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The Green/Brown Divide
The Problem With Renewables

Coal and renewable energy executives sparred at a meeting in Paris this week, as both sides had some harsh words for what they must each see as existential threats to their business models. The FT reports:

“With the best will in the world, solar is not an answer to broad scale industrialisation,” [said Tony Hayward, chairman of mining company Glencore], adding it was too intermittent to supply the steady, reliable power needed by an aluminium plant or a steel mill.

“Unless we can deal with this dilemma this debate goes nowhere,” he said.

In response, chief executive of North American solar group SkyPower Kerry Adler remarked that “Solar is the new world. You’ve got to get used to it.” But the coal executive’s remarks can’t simply be brushed away by such a flippant dismissal. He makes a good point.

Fossil fuels pollute both locally and, in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, globally, but they are very good at one thing: providing consistent power round-the-clock. Renewables, on the other hand, are plagued by an intermittency issue. Lacking cost-effective and scalable energy storage options, solar and wind producers can only meet demand when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Civilization as we know it requires more from its energy supply.

Until we make a breakthrough in battery technology, we’re going to continue to need fossil fuels to supply our baseload power, and use renewables to supplement that supply at peak usage times. In that sense, green and brown energy aren’t as mutually exclusive as the talk from this latest Paris meeting might make it seem.

If solar executives really see their industry as the “new world,” they’d be well served to pour money into the research and development of next generation storage technologies.

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  • Pait

    The problem, Jamie, is that a while ago you stated that “solar energy would not work because there was going to be an eclipse in Europe”. That had a clear cost in credibility. It is hard to take your technical arguments about batteries too seriously after that.

    • Fat_Man

      Solar energy doesn’t work because the sun sets every night. And batteries will not have a big technological breakthrough because electro-chemistry is well characterized.

      • CaliforniaStark

        Agree. For a lot of reasons, battery technology is not the solution.
        Effective energy storage will likely only take place when there have been breakthroughs in the electrolysis process, and we are able to effectively store solar, wind and other energy sources as hydrogen. Battery chemistry by its nature will not be an effect way to store energy. Solar is questionable at best, because of its low energy production capacity; around 15-20%. As example, Ivanpah is a multi-billion dollar example of the failure of solar energy to generate sufficient energy to justify its cost. Thankfully Ivanpah has a natural gas backup; it is increasingly turning into a natural gas energy source, with a solar back-up.

      • Pait

        Well characterized by whom, paleface? Scientists and engineers who actually work on batteries are more optimistic that people who dislike alternative sources of energy because of ideological arguments unrelated to the actual science.

        http://www.nature.com/news/the-rechargeable-revolution-a-better-battery-1.14815

        • f1b0nacc1

          Most of that article simply suggests that possibilities exist, most of which do not depend upon Fat Man’s point about the stability of our knowledge of electrochemistry. We MIGHT be able to do a few interesting engineering tricks to produce more useful batteries (and supercapacitors are another option as well), but all of that is highly speculative, and the price of such options is even less well-understood. Basing policy NOW on what might be possible (no discussion of feasible) in 5-10-20 years is hardly a reasonable way to go, and there is plenty of room to disparage it that rises above the level of ideology….

          • Pait

            Interesting concept, “stability of knowledge”. Never heard of that. I just picked some random article in a serious scientific journal with a graph showing how battery capacity increased about an order of magnitude in 25 years.

            I guess it’s a a leftish nightmare as some other poster wrote, that technology keeps improving.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Aircraft speeds increased by an order of magnitude from 1925 to 1950, but they certainly didn’t do the same from 1950 to 1975, so assuming that just because you have seen some increase in capability occur you can see it increase that way indefinitely strikes me as a weak argument.
            Fat Man makes the case that batteries depend upon physical principles that are inherently limited, and thus battery capacity can only grow so far. His point, as far as it goes, is entirely correct and you won’t find any serious chemist or physicist who disagrees. The article you pointed to suggests that there may be some ways to gain ‘at the margin’ with a few tricks, and they are likely correct, but only with considerably higher costs and problems with weight and handling. Use of other physical principles (I mentioned supercapacitors earlier) might work out too, but all of these have their drawbacks, and pointing these out is merely a question of good science, not ideology.
            Are you seriously suggestion basing policy on what MIGHT happen? The old adage ‘Hope is not a plan’ comes most readily to mind here.

