Back in August 2017 I wrote this post on the debate between idealistic 100% renewables advocates from academia and more realistic engineering based renewable energy pragmatists.
This new study (downloadable from here) is from the pragmatic side and continues the debate.
While being more pragmatic, the report is still largely from academia and is weak on the economic costs. The report covers electricity generation for the US. The key difference with the 100% renewables approach is the willingness to include existing nuclear and large hydro in the mix and reduce the goal to 95% renewables by continuing to include natural gas. They propose to up the rate of deployment of wind and solar and add long distance transmission.
All of this is eminently reasonable, but a realistic analysis based on capacity factors would show that solutions like this will raise the cost of electricity significantly more than they estimate. For the US a doubling or tripling of the cost of electricity is probably feasible except for the current toxic political environment. Perhaps a post Covid, post Trump political environment might be more accepting of tackling climate change?
This kind of plan is possible for the rich nations of the world with an existing electricity supply that is being augmented by renewables investment. Developing nations have to provide all new infrastructure so the capital costs are higher as the investment for natural gas backup generation and transmission are additional new costs.
Electricity generation is only a part of a clean energy solution. Transportation is as big if not bigger. A mass adoption of electric cars would have a significant impact on CO2 emissions.It is increasingly plausible that electric cars could be the majority by 2035. Electrification of transportation combined with incremental electricity plans like this could significantly reduce the rich world’s CO2 emissions.
However the developing world is where all the growth in world energy use is coming from. The rich world high energy cost solution would significantly depress their economic growth potential. Historically this has been an insurmountable obstacle.
Realistically, current partisan politics in the US also make high cost solutions unlikely and resistance in Europe is also growing. This gets us back to the central issue of economics. A renewable energy replacement for fossil fuels has to be lower cost to gain acceptance. Current renewable energy is more expensive despite efforts to portray it as lower cost by focusing on a narrow view of LCOE. Those who portray it as lower cost are reducing their credibility and threaten the long term viability of renewable energy.
The Stratosolar approach could realistically provide a cheaper renewable energy solution acceptable to the developing world.
By Edmund Kelly