Had a chat with a friend who used to be in the oil & gas industry; well at least along the value chain. He was also a bit on the old school side of things and he calls solar PV technology primitive because compared to the gas turbines whose efficiency is 60% when using combined cycle, the efficiency of converting solar energy into electricity is only 15-20%.
I was a bit surprised at that idea given that inputs in terms of the energy from the sun is free whereas you might need to calculate the energy cost from the drilling, piping, even liquefaction and then gasification of gas. Nevertheless, the point is that turbine technology has been widely adopted and used for many more decades than the solar panels. So a lot more money, time, resources have been invested into that those technology compared to renewables. That is simply fact.
Yet if you consider which technology has more room for progress and can move us to a future that we want to live in, the answer is just as clear. The problem again, with the economic analysis undertaken is that they are all based on individuals considering Ceteris Paribus everywhere else. The energy transition, decarbonisation is more than just that an individual decision and it was never meant to be worthwhile done alone. It was something to be coordinated, actions taken together. Which is why we cannot allow all of these technologies like solar, wind, EVs, hydrogen to be as primitive as they are.
I get asked this question a lot; by the people operating power systems, by the Oil & Gas industry, and the traditional old school bankers. They also ask about price of intermittent renewable energy plus energy storage; and when that will reach grid parity. Essentially, they are saying that the new innovations cannot replace the current technologies because the cost don’t stack.
I’m not sure those are the right conversations to have or the right questions to ask. Economics do drive a lot of systems and considerations but they probably should not be hijacking our priorities and our realities. Climate change is real; and if we are to put our best foot forward to make the difference, we are not going to make it. Putting our best foot forward is about using our minds, engaging our hands and changing our lives.
Yes, baseload power will be changed, energy prices will increase, perhaps our spaces, our wealth will have to be sacrificed. But our earth can remain a sanctuary for life, and our world can remain intact; if only we are putting our best foot forward. Not dragging our feet, not trying to maintain status quo. Not trying to exercise malicious obedience.
Transition means being in an in-between state, crossing over to something which is supposed to be perhaps a less temporary state. The challenge, however, is that one can get stuck in transit. Natural gas as a fuel risk being in that state because it wasn’t really adopted fast enough as a transition fuel. And now renewable electricity from solar and wind has more or less leapfrog it in terms of cost advantage. Once battery or other energy storage technology moves along the cost curve and decline sufficiently, natural gas might even be bypassed.
So the world is in a somewhat confused state. When is it right to use gas? What should be counted as alternatives for decarbonisation? In any case, gas prices are spiking now so what does it mean? Should that mean we move forward into more renewables which might even be more expensive? Or we move backward into coal?
These decisions are not meant to be made in categorically; because the entire system needs to be considered. And what is at the margin in terms of choice needs to be clearly identified. If the additional unit of power that satisfies both energy security and the quantity demanded can be obtained through renewables, it should be used. Of course if that is not available, one might have to step back into more carbon-intensive processes. Availability can also be based on budget.
Natural gas itself, needs to be displaced by greener fuels without threatening the underlying combustion technologies that underpin the gas turbines. But that is perhaps for another day.