Renewable Energy Technology is Now Powerful Enough to Significantly Soften the Climate Crisis

In order for the world to begin to solve the climate crisis, one critical thing has to happen. Global carbon emissions need to start falling. And they need to start falling soon before the serious impacts that we are already seeing considerably worsen and begin to overwhelm us.

Carbon Emissions Plateau For Last Three Years

Over the past three years, countries around the world have been engaged in a major switch away from the biggest carbon emitter — coal. China is shutting down hundreds of its worst polluting coal plants, India is following suit, the U.S. is shuttering many of its own facilities, and in Europe the trend is much the same. Around the world, investment in new coal fired plants continues to fall even as the old plants are pressured more and more to halt operations.

(It’s starting to look like cheap renewable energy and the drive to reduce pollution and to solve the climate crisis are a stronger factor in the present carbon emissions plateau than a cyclical switch to natural gas fired power generation. Image source: The International Energy Agency.)

In many places, coal generation is being replaced by natural gas. This fuel emits about 30-50 percent less carbon than coal, but it’s still a big source. In the past, a switch to natural gas due to lower prices has driven a cyclical but temporary reduction in global carbon emissions. And falling coal prices have often driven a price-forced switch back to coal and a return to rising emissions rates. But after years of rock-bottom coal prices due to continuously falling demand this, today, is not the case.

Low-Cost, More Desirable Renewable Energy Blocks a Cyclical Switch back to Coal

And the primary reason for this break in traditional energy cycling is that renewable energy in the form of wind and solar are now less expensive than coal and gas fired power generation in many places. Add that wind and solar are considerably more desirable due to the fact that they produce practically zero negative health impacts from pollution and that such zero-emitting sources are critical to solving an ever-worsening climate crisis and you end up with something seldom seen in markets anywhere. A rare synergy between a public interest based drive for a more moral energy industry and a, typically callous to such concerns, market-based profit motive.

(In Western Europe basic economics and a desire for cleaner power sources has resulted in both wind and solar overtaking coal fired power generation capacity. Image source: Bloomberg.)

Consider the fact that now, in Western Europe, both solar and wind energy have higher installed capacities than coal. Combined, the two sources have more than double the present energy producing capacity of this dirty fuel. Coal just can’t compete any longer. And an increasing glut of low-cost, non-polluting renewable energy is forcing even the largest, most economically viable, coal fired power plants such as the 2.2 gigawatt facility in  Voerde, Germany to shut down.

In Australia, despite the mad-hatter attempts by coal cheerleader politicians to supply more of this dirty carbon to a dwindling world market, renewable energy just keeps on advancing. This week, Queensland announced a new solar + storage project that would at first supply 350 megawatts of renewable energy and would ultimately expand to 800 megawatts. The drive for the project comes as solar prices in Australia are now beating out gas fired power generation. Meanwhile, market analysts are saying that solar+storage will soon be in the same position. And, even more ironically, many of the new solar and battery storage promoters in Queensland are past coal industry investors.

Simple Technologies Leverage Economies of Scale

The technologies driving this fundamental energy market transformation — wind, solar, batteries — are not new silver bullet advances. They are older technologies that are simple and easy to reproduce, improve, and that readily benefit from increasing economies of scale. This combination of simplicity, improvability and scaling is a very powerful transformational force. It enables companies like Tesla to spin core products like mass produced batteries into multiple offerings like electrical automobiles, trucks, and residential, commercial and industry scale energy storage systems. A new capability and advantage that is now beginning to significantly disrupt traditional fossil fuel based markets world-wide.

A fact that was underscored by the shockwaves sent through combustion engine manufacturers recently after Tesla’s simple announcement that it would begin producing electric long-haul trucks.

The announcement almost immediately prompted downgrades in conventional truck engine manufacturer stock values. In the past, competition by electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla have forced traditional, fossil fuel based vehicle and engine manufacturers to produce their own electric products in order to protect market share. But since these companies are heavily invested in older, more polluting technology it is more difficult for them to produce electric vehicles at a profit than it is for pure electric manufacturers like Tesla.

Renewable Energy Technology Capable of Removing Lion’s Share of Global Carbon Emissions

In light of these positive trends, we should consider the larger goals of the energy transition with regards to climate change.

  1. To slow and plateau the rate of carbon emissions increases.
  2. To begin to reduce global carbon emissions on an annual basis.
  3. To bring carbon emissions to net zero globally.
  4. To bring carbon emission to net negative globally.

By itself, market based energy switches to renewable energy systems can cut global carbon emissions from their present rate of approximately 33 billion tons of CO2 each year to 1-5 billion tons of CO2 each year through full removal of fossil fuels from thermal, power, fuel, manufacturing, materials production and other uses. In other words, by itself, this now rapidly scaling set of technologies is capable of removing the lion’s share of the human carbon emission problem. And given the rapid cost reductions and increasing competitiveness of these systems, these kinds of needed reductions in emissions are now possible on much shorter timescales than previously envisioned.

