As I’ve been pointing out now for a couple of years, the obvious gap in the plans of our betters for a carbon-free “net zero” energy future is the problem of massive-scale energy storage. How exactly is New York City (for example) going to provide its citizens with power for a long and dark full-week period in the winter, with calm winds, long nights, and overcast days, after everyone has been required to change over to electric heat and electric cars — and all the electricity is supposed to come from the wind and sun, which are neither blowing nor shining for these extended periods? Can someone please calculate how much energy storage will be needed to cover a worst-case solar/wind drought, what it will consist of, how long it has to last, how much it will cost, and whether it is economically feasible? Nearly all descriptions by advocates of the supposed path to “net zero” — including the ambitious plans of the states of New York and California — completely gloss over this issue and/or deal with it in a way demonstrating total incompetence and failure to comprehend the problem.
And then suddenly appeared in my inbox a couple of weeks ago a large Report with the title “The Future of Energy Storage: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study.” MIT — that’s America’s premier university for matters of science and technology. The Report is 378 pages long, full of lots of detail, charts and graphs, mathematical equations, and technical jargon. It lists as authors some 18 members of the MIT faculty. Surely, if anyone can address this “net zero” energy storage problem competently, these will be the people.
Sorry. This is a product of modern American academia. MIT is as extreme left as any of them.
Having now spent about a week trying to wade through this morass, I am not impressed. The Report is an exercise by genius would-be central planners concocting enormously complex models that just happen to come to the results that the authors are hoping for, while at the same time they avoid ever directly addressing the critical question, namely what is the plan to get through that worst case sun/wind drought. Implicit in every page of the Report is that it is an advocacy document for the proposition that the U.S. should embark full speed ahead on crash “net zero” plans for our multi-tens-of-trillions-of-dollars economy without ever doing any kind of demonstration project to show it can work on any scale no matter how small.
You start to get an idea where this is going at the very beginning, when you come on page romanette v to a list of members of an “Advisory Committee” that appears to have given direction to the project. Members include John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, someone from the Environmental Defense Fund, an “Alternative Energy Research” guy from the Bank of America, an ex-World Bank guy (the World Bank being an organization dedicated to keeping poor countries from having access to energy that works), an environmental bureaucrat from the Massachusetts state government, several people from other alternative energy investors and environmental advocacy groups, and so forth. Clearly, this Report had to come to a pre-determined conclusion that energy storage issues do not pose any major impediment to net zero ambitions.
This being a product of left-wing academia, you can expect the usual touching faith in the ability of the federal government to solve all problems, no matter how intractable, by the magic of spending money out of the infinite federal pile. Thus, early in the Executive Summary, we find a recognition that the only battery storage technology currently being deployed in large amounts in commercial applications — namely Lithium Ion — cannot provide backup for periods longer than about 12 hours:
Li-ion batteries will continue to be a leading technology for EVs and for short-duration storage, but their storage capacity costs are unlikely to fall low enough to enable widespread adoption for long-duration (> 12 hours) electricity system applications.
OK then, what is the technology that will step up for the periods of a week or two that may need to be covered in a world without fossil fuels. From page xv:
To enable economical long-duration energy storage (> 12 hours), the DOE should support research, development, and demonstration to advance alternative electrochemical storage technologies that rely on earth-abundant materials. Cost, lifetime, and manufacturing scale requirements for long-duration energy storage favor the exploration of novel electro-chemical technologies, such as redox-flow and metal-air batteries that use inexpensive charge-storage materials and battery designs that are better suited for long-duration applications.
(Emphasis in original.). The feds will “support research” into “novel technologies,” of course using the infinite money pile, and the technology will magically appear. And what exactly is the technology that will then emerge to rescue us? They have no idea:
While several novel electrochemical technologies have shown promise, remaining knowledge gaps with respect to key scientific, engineering, and manufacturing challenges suggest high value for concerted government support. Innovation in these technologies is being actively pursued in other countries, notably China.
You’ve got to hate those “knowledge gaps,” but clearly all that is needed to fill them is enough federal funding. And you can’t let those Chinese beat us!
Well, how about just using that ubiquitous element hydrogen, easily available through the electrolysis of water? They discuss that too:
[H]ydrogen produced via electrolysis can serve as a low-carbon fuel for industry as well as for electricity generation during periods when VRE [variable renewable energy] generation is low. . . . We support the effort that the DOE is leading to create a national strategy that addresses hydrogen production, transportation, and storage. In particular, the ability of existing natural gas transmission pipelines to carry hydrogen without suffering embrittlement, either at reduced pressures or if hydrogen is blended with natural gas or other compounds, remains an open question that deserves government-supported study by the DOE and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Funny that private investors aren’t putting any real money into this “hydrogen economy” thing. That’s because to get hydrogen out of water is extremely costly, and once you have it, it is inferior to natural gas in every way as a source of energy for the people. It’s less dense, more dangerous, and more difficult to transport and store. But again, throw in some of the infinite pile of federal money and it will all magically work.
Many of the charts and graphs are very complicated and technical, but if you spend some time with them, you start to realize that they are an insult to your intelligence. I’ll give you just one of my favorites, this one from page 191. Here we are considering what the electricity generation system will look like for two regions, the Northeast (New York and New England) and Texas, in various low and no-carbon scenarios. The cutoffs of 0g, 5g, 10g and No Limit at the left refer to how much carbon emissions are allowed per kWh of electricity generated.
Thus at the top right we see what a zero-carbon scenario will look like for Texas. Supposedly, with about a 3 to 4 times overbuild of a system having only wind and solar generation, then we will only need battery storage for about 50% of capacity and about 11 hours duration. Really? Does anybody remember February 2021? Texas’s wind and solar generators produced at less than 10% capacity for days on end. Can a three times overbuild of wind capacity and 12 hours of battery storage solve that? The answer is no. Not even close. And you could get a wind/solar drought of a full week. If you have no fossil fuel backup, you had better have enough storage to cover that.
And if you take some time to study this chart (not saying that I would recommend that) you can find multiple other equally implausible assertions.
Bottom line: I’m not trusting anybody’s so-called “model” to prove that this gigantic energy transformation is going to work. Show me the demonstration project that actually works.