Homo Electric, Part 2: How To Make Electricity Great Again
The wind, solar and storage revolution
This article is the second in a three part series.
Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.
Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
A few months ago, the world’s total capacity of wind and solar passed the historic milestone of 1,000 GW. Which sounds pretty exciting. But what does it mean, exactly?
You might remember from school that a watt is a measure of energy, and we know 1,000 watts are 1 kilowatt, 1,000 kilowatts are 1 megawatt, and 1,000 megawatts are 1 gigawatt (years of dealing with flash disks and hard drives means we’re familiar with that kind of math). But none of these words gives us a sense of scale. It’s difficult to understand what 1 gigawatt actually does, or what it looks like, so here’s some perspective (thanks to Mike Mueller and Mikayla Rumph for allowing me to blatantly rip this off from them):
1 GW =
3.125 million solar panels
431 wind turbines
100 million LEDs
3 million horses
In Back to the Future II, the DeLorean requires 1.21 GW to warp the space time continuum
The Hoover Dam has 2 GW of capacity
The Three Gorges Dam in China, is 22 GW
There’s also a difference between how much power something can produce when going full tilt, how much power it actually produces. In the video above, the Yangtze River is in full flow, but that only happens for a few days a year. Those 3.125 million solar panels that make up a 1GW solar plant? They only work when the sun is shining, which means that even in a place where the sun shines 12 hours a day, all year round, they’re only putting out energy half the time. The average capacity factor of that system would be 50%.
In order to get a more useful measure, we therefore use something called a gigawatt hour, a measurement of how much energy is produced over time. In the course of one year for example, our 3.125 million solar panels would produce (don’t freak out, this is the first and last equation in this article):
1 GW (capacity) x 12 (hours of sunshine) x 365 (days a year)
= 4,380 GWh (gigawatt hours/year)
If we zoom out, the world’s total energy consumption in 2017 was the equivalent of 157 million GWh, meaning that if we managed to convert everything into electricity, then we’d need 36,000 of those hypothetical solar plants to power the planet. I say hypothetical, because in the real world, it’s a lot more complicated. On the one hand, the capacity factors for wind and solar can be higher or lower depending on where they’re situated, energy demand goes up and down, and then there’s all those billions of people, cars and heaters that’ll be coming online too. On the other, unlike fossil fuels, wind, solar, geothermal and tidal energy are a lot more efficient because the energy is directly transformed into electricity, without producing large quantities of waste heat.
The point here is not the specific numbers. The point is to try and convey a sense of the scale involved. The fact that we’ve managed to build 1,000 GW of clean energy capacity in the last decade is an extraordinary achievement. And yet to make electricity clean, we’re going to need to do that 30 to 40 times over again… and we’ve only got until 2050.
Can we do it?
There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.
Octavia E. Butler, Trickster
Want To Ride My (Clean Energy) Bicycle
While our newspapers and screens are filled with the daily trouser thrusting of preening politicians, there’s been a quiet revolution on the ground, driven not by environmentalism or altruism, but by the cold bloodless logic of the marketplace.
In 2017, global investment in renewable energy easily outstripped investment in coal, gas and nuclear power combined. We spent $280 billion on clean energy, and used that money to build 178 GW of renewables in a single year; solar installations alone reached 98.9GW. To put that into perspective, ten years ago the world had 8GW of solar capacity, most of it on the roofs of grizzled survivalists and lentil-eating environmentalists. Since then, installations have grown 57-fold, with utility scale solar overtaking small scale in 2014. The price of energy from utility-scale solar plants has dropped by 86% since 2009. The lowest price for solar power last year is the highest price now, and the price is set to halve again by 2020.
We’re improving the technology all the time too. Clever engineering breakthroughs, like the use of diamond wire to slice silicon wafers into ever-skinnier slabs, produce higher yields with less raw material. Cells are also getting smaller and more flexible, using new fabrication techniques that are less and less resource-intensive. How small? Try less than the width of a human hair. In June 2017, South Korean scientists created solar PV cells that were 1 micrometer thick. The cells produce roughly as much power as thicker PV cells, though in testing, they could wrap around a radius as small as 1.4 millimeters.
