Thursday, May 7, 2015

Elon Musk and the Holy Grail

The ornaments look pretty
But they are pulling down the branches of the tree

    - Cake

Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar.
You're gonna go far, you're gonna fly high,
You're never gonna die, you're gonna make it if you try;
    - Pink Floyd


     Elon Musk is a hero for our time.  A certified billionaire, he invented a new way for people to buy stuff, by just pressing a button!    His ideas are extremely revolutionary.  And visionary, too.   He is now is in the process of revolutionizing transportation,.  And recently he announced a new product which will revolutionize the way power is stored.

      The Holy Grail?  Well, that is our dream that we will be able to continue our high energy lifestyle.  Or as Doomer Dan would say -  to continue to be able to "drive around and buy sh*t"   see e.g. The Amazing New Thing    Without  all those nasty CO2 emissions.

      So with Musk at the helm,  can we relax now?

      Will his cool products help us get the holy grail?  The good life , while avoiding "dangerous" warming,  possibly  triggering unstoppable feedbacks?    (What would it take to get there?  For developed nations - perhaps cut about 50% by 2020  (2013 study) .
        Let's start with the car.  Its pretty darn cool.  It can go from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds.  Not mention 130 MPH!      

        The value of electric vehicles in addressing carbon emissions is still a matter for debate.  First of all, most agree that the emissions from an EV will vary widely, depending on the electricity production mix in the state where the vehicle is charged.  .  While some states have a low carbon mix, the US average is so carbon heavy that EV's , are about as helpful as a car that gets 40 MPG

       In addition, the manufacture of an EV uses more fossil fuels than a gas powered car.  This can create a large "carbon debt"  that may or may not be paid off, even if the car is refueled using renewable power.  For instance this report from Climate Central says.

"Another critical factor is the carbon emissions generated when a car is manufactured. Emissions from producing the battery and other electrical components create a 10,000 to 40,000-pound carbon debt for electric cars that can only be overcome after tens, or even hundreds of thousands of miles of driving and recharging from clean energy sources."

       And the "power wall" ?    At first blush it sounds like the device that has been missing from the renewable energy  story.   Solar and wind may be low carbon, but they are also intermittent.   As long as we want 24/7 power, we will need storage.  Now, it's really not an issue, because the grid itself, with all of the existing power plants, can be used a battery, providing power when needed.   At some point, if we are ever able to move to a system that it more dominated by renewables, it will be useful.

        Right now, though, the "Power Wall" is something like the Tesla.  One might say its  an expensive toy for rich people who want to give the impression they are doing something useful for the ecosystem . It doesn't do much for the biosphere, but it looks really good.  As noted by Bloomberg
"To provide the same 16 kilowatts of continuous power as this $3,700 Generac generator from Home Depot, a homeowner would need eight stacked Tesla batteries at a cost of $45,000 for a nine-year lease. "It's a luxury good—really cool to have—but I don't see an economic argument," said Brian Warshay, an energy-smart-technologies analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance."  
                  But let's set that aside for now.   Perhaps one could argue that it was a step towards a solution.   Why not let the rich subsidize the development of a useful part of a solution to our climate conundrum ?   Once again the holy grail .   Can we have our cake and eat it too?  Which is to say - if we move to a low carbon society - how much energy will we get?   If it is anything like what we use now, we will need a lot of batteries!
             I ran across an interesting study from the journal  Energy Policy, found here which helps to put this issue into perspective.   The authors took note of a the idea, promoted in several studies that we could create a completely renewable energy system by 2050.  ( I recognize that this is somewhat less ambitious than the goal stated above of cutting our emissions in half by 2020, but its in the ball park).   

         The authors asked an interesting question about that "all renewable" energy system.   How would get there?   And how we we keep it there I.e. handle the replacement of the units as they fell apart.   For simplicity they focused on the wind component, only.  .  They construct a scenario, under which, the installation of turbine grows , nearly exponentially, each year up to 2050.   (Needless to say, a growth rate this steep has not been seen in history, but that's OK )    From 2050 on the the worn out  units are replaced ,  requiring  construction of 12 Twatts each year.  To get an idea of the scale of  the material requirements for the maintenance period , assuming some of the material is recycled ,they compared it to material uses today .  The requirements are rather stunning, considering that under this scenario, wind provides only 15% of the power!:

"Under these assumptions, only sustaining the 24 TW of wind energy, assumed to provide 15 % of global energy demand by Kleijn and Van der Voet (2010), would need the equivalent of 11 % of total global steel production and 14 % of global copper production (based on 2012 rates of production). This means that reaching and sustaining this installed wind capacity would require quantities of steel that is similar to the current automotive industry, that used 12 % of the steel produced in 2011, while the entire sector of electrical equipment used only around 3 % (World Steel Association, 2012). The amount of copper needed for the turbines is comparable to what is used for making electric motors, of around 12 % of the global copper production, while the electric energy transmission sector use about 26 % (Achzet et al., 2011). " 

        Where would such an enormous amount of material; come from?   Looking forward, it seems unlikely that we will be able to devote this amount of materials to the construction of wind turbines, and in addition also construct large amounts of solar devices, as well as the batteries to store all the energy.    More likely, when confronted with that expense, we will continue to operate as we have, until some resource limit forces us to do otherwise.

       Many of us wish for a bright, shiny techno future.  We also dream about a world that is not being upset by droughts, fires, and rising seas.  It does not seem likely to me that we will have both of these futures.    More likely , to me, is the vision offered by Richard Heinberg.  (see e.g. useful short videos here ) A future of less energy, less consumer goods, and one which will, still nevertheless be subject to many of the climate change induced problems       This future will be a lot more difficult , if we don't prepare, because we are too dazzled by the dream of a technological "deus ex machina".  

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