear construction differ from the potential challenges facing the renewable energy industry. But renewable energy faces its own challenges to continual exponential growth.

One is the simple mathematics of compounding growth: as explained above, it will take far more effort to sustain 10 percent growth a decade from now than it does today.

Yet there are several other challenges ahead for rapid renewable energy growth:

Technical innovations and public policy measures can help push back or mute the impact of these challenges, but not without cost and only given sufficient political will.

How to permanently end the great Clean Energy Stagnation

The global growth of renewable energy is a remarkable success. We have now entered an era where renewable energy sources are expanding fast enough to register on the global level, shrinking fossil energy’s market share. That’s a huge deal.

Yet banking on the renewable energy sector sustaining exponential growth over several decades is probably a foolhardy wager. It would defy everything we know about technology diffusion, in the energy sector and otherwise.

If the compound rate of renewables growth slows, as it most likely will, what will pick up the slack?

The best way to ensure the share of global electricity from low-carbon sources continues to expand—and more importantly, fossil generation declines in absolute terms—is to scale up a diverse portfolio of low-carbon sources, each as rapidly as possible.

That means not putting all our eggs in the renewables basket.

It means getting nuclear energy growing again globally—a tough challenge when virtually the entire existing fleet of reactors will retire between now and 2040 as well.

Finally, it means developing lower-cost, scalable carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) options, especially systems that can be retrofit onto existing coal plants, which are being built in droves across the emerging economies. That’s a serious technical challenge, but one that needs an equally serious effort. Even if renewables (and nuclear) scale rapidly, the world will have to deal with a substantial installed base of relatively young coal plants across China, India, and elsewhere.

In short, permanently ending the Clean Energy Stagnation and driving fossil fuels out of the global electricity mix will ultimately require everything we’ve got: renewables, nuclear, and even CCS. 

Content Discussion

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on April 2, 2015

Jesse,

More importantly, the share of renewable electricity (excluding large hydropower) in the global electricity mix ticked upwards from 8.5 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2014.”

I do not know how RE being 8.3% of world energy generation in 2013 was arrived at. The below report indicates RE being 5.5% for 2013.

Here is an excerpt from this article:

http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/2146376/renewable-energy-less-effective-energy-efficiency

Worldwide Energy Generation: As a result of gross world product, GWP, growth, world energy generation increased from 16,174 TWh in 2002 to 23,127 TWh in 2013, an increase of 43.0% in 12 years, about 3.0%/yr over 12 years. Analysis of the data shows:

……………………………………………………………2002…………..2013

– Nuclear energy, near-CO2-free…………..16.5%…………10.8% 

– Fossil energy…………………………………….65.0%…………67.3%


– Hydro energy, near-CO2-free……………..16.7%…………16.4%

– RE*…………………………………………………..1.6%…………..5.3%

* Wood burning is near-CO2-free on about a 100-year basis, as it takes about 100 years for the forest to restore itself to before-harvesting conditions. Loggers SAY they take only sick, near-dead trees and other “waste” wood, but, in almost all cases, that appears to be not even close to the truth, as pro-RE officials purposely ignore the research of independent foresters, declare wood-burning “CO2-neutral”, which creates “feel-good”, perpetuates uninformed thinking, but happens to save logger jobs, etc.

Worldwide RE Investments and RE Generation: The below, recently issued report presents an overview of worldwide renewable energy (RE) investments from 2002 to 2013.

As a result of RE build-out investments of about $1,700 billion from 2002 to 2013 (excluding mostly “socialized” investments for grid adequacy, capacity adequacy, etc., of about $400 billion not mentioned in the report), worldwide RE generation increased from 1.6% to 5.3%, a 3.8% addition, of which:

………………………………………..2002…………..2013

– Wind……………………………….0.3%…………2.7%

– Biomass…………………………..0.9%…………1.8%


– Solar (PV + CSP)……………..0.0%…………0.5%


– Geothermal………………………0.3%…………0.3%


– Marine; tidal, wave……………0.0%…………0.0%

– Total………………………………1.6%…………5.3%

It matters rather little what the US does, because it is only 20% of the world energy pie. What the WHOLE world does is MUCH more important regarding GLOBAL warming.

Total WORLD generation (excluding nuclear):

Hydro + RE………………. 16.7 + 1.6 = 18.3% in 2002 

Hydro + RE………………..16.4 + 5.3 = 21.7% in 2013

The 3.8% addition over 12 years of worldwide RE generation required investments of 1.7 + 0.4 = $2.1 TRILLION from 2002 to 2013. The report data shows, the 12 – year trend of RE investments to reduce fossil energy generation and replace it with renewable energy generation would take many decades.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 4, 2015

Alan, the portrayal of renewables as the virtuous little guy fearlessly confronting oppressive Big Fossil is only valid if you consider coal. Big Fossil Natural Gas is infinitely grateful to renewables for serving as its Trojan Horse into the hearts of naive greenies everywhere, knowing full well renewables have not a chance of displacing it from its ascendant position in energy.

