Tesla’s new solar roof tiles.
Elon Musk and his Tesla company are making multi-billion dollar investments in a number of mutually reinforcing technologies, which taken together point to a very different energy future. His $5bn gigafactory is being built near the appropriately named settlement of Sparks, Nevada. When completed in 2020 it will be the biggest building in the world and will be churning out electric cars and batteries on a prodigious scale. It will be powered entirely by its own on-site solar, wind and geothermal energy, with no doubt plenty of battery storage!
Tesla has just unveiled solar photovoltaic roofing tiles that look great and are cheaper and more durable than building a traditional roof and then retro fitting ordinary solar panels. I see this as the future for solar roofs on new houses, and on many retrofits. Simultaneously Tesla is in the process of buying SolarCity for $2.6 bn, which will give them a huge entrance into the solar roof market. Tesla has also recently unveiled the new Powerwall 2, a higher capacity, more energy dense battery for domestic households. Many Californian households will be able to generate all their household and motoring energy from their own roofs, and store it to match domestic supply and demand. They might also use the battery to buy cheap grid electricity at times of oversupply on the grid and sell it back at times of peak demand, so making money in the process, and helping the grid level out fluctuating supply and demand.
A few weeks ago Tesla signed a contract with Southern California Edison to supply 80MWh of their Powerpack grid scale energy storage batteries. These grid scale batteries and the domestic batteries, combined with various other storage technologies, are changing the nature of the electricity industry. Couple this with falling demand as a result of ever increasing energy efficiency, and the results are profound. Baseload becomes an obsolete concept. Pacific Gas & Electric have just announced that they plan to shut down the huge 2.2 GW Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in 2025, many years earlier than planned, simply because it is too costly and inflexible to operate. It is old technology. Diablo Canyon is the last nuclear power plant in California. Coal has pretty much ended as a part of the Californian energy mix but its place has largely been taken by gas, but that too will diminish as efficiency plus renewables plus storage become ever more important. It is a moot point which should be phased out first, gas with its carbon emissions or nuclear with its risks (and Diablo is very close to geological fault!). Either way, California is heading toward a 100% renewable energy future. It will be fascinating to see how Tesla develops over the next decade and what contribution it makes to that 100% renewables goal.
Heathrow Expansion: Another stupid infrastructure investment decision
The government has announced expansion plans for Heathrow, despite Teresa May, David Cameron and the Conservative manifesto all being against it back in the day when it was a Labour policy. Jeremy Williams covers the tortured history of the issue very well in his blog and Greenpeace have published ten good reasons why it is a bad idea. There will be huge opposition, Judicial Review, Zac Goldsmith has resigned and forced a by-election. Naturally I think it is a terrible idea. Put simply airport expansion should be opposed anywhere until such time as we can fly in ways that do not have such awful consequences for climate change, noise pollution, air quality and therefore human health.
Caroline Lucas has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for a frequent flyer levy, which sounds a sensible idea, designed to dampen demand. I’d also like to see aircraft fuel taxed and increased investment in rail. Perhaps most importantly, and certainly least debated in Parliament or the media is putting very much greater resources into developing alternative, very much less polluting and quieter aircraft. I’ve blogged about Solar Impulse, the solar powered plane, and the helium filled airship Airlander. Within the next decade or so, given the right support, I’m pretty sure something like the Airlander could have a large photovoltaic array and batteries built into its design. It might incorporate hydrogen fuel cells. It would then have zero emissions, be quiet and not need a huge runway. An airport designed specifically for such aircraft would not need runways anything like Heathrow and would generate very much less opposition and could therefore be built very much more quickly.
Post Brexit this government wants to portray itself as a modern can-do government, open for business. However the policies it backs are all rather old fashioned, polluting technologies reflecting last century thinking: Trident, Hinkley, Fracking and Heathrow. All decisions we’ll come to regret. If humanity is to have a better future it will be socially inclusive, economically egalitarian, pollution minimizing and fuelled by renewable energy. Innovative Cleantec infrastructure investment decisions will need to be made. Tragically this government seem incapable of understanding any of this.
The campaign to disinvest from fossil fuels is gaining momentum. Last night Waltham Forest Council Pension Fund Committee voted to fully disinvest. They are the first UK council to do so, but it’s probable that many others will follow. In the past the main arguments were ethical, all about climate change, air pollution and trying to promote better alternatives. Renewable energy technologies, including generation, transmission and storage, are all seeing rapid increases in efficiency and decreasing costs. This will mean that many investments in fossil fuel and nuclear will become stranded assets, unable to sell the energy they generate when competing against cheaper renewables. It now makes very prudent business sense to disinvest from fossil fuels.
Waltham Forest joins 600 institutions with combined assets of over $3.4 trillion in the disinvestment movement. The powerful combination of good business sense and strong ethical foundations make this a movement set for exponential growth. We’ve seen a lot of bankruptcies in the coal industry of late, oil, gas and nuclear are all likely to see casualties over the coming year or two.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, speaking in the light of the Paris Climate Agreement and in relation to the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a renewables based economy said that “The once unthinkable has now become unstoppable”.