(UPDATED)

Links:

Europe’s Coal Power is Going up in Smoke — Fast

The International Energy Agency

Plans Laid for 800 MW Solar + Storage Facility in Queensland

Tesla Semi Announcement Causes Analysts to Start Downgrading Traditional Truck Stocks

Coal Plants are in Decline

Hat tip to Phil

Hat tip to Spike

Hat tip to Brian

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Tesla’s Powerwall Puts Huge Crack in Carbon-Based Energy Dominance

“I think we should collectively try to do this, and not win the Darwin Award.” — Elon Musk

*   *   *   *   *

This week, with much fanfare, Elon Musk’s Tesla launched a new venture — Tesla Energy.

It’s a move that propels Telsa into direct competition with giant fossil energy companies. One that promises to disrupt the global power markets and to free a vast number of consumers now held captive to home and transport based fossil fuel energy use. An offering that provides a glimmer of hope for an escape path out of our current nightmare of an ever-heating global climate.

(Elon Musk presents Powerwall together with a nice, succinct summary of our current carbon emissions crisis.)

Freeing the Fossil Fuel Energy Slaves

As with Tesla’s earlier electric vehicle offerings, its new energy product seems humble. But don’t let looks fool you, because this little beast packs one hell of a wallop. Dubbed Powerwall, the offering is a scalable battery storage system. In its home energy incarnation, it comes in trim dimensions — 7 inches thick in a 4×3 foot stack. For homeowners, it provides two options — 7 kwh of storage for 3,000 dollars or 10 kwh of storage for 3,500 dollars. A low-cost, high quality offering that will allow individual and family solar users to say to hell with the grid, contentious fossil fuel interest muddied utility politics, and any coal or gas fired powerplants if they so choose.

Both stacks provide more than enough storage to get the average homeowner through a night’s electricity usage, with the 10 kwh stack providing a bit more flex. The stacks also provide back-up for grid tied homes during power outages. It’s enough flexible storage to run virtually any home on solar + battery power alone. That’s the real, revolutionary aspect of this system — cheaply and seamlessly providing homeowners the means to run on all-renewable power, all the time.

Tesla Powerwall

(Tesla Powerwall [upper left] and Model S. Image source: Tesla Energy.)

When combined with the ever-less-expensive and more reliable home solar arrays now becoming more readily available, this combination now poses not only a threat to fossil fuel based grid and vehicular energy — it represents a superior option to energy users on practically every level. Energy costs go down, reliability during storms goes up, and environmental impacts — carbon emissions, water use, and energy use based air pollution — go down or are virtually eliminated.

Massive New Market for Tesla

From a business standpoint, this is a huge breakthrough for Tesla. Previously, the company competed in a market rife with rivals. Still, it managed to succeed and even dominate by offering some of the highest quality vehicles in the world. Vehicles that pushed sustainability for the automotive industry toward new frontiers and provided a threat to both internal combustion and fuel cell based autos all in one go. But now, Tesla enters the power storage market with practically no comparable rivals. Its Powerwall is both the lowest cost and the highest quality storage solution available and it breaks new ground in an established, multi-billion dollar home energy market.

In an article today in Scientific American Karl Brauer, a senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, noted:

“If Tesla can produce a cost-effective home energy storage system, it could prove far more valuable, and profitable, than anything the company is doing with automobiles.”

Intermittency Constraints Reduced, Hitting Renewable Economies of Scale

Tesla’s Powerwall shatters the myth that renewable energy can’t effectively function due to its intermittency. That renewables require high price storage options to provide energy 24/7. Tesla’s offering enables 24/7 renewable power at low cost. The option it provides is scalable to utility level, and its modular construction leverages renewable energy’s distributed power advantages. It’s a complete game changer that should have fossil fuel execs quaking in their boots and those of us concerned about climate catastrophe feeling a bit more optimistic.

Rendering of Tesla Gigafactory

(Rendering of Tesla Gigafactory due to be complete before 2020 — the first of possibly many such gigantic battery producing facilities. Image source: Tesla Motors/Chamber of Commerce.)

Recent statements by Musk indicate that the new energy industry wildcard is ready to go all out for both new homeowner and utility customers. The company mentions one major utility that is already interested in a 250 megawatt battery storage buy. And Tesla plans to work with partner Solar City in developing comprehensive home solar + storage options.

Finally, the synergy between the Powerwall and the electric vehicle battery should not be missed. Large scale production of Powerwall will serve to leverage economies of scale and drive down battery costs both across the energy storage and electric vehicle sectors. Tesla is planning for this through the construction of not just one but multiple gigafactories — assembly plants capable of producing hundreds of thousands of battery packs each (See Tesla Gigafactory May be First of Many). And, even more impressive, Tesla plans to provide its patents to other players looking to rapidly scale battery production. It’s a nightmare scenario for fossil fuel companies, but a much more hopeful one for the rest of us. A bit of much-needed good news in an otherwise grim present.

Links:

Tesla Energy

Elon Musk Unveils Stored Sunlight in Batteries

Tesla Gigafactory May be First of Many

Tesla Motors/Chamber of Commerce

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Robert in New Orleans

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