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Solar Now Produces a Better Energy Return on Investment Than Oil (robertscribbler.com)
447 points by edgarvm on Dec 20, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 244 comments



Don't worry about the political issues. Wall Street will follow the ROI numbers, and money will be available for power sources with good ROI. Oil is on the way out. Coal isn't coming back, either. Peabody Coal, the biggest coal company in the world, went bust earlier this year. Nobody wants to build new coal plants. They're huge headaches to operate compared to natural gas plants.


>Oil is on the way out

Oil production and consumption is higher than ever and projected to keep increasing to 2030 (though I do not personally believe this).

The demand growth is driven by the transportation sector, particularly in the developing countries.

Despite the recent successes of electrical cars, auto fuel consumption is still rising, and the absolute growth in conventional auto sales is, incredibly, almost one hundred* times larger than growth in electric car sales (an extra 3.1 million conventional cars were sold worldwide in 2016 cf 2015).

And even though you could argue that we can see the beginning of the end for petrol powered cars, industries such as construction, mining and agriculture - not to mention air travel - are much harder to convert to electricity.

Sooo... I expect we will be reliant on oil for a while to come yet.

*edit: sorry that is probably wrong, according to some sources the electric vehicle market grew by almost 300,000 vehicles per year... although that depends just what is counted as "electric". In any case, electric cars have a huge gap to close just to arrest the climb in conventional vehicle sales.


I suspect that agriculture, with its well-defined fields, repetitive motions, and a healthy disregard to the exterior, would be easier to convert to electricity. If refueling a tractor is just removing one battery pack and loading another, it also saves time when the time is at a huge premium.

Locally-generated solar electric power to charge the batteries is also easier in a farm environment, and makes direct financial sense.

The same dismounted tractor batteries, when not in heavy use, e.g. during winter, can work as a "power wall" to supplement the solar power during dusk when days are shorter.


>Locally-generated solar electric power to charge the batteries is also easier in a farm environment, and makes direct financial sense.

Doesn't that run into the same problem as biofuels? In a farm, most places where you could put a solar panel are also places where you could be growing more food.


You could put solar panels in the space between irrigation circles. It won't be enough for a utility solar power planet, but certainly will be to charge 1-2 tractors.


No because solar panels produce at least an order of magnitude more power per area than biofuels. Maybe even two


To add to the sibling answers, crop rotation is a basic part of land management on farms. Solar panels could be rotated between fields, undercropped with shade-tolerant legumes.


No, the issue with biofuels was the feedstock; it was directly competing with food crops for quality arable land.

Alternative feedstocks like Miscanthus don't have this issue, and neither does solar. It can use marginal land that is not otherwise profitable to farm.


You can't easily grow crops on your barns' rooftops. It's a great place for your solar panels, though.


I think once India and China start selling cheap electric cars and electric trucks deliver an economic advantage to oil, we can safely say oil is on its way out.

But not before that.


China is the #1 producer and buyer of electric cars.

It's still 1/300th of all cars sold, so it's not mainstream, but the tremendous growth is there (see the graph on the first article). It's actually the U.S. that's lagging behind.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/mind-the-shock-as-auto-investing...

http://www.forbes.com/sites/russellflannery/2016/08/30/warre...


Don't forget motorbikes!


Keep hearing about graphene base battery technology that is faster to charge, store more in less volume/weight from time to time for cell phone and car.

Hope that will be true soon.


A large reason that oil production is high, is that producers raised debt at a much higher price of oil. Now they're being severely squeezed, and have to produce much more oil (at ~ half the price) in order to service the debt. Tankers are sitting off the coast in the Middle East because there is no other place to put the oil. Also, the Cushing reserve is nearing capacity (which tells you it's being stored for a sale at hopefully a higher price).


Oil for energy should be on the way out but oil as raw material is far from it. And this is good, because we are economically based on oil and the dual use of oil will help smooth the already bumpy transition.


Non-energy petroleum usage is something like 10% of production though.


> They're huge headaches to operate compared to natural gas plants.

Ahem: that's because of "political issues". You should remain very worried (and vigilant) about the direction of energy policy under the incoming administration.


Trump could definitely slow the rate of closure of existing plants, but the industry sees the writing on the wall regarding coal. Each plant requires an investment that will be repaid over decades. So unless they think coal policy will be favorable in the long run, they won't invest. That plus natural gas is still just cheaper right now.


If they're handing out multi billion dollar incentives to build coal plants, they are economically viable.

You don't need paying customers to be profitable, just a friendly government.

Here in the uk we subsidise fossil fuels far more heavily than renewables and there are no plans to change that picture - actually, oil and gas subsidies are increasing, to "help maintain profitability for an important British values industry".

Never underestimate the power of wealth transfer. Volkswagen, thyssen krupps, Hugo boss, ford - none would exist today without vast piles of state gifts - and that's the tiny readily visible tip of the iceberg.

No, oil is here to stay for as long as is convenient. Renewables will continue to be kicked into the long grass because policymakers will be rich and dead by the time it gets truly awful. Oil makes them rich today.


That's unsustainable. You can't cut taxes and subsidize cronies. The money has to come from somewhere.


It's certainly unsustainable but that doesn't mean that it cannot be sustained for 20 to 60 years. The money can come from buyers of treasuries. And indeed it has.

http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/spending_chart_1900_2016...

And it's cheaper than ever for the government to do.

https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-GLYubON4v7A/UPTBpQUr8eI/AAAAAAAAE...

As long as we never try to pay it back.


Right, coal plants are expensive mainly because of the scrubbers required to reduce sulfur emissions (which caused acid rain through the 1970s). A government committed to eliminating "burdensome" regulations could make coal power extremely cheap again.


Do you think so? Anything other than deferring plant/mine closure running requires investment as well as regulation.

The wise investor knows that what government giveth, government can take away after the next election, and when is that election due? Before or after the break-even date for the investment?


Even if the federal government substantially changes its position, many states have their own clean air laws and the courts are open to states suing other states they are "downwind" from.


What if Trump fills the courts with pro-coal judges?


Federal judges serve a long time, there may still be some picked by the first Bush on the bench. One president, hopefully with only one term, can't have that big an impact on the entire federal judiciary. And federal judges have their liberal and conservative tendencies but they tend to be pretty non-partisan.


America has little need for new power plants, so even if coal became really cheap there is little incentive to build a bunch of coal power plants.


It's not all about environmental regulations. Coal plants, particularly the older ones most at risk of closure in the US, require significantly more labor per MWh generated than cleaner sources.

Here's a recently announced coal plant closure: http://www.cortezjournal.com/article/20161001/News05/1610099...

...

the local job options could be pretty limited in far-western Montrose County once two of its major employers close their doors, eliminating what are currently 55 jobs at the plant and 28 at the mine.

...

According to the EIA, the Nucla plant generated 416,150 MWh in 2015 for an average annual power of 47.5 megawatts: http://www.eia.gov/electricity/data/browser/#/plant/527 That's an abysmal productivity per employee (or a fabulous job source, depending on your perspective): 0.86 real annualized megawatts per employee at the plant ; 0.57 megawatts per employee if you include the mining jobs.

A well-sited utility scale solar farm like Desert Sunlight can produce an average annualized power of 147 megawatts with just 15 full time employees, for a ratio of 9.8 megawatts per plant employee.

Replacing old coal plant generation with equal MWh from favorably sited solar requires only ~9% of the number of permanent employees, if Nucla is a typical case for an older coal plant. That's a nightmare number if you're relying on the coal industry for your livelihood, or a great opportunity if you're looking for cost reductions in a competitive electricity market. The fixed O&M costs for solar are already the lowest of any utility scale electricity source; once the capital costs get low enough it has winning costs across the board in any reasonably sunny area. That's for instantaneous cost of generation, anyway, which still has plenty of competitive opportunities in most regions before storage has to be considered.

Every industry loves to brag about "creating jobs" when beseeching governments but that's another way of admitting to "creating costs" (that are then passed on to buyers). The explosion in solar and wind jobs is a temporary effect of rapid expansion; most of that employment is in installation rather than running installed plants, manufacturing equipment from raw materials, or mining the raw materials. There's a lot less work in operating a solar plant than building it and the operational phase is a lot longer. If the American solar industry had already reached steady state (just enough construction to keep new capacity matched with retirements), I believe that the full life cycle labor intensity per MWh would be significantly lower than that of a steady state coal electricity system. And the labor intensity is declining further because a few major trends in PV tech (higher module efficiency, longer module life, longer inverter life), though not explicitly about reducing labor inputs, imply significant further labor reductions.


But those are local political issues, not the Global Warming debate.

I can't imagine anywhere people would accept going back into living inside a smog, dying earlier due to respiratory problems, and forgetting that the sky is blue.

The only trend around is on the other direction: people pressing their governments into cleaning coal plants on the less developed countries.


This is EROI, which is different from monetary ROI, and only indirectly linked.

Having said that, I believe there are several billion dollar funds looking to invest in solar and their main problem is a lack of projects to invest in, so solar is doing okay from an ROI perspective at the moment.


> Oil is on the way out

You can't make plastic from coal. More and more items are being manufactured from plastic, which comes from oil. There is more to this narrative than what you put in your gas tank.


You can make plastic from coal, indirectly by way of synthetic methanol. China's already doing it on a large scale: http://blogs.platts.com/2015/02/11/china-coal-methanol-olefi...

(The methanol could come from renewable electricity and CO2 extracted from seawater, instead of coal, if renewables get cheap enough. Or you can make methanol from waste wood, corn stover, all kinds of biomass.)


Vinylon, a synthetic fibre made from coal and limestone is a north korean specialty.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vinylon


Sure, but energy is the biggest use of oil by far. Obviously we will never completely eliminate the use of oil, but that's not the goal, we just need to bring it down to a reasonable level. Not what we are doing now.

http://images.realclear.com/215863_5_.jpg


"efforts made to slow this transition by Trump and others in his administration should be seen as a protectionist, nonsensical, and amoral top-down defense of the harmful fossil fuel industry."

As a solar panel owner, I want to know, is this a response to the tax credit going away or is there something else of which I am not aware? If solar is able to stand on its own, the tax credit would seem to have served its purpose. The discontinuity in the level of feasibility when it goes away will not be fun, but I thought that people expected that to happen when it eventually does go away.


Oil, gas, and coal enjoy their own subsidies. Both direct and indirect. Increasing these subsidies for fossil fuels will slow the transition.


I always hear these vague allusions to oil and gas subsidies, but never concrete examples. In fact, we actually tax the hell out of oil and gas at retail, so it seems a bit strange that we would actually be subsidizing it at the same time.

What kind of/magnitude of subsidies does oil and gas enjoy?


I'm just a simple investor and have no ties to the oil industry. I was surprised to learn about the tax incentives for investing in oil: http://www.investopedia.com/articles/07/oil-tax-break.asp


I think most of these are just a transfer of wealth from the high-tax-paying consumer to the low-tax-paying rich industry owners. Just business as usual.


