U.S. renewable energy forecasters got it *slightly* wrong, turns out

Solar panel installation

Our (or technically Sunrun’s) solar panels during installation on July 13, 2010. The U.S. Energy Information Administration did not predict this.

The future didn’t look much like we thought it would.

I’m not talking about flying cars or colonies on Mars – although those two are looking promising at the moment.

In 2006, the U.S. Energy Information Administration laid out its predictions for renewable energy installations a decade hence. Its prognosticators extrapolated out the curves of past performance and divined 0.8 gigawatts of U.S. solar capacity by 2016. With wind, they were a bit more bullish, predicting 17 gigawatts of turbines spinning away. (A gigawatt is roughly what a big coal-fired power plant can produce, capacity factors aside.)

They were off by just a touch.

As InsideClimateNews reported yesterday, the United States had an installed solar capacity of about 37 gigawatts last year, about 46 times higher than the EIA had guessed. This country installed 14 gigawatts of solar in 2016 alone.

Solar grew from a tiny base. Wind had a better foothold in 2006, so the projection wasn’t quite as far off: the 82 gigawatts of turbines in the United States was merely five times higher than the EIA had estimated.

The 45 percent plunge in coal-fired generation wasn’t on their radar, either.

This isn’t about assailing the EIA. Who could have predicted the fracking boom, which turned utilities off to coal and on to natural gas? Or the rise of Solar City, Sunrun and other solar-panel leasing programs. The EIA had no more clue than I did that I’d have Sunrun panels on my roof as of 2010, or that Chinese manufacturers would come to produce panels so cheaply.

Perhaps proposed tariffs on those panels with grind the progress to a halt. Or, perhaps, Tesla’s Nevada battery gigafactory and the proliferation of electrified, self-driving cars will put panels on many more rooftops (and high-voltage plugs in many more garages), and stoking the trend further beyond the imaginations of actuarial bureaucrats. With regime change in 2020, national politics could become a tailwind again. Elon Musk, in addition to vastly increasing the odds of a future with humans on Mars, is betting big on batteries, electric cars and, yes, solar panels – Solar City’s 2016 merger with Tesla wasn’t on the EIA radar, either. Of course, Tesla itself didn’t mass-produce a car until 2008.

The lesson isn’t that Elon Musk’s business hunches should necessarily supplant the products of EIA forecasters. It’s that long-term forecasting, especially when it comes to something as complex as energy markets, is fraught. So there’s reason for skepticism – and, as the last decade’s numbers show, for optimism, too.

AVs Drive Themselves Straight into a Service Model

Google AV

Google’s driverless, autonomous vehicles portend a radical chance in how we get around. (courtesy Google)

AVs (not audiovisual, but rather autonomous vehicles) are poised to change the developed world. It seems that about everyone who looks at transportation comes to the same conclusion. It takes a bit of explaining as to why, and a recent piece I wrote for Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions Journal takes a shot at. RMI is launching an AV-focused research group, led by longtime GM research executive Jerry Weiland. Weiland and colleagues the first to admit they’re not the only ones thinking about the implications of self-driving cars. But RMI’s involvement brings heavyweight intellect and a long track record in working with government and business to the party.

It’s one of those stories that was rewritten pretty heavily but came out just as well (freelance writers learn not to take these things personally). I had originally led with:

Perhaps discussions of lightweighting, electrifying and autonomizing vehicles doesn’t quite get your blood pumping. Maybe, to you, the notion of a deeply networked, multimodal mobility infrastructure optimized to move people with great efficiency, striking economy and minimal environmental footprint smacks too much of transpo-geekery.

Fine. How about the idea of slashing your annual driving costs by about 75 percent sound, then? With combined U.S. savings of a trillion dollars a year?

That’s a serious number, and it’s the bottom line of RMI’s latest transportation initiative, one riding a wave of academic and commercial recognition that our century-old, car-and-truck centric mobility system is about to be disrupted in a big way.

