Thursday, July 28, 2016
WHAT IS WRONG WITH SOLAR ENERGY?
I just saw a headline from CleanTechnica indicating that solar power only supplied 1% of global electricity. Mind you, electricity is about the only sector that actually uses renewable energy, for both air and ground transport run mostly on oil. Do the calculations from the right column. I get something around 2% of all energy utilized. However, 43 years after the First Energy Crisis and 17 years after I retired, the renewables remain relatively insignificant. Why?
I've long been a cheerleader for renewable energy. After all, I ran the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii for 15 years, and prior to that spent three years in the U.S. Senate, helping draft the original bills in the U.S. Senate for hydrogen and Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, playing a role in the passage of the first wind energy legislation. My SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth provides much of the experience I gained through most of my professional life.
Notwithstanding, I've come to a current conclusion that some of these green options are not worthy of commercialization today. Further, there should be an appreciation that our Sun and winds come and go, so there is a definite devaluation factor when it comes to these intermittent options.
Compound the problem with the fact that oil prices are less than half what they were a couple of years ago:
Worse, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Oil Futures show petroleum at $57/barrel at the end of 2024.
So what is the renewable energy field to do under these depressing circumstances? If you happen to be in academia or long-term research, continue most of your efforts, for it takes at least a decade and more probably a generation for anything particularly innovative to make a real difference. Much needs to still be learned about biofuels and hydrogen, for example. Regarding the latter, Stanford last month announced something to do with bismuth vanadate and nanocones that sound exciting, but I'm afraid will just join the annual list of concepts that make news splashes, but turn out to be uneconomical.
If you're into commercialization, there is a definite problem, for there is no way many of the clean energy options can compete unless, for reasons that mostly can be justified, governments provide generous incentives to level the playing field. After all, there is such a thing as long-term life cycle analysis that can validate the utilization of your tax dollars for this purpose. Many of these stimulus packages, however, are beginning to disappear, and most are in various stages of being diminished.
There are several pathways today that are just not ready for prime time, and some will never get there anyway. One is wave power. Hawaii has become a semi-active site, mostly because there has been some hysteresis related to once-powerful congressional influence we had and Cynthia Thielen, a local legislator, who, bless her heart, has continued to press for action. Long ago I tried to explain to her the problem with waves, but she has persevered anyway. Very simply, there are only a very few natural sites ideal for wave power. The force of storms are such that you need to secure or protect these devices to such an extent that they become uneconomical. Every facility I visited failed to continue operations, and a couple of them actually were good sites. Most them self-destructed.
EcoWatch provides a balanced summary of wave power today, and let me use one quote:
I’d like to be optimistic, but I don’t think realistically I can be,” said George Hagerman, a research associate in the Virginia Tech University’s Advanced Research Institute and a contributor to the U.S. Department of Energy’s assessment of wave energy’s potential. “You’ve got all those cost issues of working in the ocean that offshore wind illustrates, and then you’ve got [an energy] conversion technology that really no one seems to have settled on a design that is robust, reliable and efficient. With wind, you’re harnessing the energy as a function of the speed of the wind. In wave energy, you’ve not only got the height of the wave, but you’ve got the period of the wave, so it becomes a more complicated problem.
I remember George a quarter century ago as the ONLY true advocate for this technology. If he has given up, I fear the worst for this alternative.
I can add two more directions which are attempting to make a commercial run: battery storage for electricity and hydrogen vehicles. Over the next few weeks I'll detail why I think these efforts will fail today. Someday, maybe, but not under current technological, pricing and infrastructure conditions.
Then there are those options which show incredible long term promise, but going nowhere for a variety of reasons. Ocean thermal energy conversion and the Blue Revolution represent one such sustainable system because it takes an up-front billion dollar investment at high risk just to prove a principle. The only hope is an enlightened mega-billionaire or two with a dream. I'll continue to pursue this fantasy. Unfortunately, I'm not close to being even a billionaire.
So am I advocating abandoning green power because most of them are non-competitive? NO! NO! NO! I admire many of those well-intended and questionable efforts because, for one, you need a transition towards progress, but also, there is that ominous aura of global warming that someday could well finally trigger a carbon tax (I wrote this article for the Huffington Post a little more than six years ago), suddenly making these investments both profitable and redeeming.