Carbon and Capitalism
A story last month in the Atlantic, Democrats Are Shockingly Unprepared to Fight Climate Change, reminded me that nobody is actually pushing a realistic plan to deal with all the fossil carbon our civilization is digging up, burning, and dumping into the atmosphere.
The Democrats, as I said in my tweet responding to the one from Maddie Stone that brought the article to my attention, see “ ‘global warming’/‘climate change’ [as] just a stalking horse for their globalist/socialist/bureaucratic agenda.” Paris was a fraud, as even James Hansen agrees.
[D]oes just what she has made her name criticizing in Merchants of Doubt, knowingly playing fast and loose with the evidence, and selectively citing scientific experts, to support her view of “the facts” in a way that clouds public understanding of scientific evidence in order to advance a clear political agenda.
Oreskes’ piece focuses on the old-school environmentalist support for “natural” energy — solar, water and wind — and knee-jerk opposition to human-made nuclear, a values-based, simplistic, and counterproductive either-or dichotomy. But her essay is riddled with tactics right out of the Merchants of Doubt playbook.
Given that Solar, wind, and even hydro-power are far from ready for “prime time” at this point, the frantic insistence on switching energy to these sources is clearly more about raising energy prices in the developed world, especially the US. Along with creation of a brand new massive subsidy for most people who can’t afford such prices, administered by a massive new bureaucracy.
Here we see what it’s really about: bigger bureaucracies, less capitalism, a substantial switch from market to command economy. Never mind how badly such ideas failed in the Soviet Union, Red China, and more recently Venezuela.
These solutions, much more about anti-capitalism than climate, are unlikely to be implemented, and if they are they will have devastating effects on almost everybody’s quality of life. To list them:
- Carbon Tax
- Cap & Trade
- Regulatory micro-management
None of them looks feasible.
A carbon tax of, say, $20–30/ton of carbon wouldn’t raise the cost of energy by much, most people would probably be OK with it. But it also wouldn’t do any good. To actually incent the replacement of our current fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructure with “carbon-neutral” energy, it would have to be more like $200/ton, which would have devastating effects on the economy and people’s quality of life.
Oh, certainly a massive bureaucratically administered subsidy system could address direct consumer energy costs, but what the increased cost of energy would do to transport and manufacturing costs would also be devastating. And so on. (Not to mention that a brand new “welfare” bureaucracy would have its own downsides.)
Cap & Trade, likewise, could only affect the development of “carbon-neutral” energy by raising the cost of fossil energy much higher than it is today, so these new, expensive technologies could compete. And it too would depend on an unelected and corruptible (and corrupt) bureaucracy.
Regulatory micro-management has been responsible for much of the world’s deployment of solar and wind power to date, but this sort of bureaucratic nit-picking also makes it difficult to predict the outcome of investment, and can be blamed for our economy’s current problems, pre-Trump.
So now we have the newest draft list of national security threats from the Trump Administration. Some quotes (from the Daily Caller):
The Trump administration will reportedly remove manmade global warming from its list of national security threats, […]
“Climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system,” […]
“U.S. leadership is indispensable to countering an anti-growth, energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests,” reads the draft report, which is set for release Monday. “Given future global energy demand, much of the developing world will require fossil fuels, as well as other forms of energy, to power their economies and lift their people out of poverty.”
“The United States will remain a global leader in reducing traditional pollution, as well as greenhouse gases, while growing its economy,” reads the draft report. “This achievement, which can serve as model to other countries, flows from innovation, technology breakthroughs, and energy efficiency gains — not from onerous regulation.”
Like almost any modern political document, this can be read in many ways. Opponents of the President will be unhappy, as will advocates of the use of “Climate Change” as an excuse to impose “onerous regulation” at the hands of unelected UN bureaucracies. They will unite (my prediction) around claims that “the President doesn’t care about climate!” “The President is destroying the world for the sake of big corporations!” And so on.
But in fact if we look at it in view of this administration’s successful implementation of many campaign promises, and pay attention to what it says rather than what we expect it to say, it’s clear that what it rejects are the exact same three unworkable “solutions” listed above.
