[Episode #33] – Fracking Follies

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) regularly updates its estimates for how much oil and gas might be recovered in the future, and at what rate. With the application of new technology from year to year, those estimates generally keep going up. But it’s important to remember that they are just estimates — and the devil is always in the details.

Our guest in this episode is a career geoscientist who has diligently delved into those devilish details. In his new reports, he finds that EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2016 seems to significantly overstate how much oil and gas might be recovered using fracking technology, with estimates for shale gas and tight oil production that exceed the estimates for how much of those resources are even technically recoverable. In this extended and technically detailed interview, we discuss EIA’s most recent forecasts and try to understand what’s realistic for future US hydrocarbon production.

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #32] – Resources and Economy

The notion of “decoupling” energy consumption from economic growth has become vogue in policy circles, but how much evidence is there that it’s really happening? If the energy intensity of our economy is falling, are we sure that it’s becoming more efficient, or might we just be offshoring energy-intensive industries to somewhere else…along with those emissions? If energy reaches a certain percentage of total spending, does it tip an economy into recession? Is there a necessary relationship between energy consumption and monetary policy? Is there a point at which the simple fact that we live on a finite planet must limit economic growth, or can economic growth continue well beyond our resource consumption? Can the declining EROI of fossil fuels tell us anything about the future of the economy? And can we have economic growth using clean, low-carbon fuels, or might transitioning to an economy that produces zero net new carbon emissions put the economy into recession and debt?

To help us answer these thorny questions, we turn to an expert researcher who has looked at the relationship between energy consumption and the economy over long periods of time and multiple economies, and found some startling results with implications for the Federal Reserve, for economic policymakers, and for all those who are involved in energy transition.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #31] – Transition in Ireland

Ireland is one of the most advanced countries in energy transition, getting over a quarter of its electricity from renewables. It also has one of the most ambitious targets—to obtain 40% of its electricity generation from renewables by 2020—and the resources to be more than 100% powered by renewables, given time and technological development. On the flip side, it also has a severe dependence on imported fossil fuels, and relies on some of the dirtiest power plants in the world.

In this episode, we explore this curious mix of reality, ambition, and potential with the leader of Ireland’s Green Party, a bona fide energy wonk and a longtime supporter of energy transition. From Ireland’s domestic renewable resources to the tantalizing possibility of the North Seas Offshore Grid initiative, it’s all here.

Geek rating: 4

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[Episode #30] – The Future of Wind

The cost of wind power has been falling steadily again since the 2008 price spike, and newer projects have been coming in at 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, making them very competitive with natural gas fired power and ranking among the very lowest-cost ways to generate electricity. But can wind prices keep falling, or have they bottomed out?

A recent report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and other organizations offers some clues. Based on a survey of 163 of the world’s foremost wind energy experts, it examines in detail what factors have led to wind’s cost reductions in the past, and attempts to forecast what will drive further cost reductions in the future. It also looks at some of the reasons why previous forecasts have underestimated the growth and cost reductions of wind, and suggests that many agency forecasts may be underestimating them still. In this episode, one of the report’s principal authors explains the findings and offers some cautionary words about how much confidence we can have in our forecasts.

Geek rating: 4

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[Episode #29] – Grid Simulation and Wind Potential

What combination of power generators on the U.S. grid produces reliable power at the lowest cost? Or, what’s the most renewable energy that can be deployed at a given grid power cost, and what kind of transmission capacity is needed to support it? How would the U.S. grid be different if it were one, unified grid with more high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission capacity? What’s the most productive design for a wind farm? How might weather and a changing climate affect future electricity production from wind and solar farms? And how much renewable power is really feasible on the U.S. grid?

These have been devilishly difficult questions to answer, but now advanced mathematical simulations are beginning to make it possible to answer them much more quickly…and if quantum computing becomes a reality, we could answer them instantly.

