Oh Paul, you’re so critical! You just crap on other people’s “green solutions”, telling us why they won’t work in your opinion! Where are YOUR solutions? Put up or shut up!
First, what are we trying to solve, exactly?
(Any denialist posts to this article will be deleted. Want to argue about AGW? Do it in response to my article on the subject!)
Toxic pollution that shortens people’s lives.
There are lots of others, but those are the two biggies.
Don’t agree that these are problems worth solving? Wondering what all the fuss is about, and why we don’t just keep burning fossils with mad abandon? Then please- do us a favour and just go somewhere else. Discussing solutions to problems with people who don’t believe the problems are real is just a total waste of time. We’ve been doing that for the past 30 yrs, and there isn’t another 30 for us to waste.
What Are We Trying to Solve?
We need to stop burning fossils. Not immediately, not completely, but eventually, over time.
We need to stop burning all of them, but we can start with the worst one- coal. We don’t need to wait, but we can certainly focus on them in order of decreasing C:H ratio. That’s not a bad way to look at it, in weighted terms, i.e. looking at both toxic and fossil GHG emissions. Not pretending that methane leakage isn’t a problem, but not focusing ONLY on GHG emissions
We don’t need to replace the “primary energy” we use today in the form of fossil fuels though. What we want here is to accomplish as many of the benefits of modern life as we can, just without burning fossils on purpose to do it.
We don’t need to burn fossils to move people around. Nor to have comfortable homes. Nor to provide lighting. Nor to provide healthy food, in quantity and variety. We do burn fossils for all those purposes, in part or in total.
Why? Because they’re cheap. And they’re cheap, in part, because we don’t charge much to use the atmosphere as if it were a giant, limitless public sewer.
SOLUTION #1: Carbon Pricing
That’s no solution at all, Paul! Yes, you’re quite correct on that point. It’s not a solution in and of itself. It is, however, the absolutely, minimally necessary precursor to ANY SOLUTION to the problem of AGW.
Don’t agree with me? You’re not being serious, or you’re ignorant. Did that sound harsh? I meant it to.
We need steep, increasing, durable, sustained and ultimately VERY HIGH carbon taxes. North of $150 USD per tonne of CO2e. And yes, they MUST apply to fossil methane leakage too- except at 86x CO2.
We need those carbon taxes to be “investment grade”. Otherwise, you’d be an idiot- as a business or an individual- to make the expensive, long-term capital investments necessary to avoid those CO2e emissions.
They need to be international, so that laggard or cheater nations don’t get a trade advantage by not imposing their own taxes. And because you know some nations WILL be laggards or will try to cheat, we also need carbon tariffs on the goods and services of laggard or cheater nations. Doing anything less will eliminate the willingness of people to bear being taxed. Everybody has to pay the tax, or no one will.
Carbon taxes are more efficient than cap and trade schemes, and harder to defraud. And while they are necessary, they are not, by themselves, sufficient. They will need to be paired with regulatory controls, or else the tendency for demand to be somewhat inelastic to increasing price will take over.
SOLUTION #2: Electrify Everything
Well, not everything. Just absolutely everything we can. As soon as we can.
And we need to do that, again, in order. Starting with all the places right now where we take an input of heat (chemical energy) but require an output of work (mechanical energy). That means transport, as well as the obvious: we have to stop burning fossils to make electricity.
Canada has the problem of burning fossils to make electricity basically already licked. Yay Canada! About 80% of us have access to a grid which is 40 g CO2/kWh or less. The remaining 20%, in Alberta, Saskatchewan and some of our smaller eastern provinces, are also working hard to decarbonize electricity- at least by means of the half step of transitioning from coal to gas.
But all of us will need to make a lot more electricity using renewable or non-GHG emitting sources. That means lots more wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, biomass, tidal etc. And in some places, it also means lots more nuclear.
SOLUTION 3: Over-Build Renewables
Wind and solar were once expensive, and totally dependent on subsidy. Not any more! They’re now the cheapest kids on the block, and not by a small amount. When they’re available, they’re cheaper than any other way to make electricity. And they’re not done getting cheaper, either.
All electricity production technologies must engage with that fact. Unless governments actively PREVENT the use of solar by homeowners, and prevent the use of wind power, grids everywhere are going to have to learn to cope with intermittent renewables eating part of their pre-paid lunch.