Where do the trillion bucks come from? We in the United States spend $1.2 trillion a year – 20 percent of our incomes, on average – for the privilege of paying 56 cents a mile to drive our personally owned, isolated, gas-powered vehicles, which the RMI team calls PIGs. (That’s not even counting the $2 trillion or so annually that pollution, sitting in traffic, roads and parking lots, and traffic accidents cost us). The idea is to shift to fleets of shared, electrified, automated, lightweight vehicles (SEALs), which would, if deployed broadly over the next 20 to 30 years, provide the same or better mobility benefits as PIGS for just 15 cents a mile, or a total of about $200 billion, the RMI team calculates. It all depends on cars going from being personal property to being fleet-based elements of networked, shared, multimodal mobility services.

When I wrote it, I was pretty sure “transpo-geekery” wouldn’t survive an editorial gauntlet of transpo-geeks. But I figured you, intelligent laypeople, and not transpo-geeks, were the true audience. And why not have a little fun?

The only line I’d like them to have kept is this: AVs drive themselves straight into a service model. To understand what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read the story.

How to earn your driver’s license in 3.5 hours

LicenseVOID-TBN

My driver’s license expires at the end of December, so I decided today was a good time to get in and get it renewed. I had to go in-person, the ten-year license I was issued in 2004 not allowing online renewal. So I watched my eight year old climb on the big yellow school bus and drove off to an Aurora branch of the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles, where I stood in a U-shaped line of about 40 people just as the  place opened. I had heard the best approach to the DMV was to avoid Mondays and Fridays and be in line early. Check.

My wait was brief – less than 10 minutes. I handed my license to the young woman behind the counter. She was blonde, her station immediately next to a less-young, permed, more stereotypical DMV lady. The blonde keyed a couple of things and asked the permed lady a question, and they agreed: my license had been voided in 2006, when a new license had been issued. The new license had expired in 2011. Meaning I had no license at all.

I was like, what? I had no recollection at all at first; then only a vague sense of having misplaced a driver’s license at some point in the distant past, during the toddler-raising years. I had been driving illegally for somewhere between three and eight years.

I leaned forward and, elbows on the counter, put my palms to my forehead, trying to remember. Between my hands I said, “Are you sure it’s me? The 2006 one?”

“It’s your picture,” the stereotypical one said.

The tens of thousands of miles. The rented cars. The airport checkpoints. The drinks served and bottles bought. I had been living a lie.

The younger blonder one walked through the where-do-we-go-from-here. She seemed empathetic. I needed my learner’s permit first, which I could get after I had taken the written test. The learner’s permit would allow me to drive – if a licensed driver 21 years of age or older was in the passenger seat.  With the learner’s permit in hand, I could then take a road test, and if I passed that, I could come back in and get an actual driver’s license.

In moments like these, I’ve taken to repeating the mantra: “First-world problem.” Meaning my children do not have bloated bellies or Ebola; schistosomiasis is non-endemic to Colorado’s Front Range; I’m not being beheaded in Syria, those sorts of things.

I realize what probably happened: I misplaced the 10-year license, got the five-year license, found the 10-year license sometime after that and put that back in my wallet. I mumbled something to this effect. The girl nodded and said, “You can take the written test right now, over on terminal three. If you pass, you can get your permit right then.”

“How about the driver’s test?”

“We’re booked out about a month in advance,” she says. “But there’s a driving school right next door. They do driving tests for $45. You can try there, but you’ll need your permit first.”

I walked over to Terminal 3 with some trepidation, as I tend to prefer my study-to-test gaps to be somewhat less than 30 years.

The first question, a practice one, popped up on the screen – this is a digital test now, on a touch-screen terminal.

2 + 2 = ?

Multiple choice.

For the next 25 questions, I touched either A, B or C, then the Yes I’m Sure button. I was asked to properly identify “merge” and “yield” signs. Twice I was forced to guess twice. One was on the distance, at speeds over 40 mph, one should engage one’s turn signal on before changing lanes. The options were 100 feet, 200 feet, and 400 feet. I figured 30 yards was too short and 130 yards too far, so went with the just-right one, which worked out.

With the second one, I got bogged down in the semantics. On a slippery road, if one feels one starting to lose control in a car with ABS, should one a) pump brakes lightly, b) take one’s foot off the accelerator and steer in the direction of the slippage, or c) just hold down the brake pedal. Having driven cars with ABS since the turn of the millennium, my experience is that both not-accelerating and steering and holding down the brake (ABS being all about the pumping) were reasonable, depending on the situation. Ambiguity is not, of course, a defining, feature of things DMV. I guessed c); answer: b).

My learner's permit.

My learner’s permit

I did the eye test (the little light goes on left first, then right, then left, then right; don’t tell them I told you) got my permit and walked straight next door to the American Driving Academy. A sign said to smile, I was on camera, and to have a cookie and some coffee. After a bit, a guy who I assumed was Jim came out and asked if I had an appointment. I assumed he was Jim because Jim was the instructor on duty, according to the whiteboard that told me to smile, I was on camera. I said no.

He explained he was booked for the day, but if his 9 a.m. appointment didn’t show up, he could take me out. It was 8:57. The minutes passed slowly as I nibbled on my windmill cookie and sipped my heavily artificially creamed coffee. Jim said he would give the appointee until five after nine. At 9:03, three women of three generations, starting with probably mid-50s, walked in. The oldest was probably in her nineties, in a wheelchair. The younger one asked if her friend could take a driving test. I was relieved when the middle woman showed him a document. The lady in the wheelchair would  be a real menace out there. They had no appointment. I felt bad. Then, at 9:05, I felt good.

The Hyundai

The Hyundai

Jim gave me the key to the 2009 Hyundai with a sign on it like we were going out to deliver pizzas together. The car was seriously worn, with a big, thick brake pedal at Jim’s feet. Jim was a gentle man, and he had forewarned me to stop fully at stop signs. One of the touch-screen test questions reminded me to not palm the wheel around corners (hand-over-hand, or hand-slip, I had answered, correctly and in direct contrast with my long-practiced one-handed-palm-only approach). Three times I stopped more completely and earlier than I had stopped for uncontested stop signs since 1984, when I took my last road test. I hand-over-handed my turns, an incredibly foreign feeling that manifest in the car’s slight lurching. I left two hands on the wheel longer than I had since Ronald Reagan’s first term. I watched my speed closely.

But I realized: hey, I’m just driving, here. Probably done a million miles or something since the L.A. Olympics. Left-hand drives, right-hand drives, stick shifts, vans, moving vans, the whole bit. So I started to talking to Jim, who I learned lives in Mayfair, not far from me. I noted the gigantic campers in the driveways, wondering how big a rig they need to pull them. I thought: I should pull out my cell phone and thumb up a quick text message just to freak old Jim right out. I asked him if there were drivers he went on road tests with that just scared the hell out of him.

“Yes,” he said.

DrivingTest-TBN

Passed.

During the debrief, Jim said two of my stop-sign stops were right on the ragged edge and one was an outright fail. “I gave  you the benefit of the doubt,” he said. This despite my belief that I had stopped long enough for an acorn to take root. But otherwise, everything was great, he said. Given that I’ve been driving twice as long as most permit-holders have been alive, I took it as I would take someone complimenting my near-native English. I said, “Yeah, I usually roll my stops if it’s totally clear – better for the environment. Hypermiling and all.” Old Jim raised his eyebrows, but signed the Basic Operators Driving Skill Test Completion Statement anyway. It was 9:25 a.m.

I walked back next door to the DMV and took another number, long after early now. This one advertised an estimated wait time of an hour and thirteen minutes, which turned out to be more like two hours, enough to write most of this.

I was asked the same questions as with the permit, though there was no eye test (I would have passed the peripheral vision light one easy, having memorized it). I paid my $21 for the actual license, the $15 I had forked over for the learner’s permit having been one of the most expensive ever, calculated on an per-hour basis. I sat back down until the photo guy called me back up.

Legal again.

Legal again.

“Long time no see,” I said.

“No kidding,” he said. “Birthdate?”

“Twelve-thirty-sixty-eight,” I said.

“Still?” he said.

Another signature, another infrared fingerprint scan, another photo. He considered whatever was on his screen.

“It looks a lot like the last one,” he said, and he handed me back my voided license and temporary license and said to have a good day. I wished him the same, walked out, and drove home legally for the first time in years.

Elon Musk, Alan Stern and the future of space

Elon Musk and Alan Stern teamed up for a public event sponsored by University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) 10 days ago (April 29). With the caveat that I’m not as versed in New Space as I am “old space” (what do you call the space program as we know it today?), it was a pretty enlightening show. If you’ve got two hours to spare, it’s online here.

Very quick bios: Musk is CTO and CEO of SpaceX (as well as CEO of Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity); Stern founded and led the Southwest Research Institute office in Boulder, Colo., during which time he finally sold NASA on a mission to Pluto, which he now leads (New Horizons). He then led NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (~$5 billion annual budget) for a couple of years, and now consults widely as he leads New Horizons and prepares to take scientific payloads on commercial suborbital missions (via Xcor and Virgin Galactic).

Whew.

In addition to being at the the top of their business and scientific fields, both are top-drawer communicators. I took a lot of notes.

One of the most interesting bits was from the Q&A, when someone asked how commercial space outfits like SpaceX can manage to launch satellites (or, in the future, people) for a third the price of existing players. (I wrote a bit on the topic of space budgets, focusing on satellites and instruments, here).

Musk said part of it is a lack of choice for government buyers, who are forced to work with a handful of cost-plus contractors. “They will underbid the project, then once they’re in they will raise the prices to the maximum amount, just short what would bring about program cancellation.” Stern elaborated that the incentive of such programs is to add people to them. That costs money and makes communications worse, which leads to problems, which they then hire still more people to fix. “It’s a bad closed-loop feedback,” Stern said. “and the government system likes more jobs, even though it doesn’t say so explicitly — more jobs particularly in the zip codes of people on the approriations committee.”

Because of the lack of appetite for cancellations, money is then pillaged from good-performing projects to shore up ones that are over budget, providing yet another bad feedback. In sum, he said, “They’re all pumping the system towards something disastrous happening.” In contrast, Stern said, private commercial companies are largely led by people with training in the Internet or elsewhere. “And now they’re porting all that over to aerospace and it is the rise of the mammals against the dinosaurs,” he said.

The rest in bullets (Stern, then Musk).

From Stern’s talk:

  • If the distance from the Earth to the moon were a 100-yard football field, the space shuttle (and space station) orbits at the equivalent of 2 inches from the goal line.
  • The space shuttle program has cost us about $200 billion; the International Space Station $100 billion.
  • “Really we have had, for 40 years since the era of Apollo, a very politically driven, centrally managed, really Soviet style approach to space flight.”
  • SpaceX conceived, designed and flew the first Falcon rocket for less money than was spent on the launch tower for the (cancelled) Ares I test firing.
  • The entry of players like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace, Xcor, and Virgin Galactic offer, for the first time, the potential of multiple competitors to carry people into space (in the U.S., it has always been a single option — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the shuttle program). Stern said he expects four separate suborbital lines to reach markets in the next two years.
  • Paying $250,000 for a scientist to carry an instrument into space on Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two might seem steep, but it’s a deal compared to the $2.5 million needed to loft an instrument on a Black Brandt sounding rocket, the next-cheapest option. Stern called it “an access revolution, where spaceflight goes from rare to routine,” and likened it to the transition from big, expensive centralized mainframes to PCs. In terms of aviation history, commercial space is today where commercial aviation was in the 1920s, Stern said. “I think this is the beginning of a real revolution,” Stern said. “This is the best time to be alive in space exploration.

From Musk’s talk: (Musk, for the record, had just flown in, and his jazzy SpaceX videos, e-mailed prior, for some reason couldn’t be coaxed to work. So he went a capella. Where Stern is straight-talking, go-getting American in his delivery, Musk’s South African background lends a British sensibility; soft spoken; very wry wit also).

