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back to article Renewables good for 80 per cent of US demand by 2050

One of the greatest objections made against the use of renewable energy for electricity supply, that only coal, gas or nuclear power can sustain a modern economy’s baseload power generation demand, has come under scrutiny in a new report by America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In fact, the NREL’s Renewable Electricity …

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FAIL

$$$

Taken from http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/re_futures/ "key findings" :

"The direct incremental cost associated with high renewable generation is comparable to published cost estimates of other clean energy scenarios. Improvement in the cost and performance of renewable technologies is the most impactful lever for reducing this incremental cost"

Once again it comes down to the fact that nothing is impossible (if not a wee bit overly ambitious) if you're will to pay out the ass for it.

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Re: $$$

Comprehension fail? The report basically states that the cost between doing it with renewables and the cost of doing it with other tech are the same. So, how is this paying out the ass any different to doing it with other tech and paying out the ass there instead?

Everyone is kinda focusing on cost here, and that is beside the point. Oil is running out, nuclear is basically a waste producing mess which we don't know how to tidy up after yet and coal is just too dirty (unless you use clean coal, which fills chasms with co2 in some form or other and passes the damage to a future generation to deal with...

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WTF?

Re: $$$

Actually, this is not clear at all "the cost of renewable generation is “comparable to published cost estimates of other clean energy sources” "

In this phrase, what is "other clean energy sources"? Seeing the use of the word "other" in relation to "renewable", it would seem to me that the "other clean energy sources"are non-renewable, so probably they're talking about gas-fired combined-cycle turbines which is the cleanest non-renewable available. BUT this is far from clear.

Second - "comparable" WTF?? My bank account is "comparable" to Bill Gates', and (sadly) upon comparison, his balance is surely orders of magnitude greater than mine. Again, making an educated guess that "comparable" is being used to mean "not that much different", but still , is that 2% more? 10% more? 50% more? (I am 100% sure it cannot be LESS, or that finding would be trumpeted to the high heavens in very unambiguous language)

So combining these 2 rather ambiguous statements, what can I conclude? Either

1) The authors are making the claim that current renewables technology is cost-effective with combined-cycle gas technology, at a moment in which gas prices are extremely low (in which case I call "bullshit")

2) The authors are deliberately using confusing statements to hide the facts that either they are comparing the cost of one set of renewables to another, or that the "comparable" cost really means an order of magnitude more

3) The authors have no idea of the use of the English language and/or the real costs involved.

One last thing, the authors are also claiming that renewables generation will do OK with handling baseload, it just requires upgrading the grid to handle the loading. So, pray, how much will upgrading the grid cost? And was that included in any of their calculations?

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Re: $$$

Actually I think the gotcha may be the 'direct' cost bit. I.e. once the indirect costs of replacing the grid and adding storage of some form are factored out, the other costs become comparable? Not managed to wade far enough through the PDFs to find that though.

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WTF?

Re: $$$

If wind and solar cost around 5 to 10 times coal based power, and the future is 50% wind and solar, how much is the rest going to cost in order to keep the overall cost down in the same price range and coal based power?

Or do the calculations include a ramp up in the price of fossil fuels due to artificial scarcity caused by eco-regulation?

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Magic thinking?

Having had a quick skim through the various pdf it strikes me that, yes, you could do as the report suggests and generate 80% of power through renewables, but it's going to require:

1. Technology we don't have yet, particularly for the storage of energy generated from wind/solar thermal .

2. Re-engineering most (all?) of the distribution grid to distribute from some of the remote locations where the power is generated and to distribute power more efficiently (see #1)

3. Load balancing through pricing

Those aren't my conclusions, they're all stated in the documents....

It does seem to be pretty thorough report, and worth reading.

It *may* be that it would be possible to do it by 2050, but short of a climate catastrophe, I can't see any democratically elected government getting it done.

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Re: Magic thinking?

. . . but it's going to require:

4. A lot of stuff made out of plastic.

Out of idle curiosity, why is it that none of this "green" stuff uses natural materials? I'm not saying it's possible or even desirable, but it does seem odd. It makes me think that perhaps I'm not the only one who hasn't done the math.

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Re: Magic thinking?