I don't think they are even that. If you look a the list they are are just tax deductions so if you hit oil you may pay the govt $1m instead of some larger sum. Most of the "subsidies" seem to be of that nature. I'd like to personally subsidise the oil industry by them sending me $1m as a discount from the $2m I would have really liked.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_subsidies#United_States

$3.2bn / year for fossil fuels, about half of what went to renewables


Those figures seem to come from here:

https://www.cbo.gov/publication/43993#section0

In particular, the $3.2bn/year is a tax write-off sort of 'subsidy', not a grant sort of subsidy, which I believe solar has received recently (section 1603).

Without doing more digging, I can't tell whether what those oil and gas write-offs are for. Exploration? Research?


Why is that an important distinction here? Both direct subsidies and tax credits/rebates/write-offs have the same net effect on the government's coffers.

The Wikipedia article cites another article that has the breakdown (over a period of years):

1. Foreign tax credit ($15.3 billion)

2. Credit for production of non-conventional fuels ($14.1 billion)

3. Oil and Gas exploration and development expensing ($7.1 billion)

https://www.eli.org/sites/default/files/eli-pubs/d19_07.pdf


Have you read that pdf you linked to?

Similarly, the study counts funds used to support carbon capture and storage programs1 as a fossil fuel subsidy, despite their potential to reduce the emissions associated with burning coal.

If that's counted against oil and gas 'subsidies', that doesn't seem right.

Foreign Tax Credit ($15,300) - IRC Section 901. This is a generally applicable credit that is intended to enable taxpayers earning income or profits abroad to avoid double taxation.

Wait - so a good 40% of the total is actually a non-subsidy that is the consequence of the US having a tax treaty with a foreign country? Not being able to double-tax oil and gas companies is considered a 'subsidy'? The US has a tax treaty with just about every civilized country in the world that has provisions to avoid double-taxation because to do otherwise would be pathological. Counting that is 40% of the 'subsidy'?


The foreign tax credit is an oil subsidy since the 'creative' oil companies started structuring their royalties to foreign governments as taxes, so they can deduct them against profits.

If Exxon has to pay a royalty of $1/barrel to Nigeria for access to their oil fields, rather than account for the royalty 'properly', they structure the deal to pay a $1/barrel tax to Nigeria. Then they can claim that they paid taxes instead of royalties and get the offset from the foreign tax credit.


I don't doubt you but can you explain this in greater detail? I have filed for the foreign tax credit and it disqualifies most non-income taxes. I would presume royalties would be covered by this.


Royalties are excluded, and the IRS has clamped down more in defining what exactly counts as income tax, but it's still common for oil and gas companies to structure their payments as taxes to get the credits. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, there is an 85% corporate tax rate on oil/gas companies and a 20% corporate tax rate on the average business. It sure looks to me like that's a 20% tax rate plus a 65% royalty rather than an 85% rate, no?

http://taxfoundation.org/blog/treating-royalties-governments...


<citation required>



> Why is that an important distinction here? Both direct subsidies and tax credits/rebates/write-offs have the same net effect on the government's coffers.

It has a different effect on the entity being taxed. A tax write-off increases the rewards for an already profitable proposition, but tax write-off don't normally incentivise someone to do something that is a loss (unless the write-off is transferrable to other profits, but that's a separate question). Subsidies, however, can make a loss into a profit, incentivising people to do it. That's exactly the point of the original solar subsidies.

Now that the solar industry appears to be relatively well bootstrapped, it's not unreasonable to remove the straight subsidies. I think solar still enjoys many if not all of the same tax write-offs as other energy sources.


Add the military spending to ensure control of oil producing countries and cheap oil, and it's more like $1 trillion.


Looking at the gross subsidy is misleading. Federal gas tax revenues alone are about $35bn/yr.


Wait, are we talking gasoline for cars here, or natural gas for energy production? Because those are very different things. It's entirely possible for gas and oil power plants to receive subsidies while gasoline for cars is heavily taxed.


The excise tax is intended to pay for transportation infrastructure though, not to disincentivize gasoline consumption.


Whatever the intentions of the people imposing the tax, the effect is to disincentivize gas consumption. My point is, if the government taxes certain activities by $x and subsidises the same activity by $y, quoting only $y doesn't give the full story.


As far as I know gas tax isn't paid by the producers, but sure we can combine gas producers and users for this discussion. Money taken or given to either one has the same effect on the demand for gas production.

When that $x in taxes is paying for the infrastructure used, then the gas producers/users are actually getting $y+x from the government. The $x, being a service charge, cancels out, and the only thing left is $y. $y is the difference between the world we live in vs. a world where the government paid no special attention to the industry. It's the most important number.


Even granting your argument, if the government takes $x as a service charge for infrastructure, and subsidises by $y, that would be a net subsidy of $y, not $y+$x.

But $x is not a service charge. It bares no relation to the amount of anything used. They can't opt out of the road part of the service charge and build their own roads. The tax is not hypothecated. Whatever the rhetoric of politicians, it doesn't bare any resemblance to a service charge.


> that would be a net subsidy of $y, not $y+$x.

That's exactly what I was arguing, yes. That $y is important and $x is irrelevant.

> They can't opt out of the road part of the service charge and build their own roads.

That has no real bearing on the economics of the situation. Paying $x to the government for roads and paying $x to a private contractor for roads work the same way. That's why the net subsidy is $y.

If there is a tax that's applied specifically to gas companies that isn't directly paying for infrastructure they use, then that tax can be subtracted from the subsidies. But the gas tax doesn't fit that bill; if anything it undercharges.


> If there is a tax that's applied specifically to gas companies that isn't directly paying for infrastructure they use, then that tax can be subtracted from the subsidies. But the gas tax doesn't fit that bill; if anything it undercharges.

The gas tax is only one of many taxes that these companies pay - you have to sum all their subsidies and subtract all their taxes. That's the point. If you're not doing that, comparisons with subsidies to other industries are going to meaningless.


You subtract the taxes specific to the industry. Not all their taxes. Are there any such taxes?


I subtract all their taxes. If Exxon pays $100bn/yr in various normal taxes, and the government pays them $1bn/yr in fossil fuel subsidies, that's a net subsidy of -$99bn/yr.

How can it be a fair representation of their situation to only say they receive $1bn/yr in subsidy?


Because something like income tax is a given. We're not comparing against a world with no government. We're comparing against a situation where they get no special attention. You can use whatever word you want for it, but if a company pays half as much tax as everyone else that's a big deal.

You're right to say that it's not fair to only list the $1bn. It should be put in context of the $100bn of normal taxes. But reducing it to "$99bn" is not a fair representation either. It doesn't tell you if they otherwise would have paid 100 or 200.


I'm quite happy to accept the reporting of both gross taxes and gross subsidies. My objection is to only comparing the gross subsidies.


The gas tax is paid for by customers at the pump. It is not a tax being paid by the oil companies.


Who cares? If there's a tax being levied it's going to be passed on to consumers wherever it's applied.


That's only federal subsidies.


Well, how about the fact there's an absolutely enormous, untaxed negative externality? It's implicit - normally you tax something to reduce use of something harmful. Renewable energy would be far more competitive if this was factored in.

Fossil fuels are causing incredible economic damage - but in a way that isn't captured by traditional economic models. It's going to have huge costs to future generations - if we taxed it, not only would we get off fossil fuels faster, we might then have extra cash around to soften the blow when it inevitably comes.


Yes, there should be carbon tax.

But the OP wants to know of the coal subsidies even Elon musk calls so huge that solar subsidies are "cents on the dollar".

How about providing actual subsidies for coal, also the difference between taxes for coal and solar. Of course they should be compared per Kwhr (which in my opinion Elon musk didn't do).


80% of US coal mined by the big three companies is sold by the federal government to them at 1 dollar a ton. That coal will cause between 22 and 237 dollars worth of costs to the nation.

http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/new-report-details-how-fe...


What's the market value of one ton of coal?

Has a group other than greenpeace done the accounting on the 'cost' to the nation?

Are you not intrigued by the enormous error-bars on that figure ($22-$237)? Maybe this is a complete wank?

How does the nation benefit from having inexpensive coal power available? What's the value per ton generated?


I believe that the "social cost" in the report is a value generated by the federal government itself.

Also, error bars generally make me more confident in a number. Coal can be burned in old or new plants with different levels of scrubbing for example.

I'd also point out that this conversation started with you "just asking questions" about subsidies, and you've attacked every answer you've received.


From what I can tell, whenever you hear about "subsidies", as it relates to combustible hydrocarbons, it isn't the kind of free-taxpayer-money boondoggle you see with (for example) a loan guarantee to Solyndra. It usually takes one (or both) of two forms: 1) The tax treatment of any capital-intensive industry, with a tip-of-the-hat to the "how do we account for depleted resources" question (you see the same pondering happening now with bitcoin, for example), and 2) not properly accounting for externalities in taxing the extractor, the oxidizer or the consumer of the point-of-service joule.

In brief, #1 means: "I don't like it, and things I don't like should be taxed more, and until they taxed more, I will call this gift of non-taxation 'a subsidy'"

As for #2, the negative-externality objectionators make a very fair point!


The wikipedia link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_subsidies. e.g. in the UK north sea oil exploration is heavily subsidised: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/uk-government-.... Of course there's lots of politics and commercial interests here, so I don't overly trust the upfront numbers given by articles in newspapers.

As a reference point the UK has about the lowest consumer energy taxes in the EU, and the highest consumer prices.


> As a reference point the UK has [...] the highest consumer prices.

No it doesn't, not even close...

http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/...

http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/...

Unless I misunderstand what you mean by consumer prices?


Ah sorry, I missed a key phrase out - _pre-tax_ UK prices are the highest, and they are by a long way. Post-tax they're nearer the middle as the UK has by far the lowest energy taxes.

Unfortunately it's too late to edit my comment for clarification.


in the UK north sea oil exploration is heavily subsidised

It seems very misleading to say "taxpayer support" for a tax preference, especially when tax revenue for north sea oil is going to be well over that 6bn.


It's all accounting at the end of the day. The oil belongs to the nation, they're "hiring" industries to extract it. Whether it's called a tax or a payment is all semantics at some level.

This is part of why Norway can make around £400 Billion more money than the UK from a similar amount of oil, extracted from basically the same place:

http://www.resourcegovernance.org/blog/did-uk-miss-out-%C2%A...

See also "Hollywood Accounting".


From the linked page, about half of that £400bn is equity in state-owned oil companies with no stake in oil fields outside the north sea; as someone who lives in a country that had an albatross state-owned oil company, that's going to become a very interesting investment once those oil fields dry up in the next 20 years.

The article itself says the rest is partly because of lower taxes on the oil industry, but mostly because

1. The peaks of oil production in the UK's and Norway's fields were at different times when the market price of oil was different.

