The State of 2023 Green Energy Technology
The big news regarding the state of 2023 Green Energy Tech may be 1) Renewed reliance on oil & natural gas to support Russian sanctions 2) The continued growth of wind and solar in spite of infrastructure that can barely support it 3) 2035 “net zero” pledges with insufficient technology to back them up (except by adding Hydrogen to the mix) 4) The relative decline in Carbon Capture and Biomass technologies 5) The sanctimonious greenies mission to ban all natural gas (and everything that burns, including net zero biomass), despite the fact that about half of electricity comes from natural gas with little relief in site, and 6) The increased interest in Next Generation nuclear as a partial solution to all of the above.
As one might expect in these times, there is considerable political polarity in the “green energy” discussion, with liberals heavily favoring wind and solar, conservatives liking carbon capture of natural gas and coal, and perhaps existing nuclear power plants. Somewhere in the middle are perhaps all of the above, plus perhaps Next Generation nuclear, hydrogen, and Biomass conversion. It would seem that “all of the above” might be necessary to solve our climate change problem (and do a number on Russia & China, whose coal & oil dependence are the Darth Vaders to green energy’s Luke Skywalker). The reason for this is primarily the intermittency, storage, and energy density problems, which hold back batteries, wind and solar. As such, the “sanctimonious greenies” (who are calling for overnight natural gas bans and all wind/solar solutions), are ironically holding back a kind of overall green energy progress.
In the chart below are shown current contributions of each energy type, and you will see that we are still incredibly dependent on coal, oil, and natural gas in our nation. You will note that renewables contribute only about 15% of total energy used (solar 2%, wind 3%, biomass 6%, hydroelectric 3%, geothermal 1%). Of course, there will be rapid growth in many of the sectors in the next several years due to improved technologies, economies of scale, incentives and consumer awareness, but we still have a long ways to go. To reach automotive net zero by 2035 and complete net zero by 2050, we will need transitional energy sources, along with infrastructure improvements on many fronts. Here is more or less the current state of the art:
RUSSIAN SANCTIONS AND WAR: Unfortunately, Russian sanctions (and wars in general) currently favor the production of North American oil and natural gas. Unless something changes, it will be difficult to power F15s, tanks, and missiles off solar powered batteries. Meanwhile, even very green Germany has been forced to buy our natural gas (in liquified form), so as to observe Russian sanctions. Greenies are dogpiling on environmental moderate Biden for the Willow oil project in Alaska, but given the state of world affairs (and insatiable Republican demand for cheap gasoline to stay in office) he may have little choice.
WIND AND SOLAR: Currently, wind is leading solar, but long term, solar may have the greater potential. What is holding back both are limitations in energy storage and a power grid adapted to these intermittent sources. A kind of bizarre solution is to have our population en masse buy expensive lithium ion batteries for pricey electric cars, while investing in heavier/cheaper lead-acid or lithium batteries for rooftop solar off-grid systems. I say bizarre solution because ideally, we would upgrade our national grid to have a larger, high voltage direct current (HVDC) backbone and utilize grid scale storage methods such as large molten salt, requiring less batteries (which are pricey). Both HVDC and utility scale storage are a ways off (and could be orphans if Biden isn’t reelected), so I guess we need to hope for folks buying batteries en masse. This will likely only be done by about 40% of our population at best, so we need to hope for other alternatives. At this point, I should also introduce the concept that wind and solar also have a relatively small carbon footprint. This is hotly debated, but I suppose that if we are plowing up dry lakebeds for lithium in Australia and/or supporting child labor in African cobalt mines, while placing old batteries and wind charger parts in landfills, maybe 20% of the impacts of equivalent amounts of fossil fuels? Another really good companion for wind and solar is hydrogen, as it can be produced by wind/solar electrolysis, stored in tanks and in effect become a relatively energy dense battery for larger vehicles.
