Tag Archives: energy

An 18-Year Climate Anniversary

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Today, October 1, 2014, marks 18 years without a measurable increase in the earth’s temperature according to the RSS temperature series (note: other series have different durations since warming stopped, some longer, some shorter).

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This is not a reason to declare victory, as the side effects of our energy usage, including CO2 dumped in the atmosphere, add uncertainty to our future. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t good news, as it certainly is. We have been given a reprieve from rising temperatures, and there’s an increasing chance that earlier estimates about the climate sensitivity as a result of atmospheric CO2 isn’t as bad as we thought.

Though the lack of warming is slowly getting more visiblity, there’s still a huge disconnect given the catastrophic narrative that many people continue to use when discussing the global warming. If rising temperatures are so horrible, aren’t these folks rejoicing that they’ve stopped for now? No they aren’t, and the reasons are varied. For some its a reputation issue, for some there’s big money involved in their campaign of fear, and for others global warming was just a lever to push for revolution in the economy, the government, or society overall, and a little pesky data won’t disrupt the crusade.

My advice is simple: be thankful that we’ve been given a break, take some time to look at real information about what’s going on and the options we have going forward, and tune out the fear mongers for awhile.

Solar Roads and Faith in Innovation

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Whenever I see something a wildly create idea like the solar road idea, it renews my faith in the power of innovation and its potential to address our toughest sustainability problems. Given the number of people who sent me links to this project, the idea seems to have captured the imagination of a good number of folks.

I’ll be up front: in the case of solar roads, I actually don’t believe that it will make sense to widely deploy them today (more on this at the end of this post). But that doesn’t mean that the idea won’t have important value, either by sparking a related idea that has a better chance of making it big, or by catalyzing someone’s thought process, enabling them to have a totally different, off-the-wall idea. It’s also possible that I’m wrong, and this is a killer idea.

The beauty of the US innovation “system” is that a rich pool of new ideas gets broad visibility. Many will get an initial investment of some kind. The ones that best solve real problems in a cost-effective manner will get to live on, and the ones that don’t will eventually not get the investment they need, and will fade away. We don’t rely on my opinion, or that of some government agency, or anyone any specific company. The open market makes the ultimate decision.

Ideas flow through our “system” and build on each other. As mentioned above, the real value of an idea may be the other ideas that it helps foster. Or maybe the time just isn’t right for a specific idea, but at some point in the future someone will notice that the conditions that previously doomed an idea have changed, and its time to reconsider it. For example, some future solar technology may have just the right characteristics to radically change the viability of the solar road idea.

This is why eye-opening ideas get me charged up, even if the commercial viability isn’t obvious at a given moment in time. Solar roads may or may not make sense with current technology, but I’m confident that 1) our innovation system will come to an appropriate answer to that question, and 2) the idea will get broad visilibity, with the potential to ultimately create value that is much bigger than the obvious implementation we see today.

Initial Thoughts on the Viability of Solar Roads

Two thought experiments lead me to believe that solar roads don’t make sense right now.

The first revolves around the following question: if you had today’s state of the art solar panel, would you embed it in a road? The answer is clearly “no”. With today’s panels people do serious work to make sure that they are well sited, with clear view of the right parts of the sky, deployed at angles optimized for that geo-location, and organized in groups to optimize maintenance and common infrastructure. Even with all of this careful work, today’s panels only make financial sense with serious government subsidies.

Solar roads will be very suboptimal from the persective of all of these siting criteria. Compared to other options, solar roads won’t make economic sense until we’ve deployed panels on every available warehouse, megastore, mall and factory; a state which we are a long way from.

The second thought experiment revolves around the obvious follow-up question: would solar roads have unique features that would justify the very expensive electricity that they would produce? The two that have been suggested are heating roads for snow and ice removal, and dynamic road lighting for pedestrian and animal visibility at night.

