Australian solar and geothermal cheaper than coal and nuclear within 15 years

According this this analysis, from New Energy World Network, within 15 years the cost of concentrating solar power will be less than the cost of “clean” coal, at least in Australia. The analysis is based on the rates of change in cost between the two energy sources. With the cost of coal increasing, relatively, and CSP decreasing, the cost lines eventually cross, leaving CSP cheaper.

In addition, the article mentions offhandedly that connecting the Queensland and South Australian electricity grids would “likely pay for itself quickly just in increased efficiencies brought to the existing grid.”

The average Australian household could pay up to 30 per cent more per year by 2025 for electricity generated from coal and nuclear power than from concentrating solar and hot dry rock geothermal power, according to clean energy organisation DESERTEC-Australia.

This idea illustrates the kind of synergies that we need to find throughout the energy economy.

Link

(H/T to Benjamin Chambers for the link to the article.)

No Manhattan Project, But Don’t Say No To Breakthrough Innovations

a polar bear and her baby
The polar bears say "keep the innovations coming - it's getting warm out here!" (image by Just Being Myself, CC 2.0 licensed)

While I agree with Joseph Romm on Climate Progress that we can’t count on a “Manhattan Project”-style endeavour to engineer our way out of the climate crisis in the short term, nonetheless, I think it’s reasonable to have a certain expectation that technology will improve over the right timescale, so we can be ready to take advantage of it.

A few weeks ago Martin Brown had a great post on his Fairsnape blog on Recession Thoughts and Tips. One of his many excellent suggestions was

Stand in the future and observe the industry in 2016/2019 – climate change will not be ‘put on hold’ during the recession – so do you have a route to zero mapped out?

His suggestions apply, of course, not only in a recession, but also if you want to help make big changes happen. In particular, “Standing in the future” is critical for those who are trying to make changes in response to climate change to visualize how things must be (for us to survive) in 2020 or 2030, because only then can we figure out how to get there.

The key challenge for that kind of thing is thinking big enough! Small example: If you’d asked me twenty years ago, or even ten, if it was every going to be possible to watch video on my phone, I’d have said “No, there’s just not going to be enough bandwidth for that to happen. I don’t ever expect that to be something we can do.” Was I ever wrong! And I consider myself open-minded and an outside the box thinker!

It’s very likely that the technologies and practices that get us out of a climate change disaster aren’t invented yet, or at best are in labs somewhere. Those of us – the rest of us – who need to take those inchoate and early ideas and turn them into market realities need a LOT of imagination to forcefully move the world out of its current ruts.

That’s why I often post news about discoveries coming out of labs, or going into the development process. Daniel Nocera’s [intlink id=”162″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]hydrogen reforming[/intlink], and [intlink id=”181″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]nanotechnology breakthroughs[/intlink], or technologies like or based on them, will be changing our lives in the next 10, 20, or fifty years – whether by mitigating carbon, or helping us store or generate renewable energy, or perhaps in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

If there are particular technologies you are watching, let me know in the comments – I’ve love to hear about them.

Code Changes And Incentives Are Critical For Energy Independence

Our municipalities (and eventually the states) could reward people for deciding to build houses to meet the “initial 50% reduction target” of Architecture 2030 or to the Passive House standard.

Clovers at Blarney Castle Garden
Clovers at Blarney Castle

Patricia hit the nail on the head in her last post, No Blarney here! – Turning up the Heat:

Where are the codes and incentives?

Or rather, how do we get people to build and renovate houses to energy efficiency levels that are significantly above code?

The Architecture 2030 website has a great reference on how much beyond code you must build to achieve their interim and final energy efficiency goals. For example, in California’s we have a new 2008 version of the energy efficiency code, usually called “Title 24.” To meet the Architecture 2030 interim goal of buildings that use half as much energy as their conventional peers (the “initial 50% reduction target”), buildings in California need to be 10% more efficient than required by this new building code.

We all want this to happen, of course, and it’s relatively inexpensive to do so. But without incentives, it’s not going to happen. That’s why I’m working on the Menlo Park Climate Action Plan for example – we need the incentives.

And incentives will help. Have you ever wondered why so many Californians have bought Toyota Priuses, despite the fact that they are pretty expensive compared to regular cars, and you don’t save that money at the gas pump? It’s not because Californians are so green – although we are. It’s because there was an amazing incentive. If you bought a Prius or other hybrid, you could get a pass to drive in the carpool lane on California freeways – as a singleton! What does everyone in California really want? To get where they’re going faster! It didn’t cost the state much, and it got a lot of efficient cars on the road quickly. That’s the best kind of incentive.

