There’s a problem in human logic that creeps in on a regular basis, and that I would say always has and always will. If someone is very successful in one area of business or life, we have a tendency to give their opinion too much weight in other areas. This happens even more so when someone is highlighted as “extremely smart” or “a genius.” Granted, with regards to some topics that are on the surface “outside of their areas of success” but maybe have loose but important connections, we probably should give their opinion a bit more weight than the average human or humanoid. However, we have a tendency to do so far too much, and with topics that they really don’t have legitimate expertise in.
Regarding the broad topic of energy, a couple of notable people who get a lot of attention for their anti-renewables opinions are billionaire Bill Gates and highly renowned climate scientist James Hansen. I’ve illuminated their mistakes in logic in several articles, but I’ve never really known why these two people have been so anti-renewables and pro-nuclear in recent years.
Andrew Beebe apparently uncovered a (or the) key reason for Bill’s bias (h/t Greentech Media), and it’s surprisingly simple and superficial. In this piece, I’ll tackle that a little bit, highlight the huge underlying mistakes, and
wax poetic write boringly about the role of media and genuine experts in spreading good information in a world of TMI (too much information).
For some previous pieces about these experts’ faulty anti-renewables logic, see:
The Curious Case of Bill Gates & Energy “Information”
Andrew Beebe, in his efforts to decode the “energy bug” Bill Gates has in his logic, highlighted a key phrase that typically gets passed over: “The kernel of Gates’ mistake goes back to his reliance on ‘the top scientists.’ “
Hmm, who are these top scientists? That may lead us somewhere, right?
Here’s one scientist Andrew has identified:
Gates has specifically referenced Vaclav Smil as one of his most respected energy advisors and writers. He has sung his praises repeatedly, and others are listening. Gates’ reading list is very popular, and now people like Mark Zuckerberg reference Smil as someone they turn to as well.
If you click on the link on Vaclav Smil’s name, you can see that he is indeed a highly esteemed and awarded scientist. So, what’s the problem?
Note that the page says that he “does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy.” There’s nothing wrong with being interested in many topics and studying them in an interdisciplinary approach — I’d say we actually need more of that. However, there’s only so much time in the day. While studying environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy, you’re typically taking time away from developing a better understanding of the energy industry, especially when the industry is changing so fast.
As I’ve written before, most people who have any clue what the price of solar is probably have a price in their heads that is 2–100 times too high. The problem isn’t even whether or not you got information on the price of solar — it’s whether or not you’ve updated that information much in recent years. There’s a similar story for wind energy, energy storage, and electric vehicles.
The message that Gates got from Vaclav Smil’s book Energy Myths and Realities is succinctly summarized by Andrew: “that we need miracles to the carbon challenges we face, because no technology solution in production today is energy-dense and/or cost-effective enough to scale in a timely fashion.”
Well, that’s an odd and incorrect conclusion, isn’t it? How did Smil (and, thus, Gates) come to such a conclusion?
EV Prices & Competitiveness
Unfortunately, the conclusion wasn’t based on sound methodology, and one of the underlying assumptions is an assumption I wouldn’t want my daughters to make by the time they are 5 years old. Here’s Beebe:
There is a fundamental fallacy undermining Smil’s logic. He appears to believe that simply because an innovation failed to meet its promise in the past, it will continue to fail. For EVs, his example is Amory Lovins’ Hypercar. Hypercar, an early pioneer in EV and materials design, failed as a business. However, Smil makes the mistake of using this example as the reason the next major EV startup will obviously fail. Unfortunately for him, Smil, writing in 2010, chose Elon Musk to ridicule, sarcastically noting that this entrepreneur “expects his business to be ‘a raging success…worth multiple billions of dollars.’” (4) The lesson here is that you can’t build a statistical case off of a single subject.
For the record, at the moment, Tesla is valued at >$30 billion. Most of us who know much about the company would say that Tesla is on a path to historic success. Even more of us would contend that electric vehicles are going to take over the market. But back in 2010, that was a much more debatable topic. The problem with Smil’s argument isn’t just that he was wrong in the end, though — it’s that it was seemingly based more on a guess than an understanding of how disruptive technology works and why EVs and solar are disruptive technologies. Here’s more from Beebe:
Smil seems more obsessed with poo-pooing the psychological hype machines than with really attempting to understand how the advances in battery technology have changed the game. “Because the list of its key promoters and ‘founding owners’ includes assorted Silicon Valley executives (leaving aside celebrities like Clooney), many people have begun to assume that in such techno-savvy hands the electric car is now bound to follow the trajectory of personal computers or mobile phones. They will be badly disappointed.” (5) Ask a Tesla Model S driver (or a Nissan Leaf driver, for that matter), if they are “badly disappointed.”
