The Energy Transition is Being Led by a Clown Car

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Renewable energy capacity is expected to expand dramatically in the next few decades in order to get climate change under control. Because wind and solar are intermittent sources of electric power, there needs to be a sound plan for energy storage or backup. From what I can tell, there is not.

The EIA (Energy Information Administration) expects world renewable generation to increase four-fold from 3,388 to 14,347 terawatt-hours by 2050 accounting for 34% of electric power (Figure 1).

The IEA (International Energy Agency) projects that wind and solar generation will increase 8.5-fold from 3,416 to 29,021 terrawatt-hours by 2050 accounting for 54% of electric power (Figure 2).

Those are very different projections but both require significant backup for periods when wind and solar cannot generate electricity. The IEA and the EIA see battery storage as the way forward—not nuclear or natural gas.

“Electricity storage, particularly batteries, is used to store excess power produced by variable generating sources—such as wind and solar—during off‐peak hours and to dispatch the stored energy during times when demand is higher.

“Battery storage grows significantly in all cases. In 2022, battery storage capacity was 52 GW, less than 1% of global power capacity. By 2050, we project that battery storage capacity will increase to between 625 GW and 1,507 GW across cases, making up 4% to 9% of global power capacity.”

U.S. Energy Information Administration

Four to nine percent backup does not sound like much of a plan. Nor does name plate capacity (gigawatts) give me a warm feeling—I like generation better (gigawatt-hours).

Bloomberg NEF estimates new battery storage of 1,143 gigawatt-hours by 2030. That works out to about 2.5 hours per day of backup based on IEA’s projection of 10,600 terawatt-hours of renewable output in 2030. EIA’s estimate of about 6,700 terawatt-hours of renewable generation suggests that Bloomberg’s estimate may provide about 4 hours of backup.

That makes me nervous because 2023 U.S. data indicates a weighted average daily wind and solar outage of almost 17 hours. Neither EIA nor IEA offer substantive discussion about how battery storage will accommodate the intermittency deficit. Nor is there any reference to material limits for batteries or other renewable energy machines. It feels like, “trust us, this will work.”

What if we relied on nuclear power for another four hours per day of renewable backup?

EIA projects that nuclear will increase by only about 350 billion kWh by 2030 so that capacity has to more than triple. The problem is that world nuclear capacity in 2022 was only 4% more than it was in 2000 (Figure 3). It has only increased 3% over the last 5 years and it decreased 4% in 2022 compared to 2021.

EIA’s reference case increase in nuclear generation by 2030 requires at least an 8% annual increase. That’s a stretch based on historical data. To provide 4 hours of wind and solar base load support, an annual increase of about 35% would be needed for nuclear generation. That’s a real stretch.

On top of the uncertainty about intermittency, the renewable energy transition does not address its stated purpose of mitigating climate change very well.

EIA expects world CO2 emissions to increase 5.3 gigatons (20%) by 2050 (Figure 4). Coal emissions will increase 0.6 gigatons (4%), natural gas emissions 2.3 gigatons (28%) and liquids emissions will increase 2.4 gigatons (20%). That does not reverse CO2 emissions beyond the counterfactual case that emissions would increase even more without the addition of renewables.

IEA projects a 7.3 gigaton decrease in CO2 emissions by 2050 from 34 to 27 gigatons. That seems like good progress except that it relies on an implausible drop in coal consumption and associated emissions (Figure 5). Even if we accept IEA’s coal projection, it would mean even more dependency on renewables with no intermittency support other than rolling blackouts.

I support renewable energy and moving away from fossil fuels but simple truth-testing shows that the road maps provided by the EIA and IEA are likely to get us lost. If there is a different road map, I’d like to see it.

Perhaps I am being cynical but I doubt that much critical thought has gone into what passes for energy transition planning. My guess is that world leaders would be incapable of discussing the data in this post.

For now, it seems that what passes for a plan is a firehose of public money for almost any harebrained green idea from carbon vacuum cleaners to soil-powered lightbulbs. It is ironic that many who want to save the planet from climate change disregard the damage to the ecosystem that results from the growth of the human enterprise. They don’t see that substituting one form of energy for another does nothing to limit these devastating effects.

The world is marching in an energy transition parade led by a clown car full of energy-blind politicians. There is much sound and fury about a renewable energy future but when the details are examined, it’s hard to see that anyone knows where we’re going.

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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21 Comments

  1. Rod Adams on February 25, 2024 at 9:45 am

    Art

    While you have provided solid explanations for limitations on Solar, wind and battery storage growth rates, your commentary on nuclear seems mainly rooted in using relatively recent past performance to predict future results. I’m not sure why you only talked about growth through 2030. In energy system terms, that is a very short time horizon.

    Nuclear hasn’t grown much in the past 25 years – outside of China, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.

