Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category.

Adding Solar to Our House -- Here Is Why

Our house has always been a good candidate for solar.  It has a large flat roof, good sightlines to the south, and we live in just about the best solar location in the country (Phoenix).  The problem has been two-fold:

  • Even with large tax rebates and other subsidies (e.g. ability to sell power into the grid at retail rather than wholesale rates), the payback periods are long.
  • Given that we are working in 10+ year paybacks, it has never been clear to me that most panels have the life needed.  All solar panels degrade with time and sometimes fail and I am not sure most economics include those factors.

What finally changed our minds was a question my wife asked me a few months back.  She would really be distressed at losing the A/C during a Phoenix summer, and asked if we should get a backup generator.  I told her such generators were large and expensive, but that if we really wanted some grid backup in Phoenix, solar seems to make sense.  Sure, it only backs up in the day, but that is when we really need it here.  The backup aspect was the cherry on top of the economics that put us over the top.

We knew we did not want some sort of leasing or pay-for-power arrangement that would encumber our home if we ever had to sell it so that meant we could shop for about any sort of panel we wanted.  In shopping for things nowadays, there is seldom consensus on the best, but right now there seems to be a near consensus in solar panels.  The SunPower panels have the best efficiency, the lowest efficiency reduction from high temperatures, the least efficiency drop off with time, and the longest warranty.  You pay for all that of course and they are pricey, but I decided to go with the pricier panels where I could be more sure of the economics in the out years.  We have made other investments in our home that have essentially represented a decision to stay for the long-term, so we invested for the long-term here.  I will say that it is possible we could have gotten better economics with another panel that was cheaper, even considering a shorter life, but I did not do the math for every panel.***  The panels we are buying are a huge step ahead of the old ones, as they have built -in inverters in each panel and so they produce AC directly.  This greatly reduces the wiring and installation costs.

Interestingly, the efficiency did not buy us much (at least today) because our total installation was limited by our service panel limits, which total to 400 amps.  This means that the efficiency really only saved us roof space which we had more than enough of.  However, while I chose not to do a battery system this time around (too expensive and too many safety questions), I may do one in the future so I wanted space for more panels to charge a future battery system.

The total payback comes to just about 10 years for our system.  At historic cost of capital numbers this probably does not pencil out but today with ZIRP it makes sense, especially with the extra benefit of some immunity from outages.  Even to get to these numbers you folks had to chip in to help my economics, in the form of the 30% tax rebate you are giving me and the above-wholesale price you are paying me for power I put into the grid.  This payback is mainly from getting rid of a LOT of our on-peak power usage, which costs us way more per KwH than off-peak.  A second project to add more solar charging batteries for evening use will have more challenging economics and will likely have to be justified purely on grid independence.  On the other hand, your economics in another location may be better, since our off-peak power costs of around 10-12 cents is pretty cheap.  On the gripping hand, you may not have as good of a solar insolation factor where you live.  My summary is that if you live in certain parts of SoCal with high electricity rates, this is a no brainer; if you live where I do it is marginal but works if you value some grid independence; and most everywhere else it is a real stretch and maybe closer to a rich man's toy than a sensible investment**.  However, those of you who have had good economics doing this elsewhere are welcome to comment below.

I will give more reports in the future as we go through this.

**  I would argue that experience from some place like SolarCity does not necessarily count as they never have and (as part of Tesla) likely never will make money, so there is an added subsidy in the equation there from well-meaning but naive stockholders.

*** It is hard also to do the full installation math on every panel as most installers have a limited range they work with and we only had the energy and time to engage a few installers for quotes.

I Spend a Lot Of Time Here Skewering Goofy Technologies, But... I Love This One

As a train enthusiast, I have to admit this sings to me.  I give them double points for being honest that their technology is not yet economic

The wind doesn't always blow, the sun doesn't always shine. So utilities are in search of ways to store surplus energy when they've got it, so they can distribute it later, when it's needed.

The most "duh" approach to energy storage is very big batteries like the ones Elon Musk peddles, which are poised to become a lot cheaper in the next five years. Pumped hydroelectric facilities are another option. Or you can move compressed air around underground caves. But none of these options has emerged as the best way to fix the grid.

Then there's rail energy storage, which is about to get its grand debut. In April, the Bureau of Land Management approved an ARES—that's Advanced Rail Energy Storage—project, conceived by a Santa Barbara-based energy startup called, well, ARES. By 2019, ARES operations head Francesca Cava says, the facility will occupy 106 acres in the excellently-named town of Pahrump, Nevada. By running a train up and down a hill, ARES can help utilities add to and subtract from the grid as needed.

It's a wonderfully simple idea, a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem, with some help from the abundant natural resource that is gravity. When the local utility's got surplus electricity, it powers up the electric motors that drag 9,600 tons of rock- and concrete-filled railcars up a 2,000-foot hill. When it's got a deficit, 9,600 tons of railcar rumble down, and those motors generate electricity via regenerative braking—the same way your Prius does. Effectively, all the energy used to move the train up the hill is stored, and recouped when it comes back down.

 

A Reminder: Why the US Rail System Is At Least as Good As the European System if You Care About Energy Use

In an article about the French railroad SNCF, Randal O'Toole makes a point I have screamed to the world for years:

Meanwhile, French trains carry less than 11 percent of freight, as more than 86 percent of freight is transported on highways. Those numbers are in sharp contrast to the U.S., where at least a third of freight goes by rail and less than 40 percent goes by truck (and I suspect a bad model has erroneously exaggerated the role of trucks).

American railroads are a model of capitalism, one of the least-subsidized forms of transportation in the world. They are profitable and do far more for the national economy than Europe’s socialized railroads, which mainly serve narrow elites.

Most of the intellectual elites and nearly all the global warming alarmists deride the US for not having the supposedly superior rail system that France and Germany have.  They are blinded by the vision of admittedly beautiful high speed trains, and have frittered away billions of dollars trying to pursue various high speed rail visions in the US.

I know that the supposedly pro-science global warming alarmists sometimes are not actually very focused on science, but this is pretty simple to think about.

First, consider the last time you were on a passenger train.  Add up the weight of all the folks in your car.  Do you think they weighed more or less than the car itself?  Unless you were packed into a subway train with Japanese sumo wrestlers, the answer is that the weight of the car dwarfs that of the passengers it is carrying.    The average Amtrak passenger car apparently weighs about 65 tons (my guess is a high speed rail car weighs more).  The capacity of a coach is 70-80 passengers, which at an average adult weight of 140 pounds yields a maximum passenger weight per car of 5.6 tons.  This means that just 8% of the fuel in a passenger train is being used to move people -- the rest goes into moving the train itself.

Now consider a freight train.  The typical car weight 25-30 tons empty and can carry between 70 and 120 tons of cargo.  This means that 70-80% of the fuel in a freight train is being used to move the cargo.

Now you have to take me on faith on one statement -- it is really hard, in fact close to impossible, to optimize a rail system for both passengers and freight.  In the extreme of high speed rail, passenger trains required separate dedicated tracks.  Most rail systems, even when they serve both sorts of traffic, generally prioritize one or the other.  So, if you wanted to save energy and had to pick, which would you choose -- focusing on freight or focusing on passengers?  Oh and by the way, if you want to make it more personal, throw in a consideration of which you would rather have next to you on crowded roads, another car or another freight truck?

This is why the supposedly-green folks' denigrating of US rail is so crazy to me.  The US rails system makes at least as much sense as the European system, even before you consider that it was mostly privately funded and runs without the subsidies that are necessary to keep European rail running.  Yes, as an American tourist travelling in Europe, the European rails system is great.  Agreed.  I use it every time I go there.  I have to assume that this elite tourist experience must be part of why folks ignore the basic science here.

My original article on all this years ago was in Forbes here.

