Looking forward: new technologies in the 2020’s

Reposted from Dr. Judith Curry’s Climate Etc.

Posted on January 2, 2021 by curryja

by Judith Curry

Looking ahead towards new energy technologies, plus my own saga and rationale for transitioning my personal power generation and consumption.

Happy New Year everyone!  The theme I decided for my post to ring in the New Year is one of optimism re new technologies.

The basis for this post is an article by Eli Dourado that I spotted on twitter: Notes on technology for the 2020’s.  Will the new decade be the roaring 20’s or the boring 20’s?

Topics covered by Dourado include:

  • Biotech and health
  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Space
  • Information technology

All are interesting and worth reading, here I focus on Energy.



The 2010s were the wind and solar decade. We observed stunning declines in the cost of both, although total deployment of wind and solar remains small—in 2019, wind and solar represented less than 9 percent of utility-scale electricity generation in the US. In the 2020s, cost declines will likely stall—wind and solar are already pretty cheap, so the declines of the past decade are not reproducible. Deployment, on the other hand, will accelerate.

Mass deployment of wind and solar will bring challenges. These sources are highly intermittent. When the wind suddenly stops blowing—which happens—we need a way to quickly make up the deficit. Each of the three electricity grids in the continental US—east, west, and Texas—has to remain in supply-demand balance every second of every day. We can use grid storage to smooth out some of the bumps, but storage remains expensive. To reach a grid powered entirely by today’s renewables, we would need storage at a price of $20 per kWh (with caveats).

That storage doesn’t all have to come from batteries, but let’s talk about batteries for a bit. Using Tesla’s grid-scale Powerpack as data, a 232 kWh battery today costs $125,793. That is a price of over $542/kWh. Through innovation, that pricetag will come down over the course of this decade, but improvements on the supply side could easily get swamped by increases in demand. After all, this decade will also include a huge shift toward electric vehicles, which I will discuss below. When demand outpaces supply, prices tend to stay high, even when there is impressive innovation.

With increased deployment of intermittent power generation, increased total demand for electricity due to electric vehicles, a high cost of grid storage, inadequate electricity transmission (have I mentioned that we often neglect to build in this country?), and strong political support for decommissioning fossil fuel plants, the 2020s may be a time of electric grid instability. This could be tempered to some extent by using car batteries as grid resources and through (politically unpopular) variable electricity prices.

JC note: this article is much more bullish on solar and particularly wind than I am.  The article neglects the challenges of scaling up in terms of land use, resource availability, and seems to accept some level of grid instability.

Ultimately, we need scalable zero-carbon baseload energy, which means nuclear or geothermal. The problem with nuclear is the high cost. If you look at NuScale’s small modular reactor technology, they are targeting 6.5¢/kWh. That is baseload power, so not directly comparable to wind and solar’s intermittent generation costs, but even so, it isn’t the most competitive in today’s market. Furthermore, NuScale’s flagship project was just delayed three years and is now not scheduled to come online until 2030.

JC note: Dourado is less optimistic about nuclear costs than others.

What is more plausible this decade is enhanced and advanced geothermal systems. The legacy geothermal industry is sleepy, tapping energy at traditional volcanic hydrothermal hotspots—forget about it. The next generation of the industry, however, is a bunch of scrappy startups manned by folks leaving the oil and gas industry. The startups I have spoken to think with today’s technology they can crack 3.5¢/kWh without being confined to volcanic regions. With relatively minor advancements in drilling technology compared to what we’ve seen over the last decade, advanced geothermal could reach 2¢/kWh and become scale to become viable just about anywhere on the planet. Collectively, the startups are talking about figures like hundreds of gigawatts of generation by 2030. I’m watching this space closely; the Heat Beat blog is a great way to stay in the loop. As I wrote last month, permitting reform will be important.

JC note: geothermal is the hottest energy technology that is feasible and cheap that I don’t know enough about.  The linked article by Dave Roberts (first line in preceding paragraph) is very good.

Fusion continues to make technical progress. I expect we will get a demonstration of energy-positive fusion in this decade from one of several fusion startups or perhaps Lockheed Martin’s compact fusion reactor. But again: a demonstration is far from a change that transforms society. It will take further decades to deploy reactors onto the grid. By the time fusion gets there, the energy market will be quite different from when we started working on fusion reactors in the 1940s. Wind, solar, and hopefully geothermal will make electricity pretty cheap, and fusion will struggle to compete.

JC note:  I don’t see a long term future for wind energy if there are other economical, clean options available. If fusion energy was available, I imagine that it would be a very attractive option.  See also this article on fusion energy.

Consider: around half the cost of an advanced geothermal plant is drilling, and half is conversion equipment. Suppose the plant is amortized over 30 years (although many geothermal plants last longer), and after that period the conversion equipment needs to be replaced. But the hole in the ground does not need to be replaced! That means for the next 30 years, electricity can be generated at half the initial cost. Geothermal wells we dig this decade could be producing at less than 1¢/kWh by the 2050s. That is a tough market for fusion to break into. But fusion will still be a great source of power in applications where other sources aren’t available, such as in space.

The 2020s will be a big decade for sustainable alternative fuels (SAF). Commercial aviation can’t electrify—batteries will never match fossil fuels’ energy density. Given political realities, aviation has no choice to decarbonize, which means either hydrogen fuel or SAF. Hydrogen fuel is much better than batteries, but still not as energy dense as fossil fuels or SAF, and so my money is on SAF, and particularly on fuel made from CO₂ pulled from the atmosphere. It is easy to convert atmospheric CO₂ to ethanol in solution; and it is easy to upgrade ethanol into other fuels. But it is hard to separate ethanol from water without using a lot of energy—unless you have an advanced membrane as Prometheus Fuels does. I have written about Prometheus before and continue to follow them closely. Their technology could decarbonize aviation very suddenly.

