Yes, I know, I know

Climate change is bollocks and all that.

Now, back in the real world:

The US Energy Department is funding 75 projects developing electricity storage, mobilizing teams of scientists at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the elite Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge labs in a bid for what it calls the ‘Holy Grail’ of energy policy.

You can track what they are doing at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). There are plans for hydrogen bromide, or zinc-air batteries, or storage in molten glass, or next-generation flywheels, many claiming “drastic improvements” that can slash storage costs by 80pc to 90pc and reach the magical figure of $100 per kilowatt hour in relatively short order.

“Storage is a huge deal,” says Ernest Moniz, the US Energy Secretary and himself a nuclear physicist. He is now confident that the US grid and power system will be completely “decarbonised” by the middle of the century.

The technology is poised to overcome the curse of ‘intermittency’ that has long bedevilled wind and solar. Surges of excess power will be stored for use later at times when the sun sets, and consumption peaks in the early evening.

This transforms the calculus of energy policy.

Ambrose EP can become somewhat enthusiastic, as we know. However, the underlying point here, if we get cheap electricity storage then that changes everything is right.

And I’ve no doubt that we will get cheap electricity storage.

Of course, I’m entirely incompetent to tell you which method will work. But I know very well that there’s already at least one method that does work. Run solar generated ‘leccie through a fuel cell, store the hydrogen produced. When you want power run the hydrogen back through a fuel cell. This does indeed work. There’s absolutely no reason (ie, scientific, engineering or technical) why fuel cells shouldn’t be 10% of the price they are. Solar panels are still, as far as I know, declining in price at 4% a quarter, 20% a year. Over some timespan which is trivial by civilisational terms this will indeed work. And EP is looking at the other various methods being explored.

One or more of them really will work.

At which point of course we’re done.

Yes, yes, I know, climate change is all bollocks. Except….

Think back to our original models about climate change. The SRES which underpinned everything up to AR4. What people call “business as usual” (and isn’t, all scenarios were and are business as usual) is A1FI. This is the same as RCP 8.5 in the newer emissions pathways. This says that we’ve got a problem.

But then there’s A1T. Which uses the same population, economic growth and wealth numbers (that’s the A1 part) but a different technological path. Essentially, if we ditch the coal and get rather more of our energy from non-fossil fuel sources then we’re done. There is no problem. Actually, it’s more than that. A1FI insists that we use more coal, get more of our energy as a portion of all energy from coal in the future. A1T isn’t predicting any massive breakthroughs, it just assumes that energy efficiency and emissions reductions continue in the 21st century much as they did in the 20th.

What EP and I are predicting is that technological advance will be faster than A1T. And a quick look around our world does seem to indicate that this is true. Every time someone touts 50% of energy from renewables today and the like then this is just underlying that fact that technological advance is carrying on. And it’s happening faster then the most Panglossian of those original estimates.

We are, therefore, done. We’ve kicked the global economy off that dangerous path and onto one where we just don’t have a problem. We’ve gee’d up the production of less emitting forms of energy generation. Add in this coming cheap storage and that’s all we need to do. For as our original diagnosis tells us, move to non-fossil fuel energy and the problem goes away.

At which point climate change really is bollocks, isn’t it? No, not as a problem that could have existed, but as one that exists now. Cheap solar (and there’s no shortage of insolation) plus cheap ‘leccie storage mean that we will preferentially use those instead of fossil fuels. At which point there is no emissions problem.

We’ve already put in place the things which mean that A1FI, or RCP 8.5, are not going to happen. We’ve already started the processes which mean that the outcome is going to be better than A1T.

And thus there is no problem.

36 thoughts on “Yes, I know, I know”

  1. You don’t expect all those campaigners to just accept that they have won, do you?

    Two things will happen, they will moan about “residual effects” this will keep them employed for centuries.

    They will moan about whatever chemistry is used in the new generation of energy storage.

  2. “Run solar generated ‘leccie through a fuel cell, store the hydrogen produced.” Electrolytic cell rather than fuel cell.

  3. You’re imagining that the greatest liars in history (the Socialists) were being honest when they said that ‘global warming’ was a problem and they had just the solution for it………namely they would take control of energy production methods, and control the energy consumption of the masses (how convenient thats rather like the basis of socialism…..)

    You could invent a magic black box that extracts free electric from the ether 24/7 and costs tuppence ha’penny, and the water melons would still want control of everything, because thats what they wanted in the first place. Soviet Communism collapsed so the control freaks needed another home. They’re not going to give this one up any easier. It took 70 years for Communism to collapse, I reckon Greenism will take nearly as long.

  4. Never seen anything about the dangers of storing concentrated energy

    I’m no scientist but if a house has say 24 hours of energy in a storage unit what happens if something goes wrong?