Postscript #1:  One could argue that what matters is not the weight ratios of freight vs. passenger rail but how those compare to the road alternatives.  I would have to think this through, but it gets way more complicated because you have to start worrying about average occupancy and such since that also differs.  At full capacity say of 4 people, the typical 4000 pound car (US, rest of the world is less) would passenger weight around 12% of the total, higher than for the passenger train.   But average occupies could change the comparison and I don't have the time to work it through.  But for a full analysis we would have to take a lot of other things into account.  For example, trains are a poor fit with customer travel time preferences for longer US distances, even for higher speed options.  In the same way freight pencils out worse for rail in Europe because the last mile transport problems become a bigger percentage in a shorter haul.  I am confident though that for the US, the freight-dominant system is the right solution and it amazes me how hard it is to get anyone to recognize this.

Postscript #2:  Thinking about the SNCF, I actually did a consulting project there 20+ years ago.  I remember two things.   First they had 25% more freight car repair people than they had freight cars.  Which led me to making the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that they could give every one of these folks their own tool bag, assign them their own car to ride around on, and still cut a fifth of their staff.  I have never, ever, ever seen bloated staffing like I did at SNCF.  My other memory was lunches with executives that took place in palatial dining rooms with waiters in white gloves.  We ate for like 3 hours and drank a case of wine and all I could think about doing after lunch was going to take a nap.

Postscript #3:  This is really going to be a random aside, but if you want to bring science to the table, monorails are the dumbest things ever.  The whole advantage of rail is the friction reduction of a metal flanged wheel rolling on a metal rail.   Most monorails (and people movers) are just tires on a concrete beam (e.g this is how the Disney monorails work).  This is no more efficient than a bus and actually less because the train jacks up the vehicle to passenger weight ratio over a bus.  Because of certain geometry issues, monorails also have limited capacity.  Disney has been struggling with this for years at the Magic Kingdom in Florida and their ferry boats seem to move a lot more passengers than the adjacent monorails.  Monorails do look awesome, though, and their tracks are airier and more attractive than traditional elevated rail tracks.

The Electric Vehicle Mileage Fraud, Updated: Tesla Model 3 Energy Costs Higher than A Prius, Despite Crazy-High eMPG Rating

Nearly 8 years ago (can it be so long?) I wrote a series of articles about what I called the electric vehicle mileage fraud at the EPA.  Rather than adopt sensible rules for giving electric vehicles an equivalent mpg rating, they used a horrible unscientific methodology that inflated the metric by a factor of three (in part by ignoring the second law of thermodynamics).  All the details are still online here.  I am not omniscient so I don't know people's true motivations but one is suspicious that the Obama administration wanted to promote electric vehicles and put their thumb on the scale of this metric (especially since the EPA in the Clinton Administration has already crafted a much better methodology).  To be fair, smart people screw this up all the time -- even Eric Schmidt screwed it up.

Take for example the Tesla model 3, which has been awarded an eye-popping eMPG of between 120 and 131.   Multiplying these figures by .365 (as described in my linked article) gets us the true comparative figure of 44 to 48.  This means that in terms of total energy consumption in the system, the Tesla is likely better than most gasoline-powered vehicles sold but less energy efficient than top hybrids (the Prius is listed as 53-58 mpg).  At the end of the day, electric cars feel cheaper to fuel in part because they are efficient, but perhaps more because there is no little dial with rotating dollar numbers on the electric cables one attaches to charge them  (also, there are still places where one can skim electricity for charging without paying).

Basically, I have been a voice in the wilderness on this, but I just saw this note on the Tesla Model 3 and its operating costs from Anton Wahlman writing at Seeking Alpha

there are attractive and spacious hatchbacks yielding at least 55 MPG for under $25,000, without taxpayer funding needed. Just to be conservative and give the opposite side of the argument the benefit of the doubt, I’ll refer to these as 50 MPG cars, even though they perform a little better. Rounding down is sufficient for this exercise, as you will see below....

To find out [the price to charge a Tesla], you can go to Tesla’s Supercharger price list, which is available online: Supercharging.

As you can see in the table above, the average is close to the $0.24 per kWh mark. So how far does that $0.24 take you?

The Tesla Model 3 is rated at 26 kWh per 100 miles according to the U.S. Department of Energy: 2018 Tesla Model 3 Long Range.

In other words, almost four miles per kWh. It’s close enough that we can round it up to four miles, just to give Tesla some margin in its favor. That squares with the general rule of thumb in the EV world: A smaller energy-efficient EV will yield around 4 miles per kWh, whereas a larger EV will yield around 3 miles per kWh.

That means that at $0.24 per kWh, the Tesla Model 3 costs $0.06 per mile to drive.

How does that compare to the gasoline cars? At 50 MPG and today’s nationwide average gasoline price of $2.65, that’s $0.05 per mile. In other words, it’s cheaper to drive the gasoline car than the Tesla Model 3.

This result that the Tesla is slightly more expensive to fuel than the top hybrids is exactly what we would expect IF the EPA used the correct methodology for its eMPG.  However, if you depended on the EPA's current eMPG ratings, this would come as an enormous shock to you.

Electric vehicles have other issues, the main one being limited range combined with long refueling times.  But there are some reasons to make the switch even if they are not more efficient.

  1. They are really fun to drive.  Quiet and incredibly zippy.
  2. From a macro perspective, they are the easiest approach to shifting fuel.  It may be easier to deploy natural gas to cars via electricity, and certainly EV's are the only way to deploy wind or solar to transportation.

 

Elon Musk Made the Kessel Run in Less Than Twelve Parsecs

I had to laugh at the stories the other day on the battery backup system Elon Musk and Tesla made for the Australian Power grid:

Tesla has completed its 100 megawatt Powerpack battery backup system in South Australia within 100 days (easily), as Elon Musk had promised. That means the company essentially won the "bet," and won't be on the hook for the entire cost of the project, estimated at $50 million. More importantly, it means that some 30,000 homes in South Australia will have a power backup in case there's no breeze at the Hornsdale Wind Farm located about two hours from Adelaide.

A megawatt is a measure of energy production or transmission rate.  As such, it is a perfectly appropriate way to size the capacity of a power plant that is assumed to have a continuous supply of fuel.  However, it is an extremely odd way to size a battery.  A battery has a fixed energy storage capacity, which is generally measured in watt-hours (or some conversion thereof). For example a 10 Wh battery would provide 10 watts for an hour before running out, or 5 watts for 2 hours, etc.  It is not clear if this is just a typo, that they really mean 100MWh, or if 100 megawatts is the peak discharge rate and they are being silent on exactly how long this lasts (ie how long can those 30,000 homes be powered?)  I checked the first 10 sources in a Google search and not a single media outlet that routinely chastises climate skeptics for being anti-science seems to have questioned the oddball and nearly meaningless 100MW figure.

I was going to compare the number on energy storage here and show that you could actually generate electricity from gas, not just store it, for well less than this.  But it is sort of hard to make the calculation when they don't get the units right.

By the way, if this is required to make wind power work, will we start seeing wind advocates building in $50 million batteries when they present their economics?  Any bets?

Why Is It So Hard To Get Even Smart People To Think Clearly on Electric Vehicle Efficiency?

A lot of people on Twitter get freaked out when they see football players kneeling for the national anthem, or detect obscure micro-agressions in some online statement.  When I venture onto Twitter, which I am still not sure is good for my mental health, I get freaked out by this:

My initial response on Twitter was "Of course they are if you leave out the efficiency of converting fuel to electricity".  I will explain this response more in this post.

It would be impossible to say that Eric Schmidt is not a smart guy or lacks technical training.  I'd like to think that he would quickly understand his error and say that he would have said it better when he has 280 characters.  But soooo many people make this mistake, including the folks who write the electric vehicle MPGe standards for the government, that it is worth explaining why Mr. Schmidt's statement, as written, is silly.

