Debunking The Myth Of The Inadequacy Of ‘Current Renewables’

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This article was originally published on Climate Progress.

Understanding-your-child1-300x185Last month, I was on a panel with someone who kept kept saying “current renewables” were inadequate to address the climate problem and what we needed to do is invest in ”future renewables.” By that he meant increased research and development, of course, and not continued aggressive deployment.

I began my comments with this metaphor:

“There’s no useful intellectual distinction between ‘current’ and ‘future’ renewables. It’s like saying my daughter, who’s six, is not the same person once she becomes an adult. The only way she won’t grow is if I don’t feed her.”

The point is that continuing the amazing price drops and learning curves for renewables requires that we keep feeding them and help them keep learning – by expanding production, as the International Energy Agency has explained (see “The breakthrough technology illusion“). Many other studies back this up (see “Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, R&D, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy“).

[In fairness to renewables, solar power is at least a junior in college, and wind power has already graduated. My daughter just happens to be six.]

Here’s a figure that shows what I’m talking about for solar power (learning curve in upper right):

Note that the price drop (and production increase) has continued since 2011 (see “Chinese Companies Projected To Make Solar Panels for 42 Cents Per Watt In 2015“). And we are also dropping the price of financing solar — see “How Crowdfunding Lowers The Cost Of Solar Energy” —  which is just what you would expect as an industry becomes larger and more mature. Indeed, it’s one reason for learning curves — most things are cheaper when you scale up (except, sadly, nukes).

Similarly, a little over a year ago, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) analyzed the cost curve for wind projects since the mind-1980′s and found that the cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen 14% for every doubling of installation capacity.

So while I was glad to see the excellent NY Times climate reporter Justin Gillis launch his monthly print column for Science Times, I was disappointed that he rehashed the tired myth pushed by Bill Gates and a few others in his article, “In Search of Energy Miracles.”

First, though, the good news. Gillis doesn’t fall into the trap of most of the miracle mavens and breakthrough bunch — the trap of advocating an R&D-centered policy:

Two approaches to the issue — spending money on the technologies we have now, or investing in future breakthroughs — are sometimes portrayed as conflicting. In reality, that is a false dichotomy. The smartest experts say we have to pursue both tracks at once, and much more aggressively than we have been doing.

An ambitious national climate policy, anchored by a stiff price on carbon dioxide emissions, would serve both goals at once. In the short run, it would hasten a trend of supplanting coal-burning power plants with natural gas plants, which emit less carbon dioxide. It would drive investment into current low-carbon technologies like wind and solar power that, while not efficient enough, are steadily improving.

And it would also raise the economic rewards for developing new technologies that could disrupt and displace the ones of today. These might be new-age nuclear reactors, vastly improved solar cells, or something entirely unforeseen.

In effect, our national policy now is to sit on our hands hoping for energy miracles, without doing much to call them forth.

Actually, coal is being supplanted by gas and wind (see “Wind Beats Out Natural Gas To Become Top Source Of New Electricity Capacity For 2012“). And efficiency and demand response have slowed electricity demand growth to under 1% a year.

A stiff price for CO2 would tip the balance even more toward sources like wind that are carbon-free and hence don’t destroy a livable climate. After all, BNEF concluded its wind study:

Assuming specific learning rates for these components, we expect wind to become fully competitive with energy produced from combined-cycle gas turbines by 2016 in most regions offering fair wind conditions.… Any increase in the cost of gas, which will consequently raise the cost of energy of gas-fired turbines, would bring forward the timing of grid parity for wind.

And yes, I’ll get to the so-called intermittency problem.

Where Gillis goes astray is when he buys into Bill Gates’ energy miracles nonsense:

Many environmentalists believe that wind and solar power can be scaled to meet the rising demand, especially if coupled with aggressive efforts to cut waste. But a lot of energy analysts have crunched the numbers and concluded that today’s renewables, important as they are, cannot get us even halfway there.

“We need energy miracles,” Mr. Gates said in a speech three years ago introducing his approach, embodied in a company called TerraPower.

Let’s set aside the fact that Gates himself got rich through a deployment-centric innovation and learning curve strategy (see “Pro-geoengineering Bill Gates disses efficiency, ‘cute’ solar, deployment — and still doesn’t know how he got rich“).

