Brad Plumer on Nuclear Learnings from France & South Korea

Brad’s excellent essay on Vox interprets the recent Energy Policy paper by Jessica Lovering, Arthur Yip, and Ted Nordhaus. I have really just one quibble with Brad’s “Four broad lessons” summary where he wrote:

1) Stable regulations are essential for nuclear power to thrive. More than, say, solar or wind, nuclear will always need strict safety and environmental regulations. No way around that. The risks are inherently higher.

That’s an example of the “see I’m not pro-nuclear” positioning that we often notice even in informed commentary on how nuclear power fits into the menu of low carbon options. The relative risks of nuclear power are not inherently higher! In his marvelous “Sustainable energy without the hot air” David Mackay’s Chapter 24 Nuclear? examines nuclear power. From that chapter I extracted following graphic. This is David’s computation of deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year), which he has extracted from two of the studies we’ve previously referenced: the EU ExternE research, and the Paul Scherrer Institute.David MacKay relative risks of energy options

  • Our goal is to substitute low-carbon for fossil, especially coal, and especially in the developing fast-growing nations.
  • Amongst the low-carbon options, nuclear has proven to be the safest and really the only scaleable option that can displace coal and natural gas.
  • Nobody is proposing to build more unsafe Chernobyl RBMK unsafe. Yet Chernobyl deaths dominate the tiny comparative death-print statistics of our generation options. Take away Chernobyl and commercial nuclear’s death-print is effectively zero.

When I first studied the relative risks of our energy options I quickly realized that my fears of nuclear catastrophe were based entirely on media mythology. The media don’t report on the thousands of people killed by fossil fuels every year. Even major accidents like the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion are not widely reported or investigated (this 2010 accident was in a suburb of San Francisco: 8 fatalities, 52 injured). Fossil energy causes real people to die every year – real deaths versus theoretical nuclear deaths.

San Bruno gas pipeline explosion

We have a civilizational choice to make: whether we organize political support to scale up construction of advanced nuclear plants that are both economical and orders of magnitude safer than the existing safe 3G plants. If we fail to do that we are going to squander our wealth on the renewables dream – only to find ourselves blockaded by the economics when we are only halfway to our goal of zero emissions energy.

SpaceX demonstrates a reusable first stage

My guess is this will prove to be a historic milestone – from the perspective of future historians studying how humans evolved to be a multi-planetary species. I’ll stick my neck out to speculate that in 10 years major component reuse will be the norm.

I love good engineering! Yes I know that landing the first stage 1 out of 3 tries isn’t good enough. But isn’t it remarkable that SpaceX succeeded in only three attempts? How many more launches before they are achieving 80% success? That’s most of the cost-savings right there. Sure 100% will be nice someday.
Think what it would cost to fly to the South Pacific if Air New Zealand threw the Dreamliner away at the end of each flight:-)

WHO’s first global report on antibiotic resistance reveals serious, worldwide threat to public health

The nightmare bugs are multiplying because our antimicrobial team has no real leadership and has shockingly inadequate funding. We don’t have much data on what is really happening, but my guess is the deaths-from-resistant-microbes curve is increasing at an increasing rate. Every year more patients discover that the post-antibiotic world has already arrived for them.

A new report by WHO–its first to look at antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance, globally–reveals that this serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Antibiotic resistance–when bacteria change so antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections–is now a major threat to public health.

“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” says Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security. “Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier, and benefit from modern medicine. Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.” 

Globally we are falling further behind. Every year more resistant bacteria are discovered, more people die. The most recent data I have shows 2 million U.S. cases of antimicrobial resistance, resulting in 23,000 deaths. We know the actuals are higher because there is no requirement for hospitals to report cases or even outbreaks of resistance. Here is an example from the transcript of the PBS special “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria”:

Nationally, most hospitals aren’t required to report outbreaks to the government, and most won’t talk publicly about them. (…snip…)

Dr. BRAD SPELLBERG: It’s not that the government agencies are not aware of the problem and are not— and are not doing anything. It’s that we have not had a comprehensive plan for how to deal with antibiotic resistance. We don’t have reporting mechanisms, like they do in Europe, to know where resistance is occurring, who’s using the antibiotics, are we overusing them?