2. Norway has fewer fields but more reserves which made extraction more efficient.

It's also worth pointing out that the £6bn/year figure in the Independent article seems to be a bit of a wank too.


"Tax the hell out of" - As a swede this makes me laugh since 1 liter of petrol costs just over $2 here.

But we also are pretty much number one when it comes to being environmental friendly nation and no swede would deny climate change.


Just over $2? 95 octane costs around $1.5 (13.5 SEK) per liter. Still a lot more than US though.


$1.50 per litre is $5.70 per US gallon. According to the AAA, today's US average is $2.25, making gas in Sweden 2.5x as expensive. I think GP's point stands, even if the numbers were a little off.

For the record, gas prices in Germany are similar to Sweden, maybe a couple of cents lower (currently around 1.35€ per litre—around 2.35 times the US average)


Sorry, I wasn't aware that the dollar has increased so much in value..


That's an understandably mistake. The US dollar has increased significantly against the Krona since the US elections last month.


To add to others, awesome (from a returns perspective) tax structures like MLPs mean that energy infrastructure is heavily subsidized because income generated through MLPs is either not taxed at all or taxed at a very advantageous rate compared to traditional corporations. The government in the US has set these up primarily to incentivize investment in energy infrastructure and real estate. Energy Transfer Partners - the company most recently known for trying to build the Dakota Access Pipeline - is one such MLP.


>we actually tax the hell out of oil and gas at retail

A sales tax is a tax on the consumer of the product, not the producer of the product. The producer is the one getting the subsidies.


A reasonable different position to take would be to drop the subsidy in line with increases in effectiveness of solar panels, rather than dropping the subsidy all at once.


How about dropping the subsidy on the condition that coal and oil subsidies are dropped?


As long as politicians bought by Oil/Gas/Coal get majorities in House and Senate there's no gatekeeper to impose such compromises. For this election cycle this seems a non starter to me.


that sounds politically difficult, though I know next to nothing about politics so I could be wrong


The tax credit going away is not a big worry, but rather net-metering laws going away. It really depends on what state you live in. Arizona has been in the news lately regarding the net-metering fight. More states will follow.


The per-watt numbers may sound great, but these are still apples and oranges energy sources. While there are some area where one can certainly replace the other (electrical grids etc) there are others (shipping) where the gap remains monumental. In terms of energy density (35ish MJ/L) and storage (a box) diesel fuels look to remain king for a while.

One downside of cheap solar might be a drop in crude prices, resulting in its more frivolous use. I'd hate to see improvements in shipping meant to conserve fuel, and thereby lower carbon emissions, be set aside once fuel becomes cheap again. We need to watch for this and, perhaps, get regs in place to ensure it is burnt as sparingly as possible.


Solar doesn't compete with oil. It competes with natural gas, nuclear, and coal (any fuel with a marginal cost really, except oil, unless you're somewhere remote). And it is winning. [1] [2]

As more light vehicles move over to electric vehicles, we're going to need more clean energy. We should build every kWh of solar and wind generation we can.

> One downside of cheap solar might be a drop in crude prices, resulting in its more frivolous use. I'd hate to see improvements in shipping meant to conserve fuel, and thereby lower carbon emissions, be set aside once fuel become cheap again. We need to watch for this and, perhaps, get regs in place to ensure it is burnt as sparingly as possible.

Well, I mean, that's kinda the whole point of Tesla Motors, you see? Its an electric car, for sure. But its not a Leaf, its not a Bolt, its not an EV1. Its the best damn car you can get. Someone called Katy Perry's stage "The Tesla of tour stages" [3]. That's how you win against oil. We didn't run out of rocks when we left the stone age behind. We found something better.

[1] http://ilsr.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Screenshot-2014-0...

[2] https://solarpowerrocks.com/infographics/solar-infographic-s...

[3] https://twitter.com/katyperry/status/444228348319784960 "Omg someone just called my stage the TESLA of tour stages... It was like, the coolest modern compliment ever."


Oil competes with solar wherever a diesel generator powers something that might be powered by solar, and there are a lot of diesel generators out there. Oil also competes with oil for home heating in many areas (electricity v. oil).

In my world, my parent's new retirement castle is powered by an off-grid solar/diesel system. Solar isn't putting up much of a fight (Canada+winter+mountains = maybe 2hours of direct sunlight on panels).


I think if you guys did the math, you'd find that some cheap chinese solar panels + a battery would be way cheaper than running a generator.

(For the battery: a tesla powerwall 2 if you can get one, or sort of build your own from LifePo4 batteries & an http://electrodacus.com/ controller)

Have a look at electrodacus. He lives in Canada. Powered 100% by solar. He even plans to heat with solar, but that requires a specially built house.


But good luck running a half-dozen saws on a construction site during a canadian winter. Not every diesel generator senario has the time/space/light for a solad rig.


Very little electrical generation, at least in the US, is from petroleum of any sort (less than 1%).

http://www.npr.org/2015/09/10/319535020/coal-gas-nuclear-hyd...

EDIT: We have far more coal and natural gas fired generation to displace than off grid petroleum generation.


Lol, read my first comment re grids. There is plenty of power out there not on grids. And 5+ percent of carbon emissions come from ships, which are tricky for solar and are certainly not tied to grids. And aircraft ... apples and oranges.


>One downside of cheap solar might be a drop in crude prices, resulting in its more frivolous use.

I'd argue this logic is backwards. Only way solar can cause a drop in oil prices is by reducing it's demand. And if it is reducing the demand of oil, then the total demand of oil can't increase.

Further, only sustainable way to keep oil unused in ground is to get the market price of oil so low that nobody bothers to dig it up. I mean, if the oil price is $500 per barrel, there is simply no international agreement that will stop people and countries drilling oil from every possible site from north to south pole.


>One downside of cheap solar might be a drop in crude prices, resulting in its more frivolous use. I'd hate to see improvements in shipping meant to conserve fuel, and thereby lower carbon emissions, be set aside once fuel becomes cheap again. We need to watch for this and, perhaps, get regs in place to ensure it is burnt as sparingly as possible.

There is R&D with deploying wind power to help reduce fuel costs on cargo vessels.

In some ways it makes a lot of sense: You have no loss in converting mechanical energy into electric charge, then back into mechanical energy, and also losses in transmission (as is the case with traditional wind - and there's a big difference in efficiency when you crunch the numbers). On vessels, it's just straight mechanical energy->mechanical energy, and energy density is also very high. It's a crude solution, but also elegant and clean solution[1].

Business needs incentives to move on these kinds of renewable technology opportunities that exist but are not exploited because the fruit hangs too high for the free-market alone to justify the cost for the charity of the environment. My own biased opinion is that one good solution might be a carbon tax, which could align private business incentives with optimal public outcomes.

1: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/28/science/earth/cargo-ship-d...


Wind powered shipping is also called sailing.


Sure, well probably not in this case. Not sure what the point you're trying to make is, but the research being done is to make the ships supplemented by wind power (one such ship deployed a parachute-like sail). They're not actually capable of navigating alone by the wind as is the case with sail boats.


A parachute like sail? Absolute craziness. If only...

http://kimrobertsmarine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Victo...


They're not capable of sailing by wind alone because of their mass relative to sail size, not because it's 'craziness.'


They are not apples and oranges from the perspective of investors. Those people want to invest their money for the highest return. If solar gives a higher return than oil, then their money will go there.


Something like a quarter of US energy consumption is in transportation. As you mentioned, the storage density of electricity still far lags behind petroleum. It also takes an hour at a supercharger to "fill up" an electric car vs. a few minutes at a pump. Hydrogen and biofuels (in the US) are generally seen as energy sinks (they take more energy to produce than they give off), but what they lose in conversion they make up for in suitability towards a transportation fuel.

The point is transportation is a tricky application for renewables, and the amount of storage needed to make it work is mind-boggling huge, even assuming decades of compounding growth.

According to LLNL [1], the US consumption of energy in transportation is 27.7 quads. A quads is a measure of a lot of kWh. Specifically, 27.7 quads is 8,118,068,643 MWh.

Tesla's gigafactory is slated to produce 35 GWh worth of battery storage production per year at full capacity (slated for 2018) [2].

So, our annual energy consumption in transportation alone is 8,120,000 GWh, and our largest factory will, in two years, produce about 35 GWh per year worth of capacity.

Lets assume some compounding magic and imagine the gigafactory will be only the first of many self-replicating automated tesla factories. Say we grow our capacity at 5% every year... after two decades, in 2038, that puts annual capacity at 92 GWh, with a cumulative installed capacity of 1,250 GWh.

We're trying to hit 8,120,000 GWh. That's not gonna work.

Okay, lets assume instead of 5% growth, we somehow get 50% growth (we need more gigafactories, but lets say we also get better at building batteries, something closer to moore's law). Now after two decades of 50% growth, in 2038 our new annual storage production is 116,000 GWh, with something like 350,000 GWh of cumulative installed capacity.

Still short of 8,120,000 GWh.

(But this exponential growth is only starting to hockey-stick upwards at this 50% growth... we WOULD hit our goal within the third decade)

So, even assuming very optimistic conditions where the storage capacity production is exponentially growing, consumption stays flat, and capacity does not degrade once installed, electric cars still will barely make a dent in petroleum usage in transportation after two decades.

I hope I made some error on my metaphorical napkin here (like a battery can be recharged... if you have 365 Wh of annual consumption, that can technically be serviced by a 1 Wh battery being used every day, right? So we don't quite need to match the 8,120,000 number exactly, right? Maybe like 1/10 or 1/100th of that?) Because if I didn't, that means we need an Apollo-level effort sustained for a few decades to have a meaningful path off fossil fuels.

[1]: https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/assets/images/energy/us/... [2]: https://www.tesla.com/gigafactory


Your comment at the end is on the right track. Annual energy consumption isn't the ideal metric because you can charge a car battery every day. 22,200 GWh is all the storage capacity you'd need with daily charging.


Okay, so you're saying we could do it if we had 22,200 GWh / day capacity, cause if we can charge it up every day, that's *365 = 8,120,000 GWh annual consumption.

So at 5% YoY growth, we hit it at about 2031.

Ok, so that's only a decade and a half of non-stop growth. Now we're talking something plausible. 5% YoY for 15 years means someone will be making a lot of money if that comes anywhere to be.


I'd say under 10,000 GWh/day required, because:

a) The LLNL flow charts are for primary energy, not energy services; an electric vehicle can travel further on a megajoule of electricity than an internal combustion vehicle can travel on a megajoule of diesel fuel.

b) Long distance shipping, airlines, and (probably) long distance trucking are not going to replace liquid fuels with batteries. Either there's going to be residual use of fossils for those smaller applications or electricity will be used to make synthetic liquids; either way those segments aren't going to contribute to battery requirements.


