Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

I Think We’re Going to Solve Global Warming

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:56 pm, June 3rd, 2017

Several weeks ago I decided that one of this month’s journal entries would be about why I’m optimistic that the problem of climate change is one that the world is going to solve, and the recent announcement from Trump that the US would join Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations not to be a part of the Paris Climate accords makes the subject even more appropriate.

To greatly oversimplify the issue of climate change, solving it means that clean energy needs to be a better option than fossil fuels in terms of cost and reliability. Looking at trendlines for both metrics, it seems that the world is underestimating how soon that tipping point is going to arrive.

Cost

In terms of cost, consider the following:

  • Batteries, key to storing renewable energy, are dropping in price by a rate of about 8% per year, meaning a 60 kw/h battery pack that today is a $13,600 component will cost $5880 in a decade, $2580 in twenty years, and $1080 in thirty years – we are fast approaching the point where the cost of the most expensive component of an electric vehicle is more than offset by the savings from not needing a complex engine or transmission, an exhaust system, or any of the other supporting components of a modern gasoline vehicle. Note that the 8% estimates could even be pessimistic – one study reports that electric vehicle battery pack costs dropped from $1000 per kw/h to $227 per kw/h between 2010 and 2016.
  • Solar power is following a similar trajectory, with costs declining 6-7% per year. A 2015 estimate put the cost of solar at $122 MW/h, vs natural gas at $82 MW/h, and coal at $75 MW/h. At a 7% annual improvement, the cost of solar matches that of coal and natural gas by 2022, and by 2030 solar costs would be just $41 MW/h, half that of natural gas.

The health benefits of reducing air pollution from fossil fuels are an indirect cost, but according to the US Department of Energy:

Achieving the SunShot-level solar deployment targets — 14% of U.S. electricity demand met by solar in 2030 and 27% in 2050 — could reduce cumulative power-sector GHG emissions by 10% between 2015 and 2050, resulting in savings of $238–$252 billion… This could produce $167 billion in savings from lower future health and environmental damages, or 1.4¢/kWh-solar — while also preventing 25,000–59,000 premature deaths.

Reliability

From the standpoint of reliability, the fatal flaw for renewable energy is that it’s only available when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, but cheap batteries allow renewable energy to be stored and used whenever needed, and they also provide huge benefits for the grid. Since its inception the electrical grid has required energy to be used as soon as it is produced, so grid operators have had to execute a complex process for matching output to demand, and also have had to ensure that enough generation is available to match the highest possible load, meaning some power plants exist solely to meet demand on those few summer days when everyone is running their air conditioners. As batteries get cheaper, suddenly that’s no longer the case – instead, you store energy to handle peak loads, generation capacity just has to match average load (so inefficient power plants can be retired), and grid reliability is no longer an issue.

Reliability of cars improve when the system goes electric, too. A gasoline engine is about 20% efficient, the electric motor is closer to 75% efficient. The gasoline engine has belts, pistons, and tons of other moving parts that can fail, the electric motor is essentially a simple shaft wrapped in wires that costs far less to produce. A gasoline car requires a complex, multi-speed transmission, an electric car has a simple, single-speed transmission. A gasoline car uses oil, requires an exhaust system, and has tons of belts and hoses, an electric car has none of those things. Twenty years from now, we’ll wonder why anyone ever put up with regular trips to the mechanic.

Finally, consider home solar. Today we accept that a transformer failure or a fallen tree can mean no power for a few hours, and that a natural disaster can mean power outages for days. However, as solar and batteries drop in price, the grid starts to look kind of crazy – why would anyone pay more to have an unreliable grid connection that requires flimsy high voltage wires to be strung through the neighborhood when a system that can generate power from sunlight and store a few days worth of backup energy is available for the same (or less) money?

Why the future is awesome

The timelines above suggest that within the next twenty years a renewable energy world will beat out fossil fuels on both a cost and reliability basis. Stretch that 30-50 years, and all sorts of interesting possibilities occur – to cite one, desalination is cost-prohibitive because it is energy intensive, but if energy is cheap then a city like Los Angeles, located next to the ocean but forced to import freshwater from hundreds of miles away, could conceivably generate more freshwater than it needs and actually start exporting water to the rest of the state. Citing another interesting possibility, cheap energy might make it feasible to begin scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere, so not only would emissions drop as fossil fuels are phased out, but mankind could actually begin to forcibly remove some of the greenhouse gases that we’ve unleashed.

