Is “peak oil” still something to be concerned about, and if so, what does depletion of conventional oil supply suggest about our future? Our guest in this episode certainly thinks peak oil will be a key factor in the decades ahead, and he foresees a future in which humanity must downsize significantly, both in total population and in the energy intensity of our lifestyles. He believes we’ll have no choice but to return to a more regionally focused way of life, depending on local resources, and doing a lot less travel and shipping. As one of the co-founders of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, Colin Campbell’s view on the importance of oil to the global economy, and his vision of geological limits leading to declining oil production, has never wavered. And as a petroleum geologist with four decades of experience in finding and producing oil, including performing some of the first experiments with fracking, his knowledge of oil geology is unparalleled. His cautionary perspective serves to highlight the urgency of energy transition, because there are more reasons we need it to succeed in addition to eliminating carbon emissions, otherwise, oil scarcity may yet become a key factor in determining what our futures hold.
California’s largest utility is bankrupt as a result of its liability for starting some of California’s largest and deadliest wildfires. Now the utility, its shareholders and investors, and the state itself are trying to figure out how to reorganize the company, manage its wildfire risk, and the pay for its future liabilities in an era of a warming climate and enduring droughts. But that’s just where this story starts, not where it ends. In reality, all of the state’s utilities need a backstop for their wildfire liabilities, and de-energizing transmission lines isn’t the only solution. In fact, these questions go beyond the borders of a single state, and touch on a host of deeper issues, including insurance underwriting rules, building and planning and zoning rules, and even how the grid itself will be operated. And it turns out that many of the same solutions that help us in the energy transition can also help us mitigate the risks of wildfires, and adapt to our new climate reality. We are fortunate to have Michael Wara as our guest in this episode—a bona fide expert on the subject who is a member of the state-appointed wildfire commission in California—to help us think through this complex web of issues and understand how to start plotting a new path into the future.
In this live conversation recorded at Stanford Energy Week in January 2019, Chris Nelder hosts a freewheeling chat with Jonathan Koomey about some of the things we think we know, and a lot of the things we don’t know about energy transition. They talked about:
the vogue concept in energy transition to “electrify everything,” sometimes also called “deep decarbonization”
how to reduce greenhouse gases that are not the products of combustion
the fast-changing trends in electric vehicles, and how we’re going to accommodate the loads of EVs on the power grid
the ways to move space heating and other thermal loads over to the power grid, and how we might be able to meet those needs without combustion or electrification
how much electricity storage we’ll really need in a deeply decarbonized future
how much seasonal storage we’ll need, and what kinds
differences between economic optimizations made today for a future 20-30 years off and technical optimizations made along the way
what the options might look like in 20-30 years, particularly if we are at the beginning of a vigorous and deliberate energy transition
whether space heating, transportation, and other loads might find themselves in competition for economic carrying capacity on the grid as they become electrified.
So join us for this wide-ranging romp through some of the more interesting questions in energy transition!
For our 100th episode, we thought we’d do a little something special: Interview professors from four US universities who are using the Energy Transition Show as coursework, and make the full show available to everyone, including non-subscribers. We ask these teachers about the specific topics they’re teaching, how they’re using the show in their classes, what concepts students find difficult, what misconceptions students have about energy, and how students are reacting to having study materials in podcast form. We also talk with two of the professors about their new energy transition textbooks, which are being published this year.
Dr. Adam Warren is the co-director of the newly formed Advanced Energy Systems graduate program, a joint effort between NREL and CSM. Adam is a Center Director within NREL’s Energy Systems Integration directorate. His Center’s mission is to help partners meet ambitious energy goals while informing technology and policy research at NREL. Prior to joining NREL, Adam supported PepsiCo’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in North America.
Dr. Constantine “Costa” Samaras is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He directs the Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation and his research spans energy, climate change, automation, and defense analysis. Samaras analyzes how energy technology and infrastructure system designs affect energy use and national security, resiliency to climate change impacts, and life cycle environmental externalities. He is an affiliated faculty member in Carnegie Mellon’s Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, the College of Engineering’s Energy Science, Technology and Policy Program, and by courtesy, a faculty member in the H. John Heinz III College. Samaras is also an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the RAND Corporation. He has published numerous studies examining electric and autonomous vehicles, renewable electricity, transitions in the energy sector, conventional and low-carbon fuels, and was one of the Lead Author contributors to the Global Energy Assessment.
Dr. David Murphy is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at St. Lawrence University. His scholarship examines the intersection of energy, the environment and economics with a focus on energy transition – broadly defined. His past work has included energy and environmental policy work for various agencies within the federal government, as well as net energy analysis work within academia. Much of Dr. Murphy’s recent research is focused on the energy transition, with a forthcoming textbook called “Renewable Energy in the 21st Century.” Dr. Murphy was previously a faculty member at Northern Illinois University and a research associate with Argonne National Laboratory.