Nowhere more evident than here:

Powerful Partners: Sun, Wind, and Natural Gas

http://www.shell.com/global/future-energy/innovation/inspiring-stories/solar-gas.html

Here, Shell is only too happy to relinquish top billing to renewables in exchange for tenfold profits in perpetuity.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 3, 2015

Willem, significant is that renewables have gained energy “market share” in conjunction with fossil fuels, not at their expense. Renewable nuclear energy and hydro have taken the hit, with the only environmental benefit attributable to coal’s replacement with natural gas.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on April 3, 2015

Uranium is not renewable.  Stop referring to nuclear as a renewable energy.  It’s carbon free, not renewable.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on April 3, 2015

They tried to push back and failed.  It’s over already, solar PV and wind are too strong.

The cool thing is that even conservatives like solar and wind.  The only people championing against the shift to renewable energy are people with tons of stranded money in obsolete power facilities.

My only question is how much is Bob going to lose because of his poor investment choices?  Yeah I see you over there.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 3, 2015

Josh, solar energy isn’t renewable either. “Renewable” is a feelgood term which defies the first law of thermodynamics.

The available nuclear energy in mineable materials (of which uranium is only one) is, in practical terms, as limitless as energy from the sun. So it’s equally entitled to the term.

It has a nice ring, don’t you think?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 3, 2015

Eric, solar panels and batteries could cost nothing, and you’ll still never have enough to prevent running out. There is nothing that can change that fact about non-dispatchable sources like solar and wind. If you want to eliminate carbon emissions from fossil fuels, it’s a deal killer.

You can back solar and wind up with renewable nuclear – but then you don’t need them in the first place.

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on April 3, 2015

Jesse,

Denmark started the big push into wind in 1973. How about putting together a graph of world past and future electricity production if the world had directed all the wind and solar mandates, subsidies and feed in tariffs since 1973 to nuclear.

 

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on April 4, 2015

Bob,

You may be interested in this.

http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russia-leads-forestry-destruction-ranking/518599.html

http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/04/tree-cover-loss-spikes-russia-and-canada-remains-high-globally

http://blog.globalforestwatch.org/2015/04/a-fresh-look-at-forests-2011-2013/

 

During the 13-year period, start 2000 to end 2013:

…………………………..Forest loss……………….Forest gain

………………………..million hectare…………..million hectare

Russia……………………37.22……………………….1.35

US………………………………………………………….1.15

Brasil……………………..35.76

Canada………………….28.39……………………….0.76

The world lost about 20 million hectares in tree cover PER YEAR for the past 10 years!!

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on April 4, 2015

 

Naive Greenies? 

Is there such a thing as a Naive Nukie?

 

Jenny Sommer's picture
Jenny Sommer on April 4, 2015

What would be the point?
How about tunneling everything towards wind, pv, grid and storage now like Gregor Czisch proposed about 10 years ago (without the pv and batterie storage although back then.)

Nuclear is an expensive distraction.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on April 4, 2015

why does anyone support nuclear…”

The reason that every well informed environmentalist should support nuclear power is that as of today, nuclear in combination with big hydro has been and remains the only means of essentially completely removing fossil fuel from the electric power grid that has ever worked in the real world (see France, Sweden, and Switzerland).  

In spite of the hype around solar and wind, no major grid has ever been decarbonized in this way; the renewable darlings Germany and Denmark both have grids which are dominated by coal and propped-up with biomass burning (which has an enormous environmental footprint and produces air pollution just like fossil fuel)!  

Regarding the alleged high cost of nuclear, note that the EIA data indicates that nuclear power costs about the same as power from biomass, and much less than off-shore wind and solar thermal.  Furthermore, the levelized cost we are discussing only applies to new plants; after their initial cost has been paid off, nuclear plants spend the majority of their 60-80 year lives making very cheap power, so the fleet average cost to society is very affordable.

Even the impressively low cost of wind power in the US central plains are not low enough to beat nuclear when the cost of transmission and energy storage are added; this remains true even if we project forward to battery costs of only $100/kWh (which is plenty low enough for electric cars); see calculations here.  Note that solar PV still costs much more than central plains wind, even using the aggressive cost promises for plants to be completed in 2016.

The truly disappointing thing about renewables+storage is that even if they do someday become cost effective together, they still won’t displace fossil fuels globally as completely as nuclear could.     This study from Germany found that even if Germany’s already large energy storage fleet could be doubled to 29% of the average demand (4.4 hour endurance), the optimal mix of wind and solar was only able to supply 60% of annual electricity before the curtailment became prohibitive (i.e. 40% of the output of the last few GWatts were discarded). In the mean time, Germany has created a new generation of fast throttling coal-fired power plants that are optimized for supplementing solar and wind power.

Renewables have their own environmental problems.  Toxic waste from production and recycling/disposal of batteries and PV panels is a huge potential issue (recycling of distributed PV and batteries in particular). It is also not often appreciated how visually obtrusive wind and solar production equipment will become is we have 20x more of it.

