Innovation? Technologies already exist for 100% renewables

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jacobsonInnovation. It is the big buzzword, both in Australia and among the major international companies at the climate talks in Paris.

But sometimes you wonder if Malcolm Turnbull and others are simply channeling the thoughts of climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg, who wants renewables stuffed back inside a test tube until a “competitive” technology emerges.

But one of the major reasons why there is such optimism in Paris, and business deals being done in the corridors, is that many believe the technology already exists.

One such is Mark Jacobson, the Stanford University energy expert whose team last week unveiled scenarios that could see wind, water and sunlight power the world’s economies, transport and heat included – and save money.

RenewEconomy caught up with Jacobson in Paris, and discussed his research at length. Here is a 5 minute interview that we put to tape for those interested:

Jacobson has conducted several major studies. One is completed research that modeled the 48 mainland states (apart from Hawaii and Alaska) and found that wind, solar and hydro could power the whole economy, without battery storage.Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 11.02.15 am

The result in the US was a levellised cost of energy of $US10.6c/kWh, around the same as it would be had fossil fuels continued to dominate. And it delivered an estimated $US0.17c/kWh in savings from the avoided impacts of coal pollution on health, and avoided climate impacts.

“It’s a mistake to think that you need to spend billions more on research to be able to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy, and to think that we can’t reduce emissions dramatically until we find the next technology miracle,” Jacobson says.

“We don’t need (new technologies). It’s not that innovation is not good, it’s just that the solution is already there. We can have a clean and a low-cost grid.”

In Jacobson’s solution, battery storage does not yet feature, mainly because right now it is more expensive than other alternatives, such as existing hydro, pumped hydro, and various thermal storage technologies.

He points, for instance, to Stanford itself, which uses excess solar electricity during the day to create a huge block of ice and then use that for air conditioning. Three weeks ago, a natural gas plant at the campus was bulldozed, making way for a series of heat exchangers, boilers and a chiller.

Conversely, a small town in Canada buries excess heat from solar collectors in summer in insulated rocks underground to provide heating in winter.

Such technologies can be replicated on a grander scale. Demand response and efficiency can reduce the peaks. “You don’t need to run waste water treatment plants at four in the afternoon,” he says.

“We are looking to create a whole new dynamic. You can control when you want the power, and when you have got it.

“This is not a difficult problem from technical or economic point of view – it is only a social and political issue.”

Still, the signs on the political front are promising. The three remaining Democrat candidates, including Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have both stated their goal for 100 per cent renewables, and cited Jacobsen’s work and his WWS scenario. Democrat members of Congress recently introduced a bill that wanted to achieve the same (it got voted down by Republicans).

The second major study, unveiled last month although not fully completed, painted a similar scenario for the world.

“It is technically and economically feasible. It is efficient and we have the wherewithal to do it,” Jacobson says.

He says that it is starting to be put into effect, but at a much slower pace than needed. He says the world needs to get to 80 per cent renewables by 2030, and to 100 per cent by 2050.

This year, about 60 per cent of new electric power in US is wind and solar, but that is not enough. “It needs to be 90-99 per  cent, and we need a lot more electric cars, and we need industrial high temperature processes to be electrified.

“People say we can’t do this without nuclear or carbon capture or storage. But that is nonsense.”

CCS, he says, will increase energy use and not remove all emissions, even if it was affordable. Nuclear, he says, is two to four times the cost of solar and wind energy, and takes too long to build.  

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  • john

    The economic argument will show that alternate energy because it has a zero cost of input is the logical way to go.
    This disruptive technology is going to cause some causalities as it is implemented this is a “Kodak” moment for the incumbents.
    The best way for the present industry is to embrace the technology and be at the forefront of implication otherwise some other company is going to take away their income stream.
    Standing on the sidelines and putting out FUD is just not going to work as we now have a more techno literate cliental who are aware of the situation.
    I think we are in the FUD situation atm. .

  • Ian

    Ah I see, this article solves the riddle, how can the coal loving coalition, with its new face MT, call for innovation when they actually want business as usual? Innovation economy is double speak. It does not mean innovate to increase renewable power generation it means: 1. Delay action on climate change by waiting for ‘innovation’ to occur, flick a few pennies at some struggling undergraduate projects whenever someone questions your motives. 2. Use the tried and tested innovation-action used by coal generators, miners and supporters which is “waiting for carbon capture and storage” . Nice one. The last time the government flicked loose change at the public was to silence outcry against the massive investment and deployment of coal mines, coal seam gas etc at the time of the Kyoto climate change meeting. It was highly successful at causing inaction in the face of huge, mostly foreign , investment in FF projects. What were those peanuts thrown at the banana-eating public? Solar panel subsidies of course. These cynical handouts backfired when the price of solar dropped and massive uptake of solar ensued before they could block any further subsidy.

