Just rewards

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry at last recognizes John Goodenough and his revolutionary battery.

The Nobel Prize committee for chemistry took their time but finally did the right thing:

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 was awarded jointly to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino “for the development of lithium-ion batteries.”

Yours truly has been agitating for this since 2017. I’m sure far more influential voices than mine have been making the case, though I’m still quite proud of the letter I sent them (reproduced in the post), and repeated last year.

It’s particularly gratifying that John Goodenough is still alive to receive the prize. He is amazingly fit and still working, but at 97 nothing can be taken for granted.

Many chemists, including him, are trying to find a better battery formulation, but so far, your mobile phone (revolution one) and future electric car (revolution two) still run on the battery he and others invented over 30 years ago.

If human civilisation gets through this mess, he and his colleagues will be on the short list of unlikely heroes and heroines who gave us a chance.

Thank you, John, Stanley, and Akira, from all of us.

My climate strike

Joining the striking kids in Malaga

Lu and I joined the children’s climate strike in Malaga yesterday.

Can you spot the odd man out? Photo by Lu

The photo is slightly misleading in that the majority of the protesters were older, with a surprising number of Seniores. A decent if not startling turnout, and all very good-humoured.

Our information-rich poster. Translation at the end. Bus by Playmobil. Hollin is soot – the streaks are the real thing from my wood-burning fireplace. The QR code links to a paper in Nature Communications, but only one other participant took a photo of it. No media in sight.

I did quite well on photos otherwise: several dozen. Very markedly, there was disproportionate interest from middle-aged women. I assume it’s the placenta reference: it doesn’t connect in the same way to young nulliparae.

If I were Francisco de la Torre, the 77-year-old PP mayor of Malaga, would I be worried enough to reconsider my policies? For instance on slow-walking the buying of electric buses? I doubt it: we weren’t enough, nor sufficiently focused. A lot depends on whether Greta’s army, or its parents, will get down to the plank-boring work of political organization. The Occupy Wall Streeters notoriously failed to make this transition. But I might be more worried by the middle-aged women, the kind that go to meetings, who may now be circulating photos of my poster and others on their FB feeds.

Continue reading “My climate strike”

Impeachment open thread

I don’t have anything interesting to say about this, but commenters might like a space for a discussion, so here it is.

As a peg, let me suggest the very practical question whether House Democrats should pursue a broad or a narrow investigation, within the bounds of “high crimes and misdemeanours” not bad policies as on immigration and trade.

For narrow: the record of the Ukraine phone call conclusively proves abuse of office; no serious defence possible; gets it over with quickly.

For broad: impeachment will in any case not lead to removal; the object is to educate the electorate about the unfitness of not only Trump but most of his Cabinet and his enablers in the Senate, so lay out all the dirt; the open-and-shut Ukraine count will help shake loose evidence on other offences like money laundering for Russian mobsters.

There are nuances within the broad approach. Take violation of the oath of office to “faithfully execute the laws.” Trump and his minions have instead done their worst to sabotage both ACA and the Clean Air Act. Very dirty pool, but I suspect most voters will treat these as policy choices (maybe very bad ones) not potential abuses of power. There is quite enough to go on without taking this risk.

PS: “Perhaps the horse will learn to sing”. McConnell is a thug, but his own thug not Trump’s. There are circumstances – very unlikely but not impossible – in which Mitch would conclude that Trump is a net liability to the Congressional GOP. We may reasonably question if VP Pence has the cojones to stick the knife in if necessary. There is no such doubt about McConnell.

PS2: If any of my fellow-bloggers chimes in with something more substantial, commenters please shift the discussion to that thread.

Financing hydrogen iron

A wonkish plan for problem industries in the energy transition.

We know how to make the electricity supply renewable. We know how to make land transport electric. Both are on track. But there are four problem industries where things are not so clear.

These estimates are not all for the same year and not strictly comparable, but they are good enough to make the point that to reach net zero emissions, the four sectors (together 20% of global fossil emissions) cannot be ignored.

The challenges are distinct but they have common features.

  1. Very plausible technological pathways exist to decarbonise. But these are not mature, and for the moment they are far more expensive than BAU.
  2. There is no guarantee or strong expectation that technical progress will ever eliminate the cost barrier, in contrast to electricity and land vehicles.
  3. The industries are typical of modern capitalism: they are international and oligopolistic, with a lot of trade, a handful of large companies, and a myriad of small ones.
  4. Their products and services rarely have plausible substitutes. (We shall see later on why this matters).