          • Pait

            I am not sure what was Fat Man’s argument besides declaring that anyone who wears a lab coat is a grifter and therefore we should trust….. whoever, I don’t know, whoever doesn’t wear a lab coat or something like that.

            Sorry, this kind of ad hominem attack may be pleasant for people who would never be persuaded by reason, but it fails to impress anyone else. Have fun!

          • f1b0nacc1

            The comment that Fat Man made was “Solar energy doesn’t work because the sun sets every night. And batteries will not have a big technological breakthrough because electro-chemistry is well characterized”, I didn’t see any remarks about grifters or lab coats….seems like you are the one enjoying the ad homs…

          • Pait

            Look more carefully and you’ll see. I think the link is http://disq.us/8nfelc

          • f1b0nacc1

            I see the linked along another thread in this exchange. Still, I don’t see you responding to his underlying point (i.e. the paragraph preceding the sentence at the bottom of the comment), rather a few snarky comments regarding Ayn Rand or the Kochs….still pretty much Ad hom.
            Care to address the point he made?

          • Pait

            It is useless to respond. He’s not going to be persuaded by logical arguments, his starting point is that any opinion an engineer has is irrelevant, so it’s better to answer in kind.

            The fact is that technology is advancing rapidly and solar is becoming more competitive, even though it doesn’t enjoy the massive advantages that fossil fuels do – that their health, environmental, and geopolitical costs are not born by end users or producers. That doesn’t mean that all energy is going to come from the Sun tomorrow.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Better…
            We will likely differ on the value of solar (‘more competitive’ =/= ‘competitive’, and the difficulties with storage, density, etc. are unlikely to be overcome by technological advances anytime soon, if at all), but reasonable people can differ. As for the question of externalities, that is yet another issue for debate, and I suspect you would find that it is not entirely as straightforward as you present it to be. But either way, that paragraph is a far more rational, dare I say ‘non-trollish’ response…

          • Pait

            I agree. Once we ignore the trolls we can have a dialog.

            I think the externalities are crucial. 1st you have the obvious pollution effects. They can be made smaller – cars in the US are comparatively clean at street level, the rest of the world is a different story – but it’s still a significant issue.

            Then you have the global climate issue. Now there’s a whole industry of spreading uncertainty about climate change… but the more uncertainty, the more reason to be cautious, which in the case means using less fossil fuels if at all possible,

            The 3rd issue wins the day. Look at it this way: essentially all the enemies of the Free World – and I’m using this old-fashioned term very pointedly – are financed by petroleum profits. Essentially the US picks the bill and its European and East Asian allies get a free ride, but all share the risk. All trouble in the world begins around a petrocrat. Pretty much that decides the question of externalities, making a straightforward the case for as much alternative energy as technically feasible.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The problem with externalities is that they are not as easy to identify (and assign blame for) as you suggest. Pollution effects are a broad category, and trying to pin down who gets blamed for what is hardly a simple task. I did quite a bit of work in the 90s dealing with this very problem for the Superfund folks, and even there (were you were dealing with stationary land sites with documented histories) it wasn’t all that straightforward. You can identify the emitters, certainly, but the effects (other than the emissions) aren’t always that easy to pin down…
            On the subject of climate change, there is a great deal of controversy that you cannot simply handwave away by pointing to shadowy groups spreading confusion. The methodology behind the IPCC reports is awful, the models cannot even ‘predict’ the climate’s behavior over the last 25 years, and there are serious questions about the basic physics behind many of the assumptions. While reasonable people can differ on this, simply silencing that debate does little for anyone.
            Now your third externality is a far more interesting one, but it has its own flaws. If you really believe in undermining petrostates (an excellent idea, by the way) then fracking should be a top priority, as it has the most immediate impact. Coal production (none of which comes from these states) would be another excellent way to undermine the petrostates, as would nuclear power. I take it that you support these as well?
            I am not unsympathetic to the notion that moving away from some energy sources would be desirable, but the tradeoffs just aren’t there. Batteries (and supercapacitors, flywheels, etc.) have serious issues with density, safety, and cost that are not even close to being resolved, nor are we likely to see any resolution anytime soon. Without real storage breakthroughs, neither solar nor wind are anything more than niche options (don’t believe me, look at the German attempts to make them work), and the problems with rebuilding the electrical grid to support EVs hasn’t even been addressed. Certainly it makes sense to pursue storage technology (it is being done on a very large scale already), but if you really care about pollution and ‘climate change’ (I don’t, but we are talking about your interests, not mine), then the most cost effective option (not to mention the most immediate one), is to move aggressively on Nuclear power, preferably the IV gen and thorium options. That will help get rid of coal, the truly dirty fuel that NOBODY likes…

