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Thursday, May 6, 2021
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ... Technology ...

Here’s another fashionable article about green energy. It appeared yesterday on the Bloomberg web site, in the “Green” section. Bloomberg.com, as you may know, is the corporate and media aspect of billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s empire. It pretty much reflects Mr. Bloomberg’s world view, which is very pro-business and pro-wealth, but mixed with a tincture of liberal concern and even a bit of corporate “wokiness” of late. So of course there is a “Green” division of Bloomberg Media, which reports on climate change and how business is adapting to modern environmental concerns. And why not, given that there is money to be made by somebody!

Given all of that, I wasn’t too surprised to learn from the title of this article that “Replacing Coal Plants With Renewables Is Cheaper 80% of the Time”. And as if that wasn’t enough, the subtitle goes on to tell us “A new report shows that the economics may not even support running U.S. coal plants, let alone building them.” Wow, sounds like the revolution is under way! If the economics now line up so powerfully in favor of green energy, then who needs AOC (Congresswoman Andrea Ocassio-Cortez) and Bernie (Vermont Senator) and their “Green New Deal”? It’s all over but the shouting (and maybe a few billion dollars of financing deals and construction projects) . . .

In a nutshell, this article reports on the results of a recent report from a non-partisan climate and energy research group called Energy Innovation. The first few paragraphs of the article make it sound like the end is nigh for fossil fuels.

While renewables cost more than fossil energy for much of the last century, prices for new wind and solar have dropped so quickly in recent years that they were already cheaper than new coal. This report shows that the price differential holds true for a growing amount of existing coal, as well. “This is becoming true for more and more plants moving forward—and at an accelerating pace,” said Eric Gimon, a senior fellow with Energy Innovation and a co-author of the report . . . The Sierra Club, which runs the Beyond Coal campaign aimed at eliminating coal power in the U.S., says that 339 plants have either been retired or are on their way to retirement since 2010, leaving just 191 still operating indefinitely.

But if you read all the way down to the final paragraphs, you see that maybe the situation ain’t quite as utopian as first described.

Energy Innovation’s analysis doesn’t include all the considerations a real-world utility might take into account. For instance, it focuses narrowly on operation and construction and doesn’t factor in the added cost of decommissioning existing facilities. Perhaps a larger omission, the calculations don’t include the price of batteries, which are necessary to overcome the intermittency of wind and solar.

Yes, the continuing problem of efficient energy storage for when the sun doesn’t shine and the winds don’t blow. The article also fails to mention the problem of rearranging the electricity transmission grid, given that the new green solar and wind fields will concentrate in different places than where power plants are now located. The political hurdles and financial costs for that will probably be quite high.

According to the US EIA, in 2020 coal was down to 19.3% of power generation, while total renewables were up to 19.8%. However, with old-fashioned hydroelectric power from dams accounting for 7.8 of that total, and after geo-thermal and smoky bio-mass sources are counted, solar and wind account for about 10.7%. Nuclear throws in another 19.7%, and natural gas closes the gap at 40.3%. So yes, solar and wind are growing. But by 2050, coal and gas will still account for about 50% of electricity production, with solar and wind contributing around 32%. Good, but not quite a green revolution.

First there needs to be an energy storage revolution, a really good way to get past friction and heat loss and chemical inefficiency. This is a technology problem that has been stumping our scientists and engineers for decades now. Improvements are happening, but for now and the foreseeable future — coal will still be mined and burned, and natural gas will still be needed to keep the lights on and air conditioners humming!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:27 pm      
 
 


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