JC note:  SAF and Prometheus Fuels are new to me.  Thoughts?

<end quote>

JC’s energy transition

A few notes on my personal transition to cleaner energy.  About 6 years ago, we needed to purchase some new appliances: hot water heaters, stove top, clothes dryer.  At the time we opted for natural gas appliances – they were more energy efficient and operated more towards our preferences (not a fan of electric stove top or electric clothes dryer).  I now realize that natural gas stove tops are not good for indoor air quality; had we realized that at the time, this might have swayed our decision.  We also bought a new car about 5 years ago – internal combustion; we really need 4 wheel drive where we live and at the time there weren’t good hybrid or electric options.

About 2 years ago, we decided to make the plunge for rooftop solar for our home, this was eventually installed about a year ago (5 years ago, we wouldn’t have seriously considered solar, owing to cost and available technologies).  We also purchased two Tesla Powerwalls, which allows us to generate power for our household if the grid electricity is down and also at night.  As a second backup, we opted to keep the natural gas Generac (no simple task to integrate this with the Powerwalls). After tax breaks and rebates, all this cost us about $40K.  Based on our current electricity use, we will break even in about 15 years.

Caption:  48 solar panels on south facing garage roof.  Tesla Powerwalls (two white vertical rectangles) and Generac (white box on the ground)

The primary motivation for us to go solar was energy security (we already had a natural gas Generac backup system); we would not have gone solar without the Tesla Power Walls.  The Generac was kept to provide power in the event of wildfires drastically reducing the incoming solar radiation (a situation which is not unusual in the Sierra Nevadas). Our local power generation in Nevada is already pretty clean, with abundant renewables including geothermal; local air pollution is low and mostly generated by automobiles.  $40K would have been a lot to pay for ‘virtue signalling’ for clean energy, when our local power sources are already pretty clean.

The next point I want to make is how the infrastructure of solar power changes your outlook on future purchases of appliances, cars, heating and air conditioning.  Re air conditioning, while we have air conditioning in the house, we use a swamp cooler (powered by electricity) which our climate allows and which we vastly prefer owing to to the ventilation.  Not clear that electric vehicles are the right decision at this point (our existing cars are running fine).  We will probably replace the natural gas hot water heaters in the relatively near term, provided that our existing ones can be somehow/somewhere be re-used.

Our house was built in the 1980’s, with a fairly ingenious passive solar design that allows mid winter sun to pour into the house, both directly into living spaces

and also into higher levels, where it warms up stone walls, also with ceiling fans to bring the heat downwards.

In summer, when the sun is angled higher, little sunlight enters into the house.  So our wintertime heating bill is relatively low.   But over the next 5 years we will probably replace our 3 gas furnaces, will look seriously into heat pumps and alternatives to natural gas furnaces.

JC reflections

There are two broad issues here, extending from my personal anecdotes.

Energy infrastructure matters – once infrastructure is in place (home solar, charging stations for electric vehicles, whatever), decisions to move towards cleaner and more efficient use of energy become much simpler.

Second, your ‘best’ decisions made now may become suboptimal in ~5 years time, but you are locked in by the infrastructure (appliances, power plant, whatever).  Bottom line is that ‘urgency’ to improve in a ‘green’ direction can backfire; wait until the appliance, power plant whatever  comes to the end of its useful life and there will be better options.

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January 3, 2021 2:19 pm

<i> “In summer, when the sun is angled higher, little sunlight enters into the house. So our wintertime heating bill is relatively low.” </i>

In summer, when the sun is angled higher, little sunlight enters into the house. So our summertime cooling bill is relatively low?

Kindest regards for an excellent post.

I too enjoy a large central thermal mass that keeps our HVAC loads balanced. We have the additional benefit of large roof overhangs. So many pluses to the habitabily equation and costs next to nothing. The issue being planner urbanists forcing high density housing upon an unwilling population.

Curious George
January 3, 2021 2:40 pm

“It is easy to convert atmospheric CO₂ to ethanol in solution; and it is easy to upgrade ethanol into other fuels. But it is hard to separate ethanol from water without using a lot of energy.”

Never too late to learn surprising stuff from “experts”.

Alexy Scherbakoff
Reply to  Curious George
January 3, 2021 3:46 pm

Nonsense. Simple distillation.

Paul of Alexandria
Reply to  Alexy Scherbakoff
January 3, 2021 4:20 pm

“Using a lot of energy”.

Alexy Scherbakoff
Reply to  Paul of Alexandria
January 3, 2021 4:52 pm

Low tech heat source that doesn’t need to reach 100 C. Alcohol is cheap to make. Higher costs of drinking stuff has to do with taxes and excise duties.

Reply to  Alexy Scherbakoff
January 3, 2021 4:32 pm

Nope, azeotrope.

Alexy Scherbakoff
Reply to  Scissor
January 3, 2021 4:47 pm

Water alcohol mix yields 97.2% alcohol. Second paragraph of Wikipedia on azeotrope

Reply to  Alexy Scherbakoff
January 3, 2021 5:49 pm

Yep, thus separating out the remaining water requires additional energy and complexity.

Alexy Scherbakoff
Reply to  Scissor
January 3, 2021 6:23 pm

No, it doesn’t. There are several methods for extracting the final water cheaply and in industrial quantities. How do you think they make ethanol from corn and use it as a fuel additive?
The point I was making was that the extraction of alcohol from a water mix is straightforward and relatively inexpensive.
Judith was saying that making ethanol from a CO2 and water mix was straightforward. You’ve gotta be sh!tin’ me.

Reply to  Alexy Scherbakoff
January 3, 2021 7:24 pm

I’m not disagreeing that the separation can be done and is achieved by appropriate engineering. You said ‘simple distillation’ would do it, which has a specific technical meaning. In the olden days, we would break the azeotrope with benzene (kind of frowned on today).