DAVID E. HOFFMAN: Wait. You’re telling me we don’t know the answers to the extent of the problem?

Dr. BRAD SPELLBERG: That’s correct.

DAVID E. HOFFMAN: We don’t have the data?

Dr. BRAD SPELLBERG: That is correct. I do not know how many resistant infections are occurring right now. I don’t know what the frequency of resistance in different bacteria are. We do not have those data.

NARRATOR: FRONTLINE requested an interview with the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. We wanted to ask about the lack of data and the about the priority the department is giving to the new superbug crisis. But she declined to be interviewed.

The “nightmare bacteria” have caught governments and public health authorities napping. They didn’t seem to notice that over the past twenty years the development of new antibiotics has collapsed. From the 2013 report by the CDC Antibiotic Resistance Threats this graphic illustrates that there is now almost no new antibiotic development.

Antibiotic development collapse

The fundamental reason for the collapse in new antibiotics is the pharma marketplace doesn’t reward developers enough to pay for the R&D and the drug approval process (USD $600 million to $1 billion for a new drug). Those numbers inhibit every kind of drug – but let through those that sell to the chronic patient markets (cholesterol, hypertension, …). A successful new antibiotic may be sold to a patient for 10 days, not 30 years like a hypertension drug.  And sadly there is nearly no high level level focus on the new antimicrobial market failure.

Resistance is an everyday process – microbes begin exhibiting resistance as soon as a new compound is deployed. There was already penicillin resistance when the drug was first commercially introduced. This issue didn’t start making the headlines in at the beginning of the 21st century because there were still a lot of drugs in the cabinet that could be tried when a new resistant bug surfaced. Today, for an increasing number of infectious diseases, the antibiotic cabinet has fewer effective drugs every year. From the  CDC Antibiotic Resistance Threats report, this graphic illustrates key resistance events:

Timeline of antibiotic resistance

The PBS Frontline special is a useful introduction to this subject — with video, audio, transcript and a number of useful resource links. The CDC report Antibiotic Resistance Threats is an excellent, well-researched overview as of 2013. CDC has a Antibiotic / Antimicrobial Resistance websitethat can be your home base for researching and tracking progress on this issue. CDC is asking congress for $160M [Antibiotic Resistance Solutions Initiative — $160M: A Comprehensive Response].

So what can you do? Most important is to make it clear to your representatives that you expect them to support a major government focus.  In the U.S. there should be at least an NIH Assistant Secretary devoted to antimicrobial resistance, whose mission should be new antimicrobial drug research and development, high-efficiency testing to fast-track diagnosis of new cases, case tracking/reporting, and OBVIOUSLY to radically slash the agricultural misapplication of antibiotics at sub therapeutic doses (about 80% by mass of US antibiotic sales).

To give you an idea of how inadequate the US response is read Can a New White House Plan Catch Up to the “Superbug” Threat?

Although that initiative represents the government’s first-ever attempt to broadly address the issue of antibiotic resistance, the plan has been quickly dismissed by some scientists and lawmakers for not going far enough. In an interview with Politico, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the only microbiologist in Congress, said that goals set for 2020 are too far off to make up for lost ground.

“I’ve said to people, ‘Right now your government is not going to protect you,’” said Slaughter. “They’re about 10 years behind.”

PS – if you have some elective surgery on your horizon, say a knee or hip replacement, you might want to think about getting that done while there are still a few antibiotics that could help save your life (or your leg).

Decarbonization: Is California Exceptional?

Image: Mother Jones

If you ask a random citizen of the state “Is California decarbonizing faster than the rest of the U.S.?” they are likely to reply “Of course, California is the leader!” This accepted wisdom was reflected in the recent Mother Jones article by Gabriel Kahn [@gabekahn] Did California Figure Out How to Fix Global Warming?.  

All of these advances have undercut a fundamental tenet of economics: that more growth equals more emissions. Between 2003 and 2013 (the most recent data), the Golden State decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 5.5 percent while increasing its gross domestic product by 17 percent—and it did so under the thumb of the nation’s most stringent energy regulations.

