new applied sciences within the 2020’s – Watts Up With That?

new technologies in the 2020’s – Watts Up With That?

Reposted by Dr. Judith Currys Climate Etc.

Posted on Jan 2nd 2021 by curryja

by Judith Curry

With a view to new energy technologies as well as my own saga and rationale for converting my personal electricity generation and consumption.

Happy New Year everyone! The topic I've chosen for my post to usher in the new year is optimism about new technology.

The basis for this post is an article by Eli Dourado that I discovered on Twitter: Notes on Technology for the 2020s. Will the new decade be the roaring 20s or the boring 20s?

Topics covered by Dourado include:

  • Biotech and Health
  • energy
  • transport
  • room
  • Information technology

All of them are interesting and worth reading, here I focus on energy.


The 2010s were the wind and sun decade. We saw a staggering decrease in the cost of both, even though the total use of wind and solar remains small – in 2019 wind and solar accounted for less than 9 percent of utility-scale electricity generation in the US. In the 2020s, cost declines will likely stall – wind and sun are already pretty cheap, so the declines seen over the past decade are not reproducible. The deployment, however, will accelerate.

The mass use of wind and sun will pose challenges. These sources are very intermittent. When the wind suddenly stops blowing – which happens – we need a way to quickly make up the deficit. Each of the three power grids in the continental US – East, West, and Texas – must maintain a balance between supply and demand every other day. We can use network storage to smooth out some bumps, but storage remains expensive. To achieve a grid that is fully powered by today's renewable energies, we need storage at a cost of USD 20 per kWh (with restrictions).

This memory doesn't all have to come from batteries, but let's talk a little about batteries. With the Tesla network-scale power pack as data, a 232 kWh battery costs $ 125,793 today. That's a price of over $ 542 / kWh. Innovation will bring that price down over the course of this decade, but improvements on the supply side could easily be inundated by increased demand. Finally, this decade will also include a major shift towards electric vehicles, which I will discuss below. When demand exceeds supply, prices tend to stay high, even when there is impressive innovation.

With the increasing use of intermittent power generation, the increased overall demand for electricity due to electric vehicles, the high cost of grid storage, inadequate power transmission (did I mention that we often neglect construction in this country?) And strong political support for decommissioning Fossil fuel plants, the 2020s could be a time of grid instability. This could be mitigated to some extent by the use of car batteries as grid resources and by (politically unpopular) variable electricity prices.

JC note: This article is far more optimistic than I am about the sun and especially wind. The article neglects the challenges of scaling in terms of land use and resource availability and seems to accept some degree of grid instability.

Ultimately, we need scalable carbon-free base load energy, i.e. nuclear or geothermal. The problem with nuclear power is its high cost. If you look at NuScale's small modular reactor technology, they target 6.5 ¢ / kWh. This is base load electricity, so not directly comparable with the intermittent generation costs of wind and sun, but still not the most competitive on the market today. In addition, NuScale's flagship project was only delayed by three years and is now slated to go live in 2030.

JC note: Dourado is less optimistic than others about nuclear costs.

What is more plausible this decade is improved and advanced geothermal systems. The old geothermal industry is sleepy and uses energy at traditional volcanic hydrothermal hotspots – forget about it. However, the next generation of the industry is made up of a group of startups staffed by people leaving the oil and gas industry. The startups I spoke of believe that with today's technology they can crack 3.5 ¢ / kWh without being limited to volcanic regions. With relatively little advances in drilling technology compared to what we've seen over the past decade, advanced geothermal energy could reach 2 ¢ / kWh and become scalable to become viable almost anywhere in the world. Together, the startups are talking about numbers such as hundreds of gigawatts generation by 2030. I'm watching this space closely. The Heat Beat blog is a great way to keep up to date. As I wrote last month, it will be important to allow reforms.

JC note: Geothermal is the hottest energy technology that is feasible and cheap that I don't know enough about. The linked article by Dave Roberts (first line in the previous paragraph) is very good.

Fusion continues to make technical advances. I anticipate that this decade we'll get a demonstration of energy positive fusion from one of several fusion launches, or perhaps from Lockheed Martin's compact fusion reactor. But again: a demonstration is far from a change that changes society. It will be decades before reactors go online. By the time the fusion gets there, the energy market will be very different from what we started working on fusion reactors in the 1940s. Wind, sun, and hopefully geothermal energy will make electricity pretty cheap, and the merger will have a hard time holding its own.

JC note: I don't see a long-term future for wind energy when other economical and clean options are available. If fusion energy were available, I imagine it would be a very attractive option. See also this article on fusion energy.

