The Inevitable Death of Natural Gas as a ‘Bridge Fuel’

By Justin Mikulka, a freelance writer, audio and video producer living in Trumansburg, NY. Originally published at DeSmog Blog

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently announced the city is scrapping plans for a multi-billion-dollar update to three natural gas power plants, instead choosing to invest in renewable energy and storage.

This is the beginning of the end of natural gas in Los Angeles,” said Mayor Garcetti. “The climate crisis demands that we move more quickly to end dependence on fossil fuel, and that’s what today is all about.”

Last year America’s carbon emissions rose over 3 percent, despite coal plants closing and being replaced in part by natural gas, the much-touted “bridge fuel” and “cleaner” fossil fuel alternative.

As a new series from the sustainability think tank the Sightline Institute points out, the idea of natural gas as a bridge fuel is “alarmingly deceptive.”

But signs are emerging that, despite oil and gas industry efforts to shirk blame for the climate crisis and promote gas as part of a “lower-carbon fuel mix,” the illusion of natural gas as a bridge fuel is starting to crumble.

Market Forces

While Mayor Garcetti may be right in predicting the downward slide of natural gas for power generation, climate concerns won’t drive that change — just simple economics.

It wasn’t long ago that President Obama — who was accused of starting “the war on coal” because of air quality regulations — was touting the benefits of “clean coal.” But automation in the coal mining industry and competition with cheaper renewables and natural gas began taking a toll on coal.

The struggling coal industry thought things were looking up when Donald Trump was elected, with his promise to bring back coal.

But he has failed.

Most recently, President Trump tweeted that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) should vote to keep two old coal power plants open.

Nevertheless, the TVA voted to close those coal plants and said it expected the move would save a billion dollars in future costs. Burning coal for electricity is increasingly incompatible with profits.

Gary Jones, the economic development director for the Kentucky county where one of the closing coal plants is located, acknowledged this economic reality in his comments to The Wall Street Journal, saying: “We definitely don’t blame him [Trump] for this. It’s the market.”

Exactly. Coal can’t compete with the historically low and unsustainable price of natural gas in the U.S. when it comes to power generation. And it can’t compete with renewables either.

In July 2016 I wrote the following about a presentation on coal at the annual Energy Information Administration conference:

“The presentation on India ended with the following conclusion: Cheap coal remains critical to Indian economic growth.”

India was all-in on coal for the next few decades, and yet in the two and half years since I wrote that, renewables have been hurting India’s coal industry. Why?

Just like in Tennessee and Kentucky, it’s the market. But it isn’t natural gas taking down coal in India, it’s wind and solar, according to a recent Reuters column by Clyde Russell:

“… the main reason coal may battle to fuel India’s future energy needs is that it’s simply becoming too expensive relative to renewable energy alternatives such as wind and solar.”

A coal power plant in Datteln, Germany. Credit: Cropped from image by Arnold Paul CC SA 2.5

A similar situation is unfolding in Germany, which aims to close all its coal plants in the next 20 years. The natural gas industry initially saw this as an opportunity to slide in and replace coal, but the lower cost of renewable energy may lead Germany to skip the “bridge” offered by natural gas and move straight to renewables, which already provide over 40 percent of the nation’s power.

According to Bloomberg, a large German energy company’s study predicts natural gas use in Germany (and other European countries) will likely decline. Why?

“… the cost of solar and battery systems will fall far enough that renewables may become the most cost-effective way to generate new flows of electricity.”

Compare that to 2014, when industry giants were trash-talking the future of renewables in Europe. At an energy industry conference, Paolo Scaroni, the CEO of oil and gas company Eni, said that Europe is realizing that renewables are “more a problem than a solution,” and Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser said, “Using solar panels in Germany is like growing pineapples in Alaska.”

Now renewables are the solution. And that certainly poses a problem for the fossil fuel industry.

Building new natural gas infrastructure looks like a bad investment right now to cities like LA when renewables are already competitive. Natural gas seems poised to join coal as another fuel that just couldn’t compete with renewables.

Here are more reasons why that’s the case.

Natural Gas Prices Headed Up, Renewables Down

A Nordex wind turbine parts manufacturing facility in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Credit: Department of Energy, public domain

The price of renewable energy and storage is trending downward while the already super-low price of natural gas — especially in the U.S. — has nowhere to go but up.

While India and Germany already are finding renewables cheaper than fossil fuels for power generation with today’s technology, further advances in research and development as well as manufacturing will continue making renewables even more competitive.

MIT professor and former CIA director John Deutch recently presented a study entitled, “Demonstrating Near Carbon Free Electricity Generation from Renewables and Storage,” at a Stanford University energy seminar, in which he said:

“You are going to find yourselves very shortly in a situation where you have storage alternatives that, when matched with existing solar and wind generating systems, will be able to meet load extremely effectively.”

Meeting power demand effectively and as the lowest-cost producer — using fuel sources (wind and sun) that are free.

According to Greentech Media, energy industry analysts at Wood Mackenzie say the combination of renewables with battery systems can currently replace approximately two-thirds of U.S. natural gas turbines — right now. Estimates predict the cost of storage alone could drop 80 percent by 2040.

Who wants to own a gas power plant in 2040 knowing that?

Meanwhile, the cost of producing power with natural gas is dependent on the cost of the fuel.

Right now, gas companies are losing money — and have been for some time — at the current price of natural gas in America. As DeSmog has detailed, the fracking industry, which is responsible for most U.S.natural gas production, has been on a decade-long, money-losing streak.

The industry has proven unable to turn a profit at current natural gas prices. So, unless Wall Street wants to lose billions more subsidizing the natural gas industry, prices will have to go up at some point. And when natural gas prices go up, residential electricity rates go up.

Additionally, if all of the planned infrastructure gets built to export U.S.natural gas in liquid form (known as liquefied natural gas, or LNG, prices for natural gas are very likely to rise. This is the industry’s survival plan for the future. However, the higher prices natural gas producers need possibly will kill off one of the industry’s main markets.

Tom DiCapua, managing director of wholesale energy services at Con Edison Energy, recently summed up the situation to Reuters: “As LNG exports increase, so will future gas prices.”

When it comes to the long-term economics of power generation, it isn’t a fair fight. There is no clear way natural gas can compete with renewables on an economic basis in the coming decades. Which is why the oil and gas industry works so hard to convince people gas is clean and cheap.

It knows it can’t win a fair fight.

Structural Financial Issues With Natural Gas Industry

In a July 2017 Forbes column, energy industry expert Art Berman laid out the details of the structural problems in the finances of natural gas production. Since then, things have only gotten worse as huge volumes of gas are pumped simultaneously out of Permian oil wells in Texas and New Mexico.

However, even before the huge ramp-up in the Permian, Berman made the case that the natural gas industry was producing record amounts of gas at prices in which companies could not make money. How could they do that?

Wall Street’s coffers.

As Berman explained, “Credit markets have been willing to support unprofitable shale gas drilling since the 2008 Financial Collapse.”

Of course, now credit markets are not as willing to loan money to shale companies to produce gas at a loss. Berman estimated that natural gas producers needed prices of $4 per million Btu of gas to break even. Prices are below $4, and the average price has been below that for years.

Not looking good for natural gas.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

In 2017, workers clean Heliostats at the Ivanpah Solar Project, a concentrated solar energy project. Credit: Dennis Shroeder, National Renewable Energy Lab CC BY NC-ND2.0

Similar to the fossil fuel industry, electric utilities also have fought renewable energy options. In 2016, utilities in Florida spent almost $30 million to limit residents’ ability to install rooftop solar — perceived as a direct threat to the utilities.

Much like coal’s prospects in India, a couple of years has made a huge difference, however. In February, the Christian Science Monitor reported that utilities in Florida have begun embracing utility-owned solar farms. And while utilities have still been fighting residential rooftop solar, it’s started making gains in Florida anyway — despite regulatory restrictions.