          • Pait

            I agree that it is difficult to quantify the cost of externalities and even harder to assign those costs. However they are large and they exist, so we have to deal with them someway, or else live with the consequences of a massive market failure.

            I also agree that it is very hard to measure and forecast the consequences of climate change. There is a lot of uncertainty and that should push us in the direction of extra caution. Uncertainty however is not controversy; as for the controversy, it is fabricated and intellectually irrelevant, though politically powerful.

            The last and perhaps more urgent point…. Each energy source has to be evaluated on its own merits. Coal has little geopolitical footprint, but it’s an environmental disaster. Fracking is great geopolitically, and likely not worse than oil on the other counts, so it’s definitely something to pursue, with careful attention to local problems – which is what the US is doing in a haphazard way. Not too bad. Nuclear has a serious problem with cost and public perception, and a potentially more serious one with proliferation; I don’t see it changing much despite some advantages. Thorium is particularly interesting; I’m a little surprised doesn’t get more attention.

            So altogether the case for “green” sources is very strong. Technical and financial problems are something we can and should work on. They are challenging – which I guess in engineer-speak means attractive – but not remotely as scary as some of the other problems.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Your first two paragraphs are not unreasonable, but they (to some extent) unintentionally make my point. The externalities of pollution as well as (putative) climate change are asserted, but not proven. These are not simply intellectual talking points, but real policy issues. Simply saying that such externalities not only exist, but are the result of a given set of behaviors, can be remedied, are appropriately remedied by the proposed policies, and finally are remedied in a manner that is cost effective (not to mention respectful of other priorities, such as preserving rights and liberties) is hardly just something you can handwave away. I don’t see the evidence that controversy is fabricated and intellectually irrelevant, for instance, though that is a broad sweeping statement that if falsifiable undermines much of the rest of your case.
            Your discussion of energy sources is interesting, and I commend you for efforts there. Coal in fact has a huge geopolitical footprint (its centrality to European energy policy, for instance, has an enormous impact on one of the bigger petrostates, Russia), but we certainly agree that it is utterly undesirable on just about every level. We largely agree about fracking, though I might argue that the attention to the ‘local problems’ you refer to has often been misused by groups who simply wish to shut it down on any basis. Nuclear in its current Gen II/III configuration has cost and safety issues (proliferation is largely a red herring, and in any event lots of proliferation-proof designs already exist that answer this objection), but nobody is suggesting building with existing designs. Thorium’s problem is that it is opposed by the very same folks who don’t like nuclear, most often because they don’t want to weaken support for their preferred alternatives of wind/solar.
            Still, I don’t see the argument for green sources being particularly strong. I agree that the technical and financial issues should be worked on (why not pursue everything?), but they are being pursued rather aggressively. The argument that they aren’t as scary as the other options?….I don’t see it….there are no real answers to the issues of density (essential for transportation, which is where most of the oil is being consumed) absent some sort of radical breakthrough that no serious researcher has been able to identify even as a ‘potential’. Storage cripples most of the current attempts to implement the green sources, and their costs/kw are astronomical, even when attempting to incorporate externalities, a methodologically chancy approach, as I mentioned earlier.
            Much more to the point though, if these alternatives were useful, why would we not see private investors exploring them absent government coercion? If solar (for instance) was such a terrific option, wouldn’t we expect to see investors flocking to it? Instead, outside of heavily subsidized (often crony-ridden) ghettos, solar, wind, etc. are all bereft of any serious investment, and for good reason. They are unsuitable for all but niche production, they are expensive, and absent heavy subsidies, they are unlikely to offer any reasonable return. This is the case in not only the US, but every developed economy on the planet. Where there is heavy government investment, these technologies are reluctantly pursued to obtain the subsidies. Once those incentives disappear, the investment quickly follows. That should tell you a great deal about their viability.
            The underlying issues that work against alternative energy sources are (at this time at least, and likely for the forseeable future) not being overcome. We might think of this as a bad thing, but denying that it is so, or pretending that it will just go away if we believe enough isn’t going to change things. Rebuilding the energy grid (a vital priority, whatever path we choose in the future), moving to cleaner energies such as gas, nuclear (gen III+/IV as well as thorium, hopefully with fusion someday) while we continue research and development elsewhere (and yes, solar/wind are certainly worth exploring, as are improved storage technologies), and finally decentralizing the grid to allow more inputs from smaller sources are things we can do immediately all at a far lower cost both in dollars and political capital than the existing unicorn hunt.