Our municipalities (and eventually the states) can do the same kind of thing. For example, they could reward people for deciding to build houses to meet the “initial 50% reduction target” of Architecture 2030 by:

  • Expediting the building permit for free
  • Waiving some fees
  • Promising quick turnaround on inspections
  • Providing an automatic bump of 2% in their FAR requirements as a variance (floor area ratio – or how much of the lot can be covered by a house)
  • Bonding the builder’s house guarantee
  • Accepting Passive House PHPP modeling software results for certification
  • Providing a tax break for houses that are Passive House certified

Those are just some of the options that municipalities have. Even just stating, in their climate action plans for example, that they have a goal of meeting the Architecture 2030 targets, or supporting the building of Passive Houses, would go a long way.

People want to do the right thing. They’re even willing to pay extra to do the right thing. But they often don’t know what the right thing is. And if they don’t have an incentive, they might do the wrong thing, or just something else, with that extra money that they’d be willing to spend. Many people, if they had the right “nudge,” would happily put more insulation in their new house or their remodel, and forgo the most expensive marble countertops. They’ll get the same resale benefit, they’ll save money over the life of the house, they’ll feel better about themselves, and they’ll actually make a significant individual difference in our planet’s future.

Let me know your thoughts, and if you have examples of code changes or municipalities providing incentives for efficiency in buildings, especially significantly surpassing code requirements, I’d love to hear about them.

Introducing New Silicon Valley Passive Homes Website

Silicon Valley From Space
Silicon Valley From Space

Over the weekend I put up what I hope will be an important resource in the goal of achieving 100% zero-net energy homes in California by 2018 – a new website for the Silicon Valley Passive House Coalition.

From the site:

SVPH is helping local municipalities to set challenging but practical goals for maximizing energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction in the local communities of the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California.

In particular, many communities are creating “climate action plans” which include incentives for the use of design options that promote energy efficiency and carbon savings. SVPH promotes including an incentive related to the use of extremely energy-efficient design and building approaches such as super insulation, zero-net energy, and the “Passive House” concept.

Please take a quick look and let me know via the comments what you think about the new baby (both the site and the organization)!

Shiny Rocks May Be Good For Solar Energy

Fools Gold
Fool's Gold (image by Clearly Ambiguous, CC 2.0 licensed)

Interesting note flying around the blogosphere yesterday (see here, here, and here, amongst many websites featuring the news) about a research project done at Berkeley. It found that, based on material cost and availability, solar photovoltaics made with iron pyrites (aka Fool’s Gold) are more likely to solve our energy crisis than PV made with silicon or CIGS thinfilms. This is due to both the cost of the raw materials and their availability – both crystalline silicon and the CIGS precursors are relatively expensive and relatively rare. Iron pyrite and its precursors are among the most common elements on earth, in contrast.

What we’ve found is that some leading thin films may be difficult to scale as high as global electricity consumption… if our objective is to supply the majority of electricity in this way, we must quickly consider alternative materials that are Earth-abundant, non-toxic and cheap. These are the materials that can get us to our goals more rapidly.

The paper noted that PV cells made with iron pyrite are not as efficient as those made with silicon, but here’s where it gets interesting. I did a Google search yesterday to find out just how efficient those iron pyrite solar cells are – and I can’t find them. There are a handful of papers about iron pyrite solar cells, but none that indicate it’s anywhere near being ready to compete even on the low-efficiency end. (E.g., see here, in a paper from 2000.)

So, that may mean I’m just not any good at searching on Google, and be that as it may. The other side of the coin is that this report lines up with what I’ve [intlink id=”119″ type=”post”]been saying since October[/intlink] – it’s not about the efficiency of the cells, it’s about the [intlink id=”194″ type=”post”]price/performance[/intlink]. We have plenty of surface area on which to put solar cells, even if they aren’t very efficient. What we don’t have is lots of extra money to pay for them – so low-efficiency cells that have a good price performance ratio – $1-2/kw or $0.10-0.30/kwh – are what we’re looking for.

(And of course, we need to be a lot more efficient in our energy usage, and be able to store that good sun power we’ve generated.)

In any case, I’m now looking forward to hearing about iron pyrite-based solar cells – if you know of any post-2000 research on this topic, definitely let me know!

How Big Is The Project, Really?

Encina
Toledo tree (image by J. Lozano, CC 2.0 licensed)

According to John Lushetsky, program manager of the U.S., it’s a very big project:

To go from the 1 gigawatt of generation capacity that we have now [in the United States] to the 170 to 200 gigawatts called for by 2030 amounts to a 26 percent compounded annual growth rate over the next 20 years. That’s a higher sustained growth rate than any industry has ever been asked to do before

This was at a presentation Lushetsky gave in Toledo Ohio two weeks ago, as part of a day-long conference on “Empowering Solar Energy in Ohio.”

That 26% growth rate is very high, but there is hope. The semiconductor and IT industries had a similar growth rate over a similar period. In fact, measured using a different metric – price/performance – the semiconductor industry actually grew a lot faster. That’s one reason I like to focus on [intlink id=”189″ type=”post”]price/performance with solar energy[/intlink] – if that metric continually drops, then it’s feasible for alternative energy sources to replace conventional sources. Just as in the IT industry, [intlink id=”66″ type=”post”]the driver for growth in solar is going to be cost parity[/intlink]. That’s why the Google Foundation’s program, for example, is RE < C (“renewable energy costs less than coal“) instead of something like “200 GW by 2030”.

Combining dropping solar power costs with increasing energy efficiency gets you to the goal fastest, of course. Getting efficient is already cheaper than buying energy in a lot of cases. (We need a whole other set of posts to discuss the barriers to getting efficient – it’s cheap, cost-effective, and profitable but still challenging.)

DoE Secretary Steven Chu: We Need Nobel-Level Breakthroughs

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

Yesterday the New York Times published an interview (including some of the original audio) with our new Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Among other comments, he said that to address the climate emergency, we need “Nobel-level breakthroughs” in several key areas – batteries, biofuels, and solar photovoltaics.” As an illustration, he pointed out:

The photovoltaics we have today, … without subsidy, and without even the additional cost of storage, it’s about a factor of five higher than electricity generation by gas or coal. Suppose someone comes along and invents a way of getting … solar photovoltaics at one fifth the cost, so you don’t even think about subsidies anymore. You just slap it everywhere… That, in my opinion, would take something, which I would say, is a bit of a breakthrough.”

There’s no arguing with that idea – if solar PV were five times cheaper, no one would need complicated “payback period” models to justify installing it. (Luckily, we do have those models, and so some people are taking the plunge.)

Of course, this is just the story of how technologies advance – it’s very familiar from the rise of semiconductors. A technology needs an ever-expanding “feedstock” of innovations, discoveries, and breakthroughs to grow at an exponential rate. In semiconductors, the history of technologies such as FET, MOS, CMOS, new clean room techniques, different types of lithography, and many other innovations each offered ever decreasing feature size and lower cost. This parade of innovations combined to ensure that just when one technology was reaching its limit of compactness, another newer and more efficient technology would be there to take its place. When the new one ran out of steam the cycle would repeat. (And several of those innovations resulted in Nobels.)

One example of the “old thinking” on PV is the projections about its availability and cost. Many of these projections assume a linear improvement in price/performance. To help save the world, the price/performance of solar electricity and batteries and efficiency and fuel cells must come down faster than the typical, linear projections – just as it did for semiconductors.

Luckily, despite a current dip in investment and research levels due to the economy, this is happening in the solar photovoltaics domain. [intlink id=”210″ type=”post”]New[/intlink] [intlink id=”218″ type=”post”]discoveries[/intlink], new manufacturing methods, and [intlink id=”66″ type=”post”]new thinking[/intlink] will continue to drive the price down. With luck, Chu’s support from his bully pulpit in the DoE can accelerate this process.

Hat tip to Watthead for turning me on to this interview.

Old Favorites

Chocolate-covered Oreo Cake
Cake for our six month anniversary (image by ginnerobot, CC 2.0 license)

In honor of this blog’s six month anniversary, I’m going to relink to some of my favorite posts from the past:

  • [intlink id=”5″ type=”post”]My first post, on fuel cell and battery innovations[/intlink]
  • [intlink id=”119″ type=”post”]Why I am optimistic about our energy and climate future[/intlink]
  • [intlink id=”126″ type=”post”]Some reasons my optimism is tempered (a follow up to the post above)[/intlink]
  • [intlink id=”329″ type=”post”]My predictions for 2018 (ten years in the future)[/intlink]

Also, as regular readers know, I’ve been presenting a series of posts on zero net energy homes. I’ve recently added a new plug-in for the blog that makes it easy for you to find these series, and I’ve put the link to the series over on the right hand column (and right here).

Avoiding The Cliff Ahead

Uluwatu Temple, Bali (HDR)
A cliff in Bali (image by seanmcgrath, CC 2.0 licensed)

My green building and blogging colleague Barry Katz just had a post about James Howard Kunstler on his The Future Is Green Blog. Kunstler is one of the “dystopians” featured in a  New Yorker article last week. Kunstler is not sanguine about what the future is going to look like for us and our descendants. He thinks that not only is global warming likely to cause a disaster, but so is the current, or an upcoming, financial meltdown. Barry writes:

In his view, anything short of ending our dependence on cars for personal transportation is a doomed enterprise.

In his blog ClusterF**k nation, Kunstler writes:

I’ve been skeptical of the “stimulus” as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable — since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote.

Could the terrible things he predicts happen? In the New Yorker interview he provides as an example and a warning the famous fall of the Roman Empire – the city of Rome itself went from a population of over one million in 100 AD to less than 50,000 in a little over 400 years. And there certainly have been many other similar collapses in history – even in pre-Columbian North America there were multiple population collapses due to resource overuse (and genocide, but that’s another topic).

