Decarbonization Now? (No, not yet.)

Paul Krugman’s recent opinion column in the New York Times ran under the headline, “Salvation Gets Cheap.” At first I though Krugman was making a snarky comment on ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s claim that the ex-mayor’s work on restricting access to guns, and efforts on obesity and smoking would ensure a place in heaven. But no, Krugman is opining that technology is providing an easy way forward on climate change:

The climate change panel, in its usual deadpan prose, notes that “many RE [renewable energy] technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions” since it released its last assessment, back in 2007. The Department of Energy is willing to display a bit more open enthusiasm; it titled a report on clean energy released last year “Revolution Now.” That sounds like hyperbole, but you realize that it isn’t when you learn that the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent just since 2008.

Thanks to this technological leap forward, the climate panel can talk about “decarbonizing” electricity generation as a realistic goal — and since coal-fired power plants are a very large part of the climate problem, that’s a big part of the solution right there.

It’s even possible that decarbonizing will take place without special encouragement, but we can’t and shouldn’t count on that. The point, instead, is that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now within fairly easy reach.

The “Revolution Now” report, which was linked in Krugman’s column online, is surprisingly weak sauce. The U.S. Department of Energy report (your tax dollars at work) purports to describe “four technology revolutions that are here today” and “have achieved dramatic reductions in cost” and “a surge in consumer, industrial and commercial deployment” in the last five years. The four “revolutions” are onshore wind power, polysilicon photovoltaic modules, LED lighting, and electric vehicles.

Each “revolution” gets a two-page summary and a colorful chart showing declining costs and rising use. The summaries are footnoted, just like real research, and studded with more factoids than the front page of USA Today. Here’s a fun fact: the ratio of empirical claims to footnotes in the article’s two pages on wind power is 4-to-1.

You can get a sense of the quality of the report by considering the claims strung together on electric vehicles: First it is reported “more and more drivers are abandoning the gas pump for the affordability and convenience of in-home electric charging,” then that 50,000 EVs were purchased in 2012 and the rate of purchase doubled in early 2013. Next we are told “to maintain this momentum the most critical area for cost reduction is batteries.” A paragraph later the report said, “In many senses, EVs are already competitive with traditional cars.” In the final paragraph, however, a sober note: it will take “further progress on reducing the cost of EV batteries” to make “these benefits available to a larger audience.”

The sober note referenced a DOE battery cost target of $125/kwh by 2022, at which point the DOE expects ownership costs for a EV will be similar to a standard vehicle. A glance back at the chart suggests current battery costs nearer five times that level, leaving at least this reader wondering in which sense “EVs are already competitive with traditional cars” and part of the “technology revolutions that are here today.”

The revolution is here today! Or maybe in 2022!! Or maybe whenever “further progress” is made!!!

Overall the report is more enthusiasm than analysis, and not sufficient to justify changing beliefs on the cost of decarbonizing energy supplies.


7 thoughts on “Decarbonization Now? (No, not yet.)

  1. The cost of a solar panel is but one element in the total cost of an installation. Even if the price of solar panels were zero, it would not be cost competive, on reliability or a kwh basis, with a natural gas fired electrical generator.

  2. Jardinero1, Solar panels provide decent shade any time of night or day, and your generator’s gotta like that, right? Of course I want the photonic cooling radiant panels (they’d crank out IR on clear days (once in production,) at least; See Stanford’s Shanhui Fan Group.)

    The important thing is that Krugman gets through April without mentioning Eben Moglen and that the paper has a scene where DeNiro’s^WLeBeouf’s character puts on some Liz Phair and talks about ‘picking and encouraging’ b2b suppliers while nepalm^Wamortization and service diversity engulf primal…er, domestic markets. It can be more fun when reports leave in streaks speaking to ‘what a trucker needs’ etc. Will Anne-Marie Imafidon do a cameo?

  3. Costs of Electric Cars at Coyote Blog [edited].
    === ===
    The real cost of electric cars

    This implies that on a cost-per-mile basis, the EV is over 13x more efficient than gasoline cars. Is this a fair comparison? Summing up, the difference in fuel cost per mile is at best 2x. This is not because the EV uses less fossil fuel; it likely uses a bit more, when you look all the way back to the power plant. It achieves its savings by using lower cost, less-refined fossil fuels. It uses natural gas in a large power plant instead of gasoline directly in the car engine.

    Consider the wells-to-wheels methodology described in my Forbes article, taken directly from the DOE. The Nissan Leaf has a real eMPG of about 42 (36.5% of the published 115), compared to 50 for the Prius. For electricity from fossil fuels, the Leaf uses a bit more fossil fuels than the Prius but likely uses much less expensive fuels, so is cheaper to drive. If the marginal electrical fuel is natural gas, the Leaf also likely generates a bit less CO2.
    === ===

    The “electric car” runs on fossil fuels burned at the power plant. This central power production costs less than using gasoline in the auto engine, if you look only at the immediate costs of use. It may produce a bit less CO2, but this won’t save the world.

    What does it cost when you include the higher purchase price, installation of a home recharging station, more complicated maintenance, shorter driving range, recharging hassle, and reliance on subsidized public recharging stations?

  4. Let me know when the rational economic choice for the consumer is the installation of solar PV or wind, without subsidy, off the grid. Until then, keep your powder dry.

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