[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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[Episode #70] – Who Should Control Wholesale Markets?

As older coal and nuclear generators are pushed off the grid by cheaper, nimbler, cleaner renewables and other technologies, the owners of conventional generators are becoming increasingly nervous about their futures, and seeking new ways to protect their legacy assets. From attempting to change market rules or simply pursuing new subsidies, the effort to retire dirty and unwanted old generators and replace them with newer, cleaner sources of electricity faces a series of challenges. And how those challenges are resolved will have broad implications for how the electric grid of the future will operate, and who will own it.

In this episode we take a deep dive into the intersections between federal authority, wholesale markets, and state policies, explore some of the legal questions therein, and try to understand what they suggest about the process of energy transition, and the pathways for unlocking new ways of using energy and designing electricity markets…and yes, this episode definitely deserves its Geek Rating!

Geek rating: 10

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[Episode #69] – Western Grid Regionalization

California and 12 other US states, plus parts of Canada and Mexico, are considering whether to expand the California wholesale grid and balancing area to include the entire region, in order to increase the flow of reliable, affordable, and renewable power across the West. This shift to a regional independent system operator, or ISO, would also expand resource flexibility, improve transmission planning and grid reliability, and enable a far larger share of renewable energy across the system. But it’s not without risk: Would a unified Western market kill the market for power projects sold under virtual PPAs outside its borders? Would it give project developers—or even coal plants—operating within the Western grid but outside California a competitive edge over California’s own renewable project developers? Would it become a loophole through which coal power starts being imported into California, after many years of effort trying to get rid of coal in the Golden State? Would California or any of the other Western states lose control over their own power production and consumption? And what about the five states that could join the Southwest Power Pool instead—what will they do?

These are complex questions with no easy answers, but our guest in this episode is an expert on the subject and ably walks us through all the pros and cons…and points the way to a potentially very different future for power markets in the American West.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #68] – Environmental Economics

In an economy as large and complex as the United States, how can we tell when our efforts at energy transition are working? How do we calculate our carbon emissions? How do we know why emissions fell, especially if increased efficiency can rebound into more consumption, an effect known as the Jevons Paradox? How should we calculate the cost of damage due to climate change, and how we should choose the discount rates we use in evaluating investments to stop it? And even if we knew the answers to all these difficult questions, how should we act, given how little certainty we have about the future of the climate, and of the trajectory of energy transition itself? Can economic theory even help us plot a sensible path toward energy transition and climate change mitigation? Our guest in this episode has published extensively on all of these thorny questions, and we’ll discuss that research with him, along with his current research into solar geoengineering.

Geek rating: 7

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[Episode #67] – Transition’s Disruptors Part 2

What do the frackers and Tesla have in common? They have both succeeded in disrupting their industries by adopting new technologies, applying financial innovation, appealing to changing consumer preferences, and taking advantage of (or disrupting) their regulatory environments. Indeed, these disruptive forces are in play throughout the energy transition, and whether it’s electricity, or heat, or mobility, the outcome is generally the same: nimbler, more efficient, cleaner, and safer upstarts steal away market share from rent-seeking incumbents who control captive markets. The transition upstarts are hot; the moguls of oil provinces and monopoly utilities are not.

This is Part Two of a sprawling discussion that lasted over two hours with veteran energy, mining and commodities analyst Liam Denning of Bloomberg. We explore the ways in which these disruptive forces are working for transition and the risks that the incumbents face…and how to spot the winners and losers of energy transition from a mile away. In this episode, we talk about changing consumer preferences, the role that regulations play in alternately supporting and stymieing disruptors, and how the falling cost of energy as more renewables come into the system will affect energy markets and business models.

Part One of this interview was in Episode 66.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #66] – Transition’s Disruptors Part 1

What do the frackers and Tesla have in common? They have both succeeded in disrupting their industries by adopting new technologies, applying financial innovation, appealing to changing consumer preferences, and taking advantage of (or disrupting) their regulatory environments. Indeed, these disruptive forces are in play throughout the energy transition, and whether it’s electricity, or heat, or mobility, the outcome is generally the same: nimbler, more efficient, cleaner, and safer upstarts steal away market share from rent-seeking incumbents who control captive markets. The transition upstarts are hot; the moguls of oil provinces and monopoly utilities are not.
This is Part One of a sprawling discussion that lasted over two hours with veteran energy, mining and commodities analyst Liam Denning of Bloomberg. We explore the ways in which these disruptive forces are working for transition and the risks that the incumbents face…and how to spot the winners and losers of energy transition from a mile away. In this episode, we talk about the roles of technological and financial innovation. Part Two of this interview will air on Episode 67.

Geek rating: 5

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