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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.

  • Jan 16 2013: There certainly is an energy problem, and our "solutions" so far are rather inadequate, and not well thought out. It seems quite true that a moderate level of "civilisation" depends strongly on cheap energy, and translates into money directly,
    As to systemic problems, that;s for sure. The fairly obvious answer to the world baseload energy problem was invented and demonstrated 50 years ago, then forgotten about. So much for the "Informatiion Age'. I'm referring to the OTHER type of nuclear fission power plant, developed as an aircraft engine project for the Air Force in the Cold War.. See Thorium Liquid Fueled reactor, Youtube, Kirk Sorensen , for details, if anyone is interested.
    • Jan 17 2013: Thanks, Shawn, for the pointer to thorium liquid fueled reactors. Really exciting to me. I had not known about that technology.

      I'm working on an open letter to a group of climate scientists who wrote to the President urging him to continue rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline (see blog). That request is all well and good, but I think, climate scientists, and others need to focus on getting alternative energy such as thorium-based fission into the news and public consciousness. All I see in the press and in popular anti-global warming movements is push back on fossil fuels but little push forward on what we can do technologically to get out of this mess. (This could partially be because of my own ignorance of what everyone is up to or due to bias of the press, I don't know. But I'll happily make a fool of myself in trying to push for technological solutions.)

      Given that the Obama administration has signaled that "climate change" is one of its top 5 priorities for its second term, we need to ratchet up the pressure somehow. I see that someone created a White House petition for thorium-based fission (and even renewed it last June). Certainly that could be resurrected once again, but perhaps also with a focus on nationalization of the electric grid and utilities, and preceded with a push to get some groups with big mailing lists on board _before_ opening the petition. Other avenues include the open letter I mentioned.
    • Jan 17 2013: A further note on thorium. It's going to take me quite some time to sort out this area. Studies such as the one from MIT ( or the pointers to the failures of India's program are cited by detractors as showing LFTR is not a good investment. It's frustrating to read, though, because, 1) I can't find a head-to-head debate on LFTR's pro's and cons (just repeated claims that thorium makes a lousy replacement fuel for current reactor technology, which appears to not be what advocates are advocating), and 2) all the vitriol from both advocates and detractors.

      Is there any sober discussion out there between detractors and advocates (for us poor folk who don't have enough background to come to our own conclusion)?
      • Jan 21 2013: stephen: Thanks for asking. Much of the anti-Thorium effort seems to be based on merely not being familiar with the whole ORNL Liquid Fueled nuclear aircraft engine effort, combined with a lack of knowledge about Alvin Weinberg and Eugene Wigner. Also, seriously misleading is the fact that the Indians, although they are certainly interested in Thorium , are trying to use it as a cheap substitute for Uranium, in LWR solid fuel reactors, which is of course also scheduled to run out in time, and is clearly not cheap., as well as having the usual problems. Also I believe they want bombs, unofficially, of course. Good wbsite FYI is , with a forum. Sorry if this is somewhat garbled; the "edit" button doens't show the whole paragraph.
        For an excellent account of the whole energy scene, try "Thorium: Energy Cheaper than Coal". by Robert Hargraves. For some more detailed diffculties with it, see website , which seems to try to be fair about it, , and feel that LFTRs are are the best bet, though they are not as optimistic as Weinberg and Wigner (the inventors). has some interesting video interviews with surviving engineers from the ORNL projects, who believed that all the supposed difficulties would not be show-stoppers. This site also has a an ongoing forum , which one can view or oin, for serious questions.
        • Jan 22 2013: Thanks Shawn. Much appreciated. If you get a chance, please post those two links. Somehow they didn't show up in your post.
  • Jan 15 2013: Thanks for the pointers to those articles. I will read those.

    As for “without lobbying influence,” man, is that a tough one. Here in California, I don’t think state regulators even write laws anymore. They simply get behind this-or-that lobby-written legislation.

    The idea about Eisenhower and the interstate highway system is another good one (and instructive). It’s another idea I can add to my own thinking.

    (A side note: I remember when many Republicans were quite concerned about the environment and were responsible for important legislation in that area both nationally and at the state level--my, how times have changed.)