Remember, about half the cost of an advanced geothermal system is drilling and half is conversion equipment. For example, suppose the plant depreciates over 30 years (although many geothermal plants last longer), after which time the conversion equipment will need to be replaced. The hole in the floor does not have to be replaced! This means that for the next 30 years electricity can be generated at half the cost. Geothermal wells that we dig this decade could produce less than 1 ¢ / kWh by 2050. It's a difficult market for the merger. However, the merger is used in applications where other sources are not available, such as B. in space, can still be a great source of energy.

The 2020s will be a great decade for sustainable alternative fuels (SAF). Commercial aviation cannot electrify – batteries will never match the energy density of fossil fuels. Given the political reality, aviation has no choice but to decarbonise itself, which means either hydrogen fuel or SAF. Hydrogen fuel is much better than batteries, but still not as energy dense as fossil fuels or SAF. So my money goes into SAF and especially into fuel made from CO₂ that is drawn from the atmosphere. It is easy to remove atmospheric CO & sub2; convert in solution in ethanol; and it's easy to upgrade ethanol to other fuels. However, separating ethanol from water without consuming a lot of energy is difficult – unless you have an advanced membrane like Prometheus Fuels in place. I have written about Prometheus before and continue to follow them closely. Your technology could decarbonize aviation very suddenly.

JC note: SAF and Prometheus fuels are new to me. Thoughts?

JC's energy transition

A few notes on my personal transition to clean energy. About 6 years ago we had to buy some new equipment: water heater, stove, clothes dryer. At the time we decided on natural gas appliances – they were more energy efficient and worked more to our liking (not a fan of electric stoves or electric tumble dryers). I now realize that natural gas stoves are not good for indoor air quality. If we had noticed then that this could have influenced our decision. We also bought a new car about 5 years ago – combustion; We really need all-wheel drive where we live and there weren't any good hybrid or electric options at the time.

About 2 years ago we decided to take the plunge into the solar system on the roof for our house. This was finally installed about a year ago (5 years ago we wouldn't have seriously thought about solar because of the cost and technology available). We also bought two Tesla Powerwalls that we can use to generate electricity for our household when the power goes out and also at night. As a second backup, we decided to keep the Generac natural gas (not an easy task to integrate this into the powerwalls). After tax breaks and discounts, it all cost us about $ 40,000. Based on our current electricity consumption, we will break even in about 15 years.

Caption: 48 solar panels on the south-facing garage roof. Tesla Powerwalls (two white vertical rectangles) and Generac (white box on the floor)

The main motivation for us to run solar was energy security (we already had a natural gas Generac backup system). Without the Tesla Power Walls, we would not have gone solar. The Generac was made available to provide power during forest fires in order to drastically reduce the incident solar radiation (a situation not uncommon in the Sierra Nevadas). Our local power generation in Nevada is already pretty clean, with renewables abundant, including geothermal energy; Local air pollution is low and is mainly generated by automobiles. $ 40,000 would have been a lot of money for clean energy "virtues" if our local power sources are already fairly clean.

The next point I want to make is how the solar energy infrastructure is changing your outlook for future purchases of appliances, cars, heating and air conditioning. For air conditioning, while we have air conditioning in the house, we use a sump cooler (powered) which our climate allows and which we very much prefer because of the ventilation. Not clear electric vehicles are the right decision at this point (our existing cars are doing well). We will likely replace the natural gas water heaters in the relatively short term, provided our existing ones can be reused somehow / anywhere.

Our home was built in the 1980s with a pretty sophisticated passive solar design that allows for sun to pour into the home in the middle of winter, both directly into living spaces

and also to higher levels where stone walls are heated, also with ceiling fans to bring the heat down.

In summer, when the sun is higher, there is little sunlight in the house. Our heating costs in winter are therefore relatively low. But in the next 5 years we will probably replace our 3 gas stoves, get serious about heat pumps and alternatives to natural gas stoves.

JC reflections

There are two general topics here that emerged from my personal anecdotes.

Energy infrastructure is important – once the infrastructure is in place (solar power at home, electric vehicle charging points, etc.), making decisions about cleaner and more efficient energy use becomes much easier.

Second, the “best” decisions you have made now may become suboptimal in ~ 5 years, but you are tied to the infrastructure (equipment, power plant, whatever). The bottom line is that the "urgency" to improve in a "green" direction can backfire. Wait for the device and power plant to reach the end of their useful life and there are better options.

be right

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