Unleashing zero-carbon energy means reforming regulations
If I can't heat my home with pumped magma like it's Dwarf Fortress, we haven't developed enough geothermal power.
If moderates were good for anything, it would be repealing anti-green regulations. Conservatives win by not having to pay subsidies. Liberals win by getting clean energy. Wouldn’t the folks in Kansas like to sell us easterners some wind power? Wouldn’t the precious swing voters in Arizona like to sell Californians some solar? The fact that anti-renewable regulations still exist is a scathing indictment of Congress.
I've been working at the bottom of the technology readiness scale on renewable energy generation and storage for over two decades and I think MY hits the nail on the head here, but doesn't say the magic words: we need to diversify energy generation and invest in electricity grids.
The fossil fuel industry likes the idea of throwing money at R&D and hoping for a major breakthrough because they are fully aware how unlikely that is. (Remember the fights over corn ethanol? Switch grass? When BP and others rebranded as 'energy companies'? The ongoing biomass controversy? Not to mention Chinese solar cells made with slave labor.) Saul Griffith has it right—we have to invest in innovation and deployment (i.e., use existing technologies and electrify everything). And MY zeroes in on a major hurdle there, which is the grid. You cannot just dump any old kind of electricity onto an old-school electricity grid. But 'smart grid' technology is a thing that exists and that we can just throw money at to make happen in preparation for it to receive geothermal, wind, solar, etc.
My first lesson in the cynicism of green energy was when my PhD advisor was involved in Bush's hydrogen task force. They made a big show about the 'hydrogen economy' and, IIRC correctly, Bush himself cut an add where he pretended to pump hydrogen into a car at a filling station. My advisor and the rest of the task force immediately stated the facts: we cannot make H2 efficiently, we cannot transport it safely and storing it both dangerous and inefficient. But no one cared. They wanted to cut the ads and, as I would learn, were just greenwashing H2 generation from methane, which is still how much if not all H2 is generated. The scientists on the task force were just props.
After decades of spinning our wheels and playing politics with solar everything from solar panels on the White House to fantasies about moving hydrogen around the existing oil distribution infrastructure, we are too far behind on R&D to make a dent in the near-term. We need to rip out the old regulations that were written with the advantages and caveats of fossil fuel in mind and throw money at proven and emerging technology.
The more I hear about environmental impact reviews, the less I like them. CEQA has the same damn problem of exempting the stuff with the biggest environmental impact.
Two quick NEPA thoughts:
1) The way NEPA exemptions are described is very misleading and makes it seem as if all environmental laws and standards are waived. It happens a bit in this piece and is common elsewhere too, where some sort of NEPA shortcut or categorical exclusion is talked about as exempting from "environmental review". This is not correct. The exemption is from the NEPA process, because NEPA is a process statute - it tells you rules for public comment, meetings, broad guidelines, etc.
Exempting from NEPA just exempts from that process - every single underlying environmental law or regulation still applies, whether it's the clean air act, a wetlands permit, or a land management agencies charge to " preserve for future generations". What's happening is the public process of NEPA is no longer required - sometimes you can even still have public process requirements from some other law (like the Endangered Species Act or APA) even if you are excluded from the NEPA part.
2) I need to nitpick the NEPA public land oil and gas exemptions bit... Yes those categorical exclusions exist but they're actually pretty narrow in the scheme of things - and prior to getting down to the scale of those exemptions there already will have been an EIS or EA level NEPA process on oil and gas development/leasing at large.
That said, having equivalent (or broader, tbh) geothermal versions isn't a bad idea.
Regarding heat pump heating in the winter, another way to make things more efficient is to lay pipes underground and extract heat from there. Not quite geothermal, but temperatures are much less extreme ~20 ft below the surface or so. You can pump heat from underground into a heating system and heat homes. The most efficient way to do this would be to have a system for a neighborhood, as it's a little expensive for every house to dig a 20 foot trench. The other advantage is that in the summer, these underground pipes stay cooler and offer a good place to sink heat rather than the sweltering outdoors.
Nice post. I agree, there are some regulatory barriers that are a real problem, and folks like Kevin Drum who think "it just needs more R&D" are too naiive about this.