    To me it would be like having a small bomb in every house

  5. It is the climate which is the problem for Greens, but consumption. Storage solved the former but allows the latter to continue.

    The question to ask any environmentalist: if a completely clean, free and limitless source of energy (obviously hypothetical) was discovered tomorrow, would you welcome or condemn it?

  6. @Julian, the average UK house uses 12.6kWh per day, petrol contains 11.8kWh/kg. The contents of your car’s fuel tank could power your house a for a month, yet you drive it around at 70mph.

    Let’s not even consider the 800L oil tank my parents have in their back garden.

  7. Yep, storage is the game changer that takes wind from wasteful to useful.

    I’m surprised to see something as obvious as a flywheel/generator combo in there though, that’s been possible for years, having been held up by high enough power electronic motor controls. Mounted axis vertically, underground I’d guess, an exploding flywheel is quite a thing to behold, as in it’s likely to be the last thing you see.

  8. This is a bit like the carrier bags IMO: has anyone considered the environmental effects of each alternative rolled out on a global scale? We might discover pollutants used to make (say) solar panels do far more damage than oil and gas production.

  9. “I’m surprised to see something as obvious as a flywheel/generator combo in there though”: maybe stronger materials let you spin the flywheel faster?

  10. …the average UK house uses 12.6kWh per day, petrol contains 11.8kWh/kg. The contents of your car’s fuel tank could power your house a for a month…

    So we already have a very effective method of storing energy…?

    We can just use the intermittent output from renewable sources to pump/transport/refine fossil fuels thus making them greener…

  11. Given unlimited storage, we should still need a means of transmitting the electricity from production site to storage site and from storage site to where it is used. England on a cold clear still January morning/early evening is several months or several thousand miles from a source of renewable energy.
    So it’s a useful part but not the whole solution

  12. “What EP and I are predicting is that technological advance will be faster than A1T. And a quick look around our world does seem to indicate that this is true. […] We are, therefore, done.”

    Bjorn Lomborg was saying all this back in 1998 (See The Skeptical Environmentalist, Chapter 11). We know. The world’s governments know. I’m pretty sure a lot of the environmental campaign leaders know. But you’re still completely missing the point.

    The entire point is summed up by the following:

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

    You are correct that not only is the climate science bollocks, so are all the economics and policy proposals put forward to solve it. But the point you keep on missing is that this does not matter any more than it does that the climate science is bollocks, because solving climate change was never the point.

    The point is to seize power over the global economy and install a socialist paradise. Climate change is just the story they’re using to get their naked power grab past the public – to justify the loss of liberty on the grounds of the global emergency.

    Lomborg told everyone 18 years ago that even if you accepted the climate science as true, that the economics meant it wasn’t a problem. Technological progress would solve it more cheaply – all we had to do was wait. And see how much good that did!

    Everybody in the business *knows* that the Emperor has no clothes on, but nobody has any interest in admitting it. Some are still hoping their power grab will work (or getting as much mileage out of it while it lasts), others are making a lot of money selling invisible clothes “so you can do your bit to support the Emperor”, most people are keeping quiet and keeping their heads down because they don’t want either of the first two groups making their lives difficult. Any bratty kid starts piping up about the Emperor’s nakedness, and it’ll be dismissed as a crank conspiracy theory. His lack of qualifications will be attacked, his motivations impugned, his political theories dismissed as ‘neoliberal sophistry’.

    It’s a cute rhetorical trick to take the position that the climate science and Stern/SRES economics are true, and then show where that leads, but nobody’s interested. Believers are not convinced because it doesn’t give them what they really want. Non-believers are irritated because it concedes ground that we’ve already won. The general public are bored and cynical.

    Energy storage technology is pretty cool all on its own. Never mind making wind turbines economic – it’ll make fossil fuels even more so. Gas generators like to run at a constant speed, but demand rises and falls, so we have to build more capacity than we really need to cover the peaks and troughs. If we can generate at a constant rate and store it, that makes gas and coal cheaper too. And that’s good news.

  13. ‘if we get cheap electricity storage then that changes everything is right.’

    You can only store excess energy. UK doesn’t have any.

    Longer term, wind/solar will be doomed by their success. Capital for conventional power sources will dry up. Storage capacity beyond a few days is prohibitive. Wind/solar penetration is finite, and saturation is a lot lower than you might think.

    And, as others have said, an ingenious solution to a non-existent problem.

  14. Come back Tim when they have something that does what they say it can do. Many a slip etc.

    As for the “newclear physicist” –I believe Peanut Carter made the same claim did he not?

  15. This storage malarky is what you get when you have engineering done by politicians.

    “Our ridiculous plan would work if we only had X.”

    They get X.

    “It turns out we also need Y. If we only had Y.”

  16. He is now confident that the US grid and power system will be completely “decarbonised” by the middle of the century.