Points 1 and 2 mean that the issue for public policy is not R&D (pace all the Democratic presidential hopefuls) but early deployment.

Recall how we got to cheap wind, solar and batteries. It wasn’t a carbon tax, since that does not exist anywhere in the pure form. Partial cap-and-trade exists in the EU, but it has only just started to bite, after giveaway initial allocations. It was done by subsidies for early deployment to create economies of learning and scale:

  • In the USA, tax breaks for wind, solar, and electric cars; renewable obligations at state level.
  • In Europe and China, tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory privileges for electric cars.
  • FITs and ringfenced auctions for wind and solar generation in Germany, other European countries, China and India.

The costs of FITs have been large in the past, though the cumulative liability (in Germany for instance) has now almost stopped growing as the few surviving FITs are near market rates. Well worth it of course, especially if you aren’t a German consumer.

The same principle holds for our four problem industries. Carbon taxes are politically toxic, and a coordination nightmare in globalised industries. So what’s the workable second-best kludge?

I’d like to float a possible solution. I’ll take steel as the example. The principle extends to the others ceteris paribus.

!

Annals of weird infographics

A Norwegian consultancy comes up with a bafflingly cute one.

This chart, or whatever you want to call it, is from a report on the global energy transition by the big Norwegian consultancy DNV-GL. It’s not wrong or misleading so much as baffling. A new type of Tufte failure, perhaps. For their next effort, I suggest adding animated Teletubbies skiing down the mountaintops.

Dominion backs V2G

A big US utility subsidises school buses as grid batteries.

As a rule I don’t post much on renewable technology. The news is of a steady flow of small, unremarkable, incremental improvements that keep making wind and solar energy ever cheaper. It’s the prices that do it. But every so often, something bigger happens. I think it has here:

Dominion Energy Virginia has published a bullish plan to convert 50 school buses in its territory to electric buses by 2020. That’s just the start, as the company plans to add 200 more per year to hit its target of 1,050 fully electric school buses by 2025.
The company has a request for proposals in the works for electric vehicle manufacturers with plans to open the application to school districts in its Virginia territory this Friday, September 5th, 2019. […]
Dominion is excited to use the buses as vehicle to grid (V2G) batteries, and what’s even better is that the company has stepped up to pay the difference in price between traditional diesel buses and the fully electric buses in order to gain access to this new V2G resource.

V2G – vehicle-to-grid – is the idea of using electric vehicle batteries as storage for the grid. If it works, the potential is vast.
In 2018, there were 5.1 million electric cars on the roads worldwide, and 460,000 buses. (IEA Global EV Outlook 2019 ) Taking 30 kwh as a representative battery capacity for cars (Nissan Leaf) and 320 kwh for a representative electric bus (BYD K9), we have a total EV battery capacity of ~300 Gwh. The global light vehicle stock is about 1 billion, so EVs only represent 0.5% of it. But the growth rate is staggering – over 50% per year. The IEA suggests a global EV stock of 130 million in 2030 in its New Policies scenario (reflecting current policy ambitions), not much more than 10% of the stock allowing for market growth. We would then have a global vehicle battery capacity of ~7,800 Gwh, with plenty of upside.

Suppose we can tap a mere 10% of this for V2G. That’s ~780 Gwh. The Bath County pumped storage dam in Virginia, still the world’s largest (though not for long) has a storage capacity of 24 Gwh. V2G at scale would make a serious dent in the firming problem for very large-scale wind and solar. And it’s a very cheap solution compared to pumped storage or grid batteries: the owners of the vehicles will have bought the batteries anyway, and would not need to be paid much to lend them to the grid with appropriate guarantees and at minimal inconvenience.

A schematic illustration how this would work using Dominion’s school buses (my timetable guesses, not their estimates). On a working day:

  • 0000h – 0630 h: charge bus batteries in garage to 100%
  • 0630h – 0930h: morning school run, buses return to garage with average 33% charge
  • 0930h – 1600h: charge bus batteries in depot to 100%; available for V2G but not used much
  • 1600h – 1900h: afternoon school run, buses return to garage with average 33 % charge
  • 1900h -2400h: interruptible charging; >33% of bus battery capacity available for V2G to meet evening demand peak.

That’s for the 200 school days a year. For the other 165 days, the buses just sit in the garage, working exactly as grid batteries.

The scheme depends on the fact that any bus operator will buy a number of identical buses, but these will follow a mixture of longer and shorter routes. On the shorter ones, the buses don’t exhaust the charge. Given that Dominion is subsidising the purchases, they will be able to insist on as much over-capacity as they want.

