Gates Continues Push for Energy Innovation
Dispatches from the Front Lines of Ecomodernism
Bill Gates is continuing his admirable efforts to promote energy innovation through the recently launched Breakthrough Energy Coalition.
Bill Gates is continuing his admirable efforts to promote energy innovation through the recently launched Breakthrough Energy Coalition.
The fundamental idea behind bioenergy is that it’s carbon-neutral because it releases the carbon that plants absorb when they grow, and thus does not add carbon to the air. Why is this wrong?
It’s a common misunderstanding. Burning biomass of course emits carbon, just like burning fossil fuels. The assumption is that the plant growth to produce that biomass offsets the emissions. But the first requirement for a valid offset, whether for carbon or anything else, is that it is additional. If your employer wants to offset your overtime with vacation, they have to give you additional vacation, not just count the vacation you’ve already earned. Similarly, you can’t count plant growth as an offset if it was occurring anyway. Plant growth can only offset energy emissions if it is additional. Counting plants that would grow anyway is a form of double-counting.
The Breakthrough Institute will honor David MacKay, Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, with the 2016 Breakthrough Paradigm Award in recognition of his excellence in energy and climate change analyses.
This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins.
This is a two-part series on the future prospects of renewables. Read Part 1 here.
In our last post, we offered a survey of the progress made so far in wind and solar deployment at the grid-wide scale throughout the world. An accurate and honest accounting of variable renewable energy (VRE) is essential to our goal of building zero-carbon power systems on a high-energy planet. In this follow-up post, we’ll consider what we can glean from VRE performance and modeling about scaling wind and solar further this century.
This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins.
After decades of incipient growth, it seems that wind and solar power are finally ready for prime time. These two renewable energy resources are growing rapidly and are beginning to move the needle in global energy supplies.
The announcement two weeks ago of Tesla Motor’s cheap new lithium-ion storage batteries set the renewable energy world on its ear. Breathless commentators pronounced them a revolutionary advance heralding cheap, ubiquitous electricity storage that would make solar power a 24/7-power source for the masses. Elon Musk, Tesla’s wunderkind CEO, fed these hopes at the glitzy product launch for the 10 kilowatt-hour (KWh) Powerwall home storage battery.
“You could actually go, if you want, completely off the grid,” he told them. “You can take your solar panels, charge the battery packs, and that’s all you use.”
Last week, Stony Brook professor and economics blogger Noah Smith published a blog post titled “Nuclear will die. Solar will live.” In the post, Smith argues that nuclear power plants are incredibly large, capital-intensive, and complex investments, while solar power “can be installed in large or small batches” and continues to benefit from cost reductions. Smith ties solar’s success to nuclear’s challenges and criticizes Breakthrough Institute for our “anti-solar antipathy.”
Last year, the Breakthrough Institute and ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes released High-Energy Innovation. In the report, my colleagues and I argue that rapidly growing energy demand in emerging economies and increased multilateral investment represent the next great opportunity to accelerate energy innovation.
We contrasted this to a framework embraced over the last few years: the idea that the United States was in a race to capture the jobs and industries associated with clean energy technologies like solar panels, batteries, and advanced nuclear reactors.
If 2013 was the year of hope and change, 2014 will be remembered as the year of the high-energy planet. The “small is beautiful” ethos crumbled as global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions grew faster than ever in recent years, despite the financial crisis, a global recession, and fears of “secular stagnation in the West.
In July of this year, Greenpeace installed a solar/battery microgrid in the village of Dharnai in eastern India. The 100-kilowatt system was designed to provide power for the village’s 2,400 residents, 50 businesses, 2 schools, and other infrastructure. Greenpeace called the project “inspiring,” writing that case studies like Dharnai prove “villages can develop their own clean power and contribute to saving their environment by showing we don’t need to use nuclear, coal or other fossil fuels for energy.”
The growth of natural gas generation in the US power sector has overwhelmingly displaced coal generation, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis of regional power generation data finds. There is little evidence in the aggregate regional power generation data that cheap gas has displaced other low-carbon sources of electricity, such as renewables, nuclear, or hydro. Nor is there evidence that increased gas generation has induced new demand.
Talks at the UNFCCC COP20 in Peru undoubtedly have been buoyed by the recent US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. While the pledges by the two largest players may represent a political breakthrough, a new Breakthrough analysis of China’s energy plans shows there is reason for concern. Despite unprecedented efforts, China will likely replace existing coal consumption with more new coal power generation than that from new nuclear, or from new wind and solar power generation combined.
What is renewable energy?
As a category, renewable energy encompasses a broad range of energy technologies and fuels, ranging from photovoltaic solar cells to the burning of animal dung for fuel in many poor regions of the world. Major sources of renewable energy –– in the rough order of the amount of energy they contribute globally –– include hydroelectric power, wood used for heating, cooking, and electrical generation, bioenergy produced from agricultural crops and waste, wind energy, concentrated solar power generated with mirrors and steam turbines, photovoltaic solar cells, geothermal energy, and tidal energy.