A first observation is that these both add to our national electricity requirements so better have a high value or replace other, comparable energy usage. Based on having lived in a few northern climates, my sense is that road heating would work in such a narrow band of temperature and conditions that it would not be generally useful. I’d be interested if anyone has a study or examples that show that this is actually an effective strategy for clearing roards.

Lighting roads for pedestrians and animals seems cool, but it’s hard to imagine that it would justify the infrastructure and energy required.

If I’m wrong about something, its most likely that there’s a niche application where these features are valuable, and can justify the inefficient solar deployment. I’ll be interested to see if such a scenario emerges, and, if so, how large it is. In the meantime, I’m will remain skeptical of the viability of this solar roads given current technologies.

Let’s Get Serious About Energy

Were you outraged at the Department of Energy over the long-term lack of electricity to millions of Americans following hurricane Sandy? Are you waiting for Secretary Chu’s explanation of why 40% of the 2012 corn crop is going to ethanol, raising food prices during an economic slump? Do you follow DOE’s positions on the Keystone XL pipeline or the renewal of the Wind Production Tax Credit?

I can confidently say the answer is ‘No’, since no one I know believes the DOE plays a serious role in US energy strategy and execution.

Serious Issues, No Leadership

The most startling part of the Bipartisan Policy Center‘s call for national energy policy (“The Executive Branch and National Energy Policy: Time for Renewal”) is not the observation that DOE is not leading US energy strategy, which is clear. The startling part is the extent to which every other part of the federal government has their hand in energy strategy.

This would be fine if energy was a quiet, stable backwater of national interest. But in President Obama’s first term alone we’ve had the Fukushima nuclear disaster, radical changes in Mideast politics, the Deepwater Horizon spill, dramatic changes in fossil fuel extraction and viable North American sources, a hugely expensive and minimally successful political push for electric vehicles, an unexpected drop in US GHG emissions to 1992 levels, and a hurricane who’s destruction and human impact were massively compounded by a prolonged lack of electricity to millions.

Energy is a serious issue for the well-being of our citizens, economy and national security. While we have huge challenges, we fortunately have huge opportunities as well. We can no longer afford a DOE that believes “all of the above” is an actual strategy, and compensates by ceding actual strategy and execution to “all of the above” federal agencies.

Here is my roadmap for getting serious about energy.

Part 1: Be Clear on the Goal

Part of what’s confounding about our inability to drive a coherent national energy strategy is that the goal is not a mystery. We can argue about their relative emphasis, but the components of the target are clear:

Cheap, clean, reliable and secure energy.

Interestingly, not only are these targets easy to list, for the most part they can be quantified, and we can see if we’re making progress. It is time for a factual, human-readable, annually produced “State of US Energy” report that shows whether we are making progress in each of these areas.

Step 2: Create a Home for US Energy Strategy

It would be natural for DOE to be the home for US energy strategy (ala the Department of Education), while the [Bipartisan Policy Center][BipartNov2012] makes a strong case for a National Energy Council (ala the National Security Council).

While there’s probably good arguments for each of these approaches, I actually don’t care. At this point the need for a stable home is more important than the specific address, and the President needs to identify where it is, and make sure it has the authority and leadership it needs.

Step 3: Make DOE Mission-Driven

Regardless of where US Energy Strategy lives, DOE still has an important role to play, and changes are necessary for them to effectively fulfill their role.

Much has been written at the Breakthrough Institute, ITIF and elsewhere about the ongoing need for energy innovation. While the Energy Innovation Tracker shows us that energy innovation spending at DOE is not insubstantial, it, not surprisingly, suffers from the “all of the above” strategy currently employed at the agency. DOE’s huge number of point projects lack an overarching strategy and system for making decisions.

In contrast, DOD approaches energy with a mission-driven mindset, setting priorities and challenging DOD researchers and private industry to meet those challenges. A perusal of the DOD Energy Blog provides a glimpse into the effect of a mission-driven mindset. Instead of trying to pick winning technologies and companies, the DOD challenges public and private research, with the rewards of big contracts to those who can deliver.

