The scoop: Below-freezing temperatures blasted the southern US this week, prompting rolling blackouts over the past few days.
- Texas was not prepared to deal with the energy demand spikes.
- Natural gas & coal were not sufficient, renewables failed in freezing temperatures.
- America still needs a cocktail of energy supply to meet increasing consumer demand.
Zoom out: The Texas energy security issue is something every American should pay attention to. How can we carefully adopt a renewable-first economy without compromising reliability?
Dig deeper → 3 min
The International Energy Agency (IEA) rolled out its annual World Energy Outlook report with a bombshell. Solar power is expected to replace coal as the #1 source of energy production by 2025.
The backstory: In the last few years, governments and corporations flooded billions of dollars into the renewable energy space. Wind & solar energy have become cheaper than gas & oil as a result. It is now easier to manufacture and install solar panels than ever before.
By the numbers:
- The IEA thinks 80% of new power generation will come from renewables.
- We need to boost up investment in the energy grid by at least $460 billion in 2030 to hit our goals.
- The global economy will return to pre-covid levels in 2021, but 7% smaller over long term compared to 2019 projections.
Between the lines: China alone will account for 40% of global growth for electricity demand over the next ten years. Southeast Asia and Africa will see major demand increases for energy over the next few decades.
Meanwhile, IEA's report found that global CO2 emissions will not return to 2019 levels until 2027, due to energy mix with renewables and coal's big drop in 2020.
Zoom out: We need a structural transformation of the global energy sector to hit on sdg's (those UN-sanctioned green goals we keep talking about), and that requires a lot of clean capital stock.
The report makes it clear that low growth of emissions ≠ a climate change solution. It's a means to an end.
Bottom line: Solar will replace coal as king sometime this decade.
Dig deeper → <2 min
10 reasons why seaweed farms are both sustainable and practical:
- Seaweed farms require no land.
- Seaweed farms are quite efficient, and can be harvested for commercial use within 90 days.
- Seaweed farms by-pass negative side-effects like deforestation or pesticide-use.
- Seaweed farms work in harmony with surrounding wildlife.
- Seaweed farms don't interfere with boats or ships, and create economic opportunities where none exist.
- Harvesting seaweed requires very little biofuel; it is a scalable process.
- Seaweed has multiple uses: it can produce both food and fuel.
- Seaweed is biodegradable, unlike solar panels and wind turbines that require heavy metals and create waste.
- Seaweed yields 30x more energy per acre than biofuel land crops like soy or corn.
- Only 2% of the fertile ocean is covered by kelp forests, so there is much more room to grow.
Dig deeper → 2 min
Big picture Solar PV and onshore wind (for new-build generation) is now cheaper for 2/3 of the global population, including the US and China.
Downsides of solar-wind Critics of widespread wind & solar point to its over-hyped environmental prowess and inefficiency.
- Capacity factors and values: The sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow.
- The capacity factor of renewables are lower than that of coal, gas and nuclear, who have a capacity factor of 85-90 percent. Onshore wind units place 40 percent capacity, whereas solar facilities use 30 percent or less.
- Capacity values are “the ability to reliably meet demand.” Using capacity values as a metric, the price of wind & solar spikes due to the unreliability during peak demand and necessary back-ups on stand-by to ensure contingent power. As reliability and capacity values go ↑, the price of renewables will go ↓
- If widely adopted, renewables would cost higher on average. Less efficient geographic regions need to build solar and wind infrastructure, reducing economies of scale.
- The Institute for Energy Research estimates that wind power is about twice as expensive as conventional gas-fired power, and that solar power is almost three times as expensive (relative to its capacity value).
- Capacity factors/values summarized: wind & solar is cheaper in 2/3 of the world, but when you factor in reliability and contingency, it is still more costly.
- Environmental cost: It's better than oil, it's serious. Let's talk about it.
- Heavy land use: The Green New Deal would require over 100 million acres to power America at the same capacity as oil & gas. That’s larger than the state of California. With all that space needed, it would inevitably spill into ecologically sensitive areas.
- Production and disposal: We would probably import metals for the wind turbines and solar panels from China. Even with tariffs, it makes more economic sense. As much as 78 million metric tons worldwide by 2050 will come from solar panel waste.
- Impact on wildlife: hundreds of thousands of birds die every year at the hands of wind turbines.
- Weak regulation: Wind energy development, for example, has voluntary, non-mandatory federal guidelines (even during the Obama years). Assuming that wind energy companies would behave better than their fossil fuel predecessors and willingly regulate themselves is a mistake.
- Reliability: Frequent backups still use fossil fuels.
- When wind and solar can't produce enough electricity, fossil fuels are used as backups.
- The problem? Based on today's reliability of renewables, the climate impact of a GND-sized solar-wind market would be near net-zero.
Bottom line We can now say wind & solar are cheaper (at face value) than oil & gas (in most of the world). But that's just the first step. If we want to continue the shift away from fossil fuels, we still need better solutions.
The Sahara Desert can transform Africa into a solar energy superpower. Concentrated solar power (CSP) and photovoltaic power (PV) hold the answers to the energy revolution in the region.