    That isn’t surprising. The efforts to hamstring nuclear have more than balanced the weak efforts made to expand nuclear. There have also been some serious external forces that limited investment – the global financial crisis made financing difficult for all long term investments. The ARRA chose to put tens of billions into quicker to realize wind and solar infrastructure (without adding much transmission or storage.) The Energy Policy Act of 2005 contained some financial provisions for nuclear, but it contained a gigantic boost for hydraulic fracturing in the form of a virtual exemption from NEPA and the Clean Water Act. Those exemptions enabled rapid project completions and encouraged private capital to flow.

    Cheap gas for 15 years discouraged nuclear growth.

    We have proven in the distant past that nuclear energy generation could grow rapidly. At its peak, nuclear plant orders were being made at more than 3 units per month. US nuclear electricity production grew from virtually nothing in 1970 to more than 550 TWh/yr in 1990 and that record came during a period of intense, organized opposition. It’s hard to predict the pace of growth if we weaken the opposition and make a few key changes in the review and approval processes. Of course, a little practice and a lot of improved project management will also help.

    Bottom line – nuclear CAN grow faster. Once on a growth trajectory, there will be a period of acceleration that achieves a strong velocity. Of course, there will be a time when growth slows, but by then we will have a cleaner, more abundant, and more reliable energy system with a lot more fission in it than we have today.

    IMO, nuclear MUST grow faster.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, the Atomic Show podcast

    • Art Berman on February 29, 2024 at 12:17 pm

      Rod,

      I disagree and have stated my views on nuclear power in several posts—not just to 2030 but forward to 2050. The use of 2030 in some of my posts is because we don’t have decades to act. We have to make serious progress in the very near term or whatever solutions are considered will be too late for the urgency window of climate change.

      Beyond that, I have stated repeatedly that energy substitution is a death sentence for the ecosystem because it will allow continued growth of the human enterprise.

      The peculiar fascination with nuclear reminds me of The Manchurian Candidate, a kind of post-hypnotic, involuntary obsession with a technology that has serious problems beyond its lack of growth. The public hates and fears it, and it has limited application outside of electric power generation which is a relatively small fraction of total energy consumption. I agree that anything that can limit coal for power generation would be very positive for carbon emissions but I don’t see very much that can moderate the growth of coal.

      I have clearly explained all of these positions in dozens of posts, Rod, and it confuses me that you don’t understand my position. I don’t have all the answers—no one does—and it is fine that you disagree with me because your views are based on belief. I cannot argue with belief.

      All the best,

      Art

  2. Norman Mauz on February 23, 2024 at 7:18 am

    According to the ITA , Uruguay receives about 98% of its electricity generation from renewable resources All of this apparently with very little battery storage.
    How does a third world country like Uruguay make this happen?

    • Art Berman on February 25, 2024 at 10:28 pm

      Norman,

      Uruguay is not the world. It has a small population of about 3 million and an extraordinary amount of onshore wind that accounts for more than 40% of its electric power. It also has an extraordinary amount of hydro from several big rivers (30% of its power) plus a large volume of biomass (20%).

      If it had a larger population, it would have big problems like the rest of us. Few countries are as well endowed with wind and hydro.

      It’s a nice example that simply cannot be scaled for the world.

      All the best,

      Art

  3. Jeffrey Brehm on February 23, 2024 at 12:47 am

    Sorry, Art. You lost me in your first sentence.

    The AGW premise is complete nonsense, and as a geologist I don’t even accept it, any more than I accept Russia collusion, Covid statistics (my wife’s cousin died of Covid in a motorcycle crash), gender fluidity or that Hunter had a real job at Burisma. No point in going any further.

    • Art Berman on February 25, 2024 at 10:05 pm

      I agree Jeff. There’s no point going further in a discussion on your viewpoints.

      All the best,

      Art

  4. Ed Lindgren on February 22, 2024 at 7:10 pm

    In his book Energy at the Crossroads (MIT Press, 2003), Vaclav Smil devotes an entire chapter to the perils and pitfalls of forecasting. He introduces this chapter in part with the following:

    “….for more than 100 years long-term forecasts of energy affairs – no matter if they were concerned with specific inventions and subsequent commercial diffusion of new conversion techniques or if they tried to chart broad sectoral, national, or global consumption trends – have, save for a few proverbial exceptions confirming the rule, a manifest record of failure.”

    Smil wrote these words over twenty years ago, but they still apply today. All we can be sure of is that the transition will look nothing like what any of our prognosticators currently foresee. And of course our ignorant political class will continue to pass legislation with mandates which will result in a rougher ride than might otherwise be necessary.

    Of course, you are right! At the end of the day the fundamental problem is humanity putting too many demands on a finite earth and biosphere. Dramatic changes are coming in the way we live. It would be easier to start the transition now, but that isn’t the way we do things (and it would upset too many rice bowls).

    • Art Berman on February 26, 2024 at 4:28 pm

      Ed,

      I like forecasts even though I know that they are wrong. Most who do them prefer to call them projections and I like that. They are projections based on what is happening now, what we understand about why that is, and how those patterns are likely to proceed in the near future.

