Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Climate change: R&D breakthrough, at last

Any real progress on de carbonisation of the energy economy has been stuck for some years by the economics of renewables. They are more expense than fossil fuels and so the developing world in particular can't afford to go down that path. See the graph which shows that the CO2 emissions of China and India in particular have increased dramatically in the past 20 years.

In Australia we have the Green Party and the Labour Party who are in denial about the high cost of renewables. The Greens have called for a 90 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 (source). Labour has called for a carbon reduc­tion target of 45 per cent by 2030 (source). Greenpeace activists demand 100% renewables.

The problem with these policies is that they imply that renewables in their current state of development can do the job. From my reading of the evidence of those who have studied this in detail, they can't.

Let's assume for a minute that there are people who are neither alarmists, nor deniers, that there are people who actually want to think more deeply about these issues than the latest media headline about the Paris summit or how it's going to be very hot this summer. For those people here are some articles which provide a starting point:
Has Renewable Energy Finally Ended the Great Clean Energy Stagnation? by Jesse Jenkins
A Look at Wind and Solar Part 1: How Far We've Come by Alex Trembath
A Look at Wind and Solar Part 2: Is There An Upper Limit To Intermittent Renewables? by Alex Trembath

Nevertheless, it seems that something quite significant has at least coincided with the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. It follows that if de-carbonisation of the energy supply is a good thing and that renewables or nuclear for that matter can't currently replace fossil fuels (due to cost in the case of nuclear) then what is required is more research and development in order to lower the price of these alternatives.

From this perspective the dual announcement of the government based Mission Initiative and the entrepreneurial based Breakthrough Energy Coalition which focus on the need for more R&D is a very good thing.

Bill Gates has been pushing for more R&D for a while, see American Innovation Energy Council and TerraPower. I guess more wealthy people are coming on board now and even Obama, from the government perspective, now sees the need for more R&D.

Under capitalism the benefits of more R&D tend to go to all capitalists since once a breakthrough is made it is hard to stop competitors finding a way to copy it. In cases of energy development with long time lines and massive expenditure requirements it can only happen this way with big government - big capitalists seeing the need and combining efforts. Historically, massive R&D has happened before due to huge rivalry between different big powers. One example, was the Manhattan Project when America feared that the Nazis would develop the first nuclear weapon. Another example was the crisis caused by the USSR putting the Sputnik into space. This quickly led to funding for massive science research in the USA which created the moon landings, the internet, etc. I guess an issue has to be perceived as urgent before that happens. So my guess is that this dual announcement does represent a significant change.

Could this be the beginning of the end of a futile argument between global warming alarmists and deniers that has distorted our political landscape for the last 20 years?


Unknown said...

Your link, Trembath, says "the maximum production of variable renewables at any instant can't exceed about 55-60 percent of total demand without risking system stability". There are still non variable renewables to add to that: storage, hydro, tidal with storage, geothermal etc. Nuclear too. Renewables can affordably supply most of our energy with existing technology.

The developed world has already used half of the world's safe carbon budget, temperatures are +1C of the safe +2C. We should have already largely decarbonised and its a great pity that we didn't start in 1995, it would have been cheaper. Its still cheap, in the order of 1% of GNP. Start now, don't wait.

Bill Kerr said...

hi Tony,

Political reality: affordable does not equal cheapest and China and India have and will continue to use cheapest. We live in a capitalist world with capitalist economics and values, unfortunately.

On the other hand the current R&D initiative by Gates and co is realistic so I see it as a real world breakthrough, as distinct from something we would like but isn't going to happen because of political realities.

This issue has been covered in more depth by Roger Pielke jnr in The Climate Fix or by Arthur Dent Renewable energy costs more than fossil fuels

Unknown said...

Thanks for the link to the Arthur Dent discussion: Renewable energy costs more than fossil fuels. We have already used up half of the safe carbon budget. Any hoped for R&D breakthrough will almost certainly come too late to avoid +2C. The developing world will not always choose lower immediate cost over future benefit but it has very limited capacity to pay for more expensive renewables. If the developed world uses up the remaining carbon budget, they are leaving no low/medium cost pathways for the developing world. R&D is good but it can't be relied on by itself, the developed world should become sustainable ASAP.