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A Rethinking of Energy is driven by Bold Disruption

Paul Hobcraft's picture
Innovation Knowledge Provider Agility Innovation

I work as a transition advocate for innovation, ecosystems, within IIoT, and the energy system as my points of focus. I relate content to context to give greater knowledge and build the...

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  • Sep 20, 2021 10:24 am GMT
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I have been absorbing a couple of interesting research reports from RethinkX,  an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society. They produce impartial, data-driven analyses that identify pivotal choices by investors, business, policy and civic leaders to stimulate thinking and promote avenues of disruptive change.

Firstly on Rethinking Climate Change on how Humanity can choose to reduce emissions 90% by 2035 through the disruption of Energy, Transportation, and Food with existing technologies.

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Secondly, the Energy Report – Rethinking Energy 2020-2030 100% Solar, Wind, and Batteries is Just the Beginning states we are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most profound disruption of the energy sector in over a century. Like most disruptions, this one is being driven by the convergence of several key technologies.

Both of these reports are well worth the time to really read and absorb. This is some “sterling” work by  Tony Seba, James Arbib, Adam Dorr and other members of the RethinkX team.

So where do you “sit” on this report and the acceptance and realities of the proposal in time, consequences and complexity?

Lets get into the key points from the report

Firstly they use the Seba Technology Framework shown here (one of the authors)

I want to summarize the key points from the “rethinking energy” report

These extracts summarize the value of focusing on a clear set of disruptive technologies that can displace and expand the energy system in a relatively short period as the solutions are proven and now need to be rapidly scaled and deployed.

-Taking the Energy report here focuses on the convergence of three clean energy technologies: solar photovoltaics, onshore wind power and lithium-ion batteries. (SWB). *The report was published in October 2020, and I would argue since the initial research, and today you could add offshore wind, all (longer) storage and batteries. The result would be even more positive and dramatic.

-Their argument is applying this SWB set of solutions. It is both physically possible and economically affordable to meet 100% of electricity demand with the combination of solar, wind and batteries by 2030 across the entire continental United States. Overwhelmingly the majority of other populated regions of the world can also capture the tradeoff relationship between electricity generation and energy storage. (Key Finding point one and two)

-100% SWB will provide the cheapest possible electricity system by 2030, pushing the existing conventional generation power plants operating on coal, gas, or even nuclear power as uneconomical

-SWB can provide a whole new architecture that provides different sets of rules and metrics. This truly disruptive energy system shifts existing thinking of minimizing energy use (on demand) to maximizing as it is not harmful to the environment to utilize electricity generated from sunshine and wind fully. Still, actually, it is harmful to let it go to waste. In maximizing output and utilization, there is no fuel or waste to minimize.

-100% SWB systems eliminate all greenhouse emissions from the existing electrical power sector, taking out and looking to displace fossil fuel in extending electricity into residential, commercial, industrial, transportation and agriculture.

-Combining with electric vehicles, a 100% SWB system can eliminate all fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector and road and rail transportation sectors, taking out a huge carbon footprint.

-SWB will not merely replace conventional power generation technologies on a 1 to 1 substitution but can set about to create a much larger electricity system by reducing the marginal cost of energy to near-zero for much of a year.

-Surplus power creates new novel business models, products and services and markets across many industries (hard to abate) with dramatic societal capabilities and delivery considerations of potential new economic prosperity for many regions of the world that are excluded today.

-Applications including the electrification of road transportation, heating, water desalination and treatment, waste processing, recycling, metal smelting and refining, chemical processing, heavy industry and assorted manufacturing due to the prospect of near-zero marginal cost clean energy by electrifying their processes.

-Cryptocurrency mining, cloud computing, and communication also gain and rapidly achieve carbon removal from the use of clean energy generated by the SWB approach.

-Surplus power offers a significant potential for electricity being on demand 24 x 7 all year round with the appropriative considerations to building a distribution grid that is not just adapted but designed specifically for SWB.

-SWB can be autocatalytic by dedicating a growing portion of its surplus to the manufacture and recycling of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries themselves to reduce the manufacturing “greenhouse” effect of using fossil fuels today in production as well as extracting for reuse of rare material.

Gaining recognition and acceptance of the inevitable, perhaps?

Gaining acceptance, focusing on delivering solutions at speed and scale, recognizing the transformative dynamics of disruption to an energy system that needs to move from the old to a new one, recognizing the cost of write off and stranded assets will be a significant part of the cost of this transition

We need to accept the disruption of the conventional technologies is now inevitable and placing as much of our transforming energies into assets for building this SWB Energy System is rational from this point forward.

We need to speed up the energy transition and completely transform the electric power system in this decade. Solar and wind generating capacity can exceed the total electricity generating capacity installed today.

Renewables at an accelerated pace of replacement are required

The SWB approach is the cheapest available option for power generation on a 2030 timeframe, in many cases, forces existing operations to shut down and be written off and provide a future surplus of energy to stop curtailment (old paradigm) and push out towards extending the electricity market

Operating on the premise of extractive, depletion and polluting needs a radical overhaul. That was past centuries; we need to recognize we must have clean energy that stops greenhouse gases in its tracks.

A new operating model for any energy transition needs to seek to minimize costs, maximize benefits, seek wider engagements and different value creation business models so every level of society and the economy can benefit.

The report raises the challenge, who will embrace and capture the extraordinary social, economic, political and environmental benefits that an SWB system can offer?

