Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Magical Thinking, No; Progress, Yes

As every critically-aware person well knows, we are facing some pretty daunting challenges; the most pressing is clearly climate change, more urgent with each passing day as we are regularly reminded of the ravages it is wreaking around the world. Responses continue to range from denial, complacence and magical thinking to outright proclamations of doom.

While I remain deeply pessimistic about our chances here, I am willing to embrace neither surrender nor the perspective of the pollyannas in our midst who uncritically await a technological solution or, as I like to describe it, a deus ex machina. Nonetheless, technological progress is being made, progress that will surely be part of the arsenal in our survival kit.

Now that renewable energy costs are fast approaching parity, and in some cases below parity, with fossil fuels, the next major challenge is the engineering of storage capacity so that energy can be tapped into as needed. On that front, I am happy to report that things are moving ahead at an exciting pace.

First, there is the Tesla Powerwall, a home and industrial power storage device that can store power both from renewable sources and conventional utility sources when rates are low. It has the potential, given its pricing, to ultimately supplant home generators and help curb greenhouse gas emissions in the process. And there are other similar products with various price points on the market, each with its own advantages and disadvantages and most with both domestic and industrial applications.

Battery storage is but one of several technologies that can aid in the transition to greater reliance on renewable energy sources. And the beauty of energy-storage technology is that in many cases it will obviate the need to build costly mew power stations, as it will be doing essentially the same things they do: provide power on demand.
In the UK, the first plant to store electricity by squashing air into a liquid is due to open in March, while the first steps have been taken towards a virtual power station comprised of a network of home batteries.

In case the jurisdiction does not have mountains, as required in the above system, another method would seem to effect the same benefits:

Its new £8m demonstration plant, at Pilsworth, near Manchester, and funded by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc), is set to start in March. By compressing air 700 times into a cold liquid, it stores power which is released by evaporating the liquid air into a high pressure gas to turn a turbine. The 5MW system will be able to power many thousands of homes for a few hours. Gareth Brett, CEO of Highview, says it is like pumped storage, but can be sited wherever it is needed.
There are other storage approaches being implemented as well, including using the degraded batteries of electric cars, all of which you can read about here.

I think the point demonstrated by these emerging systems is that we really can be on the verge of dramatic changes in the way we secure and store our power that will contribute to a significant lowering of the greenhouse gases that are so imperiling our world. But both imagination AND political leadership are necessary for successful transition. I am confident about the former but not so much about the latter, despite the fact that the future of our world is at stake.


  1. All of that and more is true, Lorne. We are indeed poised for a clean energy revolution. The operative word, of course, is "revolution" which is an overthrow of the old, fossil fuel order. It's what Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute means when he says nothing short of an "induced implosion" of the fossil fuel industry will work. That means governments, independently and cooperatively, shutting them down, putting them out of business much like they did to the asbestos industry.

    Every government, bar none, is afraid of pulling that pin. The simple reason is that those enormous transnationals are carrying many trillions of dollars of known fossil fuel reserves on their books and on the strength of those reserves pension funds are invested and so too are the markets.

    As Nikiforuk wrote yesterday in The Tyee, the Big Fossil is amassing enormous debt to pursue unconventional energy reserves of doubtless market viability. It sounds very much to me like a "poison pill" - sort of a 'take us down and everybody gets it' strategy. If you had assets of a notional value of 200-trillion would you rather see 20-trillion lost or 180-trillion in value wiped off the books?

    And then there's the ticking clock. This is not an open-ended challenge. In fact there's just barely enough time left, if we're very lucky, to effect a transition from carbon-based fuels to alternative, clean energy. There is a point - and we won't know where it is until we're long past it - that the transition option is foreclosed. The precautionary principle approach would say "act now" but that's a can all of our political leaders can still kick down the road - which, incidentally, is precisely how we wake up one day to find the deadline far in the past,.

    1. Your assessment helps us to see the impediments to revolution here, Mound. Until and unless a sense of urgency seizes both leaders and led, the prognosis is not rosy.

    2. In the 3rd para I meant to write "doubtful" rather than doubtless but I expect you're used to that sort of thing from me by now.

  2. There is a way ahead, Lorne. But few have the boldness to envision it.

    1. That political cowardice could cost all of us very dearly, Owen.

  3. Battery storage is useless for the amount of energy stored, Tesla in particular. 3 kWh of energy is nothing. Keep the Honda generator.

    Compressing air generates a great deal of waste heat, no matter if you then expend even more energy to compress it to a liquid state and start concentrating on cold. Dire Emergency storage only. Another dead end. Ever pumped up a bicycle tire and inadvertently felt the end of the pump which gets excessively hot? That's the problem. It's also why compressed air hybrid vehicle drives have not emerged on the market. It's a bad idea that wastes energy due to the innate properties of gases.

    I'm an engineer, but it never fails to amaze me that people get on a bandwagon to nowhere because they have little or no technical training, and the idea is put forward by some marketing "genius" or another operating on his own agenda.

    You might regard me as rude or overbearing on the matter, but the truth cares not. It's like the hydrogen economy idea, also useless but put forward as a saviour.

    Our society seems to have gone mad in pushing silly ideas forward - I blame faulty or lack of technical knowledge among opinion leaders. Since it would take some pages and a lot of math to back up my assertions, and I am certain it wouldn't be understood if I spent the time to do it, you'll just have to remember that there are some things you should bear in mind before charging off in all directions.

    1. Thanks for your input, Anon. Of course, I am am not an engineer, but while your objections are welcome, I can't help but wonder about the engineers involved in these British projects; surely they must be aware of the drawbacks that you articulate here, but nonetheless seem to find some merit in the technologies described.

    2. I understand you're an engineer, Anon, but are you expert in this field? What variety of engineer are you? Are you current with the latest developments in this field? If so, you might do well to expose people like Musk as you seem to contend they're perpetrating a fraud. I know there are many engineers of all descriptions but I'm not aware of any significant group supporting your position. I suspect there are a great many scientists, engineers included, who would argue it is you who is off kilter.

      The same thing obtains in the ranks of climate science. There's always a few dissenters, disbelievers but they're few and far between and not generally considered credible.

      You certainly have the advantage on laymen such as Lorne and I but that, of itself, is of little consequence. You must challenge your peers, not us, if you are, in fact, an engineer with any current expertise on this subject. In fact I find it curious that you're arguing these points at our level. Any reason why?