Decarbonizing the not so low hanging fruit

We, we humans, need to stop releasing fossil carbon into the atmosphere well before 2100 or we are doomed.

The main reason we are not heading headlong into that project, getting it done right away, is because of the fossil fuel industry combined with a deep seated self-hate on the part of Republicans, who would rather end civilization and make all of our children suffer than to do something an environmentalist might suggest.

The road to decarbonization is the same as the road to electrification plus the road to making all of our electricity with something other than coal, oil, methane, and the like. This could involve a certain amount of liquid fuel that is generated using wind and solar power, and magical bacteria or something, perhaps with a mix of plant material or other bio-sources.

There are easy ways to do part of this fast. For example, building wind farms is easy and produces piles of electricity. Same with solar. “But wait wait,” you say. “Those sources are intermittent, we can’t…” But I say to you, if this is your first thought, you are out of date (or are a Republican?). Solar and wind are indeed intermittent, but we can still use them as the backbone of our power system. This is a problem, but not one that can’t be figured out and has been, in fact, largely solved using a number of approaches. And, that is off the topic of this post.

We can also put solar panels on our roofs to a much greater degree than we do now. It has been estimated that a reasonable, not overdone but pretty thorough, deployment of PV panels on the roofs of America would cover about 40% of our in-building electrical needs as they stand now. This added to the eventual (though expensive, yet easy) deployment of heat pumps and total electrification of everything in those buildings probably averages out (the heat pumps reduce energy demand, the electrification increases demand for electricity as compared to gas or oil).

There are other types of low hanging fruit as well, such as increasing efficiency, telecommuting.

But what about the hard to do stuff, the major uses of energy that can’t be changes so easily?

There is a new review paper out in Science that discusses this. The paper is:

Net-zero emissions energy systems, boy Steven Davis, Nathan Lewis, Matthew Shaner, et al. Science 360(6396).

If you click on that link, you might be able to see the paper, as I think it is OpenAccess.

The paper identifies the following areas as tough nuts to crack:

  • Aviation
  • Long-distance transport
  • Shipping
  • Steel production
  • Cement production

It identifies the following technologies as helpful:

  • Hydrogen and ammonia fuels
  • Biofuels
  • Synthetic hydrocarbons
  • Direct solar fuels

The paper also identifies “highly reliable electricity” and energy storage as key areas of further development.

I do not see any major surprises in this paper, but that is because it is a review paper. I think it is a useful read to help organize one’s thinking on the transitions we will attempt, should the Republicans allow it, over the next decades.

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30 thoughts on “Decarbonizing the not so low hanging fruit

  1. “We can also put solar panels on our roofs to a much greater degree than we do now. ”

    Must say I am rather ambivalent about rooftop solar. Does it help? Sure. But there are issues with it that don’t get a lot of air time:

    1) Every homeowner or business that installs rooftop has just taken steps to privatize what has traditionally been the most publicly-owned sector of our economy – electricity generation and distribution. The vast majority of generators and distributors are publicly- or cooperatively owned entities. (Although the vast majority of customers are served by a very small number of private for-profit corporate players, unfortunately).

    Rooftop owners therefore become private energy companies, trying to sell their product (excess electricity) at the highest margin. They also act like a private business, unfortunately, and are extremely loath to contribute any more of their monies toward the common good. I spend a lot of time on the climate blogs, and, in my experience at least, rooftop owners are incensed at paying anything to support the grid through fees, and are, more importantly, pretty averse to the entire concept of spending any more of their monies for renewable energy for everyone else such as public projects.

    2) This means that the huge marketing effort for rooftop systems, which is propelled by a whole lot of cheering and propaganda by the rooftop industry, is exactly opposite to what should be our national goal – which is clean renewable energy for all as an egalitarian effort to provide our energy future at the lowest possible cost.

    3) And rooftop solar is the most expensive way to have solar. Always will be, too, because it is full retail on components and labor, and each installed system duplicates the electronic components of the million other systems installed. All of this duplication and expense, for a very small payoff – the needs of that particular building and little else.

    4) And as you point out, even if every possible rooftop system that could be installed was in fact installed, it will only meet a minority of our future energy needs. So, we *will* be needing large-scale solar and large-scale wind, and plenty of it anyway. But, the more rooftop installed, the less is the public will to own our own collective electrical future as a commons effort. Instead the impetus is to leave this all in the friendly hands of the capitalist “free” market system.