The dramatically different architecture, boundaries, regulatory field and capabilities are massive to tackle. Still, as suggested, if a new system is much larger than the old one it replaces, then disruption is inevitable.

Let me begin to wrap up on the disruption effects

Below is a great visualization of the effects of disruption with their casual feedback loops that drive disruption

To finish with a quote from the report

"In over a century, we are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most profound disruption of the energy sector. Like most disruptions, this one is being driven by the convergence of several key technologies whose costs and capabilities have been improving on consistent and predictable trajectories – namely, solar photovoltaic power, wind power, and lithium-ion battery energy storage"

 

My opinion of the Energy Report is it is far too optimistic and perhaps simplistic

  • I commend it on its singularity of approach, focusing (exclusively) on Solar, Wind and Batteries for a rapid abundance of electricitiy. I wish it was so easy.
  • The thrust of the report is focusing on having an abundance of electricity that brings costs of energy down to levels where significant investments and expansion into those harder-to-abate areas has a massive incentive.
  • Yet the levels of complexity are going to cause a real drag on the highly ambitious target date of 2030. The investments are not just in new energy sources (solar, wind, etc) but what happens to the significant levels of stranded assets and the cost (to whom).
  • The ramping up in solar and wind is massive, thousands of wind installations become hundred of thousands and the raw material availability, the production ramping up, the logistics are formidable.
  • Then you have the approval process, from the federal government to local government and local communities and the impositions of studies commissioned by different and opposing groups.
  • The sheer amount of new capital and the projected return on investments, when you include stranded assets have real implications on balance sheets, by the investors etc. Compressing time periods raises greater risk.
  • To make such a switch over to clean energy is not just its production alone, it is the enormous changes and investments in infrastructure. The transmission and distribution networks and subsequent planning permissions and the building of national-wide grids is daunting to say the least.
  • So the level of change within such a short period, the different levels of decision complexity is highly ambitious.
  • To decarbonize in each country, to achieve this over the globe has so many political and social implications.
  • The likelihood is we will be facing a real crisis, in extreme weather and unhealthy environments to galvanize all aspects of sôciety yet to bring together all the parts of such an energy transition in such a limited time I struggle with.
  • The consequences of a slow ramping up in this decade will be potentially disastrous but the political, business and social will are far from being in place.
  • There is a gathering of reductionists looking to have a narrow mindset promoting linear progression and not “seeing” the disruptive forces of radical change in the energy transformation; they are holding on far too much to the incumbent system.

I think the report provides a “clean” vision but can this actually happen within such a short time, even if solutions are already available. The level of change needs a much longer time frame.

What is right is the imperative of urgency to simply get on is not wrong, time is rapidly stacking up against us. The idea of focusing and the massive ramping up of clean energy (wind and solar) for electricity as the real top priority to compress energy prices, shifts the economics and over time, the solutions this pricing can bring to accelerate the energy transition.

What is your opinion of the report and if you see this approach as realistic?

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 20, 2021

SWB can be autocatalytic by dedicating a growing portion of its surplus to the manufacture and recycling of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries themselves to reduce the manufacturing “greenhouse” effect of using fossil fuels today in production as well as extracting for reuse of rare material

How close are these functions from being able to come from SWB? Are some of these reliant on the higher temperatures that industrial energy uses still rely on direct fossil fuel burning for? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 20, 2021

"What is your opinion of the report and if you see this approach as realistic?"

Paul, since you asked - with the severity of climate change impacts increasing by the day, the assumption we should base energy policy on "solar + wind + batteries" - an approach that has yet to provide reliable electricity for any country, state, village, community, or home in the world - amounts to ideologically-motivated ignorance, and reckless disregard for the environment. That would apply to any technology, by the way - experimentation, at this point, has become a luxury beyond our means.

So, what to do? When we have a critical health issue, most of us wouldn't hesitate to seek out the advice of an licensed medical doctor - an expert in the field. Are the authors of the RETHINK report climate experts? Since they want my email address to download their glossy report, I'm led to believe the answer is no - they're likely venture capitalists who want to sell me something.

With climate change, most eminent climate experts in the world agree: "Nuclear power paves the only viable path forward on climate change." Reassuring, that it's not nearly as complicated, or expensive, or lucrative, as RETHINK's venture capitalists would like us to believe.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Sep 20, 2021

100% is possible. Let's do it nationwide. I do 120% at my home since 2001.

 

Quote= Rethinking Energy 2020-2030 100% Solar, Wind, and Batteries is Just the Beginning states we are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest,

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 21, 2021

I suppose if you simply ignore reality, all manner of dopey forecasts are possible. Fundamental practical constraints involving physics and economics place limits on what can be realistically achieved, particularly when the presumed need for change is based on dire conjecture concerning the distant future. Relying on a contrived calamity is likely to result in a backlash as the truth ultimately prevails. According to many ( e.g Al Gore and many “experts”) we have already passed the point of doom. That is obvious nonsense, yet the climate change community continues to trot out shrill claims of imminent, but unprovable, disaster. The parable of the boy-who-cried-wolf come to mind.

There are viable economic reasons to push using some renewable energy. Strikes me that is a better approach.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 22, 2021

"That is obvious nonsense, yet the climate change community continues to trot out shrill claims of imminent, but unprovable, disaster."

Climate experts disagree with your assessment - just like medical experts disagree with anti-vaxxers, who describe the call for vaccination a "shrill claim of imminent, but unprovable, disaster!"
Though many of them have died, the ones who haven't keep making noise. Simply ignoring them - and staying far away - helps to prevent everyone from becoming a victim.

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