“The utilities are putting out solar like you wouldn’t believe,” said James Fenton, director of the University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center.

The utilities didn’t suddenly decide the climate was more important than profits. They just see a better path to profits with solar, as long as they can be in control of it, at least.

It is simply undeniable now that this is often the lowest cost source of generation,” Ethan Zindler, the head of U.S. research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told the Monitor. “So you can pat yourself on the back for doing something environmentally conscious, but at the same time, you’re also actually doing something to procure power at the lowest cost for your customers.”

Arizona Public Service (APS) is the largest investor-owned utility in the state, and it spent big money to help defeat a 2018 ballot initiative that would have required Arizona get 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030.

However, because APS is “investor-owned,” the utility is now investing in solar and claims that solar plus batteries are an even cheaper option than natural gas power plants for peak power. The need for so-called gas “peaker plants” that can quickly ramp up electricity in times of peak demand is one of the energy industry’s favorite arguments against renewables and for natural gas.

But because investors want to make money, APS is moving forward with solar and batteries.

“This is a head-to-head [economic] comparison where we’re trying to select the best resources to meet our customers’ needs,” Brad Albert, vice president of resource management for APS, told Greentech Media.

In that head-to-head comparison, natural gas lost.

As usual with the oil and gas industry, it’s best to watch what it does, not what it says.

The Permian Basin is the heart of the shale oil fracking boom in the U.S. and is producing so much natural gas along with the oil that the price of natural gas there actually went negative in 2018.

It takes a lot of electricity to power the fracking boom. And the Permian needs more. But is the industry taking advantage of all that cheap natural gas to produce that power?

Nope. Plans for new electricity generation in the heart of the Permian oil and gas region include a solar farm and the world’s largest battery.

Renewables have become the low-cost source for new power generation much faster than most anticipated, which is great news for the climate.

Natural gas, with its potent globe-warming effect, is a climate-killer. And a money loser.

If the lobbyists don’t win and the free market is allowed to work for power generation, natural gas — like coal — looks less and less like a “bridge fuel” and more like a fuel of the past.

Main image: Original photo of the Betsy Ross Bridge in Philadelphia by Seth Werkheiser under CC BY-SA 2.0 license, combined with wind turbines by Will Bakkerunder  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Credit: Emily Cantera, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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97 comments

  1. notabanker

    ‘Be careful what you wish for’ for $1000, Alex.

    US Solar is almost completely rigged against the consumer. It’s all state by state regulated and the Federal Tax Credit requires professional installers to qualify. Those installers generally are turnkey corporate owned or franchised businesses that are marking up systems 2 and 3x the cost of DIY. To be fair, these systems are complex and pure DIY on grid tied systems is probably foolish, but the supply chain markups, financing schemes and profit extraction are fully optimized against the consumer.

    Add onto that what utilities have been able to lobby state legislatures for, and the ROI’s become extremely variable. So far only one state (Nevada) has tried to retroactively change terms for existing Solar customers and failed, but it’s just a matter of time before one sets the precedent when consumer markets reach scale.

    Net metering means different things in different states. Pretty common practice to charge, say, 10 cents a KwH for what you consume and reimburse 7 cents for what you send back by utilizing peak rates and transmission line fees segregated out from direct KwH charges. SREC’s based on standard 1 MwH are worth $255 in NJ and $15 in Ohio, and only a handful of states offer them. In Ohio, legislation requires utilities shift to 25% renewables, but solar requirements are only .5%. You can burn tires and qualify as a renewable energy source. In most areas local zoning permits are required telling you what placement of panels is allowed based on aesthetics vs system efficiency which directly impacts ROI.

    Financing schemes vary from ‘here’s a 6% loan’ to ‘we will bill you a per KwH charge for the solar energy produced on a 20 Year lease’, and all kinds of flavors in between.

    The version of GND that ultimately gets implemented is hugely important. If The Harris /Pelosi-crats are in charge of this, renewables will become another scam to extract profits, under the guise of saving the planet. Add onto that ‘market forces’ that will accelerate the demand of PV’s and the oil cartels will be replaced by PV cartels. We’ve already seen Chinese market manipulation that lowered the cost of PV’s. It can work the other way around.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      Friends have been trying to sell a completely off-grid home with solar panels, a bank of batteries and a diesel generator that kicks in once in awhile when they run out of juice. They’ve lived this way for 17 years with no issues, but nobody will do a mortgage on a home like this, so in a really hot real estate market, it’s sat for years. If it had electricity from the grid, it would’ve been snapped up toot suite.

      Reply
      1. Joe Well

        The “housing market” really is the root of so much evil in the US, starting with homelessness and segregation and now this.

        Reply
      2. Adam Eran

        This is a common problem. Architects are fond of the Frank Lloyd Wright quote “Form follows function,” but the current situation is that “Form follows finance.”

        Lots of innovations would be supported by better FNMA underwriting standards (what really guides lots of this).

        Reply
        1. Wukchumni

          Lots of innovations would be supported by better FNMA underwriting standards (what really guides lots of this).

          I follow Fannie Mae, as it was one of the stocks I sold a dozen years ago @ around $60 in the white heat of the housing bubble, and glimpse at the stock price every now and then, and last time I looked a few months ago, it was $1.50 a share, and with the housing bubble part deux going to the wayside, I was surprised to see it’s almost $3 a share now.

          I’ve always considered a better name for the concern to be:

          ‘House of Games’

          Reply
      3. Janie

        Same story with a friend’s earth-bermed house in Arizona. Bought it with cash from an inheritance, couldn’t sell it some years later because of financing issue. Yet it’s perfect in the desert climate.

        Reply
        1. Shonde

          Perfect for Minnesota also. Friend has one built in the 70’s and her energy bills are negligible. I searched for one to buy when I moved to Minnesota last year and finally had to buy a stick house for me and my dogs.
          I hope legislation resulting from any GND calls for financing for earth-bermed homes.

          Reply
    2. Charger01

      The answer is: what is PURPA?
      Most consumers can install solar or wind, it’s simply not cost effective to do so for the average person. If you have a grid tied system without storage, you can have 7-8kv system that will offset your consumption. With a professional install, it’s around $20-30k. That’s a really nice new sedan money. This article is very much rah-rah renewables without answering the storage question(s). APS buying a gigantic battery is nice, but that won’t solve renewables problem of intermittent generation with constant demand from consumers, especially during the winter and summer.

      Reply
      1. Joe Well

        1. Demand can be intermittent too, and in some areas they’ve used pricing incentives to encourage business customers to modify usage to match generation.

        2. Why wouldn’t batteries and other storage technologies solve the problem? This post says repeatedly that they do.

        Reply
        1. Grumpy Engineer

          Some demand can be time-shifted to match generation, but most cannot. Do we really expect people to shut off their heat pumps at sunset on a cold winter day and not turn it on again until sunrise? The middle of the night is when they need that heat pump the most, regardless of what’s happening on their solar arrays. Only industries that use large amounts of power intermittently can be expected to time-shift usefully here, and most of them have been doing so already.

          And as for storage, the problem is we don’t have nearly enough. The best estimates for energy storage requirements for a 100% renewable US grid show us as needing approximately 100 terawatt-hours of storage, which is about 200 times what we currently have. And 99% of what we currently have is pumped-storage hydro, which we cannot expand greatly because of the strict siting requirements. All of the battery installations we have out there are in the megawatt-hour range and are mere toys compared to what we’d ultimately need for a 100% renewable-powered grid.

          And that’s just for today’s electrical grid. If we take the Mark Jacobson approach and additionally replace everybody’s oil- and gas-fired furnaces with renewable energy, you end up needing 540 terawatt-hours. [His numbers. Not mine.] If we optimistically assume $100 per kilowatt-hour (which is the “holy grail” number that people in the battery industry are shooting for), this adds up to a “mere” $54 trillion. Now I know that the government can print more money to pay for more stuff, but there are real constraints on how much we can buy. For example, are there enough lithium mines, enough refineries, and enough people to staff all of these operations? Even given a century, I doubt we could pull it off. We certainly can’t do it in the 12 years the IPCC says we have.

