Some unwelcome good news

The announcement by Tesla of a new home battery storage system, called Powerwall, costing $3500 for 10KwH of storage, has been greeted with enthusiasm, but also a good deal of scepticism regarding its commercial viability, which depends in any given market on such things as the gap between retail electricity prices feed-in tariffs for solar PV.

This is missing the forest for the trees, however. Assuming the Tesla system comes anywhere near meeting its announced specifications, and noting that electric cars are also on the market from Tesla and others, we now have just about everything we need for a technological fix for climate change, based on a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency, at a cost that’s a small fraction of global income (and hence a small fraction of national income for any country) .

That’s something hardly anyone expected (certainly not me) a decade ago. And, given how strongly people are attached to their opinions, and especially their public commitments, there is bound to be a lot of resistance to this conclusion. Based on the evidence available a decade ago, people drew some of the following conclusions:

(a) decarbonizing the energy sector will require radical economic changes which will entail the end of industrial society/capitalism as we know it
(b) conclusion (a) is true and therefore climate change must be an enviro-socialist hoax
(c) any solution must involve a return to nuclear power on a massive scale
(d) any solution must involve the development and deployment of a “clean coal” technology
(e) a market-based solution will require a very high carbon price, say $100/tonne

I was in group (e), and was still talking about prices up to $100/tonne as recently as 2012. But it’s easy to revise a price number downwards in the light of technological change, much harder to revise strongly held and publicly stated conclusions like (a)-(d).

So, I’m not going to bother trying to demonstrate the assertion that a technological fix is now possible – from past experience, demonstrations of such points are futile. Rather, I’m going to spend some time thinking about the implications for the next round of global climate policy, and what constructive contributions I can make to getting Australia back on tract.

119 thoughts on “Some unwelcome good news

  1. Even with these batteries, solar panels and reasonable pricing, who here is going to be brave enough to disconnect from the grid?

  2. @John Brookes

    a 3kW system won’t produce 20kWh a day. Not on average over the year. Closer to 12? For a remote area power supply, batteries are not typically sized just to cover nighttime lack of sun. They are sized to give you x days of power if the weather is no good, based on your loads.

    A 10kWh battery sounds small even for residential remote area power supplies (RAPS) to date and remote area households would rarely use anything close to 20kWh a day, too expensive, they’d mostly be < 10kWh/day).

    But even with a reduced load, 10kWh of storage wouldn't let you go off grid with any kind of reliability for a stretch of inclement weather. That's why a lot of RAPS systems have back-up diesel generators, as well as batteries and PV.

    I guess you could buy multiple tesla batteries, but just having 10kWh is more about smoothing out your daily load on the grid perhaps. And even then, it doesn't sound like it offers guaranteed smoothing – hard to smooth your load when its been cloudy for 2 straight weeks. The battery would be empty. I guess it would still smooth your load if you charge the batteries from the grid as well as the PV (which is a demand management measure rather than a renewable energy measure then). So its more about having batteries to minimise your trouble to the network operators, rather than having batteries to go off grid of maximise your use of solar.

    These are just some on the fly thoughts on a monday morn.

  3. I suppose I was in the e)-camp but I thought that the first 50% or so of emissions cuts might be relatively cheaper but the cost curve rises more and more steeply. Technological progress on renewable energy and storage has come faster than I expected but I wouldn’t say that it is a technological fix for the problem yet, though it does make things easier. There is the question of materials for some of these technologies if deployed on a large scale which have been mentioned here and what would happen to their costs. Then there are all the industrial processes and agricultural etc. emissions that would have to be converted or cut if we are to have a chance of hitting a 2-3 degree target, given the expansion in demand for currently emissions producing activities that will happen still in developing countries. 2 degrees seems to mean getting to negative net emissions in the second half of the century.

  4. @Hermit

    For the record, here’s my form guide from 2009. On geothermal

    Exists on a small scale already and this could be expanded with modest technical progress. But the contribution will still be relatively modest.

    ” 2 degrees seems to mean getting to negative net emissions in the second half of the century.” Agreed. Basically this means near-zero carbon from energy, net reafforestation, and lower methane emissions from ag – given the short residence time of methane that translates to lower concentrations. None of it easy, but all feasible at modest cost.

  5. Process emissions will indeed be a challenge as David points out. Consider that China has consumed more cement in less than 6 years than what the U.S. consumed in a century. that’s a lot of CO2 for which there isn’t yet scalable low cost alternatives on the horizon in the same way that renewables are for power generation and soon transportation. it’s the last 40-50% of emissions that will really require some significant and rapid technological breakthroughs.

