Having recently learned that the sun isn't always shining & the wind isn't always blowing, I turned to Princeton professor Jesse Jenkins to help explain how we can build a robust energy system around these variable resources. We walk through variability at every time scale and the solutions we have (or anticipate having). A must-listen, this one.
Your numbers are all very sensitive to how efficiently the electricity is used. It doesn't make much sense to discuss only supply without considering [cheaper] end-use efficiency opportunities. For what it's worth, I live in an Alberta-like climate (down to –44˚C, up to 39 days' continuous midwinter cloud) at 2200m elevation in the Colorado Rockies, but am ripening my 81st indoor passive-solar banana crop with no heating system, and it was cheaper to build that way even 40 years ago because eliminating the heating system saved more construction cost than the efficiencies that eliminated the heating system added. Nowadays it's often cost-effective to add broadly comparable superinsulation or superoutsolation to existing buildings.
Mr. Lovins, your apology for unreliable wind and solar is unreliable, overall. I’ll give you one point out of ten for the distinction between wholesale and retail as the first quarter 2023 report for European Electricity indeed seems to confirm that whereas the retail prices in Denmark and Germany are higher than average for the EU, the wholesale prices were lower. The Germans got lucky this year with a mild winter, which greatly reduced gas and coal prices, on which their generation still very much relies (43%) and looks like it will for a long-time, despite the much vaunted Energiewende.
But you didn’t even try to refute my allusion to high prices in California, more to the point for this audience. No wonder! They were double the US average in August 2023 according to the EIA.
Your claim that system integration costs are generally higher for big thermal plants than for renewables …. because the thermal plants fail more abruptly and unpredictably ("forced outages") is undermined by the size of the largest unit as a % of the fleet, without even talking about reserve margins. For example, in Ontario that would be about 7% for nuclear. And it’s not like it happens everyday and not necessarily for a long duration. In the first three months of 2023 Bruce Power had 13 unplanned outage days among 8 units, with an overall availability of 94%.
In contrast to that, all the solar goes off-line every day and its not beyond reasonable expectation that all, or a big chunk, of the wind fleet could go down across a broad region at any time (including at night when there is no solar). Not good if the system was so foolish as to become largely dependent on wind and solar.
Ontario’s recently completed scenario for decarbonization by 2050, albeit not a plan as such, but a scenario developed using long-term cost optimization considering all options. with an eye for diversity, is a good indication of results that consider system integration costs in a cost optimized way, and it does project more wind and solar, but not exclusively. Specifically, it projects about 24 gigawatts of new wind and solar by 2050, together with 45 gigawatts of other new resources including 18 gigawatts of nuclear. But the nuclear total capacity will generate about double the wind and solar total capacity.
In that scenario, wind and solar would constitute about 27% of total installed generating capacity in 2050, which may be about right for Ontario, but far from the 70% or 100% promised by some false prophets.
Your claim that wind and solar are less subsidized than fossil or nuclear power would be very hard to substantiate fairly and dodges my question why they need subsidizing at all if they are supposedly the lowest cost.
It’s no surprise Mr. Buffet’s firm now owns even more wind power. The sage knows a gravy train when he sees one, as I am sure do many billionaires. They’re getting richer at our expense. If they can get away with paying less taxes through the Investment Tax Credits, we pay more taxes and more in our electricity rates for a less secure electricity system. Meanwhile, good union jobs are lost.
You referred me to two of your own papers to “correct” my concerns about materials, jobs, and `emissions. Here are some more objective papers on those subjects (you didn’t mention land, but I had). [The links are not coing across, but Google will pick up from the titles]. Land-use intensity of electricity production and tomorrow’s energy landscapeotice nuclear is lowest, wind highest), (it notes that “High-renewable scenarios that meet climate targets are most material-intensive”). Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels (it points out there is insufficient mining and smelting capacity to supply all the materials needed). Towards a Just Energy Transition (Nuclear Power Boasts Best Paid Jobs in Clean Energy Sector). Ørsted cancels two US offshore windfarm projects at £3.3bn cost (Danish company’s CEO cites escalating costs in global offshore wind industry as shares fall). Lithium ion battery prices rose for the first time this year (no wonder with all the critical metals they require, see GTK report previously cited).
It's a privilege to get, in addition to this informative podcast, commentary from Amory Lovins. His work over the last forty years on reducing demand for human-enabled power through more efficient design should be much more talked about than it is. I also liked greatly the early point in the discussion that reduced GHG emissions are not the only motivation for going more to wind and solar; cleaner air, lower costs across the economy and that shibboleth "energy independence" are key points.
Great podcast, great series thereof! I really appreciate the simultaneous text and having the pdf available at release time.
Gotta say... in an alternate universe, one where I would have consumed this podcast on a higher than normal dose of medical marijuana (after pushing too hard during a workout as part of my recovery from a spinal cord injury I never asked for), I would have used some of the rhetoric of this episode to sketch out a comedy- and I still might!
Think "Don't Look Up" but with people suddenly realizing the sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow...but then learning, slowly, painfully, farcicly that batteries have been around since the 1800s and humans have been creating dams since 3,000 BC. (Hmmm... "Don't Look Up" meets "The Gods Must Be Crazy"?)
Thanks David... and keep up the great work!
Btw, I'm looking forward to an extended panel session (some day) where you, Chris Nelder, Melissa Lott, Shayle Kann and others come together to mark the passing of Uncle Ira, Uncle Bill and Uncle Chip (just before people cast votes in 2024).
David’s masterful interview and Jesse’s clear explanations of variable renewables provide a helpful primer and valid conclusions up to a timescale of days (though mistitled as “intermittency” in the subtitle and at 20:15 and 1:26:45, as explained at 23:30). There’s no “baseload” need (1:15:11), and the grid can indeed remain reliable as it becomes renewable, using existing plus imminent-and-likely technologies. But three interview gaps make solving variability look harder than it is:
A. There’s no mention of using electricity efficiently. Efficiency is half the world’s historic and at least half its prospective decarbonization. Reinventing Fire (RMI 2011), still tracking well to market, detailed how to quadruple 2010 US electric end-use efficiency by 2050 at a delivered cost one-tenth the current average US electricity price, so far more efficiency than 4x would be worth buying. In contrast, Jesse’s influential Net Zero America study’s economics-lite efficiency assumptions yielded 2–4x more 2050 electricity use than Reinventing Fire found for essentially the same GDP. This high demand created impressively granular but largely artifactual challenges to least-cost renewable electrification. (Virtually all Integrated Assessment Models likewise fail to compete or compare efficiency with supply, so they buy far too little efficiency and too much supply.) Moreover, efficient end-use not only shrinks needed renewable and flexibility needs but also changes buildings’ loadshapes enough to cut long-duration storage needs by an order of magnitude or altogether, as shown by an NREL analysis competing efficiency against storage (1). Meanwhile, integrative design (2) increases the global end-use efficiency resource to ~2–3x official assumptions, potentially about quintupling global end-use energy productivity in the coming decades.
B. NZA assumes buildings’ demand response can cut peaks by ~20%, but price plus information plus technology can actually achieve ~30–50+% (3). (NZA also uses ~1 TW each of flexible electrolyzers and electric boilers.)
C. NZA called for extensive “clean firm” generation, both for these reasons and by omitting 5–6 additional carbon-free grid-balancing resources: tighter renewable forecasting, optimizing renewable diversification (by type, characteristics, and location) and integration for best system reliability, added dispatchable generation such as small hydro and advanced geothermal, added or partly-dispatchable industrial cogeneration, thermal storage at all scales and temperatures, and bidirectional electric-vehicle integration. Jesse’s newest analyses include some of these; his interview doesn’t, again leading to significant” “clean firm” needs that I’ve not yet found are actually needed anywhere, including ERCOT (4). An excellent grid-operator analysis of Europe’s Dunkelflaute that includes many of these missing options plus significant end-use efficiency (5) finds a need not for months or seasons or years of storage but only for up to 1–2 weeks, equivalent to ~6% of winter generation. That’s not trivial, but is straightforward to meet with existing gas-fired generators burning stored green molecules made by surplus solar and wind built for grid support but usually unneeded for that purpose. This illustrates the importance of Jesse’s multiple models’ omitting most of the ~10 grid-balancing resources I’ve long described (6,7) and conceptually graphed (8). Including them would also correct his outdated impression (18:05, 18:26) of renewable prospects in Japan and the UK (9).