And no, making ethanol from a CO2/water mix is not straightforward. As others have pointed out, it requires a significant energy input and this is why it is not practiced commercially.

Pat Frank
Reply to  Alexy Scherbakoff
January 3, 2021 10:10 pm

Wiki says, “97.2% by volume of ethanol.” That’s a bit misleading; no surprise given the source.

Every liter of 97.2% v/v azeotropic ethanol includes 28 gm of water.

Ethanol is 789.5 gm/liter. Therefore, every liter of 97.2% v/v ethanol is 3.7% water by weight, which makes the azeotrope 96.3% w/w ethanol/water.

The 96.3% w/w ethanol is 16.66 M in ethanol. The 28 gm of water is 1.56 M. So, water is 1.56/16.66 = 9.4 mole% of azeotropic ethanol. That makes the azeotrope 90.6 mole% ethanol.

Ethanol is not cheap to make from CO2.

Absolute ethanol is relatively cheap to make by fermentation, distillation, and 3 Å molecular sieves. If you have a cheap fossil fuel source of energy (or nucs).

But fermentation ethanol will never, ever, be as cheap an energy source as fossil fuels.

Alexy Scherbakoff
Reply to  Pat Frank
January 3, 2021 10:46 pm

I agree. I’m from the old school. I always thought in terms of constant boiling point mixture. I didn’t bother doing some fine calculation about percent alcohol. I’m not that interested. I knew. from experience that it was a relatively high percentage of alcohol in water. Having had my own laboratory at one time, I have hands-on experience with distillation.
A quick internet search yields a cost of around 50 cents a litre for ethanol produced from fermentation. There is no way in the world that you could produce ethanol from CO2 in water at a comparable price.
Not only would ethanol never be as cheap an energy source as fossil fuel, you could never produce the volume necessary to replace fossil fuel, anyway.

Pat Frank
Reply to  Alexy Scherbakoff
January 3, 2021 6:33 pm

Distillation gives you 95% ethanol, which is a constant boiling azeotrope.

The only way to remove the remaining 5% water is using the benzene ternary azeotrope, or physical absorption such as 3 Å molecular sieves.

Apart from that, however, whatever energy one extracts from CO2-derived hydrocarbons will be dwarfed by the energy it took to make them.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Curious George
January 3, 2021 5:15 pm

Those ‘experts” skipped chemistry and biochemistry in college and went straight to gender studies and liberal arts classes. University science and engineering classes were too hard for the Libtards who now want to dictate what our enegy sources will be.

Alasdair Fairbairn
January 3, 2021 2:42 pm

Most of the so-called new technologies in the energy sector I read about seem to be ignorant of the Thermodynamic Laws; but wise upon the monetising factors.

January 3, 2021 2:51 pm

Nice home energy setup. Guessing15 year payback banks on no maintenance costs? Not being critical but “tax breaks and rebates” aren’t sustainable when considering replacement costs 🙂

Reply to  markl
January 3, 2021 3:43 pm

Good point markl, on whether payback includes maintenance costs.

Also need to consider if cash flow is discounted in payback calculation. It would also be nice to know payback without tax breaks and rebates to better understand true economics. Also (forgive for so many also’s) would like to know replacement timing. 15 years does not feel like a good investment payback for something that needs to be replaced in 10 years…

Reply to  RelPerm
January 4, 2021 8:39 am

Also on the also – just how many structures can take such good advantage of the new technologies?

I would estimate that maybe 2% (at best) of the single family housing stock in Tucson has even passive solar siting. Even fewer with a large internal thermal mass – or even external; block / brick construction is not at all common, especially in the new massive developments.

As a guesstimate, to get a proper, fully passive house on my lot, I would have to tear down right to the foundation (maybe even take that out and start from scratch). Around $350K to $450K. Before anything like solar panels, solar water preheater, Tesla walls.

Reply to  markl
January 3, 2021 11:34 pm

Lightning strike nearby – all gone. Bushfire, Storm – Same Same! These setups can only exist in a narrow topographical and climate range with any sort of economy. Any sort of weather extreme and you will be relying on the generator while you start saving to replace the other components.
Maintenance people love these setups near the ocean. Dissimilar metals in a salt environment, who needs the sun to create a potential? That is if he isn’t already busy repairing damage from vermin that love those nooks and crannies. Who needs a beehive whem you have all those boxes on you wall. I am gathering the Sierra Nevada does not have mud wasps? Have you ever had to remove a snake from your solar regulator? Talk about a shock!
I advise my acquaintances to remain connected to the grid, keep their lives uncluttered and wire in a standby generator as the quality of the grid power is destroyed by the addition of wind and solar into the supply.

Reply to  markl
January 4, 2021 12:15 pm

Tax breaks and rebates to someone whose house is a lot more expensive than most people can afford are wrong. Those who want to virtue signal should have to do it on their own dollar. My brother ended up with Canadian $8k payment for clunker and rebate for an electric car. Then he bought a hybred because the range was not enough. And he is currently at his winter home in Costa Rica – guess how he got there.

In my experience the ‘carbon footprint’ of a virtue signaler is on the high side.

Tsk Tsk
Reply to  markl
January 7, 2021 6:02 pm

Yeah, 15 year payback after gov’t subsidies isn’t very compelling. And does that breakeven include the cost of capital?

Chris Hanley
January 3, 2021 2:54 pm

‘Ultimately, we need scalable zero-carbon baseload energy …’
The premise is wrong, carbon content is irrelevant; ultimately some form of base-load energy other than fossil fuels will be necessary but ‘ultimately’ is a long way off and market forces will sort out competing technologies without quasi-capitalist technocratic government diktat.

Reply to  Chris Hanley
January 3, 2021 4:35 pm

I agree with you Chris. Market forces will sort out competing technologies.

