The magic of cheap energy
December 17, 2020 11:56 PM   Subscribe

Why I'm so excited about solar and batteries - "Instead of the Jetsons future, we got the cyberpunk future. Why did that happen? ... I blame the slowdown in energy technology... we didn't get anything better than oil during this time. Nuclear fission provided a bit of a boost to electricity generation (and a big boost in France), but nobody ended up driving fission cars around or flying fission planes through the sky."[1]
New fundamental advances like solid state lithium-ion batteries and next-generation solar cells seem within reach, which will kick off another virtuous cycle of deployment, learning curves, and cost decreases... For the first time since the advent of oil, humanity might get a new source of cheaper, more plentiful energy. And that has the potential to drive productivity growth of the kind we’ve only rarely seen since the 1960s.

With solar and wind now cheaper than fossil fuels in many areas, and still plunging in price, electricity is going to get cheaper. That’s going to enable a lot of cool things. For example, cheap, clean large-scale desalination. This would avert the fresh water shortages that loom over much of the world, and allow improvements in agriculture as well.

Home appliances will also be easier to power; lots of people will be able to afford clothes dryers, air conditioning, and so on. Plenty of manufacturing industries use a lot of electricity; these will be able to produce more with the same amount of labor, so workers' wages will go up. Construction will become more efficient, allowing the cheap creation of denser suburbs (or more Jetsons towers, if we want them). Recycling, renovating buildings, cleaning up pollution, and all kinds of environmental work will get more affordable. Even the IT industry will benefit, since server farms will be able to do the world’s computing cheaply and cleanly. They can even mine more cryptocurrency.

Coupled with cheap, energy-dense batteries, even more possibilities open up. No one wants to run a gasoline-powered robot housekeeper inside their home, but a battery-powered one would be fine. Better batteries would make electric cars quick and easy to charge and give them long range. Electric flight and electric shipping might make global trade and travel not just more environmentally friendly but actually cheaper. Drones will get much better too (though you can bet these will be used for military purposes as well as civilian ones). Even flying cars might become electric at some point.

And nearly every one of these benefits is complementary to human brain power — it’s just as easy to drive an electric truck as a gas-powered one. That means energy tech won’t make workers worried about being replaced, like A.I. does. In fact, with the right institutions in place to make sure the productivity gains are shared equally, energy tech could reduce inequality.

Of course, just as in the industrial revolution, the human world will have to make reforms and compromises and bold changes in order to take advantage of the revolution in energy technology. Building the suburbs was easy; allowing them to be rebuilt in a denser fashion will be politically harder. Faster transportation, new appliances, and improved industrial processes will always require their share of regulation, while increased resource use will have to be managed with care. Cheap energy doesn’t free the rest of society from the burden of smart rule-making.

But it does grease the wheels of prosperity. One of the scariest scenarios for the 21st century is that of a zero-sum world, where low productivity growth convinces people that the only way to get rich is at someone else’s expense. That sort of dog-eat-dog world would see intensified conflict and political instability. But cheap energy, even more than other kinds of innovation, offers the potential for the world to return to the sort of positive, future-oriented, growth-oriented, win-win culture that we sometimes managed to achieve, in some places, during the 20th century.

It’s the future we thought we had lost, but which we might finally get after all.
also btw...
  • Techno-optimism roundup - "It might be that all of us bloggers are just sitting around huffing each other's fantasies... I can't help but notice that so far the new wave of techno-optimists are, like me, a bunch of white dudes."
  • Techno-optimism for the 2020s - "Big Science is in."
  • The space race is back. Now, military competition is a scary thing. But if the return of great-power rivalry has to happen — and at this point it seems nigh-inevitable — at least it should give us a new space race... great-power competition can be used to pressure a short-sighted and narrow-minded political class into funding research at an appropriate level.

    Our competition with China won’t just be about moon bases or space weapons; it’ll be a comprehensive contest across a vast array of technologies. Energy, A.I., drones, vaccines, and all kinds of areas with huge civilian and commercial spillovers will also be the focus of intense U.S.-China rivalry. Already, competition with China is being cited as a reason to pass the Endless Frontier Act, a much-needed expansion of federal research funding.