The very existence of the anti-nuclear movement proves that nuclear is viable, otherwise, why bother to speak out?  There is no one bothering to protest cold fusion or warm-dry-rock geothermal or space-based solar power.  Nuclear is a proven viable alternative to fossil fuel, and working against it is effectively working against the best interest of the environment and human health.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on April 4, 2015

Well Eric,

please, please, please,  hurry up and connect your batteries to your PV. Hurrry up and get off the grid, but until you’ve done so PLEASE pay up your fair share of grid maintenance.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 4, 2015

Eric, here’s why: when you get your electric car and electric heat (you didn’t think we were going to continue burning fossil fuels indefinitely, did you?) a perfectly efficient, massive solar array will be as useful as a boat anchor after two or three days of cloudy weather. You won’t tolerate running out of electricity (and I wouldn’t blame you) so you’ll add another refrigerator battery – but even then you won’t have enough sunlight to charge them. So you’ll hook back up to the grid and burn fossil fuels, like what most solar array owners are doing now.

You need to do a little investigation into how much energy the appliances you use day in and day out consume, then mulltiply that by about three. All the solar electricity you could generate on your property will be a meager fraction of that. And utility scale batteries? They’re not storing sunlight, they’re storing coal and gas generation from the night before, and making it dirtier than it was the first time around.

Solar is a fossil fuel-supported scam guaranteeing that industry profits into the next century. Don’t play into it.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 5, 2015

Certainly … among mode enthusiasts on the internet, there are always naive advocates for any given technology option to accomplish anything … media production, energy production, passenger transportation, computer programming languages … there are always naive advocates who repeat poorly understood points they have read made elsewhere that impressed them, and do not have the background to understand the qualifications and limitations of the arguments … which may have been well understood by the person or people who originated the argument, or which which may be commonly overlooked by those among whom the argument is popular.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 5, 2015

“nuclear in combination with big hydro has been and remains the only means of essentially completely removing fossil fuel from the electric power grid that has ever worked in the real world (see France, Sweden, and Switzerland)”

I believe you mean to refer to Sweden and Switzerland … France does not have enough hydro to shut down the thermal capacity that it requires for seasonal peak demand.

Regarding the alleged high cost of nuclear, note that the EIA data indicates that nuclear power costs about the same as power from biomass, and much less than off-shore wind and solar thermal.”

And also note that is for an almost pure baseload use, which means as a minority share of total production capacity in a grid dominated by dispatchable fueled power plants. That is an appropriate assumption for the current nuclear fleet, but not an appropriate one for the hypothetical Swedish / Swiss configuration of more hydro capacity per capita than the US possesses as the primary dispatchable source in conjunction with nuclear operated at lower capacity factor in a partial load following way. And as it only includes subsidies with an explicit calculable budget impact, omits insurable costs above the relevant liability limit to all generator sources, where that tacit subsidy is biased in favor of nuclear.

Even the impressively low cost of wind power in the US central plains are not low enough to beat nuclear when the cost of transmission and energy storage are added”

This is only assuming that (1) sufficient is added so that at substantial incremental storage is required and (2) that the storage is dedicated to wind alone, rather than being used in a more economically efficient way as a grid resource for a portfolio of variable RE energy sources that have covarience less than 1.0 (where in the case of some wind resources, like MISO and BPA, variance is effectively independent and in the case of wind and solar PV, covariance is negative.

This is a approach to argument that does not seem unusual for those who are opposed to renewable energy on asthetic or ideological grounds: perform the analysis based on “simplifying” assumptions which amount to “Assumption: renewable energy is rolled out in a substantially suboptimal, inefficient way … Conclusion: look at how expansive that is!”, and so is, in effect. begging the question.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 5, 2015

Thanks Willem, I knew it was bad but not quite that bad.

As you note elsewhere, “biomass” is considered a renewable resource despite the fact that a tiny fraction of destroyed forests will ever regain their pre-Holocene carbon balance. The effect of deforestation on global warming is a complicated one, however, and is largely a mixed bag dependent on latitude. Clearing forests in high latitudes tends to increase albedo (reflectivity) with a cooling effect; in mid-latitudes it’s mostly a wash. In tropical zones trees add humidity, which makes clouds, which also increases albedo.

James Hansen and Ken Caldeira have turned climate datasets into sophisticated models of forcings and feedbacks, in an attempt to lay blame for warming where it properly belongs. Despite the variety of opinion on deforestation and climate, all agree it’s disruptive for ecosystems and disastrous for biodiversity.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 5, 2015

Eric, solar panels and batteries could cost nothing, and you’ll still never have enough to prevent running out.”

Actually, if solar panels and batteries cost nothing, then the incremental extra cost of residential solar and batteries over utility scale solar and batteries are the scale economies that utilities have on installation costs, and the capitalized cost of the installation of the residential solar and batteries are a ceiling on utility rates that will attract grid connection from potentially self-sufficient households. So just as with well water vs a piped water system, there is likely to be different optima at different population densities, with many rural and outer suburban households dropping off of the grid but with many urban and inner suburban households remaining connected.