    I was aware of the funding for liquid metal batteries (including the funding from Bill Gates). For me, the petition represents my frustration with the national dialog. I mean, for goodness sake, the only national news show to cover liquid metal batteries so far (i.e., last time I looked) is the Colbert Report—a fake news show!
    I’m also hoping to influence the work of organizations such as to add pushing for new technologies (such as liquid metal batteries) to their political strategy. Of course, I may not get anywhere with this, but I am learning valuable lessons; e.g., getting random people on the street to even talk about global warming (let alone sign a petition) is like pulling teeth.
    • Jan 15 2013: what is your background?
      • Jan 15 2013: I spent many years in software engineering and a few years before that as a technical writer. I have no background related to this discussion (other than being keenly interested and concerned).
        • Jan 15 2013: so I can give you a bit of a shortcut on getting up to speed. Three main areas:

          1) Conservation/efficiency
          2) Transmission
          3) Generation

          Storage is a secondary area with its main effect being on solar and wind intermittancy and somewhat on generation demand offsetting. Important but not primary.

          On 1 this is mainly smart grids and building efficiency software which should be easy for you. This area is a short term solution given that our financial markets are driven by growth and maximizing it. Over mid to long term effect is likely negligible but it is a good bridge focus area.

          On 2 think about it similar to a network backbone only a lot older with server farms in the middle of nowhere that do not have enough bandwidth to be used fully. Most grids globally cannot handle current demand let alone the next 2 decades of growth in population density which has a compound effect on demand (every extra person needs a home, a workplace, and more retail services). NYC alone will have to spend ~$25 billion to keep up with current demand from ex-urban power sources.

          On 3 more than 90% of all new installations since 2000 have been Natural Gas. Natural Gas creams everything else due to its power density and flexibility (can be installed at 25MW in a trailer size turbine - 500MW in a central facility), NG is about the same as coal on GHG emissions when you look at the full life-cycle especially the well head leakage which is methane and about 75 times more powerful at heat retention than carbon.

          The way to think about the confluence of all this in its simplest form, which assumes avoiding as much transmission investment as possible, is in terms of urban electricity consumption intensity (avg. US annual ~ 60 kWh per m^2) vs. electricity production intensity. If a gen tech has high production intensity it is better and more competitive. On policy you need to fold in population trends and urban population density growth to see what is needed over the mid-term.
      • Jan 15 2013: Thanks for the shortcut, Rob. Much appreciated.
      • Jan 16 2013: Rob: Good points. But Gas means carbon pollution, and other problems. Have you heard about the Thorium Liquid Fuelled nuclear reactor? IIt was invented and demonstrated 50 years ago as an aircraft engine. Its Energy Density simply blows away all competition. Its failsafe, cheap , and "Greener" than anything other than Hydropower. Solves the transmission problem too, since it is scalable, and doesn't require pressure vessels, water, steam , etc. Fuel is laughably cheap.
        • Jan 16 2013: Would say gas means carbon and methane pollution, so a bit of a double whammy though its carbon emissions are about 1/2 of coal. LFTR's seem to hold out promise but to the point as long as we are dropping $20-30 mil on multiple non-solutions then no one is going to dump in the billions needed to get LFTR tech up and running. Estimates I have seen are that it is roughly 30 years out.

          seems to me we need a rational bridge/near, mid, and long term policy of which multiple fusion, fission, and other energy dense technologies are all in the hopper.
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    Jan 8 2013: Like John, I too have abit of an issue with the following sentence...

    "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"

    Oil receives around x6 times the amount in subsidies, despite such industries being some of the most profitable in the world, if not THE most profitable.
    Ontop of that, half of the subsidies for renewable research are tax subsidies, not actual spending.

    Its also important to note that it was the oil industry that went out of its way to get rid of electric cars, which were fairly common 100 years ago and they ultimately had a range as far as the electric cars we have now.

    The research needs heavy investment to make up for all that lost time.
    Only then we will see real results.
    • Jan 8 2013: Oil has nothing to do with electricity generation except in Hawaii and a couple old generators here and there in cities around the US. Oil is for home heating and cars. Coal and NG get less than 1/2 a cent per kWh.

      If you throw electric cars into the mix then wind and solar become even less attractive in terms of their ability to supply a significant % of consumption although there are some interesting studies in using the cars' fuel cells as a distributed storage microgrid.

