I haven't been posting much because I've basically been smugly sitting back on my butt waiting for the market to take care of a bunch of the problems we're going to face even before peak oil arrives in a hard way around 2015. But it's nearly the summer and I've been thinking a little about what the world would look like if we had to run it off of electricity derived purely from renewables. We don't of course because we have brickloads of nuclear and shale gas as well as unconventional oil (which will of course eventually peak and decline but not today or next week or next decade even).
So let's get to the meat:
Doomers basically say we're screwed no matter what we do, so let's ignore them. Detractors on the other hand are not religious fanatics (generally), just highly conservative late adopters. The type of person who still buys CDs instead of downloading music from itunes for example.
So anyways. Let's take a look at the question above.
Well, let's establish some baselines. I have previously established that in certain areas we already have par with fossil fuels for solar and wind but let's assume that they are 2X as expensive.
So we're still stuck right? Because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow?
Wrong. The missing but implicit assumption that isn't talked about is this: we could store the energy in batteries or salt mines or whatever, just that it's EXPENSIVE to do so.
Well what does that mean? Well let's take Vanadium flow batteries as an example. They add between 1.5X to 3X the cost depending on whose figures you take.
So that means if we're being uncharitable to renewables we are looking at 3X to 6X the cost of current electricity if we use the most expensive means of storage.
So let's take a look at that.
Right now in North America, the cost of a kilowatt hour varies between about 10c and 25c.
Let's look at the most inefficient electric vehicle: the Volt. It has to carry around a gasoline engine in addition to it's electric motors (something like the leaf would be better but let's use the Volt as our baseline).
The Volt uses 8 KW/h of electricity to drive 40 miles. That's a reasonable comparison to a gallon of gas in a car that size. So the equivalent of a gallon of gas for a Volt at today's prices is between 80c/gallon and $2 a gallon. That's compared to close to $4 a gallon for gasoline/diesel based vehicles (ignoring the fact that most North American vehicles only get 15-20 mpg but let's ignore that inconvenient fact for now).
So if it costs 80c a gallon at 10c per KW/h then using our estimate for the most expensive storage methods we're looking at between $1.20 per gallon and $2.40 per gallon equivalent. Still cheaper than today's gasoline prices.
If we take the high end at 25c per KW/h as being $2 per gallon then we're looking at between $3 and $6 per gallon.
Now $6 a gallon will have most North Americans weeping in their beer but most of the rest of the world is ALREADY paying more than that TODAY .
To be sure if Americans had to pay $6 every 40 miles driven I doubt there would be so many trips to the ocean or the mountain or stupid trips like driving to NYC from the midwest to pick up some furniture and then back again. But North Americans being resilient folk would figure out how to get around minor problems like that and continue on their merry way.
On another note: one of the problems with Solar Panels Cost right now is that most of the material is wasted during the deposition process. It would be nice if someone could come up with a way to reduce wastage so that the costs could drop. Especially since the Chinese (as is their right) have hiked prices on rare earths to try to force high tech manufacturing to move to China (where the internal price is lower). Anyways, as it happens one of the technical departments in an Oregon university (I forget if it's OSU or PSU) has developed a process to use a type of inkjet printing which should reduce costs. Now if we take the word "most" (as in most of the material is wasted) to mean merely 51% of the material is wasted then we're looking at a 50% drop in materials costs. As materials costs for solar panels are about 2/3 of the final store price, we're looking at a 33% reduction in price for the end consumer. Not too shabby, considering that we're already at par with fossil fuels for the Southern States and Mediterranean Europe.