In a new opinion piece for the New York Times, Breakthrough cofounders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus comment on the recent bestowment of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics to the trio of researchers whose work led to the creation of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Shellenberger and Nordhaus commend the researchers for their scientific achievements, but caution against the idea that LEDs will significantly reduce energy consumption, as touted by the Royal Swedish Academy in the award presentation. Shellenberger and Nordhaus conclude:
This week the International Energy Agency updated their technology roadmaps for solar photovoltaics (PV) and solar thermal energy (STE). The bottom line is that significant policy and technological progress are required for solar to play a major role in electricity in the future. With that progress, IEA finds, solar PV could provide as much as 16 percent of global electricity by 2050, with STE providing another 11 percent –– making solar’s collective 27 percent the largest single contributor to global electricity in this IEA scenario.
Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before.
Last Tuesday, energy officials in Saudi Arabia announced plans to become a major nuclear energy state, assuring the reactors would be used only for peaceful purposes (The Nuclear Wire). They intend to move fast, beginning construction by year’s end.
Renewable energy technologies – including solar, wind, hydroelectric, and bioenergy – are essential tools in the path towards modern, low-carbon energy systems. But like all energy technologies, they have significant costs and impacts. Understanding their scalability and effects on the landscape will prove essential in crafting renewable energy innovation policy.
Access to affordable and reliable energy is absolutely essential for human development; but energy production takes a heavy toll on the environment. With demand for energy expected to grow for decades to come as developing nations emerge from poverty, substantial innovation into clean energy technologies will be necessary to achieve our ambitious goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
Have the construction costs and duration of new nuclear builds always increased over time? How did humans move away from hunting whales for oil and lubricants? What will innovation look like in the 21st century given that it is increasingly complex? These are a few of the big questions Breakthrough Generation Fellows 2014 tackled this summer, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research in the areas of energy, environment, and innovation.
Meet Doña Maria (pictured above). She is a mother, housewife, agricultural worker, and shopkeeper, who lives with her two daughters in a rural community located approximately 30 kilometres from Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. Until recently, she was one of 1.4 billion people on this planet without access to electricity.
That was until Doña Maria participated in a program that provided her family with a solar home system (SHS). The SHS means that Doña Maria has electric lighting – she no longer suffers the polluting kerosene lamp or strains her eyes with the low luminescence of a candle. Doña Maria can power a limited number of small devices, which means she does not have to travel to the nearest grid-connected town to recharge her mobile phone.
Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.
Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels.
The Energiewende is the world’s most audacious energy policy experiment and comprises Germany’s biggest infrastructure project since post-Second World War reconstruction. No other national energy policy has attracted such international interest, nor polarized opinions. Energiewende — literally translated as “energy turn” or “energy transition” — has two main elements — a withdrawal from nuclear power and an increase in the use of renewable energy.
In the last few years, there has been a growing consensus among scholars and wonks that the rest of the world will follow the West in living modern lives complete with modern infrastructure, industry, and development. The question is not whether poor countries will develop and lead high-energy lives, but how much more energy they will consume, and how much of it will come from low-carbon sources.
Late last week, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced he would not initiate lawsuits against anyone who uses the patents for Tesla’s technologies. In effect, Tesla’s competitors can now freely take advantage of the company’s designs for sunroofs, vehicle parts, and batteries.
Given Musk’s celebrity status as an inventor, it is no surprise that most of the press has devoted its coverage to analyzing his rationale. On the face of it, letting others openly copy the technologies and ideas you have painstakingly developed doesn’t seem like a sensible business plan. In the long-term, however, Musk’s decision shows how greater knowledge sharing and looser patent regulations could accelerate innovation in the clean tech industry.
“Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options,” the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in the New York Times last year, “just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks.”
This seems like good news for those who envision solar panels powering the future economies of today’s developing countries. The Sierra Club believes that the “hardened and centralized infrastructure of 20th-century power grid” will be unnecessary in countries where little or no infrastructure currently exists. The White House recently announced that $1 billion in Power Africa investments (out of $7 billion for the whole initiative) will be directed at off-grid projects, writing that distributed generation “holds great promise to follow the mobile phone in leapfrogging centralized infrastructure across Africa.”
I’m a big fan of TIME reporter Mike Grunwald and often think that he and Breakthrough are among the only people who really understand that Obama’s signature climate policies are not fuel economy standards or power plant regulations, but the tens of billions invested in clean energy technology and innovation.
If I asked you to think of renewable energy, what comes to mind? I imagine it is skyscraper-sized wind turbines, solar panels on suburban roofs, or massive hydroelectric dams. You probably do not think of burning wood or converting crops to liquid fuel to be used in cars. Yet throughout the world bioenergy remains the biggest source of renewable energy. In fact its growth in the last decade has been greater than or similar to that from wind and solar in most places, and those places include the European Union and the United States of America.
Coal will dominate China’s power landscape for decades to come and is increasing in Southeast Asia’s energy mix as well. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reported that coal will replace natural gas as the dominant power-generating fuel in the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the same time, energy consumption in this region is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that coal will account for approximately 83 percent of electricity production in the Asia-Pacific by 2035. In advance of the 2014 Pacific Energy Forum, NBR spoke with Armond Cohen, Cofounder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, to explore the implications of coal’s growing role in the fuel mix of China and ASEAN countries—as well as India—and assess the tools and policy options available to reduce the environmental impacts.