      Agree research needs heavy investment which begs the question why is 90% of our money going to subsidies (not R&D) for technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal which are all mature and well into the diminishing returns portion of their cost reduction curves, eg exponential decline.
    • Jan 8 2013: Xavier,

      Just as a note it would be useful for you to have a look at the Annual Energy Outlook 2013

      and have a look at where most of our generation is projected to come from - Natural Gas. the EIA has fairly sophisticated models and solar is not even a blip by 2030. Over 90% of all generation installed in the last decade is natural gas.
  • Jan 21 2013: To stephen williams: this thread is kind of hard to handle. All I wanted to do was edit my reply to you.
  • Jan 21 2013: Sorry about the garble. Websites, which didn't print, are "" or org. and "" or org.
  • Jan 21 2013: stephen: I had a lot of trouble with listing websites, and the "edit" button. Sites: " or org." and "" You can ask me directly if you want, if this doesn't work.
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    Jan 21 2013: I hate to be the resident pragmatist, that seems to annoy people, but....
    Shawn has hit the nail on the head. Civilization's life blood is a reliable source of very cheap energy.
    A local newspaper describes a new home built in the Texas. Powered by a wind generator and solar panels with battery backup, this home is completely off the grid and has over 150 A of power to energize a modern home. Most of us are not this fortunate.
    Big population areas require big energy producers/suppliers which are big private industries looking for sustainable profits or big government entities looking for tax dollars. So, it seems to be about the cost per wKh and fossil fuel seems to lock that cost.
    In the beginning, the big energy supplies came from dams and coal fired generators. Soon enough we had smoke and downstream water problems. Rivers to dam, places to put coal plants were few and far between so a large transmission grid was built to get energy from here to there. In the 60s the problem of pollution etc, came into public view. Renewable and non polluting energy sources were needed. Nuclear, solar, wind, wave action, the list of ideas and theories go on. Nuclear energy met the cost per wKh but since the ending of WW 2, people have developed atomic phobia. Getting nuclear anything done today is not even discussed in most parts of the world. Billions of dollars have been spent on new technology that for the most part was not well thought out. Most "renewable" sources are not constant and continuing.
    Our power grid is highly inefficient and failing due to old age. Sustainment costs are going out of sight. In Texas, with 300 days of sunshine, supplement solar panels are relieving some pressure on fossil generators, not sure if solar is viable in Seattle with 300 days of rain a year. Maybe the use of small fuel cell generators in local applications is the future of energy sources. There are no grids and no generator plants. But, use natural gas. Fracking?
    • Jan 22 2013: you have a very good understanding of the space. take it you must be in energy. I would add a couple of notes.

      NG is dominant with or without fracking mainly due to the transmission situation you mentioned.

      Solar rooftop cannot supply sufficient power within the population centers (even the southern ones) to really move the needle.

      Fuel cells are super expensive for generation when you look at the unsubsidized cost. a nice cheap fuel cell would definitely do the trick. of course that is mainly a natural gas fueled tech so am not sure what the end difference between a combined cycle and a fuel cell supply would be given that neither really solves the environmental problems Sadowy was speaking to.

      the atomic phobia is really a sticking point but I would note there that unless the reactors are small and very safe nuclear has the same issue as coal, wind, and solar, transmission from ex-urban locations.
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        Jan 22 2013: Hi Rob,
        I was in charge of a small city Utility Division a number of years ago. Our division was responsible for water, gas, electricity, sewer and waste management. I was very fortunate to have highly skilled subordinates handling their areas and they were able to give first class service to our city under budget, year after year. My job was to clear the path for them to excel .
        You would probably not believe the hysterical, fanatical accusations I had to face. Fluoridation of water was a communist plot to take over our country, Garbage dumps where generating methane to cause global warming and killing polar bears. You get the drift. Electrical energy was our biggest utility. We had coal fired generators and a gas turbine we brought online for peak demands. I look at all the options, having to consider what the city could possibly afford. Coal was cheap, but the EPA was looming. Nuclear, forget it. Gas seemed to be the best bet, but the cost of reconversion was just short of the national debt.
        So, as my grandson tells me, " When they get di-lithium crystals to work in our space ships and hand phasers, these problems will go away." It scares me that he may be right.
        • Jan 22 2013: dealing with that must have

          nothing better than having been in the trenches to inform an opinion. was wondering. very few people outside utilities get the basic landscape and almost no one in clean tech. willful blindness. you probably get it a lot better than I do.

          landfills to kill polar bears. that has to be one of the better ones I have heard.