  6. 10kWh is half a day storage for the average family, and maybe a couple of days storage for an extremely energy efficient household. So not enough storage to go off grid, and therefore not yet the complete solution for climate change – even if the residential sector was the whole problem, which it is not.

    From a green point of view, it doesn’t necessarily have much impact, because PV system owners can already use the grid as a battery, so it wouldn’t stop green kWh from being dumped, that isn’t something currently happening. It just means that you get to use your own green kWh instead of exporting them at a cheap price, but the overall green kWh generated and used remains the same (no discussion of embodied energy in fabrication). It isn’t enough storage to guarantee load without the grid.

    I wouldn’t think the economics of avoiding grid export makes spending thousands on a battery worth it.

    I guess from a demand management point of view it offers some smoothing in that you won’t be exporting to the grid, but that battery isn’t big enough to stop you from needing to put a load on the grid, especially after rainy weather such as the last few weeks.

    For the technology to be a “fix” for climate change, I think batteries need to be bigger and cheaper still (batteries for industrial loads?). We already have battery storage for residential PV and have had for decades, its just that its always been expensive.

  7. What CSIRO thought about geothermal a few years ago
    https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/download?pid=csiro:EP126201&dsid=DS2
    Table 1 shows the potential for ‘dry’ ie granite which maybe adds up to 4 GW. Table 2 shows the potential for ‘wet’ mostly sandstone not volcanic rock like Rotorua NZ. Back when Marn Ferguson was energy minister (now a gas lobbyist) he gave developers plenty of Treasury cheques. Origin Energy also spent big.

    Apart from a hobby sized unit in Birdsville there is effectively 0 MW of geothermal power operating in Australia. Back in 2010/11 the talk was of it providing 25% of Australia’s electrical needs. What I’d like to know is what will keep the lights on and power electric cars by mid century when AGL and others tell us coal will be on the nose.

  8. “What I’d like to know is what will keep the lights on and power electric cars by mid century when AGL and others tell us coal will be on the nose.”

    Perhaps you should re-read the OP, rather than flogging dead horses.

  9. @John Quiggin

    If we are replacing a polluting technology with a “clean one at modestly higher costs” then doesn’t this imply a price penalty on the dirty technology (taxes or ETS) and/or price incentive (subsidies) for the cleaner technology?

    How much is the world doing in this regard? The last figures I looked at indicated subsidies for oil and coal were still much higher than subsidies for clean energy technology. Also, taxes or ETS setups re CO2e still tend to be no more than token jokes. Australia is a clear example in this regard.

    “In its 2015 World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency expressed its concern at fossil fuel subsidies, the dismantling of nuclear power stations and the 80% increase in demand for electricity by 2040.” – Euractive.

    I agree with the concern about fossil fuel subsidies but not about the concern re nuclear power stations.

    “Each year, the world’s fossil fuels industries receive 550 billion dollars in subsidies; four times more than the renewable energies sectors. In the context of the fight against climate change, the IEA raises doubts over the prudence of these investments, and calls for greater investment in renewables.” – Euractive.

    The problem here is the ongoing subsidy of fossil fuels. In real terms, we are not serious until we end fossil fuel subsidies and put a real cost on CO2e.

    Our current political economy system (oligarchic corporate capitalism) seems to be responding to the need to change at a snail’s pace. Claims that changes in the political economy system are not needed are wrong. It is precisely the ownership, command and control of the system by an oligarchic elite that is the problem and makes necessary change so difficult. Markets are currently distorted by and in favour of these elites. Markets could work well to achieve our necessary goal of de-carbonisation of the economy if they were not so badly distorted in favour of the dinosaur fossil fuel interests.

  10. Note that these aren’t designed to be an off-grid solution (though you could build an off-grid system using them – given the price and the ten-year warranty this will probably be a common choice). They’re designed to be an energy levelling system, and the larger (10kWh) system is intended as a short-term battery backup for a household – i.e. across a short power outage. You can also stack them, up to something like 9 packs.

    If you had a grid connected solar system combined with some of these, you could make extra money using these to sell power back to the grid at peak pricing – depending on the pricing peaks, you could actually make a significant amount of money doing that (I’ve seen peak numbers in the tens of dollars per kWh). It’s possible to do that right now with Reposit Power (http://www.repositpower.com/), and with even a small storage system it would be much more profitable.

