The fourth enemy of renewable energy: physics

Nature, economics, math, and also physics. My newsletter discusses the importance of Mark P. Mills’ extensive discussion in Forbes of renewable energy generation and the “weird” physics of electricity.

In brief, what makes electricity weird is that it has to be consumed at the moment it is generated. In that sense it is unlike any other critically important good that we can stockpile, piled up in times of plenty and stored away for a rainy day. No, electricity has to be used the instant it is produced.

That is why readily dispatchable sources (coal, gas, nuclear) are so important, not to mention indispensable even after renewable generation is hooked up.

I have, however, described discovering ways of storing generated electricity as a holy grail for affordable energy. I had not realized just how far from possible the prospect of battery storage is till I read Mills’ piece. I find it jaw-dropping, deeply disillusioning.

  • The coming $5 billion Tesla “gigafactory,” which is “slated to produce more than all of the world’s existing lithium battery factories combined” — combined! — could only store about five minutes’ worth of the entire U.S. annual demand.
  • The cost per kilowatt-hour of existing battery storage, if used to store electricity as a commodity, is about one hundred times greater than it needs to be for what there is to be viable.
  • The lifespan of batteries is far too short; it’s measured in years when it ought to last several decades.
  • Just to build a battery storage tank farm equivalent to the Cushing, Oklahoma, oil tank farm (the nation’s most prominent but hardly the only one) would require “a quantity of batteries equal to 40 years of production from 100 gigafactories.”

Jon Sanders / Director of Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...

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