Intermittency revisited

by Solarevolution March 27, 2013 14:00

A new detailed analysis has been published on the intermittency of renewables, "Household Solar Photovoltaics: Supplier of Marginal Abatement, or Primary Source of Low-Emission Power?"

Here are some observations about this article:

  • Any future scenario involving the continuing indulgence or coddling of fossil fuel interests is delusional. Catastrophic climate change is at the door. Even if our only issue were peak oil, it is already too late for a smooth "transition" or "energy conservation." We are in a state of emergency and it is time to stop kidding ourselves about our plight, especially within the well-informed but small peak oil / EROI / climate change / renewables community. More than ever, the world needs clear, honest, deep understanding. The politicians and the business community will catch on only when we get real ourselves and "tell it like it is."
  • Given the high risk of social disruption due to climate change, the only rational future for nuclear power (including nuclear weaponry) is rapid decommissioning and secure sequestration. The last thing humanity needs is coastal nuclear power plants flooded by sea level rise and on-river nuclear power plants running out of cooling water while marauders are out on the front lawns of the nuclear industry custodians. Others may be in denial about this risk, but we need not indulge their fantasies of a nuclear resurgence. 
  • That leaves us with only one sane course of action: demand destruction combined with renewables. Any challenges to high EROI renewables carry the responsibility to find high EROI solutions. If batteries don't cut the mustard, then forget batteries. If the main challenge is intermittency, then it is time for us to set the bar higher and put qualified intermittency engineers to work. Many serious developers are working on low cost, high capacity, high round-trip efficiency storage. And they aren't wasting their time on batteries. If trees can survive the night (and winter even in Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia), then so can humans. 
    • By the way, a good peer reviewed scientific report on the costs and impacts of intermittency can be obtained from the UKERC:
      It explains the important concept of "root mean square error" and debunks a lot of the myths about intermittent generation.
  • Likewise, if we need a smarter grid to make renewables work, then we need to put more smart people to work, and pronto. One can identify the challenge and the inadequacy of efforts to date. Fine. Then what happens? (Robert Heinlein's admonition comes to mind: "Always listen to experts. They will tell you what can't be done and why. Then do it.")   
  • Residential rooftop solar has a place but it carries the challenges of high installation cost, poor orientation/shading, roof penetrations, etc. These issues stand in the way of large scale high EROI deployment. 
  • Better we look elsewhere. Stronger candidates are low profile commercial buildings, parking lots and streets (integrated with grade-separated transportation).
  • Nor does the need for scale necessarily imply huge remote solar farms out in the deserts. That's appropriate if we are up to something out there in the first place, but extensive transmission and environmental costs can be mitigated by integrating most renewables into the urban fabric.
  • Charlie Hall's claim that society's EROI has to be on the order of magnitude of 10 is similarly built upon the premise of many steps between, e.g., the well and the wheel. No wonder he's right. We fly rednecks from Houston to extract oil offshore in Angola, ship it to refineries in Rotterdam, conjure magic potions and send it off to who knows where by truck no less, and then run it through a 15% efficient engine pushing around mostly metal. What a waste! By uniting generation and application (source and sink) within a single physical structure, much of that inefficiency can be readily eliminated and the minimum EROI can get back down to a reasonable number. 
  • There is no significant future for electric cars (and thus V2G). Using the Biblical cliche, it doesn't make sense to put new wine in old wine skins. In the context of peak oil, humanity is poised to eliminate the treacherous bad engineering (misnamed "auto"-mobile / "free"-way) that willy-nilly juxtaposes children, pedestrians and bicyclists (not to mention pets, squirrels and deer) against heavy fast-moving machines on the same terrestrial plane. With grade-separated Solar Skyways, for example, we can reclaim the streets for people-not-machines and meet our energy needs as well. In the process, with a 10X improved solution, we can drastically cut the source-to-sink steps which whittle away at full EROI  / LCA / efficiency considerations.
For any new scientific inquiry, we must question the assumptions which underpin the conclusions reached. If one picks a marginal set of underlying premises, one will get marginal results.

And though one's conclusions may be valid within the present political framework and technology mindset, the science behind EROI and LCA relate first and foremost to physics, not BAU economics or political intransigence. As long as we are considering such scenarios as high residential rooftop solar deployment, it makes sense to also put forth bold scenarios with sound physics, irrespective of the political / industrial challenges we face. In the emerging milieu of severe natural consequences, bold is where the opportunities can be found.  