As the chart above shows, California is decarbonizing, but how exceptional is California’s performance since 2000? In reality, California’s results are not exceptions, but representative of the nation. For the same 2000 to 2013 period discussed in the Mother Jones article, here is a graphic showing California and U.S. greenhouse gas emissions decreases as a function of GDP [thanks to John Fleck for graphing the IEA, BEA and Census Bureau data].

Image: John Fleck [@jfleck]
And here’s John Fleck’s graphic showing how California’s per capita emissions compare to the US as a whole.

Image: John Fleck [@jfleck]

From the time series graphs it’s hard to judge whether California’s results are better or worse than the US average. Mike Shellenberger [@shellenbergerMD] aggregated the EIA 2000-2013 decarbonization data to demonstrate that the nation reduced emissions more than California. This doesn’t account for emissions that California exported to other states (e.g., for power generation) or other nations (e.g., China for the embedded energy in imported goods).

Image: Michael Shellenberger [@shellenbergerMD]

Mike has also been analyzing the favorable tail wind provided by crashing natural gas prices. Low gas prices have hidden from the consumer the true cost of subsidizing (non-large hydro) renewables. The US has been enjoying historically low natural gas prices. The lows are an anomaly caused by the local oversupply of U.S. shale gas. The oversupply situation is local to the US because it’s difficult to export natural gas. There are long lead times and large capital investments required to expand gas export infrastructure. Once the excess supply can be freely exported the US natural gas market will clear much like crude oil. Then US consumers will be paying a lot more for natural gas.

Image: Michael Shellenberger [@shellenbergerMD]

For his hypothesis that California has outperformed on decarbonization Gabe Kahn mainly credits politicians backing mandates and subsidies for wind and solar. Missing is discussion of all of the factors that contributed to the reduced emissions intensity. Nationally the two biggest contributors have been the Great Recession (falling demand) and fuel-switching from coal to gas. The Breakthrough Institute published a 2014 report Natural Gas Overwhelmingly Replaces Coal: New Analysis of US Regional Power Generation Between 2007 and 2013. US emissions intensity fell largely due to fuel-switching:

Changes in generation shares at the regional level, however, strongly support the conclusion that fuel-switching from coal to gas, along with falling electricity demand in the wake of the Great Recession, account for the vast majority of the decline in emissions. Moreover, the shift from coal to gas accounts for a significant majority of the decline in the carbon intensity of the US electrical grid since 2007.

Comparison of CA low-carbon sources
Image: James Conca [@JimConca]

Study the above 2014 chart. The biggest elephant in the room (not discussed by Gabe Kahn) is the serious negative impact of activist attacks on the state’s nuclear plants. The premature closing of SONGS cost the state almost all the gains of twenty years of building subsidized wind and solar — California’s decarbonization rate took a big step backwards.  James Conca explains:

In one fell swoop, the unnecessary closing of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego wiped out the low-carbon energy equivalent of almost all the wind and solar installed in California, reversing the state’s 20-year progress in low-carbon energy. Wind and solar are the only low-carbon energy sources growing in California. Geothermal, biomass and hydro have been flat for 10 years.

Going backwards: the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) was prematurely closed January 2012. Now the same activists are trying to shut down California’s only nuclear power station Diablo Canyon — which is quietly producing every day about 1.6 times the output of all of California’s solar power. It will be impossible for California to achieve zero-carbon by closing rather than building new nuclear plants. In California Gets Coal for Christmas: SONGS Closure Produces Extra 18M Tons of Carbon Dioxide James Conca reviews the reality:

A state-funded study by the California Council on Science and Technology found that only significant nuclear, or obtaining as-yet-undeveloped carbon capture technologies, can solve California’s energy demands and emission goals in this century (CCST SummaryCCST Report to 2050). We geologists know how unlikely carbon capture and storage is, and we should keep trying, but we can’t bet the house on unknown technologies.

The California’s Energy Future report that Jim references is a very good piece of work. See my report on the 2013 Travers Conference at UC Berkeley for updates on the study. You can help by supporting Save Diablo Canyon.

So how is California doing relative to our two degrees target? Poorly – and most people don’t appreciate how incredibly challenging it is. Two years ago Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated that a global compounded decarbonization rate of 6.2% per year would just get us to zero-carbon by 2100. California’s 7.5% over thirteen years is way short of 6.2% compounded — it is not much better than the dotted line in the this PWC chart, and not nearly good enough. When was the last time we saw nations decarbonize rapidly? It can be done.

