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Google Gives Up On Renewables

Google Gives Up On Renewables

This is a post-mortem on a project initiated by Google – a master of innovation if ever there was one and a company with impeccable green credentials (see photo below) – the goal of which was to scope out an innovative renewable energy system that could compete economically with coal and other fossil fuels and which could be deployed quickly enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

Google Headquarters

Google headquarters, complete with 1.6MW of PV panels

Work on the project, which Google named RE<C (Renewable Energy cheaper than Coal) continued from 2007 to 2011, a period over which Google invested large sums of money in renewable energy projects. (How much Google spent on the RE<C project isn’t known, but according to Forbes the company’s total investment in renewables by April 2011 had reached “a cool quarter of a billion dollars”.)

But RE<C failed to produce the hoped-for results, and in November 2011 the project was shut down and project staff were instructed to write a post-mortem detailing what went wrong. They summed up their findings in this stark conclusion:

Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us.

The question of whether renewable energy can be made to work has been discussed at length on this site, and while opinions remain divided I don’t remember ever seeing such a negative assessment from commenters on the – for want of a better word – “green” side of the fence. This is what makes the Google project interesting, because the people who shut it down – Google management – were of a strongly green persuasion and the people who ran it were too:

At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change.

They also accepted that the impacts of climate change were potentially catastrophic.

Related: This Company Could Revolutionize Energy Utilities

Climate scientists have definitively shown that the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere poses a looming danger. Whether measured in dollars or human suffering, climate change threatens to take a terrible toll on civilization over the next century.

So what happened here?

Details of Google’s results are given in Google’s 2011 energy innovation study, but two linked Figures in the post-mortem tell the story. The first of the duo entitled “The Climate Conundrum” shows how Google’s best-case scenario reduces emissions by a very respectable amount by 2050 (note that the graphic shows data for the USA):

CO2 Emissions Billion Metric Tons

In the energy innovation study’s best case scenario, rapid advances in renewable energy technology bring down carbon dioxide emissions significantly.

But the second shows atmospheric CO2 continuing to climb anyway, to the point where by 2150 even Google’s best-case scenario shows CO2 more than 250ppm above the 350ppm “safety threshold” and still heading up (how Google converted the USA emissions data into atmospheric CO2 and projected CO2 to 2150 isn’t specified, but we will take the results at face value):

Atmospheric CO2

Yet because CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for more than a century, reducing emissions means only that less gas is being added to the existing problem, Research by James Hansen shows that reducing global CO2 levels requires both a drastic cut in emissions and some way of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it.

But look at the caption. CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for more than a century. Research by James Hansen. A 350ppm safety threshold. Pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it. What Google did here was judge their results against a catastrophe scenario that there is no realistic way of mitigating, and having found there was nothing to be done they threw their hands in the air and canned the project.

Was such a drastic reaction justified? Yes, if Google’s only goal was to save the planet from their vision of climate catastrophe. But there was one feature of the Google study that distinguished it from most other renewable energy studies and which provides some intriguing insights. Google constrained their scenarios economically, assuming that “clean energy” would take over only if and when it became cheaper than (and as reliable as) fossil fuels:

What’s needed, we concluded, 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. Let’s face it, businesses won’t make sacrifices and pay more for clean energy based on altruism alone.

Related: The Cold, Hard Truth About Renewables

Now look at the purple CO2 plot on the second of the two graphs above. It bends upwards between 2040 and 2150. The Google study doesn’t give any generation mix numbers, but an upward bend like this can occur only if the mix has a significant fossil fuel component. The implication is that by 2150 “clean energy” still hasn’t become cheap enough to displace all fossil fuel generation, not even under a best-case scenario which assumes “aggressive hypothetical cost breakthroughs in clean power generation, grid storage, electric vehicle, and natural gas technologies”. Google confirms that the economics just weren’t there:

By 2011, however, it was clear that RE<C would not be able to deliver a technology that could compete economically with coal.

(And to coal we can add gas and maybe nuclear too. According to EIA levelized costs for US combined cycle gas are presently considerably lower than coal and levelized costs for “advanced nuclear” about the same as coal.)

In short, Google is telling us that a free-market approach won’t work for renewables. They aren’t cost-competitive with fossil-fuel generation and aren’t likely to become cost-competitive at any time in the foreseeable future.

Now one can argue – many will – that Google is incorrect in this assessment. Conversely it can be argued that if the super-innovators at Google, who like the Imperial Guard on the eve of Waterloo had never before failed in a charge, couldn’t come up with something then there probably isn’t much to come up with. And Google can hardly be accused of pessimism. Figure 2 of its energy innovation study shows the levelized costs of electricity for different low-carbon technologies that are needed to reach “breakthrough” relative to coal costs. Google admits that these breakthrough costs “are highly aggressive and would be challenging to reach even with a much more concerted push on innovation than at present.”

Breakthrough LCOE Technology

And if Google’s summation is right we are left with only one option – to enforce the adoption of renewables through legislation, meaning that politicians must weigh the perceived risks of burning fossil fuels against the perceived costs of replacing them with renewables and come up with a balanced solution. Is this too much to ask of them? I’ll leave that question hanging.

By Roger Andrews

Source – www.euanmearns.com 

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  • Doug and John Bishop on November 26 2014 said:
    There is a global externality.
    So taxes on carbon or subsidies of renewable energy is necessary.

    If countries cannot be persuaded to create lower there carbon pollution they must be punished by discriminatory tariffs
  • Joe on November 27 2014 said:
    Per the first comment here, Google's economic forecast for renewables' competitiveness excludes the saddling of CO2 producers with the full cost of their pollution; a cost currently socialized (the coming "catastrophe").

    Secondly, it appears Google's math did not couple innovation in energy production with innovation in energy efficiency, a clear mistake. Refer to Rocky Mountain Institute for more information.

    Google is "a master of innovation" in computer programming. That is a very small part of the world in which we live.
  • Brad Wattshaw on November 27 2014 said:
    "...We are left with only one option – to enforce the adoption of renewables through legislation..."

    In other words, legislation that mandates the use of more expensive, less reliable energy.

    How is this any different that proclaiming, "Progress through lower standards of living?"
  • Ron on November 28 2014 said:
    How does CO2 persist for 100 years in the atmosphere if is a natural component of the atmosphere? Also, CO2 levels have already dropped significantly with the rapid move to natural gas occurring since 2007. Why is that not pointed out? What about the CO2 from the rapidly increasing amount of volcanic eruptions? How many more taxes can the developed world support to pay for using fossil? How many people will die in underdeveloped nations as fossil fuel price increases reduce their access to fertilizers? Also, where are you going to get silver to make any more PV panels? China is commiting to increased PV use, but needs 460 million ounces of silver to do this...this amount is not commercially available.
    Let's live in reality. We need space based solar systems and need to advance on new discoveries of fusion power by Lockheed(?). Good luck.
  • James Lloyd on November 28 2014 said:
    Joe - a great succinct summary of what has become merely a war of semantics. No where do google say that by aggressively adopting new, lower emission, mainstream "renewables" do we produce the same or more emissions responsible for climate change. This is a report about something that happened 3 years ago - a long time in the development of energy in the World.

    Google as a business massively invests in "renewables", for economic as well as social reasons. They're just saying that investing in the R&D of new energy tech is not for them.

    Since 2011, by investing alongside other multinationals and governments, and generating sheer market scale, google (et al) achieved what their R&D failed to do - and that is radically reduce the cost of "renewables".
  • Greg on November 28 2014 said:
    Brad: "How is this any different that proclaiming, 'Progress through lower standards of living?'"

    Lower standards of living will become inevitable once the full effects of climate change start setting in.

    Ron: "Also, CO2 levels have already dropped significantly with the rapid move to natural gas occurring since 2007. Why is that not pointed out?"

    Probably because it's not true.

    Extracting natural gas also releases methane, which is much worse than CO2.
  • Geoff Guenther on November 29 2014 said:
    Ron: What you are citing is that the US is no longer increasing its CO2 production rate. We are still pumping CO2 at record levels, and NG produces more CO2 than is sustainable.

    I'm certainly crossing my fingers with you on the potential of fusion with Lockheed and others. Do they have a solution? We'll find out over the next few years.
  • David Hrivnak on November 29 2014 said:
    The USA is still a very large producer of CO2. We are #2 in the world not far from China. Our production levels have dropped with the big shift to natural gas and renewables. But we are far from 0. Like the budget deficit. Is is not as bad ad 3 years ago but we too are FAR from a balanced budget.

    But renewables can work. Since adding solar panels and getting an electric car we have dropped our CO2 levels by 70% AND we have cut our fuel costs $3600/year.
  • Rodney7777 on November 30 2014 said:
    There is another, more compelling chart that has been kept for over 30 years by Ray Kurzweil. It shows that the worlds solar electric output is now and has been doubling every 2 years. Right now that output is at about 1% That doesn't sound sound like much until you do the math. The doubling effect puts the output at 16% in 2022. In 10 years from now, world electric output from solar will be at 32%. At 32%, right about this point all nuclear power plants should be shutting down, followed closely by all coal and natural gas plants. Like the internet, which Kurzweil's charts also accurate followed, solar will seemingly come out of nowhere. The world will be awash in cheap, clean, local, abundant energy by 2030 (256%). Google will be buying solar generated electricity because they will have no panels of their own unless they reverse this decision.
  • Marco Rosini on November 30 2014 said:
    Maybe we should update the analysis, considering the difference in RE and Energy storage prices between 2011, when RE
  • Mark Polle on November 30 2014 said:
    Thanks for this article. It underscores well that if we keep giving fossil fuels a free pass on their climate pollution--not to mention giving them massive government subsidies--renewables will have a very hard time replacing them based on cost alone. Fortunately, pricing carbon emissions would be easy and, if done properly, could actually stimulate the economy rather than hurt it. One "small government" solution (championed by former Secretary of State George Schultz) is a carbon fee and dividend. This would impose a small but gradually rising fee on fossil fuels at source (wellhead, coal mine, port of entry to country) and divide up all the money collected to return by cheque to every household equally. Of course, the costs of those fees would be passed down the supply chains so that everything requiring fossil fuels would become a little more expensive but the dividend cheques would help cushion that. In this way people would be incented in all their purchasing to make lower carbon choices simply because they were cheaper. Independent economic modelling of this proposal shows a dramatic drop in carbon dioxide emissions and an actual net gain both in jobs and GDP over 10 and 20 years.
    What are we waiting for?

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