Many of the grid connected households will be surplus producers during net solar production peaks and power consumers during the balance of the day, which offers an economic surplus to east/west long-haul transmission, so unless perverse pricing mechanisms are assumed, that transmission capacity will be put into place.

Now, if we were to assume that a nation spanning four time zones with long haul electricity super-highways and substantial were “running out” of power from solar PV, that would offer an economic surplus to energy sources that are dispatchable with relatively low fixed costs and to variable energy sources that have their strongest harvest at night, such as the Great Plains and Midwestern wind resources.

Obviously those slices of the residential and commerical energy demands that go off-grid stretch hydro capacity available to those who do not, and since batteries are assumed to be free, and utility scale battery installation has substantially lower cost per unit than decentralized household / place of business battery installation, the gap can be filled by rewarding modest over-capacity installation of solar or other renewable harvest to top up batteries as needed to supplement dammed hydro.

Now, batteries are not going to zero (they are not even in the right technology space to appeal to Moore’s Law) and solar panels are not going to zero, so this particular scenario is highly unlikely in the real world, but if you start with an assumption of zero cost solar panels and zero cost batteries and end with a conclusion that renewable energy will still “run out”, it suggests that the path to that particular conclusion is baked into the simplifications that you rely upon, and those simplifications are resulting in more plausible alternative conclusions simply being ignored.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 5, 2015

“Eric, here’s why: when you get your electric car and electric heat (you didn’t think we were going to continue burning fossil fuels indefinitely, did you?) a perfectly efficient, massive solar array will be as useful as a boat anchor after two or three days of cloudy weather. You won’t tolerate running out of electricity (and I wouldn’t blame you) so you’ll add another refrigerator battery – but even then you won’t have enough sunlight to charge them. So you’ll hook back up to the grid and burn fossil fuels, like what most solar array owners are doing now.”

Actually, under this assumption, those particular households who have gone off the grid in that way can simply drive to a connection point to buy energy to top up, and carry the energy home in their EV battery. Under the assumption of zero cost solar panels and zero cost batteries, much of that power will be coming from solar power generated somewhere else in the country where it has NOT been cloudy for two or three days. People in reality would resort to the most immediately effective solution, rather than resorting to the solution that gets you to your desired conclusion.

However, not everyone lives in outer suburbs, so not everyone will wish to OWN an EV car (and if your “car” is a glorified golf car sufficient to get you to the local grocery store, shops, and train station / bus route, part of its appeal is that it doesn’t require a high capacity battery, so it cannot be used as a “power carrier” in the way that a freeway-commute-capable EV can), not everyone will live in a building with sufficient roof space per person to generate enough to top off a household battery for several days, not everyone will face utility rates that justify paying the installation costs for that many “free” panels, and along with a range of other “not everyone’s” for the non-homogeneous populations of real world countries, even under your maximally disruptive assumptions, far fewer people will drop off the grid than assumed by the people riding the current wave of “off the grid disruption” speculation.


Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 5, 2015

Wood burning is near-CO2-free on about a 100-year basis, as it takes about 100 years for the forest to restore itself to before-harvesting conditions. Loggers SAY they take only sick, near-dead trees and other “waste” wood, but, in almost all cases, that appears to be not even close to the truth, as pro-RE officials purposely ignore the research of independent foresters, declare wood-burning “CO2-neutral”, which creates “feel-good”, perpetuates uninformed thinking, but happens to save logger jobs, etc.”

This is an important point … biomass energy sources are never more renewable than the biomass feedstock. So we should never count imported biomass, any biofuel with marginal EROI, or biomass that is not renewable on a timescale shorter than the next half century as renewable. We cannot consider any timber-based biomass feedstock as renewable, and we cannot consider corn-based ethanol as renewable. For biocoal, potentially renewable feedstocks would include perennial grassland plants and coppiced wood, though they would have to be viable when grown with low fossil-fuel-input production techniques, and for liquid biofuel, potentially renewable biofuels would never include ethanols produced from cereal grains nor biodiesels produced from imported oil palm or coconut oils.


Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 5, 2015

“Renewable” is a feel good term which defies the first law of thermodynamics.”

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. That statement does not contradict the possibility of useful energy being input into an open system. And that statement does not imply that energy resources cannot be destroyed, since obviously (for those who kept reading past the first law), the availability of energy as a resource is typically degraded in use.