    Fortunately for us, this government inaction and resistance to phase out coal fired power, dressed as ‘innovation waiting to happen’, will not stop the juggernaut of wind solar and storage.

  • ty2010

    Money represents material, labor and resources. Finance rates are at lowest ever so that’s not much of a factor. If the cost of renewables is higher, it’s consuming more material, energy and/or labor than other forms of production, and this is for a payoff over 20 years. Something is developed in the next 5 years that increases efficiency by 50%? Wait 15 years to reclaim that material? What of volcanic eruptions, everyone freezes for a year or two? Why not let the innovation lead the way rather than dumping into dated technology.

    • Diego Matter

      I just want to make sure that you have the newest information available for your policy decisions.

      Well, the problem in your argument is that renewables now represent the lowest cost of producing electricity.

      If you want to know more just type “cheapest” into the search field on the reneweconomy website and you will get a plethora of studies about the price of electricity of new plants (including solar and wind). Surprise, surprise – drum roll – and the winner is – renewables!

      You are right, “Why not let the innovation lead the way rather than dumping into dated technology”, and go with renewables instead of coal and gas instead.

      • ty2010

        That would be solar sans subsidy, but cloudy days still happen. Wind is getting subsidy to erect warmed over 35 year old designs, coal and nuclear are being blocked while merchant gas generators are seeing much heavier usage. It’s kind of stacked, just a tad.

        Rather than apply unrealistic standards to squeeze out dirtier energy and applying not quite ready on a massive scale, intrim measures need more put into them. Making cheaper, maintainable and efficient bag house type installations would go further to reducing emissions as they would be more in China’s and developing nations price range.

        Everyone is into the “acting local” but the thinking globally is suffering big time due to clinging to dated ideologies and false dichotomies.

        • david_fta

          You’d have no problem, then, with removal of all subsidies?

          We could then change the basis of taxation from a mix of Personal Income, declared Company profit and Goods and Services (consumption) to a simple Consumption Tax specifically on Fossil Fuels?

          It’d be an absolutely level playing field, and the best technology that doesn’t flood the planet with rising seas wins.

          • ty2010

            Consumption taxes end up disproportionately on the poor, so no.

          • david_fta

            “Consumption taxes end up disproportionately on the poor” what happens is the government starts getting this extra whack of revenue through an FFCT (Fossil Fuel Consumption Tax), so the first things it’d do would be to raise personal income tax thresholds and adjust welfare benefits so that no low-income person is worse off.

            Because Companies (particulary coal and oil-burning companies) are paying more, this FFCT revenue also allows for cuts to Company taxation.

            What then happens is, everyone has an incentive (avoided future FFCT) to invest in/install renewables – and by government increasing the RATE of the FFCT each and every year (and adjusting Income and Company Tax thresholds and rates, and adjusting welfare benefits), that incentive keeps getting bigger and bigger, until all fossil fuel consumption has been prced out of the economy, and everyone’s gone over to renewables (or nuclear in the case of power generators – but I think you’ll find they’ll adopt lower cost technologies like wind, wave and solar).

            It’s all perfectly straightforward – but it does involve making more than one adjustment at a time.

          • ty2010

            So straight up communism :/

          • david_fta

            None of what I’ve proposed amount to communism – simply changing the basis of taxation is all that is required to maintain a vibrant corporate sector (only fossil fuel exploitation gets extirpated) – which is not what communism is about at all.

            Arthur C Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic. By analogy, your last remark suggests that any sufficiently sensible reform will be met with howls of confusion from at least some sectors.

          • ty2010

            It’s strict top down resource management whether by whim or formula.

          • david_fta

            “strict top down resource management ”

            – what utter bollocks; the purpose of the FFCT isn’t “top-down” management, just transfer the burden of taxation to undesirable consumption and allow each consumer to make up their own mind.

            If anything, FFCT is the direct opposite of “top-down” management.

          • ty2010

            “transfer the burden of taxation to undesirable consumption” – undesirable to whom?

