Saturday, July 04, 2015

Renewable energy costs more than fossil fuels

This is the beginning of a long thread (actually, a couple of long threads) from the Making Sense of Climate Denial Course ("Climate change is real, so why the controversy and debate? Learn to make sense of the science and to respond to climate change denial"), which ran from April-June, 2015.

If you want to read the full thread which contains this introduction then go here straight away. Otherwise, keep reading here if you first want the introduction which sparked the thread before deciding whether or not to read the whole thing.

It represents a challenge to the course organisers on the issue of whether renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels.

Fact: Renewable energy costs more than fossil fuels
discussion posted 4 days ago by ArthurD
Vote for this post, there are currently 3 votes 3 Votes

This simple fact is common ground among all serious participants in debates concerning what to do about global warming.

It is the central reason why many argue for a carbon tax and subsidies to renewables. Without such measures there is no hope of renewables replacing fossil fuels.

It is also the central reason for concern that the world will continue on the present "business as usual" track towards significant problems from global warming before the end of the century. No such measures are in fact being taken to the extent that would be required to make a significant difference.

The vast majority of emissions are expected to come from poor countries like India and China rapidly industrializing over the next few decades.

They are not cannot and will not be switching from fossil fuels to renewables because they cannot afford the extra cost. Consequently 4 times as much additional energy is being supplied by coal each year as by renewables.

There are NO serious claims that renewables will become cheaper than fossil fuels. What IS being claimed is that they will become cheaper than they are now but that it is still NECESSARY to make fossil fuels more expensive through such measures as carbon taxes in order to internalize the external costs imposed by emissions.

Numerous posts with "good news" about trends towards renewables demonstrate that many students in this course are unaware of these facts.

Worse, course staff are actively in denial about them.

I started a thread on this, which had 47 posts --> this course helps preserve fossil fuels

Another student posted several links as follows:
"I'm a serious student of the economic debate, with a degree in economics and in science: renewables demonstrably cost less than consumables, and I nor the World Bank, nor nor nor Swanson's Law nor nor the IEA do not tacitly or otherwise agree to the myth of cheap consumables; it's a bald misrepresentation to suggest consumables are cheaper."
Not one of these links claims that renewables are or will become cheaper than fossil fuels so that poor countries could switch to them while industrializing. The last, from the group behind this course, repeats what is in fact usually claimed:
"When you account for the effects which are not reflected in the market price of fossil fuels, like air pollution and health impacts, the true cost of coal and other fossil fuels is higher than the cost of most renewable energy technologies."
This is true but completely irrelevant to the question of whether renewables will or can replace fossil fuels in the poor countries that are industrializing.

They are paying ACTUAL costs in the ACTUAL situation of no "carbon price" and people on $2 per day have much higher priorities. They do NOT "account for the effects". (Neither for that matter do most developed countries that could afford to, but the point is that even if they did, poor countries still CANNOT do so while industrializing).

The response of course staff was to close down the thread before I could even point out that NONE of the links offered even denied, let alone refuted the commonly accepted basis for all serious debate that renewables are not replacing fossil fuels because their actual costs are greater.

Please take a look at the closed thread and then come back here and follow this thread if you are interested in serious discussion of what can be done about the ACTUAL situation rather than pretense that endlessly repeating what OUGHT to be can change what is continuing to happen - "business as usual" with rapidly growing emissions.

For the subsequent (lengthy) discussion of these introductory comments go here


Leigh Blackall said...

I haven't read the threads, but was wondering if anyone attempted to simplify the debate down to more human scale... Meaning domestic and leaving out the industrial needs for now. In the Australian economy, it seems almost viable to go "off grid" in terms of actual cost. I've estimated it to cost $10000 for a suitable solar to battery arrangement. Which is a little more than the connection cost for a new house to get on grid in many shires. I would expect at least 10 years from that, probably more. Some say it can be done for $5000 and made to last 25 years.

Additionally, there could be alternatives to supplement this typical solar battery set up. I expermented with biomass heating in a domestic house in Canberra using the Jean Pain method. It was impressive. Rocket fire thermal mass heating is also impressive, in terms of fuel efficiency and extremely low particle emissions. As might be a wood gasifier or a methane generating septic system. My perspective on these is they are all viable in different domestic contexts, but lose some viability at the mass production to an average consumer market end of the scale. That might just be a design and marketing problem though...

Bill Kerr said...

hi Leigh,

It's off topic because the whole thrust of Arthur's argument is that China, India et al are going to continue to use the cheaper fossil fuels. Hence, what we should be doing is more R&D into non carbon alternatives to bring the price down. To keep pretending that renewables can do the job cheaper when they can't at present is disarming from the real task that needs to be tackled.

But, here is my quick answer to the point your raise. If going off grid is cheaper and it works then people will do it, whether now or in 10 years. Frankly, I don't think it's going to happen.

I think you understand the central principle of disruptive technology, as has been amply demonstrated with computers due to Moores Law. If something is cheaper then people will buy it, it doesn't have to be better initially, that will come in time. That applies to computers but not to batteries.

Solar is government subsidised which means that those who can afford solar panels push up the price for everyone. The situation in the USA has been described as follows:

"Solar panel prices have come down, but rooftop solar is still much more costly than centralized fossil generation, nuclear, or even utility scale wind and solar. Whether in Germany or California, solar deployment remains entirely dependent upon a raft of direct public subsidies and indirect rate subsidies.