So how is the US to achieve this “global leader[ship] in reducing traditional pollution, as well as greenhouse gases, while growing its economy”? “[…I]nnovation, technology breakthroughs, and energy efficiency gains” are little more than arm-waving. What are the mechanisms, economic and otherwise?
I have some ideas…
Let’s start with the current situation. The installed cost of utility grade solar power has been dropping exponentially: by about half every 4–5 years. I’ve discussed this in more detail here.
The install base is also rising exponentially, doubling every two years or less
As mentioned in the linked article:
Now it’s pretty clear to me that this process can be expected to continue for many years. Basically, every 4–5 years the cost is cut in half.
The key here is to assure a continuing exponentially growing market for solar power, which at current prices is mostly a matter of eliminating bureaucratic nit-picking by regulators and local governments.
It’s also important to continue fostering intermittent carbon-free sources such as solar in the power markets by giving them high dispatch priority. This means that when an intermittent source has energy to sell and its connected grid needs to buy energy, the intermittent will go ahead of fuel-based generators such as gas turbine (simple or combined cycle) or coal.
As long as investors can assume this exponentially increasing market, they have incentives to invest in research, development, and manufacturing facilities that will bring down the cost via Learning Curve.
I’m not going to discuss nuclear here, because IMO the cost is too high, and its Learning Curve will take too long to bring that cost down: by then solar will be so cheap that nuclear will be unable to compete. I’m also not going to discuss wind, because the logic is essentially the same as for solar, but I’m skeptical it can scale without worse effects on the climate than fossil carbon has. (Update 7/4/19: due to its effect on the height of the Ekman spiral.)
Before I go on to storage, I want to mention one other important market for solar power: “off-the-grid” functions. I refer here to important uses for solar power that can simply run “on-supply” (when power is available) and stop when it isn’t.
First is water pumping. Irrigation (and even drinking) water can be pumped from available supplies at low elevations to where it’s needed at higher elevations. By creating small storage pools along the way, water can be pumped in stages by solar panels when the sun is available, and stored when not.
Note also that floating solar power is cheaper and runs cooler than land-mount, and in this case would avoid duplicate land acquisition.
It also reduces evaporation, which would be especially useful for crossing deserts and other arid landscape. By simply connecting floating solar power to pumps a short distance away and using them to push water up the next stage, many costs involved in traditional pumping or solar can be avoided, such as transmission lines, dispatch and payment arrangements with utilities, and so on.
Similar logic would apply to desalination, assuming the capital costs could be brought low enough to justify intermittent operations.
Target End State
Over the long run, solar (and perhaps wind) power are the target sources for carbon-neutral energy. Although both require a much more “spread out” deployment than combustion plants such as coal or gas turbines, when you put it in perspective it’s actually rather small.
Consider that the US has about 1.68 million square kilometers of cultivated land (~17% of the total). (There are about 2.5 square kilometers per square mile, but I’m using metric units here since this is a scientific calculation.)
What about solar potential?
As you can calculate, large areas of the US southwest are good for around 2000 GWh/year per square kilometer. Lets assume our solar panels have a 20% conversion efficiency, currently available in premium manufactured solar panels, that adds up to 400 GWh/year per square kilometer.
(GWh stands for GigaWattHours, each a million kiloWattHours=kWh.)
How many square kilometers of solar panels would it take to provide all the energy currently used in the US? Well, between 2004 and 2013 total primary energy usage in the US was between 25,451- 27,050 TWh (teraWattHours, each 1000 GWh). The larger number was in 2004, with the number generally decreasing despite increasing population.
Since most of that energy was spent on primary combustion, I’m going to multiply the number by about 2 (and round it) because converting electricity to fuel is about 50% efficient when measured by total energy in the fuel. (If you then burn the fuel in a high-efficiency generating plant, it drops to around 30% due to Carnot losses. Power to gas/fuel is discussed below.)
That means current annual US requirement would be around 50,000 TWh=50,000,000 GWh. Divide that by 400 GWh/square kilometer, we need about 125,000 square kilometers. That’s about 1/13 as much land as agriculture takes up (7.44%). About 1.25% (1/80) of our total land area.
Seen in this perspective, it’s not really that bad. If you put them well off the ground and scatter them out so they cover 1/4 of the area, they would take up an area equivalent to 500x1000 Km. If you examine the map above, noting the scale bar, this would fit easily into the red parts of the US southwest (where annual potential is 2000 GWh/year per square kilometer or more).
