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Thursday, October 27, 2016

IEA Renewable Energy Medium-Term Report 2016

I received an invitation from the IEA (International Energy Association) to participate in a WebEx presentation of their Renewable Energy Medium-Term Report 2016 (a five year market analysis and forecast), which was at 9:00 PM Paris time ...arrrgh, 6:00 AM my time. I also received an embargoed PDF of their report, not to be released until October 25th. The PowerPoint presentation was given by Paolo Frankl, head of the IEA Renewable Energy Division. I took several screenshots of the presentation as well.

In a nutshell:
Figure 1: Screenshot From the Presentation--Renewable Energy Capacity Additions

 Some things to note about Figure 1:
  • Most growth in renewable energy has been in wind and solar, wind in particular.
  •  Shows capacity, not actual energy production.
I tend to read between the lines of studies to ferret out what the researchers chose not to highlight. If you want to see what they chose to highlight and how they chose to do it, here's the link to it.

In the end it's energy production that counts, capacity, not so much. Installing solar panels in a cave will increase installed capacity but produce no power. Actual production for solar might be something like 10-15% of capacity and for wind, about 20-30%. A solar panel in Seattle will produce a fraction of the energy of a solar panel in a sunny place, ditto for wind. If Figure 1 were to plot actual energy produced instead of capacity, it would look very different in both magnitude and shape.

I created Figure 2 below using data from the 2016 BP statistical review and an IPCC Assessment report to put the impact of wind and solar into perspective. I wanted to put it into perspective to demonstrate that wind and solar alone are very unlikely to get us to an 80% reduction in emissions.

Keep in  mind that emissions displaced depend on energy source displaced. If hydro or nuclear were displaced, emissions actually increase. If natural gas is displaced, emissions will drop but natural gas emits a lot less carbon than coal. Wind and solar rarely displace coal because coal is primarily used for baseload. Claims that wind and solar have replaced coal are actually the result of switching from coal to gas so that it can dampen erratic wind and solar output. Typically, wind and solar serve as fuel reduction devices for natural gas power stations which limits their ability to reduce emissions, particularly from coal.

Figure 2: Total Global GHG Emissions in Million Tonnes CO2 Abated by Wind and Solar
Typically you see bar charts that paint solar and wind in a more favorable light.
  • They may show installed capacity instead of power output.
  • They may chart growth rates as opposed to percentages of emissions abated.
  • They may show power output instead of emissions abated.
  • They may only compare their abatement to emissions from electricity production as opposed all sources of emissions (deforestation, heat, transport etc).
  • The chart may not start at zero, making their contribution appear much larger, and on and on it goes.
When put into perspective, the wind and solar revolution looks more like a flea circus when it comes to total global emissions reductions. Figure 2 shows why the team of Google engineers assembled to find a way to produce electricity cheaper than coal concluded that we don't have the needed weapons:

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.

This IEA report is about renewable energy and was published by the Renewable Energy Division, but what does renewability have to do with climate change? One might argue that because renewable energy sources tend to be low carbon, the terms low-carbon and renewable are essentially synonymous. But some renewable energy sources are less renewable than others (hydro and geothermal) and some can be as bad as fossil fuels when it comes to emissions (some biofuels and biomass), and one non-renewable energy source is lower carbon than almost any renewable energy source (nuclear energy).

This emphasis on the renewability of energy supply needs to end if we really think climate change will spell the end of the world as we know it ...and that we stand a chance of preventing it. A lot of people have been convinced that renewable energy is all we need to make everything right and that we are making meaningful progress in fighting climate change with just wind and solar. Look at Figure 2 again.

After the presentation, I asked Frankl to define the term "clean energy" which he had used a few times (it was also used and defined in the report). He confirmed that it included nuclear energy, which opened the door for another participant to ask Frankl's opinion about the closing of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power station in California. Frankl politely reminded the caller that this report was about renewable energy (ignores humanity's main source of low-carbon energy) but did go on to say that when nuclear is dropped, the grid will require:
  • More control of energy demand (regulations dictating when electricity can be used).
  • More storage.
I'm assuming that would be to keep emissions from rising (due to the increased use of the gas needed to back up more wind and solar). Note that rate payers don't like being told when they can dry their laundry and there is no new economical storage technology on the near horizon

