Back in 2007, Google assembled a team of engineers to investigate the feasibility of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. The effort ended in 2011 with the conclusion that it can’t be done with existing technology. Two of the engineers on that team wrote about their efforts in Spectrum IEEE.org. Some excerpts from that article:
Google’s boldest energy move was an effort known as RE<C [Renewables less than Coal], which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do. The company announced that Google would help promising technologies mature by investing in start-ups and conducting its own internal R&D.
At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope—but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.
As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.
So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.
We’re glad that Google tried something ambitious with the RE<C initiative, and we’re proud to have been part of the project. But with 20/20 hindsight, we see that it didn’t go far enough, and that truly disruptive technologies are what our planet needs. To reverse climate change, our society requires something beyond today’s renewable energy technologies. Fortunately, new discoveries are changing the way we think about physics, nanotechnology, and biology all the time. While humanity is currently on a trajectory to severe climate change, this disaster can be averted if researchers aim for goals that seem nearly impossible.
The key is that as yet invented sources have to be cheaper than fossil fuels. The problem is that existing scalable low carbon energy sources (nuclear and renewables) are all more expensive than fossil fuels, which I’ve been pointing out for years. They make a stab at explaining why wind and solar are more expensive but trust me, their explanation will largely fall on deaf ears when presented to renewable energy enthusiasts who either don’t want to hear it or are incapable of comprehending it. They argue that subsidies for renewables and nuclear to compete with fossil fuels are essentially a financial penalty to fossil fuels which simply shift their use to another part of the planet (export of oil, gas, and coal, along with manufacturing jobs).
An article in Grist about the same study had a different headline: “How solar can become the world’s largest source of electricity.” From the study:
The hi-Ren requires cumulative investments for power generation of USD 4.5 trillion more than in the 2DS, including notably PV but also wind power and STE (Solar Thermal Energy).
The study also notes that, in theory and given enough time, power systems that don’t burn fossil fuels should eventually pay for themselves with fuel cost savings (which is also a trait of nuclear). See Figure 5 below.CONTINUE»
The argument goes something like this:
Real environmentalist: “We should not allow the destruction of orangutan habitat for palm oil biodiesel!”
Apologist: “In fact by displacing fossil fuels, palm oil biodiesel is helping orangutans, as well as everything else that is alive on the planet! Orangutans are at serious risk due to climate change. Some primate species are forecast to to lose more than 95% of their current ranges!” CONTINUE»
Sam Avro, Energy Trends Insider editor, recently received an inquiry from a reader about the popularity of ethanol free gasoline in the Midwest. Coincidentally, I recently visited Indianapolis and had noticed a large billboard advertising ethanol free gasoline.
I thought I’d share what I found. Much to my surprise, there are about 8,000 gas stations offering ethanol free gasoline and only about 1,200 offering E85 (85 percent ethanol). There are about ten million flex fuel cars on the road designed to burn E85. Assuming a cost of about $100 per car to make it flex fuel, and assuming that about 10% of flex fuel cars actually use E85, this would mean that consumers have paid about nine billion dollars for nothing.
Has anyone else noticed how much a Tesla Model S looks like a Jaguar XF (pictured below)? One of my neighbors drives a Tesla Model S. I was following him down the street a few weeks ago and heard his tires squeak three times in two blocks. Adequate acceleration to maneuver in traffic can enhance overall safety but too much acceleration potential can be dangerous, especially in the wrong hands. Not sure I’d want that temptation.
Tesla is dead on with their promotion of fast charging stations. The ubiquitous 240 volt chargers are next to worthless simply because they take too long. A high voltage fast charger can provide a significant charge in a matter of minutes. I recently deliberately drove my Leaf beyond its range because we needed two cars to get supplies to a wedding. My plan was to stop at a charge station on the way home for a few hours to get enough charge to finish the trip. The rest of the family came home in our Prius.
Provision of an after-market battery pack is another electric car first and an all important step for electric cars to gain greater market share. Leaf owners now have the option to upgrade to a new battery (with new, more heat resistant chemistry) when the old one wears out, or of selling their car and letting someone else put a new battery in it. An electric car with a worn out battery wouldn’t have much resale value if you couldn’t replace the battery. The existence of a reasonably priced battery replacement might stimulate sales by putting at ease any prospective customers concerned about how they would sell their electric car once its battery wore out.
My wife and I recently took a weekend road trip to view the annual shore bird migration along the Washington coast. Because it was along our route, we made a short stop in the town of Satsop.
I’ve gotten four email alerts related to the Keystone XL pipeline from my local chapter of the Sierra Club. They talk about wolves, water quality, and toxins, but other than one reference to the Boreal Forest storing 11 percent of the world’s carbon, they make no mention of climate change. Here’s a sampling:
Russell, can you help? Wolf mothers and cubs are already cowering from helicopters dispatched to shoot them – all in the name of protecting tar sands mining sites.
The image has already been seared into my memory: wolves shot dead from helicopters to keep them away from the mines. I don’t want to see more of them dead, and I’m sure you don’t either.
Wolves are already at risk of being shot, but if Keystone XL is built, their quiet refuge in Canada will be all but decimated.
This spring, the EPA will likely reduce the amount of corn ethanol that must be blended into our fuel supply by about 1.3 billion gallons (for a total of about 13 billion gallons) simply because our transportation system can’t absorb any more of it without exceeding a 10% blend, risking damage to cars. This is called the “10% blend wall.” Unlike beef, or chicken, gasoline, or smart phones, ethanol consumption isn’t consumer driven. In general, because consumers could care less about corn ethanol, fuel blenders also could care less about it except as an economically viable anti-knock additive in more modest quantities. They have to be forced to blend more of it by the government. Unless or until some unforeseen consumer demand arises, mandated blending will be necessary to keep the corn ethanol industry solvent.
And just as importantly, where is future growth going to come from? We can’t use all of our corn crop. This isn’t new technology. We’ve been making moonshine by distilling ethanol from fermented seeds and fruit for thousands of years. CONTINUE»
It makes little sense to be anti-solar energy in this day and age, although it does make sense to do it right. Even solar can be done wrong. Usurping farmland, forest, or pristine desert tortoise habitats for solar should be against the rules.
I was motivated to do this post by a rare, cloudless, 50 degree day in the dead of winter. CONTINUE»