So your claim that it is a feel-good term which defies the first law of thermodynamics is simply your declaration of ignorance about the technical meaning of the term.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 5, 2015

Bruce, I’m all for calling out simplistic assumptions, and yours beg a few questions of their own:

  • How would you use storage as a “grid resource for a portfolio of variable RE energy sources” and filter out the fossil energy which makes up the bulk of transmission on every grid in the world?
  • What gets charged for the carbon emissions resulting from inefficiencies of storage – renewables, or the fossil generation which never needed it in the first place?
  • What value are you assigning to “insurable costs above the relevant liability limit”, whatever that means, as a subsidy for nuclear (sounds like the silliness Mark Jacobson pulls out of a hat when he charges nuclear energy with the carbon emissions from the nuclear war he foresees as an inevitable result)?
Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 5, 2015

Bruce, you’ve mistaken my maximally effective assumptions for my maximally disruptive ones.

Possibly you have the time to simply drive your car to some local “connection point” (connected to what, an anti-grid?) wait 8 hours to fill up, drive home, wait 8 hours to transfer to your home battery, then wait an hour or two to charge your car enough so you can drive it to work.

Doesn’t leave much time for posting on The Energy Collective, but it’s a terrific example of the Rube Goldbergian nightmare on which the renewables vision is built.

Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on April 5, 2015

“I believe you mean to refer to Sweden and Switzerland … France does not have enough hydro to shut down the thermal capacity that it requires for seasonal peak demand.”

While literally true, stated without qualification this statement is somewhat misleading. The reason France ‘requires’ extra thermal capacity in winter is that, almost uniquely amongst large industrialized countries, France relies on electricity to provide a significant fraction of its heating. During extreme cold spells like the February of 2012, the electricity demands from heating alone is sufficient to almost double electricity demand. If France relied on the direct burning of fossil fuels for winter heating as most countries do, most of their thermal capacity would be superfluous.

It is important to note that even when temperatures are extremely low, like in February 2012, more than 3/4 of France’s electricity comes from clean carbon free nuclear and hydro as you can see here

 

It is also important to note that France never “tried” to decarbonize its grid. This simply happened naturally as a consequence of its nuclear build out. (France’s grid, even with its unusual heating load, is roughly 10x less carbon intensive than “green” Germany’s.) 

 
 
Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on April 5, 2015

Unfortunately, I think the battle is just getting started.  Here are some links pulled together that offer insights into the stealthy and highly effective approaches used by fossile fuels to fend off renewables as well as a case study in how effective these techniques are.  The relative lack of overt criticism of renewables suggests that the extent of stealth networks working against renewables is considerable.

Big coal couldn’t ask for a better friend than Mitch McConnell.

 

According to his web site: “Coal especially is a vital part of Kentucky’s economy and history.  With over half of our nation’s electricity coming from coal, this industry must remain a key component of our nation’s energy strategy.” 

While it clearly is his job to look out for his state’s economic well being, as senate majority leader it is also his duty to reach beyond his state and look at the bigger picture.  With his eye on preserving coal as the main source of energy he is clearly looking inward to the status quo rather than outward as to how to move his state forward in a new era of energy.

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 5, 2015

Eric, in lieu of an apology, maybe you could provide some numbers for your generation, your locale, and your consumption. Because every time (even in California) I encounter someone reveling in their self-sufficiency there’s more to the story and the numbers don’t add up. Do you wash your clothes by hand? Live in a desert community? Propane tank/diesel generator/woodpille out back? Minimal driving? All variables in the equation, each of which would snap your idealistic solar vision in half except for possibly an infinitesimal, privileged element of the global population.

And to think I threw away that donation envelope for Inductive Cookware for Rural Africa. I know it’s here somewhere…

You’re not only using the grid as a big battery, you’re using it as an infinite battery. If you happen to dip into the grid for fossil energy to power that fancy cooktop, for dinner perhaps when your solar panels are generating nothing whatsoever, you’re creating the same emissions as the gas you used to use. Does net-zero cost little or nothing before or after the 30% taxpayers have kicked in, or the net metering subsidy being supplied by those who can’t afford .4 acre, or even a tenth of that? Still operating under the generous assumption that solar panels and batteries are free – how does Moore’s Law and miniaturization apply to solar, when state-of-the-art facilities like Topaz and Desert Bright in California require ~260x the geographical footprint of the nuclear plants they’re supposed to be replacing?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 6, 2015

Bruce, these “this will do that, then this will fill in for that”, number-free scenarios are less than useless because they amount to fact-free evangelism. And evangelism has an abysmal track record as a guide for public policy.

The U.S. consumes 3,700 TWh of electricity/year. What specific assumptions are you relying on that suggest non-hydro renewables will be able to displace nearly all of the fossil portion of that?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 5, 2015

Bruce, the term “renewable” implies that energy was once “new” – it was created – and once it’s served a purpose it can be shined up with a renewable-wipe and used again.

Where does solar energy get “renewed” once it’s used? This is fascinating.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on April 6, 2015

Jesse,

More importantly, the share of renewable electricity (excluding large hydropower) in the global electricity mix ticked upwards from 8.5 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2014.”

According to the BP 2014 energy review, world RE was as follows in 2013, in TWh:

Wind…………………………….628.2

Geo, Bio, Other………………481.3

Solar……………………………..124.8

World total……………………1234.3 = 5.33% of world total generation.

