Saturday, July 26, 2014

ABC's Vision Impaired by Solar Hype and Hope

Critique of the ABC's "Power to the People", 4 corners, 7th July 2014

The ABC narrative goes something like this:
  1. Anthropogenic Global Warming is a huge problem, so we have to reduce our carbon outputs.
  2. PM Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt (Environment Minister) are not serious about tackling this problem. As well as scrapping the carbon tax they are now threatening to scrap the 20% renewable energy target as well
  3. Renewables, with a focus on solar power is a vital way forward for Australia. We are in grave danger of being left behind the rest of the world as they latch onto the clean energy market. (jobs, economic development)
  4. Solar thermal and solar PV can make a big difference now provided you have some insight, determination and care for the planet.
  5. In the not so distant future we will develop a radically different electricity system, with community micro-grids and technology that allows buildings to create and store their own energy.
Geoff Russell has already written a critique, Four Corners and its field of dreams, of this program on the pro-nuclear Brave New Climate site. He correctly takes the ABC to task for not doing the maths required for a critical assessment of the potential of solar power (point 4 above). In his view, consistent with the Brave New Climate perspective, nuclear power can do the job of serious carbon reduction much more effectively than solar:
By comparison, France built an essentially carbon free nuclear electricity system in under 20 years. So while Australian electricity generates 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, France is down around 70 grams per kilowatt hour and she’s been there since 1990. 
My research also indicates that there are a huge range of problems with solar and wind power. These problems were either glossed over by the ABC or not even mentioned. Nevertheless, the ABC claims to be well researched with dozens of supporting links revealed when you press the Show Background Information button on their website. In such a long standing polarised debate it is always possible to find lots of support for your preferred position. In omitting consideration of core issues the ABC has been far too selective, blinkered and unreflective in their focus.

The problems I refer to are energy returned on energy input (EROI or ERoEI) for renewable technologies, intermittency, diffuseness, storage, integration into the grid (the nature of baseload and peaking) and capacity issues. The capacity factor is how much electricity a generator produces relative to the maximum it could produce.

These issues, some of them technical, should form the core part of an informed program about the role of renewables in the energy mix. But apart from misleading claims about the storage issue most of them are not even mentioned in the ABC program. They have chosen to be warriors in the cause of renewable energy before completing the research that has to be done to be an informed warrior.

A good, free online reference to these more complex technical issues is Energy intensities, EROIs, and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants. Warning: it contains something missing from the ABC program - mathematical rigour.

Also see the book reviews on Brave New Climate for (an unfortunately too expensive book) Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power and Asia's economic growth by Graham Palmer. (1) Precis by Graham Palmer (2) Review by John Morgan

This summary by Peter Lang (first comment after the book review) illustrating the relatively low values for solar and wind of the energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI) could form the starting point of a further discussion of the problems involved with solar and wind power.
  • PV (Germany) 2.3
  • Solar thermal 9.6
  • Wind 4
  • Hydro (NZ) 35
  • Coal 29 – 31
  • Gas 28
  • Nuclear 75 – 105
The ABC program is a complete fail with respect to these core issues of energy transformation. Here is a sample, referring to Canberra's Royalla Solar Farm:
STEPHEN LONG: And still tiny by world standards.

It costs a lot to build a plant like this, and that does feed into electricity prices, but in the medium term, the energy will be cheaper because the fuel input, sunlight, is free.

SIMON CORBELL: The economics is a no brainer and it also drives down the cost of electricity more generally in the market because, often, at times of peak demand, renewables is the cheapest source of energy into the electricity market
This could only be described as manipulative journalism. By mentioning that sunlight is free, and ignoring the other fixed production cost of the panels and labour as well as the relatively poor return due to the diffuseness and intermittency of sunlight, the impression is given that energy returns on inputs for solar power is an economic "no brainer". But the ERoEI figures above demonstrate the falseness of that claim.

Furthermore, I think the critique of the ABC needs to go beyond the technical issues. Their full message is for a clean, green and decentralised future, point (5) above. A nuclear energy future is not decentralised and so it is important to address that claim as well. The ABC claim is a political / cultural message that such a decentralised, energy future is desirable and possible, the cultural appeal of the long standing "small is beautiful" movement.

