Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Leading a horse to water

It's getting better all the time
Can't get no worse
     - Beatles
Don't turn on the lights
cause I don't wanna see
     _Randy Newman  (Momma told me not to come)

      We've all seen the headlines about how cheap wind and solar are, and how they are growing by leaps and bounds.   Surely they will overtake fossil fuels soon!   Bloomberg Reports "Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables"    Michael Klare reports that its a "Renewable Revolution" 
   It all sounds pretty exciting.  With all this cheap renewable energy, businesses and utilities are bound to switch.   Right?    
       Of, course we would all welcome a renewable revolution - one where renewables  were a substitute for fossil fuels, one that would result in a reduction of CO2.   But its not clear this this " revolution"  is quite living up to those hopes.    Its true that renewables are getting cheaper, and they are getting installed at breakneck speed.    And that';s been true for the last ten to fifteen years.  But the results are less stunning.   In 2000, renewables amounted to 13% of total world energy use.    And that is about what it is today.(2013 data)       So  the tremendous growth in solar and wind has not displaced the burning of fossil fuels, . but merely supplemented them.   This is of course confirmed by the growth in CO2 emmissions  
      One reason is that renewables are mainly focus in electricity generation, which is only 40% of the energy use.   Transportation and industrial use has had little impact from renewables.   But even looking electrical generation ,   fossil fuel generated power continues to grow ( US).
     OK, so its still early in the game.,  Renewables are growing at exponential rates.  At some point they will  break out and  take over  from fossil fuels?   Perhaps,  but it may take a lot longer than than we'd like .  Smil suggests that, if history is any guide, it will take 50-60 years.  Here's another interesting piece from Nature suggesting some " laws of energy transitions" , which describes the likely trajectory. They suggest that new energy systems initially have an exponential growth rate, but that it soon turns into a straight line.   The authors also suggest the underlying cause.  Basically, it's the problem of " stranded assets".  Large energy users may be willing to buy renewables once the old devices break down.  But as long as the old coal fired furnace still works, they are not willing to swap it out.
     This makes some sense.   Imagine you have an ICE car.  Now an electric car comes on the market.   Even if the the electric will save money over the long run, you may not buy it.  Why shell out all that money, when the ICE runs fine?   Now, imagine your ICE is an energy system that costs hundreds of thousands, and is designed to last 25 years.   A tax incentive may help you decide which system to buy, once you are in the market.  But its less likely to move you into the market in the first place.
      All this suggests that a "supply side" approach has its limits, and won't get us where we need to go.  We need a reduced  demand for fossil fuels. not merely an incre4ased supply of renewables.          
   Below  (and here ), Brad Plummer explains further. 


Clean energy is growing fast — but it's not yet winning the race against fossil fuels

For decades, fossil fuels have provided the vast, vast majority of the world's energy. But in recent years, cleaner sources like wind and solar have been growing at an astonishingly rapid clip.
So a lot of people are keenly interested in when we might hit a tipping point. When will clean energy start growing faster than fossil fuels? This week, Bloomberg declared we've already hit that point: "Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables." That's stirred a lot of excitement.
Unfortunately, that headline isn't quite right. Clean energy isn't winning the race against fossil fuels. Not yet. And it's worth exploring in more detail why this is wrong — to better understand just how massive a task it will be to clean up the world's energy supply and avoid significant global warming.

This chart, showing clean energy winning, omits a few things...