And, current forecasts/models usually assume only current technology used in the future rather than improving technology. This is a big mistake.

We are poor at visualizing future technology. Who would have thought thirty years ago that replacing coal with natural gas for US electricity generation would occur based on market forces and directional drilling and fracture stimulation technology improvement? Resulting cheaper energy means better lives for all of us. Resulting lower CO2 some say is also a benefit, but I think that is hogwash.

i look forward to see technology changes improve our life as it has in the past. I feel the catastrophic alarmists will hinder rather than enhance this process.

Steve Cushman
January 3, 2021 2:54 pm

Geothermal wells don’t last forever. The high pressure hot water extracted from the wells have very high dissolved solids that precipitate out which eventually reduces flow to the point the well has to be placed. An example of this is the large geothermal field that has been producing electricity for 40 years is the Gysers on Mt St. Helena. The ESCo’s operating there own oil field drill rigs to replace knackered wells. For them the pace of well replacement makes sense for them of operate their own rigs rather than contracting the operation. The dissolved solids & hydrogen sulfide means that capitol & maintenance costs are higher than a NG fired plant.

Inexpensive home standby generators can’t be incorporated into a microgrid unless the output is is converted to DC at the DC buss voltage level of the PV panels. Gensets for incorporation into a microgrid require sophisticated governor controls & voltage regulators that are interfaced with the microgrid controller. Your GENERAC home standby unit requires bypassing the existing governor & voltage regulator functions. And adding a governor & voltage regulator that have analog inputs for speed & voltage trim from the microgrid controller.

Reply to  Steve Cushman
January 3, 2021 5:54 pm

Does one house, one set of solar panels, and one emergency generator qualify as a microgrid? Regardless, both Tesla and solar panel companies agree that a generator can be used with Powerwall. You need a transfer switch, manual or automatic. As far as I know, nobody is suggesting that we move away from the standard household AC voltage. The voltage of the PV panels is irrelevant. PV power controllers can accept a wide range of panel voltages, then convert it down to what the battery system needs. Then inverters convert it back to AC for home use.

Reply to  Toto
January 4, 2021 8:41 am

With significant losses all along the way.

Reply to  Steve Cushman
January 3, 2021 9:42 pm

The high pressure hot water extracted from the wells have very high dissolved solids that precipitate out which eventually reduces flow to the point the well has to be placed.”

I have seen this criticism of geothermal numerous times, including several times here on WUWT. Why can we not use a closed loop with liquid heat exchange, i.e. why extract the messy ground water? Possibly there will be a drop in efficiency of the overall system, but I would think less than the re-investment in replacement of the well, no?

Reply to  RM25483
January 4, 2021 3:42 am

Essentially It’s due to the large surface area required to get the heat into your ‘working’ fluid. I.e. you need to get your ‘cold’ liquid into contact with the ‘hot’ rock. The more power you want to extract the more flow, surface area, and/or temperature difference you need.
If you want to do all this in a closed system to keep the working fluid clean you can only do this inside 1 well and you don’t have enough space and surface area for the pipework/heat exchangers. Keep in mind that everything inside the well needs to go through the well in order to get there so there are severe size restrictions.

So the 1 well, closed loop, solution generally doesn’t work and you need a system open to the rock itself so the liquid can flow through the rock, pick up the heat and get into your production well. Unfortunately your liquid will pick up unwanted contaminants along the way.

hope that helps,

Reply to  Willem69
January 4, 2021 5:09 am

Thanks! I will look into the possible engineering solutions available in upcoming systems, I am hopeful we can at least mitigate some of this issue.

Chris Morris
Reply to  Steve Cushman
January 4, 2021 12:08 am

That is wrong Steve. Geysers is a very unusual field as geothermal ones go, tapping superheated steam. Most of the geothermal fields in the world tap hot water at very high temperatures and pressures. The water is mineralised, but other than calcite which is easily removed, don’t scale up. At Wairakei, which has been operating longer than geysers, there are production wells still in service drilled in the 50s and 60s.
The maintenance costs might be higher on a per MW basis, but the fuel cost (replacement wells) is very low. The machines at Wairakei have all done over 400k operating hours and are mainly still original components. . Not many thermal plants can match that.

January 3, 2021 3:00 pm

After tax breaks and rebates, all this cost us about $40K


wish they would kill the tax breaks on this crap.

Last edited 2 years ago by Dmacleo
Pat from kerbob
January 3, 2021 3:09 pm

Looks like Judith lives a pretty swank lifestyle, nice house
And good for her by the way

15 year pay back on 40k must assume low maintenance and no major failures?

If your grid is pretty clean already then solar and Tesla batteries really is expensive virtue signalling that most cannot afford even if there was reason to do so?
But I imagine Justin Trudeau would approve which means automatic fail.

And why is a gas range bad for indoor air quality, I have ~60 houseplants and since we switched to gas stove they love it, we love it
Win win

I’m surprised about much of this from her, she seems like an elitist after reading this

Reply to  Pat from kerbob
January 3, 2021 3:37 pm

One ill fated surge and those Tesla Powerwalls take out part of the house or more.

Reply to  Scissor
January 3, 2021 5:04 pm

And they don’t “generate” any electricity

Last edited 2 years ago by fred250
Reply to  fred250
January 3, 2021 5:52 pm

No, they generate waste heat, though would be useful for intermittent power failures.

Ed MacAulay
Reply to  Scissor
January 4, 2021 7:00 am

Note that the powerwalls and solar panels are on the garage. I wondered why the south facing wall was a blank wall with no windows. So could lose the garage without house damage?

Reply to  Pat from kerbob
January 4, 2021 12:46 pm

The 15 year payback estimate probably doesn’t include the cost of money – i.e. the opportunity cost of that $40k or the cost of borrowing the $40k. At 6% for a home improvement loan with an 84 month term, the payback is over $60k.

One study did a 2-hour stove burn in a well sealed house and only got to marginal air quality. A 2-hour burn is possible, but it’s rare to use your stove for more than 20 minutes. The average house exchanges all of its indoor air with outside air in about an hour so the combustion products from any stove use are typically GONE in a hour. The EPA recommends an air exchange rate of at least a complete exchange of air every 3 hours, so even if you did use your stove for two hours, the marginal indoor air quality cannot persist for any significant length of time. This is just more carnival barking by dishonest climate alarmists.

January 3, 2021 3:20 pm

Solar roofs represent b y far the most complicated and expensive means of supplying a house with power. They also make little sense in locales of low irradiation levels. Making each house a virtual (but not actual) stanbdalone power system ignores the vast efficiencies one gains from a grid system, Those houses still need to be connected to a grid, so nothing is saved by attempting (but failing) to make houses energy independent. And of course, requiring a $5,000 inverter just to transform solar DC power to AC means millions of
pieces of equipment that duplicates what a grid can do. And those inverters do not have a very lengthy lifespan. And the homeowner has to pay extra for any roofing, since the solar panels need to be removed and reinstalled. He also must pay for maintaining the system. And solar panels after 20 years are in significant decline. And solar roof owners are being wildly subsidized by all of his neighbors in 1) the cost of the panels and 2) the inflated prices that the grid must pay him for what is basically low valued power. Solar roof owners should be banned fom dumping their unwanted power on to the grid,
The other astounding point of this article is its sheer ignorance of the imminent and most fantastic power technology EVA!!! Molten salt small modular reactors will arrive well before the end of this decade and blow away al other power technologies

Reply to  ColMosby
January 3, 2021 5:41 pm

Many parts of your rant are accurate, but it seems you have missed a few things. Let’s review this point-by-point:

“Solar roofs represent by far the most complicated and expensive means of supplying a house with power.”
Complexity is not, in itself, an issue that most people care about. Case-in-point: the computer which you typed this message on is immensely complicated, yet many computers are quite affordable and reliable and they have become quite popular. The internet by which your message was transmitted is likewise very complicated.
Regarding cost, the following is actually the current situation:

  • At higher latitudes, you are absolutely correct about cost: Photovoltaics is far more expensive than other forms of electricity production, especially without any subsidies.
  • At lower latitudes, you are absolutely incorrect about cost: Photovoltaics is far LESS expensive than other forms of electricity production, even without any subsidies (including net metering) and including the costs of batteries, maintenance and repairs.
  • At the middle latitudes such as one finds in the continental United States, photovoltaics is a mixed bag. It may be the cheapest and best form of generation to provide some fraction of the load in places where the load peaks during the daytime. More on solar later in the post.

“They also make little sense in locales of low irradiation levels.”
Agreed. This is true regardless of latitude. Clouds, trees, roofs that do not face the sun, etc., are all issues.

“Making each house a virtual (but not actual) stanbdalone power system ignores the vast efficiencies one gains from a grid system, Those houses still need to be connected to a grid, so nothing is saved by attempting (but failing) to make houses energy independent.”
I will not argue that the modern electrical grid is one of the most amazing inventions of Nikola Tesla that has improved life dramatically the world over. That said, there are both benefits and drawbacks to this 20th-century development vis-a-vis home-based photovoltaics. Let’s review a few of the trade-offs that currently exist with the incumbent system:

  • The generation and control of the existing power grid are centralized. As a result, the power companies which provide electricity operate as either regulated monopolies or sometimes as part of the government. Photovoltaic systems which rely on the grid do not change this equation. However, photovoltaic systems which are standalone move control from the central authority to the individual owner. IMO, that is a very good thing which you have completely ignored.
  • Centralized systems have the undesirable characteristic of taking out vast quantities of customers at the same time. In some cases, tens of millions of people are impacted by electricity outages. These outages are not always short-lived. For instance, the ice storm that hit Montreal, Canada, in December 2006 destroyed the large transmission towers that carry the electricity. As a result, many people were without power in sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures for OVER ONE MONTH. Outages of standalone systems may, individually, be more frequent, but they only impact a single household. To be fair, that same storm that took out electricity in Montreal in 2006 would have covered all of the photovoltaic panels in much of North America with snow, also eliminating their production. However, those systems were not damaged, but merely needed to be cleared of the snow. For many systems, that is task that can be done from the ground and is akin to clearing one’s driveway.
  • Most of the fossil-fuel energy is lost as heat in the generation of electricity in centralized power plants. IMO, it would be better to use natural gas to heat homes than to heat power plants (and their nearby lakes and atmosphere). Of the electricity that leaves the plant, 6% of that is lost in transmission to our homes. In contrast, photovoltaics convert about 20% of the sunlight that would have heated and degraded roofing shingles into DC electricity. The inverter(s) which convert the DC electricity in AC lose between 1% and 4% of that electricity as heat.
  • The power grid has been, and still is, built and maintained through massive government subsidies. Photovoltaics, is also such, but so far the amount of that subsidy has not reached what has been spent on grid electrification.
  • At lower latitudes, such as in Hawaii, a homeowner can purchase an unsubsidized photovoltaic system complete with batteries to provide all their electricity needs for MUCH less than they would spend simply purchasing electricity from the power company. This includes all maintenance and replacement costs forever. As the latitude increases this equation crosses over to the point where it is cheaper to purchase electricity more cheaply from the power company. The average latitude where this is true gets higher and higher as prices for photovoltaics and batteries go down and as grid electricity prices increase.
Tim Gorman
Reply to  RegGuheert
January 4, 2021 2:58 pm


However, those systems were not damaged, but merely needed to be cleared of the snow. For many systems, that is task that can be done from the ground and is akin to clearing one’s driveway.”

