Energy Exchange

Do We Need Breakthroughs Or A Simple “Carbon Diet?”

Over the weekend, The New Republic published an interview with President Obama, where he noted the following: "On climate change, it's a daunting task. But we know what releases carbon into the atmosphere, and we have tools right now that would start scaling that back, although we'd still need some big technological breakthrough."  How accurate is the call for breakthroughs and what do we really need?

First, let’s look at where we don’t need breakthroughs, but instead more deployment – energy efficiency, of course, being Exhibit A.  Creative financing, such as on-bill repayment (OBR), at scale can speed up deployment here.  Similarly, unlocking clean energy to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector hinges on affordability.  Wind energy is already competitive with fossil fuels, in large part because the cost of wind energy has come down around 65 percent in the last 20 years, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (yes, declining natural gas prices provide new competition, but EIA projects that natural gas prices will begin to increase in 2018, and wind power purchase agreements are signed for around 20 years at a fixed price).  Residential solar is verging on the tipping point for “grid parity,” or the point at which a source of power becomes cost competitive with other sources.  Bell Labs first introduced solar cells in the 1950s.  Environment California’s Research & Policy Center recently reported that they expect solar to reach grid parity in mid-2014 to 2016 at the outset. 

Of course, progress in lowering costs and increasing efficiency comes on the heels of many smaller innovations.  For example, innovations in materials science underlie many of the most promising technology evolutions, such as the role of carbon fiber as a basic raw material for wind turbine blades or the use of Gallium Arsenide wafers to reduce manufacturing costs for solar cells.  But, nonetheless, given our country’s strength in materials science (think of our leadership with companies like Dow, Dupont and 3M), such innovations seem imminently feasible and in my mind don’t require a major “breakthrough.” 

We’ve also delivered numerous hardware and software innovations to transform our electric grid into a more resilient, smart, “green” grid.  Even carbon capture and storage, to some a high stakes technology bet, is actually just a new configuration or application of engineering equipment we have installed and used for decades, such as heat exchangers, chillers, absorbers, pumps and compressors.

Where would I wave a wand for a breakthrough?  A cheap, reliable and efficient energy storage system wouldn’t hurt, one that replaces the clunky compressed air systems or the size limitations of batteries.  But, overall, the declining cost curves for clean energy solutions, due to innovations large and small, tell us an important story:  solving the climate crises is not unaffordable or necessarily a drag on our recovering economy as many fear.  It is certainly not infeasible nor hinging on that one great technological breakthrough. 

We need non-technological breakthroughs.  Like the new head of the World Bank, Dr. Jim Kim, who in Davos described wanting to make “everything the Bank does aligned with the effort to slow down climate change.”  And it is certainly cheaper than repeating the $50 billion recovery price tags that we might face time and again as Superstorm Sandy becomes the new normal. 

Americans love the quick technical fix.  But, today we have affordable answers right in front of us, it’s the willpower we may be lacking.  So, just as most of us believe that rather than wait for a dieting breakthrough, the best answer to weight loss is reduced consumption and more exercise – we need to go on a carbon diet.  Our economic and environmental health depend on it.

Also posted in Climate, Demand Response, Energy Efficiency, Grid Modernization, On-bill repayment / Comments are closed

Clean Energy And Economic Development Are Birds Of A Feather

Our new Clean Energy Economic Development Series highlights the successful creation of clean energy clusters in Ohio, Iowa and Colorado.  Some report highlights: 

  • Ohio experienced record investment and merger and acquisition deals in clean energy in 2010 and 2011.  Ohio also significantly increased patents in batteries, fuel cells and wind technologies, moving up in national rankings in all three areas.
  • The Metro Denver region alone had about 1500 companies and 18,000 workers in the cleantech sector in 2011, and achieved a 35 percent increase in direct employment growth since 2006.
  • Iowa leads with the second-highest installed wind capacity in the nation, and is one of only two states that receive over 20 percent of electricity from wind power.  According to the American Wind Energy Association, Iowa has attracted more major wind industry manufacturers than any other state.

While the road map to economic growth differs somewhat for each region or state, these road maps share a formula for success where policy and economic development actions work together across three fronts: (1) stimulating demand for clean energy products and services, (2) seeding innovation in clean energy solutions and (3) recruiting and supporting new firms, jobs, and workforce skills in clean energy. 