    We won’t need storage technology. Nuclear fusion generators will be powering everything in twenty years. (As the fusion guys have been saying for seventy years).

  17. Storage is sleight of hand. It doesn’t cure intermittency, it only dampens it. 100% conventional backup still needed.

  18. Just realised we need storage to make the politicians right, they’ve been acting like electric power can be stored all this time.

    Hence, huge grants, it’s ingenious.

  19. Don’t take it to heart Tim, this is one of your four famous blind spots, we all have them. The rest of your stuff is pretty good.

  20. Just a couple of points.

    The aim is to have the (so-called decarbonised – everyone knows carbon is soot, right? No? Oh.) grid supplied by predominantly intermittent, unpredictable, variable electricity generation from a plethora of wind mills, solar panels and wave machines and quite possibly furry creatures in wheels.

    Base load… continuous supply to meet minimum demand has to be in place. Tension has to be on the grid at all times or we get power cuts. How will this continuous supply be provided?

    Whilst the ‘renewable’ stuff is charging batteries, what are we using to provide the base load and light the lights?

    Apart from the intermittent nature of ‘renewables’, the other major problem is unpredictability.

    The assumption is made that to solve the problem of windmills producing electricity when we don’t need it, if we could store it then we could use it when we do need it.

    However that assumes that windmills will be operating a large part of the time when their output is not needed so they can recharge batteries… which means they will not be operating at times when their output is needed – otherwise we would not need the batteries.

    So what are we using when the wind ain’t blowing? Oh yes the batteries.

    OK…now we are using stored electricity from batteries which will need to be recharged – but we have no way of knowing when or whether we can recharge them in time to meet demand, because we cannot make the wind blow on demand.

    And batteries store DC current whilst windmills produce AC. An inverter will be required to convert AC to DC – power loss – then again to convert DC to AC – power loss.

    And batteries provide falling output as the charge drains so the whole charge cannot be used.

    Meanwhile somewhere over the rainbow there is a ‘smart grid’ with miles and miles of transmission lines, converters, transformers, all connecting the windmills and their batteries and sectors of the grid that needs balancing – and lots and lots of power loss.

    If you look at something down the wrong end of a telescope so you only focus on one part of it, you certainly will not consider the whole picture.

    It is interesting that the major enthusiasts promoting this stuff are economist, activists and the Commentariat who know nothing about electricity or basic physics, or common sense.

    And the notion that these ‘new ‘batteries’ can actually be engineered and scaled up to be of any practical use on a large grid system is in the same league as perpetual motion.

  21. Why is it that discussions about RE talk about powering x number of homes while businesses are never mentioned?

    As I passed the GM plant in Lordstown, OH, I noticed that much of the employee parking had been replaced with solar panels. Also gone was the lot where finished cars were staged. At a glance my guess is that the factory has been converted from producing automobiles to carbon credits.

    My guess is that in the imaged future no one has a job and we just get all of our stuff from the stork, similar to how we get babies.

  22. “And the notion that these ‘new ‘batteries’ can actually be engineered and scaled up to be of any practical use on a large grid system is in the same league as perpetual motion.”

    Not really. It doesn’t breach any fundamental laws of physics. But it might take another few decades of development.

    We already use hydroelectric pumped storage for the same purpose. There are only a limited number of places where the geography is suitable, so we can’t easily expand that beyond what we’ve already got, but from a laws-of-physics point of view the example demonstrates both technological and economic viability.

    That’s the trouble with ‘future technology’. It’s like people in 1900 trying to imagine how the people of 2000 will have automated civic poo-scrapers to clear away the mountains of horse crap that were predicted to fill the streets if energy/transport demands were to continue expanding as fast as they were. You can predict that the future will have superior technology to solve most of our current-day problems, but you can’t predict what it will be; or obviously it would be today’s technology, not tomorrow’s.

    Cheap energy storage would be (and currently is) a big help, irrespective of ‘global warming’.

    Indefinitely expandable cheap energy storage is quite likely (but not certain) to come about in the next 50 years. No laws of physics need be bent. And we don’t even have to make any concessions to Big Green. It makes economic sense to invent it anyway.

    It’s all irrelevant anyway, because the Greens aren’t really looking for solutions, they’re looking for justifications. Solve this problem, and they’d just find another.

  23. Bloke in Costa Rica

    I just wish people would realise how fantastically energy-dense fossil fuels are, especially compared to batteries, both current and any reasonable near-term extrapolation. Electrolytic storage is probably a better bet; hydrogen (as H₂) has an amazing enthalpy of combustion (-286 kJ·mol⁻¹ or -143 MJ·kg⁻¹, compared to -5460 kJ·mol⁻¹ or -47 MJ·kg⁻¹ for octane) but it’s still a bugger to store. Apart from anything it wants to get out, it diffuses through things like steel and most plastics, it either needs to be adsorbed onto something, or compressed, or cryogenically stored, and that takes a lot of the energy you’d get out of it otherwise.

