Getting (A Lot) More Done Per CO2 Molecule

CIA World Factbook 2007 figures of total nomin...Image via Wikipedia

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report released at the end of July, the world economy will have to improve its “carbon productivity” – the amount of gross domestic product (GDP) created per unit of CO2 – by a factor of ten by 2050 to stop global climate change in its tracks while continuing to enable a healthy level of growth. The report predicts that the cost of this transformation will amount to 0.6% – 1.3% of global GDP by 2030. They note that this compares favorably to the cost of insurance born by economies, which amounts to more than 3% of GDP.

Helpfully, the report also suggests the most appealing opportunities for achieving this ten-fold improvement in productivity (referring to MGI’s February paper on the global cost curve):

It will be essential to identify and capture the lowest-cost abatement opportunities in the economy. Analysis of McKinsey’s global cost curve, a map of the world’s abatement opportunities ranked from lowest-cost to highest-cost options, identifies five areas for action to drive the necessary microeconomic changes: capturing available opportunities to increase energy efficiency in a cost-effective way; decarbonizing energy sources; accelerating the development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies; changing the behaviors of businesses and consumers; and preserving and expanding the world’s carbon sinks, most notably its forests.

Productivity (“regular productivity”) increased by a factor of ten over the course of the Industrial Revolution – a period of 120 years. McKinsey’s call to action calls for a similar increase, but over a period one-third as long. But they warn that, if this goal is not achieved, we will all be facing lives of significant privation.

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Is this solar energy analysis is too simplistic?

According to this analysis from Clean Edge, (which I saw originally in the San Jose Mercury News, Solar energy cost may rival other forms soon, study says – SiliconValley.com):

Solar energy will cost the same as power produced by coal, natural gas and nuclear plants in about a decade, a report released Tuesday suggests. By then, the price parity could propel solar adoption so that it accounts for 10 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2025

If you listen to this kind of thinking, solar energy (which is defined as what, by the way?) is still far more expensive than other kinds. But solar energy, even today, has a finite payback time – if I put solar collectors on my roof, for example, eventually they will pay for themselves.

So that’s one way it’s wrong.

Secondly, the study assumes that conventional energy prices will go up by 3% per year. That could be a slight underestimate. Didn’t we just experience a three month period where gas prices nearly doubled? (That’s 100%, folks!).

I can’t make any argument about the assumption that solar energy prices will come down 18% per year. That’s a lot, by one metric, but we’ve certainly seen large and faster price drops in high tech in the past. Even the iPhone last month, which dropped in price by almost 50% in less than a year. Sure, that was partly through some magic AT&T financial pixie dust, but to the user, it’s a clear 50% price cut. There’s no reason similar magic pixie dust, whether from the government or from the utilities themselves, won’t contribute to market price declines.

The claim that solar currently accounts for less than 1/10th of a percent of the U.S. energy supply today is fine. But the assumption that it will still be less than 1 percent in 2015 (seven years from now) is curious. If we start at .1 percent, and double our solar usage every year, we end up at 128 times as much – 12.8% of today’s total. This is the amazing power of Ray Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns.” Even if it takes two years for each doubling, we’re still up a factor of 32x in seven years. That means 3.2% today’s usage. Our total energy usage may also go up (although there are very good reasons to think it may not go up much and and will be starting a downward trajectory), but for a 32x increase in solar supply to translate to 1% of our total energy use, total energy use would have to double. Not too likely in the U.S., where population growth has stopped, and SUVs are starting their long decline.

Finally, there’s good reason to believe that solar energy will actually have a much larger share of U.S. energy usage, due to the power of “negawatts” (as explained brilliantly by Amory Lovins in this series of talks at Stanford in 2007), in which efficiency turns out to be the most cost effective way to power industry and create profits. Oh, and by the way, it significantly reduces our energy usage, by as much as a factor of five to seven!

The article combines a couple of types of fallacious thinking – that technological progress is linear, for example, rather than geometric, and that other factors, such as the desire to reduce greenhouse gases or realizing the benefits of negawatts throughout the economy, don’t have an additional accelerating effect on technology changes.