Wind and solar are, of course, fundamentally intermittent. Solar has predictable daily and seasonal average variation, and unpredictable weather-related variation. Wind has variability which again depends on location and the seasons- but fortunately, at least the wind blows at night some of the time- and may blow more in winter than in summer in some locales. The combination, therefore, is more valuable than using either in isolation.
Wind and solar do however have a variability which results in annualized average “capacity factors” which are less than 100%. They don’t make power steady, 24/7/365, nor when we need power. In Toronto, solar’s average capacity factor is about 14%, meaning that a 1 kW nameplate solar panel makes only about 1200 kWh in an average year, not 8760 (i.e. 24×365). And Toronto is SOUTH of most of Germany, in case you’re wondering. As for wind, its capacity factor varies depending on location and turbine size. Big turbines get access to steadier winds, as do offshore locations. Capacity factors for onshore wind are on the order of 30%, and for big turbines offshore are around 45%.
For comparison- which is very important here- hydro power which is often talked about as if it were steady year-round, also has an annualized capacity factor of only about 43% (EIA, US, 2018) and coal, only about 53% (same source, 2018).
Nuclear is the stand-out at about 93% capacity factor- but just like coal, its capacity factor isn’t a feature of its reliability to make power when needed, but rather a factor of how its owners operate it. Nuclear is expensive to build and has a near-zero fuel cost, so it must be run as close to full capacity as possible to ammortize its cost over as many kWh as possible. Coal, on the other hand, makes more money running when power is needed, but cannot turn on and off in a matter of minutes- so sometimes it is more economical to just not run the plants. Coal’s capacity factor in 2013 was 60%.
The low-ish capacity factors and the moment to moment variability of wind and solar make some dubious about building a future on these “unreliable” energy sources. And it certainly makes them challenging to use economically for some purposes- making chemicals like hydrogen being the obvious one.
There are two ways to solve this problem however. The simple-minded one, which many assume for some reason to be the only practical solution, would be to pair renewables with storage. If we need 1000 GWh of electricity, we build enough wind and solar to make say 1100 GWh of wind and solar over the year, and then use storage to fill in all the mismatches between supply and demand. That is, frankly, just nonsense.
The obvious solution with wind and solar getting cheaper by the minute, is to simply build more than we need, and spill (“curtail”) the rest.
Unlike a thermal power plant, it costs nothing to stop making power from a solar panel or a wind turbine. A solar panel can be making full output and then making ZERO output a millisecond later- all you need to do is switch it off! It doesn’t “break” anything- there’s no water treatment to run, no steam to condense or vent. There’s no cost. It merely means that you don’t get to ammortize its capital cost over quite so many kWh per year, so each kWh gets a little more expensive. If it costs 1/2 what we’re paying now for electricity, the obvious solution would be to build 50% more than what we need, use the surplus if we can, but not cry a tear when we don’t need it. If it costs 1/4 as much…and it will…well, you get the picture!
I already do this on my farm. We are too far away from power poles, and use too few kWh per year, to make a grid connection worth having. So we have enough panels to make the power we need at peak during the day, we store a bit for use at night in batteries, and we just dump the rest. It’s by far the cheapest solution. It’s far cheaper than having fewer panels and MORE batteries, too.
SOLUTION 4: Flatten Renewable Supply With Storage
We’ll need to flatten the peaks of demand and troughs of supply with storage. We’ll need quite a bit of short term storage, even more medium-term storage (on the order of hours), and we might also need some longer-term storage (up to a day). How much? Depends how aggressive we are on the other solutions, and how cheaply we can make storage. The world’s minds are bent on the problem of storage, and while there are different limits to each storage technology, there is nothing standing in our way of solving the storage problem- making storage cheaper, more reliable, and less dependent on either geography, special materials, or burning stuff either.
What storage options?
- using existing hydro – by operating hydro as a modulating source rather than steadily as “baseload”, we can better flatten the more intermittent renewables. That’s not a feasible option for all hydro installations (i.e. run of river, or where reservoir levels must be controlled, or there is no reservoir at the base of the dam), but right now the potential for modulating hydropower is basically untapped- we run the dams flat out most of the time because this power is cheap and green, and the capex is sunk already. Quebec alone apparently has enough water in its upper reservoirs to power Quebec for a year. The potential for Quebec to become a giant battery for a good chunk of North America seems pretty enormous to me.
- Li ion batteries for the shortest duration, highest power, highest value grid support services. The Hornsdale battery in Australia has already paid itself off doing just that- the rest of its lifetime is pure gravy for its owners.
