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?



8 Replies to "Renewable Energy's Gloomy Outlook"

  • fireofenergy
    April 8, 2011 (2:07 pm)

    I would hope that renewables could be mass produced… without all the profiteering, that we see today, at each and every little step. In short, RE (and its storage) needs "oil like" giants…

    More importantly, how hard is it to reprocess "spent fuel" from traditional (and wasteful) LWR's into the start up fuel required for LFTR?
    Robert Bernal

  • Cyril R
    April 9, 2011 (2:09 am)

    A large coal plant produces 10,000,000,000 kg of CO2 per year. You don't just shove that under the carpet. Even if you have a place to put 90% of that you are still left with 1,000,000,000 kg of CO2 residual emissions! This is not green!

    I have personally visited coal plants who claimed to be 'capture ready'. In fact, this meant there was a small patch of grass reserved for 'possible future equipment'.

    This non-technology is being used to shove new coal plants down our throats, disgusting not-very-clean coal plants.

    CCS will still not be clean because of

    – coal mining killings and huge mine tailings (much more than uranium due to low energy density)
    – very significant emissions of particulate and heavy metal. Modern filters such as ESP and baghouses can remove almost all of the particulate, unfortunately the smalles particles, the PM2.5, much of that just goes through! So that's an aesthetic solution, nice to not see smoke particles around, but actual carcinogenic risk is still quite high. Even if you remove 99% of the heavy metal, that is still tons quantity for a large plant!
    – the toxic ash and gypsum waste contaminated with heavy metals created by a large coal plant is thousands of times more massive than the waste generated by a light water reactor, and the nuclear reactor can be improved two orders of magnitude is final waste stream.

    Look what is in coal. How can this ever be clean.…

  • mind34
    April 11, 2011 (4:25 pm)

    This looks more like a gloomy picture for electricity demand more than it does for renewables? In light of Fukushima, we appear to be learning no lessons about the importance of dealing with rising demand, and turning to conservation and efficiency as cost effective solutions. We waste 6.5% of energy in transmission alone in the US. If 104 nuclear reactors produce 20% of the energy in the US … this is about 33 nuclear reactor's worth of energy that could be reclaimed just by throwing up more wire where there is congestion in our electricity grid. Anybody who thinks we actually "need" more reactors in the US, even to fight the environmental effects of carbon emissions, is looking in the wrong direction. We could do this, but we'd be picking the most expensive option in the toolkit, and also raising the risk if we don't provide better regulation for this industry.

  • Tas
    April 12, 2011 (9:39 am)

    @mind34, re. "Conservation and efficiency" isn't that what 'Power generation efficiency' and 'End-use fuel and electricity' efficiency is in the article.

    1. Besides, such efficiency gains are relatively static. There is no high speed development in conservation technologies and it wouldn't be cost-effective to make structural changes continually.

    2. Demand covers existing demand as well as demand increases. Nuclear reactors don't last forever, especially dated, overengineered Pressurized Water designs (i.e. almost all commercial reactors). At some point they have to be replaced with something. For example, as you may have heard regarding Fukushima Daiichi No. 1, it was originally designed to last 40 years and had been in operation for just over 40 years just as the disaster occurred.

    3. The big risk is that even existing nuclear reactors will simply be replaced with coal or natural gas plants because of the lack of true innovation in the Nuclear Engineering industry, the huge cost and regulatory burden in the West of introducing even small safe reactor designs and an un-educated and fearful public.

    4. What about supply from existing fossil fuel plants? How can you hope to replace them with technologies that cannot even come close in output efficiency and cost, i.e. renewables?

    5. Demand increases are huge in the developing world, particularly Asia. You cannot preach "conservation" to people who simply aspire to have Western quality of life or better. Something as simple as preferring a car to a bicycle, electric lights instead of candles, has enormous repercussions if enough people want it. Therefore, regardless the highest energy and most efficient sources will be sought – renewables can't cut it.

    There is no long-term principal option other than nuclear. Barring completely unexpected fusion miracles, if the nuclear industry has any sense, they will realise NOW the future must be primarily thorium fuel cycle, thermal spectrum fission reactors such as thorium molten salt reactors and LFTR.

  • Robert Hargraves
    April 13, 2011 (7:47 am)

    1.6 million tons of CO2 erupted from Lake Nyos in 1986, suffocating 1,700 people.

    This happened when CO2 dissolved in cold water at the bottom of the lake was disturbed. The water rising to lower pressure depths allowed CO2 to bubble out, reducing the density still further, so that the whole lake overturned.

    CCS advocates want to bury 7 million tons of CO2, per 1 GW coal plant, per year. That's 1,500 Lake Nyos's worth every year. Does anyone think there is a safety problem here?

    Liquefying US coal CO2 and shipping it by tank cars would fill a train 833 miles long, every day.

  • Brian H Campbell
    April 14, 2011 (1:47 am)

    Renewable energy has a great future if mankind would use what is available. The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor is the safest alternaive energy that also has profound amounts of energy potential.

    There is so many billions of dollars already invested in uranium that thorium seems to be held back because of greed, politics and the unknown.

  • Dan
    April 15, 2011 (12:02 pm)

    The University of Michigan's "optical battery" research is certainly interesting. Though I don't think solar power will have an impact until deployed to space.

  • Sinus
    May 4, 2011 (7:31 am)

    @Robert Hargraves
    From page 803 in the third edition of Chemical Principles by Steven S. Zumdahl:

    The Lake Nyos Tragedy

    On August 21, 1986, a cloud of gas suddenly boiled from Lake Nyos in Cameroon, killing nearly 2000 people. Although at first it was speculated that the gas was hydrogen sulfide, it now seems clear it was carbon dioxide. What would cause Lake Nyos to emit this huge, suffocating cloud of CO2?

    Although the answer may never be known for certain, many scientists believe that the lake suddenly "turned over," bringing to the surface water that contained huge quantities of dissolved carbon dioxide. Lake Nyos is a deep lake that is thermally stratified: Layers of warm, less dense water near the surface float on the colder, denser water near the lake's bottom.

    Under normal conditions the lake stays this way: There is little mixing among the different layers. Scientists believe that over hundreds or thousands of years, carbon dioxide gas has seeped into the cold water at the lake's bottom and dissolved in great amounts because ot the large pressure of CO2 present (in accordance with Henry's law).

    For some reason on August 21, 1986, the lake suddenly suffered an overturn, possibly due to wind or to unusual cooling of the lake's surface by monsoon clouds. This caused water that was greatly supersaturated with CO2 to reach the surface and release tremendous quantities of gaseous CO2 that suffocated thousands of humans and animals before they knew what hit them – a tragic, monumental illustration of Henry's law.

    Since 1986 the scientists studying Lake Nyos and nearby Lake Monoun have observed a rapid recharging of the CO2 levels in the deep waters of these lakes, causing concern that another deadly gas release could occur at any time.
    Apparently the only way
    [Sinus/personally I become supspicious when someone says that/Sinus]
    is to pump away the CO2-charged deep water in the two lakes. Scientists at a conference to study this problem in 1994 recommended such a solution, but it has not yet been funded by Cameroon.


    The point is that Lake Nyos released ALL it's CO2 in a matter of seconds while a leak in a geological repository, rock being a hard solid, would be more akin to draining a bath tub or drinking from a straw.

    Using another bath tub analogy, Lake Nyos would be like tip it (make an appointment with your doctor before trying this)

    So while a leak would certainly be detectable, it wouldn't be a disaster.

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