Renewable Energy's Gloomy Outlook
At the Clean Energy Ministerial meeting in Abu Dhabi, the International Energy Agency yesterday released its first Clean Energy Progress Report. While the report grasps at some notable success stories – “at least ten countries now have sizeable domestic markets, up from just three in 2000,” the authors wrote – the general outlook is actually rather gloomy.
Almost half of new electricity demand over the last decade has been generated from coal, meaning that “achieving the goal of halving global energy-related CO2 emissions by 2050 will require a doubling of all renewable generation use by 2020 from today’s level.”
And how does the IEA suggest that renewable generation be doubled in the next nine years? Through increased investment in renewable technology – most importantly, so-called “clean coal.”
“Extensive deployment of carbon capture and storage is critical to achieve climate change goals,” the report claims, calling for around 100 large-scale CCS projects by 2020, and over 3,000 by 2050. There are five large-scale CCS in operation today – none of which are commercial deployments.
I’m sorry, but building 10 CCS plants a year over the next nine years is a fantasy. In 2009 I produced a report for Pike Research on CCS that punctured the notion that commercial coal plants will be retrofitted with carbon-capture systems in the near-term.
“The addition of CCS systems to power plants will likely add between 50% and 70% to the cost of producing electricity,” I calculated. The challenges include uncertainty about the costs of the technology, the lack of a pipeline network to transport CO2 to geological storage sites, and most notably the absence of a price on carbon emissions. “The intensive short-term financing, radical policy shifts, and R&D advances that would be required for multiple deployments of CCS in the next five years appear unlikely,” I concluded.
A look at the chart accompanying the IEA report tells you all you need to know about the flawed priorities behind the Agency’s projections. Under the scenario contemplated here, by 2050 expanded nuclear power will account for 6% of the carbon-emissions reductions required to reach the “Blue Map” goal for total worldwide CO2 emissions; CCS will provide 19% of the desired reductions. If you reverse those totals you’d have a much more realistic, and achievable, set of goals.
Meanwhile overall venture funding for clean energy is up: “Venture capitalists invested $2.57 billion in the clean technology sector in the first quarter,” Reuters reports, citing figures from Cleantech Group LLC, “up 31 percent from a year earlier, with most of the money going to companies involved in solar power.” That’s the most since 2008, before the financial crisis shoved the world economy into a ditch. None of that went into advanced nuclear power, although Khosla Ventures, one of Silicon Valley’s most admired and imitated venture funds, is a backer of TerraPower, which is developing traveling-wave reactors.
President Obama, having watched his energy policy go down in flames at the start of his administration, is readying a revamped and scaled-down plan to move away from fossil fuels. But the radical new budget proposal from Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House budget committee, would essentially abandon all government support for renewable energy while preserving federal subsidies for fossil fuels.
The plan “rolls back expensive handouts for uncompetitive sources of energy, calling instead for a free and open marketplace for energy development, innovation and exploration,” Ryan wrote in an op-ed the week in The Wall Street Journal. Translation: forget about solar tax credits and government-support loans for wind-energy projects, and don’t touch subsidies to Big Oil.
So what is to be done? The plan outlined by Kirk on this blog is a great place to start. I would add that the steps in the plan – particularly No. 2, “Restart LFTR Research & Development” – should be thoroughly costed-out. In his July 2010 post on Energy From Thorium entitled “Energy Cheaper Than From Coal,” Robert Hargraves makes some initial calculations. A realistic, fully developed cost model for developing liquid-fluoride thorium reactors is the first step in demonstrating that advanced nuclear power is the only way out of our current dilemma. And that organizations promoting clean coal, and ill-founded goals for carbon capture and sequestration like those found in the new IEA report, are “talking moonshine,” to quote Lord Rutherford.
And, by the way: Abu Dhabi, the scene of today’s ministerial meeting, last month “broke ground on the proposed site of its $20 billion first nuclear plant, part of the emirate’s plan to diversify its energy mix and free-up more fossil fuels for lucrative export.” To where do you think they’re planning to export that excess oil?