    So while it would be nice if we didn’t need international rivalry to drive technological progress, at least its return gives us one more reason to be optimistic about innovation and research in the coming decade.
  • The Super-Scary Theory of the 21st Century - "The haunting specter of techno-authoritarianism."[2]
  • Climate change isn't THAT hard - "What I'm saying is that technology has pushed down the social costs of decarbonization from 'ha ha ha, this is something only crazy eco-socialists would ever think we would possibly do' to 'huh, this is actually pretty doable.'"
more...
  • Scientists Just Set a New World Record in Solar Cell Efficiency - "Researchers have now hit an efficiency of 29.15 percent in the perovskite/silicon tandem solar cell category... More good news is that putting perovskite and silicon together doesn't substantially add to the cost of making the panels."
  • Solar cells perovskite films made at record low cost and speed - "'First industrially relevant attempt' to scale up perovskite solar cell manufacturing makes 12 meters of material per minute, with one meter costing only 25¢."
  • Company claims solid-state lithium-metal battery breakthrough - "It would offer much higher energy density and much faster charging."
  • Toyota's game-changing solid-state battery en route for 2021 debut - "Japan's government to join forces with industry to supercharge development."
  • Tesla NEWEST EV Batteries vs Solid State Lithium Metal Batteries - "In this video, I dive into this new technology and discuss how it compares to Tesla's newest 4680 Tabless batteries."
  • Batteries For Electric Cars Speed Toward a Tipping Point - "A new survey shows battery prices fast approaching cost competitiveness."[3,4]
  • In Boost for Renewables, Grid-Scale Battery Storage Is on the Rise - "Driven by technological advances, facilities are being built with storage systems that can hold enough renewable energy to power hundreds of thousands of homes. The advent of 'big battery' technology addresses a key challenge for green energy — the intermittency of wind and solar."
  • Australia Is Turning Its Power Market Into a Two-Way Street - "With so many homeowners generating their own power, the country is having to rethink what it means to provide energy."[5,6,7]
  • Solar Power Booms in Texas - "The state, a leader in wind energy, will be home to the nation's largest solar farm, part of an expected surge in development."[8,9]
  • The New Green Energy Giants Challenging Exxon and BP - "Three utilities that invested early in wind and solar power now rival major oil companies in market value. Can they continue to dominate as the world's shift to renewable energy accelerates?"
  • The New Energy Giants Are Renewable Companies - "These clean supermajors are coming for big oil."
  • America's Greenest Energy Giant Isn't Trying to Save the Planet [ungated] - "NextEra is ready for the Biden era with lobbyists, tough tactics, and more renewable power than anyone else."
  • NextEra's Bet on Renewable Energy Was a Winner All Along - "It was betting, essentially, on Wright's Law, a theory of industrial production born, like the utility, in the 1920s. Wright was studying airplane makers and found that with each doubling of capacity, cost declined by a similar amount. Essentially: if you build it, you will save."
  • When capital expenses are viewed through Wright’s lens, it entirely changes unit economics. The payoff on the $10 million solar plant built today comes from the third such plant down the line – at least much of it.

    Little of this is powered by breakthroughs, mind you. The cost swoon comes from an accumulation of small forces: factories become more efficient, mining operations seeing similar gains in scaling up, more competition pushing the market further along, and with it more R&D that further iterates the product itself. An incremental gain in any link in the chain ripples through the length of the market machinery. The tricky thing is that it’s all tough to see of a piece.

    Price decreases drive demand, which drives production, which drives price decreases. Rinse, repeat...

    All of this is dark arts for an executive, particularly one with multiple stakeholders like ratepayers and investors. It’s hard enough to model capex decisions given fluctuations in commodity prices, interest rates, population growth, the wider economy, etc. Baking in a dynamic and substantial decline in technology costs adds another layer of complexity – and one that requires a not insignificant amount of guts ... or faith.

    Not considering it, however, is more dangerous. It’s like doing a physics problem – say shooting a rocket to the moon – without accounting for wind resistance. The math may be correct, but it’s still not going to work out well.

    And there’s no shortage of companies that don’t have the gumption to buy into Wright’s Law. Consider automakers that shunned electric vehicles for decades. As battery prices plummet, a day doesn’t go by without news of a major manufacturer accelerating EV plans or announcing new models. They are racing to catch Mr. Musk, who is plenty familiar with the conjectures of Moore and Wright.
  • Revolutionary 'CopenHill' Offers Snow-Free Skiing on Top of a Power Plant - "BIG's Copenhill is a functioning power plant in Copenhagen combined with public program like a ski slope and climbing wall."
  • Europe's Biggest Vertical Farm Will Be Powered by Wind and Planted by Robots - "Crops will grow in stacks 14 layers high and will use more than 20,000 LED lights. Robots on wheels will deliver seeds to the growing shelves."
  • Psychedelics Replace Pot as the New Favorite Edgy Investment [ungated] - "Companies that work with drugs like psilocybin, an ingredient in magic mushrooms, or Ibogaine, used in ayahuasca-style ceremonies, are proliferating, with early-stage investors predicting such substances have an even better shot than cannabis at disrupting the $70 billion market for mental health." (Psychedelic Drugs Are Fueling a Mental Health Revolution)
@mucha_carlos: "I'm convinced that the low-lying fruit of progressive economic reform is a carbon tax & dividend, w/ $ paid out as mini UBI. Once Congress is in the habit of wiring every US resident $20/mo, easy to go back to the well to instantly stimulate economy or, eventually, a full UBI.[10] If we had a carbon dividend, the question of whether to wire a monthly check to every American would be settled. The debate at any given time would simply be how much the check should be."