Leaving the Paris Accords seems like an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound for the country, but the rate of technological advance still gives me great hope that the problems the world faces are going to be overcome, with or without support from America’s political leadership.

3 responses to “I Think We’re Going to Solve Global Warming”

  1. …Solar energy fares little better. Brown again proselytizes for techno- millenarianism with statements like, “There are enough solar thermal resources in the US Southwest to satisfy current US electricity needs nearly four times over.”19 We need not fear for the future, only place our faith in the technological priesthood. But upon deeper investigation, the miracles promised by solar power fall apart like parlor tricks. As with wind, storage and integration make solar generation more useful as a backup energy source then as a prime source. Solar thermal energy costs more than 7.5 times as much as a coal-fired plant.20 Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels could cost thirteen times as much.21 Winter presents an insurmountable problem, leading some, including Brown, to suggest North Africa as the best site for Europe’s electricity. One pithy bumper sticker asks, “How did our oil get under their sand?” The renewables version might ask, “How did our sunlight fall on their land?” This only works morally if, like Brown, you still advocate neoliberal globalization: poor countries should attract capital from the rich, and integrate themselves into global markets by selling whatever “resources” they can.

    But even putting aside the basic issue of justice, the physics renders the scheme unworkable, as it involves enormously long transmission lines, which would include a stretch under the Mediterranean Sea. For Europe, with its more northern location, the presence of both clouds and winter mean that solar power cannot begin to replace fossil fuel levels of energy consumption. In the US, the situation is similar in that the best sites are in the less populated Southwest. To get that power to the population centers would require storage and long lines, with their “parasitic losses, energy costs, transmission losses and the cost of a backup system.”22 Solar thermal has the advantage of energy storage (oil, molten sand, or crushed rock). Right now, the storage can last up to twelve hours. But data shows that cloud cover can last for days even at the best sites, requiring backup capacity. PV systems have the same variability and storage problems as wind. They are also costly. Trainer’s figures show that PV systems, including both household and industrial generators, can take anywhere from 150 to 294 years to pay back costs. He runs through the numbers on a household system and concludes that “if the electricity generated was sold at the same price as coal-fired electricity it would take 452 years to pay these costs.”23 As he states, “These long dollar payback periods indicate the magnitude of the increases in electricity price that would have to be accepted in an economy based solely on renewals.”24 Trainer examines a PV solar option for a 1,000 megawatt PV plant meeting twenty-four-hour demands. Figured for a good location, and assuming hydrogen storage, it could cost as much as thirty-four times that of coal.25 At a certain point, the cost of energy would lead to the collapse of the industrial economy.

    These costs, of course, are all based on the still-cheap energy provided by fossil fuels. Windmills, PV panels, the grid itself are all manufactured using that cheap energy. When fossil fuel costs begin to rise, such highly manufactured items will simply cease to be feasible: sic transit gloria renewables. The elements used in some key technologies—gallium, indium, and tellurium—simply don’t exist in the quantities that would be necessary for PVs to supply any meaningful amount of world electricity consumption. The basic ingredients for renewables are the same materials that are ubiquitous in industrial products, like cement and aluminum. No one is going to make cement in any quantity without the easy energy of fossil fuels: cement is so energy intensive that each pound of it releases a pound of carbon into the atmosphere.
    And aluminum? The mining itself is a destructive and toxic night- mare from which riparian communities will not awaken in anything but geologic time. And like cement, production of aluminum and steel is saturated in embodied energy. These are not ingredients with which we can build a sustainable way of life. Their extraction leaves broken rivers behind them; their refining demands the heat of hell; and their intended usage is for more of the same, the continued consumption of the planet.

    1. The numbers you’ve cited differ significantly from current government and industry estimates – I linked to a few sources in my entry. I may be completely wrong in my assessment of current trends, and the world may end up a charred pile of ash in a century, but based on the numbers I’ve seen with respect to pricing for batteries, solar, and clean energy overall, I am optimistic.

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