On March 12, 2014, India and the United States renewed talks regarding cooperation on clean energy. The talks concluded positively with memorandums of understanding for the two countries to cooperate on research and development, more extensive use of environmentally friendly technologies, and greater coordination on scientific development.
It is a positive development that the United States (and many others) are paying attention to India’s energy needs. With a growing middle class and a population of 1.27 billion people, 50 percent of whom are under age 25, India is expected to have some of the fastest growing energy needs that are certain to dramatically impact the global economy and its energy market. With this in mind, here are 5 key things to know about energy in India.
More than one billion people globally lack access to electricity, and billions more still burn wood and dung for their basic energy needs. Our High-Energy Planet, a new report from an international group of energy and environment scholars, outlines a radically new framework for meeting the energy needs of the global poor.
According to the authors, the massive expansion of energy systems, mainly carried out in the rapidly urbanizing global South, is the only robust, coherent, and ethical response to the global challenges we face, climate change among them. The time has come to embrace a high-energy planet, they say.
The Obama administration, the US Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies should encourage and plan for far-higher energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions that rely on burning wood and dung for energy, say a group of international energy and development experts in a new report, Our High-Energy Planet.
The report comes at a time of debate about how to help Africa and other poor nations gain access to electricity. Congress held hearings on Electrify Africa legislation in March, and the Obama administration is currently developing a framework to support increased electrification in Africa.
Virtually all economists working on climate change agree that we should price GHG emissions. Doing so creates an incentive to reduce emissions without the government directing specific technology adoptions or activity changes, that is, without “picking winners.”
Nearly as many economists agree that we should subsidize basic R&D. Doing so accelerates the scientific breakthroughs that will be necessary to avoid even higher concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere. Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t subsidize all basic R&D regardless of how nutty the idea or indirect the connection to GHG reduction. We should subsidize the best ideas, that is, we should pick winners.
The opening of the world's largest solar power station provides an opportunity to take stock of our energy options. Comparison of large solar and small nuclear holds some important lessons for constructing a future that is both energy-rich and decarbonized for around 10 billion people.
I recently had an interesting opportunity to spend a week in Berlin talking to many people about Energiewende, one of the most radical and far-reaching initiatives any affluent economy has undertaken in recent years. The term Die Wende has a gradation of meanings, from a gradual turnaround to a sudden U-turn, and before it became associated with energy, its most common use in German conversations was in reference to the demise of East Germany in 1989. That was, of course, a true U-turn, from dogmatic communism to absorption by liberal Germany. Energiewende cannot be a near instant U-turn — no complex technical infrastructure can be changed that rapidly — but Germany’s new energy goals are bold and truly transformative. Their implementation is also proving to be less than admirable, indeed the process is becoming rather burdensome. Yet most of the people I talked to in Berlin seemed unconcerned, and many were even incredulous or politely hostile when I suggested (always mindful of Andersen’s wise tale) that the king may not be fully clothed.
The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years. The expansion of corn for ethanol in the American Midwest has worsened water pollution and soil erosion, and has had no benefit in terms of reduced emissions. Europe’s biofuels mandate has resulted in a palm oil boom that has devastated the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. And now efforts like those in Germany to burn wood for fuel, known as “biomass,” have been shown to be no better for climate change than coal—and perhaps even worse.
Look at the brochures of just about any environmental organization and what you will see are images of an energy system that appears to lie weightlessly on the land. Solar panels gleam atop suburban homes. Wind turbines sprout from fields where cows graze contentedly. It is a high-tech, bucolic vision that suggests a future in which humankind might finally live in harmony with nature, rather than waging ceaseless war with it.
But there are other images to consider as well. Trees clear-cut, chipped, and fed into boilers. Once diverse forests turned into monocrop plantations. Wild places sent under the plow. And melting ice caps from global warming. This is the underside of renewable bioenergy — biomass, biofuels, and biogases – one that is decidedly at odds with the ethos of pristine eco-friendliness described in the brochures.
In September 2012 Germany's Environment Minister opened a new lignite power plant, arguing the following: “If one builds a new state-of-the-art lignite power plant to replace several older and much less efficient plants, then I feel this should also be acknowledged as a contribution to our climate protection efforts.”
Peter Altmaier is not alone, recently the climate benefits of Germany's new and apparently ultra-efficient coal power plants have been extolled not only by manufacturers such as Siemens and power companies including RWE, but even some of the German nuclear phase-out's most vocal proponents.
Last month Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus released a proposal to replace 42 existing energy tax incentives with two “technology neutral” tax credits, one for electricity fuels and the other for transportation fuels. By embracing natural gas and new nuclear power, Chairman Baucus’ proposal could contribute to a pragmatic climate strategy. But the plan could go even farther by extending incentives to the existing nuclear fleet, where an anticipated decline over the next two decades poses the largest threat to emissions reduction efforts.
The new year brought some deserved celebration of the advance of renewable energy in China, as the government announced nearly 8 gigawatts of wind power additions and 3.6 gigawatts of new solar installed during 2013. But as I’ve previously pointed out, it is important to keep this laudable progress in perspective compared to the still staggeringly large annual increase in new China coal power capacity.