It's on my mind in particular, because I recently bought a newly constructed home. It has a nice, tall, south facing roof which gets lots of sun. Perfect for solar, right? Well... it's not that easy.
The solar panels themselves are the easy part. About $500 per KW, or $3000 for a typical 6KW system. But installation (plus some other equipment like an inverter) will run you about $15,000-$20,000. You'll have to wait for a licensed electrician (who are in short supply right now), and then get it it inspected by the city before you're allowed to turn it on (ditto). Hopefully the permitting process goes smoothly, because it's completely nonstandard and up to the discretion of the city whether they feel like approving you or not. Even if the cost of panels falls to zero, it wouldn't make much difference in the overall cost.
But hey, once it's done, you've got free electricity right? Nope. You're still on the grid, so they'll charge you for that connection even if you never use it. For me, I don't really use a lot of electricity, so that's about half my electric bill. And I can't "overproduce" and get money back, the most I can do is reduce my energy used to zero, while still paying the grid connection fee.
It'll be a nice backup in case the power grid goes down though, right? NOPE. Solar panels are designed to shut off whenever the grid goes down. In theory this is for safety reasons, but it seems like the utilities just aren't trying very hard to make this work. So despite owning your personal home power plant, you'll still be shivering in the dark with everyone else.
What about going completely off grid, by adding a battery backup? Then you can skip the grid charge and have a real backup. You can buy a 10KWh system from LG (Tesla doesn't even sell there's individually anymore) for that, but it'll run you $10,000, and be prepared to wait a while for installation. And 10KWh really isn't that much- many homes would blow through that in less than a day, or even one night. Might want to get 2 or 3. So now the total cost is more like $40,000-$50,000, even though the panels were only $3000.
But wait- I have an electric car! You can get a used EV for surprisingly cheap, and it'll have a battery way bigger than a wimpy home battery system. A 2019 Leaf has 40 or 60KWh, for example, more than enough to ride out a storm. Charge it during the day, run off the battery over night. The perfect combo, right?
Nope. You can't just "plug in" your house to your EV. EV charging connections are one-way only. There are some hacks you can do to charge a few appliances off of it, but it's pretty limited. Ford claims their new electric F-150 will be able to power your house though. Hopefully they allow it!
Speaking of EVs, you'd think that a new house would include a 240V, high amp outlet in the garage for fast charging, or at least level 2, right? Nope. That's only included for the dryer, in case you need to melt your clothes with ridiculous power. Gotta pay to rewire the garage (Or DIY) if you want to charge an EV inside at any reasonable speed.
Interestingly, none of this is really specific to solar. You'd have the same problems if you want to run your home off a home wind turbine, gas generator, or (in theory) a mini-nuke. And it's a real chicken-and-the-egg problem... there isn't enough political pressure to fix these problems because not many voters have home solar, and not many people have home solar because of these problems. We need to start putting pressure on political leaders to fix these issues.
It would be helpful for writers who wish to weigh in on such subjects to get some sort of basic knowledge of science. It would be really really helpful. I quite agree that confronted with facts most people who lack such knowledge.usually resort to the "need more money for R&D" argument. As if spending a pile of money changes the fundamental laws of physics or chemistry or anything else. It never does. It's not that I am against R&D. On the contrary I strongly favor such investments. But then, as a STEM guy, I have made it my business to keep abreast of what is going on in various fields. And the advances, real and potential, just aren't what people imagine them to be. You need to understand the problems.
As a general critique I would say that the idea that deployment is the problem is a real problem. You can't deploy what you don't yet have. But as a more on point critique I would say trying to pass off problems with wind and solar as regulatory problems is really kind of bullshit. Most people just ignore the intermittency problem and speaking vaguely of energy storage. And they generally have zero idea of what they are talking about on that score. When it comes to transmission and getting, say, solar power generated in Arizona to Minnesota the problem isn't regulatory. The problem is that both energy storage and ,sophisticated transmission systems are going to cost a shitload of money and will have their own very evident vulnerabilities. Which means when those cost burdens, which only wind and solar bear, are added to your electricity bill those sources are not cheap. No one else needs them. And I doubt anyone will get away with pretending they are somebody else's problem. Ironically, if we had such capabilities they would literally work better with any generating system than wind or solar. They are particularly well suited to nuclear generation.
I have no objection whatsoever to spending money to explore large scale geothermal experiments. But most of the examples I have looked at are just fundraising scams. The fact is that geothermal sources require a high heat gradient (magma) unless your goal is to generate a big underground mass of cold rock. Any competent engineer would tell you that. Rock is an excellent insulator. You take out heat it gets cold. And without a proximate source of magma to reheat the rock you are screwed. The technology needed to drill to those depths does not exist. It does not matter what red colored maps show. They might as well be on the surface of the sun.
Finally you need to lose this idea that oil and gas are used exclusively for fuel. They are not. A huge percentage, currently over forty, are the basic raw materials of modern civilization. And there are precious few things that you can make without them. If not a single gram were burnt you would still need vast amounts of oil. So we'll just ad those thousands of very specific technological problems we will need to address before we keep anything in the ground.
Closed-loop geothermal is the holy grail - all the benefits of geothermal without the downsides of fracking. A key player here is Dr Eric Van Oort at the University of Texas. Last I heard he was working on a project in Japan to prove the science behind it (heat transfer through dry rock at depth, etc).
If the science gets proven then it's game on. Although my impression is that a SpaceX-style company is needed to bring fast iteration & high error tolerance to the geothermal sector. We're running out of time.
A quibble about heat pumps: if you dig down to where the temperature is 55 degrees year round (so like wine cellar depth) and run the heat exchanging refrigerant lines down there, you can get them to work well even in very cold winters and very hot summers. This is called "ground source" or sometimes confusingly "geothermal" though it is not, AIUI, much like the kind of geothermal heating that Iceland uses.
The sticking point is the up front cost and space requirements of the digging of holes for the exchanger pipes. I would speculate that some combination of creative easement-making and creative financing could make it easier to fit a bunch of buildings with ground source heat pumps at once. Perhaps a coordination problem worth pushing on.
So good to hear progressives moaning the out of control regulatory state.
Hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations. Some doing very important work. But many of them being straight up red tape.
My wife used to work in government permitting/real property management I asked her how long it takes to get something through. She said 1 to 2 years.
I asked her how long it could take if you cleared the red tape, and government bureaucrats actually did their job (while still protecting the environment etc). She said 1 to2 months.
We need real regulatory reform. And we REALLY need to reform our public servants, get rid of most of their protections that make them pretty much impossible to fire, even if they do a poor job.
Excessive regulation....bad. Please inform the squad.
Gonna be fun politicking to convince the environmental faction that fracking for geothermal is good because it's deep enough to not matter, after oil & gas companies said the same thing about regular fracking
Surprised no mention of the (kind of wild) op ed in WSJ this week claiming that horizontal geothermal drilling under Yellowstone could provide energy AND stave off a civilization altering supervolcano eruption.
On the nuclear regulation question, is there a model country that is getting it right? I don't think there is.
Folks keep saying excessive regulations are a big obstacle for nuclear power, but even countries like France, with a history of an industry friendly regulatory climate are backing away from nuclear power because the economics of new builds aren't workable even there (see Flamanville).
China seems to be investing a lot in nuclear power, but their focus seems to have shifted from mass commercial deployments to prototype deployments of innovative new technologies.
Which country is the exemplar of how to build and regulate mass produced commercial nuclear power plants the right way in 2021?
"But if all of Minneapolis is on heat pumps and there’s a cold snap, you then have a huge surge in electricity demand that we might need massive overcapacity to meet."
It's a good point, but top of the line heat pumps have a CoP of 2.5 at 17°F (see below), so even at -10°F you're not necessarily running on backup high-wattage heat strips. A combination of these would mitigate the worry:
- More of these cold weather heat pumps
- Electric cars that can provide power to grid overnight (aka V2G; Tesla does NOT currently)
- Air sealing and R60 attic insulation <-- we need better programs here
Just bought this: https://www.behler-young.com/UserFiles/Resource/PDS284ANV-01.pdf