I created Figure 3 to summarize the findings of a major study by ADME,which guided France in their decision to go for a 50% nuclear, 35% renewables grid by 2025. It found that, in theory, the operational costs of a mostly nuclear grid in 2050 would be nearly identical to a 100% renewable grid (the baseline scenario verses the 40% renewables scenario in Figure 3):

Figure 3: Results of ADME Study
What Figure 3 doesn't show (and the study did not attempt to calculate) is the cost to build the 100% renewable grid. Figure 4 below demonstrates that, contrary to popular opinion, in the long run, the cost to build renewables is, on average, higher than for nuclear:

Figure 4: 2015 Cost to Build for Nuclear, Wind, and Solar
Frankl also mentioned that as of today, nuclear energy is is holding constant (my sources show ten new reactors came on line last year with eleven more expected this year, which are being countered by plant closures) and is expected to play an increasingly larger role by 2050, especially in China and Korea.

In conclusion, this division of low carbon sources into renewables and nuclear resulted in a report that failed to show the whole carbon emissions picture. As Figure 4 above suggests, the nuclear power stations brought on line in 2015 will produce about as much power as the wind installed in 2015 and at less cost.

It should go without saying that more low-carbon "baseload" power (i.e. nuclear or hydro) in a grid, the less need for solar and wind, which, understandably, isn't something the director of a renewable energy division is going to dwell on. By having a separate division for renewable energy, as opposed to an all-inclusive, low-carbon energy division, the IEA falls for the antinuclear framing established by antinuclear groups that separates nuclear from the low-carbon herd. Organizations like the IEA should be framing solar, wind, and nuclear as teammates, not enemies. For those into sports analogies, this report is analogous to a press conference with the Golden State Warriors (which is a basketball team) that ignores one of the team's three superstars.

In general, nuclear has more in common with renewables than many forms of renewable have with each other (and is lower carbon than some). Renewabiltiy is not that well defined and is also a matter of degree. Read James Conca's piece on that subject and maybe this one as well.

If someone successfully makes the case that nuclear is about as renewable as hydro and geothermal, will the IEA have to include it in the next report, or exclude hydro and geothermal?

This report incorporated many common tricks of the trade when promoting renewable energy:
  • Highlight growth in capacity instead of actual energy output. This makes wind look about 70% better than it is, and solar about 85% better.
  • Talk about energy produced as opposed to emissions displaced. This makes corn ethanol for example look about 84% better than it is.
If emissions reductions are the overarching concern (and they are), why would you, for example, present the fact that a biofuel (corn ethanol) has replaced ten percent of U.S. gasoline consumption? Is it the volume that matters or the emissions replaced that matters? Shouldn't the data be presented in the form of emissions reductions? For example, assuming the burning of a gallon of corn ethanol is only16% better than gasoline when it comes to emissions reductions, it has replaced 16% of the emissions of that 10% volume of fuel, which is only a 1.6% reduction in non-diesel car and truck emissions, which is much, much less impressive sounding. Bloggers don't have time to do all of these conversions for the readership.
  • Lump renewable energy into one bucket which makes "renewables" look more significant rather than let each source stand on its own when compared to, say, nuclear. If you remove hydro and biomass from that bucket, you'll find that it's practically empty.
  • Don't show the big picture because it tends to make the contributions from wind and solar look somewhat diminutive (see Figure 2).
It was pointed out more than once in the study (and in the presentation) that only wind and solar are making any meaningful progress, and that's being generous. It may be a wind and solar show, but when you look at Figure 2, it's not much of a show. Most other forms of renewable energy are making even less progress. And actually, that's probably a good thing considering how environmentally destructive some of them have turned out to be. We certainly should not be damming any more rivers, plowing under more ecosystem carbon sinks for biofuels and biomass.

Friday, September 16, 2016

David Roberts of Vox, on Exploiting "Clean Energy (whatever that is)" Rifts

Consider this article to be a comment under David's article which has no comment field.

Here's an idea, how about using the term non-fossil fuel energy instead of clean energy?

I can see where this might cause readers to realize you're including nuclear, and yes, I can see why antinuclear bloggers in sheep's clothing might want to avoid doing that. At no point in this article does Roberts say that nuclear is included in his definition of clean energy.

