A case for fracking ... but mostly a case for nuclear, geothermal, and hydro
The real question:
Is Matt in the pay of Big Gas? Big Solar? Big Wind? Big Nuke?
Or is it....
All of the above?
I thought this was very interesting, but this open-space argument seems pretty overblown to me. Didn't you write a book about how America is really large?
Also, offshore windfarms are a thing, and roof-like solar panels for crop fields that double-serve as protection against hail etc. already exist. Plus, natural gas also takes up a lot of space because you need to build pipelines.
You miss one important dynamic: methane, the major component of "natural gas," is itself a potent greenhouse gas, 80 times more so than CO2, molecule for molecule, and accounts for about 10% of warming. Compared to CO2, at least some of methane's human-generated sources are easily addressable: leaks in extraction infrastructure and pipelines (which can be fixed) and landfills (which can be managed better). (Ruminants, especially cows, also produce methane, which is one of many reasons you should stop eating beef.) Tackling methane can also pay off quickly, as it decays from the atmosphere whine about a decade. So...any expansion of methane production needs to be accompanied by better regulation of leaks. Thankfully, leak detection has never been easier due to advances in satellite imaging and ground sensors, and the new International Methane Emissions Observatory will soon start to provide frequently-updated, granular methane emissions data. If you're interested in learning more, I recommend Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now! by Miller, Zaelke, and Anderson.
Matt's knowledge of clean energy is like the deployment of renewables on the grid: awesome, growing rapidly, and ready for even more valuable growth.
1. "awesome": this is an excellent writeup that will net-educate 95% of its readers. Kudos!
2. "growing rapidly": see previous. Also, he is shifting from nuclear-is-the-answer (false) to nuclear-is-a-tool (true).
3. "ready for even more valuable growth": see below
Broadly, what was true in the last decade (natural gas was the only viable complement to variable renewables) will not be true in the next decade. EV batteries, collectively, will provide enormous load shifting potential. Offshore wind is being built out at city-scale right now. As Matt has written elsewhere but mysteriously omits here, transmission is a valuable complement to variable renewables, and a dozen key additions would enable space-shifting at city-scale. Some of them will get built. Enormous investments in electrolysis and alternate-chemistry electric storage happening now promise economy-scale impact.
Shifting back to solar, wind, and lithium-ion storage: their exponential improvements in price/performance will continue. Exponential growth is hard to grasp, especially when two curves interact. As solar becomes "too cheap to meter", we'll find new ways to exploit it. As road transportation becomes a grid resource, it will soak up that cheap solar and displace some of the natural gas that is now turning on in the evening.
Resources for folks who would like to understand the next decade of clean energy growth:
1. @JesseJenkins, @TimMLatimer, and the rest of #energytwitter
2. Chris Goodall's weekly roundups: https://www.carboncommentary.com/newsletter-archive
4. California generally: our grid is at solar-saturation now, and we're pushing the GW-scale alternatives to gas as fast as we can. https://www.utilitydive.com/news/california-lowers-electric-sector-ghg-target-directs-procurement-of-more-t/618733/
5. China: https://www.pv-magazine.com/2022/02/25/state-grid-of-china-unveils-plans-for-100gw-battery-fleet/ https://www.reuters.com/world/china/china-aims-build-450-gw-solar-wind-power-gobi-desert-2022-03-05/ @EnergyIceberg
6. 100% clean islanded grids via solar overbuild , li-ion, and electrolysis: https://www.pv-magazine.com/2022/02/21/barbados-to-host-50mw-128-mwh-solar-hydrogen-battery-facility/
Matt... you're not even in the Neoliberal Shill bracket this year... there's no need to do this! :p
Alternatively, you use excess capacity from solar/wind to make hydrogen which you then run through fuel cells when capacity is needed. To make hydrogen, you need water and energy. No fossil fuel needed. Some storage issues, yes (hydrogen is highly explosive and difficult to store) but the technology exists already.
Worth noting that while renewables are cheap GLOBALLY it is not really the case that they are cheap in the United States.
Solar still costs ~ double what it costs in Europe and nearly triple what it costs in China. Figures are comparable for wind, but not my area of expertise.
There is basically no market for “merchant” solar - selling into the market at market rates. New solar construction needs significant revenue subsidy (in addition to the 26% cost subsidy) to be built.
Activists need to reconcile themselves with the fact that consumer energy prices will have to rise significantly as part of a successful energy transition.