  24. “but it’s still a bugger to store”

    Hydrogen is mainly considered when weight is an issue. It’s got one of the best energy-per-weight ratios of any substance, but otherwise it’s not a great choice.

    A better idea is the flow battery. That’s a type of battery with a liquid anode/cathode, so they can be pumped out and stored. You can charge it up, like any rechargeable battery, but the energy capacity is only limited by the capacity of the tanks you can build to store the fluids in.

    The most critical issue isn’t energy density, but the cost of the (currently rather exotic) chemicals involved, and the losses during the charge/discharge cycle, both of which could potentially be improved by advances in chemistry.

    There’s also a lot of scope for more mechanical schemes to be improved. For example if you pump air down to the bottom of the ocean, it has a tremendous energy density from the compression, like a huge spring, and you can build it as big as you like. Engineering large-scale infrastructure on the ocean bottom is expensive, but it’s the sort of thing that advancing technology is likely to make easier.

    It might be combined with ocean-bottom fast-breeder fission reactors. They can extract Uranium from seawater, they answer all the safety and shielding issues, cooling is easy in the middle of an ocean, and -best of all – nobody is going to comment if weird bug-eyed things with too many legs are dredged up from the vicinity. They’d be “normal for Norfolk” down there.

  25. I dunno FrankC. By comparison, Elon Musk seems to feel he can make money selling 7kWh Powerwalls for around the $10000 mark, well north of $1000/kWh. $100 per kWh of installed capacity would be quite a reduction on what we have now.

  26. Hydrogen for storage doesn’t make sense – as pointed out, it’s a bugger to store !
    I went to a talk locally a few years ago, about a project which seems to make more sense. Once you have a supply of hydrogen, there’s a relatively simple process to make that plus CO2 from the atmosphere to make methanol. Methanol is liquid without exotic pressures or temperatures – just like petrol. It’s energy dense – just like petrol. In fact, it’s ideal to be transported, stored, and used just like petrol – using infrastructure we already have. What’s more, apparently all modern cars could, with minor software changes (trivial cost if done at the design stage) run on any mix of petrol, ethanol, and methanol.
    So by using excess lecky to make methanol, you can displace burning petrol for road transport in a method that actually makes sense. It doesn’t need new distribution and dispensing infrastructure (unlike hydrogen). It doesn’t need exotic pressures and/or temperatures (unlike hydrogen). And it has high energy density (by volume) without needing heavy pressure vessels (unlike hydrogen). And it doesn’t need special new cars that need this special new infrastructure (unlike hydrogen).
    But, it does need excess lecky to make “clean” hydrogen to use to make the methanol. And that means a lot more base load lecky – which in reality means nuclear. So if we build another (say) 40-50GW min of nuclear, then we’ll have plenty of surplus lecky most of the time to make methanol – which is easily stored as a liquid in big (unpressurised) tanks.
    And if we stop treating as expensive to dispose of waste what any sane person would call “fuel” – then we’ve enough “fuel” already in storage in this country to run our reactors for a century.
    Try getting that past an average* greeny !
    * If there is such a thing.

  27. Can’t disagree with that Chris, per se and as in fact. The point remains though that while $100/kWh may not necessarily be a game changer, it’s a lot cheaper than anything we have now*.

    I think it’s well worth looking into these things though because I doubt anyone really knows which might pay off. There’s even a very outside chance that Musk could be on the right track.

    *Disclaimer – storage that can be installed and scaled where you want it (goodbye pumped storage), will deep cycle over a period of years with minimal maintenance or damage to the storage (goodbye lots of battery technologies), and isn’t insanely hazardous (molten salt heat storage, flywheels).

  28. ‘Methanol is liquid without exotic pressures or temperatures – just like petrol. It’s energy dense – just like petrol. In fact, it’s ideal to be transported, stored, and used just like petrol – using infrastructure we already have. What’s more, apparently all modern cars could, with minor software changes (trivial cost if done at the design stage) run on any mix of petrol, ethanol, and methanol.’

    Not really.

    Methanol is half as energy dense as petrol. I.e., fuel mileage sux.

    It is hydrophilic, a serious problem for storage.
    I.e., ‘using infrastructure we already have’ is naive.

    Modern cars cannot take methanol; hardware changes would be required to keep the methanol from eating the plumbing.

    Methanol is high octane. You need much higher compression to take advantage of its properties.

    Methanol brings a serious fire hazard, as methanol fire is invisible. It’s not easier to light, but if a fire starts it is not like fire as we know it.

    Methanol can be used as a motor fuel. It was used at Indy 500 for 40 years. A main reason for using it was after a fiery crash in 1964. The promotors didn’t want fiery crashes. Turns out invisible fires bring their own problems.

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