@interfluidity: "it'd be easier to organize a general strike for more relief if the precedent had been tilted more towards general universal checks than generous unemployment insurance supplements.[11] if the deficit numbers freak you out, use the progressive income tax to suck it back from high wealth/income recipients."
posted by kliuless (44 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, there go MY plans for today (thanks, though, this is great!) ...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:15 AM on December 18, 2020 [3 favorites]


Not to derail this too much, but the Jetsons live the way that they do because they rendered the surface of their planet uninhabitable, and own a sentient robot slave. Nobody ever comments on either. It's..... extremely cyberpunk.
posted by schmod at 5:29 AM on December 18, 2020 [42 favorites]


Needs more jevon's paradox
posted by lalochezia at 5:45 AM on December 18, 2020 [3 favorites]


Climate change isn't THAT hard - "What I'm saying is that technology has pushed down the social costs of decarbonization from 'ha ha ha, this is something only crazy eco-socialists would ever think we would possibly do' to 'huh, this is actually pretty doable.'"

This is a really important point for everyone to understand. It can be easy to get overwhelmed and paralysed into inaction because, "fuck it, we're just not going to be able do this". We now have a pretty good idea of what we need to do and it's really not that expensive or difficult. Yes it will cost money, yes we will have to make compromises, and yes there is often a difficult final 10%, but ten years ago it sometimes felt like the compromises that the general public would have to make were too great for them to agree to politically. Even though it was obvious that it was worth doing at more or less any price, I certainly worried that we would not see a global effort to do enough, early enough because of the short term nature of politics. It would be better to get to 80% or 90% ahead of schedule and not reach net zero in 2050 than to cut faster later and just hit net zero at 2050, that's because it is cumulative emissions and not the annual emissions at the end of the process that matters. The difficulty of the last few % makes it all the more important to cut deep and fast, so that we have the headroom to figure out the last few %. (In the sense of avoiding quite serious climate change, we already have no headroom so we are really just avoiding the worst of it).

Electricity:

Two things you have to look at: LCOE which is the levelised cost per unit of electricity produced and total system cost per unit of electricity delivered. The latter also includes transmission and distribution reinforcement, storage, and the need to have higher LCOE peakers and demand side response to make the system work.

Not only is LCOE for renewable electricity from wind and solar dropping fast, all the latest modelling on total system costs is also showing that getting to 90% renewables is very affordable and that the last 10% is also much cheaper than we had thought.

LCOE is a valuable concept for comparing technologies but it breaks down a little when you are modelling whole energy systems, especially if you are also including heating and transport. What you really want then is a marginal value curve of adding X MW of capacity to the system given what the rest of the system looks like. This does mean that you no longer have a point estimate but a curve and that this curve depends on the rest of your system. You run an optimiser across that portfolio, optimising both generation/storage/network capex as well as actual unit dispatching in order to get the lowest cost mix, constrain your test technology to be X MW more and then run the optimiser again. The difference, minus the costs of the technology itself, is then compared to LCOE. If it's higher than LCOE, you want to add more of the technology, it it's lower then you want less.

Obviously this is sensitive to lots of assumptions that are exogenous to the technology being modelled. If you assume really cheap batteries, the optimal configuration has lots more variable output renewables than if you assume expensive ones despite the LCOE of the renewables themselves being the same in both scenarios.

This is also the argument for leavening the bread of a largely variable renewable power system with small sprinkles of technology like nuclear, gas turbines with or without CCS, and even electrolyser/hydrogen/fuel cell systems - even though those are high-cost technologies, you end up with a much cheaper system by adding small amounts of them. Whether the modelling definitively shows that we need more new nuclear is unclear to me. Certainly with some very reasonable assumptions you can show that the UK could do with another 2-3 EPRs but until HPC is delivered and working we don't really know if they have solved the problems with building the EPR. It certainly is not the case that something having the lowest LCOE means that we should build only that thing though.

For instance, the UK and large parts of the US could get about 80% of electrical power from renewables by just keeping existing gas generation plants (key point: they're already built so you're only paying marginal operating cost for the next few decades). In this situation the capacity of gas generation is a much bigger fraction of total capacity than it is of total energy delivered.


Transport:
For cars and other light ground vehicles, we are already at the point where the pre-subsidy, pre-incentive total cost of new EV ownership is lower than gasoline cars in some places for people with long daily commutes and access to low cost charging on either end. This is a lot of qualifications of course but the point is that every marginal improvement in EV TCO makes that group larger. The UK just announced that there will be no new ICE car sales after 2030, the most ambitious of the energy scenarios published only earlier this year by the electricity transmission operator had that year as 2032 and my guess is that by the time it arrives new ICE vehicles will be a small part of the market.

I think it's still unclear whether long distance transport will work with EVs or whether something else like hydrogen will be required.

Note that the drop in the LCOE of variable renewables makes the forecast cost of hydrogen production lower as well (vast majority of the cost is input electricity).

Yes, aviation is a tough nut to crack but also:
-It's only 1% of global emissions, so we can leave it for last
-Covid has probably permanently taken a chunk out of business travel
-Synthetic hydrocarbon fuels are very much a thing, especially if electricity is cheap (adapting aircraft engines to hydrogen is much less likely to be good value in the time to 2050)


Domestic heat:

For new build houses the solution here is absolutely high thermal performance and heat pumps. The price of doing this on newbuild is easily repaid by the savings since the marginal costs of better thermal performance are not that high. This is an area where strict regulation is absolutely necessary. People buying property are not doing a DCF to figure out what their total cost of owning and operating the house is over 30 years (unless they're weirdos like me), they're buying what's on the market and looking at the purchase price only.

