After 1,127 days of blogging at energyblogs.com the Black Swan Blog has had a total of 80,000 "reads" of 70 posts. By way of comparison a post about a Hollywood wardrobe malfunction would get that much attention in about an hour so I am certainly not feeling like my blogs are rocking the Internet. However, it does indicate that there is a significant appetite for information on alternative energy innovation.
During the last three years it seems to me that we have been trying to move towards a sustainable energy environment by doing things that are easy but not necessarily very effective. It calls to mind the wise words of Yoda who declared that "if you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil".
Overly dramatic? Perhaps. But consider this. Various governments around the world have poured something like a trillion dollars into direct financial support for renewables (this is a guessimate based upon the fact that Germany has been spending about $10-20 Billion a year for the past 15 years, the U.S. PTC and associated grants are estimated to be $13 Billion annually and many other countries are spending smaller amounts - it is unbelievable to me that there does not seem to be any academic studies on the total global costs). And after this investment there has been basically no ability in any country to permanently shut down natural gas-fired or coal-fired or nuclear powered plants. That is because in the late afternoon and into the night when the winds are calm renewables produce no energy. As a result, 100% of existing generation capacity has to be kept on standby, ready to leap into action when renewables falter.
Beyond direct financial support for wind, solar and biomass, many jurisdictions have legislated Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) that specify that a certain percentage of generation MUST come from renewables regardless of the cost. That translates into the development of additional, often surplus generation capacity (almost exclusively wind and Photo-Voltaic solar) that must be paid for by local rate-payers.
I have no complaint about the amount of money that has been put towards creating a sustainable energy environment. I do have a major problem with the way that money has been spent because I don't think it is getting us closer to the long term goal.
If we are to achieve a sustainable energy environment we need to have reliable renewable energy sources that we can depend upon at any time of the day or night. That may seem obvious but it is a simple fact that has been almost completely ignored by the majority of renewable energy advocates and policy makers.
In a world where every statement regarding renewables is "greenwashed" it is politically incorrect to suggest that wind energy generated in the middle of the night when there is no demand is useless. Instead we get statements such as "solar energy production matches demand", "the wind is always blowing somewhere", and the "levelized cost of renewable electricity is becoming competitive". These statements may not be lies but they are certainly not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The true value of solar energy between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm decreases as the supply increases - that's Economics 101. So there comes a point when further development of solar without storage is pointless. Hawaii and Germany (for a couple of months in the spring and summer) are already there. Paying homeowners a Feed-In-Tariff for energy produced from roof-top solar panels in that situation is madness.
The value of wind energy when demand is low drops to zero. In many cases in the U.S. wind energy is sold into the grid at negative prices because of the Production Tax Credit.
To add insult to injury several reliable and renewable energy sources have been receiving little or no financial support. Large scale hydro, geothermal, hydro-kinetics, and Concentrated Solar Power installations often do not qualify for RPS and receive either no financial support or in the best case the same support as wind and Photo-Voltaic (PV) Solar. But these sources are much more valuable than wind and PV solar exactly because they are reliable and can be "dispatched" in much the same way as legacy thermal generation plants.
Then we come to the plight of energy storage systems. The amount of Research and Development funding that has gone into energy storage is pathetic - probably much less than $10 billion or 1% of the value of renewable subsidies. And yet if we had a viable energy storage system then it would be possible to make much more effective use of wind and PV Solar.
In most jurisdictions energy storage systems are treated as a "consumer" and are charged a grid transport fee. That is absurd. Energy storage systems support local grid stability. They should be paid a fee for ancilliary services and energy from storage should receive a Feed-In-Tariff which reflects the ability of storage systems to meet peak demand.
Finally, there are huge opportunities to manage peak demand. Time of use pricing can be effective but true demand management whereby consumers (residential and industrial) voluntarily reduce demand at critical times can make a real difference. In a world where there will inevitably be less control of generation sources it will be essential to have a significant ability to control demand.
I find it odd that some things, like legislating demand response or geoexchange for new residential and commercial buildings are not acted upon while huge subsidies continue to be allocated to wind and PV Solar. This does not seem to be rocket science to me. I have summarized some potential approaches in my Sustainable Energy Manifesto.