Friday, June 30, 2017

Renewable Energy Still a Distant Hope

It's been a tough year for green energy.

Even with declining oil and natural gas prices, fracking hasn't slowed down. Costs have been dramatically reduced so that even at $50 a barrel petroleum can be profitably produced in many fields. Horizontal drilling, often miles into a formation, combined with vastly improved computer analysis, means more oil or gas can be recovered from a single platform.

So, to the anguish of greenies, fossil fuels continue to grow. The U.S. is now energy independent and actually exporting natural gas. And that will not change any time soon. Even if the Paris climate accords are implemented (I give that one chance in a hundred of happening), solar and wind would contribute less than 3% of world energy by 2040.

Climate scientist James Hansen was quoted as saying, "Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the U.S., China, India or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy."

And the world shrugs. A recent U.N. poll found that climate change is a low-priority issue for most people -- well behind health, education, food, jobs and other essentials. And, of course, President Trump has struck down a number of Obama decrees that propped up green energy. A bad year, indeed.

But environmentalists shouldn't be too glum. There's good news as well, and some of it in Florida.

The recent legislature passed and Governor Scott signed a bill implementing Constitutional Amendment 4 approved last year by Florida voters. The amendment exempts from taxes the assessed value of solar energy devices, including batteries. Businesses installing solar get the exemption as well. Not a big deal, but another incentive for green energy.

Perhaps more important, state utilities are abandoning coal and turning to natural gas and renewables. Florida Light & Power recently announced plans to add nearly 300 megawatts of solar a year through 2023. Combined with 2,100 megawatts already in production, that will be enough to power 420,000 homes.

That's encouraging. But for renewables to make real inroads, technical improvements are needed --  big advances that will allow green energy to compete without subsidies.

And it's happening, albeit slowly. Here are some examples.

- Perovskites are continuing to improve. This family of inexpensive minerals has achieved a light-to-electricity conversion of 24% in the laboratory, with a huge upside. This compares to 17% for commercial silicon-based solar cells, which have an upper limit of 25%. Advances have solved some of perovskites' stability problems, and pilot production of cells is expected to begin in 2020.

- Big advances are also being made in batteries: Spongelike anodes to increase lifetime, zinc-air cathodes to improve recharging, nanoparticulate phosphorus to boost capacity, iron-based cathodes to cut cost.

- Caverns, like abandoned coal mines, are being tested as receptacles for water from above-ground reservoirs, essentially creating miniature hydroelectric plants. The idea is to use solar or wind to pump the water up to the reservoir and, when energy isn't being generated, to allow the water to run back down to the cavern by way of the pump, which acts in reverse as a power-generating turbine. Still in its infancy, this outside-the-box technology is being evaluated in the U.S. and Germany.

 - Since a sizable portion of petroleum is used to make chemicals, replacement by regenerable feedstocks would reduce the need for hydrocarbons. And that's starting to happen. For example, a group in Germany has discovered a fermentation route to aniline, a chemical widely used to make plastics, dyes, pigments and synthetic rubber. The process, which uses sugar and ammonia as feedstocks, is targeted for scale-up in 2020.

This is real progress, and it shouldn't be minimized. But there's a great deal more to be done. These and other technologies will have to be developed, commercialized and proven in the marketplace. That won't come easily, and it won't be fast. What can be done to speed it up? A boost in government funding would help.

Climate scientist Bjorn Lomborg writes, "True progress in reducing carbon emissions will require far-reaching advances in green energy, and that will mean massive investment in research and development." I agree. That's a far better use of taxpayer money than squandering it on subsidies that simply mask the inability of renewables to compete in the free market.

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