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Clean Energy Advances, Despite Our Idiot in the Oval Office

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Obviously the Trump administration is doing whatever it can to reinforce dirty energy and the monstrous global corporations that support it. But despite his bluster, he ain’t bringing back coal jobs in West Virginia. Everybody knows that, even people in West Virginia. Well, everyone but Trump. Anyway, the news on clean energy advances is actually pretty good.

Global investment in clean energy fell in 2016 — and that’s largely a good thing.

The world spent less money to build even higher amounts of renewable electricity compared to 2015, according to a report released Thursday. That means wind, solar, and other technologies are becoming cheaper, and in many places they’re now cost-competitive with coal and natural gas.

Companies and governments added a record 138,500 megawatts of new wind, solar, biomass, waste-to-energy, geothermal, small hydro and marine sources in 2016, the report found. That’s up 8 percent from the 127,500 megawatts added the previous year.

If it is costing less to produce more renewable energy, this is a very, very good sign for all of us. Even those who hate hippie energy. Clean energy, not counting enormous hydropower dams, now make up 11.3% of the world’s electricity, up from 10.3% a year ago.

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  • Thom

    As I said on another thread, the suburban Texas town where I live is now sourcing all the power for its city-owned electrical utility from wind and solar. They did this to lock in a stable price, compared to the boom/bust of fossil sources.

    • Karen24

      Georgetown?

      Wind is probably the fastest-growing industry in Texas. West Texas — which has nothing but wind to recommend it — is covered in wind farms now. This is such good news.

      • Thom

        Yep, Georgetown. Believe it or not.

      • Bronze

        O’ give me a home, where the turbines roam,
        And the solar and the eth’nol play,
        Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
        And the skies are not smokey all day

  • humanoid.panda

    Can’t help but observe that much of this comes from the work of capitalist corporations. Environmentalists can’t ignore the fact that green corporations are still corporations. Social democrats shouldn’t ignore that the market is pretty good in delivering innovations..

    • Steve LaBonne

      The latter is exactly what social democrats don’t ignore, which is why we aren’t socialists.

      • humanoid.panda

        Well, this is getting into semantics, but historically, social democrats are socialists. And I think Erik, despite his rhetoric, is a social democrat not a “pure” socialist.

        • Aaron Morrow

          I know I’ve confused social democracy and democratic socialism in the past.

          • Linnaeus

            To be fair, there’s quite a bit of overlap between the two, given that social democracy grew out of socialist movements.

    • PunditusMaximus

      I’m so old I remember when the government subsidized both the basic research these companies rely on and the companies themselves as they started up.

  • Derelict

    Good news for renewables, but I sure wish we’d stop building windmills. They kill tens of thousands of birds and render large areas around them uninhabitable due to noise. That’s not really environmentally friendly. At all.

    • FMguru

      The other side of renewables is electricity storage (which is critical because renewables are intermittent) which are also showing Moore’s Law-like advances – the price of Lithium-Ion battery storage has fallen 77% since 2010 and there’s every sign it will continue to drop (just from efficiencies of scale as volume ramps up). Plus there’s lots of other storage technology on the horizon that is just coming into viability (molten salt, flow batteries) or is a little further off (air-metal batteries, supercaps). There’s some fun utility-scale technologies bubbling along, too, like compressed air storage and expanding pumped hydro systems.

      The pace of all of this stuff is relentless, and even the worst-behaving Trump appointees can only slow it down for a bit. I highly recommend checking out new energy news sites like Cleantechnica and Greentechmedia – there’s a lot of rah-rah nonsense (especially about Tesla) and reprinted press releases (gotta fill that front page queue somehow, I guess), but if you scrape through that you’ll see a sector that is changing the world in astonishing ways.

      • FMguru

        My kingdom for an Edit button (sigh…)

        • addicted44

          Joe Romm (at ThinkProgress) is also a good source for this stuff. He has some really good articles showing the really amazing drops in clean energy prices, and in addition, showing how the price of solar, for example, is way ahead of the most optimistic estimates from years ago.

