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Scott Stephens
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Great article which provides some helpful perspective on the challenges of commercializing new thin film PV.  Great to see my master thesis advisor, Dr. Shafarman quoted!

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I'm always amazed at how persistent anti-EV pundits can be dispute the remarkable progress EV technologies and markets have made over the past 3 years.  +Kirk Kardashian brings us the latest desperate attempt in the newyorker.  Among his claims:

"Better Place, A123, and Fisker weren't successful and are symptomatic of the entire EV market"

"EVs are subsidized and therefore no commercially viable"

"Who knows if EVs are even better for the environment"

This type of attack-by-anecdote article ignores the most important facts associated with EV's including:

1) Exponential adoption rates
2) Dramatic cost and price reductions
3) Clear localized emission reductions with global benefits improving each year due to a clear shift towards renewable energy production.
4) Significant reduction in cost of operating an EV

Each year it becomes harder to write these hit pieces on EVs but I don't suppose we'll see an end to them anytime soon.

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Very promising developments in carbon emissions over the past 5 years:

http://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/  

"The 2012 downturn means that emissions are at their lowest level since 1994 and over 12 percent below the recent 2007 peak."
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"In sectors like steel, cars and refining, when there was overcapacity, capacity was closed. But in the energy sector, we have massively subsidised additional capacity in solar and wind, which has led us to the absurd situation in which we find ourselves today,"

This remark by Gerard Mestrallet, the CEO of GDF Suez (a a French multinational electric utility company) hightlights the threat that existing electric companies see in solar.  What Mestrallet characterizes as "massive" is in fact just a few percent of total energy generation.  The real problem for traditional generators is that, once built, these wind and solar plants are operated at nearly zero cost which is very disruptive to the market.  This economic disruption is the "absurdity" that Mestrallet and others are concerned about.

The link discusses a recent event where The CEOs of 10 utilities companies, which together own half of Europe's electricity generating capacity, are calling for an end to subsidies for wind and solar energy, which they say add too much power to a market already struggling with overcapacity.

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Pretty depressing story about the nature of drug prices and tactics in the US.  The argument of the drug companies can be summarized here:

"Drug companies have long argued that pharmaceutical pricing reflects the cost of developing and testing innovative new drugs, many of which do not pan out or make it to market."

This is obviously a weak argument.  Drug companies simply price drugs to maximize profits.  I don't really have a problem with that but the article goes into detail on the ways drug lobbying efforts have resulted in a market that is less encouraging to generic drugs. 

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If you have a moment and are interested in some sobering visuals, click on the album below and go full screen.  For me, the only data which captures the enormity of the energy industry are pictures like these.  As someone who is working in a nascent but aspirational sector of the energy industry these images represent both the challenge and opportunity ahead for renewable energy.

The first image comes from this article (http://breakingenergy.com/2013/09/20/are-fossil-fuels-necessary/) which motivated me to write down my thoughts.   The sentiment of the article, entitled "Are Fossil Fuels Necessary?", is captured in the quote: 

“Given the capital stock that we have – we’re talking about a large number of cars, and half the cars that are bought today will still be on the road in 2025 – so some of these capital stocks take a long time to change,” said Wærness [Statoil chief economist]. “All the existing power plants, for example, you cannot just mothball them and believe it doesn't have an impact on economic growth.”  

Wærness also states that even out to 2040, the horizon of Statoil's analysis period, renewable energy will still account for only a relatively small share of the total energy mix.  Undoubtedly, seeing the picture and reading Wærness' calm and cogent arguments, most readers will finish the article convinced that any prior optimism they had related to renewable energy was foolish.

The challenge for any disruptive technology is to find a market niche which had enormous growth opportunity and is simultaneously unattractive to market incumbents.  In energy, it's nearly impossible to find a niche (quality isn't a differentiator as everyone deals in the same kWh or BTUs) and incumbents are enormous.  In many cases the only way to overcome this enormity is to develop a technology which is cheaper on an all-in cost basis than the incumbent is on a cash cost basis.  Some examples below.

The quote about vehicle stock turnover time is true but fails to highlight the gross inefficiencies associated with today's vehicle fleet.  It's true that it's inconceivable that new zero emission vehicles could be cheap enough that people stop driving their already purchased vehicles prematurely.  However, what if those existing vehicles were obsoleted by self driving fleets which offered rides cheaper than the fuel, maintenance, and insurance costs ("cash costs") associated with driving the existing vehicle?  Fleet utilization rates would have to be high but only relative to the ~5% of the day most folks spend driving their human controlled vehicles.

Most folks are coming around to an understanding that photovoltaics are becoming cheap enough to compete with retail electric pricing.  However, the broad consensus of the energy industry is that the variability of solar generation means that the technology is fully dependent upon incumbent electricity providers for power during the night.  However, what if a convergence of energy efficiency, distributed storage (possibly provided by the EV fleet owners mentioned previously) and home electricity intelligence allowed this dependency to be significantly minimized?  Existing infrastructure owners would likely charge for back-up power services but it would have to be less than the price of a Honda generator and large fuel tank.

This leads me to the opportunity comment made in my first paragraph.  One can be intimidate by the gargantuan scale of energy incumbents but this same scale is also a liability.  How quickly do these assets become liabilities when energy tipping points are reached?  What happens to the cost of conventional energy when the globe is no longer growing conventional demand?  Just imagine the opportunity for the clean energy industry when the demand powering these giants begins preferring renewable power.  I have a sneaking suspicion that we won't have to wait until 2040 to find out...
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2013-09-20
4 Photos - View album

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I just finished reading +Ozzie Zehner 's piece in IEEE on the environmental considerations of Electric Vehicles (EVs).  It provides a nice overview of current subsidies for electric vehicles but unfortunately relies upon some dated analysis and selective sampling of studies to conclude that EVs aren't significantly cleaner than traditional ICE cars.

