TCS Daily


The Energy Future: Scenarios

By Arnold Kling - March 6, 2008 12:00 AM

"[Electricity from solar power] is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we'll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years."
Ray Kurzweil, quoted in Live Science

That is one scenario for energy. This essay will look at that possibility, along with other scenarios for energy. Keep in mind that I am not a scientist or an energy policy expert. These are just my amateur observations.

Solar Singularity

Suppose that solar power achieves and then surpasses "grid parity," meaning that it produces electrictity less expensively than conventional power sources. Once that happens, solar power would inevitably become the dominant energy source. Call it the Solar Singularity.

When, if ever, will the Solar Singularity take place? Kurzweil evidently sees it happening in less than twenty years. That extrapolation, however, is not intrinsically persuasive. As Andrew Leonard pointed out, citing Jeremy Ball, the demand for solar power has been driven in recent years by government subsidies. Extrapolating the last decade of subsidy-driven growth for the next twenty years is a rather dubious exercise. Only when solar power has been weaned off government support will we get a true measure of the speed at which we are approaching the Solar Singularity.

The U.S. Department of Energy's future solar timeline predicts that grid parity will be achieved within ten years, for both concentrating solar power and photovoltaics. However, a glance at the Department's 2007-2011 Plan suggests that there is a wide range of uncertainty concerning the cost of photovoltaics. Concentrating solar power appears to be much closer to economic viability at present.

For photovoltaics, where are the cost reductions going to come from? A recent report from Silicon Valley offered an optimistic scenario.

A link between Moore's Law and solar technology reflects the engineering reality that computer chips and solar cells have a lot in common.
"A solar cell is just a big specialized chip, so everything we've learned about making chips applies," said Paul Saffo, an associate engineering professor at Stanford University and a longtime observer of Silicon Valley."

A computer chip gets more computationally efficient as engineeers figure out ways to cram more components into the same space. The analogy with a solar chip would be for it to become more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity as its components get closer together. It is not clear to me that this is a valid analogy.

For solar power, I would rather see prizes and subsidies given to research than to deployment. If solar power systems are uneconomical to manufacture now, then it seems to me that we should not be manufacturing them. Until better technologies are developed, deployment is counterproductive. On the other hand, if research does lead to cost-effective technologies, then the Solar Singularity will take care of itself.

Carbon Competition

Oil and coal are the two least expensive sources of energy. That is why we use them so much. If we were just to rely on markets, then my guess is that oil and coal would be selected as the dominant fuels for at least the next two decades.

Nansen G. Saleri recently wrote that technologies have been developed for extracting more oil from existing deposits. The problem is political. He notes that 90 percent of oil reserves are controlled by national companies.

Oil is the economic lifeline for dictators and autocrats. A true private-sector oil industry seems to be unattainable. The temptation for government to control oil production is simply too great. The Oilocrats do not care about investing in technology for more effective extraction. As a result, oil production is lower than it should be.

Dictatorship of another sort impedes coal as well as oil. This is the dictatorship of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, which has forged a political consensus that we must fear man-made global warming. I actually think that there is more science to be found among the "dissenting voices" of the climate debate. But the Carbon Competition scenario will encounter a great deal of friction from those who believe in the Global Warming story.

Overall, the prospects for the Carbon Competition scenario seem poor. The Oilocrats and the climate dictators are likely to hold sway.

Conservation

For the next five years, stretching our existing energy resources by using conservation seems to hold more promise than new energy production. As reported on The Energy Blog, the McKinsey Global Institute sees a high return on investment from energy conservation measures. I assume that if MGI recalculated based on an oil price of $100 a barrel, the returns would be even higher.

An important potential source of conservation is modernization of the electric power grid. Lynne Kiesling has been a steady advocate of peak-load pricing and other improvements that could be made in the process of electricity delivery.

Nu-Cu-Lar

Nuclear power is a proven technology. My presumption would be that nuclear power ought to be somewhat cheaper today than it used to be, because the computers and sensors needed to operate a nuclear power plant ought to cost much less than they did thirty years ago.

The need for nuclear power could increase over the next decade if battery technology continues to improve. Engineers appear to be getting closer to solving the problem of developing a car battery that can be re-charged regularly overnight. Once such batteries can be manufactured at a reasonable cost, it would become economical to shift from gasoline. However, if we are going to put more demand on the electricity grid, then that seems to raise the priority of modernizing that grid and adding more nuclear power plants.

The question for nuclear power is whether the return on investment is sufficient. Much of this reflects an assessment of the likelihood of a serious accident or problem with nucear waste. If those probabilities are sufficiently high, then nuclear plant construction will never be economical.

Franken-fuels Future

Just as with solar power, subsidies are leading to the deployment of biofuels before they are truly economical. Biofuels will only provide a net energy gain if dramatic innovations take place.

Vinod Khosla wrote recently that

The world of fuel chemistry production is undergoing exciting change...We will be able to remove a hydroxyl group here, add a hydrogen there, and create a longer or shorter carbon chain to optimize fuels.

A number of entrepreneurs are trying to develop or modify organisms that can help with the conversion of biomass into fuel. This depends on the new field of genetic engineering. Drew Endy argued recently that bio-engineering is at a take-off point. If he is correct, then "wet" nanotechnology (using genetic engineering) is poised to overtake conventional materials science as a source of innovation.

I call this the Franken-fuels Future. My relatively uninformed guess would be that over the next ten to fifteen years we are more likely to approach the Franken-fuels Future than to achieve the Solar Singularity. Indeed, one possible path to efficient solar power is the development of organisms that convert the sun's energy to electricity that we can use.

Summary

Below is a table that summarizes these scenarios.

ScenarioMost Economical TimeframeRemarks
Carbon Competition2008-2020Cheapest energy sources, except for political barriers
Conservation2008-2015Smarter electric grid, better car batteries
Nu-cu-lar2013-2030It works, but at what risk?
Franken-fuels2020 and beyondThe most likely revolution
Solar Singularity2025 and beyondHope it happens

Note that hydrogen does not appear anywhere in this table. I have a very hard time believing that it will be economical to deliver hydrogen to filling stations the way that gasoline is delivered today. If hydrogen enters the picture, it will be as part of a solution for re-chargeable car batteries. Even there, I have my doubts.

Conventional biofuels, including corn-based ethanol, also do not appear in this table. The political-agribusiness-lobbying complex can keep the conventional biofuel industry alive. However, until we get to the Franken-fuels scenario, biofuels are wasteful.

Finally, let me repeat that these are merely my impressions. Precise calculations are beyond my capabilities. Moreover, calculations depend on the outcomes of numerous research ventures that are impossible to predict.


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