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Decarbonizing California requires relying more on electricity, once it's low carbon

Karen Street's picture
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Karen Street has an MSEE from UC, Berkeley. She worked as an electrical engineer for a number of years before becoming a teacher of high school math and physics until 1994, when after losing much...

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  • Feb 5, 2012

A 2006 California law, Assembly Bill 32, obligates the state to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 (30% below business as usual), and to 80% below that level by 2050 (90% below business as usual). How is it to done? A team from UC, Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and elsewhere examines this challenge in the January 6, 2012 Science.

The conclusions of Jim Williams, et al:
• improvements in efficiency (doing more with less) are critical. If the increase is 1.3%/year, the amount of energy needed in 2050 will be 40% less, and achievable. This rate of improvmenent would be “historically unprecedented”.

• Electricity must be decarbonized, to below 25 grams carbon dioxide equivalent/kWh by 2050. This will be hard. Carbon capture and storage must achieve 98% reduction in GHG emissions, compared to current predictions of up to 90%.

• Only as electricity is decarbonized, other sectors must become more dependent on electricity. Much more dependent—today electricity is 15% of end-use energy, but by 2050, it will be 55%, as buildings and water are heated by electricity, and vehicles are electrified. (About 30% of transportation, long-haul freight and air, will use a combination of biofuels and fossil fuels.)

• Biofuels, such as newer technology ethanol using plant cellulose rather than sugars, or diesel made from algae, would supply 20% of transportation energy, assuming these technologies are commercialized in time.

Some numbers:
• CA consumes 300 TWh electricity today (300 billion kWh, population 37 million). Under business as usual, this will increase to almost 500 TWh by 2050. To meet this goal, and replace existing supplies as they age, CA will need to supply 3,000 MW in new power each year between now and 2050, and add 100 miles of transmission capability each year. High efficiency would keep electricity levels the same, in the absence of electrifying heating and transportation.

Note: 1,000 MW is the amount of electricity provided by a 1,100 MW nuclear reactor running at just over 90% capacity factor (essentially, down time for refueling and a little maintenance). It is the amount of electricity supplied by just over 5,000 MW of solar (almost 20% capacity factor) or 3,000 MW wind (about 35% capacity factor).

• Beginning about 2020, the electrification of transportation and heating will add to electricity requirements, doubling electricity demand on the high efficiency path. Four scenarios are examined for replacing fossil energy with low-GHG electricity. All scenarios assume renewables other than large hydro will supply at least 1/3 of CA electricity. Nuclear remains at today’s levels or increases.

The high renewables scenario (3/4 renewables, and less fossil plus hydro than today), 4,000 MW needs to be added per year, more than for other scenarios because intermittents need backup capacity as well. The 4,000 MW might represent 9,000 MW wind along with backup). (To compare, Texas leads the US in wind power, with 10,000 MW.) This choice requires 600 miles of new transmission lines each year. There are a fair number of details between here and there.

The high nuclear scenario (60% nuclear, and less fossil plus hydro than in the high renewables scenario) requires 3,500 MW in new construction each year between now and 2050. That’s just over two 1,100 MW nuclear reactors/year, plus a lot of renewables. It requires 500 miles in added transmission lines/year.

In the high carbon capture and storage scenario, carbon capture and storage supplies over half of 2050 electricity. This scenario requires 3,500 MW in new construction each year, and 300 miles/year in new transmission lines, less than other mitigation scenarios, presumably because current fossil fuel plants would continue to be used.

The mixed scenario is 1/3 renewables, 1/6 nuclear, and 40% CCS. It requires the same new construction as the high nuclear and high CCS scenarios, 3,500 MW, and 400 miles in new transmission lines each year.

In terms of cost, the authors reach conclusions similar to those in The Power to Reduce CO2 Emissions: The Full Portfolio, 2009 Technical Report. Costs are “roughly comparable” and would be approximately double today’s costs. (Business as usual also has much higher costs, even in the high efficiency case. In the absence of high efficiency, just imagine what happens to prices as demand increases, and increases, and increases.) The document from Electric Power Research Institute finds the costs of nuclear less than wind and much less than solar.

All scenarios require storage capacity for the renewables, from a low of 4,000 MW storage in the high nuclear scenario to three times that in the high renewables scenario.

Other points:
• Technology improvements are needed. Many.

[A]chieving the infrastructure changes described above will require major improvements in the functionality and cost of a wide array of technologies and infrastructure systems, including but not limited to cellulosic and algal biofuels, [carbon capture and storage], on-grid energy storage, electric vehicle batteries, smart charging, building shells and appliances, cement manufacturing, electric industrial boilers, agriculture and forestry practices, and source reduction/capture of high-[global warming potential] emissions from industry.

