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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Google Engineers Conclude that Renewable Energy Will Not Result in Significant Emissions Reductions

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

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 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).

So …what does humanity do in the decades that it may take to find these new sources, assuming they exist? Certainly, we shouldn’t sit on our thumbs and wait to see what happens. The graphic shown below (which I borrowed from the article) is what they suggest.

There are two things that make the Google study stand out from all of the others:
  1. The frank admission that renewables won’t get us there.
  2. People listen to what Google has to say.
Others came to the conclusion that we don’t have the technology needed to pull this off long ago but the politicos and ideologues have a big advantage in that their message, although wrong, is simple enough for a journalist to understand and write a short article about. It’s a time honored formula. Read this 2012 blog post by NNadir as he mulls over a not-so-simple potential disruptive technology. I’ve always enjoyed his brilliant but acerbic style and tend to agree with almost everything he has to say but what he says isn’t what the public wants to hear.

The graphic at the top of this article (altered by me to add the WWF study pie chart) came from a revised version of a 2009 study done by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and has just been published in Science. I wrote about the 2009 study here. From the Stockholm Resilience Centre:
 Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity, says an international team of 18 researchers in the journal Science (16 January 2015). The four are: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).

Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are what the scientists call “core boundaries”. Significantly altering either of these “core boundaries” would “drive the Earth System into a new state”.

Note in the graphic at the top of this article that climate change is just one of the nine boundaries and it has not quite entered the high risk red zone although it inevitably will do so. Andrew Revkin wrote about this study a few days ago and invited some critics of the original 2009 study to weigh in. Shortly after they weighed in, Andy updated his post with counter-responses from the authors of the study. You can read Revkin’s article here.
In my last article I tried to make a few key points:
  1. Two writers (myself and one at Grist) often draw polar opposite conclusions from the same study.
  2. Pundits tend to focus almost exclusively on wind and solar power (as witnessed by the comments below my article).
  3. Wind and solar (as well as nuclear) are small pieces in a large climate change puzzle and if you look at the graphic at the top of this article you will note that climate change is just one piece of yet another puzzle.
  4. No entity can accurately predict energy trends three decades out.
And last but not least, it is time that real environmentalists started to question the wisdom of replacing fossil fuels solely with dams, biomass, biofuels, wind, and solar. It’s time to accept nuclear as part of the interim solution set.

Note that the three red zones in the graphic at the top of this post represent things like biodiversity loss, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, and expansion of agriculture that can be exacerbated by dams, biomass, biofuels, wind, and solar. More from the Google engineers:

To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form. Hansen suggests reforestation as a carbon sink.
Note that because biomass and biofuels require land, they tend to negate efforts to use reforestation to store carbon, not to mention compete with biodiversity for ecosystems and humanity for cropland.

Luckily, the future can’t be predicted, in large part because predictions alter the future. There is always hope. More real environmentalists need to make an effort to think more critically and join in the effort to counter those who are convinced that renewables are a silver bullet. They’re not, and neither is existing nuclear technology.

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