- If all sunlight received by Northern Africa converted into solar energy, it could power all of Europe more than 1000 times over.
- Concentrated solar power (CSP) technology can use lenses and mirrors to store large amounts of solar heat.
- Tunisian transcontinental transmission of photovoltaic power (PV) and CSP prove this concept.
- PV is more reliable for decentralized plants to power rural regions in Africa.
Between the lines
- To better understand how a CSP plant works, check out the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert.
- Desert solar panels can improve climate conditions in the region.
- Compared to sand, panels reflect lower amounts of heat to space.
- The result: surface heating in the desert and cloud formation.
- Changing the desert’s heat budget may increase precipitation levels.
Questions to consider
- What companies would fund the project?
- Who would benefit from affordable solar electricity?
- How can you export energy to nations inside and outside of Africa?
Why it matters
- CSP can release energy overnight, creating a 24-hour source of energy.
- CSP has a high initial set-up cost but has long-term advantages over traditional forms of energy generation such as hydroelectricity.
Bottom line The developing world has a unique opportunity to learn harsh lessons from 20th century economic development principles. Using natural phenomena like the Sahara Desert or the Congo River, Africa can become the solar energy superpower of the future.
How it works
- When microorganisms (e.g.bacteria) break down organic matter like manure and food waste anaerobically (without oxygen), biogas is released. Bio gas consists primarily of carbon dioxide and methane - one of the primary components of natural gas.
- Farmers place animal manure, food waste and agricultural waste in an anaerobic digester with a pipe to extract the gas.
- The solid byproduct is used as livestock bedding, soil amendments or in biodegradable planting pots, and the liquid byproduct is a nutrient-rich fertilizer.
Benefits of Biogas-based Energy
- Reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Biodigesters divert carbon dioxide and methane that would normally be released into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas emissions from a dairy farm can be reduced by 35% when biogas-based electricity replaces grid-based electricity.
- Cost savings. On-site biodigesters help farmers save on electricity bills and fertilizer. A farmer told The Washington Post that he saved anywhere from $75,000 to $100,000 a year on electricity, heating, fertilizer, and animal bedding with a biodigester.
- Renewable. Biogas is generally considered renewable as it is produced by animal and plant waste and the source is not limited in quantity like coal or natural gas.
- Biogas generation is becoming increasingly popular. From 2000 to 2020, the number of operational anaerobic digesters in the United States has grown from 24 to 255.
- Biogas is a popular mode of energy production in India and China, which have 4.54 million and 27 million biogas plants respectively.
- As the world divests from fossil fuels, new and varied energy sources will be necessary to satisfy the energy needs of the world and biogas can help. Biogas just goes to show you that not all waste is useless. One cow’s waste is another man’s treasure.
Dig deeper → 4 min
The scoop The price of crude oil plummeted following the outbreak of the novel COVID-19. As 2020 began, Brent crude oil - the global oil benchmark - cost $64/barrel. By April 21st, 2020, the price had dropped to $17/barrel. What happened?
Future of Oil
- The volatility and steep decline in oil prices may lead some producers to shut down operations. Shale oil extraction pioneer Chesapeake Energy recently declared bankruptcy. Many oil giants are delaying expansion projects.
- Investors are now less inclined to invest in oil & gas -- lower prices = greater risk, less profit. Energy was the worst performing sector in the S&P 500 index for four out of the last six years.
Environmental impact Climate awareness already poses a threat to Big Oil. With this economic crisis, investors might turn to renewable energy. Renewables are more price stable, cheap, and cost-competitive, even during low prices of oil.
Bottom line It’s impossible to predict the future. Big Oil will certainly survive the pandemic, but its century-long domination of energy may soon end. One thing’s for sure -- clean technology has a strong outlook, and can certainly give oil and gas companies a run for their money. Not only from its greenness, but also in its economics.
Dig deeper → 3 min
What happened On the evening of April 20th 2010, a blowout occurred on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. High-pressure methane gas had risen into the drilling rig, quickly igniting and exploding.
Visible from 40 miles away, the flames overwhelmed first responders.
Two days later, the platform sank, leaving oil gushing at the seabed...until July, 87 days later. Containment started immediately, stopping the fires and oil burst. Clean up continued and ended...TBA.
Big picture Deepwater is not the first major spill, nor it seems, likely the last, and each disaster results in another human and environmental catastrophe.
- Deepwater killed 11 people, injured dozens of others, left vast swaths of ocean fatally contaminated, thousands of miles of beach polluted, killed over one million birds and continues to destroy pristine habitat and wildlife
- There are 175 offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico with the global total growing to 497 by 2017
Why it matters Deepwater displayed the frailties of our petroleum addiction as clear as day. In 2010, the year of the disaster, the planet used about 86 million gallons of Black Gold every day. Now, we use 100 million gallons every day. Black Gold is unsustainable, damaging to the environment, and could be replaced with sustainable alternatives.
We need a global intervention, a massive mobilization focused on powering our planet with the bountiful clean energy nature so gracefully provides. And we must develop an economic model that hastens the long overdue demise of Black Gold.
Dig deeper → 5 min