Top Google Engineers Say Renewable Energy Simply Won't Work

This article from 2014 should probably be a sticky for this Renewables sub-forum.  But that's just my opinion.

This article is a brutally cold, hard dose of reality for the "keep oil in ground" crowd of anti oil & gas activists.

I'm not at all against "renewable" energy.  I grew up on a farm, and am very much pro-environment.  Note that I also tend to view Natural Gas (methane) as a "renewable" energy source.

But so far, nothing I have seen provides the same energy " bang for the buck" as oil & gas do.

Currently, solar power and wind power are only commercially viable by being artificially propped up with very expensive government subsidies.

Read the report and conclusion of the Google Team, who have pretty much thrown in the towel on "renewable" energy:

Top Google Engineers Say Renewable Energy Simply Won't Work

“At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope …

Renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.”

http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/what-it-would-really-take-to-reverse-climate-change

... A review by The Register of the IEEE article states:

“Even if one were to electrify all of transport, industry, heating and so on, so much renewable generation and balancing/storage equipment would be needed to power it that astronomical new requirements for steel, concrete, copper, glass, carbon fibre, neodymium, shipping and haulage etc etc would appear. 

All these things are made using mammoth amounts of energy: far from achieving massive energy savings, which most plans for a renewables future rely on implicitly, we would wind up needing far more energy, which would mean even more vast renewables farms – and even more materials and energy to make and maintain them and so on. 

The scale of the building would be like nothing ever attempted by the human race.”
 

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Tom - hi, Mark Lawson here. I see we meet again. Pity that other oil commentary site closed down so suddenly. Renewables are a total dead end, I agree, but I don't think you'll get much love for that view here. 

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27 minutes ago, markslawson said:

Tom - hi, Mark Lawson here. I see we meet again. Pity that other oil commentary site closed down so suddenly. Renewables are a total dead end, I agree, but I don't think you'll get much love for that view here. 

Hi Mark, nice to bump into you online again, it's been a while.  Hope you are doing well these days.  Yes, unfortunately Oilpro is permanently gone; legal stuff, from what I heard.

Anyway, yep, I'm swimming against the grain here in the "renewables" sub-forum.  What can I say, I actually miss the contentious "environmental" threads back on Oilpro.  Neither side of the spectrum would budge in those lengthy old debates.  Much more sedate here on Oil Price forum, at least so far.

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"The key problem appears to be that the cost of manufacturing the components of the renewable power facilities is far too close to the total recoverable energy – the facilities never, or just barely, produce enough energy to balance the budget of what was consumed in their construction. This leads to a runaway cycle of constructing more and more renewable plants simply to produce the energy required to manufacture and maintain renewable energy plants – an obvious practical absurdity."

Couldn't have put it better myself, which is why I'm not a Google engineer. Has anyone cared to make any calculations about cost-lowering in renewables, including batteries since 2014? I'm sure costs have fallen but how much?

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5 hours ago, markslawson said:

Tom - hi, Mark Lawson here. I see we meet again. Pity that other oil commentary site closed down so suddenly. Renewables are a total dead end, I agree, but I don't think you'll get much love for that view here. 

Hi Mark, and welcome to Oil Price. Please be sure to introduce yourself in the welcome thread!

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15 minutes ago, Rodent said:

Hi Mark, and welcome to Oil Price. Please be sure to introduce yourself in the welcome thread!

Hey Rodent, maybe you want to sticky the Welcome Thread as a standalone thread near the top of the forums.  Lots and lots of new members coming in lately, and the Welcome Thread is not exactly easy for new members to find.

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Since 2014 the cost of batteries and renewables have fallen quite a lot... Batteries are now 60% cheaper and utility-scae solar is 40% cheaper than in 2014. If the Google guys were drawing their conclusions based on 2014 data they are not accurate today.

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The cost analysis by Mr Albasini, respectfully,  is misleading.  I doubt very seriously the extra cost associated with needing reliable backup energy is included.  None of these estimates ever include that, which is part of the dishonest "spin" associated with renewables.  In addition, the issue with renewables isn't just cost.  Wind/solar are very low energy density, therefore they must be harvested over hundreds of thousands of square miles, with tens of thousands of miles of additional power transmission lines needed.  Even then, they can't do the job without backup from more reliable sources.  Rational people would conclude that a flexible combination of traditional/renewable sources is the best answer, but ration is one thing in very short supply on the fossil fuel-hating left.

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It's true that you need to have reliable backup energy to cope with the intermittent nature of wind and solar. Energy supply spikes rarely correspond with energy demand spikes.

You have mainly two ways to address this problem. The first one is to add a thermal gas plant. When demand in electricity is in excess of the power generated by the renewables, you switch the gas power plant on to add the difference needed. But I agree that building a power plant you just use from time to time will add an extra cost.

