Betting A Billion Dollars On Low-Carbon Grid Transformation Tech

A couple of months ago, Bill Nussey, CEO of Solar Inventions and Freeing Energy, had me on his Freeing Energy podcast. He’d reached out to me at the beginning of 2021 based on stumbling across something or other I’d written and thought I could provide some useful input on the Freeing Energy book he was closing on completing after hundreds of interviews and traveling around the world. One thing led to another, I provided 27 pages of notes on a late draft of his book, he rewrote the section on hydrogen as a result, we chatted on the CleanTech Talks podcast (part 1, part 2) late in 2021, and then he hosted me on Freeing Energy.

Nussey and his partner in green, Sam Easterby, like to provide a more personal hook on their podcast, and so they research aspects of their guests that are less directly relevant. In my case, that led to my April Fool’s Day 2001 Vegas drive-through wedding followed by a Texas Hold’em ring game in the Bellagio while Julia Roberts filmed an Ocean’s 11 scene next to the poker pit. True story, still married.

The Texas Hold’em game wasn’t a random event. I went through a Hold’em phase, played thousands of hours of it at casinos around north America and online, and was a 93rd percentile player, meaning I didn’t lose any money, but didn’t make any either.

And so Nussey and Easterby decided to use betting as a hook, and asked me to place a billion USD in bets on various low-carbon grid technologies. Being me, I threw the list into Google Sheets, slapped a first iteration of bets in, did a couple of pivot tables, then adjusted, and then adjusted again before getting on the podcast with Nussey. After the podcast went live, Martin Voelker of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society (CRES) reached out and asked me to turn the concept into a keynote for their annual conference in Golden. And so, the next iteration of the material.

Betting a billion on decarbonized energy components – categories. Chart by author.

While Nussey and Easterby had provided me with a laundry list of 13 major components, to which I’ve added a couple and adjusted others for this article, I like to start with context and drill down. And while I’m not a fan of pie charts, this is a case where it’s reasonable, especially as percentages are called out. To keep the Hold’em metaphor going, let’s call this the flop.

Unsurprisingly for anyone who has looked at my short list of climate actions that will work, generation is the big hitter, as overbuild renewable generation is second on that list. Next is storage, which as I’ve articulated last year (part 1, part 2) is less of a problem than most people think and is fourth on my short list. Finally, just below storage is extending transmission, which is #3 on the short list. It does make me think I should reorder the list a bit.

That’s the big picture, so let’s drill in with the turn card.

Betting a billion on decarbonized energy components - sub-categories.

Betting a billion on decarbonized energy components – sub-categories. Chart by author.

Anyone who remembers BarnardOnWind (Wayback Machine link to full site) or my time as Senior Fellow – Wind with the Washington-based think tank Energy and Policy Institute (link to my report on wind energy and health court cases) might be surprised to see that solar gets the nod for most global investment. Back in 2014, I had expected wind and solar would be roughly equal, with wind possibly in the lead, but the plummeting cost of solar and the merits of behind-the-meter and community solar lead me to assert that in the end we’ll have more solar electricity than wind energy.

One of the things I added to Nussey’s original list was hydroelectric. Unsurprisingly given the requirement for lots of new, low-carbon generation, hydroelectric dams are seeing a resurgence globally, with gigawatts of new capacity going in around the world. China’s Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world, is a leader in this space. Of course, hydroelectric dams can have serious shortcomings, including anaerobic decomposition of biomass, so I can only say that this is a mixed blessing. That said, I project that while it will be bigger than geothermal, it won’t be by much.

Nuclear does show up, but it’s the smallest bet. Only China is building a lot of nuclear plants, and its build out is being dwarfed by wind and solar development in that country. More on that later.

I’ve spoken to storage developers and operators on five continents, including the USA’s Convergent Energy + Power‘s chief strategist Mariko McDonagh Meier (part 1, part 2), about behind-the-meter vs grid storage, and as noted earlier, published an assessment of likely grid-scale storage winners. Grid-scale is going to be the big category, just as grid-scale generation will be a much larger piece of the pie than behind-the-meter generation.

This is not to dismiss the value of behind-the-meter generation and storage, but replacing global energy flows is not something that will be done with smaller scale systems, but with utilities and massive systems doing the heavy lifting. The value proposition of behind-the-meter generation and storage is a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction patchwork, with Ontario, for example, seeing strong value in storage behind-the-meter due to the over reliance on inflexible nuclear generation. Many US analysts and observers think it’s going to be a bigger segment globally simply because the US has an unreliable grid by developed countries’ standards. Germany and Denmark are below 15 minutes of outages per customer per year on average, while the US is around four hours. Reliable and well-structured grids diminish the value of behind-the-meter storage, and grids are developing quickly.

And then, of course, there’s transmission. Lots and lots of additional transmission. An Asian HVDC Supergrid is underway, with China extending its massive HVDC transmission lines into neighboring countries and spending billions on transmission in its Belt and Road initiative. There are proposals for Moroccan wind and solar electricity to flow to the UK via undersea HVDC cables with firmed electricity 20 hours a day. Once again, the intransigence of local US utilities and challenging experiences building transmission in that country — as eloquently documented in Superpower, the book about Michael Skelly’s failure to build HVDC connecting Texas to the population centers of the east coast — leads many US-based based analysts to think that transmission is harder than it is.