Under Arun Majumdar’s leadership ARPA-E began to emulate this method of driving innovation, but ARPA-E represents only a few percent of DOE’s innovation budget, and even less of its overall budget. Given the clear goals outlined above, DOE should be able to adopt this style of decision making more broadly through the organization.

Step 4: New DOE Leadership

Secretary Chu is clearly a brilliant man and a world-class expert on the science of energy. But mission-driven organizations understand that there are different leadership roles to play, and a qualified CEO is almost never qualified to be a Chief Scientist, and vice versa.

DOE needs a new Secretary who is up to the task of turning DOE into a mission-driven organization capable of establishing and carrying out an immense, innovation-driven program to drive the US towards cheap, clean, reliable and secure energy.

It’s Not Easy, But It’s Not Rocket Science

Our national energy goals, challenges and opportunities are not hazy, vague concepts that are difficult to quantify. We know that rising energy prices hurt businesses and our most vulnerable citizens. We know that our current energy system has damaging impacts on human and planetary health. We know that Americans and the economy suffer when energy supply is unreliable. And we know that having critical parts of our energy infrastructure and supply in the hands of anti-American or unstable political systems threaten our way of life.

The goals are clear, and moving towards them requires focus, investment and innovation. Fortunately when America gets serious, we have shown ourselves to be unequaled in meeting these types of challenges. The four steps outlined in this document provide a blueprint for starting down that path.

Energy Innovation: How Can We Keep It Blooming

Bloom Energy’s recent announcement of their fuel cell-based “energy server” drew lots of attention from the press, and for good reason. It set some nice marks for performance, and, if successful, will likely be the first of a new market category of energy products.

At Sun we looked at this technology a couple of years back. The use case was as the backup for a datacenter, and to switch to it as primary power when grid power was more expensive (e.g. mid-day in the summer during peak AC time). In this example the technology would enable us to change our view of backup power, from something we only use in emergencies to an energy insurance plan against rising costs. If I recall the only issue was the number of the units that would be required to support a MW or higher datacenter, but improvements in their technology have likely reduced this problem in the meantime.

Beyond work applications, I can’t wait to see the home version of this technology, providing electricity and hot water from a single process. Hopefully the folks at Bloom or one of their competitors is working on a version for that!

But putting my nerdish desires aside, its useful to use this milestone to look at the environment in which the Bloom technology came into being. In this case there are two interesting aspects.

The first is the story of how this product came into being, which is interesting because it highlights all of the players required to get an interesting technology to market. It starts with the US government (as many interesting technologies do), who needed a better way to create oxygen on NASA missions. While this fuel-cell design didn’t meet those needs, K.R. Sridhar, now CEO of Bloom, realized that the fuel cell could also use oxygen as a source and be a potentially interesting source of electricity. Enter Kleiner-Perkins and the venture capital community to fund the effort, followed by key silicon valley innovators looking to try something new to lower their power bills and green their energy supply. Finally, the federal government, accompanied by the State of California, returns to the picture with incentives that help make the technology cost competitive during the early phase as it ramps up.

Every interesting energy technology may not follow this exact same road, but this story is a great demonstration of the type of involvement from both the public and private side that is required to get something to market at a reasonable initial cost. Take any one of these actors out of the story, and its not clear that the press has much to celebrate.

Its also important to recognize that, despite its Hollywood feel, this story wasn’t pre-scripted. Things fell into place as the story unfolded, and at each stage there could have been unforeseen roadblocks that stopped the story before the happy ending. In other words, we’ll have to be willing to let lots of these stories play out, understanding that not all will end happily. This is especially important for the federal government’s role, which needs to be repeated in some form in every one of these stories.

