We need an Energy Miracle — Here is How to Create that Miracle

Fact #1: Fossil Fuels continue to dominate global energy

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Fact #2: Globally we are out of time – now need to increase decarbonization rate by factor of five. From PWC: Low Carbon Economy Index 2014 | 2 degrees of separation: ambition and reality

These two charts should make it clear that what we have been doing to eliminate fossil fuels is not working. This week we have seen more of the same non-functional, heat-but-no-light activity signified by a Feel-Good Climate March. Many of the marchers carried Anti-Nuclear signage. No doubt these are nice, sincere people. These are not serious people – they are not serious about climate change.

Harvard's Joseph Lassiter is serious about climate change. He is Professor of Management Practice in Environmental Management at Harvard Business School. Among his specialities is low carbon energy policies. He has just published the perfect response to the climate march feel-gooders. In this short essay Dr. Lassiter makes the essential points which I'll summarize as:

  1. Fossil fuel continues to dominate while both IEA and EIA forecast continuing fossil growth.
  2. We need an energy miracle.
  3. “That miracle comes in the form of “New Nuclear” power plants.”
  4. “The barriers to rapid progress in New Nuclear are not technical, not even economic. The barriers are in the outdated nuclear regulations that scare off private investors and in the nuclear industry-regulatory culture that accepts timelines measured in decades as normal. The world needs a New Nuclear miracle today.”
  5. “The US, EU and Japan have the technology infrastructure and the dynamic, startup companies to bring New Nuclear to the table quickly.”

Quoting Lassiter directly:

Entrepreneurs in the US, EU and Japan have the ideas. China and India and every other developing economy have the clear and compelling need. But to convert these new ideas into real alternatives, the world’s governments need to act. They must redesign their nuclear regulatory practices and provide physical facilities for prototype evaluation that will let private capital take on the tasks of technical innovation, experimentation, and rigorous stress testing, even as the eventual permitting authority remains with public regulators. Innovation and regulation must proceed hand-in-hand, but regulators must allow entrepreneurs to pursue their innovations with a relentless urgency that matches the severity of the unknowable threats that the world faces from global warming and ocean acidification.

Please read the entire essay, then send the essay to your elected representative, telling her that you expect to see legislation to reform nuclear regulation and also government support for the rapid development of New Nuclear. Thanks heaps to John Morgan @JohnDPMorgan for referring me to the Lassiter essay.

Renewables are making no progress against coal

No doubt you’ve heard that Friends of the Earth recently announced their primary objection to nuclear power is now because it is too slow to build and too costly.

I would like to introduce FOE to the data embodied in Roger Pielke Jr’s graphic. I’ve modified Roger’s chart to illustrate the only energy policy that has succeeded to rapidly displace fossil fuels at utility scale. My crude green slope indicator highlights the period when France, Sweden, Belgium, Canada, United States, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and others built their nuclear power fleets. The absence of further progress since 1995 shows the stark reality of how little has been achieved by the billions dollars of taxpayer wealth that has been spent on renewable subsidies since Kyoto. The following chart contrasts the speed and scale of the nuclear build with the  slow build of the whole suite of “renewables” (many thanks to  Geoff Russell & The Breakthrough for one of my favorite charts).

Roger’s short Breakthrough essay is the source of the original chart:

The data shows that for several decades the world has seen a halt in progress towards less carbon-intensive energy consumption, at about 13 percent of the total global supply. This stagnation provides further evidence that the policies that have been employed to accelerate rates of decarbonization of the global economy have been largely ineffective. The world was moving faster towards decarbonizing its energy mix long before climate policy became fashionable. Why this was so and what the future might hold will be the subject of future posts in this continuing discussion.

If you are keen to learn what makes for effective decarbonization policies, then you are likely to also enjoy Roger’s The Climate Fix. For an Executive Summary of the concepts see A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy.

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

 

 

System LCOE: What are the Costs of Variable Renewables?

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From the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, a serious piece of work on renewable integration costs.

Abstract:

Levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) are a common metric for comparing power generating technologies. However, there is qualified criticism particularly towards evaluating variable renewables like wind and solar power based on LCOE because it ignores integration costs that occur at the system level. In this paper we propose a new measure System LCOE as the sum of generation and integration costs per unit of VRE. For this purpose we develop a conclusive definition of integration costs. Furthermore we decompose integration costs into different cost components and draw conclusions for integration options like transmission grids and energy storage. System LCOE are quantified from a power system model and a literature review. We find that at moderate wind shares (~20%) integration costs can be in the same range as generation costs of wind power and conventional plants. Integration costs further increase with growing wind shares. We conclude that integration costs can become an economic barrier to deploying VRE at high shares. This implies that an economic evaluation of VRE must not neglect integration costs. A pure LCOE comparison would significantly underestimate the costs of VRE at high shares. System LCOE give a framework of how to consistently account for integration costs and thus guide policy makers and system planers in designing a cost-efficient power system.