Bloomberg's key piece of evidence is a chart from Bloomberg New Energy Finance showing that countries around the world added more electric generating capacity from hydropower, nuclear, solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal in 2013 than they did from oil, gas, and coal:
(Bloomberg New Energy Finance)
That is a neat milestone. But it doesn't prove that clean energy is growing faster than dirty energy. There are a two big things this chart omits:
1) Electricity is not the same as energy. The first thing to note is that the chart above only shows electricity capacity additions. Remember, "electricity" is not the same thing as "energy." We use electricity to power our homes and appliances. But most of the world's cars and planes don't run on electricity; they run on oil. A lot of buildings don't use electricity for heat; they burn gas. Those non-electricity energy sources aren't counted above.
Yet if we're worried about global warming, we have to consider that bigger picture. Electricity and heat were only responsible for about 42 percent of global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion in 2012. For clean energy to truly win the race, it will have to make inroads in other sectors as well, particularly transportation.
2) 1 GW of solar is not equal to 1 GW of coal. The second criticism of the chart above is that it only shows electricity capacity additions. "Capacity" is defined as the maximum output a power plant can produce under specific conditions. It is not same as how much electricity a power plant will actually generate in its lifetime.
Here's a way to illustrate the difference: coal plants can burn coal pretty much around the clock. So, over the long run, a coal plant will typically produce around 50 to 80 percent of its maximum output. Solar photovoltaic panels, by contrast, usually only work when the sun is shining. In the long run, they might produce just 20 percent of their maximum output. These percentages are known as "capacity factors."
This is important to keep in mind. Imagine that the world installed 2 gigawatts' worth of solar panels and a 1-gigawatt coal plant. If you only looked at a chart of capacity additions, you'd assume solar is absolutely crushing coal. But that's not necessarily true! When you take capacity factors into account, the coal plant is likely producing more total electricity.

For now, fossil fuels are still keeping pace with renewables

So let's look at a better chart that shows the world's energy consumption from different sources. This way we're looking at all primary energy — not just electricity but also cars and airplanes and heating and so on. We're also not being misled by looking solely at capacity; we're looking at actual use.
As it happens, BP offers this data in its Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. And the chart below looks more daunting for clean energy:
(<a href="">BP Statistical Review of Energy 2014</a>/Vox)
All told, fossil fuels made up 87 percent of the world's primary energy consumption in 2013. By contrast, low-carbon sources — including nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar, and biomass — made up just 13 percent.
That ratio hasn't changed since 1999, as the University of Colorado's Roger Pielke Jr. points out. In other words, the world's energy supply hasn't gotten any cleaner for 14 years.
Yes, clean energy sources have been rising over that time. That little yellow sliver showing renewable energy is growing at rapid clip (that includes solar and wind, but it also includes biomass energy and biofuels/ethanol for vehicles, both of which often come in for criticism). Hydropower is also expanding. Nuclear power, by contrast, is stagnating.
But coal, natural gas, and oil have more than kept pace with the growth of clean energy. An illustrative example: In 2013, non-hydro renewable energy consumption grew by 38.5 million TOE (tons of oil equivalent). But coal consumption grew by 103 million TOE — more than twice as much. If this is a race, fossil fuels are holding their own.

There's reason to be optimistic about clean energy — but the challenge is daunting

Solar panels in a row at sunrise. (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Now, this isn't meant to be a pessimistic post about renewables. That Bloomberg chart does offer some genuinely good news about clean electricity — namely, that the world is building more and more power plants fueled by solar, wind, and hydro, while the pace of fossil-fuel plant additions is slowing down.
What's more, there are lots of encouraging clean-energy trends out there. The cost of wind and solar has been dropping dramatically all over the world. The price of batteries for electric cars has been plummeting much faster than expected (which is crucial, because building cars that run on clean electricity instead of gasoline will be an important part of greening the energy supply). Meanwhile, China has been cracking down on dirty coal plants in a quest to mop up air pollution.
Given these trends, it's quite likely that, at some point soon, clean energy will grow faster than fossil fuels globally. Maybe we're already approaching the inflection point. Maybe we'll hit it in 2020. It's hard to predict exactly. But when that happens, the fraction of energy we get from low-carbon sources will start expanding. The fraction of energy from fossil fuels will start shrinking.
Still, if the world wants to avoid drastic global warming, then it's not enough to have some progress in clean energy here or there. There will need to be a truly seismic shift — the proportion of energy we get from carbon-free sources would have to rise from 13 percent to something like 90 percent this century, maybe more.
We're not yet close to that pace. Here's a glimpse at how dramatically our energy system would have to change to get there.
(Thanks to Robert Wilson for first pointing out/critiquing the Bloomberg story, which is being circulated far and wide this week.)

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