- Flow batteries: a flow battery is like a fuelcell in that it de-couples its storage from its power generation. More stored energy is just more electrolyte stored in big plastic tanks- it has a cost, but it doesn’t “go bad” or self discharge. And when the power unit- sized to make and absorb the peak power you need- is damaged or degraded, it can be repaired, unlike a Li ion battery which must be recycled because it is a sealed unit. Flow batteries are useless for transport applications but seem ideal for grid storage- if they can be commercialized, which means if they can be made cheaply enough at scale. That remains to be seen.
- Pumped Hydro: geographically limited, but not as much as you might think. Not perfect- high capital- but high efficiency and low operating cost.
- Compressed Air or Liquid Air Storage: the former is well known, not very efficient, and very much dependent on having giant volumes of storage for the very low energy density storage medium. The latter is unproven at scale as a storage medium. But both appear to be far more efficient than their big putative rival, which is hydrogen.
- Heat Storage: or cold storage. If we’re using heat, or keeping things or people cool, we don’t need to do that instant by instant. We can buffer heat, or cold, easily enough. And by so doing, we can shift when we draw electricity to make heat, or cold. Brine ice storage, molten salts etc. all have a role here.
- Fuels: we’ll also need some stored fuels for emergency response. Here, we have week-long periods where a high pressure area sets in, winds stop, and snow covers the solar panels. We’ll need some stored fuels to handle those periods: biofuels and hydrogen are possibilities, but even if we use fossil fuels for 2 weeks a year, we’ve already won.
SOLUTION 5: Flatten Renewable Supply with Wider Grids
The storage problem gets dramatically easier to solve, the easier it is to move power around from where it’s made to where it’s used. Grids are already quite efficient- the US average from plant gate to home meter is about 5% loss, which is basically identical to the loss from well to meter for natural gas (and about 1/3 that for hydrogen by the way).
We’re already moving power vast distances by means of HVDC lines. Power made in Labrador and northern Quebec’s giant hydro dams is right now powering the eastern US by this means.
SOLUTION 6: Flatten Demand By Smart Grids
EV charging is a perfect example of this already, even without a “smart grid” to control it. Users plug in at night to take advantage of cheap overnight power prices. As long as they are back up to the desired level of charge by 7am, they don’t care when or how fast they take power.
Similarly, we never dry our laundry or run our dishwasher before 7pm in the evening. Time of use pricing has trained us well!
My local utility also pays me for the right to shut off my air conditioner for 15 minute periods when peak demand is happening. The house doesn’t heat up appreciably in 15 minutes, so frankly I have no idea whether or not they’ve ever done this. If they have, I’ve never noticed. Why wouldn’t you do this with many similar big loads?
There are many other examples of things that can be operated when power is cheap, or available, rather than the instant they’re needed. And many can be interrupted any time power is in short supply, without consequences. Some of them aren’t really storage per se, just being smarter about WHEN we use energy.
SOLUTION 7: Build Nuclear, if You Can Afford It
We won’t be using this solution in Ontario where I live. We make 55% or so of our power from nuclear right now. It was a brilliant decision on the part of my parents’ generation, to build huge CANDU plants instead of the only real alternative at the time- more coal burning. The decision literally saved hundreds of thousands of premature deaths. It was also likely the CHEAPER solution, even without trying to figure out how many person-years of saved lives were worth in some kind of macabre accounting exercise.
There have been ZERO deaths in Ontario from nuclear power accidents. There has been no significant radioactive release, except perhaps at the uranium mines. We know where all the waste is- it was not broadcast across the countryside.
But as much as I think there is good evidence that nuclear can generate very safe, very low GHG and toxic emissions power on a steady 24/7 basis, it certainly isn’t cheap power.
Case in point: Darlington is the last nuclear plant built in Ontario. It cost about $14.4 billion to build, on a budget of $4 billion, in the early 1980s. It has four reactors with a total thermal capacity of 4×878 MW, for a total capacity of 3.5 GW of electricity. It has been a very good plant, making power very safely and reliably since it was built. It is currently being refurbished for another 35 yrs of operation (to 2055), at a cost so far of $13 billion. Lots of kWh generated over a very long projected lifetime (75 years!), but not cheap…In 2013, Ontario looked at building a “B” unit to make Darlington’s twin. The bids came back way too high, and the idea was shelved. No politician in Ontario will touch the construction of a new full-size CANDU plant, even with somebody else’s bargepole.