5% YoY growth seems pretty small. The costs of storage are dropping at ~10% per year. As the cost falls, lithium ion storage is going to be the cheapest solution for more and more applications, and it's going to grow very quickly. Supply chains are going to be expanding soon...


That's sort of how I view Tesla. It's more of an option on the future market for batteries than it is leading the charge towards electric vehicles. They aren't all that far ahead of other auto manufacturers in the mass market segment (maybe even behind).


Elon Musk says the world needs about 100 "gigafactories", so we need 3500 GWh of battery making capacity per year. At that rate it would take 7 years to reach 22 TWh of capacity.


One thing I try to point out about storage is for stationary applications you don't care nearly so much about energy density or complexity. In that case thermal storage is viable. IE, convert electricity to heat and back again.

What lead me down this path is some solar thermal plants store heat as a large vat of molten salt. The supposed advantage is they can produce power at night. However PV has solar thermal significantly beat in price. Meaning it would be cheaper to just generate electricity using PV and convert it to heat for later. Bonus, unlike molten salt, solid media (AKA rock) can run much hotter and thus higher eff.

I did try a calculation for the amount of rock needed for thermal storage. Using your numbers, assume you need 2.5 X 22,500 GWH that's aprox 56,250 GWH of thermal storage.

Turns out 'rock' has a heat coeefecient of about 2000 J/(DegC Kg).

So amount of rock needed.

56,250 X 10^9 * 3600 sec/hr) / (2000 * 800) degC -> 1.26 X 10^11 kg.

Common rock is about 2500 kg/m3 so the volume would be

1.26X10^11/2500 -> 5.06 X 10^7 m3.

That is about 20 times the size of the great pyramid.


You are conflating energy in kWh with storage capacity in kWh, so you are probably off by a couple orders of magnitude. If you had a long haul truck with a battery that can be recharged relatively quickly, it might get recharged a couple of times a day. So you have to multiply its capacity times recharges times number of days in service, so it could be used to store and release 1000x kWh nameplate capacity each year.


Also i'm curious what's the average MPG for average car in US is? 40 MPG is reasonable amount in europe i think. I have a feeling that this number is higher in US.


No way. In the US the average MPG is probably in the 20s.


EROEI never made any sense to me. It seems to conflate two fundamentally different notions: fuels as energy sources and fuels as energy storage mediums. Who cares that petroleum EROEI might fall to less than one? Petroleum in that scenario would still useful for vehicles. Even if you need two joules to extract one joule of fossil fuel, this process might be economically viable if your two joules are immovable (e.g., drawn from a nuclear-powered grid) and your one joule is movable (e.g., in an airliner). There's no special significance to EROEI.


What you say is true for refined fuels (think of batteries as such also). But for prime energy sources EROEI must be greater than one to be viable on the long run.

If coal mining had an EROEI under 1 no industrial revolution would have happened, because the manual labour for extracting the energy source would have been better spent at other tasks. Now that we have some energy sources with very high EROEI in the energy mix we use we can think about some sources as you say, for some very specific tasks.


Who's conflating energy sources with storage mediums? EROEI is about the viability of fuels as energy sources. I've never heard otherwise.

Obviously, charged battery storage has an EROEI < 1, and that's fine because it's a portable storage medium, not an energy source.


pjc50 gets the large scale answer correct.

On the individual scale a company in a >1 ratio line of business sells energy, which incidentally happens to be in the form of Jet-A or 93 octane but what really matters is they sell energy that runs the other economic sectors. Whereas a company in the <1 ratio line of business sells fascinating petrochemical feedstocks, which incidentally happen to be flammable and could be used as expensive fuels and they compete for needed energy with the rest of the economy.

The ethanol debacle shows how important that is. Certainly aged 12 year crown royal is not energetically feasible as engine fuel and that doesn't matter as long as its affordable for drinking. The distillery produces human fuel, but not energy, in fact its a net sink of energy. Likewise you can build a plant to produce ethanol, and it will produce fuel, and as long as you don't worry about energy or CO2 that's OK. Inevitably after its built someone will point out that rather than importing 30 million barrels of crude oil energy per day, if you want to run cars on ethanol we'll have to import and burn 60 million barrels of crude oil energy per day and there will be freakouts.

Part of the confusion is in the old days it was only possible to simultaneously produce both energy and fuel whereas we've burned the cheap oil such that now we're going to be deciding to make industrial plants and processes that produce energy OR fuel but often not both at the same time. In the old days it was impossible for a refinery not to produce and sell both fuel and energy at the same time...


Global EROEI decline doesn't seem a serius danger to me --- solar and nuclear power are both abundant and available at modest cost. That 60 million barrels of energy for input doesn't strike me as something that ought to lead to freakouts. (Coal is available as well; of course, using it incurs significant external costs.)


Thanks. Yes, the US ethanol situation is a mess. It seems to have worked out better in Brazil.

There's been talk of using solar energy to help with oil sands extraction ( https://www.google.com/patents/US9039893 ), because oil sands have such low EROEI that the cost of fuel for melting them is a considerable part of the cost (as is finding the other chemical feedstock for diluent to produce "dilbit"). In some ways this is great - replacing a fossil source with a renewable - in others it's terrible, as it increases the transfer of carbon from the ground to the atmosphere.


> EROEI never made any sense to me

Did monetary ROI ever made sense to you? EROEI is the same thing, except in units used by nature.


I admit also belonging to the group not understanding the point of EROEI (beyond whether it is grater or smaller than one).

Let's take two hypothetical means to produce electricity, A and B.

A is, from EROEI point of view, almost a perpetual machine, with EROEI of 1,000,000. Unfortunately it is really expensive, investment costs are one million dollars per watt generated.

B then, has really bad EROEI, 1.0001. However, getting that electricity costs only 0.0001 USD/MWh.

I do not understand in which circumstances it would be relevant or interesting to use EROEI as a metric to compare these power sources.

Note also that in absence of subsidies, ROI contains all the information EROEI gives.


The same example can be made with monetary ROI, too. You can have an exclusive small business that has excellent ROI, however, cannot scale. How do you compare that to a large business/market with ROI close to one?

> Note also that in absence of subsidies, ROI contains all the information EROEI gives.

That's not a bug but a feature. The main advantage of using EROEI over ROI is that it's in nature's units. You cannot use any accounting tricks (such as subsidies) to fake it.


> The same example can be made with monetary ROI, too. You can have an exclusive small business that has excellent ROI, however, cannot scale. How do you compare that to a large business/market with ROI close to one?

Sorry, I do not see the similarity. In your example you are limiting how much you can invest to one opportunity. And (risk adjusted) ROI is perfectly valid way to compare both of your companies, I just invest as much as I can to the higher yielding asset.

> You cannot use any accounting tricks (such as subsidies) to fake it.

It may be more difficult to fake, but it does not answer the question what use the measure has. (Note that ROI may be fakeable in the short term, but in the long term that is much more difficult. Either you get your money back or you do not.)


> Sorry, I do not see the similarity.

OK, let me try to explain better.

In your example, the only thing that prevents me to invest in the source A (with the ridiculously high EROEI) is how much other resources than energy I currently have. For example, say source A requires diamonds, which are expensive, and I can only afford a handful. But source A is much better investment than the source B, and I absolutely want to invest into A first (at the very least, I can sell the energy with much higher profit margin).

In my example, the only thing that prevents me to invest into higher-yielding asset (and we agree it's a good idea) is some additional limitation of reality (availability of resources), for example the size of the market.

So in both examples, there has to be an additional resource constraint, which prevents putting all investment into the higher-yielding enterprise. In the first example this limiting resource is money, in the 2nd example it cannot be money, but it can be something else.

So if ROI is a good way to compare investment opportunities, EROEI is a good way to compare energy sources.

> It may be more difficult to fake, but it does not answer the question what use the measure has.

An well-known example where ROI was faked is subsidies for ethanol as energy source. EROEI is less than 1, but because of the subsidies, ROI became larger than 1.

The EROEI would be an ultimate measure of where to put your effort (energy) if you were alone in the world and there were no other people. Then you wouldn't need money and could price everything in energy required to obtain it. Or equivalently, the world where people would collectively want to minimize the amount of effort they want to spend. Which is not quite the real world with money (the wealthy people for example can afford less effort than others), but it's useful as an approximation of it (and if you assume free market, then they are very close).


> But source A is much better investment than the source B

You misunderstood me. Quote:

"investment costs are one million dollars per watt generated."

It will cost you a million dollars to get one watt of output It is much worse investment than B.

> The EROEI would be an ultimate measure of where to put your effort (energy) if you were alone in the world and there were no other people.

There are other factors of production than energy. Land use and time would be completely ignored even in the single person autarky model.


> You misunderstood me.

I think you are in contradiction, then. What is the cost of energy in your example world?

> It will cost you a million dollars to get one watt of output It is much worse investment than B.

I don't think you can reconcile this claim with the EROEIs you used in your example.

> There are other factors of production than energy. Land use and time would be completely ignored even in the single person autarky model.

Yes, other factors that are possibly scarce are missing from that model. But that is the same deal for ROI calculations, too, as I already explained. The point is, just like money you have is the most important factor limiting investment, (thermodynamic free) energy is the most important factor limiting production.


> I think you are in contradiction, then.

Let me explain a bit better where is the contradiction. The high cost of source A from your example indicates that this source requires some expensive fuel. If there is an unlimited (in practice) amount of this fuel, in other words, it's not scarce, then this high price indicates that it's very hard to obtain (takes a lot of effort). This contradicts to the claim that source A has high EROEI, because if it has high EROEI, then it means that the fuel for it can be obtained very easily (with very little energy investment). (You could see the contradiction the best if you were to actually set the cost of energy in your world.)

The only way out of this contradiction is to assume that this "expensive fuel" is a very scarce (finite) resource, which cannot be readily produced from other things. For example, say it's platinum, and we would like to keep platinum to make other things out of it rather than burn it to make energy (and that's why it's expensive - people want to keep it). So that was my original interpretation of your example. In that case, source A is a better way to make energy than B, it's just you don't have enough fuel you would like to use for it, and so you can only use it in small volume. Just like with ROI - there can be excellent investments with very limited volume, and just ROI will not tell you anything about the volume.

As a side note - I really recommend to stop thinking about economics in terms of money and start thinking in terms of means of production (which is where EROEI comes in). And only then, when you see the full economic picture on the process level (how things get transformed in the economy), introduce the actual monetary accounting. This way, you can avoid some pitfalls (such as simultaneously claiming that price of energy is both very low and very high).


> The high cost of source A from your example indicates that this source requires some expensive fuel.

No. It indicates that there are other factors of production than input energy that causes the high price, and that EROEI is incapable to take those into account.

To put this into more concrete (while still absurdly unrealistic to illustrate the point) numbers, assume we have a weird nuclear reactor, that is going to produce 1 kW of electricity for one million hours (somewhat more than 100 years). To create this generator, you need precicely two things. One kWh of energy, and because this is a bit unsafe reactor, you need to buy land worth one billion dollars to create a safe zone around the reactor.