The fact is that if “today’s renewables” — a meaningless distinction as I’ve said — could only get us a third of the way there, that would be fine through, say, 2025, since the carbon price and deployment effort would accelerate countless near-commercial technologies now in the pipeline into the market to next us the next third and then the final third.

Jigar Shah, a solar-industry rock star who founded the pioneering solar company SunEdison, explained to Climate Progress at length in 2011 why doubters of today’s renewable energy technologies are so wrong. I recommend the whole interview (Jigar is in the second half), where he explains that the only meaningful technologies for solving climate are those that can be scaled at the trillion-dollar level, and nobody puts a trillion-dollar bet on some brand new, breakthrough technology.

Jigar thinks we could reduce CO2 emissions about 50% cost-effectively with existing technologies, but that by the time we finished doing so in a couple of decades, we’d have another array of cost-effective strategies to take us down another 50%.

If you’d like to see a study of how New York could go 100% renewable in two decades, see ”Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water and Sunlight” by Stanford’s Marc Jacobson et al.

As for the U.S. as a whole, here are the key points to needed the 450 ppm pathway:

  1. We don’t need to be 100% carbon-free by 2030 — though that would be a good idea.
  2. We can keep nuclear for baseload and yes we can even keep much of current gas power through 2030 — we just shouldn’t build a lot of new gas-fired plants.
  3. We could easily keep demand flat using the most cost-effective source of energy there is — efficiency.
  4. New renewables can back out coal over the next couple of decades (assuming the coal industry continues to commit suicide by failing to develop carbon capture and storage)
  5. Our renewable penetration rate is considerably lower than that of many European countries, so we have a long way to go before increased renewables would cause us problems.
  6. As we get to higher and higher levels of renewable penetration, we deal with intermittency through a combination of demand response, grid storage (which is steadily improving and dropping in price), and plugged in elective vehicles (whose already paid-for batteries are not being used >90% of the time).
  7. Half or more of the “intermittency problem” is really a “predictability problem” — that is, if we could predict with high accuracy wind availability and solar availability 24 to 36 hours in advance, then we can use demand response (aggregated demand reductions by commercial, industrial, and even residential customers, see “Top 5 Coolest Ways Companies are Integrating Renewable Energy into the Grid“). Fortunately, such prediction capability is already beginning developed (see, for instance, here).

I have discussed these with leading energy analysts and electric grid experts, and they agree this is all doable with existing and near-term technology, assuming we keep feeding our renewable children — and would go even faster if we had a stiff carbon price.

As for why folks don’t get this, Jigar Shah says:

For some people, technology is not their sweet spot. They have other skills. And so when someone tells them, “technology is not ready,” they just eat up those words … hook, line and sinker and then decide that’s what their talking points are going to be. And with those people it’s just sad that they don’t read more.

A major 2000 report by the International Energy Agency, Experience Curves for Energy Technology Policy, analyzed a variety of experience curves for various energy technologies. Their key conclusion has already been demonstrated, in part, by the massive investment in renewables we’ve seen in the past decade, but it bears repeating:

A general message to policy makers comes from the basic philosophy of the experience curve. Learning requires continuous action, and future opportunities are therefore strongly coupled to present activities. If we want cost-efficient, CO2-mitigation technologies available during the first decades of the new century, these technologies must be given the opportunity to learn in the current marketplace. Deferring decisions on deployment will risk lock-out of these technologies, i.e., lack of opportunities to learn will foreclose these options making them unavailable to the energy system.

Don’t lock our growing kids out of the job market by depriving them of food and learning. Deployment must be ramped up again and again and again (and yes, R&D, too).

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26 thoughts on “Debunking The Myth Of The Inadequacy Of ‘Current Renewables’

  • Thermal storage is a simple way to handle demand response. It is already being used in large buildings. Think running AC at night but storing the cold, then when you need it during the day you pull it frm cold storage. It isn’t even a big retro fit. If connected to a smart grid you can even use them to absorb the extra power at night to make managing the wind/gas plants. You can even use it to control when you run a power plant up/down running them at best eff rate. If we had a energy plan in this country, past hide head in the oil barrel. We would tax carbon, give half back equally to each person and the other half to fund eff, storage, wind, PV, hydro (storage, flow, low head, tidal).

