South Africa is one of the most coal-dependent countries in the world, with abundant (if low-grade) coal resources, a grid that is almost entirely powered by coal, an industrial base that is powered by coal, and a huge fiscal dependence on coal exports. And it’s debt-laden state-owned power company is not only in need of repeated bailouts, but is also now ruining the country’s credit rating. But South Africa also has excellent wind and solar resources, enabling renewable projects to easily beat coal on price. So one would think that energy transition there is a no-brainer. But the picture is actually much more complex, having more to do with politics than technology or economics.
So we turned to Jesse Burton, an energy policy researcher in the Energy Systems Research group at the University of Cape Town and a senior associate at the London-based think tank E3G to help us understand the current reality, and the future potential, of energy in South Africa. Join us as she leads us on a fascinating tour of a country that has one of the highest proportional carbon footprints today, but could be the poster child of energy transition in the future.
In this third part of a trilogy of shows about how to decarbonize grid power, former utility regulator Travis Kavulla offers his thoughts on how wholesale electricity markets can use competition to deliver clean electricity. Following our discussion about reforming wholesale markets in Episode #90, and our exploration of how state policies can directly choose clean power in Episode #97, Travis offers some deep thoughts on the respective roles of FERC and state regulators, proposed reforms to PURPA, FERC’s showdown with PJM, the politicization of FERC, the recent battle in Ohio over HB6 (bailing out its nukes and coal plants), and other regulatory battles du jour. So much power market wonkery in such a small package!
In this anniversary episode, we welcome back Jonathan Koomey to talk about some of the interesting developments and raucous debates we have seen over the past year. We’ll be talking about the flawed concept of “committed emissions” and how we should be calculating future emissions instead; we’ll expand that discussion and critique the conflicting stories that we’ve been hearing about the expectations for coal usage and emissions in India; we’ll review some of the efforts to execute so-called “just transitions” in coal country; we’ll take a little excursion into a recent raging dialogue on Twitter about RCP8.5 which had its genesis in the PhD thesis of our producer, Justin Ritchie, which we explored in Episode #49; we’ll move on from there to discuss the communication challenges around climate change science, and what’s wrong with the kind of hysterical journalism being practiced by writers like David Wallace-Wells in his book The Uninhabitable Earth; we’ll take a look at Jon’s latest research on the energy demands of Bitcoin mining; we’ll consider the rapid deployment of utility-scale storage and what that might mean for the future of the grid; we’ll review Jon’s update of global energy intensity data and ask what it all means; and we’ll wrap it up with another look at the energy transition modeling work of Christian Breyer’s team at Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland, which we explored in Episode #95.
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.