Older houses are much harder. In many cases it would take tens of thousands of dollars of disruptive upgrades to get their thermal performance to a point where a straight heat pump solution is viable. Countries like the UK have a substantial number of solid walled properties where that is almost impossible. Maybe the solution is hydrogen, if the wholesale price of producing it comes down enough this would work. Maybe its high or medium temperature heat networks and/or ground source heat pumps (unlike air source, a gsHP can keep even an old house warm). Maybe its hybrid heat pumps that use hydrogen or even methane for the coldest 10% of the time.

If you want to look at what a good, well thought out plan to do this looks like and can read Dutch or use google translate, have a look at Amsterdam's warmth transition vision which shows that even in a city full of old buildings this is totally doable.


Industry:

A lot of discrete problems to solve here, Saul Griffith has pointed out that quite a lot of this energy is used in fossil fuel refining which obviously is its own solution. Even here, there has been recent work on splitting industrial heat by temperature and there is a lot of medium temperature heat which next generation heat pumps can provide. High temperature process heat is probably hydrogen.

There's some really interesting work being done in chemical engineering looking at which processes which currently have to be run continuously could be re-designed to take advantage of the varying price of energy over the course of each day.


I will note that while there is debate in the energy systems modelling community about precisely what the future mix is, the good news is that every single model includes an optimum amount of PV and wind that is substantially more than almost any grid currently has installed which means that from a policy / "what do we do between now and 2025" point of view it is very clear what the least regret investments are:
-Energy efficiency
-Electrification of cars
-PV and solar
-Storage for grid stability
-Upgrades to T&D infrastructure

We've got more good investments that work in almost any plausible future scenario in those categories than we will have available resources in the next five, maybe even ten years so there is little ambiguity about next year's capital spending priorities.

There will come a time when definite decisions have to be made about the use of alternative energy carriers like hydrogen, about the role of nuclear, about CCS, etc. but we have a lot of low-hanging fruit on the carbon abatement tree left to harvest before we need to have an answer to those questions that actually drives big capital investments. That doesn't mean the debate about long term plans isn't important, just that it doesn't need to be driving capital spending decisions.
posted by atrazine at 5:56 AM on December 18, 2020 [35 favorites]


Hmmm, I'm not seeing the part where the oil companies spread money around the halls of power in order to continue their stranglehold on energy. I know, I'm being all dystopian when everybody wants to be utopian but in my experience people in power do not give that up without a fight. Still, I welcome wind & solar, brought to you by BP.
posted by evilDoug at 6:04 AM on December 18, 2020 [3 favorites]


Oh, and as a consumer of energy on the power grid, demands go up, so do prices, demand goes down, prices go up, because "We gotta make up for the shortfall." Power companies, can't live with them, can't send them on a one way trip to the sun, amirite?
posted by evilDoug at 6:08 AM on December 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


Hmmm, I'm not seeing the part where the oil companies spread money around the halls of power in order to continue their stranglehold on energy.

Oil companies can spread money around Congress all they like but when it comes down to it, the power companies are looking at the cost of solar and wind, then at the cost of even natural gas base load plants, and seeing the writing on the wall. If the power companies don't adapt shit's getting so cheap that their consumers can basically fuck them off and treat them as an emergency power source.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 6:10 AM on December 18, 2020 [6 favorites]


Hmmm, I'm not seeing the part where the oil companies spread money around the halls of power in order to continue their stranglehold on energy. I know, I'm being all dystopian when everybody wants to be utopian but in my experience people in power do not give that up without a fight. Still, I welcome wind & solar, brought to you by BP.

We are now reaching the point where renewables lobbyists are out-spending oil and gas lobbyists. It works both ways.

Anyway, coal is dying because renewables + gas is a much cheaper combo, what have coal companies been able to do about it? Fuck all is what.
posted by atrazine at 6:17 AM on December 18, 2020 [3 favorites]


Instead of the Jetsons future

So I was just walking in the neighborhood keeping social distance, chatted with folks I don't see often, keeping busy? surprisingly most were, and doing ok... and then... "working for a stealth startup, can't say much, but flying car.... what.wait..what... oh do you mean "that one"?.... no new startup... deep stealth... can't say anything ..."

There are so many flying car initiatives all over the world, we may have the jetsons tech sooner than expected, and the roombas are getting smarter too.
posted by sammyo at 6:24 AM on December 18, 2020


Needs more jevon's paradox

I've heard an energy researcher treat energy efficiency as equivalent to an energy source like wind, solar or coal, to frame Jevon's Paradox in a way that inspires action. You can do things like use smart meters to show real-time usage (and thus see what things suck way more power than you expect) and get an infrared sensor that plugs into your phone to see what parts of your house your air-conditioner is fighting against.

Improving energy efficiency regulation, then, effectively builds a new power plant.
posted by Merus at 6:29 AM on December 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


Hmmm, I'm not seeing the part where the oil companies spread money around the halls of power in order to continue their stranglehold on energy.