We’re also using new materials, like perovskite, an abundant and naturally occurring mineral that could make solar cells even cheaper in the future. Today, most commercial solar cells are made from crystalline silicon, which has a relatively high efficiency of around 22%. However, while silicon is abundant, processing it tends to be complex and shoots up the manufacturing costs, making the finished product expensive. Perovskite offers a more affordable solution. According to Professor Yabing Qi, from the Shaanxi Normal University in China, “Research on perovskite cells is very promising. In only nine years, the efficiency of these cells has gone from 3.8 % to 23.3%. Other technologies have taken over 30 years of research to reach the same level.” Until recently, perovskite’s biggest Achilles heel was that it degraded when exposed to air, but in early 2018, the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory reported that by tinkering with the innards of the cell, they were able to expose it to air without protection for 1,000 hours, and it retained 94% of its conversion efficiency.
These kinds of technologies are all still extremely expensive, and will be for a while. Most have been in development for less than a decade. Given the explosion of investment into this space though, eventually, they will find their way into markets and start getting scaled up. And with scale, costs come down. This is a crucial point — the price drops in the solar industry are happening not just because of innovation in the panel technology, but because of innovation that reduces the cost of manufacturing the panels, through reducing the costs of installations, and through sheer learning by doing.
This learning curve actually has a name. It’s called Swanston’s Law, and it’s one of the most famous phenomena in the energy world. It says that the price of solar is a function of scale. Every time you double the amount of solar you’re manufacturing the price drops by 28%. And every time you double the size of a large scale solar project, it brings down prices by 15%. This has held true all the way back to the first ever solar panels used for the US space program in the 1970s. It’s an exponential function.
Wind also has a learning curve, with a 10.5% reduction in cost for every doubling in capacity. While this is less impressive than solar, it’s only part of the story. Wind energy is also getting more efficient. The average capacity factor of onshore wind has risen from around 20% in 2000 to 42.5% for projects built in 2016. If this trend continues, the best sites will be reaching 60% capacity factors by 2025, approaching baseload levels of reliability.
New turbines have bigger, wider blades, and their towers are taller, lifting them into less turbulent air. The algorithms that calibrate them are more sophisticated, computer modelling positions them more effectively across the landscape, and they’re equipped with more sensors, generating data that improves operational performance and feeds into the development of the next generation of machines. According to a 2017 report from Goldman Sachs, wind turbines today generate the same power in 18 km/h winds that turbines a decade ago required 36 km/h winds for.
Where wind turbines get really exciting though, is when you move them off the land and into the sea. Offshore wind has three key advantages over onshore wind. First, most people in the world live near the coast, so you don’t have to transmit the energy as far. Secondly, because ocean winds are steadier, they deliver power that is less variable than their onshore counterparts. Onshore wind farms might have average capacity factors of around 40%, but the best new offshore turbines are already at a 50%, and could eventually get to 70% or higher. Most importantly, out in the ocean, with land barely in sight, the only limitation on size is engineering. Consequently, offshore turbines are getting bigger even faster than onshore turbines have over the past decade.
Vestas for example, has just released a 9.5 MW offshore turbine that is “two to three times bigger than the standard turbines from only a few years ago.” And in March 2018, GE Renewable Energy announced it would be investing $400 million to develop a new 12 MW monster: the Haliade-X, the biggest, tallest, and most powerful wind turbine in the world. It will be as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and each of its blades longer than the Statue of Liberty. Its average capacity factor will be 63%, and the first units are expected to ship in 2021.
Take all of this together, and you get one of the fastest and most astonishing turnarounds in the history of energy. We are now well past the point at which building new wind and solar is cheaper than building new coal or gas. According to the most recent edition of a highly influential benchmarking study done by a financial firm called Lazard, the cost of producing 1 GWh of energy from solar is now $50,000, while the cost of the same amount from coal is $102,000.
Even more astonishingly, that same study reports that “the full lifecycle costs of building and operating renewables based projects have dropped below the operating costs alone of conventional generation technologies such as coal or nuclear.” That means there are places around the world where it’s now cheaper to stick up turbines and panels than it is to keep on digging coal out of the ground.
