|Figure 1 NREL Study Results|
David Roberts has recently published two new somewhat obtuse energy articles:
- Solar power is already saving lives in the US. Here's how
- Utilities fighting against rooftop solar are only hastening their own doom
Like any study, it has its biases, and like any study, the results are largely the result of assumptions chosen. Read The 44% Nuclear, 35% Renewables, 21% Natural Gas Low Carbon Grid and Bounding the Renewables-Nuclear Debate (also see Figure 1).
When talking about water use, they assumed that concentrated solar will use dry-cooled technology (which uses an order of magnitude less water than a typical wet-cooled system). Why would the authors conclude that only solar would do that when there are no laws in place mandating it and if there were laws, why would they not apply to other power systems?
And because nuclear has no more emissions than solar, shouldn't the title have ended with "When Compared to Coal and Natural Gas ...But Not Nuclear?" Nuclear's environmental impact as far as water is concerned is no worse than solar thermal and much, much, less than hydro.
And when it comes to impacting wildlife, the Ivanpah solar thermal power station (killing about 14 birds a day on average and built on intact desert tortoise habitat) is far worse than even coal per unit energy.
The study claims that solar will have saved Americans about $660 billion dollars in health care costs (thanks to emissions reductions) by 2050 (assuming a 27% penetration by then).
If true, that means nuclear, which has been displacing coal for over half-a-century, has already saved a lot more than that. Interesting that you never see the likes of Roberts, the NRDC, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, or the UCS making this point about nuclear.
The study also claims that solar is already saving the equivalent of about 5¢/kWh in annual environmental and health (clean air) benefits, which seems to defy common sense considering that solar in the U.S. makes up only roughly 0.4 percent of total energy consumption at this point in time.
But again, if true, that means nuclear has been saving you the equivalent of about 5¢/kWh for decades already.
Missing from the study are life cycle environmental costs. See Figure 2 and read Are we headed for a solar waste crisis?
And if you think his first article was not particularly insightful, he takes it to another level in the next one titled Utilities fighting against rooftop solar are only hastening their own doom--Batteries are going to make rooftop solar invulnerable.
The article is based on an analysis by McKinsey & Company.
Disconnecting from your electrical utility would be a lot like disconnecting from your water or sewer utility in that you would be wholly responsible for the expense and time-consuming hassle of building and maintaining your own well and septic systems. Solar panel systems, especially with storage, are not maintenance free, or cheap (feasibility varies wildly by location). And if you don't believe me, go get an estimate to install a system large enough to displace all of your electricity use.
And if you don't put a new roof on at the same time you install them, you'll find yourself paying a small fortune to have them removed and then reinstalled when you put a new roof on later. And finally, once the net metering subsidy fades away, the panels will very likely never pay themselves off (see Figure 5).
As they get cheaper, batteries make sense for more commercial applications. As new markets for storage grow, demand for batteries increases. As demand increases, economies of scale kick in and batteries get cheaper. Rinse, repeat.This pretty much goes without saying for just about anything, until the cost finally flattens out. Things like water heaters, cars, and dishwashers are no longer getting cheaper. But regardless, batteries run up against the laws of thermodynamics in that charging and discharging them will always incur a roughly 20%-30% energy and therefore financial penalty. If the energy you used to charge them cost you $100, the cost of the energy from the battery may be roughly $130. And batteries require the use of a charging system, which adds to system costs as well.
The whole analysis is interesting, but I want to focus in on the way batteries will affect rooftop solar. Across the country, intense battles are being waged as utilities push back against the rapid spread of rooftop solar. The existential crisis they hoped to avoid by slowing rooftop solar is going to slam into them twice as hard once batteries enter the picture.Riiiight, so why no "intense battle" when Germany finally reduced its solar subsidies? See Figure 5.
|Figure 5: TWh/year Source 2017 BP Statistical Review|
This "intense battle" is his framing of the inevitable resistance from solar panel owners and the solar industry to the end of net metering and feed-in subsidies. Subsidies are meant to be temporary government assists to test the economic waters of different ideas. The electric car subsidy is a simple example, and one day, it will have to end because it is a transfer of wealth from those without electric vehicles (or solar panels) to those who have them. I capitalized on that subsidy when I bought my electric car and may do it again before it ends.