The ABC program suggested strongly, towards the end, that centralised electricity through the traditional grid would be replaced in time with decentralised micro-grids. This thought bubble inspired the "revolutionary" title of the program, "Power to the People".

Consider these extracts, I have emphasised the hype:

a) From the section about the Orange City Bowling Club in the central west of New South Wales.
STEPHEN LONG: An electricity bill that was running at $116,000 a year has fallen by more than a third, and the investment in rooftop solar will pay for itself in three years.

This humble bowling club may be part of a paradigm shift, a new era for the economy.

Danny Kennedy calls it the rooftop revolution, power to the people.

DANNY KENNEDY: What we've had is these big power stations at the middle of a hub and spoke model, shunting electrons down a one-way fire hose, telling us what we should pay for it.

What we're getting now is the ability to participate in the creation of electricity. We're going to have our own power plants on our own roofs. There's going to be a community level storage system, a solar farm or a wind farm out the back, and all those are going to take part in the creation of electricity and the economics of electricity, and it's all going to be managed through software and information communications technology.
b) From futurist Jeremy Rifkin:
JEREMY RIFKIN: We now have millions and millions of small players, home owners, small businesses, cooperatives, even large businesses that are producing their own solar and wind generated green electricity at near zero marginal cost.

In 10 years from now, 15 years from now, we'll have tens of millions of local sites producing green electricity on micro-grids
c) The section discussing the aftermath of superstorm Sandy:
STEPHEN LONG: When super storm Sandy struck the United States in 2012, Americans discovered what it's like when the power grid breaks down.

Millions of people across the east coast were left for days without electricity: no light, no heat and no communications.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN, CHAIRMAN, ENERGY AND FINANCE, NEW YORK STATE: The thing that people had the hardest time with during Sandy was the fact that they were cut off from communications. If you're without power for days, it is, not just inconvenient, but it really feels like you can't live your life.

Individuals and communities want to have more and more control over their energy system. We again saw this after Sandy where communities have asked for their own micro-grids because they don't want to be as reliant upon the grid.

STEPHEN LONG: Former investment banker, Richard Kauffman, is known as New York's Energy Tsar. He's overseeing a move to decentralised electricity.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN: In the last 10 years, we've invested $17 billion just to keep the grid as it is. And, in the next 10 years, if we keep just doing exactly as we've been doing, it's, we have to invest another $30 billion.

The Empire State is instead planning a radically different electricity system, with community micro-grids and technology that allows buildings to create and store their own energy.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN: It used to be that you had to get the electricity that came through the central grid because that was the only alternative.

Well that's not true anymore, so we have had, across a whole range of industries, the benefit that customers are now in charge and the technology exists now for that to be true in the power sector.

The cost of all these solutions are going down, while the cost of the traditional central station power and distribution systems goes up.
The ABC is promoting a decentralised field of dreams here. Here is a rebuttal to their views found on line. DG stands for distributed generation. Emphasis added.
If you want to know what utilities actually object to about DG, 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. A recent California Public Utilities Commission study concluded that by 2020 the state’s net metering programs would increase rates by a billion dollars annually.

That’s not to say that the growth of renewable energy is not disruptive—just not in the way its advocates claim. Look at just about any place that has achieved significant deployment of renewable electricity, and what you find is that the vast majority comes from large, utility scale installations, not rooftop solar or any other behind-the-meter generation source. Even Germany gets over three-quarters of its renewable generation from large-scale wind, hydro, and biomass.

Given the current state of renewable technology and the scale of generation necessary to run a modern economy, these basic dynamics appear unlikely to change anytime soon. Take a peek at any of the dozens of scenarios produced by renewables advocates that claim we can run the U.S., Europe, or the world largely on renewables, and what you find is that most generation comes from massive industrial scale wind and solar developments from North Dakota to the North Sea—not DG.