If you read the environmental press, clean tech media, or even the New York Times, you might conclude that America is on the cusp of a distributed generation (DG) revolution. “Solar power and other distributed renewable energy technologies could lay waste to U.S. power utilities and burn the utility business model to the ground,” wrote leading environmental news site Grist last April. “Renewable-energy technologies like solar and wind power,” the Times wrote, are now “challenging the traditional distribution system.”
I’m a pretty big fan of cash transfers. I’ve become convinced that cash is an efficient immediate way to help the poor and very often a better alternative than other standard development interventions like training or building schools. Cash transfers may even be catalytic, giving poor people a floor to invest in business, their children’s health and education, and some breathing space to pursue higher value activities.
For many people who care about the environment, 2013 was a dispiriting year. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. Beijing choked on smog. Policy action on climate, whether at the United Nations or in Washington, appeared more remote than ever.
But in other ways, 2013 was an inspiring year. Declining US carbon emissions from cheap natural gas offered a picture of what climate mitigation looks like in the real world. Top environmental scientists, business leaders, climate advocates, and the world's largest economies embraced nuclear power. And a wide number of “ecomodernists” are coming to embrace an approach to saving nature that is strikingly different from the seventies-era "small-is-beautiful" model.
This past weekend, exhausted diplomats from around the world climbed into fossil fuel–powered airplanes and bade good riddance to Warsaw, Poland. They had spent two weeks holed up in the frigid capital engaging in what has become an annual Kabuki dance over what to do about climate change. Almost exactly as has happened in prior international climate change conferences—gatherings that, like the falling leaves, have become autumnal rites—intonations about a global warming threat were offered, hope for selfless environmental cooperation was expressed, and battles over who should foot the bill were fought. By the time everyone headed for the airport, little of substance had gotten done.
Tucked into his New Yorker column on Congressional filibuster reform, Hendrik Hertzberg admitted his support for the expansion of nuclear energy: “Nuclear power plants have their drawbacks, as we’ve learned from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima,” Hertzberg wrote. “But global warming has changed the picture.” Echoing a recent letter written by four leading climate and energy scientists, which acknowledges the scaling challenges of solar and wind, the New Yorker senior editor argued, “breezes and rays are not enough.” In terms of a realistic alternative to fossil fuels, Hertzberg says, “the nuclear option, though not the best of all possible worlds, is better than the one we’re living in.”
"The long story of human progress is one of continually rising energy consumption," says the Breakthrough Institute's Alex Trembath.
In order to continue the path of human progress, and indeed to extend it to all of the world's inhabitants over the next century, Trembath argues that we need a "high-energy planet."
This idea flies in the face of the conventional environmental movement. Our profligate energy use is our biggest problem, the story goes. So in order to avoid doomsday scenarios, we need to cut back. We all need to live simpler and smaller lives.
Natural gas and nuclear have done more than any other fuel source to displace coal, and have saved the United States 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. In the past five years, natural gas alone has displaced coal and driven the country’s power sector emissions down 20 percent, leading to immense environmental and human health benefits. What follows is a response to Mark Bittman’s dreary diagnosis of natural gas.
Germany’s renewable energy transition, the “Energiewende,” has long been a subject of scorn among conservatives, who have argued that it is a massive ratepayer-subsidized boondoggle that has harmed Germany’s economy and imposed significant regressive costs on poor and working class energy consumers. But the last several months have seen growing skepticism about the Energiewende from the center-left as well. Both Der Spiegel and the Wall Street Journal have published lengthy investigative pieces raising troubling questions about the costs and the environmental benefits of Germany’s headlong pursuit of an all-renewable energy future. Even left-leaning Dissent Magazine recently published a long expose about the failure of the Energiewende to reduce carbon emissions, concluding that Germany’s enormous investments in renewables, together with plans to phase out its nuclear fleet, would cost the nation a generation in the fight against global warming.
Nuclear provided America with about 180 times more energy than solar last year, and is one of our cheapest, safest baseload sources of zero-carbon energy, and yet New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman insists that solar and other renewables are better positioned than nuclear to replace coal. This post debunks Bittman's column.
California has spent two times more on subsidies for solar than nuclear, measured on a per-kilowatt basis, according to a new Breakthrough analysis. The finding challenges a new analysis from DBL investors, which compares nuclear to solar subsidies without accounting for the fact that nuclear generates far more electricity than solar. Comparing subsidies on a dollar-per-kWh basis is more appropriate because it gives a sense of relative effectiveness of subsidies at providing services to society, in this case electricity provision.
The 21st century will almost certainly witness a transition to an overwhelmingly urban human population, and – hopefully – a low-carbon energy system. The former scenario, however, will have a significant impact on the latter because a fundamentally urban species cannot be powered locally.
The continued, and essentially unabated, accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may at times render considerations of the requirements of a decarbonized energy system appear somewhat self indulgent, but I must ask the reader to indulge me, and at a little length.
A few weeks ago, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates published his personal summer reading list on his blog Gates Notes. Of the eight titles, two are by the same author, a Canadian professor emeritus you’ve probably never heard of: Vaclav Smil.
