November 26, 2014 by Roger Andrews
Here at Energy Matters we pride ourselves on writing original posts that aren’t just rehashes of what someone else has written, but once in a while along comes an article of sufficient interest to justify putting it up for discussion. This article is one.
It’s a post-mortem on a project initiated by Google – a master of innovation if ever there was one and a company with impeccable green credentials (see photo below) – the goal of which was to scope out an innovative renewable energy system that could compete economically with coal and other fossil fuels and which could be deployed quickly enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.
Work on the project, which Google named RE<C (Renewable Energy cheaper than Coal) continued from 2007 to 2011, a period over which Google invested large sums of money in renewable energy projects. (How much Google spent on the RE<C project isn’t known, but according to Forbes the company’s total investment in renewables by April 2011 had reached “a cool quarter of a billion dollars”.)
But RE<C failed to produce the hoped-for results, and in November 2011 the project was shut down and project staff were instructed to write a post-mortem detailing what went wrong. They summed up their findings in this stark conclusion:
Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us.
The question of whether renewable energy can be made to work has been discussed at length on this blog, and while opinions remain divided I don’t remember ever seeing such a negative assessment from commenters on the – for want of a better word – “green” side of the fence. This is what makes the Google project interesting, because the people who shut it down – Google management – were of a strongly green persuasion and the people who ran it were too:
At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change.
They also accepted that the impacts of climate change were potentially catastrophic.
Climate scientists have definitively shown that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere poses a looming danger. Whether measured in dollars or human suffering, climate change threatens to take a terrible toll on civilization over the next century.
So what happened here?
Details of Google’s results are given in Google’s 2011 energy innovation study, but two linked Figures in the post-mortem tell the story. The first of the duo entitled “The Climate Conundrum” shows how Google’s best-case scenario reduces emissions by a very respectable amount by 2050 (note that the graphic shows data for the USA):
But the second shows atmospheric CO2 continuing to climb anyway, to the point where by 2150 even Google’s best-case scenario shows CO2 more than 250ppm above the 350ppm “safety threshold” and still heading up (how Google converted the USA emissions data into atmospheric CO2 and projected CO2 to 2150 isn’t specified, but we will take the results at face value):
But look at the caption. CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for more than a century. Research by James Hansen. A 350ppm safety threshold. Pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it. What Google did here was judge their results against a catastrophe scenario that there is no realistic way of mitigating, and having found there was nothing to be done they threw their hands in the air and canned the project.
Was such a drastic reaction justified? Yes, if Google’s only goal was to save the planet from their vision of climate catastrophe. But there was one feature of the Google study that distinguished it from most other renewable energy studies and which provides some intriguing insights. Google constrained their scenarios economically, assuming that “clean energy” would take over only if and when it became cheaper than (and as reliable as) fossil fuels:
What’s needed, we concluded, are reliable zero-carbon energy sources so cheap that the operators of power plants and industrial facilities alike have an economic rationale for switching over soon—say, within the next 40 years. Let’s face it, businesses won’t make sacrifices and pay more for clean energy based on altruism alone.
Now look at the purple CO2 plot on the second of the two graphs above. It bends upwards between 2040 and 2150. The Google study doesn’t give any generation mix numbers, but an upward bend like this can occur only if the mix has a significant fossil fuel component. The implication is that by 2150 “clean energy” still hasn’t become cheap enough to displace all fossil fuel generation, not even under a best-case scenario which assumes “aggressive hypothetical cost breakthroughs in clean power generation, grid storage, electric vehicle, and natural gas technologies”. Google confirms that the economics just weren’t there:
By 2011, however, it was clear that RE<C would not be able to deliver a technology that could compete economically with coal.
(And to coal we can add gas and maybe nuclear too. According to EIA levelized costs for US combined cycle gas are presently considerably lower than coal and levelized costs for “advanced nuclear” about the same as coal.)
In short, Google is telling us that a free-market approach won’t work for renewables. They aren’t cost-competitive with fossil-fuel generation and aren’t likely to become cost-competitive at any time in the foreseeable future.
Now one can argue – many will – that Google is incorrect in this assessment. Conversely it can be argued that if the super-innovators at Google, who like the Imperial Guard on the eve of Waterloo had never before failed in a charge, couldn’t come up with something then there probably isn’t much to come up with. And Google can hardly be accused of pessimism. Figure 2 of its energy innovation study shows the levelized costs of electricity for different low-carbon technologies that are needed to reach “breakthrough” relative to coal costs. Google admits that these breakthrough costs “are highly aggressive and would be challenging to reach even with a much more concerted push on innovation than at present.”
And if Google’s summation is right we are left with only one option – to enforce the adoption of renewables through legislation, meaning that politicians must weigh the perceived risks of burning fossil fuels against the perceived costs of replacing them with renewables and come up with a balanced solution. Is this too much to ask of them? I’ll leave that question hanging.