Any Tesla, Nissan LEAF, or other EV owners want to chime in?
When it came to batteries, Smil really bombed — technologically and in terms of cost drop that would come with increasing production:
When considering the lifespan or “cycle life” problem lithium ion batteries have, Smil once again ignores the immortal words of Wayne Gretzky and refuses to look at where the puck is going. On battery life, he states “The normal expectation is for two to three years of service.” (6) Maybe that was true six years ago when Smil was doing his research, but it’s clearly not true today.
Smil seems to have given up on the ability of incredible engineers, designers and entrepreneurs to collectively propel us into a cleaner, smarter, better future. When speaking about battery advancement, he laments, “I have not seen any proofs that the transformation of most of these new designs… will make cars much better than the best-performing models of today. My best guess is that something like Edison’s frustrating experience lies ahead, and not any Intel-like rate of advance.” (7) While the assertion sounds reasonable, we now know in hindsight it wasn’t a great guess. In fact, lithium ion has mirrored the extraordinary cost reduction curve of solar, despite not changing the fundamental chemistry.
Here’s a chart on battery costs and projections:
But hey, a lot of people don’t understand batteries and were very wrong on their battery price projections. How about solar, a more mature technology?
The story gets even more ridiculous here….
Solar Power Prices & Competitiveness
Here’s Beebe’s entire section on solar, since it’s too good to splice up:
Smil saves his most consistent and dismissive slings for renewable energy generation (what he terms “soft energy”). In his view, those promoting renewables have “a misplaced faith in technical fixes as the best solution to the complex challenge of ensuring a global energy supply.” (8) He goes on to blame “soft energy’s” failure on its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s, not on any technical merit. Again, this is a paper written with 20 percent of the back of the book dedicated to scientific references. Yet his chapter dismissing clean energy concludes with a comparison of soft energy to Maoism.
Philosophizing aside, what’s most disconcerting is when a data-driven thesis is based on false data. In analyzing solar cost data, Smil describes a seemingly asymptotic decline in the costs of solar “cells”:
“Undoubtedly, PV cells have been getting cheaper. Modules cost more than $20 per peak watt in 1980, about $10 by 1985, and around $5 a decade later; but the price was still close to $4.50 at the end of 2009.” (9)
Giving him the benefit of the doubt here, Smil must have confused “PV cell” costs with “total installed cost per watt of a solar system.” In 2009, PV module prices were below $2/Wp and dropping fast. Of course PV cells, a component of a module, were much less in terms of cost per watt ($1.05/Wp)(10). More importantly, the cost reduction was not asymptotic. On the contrary, the costs plummeted further in the following years, and have dropped nearly another 75 percent (10). This is a significant error, since he would have a point if he were talking about cells at this $4.50 price level, and we’d all be the worse for it. However, since the truth is quite different, his data has served to confuse and mislead people like Bill Gates.
Smil again used incorrect (and this time, unattributed) data when referencing solar modules: “Moreover, the PV industry now aims at reducing the price of solar modules from about $4.5/W by the end of 2009 to $1.5-$2/W within a decade, a rate of price improvement far more sluggish than that conforming to Moore’s law.” (11)
Alas, this too is simply false. At the time of the writing of the book, I and many other entrepreneurs and solar executives were in fact announcing efforts to push below $1/Wp for fully installed systems, with solar modules at below $.50/Wp. In fact, we crushed that target, selling solar panels at $.50/Wp only seven years after Smil’s book was published. Furthermore, as stated above, the costs of solar modules in 2009 were already below the $1.50/Wp amount referenced as his decade-out target.(12)
As I’ve detailed in recent articles, solar prices have gotten insanely low. Wind prices were insanely low even earlier. Contending that solar prices and wind prices can’t go low enough was a huge, massive, ginormous mistake. But how the heck can any logical person who has stayed up to date on the prices still take Smil’s argument to its “logical” conclusion?
A large solar project bid has gotten down to as low as 3¢/kWh over the course of a long-term PPA. New nuclear can’t touch that. New coal can’t touch that. New natural gas can’t touch that. New fairy dust can’t touch that.
This comes on the heels of solar price drops so sharp that even bullish forecasters couldn’t catch the wave.
The Future Is Arriving — Time To Wake Up
Yes, solar, wind, and EV batteries prices were capable of dropping fast. There’s no inherent reason why solar & wind can’t power most of the world. Costs are already largely competitive, but cleantech costs continue to drop (solar will get much cheaper yet, and EVs certainly will), while fossil fuel and nuclear costs rise.
The future is solar- and wind-powered electric vehicles. If Bill Gates, Vaclav Smil, and James Hansen don’t see that, they need to read more CleanTechnica. The future isn’t even up for debate — the future is arriving.