There are several takeaways from this news. Continue reading “Dominion backs V2G”

Holes in the ground update

Warren half-way supports my pumped storage plan.

Some random blogger, last month, arguing for a large US investment in pumped hydro storage:

Picking with a pin, a 100 GW initial programme looks reasonable. […] it will cost a ballpark $60 bn. […] Where should the dams go? As a climate justice measure, it has to be Appalachia, since that is where most of the unemployed miners are and will be.

Candidate Elizabeth Warren, adopting Inslee’s climate plan with bells and whistles, earlier today:

We’ll provide dedicated support for the four Power Marketing Administrations, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Appalachian Regional Commission to help them build publicly-owned clean energy assets and deploy clean power to help communities transition off fossil fuels. And we’ll expand investments in smart energy storage solutions and cybersecurity for the grid.

Pretty close. The only thing the Appalachian Regional Commission can usefully spend money on is pumped storage, so Warren’s plan would buy some. However, her plan lacks specificity, numbers, and immediacy. “If you build a Bath County dam here, it will create 1,000 jobs for five years”. She achieves this elsewhere:

I’ll also invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, including ensuring that every federal interstate highway rest stop hosts a fast-charging station by the end of my first term in office.

See the difference?

China is currently building 30 GW of pumped hydro, on top of the existing stock of 19 GW, a shade under the USA’s 24 GW. The programme includes one 3.6 GW megaproject at Fengning which will knock Bath County from its three-decade reign as the world’s largest. Another 6 GW has just been added to the pipeline, taking the future total to 55 GW. The USA is being left in the dust and should aim at a bare minimum to match this.

The ambitious rollout is steered by China State Grid, the huge national high-voltage transmission monopoly. Warren’s plan leaves out a national grid too, merely rebranding FERC, weak tea by her high standards. But it may be good politics. Steering new funding to existing public bodies can be got through Congress by reconciliation. A national grid and electricity market would need primary legislation, a very scarce resource in the Warren (or Sanders or Biden) Presidency.

FWIW, if I were an American Democrat and primary elector, I would focus less on the details of the rival climate plans, and more on the ability of the candidates to get anything done. The plans will converge, as there are few serious ideological divides among Democrats equivalent to those on universal health care. The nearest is on nuclear power. Sanders rules it out; Biden will spend on research; Warren ducks. Fair enough, as the practical question is merely how much money to throw away on new reactor designs that will never be built commercially at any scale. Nuclear is a side-issue, not worth wasting political capital on. It’s more important who the new President would appoint as Secretary for Energy.

Footnote

For aficionados, there’s an interesting machinery-of-government angle. One part of the DoE’s job is minding the nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear waste. These are thousand-year headaches, with no tolerance for mistakes, and highly technical, though they only create major policy issues irregularly. That is why Obama appointed top-flight nuclear physicists as Secretaries. This inevitably creates a pro-nuclear bias in the other side of the job, energy policy. Warren (&c) might consider hiving off the nuclear stewardship job to a distinct non-Cabinet agency with considerable professional autonomy, like the Fed, and a real scientist in the Chu or Moniz mould as head. The Cabinet-level energy and climate czar would have plenty of other things to do, leading a multi-trillion-dollar GND.

A Grunberg side-effect

Cute children for the climate

A PR photo taken at the opening on Thursday of an offshore wind farm in Denmark:

Caption supplied:

At the Horns Rev 3 opening, left to right: CEO of Vattenfall Magnus Hall, Chairman of Vattenfall Lars G. Nordström, HRH Crown Prince of Denmark, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Minister of Climate, Energy and Utilities Dan Jørgensen, and pupils from Hvide Sande School

Credit: Vattenfall, via Recharge

What are the smiling kids doing there? Their contribution to building the wind farm is nil. They were roped in to show that the powerful adults in the back row are Concerned about future generations. Should I blame Greta Grunberg, or John Kerry, who took his scene-stealing granddaughter along to sign the Paris Agreement in New York?

Picky, picky, you say. If it helps and does no harm to the kids, fine. But let’s not mistake charming photo ops for action. To be fair, in this case they had some action to celebrate. The wind farm is for now the largest in Scandinavia, with a nameplate capacity of 407 MW.

There is much more cuteness to come along these lines.

PS: On reflection, there is a clear distinction between the Kerry photo and the Danish one. Kerry’s granddaughter is interacting with him, not the assembled grandees. She is fascinated by Grandpa’s behaviour; he is doing something unusual she does not understand, but it’s clearly very important to him, so she wants to be part of it. In the Danish photo, there is no interaction, the adults are not looking at the kids or talking to them. They are just exploited extras on the stage. Maybe the suits talked to the kids at another time, but it’s not what the photo says.

