With An ‘All-Out’ Federal Renewable Energy Strategy, How Long Before We …

August 24, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Mark Rogowsky, Internet Entrepeneur, @maxrogo

Probably 20-30 years to get to 70-80%, but 80 years to get the last 20-30%.

Let’s clarify that the assumption here is that the United States actually decides to do this per the hypothetical. That means that for whatever reason, the politics has shifted massively from where it currently stands. There are a lot of roadblocks to 100% renewable energy, but relatively few toward mostly renewable energy — assuming you’ve solved the politics problem. Here’s what you need:

An integrated long-distance grid
You’ll be carrying a lot of wind from the Midwest, possibly from offshore in the East, and tons of solar from the Southwest long distances. So you’re going to want much better long-distance power lines, maybe even with superconducting trunks. This will let you use Arizona’s 5 pm sun to power Florida’s air conditioners at 8 pm. Is this trivial? No. Is it technologically impossible? Absolutely not.

Millions of electric cars
We use a lot of non-renewable fuel for transportation. We’re going to need electric vehicles to fix that. Please don’t get me started on hydrogen, unless you want to throw away 1/3 of the renewable electricity in making it and then also develop an infrastructure to dispense it nationally. Let’s just note we get 10% of our liquid fuels from renewable sources today (ethanol and biofuels). Once we get most people on electric vehicles, we can use range-extenders (like the Chevy Volt and BMW i3) and battery swapping (like the Tesla Model S) to get people long distances. And let’s acknowledge that millions of gas-powered cars will exist 20-30 years from now even if we “Moonshot” this goal with national will. We are going after the first 80% of non-renewables….

Oh, those EVs will be frequently grid connected during the day, by the way. They’ll gather excess urban solar power and feed small bits of it back to the grid when needed for high peak demand. People will limit how much they “give back” based on their commute needs and all of this will be seamless. Given that the electricity will be free/nearly free to those that participate, getting enough to join in will work just fine.

Billions of solar panels and millions of wind turbines
The good news is we are already getting these. The bad news is before our “Moonshot” program, it wasn’t happening fast enough. In Germany, residential solar is $2.20 per watt installed, in the U.S. it’s more than 2x as expensive. First, we need to have a national permitting standard that makes getting residential and small commercial systems installed cost next to nothing. Next, since we are in the “Moonshot” phase, everyone knows about this and the 30% federal tax credit is extended beyond 2016. Third, we are going to want thousands more qualified installers, so a national training program will help electricians learn to do this and offer it on a per-hour basis when you call them up, like getting a new outlet put in.

With a federal standard requiring net metering indefinitely for utilities in exchange for some sort of depreciation tax credits that allow utilities to gracefully move from the power generation business to the grid-management business, more and more power will be made locally and stored in people’s cars, small-scale battery farms, and eventually utility-scale batteries as well (see below).

Land-use requirements will have to be overhauled to make siting solar panels and wind turbines trivial, without pointless environmental reviews. Some birds will die, but you can rest easy knowing more birds will die if we had continued down the current carbon-energy path that is wrecking habitats of wildlife everywhere. The federal government will aggressively promote massive solar farms across its billions of acres of nearly useless lands in the west. Fortunately, the amount of land that needs to be covered to power the whole country with solar is tiny.

X, Y, and Z Prizes
To make renewables work better with intermittency, the grid improvements will help a lot. The long-distance grids will be joined and local grids will get “smarter” to allow for rapid switching between high wind and low-wind areas and rapid access to backup power. A major source of that over time will be things like “flow batteries” at the utility. Those will exist because the government will award a series of $10-$100 million prizes for various innovations in design and manufacturing of them. It will do similarly for home and commercial batteries that are low cost and use easy to produce and manufacture materials like aluminum and silicon.

Although hydrogen won’t power the vehicle fleet much, it can act as a somewhat unlimited storage “reservoir” because it can be scaled beyond battery capacity in some places. The government will also award prizes for fuel-cell and turbine designs that are inexpensive and can run on natural gas and hydrogen. Utilities will be able to provide baseline power using hydrogen that’s renewable in some cases when it can’t store excess solar and wind power efficiently in the various batteries (grid, home/commercial, vehicle) that are available). Biogas/biomass will also be part of the mix for fuel cell and turbine generation.

Additional “X Prizes” will be awarded for electric vehicle batteries that meet specific killowatt-hour-per-kilogram goals and cost-per-kilowatt-hour goals.

Efficiency will be rewarded at all levels
Utilities will all be regulated such that they are rewarded for reduced usage. In California, per-capita energy usage is about the same as it was in 1970. In the rest of the country, it’s up by about 50% since then. Part of the reason is the stupid regulation of most utilities vs. California’s somewhat more sensible system. Since utilities are private entities with shareholders, they won’t quietly agree to be “disrupted” but will agree to changes that enrich them.

One massive change will be that state PUCs will all — with federal cajoling or arm-twisting — change the game such that less is more. For every kilowatt not used, the utility will get a little bit richer, but for every one used, it will get a bit poorer. This will lead to more efficiency rebates for better appliances and lighting, which will cut consumption. It’s realistic to believe that 20% of the fossil-fuel usage can be eliminated this way over the next two decades.

The Treasury will help, too, by increasing the magnitude of tax credits for energy efficiency to encourage the installation of better windows, weatherstripping, new appliances, and tons of non-sexy stuff that causes people to use less. Mocked programs like Energy Star have combined with technology improvements to lead to TVs that use 20% or less the power of older models, even though screen sizes have increased. A free lunch if ever there was one.

Some amount of biofuel magic will be conjured up
Once we kill off the stupid corn-based ethanol nonsense, we can focus on cellulosic types. Algae-based and other biodiesels will also be funded at the research level. Again, prizes for production milestones will be handed out in addition to basic research grants. We are seeking here not to replace 100% of gasoline, but rather to replace 10-20% of gasoline. With electric vehicles getting better over time, the need for liquid fuels will abate. Fuel economy standards will take care of another 20% of liquid fuel usage. But there will be a gap, and it will take time to rid ourselves of gasoline and diesel.

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