“I’m trying to read everything he writes, but he publishes so quickly that I can’t keep up,” Gates writes of Smil on his blog.
Through much of 2012, the Energiewende, Germany’s pioneering effort to construct an energy system around renewables while simultaneously phasing out nuclear power and cutting carbon emissions, was on a roll. Plunging prices and eye-popping production figures for wind and solar power seemed to fulfill all the visionary prognostications. Germany shrugged off the shuttering of nearly half its nuclear plants without a backward glance: not only did it not suffer the predicted power shortages, it boosted electricity exports. Renewable power pushed market prices down and threatened to drive gas- and coal-burning power plants into bankruptcy. The press and the green blogosphere celebrated passed benchmark after shattered milepost, including the day in May when, according to Treehugger.com’s headline, “Half of Germany Was Running on Solar Power.”
In the last month, the Breakthrough Institute has published two major reports that inject fresh and pragmatic perspective to the discourse on climate and energy. In contrast to the binary and simplistic conception of decarbonization that imagines a step-wise shift from fossil fuels to exclusively renewable technologies, we have aimed to simultaneously place the role of natural gas in the broader process of decarbonization and chart a new path for nuclear energy innovation. These two goals are neither replacements nor antecedents for continued support for renewable energy, but they do and should complicate dialogues over how best to transition to a high-energy, zero-carbon planet.
In 2007, when Ted Nordhaus, the co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, published his first book (Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility) he became simultaneously one of the most despised and one of the most revered figures in the U.S. environmental movement. The book, coauthored by Michael Shellenberger, was a seething indictment of the sort of traditional environmentalism that prizes renewable energy, condemns fracking and nuclear plants, and threatens global apocalypse should we fail to address climate change. Five years later, he hasn’t backed down. What follows is an edited interview based on two recent conversations with Nordhaus.
Germany’s massive investment in distributed and renewable electricity, known as the Energiewende (energy transition), is often heralded as the shining example for climate change action. Many use it as evidence that wind and solar photovoltaics are mature, scalable, off-the-shelf, cost-effective, and market disruptive technologies. Germany's impressive wind and solar deployment in recent years has been used by activists in the environmental community, as well as governments, to argue against the need for investment in other zero carbon energy sources, particularly nuclear and other centralized forms of energy.
The case for solar energy as a near term alternative to fossil energy hangs largely upon the view that the costs of solar energy have come down rapidly in recent years and will continue to do so in the coming years. But a close examination of where and why solar costs appear to be declining casts doubt on those claims. Solar module prices have dropped substantially in recent years. But much of the decline in recent years has been due to Chinese overproduction and dumping. Installed costs of solar systems have come down dramatically in Germany. But a significant portion of the cost declines experienced in Germany that the rest of the world hopes to emulate are from non-module “soft” costs. As Germany’s rooftop solar installation industry has scaled up, costs related to permitting, installation, and supply chains have declined, but these cost reductions have not proven transferable across national borders.
Over the past couple of weeks there's been more than a little crowing about Australia's one millionth rooftop solar installation amid the long running genuflection at what has been called Germany's solar miracle.
If one city epitomizes China’s role as cheap manufacturer for the world, it’s Wuxi, a sprawling metropolis of more than 4.5 million people a short bullet-train ride northwest of Shanghai. Out beyond the old town, with its ancient temples and canals, much of modern Wuxi is a massive industrial park, a seemingly endless grid of wide, straight roads fronting squat factories bearing the names of international brands: Epson, Nikon, Panasonic.
Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than three-quarters of the population is without electricity, will soon be lit up — or that’s the promise of governments building a host of new hydroelectric schemes across the continent. These projects are an attempt to keep up with the rising power demand from Africa’s economic boom. But the trouble is that, like the boom, the power seems destined to benefit only small industrial and urban elites. For the rest of Africa’s billion inhabitants, this investment looks unlikely to further UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s goal of “sustainable energy for all.”
The retirement of two nuclear reactors at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California, announced Friday, is expected to increase state carbon emissions by at least 8 million metric tons annually, the equivalent of putting 1.6 million new passenger vehicles on the road, according to a Breakthrough Institute analysis.
Nobody who has paid attention to what's happened to solar panels over the last several decades can help but be impressed. Prices declined an astonishing 75 percent from 2008 to 2012. In the United States, solar capacity has quintupled since 2008, and grown by more than 50 times since 2000, according to US Energy Information Administration data. In 1977, solar panels cost $77 per watt. Today, they are less than a dollar per watt.
No technology is more enshrouded in myth than nuclear energy. The urgency of addressing global poverty and reducing emissions demands that we consider this technology without ideological blinders. The basic facts of the technology — both good and bad — must be confronted. This Breakthrough Institute Frequently Asked Questions is backed by primary sources and addresses the toughest questions asked of nuclear.
Germany’s solar program will generate electricity at quadruple the cost of one of the most expensive nuclear power plants in the world, according to a new Breakthrough Institute analysis, raising serious questions about a renewable energy strategy widely heralded as a global model.
After clear warnings from scientists more than 20 years ago, the issues of human-caused climate change and fossil-fuel-dominated energy should be on the way into the environmental history books. Sadly, they’re not, which is why we need a new global movement of nuclear support.