Long-term electricity and green-H2 needs in a reliable grid and decarbonized economy are uncertain by a factor ~2–4. Canonical high estimates omit South leapfrogs, thoughtful growth goals (10), integrative design (except perhaps in buildings), and newer innovations such as structural design efficiency saving half of cement and steel (11,12), electrochemical primary metallurgy (e.g. electra.earth), and geological hydrogen (13). Those respectively became credible in 2021, 2022, and 2023. What demand-side surprises are next? Assuming “none” increases the already high risk of buying copious prestranded supply-side assets, further diverting scarce assets (time, talent, resources) into new shiny objects with a slick sales pitch but no operational need or business case (e.g., fission and fusion), and slowing the gratifyingly exponential but still incumbent-opposed energy transition.
So while I broadly agree with Jesse’s thesis until he gets to long-duration storage, and share his optimism about its likely solutions (14,15) if it were actually a problem, I think his constrained slate of options misses major solutions already available to avoid that problem at much lower cost. This omission merits prompt refinement.
1. Hussainy & Livingood, NREL, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1063/5.0064570.
2. Lovins, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aad965.
3. RAP/Brattle Group, 2012, https://www.raponline.org/knowledge-center/time-varying-and-dynamic-rate-design/.
4. Dyson simulation, ~2004, RMI, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsgrahFln0s. See also Goldenberg et al., 2018, RMI, https://www.rmi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Insight_Brief_Demand_Flexibility_2018.pdf.
5. 50Hertz/Elia, 2021, https://www.eliagroup.eu/en/news/press-releases/2021/11/20211119_elia-group-publishes-roadmap-to-net-zero.
6. Lovins, 2022, https://www.utilitydive.com/news/nuclear-energy-should-not-be-part-of-the-global-solution-to-climate-change/620392/.
7. Lovins, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tej.2022.107122.
8. Lovins, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tej.2020.106827.
9. Breyer et al., 2022, https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=9837910; LUT U., 2023, https://100percentrenewableuk.org/new-report-shows-100bn-savings-with-100-renewable-energy-net-zero-plan; and Japanese analyses by Prof. Haruki TSUCHIYA since the early 1970s.
10. Grübler et al., 2018, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-018-0172-6.
11. Lovins, 2021, RMI, https://www.rmi.org/profitable-decarb/.
12. Lovins, 2021, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/decarbonizing-our-toughest-sectors-profitably/.
13. Hand, 2023, https://www.science.org/content/article/hidden-hydrogen-earth-may-hold-vast-stores-renewable-carbon-free-fuel.
14. Lovins, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tej.2017.11.006.
15. Lovins & Ramana, 2021, https://e360.yale.edu/features/three-myths-about-renewable-energy-and-the-grid-debunked.
Wind and solar are NOT the cheapest sources of electricity. Those jurisdictions with the highest penetration like California and Germany and Denmark suffer from the highest electricity prices in their regions. You and your academic guest are confused between the price that must be contracted per kWh to give developers a 12% rate of return, per Lazard’s levelized cost of energy, which is irrelevant to us consumers, and the total system cost that must be covered by electricity rates, which is what is relevant and heavily weighted by the additional costs to get the power from where and when it is generated to where and when it is needed (backup generation and transmission and the wasted dollars paying for wind in excess of what is needed at certain times).
The market is not pulling them. After a couple of decades and trillions of dollars of subsidies, they still represent only about 10% of world electricity production. If they were so cheap why would the Biden administration consider it necessary to continue offering generous subsidies. (The Inflation Reduction Act modifies and extends the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit to provide a credit of up to 2.75 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2022 dollars (adjusted for inflation annually)? And why was it necessary for States to force utilities to take them under renewable energy portfolio standards? OK, these are rhetorical questions because we all know the answers are because they are not the cheapest sources of electricity.
In 2014, Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Iowa's MidAmerican Energy, said, “I will do anything that is basically covered by the law to reduce Berkshire's tax rate. We get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That's the only reason to build them.”