          Reply
          1. Grumpy Engineer

            Follow-up: In 2018, worldwide production of batteries clocked in around 200 gigawatt-hours: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-01/for-now-at-least-the-world-isn-t-making-enough-batteries

            For us to deploy 100 terawatt-hours in the US means consuming 500 years worth of current world-wide production. And that doesn’t leave any batteries for anybody else.

            Do we really think we can ramp up production by a factor of FIFTY to do it in 10 years as proposed by the GND? And what about the factor of 200+ we’d need to cover Europe and Asia and the rest of the world?

            Reply
            1. Skip Intro

              While it may not be possible with Li-ion batteries, which are not particularly apt for utility-scale storage projects anyway, it is not correct to assume that that is the only possible storage technology, so your figures, though scary and serious sounding, are not particularly relevant to the problem at hand.

              Reply
              1. Grumpy Engineer

                My figures are quite relevant. Lithium ion and lead-acid are the only energy storage technologies that’s are being built in any quantity right now. If you think something else out there would work better, what is it?

                Pumped storage stations? It’s my personal favorite, but alas, we’ve only built TWO pumped storage stations in the past 25 years. The most recent was a relatively dinky (~0.3 GWh) facility at Lake Hodges, built in 2014. The one before that was a larger (~8 GWh) facility at Rocky Mountain, built in 1995. That’s it. The Eagle Mountain facility in California has been in the licensing stages since 2007, but no dirt has moved. We’ve actually started more nuclear reactors (six of them) since 1995.

                And FWIW, global production of lead-acid batteries is about 350 gigawatt-hours per year. So we’d need 285 years of global production to get to 100 terawatt-hours for the US alone. If we combined lithium ion and lead-acid, we could do it in a “mere” 181 years. And this presumes that the Hawaii battery fire hasn’t scared people away from lead-acid for grid storage forever.

                I’m not aware of any large-scale energy storage facilities using anything besides pumped water, lithium ion batteries, or lead-acid batteries. Everything else is tiny pilot projects.

                Reply
                1. Skip Intro

                  Is I indicated elsewhere, there are a number of better alternatives in use right now, like flow batteries, iron-air batteries and even compressed air storage. The focus on Li-Ion batteries is driven by the need to drive the costs down for e-vehicles, which is behind Musk’s powerwalls. If you willfully ignore alternatives, and insist on counting only what is being mass-produced now, but still claim it can’t scale to meet your multi-decade projections, it undermines your credibility.

                  Reply
                  1. Grumpy Engineer

                    I only count what is being mass-produced because those are the only technologies that that are proven to have viable supply chains, cost-effective manufacturing methods, and final products that perform largely as advertised. With most of the other technologies you list, data is so thin that estimating total cost and implementation time for a 100% renewable grid is impossible.

                    Planning your new electrical grid based on some new technology that somebody describes in a paper is a huge risk. Because not all of these ideas will work. It’s possible that none of them will work. I’ve seen far too many “really cool ideas” that seemed terrific on paper fail to ever appear in real life.

                    If something comes along that is substantially better (i.e., cheaper per kWh and handling more charge-discharge cycles) than lithium ion or lead-acid, that’d be awesome. Truly. But is relying on rescue from a yet-to-be-seen “something better” really a plan?

                    Reply
                2. Skip Intro

                  For your convenience, here is the report, Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Storage Analysis (LCOS) v4.0 (pdf) I referred to. They primarily compare Li-ion, lead-acid, ‘advanced lead’ (lead-carbon), vanadium flow batteries and zinc-bromide flow batteries for commercial, residential, industrial, and utility-scale applications. They also include a supplement that discusses pumped hydro, compressed air, thermal storage and even flywheels.
                  Is I noted, flow batteries’ storage capacity is determined by the volume of electrolyte, which can be upgraded. The study is based on observed prices and installations and lists a number of commercial vendors for the various technologies.

                  Reply
                  1. Grumpy Engineer

                    Vanadium redox flow batteries require 10 tons of vanadium per megawatt-hour of storage. Global annual production of vanadium is about 80000 tons per year, which works out to a maximum of 8000 megawatt-hours of redox flow battery per year. To get to 100 terawatt-hours for the US grid alone, we’d need 12500 years of current worldwide production.

                    This is why there are only a handful of vanadium redox flow battery stations on the planet, all much smaller than a gigawatt-hour. There don’t appears to be any zinc-bromine stations at all.

                    Compressed air? Too inefficient with siting requirements that are too strict. This is why there are only two stations worldwide, both smaller than a gigawatt-hour. Flywheels? Energy density is much too low. Nobody is bothering.

                    Of everything you list, only pumped storage and thermal storage could conceivably scale up to the levels required. But alas, nobody is building them right now. Why not? I’m not sure, but it’s likely a combination of lousy economics and/or NIMBY concerns.

                    Reply
                    1. PlutoniumKun

                      Increasing vanadium production significantly is a trivial matter. It is as common as copper and is mostly produced as a byproduct of iron slag and uranium tailings so production could be increased on scale without even opening new mines. Very little is produced currently because it only has one commercial use – in specialist hardened steel alloys. Vanadium batteries have been commercially demonstrated in Ireland as a way of balancing power from wind energy sites with substandard grid connections – they act as localised balancers, if that’s the correct term, as well as providing on demand power, which is particularly useful at the peripheries of smaller scale grids.

                      Pumped water storage facilities are rarely built now as longer distance interconnectors are a more cost effective method of distributing load. Ireland (which pioneered the technology) and the UK invested heavily in the 1970’s, but the later extension of undersea powerlines to continental Europe proved more cost effective for load balancing – this is still largely the case even with a significant increase in wind energy production. The Irish network company currently favours an undersea connection to France as more cost effective than increased pumped storage storage (for shorter term localised balancing it is investing significantly in flywheel storage). As a small island network, Ireland (along with similar islands or isolated countries) has had to invest far more in storage than continental providers and so has a much longer and deeper experience with the costs and requirements.

                      In continental Europe more grid integration has up to now been more cost effective that large scale storage, although this may rapidly change as France loses its nuclear capacity – France traditionally acting as something of a baseload provider for its neighbours, with its neighbours helping out when nuclear production crashes during hot summer droughts.

                      Studies in Ireland have shown sufficient pump storage amounting to multiple times even theoretical needs despite Ireland being relatively flat with minimal natural hydro sites. The biggest problem is that the best sites are coastal and some distance from the grid network. The cost and environmental implications of connecting the west coast sites to the east coast users has proven prohibitive, although this may well change if the French interconnector proves not to be viable. But it should be noted that there is a strong political and institutional preference for interconnectors, at least within Europe. This may change over time as big OHL schemes are proving less and less popular with the public.

          2. notabanker

            Thanks for this comment. I haven’t spent any time on macro storage issues and this gives me a good start.
            I suspect this is why retrofitting buildings is such a key aspect of GND. I watched Solartown USA a couple of days ago where a town in Wisconsin rebuilt its center using passive solar heat in the 80’s. The design was so simple and materials used so basic, it really made me wonder what we’ve been doing the last 30 years.

            Reply
          3. Joe Well

            The middle of the night is when they need that heat pump the most, regardless of what’s happening on their solar arrays.

            In January I had a houseguest. I’d set the thermostat to about 66 Fahrenheit/19 Celsius.

            At one point, the guest, wearing shorts and a T-shirt!!!! asked me if we couldn’t raise the temperature. And no, the guest was not from North America, for people who think this is only a US problem.