The oil majors, all of them, took a couple of major blows to the nose this year. First from the Saudi decision to kill the NA fracking industry in February and then a month or two later by the Coronavirus curtailments of demand. Either one would be a major disaster for the US industry in particular, which had been largely addicted to revolving cheap credit funded by junk bond issues. Fracking is really expensive to do, needing lots of new wells. When oil high prices and easy money evaporated, the whole sector largely collapsed this summer. It may be years, if ever that we see a return to the level of activity of even 2019.

In addition to that, the high-capital and speculative projects on the books of most of the large companies, major and sovereign, have been postponed or even written off entirely as "stranded", uneconomical to ever produce from. This includes many of the more remote and unconventional sources, including Arctic, deep offshore and oil sands/bitumen plays.

All that to say, the oil sector is worse off in 2020 than it has been in generations, looking at resource licenses that may never be used and capital costs for expansion being higher than any projected returns. The focus now is on shrinking businesses to only the most profitable and hoping that consumer demand doesn't tank too quickly. And looking at unconventional markets like petrochemicals and plastics.

They don't have a lot of money anymore for things that aren't absolutely essential to core business. Personally, I think this was a major fundraising issue for Trump and the Republicans last year. I have no proof of that beyond a gut feeling though.
posted by bonehead at 7:12 AM on December 18, 2020 [5 favorites]


Energy post written by kliuless, with comments by atrazine = win.
posted by aramaic at 7:21 AM on December 18, 2020 [8 favorites]


Plenty of manufacturing industries use a lot of electricity; these will be able to produce more with the same amount of labor, so workers' wages will go up.
Oh, do tell
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:44 AM on December 18, 2020 [28 favorites]


Relevant and timely, batteries have gotten 88% cheaper over the last decade.
posted by aramaic at 7:48 AM on December 18, 2020 [4 favorites]


The first article seems naive in the extreme. I LOLed when it got to renewable server farms = more cryptocurrency mined.

Here's a little-mentioned fact that could be a real key innovation driver: Once batteries are full, the cost per watt of excess solar production is not cheap. It's $0.00. Anything that can use those excess watts for a useful purpose becomes worth considering, even if it would normally be too innefficient or low value to bother with. Because any solar power system that is appropriately sized to be guaranteed to meet the always-on demands will have excess solar power available part of the time.
posted by joeyh at 8:35 AM on December 18, 2020 [5 favorites]


So, there’s a few things going on here:

1) Funding a UBI with a carbon tax/dividend is completely deranged. Cutting carbon emissions would become an economically-regressive action.

2) We’ve spent far too much time over the past decade waiting for breakthroughs with battery/solar technology that have completely failed to materialize (nor does it look like any are on the horizon). Instead, most of the (considerable) advances that we’ve made have come from incremental improvements on existing technology and old-fashioned economies of scale.

Yes, it’s glamorous to write about a hypothetical future breakthrough that will save us all, but I think that’s demonstrably not going to happen at this point. While we didn’t get any “revolutionary” breakthroughs in solar (which was unlikely anyway, considering we were already approaching limits imposed by the laws of physics), the cost of solar panels slowly crept downward, and has dropped below the point where the panels themselves are a major cost-driver of a solar installation.

However, we still aren’t committing the efforts necessary to deploy them at scale. We quietly crossed the threshold where solar panels are darn near as good as they’re ever going to get, and.... nothing changed.

Similarly, we seem to have reached a consensus that Lithium-Ion batteries are a viable long-term technology. We stopped putting our efforts into finding a successor technology, and instead made some really good improvements to the existing tech. In that category, we’re also at the point where some are pondering whether or not massively-increased energy density would even be a good idea.

There isn’t going to be “one weird trick” or some sort of savior technology that emerges to fix climate change, and we really really really need to stop putting our hopes into that. Boring/old technologies have evolved far past the point where they’re worthwhile, and we need to start putting in the hard work to deploy them on a (massively) wider scale.
posted by schmod at 9:02 AM on December 18, 2020 [5 favorites]


these will be able to produce more with the same amount of labor, so workers' wages will go up

Hahahahahahaaa... good one! I have not read most of the linked materials, did I miss the part about the revolution and the dismantling of capitalism?
posted by Meatbomb at 10:01 AM on December 18, 2020 [4 favorites]


2) We’ve spent far too much time over the past decade waiting for breakthroughs with battery/solar technology that have completely failed to materialize (nor does it look like any are on the horizon). Instead, most of the (considerable) advances that we’ve made have come from incremental improvements on existing technology and old-fashioned economies of scale.

Who's been waiting though? Globally these technologies have gone from very marginal to massive industrial scale roll-outs.

However, we still aren’t committing the efforts necessary to deploy them at scale. We quietly crossed the threshold where solar panels are darn near as good as they’re ever going to get, and.... nothing changed.

log plot of solar or wind global installed capacity.

Here is the emissions intensity of electricity in the UK over the last 10 years with (TBH very conservative) government forecasts for the future.

The UK is now emitting as much carbon as it was in 1888, and electric cars are really just taking off, most people still heat their houses with gas so we've got all those savings still to come in the next decade.

I'm not a utopian, I know there is a lot of hard stuff to get through but this is a battle that we are going to win.

Like a lot of other things that follow exponential curves like pandemics and bankruptcy, this is a transition that's going to happen slowly and then all at once.