Let's first look at what the terms here mean.

  • When we say that electric motors are 97% efficient, we mean that the actual physical work produced per unit of time is 97% of the electrical power used by the motor, which equals the current flowing to the motor times its voltage.
  • When we say that the internal combustion engine is 45% efficient, we mean that the physical work we get out of the engine is 45% of the heat liberated from burning its fuel.

By the way, both these efficiency numbers are the top end of current technology running at an ideal speed and percentage load.  In real life, efficiencies of both are going to be much lower.  Of the two numbers, the efficiency number for internal combustion is probably the most generous -- for non-diesel engines in most cars I would be surprised if the actual efficiency was much higher than half this figure.  Even average electric motors will still be in the 80's.

Here is the problem with what he tweeted

The problem with Schmidt's statement on its face is that he is comparing apples and oranges -- he has left out the efficiency in actually producing the electricity.  And for the vast, vast majority of the country, the marginal fuel -- the fuel providing the electricity for the next increment of load -- is going to be natural gas or coal.  His numbers leave out that conversion step, so let's add it in.

Actual power plants, depending on their age and use, have a wide range of efficiency numbers.  For example, a big combined cycle plan is more efficient that a gas turbine, but a gas turbine is useful because it can be started and stopped really quickly to react to changes in load.  Schmidt used leading-edge efficiency numbers so I will do the same.  For a coal plant the best numbers are in the high forties.  For a gas plant, this can reach into the 50's (this site says 60% but that is the highest I have ever seen).  We will take 50% as a reasonable number for a very very efficient power plant.  Power plants, by the way, since they tend to run constantly at ideal speeds and loads can get much closer to their ideal efficiency in real life than can, say, internal combustion engines.

After the electricity is produced, we have to take into account line and transformer losses (and in the case of electric cars the battery charging losses).  This obviously varies a lot but I have always used a figure of 10% losses so a 90% efficiency number.

Taking these numbers, let's convert the 97% efficiency number for electric motors to an efficiency number all the way back to the fuel so it is apples to apples with internal combustion.  We take 97% times 90% transmission efficiency times 50% electricity production efficiency equals 43.6%.  This is actually less than his 45% figure.  By his own numbers, the electric motor is worse, though I think in reality with realistic efficiency numbers rather than best-possible numbers the electric motor would look better.   The hard step where one is really fighting the laws of thermodynamics is the conversion of heat to work or electricity.  So it is amazing that a tiny power plant in your car can even be in the ballpark of giant optimized multi-stage power plants.

Here is why electric motor efficiency is almost irrelevant to getting rid of fossil fuels

Very efficient electric motors are necessary to moving to a non-fossil fuel economy, but not because of small increments in efficiency.  The reason is that large parts of our energy-using technology, mostly vehicles, run on a liquid fuel directly and this distribution for the fuel is already in place.  To replace this liquid fuel distribution system with something else is really expensive.  But there does exist one other energy distribution system that has already been built out -- for electricity.  So having efficient electric motors allows use of non-gasoline energy sources if those sources can be turned into electricity.  For example, there are real advantages to running vehicles on CNG, but there is no distribution system for that and so its use has been limited to large fleets (like city busses) where they can build their own fueling station.  But electric cars can use electricity from natural gas, as well as solar and wind of course that have no other distribution method other than by electricity.

The problem with all this is that most of the barriers to using electricity in more applications are not related to motor efficiency.  For vehicles, the problem is in energy storage density.  Many different approaches to powering automobiles were tried in the early days, including electric and steam powered cars.  The main reason, I think, that gasoline won out was due to energy storage density.  15 gallons of gasoline weighs 90 pounds and takes up 2 cubic feet.  This will carry a 40 mpg car 600 miles.   The Tesla Model S  85kwh battery pack weighs 1200 pounds and will carry the car 265 miles (from this article the cells themselves occupy about 4 cubic feet if packed perfectly but in this video the whole pack looks much larger).  We can see that even with what Musk claims is twice the energy density of other batteries, the Tesla gets  0.22 miles per pound of fuel/battery while the regular car can get 6.7.  More than an order of magnitude, that is simply an enormous difference, and explains the continued existence of internal combustion engines much better than electric motor inefficiencies.

And here is why electric vehicle equivalent MPG standards are still screwed up

I don't really have the energy to write about this again, but because these issues are so closely related I will quote myself from the past.  Suffice it to say that after years of development, the EPA made nearly the exact same mistake as did Mr. Schmidt's tweet.  This Despite the fact that the agency had already developed an accurate methodology and then abandoned it for a flawed methodology that produced inflated numbers for electric vehicles.  There is more than one way for the government to subsidize electric vehicles!

The Fisker Karma electric car, developed mainly with your tax money so that a bunch of rich VC's wouldn't have to risk any real money, has rolled out with an nominal EPA MPGe of 52 in all electric mode (we will ignore the gasoline engine for this analysis).

Not bad?  Unfortunately, it's a sham.  This figure is calculated using the grossly flawed EPA process that substantially underestimates the amount of fossil fuels required to power the electric car, as I showed in great depth in an earlier Forbes.com article.  In short, the EPA methodology leaves out, among other things, the conversion efficiency in generating the electricity from fossil fuels in the first place [by assuming perfect conversion of the potential energy in the fuel to electricity, the EPA is actually breaking the 2nd law of thermodynamics].

In the Clinton administration, the Department of Energy (DOE) created a far superior well to wheels MPGe metric that honestly compares the typical fossil fuel use of an electric vs. gasoline car, using real-world power plant efficiencies and fuel mixes to figure out how much fuel is used to produce the electricity that goes into the electric car.

As I calculated in my earlier Forbes article, one needs to multiply the EPA MPGe by .365 to get a number that truly compares fossil fuel use of an electric car with a traditional gasoline engine car on an apples to apples basis.  In the case of the Fisker Karma, we get a true MPGe of 19.  This makes it worse than even the city rating of a Ford Explorer SUV.

The Insanity of Base Load Wind Power

I have talked a lot about how wind power has almost no effect on fossil fuel use because the unpredictability of wind requires a lot of fossil-fueled plants to keep burning fuel on hot standby in case the wind dies.  Matt Ridley comes at wind from a different angle, discussing what it would take for wind to actually have any meaningful impact on world electricity production.

Even put together, wind and photovoltaic solar are supplying less than 1 per cent of global energy demand. From the International Energy Agency’s 2016 Key Renewables Trends, we can see that wind provided 0.46 per cent of global energy consumption in 2014, and solar and tide combined provided 0.35 per cent. Remember this is total energy, not just electricity, which is less than a fifth of all final energy, the rest being the solid, gaseous, and liquid fuels that do the heavy lifting for heat, transport and industry....

Meanwhile, world energy demand has been growing at about 2 per cent a year for nearly 40 years. Between 2013 and 2014, again using International Energy Agency data, it grew by just under 2,000 terawatt-hours.

If wind turbines were to supply all of that growth but no more, how many would need to be built each year? The answer is nearly 350,000, since a two-megawatt turbine can produce about 0.005 terawatt-hours per annum. That’s one-and-a-half times as many as have been built in the world since governments started pouring consumer funds into this so-called industry in the early 2000s.

At a density of, very roughly, 50 acres per megawatt, typical for wind farms, that many turbines would require a land area greater than the British Isles, including Ireland. Every year. If we kept this up for 50 years, we would have covered every square mile of a land area the size of Russia with wind farms. Remember, this would be just to fulfil the new demand for energy, not to displace the vast existing supply of energy from fossil fuels, which currently supply 80 per cent of global energy needs.

How do renewables advocates trumpet the high renewables numbers they often report?  By lumping in other things and hoping the reader is tricked into thinking the total is wind and solar.

