Sol Shapiro, renewable energies commentator: "Proven renewables exist having adequate technical and economic developmental status and capacity to become competitive with fossil energy in no more than a few decades"

In this exclusive interview with Renewable Energy Magazine, renewable energies commentator, Sol Shapiro, airs his views on several topics close to his heart, such as the role of solar power in meeting our future energy needs, clean fuels for transportation, and geo-engineering. Sol Shaipro spent most of his career on the industry side of weapons system development. Since he retired from the programme office of the Superconducting Super Collider (his only non-defence job) in 1994, he has spent his "intellectual time" as an individual - uncompensated - seeking technically and economically viable solutions to a sustainable energy base for the United States and the world. He was a member of the Solar Task Force of the Western Governors Association task force seeking 30,000 megawatts of clean and sustainable energy, and has had numerous articles and op-ed pieces in major publications expounding his position on renewable energy and on geo-engineering as an interim fix for global warming.

After reading Sol’s comments on several renewables-related websites, we wanted to find out his views for ourselves. As you will no doubt see, Sol's comments on the potential of renewables are as equally enlightening as those aired by Pedro Prieto in another exclusive Renewable Energy Magazine interview posted back in February.

Interview date: March, 2010

Interviewer: Toby Price

First up, Sol, could you describe what interests you about renewables and why you have chosen to commentate on the renewable energy industry?

Much as the old man (and I am one) plants a century tree, my interests in the world's future energy base is tied to finding a sustainable approach to our energy needs and a realistic path to get there - to a world in which 80% and more of our energy is derived from sustainable sources. Current activity has focused solely on gaining a 10%, 20%, 30% foothold without adequately considering how the technologies being deployed will feed into the goal of a near total replacement of fossil fuels.

Which renewables do you think have the most potential long term to help meet our energy needs and why?

I divide my thinking about our energy future into two general areas - the electric grid is one area and transportation is the other.

First, the electric grid. Proven renewables exist having adequate technical and economic developmental status and capacity to become competitive with fossil energy in no more than a few decades. Here, solar thermal energy has a major advantage. Because of its ability to store energy before electric generation and because of its ability to integrate with fossil fuels when storage is exhausted, it offers a direct path to become a major player – i.e., the 80% level. The 350 megawatts of generation in the California desert has demonstrated its viability for over 25 years. It is true that there is great need for driving down cost and gaining wider experience; as well as to explore which of the two primary approaches - trough which is ahead in development or power tower with potentially more efficient conversion will be the "winner" - or whether both will participate in the long run. A study by Sargent and Lundy in 2003 predicted cost of less than 7 cents per kwh after several thousand megawatts have been deployed. What we need is the patience to see this deployment capacity produced and how well the predictions are met.

Photovoltaics (PV), as an outgrowth of Silicon Valley, has had major marketing support with claims of cost reductions to come used as come-on. The industry has made very clever use of the ability to deploy small units at a high unit price but relatively small total cost compared with large solar thermal central power plants to impress the unknowledgeable public. The PV industry along with the wind industry have also pressed for separation of storage from generation and have pushed the idea of a smart grid to allow more effective integration of their intermittent resources.

PV prices may indeed come down, possibly following the path of the fibre optics industry which saw oversupply and bankruptcy result in a write-off of capital costs and a reduction in price. If this happens; and if mass storage of energy becomes economically viable - such as by use of compressed air energy storage, PV, in central installations could be a major player. One other major player which I see in the relatively near term is geothermal - in the "hot rocks" implementation in which water is injected into hot rocks which exist world wide at varying depths. This technology bears support and monitoring because it has capacity with inherent storage and potential for low cost; but it does need more development.

I see wind as a probable significant player; but I think with its lower density of land use and need to go to lesser wind resources for large deployment, it will likely be limited.

Other approaches may of course show up - tidal, ocean thermal and, who knows what else!

You have provided your “guess” on which renewables will be winners. You have also placed emphasis on central installations. Where should these be built?