  • Excellent article, the “we have to wait for a future silver bullet technology”-myth has too much influence. I blame Hollywood 😉

    Regarding point 7 on your list: There are already tools to predict wind power and solar power production. They are heavily deployed by German grid operators. Their accuracy is not that bad, but they do need further improvement to allow a larger grid penetration of renewables.

  • Problem: the 450PPM pipe dream is just that. A pipe dream. With the recent increase in methane emissions from the arctic (permafrost and methane hydrates) due to current warming we are already at 490PPM equivalent. We are in an EMERGENCY situation. ( ) A stiff carbon tax, if those revenues were applied to installing renewables, is a good idea. Used for anything else, a bad idea. People don’t seem to get the fact that without a “Manhattan type Project” to abandon fossil fuels ASAP will lead to the unthinkable consequence of human extinction. Not ‘down the road’ but near term. { } We had better wake up!

    • Edward,

      You are probably right, but that means we need even more resolve to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.


      • We’ve got a mitigation job ahead of us. We’re going to have to move back from the coasts and out of the flood plans. We’re going to have to modify the way we raise our food. We’re going to have to make our houses more temperature efficient.

        But if we’re smart we’ll start to work hard to hold the heating to no more than 2C and not force those who follow us to live in a much hotter world.

        • Bob,
          What you fail to grasp is that we can no longer “hold” the warming to 2deg or 4 or 6. Positive feedback have been unleashed (we underestimated the sensitivity of the climate system) and the planet is going to obey the laws of physics. There is a possibility of degrading the methane that’s venting from the arctic (the most dangerous feedback) but that would require a concerted effort from several of the major countries in the world. Consequently, a low probability event. The other major problem is ocean acidification which at some point will kill off the phytoplankton that produces about half of our oxygen. We are already seeing signs of stress there. Nothing short of a total global energy transformation along with efforts to address the feed-backs (if we can) will prevent the worst possible outcome. Present efforts, good as they may be, are too little too late.

          • I grasp the fact that a very small number of people are saying that it’s already too late.

            I also grasp the fact that a large majority of climate scientists are not saying that.

            I don’t know if it’s too late or not. I do know that our best strategy is to act as if it is not. To move as quickly as we can to reduce GHG emissions and to try to devise some way or ways to reduce the amount already in the atmosphere.

            We are not moving as fast as I think we should be. But our efforts are accelerating and I think will be significant in one to three more years. It seems to me that people are getting the message and that our technologies are mature enough to do the job. (Storage needs to improve.)

            One should never quit bailing. A ship might come over the horizon at the last minute.

          • Bob,
            I also think that our best course of action it to not give up hope and address the problem directly. What worries me is that it’s slow and politically tortured. Your right that we are making some progress on the renewable front but as you note, not as fast as you’d like. Me either. There is hope and technologies that might be solutions. Whatever we do the world is going to be fundamentally different in ten years.

  • Thank you, thank you for this article! It comes down to the ease that some people overlook the risks and problems with what we have – and they can’t see the huge advantages that renewable energy has. Part of the mindset is that we need a silver bullet solution – when the strength of renewables come from a diverse mix of sources that when they are used together, are far more resilient and more robust than what we have now.

    No power plant can run 24/7/365 – they all need to be maintained and/or refueled and/or repaired. Nuclear and coal plants cannot run if it gets too warm – irony alert!

    If Germany can move to renewables – and they are achieving their goals much more quickly than they had hoped – they are as sunny as Alaska! As we can add grid storage, this will help all power plants; not just renewables.

    As Voltaire wrote: “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good!”


  • Point 7 is interesting because the problem of predicting goes away by itself at a certain point. When wind and solar always generate more power than is needed by the grid, and the electricity distributed efficiently for thousands of miles to where it is needed via HVDC lines, there is no need for battery like storage.

    Why would we ever “over-build” you might ask. Because the excess power will be used for making hydrogen or something similar for aircraft and transportation in general. Wind and solar will be overbuilt until all power demands are covered. Not just the electrical grid.

