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Google Engineers give up on renewables fixing the climate (but they still miss the point)

Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us. So what will?

Two engineers who worked on the Google  RE<C project admit with candour  that they used to think that renewable technologies could help prevent climate change, but they now know that was wrong, saying “Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us. So what will?” The brutal answer eventually is “we don’t know”. The RE<C project started in 2007 and was buried in 2011. Google invested $850 million in clean energy. (For a tiny $100,000 I could have saved Google $850 million dollars. If they only asked skeptics instead of Al Gore…)

Ross Koningstein & David Fork admit with admirable honesty that their assumptions about renewables were wrong. But they still haven’t realized their assumptions about climate models are wrong too. Next year perhaps?

Most of their article is about the engineering hurdles of dispatchable and distributed energy. But they also talk about the Google time management philosophy, their 70-20-10 rule (70% core work, 20% cutting edge but viable, 10% “crazy” possibilities). What they don’t seem to realize 70:20:10 is pointless if 100% of their time is spent solving a problem that doesn’t exist. The Google innovation approach is a pot-luck dip. Five percent of any project — and it’s the first 5% — should be about testing all the assumptions and right back to the very first one. If Google did this research it would have been obvious, and years ago,  that not only were renewables unlikely to reduce CO2, but that reducing CO2 was pointless, and indeed, probably counter-productive.

It’s not just about wasting time and money. What if you spend years trying to improve the weather, and not only failed to do that, but had the perverse side-effect of reductions in crop growth, and increases in food and energy prices? What if your main success was to increase the size of deserts — CO2 feeds plants and extra CO2 has the biggest effect on plants in arid zones. How would you feel if you tried to hold back the tide (which is barely rising) but children died of starvation instead?

For the record, the  assumptions they should have tested were 1/ whether climate models are better at predicting the climate than any roulette wheel. 2/ whether there is any empirical evidence that climate feedbacks (especially water vapor in the upper atmosphere) are positive and amplify the effect of CO2 (they aren’t and they don’t). The evidence has been there for years that temperatures drive carbon dioxide, and that if carbon dioxide amplifies the temperature the effect is so small it can’t be measured with modern technology and the best data we have.

Spectrum IEEE

Google’s boldest energy move was an effort known asRE<C, which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do. The company announced that Google would help promising technologies mature by investing in start-ups and conducting its own internal R&D. Its aspirational goal: to produce a gigawatt of renewable power more cheaply than a coal-fired plant could, and to achieve this in years, not decades.

As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach. So we’re issuing a call to action.

The two engineers take Hansen’s aim of getting global CO2 back to 350ppm seriously, and try to make it work.

We decided to combine our energy innovation study’s best-case scenario results with Hansen’s climate model to see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold. Our calculations revealed otherwise. Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use. So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.

Those calculations cast our work at Google’s RE<C program in a sobering new light.

Consider an average U.S. coal or natural gas plant that has been in service for decades; its cost of electricity generation is about 4 to 6 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. Now imagine what it would take for the utility company that owns that plant to decide to shutter it and build a replacement plant using a zero-carbon energy source. The owner would have to factor in the capital investment for construction and continued costs of operation and maintenance—and still make a profit while generating electricity for less than $0.04/kWh to $0.06/kWh.

“Dispatchable” power, which can be ramped up and down quickly, fetches the highest market price. “Distributed” power, generated close to the electricity meter, can also be worth more, as it avoids the costs and losses associated with transmission and distribution. Residential customers in the contiguous United States pay from $0.09/kWh to $0.20/kWh, a significant portion of which pays for transmission and distribution costs. And here we see an opportunity for change. A distributed, dispatchable power source could prompt a switchover if it could undercut those end-user prices, selling electricity for less than $0.09/kWh to $0.20/kWh in local marketplaces. At such prices, the zero-carbon system would simply be the thrifty choice.

 The world doesn’t need disruptive technologies as much as it needs impeccable logic and reason.

h/t Eric Worrall





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