Senior Scientist, Johnson Matthey


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What is the real missing link in renewable energy?

We have had great renewable energy technology for a long time. It is improving very rapidly considering the low budgets that fund research into the various technologies. What is the real hold up? What is the missing link for fast and wide deployment of renewable energy?

Closing Statement from Enrico Petrucco

This conversation thread has been ended prematurely and I am not sure why. Closing comments are not necessary since the content of this conversation is so short (was supposed to last 1 month???)

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    Mar 26 2012: There are several from my point of view.
    1) political: While Europe is doing a good job in subsidizing alternative energies, many other countries do not.
    For example, where I live here in Mexico, we have sun almost every day. I couldn't imagine a better place for solar energy. However, there is zero support or incentive from the government and equipment is still very expensive. I calculated amortization of switching from traditional to photovoltaic energy and came up with 7-8 years. That's just too long.
    2) Lack of knowledge: Many people just don't have enough background info to make decisions on what alternative energies are available to them and which of them are the best suited for their purpose
    3) Threshold: as with any new technology, you need a certain market size to drive prices down and make the product accessible to the masses. I think we are still not there with renewable energies.
    4) Technology: While a lot of progress was made over the last years, the technology is still not as mature as one would wish (e.g. poor yield from solar panels). In addition, neither solar nor wind energy equipment are nice to the eye. They just don't integrate very well into nature, especially if you look at those windmill farms. It can't get much uglier than that.

    There are probably other reasons as well beside the ones I just listed.
    • Mar 27 2012: I agree with some of your statements. What about miss-placed value? If an 8yr investment can provide a guaranteed 12.5% return year-on-year with a follow up 12-22yr continual return all adjusted for energy price inflation then is that not a good investment compared to a lot of stocks and GILTs available to the general public?
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        Mar 27 2012: Not sure about that. You could put your money into an investment fund with a good track record (perhaps something relatively conservative such as blue chips) and you make at least 10 % a year, usually even more.
        Beside that, most people don't want to be "first adopters" because they are risk averse. That's true for most new products that come to the market. You always will have a small group of early adopters. They will then spread the word (positive or negative) that can get the general public jumping on board, but also can sink the product.
        So, we need this group of earlier adopters and the industry should make it as easy as possible for them to get started (if necessary even w/o making money).
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    Mar 27 2012: profit.
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    Mar 26 2012: In Australia we recently had a government funded program to put solar cells on your roof and wire them into the grid. You get to sell back the power you don't use. This system highlights one of the main missing links. For solar or wind to be truly viable as a main source of electricity we need to store it. Unlike nuclear or fossil fuels, the most obvious renewables have the disadvantage of their availability being beyond our control. Wind blows when wind blows, not when we want it to. How do we capture it at the time. You could use solar or wind to augment exsisting hydro-electric plants by using the power to pump water back up the hill for later use. Unfortunately in Australia we only have one mountain and for the majority of the time our rivers don't even run, but it could work in Europe or the U.S.
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      Mar 26 2012: Ah, yes, we have this bidirectional system too in Mexico, although there are pros and cons to it. The pro is that you don't have to store the energy, hence the expense for purchasing batteries is eliminated. On the other hand, you lose some freedom, because if the public grid is down, you are left without energy regardless of your own production because, at least here, they don't allow you to have batteries if you feed back into the grid.

      From a technical point of view I don't really think storage should be that much of an issue, but to solve the riddle we must go international, meaning that if countries have excess production at any point of time they just sell it to a country that needs the energy at that moment and then either gets paid for it or gets the energy delivered back. This obviously means that we must connect the grid spanning different time zones.

      Also, alternative energies as we know them today perhaps never will cover our demand 100 %, but if we can reduce fossil fuel by let's say 40 -50 % then it would be already a significant achievement.
      Also each country has its characteristics. Some are better fore hydroelectric energy, others for sun and others for wind. And there might be some, where non of the alternative energies would be efficient.
      In any case, to make that work we have to look at it from a global perspective and not isolated to a single country.
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        Mar 26 2012: Linking of grids in the northern hemisphere would certainly be possible. Unfortunately Australia is an island so for us any linking to other time zones would involve thousands of kilometres of cabling. The resistive loss would make this pointless. Up north though the only real gap is the Atlantic. You can pretty much walk from western Europe to the east coast of the U.S. Hopefully they will develop superconductors that work at ambient temperatures at some stage. Then we could run cables as far as we like.
    • Mar 26 2012: Variable baseload can be designed to solve the power requirements without need for large stores of batteries or fossil fuels. Anaerobic digestion can produce a good amount of renewable gas stock along with biomass in order to counterbalance wind and electric variability.
      We could discuss the use of Gen IV fission (such as LFTR) as a supplement as well, but it is not "necessary" though it could be used to reduce the carbon footprint of establishing a sustainable energy infrastructure (and would be a shame to decommission instead of use as a small-yet-valuable variable baseload)
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        Mar 27 2012: Lftr does seem like the sensible way to go for base load power but I'm not sure the general public will ever get over their irrational fear of nuclear. You just have to look at how the press coverage of the Japanese tsunami became all about nuclear accidents by the end. Even though the tsunami killed tens of thousands and the Fukushima plant may kill up to 1000 over the next twenty years or so.
        The problem I see with anaerobic digestors is finding a large enough quantity of bio-mass to digest. As the population of the Earth increases we will lose the ability to grow plants for anything other than food. This is also what stops us simply substituting plant oils for mineral oils. Burning bio-diesal is carbon neutral but its use wil eventually become impossible as demand for food increases.