Most of this land is desert or arid rangeland, neither of which would be badly impacted by being shaded 1/4 of the time.
How much would it cost? Let’s start by estimating the total peak capacity, based on an assumed solar irradiance of 1000 Watts/square meter. At 20% efficiency that’s 200 MW/square kilometer (MW=MegaWatts), times 125,000 = 25,000,000 MW = 25,000 GW.
In 2016 US solar capacity has been estimated at 40 GW. If we assume it doubles every two years, it will pass the above figure in about 19 years, say by 2035. Assuming the cost has cut in half three times before most of the above amount is purchased, it will cost around 1/10 of the current $1.00/Watt = about 10¢/watt. The total would be 2.5 trillion dollars.
To put that cost in comparison, Politifact states that Mr. Trump’s recent statement that the wars in the Middle East have cost $6 trillion dollars is “Half True”:
Trump is citing the high-end estimate of credible analyses of spending associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet he is confusing money that’s been spent with money that researchers say will be spent.
It does seem likely that the curve will flatten out somewhat prior to this point. However, it is certainly plausible that solar energy will have completely replaced fossil sources for all energy well prior to 2040.
The key to using intermittent energy is storage, since otherwise it will never be able to replace more than a fraction of fossil energy. Storage comes in several time-scales, requiring different logic:
- Seconds and Minutes. This sort of storage is needed to smooth sudden changes in demand on the grid, and perhaps cloud effects on solar energy. While several technologies are in use today, it’s likely that super-capacitors and perhaps batteries will ultimately fill this need.
- Hours. In today’s grid, hour-scale storage is needed to smooth start-up and shut-down of power plants, and to help transfer excess from wind and solar to when it can be used. The primary form today is pumped hydro, which is mature technology, and along with rain-fed hydropower can smooth sudden changes all the way down to scales of minutes.
A variety of technologies are envisioned for this in the future, including batteries, flywheels, compressed air, and thermal. Except for lithium-ion batteries based on cell-phone batteries, all of these types are barely off the lab bench, and are unlikely to compete effectively.
Electric auto/truck batteries also fall into this range, and are also currently lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion battery prices have been dropping recently, and appear to be in the same sort of exponential growth and price reduction loop as solar.
- Daily. This is the most important for solar. Near-term, solar energy will probably outstrip the needs of the grid for only an hour or two on hot days, but as it gets cheaper, and capacity grows, progressively more excess energy will be available during daily peaks, and if this can be stored until late afternoon and night it can continue to replace fossil-based energy.
Pumped hydro is most likely (IMO) to fill this need to start with, especially in the US Southwest where existing dams can be fitted with large capacities of pumped storage without adding much but pumps/generators. As costs of battery storage come down and existing dams are built out, batteries will probably replace new pumped hydro.
- Seasonal/Annual. The amounts of energy needing storage for balancing annual variations in solar power, especially for more temperate latitudes, will probably be too much for battery storage for at least a decade, probably more. Existing hydropower will help, but there is another technology that is well suited to this, despite rather low turnaround energy efficiency. This is discussed next.
Power to Gas/Fuel (P2G/F)
This is basically the process of taking electric power, using it to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, then combining it with ambient CO2 (from the air or ocean surface, it’s interchangeable) to create methane or hydrocarbon fuels.
If these fuels are run through a high efficiency turbine, the round-trip energy efficiency, from solar bus to gas/fuel plant bus, is typically around 30%. The energy needed to extract ambient CO2 is relatively small compared to the rest of the energy that goes into the cycle (mostly to split the water), although it looks larger compared to the amount that comes out (~30% of input).
The dollar cost of the technology is a different matter, although fuel costs per liter for a current prototype have been estimated at ~80¢/litre.
The costs are rough and there are a number of caveats, but this is surprisingly low. To put it in context, the American Physical Society recently reviewed carbon capture from air, and “optimistically” costed it at about $600/tonne.
If we allow for exponentially increasing markets, economies of scale, and Learning Curve to bring down the price, it will easily become competitive with fossil-based fuel, probably within 1–2 decades.