    5) This, to me, is really unfortunate because it undermines the true opportunity we have with renewable energy as we solve the AGW problem. Because, if a homeowner can enjoy free electricity after he has paid off his capital investment in his system, so can a nation. The opportunity we have as a nation, is to build ourselves a new RE system whose benefit is not just to solve AGW, but to save all of us huge sums of money, because the cost of a rational 100% RE system that will last us at least sixty years is only about six to ten years worth of our current fossil fuel expenditures (about $1.5 trillion per year). That savings of money is a neglected, but hugely important marketing point that appeals across the entire political spectrum. That is how we could get even Republicans on board.

    So, rooftop solar helps, but it is not the best way to proceed, in my opinion.

    1. “….incensed at paying anything to support the grid through fees…”
      That’s very unfortunate, and i regard such people as fucked in head. Grids are a brilliant thing. For electricity, transport and trade , sewage, communication, and potable water.
      A grid of some sort or other is very damn nearly foundational to civilization. There’s such enormous benefits to the concept.
      Still, if someone dosnt want to be part of the electric grid, when its available, that’s their stupid choice. One can’t force a dwelling to be connected.
      Christ they must be wealthy, arrogant arseheads.
      I grew up with no electric grid. Kerosene sucks dogs balls. It’s dangerous and provides poor quality lighting, although kerosene stoves are a substantial labour saving over wood for domestic cooking, and much much better in rain times.
      Grids are the best fucking thing.

  2. “Every homeowner or business that installs rooftop has just taken steps to privatize what has traditionally been the most publicly-owned sector of our economy – electricity generation and distribution.” Is that true? And if it were, just how exactly is that bad? Nearly all solar customers have to stay tied to the grid due to the lack of affordable storage systems.

    “Rooftop owners therefore become private energy companies, trying to sell their product (excess electricity) at the highest margin.” The electric company is buying electricity from me at a tiny fraction of what I spend to buy it from them. I am amused by that, but not terribly concerned. And I do enjoy having the national power grid as my back up. Except when it fails me during storms.

    “ They also act like a private business, unfortunately, and are extremely loath to contribute any more of their monies toward the common good.” Is that true? And what is wrong about acting like a private business? Pursuing solar is often a strong indication of interest in the common good. You are using the argument of the investor to characterize the behavior of the solar citizen do-gooder.

    “And rooftop solar is the most expensive way to have solar. Always will be, too, because it is full retail on components and labor, and each installed system duplicates the electronic components of the million other systems installed.” Many of us bought our solar systems through cooperatives and did not pay full retail prices. As to the duplication of electronic components, I think that is a fatuous argument. While there undoubtedly may be some savings in scaling up power inverters, you don’t present any argument for this being true, nor do you present any of the many inefficiencies inherent in pushing electricity great distances through the power grid as a comparison. Also, you don’t mention the fact that if one of my power inverters goes down, I just lose a little bit of generating capacity. If a very large inverter at the Robert Lambert Mega Solar Complex goes down, he’d better have an expensive backup ready to swap in or a lot of people could be without E.

    “That is how we could get even Republicans on board.” You get Republicans on board by getting their fascist authoritarian leaders to tell them to get on board. Nice to speculate about the perfect power system, but if the trend towards national fascism continues, how we get our energy will be completely out of our hands anyway.

    Cheers

    1. “While there undoubtedly may be some savings in scaling up power inverters, you don’t present any argument for this being true”

      Large-scale solar is less expensive than rooftop, according to every report I have seen. Never seen a component analysis, but I can’t see how a million duplicated inverters at full retail is going to compete with contract-bidded large-scale componentry.

      “nor do you present any of the many inefficiencies inherent in pushing electricity great distances through the power grid as a comparison”

      That’s because there aren’t any. HVDC can send power 1000 km at less than 5% loss nowadays. Power losses in the grid are already covered by the overage in generation one specs out. Also, Dave Roberts at Vox just had an interesting article on a company’s new ideas on how to halve the inherent losses in the grid

      https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/6/5/17373314/electricity-technology-efficiency-software-waste-3dfs

      “Pursuing solar is often a strong indication of interest in the common good”

      One might think so, and one would hope so. But my experience reading comments on AGW and renewable energy blog articles was pretty depressing. There was an overwhelming sense of “I’ve paid a lot of money for mine – and I’m not going to pay for yours too”.