The difference today – at least we hope – is that we have some Cassandras – Al Gore, Kunstler, the IPCC, me and Barry Katz, among many others – warning us, and we have the means and opportunity to take the warning. The question is, do we have the will to put the pedal to the metal to address the problems? For me, I see that as doing the following, and doing it much faster than anyone is actually predicting is possible today:

  • Immediately stop wasting energy – this means getting our houses and commercial buildings more efficient, both new and existing ones; getting more efficient cars on the road
  • Build out utility scale renewable energy as fast as humanly possible
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy generation (e.g., photovoltaic roof panels and paint, mini-wind turbines, ground source heat pumps) and get them cheap enough to deploy everywhere
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy storage – effective energy storage is one of the key sticking points for my vision of zero net energy homes and for accelerating the decline of traditional power plants
  • Figure out a way, or several ways, to get some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere – reforestation is a start (and can make a significant difference, according to this study)
  • Finally, make structural changes to the rules and incentives of life so people will work closer to where they live, will be able to take public transit in a reasonable way, choose to build highly efficient homes not because its the right thing to do, but because it’s the law, or there are other concrete benefits, and so that businesses will find it’s profitable to save the world – whether it’s through being more efficient themselves, or by helping the rest of us “do the right thing”

I call this blog “Keeping The Lights On” because I am optimistic that we’ll figure out how to have a decent life without CO2, that we’ll figure out how to keep the oceans from rising too much and losing too many species, and that civilization won’t collapse due to a financial crisis in the meantime. There are a lot of hurdles to be leapt to accomplish this, and many of them will be costly – but that means that someone’s going to make some money on them, so there will be incentives. And that’s the other half of the title – “Profitable Applications” – business can drive this transition, for profit. The big challenge is getting business ramped up fast enough to save our butts – I think it can happen, and even with the economy in its current sad state, we’re still seeing hopeful signs.

Well, that’s a couple of pages full of assertion and conjecture – I’d love to hear your thinking on this.

Ten Energy Predictions For The Next Decade

Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1)
Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1, CC 2.0 license)

On December 30 of last year (six days ago), my wife and I were in Pasadena, CA visiting the Greene and Greene exhibit at the Huntington Library. It was one of those glorious and rare smog-free days in the LA basin. The air sparkled, you could see for miles in every direction, and mountain range after mountain range was visible – all the way out to the snow-covered San Gabriels. Nowadays, the air is only ever this clear around the Christmas holiday, when the freeway traffic is substantially reduced and a lot of factories shut down for the week. It got me thinking about how the future – say ten to twenty years hence – may be unrecognizable in both dramatic and mundane ways. For example, smog-free days may no longer be rare in LA, once the economy has shifted off fossil fuels. (I suspect the traffic will remain, unfortunately!)

Like LA’s typical skies, the energy future is murky in the short term – this year and 2010 – and I’ll leave those predictions to others. But the big trends – sustainability, carbon fighting, and technological breakthroughs – enable us to make better sense of the mid- and long-term. Therefore, In the spirit of the New Year, the incoming administration, and the tipping point that the world has come to about climate change and sustainability, here are ten things I believe are very likely to happen in the next ten years.

  1. Residential solar PV will be cost effective in most U.S. locations (via a combination of price reduction, new design thinking, much more efficient homes, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels).
  2. Home energy storage – via batteries, hydrogen reforming, fuel cells, or other technology – will be available and installed in 10% of new homes in California, for when the sun don’t shine.
  3. More than 10% of new homes in California will be zero-net energy.
  4. 50% of new residential construction in California will be zero-net energy “ready.”
  5. The current LEED standards will be considered obsolete.
  6. More than 20% of peak grid electricity will come from excess capacity from residential solar PV.
  7. There will be general consensus that efficiency and frugality alone will not provide enough CO2 mitigation to prevent major climate change – we will need a technological solution to actually reducing atmospheric CO2 or artificially cooling the earth.
  8. There will be a mid-priced carbon fiber, plugin hybrid passenger car in production that gets more than 75 miles per gallon. The company making it will be the “next GM.”
  9. 10% of the cars on the road will be powered by 100% renewable energy and will be essentially non-polluting.
  10. New technologies for capturing carbon from the atmosphere will be available, powered by excess solar capacity.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Too optimistic? Too pessimistic? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, and predictions for 2018.

Zero-net Energy Series Coming Up

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series on “zero-net energy” residences (related to predictions 1-6 above). This area is about to explode. We already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively. And although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero, and probably it will be cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Talk about a world-changing situation – it really is possible to have energy too cheap to meter, but it’s going to come off our roofs, not from a nuclear plant or one of those imaginary fusion reactors.