          • david_fta

            In the case of undesirable consumption of fossil fuel, undesirable to all residents of planet earth who have come to enjoy the climate of the Holocene; not too cold, not too hot.

          • ty2010

            Yea, the narrative that’s continually falling apart. We’re mining and contaminating areas with rare earths and associated toxic substances to produce these alt sources while complaining in word but ignoring in action the pollution coming out of China*. China is adding alt just to make conditions tolerable, when it is they’ll stop. But we know from the years of burning coal that things like mercury and lead still accumulate in that situation and even non coal fired foundries are as bad or worse. Instead of shooting the moon in terms of investment, fix what is first. Tax something out of existence here and it’ll pop up in China twice as large and twice as dirty, or didn’t you catch that?

            *China used as representative of 2nd and 3rd world hungry for any economic gain.

            The list grows of scientists who were included on the “support” list that never did endorse, many that did have changed their minds when they reviewed the data. I can pull charts like this all day, not to mention poles are doing better on ice.


          • david_fta

            “Tax something out of existence here and it’ll pop up in China twice as large and twice as dirty, or didn’t you catch that?”

            Err, I don’t think you’ve grapsed how Consumption Taxes work. The point of Consumption Taxes is, they get applied to IMPORTS – so whatever gets Consumption Taxed out of existence here can’t then be imported to here from China, because the same Consumption Tax applies.

            BTW, thank for the chart – which might illustrate what might have been happening up until ~1 century ago, but is a kind of irrelevant to what’s happening now and over the next few centuries.

            I especially like the regression of an inverted parabola – sure, that might be a very rough first approximation for climate dynamics through previous interglacials, but industrial fossil fuel consumption over that last 100 years (not on your graph) has been quite adequate to kick earth’s climate out of Pleistocene climate dynamics altogether.

            Please note I’ve edited this comment a little, removing some offensive language. Thanks to the Disqus team who emailed me with an alert that I’d overstepped the mark, and I apologise for any offence I’d caused.

          • Elisabeth Meehan

            Just two questions, are you paid by the fossil fuel lobby?

            Or do you recycle this propaganda for nothing?

          • ty2010

            Engineer, research more than is healthy.

    • david_fta

      With due respect, the best way of getting costs down is to start doing something – if you’re worried about costs of renewable technologies, then start deploying them, for example.

      With more due respect, it’s kind of deadset moronic to persist with coal-fired power until the sea rises up to your power station.

      • ty2010

        Yes, repeating things on the scale of the railroad bust in renewables and scorched earth for other energy are the best ways. This would simply push cheaper energy to a black market and we know how well those environments do with environmental issues. Coal goes much lower than 50 a ton and I’d be very tempted to switch my own home heating.

        • david_fta

          Would I be right in thinking you’d have no problem with removal of all subsidies?

          We could then change the basis of taxation from a mix of Personal Income, declared Company profit and Goods and Services (consumption) to a simple Consumption Tax specifically on Fossil Fuels?

          That even gives the ATO an incentive to police any “black market” in fossil fuels.

          It’d be an absolutely level playing field, and the best technology that doesn’t flood the planet with rising seas wins.

  • Diego Matter

    “It’s a mistake to think that you need to spend billions more on research to be able to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy, and to think that we can’t reduce emissions dramatically until we find the next technology miracle,” Jacobson says.

    They only reason they say we need more research and a miracle technology to get to 100% is to slow down the victory-march of renewables and to keep fossil fuels in business for their mates.

    Just look at Julie Bishop’s remarks in Paris that solar panels are still not viable and reliable – well I don’t know, but our 5.5kW peak solar system produces 3 times as much as our annual electrical needs and has a 25 year warranty… Julie Bishop and Co just want to keep Australia in the coal export business. The Coalition has no plans and vision for a different future.

  • Interesting that government is talking about renewable energy technology “innovation” when most other 1st world countries are well into “commercialisation.” Hmmm may be some aspects of Aus are not 1st world.

  • Beat Odermatt

    The Government has to legislate to make discrimination against renewable energy illegal. When we have companies like SA Power Networks trying to punish residents for having solar panels then harsh legislations to control anti environmental behaviour is overdue.

  • It all looks so nice on paper (especially on Mark Jacobson’s fatally conceited papers), but here’s what happens when Germany trys it out in the real world:

  • Our local groups will give foundation members (who join in FREE) a graphics card valued at around $400 in the first year after a kiosk is operating in the district. More “How It Works” At my website SaveNaturefree