      • UnderTheSun

        Is Trump an idiot? He probably knows which way the wind is blowing on clean energy and that it’s unstoppable so why not support dirty energy and keep his base happy as it won’t have much effect anyway.
        As he said in his memoirs:

        The day I realised it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience.

    • tribble

      Windmills kill roughly 5% as many birds as cell and radio towers (~300k per year vs ~6.8 million per year). Even if we scale wind power up by a factor 100, it would be fewer bird deaths than those caused by automobiles (roughly 200 million per year). Buildings kill almost 600 million birds each year. As far as birds dying due to the built environment, wind power is not near the top of the lethality list.

      And cats kill more than 2 billion birds every year.

      • addicted44

        Windmills also kill a fraction of the birds killed by the equivalent dirty sources of energy they replace.

        This may be an argument to improve windmill design (which has constantly been done!) but it’s hardly an argument against wind in lieu of dirtier sources of energy.

        • tribble

          Right.

          Similarly, with ~82 GW of installed wind energy, there are roughly 100k to 200k giant wind turbines in the US currently. Those bird death numbers imply that each gigantic spinning death machine kills roughly 3 birds per year on average.

          Something to keep an eye on, not something to fret over, in my opinion.

          • sibusisodan

            Is it wrong that I now want to refer to them as giant spinning death machines? It’s probably wrong.

            “In energy news, today 10% of US energy generation came from giant spinning death machines. A further 5% from heaty heaty ow ow mirrors, and 7% from slow world ending explosion. And now, the hold cold wind rain talking…”

            • N__B

              Is it wrong that I now want to refer to them as giant spinning death machines? It’s probably wrong.

              Now that I’ve got some whiskey in me, I see a single solution to two problems: some of our wind-farm-friendliest environment is in states that like to execute people and are having trouble getting the drugs. Renaming windmills might encourage more construction…

              • Hogan

                I love you for that, and I hate you for that.

                • N__B

                  Mrs__B, is that you?

                • Hogan

                  I’ll ask the wine.

        • Derelict

          “X, which is just becoming widespread, does not kill as many birds as Y or Z, which are established and widespread. Nor does it kill as many birds as A, which is also established and widespread.”

          I do not take this as a logical underpinning for why building more wind is a good thing. Solar and tidal are much less environmentally disruptive. Hydro, though somewhat more environmentally disruptive, is also better than wind.

          Out of all the renewable sources, wind is close to the worst. Biomass is hideous–cut down trees that pull carbon out of the air and store it, then burn the trees to release the carbon back into the air might be carbon-neutral over a 500-year period, but isn’t even close on a 100-year time line. Waste to energy is only marginally better, since you’re taking one incredibly bad greenhouse gas (methane) and turning it into a somewhat less-bad greenhouse gas (CO2).

          • tribble

            The argument is that even at large scale deployment, wind will not cause anywhere near the number of deaths that society seems to find acceptable.

            If you google for cell tower bird deaths, you get ~400k hits. Wind energy gets 10 times the hits with 10% of the deaths. The difference in scrutiny seems more related to political principles than utilitarian ones.

            This shouldn’t stop researchers from seeking to reduce bird deaths from wind towers. They should totally do that! And apply it to all those deadly cell towers!

            Solar pv isn’t necessarily zero footprint, either. It competes for land resources that are needed for food production and habitat conservation. Also, it doesn’t work at night, which is when wind produces the most energy.

            Finally, the economic viability of tidal power isn’t even fully established at this point, let alone the environmental impact.

            • DrDick

              There are actually some new designs in commercial production designed to address this problem. I would provide a link if I could remember where I saw that.

          • MaxUtility

            Hydro is massively disruptive for the most part. It is also pretty widely built out already in the best locations so not really scalable. Micro-hydro might have some promise, but pretty untested so far.

            The bigger issue though is that we have to change our energy system now. Solar doesn’t work everywhere or at all times. Wind is simple, effective, scalable, and cheap. It’s impacts are minor compared to what it is replacing. If there’s a better option, I’d like to hear it. (Thorium *wink*)

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        “And cats kill more than 2 billion birds every year.”

        So, if the windmills could be designed to kill 1 million cats per year, then it would make up for the loss of birds?