          unfortunately if we keep sticking to the current paths and do not expand our solution space your grandson is likely not far off the mark. there is always the chance of an outlier though. fingers crossed.
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    Jan 15 2013: no doubt, mr sadoway engaged in some hyperbole about how good that technology is. if you read the comments of the talk, you find references to some existing battery technology that can provide not much worse economic efficiency. i mean, good work and all, but the real breakthrough is still ahead us, sadly.
    • Jan 17 2013: Science could use a few more good sales people like Mr. Sadoway. :-) As for the "real" solution, unless you know what that is and when we can use it, I think we need to move now. We must get the public to understand the true cost of burning fossil fuel (i.e., famine, floods, hurricanes, drought, loss of continental coasts, disappearance of entire island nations, and so on). Perhaps then the cost of moving to alternatives will be more palatable, particularly if we insulate the markets from those costs through, for example, nationalization of the electrical grid and utilities. I don't care what technology is used (that's for people more knowledgeable than I to determine), but somehow we've got to get the true cost of fossil fuels brought into the discussion when debating alternative energies. (On this score, I am quite excited about Thorium Liquid Fueled reactor technology that Shawn mentions. I had not known about that until he made his post.)
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        Jan 18 2013: Come on Kriz, What's the real break through?

        I see Laser tech being investigated and exotic material creation but what's that one mover that could get us in another acceleration curve. That's what i'm waiting for but i fear i might be dead by that time.

        I keep wondering if we are in the early 20th century fad where radioactive substances were sold as elixirs of life, i know this sounds strange but we haven't exactly evolved have we?
  • Jan 15 2013: overstated on Republicans if there are any real ones left. just need to dump the Tea Party.

    given your points earlier about size of economic impact (and the essential destruction of developing world consumer market growth and thereby exports, both here, EU and China) I cannot wrap my head around their backers not wanting to hedge climate change as they do their market investments. strange. the way I would look at it as simply as 50/50 risk of real estate asset loss with 6 ft rise in sea level and assuming avg. 16 ft storm surge on the coasts given that most assets are on the shore. that is something they would gladly hedge if it were anything else.

    i know the lobbying is a tough one but I can give you an example why it would have to be excluded (which may argue for this waiting until something truly disastrous happens so that the action is swift and clean). In California the SF VC's went very heavily into solar early in the last decade. None of the promises panned out and those investments were all at risk. VC's and the companies they backed lobbied heavily for net-metering (so they do not need batteries) and subsidization from the state (and the feds). So where I live in MA same thing and until recently here solar existed in a complete bubble where a solar REC was worth a minimum of $.28 per kWh while wind geothermal etc all were traded at less than $.02. They took the minimum guarantee off and it is already causing problems here.

    The problem with this is if you look at where solar investment, government and private, dollars have gone ever since that bubble got set up by the lobbyists they have gone to very small incremental technologies that would reduce fab cost by 20% or have an efficiency improvement of 2%. The bubble pretty much guarantees that the VC's can make their money back even if the tech does not pan out. So innovation in solar has slowed to a snails pace with nothing addressing solar's issues.

    imagine that over the whole system.
    • Jan 15 2013: As for Republicans, I’m afraid they’re going to gerrymander moderate, rational Republican candidates out of the picture altogether (via primary fights and fixed House seats).

      I agree with you about excluding lobbyists, I was just sort of gasping at the difficulty of it in today’s politics.

      Your discussion of VCs and solar is very interesting to me. If you have a pointer to this background info, please share it. (Again, I find myself with more time recently, and I’d like to come up to speed. I can’t think of a more interesting/important area to get involved in and learn about than global warming and what to do about it technologically and politically.)
      • Jan 15 2013: No primer on VC's and solar. Based on my observations, dealings, and talking to some high-school buddies who do lobbying in CA and watched the solar lobby go into high gear a while back when the time horizon on the investments started to get a little long in the tooth. It is not just solar. They do it on wind, fuel cells, geothermal, broadband, etc..

        What is interesting to do is to go to the open secrets database and look up RE or VC companies.

        In the normal course of events nothing wrong with it except that it hinders advance. in this area I think it is playing with fire and I think Obama and Chu made a big mistake continuing this "private-government" partnership and relying on the private sector to produce innovation instead of a big government push per Mahattan Project or Apollo. Do not know about your experience but private sector in my experience does not innovate well unless someone else is footing the bill and controlling the direction. DoD and NASA innovate well.

        it is how the system works so c'est la vie. my only point is if you are going to de-privatize or do a "interstate energy act" in the first stages such an action would have to be divorced from private or single issue interests to the greatest degree possible so the solutions, planning, and policy elements that lay out the roadmap are based on fixing things vs. tossing bones to the dogs. I would include banning environmentalist lobbies in that as well not just private industry.

        never going to happen without a big disaster anyway and what is far more likely is death by a thousand cuts. 20 kids get shot and we cannot even bring an assault weapon ban to the floor let alone get it passed. Not sure what happened to us. We used to be good at getting things done when they really needed to get done.

        good that you are focusing your attentions on this area. if I were you I would also read V. Smil's papers.
  • 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 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.
  • Jan 14 2013: Rob, if the technology is not the answer to storage for renewables, what about other factors such as grid support and as a local UPS?
    • Jan 14 2013: sure. he and his investors can build a business out of it I would think although I would like to see the models on which he is basing his estimates.