In fact, a renewables-powered future will probably require more centralized generation, not less. Achieving significantly higher penetrations of renewable energy will require transmitting electricity over hundreds or thousands of miles from where large amounts can be generated to places where it will be consumed. Renewables champions may talk small-scale DG, but what they intend to build is every bit as centralized as the centralized power sources we have today.

Ultimately, what is disrupting the existing utility model is not the distributed nature of renewables, it is their intermittent nature, and the policies necessary to make them viable. Heavy public subsidization of the capital costs of wind and solar, combined with preferential purchase requirements for the power they generate, ensure that the marginal cost of wind and solar will always be lower than just about anything else when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Hence, Germany simultaneously boasts the highest retail electricity prices in Europe and the lowest wholesale prices—not because the power costs less to generate but because most of the cost has been shifted elsewhere. In Germany, expensive, highly subsidized, intermittent renewables generation has driven wholesale prices so low that the utilities that must manage the grid and operate conventional power plants can no longer operate profitably. This, not cheap distributed solar, is what is disrupting the utility industry here and abroad.
- The Revolution won't be distributed (2014) 
Consistent with it's decentralisation thesis the ABC program provides us with a false idea about the nature of disruptive technologies:
MATTHEW WARREN: Oh look, I think we are seeing in the energy industry, it's going through a transformation that's not dissimilar to telephony to retail to newspaper media and that is, we're seeing, you know, quite radical transformation that is driven by technology and driven by changing market conditions.

DANNY KENNEDY: It's disruptive like media was disrupted a decade ago.

Once upon a time, the ABC and New York Times were all the news that was fit to print and they shunted the news of the day down the one way fire hose, and now we use social media and Twitter and whatever else to co-create what is the news stream and what makes for big news.

And, the economics, we know well, has been completed transformed. That's coming to electricity. The coal and other protected, vested interests of Australia are going the way of the Dodo if they don't adjust to this reality.
The important point about digital disruptive technologies is that they start out cheaper than established technologies. Mobile phones and online journalism start out cheaper than the media which they threaten to displace. The reverse situation applies to solar and wind power, which are still far more expensive than fossil fuels. Moore's law does not apply to energy technology as the ABC is suggesting.

Is a 20% Renewable energy target a good idea?

We need both more energy, particularly for the world's energy poor, and more clean energy, meaning, in part, energy produced without or with reduced CO2 emissions, also known as decarbonisation of the energy supply.

The program begins with Kerry O'Brien voicing the fear that the Abbott government is threatening to cut the 20% Renewable Energy Target (RET).

Why would Abbott and Hunt contemplate this? Well, the real reason, not spelt out clearly in this ABC program, is that renewables are expensive and so have to be subsidised.

The Australian political reality is that ongoing political uncertainty (no one knows what will happen electorally in the future) threatens renewable energy subsidies. As long as renewable energy can't compete with fossil fuels in the capitalist market place then it will remain dependent on subsidies whose delivery will remain politically uncertain.

Roger Pielke jnrs iron law says (assuming the continuation of the capitalist system) that when tough decisions have to be made economic issues will always trump environmental issues. He's right. The Australian people won't support a political system which raises or even vaguely threatens to raise energy prices to the point which either cuts deeply into our standard of living or makes us uncompetitive on the world stage. The election of the far from popular Tony Abbott as PM, who promised to rescind the carbon tax introduced by the ALP, demonstrates that.

So how to proceed? What policies do I support, which may be capable of gaining political traction? (1) Intelligent subsidies where there is justified hope for a rapid price reduction in the given renewable (2) Much more emphasis on Research, Development and Demonstration (RD and D) to bring the price of renewables down. Setting a target with a strict timeline does not necessarily promote these policies. I think the critique of the Abbott government's policies by Roger Pielke jnr (Australia's Climate Follies) has far more substance than the ABC critique.

Given that renewables such as solar and wind remain far more expensive (despite considerably cost reduction to date) than nuclear which in turn remains more expensive than fossil fuels then the emphasis needs to be on RD and D to bring the price of clean energy alternatives down to a level where they can compete.


Further reading about policy decision making in the USA: Beyond Boom and Bust