One clean beach

Why is my local beach now free of plastic litter?

No pretty photograph for this one. How can you take a snap of something that isn’t there?

Plastic litter on my local beach, that’s what.

I moved to Spain 15 years ago. My beach walks were interrupted by regular collections of litter, almost all plastic of one sort or another: drinks bottles, throwaway shopping bags, formless lumps of polystyrene, broken tangles of fishing net. It was densest along the shoreline, so jetsam (nice word: its counterpart flotsam is floating junk).

Recently I have had to leave my spandex Supergramps suit at home. There is hardly any to collect. On reflection, the change has been slow, though I’ve only just noticed it. Why has this happened?

Continue reading “One clean beach”

Trump’s War on Coal IV

In the second of this series of posts, I reported on data from the SEIA and consultants WoodMac that cast doubt on FERC’s forecasts of “highly probable” new solar installation in the USA. I went so far as to characterize these as “politicised rubbish”.

At the time I did not have comparable data for wind. Now I do. In a press release, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports:

Of the total wind pipeline, 17,213 MW were under construction across 21 states at the end of first quarter. [….] Project developers also reported 21,949 MW of wind capacity in the advanced development stage, which also reached a record level. Projects in advanced development have not yet begun construction but are likely to come online in the near term because they have either signed a long-term contract, placed turbine orders, or are proceeding under utility ownership.

My italics.

The AWEA definition corresponds very closely to the SEIA/WoodMac criterion for solar and to any common-sense interpretation of the term “highly probable”. So FERC have got this badly wrong too.

Putting the data together for your convenience, I get this:

The implied coal retirements in the last line – implied by the AWEA and SEIA/WoodMac data – are based on the assumptions of static demand for electricity, one-for-one substitution of renewables for coal, and no change in the latter’s break-even capacity factor (CF). The continuous-equivalent number for the announced retirements is just reached by applying the fleet average and is probably inaccurate, but it plays no part in the rest of the calculation. Note that old coal plants are inflexible, unlike gas, and don’t contribute much to the needed firming backup for cheap intermittent renewables.

The table also assumes that all the utility projects listed by SEIA/WoodMac and the AWEA will be completed in the three-year horizon used by FERC. This is very likely, though recently solar developers have started signing PPAs with delivery as late as 2023. The CFs for wind and solar are conservative, as technical advances are still raising them.

The estimate therefore has a fair margin of error. But it does strongly suggest that coal retirements of well over twice those already notified to FERC are already baked into the cake, with more on the way.

* * * * * *

Politically, the key factor is how many more coal jobs are lost in the next 15 months, before the 2020 elections. Here the picture is much less clear, but qualitatively similar.

It’s a fairly safe assumption that all the wind and solar farms currently under construction will be working by the election and cutting demand for coal. Since solar is very quick to build once ground is broken, this may imply a large underestimate. Using the same simple methods as in my table, that translates to 11.5 GW of redundant coal generation. The actual coal plant closures may be delayed or anticipated; the impact on mining jobs will be immediate.

The number is in the same ballpark as recent experience. 15 GW of American coal plants closed in 2018, displaced by gas as much as renewables. ( I don’t attempt to take account of gas here, but it’s more bad news for coal.) The acceleration I predicted, and still do, looks as if it will come after the election. However, the now certain job losses, and the equally certain prospect of many more to come, will already be on a sufficient scale to show up Trump’s promises in 2016 to American coal-miners as a cynical fraud.

It looks as if Appalachians generally are slowly getting the message. Trump’s approval ratings in selected states, Morning Consult, for now and at the start of his term:

Update 3 September

To do the FERC staff justice, they have changed the concept again and now less subjectively list new generating plants “under construction”. In the “energy infrastructure” report for June, the numbers I am interested in are:

  • coal plant retirements to July 2022 16.3 GW (+3.0 GW from May)
  • wind under construction 27.1 GW (+1.6 GW)
  • solar under construction 17.1 GW (+2.3 GW)
  • gas under construction less retirements 21.7 GW (+3.5 GW)

The small victory for professionalism should be praised. Note however that since wind and solar plants take at most 2 years to put up, FERC’s table is no longer very useful as a three-year projection. What we can say is that at least 44 GW of new wind and solar will be up and running before next November, and cutting coal sales. I make that 22 GW of coal generation replaced, plus up to another 13 GW from gas.