August 23, 2014

Do utilities try to block solar power?

Yes.  The rapid growth in rooftop solar is catching utilities off-guard across the U.S. and many are fighting back against the trend due to the threat it poses to their bottom line. Quite simply, more customers installing their own rooftop solar panels means they’re producing more of their own electricity and buying less from their utility company.

"Since January 1, 2011, Hawaii’s three investor-owned utilities interconnected more than 250 MW of solar PV (almost two-thirds residential) to grids with aggregate peak loads around 1,500 MW. This boom ended five months ago when Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) abruptly stopped approving residential net metering (NEM) applications for most communities on the island of Oahu. HECO claimed the grid was over-saturated with solar and that further study and infrastructure upgrades were needed to restart the interconnection process. The sudden shift left thousands of consumers stranded in “solar limbo” and caused large-scale lay-offs."

We see below how installations peaked in late 2012 (when credits were cut for 2013),and fell after the Fall of 2013, when the local utility claimed that a large number of local circuits were overloaded, claimed that this overload created dangerous conditions for utility workers, and created a restrictive review system:  photo Hawaii-PVpermits12-14.jpg

July 11, 2014

How quickly will EV sales grow?

Reasonably quickly, but not as fast we'd like.

US pure EV sales have doubled each year for the last three years (from a very small base) and pure EV and PHEV sales are growing faster than hybrid sales did when they were introduced . Tesla has a large backorder book.  Nonetheless, PHEV sales aren't growing as quickly as many people had hoped.

Cost isn't the problem.

Hybrids, EREVs and EVs are already the low cost choice for Total Cost of Ownership (per, so if cost were the driver....we would have reached the tipping point. Buyers of new light duty vehicles (cars, pickups, SUVs) sales just don't seem to be very price sensitive.  The minimum cost US vehicle is about $11k, while the average vehicle is more than $30k.  The average new car gets about 25MPG, while 55-100MPG vehicles are available. New car buyers just aren't paying much attention to minimizing costs.

Supply isn't the problem: Toyota, Nissan, Ford and GM will tell you that they could double production of their hybrids, EREVs and EVs literally overnight, if demand were there.

There are two big problems:

First, the vast majority of people are very slow to move to new things.  Individual consumers have to see people around them using this new thing for quite a while to become comfortable with them.  For example, online food ordering has overwhelming benefits for parents, but Webvan went bankrupt: they counted on people moving to a new thing too quickly.

Commercial users of heavy duty vehicles face large problems of economy of scale, long-lived investments and operating in a tough competitive market. Large fleet customers have been experimenting with pilot programs, but have been afraid of being first movers ("Pioneers are the ones with arrows in their backs").  That suggests that the early rate of adoption may be deceptive.  At a certain tipping point fleet buyers will decide high oil prices are permanent, and that electrified/alt fuel vehicles are clearly cost justified. Then, sales will grow quickly.

Second, the primary reason for EVs is external costs like Climate Change and the cost of military conflict in the M.E., and as a society we haven't prioritized dealing with those costs.  We just haven't.  Until we do, with things like carbon and fuel taxes (which even the most conservative economists support for external costs) and acceptance by Republicans, it's unrealistic to expect fast movement by consumers.

May 9, 2014

Does carbon capture (CCS) make sense?

No.  Two new Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) plants are demonstrating that CCS is extremely expensive.

The first is in Saskatchewan. It's expected to cost $1.2B, and have a nominal capacity of 110MW. The second, in Mississippia, is called Boundary Dam. Bounday Dam will cost about $5 (up from the initial estimate of $2.4B) for a capacity of 565MW.

If we assume an average utilization of 75% (a little higher than the industry average) we get an overall cost per average Watt of $12.25. If we assume 7% interest and a 30 year life, that gives us a cost for capital alone of 11.3 cents per kWh.

These plants are selling their CO2 output for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), but that's not scalable to a large number of plants: the market for EOR could absorb only two or three percent of coal CO2, and long distance movement of CO2 for this purpose would be very expensive.

The article suggests that the IPCC is pushing for biomass with CCS, but I strongly suspect it makes much more sense just to grow biomass and bury it, rather than trying to capture the carbon with CCS. That's after we move to low-CO2 generation first, of course - it's always easier to just not emit CO2 than it is to capture and sequester it.