        Sounds like a real challenge, but, you know, if you attach string to the windmill blades…

      • randy khan

        Just for reference, the Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that 10 billion birds breed in the U.S. every year, and that 20 billion are in the country during the fall migration. While lifespans vary enormously, small birds in the wild have a typical lifespan of about 2 years and there are a lot more small birds than big birds. (That robin you think is returning to your yard every year probably is the great-great-grandson of the first one you saw.) If you figure the average is 2.5 years, about 4 billion birds that breed in the U.S. die every year, and you could bump that up by 500 million to a billion to account for migrating birds.

        This means, among other things, that whatever reasonable number you come up with for wind turbines after they scale to maximum deployment, it’s a tiny fraction of normal mortality. (And almost certainly way less than hunting, which accounts for 15 million bird deaths a year.) (And also there are now vertical turbines being installed in all sorts of unlikely places that don’t generate huge amounts of power on an individual basis, but pose no hazard to birds.) It also means that the 2 billion estimate for cat killings of birds probably is much too high, although that’s not relevant to the turbine discussion.

      • Dennis Orphen

        I bicycle commute about 10 miles a day in the Sierra Foothills. I see fresh roadkill every day, multiple times. And don’t get me started on the garbage clearly thrown deliberately from moving cars.

    • MaxUtility

      Oil & gas facilities kill millions of birds while coal kills 10’s of millions. Neither is particularly nice to live around either. I’ll take windmills thanks.

    • delazeur

      You have no idea what you’re talking about, and your arguments are lifted straight out of the white papers of fossil fuel lobbyists.

    • Marek

      Even if that’s true, climate change might kill most of the birds. I think even the birds would agree that it’s worth tens of thousands to save the rest.

    • Area Man

      I thought I had heard every dumb argument against renewables, but the notion that wind turbines render vast swaths of land uninhabitable is a new one to me.

      For the record, wind turbines are relatively quiet, and while I wouldn’t necessarily want to live under one, I’d take that any day over living downwind of a coal plant. At any rate, wind farms are out in rural areas where almost no one lives, and the farmers and ranchers who live and work there are very, very happy to rent it to wind companies. Someone must have forgot to tell them that they can’t live there anymore.

  • Tyto

    NPR interviewed a bunch of West Virginians on this topic, most of whom understood precisely the problem of cheap natural gas. The other shoe to drop in those interviews was the observation that clean energy employs far more people than coal (though a skill/education gap certainly exists).

  • efgoldman

    There are a lot of laws Republiklowns don’t like, including the laws of physics, but I always thought they worshiped the laws of supply and demand at least as much as they worship pregnant-women loving jeebuz.

    • DrDick

      Republican supply and demand bears no resemblance to Adam Smith’s supply and demand, much like the relationship between the Biblical Jesus and Republican Jesus.

      • Derelict

        The oil and coal industries supply the campaign contributions that Republicans demand. What could be clearer?

  • DrDick

    Fortunately, at this point the economics are on the side of progress and renewables are on the upswing.

  • altofront

    There’s a relevant and interesting article on Vox today, talking about what it might take to get to 80% or 100% carbon-free.

    • Aaron Morrow

      Roberts mentioned his article from yesterday where he laid out the debate on the right path, but I’m linking to it again anyway.

      As FMguru noted above, storage is important, too, along with transmission. It would be revolutionary if those problems can be solved sooner rather than later.

      • addicted44

        I’m optimistic about storage, because even if the clean energy industry didn’t exist, the cellphone and the electric car industry would, and both have a lot of billions in profits to be made for whoever can crack the storage nut.

        Now it’s entirely possible that the law of physics prevent a great storage solution from being discovered, but I don’t think a lack of investment will be the reason we fail.

        • Aaron Morrow

          both have a lot of billions in profits to be made for whoever can crack the storage nut

          This is why I’m optimistic about costs coming down if a solution is found, as the learning curve from production would be immense. (As opposed to transmission, where we won’t be building scores of multiples of the same grid.)