  • It’s very clear that current technology could meet out energy needs now. Jacobson and Delucchi did that math back in 2009. Other studies have confirmed their findings.

    Then, this year, a group led by Budischak took a real life grid, a major grid, and showed how all most 100% (99.9%) of that grid could have been supplied by only wind and solar along with existing storage technology over a four year period.

    A summary of their paper…

    Researchers at University of Delaware used four years of weather and electricity demand/load data in one minute blocks to determine 1) if a combination of wind, solar and storage could meet 99.9% of demand and 2) the most cost effective mix of each to meet demand.

    The data for 1999 through 2002 came from the PJM Interconnection, a large regional grid that services all or part of 13 states from New Jersey west to Illinois, from Pennsylvania south into Tennessee and North Carolina. This is the world’s largest competitive wholesale electricity market, serving 60 million customers, and it represents one-fifth of the United States’ total electric grid.

    They used currently available technology and its projected price in 2030. They included no subsidies for wind and solar in their calculation. They did not include hydro, nuclear, tidal or other possible inputs. They also did not include power sales to and purchases from adjacent grids. They used three existing storage technologies – large scale batteries, hydrogen and GIV (grid integrated vehicles).

    They found that by 2030 we could obtain 99.9% of our electricity from renewable energy/storage and the remainder 0.1% from fossil fuels for about what we currently pay “all-in” for electricity. The all-in price of electricity which includes coal and oil produced health costs currently paid via tax dollars and health insurance premiums.

    During the four year period there were five brief periods, a total of 35 hours, when renewables plus storage were insufficient to fully power the grid and natural gas plants came into play. These were summer days when wind supply was low and demand was high. The cheapest way to cover these ~7 hour events was to use existing natural gas plants rather than to build additional storage. Adding in hydro, tidal, etc. would further reduce this number.

    After 28 billion simulations using differing amount of wind, solar, storage and fossil fuels they found the best solution was to over-build wind and solar and at times simply “throw away” some of the produced power. Building “too much” wind and solar turns out to be cheaper than building more storage given the storage solutions we have at this time. Finding markets for the extra production, selling electricity to offset natural gas heating for example, further reduced costs.

    Budischak, Sewell, Thomson, Mach, Veron, and Kempton Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage, powering the grid up to 99.9% of the time Journal of Power Sources 225 (2013) 60-74

    Billl Gates has his head up his ass. We need to quit assuming that because someone made money in one field that they have something meaningful to say about other fields. I give you as example — Donald Trump, Mitt Romney. Thomas Friedman. Arnold the Governorator….

    • They will not likely see the wisdom of this Bob and I can only agree with the assessment. Wind and solar could provide more energy that we will ever need and they chase to “false profits” of fossil fuels. If it weren’t so tragic it would almost be humorous.

      • Utility companies are getting it. Slower than many of us would like to see, but they are installing more wind and solar as well as not building new coal.

        Utilities are going to be forced to modify their business model. End-user solar is going to get so cheap that sunny hour demand from the utilities is going to plummet. The old high profit hours for coal and nuclear are going away. At the same time nighttime wind is destroying coal’s and nuclear’s ability to sell for a profit during hours of low demand.

        Utilities are going to be forced to build storage and dispatchable capacity. They’ll squeal as profits for coal and nuclear dry up and those investments loose money. But they will change.

  • The pro-nuke faction in particular loves the “renewables are inadequate” meme. You can number crunch all you want, but I’ve still yet to see any kind of insurmountable barrier keeping us from simply continuing to put up wind turbines and solar panels until our energy needs are adequately covered (along with corresponding distribution and storage to match supply with demand, over space and time respectively). Would someone care to “enlighten” me?

    • There’s no barrier. We could power ourselves with nothing but wind and solar plus the storage we now know how to create. But we really do need better storage, less expensive storage.

      If we don’t develop cheaper storage then we could turn to pump-up hydro and, with enough efficiency, hold our electricity prices within reason. However we do have promising storage technologies which could/should make our future electricity cheaper than today’s.

      • Riddle me this Bob. Why is pumped hydro limited by geography? What prevents me from digging a big cylindrical hole and build essentially a two level grain silo insided it, then pump all the hydro I want between those 2 levels? Concrete and water (especially on the coast) are cheap, right?