The second thing I find interesting about the Bloom Energy story is that the technology isn’t perfect. It’s not cheaper than the electricity from your wall socket, and it’s actually not even carbon-free. In fact, powered by natural gas the CO2 content of the power is around 0.77 pounds per kWH. While this is a radical improvement over grid power in a coal-dominated state like CO or WY (at around 2 lbs/kWH), its in the ballpark of CA grid power (Jesse Jenkins compares in his Bloom article). But overall its roughly half the CO2/kWH of the US national average, and that’s a good step forward.

Our collective reaction to this technology could have been different than it was. We could have said “Hey, this is still using fossil fuels”. We could have said “This still produces CO2, its not a clean technology”. We could have said “This technology isn’t cost effective today, why are we supporting it with our tax dollars?”. And while all of these statements are, at their core, true, we would have been missing two key points: 1) we have no path to perfectly clean technology (including solar cells and wind farms, which are built on the backs of fossil fuels), so will need to rely on steps toward that ideal, and 2) any new technology is being measured against an energy infrastructure that has been fine-tuned for over a century, with the benefit of massive public and private innovation investment.

The fact that a new technology can beat grid energy on emissions and get in the ballpark on cost is a great accomplishment. We need to recognize that we had the right reaction here, and make sure we are ready to celebrate the next technology in a similar manner.

We need dozens, or maybe even hundreds of examples like Bloom Energy to get to the energy future we need from a climate and economic perspective. The Bloom story needs to serve as a reminder of all of the parts that go into making a story like this happen, and the way in which we need to evaluate and support these early stage efforts to transform our energy infrastructure.

A Good Customer for Clean Energy

[Note: I jointly authored this with Dan Sarewitz of ASU]

The House of Representatives has passed a massive climate change bill aimed at legislating a new, climate-friendly energy supply into existence through emissions caps, technology standards, and incentives. The bill’s champions assume that, in response to an array of mandated carrots and sticks, nimble startup firms will be motivated to develop new clean-energy technologies that will ultimately revolutionize our use of energy, while investors smelling early profits will line up to fund these activities.

Unfortunately, a crucial question remains embarrassingly unasked: Who is going to buy enough of these new technologies to establish a market that’s large enough to meet our carbon reduction goals? This question is particularly vexing because, in the energy sector, existing business models are deeply entrenched, huge capital investments are at stake, and new technologies often require changes in consumer behavior that inhibit adoption.

Large, reliable, early-adopter customers are essential to new markets—to bring in revenue that helps scale up operations, and to foster confidence that attracts more customers and new investments. Real-world customer feedback also promotes rapid innovation and improves the chances that new products will succeed in the market.

What would the ideal clean-energy customer look like? Imagine an organization big enough to have energy systems that mirror the real world’s, rich enough that its purchasing power could command the attention of innovators, sophisticated enough to assess and deploy the latest technologies, and disciplined enough to push those new technologies relentlessly in the direction of greater efficiency and lower cost, year after year.

Something akin to this ideal customer exists: The Department of Defense, funded annually at about $500 billion (roughly the GDP of Sweden). DoD owns a huge infrastructure, including 570,000 buildings at more than 5,000 facilities and bases (many of which are the equivalent of small cities), hundreds of thousands of vehicles and tens of thousands of aircraft, and annual energy costs of about $20 billion.

For more than 60 years, DoD has been by far the world’s most important customer for driving high-tech innovation. In aviation, telecommunications, advanced materials, semiconductors, and many other fields, the dual role of DoD as investor and major customer has stimulated rapid technological improvements, allowed scale-up of high-tech systems so they became both practical and affordable, and catalyzed the growth of the private sector so technologies could flourish in the broader marketplace. The Internet may be the DoD’s crowning achievement. First conceived at DoD’s Advanced Projects Agency, this early computer network eventually created a market for equipment and service providers that soon spilled over into the private sector as the Internet, an unparalleled platform for innovation and wealth creation.

