Bad and good news from the IEA

The International Energy Agency reported today that global CO2 emissions hit a new record in 2010, and are well above where they should be for a path to stabilise CO2(+equivalent) concentrations at 450 ppm. The Global Financial Crisis has had a significant impact in the US and Europe but (not surprisingly) hardly any in China, where the impact of the crisis was short-lived, and rapidly offset by a strong fiscal stimulus. With the failure of policy in the US, things are not looking good. On the other hand, after playing the wrecker’s role at Copenhagen, China now seems to have embraced the idea of becoming the world leader in renewable energy.

The real good news is a new study undertaken by the IEA that refutes negative views about the variability of supply from PV and wind power (expressed by quite a few commenters here over the years, and the subject of numerous amateur analyses at blogs like Brave New Climate) and concludes that “the challenges of integrating large shares of variable renewables in power systems are far from insurmountable“. The analysis suggests that starting with existing grid characteristics, and employing balancing technologies now available, it would be possible to supply between 20 per cent (Japan) and 60 per cent (Denmark) of electricity generation using variable renewables, with an average of around 30 per cent. No specific date is given, but the discussion implies a time horizon around 2030.

Unfortunately, the PDF containing the detailed analysis is on sale at a price of 80 euros, which I don’t intend to pay, but the executive summary is online and gives a general idea of the argument.

An important point is that the most natural partners for variable renewables are sources that can be turned on and off easily. Hydro-electricity is the best example, but scope for expansion is limited. The next best case is a mixture of gas and variable renewables, and that seems like the sensible path to take over the next decade or two.

In the absence of any equally authoritative critique of the IEA analysis, I intend to treat this question as settled from now on, as with the prospects for nuclear power. Anyone seeking to make unsupported counter-claims based on their own intuition, BNC-style amateur analysis and so on should take them to the nuclear sandpit.

Summing up the news so far, if the world’s governments are willing to act to stabilise the global climate, they can do so at very low cost. It remains to be seen whether or not they will.

40 thoughts on “Bad and good news from the IEA

  1. I’m prompted to wonder whether it’s time to take another look at pumped storage — especially seaboard pumped storage. While it will be expensive to set up per unit of potential energy stored, the effective life of such plants is likely to exceed the life of any existing stationary facility by quite a large margin, their footprint likely to be quite small, and these would complement virtually energy technology that we now use or are currently contemplating. They could underpin the utility of CCGT, wind or solar thermal very well. They could also operate as dual personality — providing low-cost desal when power supply was in lesser demand than potable water.

    Can any government paying lipservice to replacing the Collins Class subs say this technology is too expensive for what it offers? It’s hard to see how.

  2. @optimist
    Exactly Optimist. I totally agree. We are talking about using new technologies as if we are constrained to the old delivery infrastructure. Who says we are if we really want something clean to take into the future. Its a whole picture not just a costing per kw.hour using existing grid. This is far too narrow way of looking at it. Its not all about price price price. Its not all about the market we can get “now”. It may be that the price we see for solar now is not competitive but with greater us and better infrastructure – then hey the price falls in the future. Short term pain for long term gain. I agree with Blanchett when she says she wants to be able to look her children in the eye and this is not about “todays price”.

    Its about connecting the dots. We already know in Sydney that a few extra trains are capable of blowing the grid, as are surges of power from existing Solar installations. The next logical step is to consider adapating the grid so that it can handle cleaner technologies and trains are a lot cleaner than cars and solar is cleaner than coal and far less dangerous and difficult to manage long term, than nuclear. The picture needs to be integrated. If we want to clean up how we use energy, power and transport are related, household energy use and transport are therefore also related and the essential infrastructure linkages between the two need to be developed in an integrated way.

  3. It is amusing that Rupert’s flunkies attacked Cate Blanchett for her relatively modest wealth but ignore the wealth of their master or the wealth of a succession of business ‘leaders’ who have made delusionist attacks and demands for business exemptions and compensation that can at best be interpreted as self-serving.

    The best they can say is that Blanchett is better placed than most to bear the additional cost of a carbon tax; they cannot say that she will benefit personally from the policy, except to the extent that action on climate change is good policy that will benefit us all.

  4. @Optimist I’ve written at length on the blog about pricing, making many of the points you do. That’s one reason I’m getting tetchy about the repetition of long-refuted claims about the impossibility of dealing with variable supplies.

  5. Advocates of biomass power (straw, bagasse, woodchips etc) consistently overlook the fact that a lot of diesel is needed to harvest the material then preferably return the residues to the field. Most countries like Australia that have limited hydro and biomass therefore need gas turbine generators to complement the variability of wind power. What happens when both diesel and gas are expensive? This must happen well before mid century.

    Apart from future expense another problem with gas backup for renewables is CO2. In both the UK and Texas it has been found that a megawatt-hour of wind power saves less than half a tonne of CO2 whereas if it fully displaced coal we would expect a whole tonne of CO2 to be saved. This is because the gas turbines need to be kept on standby mode and not operating at their optimum efficiency.

    Therefore I agree with Fran that instead of blowing billions on perhaps unnecessary military toys we should invest in energy storage trials. Pumping seawater to holding tanks on the top of cliffs may work and this has already been done in Okinawa, Japan. Battery storage of wind power has been tried on King Island in Bass Strait and found wanting. If the alternative low carbon base load option is unpalatable we should try the energy storage path. Again I think we’re talking billions for a very modest outcome. Power guzzling industries like aluminium smelting might have to fall by the wayside.

