Book Review: All-Electric America

All-Electric America was written by S. David Freeman, who was born in 1926 and has a long career as CEO of various energy companies. The second author is Leah Y. Parks, a journalist covering the electricity sector.

The Kindle edition of this book (which I read) was published in October 2015.

This is an excellent book. I strongly recommend reading it.

The authors make the case for a 100 percent renewable energy system. Actually, the title is slightly misleading. They are talking about “all renewable”, not “all electric”.

They note that solar and wind energy is cheap enough to completely displace fossil fuel in the United States. And, as Kees van der Leun highlighted in this Tweet, they wrote:

US deserts are gold mines for solar power, and its central region is a veritable Saudi-Arabia of wind.

Their case is motivated by global warming, for which they use the interesting rhetoric device of calling it “climate hell”.

But it does not depend on recognizing this danger. The transition to renewable makes economic sense even without that particular motivation.

They don’t like the nuclear option, citing proliferation concerns, dangers from radiation, and the failure of nuclear to deliver low prices.

The most interesting proposal was a call for utilities to own the batteries in electric vehicles. That would of course instantly make those electrical vehicles cheaper purchases than gasoline cars. Since fuel costs are already cheaper, such a move could massively accelerate electric vehicle adoption.

I am not sure what exactly the business model would be. The value for the utility comes from using the car batteries as grid storage capacity. And maybe from using this as a sales point to keep the car owner as a customer.

Figuring out how this makes economic sense for an utility looks like an interesting question.

Of course, if it turns out that this would lose money for the utility under present market conditions, one could think about establishing a feed-in tariff for electricity from car battery storage as an alternative to get this done quickly.

One point where I don’t agree with the authors is at location 371. There they write:

Fossil fuel companies surely to want to burn it all.

There’s a grammar mistake in that sentence. But that’s not the reason I disagree.

Fossil fuel companies want high prices for their products. Guess what happens to those prices if there is a decision to leave 75% in the ground?

The authors note that fossil fuel use needs to decrease by 3% each year to phase them out in the time frame left under a 2 degrees scenario.

Just assume for a moment that the fossil fuel industry agrees and sets up a mining schedule (like Bitcoin has) that does exactly that, and is calculated to leave 75% in the ground.

Obviously, such a decision would instantly lead to massively higher oil prices. Which is great news for the fossil fuel industry in the short term.

It is also great news in the long term. Remember that while oil eventually can’t be burned any more, you can always use it as raw material in the chemical industry without CO2 emissions. Even now, more than 10 percent of oil use is non-fuel.

So even now, the fossil fuel companies don’t want to burn all the oil.

And their interest would be to agree with the authors and Bill McKibben and start reducing their production massively.

 

4 Comments

  1. Ned Ford

    I was going to pass on this. It’s not a bad review, but I decided to write because of your view of non-fuel petroleum. Most of it is used for chemicals which do not isolate the carbon from the atmosphere. Production of fertilizer and coolants are probably the best examples.

    I agree with you that we don’t have to worry about petroleum that is used to produce plastics and other substances which isolate the carbon from the atmosphere, but it isn’t ten percent of petroleum. We can delay dealing with that sector while we tackle the big ticket items, but we have to deal with it.

    Since I’m writing, I want to mention that it is unlikely that the electricity storage capability of auto batteries is going to be a very big factor. Probably a factor. Just not a big one. The entire U.S. auto fleet can be replaced with EV’s at today’s battery efficiency with somewhere between 20 and 30% of today’s electricity generation. Assume it will be closer to 20% by the time we get there, for a lot of reasons that don’t fit into this little box.

    Today’s conversation about energy storage should be divided into two separate discussions, and is usually not. The first is peak and outage management. This is the market which is being tackled by the battery companies today. It is an important one, but one which does not necessarily grow into the larger one, which is managing the intermittence of renewables.

    Until a regional grid reaches 40 – 50% of its total peak with a single renewable technology we have existing peak management capability in the form of dispatchable natural gas. Assuming we build both wind and PV each technology fills a separate part of the daily energy mix, and each can grow to about 40% of the existing peak without giving the existing resource mix any problems, aside from local grid issues which can be met the same way they are met when fossil and nuclear plants are built.

    I fully expect energy storage on a large scale to emerge as soon as there is an economic need for it. That doesn’t exist today. The technologies are well known, and people are doing tremendously exciting work on batteries, but also on pumped storage, compressed air, and lots of other things which might prove interesting. Compressed air is already working on a scale that demonstrates its ability to fill the bill, assuming nothing better emerges.

    Dispatchable load will be a huge part of this, and car batteries should be a pretty big part of that. That’s not quite the same thing as using batteries as storage. I think the utilities could own the batteries, by the way. So could anyone else who wants to make a lot of money, assuming we get to the point where the EV is popular. We’re pretty seriously screwed if that doesn’t happen, so let’s keep thinking positive thoughts.

    • Karl-Friedrich Lenz

      Thank you for your comment.

      I don’t understand your point about “isolating carbon from the atmosphere”. My understanding is that burning oil releases CO2, while using it for nun-fuel purposes does not. Does producing fertilizer release CO2 (assuming the necessary energy is sourced from renewable)?

      If you think that batteries alone won’t be enough to cover the storage needs of a renewable only system, I agree. The way to go is power to gas.

      But that doesn’t mean that using batteries won’t help. And it doesn’t mean that utilities can’t own the car batteries, which is the main point here.

      • Ben

        The process of converting crude oil into plastics is far from 100& efficient, and (like the refining process) does release CO2 into the atmosphere — albeit less than burning the oil.

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