Category Archives: Germany



image taken from’s latest t-shirt

Before we get to this message’s main event, I’ll throw another brief shoutout to Pope Francis. Sure, he leads one of the world’s socially most regressive organizations, but he seems to be pulling in the right direction, and ultimately, he’s not in fact that powerful — his level of authority is more Barack Obama than Stephen Harper, let alone Kim Jong-Il.

While there’s general awareness of the doctrine of Papal infallibility, it was only formalized in the 19th century, and has only ever been invoked twice. So it’s one of many late-arriving concepts we secular moderns commonly think has always been part the world’s most populous religion. A couple others include:
– having a personal relationship with Jesus (famously invented by German Pietists in the 17th century, and infamously rejected in the 19th century by their very own Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader: Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche), and
– original sin (5th century, and a Western Christian exclusive; Eastern Orthodox Christians scratch their heads at it…)
It was pretty cool that Francis gave a shoutout to Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his speeches, too; Catholics and Protestants don’t always get along, and it’s a sign of openness when one can refer to the brilliance of one’s competitors in the marketplace of ideas. My favourite-ever inter-religious example comes from the Christian “Acts” (“of the Apostles”), in chapter 26. We’re told how Saul [also the name of a Jewish king] was travelling on the road to Damascus after having persecuted the followers of Christ, where he’s confronted by the voice of God. In this dramatic, climactic moment, Jesus … quotes a line from a 500-year old Greek theatre play. Boom!! Mic drop!

Jesus says, “why do you kick at the goads?”, which is from a contextually-identical scene in Euripides’ The Bacchae, where a king [Pentheus] who is persecuting the followers of a God [Dionysus] is confronted by that God. It’s awesome stuff. (Adherents can take comfort that since this is already the third time (!) the author has told this story in his chronicle, he can probably be forgiven for adding a dramatic flourish, if only to avoid boring his audience.)

But enough sideshow, on to the main event!

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Steven Chu’s “Time to Fix the Wiring” at four years

Former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s recent resignation — his farewell letter is here  — is no doubt celebrated in the fuel cell quarters as passionately (or more so) than it is mourned in the rest of cleantech.  Early in his term, Chu infamously argued (infamously, at least, to fuel cell enthusiasts) that fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV’s) needed four miracles for commercial success, namely:

  1. most hydrogen comes from natural gas (so why not just use that as a fuel?)
  2. improvements in hydrogen storage were needed
  3. fuel cells needed to improve
  4. there was no distribution system in place

While many of my colleagues were hostile to Chu — some more than others (an inside joke) — I was largely unfazed, as Ballard had by then moved on to “everything except automotive fuel cells” in light of the commercialization timelines.  (Which reflected points 3 and 4 above.)  And Chu seemed open-minded towards stationary fuel cells.  From the MIT Technology Review article:

“I think that hydrogen could be effectively a “battery” in the sense that suppose you had a way of using excess electricity–let’s say a nuclear plant at night, or solar or wind excess capacity, and there was an efficient electrolysis way of turning that into hydrogen, and then we have stationary fuel cells. It could effectively be a battery of sorts. You take a certain form of energy and convert it to hydrogen, and then convert it back [into electricity]. You don’t have the distribution problem, you don’t have the weight problem. In certain applications, you don’t need as many miracles for it to happen.”

Chu, ARPA-E, and solar

Many people have already written panegyrics to Chu’s departure, Climate Progress and Grist among them.  Even coming from the fuel cell industry, I think on balance he deserves a lot of praise for carrying out the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to fund next-generation energy research.  Even if he did get a bunch of things wrong, among them the prediction that solar needed breakthroughs to achieve commercial viability.

“But Chu noted that solar power, for one, is still far too expensive to compete with conventional power plants (except on hot summer days in some places, and with subsidies). Making solar cheap will require “transformative technologies,” equivalent to the discovery of the transistor, he said.”

In the past four years, it’s gotten there in Germany, is on the cusp in Australia, and is probably already there in several sunnier climes.  The cost-reductions in that industry have come almost exclusively from economies of scale and the nearly-universally-applicable cost-learning, or experience curve.