            The middle of the night is when most people are in bed. I am under my electric blanket. If home heating were charged at what it should be charged (with subsidies for the first minimal amount), a lot of this Roman Emperor level of waste would stop and more people would get under their electric blankets, too.

            Reply
      2. notabanker

        My point here is the “professional install” part. Long story short. The solar companies are backing into a price based on a monthly payment that is the amortization of a 20 year loan. That monthly payment is close or equal to the amount you are paying for fossil fuel utilities. Consequently a system I can source turnkey from a distributor that is making money on it is $20K. The price I get from a “professional installer” is $50K. It’s a good gig if you can get it. They’ve arbitraged the actual cost savings of the technology. And if I want my 30% tax credit and connect to the grid, I gotta use them.

        Reply
          1. John Zelnicker

            @Lidia
            February 25, 2019 at 2:07 pm
            ——-

            I’m a tax professional.

            It is a tax credit, which means it will offset taxes on a dollar-for-dollar basis. A tax deduction reduces your income before taxes are applied. Tax credits are better.

            However, if low taxable income or other tax credits have already reduced your taxes to zero, you can’t take advantage of it, as you discovered.

            Reply
    3. PlutoniumKun

      Just to clarify, when you say ‘solar’, I assume you mean rooftop solar.

      In reality, in any solar power scenario, the vast majority of power will be produced by large scale solar farms for simple reasons of scale. The grid connection issue for solar farms is very different from those facing roof top solar. So while yes, the large scale take-up of rooftop photoelectric panels (to distinguish from solar water heaters, which are simpler and easier in many ways) is being crapified by multiple layers of the industry, the road is much clearer for photoelectric farms and large scale solar thermal plants such as the one at Ivanhoe pictured above.

      Reply
      1. notabanker

        I hear you on this, but if I can contemplate a worst case scenario for solar renewable energy to the consumer, it would definitely involve First Energy being the supplier. The utilities have captured the public oversight process and just abuse consumers in the US.

        Reply
    4. Brooklin Bridge

      +100 Very detailed, thanks.

      the oil cartels will be replaced by PV cartels.

      I think we can take that to the bank unless there is a sea change in corrupt politicians as the nickels, dimes and quarters diving complement to big business/finance they currently are.. At the very minimum, we can expect a lot of legislation that makes individual (non monopoly) solar installations either illegal or economically unfeasible. Waaay too much money involved. And as always, to prevent such legislation or even to just slow it down will require huge effort on the part of activists giving cover for big money to quietly be up to their usual mischief in other areas.

      This is a particularly ominous but entirely predictable direction for local but ultimately Federal legislation to increasingly go in as “the market,” (code word for monopolies) and profit above all else ideologies, are not a good bet as a system to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change. The reason, and the ONLY reason, that things are moving toward solar and wind now is because executives in energy monopolies were too dumb and too smug to prevent it from becoming so cheap and available in the first place.

      Reply
    5. Skip Intro

      To play devil’s advocate, perhaps it would be worth giving the owners of our politicians another rent extraction scheme just to get them behind the effort. For that matter, it could all be constructed using the MMT economics and work-distribution-via-congressional-district that make projects like the F-35 unkillable. Cost-plus contracts to the big military contractors, as long as they jump on board now, and accept payment only when the installed kilowatts flow… and give the Koch brothers a taste too.

      Reply
    6. Ignacio

      I think you are rigth and opacity is also a “feature” in roof-top solar installations as well as “energy efficiency” installations. Let me add my two cents on how I see roof top.

      You can have various types of roof top installations but to make it simpler lets consider grid connected buildings and only 3 types.

      1) Self or autoconsumption without batteries: the cheapest installation. Your system will give full priority to solar production that goes through the inverter. If you produce more than you need it is wasted. So the size of the instalation is limited by the consumption level during the central hours if you don’t want to waste.
      Good thing: you save electricity at retail price. How much can you save?. If you have a “smart counter” obtain your hourly consumtiom profile, and compare with the production profile of your solar instalation. This is relatively easy but you need to manage excel databases with hourly data. The coverage this installation provides depends on your profile compared to solar and the cost depends on the size of your instalation, the latitude & climate where you live. Good in Arizona (the name says it all) bad in Washington.
      Bad thing: Typically the profile of household consumptiom shows peaks early in the morning and late in the evening/nigth. Not the best. Self-consumption solar without batteries is better in office buildings, particularly in summer and in warm climates. Their profiles better match solar production profile.

      2) Self-consumption w/batteries. In theory, with batteries large enough you could disconnect completely from the grid (wildly expensive). A small battery migth be a good idea if it helps to reduce your consumtiom peaks and you renegotiate your contract. The problem with batteries, if they are large is that upfront investment doubles or triples. But in some cases considering a small one to expand solar coverage is interesting

      3) Grid connected roof top: I dislike it. You sell electricity at wholesale prices and buy at retail prices. Not a good business. The return of your investment is larger than with auto-consumption.

      If someone wants I can send an example on how to dimension roof-top solar for autoconsumptiom.

      Reply
      1. a different chris

        >Self-consumption solar without batteries is better in office buildings, particularly in summer and in warm climates.

        Here’s where it should first get interesting. Office buildings and factories, note. Here in the US we are so powerless against any companies. But get me popcorn when First Energy tries to tell Siemens Electric how to get their power. Residential is <40%. And it takes a lot of overhead (how many connections is the supplier required to maintain in a city block, compared to a high-tension line into a steel mill?)

        The less colorful analysis is here:

        The sales of electricity to major consuming sectors and percent share of total electricity sales in 2017 were

        Residential—1.38 trillion kWh—37.4%
        Commercial—1.35 trillion kWh—36.6%
        Industrial—0.95 trillion kWh—25.7%
        Transportation—0.01 trillion kWh—0.2% (mostly to public transit systems)

        https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=electricity_use

        Reply
        1. Ignacio

          A friend of mine made a solar-PV installation for an off-grid pig farm. They were consuming 8 tons of diesel per year and ended consuming 0.18 tons per year (water pumps mainly). There are lots of low hanging fruits to be picked with renewables that cannot be replaced with nuclear.

          Reply
    7. notabanker

      BTW, thanks for this post Jerri-Lynn. The underlying costs of renewables vs fossil fuels is not something that is well understood.

      Reply
    8. JE

      I’ve put two separate DIY rooftop arrays on my property and claimed the federal credit as well as carbon offset contract payments from my local utility both times. This was in 2010 and 2011 so perhaps the federal credit situation has changed. These are grid-tied micro-inverter systems. If you are comfortable RTFM (reading the f***ing manual), working on a roof, and installing a branch circuit to your electrical system this is doable by almost anyone.

      Being in the midwest our primary energy usage is for heating in winter which is extremely difficult to offset with solar. We have 5kW which easily handles our warm-season needs but to size an array to handle winter heating, to keep the array snow free, and to have a heat pump that works to -20F are tall orders. Our heat pump (air source) is effective to 25F only and we use natural gas below that. Using 4 therms a day at -20F is the norm and about 120kWh of electrical equivalent energy. That is a lot of solar. So while mild climate homes can easily be carbon-free with a little of roof-top work, the winters in MN will need to warm considerably before we can be 100% renewably powered on our own.

      I can’t comment on selling the home with panels as we have not yet. The contract with the utility is transferrable though and has another 9 years on it so perhaps we will find it difficult to find a buyer. The utility does manage to pay us a good rate for electricity sold onto the grid but gets us with extra fees for the separate meter required to meter the array. Meh.

      Reply
      1. Shonde

        Combine an earth-bermed home with architectural passive solar qualities with your rooftop solar arrays. Would this suffice even when it reaches -25F?

        Reply
        1. JE

          A purpose built home like a bermed home would hopefully also involve a ground-sourced heat pump that would function at any external air temp due to the constant ground temp. On an urban lot with existing structure like mine, such an install was not an option. Or at least not an economical option. So, yes, a bermed home with solar electric and solar thermal panels could easily reach self-sufficiency in a winter-heavy environment.

          Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    If natural gas and coal are on the way out, that is going to be bad news for Australia as we send out boat-load after boat-load of the stuff overseas. The problem is that the present government has almost a religious faith in these two exports. They had us shipping so much natural gas out to Asia that at one stage supplies were in short supply as there was not enough for the local market. With coal it is even worse. This is a government that debates on spending hundreds of millions of dollars on keeping stuff like coal plants open and running wen the companies owning them want them shut as uneconomical. This is a government that sees no problem in having an Indian company open up a coal mining operation and port in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. Following is a story from two years ago when the Australian Treasurer brought a lump of coal supplied by the Minerals Council of Australia as a stunt. What is remarkable is that this Treasurer is now the Prime Minister of Australia-

    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/feb/09/scott-morrison-brings-coal-to-question-time-what-fresh-idiocy-is-this

    Good news is that this government is for the chopping block in the next coupla months but it will remains to be seen if they try to reverse the enormous damage that the present government has done to environmentalism over the past coupla years.

    Reply
  3. dutch

    It would be nice to hear more about these new battery systems for storing electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Up until now stand-by fossil fuel or nuclear plants have been necessary to ensure base load capacity. What’s new about storage technology that eliminates this requirement?

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      There is nothing new about large scale storage, its just historically been cheaper to build in surplus capacity or long distance interconnections than to have storage, except for small or fragmented grids. There are many different types, ranging from a variety of battery types to mechanical and thermal systems. In some cases there are technological breakthroughs, in others its just scale efficiencies that make them viable now. The primary driver I suspect is simply that battery prices have dropped precipitously over the last few years, mostly due to enormous scale impacts in China.

      Reply
    2. Another Scott

      We also shouldn’t limit ourselves to batteries to shift electric demand. I’m a big believer in thermal energy storage to shift demand for cooling to other periods. It’s more proven than many of the battery methods and is often already cost-effective. It works in commercial and industrial facilities and would be very good for new loads a data centers, but I haven’t seen reports of much use there.

      Reply
      1. Skip Intro

        I read about some pilot programs where residential/commercial hot water heaters were used as a form of storage. The utility could control the heaters and tell them to shut down when power demand was high, then heat their water when demand slackened, in both cases smoothing the load changes on the grid. It is not really storage in the sense that useful energy was not extracted from the stored heat, but it had the same effect on the grid, as the coordinated actions of thousands of individual hot water heaters were matched to fluctuations in demand and generation.

        Reply
        1. Joe Well

          I still don’t understand why most North American houses don’t have direct solar hot water heating. It’s pretty common around the world.

          Reply
          1. Johnx

            We looked at it. It cost $5,000 after rebates for a couple square meters. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Someone needs to standardize on a cheap solution and promote this to the people who write building codes.

            Reply
            1. Joe Well

              This is mind-blowing. In Peru, hardware stores were selling solar hot water heaters for, I believe, under $1000 and you just installed it on the roof of your house yourself. Even at the outskirts of the Andes, people were using them. Of course, it helped that they didn’t have to combine them with existing furnaces and that the roofs are flat and are designed for people to walk on.

              Reply
        2. PlutoniumKun

          This has been standard in Ireland for over 50 years. Basically, water heaters and storage heaters are designed for half price night time power use. Its not as sophisticated as ‘smart’ systems, but it has worked extremely well in balancing out 24 hour variations in power demand, which is vitally important for small island grid networks. It was originally designed to address the problem of baseline/peak production with big thermal plants, but its equally effective at helping with peaks caused by, say, wind power generating at its maximum at 3am instead of 3pm.

          Reply
      2. Huey Long

        Building Engineer here: Thermal storage is big in NYC due to the demand charges imposed by Con Edison, the money to be made doing demand response, and rebate money available from both Con Ed and the state.,Lots of buildings in Manhattan either have thermal storage systems or are installing them, including at data centers.

        Reply
  4. ambrit

    We here in Mississippi are suffering the tender ministrations of the Power Utilities, specifically the Southern Company conglomerate. The Kemper Plant was supposed to have been a cutting edge coal gasification electric generating plant. Obviously, no one in the company did their research. The only other coal gasification project in America, in Virginia, ended up a complete fiasco. This one did so too.
    The customers of Mississippi Power are still on the hook for part of a botched project. As the article linked to states, we still pay half again more as the customers of the other private electric utility in the state. Of note is that this legal challenge to the extractive’s executive’s exactions was mainly bankrolled by a wealthy local oilman.
    The state of play: https://www.apnews.com/26f8da1d4e474148b073b2a182537b59
    We are seeing several solar electric arrays being built around here, but can find little information about exactly where the “savings” accrued go. We here on the ground certainly aren’t seeing any solar relief.
    The point being that institutional greed and inertia will take one quite far, away from the common good that is.

    Reply
    1. Lidia

      I bought into a solar co-op. Not only was my income too low to take the tax credit (so it cost “poor” me $12k out of pocket rather than $9k), the electric monopoly unilaterally re-neged on its lifetime deal to have customer charges covered by the elec. generation. So we were told, 2 years in, that in eight years we’d start having to pay cash money fees each month. Plus, in two years’ time, the insurance on the array has doubled. Insurers and utility monopolies: when they have you over a barrel, what can you do?

      Reply
  5. Ignacio

    Although I very much like this article I think that it makes some symplistic approaches in the very complex world of energy supply. A close look to the regions energy mix is necessary to asses the near future of Natl. Gas as a bridge fuel. I will briefly discuss US and Europe. The main N.G. consumers accounting for more that 90% of world consumptiom are the following (source, pg 11):

    1) US
    2) Asia Pacific
    3) Europe (UK, Italy and Netherlands show more intense use of NG)
    4) Middle East
    5) CIS
    (Take a look in the former link pg 27 on proven N.G. reserves to check if Europe wants strategically to rely on LNG from the US, nope)

    I believe that India lacks the infrastructure in pipelines and the “microdemand” necessary to boost NG as a bridge fuel while solar energy here makes a lot of sense.

    US: in the US the drivers for NG consumptiom are industries and power production (combined 70% of total cons.) while residential accounts only for 15%. So, Ntl. Gas already plays a big, big role in power generation. All this fuelled by non-conventional NG. My guess is that NG is on a “sweet spot” now that wont last very long.

    In Europe the share of NG in industry and power generation is smaller than in the US and latest data show that as recently as in 2017 NG was gaining market share in these sectors. There is infrastructure so it is easy for NG to replace coal rigth now. Here the main driver of demand is “buildings” (residential and non residential) but there is a push to reduce consumption in buildings and NG migth shift from these to power generation/industry.

    Thus I guess that, unfortunately, in Europe is too early to call for the death of NG as a bridge fuel.

    Regarding Asia-Pacific I cannot give an informed opinion.

    Reply
  6. Peter

    The dream of replacing with renewable resources without considering nuclear power is simply a pipedream.
    This post hypes – as does the electric car industry – the benefits only without considering the negative impacts of sourcing and producing the infrastructure required and the demand of a highly integrated industrial system for stable and reliable base supply, and the political and technical difficulties to build an international integrated system that would make a stable supply by renewable possible.
    https://phys.org/news/2018-08-renewable-energy-sources-space-fossil.html

    To investigate where the impact would be felt most intensely, the authors applied their power densities to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Renewable Electricity Futures Scenarios. Despite a near tripling in land used by the power sector in southern states, the northeast would experience the greatest visible change with over 10 percent of land devoted to energy generation in nine states.

    https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23311916.2016.1167990

    Nevertheless, the cost, price, political environment and market conditions have become barriers preventing developing, least developed and developed countries to fully utilize its potentials. In this way, a creation of global opportunity through international cooperation that supports least developed and developing countries towards the accessibility of renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean energy technology and research and energy infrastructure investment will reduce the cost of renewable energy, eliminate barriers to energy efficiency (high discount rate) and promote new potentials towards climate change mitigation.

    which already provide over 40 percent of the nation’s power.

    https://www.bmwi.de/Redaktion/EN/Publikationen/renewable-energy-sources-in-figures-2017.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=3

    An outright lie, the Gross Energy Production from renewables in Germany was at best 14,6% in 2016. If he keeps up misrepresenting like that – why should one take this article seriously. And why does he think Germany is so vigorously defending nordstream 2?