      On grid storage ostensibly it would depend on where it is deployed and whether there was some overall savings on spinning reserve and peaking power.

      I actually may have not been as precise as I could have been. Was not saying it was not a viable business or would not be useful once the underlying generation issue is solved (or in the cases you mention). In either case though without the underlying issue being solved it does not seem to be of the importance Sadowy highlights.

      I was mainly trying to point out that this seems to me to be symptomatic of a misalignment in policy, discussion, and resources relative to the primary objective. I assumed as the primary objective - a substantial reduction in GHG emissions and preferably a low-cost or cost-neutral method to do so, avoiding any significant economic impacts that a substantial increase in the cost of energy would cause.

      Given those parameters the current investment and policy focus on solar, battery storage, and building management software (together these probably make up 90% of current "innovation" investment) seems a bit like the old "Nero's fiddle" approach. Reducing the cost of battery storage from $250 to $80 per kWh has a significant impact on how low state of the art solar and wind have to go to be viable. With Sadowy's technology instead of being 20% of fossil cost now these technologies would only have to be 50-60% of fossil. Of course the likelihood of any of the current techs getting there is extremely low and even if they did there would still be massive transmission costs (which to your point could be lessened by 25%? with a cheap grid storage).

      Given all that Sadowy's tech should fall into a "support tech" bucket that should make up maybe 20%? of policy driven investment. Cannot see any evidence though of any bucketed policy.
  • Jan 11 2013: I can't see how an analysis can be "rigorous" without accounting for the enormous cost of fossil fuels that are pushed out into the future (e.g., the disappearance of entire island nations, famine, increased "natural" disasters, etc. caused by man-made global warming via burning fossil fuels). Fossil fuel is phenomenally expensive. It may be too late to turn global warming around, but that doesn't make the true cost of fossil fuels any cheaper. I would very much like to see a full-blown rigorous exploration of the issues raised, but that's no simple matter.
    • Jan 11 2013: one of the reasons we are in the position we are in with fossil fuels is the lack of rigor applied to analyzing the potential of renewable technologies over the last 20 years. we have frittered away time and money for no result. technology after technology after technology has failed to displace fossil generation. Promise after promise after promise has turned out to be false hope. Meanwhile we continue to throw capital at technologies like this that are second tier techs without having solved the core generation issues

      This talk is a perfect example. Solar and wind are already expensive and uncompetitive and now to get them to run like baseload we are going to double their cost and that is a solution? One could argue that is because the full cost of fossil is not folded into its price but one must accept the reality that doing so to make substandard renewable techs viable would have a large scale economic impact. better to try and build something useful in the first place.

      by wasting time with techs that do not move the needle we are insuring the the full cost of fossil is exactly what we are going to have to pay.
      • Jan 11 2013: UPDATE: Rob, I realized later today that I misread your post. My apologies. I read it to fast. I deleted my initial response/rant from this spot.

        I agree, we have a systemic problem. We need a comprehensive strategy that takes into account realistic estimates of how fossil fuels (and even biomass renewables) can be replaced with a combination of alternative energy sources (both old and new technology), efficiency, conservation, change of lifestyle, etc. But, given the limitations of alternative energy sources as we know them today, the future looks bleak, and human beings are unlikely to give up their perceived standard of living any time soon.

        However, I wish cost were much less of an issue. Then the "missing link" technology might be viable. We can do amazing things (at tremendous expense) when we deem it important enough (particularly war and defense), but, collectively, we still don't take global warming very seriously (as when the true cost of burning fuels isn't considered part of the price).
        • Jan 12 2013: Unfortunately humans are not exactly known for their long range thinking or more precisely guiding their short-term behavior based on long-term probability. If, to your point, asset loss from sea level rise alone could exceed $44 trillion one would think investing even $5-10 trillion over the next ten years would be worth it, but until it is right in our face getting anything done in today's environment is unlikely.

          So that would beg the question what should we be looking for from renewables or other areas to help guide our policy? And secondarily what development strategy should we apply?

