Friday, 20 October 2017

Are renewables helping gas burn, or is gasoline stopping electricity going to cars?

First they ignore you
Then they say you're stupid
Then they say you're wrong
Then they say you have an interesting idea
Then they say they thought so all along

"You have enough electricity to power all the cars in the country if you stop refining gasoline." According to Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk via green transportation. "You take an average of 5 kilowatt hours to refine one gallon of gasoline, something like the Model S can go 20 miles on 5 kilowatt hours."

We often hear complaints about renewable energy not really being renewable, because it uses some fossil fuels to produce the materials. It's interesting to note that the petrol that goes into cars is actually using electricity.

As usually things are much more complicated than it seems. Advocates of renewable energy see a future with 100% renewable energy. Skeptics see the energy costs of producing renewable infrastructure, and the source of that energy, and claim that the march to renewables will produce more carbon emissions so we are better off burning fossil fuels directly.

Some of the nuclear lobby, meanwhile, attack renewables and claim they are just being used as greenwash for the fossil fuel industry, which wants to be there when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. In fact there are many common interests of the nuclear industry and renewable industry. One is electrification. Also, they can also both benefit from increased capacitance in the system: renewable energy because the production is unreliable and may not meet or match peaks in consumption; nuclear for exactly the opposite reason that production is constant and energy storage will mean demand can be met with less plant.

It's very unlikely that burning fossil fuels will lead to a fossil-fuel free future, unless you are cynically hoping that the only realistic fossil-free future is one where they have all been burnt. As a technological development, electrification makes renewables possible since the energy is easy to convert and transfer over large distances. The internal combustion engine has a much more limited diet.

Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes  is a 2015 paper by Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Cameron, and Bethany A. Frew from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University, and the Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

They claim that existing technologies can be used to get the US onto 100% renewable power. The paper has some critics, of course.

This podcast from Science Vs asks whether 100% renewable energy is possible, and features Jacobson and Delucchi as well as some of their critics and more neutral observers. The answer is not exactly yes, and they point out a few areas will be very tricky to get onto renewables, such as iron smelting. But they suggest it's a pretty good direction to think about moving in.

In the conclusion, the podcast suggested people may need to change the way they live, using energy depending on how much is being generated. Use the air conditioning when the sun is shining. Do the washing when the wind is blowing. It's easy to see some logic there. It may be more tricky if people are expected to switch off the heating when there has not been much sunshine, since that's known as winter in several places.

It's interesting to note that at no point did the podcast mention efficiency. Increases in efficiency do not rely on people's behaviour. Also they are cumulative and compounding, so a seven-percent annual improvement in efficiency means half the energy use in ten years. This is certainly a high level of improvement, but the predictions of most of the renewable skeptics assume efficiency improvement of zero. This is also true of fossil fuel advocates and the nuclear industry, whose forecasts are consistently based on increased consumption of energy, and whose forecasts are consistently wrong,. Since they are in the business of selling energy, increased consumptions is in their best interests, and it's not at all surprising that it gets into their forecasts. If I was running a bakery I'd be hoping to increase my sales, and if I was planning for fewer customers in the future, I should probably be taking an early retirement, or at least changing my profession. Even in the paper by Jacobson et al., future energy production is based on the predictions of the IEA, International Energy Agency, who have been predicting the end of solar power growth for fifteen years.