Over the last few decades, humans achieved one of the most remarkable victories for social justice in the history of the species. The percentage of people who live in extreme poverty — under $1.25 per day — was halved between 1990 and 2010. Average life expectancy globally rose from 56 to 68 years since 1970. And hundreds of millions of desperately poor people went from burning dung and wood for fuel (whose smoke takes two million souls a year) to using electricity, allowing them to enjoy refrigerators, washing machines, and smoke-free stoves.
Do the math: simply repeating 2011’s renewable installations for three additional years, through 2014, would thus displace Germany’s entire pre-Fukushima nuclear output.
Or so claims Amory Lovins in a new piece about renewable energy in Germany. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the level of nuclear power in Germany will recognize this claim is utter nonsense within about two seconds. However, since Lovins appears incapable, or unwilling, to do the basic arithmetic, let’s do it here. A couple minutes on Google can find a summary of German solar and wind installations in 2011:
All of the evidence in Gilding’s piece is pulled together to support his premise of imminent renewable revolution as part of global mobilization against climate change, while any and all countervailing evidence is blinkered out. He references the headline from a Bloomberg article regarding new renewables in Australia now being cheaper than coal. This headline’s claim and the work underpinning it was demolished in a critique by me and Tristan Edis of Climate Spectator, both of us (but the latter in particular) being supporters of renewables having a role in the changes to come. But Gilding took the Bloomberg piece at face value, along with everything else. His article managed to talk about winning the climate crisis seemingly on the back of wind and solar. There was no mention of biomass, energy storage or, you guessed it, nuclear power. So I picked up Gilding’s book with trepidation to check his treatment of nuclear power in Chapter 12. It began promisingly:
I’m simply advocating a careful rational discussion about the opportunities open to us, and an intelligent debate about the alternatives, in the context that a failure to change will have consequences.
Gas is leaking from pipes beneath New York City and Bill McKibben has confidently informed us that this is simply more evidence that the climate benefits of shale gas are much worse than many claim. Unfortunately the only real message from the article is that Bill McKibben is rather selective about evidence when it comes to fracking and that his apparent willingness to “do the math” on climate change does not transfer over very well to the rather important question of where we get our energy from.
Climate activists amassed an impressive army to march on Washington against the Keystone XL pipeline and the dirty oil it would bring from Canada to U.S. refineries and world energy markets. In this fight, however, a relatively small volume of carbon-dioxide emissions is at stake -- the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that those from Keystone amount to a mere 0.2 percent of the “carbon budget” that scientists say we need to shrink in order to avoid catastrophic warming.
We’re losing the race against global warming. Worldwide coal production increased about eight times faster than solar- and wind-power generation last year. China added more new coal plants in 2011 than are running in Texas and Ohio, even as it leads the world in wind-power capacity. Meanwhile, the United States is only modestly cutting carbon emissions by transitioning from coal to natural gas, which is still a carbon-rich fuel.
My recent post about the costs of Germany’s policy of subsidizing solar energy inspired predictable attacks by true believers in a future powered by solar energy. I was criticized for citing the German magazine Spiegel, a center-right popular magazine. Well, I cited Spiegel for certain facts, and if you don’t believe Spiegel, perhaps you will believe the reputable environmentalist writer Mark Lynas, whose sources are German government statistics. (And if you think Lynas is discredited because he supports GMOs and nuclear energy, even as he thinks global warming is real and dangerous, then you cannot be reasoned with.)
In response to our last blog post about how celebrity fracktivists have reversed the longstanding support of national environmental organizations for a coal-to-gas switch, the Environmental Defense Fund's climate and energy communications director Keith Gaby wrote us to say we had taken Fred Krupp's position on gas out of context.
During the Cold War, the radical anti-capitalist left (a group quite distinct from mainstream capitalism-taming liberals) was perpetually searching for a country that would prove by example the viability of socialism, defined as government ownership of all industry and major enterprises. The socialists in the West who had not already soured on the Soviet Union mostly turned against it by the mid-1950s, following revelations about Stalin’s atrocities. From that point until the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, the dwindling numbers of true believers claimed to find a successful socialist experiment in one country after another: Mao’s China, Tito’s Yugoslavia, Castro’s Cuba, even, for a time among, some Western militants in the early 1970s, North Korea. They didn’t deny that these countries had certain, ahem, problems—police-state repression and mass exoduses by fleeing citizens, among other minor defects. But they wanted to believe that, whatever its faults, the utopia du jour proved that you could successfully run a modern economy along the lines of Marxist-Leninist theory.
Coal electricity declined by 12.5 percent in 2012, mostly driven by the switch to natural gas, which increased by almost the exact same amount (217 terrawatt-hours) as coal declined (216 TWh), according to new annual numbers released by the US Energy Information Administration.
My conclusion so far is that unfortunately Germany’s ‘renewables revolution’ is at best making no difference to the country’s carbon emissions, and at worst pushing them marginally upwards. Thus, tens (or even hundreds, depending on who you believe) of billions of euros are being spent on expensive solar PV and wind installations for no climatic benefit whatsoever.