Not so easy or safe with roof-mounted installations.

Reply to  ColMosby
January 3, 2021 6:15 pm

Molten Salt … go see the failure of the one billion dollar Crescent Dunes project.

It turns out that containing a molten metal within solid metal housing is far more difficult than imagined.

Reply to  ColMosby
January 3, 2021 6:18 pm


“And of course, requiring a $5,000 inverter just to transform solar DC power to AC means millions of pieces of equipment that duplicates what a grid can do. And those inverters do not have a very lengthy lifespan.”
No argument. This is all true. When a central inverter is used, the lifespan is on the order of ten years.
When microinverters are used, about 50 times as many inverters need to be produced, making the system even more complex. These devices are warranted to last for 25 years and designed to last for over 30 years. Do they? No, many do not, but it seems the situation is steadily improving. The benefit of this approach is that when inverters die, the system is only slightly degraded.
But the fact remains: there is an environmental impact due to the production and disposal of all of this equipment.
Similarly, there is a very large impact to the environment when huge machines level the beautiful mountains of West Virginia and other places to access the coal that is used to power many of our homes. Last time I looked into this, about 10% of the mountain tops in the parts of WV that have coal have already been removed to access coal.

“And the homeowner has to pay extra for any roofing, since the solar panels need to be removed and reinstalled.”
This is true, but I hardly see why it is much of an issue. Three points here:

  • High-quality roofing materials should last about as long as photovoltaic panels.
  • Photovoltaic panels protect the roofing materials that they cover, which is typically the portion which is hit by the most sunlight.
  • I highly recommend that anyone installing photovoltaics with older roofing replace the roofing prior to installing the photovoltaics.

“He also must pay for maintaining the system.”
That is true, and many people do not consider those costs when they purchase a system. That said, microinverters and photovoltaic panels typically come with a 25-year parts warranty. Many installers warrant their labor for about 10 years. After that, you are on your own.

“And solar panels after 20 years are in significant decline.”
I’ll call BS on this one.
I personally have 24 120W photovoltaic panels that I installed in my field near my house over 21 years ago. Each and every one of them still produces nearly as much electricity as the day they were installed.
I also have 42 235W photovoltaic panels which I installed on my roof over 10 years ago and those, likewise are still producing nearly as much electricity as they did when they are new.

“And solar roof owners are being wildly subsidized by all of his neighbors in 1) the cost of the panels and 2) the inflated prices that the grid must pay him for what is basically low valued power.”
That is true. I will point out that, in some cases, the photovoltaic panels produce electricity at the time when it is most valuable. OTOH, if you add enough photovoltaics that are dumping onto the grid, eventually the value of the electricity at those times will be lower or even negative.

“Solar roof owners should be banned fom dumping their unwanted power on to the grid.”
I don’t know if we should be banned, but I agree that we should be paid equitably rather than heavily subsidized, as the current net-metering systems typically do. You will be happy to learn that these changes are happening as the amount of photovoltaic generation increases. For instance, Hawaii no longer allows new photovoltaic installations to put electricity onto their grid and states like North Carolina have changed how net metering works so that homeowners who put electricity onto the grid are paid an equitable amount for that electricity.

Roger Knights
Reply to  RegGuheert
January 3, 2021 9:25 pm

It may be that the current cheap solar panels don’t last as long as those sold 10 or 20 years ago.

Reply to  Roger Knights
January 4, 2021 3:21 am

That’s possible, but the warranties haven’t gotten lower with the prices.

In the case of microinverters, I’m quite sure the quality and durability has IMPROVED in spite of the fact that the manufacturing cost have come down by about a factor of 10X (per watt). That the result of both improvements in power electronics technology as well as improvements in the design and manufacture of the specific units.

David A
Reply to  Roger Knights
January 4, 2021 5:43 am

There are major companies like LG, producing panels that guarantee 93% plus production after 25 years.

What is a California resident to do when State MANDATED policy and subsides drive up the cost of his power to $300 a month! So then solar gives him a 5 year buyback. Can you blame them? When in Rome…

Last edited 2 years ago by David A
Reply to  RegGuheert
January 4, 2021 4:15 pm

The problem with paying solar roof owners for excess power is that excess solar power is most available for just a few hours around noon – when the power is generally not needed by the grid and can even cause problems. Learn about the duck curve:


By the way, the last paragraph in the reference about battery storage to help stabilize unreliable renewables is misleading – batteries are 25x too expensive and it’s unlikely that their cost will ever drop by more than a factor of 3 or 4.

Summarizing: demand for electricity peaks in the early evening hours, typically from 5 pm to 7 pm when solar produces essentially no power. Solar is therefore quite useless for meeting grid demand. That’s why many utilities no longer pay for (or subsidize) home solar. That’s why it’s extremely bad public policy to subsidize solar.

Reply to  ColMosby
January 4, 2021 3:44 pm

While Molten Salt Small modular reactors show promise, MSRs will not provide ANY electricity by the end of the decade. There are still material corrosion problems that need to be addressed, and once those corrosion problems are dealt with, it’ll take MUCH LONGER than the end of the decade just to get one licensed and constructed. I’d like to believe that you’re right as I’m a nuclear engineer but you’re simply wrong.

Why do you persist with this misinformation, are you invested?

Ed Bo
January 3, 2021 3:27 pm

It is easy to convert atmospheric CO₂ to ethanol in solution; and it is easy to upgrade ethanol into other fuels.”

At an absolute thermodynamic minimum, it takes as much energy to convert CO2 and H2O into ethanol as you can get out of converting (“burning”) ethanol into CO2 and H2O (even before trying to get it out of solution). Since neither process can be perfect, it is a net round trip loss.

The only way this could possibly make sense is as a storage mechanism for intermittent renewables. But you would have to very carefully evaluate the economics of it, and compare it to other possible storage technologies.