• Electric cars would face less cost variation than we see today with oil price instability, and cash flow would be domestic rather than to oil powers. However, the cost of electricity would be higher. We don’t know today what capital plus fuel costs will be for electric cars of the future.

The first point is considered important enough that James Murray and David King focused on it in Nature in January, in Climate policy: Oil’s tipping point has passed—demand of fossil fuels is rising faster than supply, so they are susceptible to large increases in price with small increases in demand. We see this now for oil; the same will be true soon for natural gas and coal. The transition away from fossil fuels will take decades, no matter how motivated we are, earlier is better than later:

Governments that fail to plan for the decline in fossil-fuel production will be faced with potentially major blows to their economies even before rising sea levels flood their coasts or crops begin to fail catastrophically.

• Non-energy sources causing climate change also must be reduced by 80% as well. Examples include cement manufacture, agriculture, and forestry.

• There will be a cost, estimated to be 0.5% of gross state product in 2020, increasing to 1.2% in 2035 and 1.3% in 2050 (about $1,200 per capita). Electrifying transportation is the most expensive item on the list. Our current market structure probably can’t make the shift fast enough, requiring “novel public-private partnerships”. Aggressive R&D could reduce the cost of low-carbon electricity perhaps 40% between 2020 and 2050, saving Californians as much as $1.5 trillion.

• Per capita GHG emissions and gross domestic product are similar to those in Japan and western Europe; what works here (if it works here) may have implications elsewhere.

The article has links and >100 pages of supporting online material for those wanting to read more. For a shorter analysis, see the LBL news release.

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Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Feb 6, 2012

Willem, assumptions, and where they come from and how valid are they?

In the supporting online mateiral, the baseline assumption is that electricity will increase 66% between 2010 and 2050, in part because energy intensity decreases.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Feb 6, 2012

Possibilities do exist if real science is allowed.

Please consider that solar PV is just photo excitation of (usually) electrons to a less localized state relative to the counter-ion. In the case of conductive liquid crystal like proteins the counter-ion can be a proton, or hydrogen ion. So instead of an evaporated rock manufactured for square miles (silicon), polymers producing either photo-electric energy or photo-chemical energy are possible with liquid crystals.

The cellulosic biofuels concept was treated with hostility 25 years ago. And now people changed their minds.

The emergence of economic and scientific rivals (as well as a few wars, with maybe more) seems to make people more tolerant of scientific advancement. But I’m still going to hide out in the woods.

Karen Street's picture
Karen Street on Feb 7, 2012

As far as I am aware, people in policy analysis are aware of degradation with time, lower capacity factor at higher temperatures for solar panels, capacity factors for wind, the poor overlap between when the wind blows and when it is needed, etc.

I’m convinced that if they are overestimating wildly, that information will be discussed soon, and the newer analysis will include the results of the discussion.

My understanding is that capacity factor for wind is higher in the US and Mongolia than in Europe or Japan. Much higher.

While some of what you say is true, I understand that we still need renewables to confront climate change. I would hope that we all spend more time fighting climate change than expert analysis, which will evolve over time as errors are found. I’m sure that there are errors, and suspect that the authors are welll, but analysis has to be done with the best information available at the time.

My question is, where are all these windmills, etc, and nuclear reactors to be sited? Presumably nuclear reactors can be placed on sites now holding fossil fuel plants (in addition to sites built for nuclear—4 in CA, 2 operating and 2 not), but CA coal is built out of state. And are natural gas campuses large enough to meet the legal requirements for nuclear reactors?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 8, 2012

So they did not have high expectations for hydrogen cars (as alternatives to battery electrics)?  That wouldn’t be surprising, given the large obstacles they face (cost, H2 distribution, on-vehicle H2 storage), inspite of the very impressive fuel cell demo car that Honda is showing around (Honda FCX-Clarity).

Ammonia on the other hand, does have enormous potential as a carbon-free transportation fuel; it just hasn’t become fashionable with the DOE yet.  It can be made from fossil fuel using carbon capture, and it is the cheapest fuel that can be made from solar, wind, or nuclear power.  And it can be burned in a modified internal combustion engine, which makes the resulting vehicle likely to be thousands$ cheaper than a battery car.

See NH3 Fuel Association to read more about ammonia.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 8, 2012

Where to put new nukes?

Conventional wisdom says put them in towns that already have some (these towns are much more pro-nuclear than average).

But I think that in the post-Fukushima world, people will want their nukes in sparsely populated areas, away from high-dollar water-front real estate.  And the wind industry has shown that a few dozen miles of transmission line is really pretty cheap. (Advanced new reactors like PB-AHTR and other FHRs could be so safe as to change this).

Also, note that power plants can be economic anchors for dying small towns, such as described in this article:  WSJ: Nuclear-Free Town

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