The Decline of Renewable Energy

rewnewables_declining_share_lomborg.jpg

When green renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, they will take over the world. Instead of believing in the Tooth Fairy, we should start investing in green R&D. — B Lomborg

Bjorn Lomborg examines the long perspective on renewable energy trends. I liked this piece because it so concisely summarizes both the engineering and social realities of the popular but tragically expensive rush to solar and wind.

Solar and wind energy account for a trivial proportion of current renewables – about one-third of one percentage point. The vast majority comes from biomass, or wood and plant material – humanity’s oldest energy source. While biomass is renewable, it is often neither good nor sustainable.
Burning wood in pre-industrial Western Europe caused massive deforestation, as is occurring in much of the developing world today. The indoor air pollution that biomass produces kills more than three million people annually. Likewise, modern energy crops increase deforestation, displace agriculture, and push up food prices.

The most renewables-intensive places in the world are also the poorest. Africa gets almost 50% of its energy from renewables, compared to just 8% for the OECD. Even the European OECD countries, at 11.8%, are below the global average.

The reality is that humanity has spent recent centuries getting away from renewables. In 1800, the world obtained 94% of its energy from renewable sources. That figure has been declining ever since.

(…snip…)

The momentous move toward fossil fuels has done a lot of good. Compared to 250 years ago, the average person in the United Kingdom today has access to 50 times more power, travels 250 times farther, and has 37,500 times more light. Incomes have increased 20-fold.

The switch to fossil fuels has also had tremendous environmental benefits. Kerosene saved the whales (which had been hunted almost to extinction to provide supposedly “renewable” whale oil for lighting). Coal saved Europe’s forests. With electrification, indoor air pollution, which is much more dangerous than outdoor air pollution, disappeared in most of the developed world.

And there is one environmental benefit that is often overlooked: in 1910, more than 30% of farmland in the United States was used to produce fodder for horses and mules. Tractors and cars eradicated this huge demand on farmland (while ridding cities of manure pollution).

Of course, fossil fuels brought their own environmental problems. And, while technological innovations like scrubbers on smokestacks and catalytic converters on cars have reduced local air pollution substantially, the problem of CO₂ emissions remains. Indeed, it is the main reason for the world’s clamor for a return to renewables.

To be sure, wind and solar have increased dramatically. Since 1990, wind-generated power has grown 26% per year and solar a phenomenal 48%. But the growth has been from almost nothing to slightly more than almost nothing. In 1990, wind produced 0.0038% of the world’s energy; it is now producing 0.29%. Solar-electric power has gone from essentially zero to 0.04%.

Yes, Denmark gets a record 34% of its electricity from wind. But electricity accounts for only 18% of its final energy use.

Europe now gets 1% of its energy from wind – less than before industrialization, when cozy windmills contributed about 2% (and ships’ sails provided another 1%).The UK set its record for wind power in 1804, when its share reached 2.5% – almost three times its level today.

Moreover, solar and wind will still contribute very little in the coming decades. In the IEA’s optimistic scenario, which assumes that the world’s governments will fulfill all of their green promises, wind will provide 1.34% of global energy by 2035, while solar will provide 0.42%. Global renewables will most likely increase by roughly 1.5 percentage points, to 14.5% by 2035. Under unrealistically optimistic assumptions, the share could increase five percentage points, to 17.9%.

So we are nowhere near switching back to renewables anytime soon. In the US, renewables accounted for 9.3% of energy production in 1949. President Barack Obama’s administration expects that number, almost a century later, to increase slightly, to 10.8% by 2040. In China, renewables’ share in energy production dropped from 40% in 1971 to 11% today; in 2035, it will likely be just 9%.

Yet we are paying through the nose for these renewables. In the last 12 years, the world has invested $1.6 trillion in clean energy. By 2020, the effort to increase reliance on renewables will cost the European Union alone $250 billion annually.

Spain now pays almost 1% of its GDP in subsidies for renewables, which is more than it spends on higher education. At the end of the century, Spain’s massive investment will have postponed global warming by 62 hours.

Current green energy policies are failing for a simple reason: renewables are far too expensive. Sometimes people claim that renewables are actually cheaper. But if renewables were cheaper, they wouldn’t need subsidies, and we wouldn’t need climate policies.

Former US Vice President Al Gore’s climate adviser, Jim Hansen, put it bluntly: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and [the] Tooth Fairy.”

The solution is to innovate the price of renewables downward. We need a dramatic increase in funding for research and development to make the next generations of wind, solar, and biomass energy cheaper and more effective.

Consider China. Despite the country’s massive investment in solar and wind, it mostly sells solar panels to Western countries at subsidized prices. Wind makes up just 0.2% of China’s energy, and solar accounts for 0.01%.

Meanwhile, China has 68% of the world’s solar water heaters on rooftops, because it is a smart and cheap technology. It needs no subsidies, and it produces 50 times more energy than all of China’s solar panels.

Can the grid handle renewables?

“The grid was not built for renewables,” said Trieu Mai, senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Even the LA Times has discovered that the renewables lobby is not telling the whole truth:

Minders of a fragile national power grid say the rush to renewable energy might actually make it harder to keep the lights on.

By Evan Halper

7:57 PM PST, December 2, 2013

WASHINGTON — In a sprawling complex of laboratories and futuristic gadgets in Golden, Colo., a supercomputer named Peregrinedoes a quadrillion calculations per second to help scientistsfigure out how to keep the lights on.

Peregrine was turned on this year by the U.S. Energy Department.It has the world’s largest “petascale” computing capability. It is the size of a Mack truck.

Its job is to figure out how to cope with a risk from something the public generally thinks of as benign — renewable energy.

Energy officials worry a lot these days about the stability of the massive patchwork of wires, substations and algorithms that keeps electricity flowing. They rattle off several scenarios that could lead to a collapse of the power grid — a well-executed cyberattack, a freak storm, sabotage.

But as states, led by California, race to bring more wind, solar and geothermal power online, those and other forms of alternative energy have become a new source of anxiety. The problem is that renewable energy adds unprecedented levels of stress to a grid designed for the previous century.

Green energy is the least predictable kind. Nobody can say for certain when the wind will blow or the sun will shine. A field of solar panels might be cranking out huge amounts of energy one minute and a tiny amount the next if a thick cloud arrives. In many cases, renewable resources exist where transmission lines don’t.

 (…snip…)

Back in Colorado, Peregrine is furiously working to map out grid scenarios involving wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy. Sharing space with Peregrine at the Energy Systems Integration Facility is a “visualization room” with a 16-foot screen that creates 3-D images of how different wind patterns interact with turbines, or how molecules interact inside a solar cell.

More…

Grid 2020: Towards a Policy of Renewable and Distributed Energy Resources

Another unreliable

The transformation occurring across the world’s electrical systems represents one of the greatest technological challenges industrialized societies have undertaken.

This just landed on my desk, from Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute, how to manage the impact of unreliable wind and solar on the US grid by De Martini, Paul and Chandy, K. Mani and Fromer, N. A. (2012) Grid 2020: Towards a Policy of Renewable and Distributed Energy Resources. , Pasadena, CA. From the Executive Summary:

The transformation occurring across the world’s electrical systems represents one of the greatest technological challenges industrialized societies have undertaken. Reconfiguring a grid designed to carry power one way from reliable generation sources managed by few agents to a system in- creasingly laden with unreliable wind and solar energy while involving mil- lions more participants using advanced technologies will introduce a high degree of uncertainty and variability into the future grid. These changes po- tentially threaten reliability of electrical supply and must be carefully choreo- graphed to avoid widespread perturbations in cost, reliability and efficiency. Yet policy mandates for more and more renewable and distributed energy resources (DER) potentially threaten to outpace the solutions necessary to manage change effectively. This report highlights critical engineering, economic and policy issues that must be addressed to ensure a successful transition. These issues arise for several reasons, including:

  • Expectation of uninterrupted power reliability

  • Volatility of some renewable generation and customer demand

  • Time-scale alignment of customers, producers, economic and grid control actions

  • Rapid changes in both energy and information technologies

  • Clean energy incentives alignment with market and grid realities

Three realms in particular require focused attention on solutions. First, the transmission and distribution of electricity is fundamentally changing due to variable generation at wind and solar stations and customer load due to on- site generation and demand responses. This requires a new operating para- digm in which operational decision time cycles are decreasing beyond human capability to be central to the process as is the case today. Also, the need for coordination of transmission operations across operating regions is in- creasing and traditional jurisdictional boundaries between transmission and distribution are blurring. These factors combined with the massive capital investment to replace an aging infrastructure point to the need to reconsider fundamental design and operational reliability principles. The anticipated high degree of variability and uncertainty should be addressed through the use of models and methods designed for such stochastic applications. Further, the use of related risk management techniques adapted from other mission- critical industries should be evaluated.

More to follow…

Solve for X: Danielle Fong on economical energy storage

Lightsail Energy: Economically competitive storage — hmm…? We watched Danielle’s presentation last night. Aside from the SMR companies, this is one of the “green energy” startups that looks interesting. The investors are certainly sophisticated in this space: Khosla, Gates, Thiel+Founders Fund, TOTAL, et al.

We will be poking around to see if there is any supporting evidence exposed to the public. Danielle talked about thermal efficiency but not a word about economics. She says they have a “utility scale” pilot running that is accumulating data. What we care about is the market price of a MWhr of energy delivered into the grid. You can figure the input costs at nearly zero as there is throwaway excess intermittent, esp. wind at night.

Lomborg on the declining share of renewables

When green renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, they will take over the world. Instead of believing in the Tooth Fairy, we should start investing in green R&D.

Bjorn Lomborg examines the long perspective on renewable energy trends. I liked this piece because it so concisely summarizes both the engineering and social realities of the popular but tragically expensive/ineffective rush to solar and wind. Bjorn forecasts that, in the next 25 years –  from 2011 to 2035, renewables will only increase by about 1.5%. That means from about 13% to 14.5%. But what does “renewables” actually mean. It doesn’t mean “clean” because nuclear power is excluded. Most people think “renewables” means the politically popular “feel good” solar and wind. In some countries, think Norway, New Zealand or Canada, a large portion of renewables comes from hydro power. But expansion of hydro is severely limited – both by opportunity and by politics. So what “renewables” mostly means is burning stuff:

Solar and wind energy account for a trivial proportion of current renewables – about one-third of one percentage point. The vast majority comes from biomass, or wood and plant material – humanity’s oldest energy source. While biomass is renewable, it is often neither good nor sustainable.

And in most places “burning stuff” is really bad. That is the nasty, filthy life that the developed world has escaped – but continues to kill the poorest two billion by air pollution, especially indoor air pollution.

Burning wood in pre-industrial Western Europe caused massive deforestation, as is occurring in much of the developing world today. The indoor air pollution that biomass produces kills more than three million people annually. Likewise, modern energy crops increase deforestation, displace agriculture, and push up food prices.

The most renewables-intensive places in the world are also the poorest. Africa gets almost 50% of its energy from renewables, compared to just 8% for the OECD. Even the European OECD countries, at 11.8%, are below the global average.

The reality is that humanity has spent recent centuries getting away from renewables. In 1800, the world obtained 94% of its energy from renewable sources. That figure has been declining ever since.

(…snip…) 

The switch to fossil fuels has also had tremendous environmental benefits. Kerosene saved the whales (which had been hunted almost to extinction to provide supposedly “renewable” whale oil for lighting). Coal saved Europe’s forests. With electrification, indoor air pollution, which is much more dangerous than outdoor air pollution, disappeared in most of the developed world.

And there is one environmental benefit that is often overlooked: in 1910, more than 30% of farmland in the United States was used to produce fodder for horses and mules. Tractors and cars eradicated this huge demand on farmland (while ridding cities of manure pollution).

Of course, fossil fuels brought their own environmental problems. And, while technological innovations like scrubbers on smokestacks and catalytic converters on cars have reduced local air pollution substantially, the problem of CO₂ emissions remains. Indeed, it is the main reason for the world’s clamor for a return to renewables.

To be sure, wind and solar have increased dramatically. Since 1990, wind-generated power has grown 26% per year and solar a phenomenal 48%. But the growth has been from almost nothing to slightly more than almost nothing. In 1990, wind produced 0.0038% of the world’s energy; it is now producing 0.29%. Solar-electric power has gone from essentially zero to 0.04%.

There is lots more Lomborg at Project Syndicate.

Clean energy stagnation

Long before climate policy became fashionable, global energy consumption data shows that from 1965 to 1999 the proportion of carbon-free energy more than doubled to more than 13 percent. Since then, there has been little if any progress in expanding the share of carbon-free energy in the global mix. Despite the rhetoric around the rise of renewable energy, this stagnation suggests how policies employed to accelerate rates of decarbonization of the global economy have been largely ineffective.

Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, Roger Pielke Jr is one of the very best science communicators. An illustration is this short Breakthrough essay which shows that Kyoto and all the hype has not produced the decarbonization we need. And certainly not the results the renewables advocates want us to believe. Roger concludes with this:

The data shows that for several decades the world has seen a halt in progress towards less carbon-intensive energy consumption, at about 13 percent of the total global supply. This stagnation provides further evidence that the policies that have been employed to accelerate rates of decarbonization of the global economy have been largely ineffective. The world was moving faster towards decarbonizing its energy mix long before climate policy became fashionable. Why this was so and what the future might hold will be the subject of future posts in this continuing discussion.

Read the complete essay. If you are keen to learn what makes for effective policies, then you are very likely to enjoy Roger’s The Climate Fix. For a short introduction see A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy.