When we need to compare the environmental consequences of energy technologies — between an internal combustion vehicle or an EV, or between a compact natural gas generator and a big wind farm — what’s the best way to understand the full picture? Should we just look at pollutant emissions? Or should we take a broad view, and consider the total lifecycle, including mining, manufacturing, transport and waste? The latter is what lifecycle assessment (LCA) is all about, and although it can be used to compare very complex sets of things in a helpful way, it can also be abused to suit an agenda.
To really be sure we’re comparing apples with apples, we need to understand the right ways and the wrong ways to do LCA. And then we need to think carefully about the implications of our research, and how to communicate them to a lay audience in such a way that they can inform policy without being misunderstood or misrepresented. It’s a tricky art, but our guest in this episode is an LCA veteran from NREL who can show us the way.
Historically, thermal concentrating solar plants were the only type of solar power equipped with storage. But as cheaper PV systems became dominant, thermal solar plants fell into disfavor. Now solar PV systems are beginning to integrate storage based on lithium-ion batteries, and this storage isn't just used to supply power when the sun is down; it is providing grid stabilization services too, which only adds complexity to an already-complicated picture for the future of storage - confounding attempts to model how much storage we’ll need, and of what kind, and when will we need it. Is a large amount of seasonal storage required on a high-RE grid, as some analysts have suggested? Or will other technologies reduce the amount of storage we’ll need? And can we even forecast that need, years or decades in advance? We’ll delve into all those questions and more in this deep dive into combined solar and storage systems.
In this second episode of our mini-series on climate science, we begin to dive a bit deeper on narrower subjects, starting with a look at how we take the Earth’s temperature, on land, on the sea surface, and deeper in the ocean depths. Along the way, we discuss temperature measurements at the heart of the “Climategate” nothingburger, the 2013 “Pausebuster” paper proving the supposed “pause” or “hiatus” in global warming trends didn’t actually happen, and a recent kerfuffle over that paper. We also find out if the melting of permafrost and undersea methane clathrates could lead the planet into runaway global warming, and discuss some research on the net emissions effect of switching from coal to gas in power generation, including the thorny issue of fugitive emissions from natural gas production and distribution. And finally, we’ll take another look at the question of decoupling economic growth from energy consumption, and how emissions are counted in the first place. After listening to this interview, you’ll be well-equipped to listen critically to both the latest scientific findings on global temperatures, and to the arguments of global warming skeptics. Plus, we’ll talk about the implications of Trump’s proposed budget, which would gut the very agencies that deliver these crucial scientific measurements.
The cost of wind power has been falling steadily again since the 2008 price spike, and newer projects have been coming in at 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, making them very competitive with natural gas fired power and ranking among the very lowest-cost ways to generate electricity. But can wind prices keep falling, or have they bottomed out?
A recent report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and other organizations offers some clues. Based on a survey of 163 of the world’s foremost wind energy experts, it examines in detail what factors have led to wind’s cost reductions in the past, and attempts to forecast what will drive further cost reductions in the future. It also looks at some of the reasons why previous forecasts have underestimated the growth and cost reductions of wind, and suggests that many agency forecasts may be underestimating them still. In this episode, one of the report’s principal authors explains the findings and offers some cautionary words about how much confidence we can have in our forecasts.