Image: PWC Price Waterhouse Coopers


India’s citizens want a modern life too

Those of us lucky enough to live in the rich world have grown up with abundant, cheap energy. It is very hard for us to see clearly how much our civilization depends on cheap energy. Our parents might have grown some of our food – but it’s unlikely that our mothers spent five hours a day carrying water and chopping firewood or gathering dung. Our energy surplus allows some of us spend time opining about how India should not build coal power stations but should “leap-frog” to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The cheap energy that we don’t notice privileges us to worry about preventing Indian fossil fuel development.

The preceding guest post by Michael Shellenberger and Rachel Pritzker is remarkable for telling a complex story in so few words: why India’s climb to an urban, energy-rich life is going to happen rather like we did it. And that we can make a big difference for India’s poor by sharing our know-how to accelerate India’s deployment of shale gas and nuclear fission technologies. Solar and wind are self-promoting technologies – let’s put our focus on the less popular but more effective solutions.

Why energy transitions are the key to environmental progress

This is a guest post by Michael Shellenberger and Rachel Pritzker (This post first appeared on Observer Research Foundation 23 Feb 2016)

At the United Nations climate talks in Paris last fall, US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need to find climate solutions that advance, rather than undermine, India’s development prospects.

But the reality of what both nations are doing on climate change does not live up to the rhetoric. The overwhelming focus of US-Indian government climate efforts is on expanding renewables and increasing energy efficiency. Both have merit, but should be third order, not top, priorities.

The main climate and development focus of all governments should be on accelerating the pace of energy transitions, from wood and dung to fossil fuels and from fossil fuels to nuclear power. To understand why this is, it is important to put energy and environmental progress in their developmental context.

Almost all nations develop following the same pattern. Small farmers become more productive and move from the country to the city to work in factories and offices. Women become newly empowered. Children gain formal education. And couples choose to have fewer children.

As fewer farmers must produce more food for more people, they invest in tractors, fertilizer and other ways to increase productivity.

Over time, all of this urbanisation and industrialisation delivers large environmental benefits. Using liquid petroleum gas, instead of wood for cooking, almost completely eliminates toxic smoke and can save hours a day.

As we move from wood fuel to fossil fuel, our forests can return and become habitat for wildlife. Recently, India was able to protect her Himalayan forests by subsidising the substitution of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) for wood fuel.

Factories and cities create more air pollution at first, but over time become cleaner and greener. Rising societal wealth allows for pollution controls such as catalytic converters and smokestack scrubbers. And dust is reduced by paving roads, improving mining and land use practices and tree-planting.

In the US and Europe, conventional pollutants have been in decline since the early 1970s, and carbon emissions for the last 10 years. Rich nations can afford to move from coal to much cleaner natural gas, which generates a tiny fraction of the pollutants of coal, and half the carbon emissions.

In the US and Europe, major oil and gas discoveries were key to shifting from coal to natural gas and reducing pollution. North Sea natural gas in deep waters reduced Europe’s reliance on coal starting in the 1980s. In the U.S., it was natural gas from shale, a rock formation one mile underground, starting around 2007.

China and India both have significant reserves of natural gas and oil in shale, but lack the workforce, drilling rigs and pipeline infrastructure. Those things will develop over time, the question is at what pace.

Because solar and wind cannot generate power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, their value to developing nations that need cheap reliable power for their factories and cities is highly limited.

Solar and wind are limited for similar reasons in rich nations as well. As solar and wind become a larger amount of the electrical grid, their value declines, as Germany is discovering. That’s because solar and wind create power when it’s not needed and don’t create power when it is most needed from 5 pm to 9 pm.

The great emphasis put on an energy source that cannot support industrialisation and urbanisation is not a coincidence. Environmentalists in India and the West have since the 1960s promoted the Romantic idea that low-energy consumption, rural subsistence living, and renewable energy are best for people and the environment. The last 50 years shows how wrong this idea is.

Economic growth remains tightly coupled with energy consumption. A recent analysis of 76 countries found that Indians and Chinese earning $50,000 per year consumes the same amount of energy as Americans and Europeans did when earning that same amount.

Where European, US and Indian governments put great emphasis on off-grid solar in rural villages, historically most people gain access to LPG and electricity by moving to cities.

Solar and wind are promoted as energy sources with little negative environmental impact but both have large impacts measured on per unit energy basis. Both require 100 times more land as fossil and nuclear plants. And wind and solar require five times more concrete and steel, respectively, than coal, nuclear and natural gas plants, according to the US Department of Energy.

Given the limits to solar and wind in both rich and poor countries, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require a faster transition to nuclear energy, first fission and then fusion. Where the transition from wood to coal began 500 years ago, the transition from fossil to nuclear energy began just 50 years ago.

India is a special case in that while most countries complete, or almost complete, the transition from biomass (wood and dung) to fossil fuels, India aims to make both energy transitions happen at the same time.

Rich countries have the strongest scientific and technical workforces capable of building and operating nuclear power plants, but ideological opponents of the technology have successfully spread fear of nuclear energy since the 1960s.

Polls show Indians support nuclear energy but the Indian nuclear energy programme is only now recovering after having been isolated from the global community over recusal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As such, the most important work by Modi and Obama on climate was removing hurdles to greater US-India collaboration on nuclear energy. India could soon start constructing power plants with US and European companies and hopefully one day soon the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.

The same should be done on natural gas. The US can help India to better access its natural gas reserves, and the Indian government can take advantage of low cost natural gas due to the global oversupply, and potentially start importing large quantities of natural gas from Iran.

Nations around the world, including the US and Europe, show that the transition from wood to fossil fuels takes decades. To the extent there is energy leap-frogging it will mostly be from wood to natural gas and nuclear, not to solar and wind. Renewables should play a role but should not distract nations from the main event of accelerating energy transitions for environmental progresss.

Michael Shellenberger is President of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy NGO based in California.

Rachel Pritzker is President of Pritizker Innovation Fund, a philanthropic foundation supporting technological innovation for human development and environmental progress.

Australia can contribute decisively to multi-lateralizing the nuclear fuel cycle

The Commission strongly believes that multilateralizing the nuclear fuel cycle would play an invaluable role in building global confidence in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and any efforts to that end should be encouraged. Such arrangements would provide an important foundation for a world free of nuclear weapons, where all sensitive fuel cycle activities will need to be under multilateral verification and control. — from the 2009 report of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament via @BenThinkClimate

Over the next century we need to triple the global quantity of energy production. Everything that makes civilization civil requires electricity, liquid fuels and energy for industry. Plus we need to help boost another three billion people out of poverty. That means most of the expansion of new energy production is needed in the Global South – outside the OECD nations. Safe, carbon-free nuclear fission should be a big part of that solution.

Let’s take Kenya as an example of the nations that want to build new nuclear power plants. To make that commitment they need affordable access to nuclear fuel. They need to be confident that fuel will always be available to them, regardless of future political issues. It also makes their nuclear launch much easier if they need only to contract for fuel delivery and reprocessing/disposal. If they have to also develop their own nuclear fuel cycle that probably makes the nuclear option uneconomic. If Kenya can’t access the nuclear option we know they will continue with the fossil option.

External pressures: the OECD nations may try to block Kenya’s access to nuclear power, especially if they are concerned about increasing weapons proliferation risk. Certainly anti-nuclear NGOs like Greenpeace will raise the bogeyman of proliferation to disrupt new nuclear power. 

I think it is completely obvious that a politically reliable nation like Australia is a perfect match with Kenya’s need for a dependable front-to-back nuclear fuel partner. Australia can be the “Amazon Prime” for nuclear fuel for all the new nuclear nations, and the existing cases like India and Pakistan.

I’m anticipating a favorable report from the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission. So is principal contributor Ben Heard who wrote yesterday explaining the benefits of the “establishment of a multinational storage facility for used nuclear fuel and the subsequent recycling of that material for clean power”.

Whatever happens tomorrow, some stakeholders will stop at almost nothing to try and frighten South Australians.

As well as the potential to benefit economically, we may have the opportunity to shift the world to a decisively safer state of relations. There has never been a more important time to listen to the experts. In more ways than one, our future depends on it.

Energiewende and Caliwende – the Heavy Cost of Ideology

The J.P. Morgan Annual Energy Paper for 2015 is an excellent short resource “A Brave New World: Deep De-Carbonization of Electricity Grids”. They have packed a lot of data and analysis into 28 pages. The focus is Energiewende and Caliwende (the California version of Germany’s Energiewende). The high quality of this report is due at least in part to guidance from Armond Cohen, Executive Director and co-founder of the Clean Air Task Force. And of course Vaclav Smil. Chief Investment Officer Michael Cembalest closes with this:

Deep de-carbonization of the electricity grid via renewable energy and without nuclear power can be done, but we should not underestimate the cost or speed of doing so in many parts of the world. At the minimum, the costs involved suggest that efforts to solve the nuclear cost-safety puzzle could yield large dividends in a post-carbon world. Such is the belief of the scientists, academics and environmentalists who still see a substantial role for nuclear power in the future (see Appendix V). See you next year.

The report gives enough detail that you can see why Germany’s nuclear ban leads to a shocking cost of avoidance of $300. I’ve circled in green the baseline Energiewende result estimated to cost $300/mt CO2. J.P. Morgan modeled a balanced deep decarbonization strategy, which using 35% nuclear, costs only $84/mt CO2.Note that the $300 is a bare-bones estimate – none of the cost of the additional transmission infrastructure required by high-renewables is included in the analysis. Even so the baseline Energiewende plan will double already second-highest in Europe current costs from $108 to $203/MWhr.

Click to embiggen

What about Caliwende? The cost to consumers is lower than for Energiewende but the CO2 avoidance cost of the baseline plan is $477/mt CO2 — even worse than Germany because California has already done more CO2 avoidance. Happily, if California implemented a balanced plan (35% nuclear) that drops the CO2 avoidance cost to $174/mt CO2. That is still unnecessarily expensive because of the high-renewables ideology.

Click to embiggen

Well, at least both plans have closed a lot of those nasty fossil plants, right? Actually not. Because of the intermittency, at least all of the current thermal generation is required to cover the demand gaps. These charts show just how big those gaps are. This is the largest single source of the high CO2 avoidance costs. All that mostly-idle thermal capacity is still required by the ideology of high-renewables. That means a very small capacity factor so the capital has to be amortized over too-few generation hours.

Click to embiggen

What does it all mean? Back to Michael Cembalest (his emphasis):

  • Intermittency greatly reduces the importance of wind and solar levelized cost when assessing high- renewable grids. The cost of backup thermal capacity and storage is an inextricable part of any analysis of a high renewable system. Academic and industry research has reached similar conclusions. A 2015 paper from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research notes that integration costs in systems with high levels of renewable energy can be up to 50% of generation costs, and that the largest single factor is the additional cost of backup thermal power
  • Energy storage reduces CO2 emissions but its cost, utilization rate and energy loss must be accounted for. Even when assuming continued learning curves, storage adds to net system cost
  • (…snip…)
  • Even in California, there are uncertainties to this Brave New World: California’s Independent System Operator gave a presentation in 2014 highlighting how the impacts from increasing renewable energy on the grid are still not fully understood. They mentioned voltage fluctuation due to upward/ downward ramps, high voltage issues on distribution circuits, voltage/power regulation control issues, the greater number of operations and increased maintenance on voltage control, etc.

I appreciated the final paragraphs which concisely dispense with some of the common tooth-fairy stories. There are also appendices backing up these points:

We often hear people referring to other what-ifs regarding high-renewable grids. Many rely on highly uncertain assumptions and conjecture, while others neglect related costs.