    Simon

  11. “communal cooking” is a very big thing in my city. we call them “restaurants”. But i agree centralisation isnt always the most efficient solution especially when u have high transmission liss.@Ikonoclast

  12. john goss :
    The techno-optimist in me is pleased that technological change has come to the rescue again, but the moralist is me is disappointed that threat of climate change hasn’t forced a significant change in the socio-eco-political system. Ah well. Santa claus doesn’t always give us what we want.

    john, don’t listen to your moralist self. He wants widespread misery in exchange for advancement of your ideology. This is the sort of evil thinking that should not be engaged in by the left.

    Uncle Milton :
    Even with these batteries, solar panels and reasonable pricing, who here is going to be brave enough to disconnect from the grid?

    Why would you disconnect if you’re producing enough power for yourself, since there will always be times when you’re producing more than you need, so you can sell it back to the grid?

  13. @Paul Davison

    Yes, the growth of less developed nations (as was China) is a bigger problem than most seem to realise.

    The proper measurement is per capita CO2 emissions, and China emits less than half that of US citizens on this basis – but more than the EU.

    The real problem is depicted here: CO2 Sources and Sinks

    The world emits 40 GTpa, but the land sink is stuck at around 10 GTpa

    The ocean sink is also limited at around 10 GTpa.

    So the atmosphere is forced to accept the rest – 20 GTpa, and with increasing trend.

    To get back to 1900 levels we need to:

    1) level off emissions now
    2) remove what is there and
    3) reduce emissions by 7/8ths.

    Unfortunately CO2 emissions even at the 1900 level, still cause global warming, particularly if the sinks are relatively saturated.

    How can we reduce emissions by 80% if we still permit coal mining, gas extraction and oil exploration?

  14. @Paul Davison

    Yes, the growth of less developed nations (as was China) is a bigger problem than most seem to realise.

    The proper measurement is per capita CO2 emissions, and China emits less than half that of US citizens on this basis – but more than the EU.

    The real problem is depicted here: CO2 Sources and Sinks

    The world emits 40 GTpa, but the land sink is stuck at around 10 GTpa

    The ocean sink is also limited at around 10 GTpa.

    So the atmosphere is forced to accept the rest – 20 GTpa, and with increasing trend.

    To get back to 1900 levels we need to:

    1) level off emissions now
    2) remove what is there and
    3) reduce emissions by 7/8ths.

    Unfortunately CO2 emissions even at the 1900 level, still cause global warming, particularly if the sinks are relatively saturated.

    How can we reduce emissions by 80% if we still permit coal mining, gas extraction and oil exploration?

  15. @andrew

    Yeah but resaurants are dearer not cheaper than home cooking. This would be true unless you avoided the capital costs of having a kitchen at home.

  16. While I like Tesla’s gadget, and I do think domestic storage is a good idea – I have a problem with this : I have always read that the world just doesn’t have enough Lithium for us all to have one of these.

    So, yes, nice gadget. No, it won’t scale. But definitely a sign-post pointing the right direction… maybe some other chemistry in a similar package.

    (on the up side, we seem to mine a lot of lithium here in Australia?)

  17. It’s Time…

    Time for a reality check, people

    Toy for Rich Green People

    We cannot rely on billionaires to develop technology to solve GHG’s. They will just produce the products that will maximise profits.

    Consequently the innovations will not flow across the globe where they are needed more.

  18. You would think that a 4kW solar system would be sufficient to power 2 x Teslas plus using solar hot water would reduce present daily consumption.

    In a Sydney winter a 4kW system should produce 18kWh per day.

    Including an inverter a top of the range 4kW system installed should be ~$8000.

    Those figures for the US seem to be high, 30kWh per day.

  19. Re that “Toy for Rich Green People” Forbes article, the comments are much better than the actual article, as various people (with varying degrees of politeness) point out a few of the author’s misconceptions and misunderstandings.

  20. Above. Musk’s objective is to decarbonise the economy, not to facilitate disconnection from the grid. It appears some commenters are confusing the two. In a future renewable world, the grid will become more important not less e.g. The SA-Vic-Tas inteconnections allows wind, hydro and to a lesser extent solar electricity to be moved from where it is in excess to where it is needed. As the German researchers have noted, it allows the grid itself to function as a giant battery.

  21. @John Quiggin
    I guess with my Jevons paradox comment I was making a techno-optimistic assumption, which is that at some point this sort of technology will lead to electricity which is competitive in price with coal generated power. So then what will happen to all the coal that would have been used to produce that electricity? It will become cheaper, no? Especially when those who own it, and own the supply chains for it, find cheaper ways to dig it up. And then we’ll find more creative ways to waste it.

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