In an homage to Comedy Central’s Drunk History, this episode features a conversation conducted over several pints of IPA with a mathematician who recently developed such a simulator while he was working at NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in Boulder, CO. His insights on how the grid of the future might actually function are fascinating, and will likely shatter some of your pre-existing beliefs. It also contains a few nuggets for the serious math geeks out there.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #28] – Transition in Cities

It is widely assumed that the ongoing migration of rural peoples to mega-cities all over the world will help reduce humanity’s per-capita energy footprint, while giving people a higher standard of living and accelerating energy transition. But the world is full of old, inefficient cities in desperate need of an eco-makeover, and of experts who understand the principles of “smart urbanization” and who can help identify how to transform a city from brown and dumb to smart and green. What’s the potential for replacing concrete with living things in cities? How can autonomous and electric vehicles help make cities cleaner and more livable? Why isn’t China promoting its phenomenal success with e-bikes to the rest of the world? Is China’s commodity demand going to continue to weaken as it moves away from a manufacturing economy? And will the emissions it was generating just move elsewhere when it does? All these questions and more are answered in this wide-ranging conversation with an expert on smart urbanization and China.

Geek rating: 3

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[Episode #27] – Better Grid Modeling

Although it’s clear enough that energy transition is necessary and reasonable, and although we know that transition is mainly happening on the grid at first, there is still much uncertainty about exactly where on the grid different strategies can be tried, how much they can accomplish, and what they’ll cost, relative to the alternatives….not to mention how the rest of the grid will respond as different measures—like storage, demand response, rooftop solar, controlled dispatch, and so on—are implemented. What’s needed to answer all these difficult questions? Better models, including serious math, by serious researchers.

Fortunately, one of those researchers is willing and able to explain several years of her work in grid modeling at NREL and elsewhere. So tune in and put on your thinking caps, because this episode (Geek Rating 10!) is not for the faint of heart.

Geek rating: 10

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[Episode #26] – Geoengineering

As the world continues to struggle with the effects of climate change, energy transition is more important than ever as a key pathway to stopping global warming. But will it be enough? Many serious climate researchers think it won’t be, and urge deliberate attempts to directly alter the Earth’s climate by using a number of technologies, loosely grouped under the heading of geoengineering. But geoengineering has not won much support from the climate and environmental communities, and still struggles to gain enough legitimacy to attract sufficient research funding to attempt serious pilot projects that might tell us whether geoengineering holds real promise as a safe, cost-effective, and powerful tool in a portfolio of climate change mitigation strategies.

So what is the real potential of geoengineering to address climate change? How much would it cost? How risky is it, and what justification might there be for taking that risk? And what sorts of attitudinal shifts might be needed within the climate and environmental communities to embrace geoengineering as one of a portfolio of strategies? We attempt to answer all of those questions and more in this interview with a veteran science journalist and author of a recent book on geoengineering.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #25] – The Energy-Water Nexus

Energy and water are inextricably linked: It takes energy to supply water, and it takes water to supply energy. And those processes consume vast amounts of both. Yet we have only really begun to study the energy-water nexus and gather the data that policymakers will need to understand the risk that climate change poses to both power and water. As rainfall and temperatures continue to depart from historical norms, forcing conventional power plants to throttle back or shut down, we may need to invest more heavily in wind and solar PV just to keep the lights on. Even more radical solutions may become necessary, like switching to more dry-cooled power plants, and desalinating brackish groundwater. Ideally, we would treat the challenges of the energy-water nexus in an integrated way, deliberately reducing our energy and water demands simultaneously as part of our energy transition strategies, but our governments aren’t typically set up for that, and much more basic research and analytical work is needed.

Geek rating: 6

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[Episode #24] – Starting Over

What if we didn’t have to work around the grid we have today, with all of its inertia and incumbents and inflexibility? If we could start over and design the grid from scratch, what would it look like? And once we understood that, how might it change the way we are going about energy transition now, in order to reach that goal more quickly and directly? If what we really want is a grid that is fair, equitable, reliable, efficient, resilient, sustainable, and which serves our climate and social goals, what are the first principles we might work from, and what mechanisms might get us where we want to go? This freewheeling conversation aims to help all of us “think outside the box” a bit more, and imagine what the possibilities might be if we could just start over.

Geek rating: 9

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