Their trick is to hide behind the statement that close to 14 per cent of the world’s energy is renewable, with the implication that this is wind and solar. In fact the vast majority — three quarters — is biomass (mainly wood), and a very large part of that is ‘traditional biomass’; sticks and logs and dung burned by the poor in their homes to cook with. Those people need that energy, but they pay a big price in health problems caused by smoke inhalation.

People who talk about sustainability often miss the single best metric we have of the net scarcity of resources that goes into any product:  price.  I am always amazed when people point at a much much higher price version of some product and claim that it is more sustainable.  How can this possibly be?  Assuming the profit margins are relatively similar, the higher priced product has to be using more and scarcer resources.  How is that more sustainable  (I will perhaps grant the exception that certain emissions are not properly priced into some products).

To this end, wind power is much more expensive than, say, power from modern natural gas generation plants, even if one factors in a $30 a ton or so cost of CO2 emissions.  This has to make us suspicious that maybe it is not really more "sustainable".

Wind turbines, apart from the fibreglass blades, are made mostly of steel, with concrete bases. They need about 200 times as much material per unit of capacity as a modern combined cycle gas turbine. Steel is made with coal, not just to provide the heat for smelting ore, but to supply the carbon in the alloy. Cement is also often made using coal. The machinery of ‘clean’ renewables is the output of the fossil fuel economy, and largely the coal economy.

Virtue Signalling and Renewable Energy

Alex Epstein:

Stories about “100-per-cent renewable” locations like Georgetown, Tex. are not just anecdotal evidence, they are lies. The Texas grid from which Georgetown draws its electricity is comprised of 43.7 per cent natural gas, 28.8 per cent coal, 12 per cent nuclear, and only 15.6 per cent renewable. Using a virtue-signalling gimmick pioneered by Apple, Facebook, and Google, Georgetown pays its state utility to label its grid electricity “renewable” —  even though it draws its power from that fossil-fuel heavy Texas grid — while tarring others on the grid as “non-renewable.”

Apple's renewable claims have always irritated me so I am glad to see someone pointing this out.

Solar Road Update -- The Stupid Continues

The one thing that I can count on is that if someone, somewhere in the world writes on solar roads, I am going to hear about it in my email.  I will confess that I have a soft spot for solar roads -- it is hard not to be entranced by the spectacle of such an incredibly stupid idea that is greeted by so much enthusiasm from nominally "pro-science" types.  My best estimate is that there may be close to a million acres of flat commercial roof space in this country, real estate where solar panels could be free of disturbance and angled optimally for the most power output.  So instead folks just seem to be giddy about putting solar panels on roads, there they cannot be angled and where they have to be hardened against driving and traffic.

So here is your latest update, from Idaho:

Despite massive internet hype, the prototype of solar “road” can’t be driven on, hasn’t generated any electricity and 75 percent of the panels were broken before they were even installed.

Of the panels installed to make a “solar footpath,” 18 of the 30 were dead on arrival due to a manufacturing failure. Rain caused another four panels to fail, and only five panels were functioning shortly thereafter. The prototype appears to be plagued by drainage issues, poor manufacturing controls and fundamental design flaws.

Every single promise made about the prototype seems to have fallen flat and the project appears to be a “total and epic failure,” according to an electrical engineer.

If it had worked, the panels would have powered a single water fountain and the lights in a restroom, after more than $500,000  in installation costs provided by a grant from the state government. The U.S. Department of Transportation initially handed $750,000 in grants to fund the research into the scheme, then invested another pair of grants worth $850,000 into it. The plan, dubbed, “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways” raised another $2.2 million dollars in crowd-funding, even though several scientists publicly debunked the idea.

Scientists repeatedlycriticized the scheme as panels on roads wouldn’t be tilted to follow the sun, which makes them incredibly inefficient, would often be covered by cars during periods when the sun is out and wouldn’t be capable of serving as a road for long.

Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways has received fawning coverage in The Huffington Post, Nature World News, Newsweek, Wired, Ecowatch and National Geographic. The program was supported by political leaders like Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo.

I don't know if the manufacturing failures here are related to the hardening of the panels that must occur for them to be used for roads, or if they are more typical of the boondoggles one gets when crony companies enrich themselves by selling cr*p on government contracts.

But good news!  If you have extra money that you were just going to throw on the street because it was too much of a hassle to carry in your wallet, you can still give cash to Solar Freakin Roadways instead.

 

 

When Government Picks Winners, It Mostly Chooses Losers

In an article for Cato mocking the Obama Administration for creating energy technology forecasts that run to the year 2300, Pat Michaels wrote:

Consider the case of domestic natural gas. In 2001, everyone knew that we were running out. A person who opined that we actually would soon be able to exploit hundreds of years’ worth, simply by smashing rocks underlying vast areas of the country, would have been laughed out of polite company.

Energy statists on the Left today are trying to get rid of coal-fired electricity generation in this country (due to climate concerns).  But one thing that few people remember is that a significant reason we have so much coal-fired electricity generation in this country is that energy statists on the Left in the 1970's mandated it.  I kid you not:

The Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act (FUA) was passed in 1978 in response to concerns over national energy security. The 1973 oil crisis and the natural gas curtailments of the mid 1970s contributed to concerns about U.S. supplies of oil and natural gas. The FUA restricted construction of power plants using oil or natural gas as a primary fuel and encouraged the use of coal, nuclear energy and other alternative fuels. It also restricted the industrial use of oil and natural gas in large boilers.

As a further irony, and absolutely typical of government regulation, this regulation banning oil and gas fired plants because oil and gas seemed to be running out was really trying to fix a problem caused by another regulation.   The government had caps on oil and gas prices through the 1970's that artificially reduced supplies.  Once these price regulations were removed, we suddenly had an oil and gas glut in the 1980's and the FUA was eliminated in 1987.  Watching regulators chase their tails in energy policy over the last 40 years would be comical if the effects of their repeated mistakes were not so dire.

Solar Roads -- Remember These When Environmentalists Accuse You of Being "Anti-Science"

I have written about the horribly stupid but oddly appealing idea of solar roads many times before, most recently here.  As a quick review, here are a few of the reasons the idea is so awful:

 Even if they can be made to sort of work, the cost per KwH has to be higher than for solar panels in a more traditional installations -- the panels are more expensive because they have to be hardened for traffic, and their production will be lower due to dirt and shade and the fact that they can't be angled to the optimal pitch to catch the most sun.  Plus, because the whole road has to be blocked (creating traffic snafus) just to fix one panel, it is far more likely that dead panels will just be left in place rather than replaced.

But the environmentalists are at it again, seem hell-bent on building solar roads with your tax money;  (hat tip to a reader, who knew these solar road stories are like crack for me)

France has opened what it claims to be the world’s first solar panel road, in a Normandy village.

A 1km (0.6-mile) route in the small village of Tourouvre-au-Perche covered with 2,800 sq m of electricity-generating panels, was inaugurated on Thursday by the ecology minister, Ségolène Royal.

It cost €5m (£4.2m) to construct and will be used by about 2,000 motorists a day during a two-year test period to establish if it can generate enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents.

The choice of Normandy for the first solar road is an odd one, given that:

Normandy is not known for its surfeit of sunshine: Caen, the region’s political capital, enjoys just 44 days of strong sunshine a year

Wow, nothing like a 12% utilization to really bump up those returns on investment.

The article follows the first rule of environmental writing, which is to give the investment required or the value of the benefits, but never both (so the return on investment can't be calculated).  This article follows this rule, by giving the investment but stating the benefits in a way that is impossible for the average person to put a value on, e.g. "enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents".  Since we have no idea how well-lighted their streets are or how efficient the lighting is, this is meaningless.  And by the way, they forgot to discuss any discussion of batteries and their cost if they really are going to run night-time lighting with solar.