      I do not see anyone arguing for a publicly-owned RE system for the U.S. Have you?

  3. The paper identifies the following areas as tough nuts to crack:

    Aviation
    Long-distance transport
    Shipping
    Steel production
    Cement production

    It also includes provision of a reliable electricity supply that meets varying demand in the list. This arises because of the problem of W&S intermittency. Quite rightly, the authors indicate that substantial investment in pumped hydro and mesoscale compressed air storage and smaller-scale battery deployment as solutions, but there is a really grating fudge in there (emphasis mine):

    Nonemitting electricity sources, energy-storage technologies, and demand management options that are now available and capable of accommodating large, multiday mismatches in electricity supply and demand are characterized by high capital costs compared with the current costs of some variable electricity sources or natural gas–fired generators. Achieving affordable, reliable, and net-zero emissions electricity systems may thus depend on substantially reducing such capital costs via continued innovation and deployment, emphasizing systems that can be operated to provide multiple energy services.

    The required capacity of PHES isn’t going to get significantly cheaper because economies of scale don’t apply strongly to large civil engineering projects of this type. Arguably the same applies to compressed air storage as well. Just because LiION batteries are getting cheaper doesn’t mean the storage problem is cracked. Batteries are just the last little bit of the necessary capacity, providing smoothing for hours, not days or longer.

    That said, interesting paper and thanks for the article.

  4. Roger Lambert

    Rooftop owners therefore become private energy companies, trying to sell their product (excess electricity) at the highest margin.

    They will get to meet the merit order effect in due course. At higher penetrations, there’s not much money to be made selling household solar back to the grid. It’s also important to understand that utility-scale solar faces the same problem.

    1. Utility-scale solar is almost certain to have its prices regulated, because most electricity utilities are regulated monopolies.

    2. Utility-scale solar will have its price regulated by market forces. Please, do read Dave Roberts’ article. It is informative.

    3. “Utility-scale solar will have its price regulated by market forces. Please, do read Dave Roberts’ article. It is informative.”

      What Dave Roberts is describing in that article (now 3 years old- how time flies) is actually a very eloquent argument in favor of my position. What he is saying is that as the bids on new RE wind and solar projects offer lower and lower guaranteed prices per KwH (and the latest ones are around $0.02 per Kwh, amazing as the industry average retail is $0.12), there is less and less profit to be made as the margins get so small.

      Especially since this means that the utility price of 2 cents per kilowatt is *an upper (contractual) limit* – they may sometimes need to dump off power for less, even paying customers to use extra power during peak production.

      Now, he rightfully describes this as a problem. But it is only a problem, as he says, for investors and for-profit utilities. But this is decidedly NOT a problem for any nonprofit utility. And a nonprofit utilities means a publicly-owned utility. This very nature of RE is a bad fit for any for-profit model, but a perfect fit for public ownership.

      This is one of the reasons I argue that our RE future should be not just a 100% renewable energy-only system but also a *publicly-owned* utility system. It’s amazing how all the ‘difficulties’ associated with RE simply vanish when the need for profiteering goes out the window.

    4. Now, he rightfully describes this as a problem. But it is only a problem, as he says, for investors and for-profit utilities. But this is decidedly NOT a problem for any nonprofit utility. And a nonprofit utilities means a publicly-owned utility. This very nature of RE is a bad fit for any for-profit model, but a perfect fit for public ownership.

      If only it were so simple.

      The problem is that the total system cost of RE is vastly greater than the cost of solar modules or wind turbines. Once the very large scale storage and grid interconnections are factored in, the actual level of investment required is huge. With no prospect of a profitable return, nobody will lend you the money to build the RE system in the first place.

    5. “With no prospect of a profitable return, nobody will lend you the money to build the RE system in the first place.”

      Which is why I argue this should be publicly-owned. As in a national project of the Department of Energy, which could be a mandate of the Executive branch.

      “Once the very large scale storage and grid interconnections are factored in, the actual level of investment required is huge.”

      No, it will be peanuts. We already pay $1.5 trillion dollars a year for fossil fuels. A 100% RE system will cost about 6 to ten years worth of such spending, and will last for 60+ years. And save many thousands of trillions of dollars in adaptation costs. It will be the best ROI in history. Really, the capital investment is nominal.

    6. Which is why I argue this should be publicly-owned. As in a national project of the Department of Energy, which could be a mandate of the Executive branch.