        • Nothing. But drilling that big hole is not cheap.

          There are movements afoot to use existing, abandoned mines for pump-up. In addition to “already being there” many mines are already flooded, so there’s no need to find an additional water source, just establish a surface level reservoir and install a pump/turbine.

          There was a company called (I think) Riverbank which was purposing to dig a below ground reservoir next to a river and do pump-up. I think they fell be the wayside. Possibly because we don’t actually need significant amounts of new storage yet.

          Most grids can absorb 25% or more wind and solar without adding storage. 25% for the eastern grid, 35% for the western, IIRC. And those numbers have likely grown as we’ve dumped coal and added natural gas, which is dispatchable. We may be a few years from needing large scale storage with wind now reaching 3.5% and solar well under 1%. I’ll bet things are different five years from now.

  • CO2 does not cause climate change and nobody can prove it can! And as for Solar panels they still need power station back up for night time and bad weather. With the coming little ice age caused by changes in the Suns output we will need plenty of reliable energy.

    • RE: CO2 and the atmosphere. That’s one of the most ignorant claims I’ve read in some time. Pure ignorance.

      Without some CO2 in the atmosphere our planet would be an ice ball. We’ve know that for over 100 years, We’ve known that CO2 traps heat for over 100 years. We’ve got excellent measurements which show us how much CO2 we’ve added to our atmosphere and we can prove the sources.

      And your criticism of solar panels is also ignorant. Obviously it would be close to impossible to run a modern economy on nothing but solar panels alone. Obviously storage and other sources of energy supply will be required to meet our 24/365 energy needs.

      Furthermore there is no “coming little ice age” in our future.

      If you are trying out for the resident troll position you’re going to have to step up your game. So far you have earned only a “stupid” merit badge.

  • “An ambitious national climate policy, anchored by a stiff price on carbon dioxide emissions, would serve both goals at once….might be new-age nuclear reactors, vastly improved solar cells, or something entirely unforeseen.”

    Add another price on NOx, COx, SOx and fine particles, and I’m sold. If you want to completely stop it’s production, set a low starting price that ramps up quickly and predictably. Give companies a 5 year warning and the economic impacts will be more positive (Investments to prepare and transition speeding up the economy) than negative (Extra costs driving up prices and slowing the economy) even if you ignore the environmental benefits.

    • As ignorant as you are of physics I suspect any charlton can sell you about anything, eh?

      • As a farmer I have been using Piers forecasts for more than 2 years and find them extremely accurate as compared to our UK MO.
        As for you calling me names you should look in the mirror1
        Our world weather is controlled by many things and is extremely complex
        eg. in the UK the AMO has a 30year cycle and we have just come out of a 30 warm cycle and the last couple of years we have bean entering a cooling one. Our weather is controlled mainly by Jetstreams and there is no way that CO2 controls them.

        • Piers typically makes quite general forcasts which can be correct but not of particular value. Do you really need to be told it will be cold in the winter and warmer in the summer? Do you need to be told that it is more likely to rain in the rainy season?

          If so, Piers is your man.

          When people have taken his specific predictions they have shown to be no better than chance. In other words useless.

          If you care to look his 2007 and 2008 data has been evaluated and it’s on the web.

    • BTW, loverboy, this site is not tolerant of those who engage in crackpot thinking. Climate change is settled science, just like the Earth not being flat and the Sun not rotating around it.

      Why don’t you take your ignorance somewhere else and play with it to your heart’s content? We’re about solutions for our climatic problems, not a day program for the mentally unstable….

  • That’s not the only way; you forgot; if she develops a decease, or you administer some hormones, etc 🙂 I mean this is kind of funny; if it not were for the obv potentially grand scale life and death scenario. I like the seven points of the 450ppm pathway too. Yet, I’m not optimistic; let alone hopeful. This reminded me of the death of the electric car years ago, biofuel slander, etc. Yet I agree, we need “energy miracles”; but of the practical, biological, right-now kind. Food being foremost, leftovers for industry and transportation. Might all be a myth, but at least it’s what I chose to believe. If we can not achieve that, or some other form of compromising harmonic balance; we indeed deserve to go the way of the dinosaur…

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