Abandon this senseless technology forcing — Adopt a technology-neutral CO2 abatement mechanism

It is correct that all energy sources receive some form of subsidization, but it is the relative magnitude that is in question here. In the link you provided, renewables received 12.2 G$ from 2002-2008 while fossil fuels received 70.2 G$. In that time period, non-hydro renewables produced 155 Mtoe while oil, gas and coal produced 6397, 4073 and 3958 Mtoe respectively (BP Statistical Review). Per unit energy consumed, renewables (primarily relatively mature wind) therefore received 16 times the support of fossil fuels (if renewable electricity is converted to primary energy by dividing by 0.37).

I don’t think anyone disputes that the grid can accommodate small amounts of variable renewable generation without too many problems, especially in ideal wind locations like the central US. The problem is that serious issues start to materialize between 10 and 20% contribution of variable renewables and these issues get rapidly more acute from there. Somewhere around this point, renewables will most probably stagnate like nuclear did in the late 80s through the classic S-curve followed by all new technologies.

If we agressively expand subsidy programs and manage to increase wind and solar power by a factor of 10 by 2035 (roughly the time when we blow through the 2 deg C carbon budget), we would have just about made it to this saturation point (20% of electricity or 8% of primary energy) and fossil fuels will still supply around 80% of our primary energy.

The point is just that renewable energy is the slowest and most expensive way to combat climate change. For example, a recent study found that renewable energy subsidies cost 17 times more per unit CO2 avoided than an ETS.

As far as I can see, our best hope is for this senseless technology forcing to be replaced by a technology-neutral CO2 abatement mechanism. The market will quickly establish which is the cheapest way to cut carbon in different locations around the world and we would not even need to have this conversation because the market would do the talking for us. I strongly feel that greens should drop their fanatical support of wind and solar and instead push for technology-neutral climate policy. Otherwise we may very well wake up one decade from now and discover that the ideological pursuit of wind and solar power has done much more harm than good in the sustainability crisis of the 21st century.

Source: Schalk Cloete.

The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2

This is a sequel to The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1, where I promised to look at the relative nuclear support amongst print and TV media, scientists and the public. A personal favorite technical source on nuclear power is prof. Bernard Cohen’s textbook The Nuclear Energy Option. While the book is out of print there is a very well-executed online version. For this post we need Chapter 4 Is The Public Ready For More Nuclear Power?

Prof. Cohen analyzed a broad range of opinion surveys that were available at the time of writing ~1990. Here I just want to focus on the hypothesis that “The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it.” If we collected fresh surveys today we might find the absolute levels a bit different, but I claim the relative proportions should be very similar. Here’s the relevant paragraphs from Chapter 4:

While public support of nuclear power has only recently been turning favorable, the scientific community has always been steadfastly supportive. In 1980, at the peak of public rejection, Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, social scientists from Smith College and Columbia University, respectively, conducted a poll of a random sample of scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science, The “Who’s Who” of scientists.1 They received a total of 741 replies. They categorized 249 of these respondents as “energy experts” based on their specializing in energy-related fields rather broadly defined to include such disciplines as atmospheric chemistry, solar energy, conservation, and ecology. They also categorized 72 as nuclear scientists based on fields of specialization ranging from radiation genetics to reactor physics. Some of their results are listed in Table 1.

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From Table 1 we see that 89% of all scientists, 95% of scientists involved in energy-related fields, and 100% of radiation and nuclear scientists favored proceeding with the development of nuclear power. Incidentally, there were no significant differences between responses from those employed by industry, government, and universities. There was also no difference between those who had and had not received financial support from industry or the government.

Another interesting question was whether the scientists would be willing to locate nuclear plants in cities in which they live (actually, no nuclear plants are built within 20 miles of heavily populated areas). The percentage saying that they were willing was 69% for all scientists, 80% for those in energy-related sciences, and 98% for radiation and nuclear scientists. This was in direct contrast to the 56% of the general public that said it was not willing.