          Since the profit motive has been there already, I remain neutral because we haven’t solved the problem yet. I’m not pessimistic, I just agree with Roberts that we have to make some tough decisions about generation in the short run because storage and generation haven’t been solved yet.

        • delazeur

          Now it’s entirely possible that the law of physics prevent a great storage solution from being discovered, but I don’t think a lack of investment will be the reason we fail.

          From a physics standpoint, I’m actually more optimistic about large-scale storage (i.e., multi-MWh storage) than small-scale storage (e.g., electric vehicle batteries). There’s some really interesting work being done at the Pacific Northwest National Lab.

        • Matt McIrvin

          The requirements for grid storage are a little different from those for cell phones and electric cars–you need greater capacity and longevity, but you don’t need the batteries to be nearly as compact. Things like flow batteries become maybe viable. But research aimed at better cell phone batteries won’t go in that direction.

          • Dennis Orphen

            I just charge my devices directly off of some solar panels repurposed from someone’s yacht. I don’t even need to use the inverter, it has a direct USB out.

    • Scott P.

      The first full test of the Joint Fusion Test Reactor has unfortunately been put back, but that’s still our best bet.

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  • ChrisS

    Popping the carbon bubble could have some nasty side effects.

    • FMguru

      Yeah. Holding drilling leases and owning a bunch of refineries and supertankers and pipelines is going to be less and less valuable over time, and there’s a possibility that if the pace of breakthroughs and deployments in renewables continues, that collapse in value could happen very quickly.

      Also, thanks to the moderators for their quick action on that troll.

      • delazeur

        Eh, “really quickly” here is probably at least a three-to-five-year window, which is a glacial pace compared to most burst bubbles.

        Part of the reason for this is that while it is becoming cheaper to build new renewable infrastructure than new fossil fuel infrastructure, but we may never reach a point where it is economical to replace perfectly functional fossil fuel infrastructure with new renewable infrastructure. If there were a sudden shutdown of fossil fuel operations, it would be caused by regulations rather than economics.

  • The stock photo illustrating the post looks fake to me. Modern turbines are much bigger – 80m hubs are standard in the US Plains, 100m in hillier Germany. To avoid interference from vortices, the horizontal spacing is several times the hub height. You see a lot of these “photos”, no doubt photoshopped by wind opponents, suggesting unrealistic densities. Early farms like the notorious bird-killing one at Altamont Pass in California were high density. The generators were IIRC a mere 100 KW each, against today’s 2 -3 MW.

    BTW, the BNEF survey leaves out solar tower CSP. This is numerically insignificant, but the few active developers have made a cost breakthrough. SolarReserve have won a contract for a mine in Chile at 7c/kWh, which would not be exciting if it weren’t for 24/7 supply using the standard, and cheap and scaleable, hot salt storage technology.

    It would not normally be efficient ti put in so much storage, but it’s an important proof of concept. If for some strange reason you wanted to build something that replaced a baseload nuclear reactor, you can do it at half the price and a quarter of the time with CSP, with more flexibility and safety thrown in.

    • Vance Maverick

      It’s not easy to trace the photo, but it’s widely used online. Here’s an example where the scale looks much larger. That article is from 2010, and perhaps the image had already been kicking around for a while.

    • Matt McIrvin

      There was an old, early installation in Hawaii that was replaced by newer, better turbines, and the original ones, which (unlike modern ones) were made of steel, stood rusting for a few years before they were torn down. Photos of those rusting turbines still get passed around in the right-wing propagandasphere as evidence that wind power is collapsing and all the turbines are rusting and abandoned. The image even affected a few science-fiction novels.

  • ForkyMcSpoon

    I wonder what the actual numbers are in WV. Why did they swing so hard for Trump if they didn’t believe the things he said about coal?

    • Two things about West Virginia. First, the racism is off the charts in that state. But second, in their hearts they know the jobs aren’t coming back, but they sure as hell want them to and they will vote for anyone who claims they will. Jim Justice won governor by plastering the state with signs saying he would not give up on coal. The connections between culture and particular types of highly masculinized work is very powerful in this nation, and not only in coal.