If one looks only at economic factors, the cost of generation will be minimal where one finds the greatest flux – solar, wind, geothermal. To this generation cost, one must then add the cost of land and the cost of transmission to the end user. Transmission cost, both capital and energy loss, even for very long distances in which high voltage dc is used will, in general, not exceed 10 to at most 20% of generation. And so, a remote location with at least 20% more flux will produce energy at a lower cost than local generation – using the same technology. In general, the land cost at these remote locations will in general, also be lower.

The European Desertec effort currently being studied is one such use of remote generation – in which solar flux in North Africa – and possibly in the Middle East will be used to generate electrical energy which will be transmitted – from North Africa on high voltage dc cables under the Mediterranean. In the United States the Southwest is the richest region – both for solar and geothermal (shallower depths possible).

Of course, factors other than economics should reasonably be considered – including energy security where energy is imported from foreign locations and local employment among others.

Do you see a role for distributed generation – rooftop or small ground based generation?

If economics is the driver, then, aside from secondary generation issues such as load stabilization, probably not. If a society values other factors such as job creation, clearly, a choice can be made to tax the users or all of society to create these jobs. In Colorado where I live, there are now ongoing discussions to build “solar gardens” – ground based grid connected solar which supplies energy capacity 10’s or more homes. These should be less expensive than rooftop generation. But will not have the benefit of the greater solar flux at remote locations. My plea here is that the source of funding for the jobs being created be considered, not just the employment. Someone is paying for these jobs from money they have earned.

What is your belief on where we will be going in the transportation sector?

The transportation sector has a more difficult problem than does the electric grid when it comes to creating a sustainable energy base. I think hybrids are a great resource - to improve the energy efficiency of transportation by recovery of braking energy, by minimizing idling energy use and by shaving the peaks off engine power requirements/ There is also a valid niche market for electric vehicles with limited range and speed requirements in urban areas However, I do not hold out a lot of hope that we will move in a major way to an all-electric transportation system which would require major increases in battery energy storage density per unit of weight and a corresponding decrease in cost of storage per kwh.

In this area, I believe we are still some decades away from a solution to a sustainable energy base. The simplicity of using liquid fuels with existing infrastructure will be difficult to replace. Current biofuels, particularly in the United States suffer from a land availability capacity limit. Algae looks good on land use, but the issue of high density carbon dioxide input currently ties it to fossil resource input.

My Ouija board hopes for progress in artificial photosynthesis where we will see improved efficiency of converting air, water and solar energy to a liquid fuel.

And here, I see a need for a bridge from today's almost exclusive use of crude oil from limited locations in the world. Demonstrated technology exists dating back to World War 2 for coal-to-liquid conversion and in South Africa today where 150,000 barrels per day are being produced; and with the new natural gas resources springing up for gas-to-liquid to allow a wider source of liquid transportation energy while we fund longer range approaches. Loan guarantees to support first plants in the United States and elsewhere are needed. But opposition to these technologies coal and gas derived liquid fuels has come from the environmental community because of their added carbon dioxide emissions unless the process carbon dioxide is sequestered.

Since I believe there are issues we face other than environmental concerns – namely energy security, I believe coal and natural gas to liquid need serious attention. I don’t want my grandchildren to have to be involved in oil wars. I will address the issue of carbon dioxide emissions and the necessary trade-offs later in this interview under the subject of geo-engineering.

You are particularly interested in the solar thermal electric industry and believe that feed-in tariffs (FiTs) are not the way forward for driving down costs and boosting installed capacity, preferring instead renewable portfolio standards (RPS) with competitive bidding. Could you explain why you think FiTs are not the answer?

As I have watched the world of feed-in-tariffs, I have been shocked at the enormous disparity between the cost of fossil fuel generated electricity and the FIT's - sometimes at factors of 10; with the conflict between job creation and cost to those who pay the bill. I see inadequate competitiveness in this process to drive cost down at a faster rate. In addition a major part of the "FIT world" is tied to distributed generation - an approach which makes no sense to me. The lesser cost per kwh of central generation plus the cost of needed transmission, in any case I've looked at is much lower than the cost per kwh of multiple small unit installations.

And so, my recommendation is that we abandon distributed generation and FIT"s and go instead to Renewable Portfolio Standards and competitive bidding an approach which should do a better job of driving down costs - precisely because there will be winners and losers; allowing technology compartmentalization (e.g., PV, solar thermal and wind) as we watch technologies mature, And as we do this, let us not forget storage issue.

