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Robert Bryce: Can Solar Energy Replace Carbon-based Fuel?

Bryce is boldly calling out renewable energy and crying foul. Not that he has a problem with the idea of free and renewable energy, after all, who doesn’t want that? Bryce’s beef is that solar energy is dramatically overstating its ability to replace fossil fuels.

According to Bryce, the time when renewables replace rather than supplement fossil fuels isn’t a few years away, but many many decades in the future. Even with renewables growing gangbusters, through lots of private investment and loads of government subsidies, renewables are still a drop in the bucket of the global energy supply.

However, we must note that the energy landscape is changing rapidly. Bloomberg recently did an extensive report noting that investment in renewable energy is outpacing investment in fossil fuels at a rate of 2 to 1.

There is any number of reasons investors are jumping on the renewable energy train and abandoning traditional energy. For starters, oil and gas prices are crushingly low at this time, many oil and gas investments are bound to go bust within the next two years. There is a glut of cheap fossil fuel supply worldwide, and this has the solar energy extraction community upside down.

Some of the investment in renewables, especially worldwide, is driven by government subsidies and targets. The two hottest commodities in renewables are currently wind and solar energy since most of the big easy hydro projects have already been maxed out.

Big wind is a more mature industry, and it is facing an increasingly uphill battle. But, solar energy may be the new darling of the investment community.

The size of the solar industry has doubled seven times, just since 2000. The price of solar energy is falling dramatically as the amount of solar energy deployed is soaring.

Investors have finally realized that there is something unique about solar energy as it pertains to the energy mix. That something is that solar energy isn’t a fuel; it is technology. As such, it has more in common with silicon chips than it does with oil.

Robert Bryce - US Consumption: solar energy

And that simple fact changes the entire business model. Solar energy is not a depleting or limited resource, like oil, gas, and coal. It is the technology that is relatively young, one that may change dramatically over the next generation. The same limitations will not bind solar energy as many other forms of fuel. There will be boundaries indeed, but they will be very different than the limiting factors for coal, natural gas, and oil.

Renewables Remain a Tiny Fraction of the Energy Market

In spite of almost phenomenal growth in the renewable energy markets, they still make up just a tiny fraction of the worldwide renewable energy usage. Bryce points out that even Germany, which has spent $100 billion over the past decade on renewables, has not reduced the amount of coal-fired capacity in their country by 1 gigawatt. In 2002 they had coal capacity of 49 gigawatts, and today they have coal capacity of 49 gigawatts.

Robert Bryce talks about solar energy
Robert Bryce – Manhattan Institute

With numbers like that, one wonders just what precisely the Germans got for the $100 billion investment.

Trying to force the issue of renewables before the technology is there, maybe damaging and impoverishing. Renewables are a rapidly growing industry, where there seems to be a lot of experimentation and fermentation, just the ingredients needed for bold breakthroughs and bold impacts. In time, the planet may indeed run on clean, renewable energy. But, to expect that to happen soon is folly.


Robert Bryce is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He has been writing about the energy sector for more than two decades and appears regularly on major media outlets like Fox News, CNN, NPR, PBS, and BBC. Bryce has delivered more than 200 invited and keynote lectures to different groups, ranging from the Marine Corps War College and the University of Calgary to the Sydney Institute and Melbourne’s Institute of Public Affairs.

Battery Storage is Ideal Choice for Renewable Energy

The challenge of the century for renewable energy sources is to have battery storage. Solar and wind can generate power at a reasonable cost, but that energy can’t be stored. Unfortunately, the sun doesn’t shine all the time, nor does the wind blow perpetually. Without cheap reliable battery storage that can store energy, renewables require on-demand backups, and those are almost always carbon-based.

Berlin, Germany released plans to install a 120 megawatt underground battery storage unit which will store power from wind and solar farms.

Energy is about economics. People use the energy type they can afford. By 2020, the reason coal will no longer be in demand is because it costs more to produce than the market will pay. It is also the reason why the promise of cheap renewable energy has made solar energy and wind turbines attractive propositions. The upfront cost for these technologies is relatively high, but the long-run costs may be much lower than fossil fuels.

And those low operating costs can be amortized over the life of the power generator, be it a wind turbine, solar panel, or hydroelectric dam. With practically zero operating expenses, save for maintenance costs, solar energy and wind farms are cheaper than oil-based electric production.

For solar and wind energy, there is a need for more batteries at a lower cost. With low-cost batteries, a solar energy farm can store the excess production in batteries, and use these during night time. The same is true for wind farms, as well as some oil-powered plants in high-demand areas. Batteries allow plants to store excess production and draw on the reserves during peak use times. The problem has been, industrial-sized batteries didn’t really exist in a cost-effective form.

Researchers have made great strides in all aspects of renewable energies. The cost of producing a unit of power with solar has decreased exponentially over the past few years, making solar truly competitive for homes and small businesses with more traditional sources. New batteries which can store large quantities of energy through the night and gloomy days are set to make solar genuinely cost-effective and viable.

Many countries, including France and Germany, are experimenting with storing energy in a variety of ways. One innovative solution is to use pipes, such as those used for natural gas, compressing the gas during peak production and letting the pressure escape to generate energy at other times. Many areas are also using renewable energy to pump water uphill into reservoirs during peak production, to give it flow down and make energy during low production or peak demand.

Battery Storage Innovations Make Renewable Energy Competitive

Of course, batteries are regarded as the ideal choice of energy storage, because they can be standardized and placed in almost any environment. Battery storage development has had a fantastic run for the past 20 years, increasing efficiency and longevity at the same time they became smaller and more powerful. If present trends continue, the world is on track to enjoy the energy from renewables, including battery storage, roughly comparable in price to energy from oil, gas, and coal by the year 2020. In a few short years, renewables can be truly competitive.

Various types of renewable energy included battery storage

Unfortunately, the research into battery storage technology has slowed down. U.S. federal spending for research and development costs of items like battery storage technology decreased from 1.2% of US GDP in 1976 to 0.8% in 2015. In 2016, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) under the Department of Energy-funded 75 projects for battery storage. The department said that these had the potential to enable renewable energy battery storage within five to ten years. Unfortunately, the House passed a bill which effectively ends the ARPA-E project funding. At the same time, President Trump also expressed the idea that ARPA-E should be eliminated next year by not including it in his proposed 2018 budget.

According to expert, Daniel Kammen, the director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also a professor, the limited funding will cause a short-term downturn. It will lead to limited competition between diverse technologies. The funding money will be spread out only to those who have the most significant potential in the immediate future.

In the meantime, battery storage installation and power storage needs are growing. Recently, Berlin, Germany released plans to install a 120-megawatt underground battery storage unit which will store power from wind and solar farms. Also, Tesla recently accepted the challenge to install a battery storage utility in Australia. Elon Musk, head of Tesla also added in the contract that it has to be installed within 100 days or it’s free. The 100-megawatt power utility will be three times bigger than any other service in existence.

With the lower cost of production and 24/7 access to energy due to battery storage, the future of renewable energy seems to be finally at hand. The question is, will the world continue to be chained to the past, or pursue the new and bold technologies of the future?