1. The required technology is already in use. During low-demand you pump water back into the hydro reservoirs.

2. This is called a "smart grid". Also technology we already use.

3. Already done via "spot price" mechanisms. (Enron infamously gamed this mechanism to rob Californians.)

It is entirely possible to achieve, and developing countries like China and India are already getting it done. Western countries will lag behind because -- as is always the case -- existing industry is conservative (as in lazy) when they see no need to make changes.

One thing that doesn't seem to be clear: are they talking about current demand or have they factored in the reduction in oil and gas as supply tightens? An electric vehicle fleet would suck up quite a few additional ergs.

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Anonymous Coward

"we already have it all"

Well, as so often the problems get worse when you scale up. Does the North American Continent come with enough high plains reservoirs to provide enough of a buffer for peak loads and such?

Same for that "smart grid". What are the losses transporting a continent's worth of baseload from the other side of the planet? I wouldn't be surprised we'll find our "green" requirements tell us we need to do better.

Another thing that would be interesting to factor in is energy demand growth, both because the flashier the tech the higher the energy demands. This goes for "low power" devices too, since there'll be more than enough extra to make up for the savings, as is usually the case with that sort of innovation--see the Watt steam engine for a well-known example.

And then there's the population growth, which could easily double the number of people on the continent by then. Did they factor that in, too?

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Because ir burns and rots.

In the Olde Dayes we didn't have this flame retardant plastic covered muck. We had cotton covered wires we could use hemp now.. Of course we cotton covered wire burns like a bitch and was responsible for burning down many houses and killing many people, but the planet is overcrowded anyway.

And we need to find some magic green way to make copper wire.

And of course we don't need any steel girders either. Organic bamboo. That's the ticket. Biodegrades every year and needs replacing. Pretty good for some Eco-job creation.

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WTF?

Re: Magic thinking?

@Jerome Fryer

1. The tech is in use to the largest extend it probably ever will be. Because where are you gonna get the power to pump that water if 80% of your net is renewable, it's night (because, low demand) and it's a still night (pretty common on a continental climate) So your nearest source of power is your own dam. Do you use the power of the dam itself to pump water? Or just shut the dam down?

2. This is already in use, susceptible to problems, inefficient and hellishly expensive to roll out.

3. "Spot price mechanisms are gamed any way you put it. In the end its again only the energy suppliers that benefit.

China and especially India couldn't give a rats ass about renewable energy if the western world wasn't PAYING them to use it. India has clearly stated it would rather roll out nuclear, coal and gas because it's cheaper, easier, faster and more efficient to build. If it wasn't for Europe and the US demanding of India it curtails it's CO output, India would mostly be using combined-cycle gas plants for peak loads and Coal for base-load.

And sorry, but existing industry in western countries is conservative????? I've gotta say, that earns you the "I'm a lazy hippy who has never worked in the industry I criticise" badge. There are SO few companies in the Europe that could be described as conservative or lazy. And if your argument is going to be "wuuhhh, but why doesn't company xxx start building yyy, instead of doing what they've always done" don't bother (you just earned yourself another hippy badge if you did). A company needs to make a profit. That's why it exists. It has a product in which it has built an expertise, it knows what it's making to the smallest detail. Suddenly switching to an entirely different market, or something largely different from what it has been making before is just NOT going to happen. It's too big a risk.

And furthermore the duty to make changes doesn't rest with the industry. It lies with YOU the consumer and the government YOU elect. The industry just responds to demand. If the world actually WANTED renewables rolled out to 80% supply it would happen and the industry would react.

And you know WHY so much of the production of for instance windmills has moved to India, China and Taiwan? Because Western companies realised they couldn't match the price in the MASSIVE amount of manual labour required to make them and that it was cheaper to outsource.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Why is it that none of this "green" stuff uses natural materials?

There is no money in it! that is why! natural resources cost too much... and you know this is ALL down to money, nothing about saving the planet!

Anyway the only way we will be carbon neutral will be when we finally have fusion working!

or we could use the big fusion generator in the sky!

Personally I want to see a fleet of robotic construction bots sent out to the asteroid belt to build a few massive solar power stations, then beam that power back to earth.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Magic thinking?

> During low-demand you pump water back into the hydro reservoirs.