          Seems there are two basic dev options:

          1) Butterfly theory approach - problematic with the current structure. as long as 90% of the gov's budgeted dollars are going into subsidies rather than R&D (Solyndra alone got more than ARPA-e has given out in R&D grants) the spray the bushes approach is unlikely to produce solution/s.

          2) Probabilistic analytic approach - One would expect this is the route they are already on but from where government R&D dollars have been spent in the last decade and given the DOE's primary initiatives there is very little evidence that this is guiding policy.

          There is an additional problem with subsidized flaws in policy. There is a compound effect as long as the technologies are not only R&D funded, but also subsidized. This essentially is why when I saw the talk I decided to pop up this debate. Subsidization basically only really insures that both private and public dollars are spent in the same areas regardless of the effectiveness of the area. Rather than helping generate solutions subsidies contract the fundable solution space and insure that the rate of innovation outside of given areas will be restrained. If you pick the wrong areas initially you have an enormous opportunity cost and make it difficult to pivot or expand the space.

          Since the subsidies are not going away any time soon option 2 seems like the only option. Thoughts?
        • Jan 12 2013: "and human beings are unlikely to give up their perceived standard of living any time soon"

          that really does sum it up.

          we are definitely looking like the Dodos from Ice Age at the moment.
        • Jan 15 2013: Stephen, had a think about it and it seems to me that one of the major challenges on your "wish" list is how to get a marketplace to fold in externalities that are long-term and which nothing in the market's initial or current integration with society was set up to accommodate.

          what I mean by that is the global economy is inextricably tied to the price of electricity and I cannot see a mechanism where that price can rise without negative effects. ostensibly that is what subsidies are but I think underpinning value premise is that the subsidized supply must eventually become cheaper (thereby creating growth) than the existing supply you desire to replace or your economy ends up with the negative effects down the road anyway.

          would be interested to know if there is a corollary in other areas for incorporating such externalities. one simple way to do it would be to make power generation temporarily (say for three or four decades) a public service which would then at least give you back the margin and stock/dividend/corp portion to partially reduce the economic impact of all the new equipment. not sure how far that gets you though.

          cannot see any other way to get it done within the current financial/market structure. could be my vision is limited. hate to even think this, but could this be a useful application for derivatives?
  • Jan 9 2013: For those coming into this debate and those already in, just wanted to say that the purpose of the debate was to point out that, while this is a cool technology and storage cost reduction is great, given the level of subsides renewables already require and the amount and expense of storage needed to run as fossil, there is a very wide gap between Sadowy's "promotion" of his idea and the impact it could have in reality on Sadowy's stated goal. The impact is minimal.

    This is a bit systemic in clean energy. Big claims, big ideas, middling results and little effect on the landscape mainly due to the fact that there is little or no rigor in judging clean energy technologies ability to solve the problems we face when applied to reality vs the bubble of the investment world.

    Renewables supply less than 1% of global energy consumed. Even if that figure was 10 or 20% the other 80+% is coming from fossil so what exactly is being solved? It should be clear that if the low impact of renewables is already a problem that loading more cost into it is just going to make it worse not better.

    Sadowy's and most other clean energy techs I have seen are nibbling around the edges of the problem but are not even close to providing solutions for the problems mainly because they and their investors have ignored the bigger picture in favor of short to mid-term personal profit or satisfaction. The central issue is a cheap clean generation technology. storage is largely a second phase symbiote if you want to knock out more than 20% of fossil use, not the core tech to do it.

    Clean tech investors have been egged on by the government and their ability to use lobbying to provide protection for their investments through subsidization which hinders and sucks resource away from innovation and new r&d and because of this we are now into a phase where severe climate change is unavoidable and there is still no light at the end of the tunnel or any shift to stop wasting more time.
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    Jan 8 2013: Can you clarify something for me? Hasn't it already been proven that the energy demands for the united states can be met using a combination of the renewable energy sources that we already have?
    • Jan 8 2013: If you count the technical resources as proven and ignore where the resource is then sure. Transmission investment to get that resource to the cities nationally is well over $100 billion. That does not deal with intermittancy which will destabilize the grid if solar and wind go over 20% of supply.
  • Jan 8 2013: "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."

    Actually solar is well on its way to become an affordable alternative (especially in warmer regions) and of course you do realize fossil fuels are also subsidized and mask part of their cost by externalizing them to the taxpayer. In any case it's only a matter of time before a solar panel from the 1970s produces cheaper power than fossil fuels since fossil fuels are finite. The big "missing links" of energy will be a new generation of mass produced solar panels enhanced with nano-technology, and nuclear fusion, that too is just a matter of time.
    • Jan 8 2013: John,

      Kind of figured this would be the first response.