...that he identified as champions of clean energy ... have broken with their party on a few climate or clean energy votes ... the House guarantees inaction on climate and clean energy ... incline the party against climate and clean energy ... it seems to me that clean energy solutions stand or fall together ... no form of clean energy will ever get the support it needs ... part of a growing number of purple and red states with clean energy hubs ... Here is a rift within the party on the subject of clean energy ... Helpfully, the anti–clean energy side is represented by Trump ... while the clean energy side is represented by a longtime, rock-ribbed Republican ... and tying clean energy opposition tightly to Donald Trump ... Conservative opinions on clean energy are still mutable ... this is an opportunity to visibly signal that clean energy support is perfectly consonant ... backs powerful incumbents against clean energy challengers ... institutional stance on climate and clean energy... make mildly supportive noises about clean energy.

It's not easy having an intelligent discussion when words being used have no clear definition. Because readers all have different definitions in their heads, they all walk away with a different interpretation of what has been said, like with David's sixteen instances of the use of the term "clean energy." Now, admittedly, everybody uses that term, so there's safety in numbers. However, it's obvious when a strong nuclear advocate uses it that they are including nuclear. When David uses it, renewable enthusiasts assume he's excluding nuclear, nuclear enthusiasts suspect he may be including it ...but maybe not.

In this article the only definition of clean energy spelled out was by the Republicans in a link Roberts provided: clean coal (whatever that is), natural gas, nuclear, and hydro. So, if you have the Republican definition in mind when you see Roberts use the term "clean energy," consider how that definition would make much of what he says nonsensical.

Note, I'll be using [ ] brackets to insert my own pithy comments inside of quotes.

While briefly touching on the conservative clean energy agenda, Roberts noted:

Insofar as green [whatever that means] lefties overemphasize wind and solar [and are also antinuclear] this [the Conservative Clean Energy Agenda] seems like the same mistake in reverse.

And he's right, the conservative clean energy definition makes no mention of wind and solar, which is every bit as disingenuous as the antinuclear position of "green lefties."

Donald Trump is, notoriously, opposed to wind power. He really seems to hate it, on a personal level.

Hating a power source on a personal level is something Roberts can relate to. A Roberts quote from way back in 2006:

"Nuclear is the "least worst" option that everyone holds their nose to support. It feels wrong, because it is wrong, and a culture that remembered back when it used to have some fucking balls and ambition would throw itself behind what it knows is right ... . What we’re talking about is creating another huge, centralized, politically connected energy cartel forever seeking to increase its take from the public teat. We need more of those?"

Roberts continues:

Helpfully, the anti–clean energy [whatever that is] side is represented by Trump, a figure loathed by many Republicans, while the clean energy [whatever that is] side is represented by a longtime, rock-ribbed Republican. This is one of those crossroads moments when leaders are split and party faithful are genuinely uncertain of how they’re supposed to break.

Similarly, back when antinuclear Bernie was still in the running, a brief discussion flared on Twitter with some of the party faithful wondering if we could vote for an antinuclear president.

Conservative opinions on clean energy [whatever that is] are still mutable; this is an opportunity to visibly signal that clean energy support is perfectly consonant with conservative identity. to find a way to visibly signal that clean nuclear energy support is perfectly consonant with the green lefty identity.

But grassroots conservative groups want the independence that comes with generating their own electricity [talking about conservative support of solar subsidies in Florida].

It has always amused me to watch anti-handout types happily accept government handouts whenever the opportunity arises, be it a $7,500 tax credit for their $80,000 Tesla, or solar net-metering. Energy subsidies are meant to be a temporary government assist to test the marketability of ideas and sometimes they work. Most people who buy solar panels don't realize that net metering is a subsidy, and like all true energy subsidies, it will go away some day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Brad Plumer of Vox on Wilderness and Costa Rica's Renewables

I think both of Brad's articles are excellent. I'm just adding comment and although some of it may come off sounding anti-renewables, let me just state for the record that I'm "not anti-renewables." No, seriously, I'm fine with rooftop solar, properly sited wind farms, and I think we should keep most existing hydroelectric. Nuclear certainly can't do it all.

Money quote:

A new study in Current Biology reports that Earth has lost 10 percent of its wilderness since the early 1990s —an area twice the size of Alaska. "The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering and very saddening," said lead author James Watson of the University of Queensland.