You firmly believe that integrating solar thermal electric into conventional fossil fuel plants is a good way to boost renewable generating capacity. Why?

I like this approach because of the commonality of generation equipment between solar thermal and fossil plants. A critical need of solar thermal technology is to drive down the cost of construction and deployment of mirror fields and “piping” for trough and mirror fields and tower for power tower; and the need to gain understand of issues associated with their long term use under varying environmental conditions. Such integration would achieve this end at lower cost than stand alone power plants. A second issue is storage of solar derived thermal energy. Again, this can be fully explored without the need for a stand alone plant.

What about geothermal? It's costly, but surely it represents a huge high and low temperature resource that could be used to generate electricity and provide heating and cooling. What do you believe needs to be done to get more geothermal capacity in the ground at both an industrial and domestic level?

First, let me say that for electric generation - only the "high" temperature geothermal is of interest. Ground source heat pumps make a lot of sense to increase local energy efficiency, but they are in a different world.

The growth of capacity of large scale geothermal will require significant increase in activity in hot rocks development - to truly transfer the oil and gas industry know-how including drilling and fracturing to see whether costs can be driven down. The technology is intriguing because it is inherently baseload and can be deployed anywhere; and while economics may dictate its use where the depth of hot rocks is less, drilling to greater depths when required is not precluded. I see this as a possible real giant waiting to be awakened.

What are currently the main barriers to bringing down the cost of renewables and how do you consider these can be overcome?

I am not engaged in any hardware activity and so forgive my speculation. I will also only address the solar thermal world. From a system standpoint, for a given total energy delivery, the solar thermal world offers a trade-off between generator size and storage. For example, a solar filed of a given size may use a smaller generator if system design limits the peak power demand from any facility.

Another issue, particularly for power tower is mirror pointing. I don't know if anyone has looked at closed loop pointing control tying mirror angle to maximizing energy collection. Doing so, would reduce the stability need of the mounting base with material reduction and increase installation speed.

Finally, the issue of cost of storage needs continuing work.

Generator technology should not be an issue.

Wind is currently the preferred renewable of choice, but supply intermittency and the fact that many wind farms are far from major areas of population are an issue. Do you think these will ultimately be the downfall of wind or do you believe that we just need to combine wind with pumped storage for example to make it a great long-term option?

The two issues I see for wind are storage and capacity versus wind class. Both wind and PV are great resources at 10%, 20%, 30% - but will need to face up to the issue of dispatchability if they are to go further. As I said before, separation of generation and storage cannot go on as we work to greater penetration of the electric grid as we know it. A serious look at bulk storage such as compressed air is becoming vital. Of course, invention can intervene such as a process to affordably create liquid fuel can occur to alleviate the storage issue. But I try to live in a world in which I don’t count on invention. And so, I see this storage issue as one limitation on the penetration of wind.

The second concern for wind is that, very logically, the wind resources being developed today are In areas of high class resources. To support these resources, transmission costs should not be a major deterrent (though as for all applications, the permitting problem of transmission is a major issue causing delay of deployment). But as the best wind resources are exploited, the price will rise – both for generation cost and transmission. And so, I see wind as a good resource – but not the 800 pound gorilla – which I believe will be some combination of solar (with storage) and geothermal hot rocks.

You come from the aerospace industry, which is now looking at biofuels to help reduce its carbon footprint. Do you think biofuels are a truly sustainable answer to meeting our transport fuel demands?

The primary issue with crop based biofuels which I think we will find very difficult to resolve is that of capacity to become the major supplier for liquid transportation fuel – should this remain our major source of energy for transportation. All that I have seen – certainly from a domestic United States perspective says that achieving as much as 20% replacement nears a limit of current technology. Cost, of course must also play a role in any increase in biofuels use.

The second biofuels approach of algae can apparently overcome this land use issue – but brings with it a current need for concentrated carbon dioxide to feed the algae – tying the technology to fossil plants; and of course, the issue of affordability remains to be resolved. And because of these uncertainties – I press for a bridge using coal and natural gas to liquid to allow trade-off of energy security with some sacrifice of environment calling for the interim geo-engineering solution.