      For your first point, solar has approached retail grid parity in Hawaii which has the most expensive cost per kWh on earth at an avg. of $.25 per kWh. Avg. US retail grid cost is $.12 per kWh (EU ~$.2) which is 1/2 solar's cost. Add another 5 cents to solar's cost with this storage and even in Hawaii it is not competitive especially when you figure that the solar output and storage will only return 90% of the original energy produced increasing cost per kWh. This all assumes that the recent reduction in solar cost was due to technology. The recent decline in solar costs is mainly due to market competition for share between Trina solar and First Solar primarily. Same thing happened in wind back in 2000 when the installed cost per KW dropped to $1,200 due to share competition. It is now back up $1,800 per KW.

      On your second point, coal and NG receive ~$.005 per kWh in subsidies. Solar receives more than $.15 per kWh and wind receives more than $.05 once you fold in REC trading, Federal ITC/PTC, and State subsidies. Additionally there is the cost of net metering which is almost never figured into the subsidized figure. Net metering is how the cost of storage is avoided for solar.

      The main issue with solar is not even cost. Cost was the issue I focused on above given the tack Sadowy took on his "missing link" logic. The main issue with solar is supply capacity which defines how much energy a generation tech can supply in a given location. Problem with renewables is the location of the resource, the middle of nowhere, which means you need a lot of transmission to get the energy to the cities where it is consumed. In LA, one of the best solar resources, in-city solar can supply
    • Jan 8 2013: sorry end got cut off

      solar can supply less than 5% of LA's annual consumption. If you build it out in the desert then pretty massive transmission investment (~$4-6 billion) is necessary to get the energy to LA
      • Jan 8 2013: "solar can supply less than 5% of LA's annual consumption. If you build it out in the desert then pretty massive transmission investment (~$4-6 billion) is necessary to get the energy to LA"

        While transporting oil, coal and natural gas to LA doesn't cost a dime... Btw, I sincerely doubt that covering LA's roofs and skyscrapers with solar panels would only provide 5% of that city's power consumption (though it's true American cities waste power on a colossal scale compared to their European counterparts).

        "If you count the technical resources as proven and ignore where the resource is then sure. Transmission investment to get that resource to the cities nationally is well over $100 billion."

        The Iraq War alone cost over $1 trillion, and that's just part of the total money being spend to keep the fossil fuels flowing...

        "For your first point, solar has approached retail grid parity in Hawaii which has the most expensive cost per kWh on earth at an avg. of $.25 per kWh."

        That's strange, the Netherlands has recently achieved grid parity with a price of EU 0.23 per kWh for fossil fueled power (that's defo more than $0.25) and that's without subisides on the solar panels and without Hawaii's tropical climate and also without accounting for the cost of fossil fuel subsidies and externalities (Dutch troops were in Iraq).

        The reason you don't see solar pop up in greater quantities then it is doing now is that the only parties who have the available funds to affect change invest their money in more lucrative sectors such as pharmaceuticals and the financial sector, if petroleum were discovered today those same people wouldn't invest much in a petroleum infrastructure either. Nevertheless the Chinese government believes solar power will pay off big time in the long run and they're hardly bleeding heart environmentalists.
        • Jan 8 2013: that transport cost is already baked into coal and NG levelized cost of energy. Oil is not a generation fuel in the current system. beside the direct transport cost on the solar transmission line would be its annual maintenance cost, not its initial capital cost which is the figure I was quoting.

          if you bake in the transmission investment and the necessary storage to supply LA as baseload with solar, it's cost would go well over $.5 per kWh roughly 1000% higher than the cost of natural gas. Coal is over in terms of new installations unless they ban fracking (and yes I do not think fracking is a good idea but for now it is a reality) so it is only a conversation item with regard to retail grid cost.

          Let me posit something to you. Suppose I do this for a living and suppose I have done some fairly in depth studies of these issues and what I am saying is a fair but not perfect representation of the situation (there are complexities which will never be captured in this type of discussion). Have a look at what Edenhoffer, the co-chair of the IPCC SRREN report, says matters - Carbon Capture Technologies and Biomass.

          Do you still think that we should be subsidizing an even more expensive form of solar?

          Don't you think that maybe we should be a bit more rigorous in our policy decision?

          Maybe some of the billions of solar investment and subsidization should have gone into developing a cheap technology to scrub Natural Gas exhausts or better well caps to reduce methane leakage, no?

