What frustrates me most in the power generation debate are the wishy-washy statements of the environmentalists presented in the media as facts. Conversely, every now and again knowledgeable and reasoned voices can be heard coming from the people with engineering background who have found an independent source of funding and are not aligned with the governments or the Big Green. One such article has just been published and it makes for an interesting reading – if one wants to know what the numbers are telling us that is.
Larry Page is filthy rich. Having made billions (about thirty, to be precise) on the search engine Google he is now helping search for the answers to the pressing problems of the humanity. Quoting from Wiki:
Page is an investor in Tesla Motors. He has invested in renewable energy technology, and with the help of Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm, promotes the adoption of plug-in hybrid electric cars and other alternative energy investments. Page is also interested in the socio-economic effects of advanced intelligent systems and how advanced digital technologies can be used to create abundance (as described in Peter Diamandis’ book), provide for people’s needs, shorten the workweek, and mitigate the potential detrimental effects of technological unemployment.
As part of his interest in the renewable power generation Larry Page funded in 2007 the Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal (RE<C) initiative to help drive down the cost of renewable energy. The project was shut down in 2011 but two of the engineers involved in it have now shared what they had learnt from the research conducted for RE<C. Their article was published in the online journal of the Institution of the Electrical and Electronics Engineers IEEE and here are some tasty quotes, adorned with my comments:
As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.
I have long claimed that the current crop of renewable generation technologies are of limited usefulness but my angle is different. Since I do not obsess about the CO2 emissions my main concern is that wind and solar are intermittent, unreliable and prohibitively expensive. But Ross Koningstein & David Fork are taking things a step further. In their view even a wholesale adoption of the renewable generation as we know it would not materially change things as far as the climate change is concerned. This pulls the rug from under the claims of the green lobby that all we have to do is build more wind turbines using money collected through taxing coal and the (perceived) problems will go away. They will not.
RE<C invested in large-scale renewable energy projects and investigated a wide range of innovative technologies, such as self-assembling wind turbine towers, drilling systems for geothermal energy, and solar thermal power systems, which capture the sun’s energy as heat. (…) By 2011, however, it was clear that RE<C would not be able to deliver a technology that could compete economically with coal, and Google officially ended the initiative and shut down the related internal R&D projects.
Competing with coal fired generation on price was always a tall order and I am not surprised that they failed. Coal is abundant and cheap, the technology for turning it into power is mature, safe and reliable so I doubt Larry Page ever harboured a realistic hope of delivering something better that would not cost more.
Our study’s best-case scenario modeled our most optimistic assumptions about cost reductions in solar power, wind power, energy storage, and electric vehicles. In this scenario, the United States would cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically: emissions could be 55 percent below the business-as-usual projection for 2050.
This sound totally unrealistic but hey, with USD30b in the bank one can afford to be a dreamer!
Hansen set out to determine what level of atmospheric CO2 society should aim for “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.” His climate models showed that exceeding 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere would likely have catastrophic effects.
Using the self-declared environmental activist masquerading as a climate scientist as a reference is dubious but let us see where this is going.
We decided to combine our energy innovation study’s best-case scenario results with Hansen’s climate model to see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold. Our calculations revealed otherwise. (…) So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others.
So, cutting to the chase, even if all stars aligned perfectly – political will, technological development, co-operation of the general population – we still would not be able to return to the “safe” CO2 levels. Bummer.
Those calculations cast our work at Google’s RE<C program in a sobering new light. Suppose for a moment that it had achieved the most extraordinary success possible, and that we had found cheap renewable energy technologies that could gradually replace all the world’s coal plants—a situation roughly equivalent to the energy innovation study’s best-case scenario. Even if that dream had come to pass, it still wouldn’t have solved climate change. This realization was frankly shocking: Not only had RE<C failed to reach its goal of creating energy cheaper than coal, but that goal had not been ambitious enough to reverse climate change.
There we have it. If you believe that CO2 is bad then we are already as good as cooked.