Google’s Green Energy Wish ListBy MATTHEW L. WALD
For a moment, re-imagine Aladdin as an engineer. He finds his magic lamp in an industrial park in Silicon Valley or Boston or the Research Triangle in Raleigh-Durham, and the genie who emerges offers him three technological wishes. What should Aladdin wish for? Could any of his wishes go wrong?
On Tuesday morning, Google released a study of the potential impacts of “aggressive hypothetical cost breakthroughs” in clean energy technologies, from electricity generation and storage to electric vehicles to natural gas. The genie was not offering any energy efficiency wishes this time around, although Google acknowledges that those are crucial and says it has taken major steps to improve energy efficiency in its operations.
Google used a computer model developed by McKinsey & Company to explore how energy innovations could create jobs in manufacturing and construction and how cheaper clean energy might improve the overall economy.
So what should Aladdin, P.E., ask for?
At the top of Google’s list was better electric cars and gas-electric hybrids because they could create large savings by 2030. While big advances in clean energy generation could yield big benefits by 2050, in 2030 these would not show major financial benefits when compared with electricity from coal and natural gas, the study predicted.
Electric cars, however, could show big savings over those than run on gasoline. If batteries could be sold at a cost of $100 per kilowatt-hour of storage, then pure electric cars, hybrid electrics like the Toyota Prius and plug-in electrics like the Chevy Volt could capture 90 percent of the vehicle market, the study said. (A kilowatt-hour will move a vehicle three or four miles and currently sells for about 10 cents at retail.)
Whether this can happen by 2030 is not certain, but the battery industry set itself that goal in the 1990s. Lead-acid batteries sell for that price, but they do not meet the goals for pounds per kilowatt-hour, or per watt. Pounds per watt is a measure of how fast a battery can deliver power, or be recharged.
Other chemistries like lithium-ion approach the goals for pounds per kilowatt hour, but they sell for $600 a kilowatt hour. The price breakthrough needed for batteries is highly sensitive to the price of gasoline; if a gallon sells for $5 rather than $3.50, the price of the battery can be 50 percent higher and still be competitive, the study found. Google is hoping for early cost breakthroughs in the laboratory and then early adoption, but unless you are Aladdin, wishes and concrete developments are not the same thing.
Another conclusion is that while technological breakthroughs are helpful, a supportive government policy leads to much faster adoption in the economy.
The tricky wish is for energy storage for the grid. Electricity storage in batteries, in compressed air or by some other means may be essential for integrating large amounts of solar power and wind power into the grid because their production cannot be scheduled and is often not well synchronized with peak demand.
But the study found that in the absence of a shift in government policy, improvements in energy storage might end up simply allowing greater use of coal. “Basically it’ll allow you to run the cheapest thing you’ve got, more’’ said Bill Weihl, whose title at Google is green energy czar.
At present, the cheapest option tends to be coal plants late at night. Many coal plants shut down at night or run at partial load, so electricity is very cheap during those hours. If inexpensive energy storage were developed, the cheapest way to meet peak demand might be to run coal plants at night and store the energy for later use. But that also would entail higher carbon dioxide emissions, for two reasons.
First, coal plants emit more carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour than other sources, including natural gas plants, which are usually used to meet peak demand now. Second, electricity storage systems are a bit like leaky buckets; they do not return as much energy as is put into them. So to get 8 or 9 kilowatt-hours delivered on a hot afternoon may require storing 10 kilowatt-hours the night before.
Google is not actually looking for a genie. “This is not a prediction of what will happen,’’ Mr. Weihl said. He described it more as an exploration of what benefits would accrue from breakthroughs in various areas — “What are the things we should aim for? ‘’
And the target is moving, he noted: solar cells, wind machines and batteries are all getting better, he said, but so is the technology of extracting oil and natural gas and the fuel economy of traditional automobiles.
Because so many of the study’s conclusions rely on variables like the cost of conventional fuels, and whether a price will be imposed on carbon dioxide emissions, Google set up an interactive Web site that allows viewers to come up with their own predictions and see how that would affect the outcome. Mr. Weihl said Google got the idea from a New York Times graphic feature on how to balance the federal budget.
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CROATIAN CENTER of RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES (CCRES)