    Reply
    1. Ignacio

      Discussions on nuclear vs renewables usually do not consider the prespective of the other and I cannot imagine two more different perspectives in energy supply. It is a confrontation between blindspots. Ok, solar has less appeal at higher latitudes and wetter climates. That’s all? Too much to dismiss as pipedream don’t you think?

      Reply
  7. Tony Butkaq

    Right now the problem is that wind & solar are not 24/7. Also, battery storage is both relatively expensive and the technology is moving quite fast. So, for 24/7 reliability its hydro (if you have any) or nat gas at the moment. Plus, here in LA, DWP has decreasing but marginal interests in nuke and coal.

    The trend for clean energy is good, but if you’re a utility making a 5-10 year engineering investment, rapid change is challenging.

    Reply
    1. notabanker

      if you’re a utility making a 5-10 year engineering investment, rapid change is challenging.

      I agree. If we rely on the utilities to change we’re all dead. They need to be the grid and let generation and storage transform. I’m pretty convinced this is not a technology issue, but a scaling issue. Put capital in the right hands and it can scale. Public utility monopolies will never get it done. Break them up.

      Reply
  8. Grumpy Engineer

    Justin Mikulka’s article is a giant exercise in wishful thinking. The “death of natural gas” as a fuel for power generation is hardly inevitable. Indeed, one could argue that the push for wind and solar will “lock in” the use of natural gas forever. Indeed, this is precisely the argument that James Hansen makes when he condemns the goal of 100% renewable energy as a “grotesque fantasy“. To quote: “Tricking the public to accept the fantasy of 100 percent renewables means that, in reality, fossil fuels reign and climate change grows.

    Why does he make this argument when the costs for solar and wind continue to fall? The reason is simple. Solar and wind are indeed competitive when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. But the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. And this is key. Because the need for electricity doesn’t go away when the sun sets on a windless day. Here, renewables cannot compete, regardless of how cheap they become. They need backup.

    And what is the preferred form of backup these days? Natural gas, primarily coming from fracking operations. It’s cheaper than coal, and utilities are erecting gas turbines today. For an example, see the list of recent installations in Florida: https://www.powermag.com/florida-to-get-yet-another-big-ccpp-in-okeechobee-clean-energy-center/. They wouldn’t be building these if they weren’t planning on running them for 20+ years.

    Could we use batteries for backup instead? I doubt it. Mikulka mentions the “world’s largest battery” in Texas, but it’s a mere 495 MW that can produce power for only 2 hours. Just short of 1.0 gigawatt-hours. The Bath County pumped storage station in my neck of the woods can produce 3000 MW for nearly 8 hours. A little over 22 gigawatt-hours. More than 20X as much. And how much does the Texas ERCOT actually need to make it through a single windless night? Probably 70000 MW for 10 hours. 700 gigawatt-hours. That’s 32 Bath County stations, or 700 of the “world’s largest battery”. The 495 MW battery will be used to manage the end-of-day solar collapse and transition to gas turbine backup more smoothly.

    And again, this is Texas, where renewables are more useful because peak electricity demand coincides nicely with peak solar production. That same friendly overlap of peak supply and peak demand does NOT occur in the Midwest and Northeast, where peak electricity demand is usually 5AM on winter nights. For the Midwest and Northeast, the batteries would need to be much bigger, especially since they might have to ride through several days of snow-covered solar panels or other unfavorable weather events.

    Reply
    1. Louis Fyne

      to add to Team Clincial + Realistic…

      Just looking at Cali, even at 3am, California uses 20,000 MW of electricity.* That’s a lot of either lithium batteries, or dam-ing valleys for pumped hydro or nat gas or nuclear.

      Generally, peak electricity demand is 4pm to 7pm local time. Again, that’s a lot of lithium or pumped hydro or nat gas.

      California’s best areas to generate wind power are also in very ecologically sensitive areas, ie the Channel Islands and the woods of Nor. Cal.* Will Greenpeace promise to step aside so that 10,000 MW of wind turbines can be built in the Channel Islands?

      Wind + solar is not a panacea given current and near-term tech. In my (unintentionally triggering 33% of the internet opinion), fission + solar + wind is the least bad/most attainable/most green option. But that’ll never fly and not holding my breath and not bothering to spit into the wind/even bother to show the numbers…. as the consensus among environmentalists is that they prefer “clean natural gas (and fracking and CO2-induced ocean acidification)” versus another possible Fukushima or Chernobyl.

      PS, don’t tell the Japanese about all the home-ported US Navy nuclear-powered ships in Tokyo Bay/Yokosuka.

      * http://www.caiso.com/TodaysOutlook/Pages/default.aspx
      * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_California#/media/File:California_wind_resource_map_50m_800.jpg

      Reply
      1. a different chris

        Louis, I have a lot of sympathy for your position. I cut my teeth on nuclear electricity. But how can you label yourself as “Team Realistic” after the failure in South Carolina? And, again since you are an engineer and I assume careful with the facts, I would like some clarification on this:

        as the consensus among environmentalists is that they prefer “clean natural gas (and fracking and CO2-induced ocean acidification)” versus another possible Fukushima or Chernobyl.

        A “consensus” among environmentalists is as likely as cat herding, but we’ll take it as is for the moment. I would have thought your position was Fukushima shouldn’t have happened and won’t happen again, and OK the rest of us don’t feel that way for real-life reasons (I don’t live that terribly far from TMI, for instance). But the statement your are making, with that “possible”, is that there is a regular Fuku/Chern occurrence level (10 year? 15 years? more? less?) that you think would make nuclear accidents worth it if it meant we got rid of fossil fuels. That is a pretty hard sell, and don’t blame the environmentalists for not trying to make it.

        Reply
        1. Grumpy Engineer

          The nuclear power industry seems to only have trouble in the US and Europe. South Korea built their entire nuclear fleet for about the half the cost of the US fleet (on a dollars-per-kilowatt basis), largely on schedule with no subsequent nuclear accidents. The Chinese recently opened a 1750 MW monster of a station with only two years delay for about 60% the planned cost of a US reactor. It’s clearly possible to build nuclear power stations reasonably quickly and safely. What’s broken in the US and Europe?

          And as for the possibility of future Chernobyl/Fukushima level events? Well, the nuclear power industry has actually learned some things about safety in the 40 years that have passed since those reactors were built, so future meltdowns are less likely. Of course, that’s not a hard guarantee that it’ll never happen. But even if does happen every 10 years or so, is that really so bad? Chernobyl may have killed 4000 people. If that level of event happens every 10 years, it works out to 400 people per year.

          How many deaths per year will global warming cause? Researchers estimates it’s already killing 150000 people per year: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/global-warming-and-health/. And every year we dilly-dally with impossible (yes, impossible) dreams like 100% renewable energy ensures that not only will the deaths continue, but the pace will grow. So yes, if we can complete decarbonize our grid with nuclear in exchange for a once-a-decade meltdown, it’d be worth it. [I’d be astonished if meltdowns happened that often, though. The newer reactor designs really are safer.]

          Reply
          1. Ignacio

            What if covering the baseload was done long ago in Europe and US making nuclear investment not only unfashionable but risky?

            Reply
      1. Louis Fyne

        1. there is a haphazard/quasi-national grid already, made up of regional grids who work together to sell surplus electricity to each other.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regional_transmission_organization

        but even national/multi-state grids don’t change the calculus that different energy sources work better for different climates/geographies. What works in California will not work for the Great Lakes or the Northeast.