If you do the math you'll see that the amount of land that must be taken for such storage is so large that would be either impractical, or electoral suicide for any government to do by force.

Everything is possible if you run a soviet-style government, so China might get there, but it's unlikely to be possible in the west.

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So...

The people who get their paychecks for pushing renewable energy say that, given enough time and (lots of) money, renewable energy could actually start working.

Some time after the last of them retire.

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FAIL

ok - if you believe this

then use a smart meter and ONLY use green power - on the odd occaision it's available. And also pay the actual cost of generating this useless cost inefective equipment wrecking nonsense.

see http://www.gridwatch.templar.co.uk/ and explain just how that mad variation of wind power is not already costing us money in extra wear & tear on the bvase infrastructure ?

until the people promoting this biased nonsense lead by example; forget it.

I wonder whjo the **America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory** is - surely not some biased RENEWABLE subsidy farming set up ?

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Re: ok - if you believe this

Apart from the smart meter - not available here but I'm not that convinced by them - I already do. My electricity is supposedly* 100 % renewable and costs the same as the other sort.

* Unless I'm directly connected only to renewable sources this isn't possible but my provider is obliged to buy and, more importantly, provision from renewable sources. We're already at nearly 20 % renewables here: http://www.swd-ag.de/privatkunden/strom/stromkennzeichnung.php (in German).

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Re: ok - if you believe this

Not really a subsidy farming set-up as is, but it IS a national laboratory set up with government funding, entirely dedicated to renewable energy and run by a private company (Mid-West Research). i.e. not exactly un-biased.

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Take your pick, tree-huggers -

You can oppose carbon dioxide emissions, or you can oppose nuclear power plants.

If you do both, you are opposing the continued existence of human civilization.

Of course, some people are explicitly opposed to the continued existence of human civilization; but even amongst the hard-core greenies, these are a minority. I hope.

Why do people like NREL waste time, money and resources on studies that prove* we can have low carbon electricity without nuclear baseload power? Could it be that the anti-nuclear lobby painted themselves into a corner during the cold war, and demonized fission power to the point that they no longer even think before saying "No thanks!"?

*As long as we don't mind paying vastly more, and it not working sometimes, and as long as we develop some brand new technologies that have yet to leave the drawing-board

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Megaphone

Re: Take your pick, tree-huggers -

The only real objection to nuclear concerns what to do with the waste product. Everything else makes it more affordable than any other green option being subsidized by governments today, and it has a low carbon footprint to boot. Is nuclear waste really such a bad problem that greenies should ignore the real benefit to be had?

All of which proves that environmentalist have no concern about the planet. It's all about money, as it always has been.

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Boffin

Nuclear power is a wonderful idea until you realize that to power a world population of 15 billion at U.S. levels of consumptive energy waste, over 200,000 nuclear reactors would need to be constructed world wide.

300 in Iraq alone.

Currently the world has around 450 of them, and 4 have blown up over the last 50 years. Roughly 1 percent.

With 200,000 reactors we should expect to see around 40 of them blow up every year.

No thanx. I'll continue to reduce my consumption thank you.

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"Nuclear power is a wonderful idea until you realize that to power a world population of 15 billion at U.S. levels of consumptive energy waste, over 200,000 nuclear reactors would need to be constructed world wide."

World population will likely never exceed about 12 billion, and the fraction of that population who will use power at the crazy rate currently seen in the USA will likely remain very small - indeed, it could well fall, as even Americans will realize that they are better off using power efficiently than they are paying for more electricity than they really need.

"300 in Iraq alone."

Iraq has nothing to do with anything here; but even if we imagine a wildly unlikely future in which Iraq uses the same per-capita energy as today's USofA, we find that we are imagining a world in which they have the technical expertise to do so without difficulty.

"Currently the world has around 450 of them, and 4 have blown up over the last 50 years. Roughly 1 percent."

Really? One blew up in the Ukraine, because it was a poor early design abused by its operators; one blew up in Japan because it was a poor early design hit by a huge tsunami, having been built in a poorly chosen location. I don't know what the other two you are referring to could be; Three Mile Island is the only other incident that springs to mind, but it would be completely wrong to describe that incident as 'blown up' - except perhaps in the phrase "An incident causing no fatalities that has been blown up out of all proportion by the media"; a phrase that would also apply to Fukushima.