Dr. Dustin Mulvaney teaches in the Environmental Studies Department at San Jose State University, one of the first six interdisciplinary environmental studies programs in the USA, founded as a result of the first Earth Day 1970. His research focuses on the social and environmental dimensions of food and energy systems where looks at questions at the intersection of innovation, emerging technologies and environmental change. His research on solar energy commodity chains is synthesized in a new book entitled Solar Power, Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice with the University of California Press. Dustin has a PhD from UC Santa Cruz in Environmental Studies, and a masters of science in environmental policy studies and bachelors degree in chemical engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Dr. Sridhar Seetharaman is the director of the Advanced Energy Systems graduate program at Mines. Sridhar is the Professor and Associate VP for Research at Colorado School of Mines, and served, most recently, with the US DOE as a Senior Technical Advisor as an EWQ (merit based Exceptionally Well Qualified Candidate) and was responsible for Clean Water and Next Generation Electric Machines. He was until 2016 the Tata Steel / RAEng Joint Chair for Research Into Low Carbon Materials Technology and Director of Materials strategy for the HMV Catapult at WMG . He was prior to that the POSCO Professor of Steelmaking at Carnegie Mellon University and the co-director of the Industry-University Consortium, Center for Iron and Steelmaking Research (CISR). He was also an NETL Faculty Fellow.
Is the supply of certain key metals—like lithium, copper, nickel, and cobalt—and “rare earth” metals—like vanadium and indium—potentially a limiter on the progress of energy transition? Or is there enough of them to realize our ambitions? Are they being produced in a sustainable way? How will the geographic concentration of these metals affect geopolitics and trade as the energy transition progresses? How confident can we be about our assessments of their abundance? And how confident can we be about how much of them we’ll need in the future, given the rapid evolution of many of these technologies, and the many alternate ways of producing them?
Our guest in this episode brings all of these questions into a whole new focus, and shows why these questions can’t be answered with some back-of-the-envelope calculation. Instead of asking whether there is enough of these metals in the Earth’s crust, he says, or about how they are mined, we should be asking much more sophisticated questions about the chemical industry, the opaque, illiquid markets in which these metals are traded, and the geopolitical implications of their trade.
Building high voltage transmission lines has never been easy, but now it’s arguably both harder than ever, and more necessary than ever, as we seek to unlock the vast potential of wind and solar in the US and ship it to major population centers. But it’s not a business for the faint of heart, as we’ll hear in this incredible story by award-winning investigative reporter and author Russell Gold of the Wall Street Journal. His new book, Superpower, chronicles the story of Michael Skelly, a developer who spent a decade and a great deal of money trying to build five major transmission lines in the US to support the burgeoning wind industry, only to be undermined, deceived, shot down, and ultimately driven to giving up, by people who opposed the lines for their own selfish interests. It’s an amazing story and a great cautionary tale for any prospective transmission line developer, as well as a wellspring of crucial insights that will benefit all who work in energy transition.
As we continue looking for ways to decarbonize our energy systems, we often have to decide whether it’s better to try reworking our market rules so that the markets will do a better job of procuring clean energy, as we discussed in Episode #90, or whether it makes sense to just mandate the procurement of clean energy resources. The former is a job for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), but the latter is the domain of the states. In fact, our guest in this episode, a senior attorney with NRDC and the Sustainable FERC Project, argues that because states are really the only ones with the authority to regulate energy in order to obtain a more environmentally beneficial outcome and combat climate change, their mandates are a necessary pathway to decarbonizing the grid. And that, to some extent, market price distortion is in the mind of the beholder.
Energy transition is happening quickly and disruptively in the transportation sector. But it is generally an open question whether the transition currently at hand is producing socially beneficial results. As we grapple with a sudden influx of new modes of mobility and business models, and contemplate the dawning of an entirely new mobility paradigm, are we just letting technology take us wherever it wants to go, or are we guiding technologies toward sustainable mobility? For that matter, what does sustainable mobility even mean? How can we weigh up all the pros and cons of new mobility modes—not just the social effects like safety and equity, but the environmental impacts, the total impact on the energy system, and the socioeconomic strategies we bring to our urban development and civic planning activities more generally? Can we hedge our bets against sudden and massive dislocations produced by autonomous vehicles? We explore all those questions and more in this episode with a researcher from Oxford University who has studied them deeply.
Can we run the world on renewables alone? Various researchers have tried to model how a given country might run a grid using mostly renewables, oftentimes finding that carbon-negative technologies, advanced nuclear power, and even coal power plants equipped with CCS will be a part of the solution set. But no one has produced a comprehensive model that shows how we can run the world on renewables alone, while accurately modeling the weather and grid conditions at a very discrete scale, at hourly resolution, using data on the renewable resources in each region, and determining how that would work while selecting the least-cost resources… until now.
In this episode we speak with a researcher from Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland, one of an international team of 14 scientists who have spent the past four and a half years performing research, data analysis, and technical and financial modeling to prove that a global transition to 100% renewable energy is economically competitive with the current fossil and nuclear-based system, and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the energy system to zero even before 2050. This first-of-its-kind study outlines how the world could limit warming to 1.5°C with a cost-effective, global, 100% renewable energy system that does not use negative carbon technologies, and provides all the energy needed for electricity, heat, transport and desalination by 2050.
As more distributed energy resources arrive unbidden onto the power grid, they are increasingly requiring us not to just think about new utility business models, but to radically rethink what a utility might look like. What if millions of distributed resources become the dominant resources, and the grid assumes a subordinate role as a residual supplier of energy? What if the control of the system is also decentralized, through the actions of millions of devices? What if the roles of transmission system operators and the distribution system are diminished as their responsibilities are distributed across all those devices? And how will utilities, power market operators, regulators, legislators, and local officials deal with a radical shift in their roles and responsibilities? These are the questions that our guest in this episode—an 18-year veteran of wholesale power market design at the California ISO—thinks about, and he shares those deep thoughts with us in this wonky yet heady discussion.