Here, what will happen is the truly sensible thing: we’ll run our existing nuclear plants right into the ground- as long as they can be run safely. The first one built, Pickering, goes lights out for good in 2024. Two of the six reactors are shut down already- the other four, about 2 GWe worth, go down in 2024. And nobody in Ontario knows what we’ll replace it with, except for one thing: it will not be another full size CANDU plant.
If in your society you can build nuclear, and you think that’s a good deal, then you should do it. As long as you will cope with your own nuclear waste, that is.
Don’t hold out hope for the small modular nuclear reactor however. It will not make cheap kWh, period. It is pure #hopium , predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of engineering economics. I’ll deal with that in a subsequent article.
SOLUTION 8: Be More Efficient, and Use Less
We had a good party for the past 300 yrs on the stored solar energy the earth put up for us in the form of fossil fuels. But sadly, the party’s over.
We learned some foolish energy use practices in that time, like dragging two tonnes of steel around per person everywhere we go. We’ll need to un-learn that to some degree. We’ll need to be smarter. We’ll need to move information rather than people whenever that’s practical (COVID taught us that this was far more practical than we imagined!). We’ll need to combine moving our bodies to where we want to go, with our need for physical exercise. And we’ll need to build more public transit, and densify our communities to make that transit a viable option. That’s however a 50+ yr, multi-trillion dollar exercise. It’s not going to happen tomorrow.
This also means that we use thermodynamic work as work, not stupidly as if it were heat!
That means we use EVs, not engine-driven vehicles, everywhere that’s feasible. NOW. As soon as practical! That’s basically almost all cars and light trucks, most heavy transport, and part of planes, ships and trains. The rest? Biofuels. They’re cheaper and more effective than hydrogen. They still make toxic emissions, but those matter a lot less when emitted between cities or at 30,000 ft, rather than inside them.
Make me benevolent dictator and I’d ban new sales of non-hybrid ICEs tomorrow. I’d ban new sales of mild hybrids in 2030, and I’d ban fossil fuels for engines by 2035. That, plus carbon taxes, would transition transportation completely. And no, there are no materials availability nor other impediments to doing that. It’ll just be very expensive- and then as we get better at it, and we finally accept reality, it’ll get cheaper!
Can we scale biofuels enough for the rest? For those applications EVs can’t work for- yet? Yes, I’m convinced we can. But not without carbon taxes. Biofuels are much more expensive than fossils. They’re however cheaper than hydrogen, as well as being more effective than hydrogen (more practical). And that means, biofuels are ALSO cheaper than any so-called “e-fuel”, all of which are actually hydrogen-derived fuels.
Don’t believe me? Don’t like the idea? No problem- except YOUR problem just got far harder and more expensive to solve than mine! You may not realize it, but we already are supplying about 10% of our gasoline in Canada and the US in the form of ethanol, and a fraction of our diesel as well. It is driven stupidly by mandates rather than by carbon taxes, so the fuels aren’t as fossil GHG -efficient as they could be. But the capacity to make vastly more from cellulosic stocks (at much higher cost) is absolutely there. And those stocks can be combined WITH green hydrogen, if that ever gets cheap enough- to make even more.
This also means using heat pumps for comfort heating. They’re expensive, but only because gas is so cheap when you get to dump fossil CO2 to the atmosphere nearly for
Home heating is much harder to replace with electricity than it is to electrify transport. It will take longer, and it will take more than carbon taxes to make it happen. We should start with steeper requirements on new construction for energy efficiency. We’ve been ramping these up since the 1st energy crisis in 1973 and that’s a good thing, but we can go MUCH farther if we put our minds to it.
SOLUTION 9: Replace Non-Fuels Uses of Fossils
One of the dividends we’ll get when we stop burning fossils is that we’ll have lots of fossil petroleum and natural gas for uses other than burning. We can make chemicals and plastics from fossils without burning fossils in the process, or in some cases, with a little carbon sequestration being necessary. Not a single new invention is required to do that- just a steep enough tax on carbon to make it pay.
One of the most important transition is to stop making hydrogen from fossils. That’s how we make 98.5% of hydrogen right now, and solving that problem is literally existential for humankind if we really do want to kick the fossil-burning monkey off our backs. We literally depend on that BLACK hydrogen, made from fossils without carbon capture, to continue eating in the post fossil world. Most of our food calories and those of our food animals are dependent on nitrogen fertilizers made from ammonia made using black hydrogen. We have to kick that habit, and we also need to be smarter about how we use nitrogen fertilizers too. N2O is a durable and extremely potent GHG, and it is made any time we over-dose our soils with artificial nitrogen.