It's a Beautiful World

by Solarevolution July 12, 2012 17:42
How do we communicate the message of peak oil to the curious, the uninformed, the skeptic?
Well, that depends upon the message. Is ours a message of fear? Is it fantasy? Is it a message of hope? Is it a call to action?

Here's an option to consider: Lamentations begone!

Way back then

My seventh grade teacher would habitually give us her backhanded praise, "Light dawns upon darkness," as we went through our lessons. In Sunday School I had learned the difference between truth and lies (not to be confused with fact and fiction).

I learned another important lesson in the Boy Scouts. We were taught to leave the campground better than we found it. It meant a little extra work to pick up after ourselves ... and the unconscious souls who had been there before us, leaving a big mess in their wake.

Fast forward...

Fast forward a half century. Without a doubt I now live in a world that is a lot more complex than the campgrounds of my youth. Leaving a better world for the next batch of campers isn't quite as easy as it once seemed. My Scoutmaster would be arrested today if he were driving to Yosemite with 30 kids in the back of that stake-side truck. Nor had I noticed at the time that the truck's exhaust was causing the climate to change, nor that the global fuel tank gauge was dropping fast.

Where do we stand now?

So here I sit today, hanging out with a bunch of savvy folks, imagining a world beyond oil. It's a little scary at times.

Some of the savvy folks are imagining a dystopia. It's hard to fault them for that. All you have to do is look out your window at the world, and you will readily see lots of things falling right apart. Some places are flooding worse than ever; other places are burning, with record highs. Low down depression lurks behind many a paycheck... and it attacks mercilessly where once there was plenty.

More than a million people die in traffic accidents every year; ten million and more are seriously injured. Turf wars (over oil and minerals for cars) add to the numbers and the suffering. In simple terms, the so-called autonomous vehicle ("automobile") has degenerated into a very bad design. Clearly Karl Benz and Henry Ford had the best of intentions, and their inventions served humanity well for a century. But just as the car rolled the horse off the streets a century ago, so must the car be driven out of town in this new century... or pushed all the way to the junk yard when it runs out of fuel. Keeping the same form (an artifact of the oil age) while switching from fuel to electricity might be likened to changing the horse's feed from hay to kerosene so it might run faster. What's wrong with this picture?!

Transferring the American dream to China and Indian is about to turn into a nightmare as both countries compete to see which can gobble up, one-time-only, more natural resources than the other. And they think it's only fair for us to sit on the sidelines to watch them go at it. We have our troubles; these countries will be unfettered to mimic us and chase after their own troubles.

Archeologists have uncovered enough of the past to realize that humans evolved to form a primitive society known as the Stone Age. That hasn't changed very much, realistically. Future archeologists no doubt will call ours the Burn Stone Age.

This race to the bottom is getting pretty insane. Is there any way out?

A Better World

At a recent talk in San Francisco, John Reed, Chairman of the MIT Corporation, former Chair of CitiGroup and the New York Stock Exchange, was asked, "There are a number of young alumni here ... [asking] ... how can they be successful in their careers?"

John Reed replied, "I always could dream. I had a sense of where we wanted to go. And I greatly believed that if you can interpolate it is much better than extrapolating.

"Most managers sorta say, 'Where are we today?' Then they sort of extrapolate, and say, 'We could be a little more efficient; we could gain a little market share; we could do a little this; we could do a little that.' And they spend their life trying to extrapolate from some core to, you know, being somewhat better.

"... I think you gotta have a vision of where you'd like to be and then you've gotta say, 'I'm gonna use my efforts to get from here to there.'

And I must say it served me well in my business career. I think it served the institutions I was working with well and if I had any recommendations for a younger person, it would be, "Dream enough, be realistic, figure out what it is you would love to be, and then figure out how you're gonna get there. Don't just try..."

To leave a brighter world for our descendants, we must begin envisioning a better way to live. We can't dwell incessantly on what a miserable mess we are leaving for them. That's self-indulgence, at a time when we need all hands on deck. A persistent example is to see so many wringing their hands about the intermittency of renewables. This is a bit like complaining that there weren't enough oars on the Titanic's lifeboats.