      • ForkyMcSpoon

        I’ve actually got a number of relatives in the Steubenville-Wheeling area. I have not visited in a few years and I’ve never talked politics with them… That side of the family was mostly staunch union Democrats, but I’d be afraid to discuss Trump with them at this point.

        (But hey, 30% of people in those counties voted Democratic, so…)

    • PunditusMaximus

      Because West Virginia culture is about hurting people, and because their lives are so consistently awful that literally anything seemed like a good idea.

      • ForkyMcSpoon

        Maybe my relatives aren’t representative of West Virginians generally but I didn’t experience this culture you speak of.

        • PunditusMaximus

          The big rollover from Blue to Red in WV came when WV culture finally went from just being cruel and awful to people of color and women to just everybody and nihilism.

          There’s a reason WV is ground zero for the opioid “deaths from despair” epidemic. There’s just no social capital left.

  • delazeur

    I was watching the TV news with my grandmother this evening, and either CBS or NBC was doing a report on the March job numbers. The most interesting piece was that retail employment took a hit, and it was pointed out that JC Penny alone employs more people than the entire US coal industry. The reporter actually went as far as to highlight the fact that coal employment has been a major talking point of the current White House occupant whereas retail employment has warranted nary a peep. (I won’t bother pointing out the obvious dog whistle to the [white] “working class”; the reporter certainly did not.)

    • ForkyMcSpoon

      Ahem, straight white male working class.

      Coal mining is also a manly macho job.

      • Matt McIrvin

        And there’s an idea, probably connected to that, that you ought to be able to support a family on a coal miner’s job, whereas retail is imagined to be something kids do for pocket money in their spare time.

        • Lurking Canadian

          Yes, this. We have a cultural myth that some jobs just *should not* pay a living wage. Somebody could make lattes at Starbucks for sixty hours a week, and still not earn enough money to raise a child in a major city, but that’s not viewed as a problem, because that job’s just not “worth” more than $10/hr.

          It’s so weird. We have the ability to accept that the price of *things* tends ever upwards. The house that people bought without blinking for $100K in 1985 now costs $400K. The standard not-economy-but-not-luxury car that cost $10K in 1990 now costs $25K. And all that is fine.

          But suggest that the job that paid $7 in 1990 should therefore pay $21 or $28 today and people look at you like you are crazy, because making burgers isn’t “worth” that much. I don’t know how to fix it.

          • PunditusMaximus

            This is the kind of thing that us lefties refer to when we discuss enthusiastic “liberal” participation in the Class War.

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    • MobiusKlein

      Can I feed the troll after it has been slain?

  • randy khan

    And this is reason umpty-eleven why the tilt towards Russia and away from China in U.S. foreign policy was stupid – as renewables advance, Russia’s fossil fuel economy is going to fade (okay, more like collapse), while China is making huge investments in renewables.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Is it a tilt toward Russia? I’ve said since Reagan was elected that if you wanted to take over the United States you wouldn’t invade us à la Red Dawn, just take over the Republican Party.

  • Howlin Wolfe

    Well put. After 9/11 it dawned on me that anti-communism was projection. Watching the GOP and the Bush/Cheney administration trying to choke dissent and ramping up surveillance of citizens sure seems like the same things the anti reds used as talking points in their propaganda.

    • Howlin Wolfe

      That was meant to be a reply to Dennis Orphen’s comment about the Russians red-dawning the GOP.

    • Dennis Orphen

      I have also thought exactly that since the Reagan era. One party state, one corporation (the Carlyle Group?) owns everything of substance, crush dissent, Hilary For Prison 2016……..

  • Redwood Rhiadra

    Clean energy, not counting enormous hydropower dams, now make up 11.3% of the world’s electricity, up from 10.3% a year ago.

    In other words, it will take NINETY FUCKING YEARS before we have finished switched to clean energy.

    WE DON’T HAVE NINETY FUCKING YEARS

    • Thom

      This doesn’t seem correct to me. Perhaps someone more fluent in numbers can straighten us out. In any case, your comment is based on a scenario in which the rate of change stays the same as it is now, which seems unlikely. So you are right to be alarmed, but I don’t think 90 years is correct.

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