Converting solar energy to gas and fuel has several advantages. First, the current cost of utility solar is competitive with gas and coal. Once the cost has dropped to 1/4 its current value, say in a decade, it will become cost-effective to generate 3–4 times the solar energy and convert it for use as fuel. Indeed, if you’re not converting it back into electricity, it’s more like twice as much.
I mentioned above that US energy usage is primarily combustion, a large part of it is used for heating, combustion for transportation, and industry, although another large part is used for electricity. Even if we assume that transportation will be mostly electrified within a decade, that still leaves huge sectors burning gas and oil.
By converting solar power to gas, the entire infrastructure for transport, storage, and distribution can be used without any net carbon emissions. It’s true that new technology will likely reduce demand, but by creating “carbon-neutral” gas (“green” gas) with excess solar power no massive conversion of existing infrastructure will be needed. (Logic for liquid fuels is similar.)
Note that this also solves the seasonal storage issue: excess solar energy can be converted to gas/fuel, which can be stored in existing infrastructure, and used in existing power plants when and where solar (and wind) energy is insufficient.
We already have a mature gas and fuel infrastructure, which can be used to transport energy much more cheaply than building new transmission facilities. This means it may well be cheaper to create gas from solar power and ship it to more northern regions rather than using batteries and transmission lines to bring in excess from southern regions.
“Remediation” is the process of correcting something that has gone out of bounds. As applied to the fossil carbon humanity has been dumping into the system, it refers to pulling it back out of the air/ocean/soil system and sequestering it: putting it somewhere it can’t get back into the system from.
This has been an obvious option for quite a while, one that is unpopular with most of the “environmental” alarmists, probably because their real agenda is more about making energy expensive and stopping the Industrial Revolution than solving the fossil carbon problem. (See above.)
Their excuse is that the technology is “untested”, although that’s a lie. There are several technologies that are past the pilot stage, although they’re currently expensive.
What makes it a top issue is that the calculations from the IPCC and Paris agreement essentially depend on capture/sequestration for their numbers.
I’ve discussed carbon capture here, the key, as for Solar energy and battery storage above, is to develop an exponentially growing market, so that volume, economies of scale, and Learning Curve can bring down the costs.
If this is what needs to be done [burying carbon], why not just make it a condition of licensing to extract or import fossil fuels? In forestry, if you fell trees, the law obliges you to replant.
We must use the same principle: a law to compel a slowly rising percentage of carbon dioxide emissions to be sequestered and stored.
Fossil fuel industrialists will need a few years to gear up, but they won’t need taxpayer-funded subsidies.
So here’s the exponentially increasing market we need: starting with a small fraction, say 1/2 percent of carbon emitted, and growing exponentially, say doubling every 3 years. The actual cost of extracting ambient CO2 may start out high, but at the small starting fraction it won’t seriously impact overall costs of fuel or energy. Similar logic applies to burying it.
As the fraction to be buried increases, the cost decreases due to Learning Curve, so that the actual impact remains small, while within less than 3 decades, the amount buried is equal to the amount burned. (By the 9th doubling it will be over 100%.)
The same approach could be used for “green” fuels: you get the choice of sequestering a fraction of fossil carbon burned, or mixing it with a similar fraction of “Green” fuel.
Notice how this leaves the market processes to price both sequestering and creating “green” fuel. The percentages are fixed, but the market sets the price, providing both an incentive to invest in carbon capture, sequestration services, and P2G/F, and the exponential growth of volume and reduction of cost.
Of course, the whole system could be virtualized using some sort of “carbon credit”. While existing systems have been plagued by fraud, this one could probably be made different, since every credit would have to be earned by sequestering a specific amount of real carbon, or creating a specific amount of real fuel. The difference is that emitters would only have to “cash in” carbon credits for a fraction of what they burn. (An increasing fraction that becomes 100% in a few decades.)
Ideally, by 2040 or so, the world’s energy and industrial base would be essentially carbon-neutral, with a fully mature ambient CO2 extraction industry that could be turned to drawing back down what was previously emitted. If a couple more decades of Science still says that’s necessary.
Of course, it wouldn’t be as completely simple as the cartoon I’ve laid out. No such effort would be. But, done right, I think it could provide a predictable growth of technology and the market for it to solve the fossil carbon problem without significantly impacting the costs of fuel or energy.