        2. This Grid-Scale Battery Is Based on Train Cars and Good Old Gravity….

        the math would be straight forward….but I imagine you need A LOT! of railroad + inclines. Who’s going to volunteer to have their local mountain valleys clear-cut and covered in railroad tracks? Or submerged for pumped hydro dams?

        People generally can’t even comprehend how much electricity it takes to run civilization at 3am (ie non-discretionary electricity: hospitals, 911, water-sewage, street lights, refrigerators, data centers, etc).

        And once again, that 20,000 MW figure is only for California at 3am on a temperate night.

        Multiply that by 50 states x 365 days x 24 hours then toss in the extra needed when it’s -5 degrees F outside or 95.

        Reply
        1. Steven

          even national/multi-state grids don’t change the calculus that different energy sources work better for different climates/geographies.

          This buttresses rather than undermines the argument for something better than “a haphazard/quasi-national grid”. The question is whether those different sources could be exploited to make fuller use of renewable energy.

          People generally can’t even comprehend how much electricity it takes to run civilization at 3am (ie non-discretionary electricity: hospitals, 911, water-sewage, street lights, refrigerators, data centers, etc).

          Probably a lot less than on a cold day. But with a combination of grid management, better grids and last but not least Yves’ good old fashioned low-hanging fruit of conservation would it really take “local mountain valleys clear-cut and covered in railroad tracks? Or submerged for pumped hydro dams”?

          Multiply that (20,000 MW) by 50 states x 365 days x 24hours

          Isn’t California still the nation’s most populated state?

          Reply
    2. Peter

      Justin Mikulka’s article is a giant exercise in wishful thinking.

      Thanks for stating the obvious so clearly. It seems most commenting on this article are very far removed from the realities of energy supply, transmission problems, unit costs and actual engineering experiences.

      Reply
      1. Louis Fyne

        To add, nowadays anyone advocating nuclear fission is not a sadist or owner of a uranium mine….fission is the last feasible fuel source left given 1) technical feasbility, 2) no/low CO2 emissions, 3) ability to start tomorrow (excluding fighting the litigation in federal court).

        Waiting for the solar-wind-storage magic bullet that may be feasible in 2029 means 10 more years of fracking and nat gas use and an entire world locking itself into LNG from Texas or Qatar or Russia or Australia.

        Reply
  9. PlutoniumKun

    The change in the economics of power generation in the last decade has been astonishing. The whole ‘gas as bridge fuel’ idea became popular because most of the projections in 2009 or thereabouts (for example in Peter McKays very influential book ‘Renewable Energy without Hot Air’) was that solar wouldn’t be competitive with coal until around 2040, with wind around 2020. Primarily due to brute force scale impacts, mostly thanks to China – this proved to be far too pessimistic. Solar is now fully competitive, even in not particularly sunny places. And the solar/wind mix complements very well in many regions because in much of the western hemisphere you get most wind in winter, solar in summer. Wind in particular is about to get much cheaper once the new generation of super large turbines come on stream. And both (as was proven in the Fukushima earthquake) are a far more resilient form of energy than anything else – even on-shore wind turbines were back producing within hours of the earthquake and tsunami.

    But I will say one good thing for gas – gas turbines are relatively easy to maintain (unlike big old coal plants), so the existing legacy of gas generators will last for decades, providing a ‘back-up’ to renewables for those times when you get freak weather conditions and storage solutions can’t provide enough power. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be kept operating for 30 years or more, but perhaps only being needed for a few days a year. This provides a breathing space until storage solutions are fully competitive in all markets.

    Reply
      1. dutch

        Where do you plan to get the hydrogen? When you pluck the hydrogen from hydrocarbons, which takes energy, you’re left with carbon dioxide.

        Reply
        1. Skip Intro

          yes, that would probably be bad, depending on the details. I’m hoping for direct photo-hydrolysis eventually, and in the meanwhile, H2 generation from hydrolysis using electricity from solar or wind.

          Reply
          1. Louis Fyne

            Because humans haven’t figured out nuclear fusion, let alone cheap nuclear fusion, yet.

            hopefully it’ll happen before I die

            Reply
            1. Skip Intro

              All storage media have conversion losses associated with them. In theory the energy cost and energy gain are the same, the details of the technology matter whether the loss is marginal or massive. Hydrogen can be produced where/when energy is available, then used where needed. The problem is less the loss from hydrolysis and re-oxidation, than the problem of pressurizing or liquifying H2 gas for transport.

              In addition, in my dreams at least, the (photo!)hydrolysis catalysts work on dirty water, and has the added benefit of reclaiming potable water from salty or polluted sources.

              Reply
        2. Arizona Slim

          Hydrogen is an emotionally needy element. Meaning that it forms strong bonds with any other element that it combines with.

          It takes a lot of energy to break these bonds.

          Reply
          1. Skip Intro

            The strength of that desire also results in a lot of energy released when it finally meets its match… it is quite romantic really, like those crazy weekends in a long-distance relationship.
            And so often, in the end, water drops flow.

            Reply
    1. heresy101

      This is a good article because it is describing what is occurring and not just parroting press releases from natural gas or renewables companies. The oil/natural gas province of Alberta is installing solar to meet 55% of its govenmental load for $0.038/kWh (USD).

      Natural gas plants are being closed but not quite as fast as coal and nuclear. A lot of this is occurring because of the changing load profile due to solar. The peak used to be at 2pm and now is 6-7pm because solar is knocking off the air conditioning part of the peak. During the day the combined cycle (“jet engines” and steam engines) are not running since solar is covering the daytime load and because they need 6-8 hours of running to be economic, they don’t run. About 3 or 4 combined cycle plants in California have shut down because they are not economic. Calpine’s Sutter plant in Butte County is only about 8 years old and they have closed it.

      Ten years ago, we were offered a share of the new most efficient combined cycle plant in the country and it was going to operate at a 68% capacity factor. Today, it only runs at an 18% CF and is paying the debt but not much more. We went with renewables instead. I wish we could claim to see the future of natural gas but it was just our focus on renewables.

      Combustion turbines (“jet engines” only) can ramp up in under 10 minutes and are used to meet the ramping peaks (in the evening) and are economic because they are designed to ramp up/down quickly. What is beginning to be used to meet the ramping load is batteries (which can respond almost instantaneously) or batteries tied to solar.
      A couple of the CCA’s in California have installed economic solar and storage. It will become increasingly more difficult for natural gas combustion turbines to compete.

      Offshore wind is the future for California and other shoreline states. 1,150 MW of offshore wind is proposed that at a 50% CF (it’s 60% in Scotland), these ~130 turbines would provide 3% of California’s electricity use.
      “If these were expanded to about 2,600 turbines (about half of the land based turbines), they would provide 58% of California’s electric usage! Last April, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority selected a consortium to build an floating offshore wind farm as large as 150 megawatts off the coast of Humboldt County, California. The Castle Wind project proposed for waters in Morro Bay, off California’s Central Coast, would include 100 floating turbines with a total generating capacity of 1,000 megawatts.”
      https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/arpa-e-commits-28-million-to-develop-advanced-floating-offshore-wind-turbin

      Reply
  10. ptb

    Ah, an article out of T-burg! There’s good music in them hills!

    I have to respectfully disagree on a few points. First, the example of Germany and India differs from the US on pricing, NG is an expensive fuel there, but is a cheap fuel here at the moment. As our less savvy neighbors on the other side of the state line, in PA, discovered to their dismay, dry gas production in the US is a matter of pipeline capacity, not extraction from the ground. This will continue to be the case for the duration of the “bridge fuel” scenario. (70% sure).

    Now the environmental impact of NG production should by no means be dismissed. I like my ground water and lakes and streams clean, probably more than most people. But that’s a little different from market-price based arguments. It’s also different from carbon impact arguments, which are here made compared-to-coal. So no more rambling, I’ll make it quick from here.

