Monday, February 4th, 2013...12:54 am

Key Issues in US/World Energy

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I attended several interesting energy conferences in the past week, including Energy Innovation 2013 and a two-day private meeting at Brookings (which is why I can’t make references as to who made which remarks). Here’s a run down of the key issues discussed in these conferences. Do you agree or disagree with some of these points? And how do you see the future of world’s energy?

Natural Gas Vs. Renewables

Arguments for natural gas:

  • Yes, solar panel price is down, but there is still balance of system cost. High penetration of wind and solar is not a trivial issue, because someone would have to bear the cost of natural gas power running at 15% capacity. Now every 4 GW of wind needs 3 GW of natural gas to balance it.
  • Natural gas buys us time to solve renewables’ intermittency problem.
  • Natural gas is the killer app for coal in US and many other countries. Gas infrastructure is least capital intensive. Less sunk cost and easy demand response.
  • Think about cost not just as the cost of technology, but the total cost of deployment. Even though the solar panel price is down, the “soft cost” isn’t in the US. Cost of installation is $2-2.60/watt in Germany, and twice as much in US.

Arguments for renewables against natural gas:

  • Instead of looking at solar as energy source, think about it as part of an integrated system with demand response EV.
  • Water use in energy is second largest water usage behind agriculture. And fossil fuel is heavy in water use whereas renewables isn’t.

 

Subsidies

  • US can’t back renewables with subsidies like Germany did with solar. It’s not sustainable. All subsidies, fossil fuel and renewables, should be eliminated in US.
  • PTC now is promiscuous and funds any wind project. It has to do more in innovation, and be allocated in smart and advanced projects such as combined wind and storage.

 

Nuclear

  • Until the public are more educated on radiation and nuclear, we won’t go far in the area. However, Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s responsibility is public safety, not advocacy, not to inform and educate the public.

 

Innovation and the Way Forward

  • US and Europe are irrelevant to future energy demand growth, which would happen in developing countries like China, India, South America. And innovation comes out of growth — China’s CNOOC has $15 billion in energy innovation budget.
  • We must harness the best system we know of, capitalism, to deal with emissions. Put a price on carbon and give businesses the profit motive.
  • We need to bear in mind that we are solving a global problem, so we need scaleable, global solutions and bipartisan agreement.
  • We need to note how risk-averse US has become.
  • We don’t have time, yes, but the question is how to get to zero-carbon. We need a cure, not just to slow down the symptom.

 

Energy Access

  • We must remember that more than 1.4 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity, and 1 billion more only have intermittent access. Energy access is life saving. Average lifespan for people without electricity is more than 30 years shorter than the rest of us.
  • Despite trends in population growth and urbanization, energy access will continue to require a combination of on grid, mini-grid and off-grid solutions.
  • Don’t overlook the transaction cost for energy access, e.g. in India, it takes 7 years to get permission and licensing from all relevant agencies for a small hydropower.
  • The key to sustainable energy access is not the technology. It is critical to establish sustainable institutions with the management capacity, sound revenue-collecting systems, good business practices. Advanced metering is not the only solution, we must engage with the community, finding people who are trainable. Community participation is the KEY to success.
  • Here when we discuss eliminate subsidies for fossil fuel, we must remember lots of these countries lack the social safety net, and see the natural resource reality of that country.

3 Comments

  • Both arguments for solar energy against natural gas are wrong. 1. Peak EV demand happens at night. How to store solar energy for EV is a big question mark. 2. “renewables use none” is wrong. Solar panel needs a lot of water (can’t remember the number but my professor said it’s a lot…) to clean the dust on the panel. And remember solar plant is usually built in drought regions, where water is expensive.

  • Not neccesarily, peak EV demands happens at night in cold areas, like North Europe, however, warmer areas peak EV happens during the day, where A/C is needed. In the north worst case is winter nights where heating is needed.

    Solar cells can be cleaned by other than water, compressed air comes to mind.

    Shale gas (and oil) requires a lot of water that is pumped down. This water doesn’t come back, however, cleaning water for solar cells evaporates and comes back as rain.

    For countries as a whole, renewable energy like wind power will be an advantage in the long term, shale will run out at a point. The oil and gas a country like Denmark pumps up and sells will make money for the country. It could be used to make electricity, but this is already generated by wind power (30%) or solar. The oil is sold at market price wether high or low. But the money goes to the country.

  • Key Issues? Why is the Key Point not mentioned?
    To achieve the needed decarbonization, a combination of a dozen or more methods are needed. These are sometimes called “wedges” – think of a pie chart. For one reference:
    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2011/01/10/207320/the-full-global-warming-solution-how-the-world-can-stabilize-at-350-to-450-ppm/

    (more associated with Princeton than Harvard, but still….)
    You can read about all the wedges including conservation. I’ll mention just one: the smart grid to transfer electricity more efficiently over distances with time varying loads. This can allow a combination of wind and solar to give us a surfeit of energy.

    The first comment above is a standard “one thing isn’t every thing” argument against solar energy. True, one thing is not every thing. It doesn’t need to be.

    What is the cost of the different energy sources? Much of the cost is “externalized”: environmental costs and war costs are not charged to the energy company, but are born by society. Factor these in and then do your price analysis. Implication: the problem is political, and goes back largely to money in politics.

    Most dangerous Key Point above:
    “Innovation and the Way Forward”

    The way forward is Deploy Deploy Deploy non carbon energy methods we already have. Of course innovation will continue nonstop. But highlighting that word sends the wrong message. We do not need to wait on some new technology, we have very good technology right now. We just need to use it.

    Best paragraph above:
    “The key to sustainable energy access is not the technology. It is critical to establish sustainable institutions with the management capacity, sound revenue-collecting systems, good business practices. Advanced metering is not the only solution, we must engage with the community, finding people who are trainable. Community participation is the KEY to success.”

    Indeed many people are trainable if they don’t have ideological issues. Third worlders are quite “trainable” to efficient off grid solutions.

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