Now, this reactor has pretty much exactly the numbers of my original example A, this has EROEI of one million with investment costs of one million per Watt.

So, a project with good ROI on properly priced (not subsidized) factors of production must have a decent EROEI. But there is no guarantee the other way round, a project with decent EROEI can have completely unfeasible ROI, so I still not understand why I should care about EROEI. It just produces zero value over ROI (with the usual disclaimer of correct prices)

> I really recommend to stop thinking about economics in terms of money and start thinking in terms of means of production (which is where EROEI comes in)

But if you want to think in terms of all means of production, not just some arbitrarily chosen ones, you end up with ROI.


> EROEI is incapable to take those into account

EROEI is capable of it, but you must be willing to do it. Why don't you figure out, in your example world, what makes the land for the reactor so expensive? Eventually, there is going to be an energy cost to having so much land dedicated for it (either that or there is only a finite amount of land that you're willing to use - which is akin to infinite cost, as I already explained in my previous comments); and you omit that from your EROEI calculation.

(Also technically speaking, in your example, I could build more reactors next to each other, so I would need less land, it's only a fixed cost, but that's not so important here.)

> But there is no guarantee the other way round, a project with decent EROEI can have completely unfeasible ROI, so I still not understand why I should care about EROEI. It just produces zero value over ROI (with the usual disclaimer of correct prices)

I disagree, the same is true vice versa (if you exchange EROEI and ROI), if you correctly calculate the energy cost needed. EROEI is just ROI in different units, and all the same advantages and disadvantages apply (that's why I predicated my post on you accepting ROI). So whatever disadvantage you see in EROEI I can find analogue of (and I did in fact) in ROI.

But the point of using EROEI is, nature cannot be fooled - if a process has a given EROEI, then nobody can cheat that number. But with ROI, individual investors can still cheat other people (society at large), if they have reason to use incorrectly priced ROI (it is incorrectly priced from society's perspective, but from their perspective it's correct), for example when subsidies are involved.

> But if you want to think in terms of all means of production, not just some arbitrarily chosen ones, you end up with ROI.

You are not doing it correctly for EROEI - you're not assigning price in energy for those additional means of production (as pjc50 already noted).


> if you correctly calculate the energy cost needed.

I thought EROEI was supposed to be fudge-free? If you really calculate EROEI as the nature wants it, you are never reaching EROEI of one unless you are breaking thermodynamic laws.

> - you're not assigning price in energy for those additional means of production

There are non-energy factors of production. If you disagree with that, there is no point continuing this discussion. If you agree, don't you see that your argumentation is flawed, because I was specifically arguing about non-energy production factors and now you claim that I do not assign correctly the energy cost of a production factor that does not have energy cost?


> If you really calculate EROEI as the nature wants it, you are never reaching EROEI of one unless you are breaking thermodynamic laws.

This is actually true for ROI too, if you price everything correctly (so that all the participants would agree), there could hardly be any income from investment alone.

> There are non-energy factors of production.

If you assume something is in large enough supply, then it's always, from physics, a matter (pun intended) of having enough energy to obtain it.

But OK, let's say there are non-energy factors. It's really not that different from the claim of some economists (which I agree with) that there are things that you cannot put monetary price on, such as human life. So I say again that ROI suffers from the same problem, if you have investment that for example kills people, you cannot calculate its monetary ROI in a meaningful way.

Really think about it, EROEI and ROI is a similar concept, with similar flaws, just different units.


Your example is broken because you're trying to divide energy units by money units, and you should be dividing energy units by energy units.

e.g. "A has EROEI of 1,000,000 but requires one billion megawatt/hours to build. It will then return 1,000,000,000,000,000 MWh over its design life. B returns 1.0001J for every joule invested."

With those options society would pretty much have to stick to B while accumulating the necessary construction of A.

Note that EROEI analysis doesn't consider depletion or renewability either. Or even necessarily a timescale.


I think you're answering different quesitons. Solving for "which method is most efficient" is different than solving for "which method provides the best long-term source of energy.

Obviously solving for the former is simplifying issues like diminishing returns, external costs, available energy reserves, means of extraction, and methods of accounting for ERoI, but he does raise a point which is "as long as we're in the black, doesn't J/$ matter more than of J/J?"

When solving for "which method is most efficient" then you could argue yes. When solving for "which method provides the best long-term spirce of energy" it becomes a different question.


> "as long as we're in the black, doesn't J/$ matter more than of J/J?"

The EROEI argument includes the observation that "in the black" for an industrial society is well above 1:1 and believed to be somewhere above 5:1. Going below that on average is expected to result in collapse.

In the short term, fossil fuels provide a high EROEI - but only until depletion (locally or globally). The overall fossil EROEI falls over time. This implies that it's necessary to install non-depleting or less-depleting sources before we reach critical depletion. But we're not clear on when that is; peak oil may only appear in the rear view mirror.

Essentially EROEI is an ecologist's view on the subject. "$" is not a resource that exists in nature and they would prefer a view from sufficiently high that it drops out of the analysis.

( http://www.theoildrum.com/ was a fantastic resource on this subject, and still is although no longer updated. For example, http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6871 : input of fossil calories allows one person to provide the food-caloric needs of 100 people. How can this continue past peak/unburnable oil?)


Notice that completely made-up example is almost impossible to happen in practice - low EROEI sources will almost always have low ROI in a an energy market (but maybe not in a specialized mobile application).

Now, to answer your question, if you decide to start a big research program to increase the availability of energy, you should almost certainly focus on the high EROEI source, not the cheap one. If you decide to create an energy company to sell something right now, you'll go the other way around.


> Now, to answer your question, if you decide to start a big research program to increase the availability of energy, you should almost certainly focus on the high EROEI source

You probably did not mean it this way, but that would mean that almost certainly no-one should have researched solar power until maybe 10-20 years ago.

To me, if you are talking about research, EROEI should be part of the feasibility ROI calculations (obviously), but nothing more.


At 10-20 years ago solar already had good EROEI, and oil already didn't have a great one either.

But it would mean that studying solar some 30-40 year ago was a bad idea. Fossil fuels were too good, and solar didn't look any well by that time. But solar had some other characteristics that made it unparalleled at some niches (like satellites), and guess what, that's exactly what people were interesting on researching by that time.


http://euanmearns.com/eroei-for-beginners/

The issue is not so much about the EROEI of an particular process in the small, as about the headline overall availability of energy from all sources to civilisation as a whole. That article discusses the "EROEI cliff" possibility, where as it declines more and more human effort must be put in to replace it, resulting in a civilisational collapse.


I'm all for solar but to be fair the source study for this was looking at the economics of modules not deployments. Solar does have an inverse economies of scale problem where the cheapest, most amenable sites are the first to get solar farms. To scale it to be competitive with coal, nuclear, etc. you're going to run into higher site acquisition costs and suboptimal conditions. Worth the challenge to save our planet, obviously, but let's be honest about it.


While solar is great, I think this discussion is a distraction from the possibility of replacing diesel, gasoline and kerosene with natural gas. Gasoline engines can be converted to run off natural gas and jet engines can be made that run off natural gas. Natural gas is also cheaper, more plentiful and cleaner than gasoline, diesel and kerosene. Plus, switching to it would disentangle global politics from the Middle East because natural gas is produced elsewhere.

Those things are on my mind as I contemplate a switch from heating oil to natural gas at my home. It does not seem to make financial sense, but it makes more sense when I consider those things. That said, until technology that allows solar to be economically used for everything is available (e.g. amazingly cheap, high density, long lasting batteries), we are going to need natural gas to replace other fossil fuels in places where solar cannot be used.


Natural gas does nothing for global warming, and the push for gas-generators has been driven by the fact that you can crack petroleum into gas products fairly easily. Scaling in this way doesn't help us at all.


Sort of. It's better than coal, and it's a by-product of fracking. I'm quite happy for expanded gas use as it reduces the propensity of extraction companies to just flare it.

http://www.worldbank.org/en/programs/gasflaringreduction

"Billions of cubic meters of natural gas is flared annually at oil production sites around the globe. Flaring gas wastes a valuable energy resource that could be used to support economic growth and progress. It also contributes to climate change by releasing millions of tons of CO2 to the atmosphere."


>>Natural gas does nothing for global warming

Burning natural gas produces only half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal.


And produces less fine dust than diesel, which is a big pro for air quality in cities.


Synthetic diesel also generates very clean exhaust.

Can be produced from forestry waste:

http://www.biofuelstp.eu/bio-sng.html


Natural gas can be produced from forestry waste too:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_natural_gas


True, but the natural gas infrastructure is pretty leaky and methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. I still believe it's better than coal, but it is not actually 2x as good.


It produces less CO2 than gasoline or diesel too:

https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=73&t=11


Natural gas from biomass is a renewable resource:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_natural_gas

It would not be wrong to call it solar power. :)


Worth keeping in mind that "natural gas" is primarily methane, which is roughly 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.


Isn't the idea that you combust the methane into CO2?


Yes, but the various methane extraction methods are leaky, hydraulic fracking worst of all. So while you do burn some of it to produce less harmful CO2, a lot also escapes into the atmosphere.

Another interesting factor to consider is the residency time of the different gases. Methane breaks down fairly quickly, while CO2 needs to be sequestered, which is currently done quite slowly via biological processes. Methane is extremely bad in the short term, but measured over a long period (100 years) does in fact trap less heat.

However, we're not on a timeline where we can worry about 100 year effects. Our current warming trajectory will almost entirely destroy coral reefs in about 30 years, and estimates vary on the threshold for runaway effects (Methane calthrates, reduced primary production due to ocean acidification, etc) but the large majority of them are well below the 100 year threshold.

Tl;DR: Natural gas might cause less warming over a long period, but it causes more in the near term, and we're screwed if we don't fix things in the near term.

I bring up hydraulic fracking because it's the primary driver behind the renewed push for natural gas. The United States has suddenly become one of the most competitive producers of natural gas, so strong domestic forces are now lobbying for it.

The one application where natural gas does have a decent advantage is base-load grid energy generation. Renewables like wind and solar are variable, and we need controlled inputs with rapid responses to help integrate them into the grid. Gas turbines are the most responsive fossil fuel systems by a wide margin, so they serve a decent purpose there. This should only be viewed as a stop-gap until we develop grid-scale storage through EV networks and such though.


I would think that the producers are incentivized to reduce leaks to be able to sell more. Do you have any numbers on how leaky natural gas production is? What about for natural gas production from biomass?

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_natural_gas

That being said, you can think natural gas is great without thinking about CO2 at all. Switching to natural gas would eliminate dependence on oil from the Middle East, which ought to be a good thing.