Solar has been added to grids by politicians, not engineers. Scrambling to accommodate them has been the job of engineers, not politicians. Imagine being in charge of an enormous, complex machine (the grid) that has to reliably provide all power demanded 24 hours a day when one day, consumers incentivized by massive subsidies begin to randomly install panels that sporadically add energy to the grid at the whim of the weather. We have friends in Maui who are not allowed to add solar to their home because the network can't handle it, but in David's eyes, it's because the evil utility is attacking rooftop solar.
Batteries, McKinsey reveals, are going to scramble those battles, making them effectively unwinnable for utilities. Cheap batteries neuter utility attacks on rooftop solar.Riiiight ...attacks on rooftop solar. The McKinsey report says no such thing. What McKinsey actually said:
The grid is a long-lived asset that is expensive to build and maintain. Fixed fees for grid access are unpopular with consumers, and regulators are therefore not particularly keen on them, either. However, imposing fixed fees could ensure that everyone who uses the grid pays for it.In other words, even with solar panels on your roof, you are still going to pay a significant monthly charge just to be connected to the grid. The less electricity you buy, the higher your grid fee.
People are used to paying for the energy they use. But as more and more customers generate their own energy, the access to the grid for reliability and market access becomes more valuable than the electrons themselves.
Dave found a conspiracy theory on the internet many years ago that, in his eyes, explains why, in his eyes, all utilities everywhere resist renewable energy projects. It appears over and over again in his articles. It's in this article if you're curious. In a nutshell, they resist them in the quest for profitability ...not unlike why solar and wind farms are built in the first place. Nobody knows the meaning of profitability better than Warren Buffet who once said:
I will do anything that is basically covered by the law to reduce Berkshire’s tax rate,” Buffett told an audience in Omaha, Nebraska this weekend. “For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.Dave continues:
That’s because batteries allow customers to circumvent utilities’ two primary tools for slowing the spread of solar.Riiight ...slowing the spread of solar. Except, again, McKinsey says no such thing. They suggest the following:
This [batteries] presents a risk for widespread partial grid defection, in which customers choose to stay connected to the grid in order to have access to 24/7 reliability, but generate 80 to 90 percent of their own energy and use storage to optimize their solar for their own consumption.Because consumers still very much need the utility to provide grid services, they will have to be charged for them regardless of how much electricity they buy.
McKinsey goes on to say:
Full grid defection—that is, completely disconnecting from the centralized electric-power system—is not economical today. At current rates of cost declines, however, it may make sense in some markets earlier than anyone now expects. Of course, economics alone will not dictate how much and when customers choose to disconnect from their utilities. For example, another important factor is confidence in the reliability of their on-site power.Translation: Some day, in very sunny places with mild climates near the equator, where there are no seasonal storage requirements, some people may start to disconnect from the grid by installing panels, batteries, a charging system, and for periodic spates of cloudy, rainy days that would exceed their battery capacity, a generator (see Figure 6). For everyone else, there will always be that government regulated cooperative called utilities run by experts capturing the economy of scale for the lowest possible prices.
Below are links to other articles where I do a form of peer review for some of David's articles because VOX isn't interested in promoting public discussion of their content under that content in comment fields.
David Roberts Asks, "Is 100% Renewable Energy Realistic?"--Part 1
David Roberts Asks, "Is 100% Renewable Energy Realistic?"--Part 2
David Roberts Thinks "Solar is Winning"--Still Antinuclear
David Roberts on Illinois Passes Huge, Bipartisan Energy Bill--Still Antinuclear
David Roberts concedes that the progress of wind and solar have been over hyped ...blames television
DavidRoberts of Vox, on Exploiting "Clean Energy (whatever that is)" Rifts
DavidRoberts on Coal Company Environmental Remediation
DavidRoberts of Vox (formerly of Grist) -- Not "Pro-nuclear"