  6. Something that hasn’t been mentioned is this: energy use per capita. Australia, USA, Canada use 2 X as much energy per capita per annum as comparable European countries (and Japan) with comparable standards of living. I guess McMansions and 4WDs (SUVs) go some way toward that. We could therefore 1/2 our energy use without really being any worse off. OK you may not like giving up your 300 kW V8 but I think it is becoming unsustainable. The Gov needs to make policy to get us toward a lower emissions per capita. This would (roughly speaking) 1/2 our emissions without costing a cracker.

  7. I found this list in Wikipedia. It is of energy consumption per capita. You can click on the consumption “twistie” in column 2 to put it in consumption ranking. It looks like 2003 data.

    The first point of interest is the first 8 countries which are small but have very high energy consumption per capita. The reasons for this (I guess) are any or all of;

    1. cheap oil used for desalination (Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait)
    2. cheap geothermal used for heating (Iceland)
    3. transport/refueling hub (Trinidad and Tobago? Luxemborg)?

    The first reasonably populous country with use not skewed by special considerations is (arguably) Canada. Canada is cold so no doubt it has high heating costs. But Sweden is also cold yet gets by with a per capita use rate barely more than Australia.

    Germany might be a good model to emulate in that it uses half the energy per head as Canada and considerably less than US and Australia. Yet, Germany is still very productive industrially and has a better solar energy program than most countries around the world.

  8. Hermit, a megawatt-hour of wind power displaces about half the CO2 that a coal plant generates because wind power displaces gas, not coal and gas produces roughly half the CO2 that coal does per megawatt-hour. There is no reason why wind cannot displace coal, it just displaces gas first because gas has a higher fuel cost than coal does. The difference is not because gas turbines need to be kept on standby mode. If it did, it would mean gas turbines would have to spend about 50% of the energy in gas just to overcome friction, which is something that would only be expected if they had a major mechanical failure, or someone stuffed a dead body inside them or something.

    An important thing to keep in mind is that, here in Australia at least, no one is paid to keep a gas turbine on standby. There’s no gas turbine standby pension that power companies can apply for. If a power company says to a distributer that they want $10,000 for keeping a gas turbine idling all day, the distributer will tell them to go jump. They might be more polite about it than that, but there is still a good chance they will be much, much ruder. Power companies may keep a gas turbine idling if they believe it will help them make more money the next paid time period, and they may idle a gas turbine if it will help them avoid getting in trouble for not meeting their obligations, but no one pays anyone to put a gas turbine on standby just because a wind farm is connected to the grid.

    Now intermittent sources of electricity can increase the variability in a grid and result in fossil fuel plants being used less efficiently. But it’s a mistake to think they were being used efficiently in the first place. In Australia demand is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. The old rule of thumb was that 20% wind penetration was required before its intermittency started causing problems, but the figure is very dependant upon grid characteristics and, as more experience has been gained with wind power systems and predicting their output, the amount of penetration that can be achieved before problems arise has increased. Here in Australia wind farms are very good at predicting their output over the short term. So while it is possible for intermittent energy sources to reduce the efficiency of fossil fuel power plants, in reality, such as in South Australia, they don’t make much difference.

  9. The idea that the problems at King Island prove that battery technology has been “found wanting” seems to me a huge exaggeration. As I understand it there were some teething problems that were fixable, but by the time they emerged the company that had built the battery had been taken over and effectively shut down. The new owners were not willing to take responsibility for fixing it, and there as a trial technology there wasn’t an industry with people available who knew what needed to be done.

    Since then same technology with small improvements has been tried in several places around the world and seems to be going well.

  10. Ikonoclast, with regards to your first comment, new thin solar cells can apparently pay back their energy costs within one year in a sunny location. A wind turbine requires about 6 months to make back its embodied energy. (I recently did a back of the envelope calculation for a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine and got 4.5 months, but I won’t pretend I was accurate.) Solar cells are typically guaranteed for 25 years and 40 year old solar cells still produce electricity. Solar cells don’t require oil or gas to make. There are solar cell factories powered by solar cells and there is plenty of electrically powered mining equipment available to extract raw materials.

  11. Even the drill people see that we can not drill our way to independence no matter what, the evidence is overwhelming. So they use their slogans and stay clear of serious questions that they can not answer truthfully.

  12. @wilful
    Good – take it to to the nuclear sandpit Wilful where no-one wants to talk about it with you, so on the nose the pro nuclear argument is (and where you only get me banned by using language more offensive than mine).

  13. The Executive Summary makes this claim:

    Solar (PV) plants can produce electricity even under cloud cover, so output is never less than around 20% of rated capacity (during daylight).

    And then references a footnote with a bit of hand waving.

    I’d like to see some proper justification of this claim as it seems to be just plain wrong. The “real time” PV output for Germany can be seen here:

    Unfortunately you have to click back through months to see the winter performance, but I did keep an eye on it at the time and there were quite a few days where maximum output was well under 1GW of the nominal 18GW. If anybody knows of a decent source of historical data for German PV production, then we could test the claim made in the Executive Summary. I’d bet it’s wrong.

    The claim may well be true for more suitable climates, but that is not what it says and when I read this sort of thing it sets my nerves on edge and it leads one to ask – “Why did they not get this correct?”

    Complaint number 2. Why charge 80 euros for the full report? It is high time that all such studies are made available for free. And that goes for all IEA reports.

    On the topic of accommodating variability, the UK Climate Change Committee in “The Renewables Report” estimates the cost at 1 p/kWh which is tolerable. No doubt this will be somewhat dependent on the local demand profile and grid. It also doesn’t see much of a role for solar in the UK and the deployment scenarios are basically nuclear+wind. If the UK does go down this road (which looks more likely than not) they will decarbonize their electricity supply sooner than Germany.

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