Rothman and Lichter also surveyed opinions of various categories of media journalists and developed ratings for their support of nuclear energy. Their results are shown in Table 2. [which I've rendered in chart form]

Click to embiggen

We see that scientists are much more supportive of nuclear power than journalists, and press journalists are much more supportive than the TV people who have had most of the influence on the public, even though they normally have less time to investigate in depth. There is also a tendency for science journalists to be more supportive then other journalists.

In summary, these Rothman-Lichter surveys show that scientists have been much more supportive of nuclear power than the public or the TV reporters, producers, and journalists who “educate” them. Among scientists, the closer their specialty to nuclear science, the more supportive they are. This is not much influenced by job security considerations, since the level of support is the same for those employed by universities, where tenure rules protect jobs, as it is for those employed in industry. Moreover, job security for energy scientists is not affected by the status of the nuclear industry because they are largely employed in enterprises competing with nuclear energy. In fact, most nuclear scientists work in research on radiation and the ultimate nature of matter, and are thus not affected by the status of the nuclear power industry. Even among journalists, those who are most knowledgeable are the most supportive. The pattern is very clear — the more one knows about nuclear power, the more supportive one becomes.

For the 2014 perspective, please read Geoff Russell’s wonderful new book GreenJacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change

Geoff articulates how Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club and the like thwarted the substitution of clean nuclear for dirty coal. Those organizations could not admit today what will be completely obvious after reading Greenjacked!: that if they had supported nuclear power from the 1960s to today, then all of the developed world could easily have been like France, Sweden and Ontario province — powering advanced societies with nearly carbon-free nuclear energy.

The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 1


Image and caption credit Chattanooga Times Free Press: Houses in the Hunter Trace subdivision in north Hamilton County are within a few hundred yards of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant near Soddy-Daisy. Neighbors to the nuclear plant say they don’t mind living close to the TVA plant. Staff Photo by Dave Flessner

In 2002 I started looking into our low-carbon energy options. Over the next two years I learned there is no perfect-zero-carbon energy option. I learned that realistic low-carbon energy policy is about deploying scaleable and affordable electricity generation. To my surprise, like the five environmentalists of Pandora’s Promise, I discovered that my anti-nuclear view was based on fictions. I had carried around “The Washington Post accepted” wisdom for decades without ever asking “Why is that true?”

As I was studying the nuclear option, it became blindingly obvious that the people who feared nuclear knew essentially nothing about the subject. Conversely the people who were most knowledgeable about nuclear supported large-scale nuclear deployment as a practical way to replace coal.

And, very interesting, the people who live in the neighborhoods of existing nuclear plants tend to be very favorable to building more nuclear. Including new nuclear plants to be constructed literally “In their own back yard”, a reversal of the expected NIMBY attitudes. Of course there are economic benefits to the neighbors of a plant, including the taxes paid to the regional government entity. The economic incentives gave people a reason to want to be there, so it motivated them to ask some serious questions:

  • “Should I buy a home near that nuclear plant?”
  • “Will my children be harmed?”
  • “What if there is an accident?”

From reading the recent NEI annual polls I developed an untested hypothesis: the more contact you have with people who work at a nearby nuclear plant, the less you fear nuclear and the more you appreciate the benefits of clean electricity. It’s easy to informally ask your neighbors “what’s the truth?” about things that worry you. And you learn the people who operate the plant are just as devoted to their children as you are.

Here is another encouraging trend: there are significant numbers “voting with their feet” by moving into nuclear plant neighborhoods.

USA 2010 census: the population living within 10 miles of nuclear power plants rose by 17 percent in the past decade.

And if you read the same surveys that I did you will see how strongly the neighbors’ attitudes contrast to the typical media fear-mongering. Examples:

Neighbor of the Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant “This is a safer neighborhood than most areas and I really don’t think much about the plant, other than it provides a great walking area for me,” said Blanche DeVries, who moved near Sequoyah three years ago.

NEI 2013 survey similar to 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011 “familiarity with nuclear energy leads to support.” 