Since it will be a world without oil (coal, gas), we must envision that: a world beyond oil (coal, gas). What might that world look like? As John Reed said, let's create a vision of where we'd like to be and then let's interpolate -- figure out how to get there. Dwelling on the past and extending that model into the future (extrapolating) isn't going to get us very far. We might consider our accomplishments or lack thereof in light of our core message.

At the dawn of the World Wide Web in 1994, I staked a claim to my vision of a better world -- -- building upon Ernest Callenbach's vision of an ecologically sound utopia. Once we abandon the unwieldy and outmoded artifacts of the fossil fuel era, I envision a world that is comfortably powered by solar energy. I envision a world where expectations have changed such that we have learned to do more with less in order to meet the needs of all people, accepting the challenge to find ways to stretch natural resources ten-fold, and to stop burning rocks like tenants burning the landlord's picket fence to stay warm through the cold winter. Let the sun shine in!!

If we as peak oil aware folks want to gain market share, we will envision a better future.

[And I reiterate my challenge. I'm all ears to hear about any alternative to my vision which is constructive, plausible and durable. No "over unity" schemes in defiance of the Second Law. No fair kicking the can down the road. Belly to the bar.]

A vision without a task is a dream; a task without a vision is drudgery; a vision with a task is the hope of the world. (Inscribed on the wall of a church in Sussex, England, circa 1730, posted at )

Burning rocks to get around

by Solarevolution June 25, 2012 04:27
Listen up!    
Unprecedented economic expansion over the past century has been powered by abundant and relatively inexpensive oil and other fossil fuels.  How would the U.S. and global economy respond to an oil supply crisis and the prospect of diminishing oil supplies?  What would economic “growth” and “development” look like in a future with less oil?

 I think this might be the time for me to highlight the theme of equity (in particular, international- and inter-generational equity).

That statement, "... in a future with less oil," is hinting in the direction of "oil continues to be treated as a fuel." Hmmm. If there is no awareness of the value of oil, not for burning up one-time-only, but as a substance for long term use by our progeny, what right do we have to tie up people's time talking about an economy? What is an economy without leaving behind some resources for a next generation to take over?

Where do we weave this fundamental into the peak oil story? I for one am coming to loath the continuing using the term "fossil fuels." We are burning stones to get around?! How do you explain that to your grandchildren? We are so shortsighted to consume these resources that belong to their future.

I'm probably going to drive to town soon, and jump in an airplane before the year is up. Shame on me. The point though is to put our heads together, to find common ground, so that collectively,  we can put a new spin on oil, to begin to treat it as a valuable resource, too precious to burn. Might that perspective serve well to transform our efforts into a more noble cause?

Today we look back in disgust at whaling for lamp oil. How primitive to kill those magnificent sentient leviathans just to light up a room. What will the beyond-oil people of the future think of us?!

Energetics vs Economics

by Solarevolution June 18, 2011 12:36

Now here's something to think about…

I don't know that we can "throw out" money as a metric in a world where the economy is the main narrative and is likely to be for a long-time.

Obviously we aren't going to do away with money -- or economics, for that matter. It's the direction of the connection that matters. Economics is an instrument of policy; it is a consequence of policy, not a precursor; therefore economics cannot determine policy. Policy, based on whatever metrics, is carried out by economic instruments -- subsidies, grants, taxes, lending rates, etc. -- once the underlying premises are understood and desired outcomes are determined.

Whenever this relationship is reversed -- with economics determining policy -- then policy is built upon a circular argument: for example, a portion of the premium rewarded to special interests can be recycled back into the system in the form of lobbying power. Otherwise, how could energetically bankrupt ethanol become economical? Those who have already been successful at gaming the system can readily use ethanol [take soil; add sunshine, water, oil and coal] to continue successfully gaming the system. It doesn't have to meet the test of good energetics.

It's easy for the economically powerful to pull this off. As Jeremy Grantham wrote in his April GMO letter, "The problems of compounding growth ... are not easily understood by optimistic, short-term-oriented, and relatively innumerate [can't do math] humans (especially the political variety)."

We are unlikely to persuade the world to do away with money. But on the subject of energy, we will use kW-hours, BTUs, EROEI, etc., as metrics to point us toward sane policy. Then we have at least a fighting chance of creating economic instruments that discourage depletion (e.g, fuels recovered at low EROEI) and encourage energetically attractive alternatives (e.g., with high EROEI).

Taking it one step further, if we care about our children and our neighbors, then we will also factor equity into the equation and save a little for them. That's just sound energetic policy.

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