World total generation….23127.0

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on April 6, 2015

Dear Willem, 

I think BP and IEA or UNEP use different accounting, and may track biomass differently as well. An important discrepancy though. I’ll dig in further. 

Jesse

Paul O's picture
Paul O on April 6, 2015

Before you say something like Nuclear energy is an expensive distraction, first you should layout the costs of powering Planet Earth with solar and wind power. Is this even possible for the teemng billions on the planet, bearing in mind that humans are going to demand more and more energy for the foeseeable future.

Have you considered the costs of 24-7/ 365 power for western level energy use which the ever  incresing level of sophistication in the 3rd world would demand in the future?

Have you considered what routine replacement of windmills and solar panels after 20-25yrs would cost for the planet?

Have you considered how much recycling of toxic by-products from disposed solar panels would cost?

Have you considered the costs of building and  maintenance of thousands of miles and miles of long distance transmission lines from wind farms criss-crossing the planet?

Rather, isn’t it true that windmills and PV with batteries are the real expensive distractions, and not nuclear power?

 Frankly, I can see where Solar Power and Wind Power play a role in the overall scheme, but we should not let anti-nuclear fanaticism by some nay-sayers jeopardise our planet’s energy security.

What we really need are advanced 4th Generation nuclear power which produce lower waste that become safe to humans in no more than 300-400 yrs.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 6, 2015

I believe you mean to refer to Sweden and Switzerland … France does not have enough hydro”

Absent the like of big hydro resources, France used nuclear reactor designs that are signficantly dispatchable, and so obtained largely the same load grid carbon result as Sweden/Switzerland. 

See a description of nuclear load following technique as used by France’s RTE here under load-following.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 6, 2015

Eric, thanks for details on your energy picture. I don’t mean to sound antagonistic – if everyone were as energy-aware there would be a lot more reason to be optimistic about our climate future.

Rewind – if everyone were as energy-aware, and affluent. The Tesla Model S is a beautiful piece of machinery which costs more money than most humans will see in their lifetimes. Painted-up Masai warriors may communicate by cellphone; do they have healthcare and internet access? We’ve just leapt over several orders of magnitude in energy consumption, and very few will be willing to place 22nd-century environmental concerns above acquiring the things we take for granted.

So it’s going to take a lot more than cleverness to get us where we need to go. An excess of cleverness can even result in higher carbon emissions by making them more difficult to account for. What we need is dependable, clean energy, and the renewable dream depends on a multitude of expensive and impractical pieces falling into place. If they don’t, we’re screwed. That’s not worth the gamble.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 6, 2015

you haven’t seen new nukes in 30 years “

But we have.  There 60 or 70 reactors currently under construction worldwide, five of them in the US.  Of the 26 reactors operating currently in China, all but two of them came online since 2000. 


Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 6, 2015

Yes, I’m using the grid as a big battery …”

As those  with home PV almost universally do, which reflects an understanding of the need for the grid. In fact PV owners need all of the grid, almost all of the existing central plant capacity and all of the transmission.   PV on the roof will save some fossile fuel use, but it will be lucky to close a single grid plant. Unless the net-metering subsidy is reversed,  the cost of fewer kWh sold to some will result in a higher electric bills born by those least able to afford them.

So then, why attempt to make something of the “utility death spiral”, the reference you used above?   

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on April 6, 2015

“the cost of fewer kWh sold to some will result in a higher electric bills born by those least able to afford them.”

Quite a claim with nothing to back it up. 

 

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on April 6, 2015

Paul,  Eric offers a real case study in EV / PV .  If you have a point to make about net metering and costs of the grid, bring some value to the conversation by clearly articulating your position and offering credible sources to back up your position.  I think that when externalities are taken into account, who is subsidizing what for how much gets a lot less clear cut. 

Jenny Sommer's picture
Jenny Sommer on April 6, 2015

Nobody is using windmills anymore.
Why would you replace PV after 20 years?
Repowering windturbines or sites is actually what we do. Used ones are moystly not retired but resold.
Just cheaper than taking care of aging nuclear plants that are killed by economics anyways.

What we really need is next gen wind (EROEI between 350 and 1400, cheaper and nicer to look at) and keep on developing existing wind and solar technologies. And storage…
Well…thats what we do actually.

Nuclear is not going to happen anymore…I guess it had it’s time (like 60 years…) and failed to deliver.

 

 

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on April 6, 2015

Before you say something like Nuclear energy is an expensive distraction, first you should layout the costs of powering Planet Earth with solar and wind power. Is this even possible for the teemng billions on the planet, bearing in mind that humans are going to demand more and more energy for the foeseeable future.


Have you considered what routine replacement of windmills and solar panels after 20-25yrs would cost for the planet?

1st gen wind is only now being replaced in altimont pass ~ 30 years.  20 years is an absolute lowball.  New wind turbines are designed to last and benefit from decades of experience and improvement.  Any sources to back up your claim of 20 years.  That is the life of a typical PPA not of the turbines themselves.   