NEI 2013 survey “80 percent agree with keeping the option to build more nuclear power plants in the future”

BBC Living near a nuclear power station

  • Q: “What’s it like to have a reactor on the doorstep?”
  • A: “I live not more than 100 yards…and it doesn’t worry me.”

NEI survey 2009: “Eighty-four percent of Americans living near nuclear power plants favor nuclear energy, while an even greater number—90 percent―view the local power station positively, and 76 percent support construction of a new reactor near them, according to a new public opinion survey of more than 1,100 adults across the United States.”

NEI survey 2013 [PDF]: “81 percent of residents near commercial reactors favor the use of nuclear energy, 47 percent strongly.”

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UK 2013 Why we love living next to a nuclear power plant: “It’s cheap, it’s quiet and, say the residents of Dungeness, blissfully safe”. “Here, by contrast, everyone I talk to enthuses about a strong feeling of security and a rare kind of community spirit. Put simply, they live in houses that happen to be next door to a nuclear power station because it makes them feel safe.”

Next we will look at the relative nuclear support amongst print & TV media, scientists and the public The more you know about nuclear power the more you like it, Part 2.

How Will We Feed 9 Billion?


Image credit National Geographic, Photographer George Steinmetz

When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.

Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.

National Geographic’s special feature on Feeding 9 Billion is a good resource, especially for their graphics illustrating key aspects of the challenge. Of the agricultural inputs it is water, land use and energy that get most of my attention. Land and energy collide when you consider how you will substitute low-carbon energy sources for electricity, fertilizers, machinery for 9 billion. Study this graphic of Ice-Free Land, then ask yourself how you would solve these challenges?

To scope the problem a good place to learn the scale of what is required read Our High-Energy Planet, a report produced by The Breakthrough Institute:

“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”

If you are wondering if there will be any farmland left after fossil fuels are replaced with renewables, a good place to begin is by studying energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, and Energy Transitions.

On improving agriculture, these earlier posts should be helpful:

Lastly more Vaclav Smil, investigating the materials resources: Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

Biomass, solar and wind cannot sustain an advanced society


EROIs of all energy techniques with economic “threshold”. Biomass: Maize, 55 t/ ha per year harvested (wet). Wind: Location is Northern Schleswig Holstein (2000 full- load hours). Coal: Transportation not included. Nuclear: Enrichment 83% centrifuge, 17% diffusion. PV: Roof installation. Solar CSP: Grid connection to Europe not included. Source: Weißbach et al., Energy 52 (2013) 210

Since I first read the Weißbach et al paper, I’ve been eagerly awaiting publication of John Morgan’s article, first published in Chemistry in Australia. Fortunately Barry Brook has republished John’s article as a guest post. Here’s a paraphrased summary:

Wind and solar cannot sustain an OECD level society. Adding energy storage buffers the variability, but further reduces the EROI below the economic limit. Therefore solar and wind can reduce the emissions of fossil fuels, but cannot eliminate them. They offer mitigation, but not replacement.

If we want to cut emissions and replace fossil fuels, it can be done, and the solution is to be found in the upper right of the figure. France and Ontario, two modern, advanced societies, have all but eliminated fossil fuels from their electricity grids, which they have built from the high EROEI sources of hydroelectricity and nuclear power. Ontario in particular recently burnt its last tonne of coal, and each jurisdiction uses just a few percent of gas fired power. This is a proven path to a decarbonized electricity grid.

But the idea that advances in energy storage will enable renewable energy is a chimera – the Catch-22 is that in overcoming intermittency by adding storage, the net energy is reduced below the level required to sustain our present civilization.

I suggest you go straight over to Brave New Climate: The Catch-22 of Energy Storage. And follow the comments – there are already some excellent contributions and additional resource links. One important resource is included in the supplementals of the Weißbach et al. paper – that’s the spreadsheet containing all the materials reference data, assumptions and the EROI and EMROI computations. Total transparency — after several hours working through the spreadsheets I cannot find anything to criticize. If I do find some issues I’ll add updates here.