You are only incentivized to reduce leaks if the profit from selling the additional natural gas is larger than the cost of reducing the leaks. It is difficult to track down all the leaks because you cannot see a leak with your eyes (like you can see oil leaking from a pipeline). The key difference is that it is much harder to stop a gas from leaking than it is to stop a liquid like oil from leaking.


Isn't that why the gas has a smell added to it?


Most of what I'm saying is coming from a lecture by Prof. Howarth at Cornell this past Fall.

His full slides are linked at [1]. His second lecture in the series [2] suggests upstream emissions from a well are about 1.3%. That's not enough to justify significant investment in capture for production increases, but it's enough to do enormous damage to the environment. The first set of slides explains that damage reasonably well, but the TL;DR is that Methane screws us far more in the short term, and all the timelines that matter at this point are short term.

I don't have any information on biofuel production. I think it's an open question whether it's useful for grid-scale energy production -- again, gas turbines are wonderful base load generators -- but I'd be extremely hesitant to support it's use in transportation.

Oversea shipping is a challenging problem that may be served well by gas as a stop-gap, but long term it should move to compact nuclear reactors which use non-weaponizable fuel elements or new energy dense storage methods like lithium air batteries.

For ground transportation, it's really hard to justify anything other than direct electric vehicles at this point. The energy density of natural gas isn't that great relative to current Li-Ion packs when you consider tank weight, and any pure ICE vehicle has to deal with large braking losses, which EVs can recover trivially. The various flavors of hybrids are a decent solution, but I'm a huge proponent of the pure EV model with parked EVs doubling as a grid-scale storage solution.

[1]: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1ocJG5BVzw0TmRmSUs4TjJRdVk... [2]: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1ocJG5BVzw0aUVUQ2tEcXNwTVU...


Unless unprecedented carbon capture systems are discovered petrocarbon-based energy systems are not defensible in the medium to long term regardless of what flavor of market fuckery you try to bring to bear. The greenhouse effect isn't concerned with or impacted by geopolitics.


How do you propose vehicles operate without a carbon based fuel? Natural gas is cheaper at the low end for automotive transportation than electricity and it is the only feasible option for jet engines that does not involve oil. Let's not forget commercial shipping, which cannot operate on solar panels due to low surface area.

I consider eliminating demand for oil to reduce funding of terrorist attacks to be a higher priority than eliminating carbon based transportation. If you do not, then there is always production of natural gas from biomass, which makes natural gas carbon neutral:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_natural_gas

For what it is worth, natural gas has a higher energy density per unit mass than gasoline, diesel and kerosene. Switching to it in transportation actually reduces energy requirements such that reductions in carbon dioxide output would be higher than the theoretical numbers:

https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=73&t=11


Global atmospheric temperatures are an existential threat. International terrorism is not.

It might be worthwhile to check the assumption that halting warming will be possible while maintaining all of the transportation infrastructure we've grown accustomed to over the last 102 years. What sounds better to you, a working ecosystem or cheap airfare?


I will take the cheap airfare. I think you will find most of the world population would take the lower air fare too, regardless of what you say.

You can see your goals achieved with natural gas thanks to biomass conversion methods, but do not expect everyone to be as enthusiastic about eliminating CO2 emissions as you are. The most you will get is willingness to make things renewable for security or financial reasons.

Natural gas can both reduce the cost of air travel, which definitely can get people on-board and improve security by cutting demand for oil, which ought to matter to my fellow New Yorkers.


"I will take the cheap airfare."

Let's hope technology pulls of a miracle before this flavor of myopic insanity destroys the planet. You do realize you just said that you'd rather be able to affordably fly than have a working biosphere, right? What were you planning on eating for the mid-flight snack? An arm rest?


The planet used to be warmer 600 years ago. Nature adapted to the lower temperatures. If temperatures rise, it will adapt to the higher temperatures, provided that they even happen.

The projections that claim temperature rises do not consider the inevitability of renewable energy. Renewable prices will drop over time while fossil fuel prices will increase over time. Eventually, fossil fuels will be more expensive and renewables will take over.

Even if the most severe predictions on the internet are true, there is no need to eliminate he use of carbon based fuels. Speeding up the transition to renewable carbon based fuel production would be more than sufficient.


I do not believe the projections because they do not consider the inevitability of renewable energy.

There might be some projections that don't take this into account (though I'm not aware of any). However, many consider "commitment", or the long term effects of what has already been done (for example, the CO₂ that's already been produced). I found the following article "What would happen to the climate if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today?"[0] from 2014 useful in describing the situation with links to additional resources:

[0]: https://theconversation.com/what-would-happen-to-the-climate...

For two examples of projections taking the effects of differences in CO₂ emissions (which serve as an effective proxy for fossil fuel usage), here are two from resources linked from that article:

Charts showing different projections of relative CO₂ concentrations based on varying changes in CO₂ emissions[1]

[1]: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/faq-10-3...

Two global coupled climate models show that even if the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had been stabilized in the year 2000, we are already committed to further global warming of about another half degree and an additional 320% sea level rise caused by thermal expansion by the end of the 21st century.[2]

[2]: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/307/5716/1769

Speeding up the transition to renewable carbon based fuel production would be more than sufficient.

Do you have references which support this claim? I'd be interested in reading about them if you do. Statements like this seem to sometimes be based on the assumption that market forces will be able to fix climate change issues, though I don't know whether you hold this position. The relationship between market forces and effects on climate change are not tightly coupled. The rate at which renewable energy sources replace fossil fuels is not directly proportional (inversely or otherwise) to atmospheric CO₂ concentration or global albedo or temperature or sea level.

From what we understand of human psychology, we don't intuitively grasp concepts on such a grossly non-human scale (both in time and space) such as climate change, just as quantum mechanics or relativistic physics can throw us for a loop. I should think it's much more difficult for the market as a whole to be efficient in reacting to effects on this scale as they are so much further removed from human intuition.


30 times more potent but it stays in the atmosphere a much shorter period of time.


...breaking down into atmospheric CO2.


This is like hijacking a Tesla thread to say it's distracting us from talking about "clean diesel" gas cars.

Natural gas is not a sustainable energy source. Fracking, which is what makes it cheaper, has tons of environmental problems. Sure, it's better than worse fuels, so go ahead and upgrade. But please don't hijack threads about a sustainable planet.


Natural gas is considered sustainable in Europe:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_natural_gas

Aviation, shipping and even low end automobiles will need it.


> Natural gas is considered sustainable in Europe

That is a misleading mischaracterization. The article refers exclusively to biogas, not fracked natural gas which is the basis of your claim of "cheaper, more plentiful and cleaner than gasoline".

And it's not even sustainable if we were to purposefully scale its production (it still emits CO2), which is why the article prefers the lesser term "renewable".


In some countries there's a high enough population density and/or little enough sunlight that land availability could prevent 100% solar electricity even if storage were magically solved; Germany, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Taiwan come to mind.

Land isn't going to be a constraint in most countries. Solar resources, while distributed unevenly, are significantly more evenly distributed than fossil or nuclear fuels, or even wind resources. See for example this map of insolation in the US: http://www.nrel.gov/gis/images/solar/national_photovoltaic_2...

In the continental US the very best solar resources are maybe ~7 kWh/m^2/day and there's hardly anything below 3.5. Or to put it in terms of cities, Seattle gets 58% as much annual insolation as sun-drenched Phoenix: http://www.i4at.org/lib2/solarrad.htm

So it took many historical performance:price doublings before unsubsidized solar electricity got within shouting distance of fossil electricity in even the sunniest places in the US, and then just one more to reach that threshold across most of the country.

The technical and economic performance of wind/PV has already improved enough, and has enough assured near-future improvements already in the pipeline, that I'd say it would be destined to "eat the world" for electricity if storage were a solved problem. But storage isn't a solved problem.

Most discoveries that get hyped as "battery breakthrough" by university press offices aren't really breakthroughs, but there's so much research that there's an abundance of riches even after you throw away the ~95% that looks bad on slightly closer examination. Common problems with battery "breakthroughs" that justify quick rejection: dependence on rare elements (lithium is reasonably abundant; I mean things like tellurium, germanium, rhenium...), low cycle life, effects demonstrated only at interfaces or in nanostructures without any obvious path to bulk scaling. Among the remaining ~5% that looks interesting, assuming the publications aren't fraudulent, I have little idea which ones will end up industrially significant. Chemistry is a lot easier to model than market success. There are also partial substitutions for electricity storage that could displace and/or complement it: supergrids, demand response, thermal buffering...


It's true that the amount of sunlight varies greatly per region. A lot of people imagine a future where northern Europe would get its energy from solar plants in Spain, or even the Sahara. That would require high capacity long-distance power grids of course, and I'm sure that's not trivial either, but I'm sure it's a solvable problem.

But if the price of solar panels keep plummeting like this, it seems sensible to first cover all roofs with them and see how far we can get.


What I am trying to understand is how is underground compressed air storage not the solution to the energy storage problem. LightSail is doing this, I don't see why others aren't too.

The tech is simple. Dig a hole in your backyard, put a large steel tank in it with an air compressor and a small turbine generator.

Putting the tank underground vastly improves the safety of the system and hides it. You can also derive heat from this process.


Some groups like LightSail think that compressed air storage is going to have the lowest lifetime costs. Others think that flow batteries will win. Others think that thermal storage will win. Others think that big banks of lithium ion batteries will win.

I don't know who's going to win. All of the above approaches are technically viable. The winners and losers are going to be shaped by things other than simple technical viability: business plan execution, manufacturing scalability, path dependency... I say that storage is not "solved" because there's no default good-enough solution proven yet. We have to wait for some years after plans leave PowerPoint and inhabit the real world to see what works well in practice.


Right now Lightsail is attempting to cross the startup death valley by first selling its pressure vessel technology before tackling the more demanding energy market. They recently announced a tractor trailer sized compressed natural gas module. The idea is to get their costs down to where they can be competitive in energy storage, its an open question on whether that is possible.

Btw, their vessels are carbon fiber, not steel. And deriving heat is a problem not a benefit. Every bit of heat that leaves the system is lost efficiency.

http://www.marketwired.com/press-release/lightsail-energy-la...

http://www.wsj.com/articles/energy-storage-startup-lightsail...


> Every bit of heat that leaves the system is lost efficiency.

Storing air underground absorbs heat, or at least results in less heat loss than storing it above ground.


Electrical engineering is far more advanced technologically than compressed gas thermodynamics and the gap continues to widen.

You can make a very efficient turbine jet that runs at one pressure and one power output at very high expense and ongoing maintenance of moving parts. But it won't run or only run as dismal efficiency at half pressure or quarter pressure.

Meanwhile you can very efficiently move electrical watts around in various formats, cheaply, and scalably, and no moving parts.

As an example of what I'm talking about, liquid fuel has insane amounts of energy stored in it and only recently can we make turbines efficient enough to keep spinning while having fuel poured into them, only at certain constrained power outputs. Meanwhile its very easy with modern technology to run an electric motor from 0.1% to 100% speed using electronic speed control VFDs. You might have trouble cooling it but you won't have trouble making it spin.


Why air? If you are using solar to compress the air...why not take it a step further. Use the underground storage you propose to store hydrogen. Solar energy drives electrolysis, leaving you with hydrogen and oxygen, both of which can be safely stored and have vastly greater energy potential(when burned) than the stored energy of air.

I love your idea of using solar to build a store of energy, but you could refine the idea a bit and really do something fun. Having a large quantity of oxygen(liquify it!) could be a boon to the backyard rocket engine enthusiasts :)


Without knowing too much about LightSail, the answer is likely due to cost. It is probably much cheaper to buy a bunch of lead-acid or li-ion batteries and put those in your backyard. It is not trivial to put huge steel tanks in the ground and keep air compressors and generators running smoothly over many years. This can change with time though.


> But storage isn't a solved problem.

Is there sufficient market pressure to drive demand for grid-scale storage? Batteries have been mostly driven by weight constraints (mobile tech, cars) and not by the need for large-scale stationary deployments.

I think that when renewables reach higher levels of grid penetration they will increase the demand for storage with different tradeoffs.


I think this lack of demand for storage has prevented innovation. Why bother with grid storage, when day and night prices aren't much different? Well now there are times with negative prices, so there is going to be incentive to get paid to store electricity and sell it later. This incentive should grow as renewable penetration grows. If we have deep solar penetration, then there is the big problem that demand is very high in the early evening and the PV suddenly ramps down production as the sun sets. You can cycle your storage every buying dirt cheap solar and selling to the peak price a few hours later.


Yes, there is a market for stationary energy storage for electrical grids. It's small so far, and pretty fragmented, though growing quickly from a small base. It's anyone's guess whether the stationary storage market will sustain distinct storage chemistries that aren't suitable for mobile applications (various kinds of flow batteries, sodium ion batteries, sodium-sulfur, liquid metal...) or whether lithium ion will end up everywhere due to its early lead and continuing cost/technical improvements. Even lithium ion ends up everywhere, there could still be chemistry differences between cells built for stationary grid backup and cars or phones, but they would be more subtle.


A weird thing is that northern countries such as Sweden, at or near the polar circle, are often considered dark and unsuitable for solar. But the thing is, during summer the sun shines 24/7 ... so there would be a lot of power during mid summer and no (solar) power during mid winter.


For most of the time in the summer, that light is coming in at an angle over the horizon that greatly attenuates the energy per square meter. There are maps of yearly solar irradiance that very clearly show this http://sustainabletechnologyforum.com/wp-content/uploads/201...

And then in the winter, it's very cold, so the energy cost of heating is very high.


Thanks


In an attempt to clarify my previous point, everyone please feel free to examine Exxon's 2040 outlook, which puts Nuclear, solar, wind and other renewable energy sources at only 25% of all energy production by that time: http://corporate.exxonmobil.com/en/energy/energy-outlook/hig...


    By 2040 natural gas will meet 25 percent of energy demand.
    By 2040 nuclear and renewables will grow 50 percent 
    approaching 25 percent of energy demand.
    Oil will remain the world’s primary energy source,       
    fulfilling 1/3 of all demand.


Yeah, I'm sure Exxon's projections are unbiased and reliable.


Considering they have their fingers in more than just crude, it would behoove them to keep track of which sources of energy are in what amount of demand. Likewise, they have no reason to fudge the numbers on how much energy is being consumed year on year.

You should really step out of your "all corporations are inherently evil" box. It's juvenile.


Do any HN readers actually "invest" in oil? I think plenty of us trade oil, but who actually goes long in something that is so volatile in response to things you have no control over(war, accidents, the list goes on)?

Oil's greatest investment potential is how volatile it actually is. Look at the charts for brent crude day-to-day, or jump back a step and look at the crude ETFs(sco/uco/and-friends). There is a lot of money to be made with that much volatility.

Back to the original question, does anyone here actually invest(as in hold long positions) in oil OR solar? If so, I am curious why you chose those particular investment vehicles, since they are technically(as in looking at the company's technical breakdown) bad long investments.


You can go long and de-risk the volatility via derivatives.


Could you explain why you think solar is bad long investment?


> Could you explain why you think solar is bad long investment?

Other emerging energy sources all ding the price of solar stocks. Eg...if tomorrow a press release for "huge natural gas power plant opens in California!" breaks, you get a (sometimes large) dip in all your solar positions, despite no value being lost at all. I would sum it up as "solar equity prices are affected by too many things other than their performance".



Well, hydrogen comes to mind. And power-to-gas. And running hydropower and biomass plants only at high demand.


If you think hydrogen fuel cells are a good way to go then please bid up PLUG or FCEL, I'd love to see them higher so I can short one of them.

Power to gas is just more of the same "hydrogen" economy. correct?

I read a book about the hydrogen economy back in 2000. Thought it was a great idea.

Then lithium ion batteries kicked hydrogen's butt.


Nothing will force companies to use Solar than high ROI. Google and Apple now use Solar in a major way, with Tesla's cars and SolarCity's roofs, we are living in exciting times.

The drop in Oil demand would mean the end of the OPEC bloc.


end of the OPEC bloc

You might not have noticed, but OPEC is dead.

A combination of shale oil in the US, Saudi and US desire to the disrupt the Russian oil-economy and Iran/Saudi rivalries mean OPEC can't set prices anymore. The best they can do is try to restrict supply enough to stop them going bust[1].

Even that isn't a sure thing anymore - no one can be sure that even that small agreement will stick[2].

An Exxon/Russia agreement under the Trump presidency will bury OPEC. (Not sure Exxon/Russia will be better than OPEC, but OPEC won't be able to do anything about it.)

[1] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-01/opec-get-its-cartel-mo...

[2] http://oilprice.com/Energy/Oil-Prices/Goldman-Flip-Flops-Aga...


> You might not have noticed, but OPEC is dead.

Are you sure? OPEC's November 30th deal moved world oil prices drastically in every direction. For a dead entity, they sure seem to exert change upon the living.

PS: I'd love for OPEC to die also, but I think they are very much alive, albeit less relevant than 20 years ago.


They moved oil prices a few percent. If they managed to move it much more, the US and other non OPEC countries are going to increase production, because more resources become economical.

On top of that, we now have a wide range of viable plug-in cars. If oil were to get up to $100/barrel again, lots of people would switch to a car that can cover 90%+ of their driving on electricity. $4/gallon gas really hurt our SUV market, but now we can make it a 20 kWh hybrid and avoid the pain at the pump.


To add...look at yesterdays oil price movement within 10m of this article's release: http://www.valuewalk.com/2016/12/opec-oil-cuts-not-structura...

OPEC is still alive and well, and even speculating about their deal's success is pushing prices wildly.


That's exactly the same Goldman analysis I linked to. They revised prices by $2.

This is not the OPEC who could move prices by 50% or credibly threaten to cut off supply.


I didn't mean just the OPEC, I meant the oil economy itself. It is killing env + it has pushed a lot of money in the hands of people who sponsor terrorism.


Unfortunately we are likely to have some wars fought before the oil economy is gone. Plastics.


We're not going to have wars fought over plastics. What is going to start wars is the problem that several large middle eastern countries aren't water-sustainable nor food-sustainable without imports paid for by oil profits. This is part of why Yemen is at war. There's 24m people there of whom 14m are dependent on aid. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals...


EROEI is not everything. This is a major step forwards a sustainable energy mix, but the major shortcomings of solar and wind are still storage and location dependence.

What I am afraid is that the nuclear renaissance may be further delayed in the west, which is what we badly need now to reduce carbon footprints, provide stable energy production and to fill te gap until fusion gets there. (Which despite the recent great news is still 30 years far, as ever since the 1970s)

As a European as much as I hope that the OPEC shall fall, I am also afraid of the turmoil it may cause as its core states are rumored to be closely linked with the funding of terrorism in the middle east for their political purposes, which recently has reached Europe as well.


We would have needed nuclear yesterday. Right now renewables are the most promising path. New nuclear probably wouldn't make a dent until it's already too late.

Of course we need storage and backup generators for renewables. It will be mostly pumped water with gas and oil. Nuclear does not fit as a backup.

In the future, the pricing must include renewables PLUS their backup plan (e.g. a gas generator on standby) to achieve level pricing and availability.

Having a large grid and moving to more flexible consumers in order to distribute and smoothen out supply and demand will also be a huge factor.

In the end I'm positive that it can be done.


Just to point something out regarding nuclear. The announced cost overrun at Vogtle of 3 Billion USD, would pay for 7GwH of battery storage at tesla powerwall retail prices of 5500 USD per 14 KwH.

3 billion / 5500 = 545454 545454 * 14 KwH ~= 7.6 GwH.

try at google ((3 billion / 5500) * 14kwh) in Gwh

That is the current state of the Nuclear power construction world.

What sane investor is ever going to invest in power generation that is online 12 years after the decision to go?


In addition to cost overruns on new plants, estimates on the cost of decommissioning are balooning on the other end.

Sellafield: 2005 estimate: $59 billion. 2015 estimate: $155 billion.

German utilities set aside $45 billion but an additional $26 billion may be needed

The EU estimated recently that funds set aside to cover the cost of decommissioning 16 nuclear plants would fall short by $137 billion.

Source: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/soaring_cost_german_nuclear_shu...


The biggest problem nuclear culture has is the costs are very aerospace or military or healthcare or higher education like, in that they'll cost exactly how much money is available, not a penny more or a penny less.

How much should it cost in some abstract sense? How much should it cost to be safe? Who knows. But one thing is certain based on historical observation, it'll cost exactly and precisely every penny that is available, and not a penny more or less. There's a lot of profit to be made off spending each penny, and each penny will be spent.

That mindset doesn't mesh well in an industry that has competitors like coal plants or natgas peaking plants or solar plants. What does "spend every penny you can" mean at a coal plant? Or what does "a penny not spent is a penny lost" mean at a solar plant?

Meanwhile you're comparing a product that's been shipping for half a century, admittedly at various levels of technical and economic success, with vaporware under so far successful development. You can't compare the price of a commodity gallon of standard cow milk in 2016 to the price of a shipping in 2028 Intel CPU in a useful way.


Yes. And for renewables with battery backup would require 375 GwH of storage to get a reasonable two week minimum to be considered reliable backup for a equal electicity producion. You can calculate easily 24 * 14 * 1.117 Its not about just how much long sun is up, its about snowstorms and ice.


That is an unreasonable backup requirement. It is not a backup requirement for any single nuclear power plant either. Those can be taken out by snow storms too (single pylon failure on a line). Or just a refueling stop, which are quite common for nuclear power. One assumes grid resiliency through Geo-distribution and recovery. Any snow-storm taking all solar down for two whole weeks would take down any other power source as that assumes frozen rain followed by massive snow over a huge area. Such a snow storm would kill anything generating power as well as taking down massive parts of the grid. i.e. not any snow storm seen in the last 100 years would be sufficient for this.

