Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Brookings Energy Study:

Comparing the Net Benefits of Low-Carbon Energy Technologies

I just stumbled across a paper that came out in May.  However, I don't recall seeing anything about it earlier, so I hope this is also new to most readers.  If it is old news to some, I apologize.

The paper, entitled "The Net Benefits of Low and No-Carbon Electricity Technologies" was produced by the Global Economy and Development program of Brookings Institution.  It takes a slightly different approach to comparing energy technologies than most others have done.

First, rather than comparing all electricity-producing technologies, they focus only on a comparison of low- and no-carbon emitting technologies.  Thus, the study doesn't consider coal at all.  Rather, it looks at the full menu of options that could replace coal--including solar, wind, nuclear, hydroelectric, and gas combined cycle. 

Second, instead of using levelized costs, they compare the annual costs and benefits of each technology, arguing that a plant that produces electricity with a relatively high levelized cost may be more valuable than a plant with a lower levelized cost if it delivers electricity more cheaply and reliably during periods of peak demand when the price of electricity is high.

Based on the assumptions they make, they conclude that "the net benefits of new nuclear, hydro, and natural gas combined cycle plants far [emphasis added] outweigh the net benefits of new wind or solar plants. Wind and solar power are very costly from a social perspective because of their very high capacity cost, their very low capacity factors, and their lack of reliability."

There is a lot more in this study than I can cover in a blog, but I encourage interested readers to take a look at it.  I should add that I find this a particularly meaningful report, given that it comes from the Brookings Institution, an organization that generally receives high marks for its work.  If anything, it is normally considered "left-of-center" which in my view makes the conclusions even more meaningful. 

I have a slight quarrel with claims that anything is no-carbon, given the fact that all these technologies require materials to be mined and processed, components to be manufactured, and facilities to be built.  Maybe one day all these activities will be powered by non-fossil sources, and I don't think this observation affects the net conclusions of the study, but I have become careful about saying anything is "no carbon," and I prefer to see studies address the full life-cycle emissions.

Perhaps that is the next step.  In the meantime, this looks like a potentially important study in looking at the decisions we face ahead in moving to less emitting technologies.


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