          Not saying kill solar, but when %80 of private investment in generation techs goes into the worst renewable, solar, because solar has been insulated through lobbying by its initial investors - Goldman Sachs, etc. - to get their 10x ROI, I think that is a pretty dangerous state of affairs for us and our kids.
        • Jan 8 2013: sorry missed the second two

          on the first once again oil is not a generation fuel so the war has nothing to with Coal and NG which are both from the good old US of A. compressed NG is actually starting to approach gasoline costs so....that said we should have subsidized ethanol to the EU and China at $2 a gallon and cut the economic underpinnings out from under the middle east (we only get 8% of our oil from the ME) instead of going to war.

          on the third item

          that is the peaking price not the average I believe.

          Subsidization of solar in EU is pretty heavy due to the really bad resources. Also their average grid price is higher than ours given their lack of natural resources and their peaking price is off-the charts. not sure what hawaii's peaking price is but given they import everything they generate with it has to be higher than EU.

          as noted issue is not as much price as ability to supply. In holland the rate of supply would be more like
        • Jan 8 2013: "The reason you don't see solar pop up in greater quantities then it is doing now is that the only parties who have the available funds to affect change invest their money in more lucrative sectors such as pharmaceuticals and the financial sector, if petroleum were discovered today those same people wouldn't invest much in a petroleum infrastructure either. Nevertheless the Chinese government believes solar power will pay off big time in the long run and they're hardly bleeding heart environmentalists."

          not to be an ass but this is just naive. the same "financial sector" people invested in pharma are the same people invested in solar and in case you did not notice who underwrote SolarCity and SunRun, it was BOA, Goldman, Blackrock (i think), etc. Those "financial sector" people are the only reason solar is still around. If they were not sunk into solar it would have died a well deserved death about 6 or 7 years ago. And the Chinese gov? Come on. I was in shanghai 4 months ago and drove from there to Hangzhou and did not see a single solar panel. they are competing for our subsidies. not exactly a huge surprise but given the debt situation it is a bit of a circle.....
        • Jan 9 2013: " Btw, I sincerely doubt that covering LA's roofs and skyscrapers with solar panels would only provide 5% of that city's power consumption (though it's true American cities waste power on a colossal scale compared to their European counterparts)."

          If you covered every square meter of rooftop in LA you could offset about 15-20% of direct building load. That is roughly 70% go the total load associate with the buildings. Generous studies indicate that LA's deployable rooftop is 17%. Easiest way to look at this is - average building height in la is four stories. So for every meter of rooftop you have 5 meters of consumption. 1 m^2 of floor area is about equal to what 1 m^2 of rooftop panel can produce. So..

          Solar contribution = (annual solar production per m^2 x .17) /( (annual consumption per m^2 x building stack m^2 )/.7 ) = (1 x .17) / (5 / .7) = 2%

          NY is less than 1% given higher population density and poor quality of resource

          Actually eu city power consumption correlates to population density just about the same as their us counterparts.
    • Jan 8 2013: by the way totally agree with you on nano-tech and nuclear fusion. I would add small modular non-crtical (cannot melt down) nuclear fission to that list. Apart from the National Ignition Facility, these technologies have gotten a fraction of solar investment and subsidization despite their much greater promise of actually solving the problems.
      • Jan 8 2013: Nuclear fusion projects are funded internationally (including by the US) and take up billions, the NIF is an American project that's not very promising. ITER is a more promising ($15 billion) international project. However nuclear fusion is still decades away from being commercially available, solar power will compete with fossil fuels in most countries long before then and it's expected that ITER will teach us all we need to know about nuclear fusion, building 15 more test reactors won't really accelerate the research. Note that nuclear fusion research too has been the domain of governments, the private sector is simply not interested in investing so much in projects that might pay off 30 years later, they'd let the world go to waste before compromising on their short term profits.
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          Jan 8 2013: Can either of you post some references that I could use to understand what you are talking about?
        • Jan 9 2013: What stuff do you need help with? Would be good to know specifically so I can give you appropriate references.
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          Jan 9 2013: Thanks for responding but patience isn't one of my virtues, I've been using google to comb through the comments so far, ill probably have something to add to the discussion in a few days.
        • Jan 9 2013: As a start

          V. Smil has a primer on power density and renewables. This is his papers page.

          Energy information admin EIA is always good if you don't want to dig into their modeling the annual energy outlook just gives a clearer idea of how daunting the next 20 years are and the dominance of natural gas

          More sophisticated stuff is stuff like PIK ADAM project that is quite in depth.