Mind you, given my political leanings, I’m generally supportive of government-driven industrial policy.  :)  Societies generally last a lot longer — centuries longer — than any individual businesses, so it makes sense that societies may want to fund projects with a payoff too far out for individual businesses to care about.  That said, I support the notion that “moonshot” projects should ideally have partial private-sector funding, so that business people have skin in the game, and can search out ways to commercialize achievements made on the way.

An intro to “Time to Fix the Wiring”

The above provides good context with which to revisit the essay Chu (and one of his underlings?  :)  ) wrote for a McKinsey & Company series on the future of energy, exactly four years ago today.  This was part of their “What Matters” umbrella, which covered energy, biotech and other topics.

They’ve since taken the series offline — I suppose they need to keep things fresh — but I was able to get permission from a McKinsey representative to reprint the essay below.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and in this case renewable energy has progressed far beyond his Olympiad-ago assessment.  Solar’s costs have come way down, as noted above; renewables may be now viable for 40% of a grid instead of  25% he cites, and some of the geothermal breakthroughs he discusses, can probably be borrowed from the shale gas fracking industry.

All in all, the essay is a reminder to environmentally and stewardship-inclined alike, that the clean energy sector has come  astonishingly far in four years.  I’ll delve into further detail when I continue my series on our renewable destiny. :)


Time to fix the wiring

By Steven Chu

26 February 2009

Imagine that your home suffers a small electrical fire. You call in a structural engineer, who tells you the wiring is shot; if you don’t replace it, there is a 50 percent chance that the house will burn down in the next few years. You get a second opinion, which agrees with the first. So does the third. You can go on until you find the one engineer in a thousand who is willing to give you the answer you want—“your family is not in danger”—or you can fix the wiring.

That is the situation we face today with global warming. We can either fix the wiring by accelerating our progress away from dependence on fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, or we can face a considerable risk of the planet heating up intolerably.

The need to act is urgent. As a start, governments, businesses, and individuals should harvest the lowest-hanging fruit: maximizing energy efficiency and minimizing energy use. We cannot conserve our way out of this crisis, but conservation has to be a part of any solution. Ultimately, though, we need sustainable, carbon-neutral sources of energy.

It’s important to understand where we are now. Existing energy technologies won’t provide the scale or cost efficiency required to meet the world’s energy and climate challenges. Corn ethanol is not a sustainable or scalable solution. Solar energy generated from existing technologies remains much more expensive than energy from fossil fuels. While wind energy is becoming economically competitive and could account for 10 to 15 percent of the electricity generated in the United States by the year 2030 (up from less than 1 percent now, according to the US Energy Information Administration), it is an intermittent energy source. Better long-distance electricity transmission systems and cost-effective energy storage methods are needed before we can rely on such a source to supply roughly 25 percent or more of base-load electricity generation (the minimum amount of electrical power that must be made available). Geothermal energy, however, can be produced on demand. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report suggests that with the right R&D investments, it could supply 10 percent of US power needs by 2050 (up from about 0.5 percent now).

Coal has become a dirty word in many circles, but its abundance and economics will nonetheless make it a part of the energy future. The United States produces more than half of its power from coal; what’s more, it has 27 percent of the world’s known reserves and, together with China, India, and Russia, accounts for two-thirds of the global supply. The world is therefore unlikely to turn its back on coal, but we urgently need to develop cost-effective technologies to capture and store billions of tons of coal-related carbon emissions a year.

Looking ahead, aggressive support of energy science and technology, coupled with incentives to accelerate the development and deployment of innovative solutions, can transform energy demand and supply. What do I mean by such a transformation? In the 1920s and 1930s, AT&T Bell Laboratories focused on extending the life of vacuum tubes, which made transcontinental and transatlantic communications possible. A much smaller research program aimed to invent a completely new device based on breakthroughs in quantum physics. The result was the transistor, which transformed communications. We should be seeking similar quantum leaps for energy.