And they, and batteries, will likely not come down in cost because of their material content.
And they do not provide energy security, because the West is now dependent on imports of the equipment, particularly from un-friendly China, which also controls most of the smelting and refining of necessary metals and they also own most of the mines, including those in Africa.
And they are not environmentally friendly because of their excessive use of materials and land per unit of energy, including land for new transmission and mining the materials.
They do not create the well-paid union jobs that nuclear plants do, which offer the best ‘just transition’ for laid-off workers from coal-fired plants, which also provide ideal sites for new nuclear, already connected to the grid. Nuclear also eliminates pollution and carbon dioxide emissions and would be the next cheapest to limited heritage hydro, if done right, which can be done as the South Koreans and Chinese are proving.
You are right we would need a lot more transmission (there is no copper plate allowing any amount of power to flow from anywhere to anywhere). But we are not going to get it because it is so expensive and environmentally disruptive and NIMBY.
So, the answer to the question you started with, “Why bother with wind and solar”, is “no good reason at all”.
I'm questioning the closure of coal plants on this count: I may be completely off base, but it seems way easier to store a bunch of coal (big pile maybe covered with plastic or something?), than it seems to store a bunch of natural gas (or even worse maintain all the infrastructure to extract natural gas).
Because when you're storing nat gas in tanks or in underground caverns or wells, don't you always run the risk of methane leaks? Always run the risk of direct GHG escape that you don't run with coal? Also, isn't there some amount of pressurization (electricity) that has to occur with nat gas storage? And what sorts of volumes are we talking about that can be stored easily?
Finally, what if we have another Tambora that blocks out the sun for a year (or an asteroid, or a nuclear war or probably a half dozen other disasters that compromise wind or solar (or nuclear or geothermal or whatever) and you need every last ounce of production possible. In other words, why shut down *any* fossil plants? And why not leave the diversification of coal plants?
Is it just based off this scarcity theory of $$? Neo liberal economic ideas that warn against deficits and debts at the FED level?
If you could present the professor with what I call the "Alberta22" problem. Alberta is currently just about the loudest anti-renewables polity on the continent, quite an achievement versus red states.
But Alberta has an argument: In late December of 2022, solar influx was at a minimum, just 8 hours a day above the horizon, peaking at 16 degrees above it. Through heavy cloud. A weather system sat on the Prairies for at least a week, bringing -30C and no wind.
Alberta has over 12GW of power needs, which peaked during that period at night; some 6% can be satisfied by solar at present, some 20% by wind, for <30% renewables, since they have almost no hydro. During the event, they were on 96% gas, for over a hundred hours of the week.
I figured several billion dollars worth of Form Energy iron-air batteries to make up the deficit, even if Alberta overbuilt to 300% solar and 200% wind. A total of 500% overbuild, some 60GW, would have delivered ~6GW last December 22. Alberta could then bring in a few GW from BC, and only need 4GW of batteries running.
Alberta could bring in power from BC, but the rest of the Prairies to the east and south would be in the same weather system.
On a vaguely related subject, we might move from the grid-level to the household level. As households become more dependent on electricity, electric outages will be more impactful. How will we minimize that impact?
The summary message just seems so clear and is consistent with other experts, e.g. Dr. John Bistline, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/10/opinion/environment/ipcc-report-climate-change-debates.html
- Deploy wind and solar as fast as we can.
- Shut down coal as fast we can.
- Keep existing nuclear and natural gas going and add even add natural gas where necessary.
- Expand the grid.
These are the 80 - 90 % solutions. These are all happening in NM where I live. The last remaining coal will be shut down in 2031, very close to Jesse's goal of 2030. NM has reduced their electrical sector carbon emission intensity by more than half since 2000, 956 kg/MWhr to 443 kg/MWhr.
The other important piece for continued natural gas use is eliminating methane leaks.
It seems the line between long duration energy storage and new low-carbon firm dispatchable sources is starting to blur. I wish you had spent a little more time discussing that. It seems like that story is rapidly changing. Too bad advanced nuclear isn't further along because we could replace existing coal plants with advanced nuclear and utilize much of the transmission system already in place. I know some of that is happening but not nearly enough.