Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I believe in Renewable Energy, and here's why

Renewable energy (RE) is a subjective and divisive topic, one that is influenced by many factors, including corruption, greed and purposeful ignorance, scientific and technological advances, and simple entrepreneurial spirit vs. entrenched interests.

Here are some of the reasons that I believe that we will see RE replace old energy by the midpoint of this century:

* It has been estimated that an area 55 miles by 55 miles dedicated to current solar technologies could replace all the electrical generating power of coal and oil (in the US). Or an area 80x80 miles to replace oil, coal and natural gas. (Here in the US we have over 100,000 square miles of desert, so space isn’t a problem)

* Regarding storage technologies (1) for when the sun is down: consider the advances taking place in fuel cells, batteries (LI, redox flow batteries, and 1300-ton battery modules used for grid stabilization), flywheels, compressed air, ultracapacitors and the likelihood that we will also use battery powered vehicles as storage.

* Regarding “getting the power from the solar installation to the people” – consider advances in superconducting wire and other advanced materials which are very likely to enable cheap and efficient transmission of power from where ever it is generated to where ever it is needed.

* Rooftop and local solar: My solar powered home won’t have to worry about darkness; we’ll tap into the battery reserve, as will all rooftop solar installations. A small percentage of our overall use to be sure, but significant none the less.

And as for explicit subsidies: on a per-energy-unit basis, then yes, solar has received more subsidies than fossil fuels in the very recent past. However, on the amount that each of us taxpayers has spent in a recent five-year period, fossil fuels subsidies far exceed solar.

Estimates range: (2)

Coal subsidies = somewhere between $17B and $72B
Solar subsidies = somewhere between $500M and $5B

And let us not forget that coal subsidizes also include intangible (and often purposefully left out) costs for cleaning up the ecosystem, and the public health expenses associated with all of the damage that the mining and use of coal causes. (3)

In my opinion, at the end of the day it all boils down to two simple facts: 1) technological change is on a double exponential growth curve (4) and 2) simple entrepreneurial spirit.

While we certainly need to wean society off finite, dangerous, polluting resources like coal and oil, the earth can and may go to hell in a handbasket. However, I think that entrepreneurial spirit and the certain fact that there is a barrel of money to be made in renewable energy solutions suggests that we will see RE replace old energy by the midpoint of this century. (5)

(1) "Of the ten advanced energy storage technologies, eight have applications in storage for electric power utilities at some level of development, aiming to provide reliable, economic, and energy-efficient power back-up options." Technical Insights Analyst Miriam Nagel

A123 Systems currently sells 2MW to 200MW grid stabilization systems (battery systems). Being used for large-scale energy storage deployment to support wind and solar integration. Small in comparison to the overall needs, but just one of many rapidly improving technologies.

“If investments in the smart grid infrastructure continue, electric vehicles may become ubiquitous — both because of the economic and environmental sense they make for consumers, and because of the vast store of batteries that will be available to grid operators to balance out the intermittency of wind and solar resources.”

“There are several major studies and research showing how the United States could reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050. Over the next two decades, the continually rising costs of fossil fuels will make it prohibitive to continue burning them, so we’ll witness the overdue transition to a largely renewable system. Smart grid upgrades will feature two-way communication to consumer appliances, real-time pricing information, more efficient transmission infrastructure, and advanced battery and flywheel technologies to balance the inherent fluctuations of wind and solar resources.”

(2) “What if solar got the same subsidies as coal?” (Oct 21, 2010)

Coal subsidies: The U.S. coal industry enjoyed subsidies of around $17 billion between 2002 and 2008, including tax credits for production of "nonconventional" fuels ($14.1 billion), tax breaks on coal royalties ($986 million), exploration, and development breaks ($342 million), according to a study by the Environmental Law Institute.

Solar and wind subsidies: So far, the government has handed out about $5.4 billion, according to the Energy Department.

(3) Very informative investigative article

(4) “Most long range forecasts of technical feasibility in future time periods dramatically underestimate the power of future technology because they are based on what I call the “intuitive linear” view of technological progress rather than the “historical exponential view.” To express this another way, it is not the case that we will experience a hundred years of progress in the twenty-first century; rather we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress (at today’s rate of progress, that is).” Ray Kurzweil

(5) During the past 11 years, as the editor of the leading nanoscale technologies web portal, I read and posted over 50,000 articles about advanced and frequently mind-blowing technologies. I have closely followed the very rapid progress in our understanding and utilization of the unique properties of the nanoscale (which greatly differ from the properties that we already understand). At the very least, we are headed for a future that not one of us can predict; what we can predict is that we will undoubtedly see old myths about technologies shattered and changes beyond our current level of comprehension.