Joel O'Bryan
Reply to  Ed Bo
January 3, 2021 5:50 pm

No one and no Earthly plant makes ethanol directly from CO2. Plants (via photosynthesis) first turn CO2 into sugars in the dark reactions of the Calvin cycle. Those sugars become cellulose, starches that make up the plant. Then it is yeast that oxidizes the plant-derived sugars via fermentation into ethanol (my beer, your wine and whiskey). Petroleum derived liquid-gas distillates also can produce a separable ethane fraction. This ethane can be chemically oxidized one step to make ethanol.

So ethanol (both for drinking and driving in your car) comes from organic sugars, cellulose, and starches in yeast fermentation bio-reactions (booze and ethanol-gas additive) or via petroleum distillate-derived ethane oxidized to ethanol. The difference is radio-logically distinguishable by beta decay. Organic sugar based ethanol will be slightly radioactive due to the presence of carbon-14 incorporation while petroleum-derived ethanol will have no detectable carbon-14 beta emissions (due to 14-C’s short 5,730 yr half-life).

No one and nothing makes ethanol directly from CO2.

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
January 3, 2021 6:20 pm

I used to know a guy at NREL that said, “Drink the best, burn the rest.” Can’t say I disagree.

Reply to  Scissor
January 3, 2021 10:46 pm

As to that. I just want to say that I’m doing my small part with the first part. 😁

January 3, 2021 3:30 pm

I predict more house fires.

Reply to  Scissor
January 3, 2021 5:08 pm

And once the battery starts burning good luck with both putting it out and dealing with the toxic smoke and sludge

Reply to  John MCCUTCHEON
January 3, 2021 5:59 pm

You’re right. Batteries present fire hazards, whether they are in EVs, airplanes or homes. Apparently, house fires caused by them are affectionately known as “thermal events.” These events can be quite costly.



Reply to  Scissor
January 3, 2021 7:03 pm

Those issues are real, but not all Li-ion batteries are created equal.

Here is a video of puncture and crush tests of the battery used in the Enphase battery offering:


This battery is not only very safe, but it also has extremely long life (for a battery). Here is some data from the manufacturer:


Last edited 2 years ago by RegGuheert
January 3, 2021 3:54 pm


What is your definition of Clean?

Does Clean refer to lower CO2? If so, I think you are way off base with your position. CO2 is not poison. CO2 is plant food. CO2 is a green house gas, but at the concentration increases projected, we are just delaying inevitable future glaciation. CO2 is not dirty and is beneficial to mankind.

Reply to  RelPerm
January 3, 2021 5:16 pm

Not just to mankind….

ALL LIFE ON EARTH is totally dependent on atmospheric CO2.

January 3, 2021 4:12 pm

Cool house. 🙂 I always thought the Tesla Power Walls were wall-sized. Silly me.

January 3, 2021 4:17 pm

Our house was built in the 1980’s, with a fairly ingenious passive solar design that allows mid winter sun to pour into the house, both directly into living spaces and also into higher levels, where it warms up stone walls, also with ceiling fans to bring the heat downwards.

In summer, when the sun is angled higher, little sunlight enters into the house. So our wintertime heating bill is relatively low.

I’ve got news for you … nothing ingenious about good design, this was standard teaching in architecture faculties through the 70’s when I was a student.

Leo Smith
Reply to  Streetcred
January 4, 2021 1:03 am

It has been standard practice in the Mediterranean since Roman times…

Joel O'Bryan
January 3, 2021 5:11 pm

So many people are living in fantasy land when it comes to the high costs involved in all these grand new energy schemes. The people who dream them up are obviously living large with 6-figure+ lifestyles in big high-ceiling modern homes wondering why everyone can’t afford this stuff as they do, and going out and buying that $60,000 EV or plug-in hybrid automobile.

The reality of the socialist utopia climate scam is best summed up by George Orwell’s vision of the future:
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human faceforever. ”

January 3, 2021 5:14 pm
Reply to  fred250
January 3, 2021 6:04 pm

Oligomerization can be used to convert gasoline range hydrocarbons to kerosene and diesel range fuels, at expense of course.

Reply to  fred250
January 3, 2021 6:11 pm

Not to mention the money going to the various levels of governments from gas taxes will vanish.

Reply to  PaulH
January 3, 2021 7:29 pm

Nah. Many governments already make up the difference by charging the difference in registration costs.

Walter Sobchak
January 3, 2021 6:12 pm

“The problem with nuclear is the high cost.”

Compared to what?

Pat Frank
January 3, 2021 6:30 pm

We observed stunning declines in the cost of [wind and solar]

I stopped reading there. Disingenuous nonsense.

Reply to  Pat Frank
January 3, 2021 7:53 pm

Prices, yes. Costs, perhaps, with various shared/shifted/obfuscation schemes.

January 3, 2021 6:42 pm

I’m not all negative on battery technologies, as it is enabling of all kind of neat devices. This one is cool.

Reply to  Scissor
January 3, 2021 9:42 pm

I used to windsurf. No battery included. 😁

January 3, 2021 9:39 pm

One of the costing errors of renewables vs. Fossils is the omission of rebates, tax breaks, and replacement/ maintenance/ environmental costs of renewables.
Then I saw some number for renewable storage at $20/kWh vs. $.06.5/kWh for nuclear (which was quickly dismissed).
The rest of the article was just futuristic dreaming wearing those old rose coloured glasses.
I don’t mind sharing futuristic dreams. It’s fun. It’s just not a practical method of establishing private and or national energy security.

January 3, 2021 10:30 pm

We are assured by the renewables salesmen-activists-stakeholders that:

  • renewables are already the cheapest energy source
  • renewables are reliable and don’t have technical or environmental problems (cats are worse)
  • intermittency isn’t a problem (solved by smart metering and smart-whatever)
  • Batteries (also too cheap to meter) can convert intermittent supply into baseload/load following supply

If all this is true, as is strenuously and continually asserted, then
Why the apparently desperate ongoing search for new technologies?
Why this post even?