      In essence, I agree with you. IRL, I think the showstopper remains that governments cannot raise the capital via direct taxation (electoral blowback) and so are forced to seek ‘industry partners’ and the array of external financing (loans) that this entails. And when it comes to no-profit loans, computer say no.

      I really do take your point about public ownership though. In a perfect world, that’s how it ought to be done.

  5. It’s interesting the tough nuts list failed to mention situations that are seemingly so tough that even conventional systems can’t supply, much less new systems.
    One would think it’s easy peasy for an all important thing like a hospital and health
    clinic to have a supply of electricity, produced by any means.
    The reality is, many don’t have any supply. It’s too challenging for some reason.
    Seems like a legitimate tough nut to me.

  6. A couple of things.

    Slaying the good in favor of a more “perfect” system that doesn’t exist or isn’t available to most people just seems argumentative to me. Also, it is not clear whose ideas you are trying to sell and why.

    Anecdotes about a few people who write on blogs is not terribly convincing evidence.

    If you live in an area prone to hurricanes, thunderstorms, and winter storms, you may know how disruptive and expensive it is to loose power for days at a time. A decentralized power system would tend to alleviate many of the problems with that sort of disruption, once the storage problem were solved, which, to some extent, it actually is, for those who can afford it.

    Putting a PV system on your roof cuts down your summer energy needs by intercepting solar energy before it penetrates to your living space, plus it supports the grid during times of peak energy demand.

    Plus, early adopters of home PV technology are helping push the discussion about where to go next, which might not be happening if PV were nothing more than a 20 second feel good television commercial about some large PV utility in a southern state.

    My home system has put 24 Megawatt hours back into the grid over the last several years. Insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but very satisfying ( what is the value of that intangible??), and very educational. In a few years, I expect the PV system to have paid for itself, plus it will be a positive feature when the house is sold.

    So, basically, am I supposed to put on sack cloth and ashes because my rooftop system was a good investment, but does not meet someone else’s idea of perfection? Just wondering.

    Cheers

    1. “am I supposed to put on sack cloth and ashes because my rooftop system was a good investment, but does not meet someone else’s idea of perfection? ”

      No. I am just saying that there are larger concerns to society as a whole and that the message from the rooftop marketers is becoming the only message that gets discussed.

      What would be ideal would be a 100% publicly-owned 100% RE system that provided power at cost. That cost would be zero after capitalization is recouped. Such is a proposal is the most cost-effective egalitarian vision there is. It is also a vision that simply gets zero airtime. It would seem that even the geeks on AGW, RE boards and blogs have been brainwashed into believing that only ther free market is where we should look for solutions.

      What is really mind-boggling is the percentage of people truly interested in solving AGW who simultaneously believe that RE subsidies should be phased out. That is suicidal madness.

    2. What is really mind-boggling is the percentage of people truly interested in solving AGW who simultaneously believe that RE subsidies should be phased out. That is suicidal madness.

      It depends where you are. In the UK, for example, solar isn’t really all that practical. We’ve a maritime climate (ie cloudy and wet) and much of the country above 52 degrees N latitude. So the winters are long and dark and SPV output falls to a DJF average of ~10% of JJA. Subsidies would be better spent on wind and nuclear.

      Of course if you live in the American Southwest, or Australia or Morocco, it’s a different story.

  7. Couple of comments.

    Aviation, when last I checked, was a fairly small percentage of the overall global fossil fuel usage.

    Geopolymers. There is some evidence that so-called geopolymers, cements made from things like fly ash or natural alkalie materials could replace heavier footprint cement in many applications. Also, there is currently some promotion going on of CarbonCure’s process of injecting carbon dioxide into cement, removing some carbon dioxide from the air and, supposedly, strengthening the cement.

  8. “No. I am just saying that there are larger concerns to society as a whole and that the message from the rooftop marketers is becoming the only message that gets discussed.”

    Well, if you only go to where the rooftop marketers are, that probably is the only message that gets discussed. That is like a framing statement, and it is not backed up with any facts to support it. I had asked earlier who or what you represent, because your message is filled with a lot of ideas that seem to be meant to create uncertainty and doubt, just like a FUD propagandist. It really feels like you are pushing a political agenda. Just curious as to what that is, and who funds/supports/or inspires you to do so.

