The Geek in Pictures: Special Energy Fantasy League Edition

Here’s a great barroom game you can play (well okay, at a nerd bar anyway): what would a “Green Energy Fantasy League” draft look like? How high would the bids go to have Greta Thunberg and Al Gore on your fantasy team? Can Amory Lovins be the Tom Brady of energy hucksters, still able to throw long at his advanced age? With John Kerry in the draft, it would be a tough choice. Mark Jacobson, the huckster who likes to sue people who scoff at his plan to decarbonize all energy systems in the U.S. in 10 years, is the sleeper in the field. He might go in the second round.

Then there’s Joe Biden, clear head coaching material, pledging that we’ll decarbonize our electricity sector in 15 years, and cut net greenhouse gas emissions from all sources by 50 percent by the year 2050. How big a fantasy is this? Roger Pielke Jr. calculates that meeting the 2035 target for electricity will require closing down ten coal and gas-fired power plants every month between now and 2035. There are currently over 1,800 such plants in operation. The chart looks like this:

Anyone think that is actually going to happen? Nope:

Coal plant retirements are likely to slump to their lowest level since 2014 in President Biden’s first year in office, according to federal data.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects more than 4 gigawatts of coal retirements this year, down from 9.4 GW in 2020. Some 22 GW is slated for shutdown through 2024, compared with 41 GW during the Trump administration. The U.S. coal fleet total is roughly 220 GW. . . The dynamic hints at a potential risk to Biden’s climate ambitions.

The most interesting take on the whole scene comes this week from JP Morgan, which is a bit of a surprise given that Morgan, like other big business leaders these days, is all in for “sustainability” and climate consciousness. But their 2021 Annual Energy Paper (the 11th edition) by Michael Cembalist offers some remarkable fresh air and sober thinking about the fantasy energy targets of Biden Merry Green Pranksters. (The main reason the paper is so good is that it relies heavily on the insight and analysis of Vaclav Smil, one of the three of four best energy analysts alive; he deserves a whole wing in the Energy Experts Hall of Fame.)

Start with this embarrassing display of past projections about “decarbonization” timetables (click to embiggen):

Here’s what Biden’s target look like:

The whole report is chock full of fun charts and graphs, some of them quite dense, that provide a fine grained look at energy reality, past and future. Bottom line:

Lastly, the world is not on track to strand a lot of oil and gas in the future and is much closer to the IEA Stated Policies scenario than its Sustainable Development scenario. Only in the latter are oil, gas and coal assets projected to be left stranded in the ground, which you can see in the table. As a result, peak oil demand forecasts may end up being just as wrong as peak oil supply forecasts were a generation ago. . .

Why don’t rapid wind and solar price declines translate into faster decarbonization? As we will discuss, renewable energy is still mostly used to generate electricity, and electricity as a share of final energy consumption on a global basis is still just 18%. In other words, direct use of fossil fuels is still the primary mover in the modern world, as the demise of fossil fuels continues to be prematurely declared by energy futurists.

My favorite part of the report, however, is the shade it throws on electric cars:

I enjoyed the Will Ferrell commercial for GM during the Super Bowl which stated that Norway is “eating our lunch” on EVs. As shown below, they sure are: Norway EV sales were 60% of all vehicle sales last year compared to 2% in the US. But there are a few things about Norway that are important to understand:

  • Norway has 5 million people and a population density that is 5%-15% of most other European nations
  • 97% of Norway’s electricity comes from hydropower; its electricity prices are 40%-70% of European levels
  • In Norway, EVs are exempt from VAT taxes and receive a 50% discount on toll roads and parking fees while ICE cars are subject to a 25% VAT, a CO2 tax, an NOx tax and a weight tax. As a result, Norwegian ICE cars are more expensive to buy and 75% more expensive to operate
  • A full conversion to EVs would put its EV subsidies at the second largest gov’t expenditure behind pensions.

So, let’s dispense with Norway as a paradigm for the world’s high density, car-loving countries and see how the EV revolution is going elsewhere. Other than in a few small Northern European countries, EV sales as a share of vehicle sales are still mostly less than 10%. . .

The whole long section analyzing the electric car mania is a delight to read. Here’s another fun bit:

  • Will EVs replace ICE cars or supplement them? In Norway, subsidies promoted new EV purchases but two-thirds of families supplemented their ICE cars instead of replacing them, with 60% of driving miles by two-car families via their ICE cars vs 40% from their EVs11. Other analyses on Norway found that EV subsidies resulted in a sharp reduction in public transit and bicycle use compared to people owning ICE cars
  • What kind of cars would most EV buyers have bought instead? A study from UC Davis found that many EV buyers would have bought higher mileage cars instead, which could mean that the emissions savings from EV transitions could be overstated by as much as 50%.
  • Why do EV owners tend to drive their cars for much fewer miles per year than ICE cars? Whether the answer is range anxiety or their status as a second car rather than a replacement, the implications are not positive for EV adoption trends and GHG benefits. University of Chicago researchers extrapolated miles driven by monitoring their electricity bills before and after purchase. Adopting an EV increased household electricity consumption by 2.9 kWh per day. After correcting for out-of-home charging, this translated to approximately 5,300 miles traveled per year by EV owners, which is under half of the US fleet average.

Of course, Americans keep their cars much longer than they used to because quality has improved (see next figure). It is not clear to me that electric cars will last as long, unless their batteries are easily replaced after a few years.

Conclusion:

Biden’s policies may substantially increase US EV penetration. But as things stand now, the US has the highest share of global transport energy consumption, the highest vehicle share of transport energy, the highest number of vehicles per capita, the longest distance driven per capita, the lowest public transit usage, the lowest gasoline prices AND almost the lowest EV penetration as well. No wonder Will Ferrell is so mad.

Another favorite understated part of the report concerns “carbon capture and sequestration,” which looms large in most of the dreamy scenarios of “net” emissions reductions by 2030 or 2050. Problem: It ain’t happening (and savor the last sentence of this paragraph):

After 20 years of planning and conjecture, by the end of 2020 carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities stored just 0.1% of global CO2 emissions. Challenges include cost overruns, failure of bellwether projects (Kemper Mississippi), the US Dep’t of Energy withdrawing support for demonstration projects (FutureGen), cancellations in Europe, legal uncertainties about liability and a 20%-40% energy drag required to perform CCS in the first place. Norwegian Authorities just approved the Northern Lights sequestration project involving Total, Equinor and Shell whose 2024 capacity will be just 0.0045% of global emissions. The highest ratio in the history of science: the number of academic papers written on CCS divided by real-life implementation of it.

Bonus chart—this is one of the happiest stories in recent American history, which naturally the Biden Administration wants to reverse:

Thee’s lots more in the detail rich analysis, but this is enough for now. Except:

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