But, the article does actually give something close to the numbers one would like to have to evaluate another similar investment, and oh boy are the numbers awful:

In 2014, a solar-powered cycle path opened in Krommenie in the Netherlands and, despite teething problems, has generated 3,000kWh of energy – enough to power an average family home for a year. The cost of building the cycle path, however, could have paid for 520,000kWh.

As a minimum, based on these facts, the path has been opened 2 years and thus generates 1500 kWh a year (though probably less since it likely has been open longer than 2 years).  This means that this investment repays about 0.29 percent of its investment every year.  If we ignore the cost of capital, and assume unlimited life of the panels (vs a more likely 5-10 years in this hard service) we get an investment payback period of only 347 years.  Yay!

Interesting Solar Tech

I have no idea how much this stuff costs, so I am not advocating it as currently making financial sense.  But I have long argued that we will know solar is the energy source of the future when they start rolling out solar cells in large sheets like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia.

Demand Curve? What Demand Curve?

Today's little slice of economic ignorance comes from tech site Engadget, a frequent contributor of such morsels.  Apparently California is considering new penalties on auto makers for not selling enough electric cars, penalties which by their structure will be fed right into the pocket of Tesla, already a gaping maw of government subsidy consumption:

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke tells the Associate Press that she's introducing a bill requiring that car manufacturers sell at least 15 percent zero-emissions free vehicles within a decade. Companies operating in the state already have to hit yearly emissions targets and get credits for sales, but this would require that they embrace electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars in a big way -- not just one or two novelty models. And if they don't sell enough eco-friendly cars, they'd have to either pay a fine to the state or pay rivals that meet the targets. Yes, they might inadvertently help the competition.

If the bill becomes law, it could light a fire under car makers that have so far been slow to adopt emissions-free tech. Only 3 percent of all California car sales are either electric or plug-in hybrids.

The underlying assumption, both by Ms. Burke as well as the article's author, seems to be that lack of electric car sales is entirely a supply-side problem -- low sales are because auto makers don't make enough of them.  While I have no doubt that there would be incrementally more sales if auto makers had a larger variety of models with different combinations of features, all of this seems to ignore the demand side.  Automakers, who are constantly locked in a death struggle over tiny increments of market share, and who already pay penalties for not selling as many electric cars as politicians would wish them to, have every incentive to sell as many as they can.  The issue strikes me as one of demand rather than supply - given current technology limits and costs, and despite large financial incentives from the government in the form of tax subsidies, most buyers have eschewed electric vehicles to date.  Neither Ms. Burke nor the author even pretend that this law will change this demand situation.

Which is why critics rightly argue that this is just another way to funnel other people's money into Elon Musk's pocket, without his actually having to sell any more cars.  Tesla already depends on payments from other auto makers for electric vehicle indulgences for much of its revenue, and this can only go up under this kind of law.

Why Wind and Solar Are Not Currently the Answer on Emissions Reductions

I have made this point forever, but it always bears repeating -- the variability of wind and solar require hot fossil fuel backups that leads to little reduction in total fossil fuel generation capacity (so that wind and solar investments are entirely duplicative) and less-than-expected reductions in actual emissions.

I don't think wind will ever be viable, except perhaps in a few unique offshore locations.  Solar is potentially viable with a 10x or so reduction in panel costs and a 10-100x reduction in battery/energy storage costs.  I honestly think that day will come, but we are not there.

From the Unbroken Window comes this slide from an interesting presentation at the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, essentially making the same points I and others have been trying to make for years.

I made the point about nuclear in my climate legislative proposal here.

Continuing Solar Fail

I have written a number of times about Ivanpah, the massive solar plant in California.  The plant was funded with a $1.6 billion taxpayer loan, which the company that owns it has since petitioned to be turned in part into a complete giveaway.  The plant is a like a giant bird microwave oven, and its owners would owe literally hundreds of millions of dollars a year in fines if they were fined for bird kills at the same rate as a company like Exxon is.

Now, apparently the plant is in danger of being cut off by PG&E, who contracted to buy its power, because it is substantially under-producing its commitments.  The other day it got a temporary reprieve.  But Anthony Watt notices from recent filings:

Nameplate capacity = 370 MW.
Expected average energy generation per year = 1,000,000 MWh.
This means average power output is 114 MW (about 1/10th of a new nuclear plant).
Capacity factor is 31%.
Cost = US $2.2 billion = $19/Watt average power delivered.

This is around 3x the cost of some recent nuclear power plant builds that most environmentalists have accused of being prohibitively expensive.....

The power plant area that had to be bulldozed over is 20x larger than a nuclear reactor of equivalent average (real) capacity.

Coyote's Bi-Partisan Climate Plan -- A Climate Skeptic Calls For a Carbon Tax

While I am not deeply worried about man-made climate change, I am appalled at all the absolutely stupid, counter-productive things the government has implemented in the name of climate change, all of which have costly distorting effects on the economy while doing extremely little to affect man-made greenhouse gas production.  For example:

Even when government programs do likely have an impact of CO2, they are seldom managed intelligently.  For example, the government subsidizes solar panel installations, presumably to reduce their cost to consumers, but then imposes duties on imported panels to raise their price (indicating that the program has become more of a crony subsidy for US solar panel makers, which is typical of these types of government interventions).  Obama's coal power plan, also known as his war on coal, will certainly reduce some CO2 from electricity generation but at a very high cost to consumers and industries.  Steps like this are taken without any idea of whether this is the lowest cost approach to reducing CO2 production -- likely it is not given the arbitrary aspects of the program.

For years I have opposed steps like a Federal carbon tax or cap and trade system because I believe (and still believe) them to be unnecessary given the modest amount of man-made warming I expect over the next century.  I would expect to see about one degree C of man-made warming between now and 2100, and believe most of the cries that "we are already seeing catastrophic climate changes" are in fact panics driven by normal natural variation (most supposed trends, say in hurricanes or tornadoes or heat waves, can't actually be found when one looks at the official data).

But I am exhausted with all the stupid, costly, crony legislation that passes in the name of climate change action.   I am convinced there is a better approach that will have more impact on man-made CO2 and simultaneously will benefit the economy vs. our current starting point.  So here goes:

The Plan

Point 1: Impose a Federal carbon tax on fuel.

I am open to a range of actual tax amounts, as long as point 2 below is also part of the plan.  Something that prices CO2 between $25 and $45 a ton seems to match the mainstream estimates out there of the social costs of CO2.  I think methane is a rounding error, but one could make an adjustment to the natural gas tax numbers to take into account methane leakage in the production chain.   I am even open to make the tax=0 on biofuels given these fuels are recycling carbon from the atmosphere.

A Pigovian tax on carbon in fuels is going to be the most efficient possible way to reduce CO2 production.   What is the best way to reduce CO2 -- by substituting gas for coal?   by more conservation?  by solar, or wind?  with biofuels?  With a carbon tax, we don't have to figure it out.  Different approaches will be tested in the marketplace.  Cap and trade could theoretically do the same thing, but while this worked well in some niche markets (like SO2 emissions), it has not worked at all in European markets for CO2.   There has just been too many opportunities for cronyism, too much weird accounting for things like offsets that is hard to do well, and too much temptation to pick winners and losers.

Point 2:  Offset 100% of carbon tax proceeds against the payroll tax

Yes, there are likely many politicians, given their incentives, that would love a big new pool of money they could use to send largess, from more health care spending to more aircraft carriers, to their favored constituent groups.  But we simply are not going to get Conservatives (and libertarians) on board for a net tax increase, particularly one to address an issue they may not agree is an issue at all.  So our plan will use carbon tax revenues to reduce other Federal taxes.

