What Happens When Unlimited Clean Power Is Free?

Everybody is cool when mashing plastic moles.

People all over the world really like to hammer rascally plastic rodents with a mallet. The Japanese call it Mogura Taiji, we call it Whack-a-Mole. Both were invented in the mid-1970s by two different inventors unknown to each other tinkering away half a world apart. Since then we have found a dark side to all this mole mashing mayhem. “Whack a mole” is now a figure of speech for futility.

It’s all James Watt’s fault. When he fixed the steam engine in the mid-1700s, far more energy could be extracted from every lump of coal. Since there was a lot of coal industrial quantities of energy became available at bargain prices. That combination powered the industrial revolution. It set off a global whack a mole game of higher and higher stakes.

  • The industrial revolution made quality goods available to all – but it over crowded cities and spawned epidemics.
  • Public sanitation and transit helped us spread out and ease disease – but horse-drawn buses, trams and taxis buried cities in manure.
  • As manure mounted electricity and oil matured in the nick of time to power public transit and new-fangled private cars – but their fumes poisoned the air.
  • Emission controls cut poisons spewed by each vehicle and chimney – but global growth wiped out the gains.

And no emission control can cut carbon dioxide. It goes with burning a tank of gas the way a hangover  goes with the wild party the night before.

Today the stakes have never been higher.  It’s do or die. There is an undeniable connection between plentiful cheap energy and rising living standards. There is an undeniable connection between all that energy and the droughts, starvation and killer storms that are already scourging the face of the earth. Both climate change deniers and climate change believers are gripped by fear… fear of losing what they have, or fear of what their children will lose.

It’s a stalemate. Many fear this round of whack-a-mole can’t be won. Hopelessness is rampant.

What if both sides are wrong? What if there is a third way?

Solar PV is on par with fossil fueled electricity.

FREE, CLEAN ENERGY IS IN SIGHT

Price per watt. Many thanks to Ramez Naam for the data on solar electricity price trends. If you think electricity from solar cells is crazy expensive think again.

  • Today, electricity from solar is cheaper than that from natural gas in sunny parts of the world, without subsidies.
  • In five years, electricity from solar panels will be cheaper than burning coal.

Why is this happening? We are seeing steady improvements in materials and manufacturing technique. As a result, the cost per watt from a solar cell has dropped 80% in the past 5 years. That price plummet shows no signs of stopping.

Solar energy supply. The supply of solar power is pretty much limitless. In under 15 seconds the sun provides as much energy as humanity uses in an entire day. In less than 2 days the sun sends us as much energy as we use in a year. In less than five days the sun beams as much energy to the Earth’s surface as exists in all reserves of oil, coal and natural gas. Astronomers estimate it will be 5 billion years before the sun exhausts its fuel.

Source: European Photovoltaic Industry Association

Installed solar cells. The chart shows the installed base is doubling every 2-3 years. At this rate, in 20 years electricity from solar cells will provide all our energy needs.

And then the real benefits kick in. Unlike oil and coal, which you have to keep paying for every time you fill up, the cost to use electricity from sunlight is zero. Are there signs that we are well on the way to this future? Yes:

The third way is not only possible, it’s here. Solar is cheaper than oil where it’s sunny. In less than 5 years solar will be cheaper than coal, the cheapest fossil fuel, throughout the world. We are on our way to a world where we have the energy we need to keep raising living standards without the nasty side effects.

THE END OF THE BEGINNING

Modern humans appeared on Earth about 200,000 years ago. Not much changed for a very, very long time. Since Watt changed the game we have seen more change in the past 300 years than in the preceding 199,700 years of human existence.

Our inner world has not changed. A belief in scarcity is bred in our bones. Our cells still crave fat because famine has always followed feast, for millennia. Belief in scarcity is burned into our brains. Our thinking patterns continue to overvalue what we have and undervalue alternatives… even when those are clearly better.

Now that true abundance is within our grasp, can we let our belief in scarcity go?

 

 

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Wind power: plenty in Newfoundland – nowhere to go?

On wind surveys Newfoundland stands out.  Unlike other areas, large stretches of the coast of Newfoundland get as much wind as its surrounding seas. At the same time hundreds of kilometers of stormy seas separate Newfoundland from the nearest mainland grid connection. So is all this promise wasted forever? Maybe not.

There are already 13 cables under the seas of northern Europe and Scandinavia. The cable from Norway to northern Europe is about the same length as the distance from western Newfoundland to mainland Canada. These European cables are carrying between 350 MW and 2,000 MW so high voltage is not an issue.

Winter ice conditions could still rule out a cable. The forces of winter gales and ocean currents can cause ice floes to pile up or raft. When conditions are right deep-rafted ice can extend from the surface to the sea bottom in shallow waters. Wind and current can push deep-rafted sea ice with enough force to plow deep furrows in the sea bottom – and break an undersea cable.

Even if sea conditions prevent laying a cable, there is another way to get Newfoundland wind power to the Northeastern US. It is a three step process:

  1. Use wind power to crack sea water into hydrogen.
  2. Transport the hydrogen by ship to the US northeast.
  3. Convert the hydrogen back to electricity in fuel cells

This approach is gaining momentum in the EU. For example, in Lolland DK a large-scale project is underway to convert wind power to hydrogen and back to electricity in fuel cells. Hydrogen ships would use the same technologies as Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) ships have used for 40 years.

In Newfoundland conversion losses will be somewhat offset by the abundant supply of wind and water, the low cost of shipping hydrogen by sea and the proximity to the large market in the US northeast. Wind power stored as hydrogen can be sold at peak load time when prices are highest. And hybrid wind-hydrogen power could reduce the use of fossil fuels for peak demand.

Wind surveys also show that coastal Labrador, Baffin Island and the northwest shore of Hudson’s Bay have the same wind potential  as Newfoundland. These Arctic areas have the same water resources and access to shipping lanes as Newfoundland. So wind-hydrogen could also open up the wind energy potential of the Arctic.