Despite those subsidies, solar has yet to generate significant electricity anywhere. Germany, the world solar leader, after over a decade and $100 billion in direct public subsidies, gets only 5% of its electricity from solar. U.S. leader California generated less than 1% of its electricity from solar in 2012. ...

If you want to know what utilities actually object to about DG (distributed generation), it is policies that functionally require them to purchase power from solar homeowners at $0.30/kWh when they don’t need it instead of buying it on the wholesale market for $0.04/kWh when they do. The result is not just less-profitable utilities but also higher rates for the vast majority of ratepayers"
- The Revolution won't be Distributed

Read the whole article. I could do more research but I suspect what really drives your position is a "small is beautiful" ideology. Correct me if I'm wrong.

From the evidence I am aware of the article is on the right track.

This issue also came up in my review of an ABC program last year, see ABC's Vision Impaired by Solar Hype and Hope

I'm not sure why you want to go off grid? It's not cheaper and it won't contribute it any way to "saving the planet". I challenge the small is beautiful paradigm when it comes to energy supply.

Leigh Blackall said...

I think my ideology is less at play here than you think. If it was, it would be more akin to 'convivial tools' and independence .. Some of my friends are independent through necessity, such as being too remote for services, or trying to reduce their cost of living.

I read the article, but your citing it suggests to me that you may have misunderstood my meaning with "off grid". It means literally, no connection to the utilities whatsoever. So the feed in scheme isn't at play here, whether it be 8c or 38c.

My estimate of $10000 to set up a 2kw system with battery array is, as far as I could tell, not drawing on subsidies. It is a consumer price estimate that deliberately avoids subsidies and such dependencies.

The other alternatives I mentioned are just based on my personal experience, pursuing interests. I do think they offer many people and communities some alternatives. For example, my own local community recently won a battle to preserve an old community swimming pool. They seem interested in the heating by Jean Pain biomass method, maybe the rocket fire thermal mass heating too, because fire wood and biomass waste from arborist work is in abundance here.

Making any of these suitable for broad market use is something I'm unsure about. I suspect it's a design problem. It has been interesting to watch the development of design with the rocket fire thermal heaters over the years.

They're viable to me, and my friends, not because we're greenies (we're not) or that we're inexperienced idealists (we're not that either). But because we value the community spirit that seems to grow when a few of us do something different and it works and we can show each other (conviviality) and some satisfaction that we're slightly more independent from a private provider that we don't trust.

Bill Kerr said...

hi Leigh,

As I said it's off topic from the issue that Arthur was raising. But to continue our off topic conversation:

The points you raise of why this is a good thing to do are:
- local economic viability or necessity
- builds community cohesion and conviviality
- don't trust large, corporate private providers

I think that is an argument that local, small, alternative, community is a better way to go than large, not to be trusted, corporate. Isn't that a version, perhaps not the strongest version, but a version of a small is beautiful thesis?

I just went online and tried to find a decent critique of Schumaker's book, subtitled economics as though people matter, but couldn't. Interesting. I'll keep looking. In the meantime I will just have to accept that I am out of step with what passes as progressive these days.

What I am saying is that if it is economically viable then people will do it, in droves. Just as nothing in this world will stop anyone from buying a smart phone. What I am saying, with regard to energy supply, is that it won't happen because it won't end up being cheaper. Big, centralised energy is beautiful.

What you are considering (doing) will be (is) a lifestyle choice of a few people who can afford it and believe through their values that it is a progressive thing to do. Capitalism will roll on happily with a few progressive dabbling in the margins with their alternative schemes.

If I may tweak Roger Pielke jnrs iron law (from "The Climate Fix"): when policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on "progressive causes" then economic growth will win out every time.

Returning to Arthur's article. His whole point is that the economics of how energy supply works is the main driver. How to be a 'progressive' is such a world? That is the real question and challenge IMHO. Arthur's answer is that we need to increase R&D to find a big alternative which is cheaper than carbon based fuels. We need to fight big with big. Fighting big with small, local etc. in this case won't work. (not that you were arguing that it would but I can't resist returning to the main point of arthur's article).

Leigh Blackall said...

Yes, fare enough... Maybe. What I was really trying to say is that these off grid alternatives are near viable, in the Australian domestic market, if my 10 grand estimate is correct. And that niche "progressive" lifestyles are becoming more accessible and desirable (organic local food for example, or locally made products as another). They're not going to be everyone, but they might reach 10 or 15%, to relate it to the discussion on scale.

The other points I emphasised, and you paraphrased, were largely in response to your wanting to locate my comments into an ideology. It's probably correct that Small is Beautiful is in the same vein, just that it didn't impress me nearly as much as Illich's Tools for Conviviality, or Energy and Equity has. But I confess to being an Illich-file

The Tesla business model is interesting too. Have you looked into that? Cradle to grave, localised production cycles and; full service model on open source technology. All sounds very contemporary and progressive, and aimed at very large scale. Here's hoping.

Bill Kerr said...

hi Leigh,

Thanks for comments. What I feel the need to work on is the whole framing of what it means to be a progressive. To do that critically I would have to dig in more into the issues you raise about Illich's conviviality, the Tesla model etc. In one of my previous lives I have pursued the niche progressive approach, eg. the idea that Papert's logo could transform education. I have sympathy with the idea that to remain sane in a hostile system you need to find a niche. There are now stronger forces pulling me in a different direction, the need to transform the whole system. When I am more capable I will write about them.