UPDATE  Keith Pickering wrote an analysis of Weißbach et al here GETTING TO ZERO: Is renewable energy economically viable? I liked Keith’s summary of how wind dilutes the higher EROI of higher value sources like hydro:

Wind is a tricky case. If you ask most people, they will tell you that we don’t currently have energy storage for wind. In fact we do, but the buffering for wind comes from natural gas powerplants, which are typically built at the same time wind is deployed. When the wind dies, the backup gas plants are turned on, to keep the grid power reliable. Thus the energy storage for wind is embodied in the natural gas that isn’t burned when the wind turbine is producing peak output.

This means that wind, as it’s used now in the US, isn’t really zero-fossil. It’s a hybrid system that’s part wind, part natural gas. And considering the availability of wind (30% is typical for a wind turbine), most of the energy actually comes from the fossil side of the equation. We’re using the wind to offset some of the CO2 emissions from the gas plant (which is good), but instead of getting to zero, we’re just walking toward the cliff instead of running toward it.

Denmark currently is one of the most wind-energy-intensive countries in the world, which works because they buffer their wind energy against hydroelectric power from Norway and Sweden. When the wind is blowing in Denmark, they export electricity to Sweden, which then can turn down its hydro plants (thus keeping more water stored in the reservoirs behind the dam). When the wind dies, Sweden turns up the taps on the hydroelectric production, and exports that stored energy back to Denmark. It’s a great zero-fossil system, but it’s only possible because of the unique geography that places a flat windy country right next to a couple of wet mountainous countries.

Finally, it’s important to note that the grid-buffering sources for wind (hydro in Denmark, gas in the US) both have a higher EROI than wind itself. Thus these hybrid systems do make economic sense, but that’s partly because the buffering portion makes economic sense on its own. Essentially, these hybrid systems dilute the EROI of hydro or gas, in order to subsidize the EROI of the wind portion of system. For the hybrid gas system that makes sense, because the reduction in CO2 is worth it. For the hydro-buffered system, the question is more problematic. In any case, it’s clear that if wind had to be buffered with a non-generating storage-only system, the economics would be difficult to justify.

Keith also has a very concise summary of the increasing EROI of nuclear fission:

One reason previous studies on nuclear have been all over the map is that it’s a moving target: the EROI of nuclear has been rising rapidly during the past 20 years (and will continue to rise) as the industry switches from gas-diffusion enrichment of uranium, to centrifuge enrichment (which is 35 times more energy efficient). Since uranium enrichment is a major part of energy input, this makes a huge difference. A nuclear plant using 100% gas diffusion would have and EROI of 31, EMROI of 34, comparable to coal. Weißbach’s numbers above are based on 83% centrifuge, 17% diffusion. The World Nuclear Association projection is that there will be no more diffusion enrichment anywhere in the world by 2017. With 100% centrifuge, nuclear will have an EROI of 106, EMROI of 166 according to Weißbach’s analysis. In other words, the switch from diffusion to centrifuge roughly quadruples the overall energy efficiency of nuclear power.

Beyond that, there is a new laser enrichment process being developed called SILEX which promises to be 10 times more energy efficient than centrifuge. And even beyond that, some Gen IV reactor designs (the fast neutron reactor, and the liquid-fuel thorium reactor, or LFTR) don’t use enrichment at all, and could therefore come in at EROI of about 114, EMROI of 187.

Keith used the Weißbach et al supplementary spreadsheets to do these calculations.

Why the Kyoto Protocol Failed and a New Way Forward

The Breakthrough Institute @TheBTI continues to do some of the best work on energy policy that is sensitive to both energy-poverty and to politically achievable climate policy. Steve Rayner is one of the authors of the pivotal Hartwell Paper. I’m confident you will enjoy and share “Why the Kyoto Protocol Failed and a New Way Forward“. It’s a lot of perspective in only eight minutes.