  • The lessons of history, Musk said, are important in setting one’s own priorities, or that of a business. Looking back, the less important stuff falls away. Musk is talking big, big picture here, citing the emergence of single-celled life, the evolution of creatures with differentiated cells, and the transition of life from oceans to land being “important.” Where does SpaceX come in? He views life becoming multiplanetary as a similarly important moment — perhaps more important than the oceans-to-land transition, “because you have to travel hundreds of millions of miles across irradiated space to do it.” Musk says he’s happy to take payloads to the moon, but he’s most interested in Mars. “Mars is a real planet. There’s water almost everywhere, the red is iron oxide.” To get there, launch costs need to be at most $100 a pound, he believes (they’re at $1,000 a pound now).
  • “That’s why I’m into space. To advance the technology of space travel and set us on a path to make that happen.”
  • As far as what we should spend on going multiplanetary, Musk said maybe a quarter of a percent on GDP per year — less than what we spend on health care, but more than we spend on lipstick.
  • Despite his leading Solar City and running a rocket company, Musk is dismissive the idea of space based solar power. “If anybody should be interested in it, it should be me,” Musk said. “But it totally doesn’t work.” The sun’s intensity in orbit is only about double that on a good spot on Earth, and you’d need to orbit equipment to convert photons to electrons and beam it down via microwave radiation, and then convert back to electrons on the ground. “Even if launch costs were free and you could teleport the equipment to Earth orbit–which would be awesome–it still doesn’t work. So we shouldn’t be thinking about it.”
  • The Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX recently announced, can lift 53 metric tons orbit, more than a Boeing 737 with passenger, luggage, fully loaded with fuel. “That’s double the capacity of the space shuttle, the Delta 4 heavy or any other rocket on Earth.” First flight is slated for 2013, he said.
  • The dream of truly inexpensive access to space depends on the creation of what Musk described as “a fully and rapidly reusable” orbit-class rocket. That is, the rocket becomes like the jet plane or the bicycle, which you don’t write off each time you ride it. If it can be done, one can amortize capital costs across “tens of thousands of trips,” making those costs “quite small.” So if a Falcon 9 launch costs $50 million and could fly 1,000 times, you’ve got a capital cost of $50,000 per flight, Musk said, plus propellant (propellant for a Falcon 9 costs about $150,000, equivalent of loading up a Boeing 757, he said).
  • SpaceX hopes to unveil something by the end of this year, Musk said. “But it’s quite tricky, because Earth’s gravity is quite strong.” No rocket has ever carried even 4 percent of its weight to orbit (I’ve described space-bound payloads as the equivalents cats in sedans). Usually it’s 2-3 percent of the total rocket-plus-payload weight that ends up in orbit, Musk explained. And if the rocket’s rapidly reusable, you’ll need to add reentry shielding on the upper stage, hardware for a deorbit burn, final velocity attenuation. . . “In all prior attempts, you come up with negative results. You get negative payload to orbit. Not very helpful,” Musk said.

Five bucks well spent

The CU Center for Environmental Journalism forwarded a note with this link this morning, to a Wired.com article about how Al Gore and Push Up Press are aiming to “blow up the book.” As someone who recently wrote a book and then converted it into Kindle and ePub formats, this caught my attention. Push Up Press, founded by two former Apple guys, has created an app for books, as opposed using the Amazon Kindle or ePub formats, which are all HTML (standard web language) based. “Our Choice” is their inaugural product.

It’s amazing what they’ve done with “Our Choice,” Al Gore’s 2009 book. The print version is full of great images and artfully done, and a great place to start if you’re looking for a rundown on renewable energy technologies, biofuels, energy efficiency approaches, political and sociocultural considerations, population and environmental issues and other facts of the climate change mitigation/adaptation puzzle. This app, which I bought for my wife’s (well, mostly my wife’s) iPad and which, for the moment costs, $4.99, brings the graphics to life; lets you click on photos to understand exactly where Shishmaref, Alaska or Guazhou, China are; and has embedded videos as well as animations in which with Gore narrates how wind turbines, geothermal plants, solar concentrators and so on work. This iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch version has also been editorially updated and has tons more pictures than the book (such as of wind turbines in Guazhou, China).

Whether the “Our Choice” app is a model for the future of e-publishing, I don’t know. The book’s topics are visual and topical, and they lend themselves to multimedia. Publishers will have to invest more in their books to make this standard. A novel about an Elizabethan-era romance won’t gain much by it. Reading fiction and narrative nonfiction is ultimately about visualizing scenes in the mind, the ultimate multimedia tool. It must have cost a fortune to create this thing.

It’s also not searchable, at least as far as I can tell, and while the scroll bar at bottom’s pretty useful, there’s no table of contents page that gives a quick overview.

But man, is it worth the five bucks.