There was a recent article in IEEE Spectrum that explained why Google halted an energy research effort called RE<C (Renewable Energy less than Coal). It prompted this critical analysis by Joe Romm. Its rare to see this perspective on clean energy discussed in any detail, so I was pleasantly surprised to see two articles on this topic. Between them they explained two positions that have much in common but differ in important ways.
The Google engineers discussed how they had started with the goal of renewable energy less than coal and after several years of effort came to the conclusion that current technologies were not going to achieve that goal. In large part this realization came from the understanding that the problem was far larger than they had initially understood. Google halted their efforts in 2011. Google invests heavily in alternative energy deployment and in its operations is very focused on reducing energy, so halting RE<C was in no way a vote against clean energy or dealing with climate change.
Joe tried to paint the Goggle engineers as confused and misguided. Joe is a strong advocate for the status quo opinion on how to deal with climate change. Basically that position is; what we have with current wind and solar is good enough and what is needed is policy change, preferably a carbon tax. This tax will somehow magically cause fossil fuels to decline and alternative energy to prosper. Joe does not see RE<C as a necessary or desirable condition for dealing with climate change. At its core this is a view that politics can dominate the large scale economics of energy.
When Joe discusses the problems with nuclear power he is happy to use the facts of nuclear costs to counter the optimistic promises of nuclear advocates. In contrast when Joe discusses energy policy he uses the optimistic promises of carbon taxes rather that the facts of decades of failure to get agreement on such policies and the overwhelming evidence that such policies are unlikely to ever be approved at a global level. On top of that there is no clear evidence that such taxes will have the desired consequences. Developing nations, where most new energy consumption is concentrated see higher cost energy as a threat to their development.
The central debate is simple. Some (including Bill Gates) see RE<C as a necessary condition for the world to deal with climate change. This opinion is guided by the facts on the ground and the central importance of economics in decision making. Joe and the status quo clean energy consensus he represents see economics as secondary to policy, and believe that advocacy will achieve policy change and policy change will lead to the demise of fossil fuels and the rise of clean energy.
StratoSolar is a solution to RE<C. As Joe makes clear, the clean energy status quo does not believe that such solutions can exist and that they are not necessary. Unfortunately this perspective is self fulfilling in ensuring no such solution sees the light of day.
By Edmund Kelly