A wilderness area is, by definition, free of human industry (roads, agriculture, mining, etc) which includes the the sight of power stations on distant ridge lines and hilltops as well as the forest cleared to provide corridors for the power lines that lead from them.

The loss of wilderness is only part of the story. As was mentioned in Plumer's article, you can't recreate intact ecosystems once you destroy them, including those that are not part of a wilderness area. A case in point is the Ivanpah solar thermal power station that usurped intact desert tortoise habitat , and never mind that it may also be incinerating up to 6,000 birds a year.

Kudos to Plumer for including a link to a report from the Breakthrough Institute about using technology and innovation to shrink our environmental footprint (GMO-free organic gardening, grass-fed beef, wood stoves, and the 100 mile diet are not in the game plan).

Thursday, September 8, 2016

David Roberts on Coal Company Environmental Remediation

There are groups out there dedicated to stopping every energy source you can imagine. Antinuclear organizations have convinced their supporters that nuclear power is evil incarnate. They can't change their policies now if they wanted to because they actually have created a monster. Acknowledging the truth about nuclear energy at this point would likely bankrupt many environmental organizations.

David's article: As coal companies sink into bankruptcy, who will pay to clean up their old mines? reflects what I have called his good versus evil world view. I have, on rare occasion, made mention of this propensity in the Grist comment field.

As a philosophy major, Roberts might enjoy this 2008 article by Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature titled The Moral Instinct:

At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason. (The actor Will Smith had many historians on his side when he recently speculated to the press that Hitler thought he was acting morally.) But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground. One side can acknowledge the other’s concern for community or stability or fairness or dignity, even while arguing that some other value should trump it in that instance. With affirmative action, for example, the opponents can be seen as arguing from a sense of fairness, not racism, and the defenders can be seen as acting from a concern with community, not bureaucratic power. Liberals can ratify conservatives’ concern with families while noting that gay marriage is perfectly consistent with that concern.

In short, it would help to stop pouring gas on the fire. He seems to have a really hard time empathizing with his opponents, be they conservative Republicans or fossil fuel companies. Now, you may be tempted at this point to stereotype me as a shill apologist for big coal and also take this opportunity to show readers in the comment field that you have heard of the Godwin's Law meme. My environmental credentials likely put yours to shame, nobody is paying me anything to write, and we have all heard of Godwin's law. Coal took the pressure off of our forests just as oil did for whales, but it's time for coal to go just as a time came to stop using wood for energy, whales for oil.

Monday, September 5, 2016

David Roberts on the latest NREL 30% wind and solar study

As suggested in my earlier article, consider this article to be a comment under David's article: The Eastern US could get a third of its power from renewables within 10years. Theoretically, which has no comment field.

Because David is a self-labeled climate hawk, I'm going to start by addressing (what should be but isn't) the overarching concern of climate hawks with regard to energy production--carbon emissions. Had the study also replaced all remaining coal with nuclear, which technically, is certainly possible as France proved long ago, there would have been a 30% + 33% (see Figure 2) = 63% reduction in emissions. Even more simply, they could have replaced all coal with nuclear from the start and added no renewable energy for an emissions reduction of 46%. But because this study was done by the National Renewable Energy Lab, that possibility was not considered.

Why did they stop at 30% penetration? Why was no attempt made to show what it would cost to implement? We do know what it has cost Germany to get to this approximate level of renewables, as I have pointed out uncounted times before:

I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden [$30billion a year]...We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it. Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices.

While renewable aid costs are at the “limit” of what the economy can bear, Germany will keep pushing wind and solar power, the most cost-effective renewable sources, Gabriel said. Biomass energy is too expensive and its cost structure hasn’t improved, he said.

Germany is demonstrating the real world cost of trying to reduce emissions with only renewables; $30 billion a year, according to Germany's economics ministry. $30 billion a year would pay for forty custom built $7.5 billion Generation III AP1000 reactors over ten years ($30B/year x 10years  = $300B, $300B/$7.5B = 40 AP1000 reactors). Add those to existing reactors and they could supply about 97% of Germany's electricity by 2025.

The Eastern US could get a third of its power from renewables within 10 years. Theoretically.

That word David stuck on the end of his title is all important and should be in the preface of any of these studies. But what does theoretically mean? David takes a stab at it below: