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RethinkX on Energy: A Reaction to the Rethinking Energy 2020–2030 Disruption Report

A favorite argument of the detractors of renewable energy-based electricity production is the intermittency of the sources — the fact that the sun does not always shine, and the wind does not always blow. They also point to the impracticality of storage of solar and wind-generated electricity on any significant scale, given sheer cost. And they hold on the basis of these facts that any attempt to meet a significant portion of need from those sources results in there either being a surplus of electricity when it may be unwanted, or a scarcity of electrity when it is needed. The latter problem, more obvious than the former, means that really large-scale use, and certainly the 100 percent reliance the optimists talk about, requires really massive redundancy in generating capacity. That is to say that to produce enough to meet 100 percent of our need, we must produce much more than 100 percent, just to meet our requirement, with the excess going to waste. Driving down efficiency and driving up costs, this makes any such scheme so profligate and so costly that only eco-besotted fools would waste a moment’s time on it, the detractors tell us, while also assuring us that this is virtually certain to remain the case throughout the foreseeable future.

Of course, this argument (like just about all the detractors’ old standards) has been crumbling for a good, long while. The falling cost of renewable-generated electricity, its becoming competitive with and then increasingly cheaper than such longtime electricity-production mainstays as coal and nuclear, and even natural gas, and all that on a purely “market” basis (which is to say, even without taking into account the subsidies of and externalities caused by them), make the economics look less forbidding than before. Helping, too, is the quite obvious approach of compensating for the intermittency of renewables with strategic combination. (The sun does not always shine, and the wind does not always blow — but not always at the same time, so that having solar and wind working together is at least a partial solution.) And on top of that, battery storage prices have been falling at rates comparable to those of the production of the electricity itself, lowering the cost of storing electricity not immediately used, so that there is less need for redundnacy.

The result has been that at the very least a considerable enlargement of our renewables use looks increasingly practical in the immediate term (as the shift of investment toward it reflects), and the path to the 100 percent renewables-based electricity goal, if not perfectly clear, at least considerably less fantasmic.

The RethinkX think tank, however, has gone not a step, but a giant leap, beyond that, in Adam Dorr and Tony Seba’s Rethinking Energy 2020–2030 report, looking at what has for so long been dismissed as a deal-breaking liability — the fact that to meet 100 percent of our electricity needs with renewables we would need a level of capacity generating a great surplus above that level — as instead an epoch-making opportunity. Simply put, in pursuing the 100 percent renewables goal we would not only have the energy we need at far less cost to the physical environment, but in producing the “excess” of energy generate not “waste,” but rather an abundance they term “Clean Energy Super Power.” In this they see a basis for accomplishing with energy — and clean energy at that — what the digital age has accomplished with information storage and transmission, dropping its marginal cost to nearly zero.

How will this work? The claim warrants some unpacking, the more in as Dorr and Seba spend relatively little of their report discussing it (and in fact relegate their answer to one of what seemed to me the most important possible objections to an endnote rather than treating it in the main text). Simply put, not only is it the case that meeting our energy needs will require the capacity to produce more than a multiple of those energy needs, but that the multiple will grow with the scale of the system. (As they crunch the numbers, a renewables-based system meeting 100 percent of our electricity would generate the equivalent in Super Power, and merely expanding the capacity another twenty percent would double or even triple the quantity of Super Power.) The result is that the margin between the consumption the system is designed to meet, and what it makes available, is always widening, not shrinking.

Still, more than a difference of perspective is involved in anything like this becoming practical in the next decade. It has to be economically feasible to build all that capacity — and indeed, even when counting in the investment that would produce all the extra, cheaper than the alternatives. By way of a number of case studies subject to deliberately pessimistic assumptions, Dorr and Seba argue precisely that. They specifically consider the feasibility of a 100 percent photovoltaic Solar, onshore Wind and lithium-ion Battery (SWB)-based grid in three diverse localities (sun- and wind-rich Texas, sun-rich but less windy California, and sun- and wind-deprived New England), in a context of no electricity imports, no conventional operating reserves, no distributed generation or storage, no assists from electric vehicles, no peak demand-lowering mechanisms (demand response, load shifting, energy arbitrage and peak shaving), and no financial innovations or government supports (subsidies, carbon taxes). They also assume that there are no breakthroughs in energy production, storage or transmission of any kind other than the mere continuation of the long-observed price drop in the technologies on which they concentrate (SWB) for just a few more years, even allowing for a slowing of progress here (for the lot, a 75 percent price drop over the next decade, versus 85 percent in the past decade). This portion of their argument, comprising about half the length of the report’s main text, demonstrates the adequacy of such a system in even the most pessimistic (New England) case, as well as the swiftness with which capacity expansion yields more Supwer Power.

As the think tank’s prior report made clear, they anticipate that along with information, and also energy, the resource-intensiveness and price of food, transport and materials will drop by an order of magnitude or more in the coming decade, more produced with less in all these other areas. (The aforementioned footnote, in fact, refers to the way technological advances in other areas will ephemeralize production, preventing any Jevons Paradox-type rebound from soaking up all the extra energy produced, frequently not in spite of but because of the electrification of road transport and industrial processes like metal smelting that they anticipate, and the energy needs of new projects like carbon removal.)

Indeed, with the relevant technologies already almost all the way to the end point they describe (solar’s capital costs have dropped 99.9 percent since the 1970s, and the projected drop Dorr and Seba talk about would merely lower the price of this already cheapest source of power to 99.97 percent of the old price), and any really large-scale program launched even now bound to run for years and thus quite easily reap substantial benefits from the projected price drops, the authors argue for the building of 100 percent renewable-based electric capacity not as some theoretical, long-term one, but an endeavor to be mounted immediately. They also hold that there is not only little to be gained from delaying, but much to be lost from doing so, besides the obvious ecological benefits. As noted previously, the cheapening of renewable-produced electricity has already made investment in fossil fuels and nuclear unattractive — and the continuation of the trend they anticipate would mean that not only would building new fossil fuel or nuclear capacity be a money-loser, but that soon merely operating existing plant would be costlier than shutting it down and replacing it with SWB. (Dorr and Seba, in fact, anticipate the oil and gas sectors suffering the same kind of disruption that coal has already suffered by the mid-2020s.) As they also note, any locality that achieves Clean Energy Super Power will have a vast advantage over any locality that does not as a place to do business, given lower production costs that will come quite organically, in contrast with the subsidies states and cities presently hand to big business. (Offering the example of the Volkswagen Golf, the authors point out that building such a car would be $2,000 cheaper per vehicle in an area where Super Power is available.)

I have to admit that after reading all this I found myself left with a good many questions. Where per-kilowatt-hour prices are concerned the authors have been very persuasive, but they say less about other aspects of such power generation, like the required land use. My own readings on the subject have given me the impression that renewables-bashers exaggerate the problem. Still, some address of the issue would have been welcome, the more in as it is one thing to picture vast, sun- and wind-rich Texas meeting its needs on the purely local basis they describe, another to visualize far more densely peopled and less sun- and wind-rich New England doing the same. (I also saw no case made regarding the availability of the needed material inputs. Again, my experience is that renewables-bashers seize on alleged limitations in order to “debunk” visions of larger-scale renewable energy use, but the report would have been stronger if it addressed this matter, not least because the issue is not simply whether one or another part of the U.S. alone could do this, but whether everyone could do this, given the global market in such materials, and the fact that, were this course as desirable as they say, everyone would be following in it.)

Getting away from the basic issue of the feasibility of 100 percent SWB-based electricity to the still more transformative vision of Clean Energy Super Power, I find myself skeptical of the analogy between electrical power production and the Internet, and the way the logic of its development shifted Internet Service Providers to the current pricing model — such that it seems, at the least, an area for further exploration. Where possible doubts are concerned the strongest that I can verbalize is the question of ephemeralization they raise, which is asserted rather than argued. One may counter that by pointing to RethinkX’s prior publications on food and transport (which show how those sectors might achieve a good deal in this respect by themselves), but that, too, shows an important limitation. The hugely important remaining area of materials which supplies our housing, clothing, infrastructure, vehicles and all the machinery enabling all that cheaper information, energy, food and the rest is one about which RethinkX, to my knowledge, has preivously said little, and they make no addition to that here.

Still, if the report falls short of finally settling every last one of its more radical claims, that does not in the slightest detract from those claims it grounds in quite robust, even formidable, fashion. Indeed, its analysis of the history of pricing, local electricity demand, and SWB-based electricity generation potential in a variety of environments lends great credence to the argument that if only on a pure economic cost basis there are ample grounds for a far, far more ambitious effort in this area than has been seriously discussed by any presiding government — up to the “100 percent SWB electricity” goal. Accordingly, anyone concerned with energy markets, and economic developments — to say nothing of climate change and Green New Deals — would do well to attend carefully to the argument Dorr and Seba make. Meanwhile, I will be looking forward eagerly to they and their colleagues’ continuation of what is easily one of the most intriguing (and we may yet find, important) lines of thought on the futurological scene today.

Originally published at http://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.

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