  • Could cross-border integration of high-renewable grids reduce the need for backup power and its corresponding cost? That’s the next wave of renewable energy research. It would cost money to build these interconnections, but in theory, if wind and solar patterns are more divergent the larger the geographic area covered, the problem of renewable intermittency could simply be diversified away. Unfortunately, new research on wind suggests that this theory has major limitations. This remains a premise best proven empirically rather than by assumption.
  • What about over-building renewable energy and storage so that the need for and cost of backup power is eliminated? The good news: it’s an emission-less system. The problem is that incremental solar, wind and energy storage costs would dwarf foregone costs of backup thermal power. Our models determined that a system in California with enough wind, solar and storage to eliminate backup power entirely would cost $280-$600 per MWh, which is 2.5x – 5.0x more expensive than Caliwende (depending on assumed storage system properties and costs). Bottom line: a renewable energy storage version of the Temple Granaries looks to be prohibitively expensive.
  • Why not draw on electricity stored in electric car batteries (“car-to-grid”) to reduce storage costs? Another theoretical possibility that’s only worth discussing when we can determine the penetration rate of plug-in vehicles, the participation rate of drivers willing to share their battery with the grid and how much of it they would share, the cost of interconnections, and the cost of incentives required by drivers to have their expensive car batteries cycled more frequently. See Appendix VII.
  • What about “demand management”? If demand could (somehow) be reconfigured to match up with variable renewable generation, unused surpluses and demand gaps would be smaller and system costs could decline. However, demand management is meant to deal with intraday supply-demand issues, not intermittency issues which span weeks and months. See Appendix VIII.

Elon Musk forecasts Tesla will self-drive from NY to LA in ~2 years

Elon Musk sent this pair of tweets this morning. The Summon/Unsummon commands are supposed to work today on your iPhone or Tesla key.

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 1/11/16, 09:08
Tap your phone or key and your car will open the garage door, exit, close the door and come to you. Will do same in reverse for unsummon.

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) 1/11/16, 09:11
In ~2 years, summon should work anywhere connected by land & not blocked by borders, eg you’re in LA and the car is in NY

Now we know why Tesla is developing the robot arm that plugs their fast charger into your Tesla charge port🙂 So you can park your car in NY and tell it to pick you up in LA. It will just need to navigate to the string of cross country Fast Charging Stations. Story and robot arm video at Wired.

Tesla robot charger

Royal Academy of Engineering: “A critical time for UK energy policy”

How can you tell if political leaders are serious about decarbonization? If you see policy discussions like this:

“UK energy policy today seeks to deliver solutions to the so-called energy ‘trilemma’ — the need for a system that is secure and affordable as well as low carbon… One thing remains certain — the scale of the engineering challenge remains massive and the need for whole-systems thinking remains critical… all the easiest actions have already been taken”

The captioned report was submitted October 2015 by the UK Royal Academy of Engineering: “A critical time for UK energy policy”, subtitled “what must be done now to deliver the UK’s future energy system”. I can’t comment on the extent to which this message was digested by the UK leadership. But I take the fact of the commissioning and publication of the report as a positive sign. I’ve seen nothing approaching this quality from any other government (if I could read Mandarin perhaps I would have seen such discussions in China).

Reading this report made me simultaneously hopeful and depressed. Hopeful because there is such clear thinking going on in the UK. Depressed because this is so extraordinarily rare. Instead I typically see intense media coverage of the latest ramblings of professor 100% Mark Z. Jacobson, nicely deconstructed by Blair here. Let’s close on the optimistic view that in Berlin, Paris and Washington there are intense daily conversations that sound like this fragment from the Executive Summary (red = my emphasis): 

The following actions by government are needed as a matter of urgency: 

  • Undertake local or regional whole-system, large-scale pilot projects to establish real-world examples of how the future system will work. These must move beyond current single technology demonstrations and incorporate all aspects of the energy system along with consumer behaviour and nancial mechanisms.
  • Drive forward new capacity in the three main low carbon electricity generating technologies — nuclear, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and o shore wind.
  • Develop policies to accelerate demand reduction, especially in the domestic heat sector, and the introduction of ‘smarter’ demand management1.
  • Clarify and stabilise market mechanisms and incentives in order to give industry the con dence to invest.

In undertaking these actions, government must build on partnerships with all industry stakeholders and communicate clearly and honestly with the public the likely consequences of the necessary evolution of the energy system. Each of these points is expanded on below. 

It is also worth noting that, in developing energy policy, the whole system must always be considered. Electricity, heat and transport, although quite different in their characteristics, are all part of the UK’s energy system and are equally important, with complex interactions between them: targets will only be met by addressing all aspects of the system.