"With 200,000 reactors we should expect to see around 40 of them blow up every year."

But only if we were really, really bad at maths, and decided to extrapolate in a straight line for no good reason.

"No thanx. I'll continue to reduce my consumption thank you."

No-one is suggesting you should do otherwise; it makes good sense to do more than one thing to approach this problem. Replacing the current technology with one that is a couple of orders of magnitude safer and cleaner than coal does, however, seem like a wise companion to reduction of consumption.

At the end of the day, the question of whether nuclear power is 'safe' or 'clean' in some absolute sense is irrelevant; what matters is that it is demonstrably far safer and cleaner than the current coal-burning technology. If fission power was invented today, without all the historical baggage from the cold war, those calling for carbon footprint reduction would be clamouring to have coal power plants replaced by nuclear plants as soon as possible. It would save lives, and reduce not only carbon pollution, but also sulphur, particulates and even radiological pollution too.

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I imagine Vendicar* is counting the 3 reactors at Fukushima that suffered chemical explosions to reach his nonsense numbers. In reality, they should be counted with Three Mile Island as accidents that caused zero fatalities.

* I had hoped that silence on the numerous science blogs he once frequented meant we were rid of him - just proving once again that old trolls never die, they only smell that way.

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FAIL

Statistics fail. Extrapolating a straight line for an increase of three orders of magnitude is beyond useless. For example, nearly all of those 200,000 reactors would be based on new designs, which have never had any accident at all.

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Don't forget...

...Windscales (renamed as Sellafield since the incident) where some clown thought it'd be a great idea to air cool the reactor so there's no impermeable physical barrier between a pile of radionucleotides and the outside world. Cue said pile catching fire and belching radioactive dust out of the chimney.

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Re: Don't forget...

Windscale was not a nuclear power plant; it was a plutionium manufacturing facility, producing the raw material for bombs. It was also amongst the worlds first nuclear facilities of any kind; including it in a risk analysis for twenty-first century power generation plants is like including Stephenson's Rocket in a risk analysis of the French TGV system.

Oh, and it is still called Windscale. Sellafield is the umbrella term for the various adjacent (but separate) nuclear facilities, notably Windscale, (a Bomb-making plant closed in the 1950s after a fire); Calder Hall, (a power generation and plutonium making facility decommissioned in 2003 after 47 years of operation); and THORP, (a reprocessing plant turning spent fuel into new fuel).

You don't hear about Windscale much these days, because it hasn't been in use for over half a century - but it is still called Windscale.

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Holmes

*to accommodate high-penetration renewable energy"

meaning .. *sticking it deeply into the end user*

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Re: *to accommodate high-penetration renewable energy"

Possibly; but what does it actually mean, in technical terms?

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Boffin

Bad Economics

The truth of the matter is that if it's sperm whale oil, petroleum, hydro, nuclear or wind/solar it will require significant taxpayer investment to make any form of energy production technologically and economically viable. The short term option of nuclear sounds cheap until you figure in the long term costs of waste disposal/storage and the fact it took the better part of a century to even make it work effectively vs the long term of wind/solar sounds cheap until you figure in the short term costs of R&D.

Taking any option other than mineral exploitation involves lots of people loosing money though so if you're an investor put your money with people that burn things that come from the ground. If you're not vested in petrol or fissile materials though I'd say spend some more on R&D.

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Facepalm

Re: Bad Economics

You are wrong.

Even factoring in R&D costs (which are just as ignored in "normal" energy plants) and the cost of waste disposal, nuclear is VERY cheap. Rolling out to any sort of large scale makes that price drop even further. Disposing of Nuclear fuel in a long term stable cache is not that hard, it's made ruinously expensive by dipshits afraid of their own shadow blocking it at every possible turn. The amount of waste produced by a nuclear reactor is tiny for the power it provides. (Roughly 40 tons in total for 4 reactors for all the years the reactors had been running in case of Fukushima for instance iirc) New tech (again, rollout of this new tech is being fought tooth and nail) could mean even less radioactive waste and even safer reactors.

