Thursday, November 20, 2014

What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change

In 2007, when Google unveiled its initiative to make renewable energy competitive with coal, called RE<C, it represented a major breakthrough for the industry.
...Then, in 2011, Google stopped its R&D efforts prematurely.
...Two Google engineers who worked on the RE<C initiative have finally opened up about why the team halted their efforts.   - quoted from Stephen Lacey article
The article, by Ross Koningstein and David Fork, is fascinating.
What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change| IEEE Spectrum:
...calculations cast our work at Google’s RE<C program in a sobering new light. Suppose for a moment that it had achieved the most extraordinary success possible, and that we had found cheap renewable energy technologies that could gradually replace all the world’s coal plants—a situation roughly equivalent to the energy innovation study’s best-case scenario. Even if that dream had come to pass, it still wouldn’t have solved climate change. This realization was frankly shocking: Not only had RE<C failed to reach its goal of creating energy cheaper than coal, but that goal had not been ambitious enough to reverse climate change. 
Image from IEEE Spectrum article
That realization prompted us to reconsider the economics of energy. What’s needed, we concluded, are reliable zero-carbon energy sources so cheap that the operators of power plants and industrial facilities alike have an economic rationale for switching over soon—say, within the next 40 years. Let’s face it, businesses won’t make sacrifices and pay more for clean energy based on altruism alone. Instead, we need solutions that appeal to their profit motives. RE<C’s stated goal was to make renewable energy cheaper than coal, but clearly that wouldn’t have been sufficient to spur a complete infrastructure changeover. So what price should we be aiming for?

Consider an average U.S. coal or natural gas plant that has been in service for decades; its cost of electricity generation is about 4 to 6 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. Now imagine what it would take for the utility company that owns that plant to decide to shutter it and build a replacement plant using a zero-carbon energy source. The owner would have to factor in the capital investment for construction and continued costs of operation and maintenance—and still make a profit while generating electricity for less than $0.04/kWh to $0.06/kWh.
That’s a tough target to meet. But that’s not the whole story. Although the electricity from a giant coal plant is physically indistinguishable from the electricity from a rooftop solar panel, the value of generated electricity varies. In the marketplace, utility companies pay different prices for electricity, depending on how easily it can be supplied to reliably meet local demand.

“Dispatchable” power, which can be ramped up and down quickly, fetches the highest market price.
Read the entire article at IEEE Spectrum

Stephen Lacey wrote the article, on this article, I quoted at the start of this post. It is at Greentech Media: Google Engineers Explain Why They Stopped R&D in Renewable Energy

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