      All the best,

      Art

  5. Richard DP on February 22, 2024 at 5:40 pm

    Completely agree. I worked in renewable energy research for a while as a professor. No one had a plan. One professor got 7 million to convert sewage into gasoline. He made exactly one gallon. That was expensive gasoline.

    Most of the schemes were hopeless. There aren’t enough oils in plants to replace more than a trace of diesel with bio-diesel. You can’t grow enough. To make the EROI greater than one in corn ethanol, they had to include energy value of the dried yeast by-product, which is used for cattle feed. The most accurate EROI of solar panels was 2.45, demonstrating their complete impracticality.

    Basically, if God announced that mankind had twenty years of petroleum supplies before they were completely cut off, we’d be completely screwed. The survivors would be back to the stone age. There is no plan that makes sense.

    • Art Berman on February 26, 2024 at 4:26 pm

      Richard,

      Thanks for those insights.

      All the best,

      Art

  6. sam johnson on February 22, 2024 at 5:04 pm

    The western world (first world nations) needs to change how it consumes and how much it consumes and how much it throws away. Then perhaps we can meet renewable energy part way.

    • Art Berman on February 26, 2024 at 4:25 pm

      True, Sam, and it won’t happen!

      All the best,

      Art

  7. Joel Kopel on February 22, 2024 at 1:50 pm

    Art:

    I love your work, but why do you and Nate Hagens refer to CO2 as emissions? CO2 is necessary for all life on earth:

    “The process of photosynthesis is commonly written as: 6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2. This means that the reactants, six carbon dioxide molecules and six water molecules, are converted by light energy captured by chlorophyll (implied by the arrow) into a sugar molecule and six oxygen molecules, the products. The sugar is used by the organism, and the oxygen is released as a by-product.”

    https://www.britannica.com/question/What-is-the-basic-formula-for-photosynthesis

    • Art Berman on February 22, 2024 at 2:28 pm

      Joel,

      CO2 produced by human combustion activity is different from naturally occurring CO2. It is called emission because it is emitted from burning.

      This is clear to most people.

      If you are trying to argue that CO2 emissions are natural and therefore not a risk for climate change, do it somewhere else.

      Art

  8. Donald Sergent on February 22, 2024 at 1:39 pm

    Yes
    I recall Nate Hagens or Roger Andrews covering that on Nate’s old Energy Matters site. IIRC🧐. Induction charging of vehicle while driving.
    Too much data and vaporware trials to keep score on.
    Algal Biodiesel
    Fermented ethanol from switchgrass
    Anyone want to add to the list?

    • Art Berman on February 22, 2024 at 2:27 pm

      Donald,

      There are too many imaginary solutions that have God-like faith in technology.

      All the best,

      Art

    • Richard DP on February 22, 2024 at 5:53 pm

      I read the paper on algal biodiesel. The authors slipped up by a huge factor. I think it was 100 or 1000. You can’t even make nutraceuticals economically using algae, let alone diesel.

      Jet fuel from forest waste. Gasoline from sewage. Diesel from waste oil. Every hairbrained scheme to do active solar collection of heat for home heating. That works mostly in Florida and California.

      Just the scale of the petroleum industry is not appreciated. By my calculations, it would take 2 billion tons/year of dried biomass to supply our gasoline and diesel demand. That is just in energy equivalents. If we tried to do that we’d have to go to Canada to see a tree. If we don’t save and pare back our lifestyle, there is no way we can replace petroleum.

  9. Trevor Coleman on February 22, 2024 at 12:02 pm

    Many renewables advocates I talk to have little or no scientific or engineering knowledge. Often they do not even understand that electricity is not somehow stored in the network and can be used at any time – like gas or oil. They are very vague about what electricity actually is, but assume it will be there when they want it. Those that do understand backup is needed believe that a few batteries or pumped hydro schemes will easily solve the problem. They have no idea of the scale and costs. I even hear that renewable electricity is really cheap as ‘wind and sun are free.” Well, yes they are – but it is reliable electricity that we need, not intermittent wind and sun.
    Of course, our clueless politicians don’t help.

    • Art Berman on February 22, 2024 at 2:26 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Trevor.

      All the best,

      Art

  10. Neon on February 22, 2024 at 9:34 am

    What about solar FREAKIN roadways!

    Alright, that’s a joke. But seriously, 9 years ago that scam received almost 2 million in funding via IndiGogo. Another scammy company called wattway got an actual government contract in 2015 to build a solar roadway for 5 million €. First year’s production was 150,000 KWh (less than half expected). In the second year, production dropped to 78,000 KWh and by the third year, production was meager 38,000 KWh. Average 18€ per KWh, not bad price.

    And 2 years ago, French government decided to build a solar roadway that cost 30 million €.

    Pete Buttigieg has also

    • Art Berman on February 22, 2024 at 11:20 am

      Neon,

      Thanks for adding that information. I haven’t followed the solar roadway. That’s a good one!

      All the best,

      Art

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