          • Pait

            I stand by the statement that the externalities are enormous and need to be addressed with extreme care, and that the controversy is fabricated in a fraudulent manner. I also maintain that there is no agreement on the precise magnitude of the future problems, and that it is difficult to devise mechanism to apportion costs, which is the same point you make; and furthermore that the uncertainty makes a stronger case for action in the direction of minimizing risks. These are long discussions, and don’t fit either on a blog post or on my time budget for an internet discussion (sorry about that).

            Agreed on coal. Nuclear, I don’t know; I haven’t seen much movement from either industry or research establishments in the direction of Thorium; could be because the technology is not so promising, because industry doesn’t want change, or because they don’t think the public and regulators would go along. I honestly do no know. You may be right about the small risk of proliferation when you talk about nuclear in rich countries – but when you think worldwide the risks are very real – and Pakistan got its fissile material largely by stealing designs from Europe, so I don’t think you’re right here.

            I think you are overstating the technological and financial barriers to “green” energy. The cost differential is not that great, even before you take into account the externalities associated with fossil. I’m not claiming I know how to apportion these costs; only that they are larger than the green premium, and they tend to grow in time, while the green premium keeps decreasing as technology advances. I’m also not claiming that green would be competitive for anything like 100% of usage, only that it IS competitive, already, for a much larger share than the present one.

            The reason investors do not flock to green is because fossil is heavily subsidized – that’s my point on externalities, NOT that it is easy to apportion costs, but precisely that it is difficult but right now you don’t pay extra for the cost other people bear. In my understanding your statement about government coercion is a significant exaggeration. Personal example: I switched my electricity supply to 100% green in Massachusetts – mostly because I feel more comfortable sending my dollars to windmill manufacturers than to the likes of Qatar – and the increase in the bill is hardly noticeable. I know that the windmill folks get all sorts of government incentives, but then oil and gas producers also do, and win doesn’t require sending the Marines to wherever the next Saddam will attack.

            Have to go, by for now!

          • Pait

            Let me see what I wrote yesterday. Edited in a few places. We disagree on some points, that’s a fact.

            Altogether it seems we mostly agree on the need for pursuing a combination of energy sources to minimize the various risks. It is one of the major issues that will continue to affect the economy and quality of life in the future, quite out of proportion with the actual fraction of energy costs in the GDP; so it’s important to pursue research and create appropriate policies.

        • Fat_Man

          Well characterized by chemists. The basic electrochemical reactions have been measured and published over the last 215 years (the invention of the battery by Volta), and are now table entries and undergraduate lab exercises. The underlying physics was established on the foundation of quantum mechanics by Linus Pauling in the 1930s. It won’t change.

          “Scientists and engineers who actually work on batteries”

          I.E., grifters in lab coats.

          • Pait

            Right, people who use lab coats can never know what they are doing. Only men in suits know how science will progress. Something like that. It’s all in some book by Ayn Rand or some report by an oil-billionaire funded trust. Can’t get at the truth, by, God forgive, actually doing experiments. I know, I know.

          • Fat_Man

            A lab coat, of course, prevents selfishness, greed, and fraud.

          • Pait

            Grandma told me the troll should have the last word.

        • Pait

          Technology advances. Exactly in what direction, we don’t quite know.

          Except for people who just KNOW that alternative sources of energy will never work because somehow solar and batteries and wind and conservation somehow go against the nature of free enterprise or something like that. Those people know exactly how technology will evolve, and it will never make less polluting ways of running industry possible. They just know that, because pollution doesn’t exist anyway. It’s no use arguing with them. Better go back to doing some science.

  • Rick Johnson

    CO2 is not a pollutant and the world isn’t warming, so no problems globally. Installing the right technology can sort our fossil fuel pollution locally. There are no problems with fossil fuels. The only problem is when otherwise sensible people keep pampering to the Green anti-industrial revolution nonsense which legitimises the Green carpetbaggers demands for more and more taxpayers’ dollars. Time to become part of the solution and remain part of the problem.

  • gabrielsyme

    Is it any surprise that the leaders of a massively subsidized, patronage-dependent industry such as solar can only mutter empty soundbites?

    • Pete

      As Upton Sinclair said, “You can’t get a man to understand something if his paycheck depends on him not to understand it.”

    • stanbrown

      As Lindzen pointed out, “The current issue of global warming/climate change is extreme in terms
      of the number of special interests that opportunistically have strong
      interests in believing in the claims of catastrophe despite the lack of
      evidence”

      Every special interest imaginable is pushing global warming. The only people on the other side of the issue are the world’s poor. And no one gives a damn about them. They don’t make donations to the Clinton Foundation, don’t pay college professors to produce research as instructed, don’t buy off politicians, don’t give power to bureaucrats and political whores, don’t put cash in the pockets of VC, hedge fund managers, or Wall St bankers, don’t let billionaires, church poobahs and journalists feel good about themselves for saving the planet, and don’t provide a way to bring piles of cash into the coffers of environmental NGOs.

      • Pait

        Yes, 99% of scientists are just plain wrong, and the 1% of scientists who are receive grants from the oil industry to deny climate change are the only hope of the world’s poor.

        Makes a lot of sense. In another universe. In the twilight zone.

        • stanbrown

          99% huh. Where did you get that ridiculous number? If you have no clue, stop making yourself look the fool.

          • Pait

            Grandma says: let the troll have the last word.

    • Pait

      Subsidies to fossil fuels are significantly higher. You need to take into account the health and environmental cost of burning coal, oil, and gas, which is not borne by the user or the producer; and also the geopolitical cost of keeping supplies safe and keeping the world safe from all petrol-tyrants.

      The amounts of subsidies to other forms of energy don’t even start to compare.

  • Frank Natoli

    Fossil fuels pollute both locally and, in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, globally
    And precisely what “local” pollution are you referring to? Coal plants have scrubbed particulate emissions for such a long time that it’s almost not living memory. Sulfur and Nitrogen Oxides are severely reduced, see:
    http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=10151
    As for “greenhouse gas”, this is a Leftist nightmare fantasy whose only substantive effect is making it impossible for ordinary people to heat their homes in the winter. That past two winters in northwest NJ have both seen more negative Fahrenheit nights than in all my 63 years put together. Take your “greenhouse gas” hysteria and get out of my life.

  • Joseph Hall

    The problem with renewables is they’re eating fossil fuel’s lunch.

    The age of oil, coal and gas is over. The age of renewable energy is here. You’re welcome…..

    • Nick

      Obviously you didn’t read the article.

      • Joseph Hall

        I read this fantasy piece. Here’s the important part: “Solar is the new world. You’ve got to get used to it.”

        • Nick

          You obviously have not worked with heavy industry either. Typical non-productive lib.

          • Pait

            Ad hominem attack. Smart, sophisticated form of argument. Not.

          • Nick

            Not at all. If you had, you would know that they are heavy users of heat. Well beyond what can be supplied with a normal sized solar array.

            Typical non-productive lib is just a description. I’m sure you resemble that remark too.

          • Pait

            The argument becomes more and more rational. Amusing.

  • ljgude

    I don’t think we are in any position to know what percentage of energy renewables can supply until the practical limits storage capacity become clearer. In the mean time fossil fuels will continue to provide baseline power until they are superseded perhaps by renewables, perhaps by fusion or even an undreamt of technology. But be of good cheer – we can all enjoy the ideological rugby match between the Watermelons and the All Black Colliers. (For you Yanks – the NZ rugby team is called the All Blacks because they wear ‘coal’ black uniforms just in case you thought that was a racist remark)

  • Freddly

    The font of wisdom quoted in this article: Tony Hayward, former BP CEO, widely panned for his mismanagement up to and during the Deepwater Horizon incident.

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