I think the best choice would be to reduce the payroll tax.  Why?  First, the carbon tax will necessarily be regressive (as are most consumption taxes) and the most regressive other major Federal tax we have are payroll taxes.  Offsetting income taxes would likely be a non-starter on the Left, as no matter how one structures the tax reduction the rich would get most of it since they pay most of the income taxes.

There is another benefit of reducing the payroll tax -- it would mean that we are replacing a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel. It is always dangerous to make gut-feel assessments of complex systems like the economy, but my sense is that this swap might even have net benefits for the economy -- ie we might want to do it even if there was no such thing as greenhouse gas warming.  In theory, labor and fuel are economically equivalent in that they are both production raw materials. But in practice, they are treated entirely differently by the public.   Few people care about the full productive employment of our underground fuel reserves, but nearly everybody cares about the full productive employment of our labor force.   After all, for most people, the primary single metric of economic health is the unemployment rate.  So replacing a disincentive to hire with a disincentive to use fuel could well be popular.

Point 3:  Eliminate all the stupid stuff

Oddly enough, this might be the hardest part politically because every subsidy, no matter how idiotic, has a hard core of beneficiaries who will defend it to the death -- this the the concentrated benefits, dispersed cost phenomena that makes it hard to change many government programs.  But never-the-less I propose that we eliminate all the current Federal subsidies, mandates, and prohibitions that have been justified by climate change. Ethanol rules and mandates, solar subsidies, wind subsidies, EV subsidies, targeted technology investments, coal plant bans, pipeline bans, drilling bans -- it all should go.  The carbon tax does the work.

States can continue to do whatever they want -- we don't need the Feds to step on states any more than they do already, and I continue to like the 50 state laboratory concept.  If California wants to continue to subsidize wind generators, let them do it.  That is between the state and its taxpayers (and for those who think the California legislature is crazy, that is what U-Haul is for).

Point 4:  Revamp our nuclear regulatory regime

As much as alternative energy enthusiasts would like to deny it, the world needs reliable, 24-hour baseload power -- and wind and solar are not going to do it (without a change in storage technology of at least 2 orders of magnitude in cost).  The only carbon-free baseload power technology that is currently viable is nuclear.

I will observe that nuclear power suffers under some of the same problems as commercial space flight -- the government helped force the technology faster than it might have grown organically on its own, which paradoxically has slowed its long-term development.  Early nuclear power probably was not ready for prime time, and the hangover from problems and perceptions of this era have made it hard to proceed even when better technologies have existed.   But we are at least 2 generations of technology past what is in most US nuclear plants.  Small air-cooled thorium reactors and other technologies exist that could provide reliable safe power for over 100 years.  I am not an expert on nuclear regulation, but it strikes me that a regime similar to aircraft safety, where a few designs are approved and used over and over makes sense.  France, which has the strongest nuclear base in the world, followed this strategy.  Using thorium could also have the advantage of making the technology more exportable, since its utility in weapons production would be limited.

Point 5: Help clean up Chinese, and Asian, coal production

One of the hard parts about fighting CO2 emissions, vs. all the other emissions we have tackled in the past (NOx, SOx, soot/particulates, unburned hydrocarbons, etc), is that we simply don't know how to combust fossil fuels without creating CO2 -- CO2 is inherent to the base chemical reaction of the combustion.  But we do know how to burn coal without tons of particulates and smog and acid rain -- and we know how to do it economically enough to support a growing, prosperous modern economy.

In my mind it is utterly pointless to ask China to limit their CO2 growth.  China has seen the miracle over the last 30 years of having almost a billion people exit poverty.  This is an event unprecedented in human history, and they have achieved it in part by burning every molecule of fossil fuels they can get their hands on, and they are unlikely to accept limitations on fossil fuel consumption that will derail this economic progress.  But I think it is reasonable to help China stop making their air unbreathable, a goal that is entirely compatible with continued economic growth.  In 20 years, when we have figured out and started to build some modern nuclear designs, I am sure the Chinese will be happy to copy these and start working on their CO2 output, but for now their Maslov hierarchy of needs should point more towards breathable air.

As a bonus, this would pay one immediate climate change benefit that likely would dwarf the near-term effect of CO2 reduction.  Right now, much of this soot from Asian coal plants lands on the ice in the Arctic and Greenland.  This black carbon changes the albedo of the ice, causing it to reflect less sunlight and absorb more heat.  The net effect is more melting ice and higher Arctic temperatures.  A lot of folks, including myself, think that the recent melting of Arctic sea ice and rising Arctic temperatures is more attributable to Asian black carbon pollution than to CO2 and greenhouse gas warming (particularly since similar warming and sea ice melting is not seen in the Antarctic, where there is not a problem with soot pollution).

Final Thoughts

At its core, this is a very low cost, even negative cost, climate insurance policy.  The carbon tax combined with a market economy does the work of identifying the most efficient ways to reduce CO2 production.   The economy benefits from the removal of a myriad of distortions and crony give-aways, while also potentially benefiting from the replacement of a consumption tax on labor with a consumption tax on fuel.  The near-term effect on CO2 is small (since the US is only a small part of the global emissions picture), but actually larger than the near-term effect of all the haphazard current programs, and almost certainly cheaper to obtain.  As an added benefit, if you can help China with its soot problem, we could see immediate improvements in probably the most visible front of man-made climate change:  in the Arctic.

Postscript

Perhaps the hardest thing to overcome in reaching a compromise here is the tribalism of modern politics.  I believe this is  a perfectly sensible plan that even those folks who believe man-made global warming is  a total myth ( a group to which I do not belong) could sign up for.  The barrier, though, is tribal.  I consider myself to be pretty free of team politics but my first reaction when thinking about this kind of plan was, "What? We can't let those guys win.  They are totally full of sh*t.  They are threatening to throw me in jail for my opinions."

It was at this point I was reminded of a customer service story at my company.  I had a customer who was upset call me, and I ended up giving them a full-refund and a certificate to come back and visit us in the future.  I actually suspected there was more to the story, but I didn't want a bad review.  The customer was happy, but my local manager was not.  She called me and said, "That was a bad customer! He was lying to you.  How can you let him win like that?"   Does this sound familiar?  I think we fall into this trap all the time in modern politics, worried more about preventing the other team from winning than about doing the right thing.

The Electric Vehicle Mileage Fraud Update: Singapore Figures It Out

Long-time readers know that while I have no particular problems with electric cars, I do think that the EPA uses fraudulent standards for evaluating the equivalent fuel economy or MPGe of electric vehicles.  In short, the current Obama standard ignores the previous Clinton-era methodology and creates a crazy new standard that assumes fossil fuels are burned with perfect efficiency when making electricity.  Most of my readers (but perhaps few Obama voters) will understand this assumption to be absurd.  The result is, as discussed here in Forbes, that the current MPGe numbers for electric vehicles are overstated by a factor of 3 (specifically you need to multiply them by 36.5% to get the correct equivalent amount of fossil fuels that must be burned in the power plant to power the electric car).  When this correction is made, cars like the Nissan Leaf are good (but not as good as a Prius) and cars like the old Fiskers Karma get worse mileage than a SUV.

As I wrote in the article on the Karma,

...electric vehicle makers want to pretend that the electricity to charge the car comes from magic sparkle ponies sprinkling pixie dust rather than burning fossil fuels. Take this quote, for example:

a Karma driver with a 40-mile commute who starts each day with a full battery charge will only need to visit the gas station about every 1,000 miles and would use just 9 gallons of gasoline per month.

This is true as far as it goes, but glosses over the fact that someone is still pouring fossil fuels into a tank somewhere to make that electricity.  This seems more a car to hide the fact that fossil fuels are being burned than one designed to actually reduce fossil fuel use.  Given the marketing pitch here that relies on the unseen vs. the seen, maybe we should rename it the Fisker Bastiat.