Just transitioning about 1/2 of the 120 megatonnes of H2 we use in the world yearly right now- in the form of H2 and of H2-containing syngas- to non-emitting sources, is a giant task. We’ll be at that for decades even if we work at it as hard as we possibly can. And we literally haven’t even started yet. Needless to say, I therefore do not see us using “surplus green hydrogen” to solve our GHG emission problems. That’s just a #hopium hallucination you’re being sold by people who would profit from you believing in it.
What About CCS?
Carbon capture and storage is likely going to be necessary to some degree. But right now, it’s as much a fantasy as “green hydrogen”. Carbon taxes in the world are too low to pay for it.
Can you imagine an industry the size of the current fossil fuel industry, moving TWICE as much mass but in the opposite direction, paid for entirely by carbon taxes?
Sorry, I can’t!
So I see carbon capture and storage as necessary for things like cement manufacture and perhaps a few other things. We should really endeavor to minimize how much of it we use though, as the risk of us suddenly having a giant CO2 eruption somewhere seems quite real.
What we should not be confused by is enhanced oil recovery. That’s a scam being run by the fossil fuel industry, who is trying to get carbon credits for something they do for their own profit. When the oil extracted is burned, we end up with MORE CO2 in the atmosphere, not less. Giving credits to O&G companies for EOR is madness. It’s the kind of bad public policy that we can expect going forward though, unless we’re very vigilant.
Lastly, the idea of direct air capture of CO2- moving 1600 tonnes of air through giant absorbers to recover each tonne of CO2- is just something that should be rejected out of hand until AFTER we’re done burning fossils for good. You patch the hole in the hull first, before you try to bail the boat!
What We Should Not Do
You’ll hear that endlessly in my posts and comments here on LinkedIn. But here are a few:
- small modular nuclear reactors (SMNRs)
- hydrogen for heating or transport (green H2 to replace black H2 is critical though!)
- hydrogen for “high temperature heating”- there’s nothing in heating that H2 can do that electricity can’t do BETTER, unless you’re looking at avoiding the retrofitting of existing fired equipment. Then it’ll be cheaper to do the retrofit and electricity STILL wins
- making ammonia to move green hydrogen- use the green ammonia to replace BLACK ammonia instead!
- making e-fuels (from hydrogen) to keep using our beloved ICE vehicles. Biofuels make far more sense for that, at lower cost- those that EVs can’t replace yet that is!
- waiting for fusion: the fusion reactor 93 million miles up in the sky suffices. The time into the future that fusion power will be a practical alternative is one of the constants of the universe
- waiting for whatever other fancy deus-ex-machina technological solution you imagine is coming- because we have all the solutions we need to do this NOW
There are innumerable other dumb things that people are going to convince us to try to do. While it’s very important to separate the truly impossible from the merely difficult or uneconomic, it is not sensible to take the “all of the above” approach. We can and must work from what we know of the limits of each technology, to select which ones have the most promise and pursue those. And we can’t delay! Nor can we dream that the transition is at all possible without solution #1- carbon taxes.
I intend to edit this as I learn and hence change my mind. Convince me where I’ve gone wrong! I know I have. That’s the fun of it- acknowledging what we’re trying to do and then working together to solve it, we can accomplish incredible things! But only if we don’t hold our own ideas as too precious to be changed by better ones.
We’ve had 30 solid year- my entire career, so far- to tackle this problem, and we haven’t. Why not? Because we’ve been wallowing in grief instead. Denial and bargaining- they’re stages of grief. That’s where our energy has gone, not into solutions. As natural as grief is, and as unhealthy as it is to suppress it, at a certain point we all must move on. Take off the black clothes and the arm band, put on the workboots, fire up the simulator, dust off the calculator, put on the lab coat, mark an X beside the right candidate’s name in every election. Let’s get on with it!
Disclaimer: these are my own opinions, worth what you’ve paid to read them. They’re not to be confused with the opinions of my employer Zeton Inc., which is a corporation and hence HAS no opinions on anything.
Everything I’ve said here, I’ve said because I think it is existentially important to get on with the transition away from fossil fuels. If I’ve poked a hole in your pet idea, or knocked your business model, and you don’t like it, blame me if you must! Just leave my employer out of it.