[Episode #80] – Building Infrastructure as a Service

If you owned a building, or a long-term lease on a commercial space, would you rather shop for your own building infrastructure—things like HVAC systems—or would you rather buy it as a subscription service from a trusted utility or power provider? Our guest in this episode offers the latter, and it’s an intriguing model for how we might upgrade the equipment for commercial and industrial buildings. There are reasons why 68% of the HVAC equipment in commercial buildings in the US is nearly three decades old and in need of replacement, and those reasons are about the cost, complexity, and difficulty involved in that kind of procurement. Wouldn’t it be better if you could call up your local utility and ask them to upgrade your equipment, using their network of trusted and reputable equipment experts and installers, and then just paid them a small amount for the use of that equipment every month, rather than having to pay thousands of dollars for it up front and taking all of the performance risk upon yourself? From high-efficiency lighting, to HVAC controls and sensors, to other energy-consuming building equipment, Sparkfund offers a subscription approach to procurement backed by a no-risk guarantee, which could unlock a huge opportunity to improve the efficiency of our commercial and industrial building systems more quickly than we do under the status quo.

Geek rating: 2

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[Episode #79] – Community Choice Aggregations (CCAs)

What are community choice aggregations, or CCAs, and why are they suddenly playing such a huge role in wholesale power markets? Since the first one launched in California in 2010, it was followed by Sonoma Clean Power in 2014, Lancaster Choice Energy in 2015, and both CleanPowerSF and Peninsula Clean Energy in San Mateo County in 2016. And now, in 2018, CCAs have taken a major share of power procurement in California, which is growing rapidly: There are now 16 CCAs across 18 counties in California, which currently provide about 12% of the state’s electricity, and by the middle of next year, they are expected to serve 40% of utility customers in California. They’re also spreading beyond California, to five other states, with another eight expected to launch in 2018 alone.

And while that’s great for local control of power procurement, it’s also causing concern: As customers have defected from investor owned utilities to CCAs in California, utility investment in large wind and solar plants in the states has crashed. And the state regulator is now worrying about whether future power procurement will be adequate, and whether CCAs will have sufficient oversight. But there is more to the story, and our guest in this episode is well equipped to address the many questions swirling around the role of CCAs in power markets, having been one of the people responsible for launching them!

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #78] – 3-Year Anniversary on the Jonathan Koomey Omnibus

Veteran energy researcher Jonathan Koomey rejoins us for another anniversary show! In this episode we talk about California’s new plan to obtain 100% carbon-free power; the potential for “peak gas” as utility-scale solar-plus-storage and wind plants beat gas on price in the US; the outlook for nuclear power in the West; how to know when the numbers you’re seeing aren’t right, and how to understand data; and the degree to which energy transition can help us stay below 2 degrees C of warming. We also discuss some of the confusing issues with energy data and how that influences our forecasts for primary energy consumption, and we’ll talk about the future need for climate modeling. It’s a wide-ranging, fast-paced romp through all sorts of geeky energy topics that definitely deserves its Geek Rating!

Geek rating: 10

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[Episode #77] – Perspectives of an Energy Transition Veteran

Energy transition has been under way for the better part of two decades now, and it’s easy to forget how much the world has changed over the time. We now have a host of energy technologies and consumer tools that didn’t even exist 15 years ago. Utility business models have been turned upside-down and we’re still not sure what they’ll look like in the future. Equally, there has been a transformation in education as it tries to catch up with a rapidly-changing world and an ever-more-urgent call to action on climate change. Viewed up close, the transition now underway can look pretty slow sometimes, but if you back up and review what has transpired over the past 15 years, it has actually been incredibly rapid, at least compared to the historical pace of change.

Few people have been as involved in energy transition over the past 15 years, and have seen it as up close and personal as our guest in this episode. Robyn Beavers has had a remarkable career working in energy transition that included stints at Google, NRG, the Department of Energy, and Vestas, and she did it all starting as a young woman in an industry dominated by men. In this interview she shares some of her insights on how it all has unfolded, and how she has managed to be incredibly successful with navigating the gender disparity. She also explains how her new venture is working to turn the built environment into dynamic energy assets. If you’re a young person interested in breaking into the world of energy, you don’t want to miss this episode!

Geek rating: 7

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[Episode #76] – Carbon Clampdown

The European Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS) has famously been dysfunctional for most of the past decade, unable to support a carbon price that would be an effective tool for energy transition. But that’s about to change: the EU is embarking on a plan to fix its carbon trading market. But will this be enough? According to calculations by our guest in this episode, there is reason to hope that the emissions trading surplus will be removed by 2023 and carbon prices will rise back to a meaningful level, but that may still not be high enough to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement. So what can be done about it? Will the prospect of Brexit ruin the EU-ETS market? Can carbon prices rise high enough to sustain carbon capture and sequestration technologies? Will we even need carbon prices in the future, given the falling costs of wind and solar? Are asset managers finally getting smart about understanding the risk of stranded fossil fuel assets in their portfolios? And are risk assessors finally beginning to grapple with climate risk?