The second solution is energy storage. You store the power in excess when demand is low and you use it when demand is high. Pumped hydroelectric energy storage is the largest-capacity form of grid energy storage available today. The method stores energy by pumping water from a lower elevation reservoir to a higher elevation. Low-cost surplus off-peak electric power is typically used to run the pumps. During periods of high electrical demand, the stored water is released through turbines to produce electric power. Although the losses of the pumping process makes the plant a net consumer of energy overall, the system increases revenues by selling more electricity during periods of peak demand, when electricity prices are highest, Pumped-storage hydroelectricity allows energy from intermittent sources (such as solar and wind) and other renewables, or excess electricity from continuous base-load sources (such as coal or nuclear) to be saved for periods of higher demand.

Now batteries are emerging as another energy storage solution for wind and solar renewables. The first large scale battery was installed in december 2017 in Australia by Tesla. The 100 megawatt lithium-ion battery is connected to a wind farm run by French energy company Neoen. When fully charged, the battery can power up to 30,000 homes for an hour. However, it is mostly  used to support and stabilise existing electricity supplies and has successfully prevented massive price spikes.

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/06/how-teslas-big-battery-is-bringing-australias-gas-cartel-to-heel

However current batteries are only usefull for short term spikes (day-night) and other solutions will be needed for adressing seasonal spikes (summer-winter). Hydrogen could be a solution for long term energy storage.

In the coming years we will have a combination of different solutions taylored to the local conditions : back-up gas plants, batteries, hydrogen... and perhaps other solutions that will appear in the future.

 

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It is not a question of what will work. Whatever is used will work. The right question is what will work the best for the lowest price and be the best for the environment overall. The answer is natural gas.It is self evident but I have thousands of live links to back up my argument. 

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1 hour ago, ronwagn said:

It is not a question of what will work. Whatever is used will work. The right question is what will work the best for the lowest price and be the best for the environment overall. The answer is natural gas.It is self evident but I have thousands of live links to back up my argument. 

Yep, I tend to view natural gas as probably the best energy source for the world in the medium term future.

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5 hours ago, Guillaume Albasini said:

It's true that you need to have reliable backup energy to cope with the intermittent nature of wind and solar. Energy supply spikes rarely correspond with energy demand spikes.

You have mainly two ways to address this problem. The first one is to add a thermal gas plant. When demand in electricity is in excess of the power generated by the renewables, you switch the gas power plant on to add the difference needed. But I agree that building a power plant you just use from time to time will add an extra cost.

The second solution is energy storage. You store the power in excess when demand is low and you use it when demand is high. Pumped hydroelectric energy storage is the largest-capacity form of grid energy storage available today. The method stores energy by pumping water from a lower elevation reservoir to a higher elevation. Low-cost surplus off-peak electric power is typically used to run the pumps. During periods of high electrical demand, the stored water is released through turbines to produce electric power. Although the losses of the pumping process makes the plant a net consumer of energy overall, the system increases revenues by selling more electricity during periods of peak demand, when electricity prices are highest, Pumped-storage hydroelectricity allows energy from intermittent sources (such as solar and wind) and other renewables, or excess electricity from continuous base-load sources (such as coal or nuclear) to be saved for periods of higher demand.

Now batteries are emerging as another energy storage solution for wind and solar renewables. The first large scale battery was installed in december 2017 in Australia by Tesla. The 100 megawatt lithium-ion battery is connected to a wind farm run by French energy company Neoen. When fully charged, the battery can power up to 30,000 homes for an hour. However, it is mostly  used to support and stabilise existing electricity supplies and has successfully prevented massive price spikes.

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/06/how-teslas-big-battery-is-bringing-australias-gas-cartel-to-heel

However current batteries are only usefull for short term spikes (day-night) and other solutions will be needed for adressing seasonal spikes (summer-winter). Hydrogen could be a solution for long term energy storage.

In the coming years we will have a combination of different solutions taylored to the local conditions : back-up gas plants, batteries, hydrogen... and perhaps other solutions that will appear in the future.

 

I would add here that seasonal balancing, after there is sufficient battery storage for daily cycling and pumped hydro for weekly cycling, can be solved without further power storage or fuel based generators. The solution is to oversupply the grid with power and while the spot price is low run electrolyzers to soak up excess and export to industrial gas and non-grid heat markets. Basically the electrolyzer would produce hydrogen 50% to 75% of the year. Specifically, when the price of electricity is low enough that hydrogen produced is marginally more profitable than selling the power into the grid. The other 25% to 50% of the year, the electrolyzer powers down and the electricity it would have consumed it left as supply on the grid. The net effect is is to increase the supply of electricity in seasons of tight supply and to product an export of hydrogen for other markets. So this solves both the problem of seasonal balancing on the grid and renewable hydrogen for making zero emissions steel, petrochemicals and other industrial purposes. 

Lest this seems like an inefficient use of capital to run an electrolyzer 50% of a year, consider that gas peakers only ave a capacity factor of 10% or less and increasingly coal and baseload combined cycle plants are running at around 50% capacity. So already enormous amounts of capital are deployed in generators that sit idle most of the year just to handle the extremes of load balancing. What is really needed in deep decarbonization is useful dispatchable load. Load with 70% utilization may be more capital efficient than generation with 30% utilization. 