For example, the author writes:

Electric-car makers like to point out, for instance, that their vehicles can be charged from renewable sources, such as solar energy. Even if that were possible to do on a large scale, manufacturing the vast number of photovoltaic cells required would have venomous side effects. Solar cells contain heavy metals, and their manufacturing releases greenhouse gases such as sulfur hexafluoride, which has 23 000 times as much global warming potential as CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

First, Zehner provides no reason as to why solar energy can't be adopted at large scale.  Second, the claims about sulfur hexafluoride relate to a specific type of thin-film photovoltaic (PV) technology known as amorphous silicon which is an uncompetitive PV technology and represents less than 1% of current PV sales (and falling).  To my knowledge, manufacturing crystalline silicon (c-Si) panels, the dominate (>95% of market) PV technology, doesn’t produce any significant sulfur hexafluoride emissions.  Further, the life cycle carbon emissions, water consumption, energy intensity, etc, associated with c-Si PV technology is far lower than traditional energy sources (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0038092X09002345).  Zehner's own citation from the IPCC is merely a link to IPCC's web page rather than a publication supporting his claims.

At times, Zehner's arguments are a bit confusing.  He stresses that the findings of the National Academies of Science’s 2010 report on EV’s are “sobering” but then states in the next sentence that the study “found that operating an electric car was less damaging than refueling a gasoline-powered one”.  It’s worth noting that the 2010 NAS study is a bit dated at this point.  It assumed a current cost of Li-Ion batteries in the $1000/kWh range and projected these costs to decline slowly to 2030.  Today Tesla’s Li-Ion battery costs are reportedly close to $200/kWh and falling (http://green.autoblog.com/2012/02/21/battery-cost-dropping-below-200-per-kwh-soon-says-teslas-elon/).  One of the better (and free!) sources I’ve seen on future price reductions for Li-Ion batteries can be found here (http://www.element-energy.co.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/CCC-battery-cost_-Element-Energy-report_March2012_Public.pdf)

This brings me to perhaps the most flawed aspect of Zehner’s argument.  Not only is he cherry picking reports and stitching antidotes together to produce the appearance of a lengthy and multi-faceted take down of EVs, he also appears to lack any appreciation of just how quickly cleantech is evolving.  If Zehner is truly interested in understanding the viability of renewable energy and electric vehicles he should look to trends in PV and EV cost reductions, PV+EV co-adoption (people who charge their EV with PV), distributed storage, demand response, and energy efficiency.  A piecemeal analysis of EVs or renewable energy will always miss the synergistic nature of the technologies when taken together.  This type of synthesis is challenging (due to the technology's nascent state) but ultimately necessary if one wants to arrive at accurate and useful projections.

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The link below is an interesting point/counter-point discussion on the failure/success of Germany's renewable energy program or "Energiewende".  Will Boisvert pens the pro-nuke arguments and while I'm in agreement that the current fleet of nukes should be operated as long as safely possible, I was disappointed that Boisvert presents his readers with a false choice.  Below are my running notes from his piece:

- Boisvert argues correctly that nukes aren't as dangerous as the public fears but doesn't address that when things go wrong, they are also more expensive than public knows.  There are many examples but the most recent, Fukushima, is likely to "range from nearly 71 to 250 billion dollars" (http://newsonjapan.com/html/newsdesk/article/89987.php).

- Boisvert portrays Wind and Solar as erratic and destabilizing while stressing that nukes are dispatchable and stabilizing.  Unfortunately nukes are a rigid as renewables are variable.  Too much of either in a conventional grid will destabilize the grid.

- Boisvert ignores all progress Solar has made in cost reductions.  Yes past subsidies were lucrative but necessary to bring about today's current cost structure.  Modules prices fell 5x in 4 years and today, feed-in-tariff rates are below retail electric rates.  Essentially, newly added PV installations are an arbitrage opportunity for utility providers while incentivizing customers to increase self-consumption and adopt distributed storage (http://qualenergia.it/sites/default/files/articolo-doc/UBS.pdf).  All of these measures should provide price stability, reduce transmission volumes,  and moderate the variable nature of renewable generation.

- The worst offense of Boisvert's piece are his arguments that wind's worst attributes (poorly correlated generation curves, transmission burdens, expensive off-shore projects) and solar's past pricing (prior to a 5x reduction in panel prices over 4 years), are reasons to avoid future solar adoption but these aren't based on today's reality.  Further, with his complete ignorance (or tactical avoidance) of future electric vehicle adoption, demand response programs, energy efficiency, and distributed storage it's no wonder he focuses exclusively on an energy solution that is over 50 years old.

It's very important that readers realize the false choice Boisvert presents.  Nuke advocates often threaten their audiences by stating the only choice is Coal or Nukes.  That may have been true until very recently but fortunately the Energiewende was all about creating new options.  The current desperation of incumbent energy producers in Germany is evidence of the Energiewende's incredible success to date and the affordable, reliable, abundant, renewable future it has enabled.  

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I'm guessing that the solar parking meter installers aren't all that well trained... #StrugglingSolar  
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Pretty strong growth in Google+ usage.  In general, it seems like my friend's perspective on G+ has gone from dismissal to guarded optimism.  

The entire Mary Meeker slide deck can be found here:
http://qz.com/88980/mary-meekers-2013-internet-trends-all-the-slides-plus-highlights/
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