    1. Ok, I think I AM pushing a political agenda. It is an agenda to build and deploy all the RE we need and do it as fast as possible – fast enough to avoid a 3C increase of average temperature.

      I go to places like cleantechnica, DeSmog blog; Electrek, Dave Roberts, Climate Denial Crock of the Week, Climate Progress, And then there’s Physics, and a whole lot more.

      I have been doing this for the past ten years. I have yet to see more than one article calling for a national RE mandate or a national RE utility system. I have seen hundreds of articles about the patriotic freedom of rooftop solar, the evils of the grid, the evils of monopolies. Hundreds of articles and thousands of comments which do not concern themselves with the role of government to fix this existential problem, but instead always frame the issue as one best solved by market solutions.

      Can you imagine if Dwight Eisenhower had the same position on how best to finance the Interstate Highway system? We would have driveway pavers responsible for paving a hundred feet of interstate at a time. :>D

      I see at least 90% of the commentariat even at the above environmental websites arguing for the end of RE subsidies on general principle; for the end of RE subsidies along with an end of FF subsidies as if that will “level the playing field”; for the end of BEV subsidies for cars that cost more than some arbitrary figure.

      I see enormous support for a carbon tax, whatever that means and I can tell you it means many different things, even though in the U.S., the Republicans have made it crystal clear that they will only pass a carbon tax bill if that bill ends all RE subsidies immediately.

      I can see how you might think I am a troll spreading FUD. I have some views contrary to to the status quo. It’s just that I have been thinking and reading about AGW and the tech needed to fight it for a long time. And I am not a huge fan of the privatization of our publicly-owned electrical sector, not a huge fan of rooftop solar as public policy (in exactly the same way I would not be a huge fan of people drilling their own water wells instead of supporting their already-existing city water system. Or people who want school vouchers for their kids but don’t like spending money on public education.), and I have huge (and I believe well-founded) reservations about the wisdom of a ‘carbon tax’ as opposed to sticking to, and hopefully expanding, targeted RE subsidies.

      I believe AGW is the most formidable danger and challenge humanity has ever faced. I believe we can solve it with RE technology. And I believe that we can solve it egalitarianly and at low cost as a commons project. But we have to do it fast enough. And we have wasted about 25 years arguing with charlatans and scoundrels over facts instead of getting our government to do its job.

  9. We are entering the beginning of the end for green energy.

    Just as the fruitcakes whom propagated the red scare of Peak Oil,
    the same is happening with roof ex-changers and bird shredders.

    Peak green energy is here.

    Carbon good, without it you die.

  10. BBD, at what point do we have to reach
    when the vast majority of folks agree that
    too much carbon is damaging the environment?

    No one has answered my question, of how much of
    the ice shelve on the south pole is on land and water?

    Where are all the AGW geniuses? Where is K9dean?

    1. We’ve reached that point. The vast majority of (non rightwing nutter) folk agree that too much carbon is damaging for the environment.

      I didn’t see your question – which you could easily have answered yourself by, you know, Googling it. But since this is apparently beyond you, then I will tell you. The West and East Antarctic ice sheets are on land. Both have outflow glaciers which are partially impeded at their snouts by floating ice shelves.

      There is something very special about the WAIS though, which you need to research in order to understand why it is so unstable: although it is resting on rock, it is properly called a marine ice sheet because the land it is sitting on is below sea level. Worse still from the point of view of potential ice sheet instability, the rock beneath the WAIS slopes downward the further inland you go (because the land is depressed by the weight of the ice sheet itself. This ‘retrograde grounding slope’ is inherently vulnerable to water intrusion beneath the ice sheet and means that once a combination of warming subsurface waters and sea level rise start to float the leading edges of the outflow glaciers, they will drain with rapidly increasing speed, potentially leading to a full or partial collapse of the entire ice sheet and multimeter sea level rise.

  11. You can see dear readers, that BBD failure to reply is
    because he does not seek consensuses but rather imposing
    his brand of mandates onto others.

    In other words, he is part and parcel of police power and the
    power of the state. All the hallmark of leftwing radicals and
    their ways in finding solutions.

    He like so many of this site are cut and paste experts, who consider
    quotation marks an inconvenience truth.

    1. The reason I didn’t reply is that I didn’t see this comment. As for not seeking a consensus but rather embracing an authoritarian approach, well that’s self-evidently bollocks. I’m reporting the scientific consensus (see eg. WAIS instability, above).

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