Iain Reid
January 4, 2021 12:59 am

There seems to be a general acceptance that wind and solar can be considered as a simple replacement for fossil fuelled generation. This is a fallacy and not well known. Neither are synchronous and neither have inertia, both characteristics that are necessary for grid stability.

If there really is a need to decarbonise or reduce the CO2 from generation the answer has been available for decades, namely nuclear. Not that we can run 100% large scale nuclear reactors as they cannot load follow so we still need fossil fuelled generation, at least until small mpodular reactors are proven to be able to load follow.

January 4, 2021 2:07 am

 But over the next 5 years we will probably replace our 3 gas furnaces, will look seriously into heat pumps and alternatives to natural gas furnaces.

OMG it seems even J.C. is had been brow beaten into accepting CO2 mythology.

Why would anyone replace gas! The CLEANEST energy source known to man

Mike Ozanne
January 4, 2021 2:11 am

Their technology could decarbonize aviation very suddenly.”

There is no decarbonising aviation, batteries and hydrogen won’t work on a commercially viable safety certified airframe, and bio-fuels increase CO2 emissions…

all that’s left is false accounting either through pretending that alternate fuels aren’t worse than AVTUR, or that offsets aren’t a con.

January 4, 2021 2:12 am

I love the headline image: a girl who does not need glasses pretending to look at a holgraphic screen which, for some odd reason, has been installed back to front !!

LOL, technology is going backwards as the age of enlightenment ends an we slip back into stone age ignorance.

Last edited 2 years ago by Greg
January 4, 2021 3:53 am

It seems Oxford Tokamak, a privately funded Fusion business is making significant inroads into the project that’s always 20 years away.

In 2018 they heated plasma to 15 million C and are targeting 100 million C by 2025. By 2030 they expect to have their first commercial Fusion reactor providing power to the grid.

These appear to be Mini Tokamak’s, not unlike the Lockheed Martin project. Their expectation is that a number of these small reactors can be operating at a single site, and individual units ‘switched’ off and on to respond to grid demand.

I understand a Korean project has reached 100 million C for 20 seconds, so Oxford’s ambition seems achievable. The timescale is, of course, the question.

Th British government has announced a project to encourage delivery of Fusion by 2050. Perhaps they are 20 years behind, again.

Of course government mandated technology has usually proven less than optimum.


John Pickens
Reply to  Hotscot
January 4, 2021 8:19 am

The problem with the Tokamak is, besides being 10 years away from a sustained, continuous operation, is radiation. The induced radiation makes the system impossible to service by on site humans. It will take major breakthroughs in robotics to work, and will dramatically add to the cost.

January 4, 2021 8:37 am

“I expect we will get a demonstration of energy-positive fusion in this decade”

10 years by now is an old bad joke.

Last edited 2 years ago by D. Anderson
Paul Penrose
January 4, 2021 10:00 am

Just to be clear: grid instability == blackouts
Whether planned, rolling, or unexpected, most Americans will not tolerate frequent electrical blackouts for very long. Increased costs of these intermittent, inefficient power sources will only serve to bring the consumers to the boiling point quicker.

Coach Springer
January 4, 2021 10:20 am

Where’s the urgency? In politics and activism. Certainly in our improved climate and environment.

Michael E McHenry
January 4, 2021 11:21 am

I think a big driver in innovation will be the aftermath of COVID. People have been working and educating at home for significant amount time. This will be a driver to enhance that culture. Brick and mortar financial centers like NYC may become irrelevant.

January 5, 2021 12:03 am

A question inspired by the illustration.

What is the point of transparent display screens? Surely it would be harder to see what is on the screen if what is behind the screen is also visible.

January 7, 2021 4:19 pm

Coming from Judith, this article is surprising – surprisingly bad.

She is backing geothermal energy as a likely replacement. Except for a few places on Earth such as on the Ring of Fire, geothermal energy is commercially unviable. The reason? Carnot’s Law of Thermal Efficiency. Governments in Australia have thrown vast amounts of grants and subsidies at such projects; all have failed.

Many people see there are vast amounts of energy apparently available in the environment, but this is too simplistic. Yes, there is a lot of energy in waves, in solar radiation, in wind, in the rocks beneath our feet, even in the deep oceans. However, extracting it is constrained by physical laws that place absolute limits on how much can be extracted e.g. Carnot’s Law and Betz’s Law regarding wind power. People promoting theses schemes seem to be unaware of these laws.
Another physical constraint is the energy density of these natural energy sources, with most of these being too low to be economically viable. Even solar farms on the equator need to be propped up by the long-suffering taxpayer. Only remoteness from other energy sources make them worthwhile in limited circumstances. The third physical constraint is that all require some technology and equipment to do the extraction. These all wear out (marine environments are particularly harsh) and require maintenance or replacement but this cost is rarely factored in.

The fourth physical problem is more well-known – intermittency and unreliability. This of course means that you have to add smoothing, buffering, and storage facilities to any proposed energy system. These all add enormously to the complexity of any such energy system. Merely adding renewables to existing systems without doing so can cripple existing systems, as people from California to Europe to Australia have already experienced.

These are always ignored by those used-car salesmen masquerading as Green New Deal spokepersons. And all this is even before you start to think about capital raising, cashflow, amortisation, return on investment, the regulatory environment, sovereign risk, waste disposal etc. That’s why they need Big Brother to step in and order this be done by diktat, regardless of the cost.

One could go on about her views on hydrogen-powered planes, ethanol from CO2, and nuclear fusion but perhaps the less said about these, the better.

Very, very disappointing, Judith.

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