And people often ignore the waste from normal plants. For instance coal plants produce massive amounts of slightly radioactive fly-ash. What do we do with it? Store it in a large pond and hope for the best. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingston_Fossil_Plant_coal_fly_ash_slurry_spill .Yeah, that works well)

Gas and coal both produce large amounts of rather noxious fumes and radioactive by-products (which are present in the base-material being burned) but unlike in a nuclear plant they don't neatly remain packed in a fuelrod assembly but are blown into the atmosphere.

Solar energy is also a problem. What do we do with disused PV array's? There's currently no way to recycle them, and if there was it would be energy intensive and probably involve more harmful chemicals.

Windpower produces massive amounts of glass fibre and carbon fibre debris. (But I'll admit it is not as big a disposal problem as Solar of fossil fuels)

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Stop

Re: Bad Economics

Wrong? No. Maybe "overly optimistic" but not wrong. Maybe in tiny little islets it is cheap to store fission waste but in a big country like the U.S. you have to factor in the cost of transportation to the storage facility and the price of keeping people out of the facility for a few hundred years.

If you would like some real SCIENCE to let you know how complex and expensive nuclear power generation and waste disposal is here's a good link: http://www.nrc.gov/waste/incidental-waste/wir-process/wir-locations/wir-srs.html

The incidental waste takes up 780km squared at just ONE SITE. That's the incidental deadly stuff that they produced for satellites, ships, and power production experiments: Oddly enough weapons make up a tiny portion of the site. It's kinda crazy when you really know what you're babbling about.

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Re: Bad Economics

Wooohhh, lets look at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for advise. An organisation regularly criticised by the industry and scientists alike for being as paranoid as it it bureaucratic. Some of the stuff the NRC classifies as "nuclear waste" is downright laughable and would do no more harm if simply dumped in a landfill. (Seriously, there's some granite outcroppings in the rocky's that have a high enough concentration of Uranium to be qualified as nuclear waste by the NRC)

The waste itself at the Savannah River site takes up a LOT less than that total of 780 km^2. In fact, the SR site contains a massive amount of production and processing facilities. And as any US government site it's set up very VERY spaciously. I'd be surprised if the waste storage facility spans more than 1/10th of that surface area AT MOST. And then the space ACTUALLY used for storage space itself is at most 1/10th of THAT.

Cost of transport is not even that big, using standard rail lines which are already there, a single train load can transport the entire fuel load in fresh fuel to the site and then the entire load of waste fuel back to the processing plants. A single train transport, even using the specialised casks and heightened security is not going to influence the cost per kWh in any significant way. It would be even cheaper if they didn't have to cut misinformed anti-nuke hippies from the tracks every few miles.

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I am against "renewable" power.

And for a very simple reason: In an environment where "climate change" impact is quoted as the major reason we need to move away from fossil fuels (1), the "eco-friendly" option are to use wind farms and tidal power(2)... both of which, if you actually THINK for a moment, actually impact the environment DIRECTLY.

The power generated by wind and tidal farms has to come from somewhere. In this case, it is "taken" from the kinetic energy of the wind/tides. In other words, the wind will not blow as hard or reach as far and the tides will be similarly affected. And try telling me that by the time you have installed enough of these suckers to supply even a fraction of the required power this will *not* have an impact on global weather...

Yeah, great solution people.

(1) and I agree, BTW - we do need to find an alternative. But how about thinking about it instead of having knee-jerk reactions?

(2) yeah, yeah, and solar power too... but its impact on the weather model is slightly different.

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Thumb Down

Re: I am against "renewable" power.

if you actually THINK for a moment, actually impact the environment DIRECTLY.

You've got to love the power of fallacious appeals to common sense, it's what makes American political debate so utterly full of spurious shit. You, sir, are clown of the week.

Houses, office buildings, roads. bridges, dams, ships, ports, oil rigs, etc. all affect the local winds and tides. Then there's farming and forestry. Or didn't farming had anything to do with the 1930s dustbowl?

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Re: I am against "renewable" power.

Charlie, I may be a clown to you but you just made my point for me. Yes, all of these affect wind (and in some cases, tidal) flow. And I am not forgetting farming and forestry. We *were*, however, discussing Wind and Tidal farms and so I kept my discussion to those alone.

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Electricity only, not gas or oil

This wonderful figure of 80% only covers us for electricity consumption, not gas or oil for heating. In the UK, only 30% of gas consumption goes towards generating electricity; the rest is used in homes and businesses. Using renewables to provide electricity is the easy part; it's much harder to use them to provide heat.

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Go

Energy Storage

There is technology available that will store the energy produced by renewables until needed by the baseload.

At least one site has been using it in the UK for years. It is called Dinorwig.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinorwig_Power_Station

More of these would be needed to handle baseload variations. I read one estimate a number of years ago that the UK alone would need 60st least similar systems if renewable generation exceeded 40% of capacity. Just thing of those winter days that are cludy and with little wind(ie High pressure sitting on top of the UK). How much (in % terms) of the UK Load could Solar and Wind generators supply then? Not a lot.

Outside of Wales and Scotland the places where sizable schemes could be built is limited especially with the Scots wanting independance and will then charge two arms and a leg for everything coming south of Hadrians wall we simply can't afford to rely so much on just Wind/Solar as the main source of renewable electricity.

IMHO, we should be harnessing the power of water in our rivers. How about putting 100+ small floating power stations along the length of the Thames (near the wiers). There used to be floating water mills right in the middle of London in the Late Middle ages. So why not again? Then there is tidal (especially the Severn Estuary).

All it takes is a government with the balls to put through the laws overriding the Nimbies. I am sure that if this was done then the investment would flow.(sic)

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Even NREL acknowledges that it cheats:

Chirgwin glosses over the costs or doesn't mention them at all.

Hippies never do.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/williampentland/2012/06/16/renewable-energys-escalating-political-crisis/

“estimated new transmission miles and investments do not include replacement in kind of existing transmission lines, substations, or other infrastructure, and therefore understate the total amount of and associated investment in transmission infrastructure likely to be built over the study period.”

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other commercial technologies will be required...

such as sitting, cold, hungry and in the dark for much of the winter perhaps?

never read such bollocks... well since I stopped reading lewis page tbh

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M7S
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A question on renewables relating to the UK

I know that this doesn't relate to the article directly. There's mention in comments above about pumped/stored hydro.

If we actually had the drought predicted (sore joke I know at the moment for some) and for which I am at least still subject to hosepipe restrictions as my local water company uses water lower down than the surface, then would our ability to use stored hydro not literally evaporate?

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Mushroom

Good on them if they can make it work

I'm tempted to believe we still need nuclear until then though.

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Facepalm

Nothing works better than a convenient lie

When its surrounded by sufficient mumble blather and called an inconvenient truth.

No doubt after the fully renewable grid has been built and on the coldest February night of the year with not a breath of wind stirring, neap tides on the turn and zero sola,r wind and wave on the grid, some renewable energy wonk will say 'we must build more solar farms: its lack of investment in renewable energy that has causes this blackout '

Renewable energy lobby claims have over the last few months deviated from exaggerations and truth economy into outright lies. There is simply no other word for it. I have done many many calculations in a sincere effort to make renewable energy deliver a reliable grid - and I can't even achieve that, let alone at a sane cost.

My most spectacular conclusion was that an all wind grid could be achieved if all of the country and most of the north sea were covered in wind turbines and pylons at a cost magically just shy of £10 a unit. (wholeseale electricity costs around 5p a unit at the moment).

It almost beggars belief: a friend said to me 'don't sent me that climate skepticism stuff: I have met James Hansen and seen ice melting'

The sheer inanity and illogic of that reply has left me speechless and depressed for days..

I can only conclude that people are simply in love with an idea to such an extent that they cannot bear to step back and consider the fact that it might be totally and fundamentally wrong.

On the industry side, of course, the reasons are clear: why have to compete with efficient and difficult to design and manufacture technology when a stroke of the legislative pen can make any old mediaeval rubbish plonked somewhere in someone else's back yard instantly massively profitable?

Beats working for a living anyway!

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Richard, like many greens you are unable to differentiate between speculation and reality. This paper is unable to "spike the myth" as you put it, because the question of whether it is possible to provide effective baseload from diverse, geographically distant, non-dispatchable energy sources can only be answered when someone builds such a solution in a country other than Norway. It is an engineering problem, not a theoretical problem.

So either you are ignorant, or disingenuous?

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Happy

Where the devil is Lewis Page?

When you need him?

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