Here's a little-mentioned fact that could be a real key innovation driver: Once batteries are full, the cost per watt of excess solar production is not cheap. It's $0.00. Anything that can use those excess watts for a useful purpose becomes worth considering, even if it would normally be too innefficient or low value to bother with. Because any solar power system that is appropriately sized to be guaranteed to meet the always-on demands will have excess solar power available part of the time.

For sure. A lot of existing models look at how we use electricity now and then makes some demand side response tweaks before assuming that all the "extra" electricity generated in high renewable scenarios goes to waste. I don't think that's long term likely. Not just because of the possibility to store energy as compressed air, hydrogen, synfuels, and sensible heat but also what you can do with industrial and other processes to re-engineer them. Yes of course the chemistries and chemical engineering we have now are based on continuous operation and if you try and adjust them to be variable, they don't work well. That isn't the same as saying that there are no process chemistries that are, say, less energy efficient but much more tolerant of frequent stopping and starting. No-one is going to just sit there in a world with an intraday electricity price bouncing up and down and say, "oh well, no way to make money from this I guess!"
posted by atrazine at 10:16 AM on December 18, 2020 [6 favorites]


> Similarly, we seem to have reached a consensus that Lithium-Ion batteries are a viable long-term technology.

Lithium sure, but at least one car company is looking at basing their future sales on a solid state ceramic based medium rather than a gel ion phase. It's cheaper and far less flammable. From a safety point of view that's a major win.

Many of your "incremental" concerns are less true the closer you look. There have been major shifts in technologies in the past decade in both solar cells and batteries. Indeed, driven by the amount of research money floating around right now, I can't think of a time when there's been more diversity.

My impression is that everything is on the table right now from synthetic HCs from CO2 to H2 fuel cells to improving Li-Ion technologies to gravity storage (aka moving around big rocks). Even fusion research is going ahead. There's very little settled received wisdom right now and a lot of willingness to switch to something better than what we have currently. No one, not even Tesla, is wedded to a single battery chemistry.
posted by bonehead at 10:18 AM on December 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


> Power companies, can't live with them, can't send them on a one way trip to the sun, amirite?

Sure you can, it's the two-way trip that gets tricky.
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 10:22 AM on December 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


Strong mid 90's Wired magazine style techno utopianism vibes coming from that first article. Fingers still crossed tho
posted by youthenrage at 10:26 AM on December 18, 2020


No-one is going to just sit there in a world with an intraday electricity price bouncing up and down and say, "oh well, no way to make money from this I guess!"

Exactly. This is literally how virtual power plants like the Hornsdale Power Reserve make their money.

Similarly, we seem to have reached a consensus that Lithium-Ion batteries are a viable long-term technology. We stopped putting our efforts into finding a successor technology, and instead made some really good improvements to the existing tech. In that category, we’re also at the point where some are pondering whether or not massively-increased energy density would even be a good idea.

No. Along with solid-state batteries that bonehead mentioned, there's a huge demand for even lower cost high performance storage than lithium and sodium based batteries are on the horizon because of this. Whole home backup and utility scale backup where gravimetric and volumetric density aren't as critical but still, a large fraction of lithium's performance rather than being an order of magnitude behind like lead-acid. Not to mention disposal of sodium being relatively harmless to the biosphere where lead is extremely poisonous.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 10:27 AM on December 18, 2020 [3 favorites]


1) Funding a UBI with a carbon tax/dividend is completely deranged. Cutting carbon emissions would become an economically-regressive action.

I'm utterly confused by this claim, and it runs counter to most thinking I've ever seen on the topic.

If the intent is to note that some effort must also be put into offsetting modernization costs for the poor to help them avoid carbon use, then I'll agree. But energy use per-capita generally scales fairly directly with wealth, so a carbon tax funded UBI is considered a progressive approach.
posted by meinvt at 10:30 AM on December 18, 2020


“How dare you close the coal plant! Poor people were depending on those dividends!”

It sets up a profoundly fucked-up incentive structure.
posted by schmod at 10:53 AM on December 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


these will be able to produce more with the same amount of labor, so workers' wages will go up.

It’s lovely to think so.
posted by sjswitzer at 11:08 AM on December 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


What's with these amazing posts and links? Guys, I've got work to do.
posted by zardoz at 2:44 PM on December 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


Funding a UBI with a carbon tax/dividend is completely deranged. Cutting carbon emissions would become an economically-regressive action.

There are better ways to do it and limits on what it can do. I like cap/auction/per-capita-rebate because the auction brings in more money even if we reduce CO2 emissions. Paying on a market and rebating per capita will tend to direct money from the rich to the poor.

But it still might not be a life-supporting UBI, because we're still starting with a limited resource -- in this case, the ability of the biosphere to absorb CO2 -- and there might not be enough of that to go around. But a carbon tax is likely to move us towards a world in which there could be.
posted by clew at 2:46 PM on December 18, 2020


Plenty of manufacturing industries use a lot of electricity; these will be able to produce more with the same amount of labor, so workers' wages will go up.
I'm what, at least the fifth person in this comment thread? to look at this and think "Uh... that is not what automation has led to so far", which makes me wonder what other obvious howlers are embedded in that article.
And I am pro-automation! My principle is that a task that can be automated is TOO BORING to be done by a human. But even I can perceive that the benefits of producing more with the same amount of labor have not, in general, been freeing the laborers to relax, make art, help out around the neighbourhood, enjoy life.

