The two scientists responsible for Google’s failed attempt to launch a renewable energy revolution have written an article explaining what, according to them, went wrong with their project. They have come to the conclusion that fighting climate change with today’s renewable energy technologies won’t work – but they present no evidence for it, writes Energy Post editor Karel Beckman.
Critics of renewable energy are having a field day in the blogosphere. It has now been proven beyond doubt, they cry, that “renewables simply won’t work”. Why not? Well, because Google says so.
Some years ago, in 2007, to be exact, Google embarked on an ambitious project to develop reneweable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power. Google’s hope was that in this way the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere could be halted and reversed. However, in 2011, after four years of trying, the company gave up the project, known as RE<C.
The two engineers who were responsbile for Google’s venture into renewables, Ross Koningstein and David Fork, have now written an article in which they try to explain what went wrong – and what lessons can be drawn from it.
Looking back on their experience, they conclude that “even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work”, they write. “We need a fundamentally different approach.”
In other words, they argue that renewables “won’t work” to effectively tackle climate change. They don’t say renewables won’t work, period. But even this first claim appears doubtful on the basis of the evidence offered in the article.
Koningstein and Fork write that they investigated “a wide range of innovative technologies, such as self-assembling wind turbine towers, drilling systems for geothermal energy and solar thermal power systems.” However, by 2011, they note, “it was clear that RE<C would not be able to deliver a technology that could compete economically with coal.”
Unfortunately, the reader has to take this assertion at face value. The authors do not cite any figures or published research. Nor do they make it clear whether these were all the “innovative technologies” they investigated or what they mean in the first place by “investigated”.
“Let’s face it, businesses won’t make sacrifices and pay more for clean energy based on altruism alone”
Instead, they then change their tack and switch to an entirely different argument as to why their search for a renewables-based solution did not succeed. They note that even in a best-case scenario, in which the growth of clean energy would reduce CO2 emissions by 55% in 2050 (in the United States), CO2-concentration would still not be lowered to the extent needed. Literally they write: “Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2-levels … would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use”.
This may be true – although the authors again do not provide any figures to back up this claim or even explain properly how they came to this conclusion – but it’s quite a different issue of course. It does not show that there are no clean energy technologies that can compete with coal.
Having reflected on the matter (for three years, no less), they have now come to the conclusion that “what’s needed … are reliable zero-carbon energy sources so cheap that the operators of power plants and industrial facilities alike have an economic rationale for switching over soon – say, within the next 40 years.”
What they mean by this, as far as I can make out, is that it won’t suffice if renewable energy sources are merely competitive with established sources. They have to be a lot cheaper to prompt energy producers to switch over. The reason for this, apparently (again, they don’t explain very clearly), is the sunk costs represented in existing power plants. Sunk costs are a relevant factor of course in the short to medium term – but over a period of 40 years?
They add this notable remark: “Let’s face it, businesses won’t make sacrifices and pay more for clean energy based on altruism alone. Instead, we need solutions that appeal to their profit motives.” Well, yes – unless of course we introduce regulations or put a price on carbon, for example, but such possibilities appear to lie outside the authors’ frame of reference.
The two Google-men have also come to the surprising – to them – discovery that in the electricity market “the value of generated electricity varies … depending on how easily it can be supplied to reliably meet local demand.” Thus, they write, dispatchable power can have added value to cover peak demand. Indeed. Distributed power, on the other hand, “can also be worth more as it avoids the costs and losses associated with transmission and distribution”.
These amazing insights into the nature of the electricity market have led them to a positive conclusion. Here, they write, “we see an apportunity for change. A distributed, dispatchable power source could prompt a switchover if it could undercut …end-user prices.” But, they add, “unfortunately, most of today’s clean generation sources can’t provide power that is both distributed and dispatchable. Solar panels, for example, can be put on every rooftop but can’t provide power if the sun isn’t shining.”
The technologies required to reverse climate change “haven’t been invented yet”
So what about solar PV-with-storage? Koningstein and Fork appear not to be aware that such a solution may be possible. Nor do they seem to have heard of microgrids or to have thought of a combination of solar and electric cars. They merely sigh that “if we invented a distributed, dispatchable power technology, it coud transform the energy marketplace and the roles by utilities and their customers”. They can’t think of any possible solution, though: we “don’t have the answers”. The technologies required to reverse climate change “haven’t been invented yet”, they write.
However, they do have a suggestion to make. They recommend that government and energy companies adopt the “Google approach” to innovation, summed up in the company’s “70-20-10” rule, which means that 70% of employee time be spent working on core busines tasks, 20% on side projects related to core business and “the final 10% on strange new ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive”. If we do this, the two Google engineers are hopeful that some “truly disruptive technologies” will be invented. They call upon “society” to “fund scientists and engineers to propose and test new ideas … Today the energy innovation cycle is measured in decades, in large part because so little money is spent on critical types of R&D”.
So what do Koningstein and Fork think that researchers in the energy sector are doing right now? Did they try to find out how much is being spent on cleantech research worldwide? Or what technologies are actually being developed? If so, they show no signs of it. Indeed, they seem to know very little about what’s going on in the energy sector. Perhaps it is too much expect Google to solve the world’s energy problems – they could search the internet a bit better.
Jason Deign says
Great article, Karel.
Pure nonsense. nuclear has fuel for only 3 years of the world’s energy demand. Nuclear doesn’t work. nuclear has a 11-14 year energy payback, solar is about 3 years.
James Tyrer says
Brian, where did you read that nonsense. All of it, including the payback time for solar PV, is WRONG. We have enough nuclear fuel for at least 10,000 years for all of the world’s energy needs, not just electric power. Solar and nuclear both have an energy payback of less than a year.
The IAEA says that we will have uranium shortages starting in 2025, then getting worse fast.
“As we look to the future, presently known resources
fall short of demand.”
Fig 16 show the shortfall in 2025 and it going 1/4 of that 2050
fig 20 also show shortfall.
That’s for 2% of the world’s energy demand. Nuclear is a dead end.
1.5 to 3 years for AZ versus Alaska.
Low grade uranium ore, which is mostly what is left now, .2% of less. leads to an energy payback time of 14 years.
Now watch as all the science fiction reactors, and processes for getting more fuel are trotted out. Seawater extraction that requires a Rhine river flow of seawater for each reactor. Super expensive breeder reactors of which only one is operating and it has caught fire 14 times, that liquid sodium is a killer.
The fact is nuclear power will be short of uranium fuel for the existing reactors, including the state of the art ap1000, in just 10 years according to the IAEA. The IAEA is the world’s promoter of nuclear energy.
He is talking about thorium. It’s a much safer source and it produce thousands times less nuclear waste. Some also consume the existing nuclear waste. It’s really a win win situation and the best way to solve global warming.
1 tone thorium = 200 tones uranium = 3500000 tones of coals
Right now people immediately say no when they hear “nuclear” without any research.
There are no thorium reactors. They would still need uranium. The only prototype MSR nearly exploded when it was being decommissioned. Ask yourselves why the supposedly fail safe molten core reactors need and emergency drain plug.
The same reason the prototype MSR only blew up: molten fuels can concentrate and have criticality “events”: huge burst of radiation and heat that can explode.
“The more studies we did, the more they showed that it could happen. There was a significant potential for disaster.”
“If we had just plunged in, we could have had an explosion.
The reprocessing systems was never built or tested, and would be a huge proliferation risk.
The RAR, Reasonably Assured Resources of thorium are half those of uranium.
Slar and wind are already available 4 times cheaper than nuclear, and in the 12 years it takes to finish a existing design reactors, solar and wind are projected to available 16 times cheaper.
MSR LFTR, thorium reactors still create million year wastes which are actually more radioactive for the first 900 years. Reprocessing multiplies the mass of wastes to be stored by tens times or more and includes more liquids that are much harder to store.
dave pearson says
The fundamental problem here is the definition of energy and the limited vision and insight that is inevitable if the original premise is overly constrained.
The were assuming that as large users of electricity, and electricity production being a large consumer of fossil fuel and therefore contributor to CO2 emissions that by producing the electricity cleaner they would have the best route to reduced CO2 emission.
At best they maybe also assumed that by reducing the parasitic electrical load for cooling services by moving closer to the North Pole that this would help.
Sure, better dissipation of the heat from a server farm is a good idea; we’ve been doing free cooling in the UK with cooling plant COPs over 15 (15 units of cooling per unit of electricity) for 30 years……………..but
Maybe the smartest thing to do (assuming zero power consumption microprocessors are a long way off) is to harness the waste heat.
well either by configuring the waste heat to be delivered at a usable temperature, say 70C or by harnessing the heat at say 20C and boosting with heatpumps to 70C for district heating (even 90C is feasible these days http://www.neatpumps.com/futureofheating )
Then the rationale would be to locate datacentres (server farms) as close to areas of heat demand……………not towards the North Pole.
Then significant gas conbustion (or better still oil combustion in rural communities) could be avoided by delivering the heat.
The only thing stopping this happening is the lack of vision. If you watched the link above you would see it isn’t the technology. We harvest heat from a freakin fjord for goodness sake!