Well, congrats to Singapore.   They seem to have figured out what the US hasn't :

In the United States, motorists who buy a new Tesla Model S are eligible for an array of federal and local tax breaks because the all-electric sedan is considered a zero-emissions car. The story is different in Singapore, however, where the nation’s first Model S owner just found out his car is subject to heavy taxes because it’s lumped in the same category as some of the dirtiest new cars on the market.

Joe Nguyen explains he spent seven months trying to import a Model S that he bought in Hong Kong to his home in Singapore. The government’s Carbon Emissions-based Vehicle Scheme (CEVS) rewards motorists who import a used eco-friendly car with a roughly $11,000 tax break, but Nguyen was slapped with an $11,000 fine based on the conclusion that the S uses too much electricity.

“I don’t get it, there are no emissions. Then they send out the results from VICOM, stating that the car was consuming 444 watt hours per kilometer. These are not specs that I have seen on Tesla’s website, or anywhere else for that matter,” explained Nguyen in an interview with Channel NewsAsia.

A spokesperson for Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) said the fine is fair and completely justified.

“As for all electric vehicles, a grid emission factor of 0.5 g CO2/Wh was also applied to the electric energy consumption. This is to account for CO2 emissions during the electricity generation process, even if there are no tail-pipe emissions,” wrote the spokesperson in a statement. The LTA added that it had never tested a Model S before it received Nguyen’s car.

That means that, under Singaporean regulations, the Model S falls in the same emissions category as cars with an internal combustion engine that emits between 216 and 230 grams of CO2 per kilometer. In other words, it’s about as eco-friendly a high-performance, gasoline-burning models like the Audi RS 7, the Mercedes-AMG GT S, and the Porsche Cayenne S.

Actually, the US DOE does in fact publish electricity usage in watts per mileage driven.   They list numbers in the range of 38 KwH per 100 miles for the Model S, which would be about 238 watt hours per kilometer, so such numbers exist though Singapore thinks the car is less efficient than does Obama's DOE.  By my calculation the true MPGe (if the DOE's electric efficiency numbers are trustworty) of the car should be around 32, which is good for a large performance car (and well better than the competitive cars cited) but probably not lofty enough to deserve a subsidy.  Singapore's calculations that the Model S is as dirty as these cars on a CO2 emissions basis may still be correct even if it is more efficient if most of Singapore's electricity is produced by coal.

The Fight Against Global Warming, in One Picture

Using a helicopter and a large tank of heated water to deice a windmill so it can continue to reduce fossil fuel use and global warming.  (source)

 

A Keystone Hack

Well, we have reached another milestone in our permission-based economy with the Administration's rejection of the Keystone Pipeline.  We have zillions of miles of pipelines and are actually wasting energy and creating environmental messes moving the same oil by the inferior option of rail, but somehow this one pipeline had to be opposed.

Actually, the only reason this project is in front of the administration at all is because it crosses the Canadian border, which requires  State Department sign-off.  Which leads me to wonder if there is a hack.  Why not take the pipeline right up to the border from both sides and create a rail line across the border using a continuous loop of tank cars.  Its kludgy and inefficient, but probably less so than moving the oil long distance by rail.

I am reminded of this from a story long ago off Santa Barbara.  Exxon had gotten permission to drill in Federal waters, but local state/county folks wanted to find a way to stop the oil development.  Plans were (as is typical for any offshore oil) for a separation facility on shore that would separate oil, gas, and water from the mix that usually comes up out of the ground.    The state or local folks (can't remember which) refused to permit the separation facility, thinking that would kill the project.  But Exxon built what I believe was a unique separation facility on a boat and anchored the boat offshore.  No land permits necessary.

This is very similar, in my mind, to the pipeline decision.  California's attempt to block oil development altogether proved futile, just as Obama's decision will have little effect on long-term Canadian oil development.  But it did, in both cases, force a workaround (rail and the separator ship) that were almost certainly environmentally worse solutions than those that were halted.

The Wrong Way to Sell Wind and Solar

A reader sent me this article on renewables by Tom Randall at Bloomberg.  I would like to spend more time thinking about it, but here are a few thoughts. [Ed:  sorry, totally forgot the link. duh.]

First, I would be thrilled if things like wind and solar can actually become cheaper, without government subsidies, than current fossil fuels.  I have high hopes for solar and am skeptical about wind, but leave that aside.

Second, I think he is selling renewables the wrong way, and is in fact trumpeting something as a good thing that really is not so good.  His argument is that the decline in capacity factors for natural gas and coal plants is a sign of the success of renwables.  The whole situation is complex, and a real analysis would require looking at the entire power system as a whole (which neither of us are doing).  But my worry is that all the author has done is to demonstrate a unaccounted-for cost of renewables, that is the reduction in efficiency of coal and natural gas plants without actually being able to replace them.

Here is his key chart.  It purports to show the total US capacity factor of each energy mode, with capacity factor defined as the total electricity output of the plant divided by what the electricity output could be if the plant ran full-out 24/7/365.

First, there is a problem with this chart in terms of its data selection -- one has to be careful looking at intra-year variations in capacity factor because they vary a lot seasonality, both due to weather and changes in relative fuel prices.  Also, one has to be hugely suspicious when someone is claiming a long term trend but only shows 18 months of data.   The EIA can provide some of the data for a few years ahead of his table.  You can see it is pretty volatile.

I won't dwell on the matter of data selection, because it is not the main point I want to make, but the author's chart looks suspiciously like cherry-picking endpoints.

The point I do want to make is that reducing the capacity utilization, and thus efficiency, is a COST not a benefit as he makes it out.  Things would be different if renewables replaced a lot of fossil fuel capacity at the peak utilization of the day (the total capacity of a power system has to be sized to the peak daily demand).  But the peak demand in most Western countries occurs late in the day, long after solar has stopped producing.  Germany, which relies the most on solar, has studied this and found their peak electricity demand is around 6PM, a time where solar provides essentially nothing.   Wind is a slightly different problem, because of its hour to hour unpredictability, but suffice it to say that it can't be counted on in advance on any particular day to provide power at the peak.

This means that one STILL has to have the exact same fossil fuel plant capacity as one did without renewables.  Yes, it runs less during the day and burns less fuel, but it still must be built and exist and be staffed and in many cases it still must be burning some fuel (even if producing zero electricity) to be hot and ready to go.

The author is arguing for a virtuous circle where reductions in capacity factors of fossil fuel plants from renewables increases the total cost per KwH of electricity from fossil fuels (because the capital cost is amortized over fewer kilowatts).  This is technically true, but it is not the way power companies have to look at it.  Power companies have got to build capacity to the peak.  With current technologies, that means fossil fuel capacity has to be built to the peak irregardless of their capacity factor.  If these plants have to be built anyway to cover for renewables when they disappear during the day, then the capital costs are irrelevant at the margin.   And the marginal cost of operations and producing power from these plants, since they have to continue to exist, is around $30-$40 a MwH, waaaay under renewables still.

In essence, the author is saying:  hurray for renwables!  We still have to have all the old fossil fuel plants but they run less efficiently now AND we have paid billions of dollars to duplicate their function with wind and solar plants.  We get to pay twice for every unit of electricity capacity.

Environmentalists are big on arguing that negative externalities need to be priced and added to the cost of things that generate them -- thus the logic for a carbon tax.  But doesn't that mean we should tax wind and solar, rather than subsidize them, to charge them for the inefficiently-run fossil fuel plants we have to keep around to fill in when renewables inevitably fail us at the peak time of the day?

By the way, speaking of subsidies, the author with a totally straight face argues that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels with this chart:

solar costs

 

He also says, "Wind power, including U.S. subsidies, became the cheapest electricity in the U.S. for the first time last year."

