A secret stash of good climate news

The ceiling of the possible is constantly rising.”

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Have you been stressed out waiting to hear if a couple of moderate Democratic senators will halt serious action on climate and sustainable infrastructure?

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That storyline’s been wearing on Canary Media’s David Roberts. But he planned ahead with some break-glass-in-case-of-emergency content. It’s an interview with the impeccably named Kingsmill Bond, a longtime market analyst for Deutsche Bank and Citibank who’s now an energy strategist at think tank Carbon Tracker.

Here’s why David called him up:

Bond’s experience and research have led him to the conclusion that the shift to clean energy has become unstoppable and that it will be the dominant force shaping financial markets and geopolitics in the 21st century. He argues that we are on the front end of a massive, precipitous wave of change to rival the Industrial Revolution — one that will unfold even if policy support is weak and erratic, purely on the strengths of economics and innovation.

Bond draws inspiration from documented and ongoing cost declines from four pivotal clean energy technologies:

  • Solar PV
  • Wind turbines
  • Battery storage
  • Hydrogen electrolyzers

These technologies exhibit what’s called a learning curve, which is the empirical metric for how costs decline as deployment increases. Many technologies never get on a learning curve, but these ones have, and they are likely to continue to move down the curve.

There’s a clear pathway to cranking new wind and solar for the immediate future. Many experts worry about the last 10 or 20 percent of decarbonizing the energy system. Closing that gap could be far more costly than what comes before, due to the challenges of turning intermittent wind and solar power into a round-the-clock resource.

Don’t get hung up on that just yet, says Bond:

This is an absolutely academic debate. Today, solar and wind are 10 percent of the global electricity supply, and, therefore, to worry in 2021 about how we go from 80 percent to 100 percent? It’s like sending my daughter to kindergarten, aged 5, and worrying about how she’s going to pass a university math final. She’s going to have to get there eventually, but there’s an awfully long way between now and then.

There are certain countries and regions which today have penetration of variable renewables of over 50 percent, most notably Denmark, South Australia, northern Germany and, as in the case of California, are aspiring to 100 percent renewable energy systems. What’s been notable throughout this debate for the last 20 years is that the ceiling of the possible is constantly rising.

If you go back to debates held about 20 years ago, you’ll see these very fancy letters from the Irish and German grid operators saying that variable renewables can never be more than 2 percent of the capacity for all sorts of technical reasons, but actually what’s happened continuously is that people have come up with new solutions, be they demand-side management or supply-side management or batteries or interconnectors or better software or digitalization or smart meters and so forth.

Similarly, skeptics worry that constraints on minerals will eventually halt progress on batteries and electric vehicles. It’s an absolutely bogus problem,” Bond retorts.

If this all sounds too cheery, know that he’s not just saying this to feel good. This is the outlook Bond has developed from years of quantitative study of market trends and innovations.

The line that resonated with what I’ve seen as a reporter is the ceiling of the possible is constantly rising.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reported on a thing that can’t be done” that is already happening. 

That doesn’t prove that everything contemplated by clean energy visionaries will come to pass or succeed as hoped. But it’s good reason to challenge skeptical takes that regurgitate old arguments that have been proven wrong again and again.

A new thing that’s possible

Here’s a specific instance of the ceiling of the possible” rising, in this case for the concept of using electric vehicles as batteries for the grid. 

Vehicle-to-grid” (or V2G) technology is much discussed and little practiced. The goal is to unlock huge amounts of cheap storage for a highly renewable grid by tapping the batteries already rolling around in vehicles.

There’s reason to doubt the efficacy of this vision for your typical personal vehicle. But a project in Beverly, Massachusetts just proved the concept for school buses.

A Thomas Built electric school bus running on technology made by American e-bus manufacturer Proterra spent the summer discharging power to the grid for utility National Grid.

If the bus was sitting around during hours of high electricity demand, the utility could take power from the bus battery and use it for the grid. National Grid got roughly 3 megawatt-hours of energy this way across 30 discharge events in the summer.

That’s not a tiny amount of energy. And that’s with just one bus. It doesn’t take too many buses hooked up like this to rival the capacity of a utility-scale battery plant.

School buses are a promising fit for V2G — they sit around doing nothing most hours of the day, especially when school’s not in session. There’s far less risk of interfering with driving needs compared to a commuter car or a freight truck.

The upside for schools is that revenue from this sort of grid service can pay down the cost of adopting electric buses, which tend to be more expensive than diesel upfront but cheaper over the long term.

In this case, a company called Highland Electric Fleets handles all the complex charging and grid operations and charges the public schools a subscription fee based on the miles they drive. Highland said it could lower the subscription price by factoring in money made from grid participation.

There’s no fundamental barrier to tapping school bus fleets for grid storage. Now it’s up to companies like Highland and school districts around the country to seize the opportunity.

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.