But the work is just starting, not just for Ohio, Iowa and Colorado, but for all states.  Every state needs to look to expanding clean energy policy and actions, for example:

Stimulating Demand: The American Taxpayers Relief Act (ATRA) provides critical federal support for wind energy through a production tax credit (PTC), as well as extending energy efficiency tax credits for residences and businesses.  (Under current law, the solar investment tax credit remains in effect through December 31, 2016.)  The wind tax credit helps create customers for the nearly 500 wind manufacturing facilities across the country.  Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) should be strengthened (and certainly not weakened as in Michigan).  Utilities need incentives to invest in smart grid, energy efficiency and other demand-side management programs.   New policies, such as on-bill repayment (OBR), should be passed to create customers for energy efficiency while saving consumers and businesses money.

Innovation: As spending debates loom, we need to maintain investments of federal dollars in clean energy research and development (R&D).  States need to create local programs, such as Ohio’s Third Frontier which promotes technology commercialization.  Third Frontier has helped take the fuel cell industry in Ohio to a new level (measured by higher patent rankings in fuel cells and batteries). 

Recruiting & Workforce Development:  Smart grid investments create modern infrastructure and resilience that is valuable to companies.   Other recruitment tools include easy siting — Iowa City created a Wind Energy Supply Chain Campus that is “shovel-ready” for wind-related companies – and the availability of skilled labor.  Iowa Lakes Community College trains 200 students a year in construction, operations and maintenance of wind turbines using five training labs at the college.   

Clean energy policy and economic development go hand-in-hand because America needs growth sectors to reduce unemployment.  A Brookings Study of clean economy jobs found that between 2003 and 2010, the newer, “cleantech” sub-sector related to energy efficiency and renewable energy grew at a “torrid pace” across the nation.  (Wind: 14.9%, Solar Thermal: 18.4%, Solar PV: 10.7%, Fuel Cells: 10.3%)  As Ohio, Iowa and Colorado have shown, clean energy can deliver economic growth.

Also posted in Renewable Energy / Tagged | Read 1 Response

Don’t Walk Away From Clean Energy Research & Development

“The changing energy landscape and the resulting trade opportunities it affords will continue to provide consumers with more choices, more value, more wealth and more good jobs.” – ExxonMobil Energy Outlook, 12/12/12

I agree with Exxon.

We are moving closer to energy independence. But, even as the U.S. is facing a boom in natural gas, the only way we’ll reach our goal is if we don’t shortchange alternative energy research and development.  Changing the energy landscape must include rapid advances in zero carbon energy technologies, for very good reasons that are in danger of being overlooked in the fiscal cliff negotiations.

First, despite its great promise, we should remember that important questions remain about the health and environmental impacts of natural gas operations. The extraction and distribution of natural gas can result in the release of methane – the main ingredient in natural gas and a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.  Due to the many possible escape routes for methane into the atmosphere, the true carbon footprint of natural gas is uncertain right now, and we need to diversify our energy portfolio and avoid getting locked into an over-reliance on one energy source.

Second, micro-grids will be increasingly important in a world with more storms, flooding, and other “weird weather.” We must be prepared for that scenario. Alternative energy and smart grid solutions can be more resilient, if designed properly. The current model of a large, centralized energy plant is increasingly problematic.

Third, alternative energy offers enormous potential for economic development, exports, and even savings on energy bills. As just one example, look at the Department of Energy’s investments into fuel cells.  According to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index, more clean energy patents are associated with fuel cell technologies than with any other clean energy technology, with over 950 fuel cell patents issued in 2011. Fuel cell durability has doubled, expensive platinum content has been reduced by a factor of five, and the cost of fuel cells has fallen 80% since 2002. With DOE support, 36 commercial technologies have entered the global market as of this past fall.

These advances can benefit communities across the country.  Tulare, California invested in molten carbonate fuel cells for its wastewater treatment plant; this plant now produces about 45% of the electricity needed to run the plant which translates into a savings of more than $1 million per year (not to mention 6,200 tons less CO2 per year).  With over 16,500 wastewater treatment plants in the U.S., communities could find enormous savings and build more resilience — if access to other fuel source is interrupted or electricity goes down, the plant can continue to partially operate and provide critical services to the community.