Yet policymakers have, amazingly, ignored the critical role of government as a strategic customer for energy technology. DoD, with its hunger for energy, huge size, and sophisticated technical capabilities and needs, could quickly become the world’s most important consumer and catalyst for clean energy innovation—even as it vastly improves its operational efficiency and flexibility in providing for the nation’s defense. We can see the latent capacity for this role in the early adoption of solar energy cells by the military for use on satellites (in the 1950s!); in the ever-increasing demand for better batteries to support troops in remote locations; in the nation’s largest solar energy farm on Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Congress or the President should ask the Department of Defense develop a plan for committing to a path of progressively increasing efficiency and clean energy across all aspects of its operations, from tanks in the desert to the supermarkets on its bases. This plan should include a DoD commitment to purchase prescribed amounts of increasingly efficient clean energy capability in 2015-2030 time period. Such a commitment would send an immediate, strong economic signal to innovators and investors, and would decisively put the nation, and the world, on a path to a clean energy future.

Mitigation Math: Hypothetical Answers

Roger Pielke Jr. has an outstanding post titled US Mitigation Math where he shows the general sources and sinks of US energy and resulting GHG emissions. He also throws out some reduction scenarios and concludes that they cannot come close to meeting an emissions reductions goal of 14% below 2005 levels by 2020.

So he closes with a challenge: “… present a scenario combining decarbonization of the energy supply and efficiency gain that has a realistic chance of succeeding in meeting a 14% emissions reduction (below 2005) by 2020.”

It’s a busy week for me so I haven’t had time to work out some complete solutions, but I took a shortcut and asked myself how much CO2 I could reduce if I took all of the Obama administrations projected $645B in revenue from emissions allowances between 2012 and 2019 and applied it to various solutions.

Since I’m living in a hypothetical world, I’m going to take a couple of liberties. First, I’m going to assume that I’ve either got access to all of the money on the first day of 2012, or I can get the average amount of $80B/year for a long time to come. Second, I’m going to ignore the physical and temporal realities of implementing my solutions – in my world I’ve got the full support of the nation and they’ll do everything they can to implement these ideas. Finally, I’m going to conveniently ignore the emissions required to implement these solutions.

Solution 1: Buy Lots of Prius’s

In this scenario I’m going to buy 25.6M Prius cars at an estimated 45MPG and replace 25.6M gas guzzlers at an average of 15MPG. At 12K miles/year each, we’ll save 533 gallons of gas per car per year, and at about 20 pounds of CO2 per gallon, that’s about 4.8 metric tons of CO2 per car per year. Grand total savings: 122MMt/year, or a 2% savings from 5991 MMt.

Solution 2: Go Big on Today’s Solar

That didn’t work so well, so let’s take the money and go big on solar. This project outside of Phoenix looks pretty cool, and the article reports that we can get about 870M kWH/year (70K homes at 12,424 kWH/home) at $133M cost/year. For $80B/year for 30 years we can invest in 707 of these plants. eGrid says that AZ emissions rate is about 1,200lbs/MWh, so if we replaced that with 707 plants worth of carbon-free solar power, we’d save about 335 MMt/year, or 5.5% reduction from 5991 MMt.

Solution 3: Go Big on Future Wind

Getting better, but still not there. Since we’re being hypothetical lets not limit ourselves to current technologies, but instead bet on 2012 wind power. The Large Wind Technology Project at DOE is shooting for $0.035/ kWH by 2012, so lets assume they are successful and we’ll buy it up with our $80B/year of carbon auction dollars. That give us 2.3T kWH/year. Replacing a national average of around 1,300lbs/MWh, that yields 1350 MMt/year, or a 22% reduction from 5991 MMt.

Notes

  • Its worth noting that the difference between the solar and wind solutions lies in the cost/kWH of the two solutions I somewhat randomly picked. If I’d picked other projects, these two might have come out closer.
  • One question I’ve had is whether the cap and trade system has enough economic impact to meet the targets being laid out solely through investment in new energy sources. Since the actual plan involves using some of the money for tax breaks, and since the system won’t be as effective as my “direct spend” approach, I conclude that the answer is a solid “no” at the projected carbon prices.