Although I have been unable to find clear figures for the changing CO2 intensity of German electricity (if anyone has them, please post in the comments below), nuclear’s fall of 1.7% almost exactly equals the rise in renewables of 1.6% between 2011 and 2012. This means that the dramatic and admirable increase in renewable generation in Germany is simply a story of low-carbon baseload from nuclear being replaced by low-carbon intermittent supply from wind and solar (which, incidentally, also raises system costs by making the grid harder to manage due to intermittency).
A few years ago, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology was seen as the best way to clean up coal and cut carbon emissions. And Europe was seen as the expected leader in the field. But instead, reports the science journal Nature, Europe has fallen behind North America in the race to create systems that separate carbon dioxide from exhaust gases.
And what’s worse, Europe is increasingly turning to coal, the most polluting of all sources of electricity. In some European countries, reports The Economist, the amount of coal-generated electricity is rising by up to 50% a year, at annualized rates. Ironically, some experts say CCS is the only way to eliminate coal emissions.
The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. But demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.
Does renewable energy need to be backed up by fossil fuels? The answer is yes, at least until large scale methods of energy storage are invented. However, the question is one that I would argue is uninformative. A more relevant question is: Can renewable energy supply electricity when demand is at its highest?
Clean energy is at a crossroads. Thanks to public investments in the United States, Germany, China, and elsewhere, solar, wind, and battery technologies have improved significantly and become cheaper over the last five years. Yet renewables are still not as cheap as fossil fuels. Moreover, many of these investments, including wind's crucial production tax credit, are at risk of expiration or have already lapsed. Meanwhile, innovations in the production of natural gas are displacing coal, generating billions of dollars in consumer energy savings, and becoming the energy leader that few foresaw.
What then is the future of clean energy? Congress remains deeply divided over renewables, but President Obama has defended his clean tech investments and says energy innovation remains a high priority. Senate Energy Committee Chairs Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have expressed optimism that they can reach bipartisan agreement on new energy legislation. And natural gas and nuclear energy — two long-standing clean energy outliers — have received renewed attention due to possible inclusion in a clean energy standard. Never before has a clear-eyed assessment of emergent clean energy technologies been more important.
The Breakthrough Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation are excited to invite you to join us for Energy Innovation 2013, our third annual conference taking place the morning of January 29, 2013, at the JW Marriott down the street from the White House.
We hear a lot about energy research and development. Perhaps that's because it's the one sort of policy that Republicans and Democrats generally agree on. But there's a different kind of research that I'd like to see get a lot more attention and funding. I'm talking about research into what various kinds of energy policies actually *do* to shape the technical possibilities open to humanity.
In my time researching energy, most of the people who actually care about where we get our energy from have committed to an energy source, be it oil, gas, traditional nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, or thorium. Then, they go looking for policies that would benefit their technology. I've also run into a lot of people who believe in inexorable laws of change in energy, whether that's decarbonization or the inevitable rise of natural gas or nuclear power. And I've run into a lot of energy experts who believe in a fairly simple relationship between research money going in and technologies coming out.
Unfortunately, none of these three groups of people is likely to produce very good energy policy. To put it in more mainstream terms, we've got a lot of energy pundits and very few energy Nate Silvers, who put reality (i.e. good data) ahead of ideology and intuition. Don't get me wrong: everyone in energy loves them some data, but few people are interested in using it the way Silver does.
The argument that increased urban density has very significant climate benefits has been well made by Edward Glaeser, David Owen and others. The US writer Alex Steffen has joined the ranks of those with books out arguing for promoting density, with the view that we simply cannot reduce emissions enough through low carbon energy alone. Urban density will do the trick. He appears to believe that cities can reduce energy use by 90%, but only seems to provide hand waving explanations of how this is possible.
However, a statement he made in a recent interview to The Atlantic is reflective of a common problem with solutions to climate change: the unwillingness to do basic arithmetic. He says:
For example if you have a more distributed energy system, you can have the energy system in one neighborhood go down, and energy systems in other neighborhoods remain unaffected. By distributing things, you make it possible for disaster to strike, and not have everything go down if something fails.
Now, presumably Steffen doesn’t have neighborhoods being powered by small modular reactors or gas plants with CCS in mind. So, he must somehow believe that neighborhoods can be powered entirely by local renewables, with perhaps some yet to be invented storage technology providing back up. A fundamental problem is that his vision of high urban density and localized energy production are in conflict.
Consider New York City. This city certainly fits the category of high urban density. However, think about what would happen if New York tried to power itself entirely from renewables within city limits: constant blackouts. This is a simple consequence of its high population density and the laws of physics. An author such as Steffen who claims to have thought deeply about climate change, urbanization and energy really ought to be aware of this. So, why can New York not power itself from local renewables?
Germany appears intent on doing three things faster than almost any developed country: expanding renewable power, closing nuclear power plants, and building new coal power plants. The first two are much praised by those who drink the Energiewende Kool Aid, while the third is often treated as some kind of myth by the same people. Germany’s Environment Minister however recognizes it is not a myth, but appears to believe in magic instead.
The energy debate is shifting. With wind, nuclear and CCS (carbon capture and storage) trade associations in the United Kingdom issuing their first-ever joint statement, the political tectonic plates of climate change have begun subtly to move.