Germany’s Energy Policy Is Failing the Poor, While Being a Poor Way to Help the Climate


Graphic credit Bjorn Lomborg

The captioned title is from Bjorn Lomborg, who is one of the few energy policy thinkers who is paying close attention to the impacts of policy options on energy poverty – especially of the bottom 1.6 billion. But also of the developed-world poor who are being shoved into this miserable state by their misguided government policies. Germany is a standout for the failing Energiewende.

So how is it going over there in Germany? Poorly says Lomborg: 

The German government recently said that 6.9 million households live in energy poverty, defined as spending more than 10 per cent of their income on energy. This is partly a result of Germany’s Energiewende, the country’s turn away from nuclear and towards renewable energies.

This year alone, German consumers are expected to subsidize green energy to the tune of a whopping €23.6 billion ($33 billion) on top of their normal electricity bills for the so-called “renewable energies reallocation charge.”

Since 2008, this charge has increasingly reallocated money from the poor to the rich, e.g. from poor tenants in the Ruhr area to wealthy homeowners in Bavaria who put solar panels on their roofs. The charge has skyrocketed from 1.15 ct/kWh in 2008 to 6.24 ct/kWh this year. Since then, another 1.4 million households slipped into energy poverty.

German consumers have already paid €109 billion for renewable energies since 2000, with greater costs looming on the horizon. Between 2000 and 2013, real German electricity prices for households have increased 80%. About one quarter of household electricity costs now stem directly from renewable energy.

That’s just a taste, please get over to Bjorn’s original page for a careful read. Next I recommend you allocate just a few minutes to the two splendid short videos Bjorn has produced. I discovered these on the recommendation of Bill Gates (no, not personal recommendations, just that I follow Bill’s blog). He hosts these Lomborg videos at The Gates Notes Two Videos That Illuminate Energy Poverty.


Image credit Bjorn Lomborg

Germany’s gamble on P2G: Expensive electricity to expensive methane to expensive storage

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There isn’t much good news about Germany’s failing Energiewende. Because they have boxed themselves into a corner by eliminating their nuclear portfolio, they are facing the physical realities of trying to deploy unreliable wind and solar far beyond their appropriate penetration levels. According to the research by Lion Hirth (Vattenfall Europe AG) appropriate penetration would be 7% wind for today’s Germany, perhaps as much 25% in a future Germany optimized for VRE [PDF]. Germany is abusing neighboring grids by dumping excess generation while exploiting the neighboring grids to supply power when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

To push VRE to meet their 80% commitment Germany obviously needs abundant cheap storage. Unfortunately they don’t have the enviable volume of hydro that Sweden and Norway have. So, as  Quirin Schiermeier writes in Nature Renewable power: Germany’s energy gamble, Germany is making a big bet on P2G:

P2G, however, could provide a vast amount of new storage capacity and Germany is leading the way. The plant in Stuttgart has 250 kilowatts of electrolysis stacks, which use electricity from renewables to produce hydrogen from water. To make methane, the hydrogen is reacted with CO2 from decomposing sewage and agricultural waste at a nearby biogas plant. Other P2G plants could scrub CO2 from the air.

But P2G is still an immature technology, with high upfront costs and an efficiency of only about 50% in converting electricity to methane. Synthetic methane plants have also struggled with the purity of their product. At the ZSW facility, the main goal is to routinely produce gas with low oxygen and hydrogen content.

For transport fuels, the P2G concept might make some economic sense IF powered by nuclear electricity. But Germany is trying to use this process to fix the serious grid instability problems they have created for themselves. Adding the high cost of variable renewable electricity to the high cost of the P2G conversion – this is good for the economy? How prudent is it to base an industrial economy on advanced proton-exchange membranes for electrolysis?

Toyota Bets Against Tesla With New Hydrogen Car

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Personal hero and hard-nosed engineer Elon Musk calls them “fool cells”. Contrast the Musk view to what seems to be a very big bet by very-smart-company Toyota. Here’s Fool.com “A big bet that puts Toyota at odds with Tesla“: Every time I examine the hype for the “hydrogen economy” I shake my head. Why would Toyota cancel their deal with Tesla while announcing a “new hydrogen fuel cell car (that) will start arriving at dealers sometime next year”?