That’s why Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change recently said, “I am no longer worried about electricity.” It’s why Sebastian Henbest, the head of the BNEF Europe, says “solar and wind have already won the race for cheap, bulk electricity — it just hasn’t finished playing out yet.”
And in the four biggest carbon emitters in the world, Europe, India, the United States and China, this potent combination of scientific progress, technological capacity and economic reality, is starting to bite.
The world’s first public coal-fired power plant was built in London in 1882. Today, in the world’s fifth largest economy and the birthplace of the first Industrial Revolution, coal is edging to extinction. It supplied just 1.3% of electricity in the second quarter of 2018. Half of the country’s electricity now comes from low carbon sources (the rest comes from gas) and carbon emissions have fallen to their lowest level since 1890, when Queen Victoria was on the throne. In 2017, the UK went for a day without burning coal for the first time in 140 years, and this year, there have been 42 cumulative days powered without coal.
The first country in the world to develop coal-fired power may now be one of the first to end it.
Across the Channel, similar forces are at play. There are more than 280 coal fired power plants across Europe, representing 160GW of capacity. Deteriorating economics and stronger climate policies are squeezing them out. More than 200 of those plants are 30 years or older, making them likely to close when faced with stringent new EU emissions reduction targets, and 11 European nations have either closed their coal fleets or announced they will close them by a specific date, including France by 2023, Italy and the UK by 2025, and Denmark and the Netherlands by 2030. That takes care of about a fifth of the EU’s total power generation. Another third will come from Germany, Europe’s largest coal user, once they set an end date for coal power in 2019.
The logic of these decisions is pretty simple. Over half of Europe’s coal-fired power stations are now loss-making, and almost all will be by 2030. The continent’s utilities have responded accordingly. In 2017, the 28 European Union member states passed a new landmark in the transition to a renewable energy supply: for the first time, more of their electricity came from the sun, wind and biomass (20.9%) than from coal (20.6%) or gas (19.7%). That’s incredible progress, considering that five years ago coal generation was more than twice that of renewables.
That hasn’t had much of an effect yet on emissions, thanks to the retirement of a lot of nuclear power and lower than expected hydropower, but that will change quickly as the European-wide 2030 target of 40% emission reductions (compared to 1990) begins kicking in. In Germany, the biggest economy on the continent, the dirtiest fossil fuels are already in big trouble. Lignite and hard coal’s share of the market dropped by 10% in a year, and renewables have now overtaken them for the first time. Between January and September 2018, clean energy accounted for 38% of all electricity in Germany, an increase of three percentage points over a year earlier, according to utility association BDEW.
In May, wind turbines in Scotland generated enough output to supply 100% or more of Scottish homes on 11 of 31 days. Scotland’s carbon emissions have now halved since 1990, and its leaders have announced a new target to reduce levels by 90% by the middle of the century. Sweden is on track to reach its 2030 renewables target 12 years early thanks to a surge in wind power. And Turkey has experienced the fastest growth in solar installations, its capacity growing by 1.79 GW (Germany was second with 1.75 GW and the United Kingdom was third).
India is the world’s third-largest carbon polluter, and the last great hope of coal companies around the world. Back in 2010, India’s coal pipeline stood at well over 600GW, a statistic that had every coal industry executive in the world frothing at the mouth. As the world’s nations gathered in 2015 in Paris, India was still insisting that in order to lift hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty, it intended to continue on that path.
By December 2016, a total turnaround, with the announcement of a new energy plan to get more than half of India’s electricity from renewables by 2027. The way the government sees it, coal-fired power is now the risky, high cost option. Overall, 695GW of proposed coal power capacity has been shelved or cancelled in India since 2010, over three times its operating capacity of 219 GW. The pool of remaining coal-fired power projects at the pre-construction stage has shrunk by 25%, or 24 GW, in the last six months alone.
Because power demand has risen slower than expected and renewable energy has come online faster than expected, the country’s coal plants are now only running at around half their full capacity. Two thirds of India’s existing coal power generation (94 GW) is now being sold to utilities at rates higher than the cost of new solar and wind, and 40 GW of the country’s coal plants have been deemed financially stressed. Keeping them running already costs India billions of wasted dollars every year.
And it’s about to get worse for the coal executives. At the World Health Organization’s recent Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, Satyendra Kumar, the Deputy Secretary of India’s Ministry of the Environment, Forests and Climate Change, announced that India would cut fine particle air pollution by 20–30% by 2024 in the 102 cities that routinely breach air pollution standards. As those standards cut in over the next eight years, the costs of running the stations will continue to rise, further eating into their razor thin profit margins, and closing more of them down.
This stuff is starting to bite. Most of the units at the Mundra plant for example (the largest coal station in the country) have been switched off, as it is cheaper to incur a penalty for breach of power purchase agreement than lose money by keeping them running. There is growing concern that these kinds of stranded coal assets may present a risk to India’s banking system. Analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch see Indian banks facing US$38 billion in losses on bad loans to the coal-fired power sector. As a result, India’s Central Electricity Authority has proposed closing nearly 50 GW of coal capacity by 2027, and the government has announced a moratorium on new coal plant approvals until 2027.
Economics have flipped the equation. Renewable energy costs have fallen by 50% in two years, and are forecast to continue dropping apace. New wind and solar is now 20% cheaper than existing coal-fired generation’s average wholesale power price. The Indian fiscal year that ended in March 2017 was the first time ever that renewables installations outpaced coal-fired power construction, and the following fiscal year, from April 2017 to March 2018, saw net coal installations of 4.2 GW (down 46% year on year) and the addition of more solar than all other technologies combined, with a total of 10.4 GW.
Investments into clean energy in India rose 22% in the first half of 2018 compared to the same period last year. In June 2018, India increased its already ambitious clean energy target to 227 GW — a staggering 28% bump. Power Minister R. K. Singh has announced the possibility of a 100 GW solar tender program, as well as a move into offshore wind, with a total installed capacity target of 30 GW by 2030. At this rate, India is expected to overtake China and become the largest growth market for clean energy by the late 2020s.
In 2008, half of the US electricity was produced by coal. Then came the shale boom, unlocking a flood of cheap and cleaner-burning natural gas. Since then, natural gas’s share of electricity generation has increased from 22% to 34%, becoming the largest fuel source for the country’s power plants. Meanwhile, the average American uses nearly 8% less energy today than a decade ago, thanks to energy efficiency improvements. The result? Power sector emissions dropped by 24% in the United States between 2005 and 2016, the quickest and biggest reduction by any country in the world.
However, while gas is cleaner than coal, it’s not carbon free. Nuclear isn’t going to help either. Five of the country’s nuclear plants have shut down in the past decade. Of the remaining 99, at least a dozen more may close in the next decade. Meanwhile, efforts to build new nuclear reactors in this country have been either cancelled or beset by substantial delays and cost overruns. There is no money going into nuclear — meaning that we are unlikely to see new innovations or policy changes that might provide a respite for the industry in the foreseeable future.
Which is why it’s good news that renewables are sneaking up behind it. A year after He Who Shall Not Be Named announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, the wind and solar industries are going gangbusters, every US state has tightened its clean energy and climate change policies, and according to Ernst & Young, the United States is now second only to China in terms of attractiveness for investment.
In 2017, the country generated 39 times more solar power than it did in 2008. Solar now makes up more than 10% of electricity in five states — California, Hawaii, Nevada, Vermont and Massachusetts — and accounted for 2.4% of total generation and 55% of newly installed capacity during the first half of 2018. There’s more coming too, 8.5GW of solar PV has been announced in the first half of 2018 alone. That’s more utility-scale PV than in 2014 and 2015 combined. The current utility-scale pipeline is 23.9GW, “the highest in the history of the US solar industry.”
Wind has also seen dramatic growth, growing five-fold since 2008. The costs of installing a wind farm have come down by two thirds, which means the US has the second largest amount of installed wind in the world, 90 GW across 41 states as of June 2018. Those wind resources are in some interesting places. Texas, for example, is the leading state for wind, with nearly triple the amount of its nearest competitor, Iowa. Four of the eleven largest wind farms in the world are in the region around Sweetwater, an old oil rush town, where wind farmers like to say that the thrum of the turbines is the sound of money.
This stuff is starting to bite. In 2017, not only did coal use fall by 2.5%, but for the first time ever, so did natural gas, by 1.4%. Once you take into account the retirement of old fossil fuel plants, 94.7% of the power added to the US grid last year came from renewables. Even better, in March 2018, the US reached a huge milestone. For the first time since the 1960s renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar and wind) are now providing a greater share of the nation’s electrical generation than nuclear power.
One of the US media’s favourite tricks in recent years has been to visit coal country, and report on people whose jobs are on the line. There’s no shortage of fodder. Last year, 7.3 GW of coal-fired generation was retired, and this year, the number will more than double. The number of coal mining jobs has dwindled to 60,000 and communities in places like West Virginia are feeling the pinch. A week long visit by a journalist to the former coal mining communities in the Appalachias with a photographer in tow makes for a great hard luck story, and one that sells well in to readerships that seem to be angry about everything.
There’s been far less reporting on the other side of the story. Climate change might be a controversial issue in the red and blue states, divided along partisan lines, but clean energy isn’t, for one simple reason. Jobs. Employment in the renewables sector is growing at 12 times the rate of the rest of the economy. In 2017, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics said it expected wind turbine technicians to represent the second-fastest-growing occupation in America, more than doubling in overall number of employees to more than 200,000 by 2026.
The fastest growing job in the United States today?
Solar panel installer.
The U.S. solar industry currently has more than 260,000 workers nationwide. As the executive director of the Solar Foundation, Andrea Luecke, points out, “that’s more workers than Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon combined.” What’s more, those jobs are disproportionately found in red states, such as Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas — states that benefit also from cheaper electricity for homes and businesses. Perhaps that’s why an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the government should encourage clean energy, including 80% of Republicans. Even the Kentucky Coal Museum has now switched to solar power. These stories don’t make the mainstream press, because they don’t grab attention in the same way, but they’re still happening, below the radar, and slowly but inexorably transforming the landscape of the US electricity sector.
The biggest economic story and the biggest climate story of the 21st century take place in the same country: starting around 2000, China’s economy went ballistic, powered almost entirely by coal-fired energy. By 2017, its coal capacity reached 935 GW, half of the world’s total. When the country’s negotiators arrived in Paris in 2015, another 515GW was still waiting in the pipeline, a literal carbon time bomb. Understandably, when Beijing promised that its emissions would peak before 2030 very few observers took them seriously.
However, China is a country where science and engineering are still held in high regard. Its leaders understand that building a low carbon economy is the only viable way the future will come, and that the countries that get there first are going to make a lot of money. Clean energy has been placed at the centre of their industrial strategy. Carbon emissions intensity during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011–2015) decreased by 21.8%. They’re set to drop a further 18% under the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020). Overall emissions fell for the first time in 2015, were flat in 2016, ticked up again slightly in 2017, and are forecast to drop again in 2018. That means that China’s major commitment under the Paris Agreement will now be met a decade ahead of schedule.
Like India, China is struggling with excess coal power capacity. Between 2006 and 2018 China commissioned 70% (715GW) of the world’s new coal-fired capacity. That’s now rubbing up against the country’s ambitious renewable goals. The average utilisation rate for thermal plants fell below 50% in 2015, where it has stayed, meaning Chinese power company profits from coal power are fast eroding. To rein in growing overcapacity, China’s central government began instituting a series of proposals in 2016 to slow the pace of new coal plants being built.
These proposals totalled 430GW under various stages of development — comparable to the entire fleets of the US and India combined. Today, the pipeline of new coal stands at 76GW, and is falling every day. Less than 2GW of new coal capacity has been proposed in China in 2018. The amount of coal power capacity in pre-construction stages has declined too. In the first half of 2018, proposed capacity has dropped by 20%, from 447 GW to 364GW. Overall, the pre-construction pipeline has fallen by two-thirds since 2015, when it was 1,090GW.
Keisuke Sadamori, IEA director for energy markets and security, told a conference call for journalists: “It is clear that the golden decade of coal is over in China. We see the coal demand in China in structural and slow decline.” In large part, that’s because China’s big cities are choked with smog, a growing health crisis that has the government going after coal with increasing intensity. But it’s also because China is a rising power, increasingly confident in its geopolitical role over the course of the coming century. The Chinese rank highest among those who think a fully renewable world is important.
That’s why the government is going hell for leather on clean energy. In 2012, China’s installed capacity of wind and solar power was 61GW and 3.4GW respectively, and generated 2.1% of electricity. By 2017, wind and solar had increased to 168.5 GW and 130.06 GW respectively, and were generating 5.3% of total electricity supply. For every dollar the United States invested last year, China invested three. Cleaning up its energy mix is a key policy objective, and since around two thirds of electricity comes from burning coal, there’s a lot of room for further investment.
How long can men thrive between walls of brick, walking on asphalt pavements, breathing the fumes of coal and oil, growing, working, dying, with hardly a thought of wind, and sky, and fields of grain, seeing only machine-made beauty, the mineral-like quality of life?
The Death of Coal
The era of coal as our dominant source of electricity has lasted for more than a century. That era is coming to an end. Coal is being squeezed out and the energy transition is happening. Six of the world’s countries have completely phased out coal power, and an additional 17 have announced phase-out dates by 2030 or sooner, including three of the G7 economies. Five years ago, there were zero.
The Powering Past Coal Alliance, a global push by the British and Canadian governments, is now backed by over 50 countries, regions and businesses. Over a quarter of the 1,675 companies that owned or developed coal-fired power capacity since 2010 have entirely left the coal power business. The IEA estimates that global investment in coal has peaked and is headed rapidly down. CoalSwarm’s latest global coal status report shows growth in coal rapidly slowing; it estimates global coal capacity could peak as early as 2022.
For coal executives everywhere, the last remaining hope is that the drop in China and India might be replaced with an increase in other parts of the world. Those hopes are starting to crumble. Japan has called off 3.6GW of proposed coal capacity since 2017, and South Korea recently announced it would stop issuing permits for new coal plants. Indonesia, which has built the third highest number of new coal power plants after India and China in this century, has now said it will not start any new coal projects.
The pool of potential customers dwindles every year. A new analysis from independent financial think tank Carbon Tracker has concluded that it would be cheaper to build new solar PV and onshore wind capacity in Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines by the end of the next decade rather than continue operating existing coal-fired power plants. The news about Vietnam is particularly bad — it currently has the world’s third largest plans for new coal, totalling 46GW, of which only 11GW is being built. According to Alex Perea, the deputy director of energy at the World Resources Institute, “The government is increasingly invested in changing their trajectory. Vietnam provides an interesting and important combination of conditions that can enable a meaningful transition to clean energy: government commitments to renewables and a private sector eager to meet increasingly stringent clean energy targets.”
Turkey also has significant plans to expand its coal fleet. However, the economics there are also starting to bite, with only 1GW of a total pipeline of 43GW of new coal currently under construction. Similarly, Egypt has 15GW of planned capacity, but none of it has moved beyond the earliest phases of development. Instead, the government is looking to solar, as the eastern region of the Sahara Desert has some of the best sunlight on the planet. Saudi Arabia is looking toward the desert too, and has plans to get all of the country’s electricity from solar by 2030.
Most of the world’s countries see the writing on the wall.
Coal’s public image has been destroyed. Luke Popovich, former spokesman, for the National Mining Association, says that “coal’s single biggest liability is the perception that it is a bygone industry, not a future one. The picturesque miner with a dented lunchbox and blackened face may glorify the industry’s industrial past, but it reinforces the perception that coal is dangerous and dirty and that it has no role to play in a digital age, driving a clean knowledge-based economy.”
Increasingly, the world’s biggest investors and financiers see that too. Allianz, the world’s biggest insurance company by assets, has stopped insuring coal-fired power plants and coal mines and has banned new coal from its investment portfolio. Six sovereign wealth funds which collectively represent more than $3 trillion in assets have committed to only invest in companies that factor climate risks into their strategies. BlackRock, the world’s biggest fund manager, with assets worth $5.1 trillion has threatened to vote out directors of companies that fail to address the risks posed to their businesses by climate change.
In the past year, HSBC, Lloyds, JP MorganChase and Munich Re have all said they will stop financing coal. The TFFD, a global initiative to force companies to reveal their exposure to climate change risks, has moved from an academic exercise to a market-shaping endeavour fully endorsed by 225 global investors with more than $26.3 trillion in assets under management and 237 firms with a market capitalisation of $6.3 trillion. Even BHP Billiton has said it is now preparing to quit the World Coal Association over a stance on climate change the mining giant regards as less than constructive. Within a few years every listed company on the planet will face calls from shareholders to explain how they plan to adjust to a decarbonising economy and escalating climate risks.
It’s still not enough
To finish the Trillion Dollar Time Trial on time, and limit the planet to 2°C, we have to go way faster. Right now, the world’s coal capacity is around 2,000 GW, and there’s another 400 GW in the pipelines. By 2020, we cannot be adding any new coal plants, anywhere. The United States and Europe need to be coal free by 2030 and China and India a decade or so after. Almost all the world’s coal plants would have to close by 2040 to stay below the threshold. Energy analyst Matt Gray points out that this would mean closing 100GW of coal capacity every year for 20 years, or roughly one coal power plant every day until 2040.
And all of this is still the first half of the race. The second half includes dealing with the really difficult things like aviation, long-distance hauling, and the cement and steel industries, which produce carbon dioxide in the manufacturing process itself. To clean up these huge sectors of the economy, we’re going to need better carbon capture and storage tools, as well as cheaper biofuels or energy storage.
You can start to see why this is so tough right? As Daniel Schrag, a former Obama energy advisor, puts it, “we need to accelerate by a factor of 20, and I don’t think people understand what that is, in terms of steel and glass and cement.”
This is bigger than the Manhattan Project, bigger even than war mobilisation. And this time around it’s going to need all 195 of the world’s nations pulling together, rather than against each other. The stakes are quite literally the fate of the planet.
If we get it right, we fundamentally alter the world, usher in a new industrial revolution and rearrange entire economies and geopolitics.
If we get it wrong, we burn.
Batteries are like bacon. They just make everything better.
Director of Grid Technology and Modernization, Southern California Edison
Battery Powered Bicycle Lubricant
To take up the slack, we’re going to need to drastically improve our bicycle. Right now, we have control over our fossil fuelled energy sources, choosing when to ramp up the gas peakers or turn off the coal plants. Sun and wind by contrast, are unpredictable. It’s hard to know whether we’re going to have an overcast day or windless evening. The sun doesn’t shine at night and wind blows intermittently, and both are seasonal, waxing in summer and waning in winter.
As renewables continue to provide a larger portion of the grid’s electricity, we’re going to need to build out a much larger system of generation, transmission and storage, and we’re also going to need to rethink what a modern grid actually looks like. As energy analyst Jason Pontin says, “the person or group who solves that problem will be the Prometheus of our age.”
Fortunately, hot on the heels of the wind and solar revolutions, we’re seeing a similar one in storage. Battery prices in the last five years have plunged dramatically, way faster than forecasters expected. That’s due to the learning curve in manufacturing capabilities brought about by first smartphones, and now electric vehicles. The improving economics of those batteries mean that new clean energy projects around the world are starting to come with storage options attached.
South Australia for example, is home to the 100MW Hornsdale Tesla battery, the world’s biggest, most badass storage system. It was famously built in less than 100 days for $66 million, as a result of a bet between two tech moguls on Twitter, and in its first year of operations has stunned energy nerds around the world with its speed, accuracy and versatility. It set that standard within weeks of being switched on, when a coal plant in the neighbouring state of Victoria tripped and went offline. The Tesla battery delivered 100MW into the national electricity grid in 140 milliseconds, so quickly that the regulator didn’t even have the right metrics to measure it.
The battery’s next trick came in January 2018 when the Australian Energy Market Operator asked power generators to supply them with extra energy to help maintain the grid’s frequency. Usually the big gas generators, despite having way more capacity than required, charge prices that are up to ten times higher because they know they’ve got everyone over a barrel. Unfortunately for them this time the Tesla battery was there, bidding into the market to ensure that the prices stayed reasonable.
Rather than jumping up to the usual prices of AU$14,000/MW, the battery and the adjoining wind farm kept them at around AU$270/MW. This saved several million dollars in charges in a single day, which would have been passed on to other power generators and ultimately, consumers. As a result of these and other grid modulation services, in its first six months of operations, the Hornsdale installation has made around $9 million. In addition, its operator expects to receive another $7.5 million in its first year from selling stored electricity back to the grid, bringing total expected income for its first year of operations to more than $25 million. The battery in other words, is on track to pay itself off in less than three years.
Utility companies around the world are sitting up and taking notice. The payback time for most of their generating plants and infrastructure is usually measured in decades, not years. In early 2018 it was the turn of American energy analysts to lose their minds when a utility company in Colorado revealed ‘shockingly low bids’ from developers. With storage technology costs included, the average price for wind was lower than the operating cost of all of the state’s coal plants, and for solar plus storage, the price was lower than three quarters of operating coal capacity.
The Hornsdale wind farm in other words, is just the first in a whole new wave of clean energy projects that are now coming with batteries attached. And as costs drop, it won’t just be coal that gets pushed out, but gas too. Research by Bain & Company estimates that by 2025 large-scale battery storage could be cost competitive with peaking power plants —and Bloomberg has just released a new report showing that the cost of utility-scale lithium-ion battery storage systems will slide another 52% between 2018 and 2030. The same report suggests the global energy storage market will attract $1.2 trillion in investment over the next 22 years, growing to a cumulative 942GW. That’s a staggering amount of capacity — equivalent to around half of China’s entire electricity consumption.
Critics of battery farms say they can’t handle all the chores of a stable grid. That’s true. But it’s also kind of irrelevant. What the Hornsdale farm’s first year of operations show is that the most important innovation for clean energy isn’t storage. It’s large scale grids that mix solar and wind — and batteries are the thing that makes that mixing possible.
They aren’t there for storage; they’re there for lubrication.
They make the grid work more effectively. They’re there to store a few hours of power, smooth out the curves, regulate flows and drive down costs. They provide a super quick, flexible, much-needed injection of reliability and resiliency into our electricity networks. They’re the missing link in a distributed energy system that will eventually mix counter-cyclical surges of solar and wind.
We’ve got better technologies coming in this area too. In some parts of the battery industry, the focus has moved from using liquid electrolytes to solid state batteries, which provide safer and more powerful energy storage. Toyota says it’s working to commercialise the technology in the early 2020s, and British car company Dyson says it will invest $1.3 billion to build an electric car using solid state batteries within three years. In Massachusetts a startup has developed a lithium metal battery that has double the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries, and is now selling them commercially for use in drones.
In large scale storage, the most exciting development is what’s known as vanadium flow batteries, which are nonflammable, compact, have a lifetime of 15,000 cycles, discharge all of their stored energy and do not degrade for more than 20 years. In other words, they’re safer, more scalable, longer lasting and and they cost less than half their equivalents in lithium-ion. In China more than 30 projects with vanadium flow batteries have been deployed, including one that’s twice the size of the Tesla battery in Australia.
The battery industry is also working to reduce the cost of existing technologies, by removing for example, expensive cobalt from the cathodes of lithium ion batteries, and replacing them with nickel or manganese. These metals are cheaper, more abundant and safer to work with, and using them would also reduce the human cost, because many mines in Congo, the world’s leading source of cobalt, use children to do difficult manual labour. Researchers are also using new X-ray techniques, as well as electron microscopes and scanning probes, to watch ions move and physical structures change as energy is stored and released, allowing them to imagine new battery structures and materials.
These innovations are providing vital test data for future projects, and are also at the core of the next major wave of the energy transition: