The title of this post comes from a Bloomberg article on the state of solar energy. The article in interesting and you should go take a look. But that single statement struck me as very profound.
This is a case of how labels are applied incorrectly. We think of electricity production in terms of the output… electricity. We rarely think about the processes that go into that product. I’m wiling to bet that the majority of people don’t know where their closest power plant is… excuse me, electrical generation plant.
We think about oil a lot, but oil is almost never used in electricity generation. Petroleum represents only 1% of US electrical production. We hear about the price of oil and we know it’s a fossil fuel, so we tend to lump into the same group as coal (39%) and natural gas (27%). But all three are very different things.
But all three of those things are fuel sources, not electricity sources. The electricity comes from the massively inefficient process (30-40% conversion of chemical energy to electrical energy) that produces a lot of pollution.
Fuels store potential energy (usually chemical). Fuels are then burned in order to heat water that drives a turbine or burned to drive the turbine directly (as in natural gas plants).
Over the decades, the fuel hasn’t changed. Natural gas is still mostly methane. When it burns, it still produces CO2 and other gases.
What has changed is the technology. Natural gas was not used until relatively recently (within my lifetime) as a fuel source for electrical power plants. The technology for natural gas turbines improved and other technologies improved as well, resulting in a 80% efficiency (using co-generation).
The thing about renewable energy sources is that they are all technology-based instead of fuel based (with the possible exception of biofuels). There is no fuel. There is no extraction of fuel. There is no refining of fuel. There is no transport or storage of fuel. There is no disposing of fuel waste.
In 2012, the average steam-based power plant (coal or fuel oil) spent 0.4 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) produced on operations costs. Another 0.4 cents per kWh on maintenance. They spent about 2.8 cents per kWh on fuel. Gas turbine is about the same with slightly lower operation and maintenance costs, but higher fuel costs. That doesn’t include the capital costs of the plant or the decommissioning cost of the plant.
I used to use an annual report from the US Energy Information Administration, until I found out that the reports grossly underestimate renewable energy. For example, in one of the reports, the agency estimates that the US would only add 48 gigawatts of solar electricity generation by the year 2040. The estimate from the Solar Industries Energy Association is that half of that total will be added in 2016 alone.
Yet, even with that wind power still has a lower life-cycle cost per megawatt hour than everything except combined cycle natural gas. Solar PV is still more expensive than any fossil fueled plant, but it’s still within $2 per megawatt of conventional natural gas and cheaper than coal with carbon capture. Which is really the entire point.
The reason for this is that with any fuel based power plant, it’s costs and prices will be reflected more in the fuel than in the plant itself. But solar and wind (and to a lesser extent hydro and geothermal) don’t have those variable costs of fuel. They are slightly more expensive for capital costs, but the operations and maintenance costs are less and the fuel cost is zero.
A coal plant that is not actively burning coal isn’t releasing carbon dioxide or pollutants. But it’s not producing any electricity either. Wind and solar can produce infinitely more power for the same fuel cost (it’s really a divide by zero error, but work with me here) as an idle coal plant.
Fuel prices can change and change quickly. No one in December of 2014 was predicting sub $2/gallon gasoline for February of 2015. But it happened. Of course, the other way can happen to. When your power is controlled by fuel, the people who control the fuel are the ones in power. The Koch brothers are estimated to be be spending 900 million dollars for the 2016 election. That’s almost all fossil fuel money. They expect a return on that investment and they will likely get it.
Technologies change over time. They get improvements. Every year, computers get a little bit faster or cheaper for last years speed. Cell phones pack more power into smaller spaces. I can’t think of a single case when some technology that was cheap suddenly got expensive again… unless there is government intervention.
It’s time to bring this to a close. My point… if this article has such a thing… is that renewables are the future. Technology is the future… well, the now really. Fossil fuels are just that, fossils. Sure, it’ll take decades, maybe even a hundred years to get rid of the entire fossil fuel thing. But I think that we will… and we must. We’re committed to too much warming as it is. We’re committed to a lot of sea level rise. It’s going to happen and it’s our fault.
The faster we accept this and move to change it, the better off we will be, the better off our planet will be, and the better off our children will be.