Talk about more choices and more value for communities, and more wealth and more good jobs for suppliers of fuel cells.

Also posted in Renewable Energy / Read 1 Response

ALEC & Heartland: Freedom Fighters?

As we approach a new Congress, and a new Legislative Session here in Texas, the Heartland Institute and their pal the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are gearing up to reverse state renewable energy mandates across the country.

This comes as no surprise as ALEC has a reputation for supporting unpopular agendas, like current legislation it is pushing around the country that would mandate the teaching of climate change denial in public school systems. So while many Americans from differing political affiliations support an increase in renewables – a nearly unanimous 92% of voters, including 84% of Republicans – it seems fitting that ALEC would be on the opposing side.

While the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) are both members of ALEC, I wonder if they will join the ranks of Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and a whole host of companies who have since parted ways with the “shadowy right-wing front group.”

And it’s not just ALEC that runs off its members. As we wrote back in April, GM announced they were pulling their funding from the Heartland Institute, citing Heartland’s climate change denial. Of course, weeks later Heartland doubled down on their denial with a series of billboards comparing climate change admitters to the likes of Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden.

So this ALEC-Heartland partnership is truly a match made in…well…

Adding to ALEC’s list of anti-environmental goals – including promoting legislation to kill climate policies and providing the framework for legislation that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic coal ash – it now has its sights set on the 29 states that have renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and mandates in place.

And in typical Orwellian fashion this fight is dubbed the “Electricity Freedom Act,” as they deem state standards requiring utilities to get a portion of their electricity from renewable power “essentially a tax on consumers of electricity.” James Taylor, the Heartland Institute’s senior fellow for environmental policy, said he was able to persuade most of ALEC’s state legislators and corporate members to push for a repeal of laws requiring more solar and wind power use on the basis of economics, claiming that, “renewable power mandates are very costly to consumers throughout the 50 states, and that alternative energy, renewable energy, is more expensive than conventional energy.”

But whose freedom are they really protecting and whose freedom are they hindering?

Read More »

Also posted in Climate / Tagged , | Read 2 Responses

Standing Or Elbow Room In The Energy Sector?

GridWeek 2012 convened earlier this month in Washington D.C., and as a first time attendee, I left breathless and hopeful – yet confused – by inexplicable lingering complacency.  Unbeknownst to me, by agreeing to be a panelist in two sessions, I was setting up a comparative experiment. For the first panel, I spoke on “New Utility Business Models” to a packed room of the glimmer-eyed new energy intelligentsia, which is what makes GridWeek so exciting. In the later days of the conference, about a dozen GridWeek participants interspersed amongst a room of mostly empty seats to hear my panel presentation on “Smart Grid’s Role in New Air Quality Standards.”      

It would seem that I, and the handful of attendees at the air quality panel, see the productive overlaps between air quality standards compliance, smart grid and new utility revenues.   There are several ways that smart grid provides a value proposition for utilities faced with increasingly stringent air quality regulations, most recently the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule. Here’s a short, but by no means comprehensive, list of both synergies and potential tensions:

  • Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS): Smart grid supports achieving higher and higher proportions of intermittent, non-dispatchable renewable electricity generation.   Achieving high levels of RPS will be expensive unless we can use new strategies to manage intermittency and power quality.  New pricing structures for utility services can provide incentives to invest on both sides of the meter, and open the door for historically hidden utility services (such as voltage regulation) to be priced and sold.  For incumbent utilities, there is an opportunity to identify and price network services that traditionally have been bundled into rates.
  • Electric Vehicles (EV):  EVs are an important new frontier for utilities, and like most frontiers, offer both promise and peril.  Overloaded distribution networks might keep the utility engineers up at night, while the emerging new customer class has utility shareholders thinking like venture capitalists.  Though still small in number, EVs are quickly driving utility planners and system operators toward a fork in the road. Do we provide safe reliable service to new and existing customers using expensive dirty methods of the past (i.e., more big power plants) or do we take a deep breath (of cleaner air) and trust in the power of the people by embracing distributed energy resources?  
  • Distributed Energy Resources (DER):  Rooftop solar, energy efficiency, and demand response, collectively known as distributed energy resources, unquestionably can provide the low cost, clean pathway towards both energy independence and a sustainable economy.  However, DER is harder to plan and dispatch, and it threatens the traditional utility business models of incumbent institutions.   In California, net energy metering policy has been an important ignition switch, fueled by the California Solar Roofs Initiative, but these successful policies need to evolve to achieve DER at larger scales.   Again, the key is precisely pricing the goods and services on both sides of the meter.  Utilities should be paid for power quality and storage services provided to owners of rooftop systems, while electricity from those rooftops should be priced fairly to provide incentive to invest.
  • Clean air standards:  Oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter, acidifying compounds and carcinogens, such as mercury, are the power sector’s long-time emissions concerns.  Across the nation, electricity generators must hold permits to pollute and tradable emissions allowances that must be acquired at nontrivial prices.   Starting in 2013, California electricity generation that emits global warming pollution will have an associated cost –carbon allowances in the state’s cap-and-trade program.  Already, polluters in Southern California must acquire emissions allowances for the RECLAIM program, and power plants nationwide must comply with the acid rain emissions allowance program established in the Federal Clean Air Act .  Similarly, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) program puts a price on carbon emissions for nine northeastern states, and the Western Climate Initiative is endeavoring to do the same for West Coast states and Canadian provinces.  These programs use emissions allowances that are fungible and tradable, yet they represent real costs – and thus economic opportunity when avoided.  Pollution pricing is changing business models throughout North America.    But there is more to come.  For example, improved environmental performance enabled by smart grid technologies, such as increasing DER, presents new avenues to meet air quality requirements.  For the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other oversight agencies, the ability to measure, verify and enforce DER is key to granting compliance credit, and such capabilities are increasingly cost-effective with smart grid deployment. 
  • Consumer empowerment:  The mobile phone revolution is a prelude to what may be possible once consumers and producers begin to see true pricing in the energy marketplace.  While load-serving entities can find new revenues through services, consumers and entrepreneurs will be motivated by new ways to make a buck, or avoid spending bucks through unnecessary energy waste. 

The new smart grid business frontier has, in fact, many frontiers.  The California Public Utilities Commission conceived of an electricity ecosystem comprised of smart consumers, smart markets and smart utilities.  Utilities are trying to find their new niche within the ever changing food web, and all ears are perked for new opportunities.  That’s why only standing room was available in the business model panel session at Gridweek.

Meanwhile, in the air quality session of GridWeek, there was plenty of elbow room.EPA is considering flexible strategies for meeting new emissions standards for carcinogens.  Many utilities are operating in permit constrained areas that fail to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards.  Enlightened utilities are seeing demand-side strategies as increasingly viable with smart meter deployment, and a means to improve returns to shareholders.  Performance-based rate of return can be structured to both reduce sales of energy to customer and to improve utility earnings. 

Gridweek revealed to me that many are educating themselves about new business opportunities, but precious few have the connected the dots to air quality improvements.   If I could, I’d bet on the folks who attended both sessions.

Also posted in Energy Efficiency, Grid Modernization, Renewable Energy / Read 1 Response

Pecan Street To Be Recognized At GridWeek 2012

Next week, thousands will descend on Washington DC for GridWeek, the “only international conference focused on smart grid.” Now in its 6th year, GridWeek “attracts the complete diversity of global electric-industry stakeholders to explore Smart Grid’s impact on the economy, utility infrastructure, consumers and the environment.”

The theme for this year is centered on deriving value for all stakeholders from an increased complexity, as “grid-modernization and smart grid efforts provide the energy industry with more information, a broader system view, and more efficiency and control.” Three key elements will be explored: stakeholder value, managing complexity and smart energy policy. EDF Economist Jamie Fine will be speaking on the “New Revenue Streams for Utilities” and “Smart Grid’s Role in New Air Quality Requirements” panel discussions at GridWeek.

At the center of all of these themes is Austin’s own Pecan Street Inc. (Pecan Street). Which is why it is no surprise that it is being recognized by the GridWeek Advisory Board for “significant achievements in “Extracting Smart Grid Value” — for all stakeholders, including utilities, consumers and society at large.” Also recognized are the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) and Green Button, a “voluntary effort and the result of a White House call to action: ‘provide electricity customers with easy access to their energy usage data in a consumer-friendly and computer-friendly format via a "Green Button" on electric utilities' website.’”  Read More »

Also posted in Grid Modernization / Comments are closed