ELECTRIC CARS AND PHEVS: Sanctimonious greenies won’t like to hear this, but electric cars are not perfect. They may have the “20% carbon footprint of equivalent gasoline” problem, and my conclusion is that a plug in hybrid (PHEV) that gets 60 mpg is almost a better alternative (a PHEV that gets 80–100 mpg may even be “greener” than an electric car). Why? Well electric car advocates argue that the oil industry is beholden to politics (very true), but the EV industry is also becoming so (see lithium and cobalt mines above, plus subsidies, lack of recycling, etc). Meanwhile, if people simply didn’t rely on cars as much (ie stayed closer to home) and used gasoline sparingly (helped by perhaps a $1 per gallon green tax to bring us to European levels), PHEVs may be the environmental equivalent of EVs, or perhaps a happy medium. Remember that gasoline is energy dense, and if we reduced our reliance perhaps 80% on oil (almost immediately with PHEVs), this would solve many problems quickly, while solving the EV “charging and range” problem.
HYDROGEN VEHICLES: Toyota knows a thing or two about vehicles and trucks. They introduced the Prius, one of the first popular hybrids. They also introduced the PHEV Prius. Toyota is now investing heavily in hydrogen vehicles, because they seem to realize that EVs are a bad fit for larger vehicles like pickups and semis. Not only that, but hydrogen may be a good bet for powering planes and ships. We need to develop a better hydrogen fuel cell industry and build more hydrogen fueling stations if we want to expand upon our green vehicle arsenal.
BUILDING A BETTER GRID: Our national grid is old and certainly not adapted to green energy. There are basically three energy grid regions in the US, the West, the East, and Texas (of course). A modern green energy grid would share energy across all three zones as a means to make best use of renewables (ie electricity from an Oklahoma wind charger or California photovoltaic array could be shipped at 3 or 4 pm, to New York City at 6 pm, for peak real-time energy use with little line loss precluding the need for storage). This is not to mention the advantages in cost savings and emergency energy use (remember when Texas suffered the 2021 Winter blackouts?)
HYDROELECTRIC AND GEOTHERMAL: We are currently quite dependent upon hydroelectric power in the West, and you always see it as playing a big part in the numbers. But that said, hydroelectric power is on the decline as dams are falling out of favor for environmental reasons. Geothermal could play a bigger role, but it is currently limited by region (it is typically available in the more mountainous regions, such as the Sierras and Rockies). There may be a way someday to tap into the deep (and hot) strata of our earth, but nothing is imminent.
BIOMASS: This could be a large renewable source, but is currently undergoing controversy, especially from the sanctimonious, activist, greenies (hereafter called SAGs), who seem to believe that any biomass idea is a “greenwashing” by greedy corporate interests. Let me begin by saying that the biomass premise is “net zero”, as recently-living plant material initially soaks up carbon, so as to offset the later carbon release of burning the biomass. First Generation Biomass (ie ethanol and biodiesel), is made from edible things like corn & sugar beets (also used as feedstock) and popular as a 15% additive in many gasoline blends (it makes gasoline run cleaner in your engine), and also reclaimed restaurant and plant oils . Second Generation Biomass comes primarily from cellulose containing non-edibles (ie dead trees, leaves etc) in forests and so forth, which are burned and sometimes processed to make char (a cleaner burning derivative). Generation Three Biomass promises to utilize algae fuel, which is a work in progress. In the case of renewable natural gas (RNG, cleansed methane that can come from dairies, wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and marshes), the product also comes from something that has soaked up carbon in the first place, and would otherwise leak harmful methane into the atmosphere. In any case, SAGs don’t want you to burn anything, ever, and are on a mission to ban all fireplaces, stoves, and heaters in favor of electric devices. Never mind the fact that currently about 60% of electricity COMES from natural gas and coal (with few immediate alternatives), and that we have a vast gas pipeline network that COULD deliver GREEN GAS (a combination of biomass gas and hydrogen). The SAG image is also of Smokey the Bear and the spotted owl crying over the removal of forest slash (which would also help prevent some of our devastating forest fires out West) and smoke coming out of a biomass facility, but of course this is probably the lesser of the evils, and an imminent solution. Another SAG argument is that biomass takes land for food crops out of production, but again much of the biomass product is also animal feedstock, and most biomass comes from areas like forests and marshes that aren’t currently used for food production anyway. Where I completely check out on SAGs is ignorance of the fact that receding glacial ice is exposing methane escaping marshes ANYWAY, and we’d best capture and volatilize it (a fancy name for burning it) before it becomes atmospheric methane. One point in SAGs favor is that justifying “burning something that originally soaked up carbon” as net zero doesn’t work unless you immediately replace that source. If you don’t, it might be just like burning coal (which originally was from plants that soaked up carbon), and if you do its more like ethanol (made from plants that are replenished). A kind of funny sidenote is that prior to about 1840, biomass and coal (a kind of latent biomass) WAS THE ONLY ENERGY SOURCE THERE WAS! (Lee,Lavoie,2013),(Cyrs,Feldman,2021)
CARBON CAPTURE: This was the big hope of the coal, oil, and natural gas industry, that removing the carbon from exhaust flues at energy plants (and repurposing the carbon as a building block or placing it deep underground) would keep their industries (and jobs) intact. Despite years of hype and subsidizing, this process has been more or less a dud. Not only is it expensive (about a 30–60% increase in the cost of a given fuel stock), but it doesn’t reliably work (it is about 90% efficient at best). In addition, the ubiquitous SAGs throw rocks at it as the usual “greenwashing by the Oil Industry”, or “the Carbon placed underground will escape in 100 years” argument. Its too bad, as politically carbon capture could’ve been part of many a compromise. I guess when nutty Donald Trump hyped “clean coal” (actually a carbon capture idea), that was the “kiss of death”. There is still hope for many carbon capture ideas (such as streamlining a greener way of making concrete) but they are difficult processes, in need of subsidies, and perhaps political orphans. Honestly though, there are some ready carbon capture solutions (such as 90% reduction of CO2 through Amine Scrubbing or Oxyfuel Combustion) that could and should be implemented immediately. (Hulac,2023), (Elliot,2018),(Perchenergy.com,2023)
NEXT GEN NUCLEAR: Germany is perhaps the greenest Nation on earth, and even THEY are looking at nuclear resurrection, in light of Russia’s bid to starve them of oil and natural gas. Germany had a very ambitious wind and solar program, but are learning that this is coming online too slowly. Next Generation Nuclear plants are smaller, use salt solutions as coolants (safer) and non weapons-grade fuel rods, in addition to many other safety features. They are famously advocated by Bill Gates and practical thinkers. Naturally, SAGs believe that “all nuclear is bad”. China was one of the only countries willing to invest in Next Gen, but then political relations soured and plans went kaput.
NET ZERO BY 2050 OR A CHICKEN LITTLE SAG FUTURE?: To its credit, the Biden administration is investigating, if not actively promoting/subsidizing all of the above. During the 2020 debates, you could see that Bloomberg/Steyer “got” the energy picture, and Bernie/Warren were SAGs. Fortunately, when the Klobuchars, Buttigiegs, Yangs, Bloombergs, Steyers threw their support to Biden, they also gave him their clear-headed, non-SAG advisors. Ironically, SAGs are ruining our drive to a Net Zero 2050 by supporting a vision that doesn’t have substantial current tech behind it, along with a kind of zero tolerance position for any non wind and solar tech. The larger tech minds such as Bill Gates and Bloomberg (who SAG conspiracy theorists try to portray as corporate sell-outs) realize that the greenhouse gas issue is perhaps only 90% solvable, and that we may have to live with some degree of CO2/Methane release and warming unless we spend trillions to hunt down every last ounce of carbon and methane release. This is why there is discussion in these circles re: geoengineering, another controversial subject for another article.
PLANET OF THE HUMANS?: In conclusion, the Michael Moore produced movie “Planet of the Humans” may sum up the state of SAG and go even one step further…it is heavily critical of the environmental impacts of biomass, and even the impacts of lithium ion batteries and EVs. It concludes that the only solution is for humanity to seriously limit its impacts, presumably with lower populations, energy-use restrictions, and gigantic swaths of untouched open space. Indeed, many future projections rely heavily on energy reductions based up “energy efficiencies” and “reduced energy use”, which will be realistic if we rely heavily on improving electronics and more limited travel. In addition, one presumes we need to create world peace, since war looks to be an orgy of nuclear and fossil fuel use for many years to come, unless somehow halted. Curiously, many future projections barely mention biomass. Some biomass conversion will be necessary just to stay ahead of natural methane release and devastating forest fires, so please explain that to your nearest neighborhood SAG.