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In a rigorous analysis is this "missing link" a solution or evidence of a much larger and systemic policy, market, and investment problem?

While Prof. Sadowy is correct on energy issues, his “the missing link” conclusion lacks perspective and highlights a larger problem in clean energy.

The Yardstick

“Missing link” technology has to have specific performance (other technologies have these) and cost. The most central feature for a "missing link's" is -

The combined system cost per kWh must net out lower than today’s renewables to have value.

This battery’s cost is 1/3 "the best battery technology" (MIT). AGM batteries are ~$250 per kWh of storage. Renewable output needs to be leveled (store when producing a lot, supply when not) to behave like fossil. Wind requires 3-5 days of leveling storage equal to 50% of rated capacity (the turbine’s max output) (LBNL).

Storage for 1MW wind turbine = 3 x 24 x 500kW x $80 = $2,880,000

1MW turbine cost = $1,800,000

Wind subsidy is ~$.026 per kWh to equal Natural Gas at $.065 per kWh

Combined wind/storage cost = $.15 per kWh, Subsidy raw = ~$.085 per kWh, Subsidy w/externals = ~$.05 per kWh

The effect of subsidizing a large percentage of global consumption at current rates is severe (see Edenhoffer’s ADAM) on the order of a 2% global economic contraction per year. More expensive renewable energy that behaves like fossil is not a solution.

The Larger Problem

As long as governments are subsidizing (driving private investment) energy technologies that are highly unlikely to solve our core energy problems, our problems will not be solved because we frittered away the money to solve them. The last 30 years provide a snapshot of this problem.

The US has funded and subsidized incremental storage, solar, and wind technologies for 30 years at a cost of tens of billions of dollars without producing anything that can or is on track to actually compete with fossil. If we continue to lack rigor in clean energy policy and investment and to invest large sums without vision, the future for climate change and/or our standard of living looks very dark.


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  • Jan 15 2013: Rob, your understanding of market forces and analysis is much deeper than mine (though I would like to become better informed). That said, the sheer enormity of the consequences of continuing on our current path is staggering, both financially and in the cost of human life and environmental treasure. (Already some are connecting the dots between famines in parts of Africa with global warming. Whether or not that connection is legitimate at this point, I don’t know. But if not legitimate yet, it will be soon enough.) So, on the face of it, it seems that any approach must be radically different from anything attempted so far.

    So I find your idea of making the electrical grid a public utility for a few decades exactly the kind thinking we need. Having recently taken early retirement from a big tech company, I have more time on my hands and I plan to use some of it in this area. I recently created a petition to the White House to try to push the administration into looking at liquid metal battery technology (see https://sites.google.com/site/liquidmetalbatteries/ for details). I’m having trouble getting more than a few dozen signatures, though, so I’m pleading with some big organizations for help.

    Nationalizing the electrical grid for a few decades sounds like area worth pushing for. I really like that idea. In times of national (or, in this case, world) emergencies, it is exactly the job of the government to step in the interest of the welfare of everyone. (Of course, such an approach can be abused, but every approach has its downside and danger.) The free market is simply incapable of intervening in a timely manner. As for what I can do personally, I don’t know what else to do but educate (via petitions like the the one above and other avenues—e.g., pushing newspapers and other media to do stories on liquid metal battery technology).

    Somehow we have to change the focus to real solutions. I really appreciate this discussion. It’s got me thinking in new ways.
    • Jan 15 2013: Liquid metal already has funding from DOE (I think through ARPA-e) and private investment.

      I agree completely with your take on the role of government. Unfortunately I fear that conversation has been pushed so far to the libertarian side that the government might not see its role that as clearly as you do in this area. Also the DOE has a tendency to focus on incremental solutions so they would need to shift their thinking. That said perhaps enough of the economic hits you mentioned might spark the US or (more likely) other governments to take such action.

      One other idea would be to treat our energy system like Eisenhower did the interstate highway system. Estimates of the cost of the interstate highway system in 2006 dollars are around $500 billion, but the overall net effect for the country was positive. Also keeping in mind that without the interstate highway system the cost was merely a less efficient distribution system. With global warming the costs are substantially higher. Figure restructuring the entire energy system might be around $2-3 trillion over 10 years. By providing very cheap capital directly from the treasury to "energy groups" (likely utilities) which would be responsible for the build out and operation could bring the cost of wind and geothermal down into the natural gas range and solar into the coal range. Combined with intelligent nuclear development we could minimize emissions. Republicans would have to lose their majority in the house for anything like that to happen though so earliest would be 2014.

      Big problem there is would have to make sure the initial policy is done without lobbying influence.

      Of interest to read on the economics side:


      Both of these indicate global losses, though to your point the Climate change is much worse.

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