The Fool quotes Bloomberg “the car is expected to be called the “Mirai,” the Japanese word for “the future”.” That’s appropriate because the “F” in FCV has so far stood for “10 years in the Future”.

In “Tesla Trumps Toyota: Why Hydrogen Cars Can’t Compete With Pure Electric Cars” Joe Romm argues the practical and economic superiority of BEVs over FCVs (Battery Electric Vehicles over Fuel Cell Vehicles). Good arguments — let me know what you think.

In the comments to Joe’s Energy Collective piece there are a number of useful comments. Especially this one by regular contributor Roger Arnold on hydrogen economics and footprint: 

(1) If you’re talking about the most economical and widely implemented production method for hydrogen (i.e., from reforming of natural gas), then the carbon footprint for the FCV is substantially worse than if the gas were used directly in an IC engine. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble and expense for a worse result.

(2) If, instead, you’re talking about the more expensive route of producing hydrogen by electrolysis of water using zero-carbon electricity, then you could get two to three times better mileage per kWh by using that electricity to charge batteries rather than make hydrogen.

The main potential advantages that FCVs can deliver over BEVs are driving range and fast refueling. But those are non-issues for the commuting and shopping trips that comprise the overwhelming bulk of miles driven. Going on a road trip? Then rent a gasoline vehicle for that purpose. With the coming era of autonomous vehicles, the rental agency will deliver the vehicle to your driveway, and drive it back to their lot after you’ve returned home.

And this comment by Nathan Wilson:

Fuel cell vehicles have momentum because of the hype. If we launched a petroleum phase out tomorrow, and hydrogen FCVs, BEVs, and ammonia ICE cars had to compete in the market, I would expect 80% of the sales to go to ammonia, 19% to BEVs, and 1% for hydrogen FCVs. This is mostly based on sticker price, but also on the much easier infrastructure situation for ammonia versus hydrogen (ammonia cars can be dual fuel with gasoline backup, but HFVC cannot; ammonia can be transported by truck, but H2 cannot).

The idea that any technology we like can be made cost competitive is appealing, but has no basis in reality.

Why the Best Path to a Low-Carbon Future is Not Wind or Solar Power

Figure A. source Economist Sun, wind and drain: Wind and solar power are even more expensive than is commonly thought

Figure B. source Charles Frank The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies

Figure A and B summarize some of the conclusions of the recent paper by economist and Brookings senior fellow Charles Frank. The paper might not have attracted much attention outside the usually wonkish energy policy circles. But The Economist wrote a full page review which quickly became a lightning-rod for much shouting by pro-renewables activists. There are three levels for you to study the results — in increasing order of difficulty:

  1. Economist: Sun, wind and drain: Wind and solar power are even more expensive than is commonly thought
  2. Brookings blog post by Charles Frank: Why the Best Path to a Low-Carbon Future is Not Wind or Solar Power
  3. Brookings paper by Charles Frank: The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies [PDF]

The Economist article will not be a favorite with Angela Merkel, as is nicely summarized in the last paragraph:

The implication of Mr Frank’s research is clear: governments should target emissions reductions from any source rather than focus on boosting certain kinds of renewable energy

I've read all 182 tedious comments, which I cannot recommend because the majority are non-referenced complaints from boosters. Approximately none of the Economist commenters had read the Frank paper. So my take is you can skip #1, read #2 for a good introduction, then work your way through #3.

Figure A is a nice graphic produced from Figure B which is the “money table” of the Frank paper. I've included Figure B so you can quickly grasp what the Cost vs Benefit bars mean in the graphic. There's a minor error in the graphic: the Wind cost/benefit bar is missing the mark for “net benefit” which is a negative $25k/MW not zero.

What Figure A and B claim to tell us is that in the USA new combined-cycle gas plants offer the greatest net benefit given a large set of assumptions. Dr. Frank's paper is a model of transparency — every assumption and parameter is referenced and further qualified by end-notes. Even though this is a simplified methodology for estimating net benefits, there are still a heap of assumptions that must be understood in order to assess where the results might be applicable. I'll summarize a few that I think are critical:

  • Net benefits are calculated on the assumption that new generation replaces on average 22 hours/day of coal non-peak generation and 2 hours/day of single-cycle gas peak generation
  • This is USA-centric, based upon EIA 2013 data
  • Therefore relatively very low methane (gas) prices
  • Therefore relatively high insolation, moderately high wind resource

For energy policy wonks I will highlight a few weak spots in the paper:

  • Most important is that Frank's Adjusted Capacity Cost does not fully reflect the negative reliability impact of VRE.
  • I will speculate that Dr. Frank chose to avoid the complexity of Capacity Credit to keep the presentation accessible. (Capacity Credit estimates the amount of firm, dispatchable generation that can be replaced by VRE without reducing reliability.)
  • Dr. Frank does not examine how Net Benefits vary with VRE penetration. Detailed modeling shows that increasing VRE has large effects on reliability.
  • Capacity Credit for VRE generation is inversely proportional to penetration. The more wind/solar you build the less marginal value you get.
  • The Frank paper is directed at a future powered by less coal (that's good) but not a zero-carbon future (which we must achieve).
  • If we build a strategy for the goal of Zero Emissions we will still likely build Gas CC in quantity because it is fast to build, relatively cheap and politically acceptable. But looking out a century to achieving Zero will help us focus on ramping up nuclear as fast as feasible and safe. We cannot wait 50 years to get started.

Why do I think the Frank paper is important? This is a serious effort to help policy-makers understand why subsidies supporting wind and solar are such an expensive and inefficient way to reduce carbon emissions. And Dr. Frank illustrates why traditional LCOE analysis overvalues wind and solar. And yes, the headline results are US-centric, but there is a serious effort to support generalizing the results by:

Sensitivity to Carbon Prices: In Tables 9A and 9B, the net benefits for both wind and solar are negative. However, if the carbon price is increased from $50 to $61.87 or above, then the net benefits of wind are positive (as shown in Table 11). Above $185.84, the net benefits of solar are also positive.

My interpretation of that result is that solar costs at least $185/ton CO2 avoided. For a society with finite resources, the cost/ton of CO2 abatement is a rather important number.

Sensitivity to Natural Gas Prices: The results in Tables 9A and 9B are highly sensitive to historically volatile natural gas prices. In the United States, the average annual cost of natural gas to electricity producers reached a high of $9.01 per million Btu in 2008. The average monthly cost reached a low of $2.68 in April 2012 (EIA, November 2013, Table 9.10.). The variation among countries, and the effect on net benefits, is illustrated in Table 12.

Note that nuclear becomes the highest net-benefit policy when gas prices exceed about $9/MBtu. Current UK prices are above that level, which is where US prices were only six years ago.

My bottom line is: this paper is good starting point. Please keep in mind that the true cost of variability for wind and solar is significantly understated, as the value of VRE falls as penetration increases. Still, I appreciate that adding complete VRE analysis would have made this paper much more cumbersome.

Fortunately, there has been some very good work on VRE and System LCOE in the past couple of years. In a future post I will get into the research of Lion Hirth et al and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. For the eager here are three good references for in-depth modeling studies of high penetration VRE:

  1. Hirth, Lion, The Optimal Share of Variable Renewables. How the Variability of Wind and Solar Power Affects Their Welfare-Optimal Deployment (November 8, 2013). FEEM Working Paper No. 90.2013. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2351754 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2351754
  2. Ueckerdt, Falko and Hirth, Lion and Luderer, Gunnar and Edenhofer, Ottmar, System LCOE: What are the Costs of Variable Renewables? (January 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2200572 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2200572
  3. Hirth, Lion and Ueckerdt, Falko and Edenhofer, Ottmar, Why Wind is Not Coal: On the Economics of Electricity (April 24, 2014). FEEM Working Paper No. 39.2014. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2428788 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2428788