I would also point out that this dispatchable electrolyzer approach will have a profound effect on the price of electricity and natural gas via the price for hydrogen. Most hydrogen is produced from natural gas. So when the price of gas gets above the parity price for hydrogen, production from natural gas will pull back. Likewise, in real time as the price of electricity rises above parity with hydrogen, the electrolyzers will switch off. Also when the price of electricity goes below a parity price with natural per the specific generator, that generator will switch off. So the price of electricity, hydrogen and natural gas will all become linked. As a consequence as more renewables are added to the grid this drives down not only the price of electricity, but natural gas and hydrogen as well. A lot of this fuel switching will happen in real time. But the effects will be long term. Specially as renewables are added to the grid this will force the price of gas down or reject it from power market, industrial gas market, and even heat markets. As this parity price of natural gas declines year after year it will be increasingly difficult for gas producer to sustain investment  and production levels. 

Whether you believe that renewable will ultimately displace fossil fuels or not, consider thr stark possibility that renewables will keep driving the price of natural gas down say 10% each year. This also drives down the price of coal about 10% per year and even competes with light fractions of a barrel of crude in petrochem markets. We should not get hung up about peak demand for fossil fuels in terms of volumes, we should think of it as relentless price competition that deprives the industry revenue.

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I agree with JHM. Hydrogen combined with renewables is in my opinion the solution that will prevail.

i will add that hydrogen can be mixed with CO2 to produce methane. It's what they call "green methane". So it's possible to replace fossil gas by a more renewable gas and at the same time reduce CO2 emmissions. A pilot project has started recently in Germany as discussed in a former thread 

 

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We shouldn’t underestimate the possibility that new technologies will continue to increase the efficiency and economy of renewables.  Let’s hope that turns out to be the case, because other than a 50% improvement from substituting natural gas in the medium term, increased reliance on renewables and better fuel efficiency still appear to be the best long term solutions. 

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Large offshore wind power projects with 5-10MW turbines in the North Sea, have EROI of about 30 before storage.  Solar PV EROI is generally <10.  Solar thermal is somewhere in between.  Wave power EROI depends upon the specific technology and its lifetime in the water.  Biomass EROI is highly variable.  So ultimately, large wind turbines would appear to have a much better chance than PV of scaling to replace fossil fuels on a timescale that keeps ahead of global depletion.

In my opinion, thermal energy storage will ultimately be the most scalable and affordable bulk energy storage solution.  My reason for thinking this is that 1 cubic metre of gravel heated to 500C, will contain 1GJ of stored energy.  That is about the same mass energy density as lithium ion batteries.  The difference is that a gravel bed costs next to nothing and has close to zero embodied energy. Heating can be accomplished using heating elements running horizontally through steel tubes in the gravel.  These would absorb excess electricity when the grid was over supplied.  Heat can be recovered by injecting water into carbon steel tubes running vertically through the gravel bed.  This will generate superheated steam.

The system works best if integrated into a fossil fuel thermodynamic plant as a hybrid concept.  Super-critical coal powerplants have thermal efficiency approaching 50%.  If feedwater is preheated to 300-400C using the thermal store, then something like half of the energy needed to produce steam at 600C, is derived from stored renewable heat.  If a portion of the coal is replaced with biomass, then total emissions drop even further.  Because the thermal store is composed of very cheap materials, it can be scaled to provide many weeks of storage without excessive increase in plant capital cost.  The plant will generally have better economics and efficiency if it is built at large scale, i.e. several GW capacity.

Now imagine that a plant like this is used as a back-up power plant for a wind-solar renewable energy system.  Wind/solar supply about half of their energy directly to the grid, and the other half goes into thermal storage.  The thermal power plant has efficiency about 50%.  About half of its energy input comes from stored renewable heat.  About a quarter of input energy comes from coal and another quarter comes from biomass, with the proportions varying on a seasonal basis.   The combined system loses about one quarter of the total intermittent electricity produced, but provides very reliable baseload power with long-term energy storage, using about one tenth of the coal consumption of a traditional coal powerplant year round.

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Renewables work,and their is no single answer. Oil and gas isn’t, nukes aren’t, coal isn’t, wind isn’t, and solar isn’t. Solar’s cost on a utility scale is now competitive in many regions, but it’s only part of the answer. Gas flexes well. All electric cars in an area with coal produced electricity are dirtier than gas. Storage is the next big challenge for renewables. Oil and gas will be around for quite some time, and that is mostly a good thing. The messiness of geopolitics with oil and gas are as big a reason for solar as climate issues. Personally a fan of distributed power, many many micro producers. Then capitalism works better. Oil has many buyers, only a few sellers. Adam Smith was right, that  combo breeds a greed.

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On 5/17/2018 at 5:43 PM, Guillaume Albasini said:

It's true that you need to have reliable backup energy to cope with the intermittent nature of wind and solar. Energy supply spikes rarely correspond with energy demand spikes.

You have mainly two ways to address this problem. The first one is to add a thermal gas plant. When demand in electricity is in excess of the power generated by the renewables, you switch the gas power plant on to add the difference needed. But I agree that building a power plant you just use from time to time will add an extra cost.

In the US, we are built out our NG infrastructure, with the assumption it will take 30 years to get enough renewables installed to where intermittency is a problem and needs backup.  In the meantime. the "backup" power plants are paying themselves off. 

 

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