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This isn’t going to work

If an energy policy sounds too good to be true, that is usually because it is.  Take, for example, just one of the jigsaw pieces in current policy for reaching net zero by 2050: electric car batteries.  Jillian Ambrose – who should know better – at the Guardian reports this weekend that:

“Ofgem plans to make it easier for electric vehicle drivers to sell the energy stored in their car batteries back to power grid as part of a move to help make the switch away from fossil fuel cars more affordable.

“Under the plan put forward by Great Britain’s energy regulator, electric vehicle drivers could earn money by effectively transforming their cars into mobile power plants by releasing power back to the energy network when demand on the electricity grid reaches a peak.

“If enough drivers take up the chance to make money from their car batteries by using vehicle-to-grid technology, the UK could avoid investing in new power plants with the equivalent generation capacity of up to 10 large nuclear power stations.”

This is wishful thinking on steroids.  While it is true that if all of the UK’s 37 million cars were replaced with battery electric cars, and assuming that all were fitted with a mid-range – 98KW -battery, they could provide 3,100GW of power to the grid – just shy of the 3,200GW from 10 nuclear plants – they could only do it for about an hour.  A battery is not a source of power, it is merely a storage medium.  For comparison, a recent report the Manhattan Institute finds that:

“The annual output of Tesla’s Gigafactory, the world’s largest battery factory, could store three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electricity demand. It would require 1,000 years of production to make enough batteries for two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand. Meanwhile, 50–100 pounds of materials are mined, moved, and processed for every pound of battery produced.”

In any case, given that car sales have been crashing in recent years and given that most of us are getting poorer, many of those 37 million cars are going to be scrapped rather than replaced with more expensive EVs.  Moreover, capacity is just the easiest to understand of the limitations on EV batteries as a storage option.  As Alan Brent, a Professor in Sustainable Energy Systems at Victoria University of Wellington explained in a Conversation article last year:

“… manufacturers of electric vehicles have been reluctant, at first, to allow the bidirectional flow of power, for two reasons.

“First, it could accelerate the degradation of batteries, which means they would need to be replaced more often. Second, the EV has to connect to the grid in the same way a solar photovoltaic system does, complying with standards to protect line operators and maintenance personnel working on the grid.”

Indeed, Tesla – currently the world leader on battery-electric cars – has ruled out car batteries as a storage medium, according to Zachary Shahan at Renew Economy:

“Tesla CTO JB Straubel is one of the most respected battery experts on the planet, and a few weeks ago we shared an interesting video of him talking about batteries in which he touched on the topic late in the 36-minute video.  His statements echoed what he has said previously (I think at the 2016 Tesla Shareholder Meeting), which I was already planning to write about, so I’m happy I can now highlight this video as a useful reference for future discussions.

V2G & smart charging: Notably, the summary is that JB makes the case that it doesn’t make economic sense for EVs to send electricity back to the grid, but that ‘dynamic charging’ (aka ‘smart charging’) of EVs at times convenient to the grid is coming…

Reusing EV batteries for grid storage: Just before discussing V2G tech, JB explained why another popular topic also isn’t as great as it sounds… On the face of it, a common assumption among cleantech enthusiasts is that EV batteries that have already completed their useful purpose in a car would be super cheap but still useful for grid storage. JB and the Tesla team seemingly thought so as well, as JB indicates they’ve looked into the matter a number of times. However, what they found is that this also doesn’t make as much sense as many people think. (Basically, the best thing to do with old EV batteries is seemingly to just recycle them and use most of the materials in new batteries).”

In the real world, the best we can look forward to then, is the installation of smart chargers to prevent EVs from drawing electricity when demand is too high.  Grid storage will have to come from somewhere else.  And the most likely option is pumped hydro – which will no doubt alarm the rural populations of the Scottish and Welsh valleys which would have to be flooded to provide anything like the back-up required for a fossil fuel-free energy system.

The truth, of course, is that all of these green fantasies are going to founder on Roger Pielke’s Iron Law of Climate Policy:

“When policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time.”

A world powered with a fraction of the annual solar power arriving on Planet Earth can only have a tiny fraction of the economic activity of the current economy powered by millions of years of sunlight embodied in fossil fuels.  And in any case, despite our best efforts, renewable energy has yet to replace a single millilitre, milligram or cubic centimetre of fossil fuels – it has merely been added to the global growth machine.  As Robert Rapier at Forbes explains:

“Despite the blistering growth rate of renewables, it’s important to keep in mind that overall global energy consumption is growing. Even though global renewable energy consumption has increased by about 21 exajoules in the past decade, overall energy consumption has increased by 51 exajoules. Increased fossil fuel consumption made up most of this growth, with every category of fossil fuels showing increased consumption over the decade (although coal’s growth was close to zero).

“Thus, while renewables have helped reduce the growth of carbon dioxide emissions, global carbon emissions have grown due to the overall growth rate of fossil energy consumption…”

The “energy revolution” which a majority of us wants to see, will not be built on mature technologies like solar panels, wind turbines and pressurised water reactors whose easy efficiency gains were made decades ago.  If it is to come from anywhere it will come from entirely new theoretical science; free from preconceptions and financial vested interests.  And if not?  Then no amount of electric car batteries plugged into the grid is going to save your way of life or prevent the collapse of western civilisation.

As you made it to the end…

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