Rob Ferber says
Their failure speaks more to them then the sector. This isn’t an engineering problem or a technology problem, not anymore. Rolling out renewables is about bankability, system ramp rate controls, and the business requirements of utility companies.
When we founded Tesla Motors, the biggest problem was not technology – much of that was all ready around. It was branding and image management. Understand the customer. It sounds like they have gotten part of the message – but a selective part.
Robert Callaghan says
revised version, please delete previous comment.
think in terms of mass of metals, minerals and elements, energy demand doubles by 2060, emissions need to drop 80% by 2030 peak minerals and energy hits at the same time we want to produce billions of tons or toxic lead, liquid metal or molten salt batteries. we can’t have hi-tech green enery without heavy rare earth elements and since we can’t have heavy rare earth elements without digging up thorium as a radioactive waste, the only logical solution is get emissions free power from plentiful thorium so we can create a hi-tech green energy world. this is important because we are approaching peak minerals where we would be unable to afford large enough scales in mining. this dictates civil collapse alone
► Humans and livestock were 0.01% of land vertebrate biomass 10,000 yrs. ago.
► Humans and our livestock are now 97% of land vertebrate biomass.
► Humans and our livestock eat over 40% of land chlorophyll biomass.
► 50% of vertebrate species died off in the last 50 years.
► 50% of remaining vertebrate species will die off in the next 40 years.
► +50% = Unstoppable Irreversible Catastrophic Cascading Extinctions Collapse.
► 75% Species Loss = Mass Extinction.
► Ocean acidification doubles by 2050, triples by 2100.
► World Bank says we have 5-10 years before we all fight for food and water.
► 90% of Big Ocean Fish gone since 1950.
► 90% of Lions gone since 1993.
► 90% of Monarch Butterflies gone since 1995.
► 75% of Freshwater & Riverbank Species gone since 1970. **
► 50% of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985.
► 50% of Human Sperm Counts gone since 1950.
► 50% of Fresh Water Fish gone since 1987.
► 30% of Marine Birds gone since 1995.
► 28% of Land Animals gone since 1970.
► 28% of All Marine Animals gone since 1970.
► 93 Elephants killed every single day.
► 2-3 Rhinos killed every single day.
► Bees die from malnutrition lacking bio-diverse pollen sources.
** ► 75,000 dams block U.S. rivers.
► In just 13 years, we will “lock in” an inevitable near term 6°C earth temp rise because we continually exceed the worse-case emissions scenario set out back in 2007 says climate scientist, Dr. Michael Jennings.
► Energy demands to increase 100% by 2060 says the IEA.
► Emissions have to decrease 80% by 2030 says climate scientist, Kevin Anderson.
► To power England with 100% solar & wind, requires 25% of its land says physicist, David MacKay.
► 40% Green Energy requires 200% more copper says John Timmer of Ars Technica.
► Peak copper hits 2030 – 2040 says Ugo Bardi.
► Post peak copper production cannot accelerate at any price says Dave Lowell.
► This is true of any post peak mineral production.
► There is no real substitute for copper says Mat McDermott of Motherboard.
► We mined 50% of all the copper in human history in just the last 30 years.
► 100% green energy requires 500% more copper.
► Peak minerals includes more than just copper.
► By 2050, expect to be past peaks for tin, silver, cadmium and more.
► We now move 3 billion tons of earth per year to get 15 millions tons of copper.
► We can’t afford to mine 500% more copper at ever lower concentrations.
► We cannot recycle it into existence.
► We cannot conserve it into existence.
► Substituting aluminum for copper takes 5X the energy and is less safe.
► Google’s own Stanford Phd, green energy experts, Ross Koningstein and David Fork, tell IEEE Spectrum why green energy simply won’t work and is a false dream.
► Ozzie Zehner explains his book, Green Illusions, at Google Talks.
► Green Energy is our solution to Climate Change.
► But, Climate Change is only 1 of 6 Direct Drivers for Mass Extinction.
► The 6 Direct Drivers of Mass Extinction are:
… 1) Invasive Species
… 2) Over-Population
… 3) Over-Exploitation
… 4) Habitat Loss
….5) Climate Change
► Therefore,… GREEN ENERGY WILL NOT STOP MASS EXTINCTION
James Tyrer says
Your article is nonsense. You make random criticisms of the IEEE spectrum article. However, you fail to disprove the Google engineer’s basic points that current renewables (wind and solar) will not work to solve the Climate Change problem. Yes, you are correct that they may contribute to the solution but that doesn’t mean that they can solve it. And, they are correct that what the world needs is “Energy Cheaper Than Coal”. You are wrong that Carbon taxes can solve that issue because said taxes will mean nothing in 3rd world and developing countries. They will use the cheapest means of generation of electric power and that is currently coal.