Power Portraits

Monday 17 June 2019

If your game is to see the world electrify as quickly as possible, then 2018 will please you immensely. Global demand for power soared by 3.65% last year, a titanic 938.2 TWh. One way to think about the scale of year-over-year growth in electricity is to set it against oil consumption growth. With the exception of the year 2015, global electricity growth has run well ahead of oil demand growth every year of this decade. And last year, oil demand continued to decelerate, growing by just 1.19%.

The data comes from the just released 2019 edition of the BP Statistical Review. While the top line growth is terrific news for the electrify everything! supertrend, the underlying details were less than encouraging. You see, not quite 1/3 of the marginal growth was supplied by combined wind and solar. The other two thirds were shared mostly between newcomer natural gas, old nemesis coal, and a respectable showing from hydro—but alas, with coal having the overall edge. As you can see in the chart below, combined wind+solar took 273 TWh of the total growth of 938.2 TWh. The other 665 TWh were shared among coal at 294 TWh, natural gas at 230 TWh, hydro at 128 TWh, nuclear at 63 TWh, and a small remainder of 18 TWh taken by other sources, from biofuels to geothermal.

Here is the problem: if the world is going to start electrifying more aggressively—and that’s a certainty, given trends and especially adoption of electric vehicles—then combined wind and solar, despite their screaming affordability, are going to have to move even faster when annual power growth gets above, say, 400-500 TWh.

Let’s take a look at the 2018 growth in global generation from a view that highlights wind and solar, to the exclusion of all other sources. Why? Because hydropower is very noisy from year to year, dependent as it is on weather. Further, global nuclear is steady but hardly growing. To get the best handle on marginal growth potential from clean sources, we need to concentrate on combined wind+solar. Notice, for example, that marginal additions from combined wind+solar keep growing. 193 TWh in 2016, 296 TWh in 2017, and then…oops…273 TWh last year? OK, that’s not growth. But let’s imagine it was a far more spectacular year for combined wind+solar, at around 450 TWh. That still would have covered just half of last year’s marginal growth in power generation.

To bring this issue down to ground level, let’s consider what’s involved in reaching ever higher plateaus of annual wind and solar growth given the very high base these two sources have already reached. In a global electricity system using 26,615 TWh per year, combined wind and solar provide 1855 TWh. Awesome. That’s nearly a 7% share! But while it’s true that wind and solar can be deployed much faster than new natural gas, it’s also the case that existing natural gas and existing coal can expand just enough, in small increments, to meet marginal demand every day that powergrids around the world grow. Add those 365 days up into a year, and you haven’t necessarily deployed alot of new natural gas or coal, but the total installed base of natural gas and coal can outrun even fast deployment of new wind and new solar.

An example: I recently published a piece covering the imminent rise of a new offshore wind industry along the eastern seaboard. Speed is often misundertood when it comes to new wind and new solar. They are the opposite of slow. In fact, both technologies deploy much faster than new natural gas, new coal, and especially new nuclear. But, they are large infrastructure projects nevertheless. In my article for Atlantic Media’s Route Fifty, here is a key quote from Willett Kempton, of the University of Delaware, talking about how to get the deployment rate of offshore wind up to much higher levels:

“I want to make sure we can do this at the rate of 3GW a year, not 800 MW every three years. Why does that matter? Because you have to do at least 1 to 2 GW per year just to cover retirements of the fossil fuel plants," he said.

What’s alluded to in the Kempton quote is that deploying 800 MW, even every year, may seem fast from the current base, but is not fast enough to head off other challengers. In California, solar has indeed grown fast enough to extinguish growth from other sources, and in the Great Plains states, and also the United Kingdom, wind power has smothered any growth from other resources as well. But on a global basis, countries would have to move, shall we say, to a California standard on solar and a United Kingdom standard on wind to now keep up. Both of those domains have seen their respective clean electricity move to more than a 20% share of power generation.

For a few years, starting in 2014, I had hopes that global wind and solar deployment would indeed move fast enough to handle marginal growth of electricity. But when global power demand grows by 700 TWh (2017) and over 900 TWh (2018), and now electric vehicles are taking off as well, something more forceful will have to take place in Asia, India, and frankly also in North America, to head off any more growth of fossil fuel combustion.

Humans have a poor ability to see changes over time, and tend to take notice only when those changes finally complete. An excellent example is the ongoing celebration that Britain now goes for days, even weeks, without any coal consumption. No question, party hats and British Christmas crackers (no, not edible crackers, these crackers) are warranted. But it must be pointed out that all through the ten year period when wind power was growing incredibly fast in Britain, the common perception was that Britain (especially under conservative governments) was doing little to nothing to decarbonize. Indeed, in the same way the British press is now running endless articles about a Coal Free Britain, little coverage attended the decline. To illustrate, here is a lovely graphic showing the decline of coal from 2012 through the first part of this year. For those of you who work in educational or policy fields, your work to persuade and explain will never be done, apparently, because humans are clearly wired to say nope, nope, nope… yeah…alright.

The Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County stands as a seminal project in the history of utility scale solar. Perhaps the 0.55 GW plant also has a role to play in a Fermi’s Paradox explanation? I’m only half-serious, but let’s play along…

Most people understand that giant solar covers alot of acreage, but it can be hard to absorb just how much. Topaz covers 7.3 square miles, or 4700 acres, and generates about 1.25 TWh of power every year. Several years ago, while on a plane to Southern California to give a talk on solar, I flew over Topaz and noticed it took almost as much airtime to pass as it does when buzzing Mt. Hood, here in Portland. Topaz has a footprint equal in size to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Accordingly, Topaz shows up pretty easily on the earth’s surface from space. It’s flashing strobe, when all 9 million panels light up with daytime sunshine, is even more visible and Paul Kedrosky on twitter this week noticed the GOES-17 satellite has recorded the bright signal. He also offered up a quip:

I’ll offer my own. In answer to the question where is everybody?, we might conjecture that advanced alien civilizations, who by definition have crossed key technological thresholds, are far more likely to want to monitor us than interact with us. As Nick Bostrom has postulated, observation and simulation seem to be central tendencies as civilizations advance. Blowing stuff up gets old. So perhaps aliens have a model for technological progress and, watching us like you’d watch a TV series, wait to see how we perform, thoroughly entertained as we discover what they themselves discovered long ago.

On the Kardashev Scale of energy, humanity’s transition away from fossil fuel combustion to solar energy is a key threshold to cross, and would put us into position to pass from a Type I civilization to a Type II. After all, you can’t become technologically advanced by burning embedded energy; you’ve got to harness the zero-cost marginal inputs of wind and solar, as a precursor for harnessing off-earth energy.

So my Fermi’s explanation is as follows: The aliens see us. They see we’re doing well, nodding approvingly as we hit the key solar threshold. They intend to keep watching us too, but thankfully from afar.

Unless, of course, I’m wrong.

Gregor Macdonald


The Gregor Letter is a companion to TerraJoule Publishing, whose current release is Oil Fall. If you've not had a chance to read the Oil Fall series, the single title just published in December and you are strongly encouraged to read it. Just hit the picture below.