That will require sustained government support for research at universities and national labs. The development of the transistor, like virtually all 20th-century transformative technologies in electronics, medicine, and biotechnology, was led by people trained, nurtured, and embedded in a culture of fundamental research. At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—part of the US Department of Energy and home to 11 Nobel Laureates—scientists using synthetic biology are genetically engineering yeast and bacteria into organisms that can produce liquid transportation fuels from cellulosic biomass. In another project, scientists are trying to develop a new generation of nanotechnology-based polymer photovoltaic cells to reduce the cost of generating solar electricity by more than a factor of five, making it competitive with coal and natural gas. In collaboration with scientists from MIT and the California Institute of Technology, yet another Berkeley Lab research program is experimenting with artificial photosynthesis, which uses solar-generated electricity to produce economically competitive transportation fuels from water and carbon dioxide. If this approach works, it would address two major energy challenges: climate change and dependence on foreign oil producers.

In the next ten years, given proper funding, such research projects could significantly improve our ability to convert solar energy into power and store it and to convert cellulosic biomass or algae into advanced transportation fuels efficiently. Combined, this would mean a genuine transformation of the energy sector.

The world can and will meet its energy challenges. But the transformation must start with a simple thought: it’s time to fix the wiring.

This article was originally published in McKinsey’s What Matters. Copyright (c) McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Our Renewable Future part 1: clearing “myth”conceptions

With Obama talking the talk on climate action in his State of the Union address yesterday, now seems a good time to start compiling a planned set of blog entries about renewable energy. Many many others have done so online already (as evidenced by the fact I’m linking to them!) but I’d like to communicate my cautiously nascent optimism in my own words.

I’m growingly confident that I’ll live to see renewables dominate global electricity production, as dominantly as oil dominates global transport today, with immense and commensurate environmental benefits.

That moment won’t come a moment too soon, either, given the calamities that we’ve “locked in” for our children — the last time CO2 levels were this high (about 396 ppm in Jan 2013), sea levels were 25 metres higher than they are today.  The only reason sea levels remain near pre-industrial levels is that the earth’s systems haven’t had time to equilibrate, yet.  To use a baseball analogy, we’re still in the first inning of seeing the effects of our emissions.

Now, when I talk about renewables, I mainly mean wind and solar, which tower over their cleantech cousins like redwoods over a meadow.  (While hydroelectric is renewable and dwarfs these two for now, it doesn’t get the sexy “cleantech” label, being a mature technology.)

But before explaining my new-found confidence — certainty, even — in “Our Renewable Future”, I wanted to address a few major myths, objections and misconceptions about renewable energy — the blogging equivalent of clearing the underbrush, I suppose.  :)

I’ll do so using a Q & A format based on the way John Cook at Skeptical Science addresses common myths about climate change.

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3D electricity (“Great Upload of 2013”)

(written April 13, 2012.  Part of the Great Upload of 2013…)

As a guy whose birthday falls on the 13th, it always bugged me that my 13th birthday was a Saturday… those darned leap years!



One of my concerns in the past several years has been the fact that “energy-return-on-energy-invested” (EROEI) for fossil fuels has been decreasing.  This is most evident in the petroleum sector: in the good old days, all you needed to do was stick a steel straw in the ground, and you’d get oil.  (As an Algerian colleague once told me, “back home, we drill wells looking for water, but all we get is oil.  It’s like, what the hell?  Oil again??”)

In the days of yore (and lost Lenores) for each unit of energy you “invested” to get the oil, you might have gotten 50x or 100x units of energy back.  Alas, this happens “nevermore”.

EROEI has been dropping because, while we’ve become more efficient at extracting oil, difficulty-of-extraction has gone up even faster.  The oil sands are the most extreme case: for each unit of energy you invest to turn the bitumen into oil, you might get… 5x units of energy back.  So if you want to extract 100 units of oil energy, your cost is no longer 1-2 units of energy… but 20 units of energy, plus a bunch up-front!  (This is why it takes many months and mammoth money to increase oil sands production.)