In the end cleaning snow, while a pain in the ass, is not a real challenge. Much like desert sand cleaning, this is automatable (and small snow removing robots exist already) and would be worth the investment in northern (or extreme) southern climates.

We are basically talking about plant equivalence. You need 3x nameplate capacity and about 12 hours of battery storage for equivalency between a solar and a nuclear solution. Assuming night load is equal to day load. That assumption does not hold for a grid, night load is normally half the day load. So a system must only survive the evening peak plus the normal night load.

The quip about battery storage price basically showed that if you throw as much money at it as a single nuclear power plant then yes it is a solved problem today.


I think that it still does have a solid viable place.

It makes the most sense for base load, as well as night time load (which is mostly the same as base load).


While I agree with you for the technical merits of nuclear, I think nuclear has lost for several reasons. One of them, a cultural shift towards decentralization. It is possible now, to build decentralized power grids with lots of local storage and real-time tariff changes on a micro level. This was not just possible before.


10MW passively fail-safe nuclear power plants are feasible and have been designed, so in countries where nuclear regulation is less-than-paranoid they might be an option in a decentralized grid.


I am not a fan of Wind energy because of location and the fact that windmills have reportedly killed a lot of birds, sames goes for the underwater windmills.

I love solar though, and yes, storage dependency is there, but then, we have done no research on it. the main problem is the will to do research.

I'll give you an analogy, for pumping water to x height, we use an electric water pump. As you might be aware trees are the best water pumps available, with 0 noise they pump water all the way upto their top, some trees are just crazily huge, so if we are to harness the tech in trees to figure out how the heck are they able to move water from roots to the top, we'll have a revolution on our hands, but in the words of Henry Ford, "If I asked what people wanted they'd have said faster horses" :-)

I want to see the entire world powered by solar with microscopic solar panels which are stuck to things like walls and stuff sending electricity wirelessly (invented by Tesla) to the home/office/car etc


> [turbines] have reportedly killed a lot of birds, sames goes for the underwater [turbines]

I hear this argument a lot, but it's not usually connected with concern for birds in any other context. No concern for habitat depletion from oil sands extraction, nor from acid rain, nor domestic cats, nor windows (which kill a much larger number of birds), nor global warming itself.

The effect of tidal turbines on marine life seems to be basically .. unknown. Probably dwarfed by the known impacts from fisheries and pollution. The continued existence of fish depends on putting fishermen out of business, which is politically fraught.

> harness the tech in trees to figure out how the heck are they able to move water from roots to the top

Evaporation. You can demo this on your desk with a piece of rolled up paper in a glass of water. It takes energy from the sun and air and you can't use it to pump water into a reservoir.

> microscopic solar panels

.. produce microscopic amounts of energy, although you can run a calculator or watch from that.


> windmills have reportedly killed a lot of birds

From what I understand, far less birds are killed by windmills than by flying into windows and power lines, yet nobody is arguing to ban those.

According to [0], windows are even worse than cats.

(I still prefer solar, though. It just feels like free energy that we're wasting by not making use of it.)

[0] http://www.sibleyguides.com/conservation/causes-of-bird-mort...


Actually, this pumping water idea is considered in solar.

During the day, energy is used also to pump water behind a dam. At night, when the solar output is null, the water is released and produces power via normal hydro turbines.

For example in Romania, which produces exces power [1] almost all the time, there is a plan to build a huge reservoir in mountains to use this power to pump water from the major rivers into it, thus building a reserve energy store.[2]

[1] http://www.transelectrica.ro/widget/web/tel/sen-harta/-/hart...

[2] http://www.hidrotarnita.ro/en/despre-proiect/


This is why a majority of power production in the U.K. is in and around north Wales - excess power is used for pumped hydro storage - mountains and deep lakes.


Hi, just fyi, the Royal Society's position on wind farms are positive.

https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/our-positions-and-campaigns...


>"so if we are to harness the tech in trees to figure out how the heck are they able to move water from roots to the top, we'll have a revolution on our hands"

I guess the problem is not one of replication (see [1]) but of throughput. A pump that replicates the tree transpiration process would be too slow for any real energy application.

[1] https://www.technologyreview.com/s/410833/synthetic-tree-hau...


The water pumps in trees are solar-powered, and not efficient ones at that.


Not one mention of petrochemicals in this thread.

The main thing environmentalists (among others) seem to forget is that you can't make plastic out of sunlight. Or air. Or by pedaling a bicycle.

Oil (and natural gas, especially in the US where petrochemical refineries use it for ethane) will continue to be in demand if for no other reason than to be used as a feedstock for plastics and a litany of other chems that make modern life possible.


Petrochemicals are only 4% of the oil market: http://www.bpf.co.uk/Press/Oil_Consumption.aspx

If switching to solar from oil would eliminate 96% of our use of fossil fuels, I'm pretty sure those "environmentalists" you refer to would still be happy.

But honestly whenever somebody brings up plastics in a discussion about sustainable energy or climate change I always assume they just like being contrarian.


I'm not doing it to be contrarian, apologies for the tone. I'm just trying to point out that people tend to see political cartoons like the following: https://postimg.org/image/5zi56imjd/ As gospel. Without considering the fact that pipelines are both statistically safer than road or rail transport. AND without considering that the oil and gas is going to be used for more than just gasoline.


You seem to be preemptively trying to head off an attitude that has not yet been shown in this thread.

Petrochemicals that are not burned are not contributing to co2 emissions. Also, there are other sources of those long carbon chains besides pumping them out of the ground. And at such a tiny percentage of oil use, they are not a big concern.


Sure, but the amount of oil needed for that is completely dwarfed by other uses of oil. See e.g. http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=oil_use


You can make pretty much any hydrocarbon, including those used to make plastics, starting from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. You can get carbon dioxide out of seawater via electrochemical pH shift and hydrogen via electrolysis. Or, probably better due to starting with more concentrated feedstocks, you can get synthesis gas from high temperature gasification of biomass and top up any hydrogen deficits with electrolytic hydrogen. It's less selective, also less finicky, than low temperature enzymatic/fermentation processes.

Alkanes, aromatics, alkenes... it's all accessible starting from methanol. China's already making plastic feedstocks from methanol on an industrial scale though the methanol comes from coal rather than CO2 and clean electricity.


You wouldn't have the sheer number of wells operating is all that would occur with the majority of power being generated from non-petrol sources. If anything, this would extend the lifetime of such fields beyond mere decades which is a good thing IMO. Plus, aircraft will still use some kind of petrol fuel since electric "turbofans" are just garbage right now and probably for the foreseeable future.


You know... the Fossil-Fuels-Fairy is not going to put another million dinosaurs in the oven just because you happen to throw a tantrum over non-renewable resource depletion.

Having established this fact, the importante of solar, - and all other renewable energy sources as well, - grows even more instead of diminishing. We need to start using solar et all right away, not until after fosil fuels have gotten depleted; so that we can treat oil as an strategic reserve that is used for those applications that do not have any other alternative. Petrochemicals, - at least some of them, - being one example.


But you can make plastics from plants.


Not sustainable or cost-effectively. Not yet anyway. Look at most of the bio-converters in the US. They're expensive, usually down for one reason or another, and half the time they end up killing their microorganisms via failing to filter out byproduct like cyanide gas: http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2014/09/05/on-the-mend...


That's an odd view of Sustainable with Oil being a finite supply. Further, cost-effective assumes cheap oil with massive economies of scale and 10's of billions in R&D vs small scale trials of new tech.


What I would like to see is the comparison pre-subsidies for the RoI. I am not convinced the author of the article reversed those.


Except at night..


Hahahaha, oh Kenaka. GET WITH THE TIMES, Kaneka!

Oh, I'd almost forgotten about that. Thanks for the laugh!

(Honestly, I have no idea what I'm talking about, I just thought it was funny the one green diamond was lower than the other thingies.)


Guys. It's embarrassing that this is a top article on Hacker News.

There is really no association between the price of oil & the price of solar.

Oil is an expensive form of energy because it is portable & used for transportation. It competes with the price of lithium ion batteries.

Solar is for generating electricity. It competes with coal, gas, geo, hydro, wind.

And don't come back at this with some pathetic reasoning that on some islands or remote places idiots use generators. I say idiots because generators are loud, smell, need maintenance and these days are probably quite a bit more expensive than a solar + battery system.


This is about EROEI, not $


that's all great & fine, but think of it like this:

Where is oil used? Cars. Trucks. Planes.

Will a solar panel on the top of a car ever power a car? No. You need batteries.

It's the price of batteries vs. price of oil that we should be discussing.


The EROI for moving a car via PV solar is greater than moving a car via oil. Oil loses that comparison even worse, since 80%+ of the energy is thrown away as waste heat.


Yes, the totally awesome end game is to have solar panels that charge your car. But it isn't the price of solar that is standing in the way of electric cars everywhere... it's the price of batteries.

I hear this thing about return of energy, etc. But this is nothing new, right? Check out the oil sands project in Canada. Do you think the market cares about how much energy is used to create something? No.. just the $.

In any case solar & oil are not related.


> I hear this thing about return of energy, etc. But this is nothing new, right? Check out the oil sands project in Canada. Do you think the market cares about how much energy is used to create something? No.. just the $.

Ok, please stop and listen.

Economics, Government, the Public... they are all wrong. They got used to not care about EROEI because at the begining of the Industrial Revolution it literally didn't matter. I don't know the numbers for coal, but back when the first oil wells were being digged, the EROEI of oil was ~100:1. It did not matter how much it did cost to extract the stuff, just that you had access to it and how fast you could come up with ways to turn that energy surplus into value added (ergo, $$$).

Now, according to the article we are approaching the 10:1 barrier. That's still pretty good, and you can still run an industrial civilization on top of it, but it has become far from irrelevant. The problem is that all the economic models in use today got created back when the stuff as much more abundant and easier to produce.

If is as if there was a perverse Law of Moore that would cut transistor density in half every 18 months. Everybody started with virtualization and scripting languages and garbage collection, then C and C++ just sneaked under everybody's radar. And now, you are here, bashing assembly hackers because everybody knows that what's more important is programmer's time, not code efficiency.


This is an article about EROI. Personally, I think that's mostly a pointless bit of numerology that's become popular with anti-renewable groups as it's easy to fake, and complicated enough that casual observers can't tell you've faked it. But, if that's what we're talking about, then renewable powered EVs are better than traditional ICE cars when you run the numbers.

On the money side of things, EVs are more expensive than ICE cars because of market externalities due to various kinds of pollution. They're on a rapid price decline due to some government action around the world helping to kick start production, but a carbon tax and a pollution tax based on health impact of particulates would probably reveal them to be a better investment even today.




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