1st gen PV, same story.  A pretty safe number is 30 – 50 years which is getting closer to the lifetime of a nuclear reactor.  If I were in the waste disposal business I would much rather dispose of the PV than the Nuclear power plant.  Silicon PV modules are pretty benign anyway.

Have you considered how much recycling of toxic by-products from disposed solar panels would cost?

Have you?  Do tell.  I don’t think much for Silicon but I would be interested if you have credible sources that suggest otherwise.

Have you considered the costs of building and  maintenance of thousands of miles and miles of long distance transmission lines from wind farms criss-crossing the planet?

Transmission line longevity is closer to the century scale than the decade scale.  And the materials are very recycleable. 

Rather, isn’t it true that windmills and PV with batteries are the real expensive distractions, and not nuclear power?

I don’t think so

 Frankly, I can see where Solar Power and Wind Power play a role in the overall scheme, but we should not let anti-nuclear fanaticism by some nay-sayers jeopardise our planet’s energy security.

What we really need are advanced 4th Generation nuclear power which produce lower waste that become safe to humans in no more than 300-400 yrs.


Yes lets get some of them up and running and see if we can make them work safely on a commercial scale.  Until then lets keep moving forward with renewables.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 6, 2015

Clayton, I asked you in another thread who you expected to pay for grid maintenance and didn’t get an answer.

It was a rhetorical question, because we both know it’s an operating expense for utilities which is covered by the differential between wholesale and retail rates. Net-metered electricity makes no contribution to this expense, so it’s people living in apartments, smaller homes, and even those with smaller solar arrays who help to cover wealthy solar customers’ privilege of connecting to the grid.

It’s called “cross-subsidization”, and there’s lots to back it up.

Net metering increases the costs incurred by the utility owning the line.  These additional costs are the result of line losses that differ depending upon whether the consumer is delivering electricity to the utility or is taking electricity from the utility.  The line losses are greater when the consumer is taking electricity from the utility, ceteris paribus.  The economics of such additional line losses is greatly dependent upon the value of energy on the grid.  For instance, other consumers bear the cost associated with a net metered customer who primarily take electricity when the generation system is strained and energy has a high value.  On the other hand, the benefits flow in reverse when the net metered customer primarily delivers electricity during such periods of constraint and high value. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on April 6, 2015

Clayton, agreed that externalities are important.

When the activism of Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, National Resources Defense Council, and other pro-renewables, anti-nuclear groups helped to permanently close San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2013, Sierra Club was jubilant:

We hope, especially, that the utilities will take this opportunity to help get more locally generated renewable energy, such as rooftop solar, into their portfolios.

Instead, 8TWh of clean nuclear generation was replaced by California’s grid mix of about half natural gas. According to the Lancet, that will result in an additional 16 deaths/year, or 25 people killed since SONGS closed in June 2013.

What value would you place on these externalities, and how much of the responsibility should be borne by the false promise of renewables?

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on April 6, 2015

Bob,

Thanks for the link that is a good overview.  I do not think that it supports your thesis that solar arrays feed the rich and starve the poor.  This quote from your link points out that net metering also benefits the utility.

On the other hand, the benefits flow in reverse when the net metered customer primarily delivers electricity during such periods of constraint and high value. “

My read of it is that they are not making a case against distributed generators.  Rather they are suggesting that real time pricing is needed in order to accurately monetize the distributed generator’s use of the grid.  Sometimes this works in favor of the utility sometimes in favor of the behind the meter generator.  In fact they seem to be making the case that the old T&D deck was stacked against distributed generators and that smart grid can unwind some of that offering a more diverse set of generation opportunities.

“The long history of operating under the prohibitive nature of PUHCA led utilities to design their distribution systems under the assumption that reverse flows were indicative of bad things happening on their distribution lines.”

I am a strong advocate of real time pricing which this supports, so perhaps we have found a point of agreement.

 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 6, 2015

My statement is based on the simple observation that delivered electricity costs are 2/3 to 3/4 grid infrastructure and maintenance thereof, and the balance is fuel.  Grid backed solar PV can reduct fuel consumption. So by extension and for example, if every other house on a block zeros its net-metered electric bill by reducing energy drawn from the grid but not the connection to it, then the remaining half of homes on the block must pay double to cover the unchanged cost of infrastructure and maintenance. 

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on April 6, 2015

And for the sake of discussion, what if a neighborhood organizer gets everyone on board to save lots of energy and reduces the consumption by 1/2.  It is the same reduction in money going to the utility and no change in infrastructure cost.  So shall we charge people when they put in LED lights?  It is not an exact analogy but you get the idea.  Further, if the PV arrays are peak conincident in production, which is the case in most areas of high PV penetration, then they actually save the utility money, so they deserve some compensation for that.  Another poster just offered this link which provides insights into the complexity and offers real time pricing as an important aspect of the solution –  

 

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 6, 2015

The specific assumptions I used there were the premises of your hypothesis that solar PV panels and batteries are available for free. You then made the sweeping, numbers free claim that solar would still be “not enough”, because there would be cloudy days in a locality for two or three days.

You really don’t get to complain about “this will do that, then this will fill in for that” sketch of how existing research on cost optimization of 100% renewable scenarios would seem likely to be modified by your assumption of free solar PV panels and batteries when your original argument is “Eric, solar panels and batteries could cost nothing, and you’ll still never have enough to prevent running out. There is nothing that can change that fact about non-dispatchable sources like solar and wind.” with the argument and evidence required to support any such claim replaced by simply asserting it as a fact.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 6, 2015

(connected to what, an anti-grid?)”

Connected to the grid, of course. No matter how the grid evolves, and no matter whether or not some fraction of the current residential market goes off grid, the grid itself isn’t going away so long as we can avoid collapse of our industrial society, and fast recharge stations would be added to the wide range of existing industrial demands that already ensure that.

As far as waiting eight hours for the battery to charge … that is just more of your argument by assuming the worst case is the only alternative. Even setting to one side fast recharge and battery swap technologies for topping up BEVs, you may not have this thing called “work”, but a large share of outer suburban vehicles in this country spend a large fraction of the day parked there, or parked in a commuter lot of a transport station to catch a ride there, and if there is a charging station at either, knowing that a low solar output period is coming up, those people could indeed wait eight hours to fully top up a battery while at work. Indeed, if they have the home solar PV and battery capacity to be able to charge their EV at home in addition to their home power needs, taking the EV charging load off the home system when you know a period of low solar days is coming substantially extends the effective home battery capacity.

“… it’s a terrific example of the Rube Goldbergian nightmare on which the renewables vision is built”

Its neither a Rube Goldberg nightmare, so long as one doesn’t pursue the scenario by assuming the worst at each step, nor is it a very good example of the 100% renewables vision, as the serious cost optimization studies of 100% renewable scenarios are all grid connected. Its more an example of the way that a population made up of a wide range of diverse individuals with varying situations and inclinations are likely to behave in ways that extend well beyond the range of your false dichotomies and straw man arguments.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 6, 2015

So then, why attempt to make something of the “utility death spiral”, the reference you used above?”

That was in response to Bob’s premise of “even with” zero cost solar panels and zero cost batteries which, while it wouldn’t actually cause a complete death spiral in the way that some imagine, could well cause a restructuring with a smaller share of the total load on the grid. It would be Bob rather than Eric that raised what many would see as conditions that would lead to a restructuring, as a frame in which to express his underlying belief regarding the limits of solar.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on April 6, 2015

Clayton –

Again the key is cost of grid infrastructure.  Reducing the load 24/7/365 via efficiency improvements allows the utility to actually retire plant infrastructure over tme accordingly. The utility doesn’t like to shrink, but at least the economics are viable.   Design and build new efficient homes and perhaps they require only a 100A or only 50A service.  The street grid can be sized accordingly, the local substation sized accordingly.  

But not so with, say, some mcmansion with a 400A or 500A service that nets its utility bill to zero by installation a big PV array.  Then the utility can’t retire any plants, and the street power build out has to be sized as if there was no solar installed.  Bob’s earlier question is fundamental: who pays for a full boat of infrastructure and maintenance in the case of intermittent power?

As for shifting peak power, that can be somewhat helpful but as the peak load often extends to 6pm or 8 pm, the grid capacity needs to be sized as if there is zero installed solar. 

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on April 6, 2015

“and if there is a charging station at either,”

Which has been the case for years in the Boston area and they have recently been upgraded.  Further, since it is recognized as a societal good they have been given favorable position in the parking garage providing incentive to the EV owners.  EV to electric mass transit. 

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on April 6, 2015

This is, however, not in autarky … France in 2014, a year with higher than average hydro generation due to heavy rains and declining consumption due to efficiency gains and a weak economy, exported 92TWh and imported 27TWh. Much of the imports were effectively renewable energy imports during periods of strong production elsewhere in Europe (French Electricity Report 2014, p. 10). Remove the 28TWh of renewable other than hydro and the portion of energy imports that were surplus renewable energy imports from elsewhere idling French thermal capacity, and remove the export of nuclear that reduces the amount of load following that the nuclear plants must do, and France would have to produce substantially more power from fossil fuels in 2014 than it did with the cross-haul movement of power and the availability of renewable other than hydro, both domestically and regionally.

The economics that I was referring to do not change … the EIA levelized costs presume nuclear used as baseload power, and the per kWh cost factor rises with the decline in CF if we have a fleet of nuclear power plants with recently refueled plants being used as a load following resource while plants beyond 50% fuel exhaustion are increasingly used as a baseload resource.

And the need to invest in additional US transmission capacity remains if we were to use nuclear power plants in the French load following model, with the same plant changing from load following to baseload use over its fuel consumption cycle.

 

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