But it is a risky strategy. Many of those who defend wind power from attacks by Nimbies and rightwing Tories are ardent opponents of nuclear power, for example.
The three trade associations clearly risk losing core supporters by this temporary pooling of lobbying resources.
But the fact they are taking this risk is a sign that all three see vastly greater danger in the current attacks in the media and the Conservative Party against the entire decarbonization agenda.
Japan has proposed to phase out nuclear power by 2040 in reaction to last year's Fukushima Daiichi incident, drawing cheers from many environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists. Japan's turn from nuclear, however, means the country will use more fossil fuels, resulting in greater amounts of harmful emissions and all the costs to public health and the environment such a path entails.
Carbon taxes like the ones being proposed by current and former member of Congress are unlikely to increase the deployment of zero-carbon energy technologies and would only modestly increase the incentive for utilities to shift from coal to gas, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis finds. Absent continued Congressional authorization of existing low-carbon energy subsidies, the price incentive for the deployment of zero-carbon energy sources would decline by between 50 to 80 percent.
Political hopeful Joseph Kennedy III has endorsed the nation’s first offshore wind project in a courageous move signaling a generational break with his elders. Cape Wind has faced years of opposition from the late Senator Ted Kennedy and prominent environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., who claimed the windmills would threaten the natural beauty of Nantucket Sound. But in a display of integrity and vision, the 31-year-old congressional candidate said he viewed the decision as one of the “hard choices” required by the clean energy transition.
Replacing large-scale fossil fuel energy production with zero-carbon sources will come with a big price tag. Yet compared with the other available options -- especially wind and solar -- nuclear is our best bet. High capital costs are simply a reminder that we can’t have something for nothing, least of all major new infrastructure. The ability to generate zero-carbon baseload power for decades to come is a public good worthy of limited government support.
The federal production tax credit for wind energy (PTC) should be extended -- and reformed. The debate over the fate of the PTC, whether to extend in its current form or allow it to expire outright on December 31 of this year, is not without nuance. Opponents of the credit argue that energy sources should be cost competitive without subsidy -- a reasonable concern. Proponents of extension argue, also correctly, that all major sources of energy generation have received significant federal support for development and deployment. Reorienting the credit to prioritize innovation and cost declines caters to both camps, by extending the credit and making it smarter.
"Public investments have paid off - and garnered massive private investments to grow the sector. Clean tech was one of the few sectors to add jobs during the Great Recession, and significant gains were made in the cost and performance of clean energy technologies, especially in wind and solar generation."
Clean tech is stuck at an inflection point. On the one hand, clean energy technologies like wind and solar remain too expensive for power markets to adopt broadly on their own without subsidy. On the other hand, governments have become increasingly sensitive to the weight of clean tech subsidies on public budgets. Deployment is growing faster than costs are dropping.
In April, we offered a solution to the obstacles standing in the way of full clean tech commercialization. In "Beyond Boom and Bust" -- a report we co-authored with Mark Muro at the Brookings Institution and Letha Tawney at the World Resources Institute -- we propose policy reforms that prioritize innovation and cost declines for advanced clean energy technologies. Yesterday, the Washington Post embraced our recommendations, noting specifically that subsidies for the American wind market should be re-oriented to encourage cost improvements.
The endorsement followed congressional testimony on the role of government in energy innovation delivered last month by Breakthrough Institute Energy and Climate Policy Director and report co-author Jesse Jenkins before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The Post expressed concern about the impending expiration of the federal production tax credit for wind (PTC), but said the proper solution is not to adopt a simple extension of the 20-year old subsidy.
"More clean energy is good," the Post said. "Achieving it with crude policy is not." As we wrote in our report, temporary subsidies without smart and dynamic incentives for innovation induce a cycle of boom-and-bust in emerging clean energy markets. The PTC, which will lapse at the end of the year, provides a blunt 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour tax credit without any policy criteria for cost reductions or technological innovation.
The Post said our report "offered plenty of ways to design subsidies that encourage less expensive renewables. Subsidy levels should decline over time, they could be set in an auction or they could be determined by the cheapest players in the market, stimulating improvement."
The findings and recommendations of our new report "Beyond Boom and Bust" continue to generate a healthy discussion.
The report, widely acclaimed and recently endorsed by the New York Times, is the feature of this week's Energy Experts forum at the National Journal. The forum, hosted by Journal reporter Amy Harder, posed the question "Boom and Bust: Renewable Energy's Future?" The report, which we co-authored with experts at the Brookings Institution and the World Resources Institute, has prompted a lively and diverse exchange, with insightful input coming from industry representatives, policy analysts, and government officials, including "Beyond Boom and Bust" co-authors Alex Trembath and Mark Muro, Pew Clean Energy Program Director Phyllis Cutino, and Department of Energy Loan Program Director Richard Kauffman.
Below we've pasted the contribution from Breakthrough energy and climate policy analyst Alex Trembath, who argues that the clean tech sector's recent successes combined with the looming subsidy cliff demand a reform of federal clean energy policy that prioritizes innovation, cost declines, and competitive markets.
Click here to view the entire National Journal Energy Experts Forum "Boom and Bust: Renewable Energy's Future?"