Grrrr.
posted by inexorably_forward at 4:47 PM on December 18, 2020 [2 favorites]


But it still might not be a life-supporting UBI, because we're still starting with a limited resource

This is likely the case, and why I think the impact money should be directed more aggressively toward the poor, rather than distributed equally -- but, alas, politics being what it is, equal distribution is more likely to win.

...the $70 climate rebate I receive here in California is meaningless to me, but if we cut everyone above a certain income out of the picture the resulting larger payment might be enough to make some kind of difference to people.
posted by aramaic at 5:01 PM on December 18, 2020


Great post!

because the technology is happening (and has been for a long time), but -- as Greta wonderfully continues to insist -- the transition is happening far too slowly. So it's important that more and more people know what's out there and what the possibilities are ... because that feeds more pressure on our world's timid/intimidated leadership.

Because there are lots of companies working on an alternative which includes what they call 'tiny' nukes. (250MW == tiny? I don't think so.) Good for those who want to keep generation/distribution centralized in a few hands. Should we spend more to store waste, or to store energy? Seems obvious.

Meanwhile, wind and solar installations are not moving nearly quickly enough. Smells increasingly like a game plan. Trouble is, that game keeps solutions decades away. Decades most of us don't have. Biden's managerial choices seem promising, but we don't need more promises about 2040, 2050, 2060. We need massive, engineered programs with definite timelines and firm fiscal commitments. For NOW.
posted by Twang at 6:12 PM on December 18, 2020


Meanwhile, wind and solar installations are not moving nearly quickly enough.

True, but as a counter-example California now requires that new homes have solar panels (or solar+battery). And not just any set of panels -- it has to cover the annual electrical usage of the home (using standardized calculations). Now, that's only one state, and a sun-drenched progressive state at that, but big moves are possible as long as the GOP isn't in charge. The usual suspects made the usual nanny-state whines, but pretty much nobody ended up listening to them because the savings to the homeowner were obvious and immediate.

...and of course, that's only homes, but other moves are afoot as well (big trucks have a deadline to go electric in CA, etc. etc.).
posted by aramaic at 6:47 PM on December 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


Yes, it will undoubtedly be a good thing for both of the new homes that are built in California next year.
posted by schmod at 8:19 PM on December 18, 2020


Off by a factor of around 40,000.

But hey, math is hard, amirite?
posted by aramaic at 8:35 PM on December 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


As with pretty much every new technology, renewable adoption has an S curve to it. Making a linear extrapolation of adoption will lead you to believe that it is going to take much longer than it really will now that the economic incentives are clearly in favor of things like solar, wind, and EVs over fossil fuels.

Even natural gas is going to get fucked in a bigger way than anyone expects pretty soon as prices rise as a result of the chaos in the industry we've seen this year. If you look at the history of the sector it should be obvious. Upstream gas has been screwing itself by refusing to pace exploration and production since before I was born, but this time the inevitable rebound in price is going to have a permanent effect on the size of their market because once you put in solar panels or wind turbines, they're there for 20+ years making energy with zero fuel cost. And the price will go way up, it always does after the bust. Wells never produce the same after being shut in, and fracking just makes the effect worse.
posted by wierdo at 12:08 AM on December 19, 2020 [3 favorites]


To clarify a bit, gas isn't going to go away entirely any more than oil will. Extracting it is essentially free (aside from the the capex involved in capturing it instead of flaring) if you're already pumping oil, but the size of the market for oil is about to shrink drastically as EVs continue their takeover of the auto market in the countries where most of the worldwide miles are driven. Combine that with what's happening to US gas producers and it's pretty clear it's going to get expensive for a while.

Yes, EVs will probably be a majority of the new car market before 2025. Anyone in the auto industry who isn't prepared to deal with that is going to have a very bad time very soon. I expect several to co collapse because they still aren't taking the situation seriously and it's damn near too late for anyone who is selling in large volume.
posted by wierdo at 12:22 AM on December 19, 2020 [2 favorites]


> I'm what, at least the fifth person in this comment thread? to look at this and think "Uh... that is not what automation has led to so far", which makes me wonder what other obvious howlers are embedded in that article.
In fact, with the right institutions in place to make sure the productivity gains are shared equally, energy tech could reduce inequality... Cheap energy doesn’t free the rest of society from the burden of smart rule-making.
We May Be Exactly Wrong About Technology and Inequality [ungated] - "Robots, artificial intelligence and new sources of energy will empower workers, drive more innovation and raise demand for labor."
...new technology’s impact on inequality may turn out to be fairly neutral, or it may be that the kind of innovation prevailing in the 2020s will actually work to make the economy more equitable -- provided that it’s assisted by unions and wise government policy.
Three Big Moves to Improve American Lives ASAP [ungated] - "Where you get to live, what you get paid, and how you access health care should be policy priorities next year."
Higher minimum wages would help those at the bottom, but the most effective remedy for the overall economy would be a return of union power. Unfortunately, labor unions in the U.S. are forced to organize establishment by establishment, putting any unionized shop at a competitive disadvantage.