Next, the river card, which is to say breaking down each sub-category into the 16 components I ended up with in this iteration.

Betting a billion on decarbonized energy components - details.

Betting a billion on decarbonized energy components – details. Chart by author.

Utility-scale solar — onshore, not the rounding error distraction of floating solar with all of its failure conditions — will be the single biggest bet, but it appears larger than it is because wind energy is split between offshore and onshore wind.

I think behind-the-meter solar, both residential and commercial & industrial, will be quite a bit bigger than community solar. While the latter sees bigger solar farms, in the range of smaller utility-scale solar farms, there are an awful lot of rooftops around the world.

As noted, only China is building a lot of new gigawatt-scale nuclear generation right now. Of the 30 or so countries with nuclear generation fleets, many are expecting them to decline in number, continuing the current trend. France is going back and forth on how big its fleet will be, Ontario isn’t building new GW-scale reactors, the US is expecting dozens of reactors to drop off the grid over the next 20 years, and South Korea and Germany are both shutting their fleets down entirely. This bet is based on things like the USA’s subsidies to keep existing reactors going to retirement and China’s build-out, and it’s not big.

But it’s a lot bigger than bets I would place on small modular reactors (SMRs) or fusion generation. SMRs, as I articulated in an article which has gone absurdly viral with a Just Have a Think Youtube explainer based on it, a de Gruyter peer-reviewed journal article, a chapter in upcoming de Gruyter Green Chemistry text, a TFIE reprint, an Illuminem reprint, a LinkedIn post that saw a lot of views and discussion, an upcoming Jefferies investment bank presentation to institutional investors, and being translated into Japanese by that country’s Renewable Energy Institute. As I say in the piece: “Small modular reactors won’t achieve economies of manufacturing scale, won’t be faster to construct, forego efficiency of vertical scaling, won’t be cheaper, aren’t suitable for remote or brownfield coal sites, still face very large security costs, will still be costly and slow to decommission, and still require liability insurance caps.” They are a side-bet for expensive generation should the last 20% of demand prove to be very expensive to meet with renewables, something I don’t expect to occur.

Similarly, fusion generation continues to recede into the distant future, as I wrote last year. The ITER Tokamak is the best funded and most likely candidate to create sustained fusion, and it is not expecting to achieve more than electricity-neutral operation for five minutes at a time in 2040 means it’s just research money — likely to be $65 billion for the ITER project alone — for the coming decades. Every time there’s another headline about some amazing fusion breakthrough, I find with a bit of digging that it’s not fusion, it’s just creation of plasma that’s a bit hotter for a bit longer, and journalists who can’t be bothered to find the real story under the press release. I project the only place for fusion will be on spacecraft beyond the border of Jupiter, sometime in the next 200 years.

As for grid storage, I laid out my points in detail in the pair of articles on the subject (part 1, part 2), and will simply add the projection through 2060 here.

CT Projection of Grid Storage Capacity

Projection of grid storage capacity through 2060 by major categories, chart by author

Yes, pumped hydro — and I am involved in a major effort in the space which I’ll be able to write about soon — then redox flow batteries, including the amazing CO2-based technology Agora Energy Technologies has developed (full disclosure: I’m Chief Strategist and Board Observer with Agora), and then lithium-ion and similar form-factor batteries of various chemistries. There’s an also-ran category that includes hydrogen, liquid air, compressed air, molten salt, silly things like Energy Vault, and the like, but it is a 100-GW rounding error, so there’s still a lot of money swirling around in there. As a note on Energy Vault, it’s so obviously flawed I’ve never bothered to critique it, but apparently it’s managed to achieve a $2.1 billion market cap, so it’s on my list to point out the many reasons it’s dumb as a box of broken, rusty hammers.

Finally, transmission. As I wrote several years ago, high-voltage direct current resolved its last scaling problem — sufficiently rapid and robust hybrid breakers — about 10 years ago. It’s capable of taking more current with only 3.5% losses per 1,000 kilometers and doing it underground or underwater. Biden’s original campaign had an HVDC backbone through central America to South America, then pivoted to be closer to Sander’s plan of a domestic HVDC grid following federal rights-of-way, and there are new US financing tools for transmission, especially HVDC. In addition to the Asian Super Grid and its tens of thousands of kilometers of domestic HVDC, including the longest HVDC transmission lines in the world, China has also proposed an intercontinental HVDC supergrid connecting over the North Pole. Europe and northern Africa are already linked with transmission from Spain to Morocco and over the Bosphorus Straight via Turkey, and MEDGRID has multiple proposed links which will most likely be built when the current hydrogen-for-energy hype runs into a brick wall of spreadsheet jockeys.

And so, transmission will grow to allow more renewably generated electricity to flow with low losses over much greater distances, significantly reducing the challenges of intermittency.

So, those are the bets. Mostly wind and solar, a lot of grid-scale storage led by pumped hydro, and a whole lot of HVDC transmission tying it all together. That’s what the decarbonized grid of the future will look like. And to be clear, virtually all of those technologies are mature and robust today. We don’t need to invent a lot of new technology here, we just need to deploy what we already have.


 


 


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