The Liberal Learning Curve Is Flat

Last fall Ross Koningstein (whom I know slightly) and David Fork, two Google engineers who headed up Google’s ambitious RE<C project—which stood for “Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal”—wrote a cogent explanation of why Google decided to pull the plug on RE<C:

Unfortunately, not every Google moon shot leaves Earth orbit. In 2011, the company decided that RE<C was not on track to meet its target and shut down the initiative. The two of us, who worked as engineers on the internal RE<C projects, were then forced to reexamine our assumptions.

At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope . . . Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work.” . . .

For us, designing and building novel energy systems was hard but rewarding work. By 2011, however, it was clear that RE<C would not be able to deliver a technology that could compete economically with coal, and Google officially ended the initiative and shut down the related internal R&D projects.

The article went on to describe in some detail what a serious low- or no-carbon energy transformation would require, and it makes for sobering reading for all the folks who believe energy unicorns are behind every tree wind farm and solar panel.

But apparently some people didn’t take this in.  Because last week the following headline appeared:

Global Apollo Program Wants to Make Green Energy Cheaper Than Coal

A team of scientists wants to quickly drive down the cost of renewable energy to the point that it’s cheaper than coal within ten years’ time.

Now you just know there’s a punch line coming. I know you can guess, but wait for it anyway. Yup, the next sentence:

In order to do that, though, they need money—lots and lots of money to the tune of $150 billion.

Sounds nice. I’m sure Greece will chip in.

By the way, doesn’t anyone else notice that the “Apollo Project” analogy is really stupid? After all, sending people to the moon hasn’t turned out to be a very “sustainable” proposition.

More evidence that the liberal learning curve, like Tom Friedman’s prose, is flat.

P.S. There is one very abundant and scalable energy source that is cheaper than coal right now in the U.S.: Natural gas. Environmentalists used to be for it before they were against it.