And while recent developments such as North Dakota’s “tight oil” probably have a better EROEI, they won’t reverse the drainward trend.  Coal is in much the same boat, though natural gas is a different story — we only started to tap the world’s largest natural gas field in the past few years, so its EROEI will probably stay high for awhile.*  Since the hydrogen for most fuel cells comes from natural gas, that’s good news.  (Plus, it’s easier to obtain natural gas equivalents from renewable resources, than liquid fuels…)

Declining EROEI is kind of depressing from a societal perspective, because it suggests that we’ll have to work harder and harder to acquire the energy we’ve accustomed ourselves to — as anyone who’s bought gasoline recently can attest.  ;)  (As if environmental damage, converging debt crises and aging populations weren’t enough!)

EROEI for renewables

Fortunately, EROEI is increasing rapidly in the renewables sector, helping it continue its exponential growth — and that is a cause for optimism.  At the end of 2011, there was enough installed solar and wind capacity to provide 3% of the world’s electricity.  (That number already factors in the fact that it’s sometimes nighttime, and windless.)  And the growth rate is high enough that it could hit 20% by 2020.  That’s a lot of coal plant closures!  Much beyond that, though, and you start to run into realistic limits for wind power**, though solar would still have a lot of “blue sky potential”, in the business parlance.  I hope to ramble about the physical laws governing whales and wind turbines sometime soon…

In terms of solar, the main energy input in making a solar panel comes from creating ingots of 99.999 999 9% pure silicon.  These parts-per-billion impurity levels are so low, you have a better chance of winning the jackpot on a lottery ticket, than randomly picking a non-silicon atom out of an ingot!  Companies slice thin wafers off using the industrial equivalent of a deli-meat slicer, and the wafers undergo post-treatment to become the solar panels US Republicans love to hate.***

About ten years ago, solar companies would use wafers about 0.33 mm thick (330 microns), and EROEI estimates for solar panels in reasonably-sunny areas were in oil-sands range, roughly 5:1.  Today’s photovoltaics are a bit more efficient, and based on wafers about half as thick (180 microns), meaning that for roughly the same starting energy input you can get two solar panels, and thus, twice the electricity.  So in the time since George Bush won election 5 votes to 4 in the Supreme Court, solar’s EROEI has doubled to about 10:1.  The physical limit is apparently about 20 microns, which two Silicon Valley startups already claim to be able to achieve… if given enough investor money.  :)  While most startups shut down, solar panels are almost certainly going to get thinner, meaning their EROEI will get better.

On the financial side, the panels aren’t even the cost-prohibitive component of solar arrays anymore: installing rooftop solar in the US will cost you roughly $6/Watt up-front, of which the panel only represents $1.  (The rest is associated electronics, and labour.)  That’s about double the cost in Germany, whose feed-in tariffs allow for project financing of the rest.  This means there’s a big incentive to figure out how to capture more solar energy from a given square metre of rooftop — people with a choice of $6 per Watt or $7 per 2 Watts, are inevitably going to choose the latter, eh?

Into… the third dimension!

Part of the solution will probably be to extend solar panels into the third dimension, in the manner these MIT guys did.  It’s a bit like the moment 400 million years ago when the first Cooksonia pertoni told a friend, “I’m tired of competing with lichens and mosses for sunlight in the x-y plane; imma grow me in the z-direction!”

As such, it’s possible that instead of flat slabs, solar-panelled houses of the future will have bristly, antenna-esque solar panels protruding from their roofs — kind of like the branches of trees.  The “treeing” of photovoltaic arrays makes sense, since trees have had a zillion generations to figure out how to maximize sunlight collection.  Of course you’d figure with all that time, some of them would’ve realized the evolutionary advantage of, oh, being able to move by now…  :)

And while such a future would be aesthetically great for those of us who enjoy the look of Gothic churches or Thai wats (Buddhist temples), for minimalists like Steve Jobs on the other hand…  ;)

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* that is, unless something destabilizes Qatar or Iran, but c’mon, how likely is that?  ;)

** alpha nerds can peruse this link; the rest of you can shake your heads in despair…  :)

*** technically speaking, Solyndra was a thin-film solar company using glass substrates, not silicon.  But such subtleties are not the stuff of Fox News…