April 29, 2014

Would a renewable grid provide power in the night, or when wind is slow?

Sure.  At a point when we're approaching a grid 100% powered by wind and sun, we'd also be approaching 100% use of electric vehicles.
EV owners are already using something called  demand-side-management: their cars can charge when power is cheap.  This doesn't cost the grid anything at all.

If the 230M vehicles in the US had 50kWh of storage each (more than a Leaf, but less than a Tesla), that would be 11.5 TwHrs of storage, all provided by vehicle owners. That's about 24 hours of grid output. There's enormous potential for absorbing diurnal variance in wind & solar (and nuclear) output, with large savings to drivers: they have to charge sometime, so the large variation in prices during the day would be more than enough to cause owners to program their cars to automatically arbitrage between different times of the day.

It may be hard to imagine an all-electric fleet with that much storage, but that's where Tesla's planning to go.

March 26, 2014

If Climate Change is uncertain, should we wait to address it?

No, that would be a mistake.

The unspoken assumption here is that the proposed remedies are materially damaging to human economy or society, so we should wait.

That is misinformation, which comes primarily from the industries that are resisting change. In fact, the proposed remedies (efficiency, electrification of transportation, etc.) would have both short term and long term economic benefits. For instance, car makes have fought desperately against increases in the CAFE regulation, when such improvements would save consumers enormous amounts of money over the lifetimes of their vehicles.

Oil is very expensive compared to the alternatives. New land-based windpower is cheaper than new US coal plants (because they scrub sulfur, mercury, etc). The UK is finding windpower expensive only because they’re not willing to install land based wind turbines – apparently they’d rather spend a lot more money putting turbines out to sea. Of course, if fossil fuel interests weren’t encouraging such astroturf, the UK would have a more sensible policy.

The problem is that the cost falls on a narrow part of society (investors and workers in industries that emit CO2), and the benefits are much more widely spread. If you’ve invested your life’s work (or your money) in oil or coal (or internal combustion engines, etc.) then you’re going to fight the transition away from fossil fuels. That’s easy to understand, and one can have compassion for those who are caught in such a bind. Still, the larger society can’t avoid the transition. Ideally, the larger society would find a way to soften the blow. But, the blow must come, and the sooner the better.

The cost of a transition away from fossil fuels is, in fact, much smaller than the cost of staying with them. Even the immediate, obvious costs of fossil fuels are higher than the costs of alternatives. But, those who benefit from fossil fuels wish to misinform us on this topic, purely to protect themselves.

The cartoon in this reputable economist's blog is worth a 1,000 words:

February 24, 2014

Are anti-Climate Change arguments are just part of group/follower thinking?

Yes, I think so.

First, because Climate Change really is the scientific consensus, and it's the international consensus: even oil exporters like Russia and Saudi Arabia concede that it's valid.  China concedes it too, and they're working harder on it than the US.  China has more than enough scientific expertise to independently review climate science, and plenty of motive to disagree, yet they don't.

2nd, there's a really obvious difference between political parties in the US: the Democrats follow the scientific and world consensus, and Republican's don't. There aren't any leaders of the Republican party that are willing to support Climate Change.

3rd, the republican rank and file generally agree with their leadership.  Now, you can't really argue that those republican followers have all read all of the Climate Change science and come to an independent opinion - it's quite obvious that most of those who hold anti-Climate Change opinions are doing so because of they identify as part of a group that holds that idea. There's a striking correlation with other anti-science ideas as well: most republicans don't believe in evolution.

So, ask yourself,  Do I hold this idea just because I belong to a  group that believes it?    Do *any* of my friends disagree with me?  Do any of the websites I like to read disagree with me?

February 21, 2014

Climate Change - the Tribal debate

There's a fascinating debate about Climate Change going on over at (their 1st post for 2/17/14) – it’s like watching warring tribes in Papua New Guinea.

Climatology is relatively new – not like astronomy or biology – but it seems to provide a new intellectual litmus test. In the past, one could identify someone who was unable to rise above their tribe's beliefs to think scientifically by asking them if they thought the earth was round, or if evolution was valid. Now, one can identify them by their inability to agree that Climate Change is a serious problem.

In the future, if I read a comment on Econbrowser by someone who appears to be guided by ideology, I can confirm (or disprove) my suspicion by referring back to these comments and seeing where they stood.