I hate to break it to the author, but a Ferrari would be cheaper than a Ford Taurus if the government subsidized it enough -- that means nothing economically other than the fact that the government is authoritarian enough to make it happen.  All his chart shows is that solar is more expensive than coal and gas in every state.

And what the hell are those units on the left?  Does Bloomberg not know how to annotate charts?  Since 6 cents per Kw/hr is a reasonable electricity cost, my guess is that this is dollars per Mw/hr, but it is irritating to have to guess.

Is This REALLY What Environmentalists Are After?

I have seen this story all over the place, touting some Indian airport that will, gasp, entirely power itself with solar.  Look at the picture environmentalists are bragging about.  The solar panels to power a few buildings cover perhaps 10x or more of the land taken up by the buildings themselves.  They paved paradise and put up ... a solar farm.

Ultimate Proof Green Energy is About Cronyism, Not the Environment

Government green energy programs are supposedly about subsidizing new energy technologies to reduce their cost and increase their adoption rate.  But it appears to me that they are in fact merely about subsidizing favored companies.

Why?  Well consider this:

Over the last couple of years, trade remedy actions on clean energy products have intensified. In the wind industry, the Wind Tower Trade Coalition, an association of U.S. producers of wind towers, brought an AD/CVD complaint against imported wind towers in 2011. The U.S. Commerce Department started an investigation, and announced a preliminary decision in December 2012.

This decision found both subsidization and dumping in relation to Chinese imports and imposed an antidumping tariff of between 44.99% and 70.63%, as well as countervailing duties of 21.86%–34.81%. The Commerce Department also established a separate antidumping duty of 51.40%–58.49% on Vietnamese wind tower manufacturers.

In the solar industry, in October 2011, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, a group of seven U.S. solar panel manufacturers led by Solar World Industries America, accused Chinese solar panel companies of dumping products in the United States. The Commerce Department opened an investigation in 2011 and announced the final ruling in 2012. The decision was to impose antidumping tariffs ranging from 24% to 36% on Chinese producers.

All of those actions are not only not consistent with reducing the cost of new energy technologies, they actually raise the cost of wind and solar.  The only benefit of these actions is to improve the bottom line of crony-connected green energy companies.  There is no reason to believe that this cronyism is not the real rational behind the whole program.   If government subsidizes consumer solar purchases 30% and then raises solar panel costs by 30%, they are not making the technology cheaper for consumers, but just finding an excuse to pour tax money into the pockets of a few folks like Elon Musk.

It's Not A Market Failure When People Avoid a Crappy Investment

Environmentalists often claim that people systematically under-invest in energy conservation, something they call a market failure.   This is why Obama and the Left put in a much heralded provision in the stimulus package that used Federal money to subsidize home energy conservation (new windows and insulation and such).

A new study in the NBER looks at the results.  This is the abstract:

Conventional wisdom suggests that energy efficiency (EE) policies are beneficial because they induce investments that pay for themselves and lead to emissions reductions. However, this belief is primarily based on projections from engineering models. This paper reports on the results of an experimental evaluation of the nation’s largest residential EE program conducted on a sample of more than 30,000 households. The findings suggest that the upfront investment costs are about twice the actual energy savings. Further, the model-projected savings are roughly 2.5 times the actual savings. While this might be attributed to the “rebound” effect – when demand for energy end uses increases as a result of greater efficiency – the paper fails to find evidence of significantly higher indoor temperatures at weatherized homes. Even when accounting for the broader societal benefits of energy efficiency investments, the costs still substantially outweigh the benefits; the average rate of return is approximately -9.5% annually.

The only failure here is the government diverting capital from productive uses into money-losing ventures like this one.

Heisenberg's Theorum on Green Energy Measurement

Theorum:  A media article on a wind or solar project will give its installation costs or the value of its energy produced, but never both.

Corollary 1:  One therefore can never assess the economic reasonableness of any green energy project from a single media article

Corollary 2:  For supporters of green energy, there is a good reason for Corollary #1.

When "Pro-Science" Environmentalists Fall For Idiotic Technologies: Solar Roads Edition

I am mostly inured to being told I am "anti-science" for thinking manmade global warming will be less than catastrophic.  In debate situations (which are increasingly rare, since most colleges where I do most of my speaking no longer want a second side in climate discussions) I usually can demonstrate I know a hell of a lot more about the science than my opponent in the first 3 minutes or so.

But the whole "pro-science" pose of environmentalists is especially funny when they get really excited about some very stupid technology.  Environmentalists' support for corn ethanol is a good case in point.  Most of them have retreated on this, and the media has pretty much allowed them to pretend they were never really vociferous supporters of this technology that most now consider (and I considered from the beginning) to be environmentally damaging.

Here is the new, latest, greatest example.  From Think Progress, where else, but the story has been reprinted all over the hip environmental Left:

The World’s First Solar Road Is Producing More Energy Than Expected

In its first six months of existence, the world’s first solar road is performing even better than developers thought.

The road, which opened in the Netherlands in November of last year, has produced more than 3,000 kilowatt-hours of energy — enough to power a single small household for one year, according to Al-Jazeera America.

“If we translate this to an annual yield, we expect more than the 70kwh per square meter per year,” Sten de Wit, a spokesman for the project — dubbed SolaRoad — told Al Jazeera America. “We predicted [this] as an upper limit in the laboratory stage. We can therefore conclude that it was a successful first half year.”

De Wit said in a statement that he didn’t “expect a yield as high as this so quickly.”

The 230-foot stretch of road, which is embedded with solar cells that are protected by two layers of safety glass, is built for bike traffic, a use that reflects the road’s environmentally-friendly message and the cycling-heavy culture of the Netherlands.

In the US, we pay about 12 cents a KwH for electricity  (the Dutch probably pay more).  But at this rate, in 6 months, the solar sidewalk has generated... $360 of electricity.  Double that for a year, and we get $720 of electricity a year.

How much did the sidewalk cost?  The article doesn't say.  You will find this typical of wind and solar articles.  If they quantify the installation cost, they will not quantify the value of power produced.  If they quantify the power produced, they will never quantify the installation cost. This article says the installation cost was $3.5 million, though I suppose one should subtract from that the cost to build a similar length concrete bike path, but that can't be more than $100,000 for 230 feet.  They say they are getting 70kwh per year per square meter, which is $8.40 worth of electricity per square meter per year.  Since regular solar panels - without all the special glass overlays and installation in the ground and inverters and wiring - cost about $150-$200 per square meter, you can see this is a horrible investment.

Part of the reason this is a bad investment is that solar panels are simply not efficient enough and cheap enough to be cost effective -- I think they will be someday, but not now.   But this project has special problems:

  • The panels are actually in the ground with people driving over them.  Honestly, could one actually choose a worse spot for a solar panel?  This installation location, vs. say a roof, adds incredible cost to toughen the panels for wear.  Also, it increases their maintenance costs and likely reduces their life.
  • Even worse, the panels have to sit flat on the ground, which is not the most efficient place for them.  Panels are most efficient if tilted at an angle and (in the case of Holland) facing south.  Further, they are more efficient up in the air where they do not get shaded by trees or buildings.

This is just stupid, stupid, stupid.  Perhaps if solar becomes more efficient and we have run out of space on every roof in the world, one might possibly maybe (but probably not) consider this.  But despite the inherent inanity of this idea, look at all the articles on Solaroad -- Think Progress, the Huffington Post, Engadget, Tree Hugger, Extreme Tech, NPR, Sustainable Business -- they all have multiple, gushing, unrelentingly positive articles about this.  Look at all the positively fawning comments on Think Progress.  I can't find a single article on the web that is even slightly skeptical.

 Update:  A reader sends me this epic video takedown of this stupid idea.  He did this in advance of the article today.  He finds it to be complete BS, despite the fact that he overestimates electrical production by a factor of 2.