You mention geo-engineering. You have been known to wave the flag for “geo-engineering”. Could you please describe what this term means and why it could help the world to tackle climate change?

I am very much in favour of study and deployment under international governance as needed of geo-engineering, probably in the form of Solar Radiation Management. Solar radiation management involves reducing incoming solar flux by about 11/2 to 2% to counter the greenhouse effect caused by a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The approach receiving the most attention is to emulate the cooling effect of large volcanic eruptions in which particulates are spewed into the upper atmosphere. These particulates scatter incoming solar flux.

In general, sulphites are the favourite particle though others are being considered. Particulate lifetimes are one to a few years; and so the process would have to be an ongoing activity. Its cost is a few to tens of billions of dollars per year – much less than the cost of changing the world’s energy base. A second approach which may be viable is to increase the reflectivity of marine clouds by spraying them with water from a fleet of robotic ships. The benefit of these solar radiation management approaches is that they can be deployed in less than a decade and that there is confidence that they will, to a first order counter global warming. The issues are to study possible negative side effects and define under what conditions geo-engineering should be deployed.

A second geo-engineering approach involves removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by such approaches as ocean iron fertilization and artificial trees. There is a question of scalability of the ocean fertilization and of cost and time to deploy for the artificial trees In public literature as well as in IPCC material, we have constantly seen dire warnings that we may see rising temperatures, rising sea levels and increased severe weather. We are told that we must change the world’s energy base in crisis mode to counter these potential threats. We are not told by the environmental community that there is a likely short term solution to put climate change on hold by use of geo-engineering – which is treated like the “crazy aunt in the attic about whom we don’t talk.” Nor does the IPCC speak in any favourable way about geo-engineering. In fact there is documentation from at least one prominent IPCC member which strongly suggests that telling the public about the possibility of using geo-engineering would only encourage them to continue to pollute and thus put on hold the needed long term solution to change the world’s energy base.

I find this approach to have a serious moral flaw. If indeed, climate change will result in serious loss of human life and property – and a solution to put it on hold is known, does this not represent a serious moral issue if it is not understood and deployed? Just compare this refusal to discuss geo-engineering with how the world reacted to the recent swine flu potential – deploying resources to counter a possible outbreak.

Now things are changing. Recently, the Royal Society and the American Meteorological Society came out with reports calling for study of geo-engineering technology and governance issues. And I am fairly certain that they shortly will be joined by the National Academy of Sciences. Under National Academy program “America’s Climate Choices” a geo-engineering workshop was held in which I participated. And the report of this program is due out very shortly.

Finally, the subject of geo-engineering has received congressional and parliamentary attention within the last several months with hearing in Congress and discussion in a parliamentary committee; with promises of joint hearings.

And so, I have grown hopeful that we will in fact study how to respond to climate change in the short order while we continue to support technologies which will allow us to combat climate change in the long run.

Finally, if you were invited to the White House tomorrow for an audience with the President, what would be the three energy-related things at the top of your wish list?

The very top of my wish list would be to build a bridge for American domestic transportation fuel – by drilling responsibly to produce more oil, continue to move ahead on our biofuels programs with cellulosic ethanol AND provide loan guarantees to create a coal and natural gas-to-liquid industry. This program would have a goal of one to two million barrels of oil from each of these three resources in a decade – with the program reviewed and re-directed about every two years if new technology becomes available.

The second request would also be related to the transportation sector which I see as ther most critical U.S. issue – and this would be to fund research and development in improving biofuel capacity and cost through cellulosic ethanol and algae (and others); and to fund serious research in artificial photosynthesis which I define as an approach to cost effectively create liquid fuel from water, air and solar energy.

My final wish would be related to creating a sustainable electric grid energy base; a national RPS, a small carbon tax (but heavens, not cap-and-trade which creates Enrons) and to seriously develop plans for a national high voltage dc grid. The RPS needs to be handled carefully. With my belief that solar and geothermal stand the best chance of becoming the backbone of our electric grid, economic generation will be most viable in the southwest – with its solar resource and geothermal energy generation at shallower depths than elsewhere. My thought to overcome this geographical disparity is to allow ownership of generation by out-of-state utilities to count against that state’s requirement.

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