The solution -- the third big policy I would choose -- is known as sectoral bargaining. It allows all the workers in a particular industry within a particular area to get the same wages as the unions that negotiate with groups of local employers. Countries that use this system tend to have higher union representation and less wage inequality. Sectoral bargaining would allow Americans in a huge array of occupations to feel like they had a bigger stake in the economic system, and thus might even improve productivity as an added benefit.
-Two different models of unionization[12]
-Full employment via sectoral bargaining (a socdem summary)

oh and in other detailed analysis...
Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts [pdf] - "granular guidance on what getting to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions really requires"
The new "Net-Zero America" research outlines five distinct technological pathways for the United States to decarbonize its entire economy. The research is the first study to quantify and map with this degree of specificity, the infrastructure that needs to be built and the investment required to run the country without emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than are removed from it each year. It’s also the first to pinpoint how jobs and health will be affected in each state at a highly granular level, sometimes down to the county.

The study’s five scenarios describe at a highly detailed, state-by-state level the scale and pace of technology and capital mobilization needed across the country, and highlight the implications for land use, incumbent energy industries, employment, and health...

The scenarios that the new research details include a “high electrification” or E+ scenario, which involves aggressively electrifying buildings and transportation, so that 100% of cars are electric by 2050. The “less high electrification” or E- scenario, electrifies at a slower rate and uses more liquid and gaseous fuels for longer. Another scenario, noted as E- B+, allows much more biomass to be used in the energy system, which, unlike the other four scenarios, would require converting some land currently used for food agriculture to grow energy crops. The E+ RE+ pathway is an "all-renewables" scenario and also is the most technologically restrictive. It assumes no new nuclear plants would be built, disallows below-ground storage of carbon dioxide, and eliminates all fossil fuel use by 2050. It relies instead on massive and rapid deployment of wind and solar and greater production of hydrogen to meet carbon goals. The E+ RE- scenario, by comparison, relies on “limited renewables,” constraining the annual construction of wind turbines and solar power plants to be no faster than the fastest rates achieved by the country in the past, but removes other restrictions. This scenario depends more heavily on the expansion of power plants with carbon capture and nuclear power.
posted by kliuless at 12:21 AM on December 20, 2020 [4 favorites]


Solarpunk Netflix :P
posted by kliuless at 12:34 AM on December 20, 2020 [1 favorite]


Hey kliuless, glad we have someone like you digging up info to counter the people like me with hot takes and shooting from the hip... Hope that some of this comes true!
posted by Meatbomb at 1:54 AM on December 20, 2020


Exclusive: Apple targets car production by 2024 and eyes 'next level' battery technology - sources - "Central to Apple's strategy is a new battery design that could 'radically' reduce the cost of batteries and increase the vehicle's range, according to a third person who has seen Apple's battery design."
posted by kliuless at 11:56 AM on December 22, 2020 [1 favorite]


If they don't call it the Apple Cart they've missed such an opportunity
posted by jason_steakums at 12:09 PM on December 22, 2020 [3 favorites]


I'm not super convinced I could be persuaded to buy a car that (a) can't be repaired because it's permanently glued together at the factory (b) only charges off Apple electricity (c) requires a subscription to unlock the passenger seats and the trunk (d) can only drive to Apple-approved locations.
posted by flabdablet at 9:43 PM on December 22, 2020 [3 favorites]


That's why it will be the cart, not the car, silly!

I would not be surprised to see Apple do something with batteries, although I'm very skeptical of any claims of a revolution in battery technology. Other companies are already making solid state lithium cells, flow batteries, and the like. They've all got serious issues of manufacturability and in general aren't that much better than where mostly traditional lithium ion cells will be in four years, at least for cars where volume isn't that huge of an issue. I could see them making a breakthrough in manufacturing solid state lithium ion batteries, which would allow far more density in portable devices, though. That could make a huge difference in battery life for such devices.

I'm even more skeptical about them building cars because building a good car at any kind of volume is fucking hard. Unless they've got someone else making the bodies for them, they aren't going to suddenly pop up with something that would be fit to put their brand on in 3-4 years.

Maybe they'll prove me wrong, but unlike when the iPhone was released, there isn't a base of contract manufacturing capable of doing what they need done like there was for portable electronic devices.
posted by wierdo at 4:02 AM on December 23, 2020 [1 favorite]


they aren't going to suddenly pop up with something that would be fit to put their brand on in 3-4 years

Oh come come. You know as well as I do that when Apple cars suddenly go out of control and run into opposing traffic it's only because the drivers are touching the wheel wrong.

Undeniably pretty car, though.

Certainly prettier than last month's model.

Shame it doesn't come with seats any more, but I hear there's an adapter for that.
posted by flabdablet at 4:11 AM on December 23, 2020


Those Apple guys seem too smart to turn a large fortune into a small fortune by trying to build cars.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:25 AM on December 23, 2020


« Older whether visuospatial, phonological, conceptual or...   |   Lockdown Rachael Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments