Science has a great set of articles on the problem of renewable energy production, a topic of great importance as we ponder not just global warming, but energy policy in general.
Fixing our energy generation, distribution and usage would be a critical problem even if the current system weren’t making radical and potentially irreversible changes to our planet. As Roger Pielke, Jr. observed recently:
If mitigation can indeed be justified on factors other than climate change, which I think it can, then why not bring these factors more centrally into the debate?
As the figure above shows (from Whitesides and Crabtree’s article), over half of the energy produced for our domestic market goes to waste. Fully two thirds of the energy produced by electrical generation and distribution goes to waste.
If we could get a handle on that waste, decreasing waste energy lost in the transmission grid, or improving efficiency of plants, the need to build massive new coal plants in Texas and in Kansas would be alleviated, at least for the time being. Couple increased transmission efficiency with increased customer efficiency, and we would not just save substantial amounts of money, and save the environment, but we’d buy ourselves time to lay the groundwork for a new energy economy.
The reasons why we aren’t fixing those problems, and why businesses aren’t trying to reap the financial benefits of increased energy efficiency, are complex. The Oil Drum has an interesting look at the psychology of “discount rates” - the degree to which we discount the value of future benefits versus current benefits. Our brains and the minds they house are not always trustworthy, and there is good evidence that we are biased towards short-term thinking. We discount the long-term financial benefits that come from compact fluorescent light bulbs, and keep buying incandescents. An incandescent bulb wastes 95% of the electricity passing through it, converting that energy to heat rather than light. They are cheaper to buy and more expensive to own.
There are all sorts of scams that run the same way — some offering you a small check if you will sign up for a service that charges a large monthly fee. A difference of a few percentage points in sticker price might attract someone to a gas guzzler over a hybrid, even if the differences in gas bills would erase that difference.
Part of the solution is to move those costs up front. Something as simple as printing the cost of a year’s worth of gas for a new car might help.
The other part of the solution is to use the government’s power to internalize some of these costs. We could lower gas taxes and put a tax on car sales that is indexed to fuel economy. The average consumer might pay the same amount in taxes over a reasonable time period, but when the consumer pays those costs would be shifted earlier.
Another component would be for the government to shoulder some of the short-term costs, for instance by paying to improve transmission efficiency of long-distance electric lines, perhaps recuperating those costs by raising taxes on those lines only. Improved efficiency in long-distance transmission coupled with local storage (pdf link) could substantially improve our energy economy by reducing inefficiency in generation, transmission and usage.
Science highlights a project in Europe called “Airtricity,” which proposes to construct many offshore windfarms around Europe, linking them together so that wind power will always be flowing into the grid from somewhere, because the wind is always blowing someplace. The same argument would work for a widely distributed network of solar cells.