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.
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 The authors do not cite any figures or published research.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.