    (1) The first goal is to retire coal electric (20% of US generation), ASAP. I think the article does not disagree with this.
    (2) We must provide capacity (not average use) to cover periods of at least several days with neither solar nor wind
    (3) Energy storage: Apart from hydro, it will be some years before it is economically viable to install the amount of electric storage to supply the 20% of the grid’s capacity (not average use) for several days. I would say it is simply not an option in the next decade. (70% sure)
    (4) NG is and will remain cheaper than nuclear (100% sure)
    (5) NG is and will remain lower carbon than coal (100% sure)

    PS- Besides all that, NG electric, as a technology, is one that can be scaled down and is amenable to co-generation. (we’ll still be burning fuel to heat floorspace,. Until such time as wintertime clean energy is abundant, which it ain’t yet, electric space heating is about the worst thing you can do).

    Reply
    1. Steven

      Apart from hydro, it will be some years before it is economically viable to install the amount of electric storage to supply the 20% of the grid’s capacity (not average use) for several days. I would say it is simply not an option in the next decade. (70% sure)

      I think you may have to reduce the number a bit. If it is true for a country the size of the US that ‘somewhere the sun is always shining or the wind is always blowing’, with a well-designed national grid wouldn’t that take the number down a bit? Then there is always grid management. In worst-case scenarios, it is really essential I be able to use my electrically heated sauna?

      But there is another form of ‘pumped storage’ (your “hydro”) which looks like it should be considered for more long-term, large capacity energy storage. See This Grid-Scale Battery Is Based on Train Cars and Good Old Gravity This could be used to store all that excess power my solar produces in the summer here in Tucson (power which the utilities say is causing them so much heartache with their ‘duck curves’) to supply the 20% capacity you say might be required.

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      1. ptb

        Re: other forms of gravity storage … Yes, very cool concept, makes sense. I see this happening as an alternative where there is elevation change but not enough water. (southwest). I also saw a swiss company doing this with cranes and containers full of lead basically.

        Re: hydro pumping – of course, an unbeatable storage tech, when available.

        In the above places retiring coal should be easy enough, in terms of technological availability of non-carbon generation. (complicating matters are grid issues and retirement of nuclear — NG plants and storage plants are drop-in replacements. Nothing else is. The latter is costly unless elevation/gravity based)

        Re: electric transmission over continental distances…. would be nice. Not yet. That is a technological barrier.

        Anyway, the “20%” is an zero-effort number, it may be 15% or even 10% or something like that, since there are specific alternatives in specific places.

        -BUT-

        Total US generation was ~4000 TWh in 2015, I don’t recall if that’s a capacity or total figure.

        It is a freakin lot to build out in a decade or two. If you want to end coal in 10 or even 20 years, you start today, with what you have. To be clear, this is not saying no to the other stuff. My point, is that dismissing NG is a foolishly wasted opportunity to get a decade or more of reduced national carbon use for modest cost compared to current alternatives.

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    1. John k

      Beyond the ever moving horizon… or event horizon… my career was in fission and fusion research.
      Fusion at the center of the sun produces high energy neutrons. The neutrons slow as they crash into the dense gas in the sun, their kinetic energy converteding to heat, the heat eventually (years) reaches the surface and then radiates away, reaching us eight minutes later. In a tokamak the neutrons crash into some barrier, similarly creating heat, but also converting the barrier wall materials into radioactive waste.
      Long ago nuclear energy was predicted to be too cheap to meter. IMO fusion will never be competitive with fission, which is already not competitive with nat gas, which is already not competitive with renewables. And storage said to drop 80% by 2040… nearly free vs today. Only a fool, or somebody financed with free Wall Street money, would even consider building any nuclear or fossil fueled plant today.

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  11. Steven

    If you don’t count the real estate costs of solar farms and the distribution costs of getting the power they produce to the end user, there is probably no arguing they are more physically efficient with their economies of scale than rooftop solar. But the rooftops are there and furthermore cost utilities almost nothing – other than foregone profits from generation – to populate with solar panels.

    I suspect what is really at stake for them and for companies like US Solar and Solar City is ‘tax farming’. Home owners still get at least some federal tax credits installing solar. But unlike businesses, i.e. utilities and 3rd party power providers, they can not also write off the depreciation of their investment. In spite of the fact that most panels last 20 – 30 years businesses are allowed to accelerate their 100% depreciation to as little as 5 (3?) years. This probably accounts for the huge number of lease layouts, e.g. on north-facing roofs, that make little physical sense.

    The real business of electric utilities OUGHT to be storage and grid management (including tie-ins with regional and national grids) not generation. This is for them a genuine ‘natural monopoly’ and one with which their customers will probably never be able to compete. They are, however, so hung up on rent-extraction they cling to their fossil fuel powered generators and massive grid distribution architectures (and obscene executive salaries) – avoiding even just what would normally be considered rational investments in storage (for fear the stimulus would cause the price of storage to drop even faster?) until, like APS, they are compelled by investors to do so.

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  12. Peter

    What if covering the baseload was done long ago in Europe and US

    Is that all you do? Dreaming and denying reality? The industrial revolution was based on the use of high density energy source for driving it was not possible without non renewable.
    How could you have developed renewable sources if non renewables would not have existed? Magic?

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  13. Synoia

    Last year America’s carbon emissions rose over 3 percent, despite coal plants closing and being replaced in part by natural gas, the much-touted “bridge fuel” and “cleaner” fossil fuel alternative.

    Moving from one carbon based fuel, coal, to another, natural gas, would do little to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions. Natural gas is only “clean” in that is has a very low sulfur content.

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    1. Ptb

      Compared to coal, NG is more easily used at higher compression ratio, resulting in better thermodynamic efficiency (work/heat).

      Kindof like how a turbo diesel gets better mileage. It’s a 20-50% improvement vs coal, in terms of how many CO2 molecules you make per kWh. This small but significant improvement can be had for a modest cost, right now, with existing technology.

      Neither coal nor NG production are good for the environment.

      The choice is whether stop using coal now and get the partial carbon savings for whatever number of years (prob 10-20) is needed to get either storage tech or nuclear, or save the capital expenditure of building a generation of NG plants, and use it to build renewables. This presumes an either-or choice, by the way, which is false – little reason not to do both.

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  14. rtah100

    Some (how do I put this nicely) ivory tower dwellers in the UK want to ban natural gas as a domestic fuel and force the use of electricity, despite the appalling transmission losses of the later and the sacrilege of wasting it once generated and transmitted on boiling carrots or space heating.

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  15. Peter

    Having discussed for many years on atheist websites the fineries of belief with Christian apologists, I am struck by the similarities between that group of believers and those here who seem to think that “green” energy – whatever green means in the context of industrial production – is the cure all for the ills that beset industrial societies.

    The same twisting and denial of difficulties and contradictions of the texts perceived by the critics contradicting the apologists who find new ways to explain away the many inconsistencies and utter nonsense that are glaringly obvious to those critical of the holy books.

    I find it especially absurd to believe in technology being able to solve problems without creating a host of new and unforeseen ones, as if we didn’t have the experience of a few hundred years to draw on that tell us exactly that.

    This believe in green seems to be more akin to religion than to rational energy politics – which latter demands heavy does of curbing the demand and doing with much less.

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  16. VietnamVet

    Interesting article but it left out the problems. Renewables today means electricity. There needs to be oversight to assure that climate change is addressed. For example, electric homes need to be energy efficient. There are siting problems for wind turbines and solar panels. Georgetown U wants to cut 240 acres of trees to go solar.
    https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/environment/bs-md-georgetown-solar-trees-20190131-story.html
    Transportation must return to efficient electrified steel rails. This is catastrophic for suburbia. Plus, Republicans (with Democrats help) flushed government down the drain.

    Reply

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