Mark Lewis, now Head of Research and Managing Director at Carbon Tracker, returns in this episode to dig into details of European carbon market reform and explain what it all means…as well as outlining a fresh way of looking at services delivered by different energy sources, and the implications of this perspective for the oil sector in particular.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #75] – Transportation Transition

Vehicle electrification is gaining real momentum in 2018, from light duty passenger vehicles, to medium and heavy duty vehicles, port equipment, and even ferries. But this rapid transition in transportation isn’t without its risks, its critics, and its incumbent opposition. Will EVs take over the personal vehicle market, and if so, how quickly? How much of a role will ridesharing services play in the future? What’s the future of autonomous vehicles? How will the future of personal vehicle ownership look? Is there going to be enough supply of rare earth metals to support the EV revolution? Are lithium ion batteries going to become an environmental hazard or will we recycle them?  Are EVs cleaner than high-efficiency gasoline vehicles on a lifecycle basis? Will EVs or robotaxis increase the vehicle miles traveled, and if so, what will be the net effect on emissions in that scenario? How should we be planning to accommodate the loads of EV charging on the power grid? And what about the loads of the medium- and heavy-duty sectors? Can drivers and bicyclists and robotaxis learn to share the road? And what would a transition-friendly transportation infrastructure look like?

Our guest in this episode has researched all of these questions, and shares with us the best available knowledge on the rapidly evolving sector of new mobility. Costa Samaras is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University who has published numerous studies related to new mobility and the effect of EVs on emissions and on the power grid.

Geek rating: 7

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[Episode #74] – Climate Science Part 10: How to limit warming to 1.5°C without CCS

In this tenth part of our series on climate science, we explore a new paper outlining a climate scenario that would limit warming to 1.5 °C without relying on negative emission technologies. It does so by detailing numerous pathways that could lead the world toward much lower total primary energy consumption, including a heavy focus on the demand side, quantifying the impact of behavioral changes and different ways of providing energy services, rather than simply focusing on consuming energy.

This doesn’t mean that actually following the pathways outlined in this model will be easy, or that staying under 1.5 degrees of warming is going to happen automatically. In fact, some of the behavioral changes that would be needed might be as difficult as implementing a carbon tax (or, for that matter, implementing CCS at scale). But this outlook does respond to our main complaints with the existing body of climate and energy scenarios—that they generally depend on negative emissions technologies like CCS, and that they don’t adequately take into account measures and policies that are already reducing our energy demand and accelerating the energy transition. Our guest in this episode is one of the co-authors of the paper: Charlie Wilson, a researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and an Associate Professor in Energy & Climate Change at the University of East Anglia in the UK. His expertise on consumer adoption of technology, behavior and policy as they relate to energy and climate change mitigation gives him a unique perspective on this research that we think you’ll find illuminating and thought-provoking.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #73] – Regulatory Capture

Utility regulators are playing an increasingly important role in steering the energy transition of the power grid. However, many regulators aren’t equipped to sort through arguments put forward by competing interests, because they often need to consider highly technical questions that only a power system engineer, or a market design expert could properly evaluate. Some regulators are simply political appointees who may or may not have the appropriate technical expertise, while others are elected by the public, who in turn may not be able to evaluate the technical expertise of the people they are electing. As a result, it is quite common for regulators to depend on the guidance of the companies they are supposed to regulate, and for those companies to seek as much leverage or control over their regulators as they can get—a problem known as regulatory capture.

In this episode we’ll delve into the problem of regulatory capture, and what might be done about it, with the help of Gary Wolfram, a professor and the Director of Economics and Political Economy at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He has published extensively on public policy and taxpayer rights, on the role of government in capitalist market economies, and on the governance and incentive structures of utilities…and we promise that this interview will be a lot more accessible and interesting than this dry description may make it sound!

Geek rating: 6

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[Episode #72] – The Future of Solar

The cost of solar has dropped so quickly that we’re suddenly in a world nobody really anticipated. Utility power procurement is having to pivot to solar under $0.03/kWh…including dispatchable solar with storage, displacing not just coal and nuclear, but natural gas power plants, which everyone assumed we would continue building for decades to come.

So what’s next for solar? Are we ready to phase out its incentives? Do we still need solar advocacy? And are we at risk of solar becoming so cheap that even solar developers can no longer afford to build it? Does the sun actually need to be tamed?

Our guest in this episode has a unique point of view on these issues. Adam Browning is the co-founder and Executive Director of Vote Solar, a non-profit advocacy organization in the US with the mission of bringing solar energy into the mainstream, and he knows the history and the current prospects of solar better than most.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #71] – Australia at the Cutting Edge

Since we last covered Australia one year ago in Episode 39, a lot has changed…it has deployed the largest utility-scale battery system in the world, made numerous technical upgrades to prevent future outages, and placed some incredible leaders in key agencies where they are working hard to accelerate the country’s energy transition. It is also actively investing in new energy technologies that aren’t even commercial yet, to see how they can perform. In short, Australia is breaking new trail on multiple fronts in energy transition, and demonstrating some truly interesting findings to the rest of the world, for how a grid might function self-sufficiently, at scale, with significant shares of variable renewable power and large battery storage systems.

Our guide to the current state of affairs today is Ivor Frischknecht, a subscriber to this show and the CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). A widely acknowledged expert and innovator in the energy industry, with deep knowledge of the grid’s needs in Australia, and a far-reaching vision for what it can become, he’s one of the top experts on the energy transition Down Under, and can explain it all in a very accessible way.

Geek rating: 6

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