Interesting omission of hydrogen. You can use electricity to create hydrogen, which can be stored and then used to create either heat or electricity in fuel cells. Getting to "cheap hydrogen" isn't easy, but it would seem to help you escape the problem with storing renewables.
I’m not sure how many more times it need be said, but the chances that nuclear turns out to be cheaper than massive redundancy and storage are essentially nil.
As we ramp up solar production we might not be able to cover all of our needs when there is a shortfall of production but at the same time we'll have more electricity than we know what to do with when the sun is shining brightest. I wonder if it would make sense to use that extra electricity doing carbon capture from the air and synthesizing more natural gas from that and water.
Since it comes from atmospheric CO2 it would be carbon neutral on net and we could keep using all of our existing natural gas infrastructure instead of just abandoning it. Also, while electric flight might make sense for very short range flights I don't see anybody taking an electric plane across the pacific any time soon baring things like beamed microwave power from satellites. Designing planes that can use compresses methane seems doable, though, and it's a lot easier to work with than hydrogen.
We could also synthesize more complex fuels, but that's sort of complicated and I'd imagine that minimizing capital intensity would be a big factor in enabling this.
> As a broader strategy, though, almost all of the really promising dams have already been built. But even if they hadn’t been, the ecological cost of damming rivers is non-trivial. And that’s the real issue here. There’s no such thing as a way to make electricity that doesn’t have some kind of ecological footprint, and that includes the renewables themselves. After all, the escalating cost of renewables once you run out of gas complementarities really just amounts to the fact that you need to build more stuff.
This is an extremely important point, and I think it should be made louder, more broadly, more generally. Hydro has environmental costs just like solar requires mining some somewhat rare elements and just like we're not really sure what to do with gigantic composite wind turbine blades when we decommission worn-out units. And just like "zero-emission" cars do not exist because lithium mining isn't cheap and because tire wear is (for circa-2020 vehicles) a major source of particulate emissions, no matter whether you have a tailpipe attached to your car or not.
This isn't meant as a bad-faith whataboutism, although unfortunately you'll read whataboutist arguments that look similar. I fully expect my next car to be at least a plug-in hybrid. It's instead an earnest plea that individuals make personal decisions, and policymakers make policy, based on real actual fact patterns rather than well-meaning slogans that sound nice but aren't true.
Good post but Matt neglects discussing the role of housing which consumes lots of energy. We moved into a condo this January from a detached house and our utility bills for both electricity and gas dropped by 70%. Our living space decreased by only 20%. In our building all heating/cooling is done by individual heat pumps up on the roof. We get abundant sun during the day and the heating system hardly runs during the winter. Kitchen is all electric and the induction range uses less energy than our old gas cook top in the house. Town houses use less energy that a detached house of the same square footage as the exposure to the elements is on averaged reduced (end units would have more; middle units less). Moderate/high rise units have even less environmental exposure.
Speaking of advanced geothermal and nuclear, i wonder if we could build enough of those to render hydro dams pointless. A free flowing Columbia river would be an amazing feat.
@matt if you haven’t already read you would love this online version if Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air.
It’s from a UK perspective but it grounds the energy transition in “how much energy does the UK use va how much energy per meter do renewables give?”
It is still very relevant, and informs my thinking to this day on the importance of nuclear and gas.
It doesn’t touch as much on cost, but does imply similar conclusions about the important of non variable backups to solar and wind.
Nuclear sucks as a complement to intermittent renewable energy.
Very high fixed costs, slow ramping, and low variable costs? That sounds like something you're going to want to run as much as it can.
But in a grid dominated by cheap intermittent renewables, you need two things to complement it - short-term dispatchable power (and/or demand maangement), and seasonal storage of some kind. Neither of these use cases are a good match for what nuclear can do.
At this point, somebody's going to say something silly like "oh, we could use the surplus energy to recharge <energy storage technology of choice>". Well, guess what, if you're going to use energy storage tech, you may as well use the cheapest source of energy available to fill the storage, and it ain't nuclear.
I agree totally that anybody prematurely shutting down a safely operating nuclear plant is nuts. But the track record of nuclear is so unpromising, and it's such a poor match with the rest of the energy landscape, that wasting political effort trying to streamline the NRC and establish an effective construction pipeline for the things seems like misdirected effort.
To repeat myself, the payoff from matching Australia's rooftop solar installation costs is a far juicier, and far more politically viable, than trying to get nuke plants built.
I have worked in electrical power generation for over ten years and this is the best article I have ever read summarizing our energy situation.