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[Episode #92] – Financing Coal Plant Retirements

The coal power sector in the US is continuing to shrink due to poor economics, but this doesn’t mean we’re retiring coal fired power plants quickly enough to reduce carbon emissions at a rate that achieves our climate goals. So what’s the best way to get rid of coal plants before they reach the end of their expected lifespans, particularly while the Trump administration and the Republican party continue trying to find ways to keep coal plants open? Democratic state Representative Chris Hansen of Colorado has proposed a solution: Refinancing the debt that utilities still owe on their coal-fired plants with cheaper, public bonds, and then shutting down the plants. It’s an idea that would retire coal plants and reduce carbon emissions, save utility customers money, create better investment opportunities for the utilities, and replace that power with cheaper, clean, solar and wind power. Everybody wins! It’s a powerful idea whose time may have come in Colorado, where fossil fuels still make up 78% of the state’s electricity mix, and major utilities in the state, like Xcel Energy, have declared their intention to transition to 100% clean power in the coming decades. Will Hansen’s bill have the right approach to help achieve those goals? We dive into all the important details in this episode and find out!

Geek rating: 7

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[Episode #91] – Energy Transition in India and Southeast Asia, Part 1

It has long been assumed that India, China, and other developing countries of Southeast Asia would power their vigorous economic growth for decades to come with coal. We heard over and over that China is building a new coal-fired power plant every three days, and about plans for multi-gigawatt sized coal-fired power plants in India. As long as coal was the cheapest form of power, addressing our climate emergency seemed like a lost hope.

But that nightmare is now evaporating thanks to the continuously declining costs for solar, wind, and battery storage. Although there are far too few policymakers (not to mention the major energy agencies, like EIA and IEA) who appear to be aware of it, the future of coal is fading by the day, as solar and wind take the lead as the lowest cost forms of power. And nowhere is this new reality more starkly evident than in India, where a remarkable pivot away from coal has been under way for about five years now, radically reshaping the outlook for India’s energy consumption, and stranding billions of dollars in investments in coal plants that will not be used as expected. At the same time, India is busily electrifying 18,000 villages, pushing forward on the electrification of transportation, and developing demand-side technologies that together are more likely to make India one of the world’s great success stories in energy transition than one of the world’s largest upcoming carbon emitters.

Our guest in this episode has been closely watching these markets for three decades, and is one of the sharpest observers of what’s happening in India and Southeast Asia. This episode is Part One of our two-and-a-half hour conversation with him, which mostly covers India and coal. Part Two of this interview will be featured in Episode 93.

Geek rating: 4

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[Episode #90] – How Will Decarbonized Power Markets Work?

This one is for the grid geeks! With the Green New Deal now a hot topic in the US Congress, while wholesale power markets still struggle to figure out how to accommodate new kinds of resources even as coal plants and nuclear plants continue to retire, the question of how wholesale power markets should work, and how they should value new kinds of assets and services, is becoming increasingly urgent. What would a power market look like if it consisted mainly (or totally) of wind and solar, with their zero-marginal-cost power? And if we continue to use out-of-market payments to keep clean but uneconomic nuclear plants operating, what will be the effect on power markets? Will power markets ultimately crash under the weight of accumulated patches and workarounds, or can their design be adapted to new social priorities—like combating climate change—and new kinds of resources, like large-scale storage systems? Can we replace the market construct of locational marginal pricing with something more suited to the new reality of grid power? What kind of policies can keep us on track to support transition and facilitate the evolution of the fuel and technology mix toward a high renewables future? Will FERC Order 841 succeed in opening the doors to storage on the grid? Are real-time prices the future of rate design? And as we move toward a deeply decarbonized grid, what are the implications for our economic system?

In this episode, we delve into all those questions and more with an expert who has worked on power markets for over 30 years.

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #89] – Energy Access and Health

How can solutions like Project Bo—the solar-powered microgrid we discussed in Episode #85—be extended to help people elsewhere in the developing world who have similar health and medical needs? How the funding can be arranged? How should projects like this be scoped and designed to ensure their long-term viability? What kinds of energy supply and energy consuming devices are best suited to address the needs for remote medical clinics? What kinds of partner organizations can be helpful in implementing these kinds of projects? And what can philanthropic and aid organizations learn from recent experiences to ensure that their support has an enduring impact?

Our guest in this episode not only helped make Project Bo a reality, but she also has a uniquely deep understanding of the intersection of health and energy systems in the developing world. She has worked on energy access in many impoverished countries around the world, and she has a unique perspective on the global state of health and energy, including how and where philanthropic funding for health and energy projects works, and doesn’t work. And you may be surprised to learn which energy solutions she thinks can really make a big difference in women’s health in the developing world today…it’s probably not what you think!

Geek rating: 2

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[Episode #88] – Energy Trade in Transition

The global energy trade is enormously complex, and its geopolitical implications are vast, but they are only made more complex by energy transition. If the US exports gas to Europe and Asia, might you expect it to largely displace coal in their power plants? Think again! What will be the geopolitical ramifications on our relationship with Russia, as we send more of our gas to China and India? And as the US weans itself off of coal, and seeks to export more coal abroad, will it be stymied by energy transition in foreign countries, as well as political impediments at home?

And what of US “energy independence?” Does it mean that the US is actually self-sufficient in energy, or even just in fossil fuels, in the sense that we may not need imports anymore? And what is the value of it anyway, especially if it also means increased dependence on export markets abroad?

Tune in as we explore some of the fascinating questions about the implications of energy transition on energy trade in this interview, and be prepared to be surprised by some of our guest’s answers!

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #87] – The Value of Flexible Solar

As variable renewables gain ever-larger shares of the grid power supply mix, integrating them on the grid is raising new questions about the best ways to do it. Storage systems are one obvious answer, but their deployment as utility-scale assets is still in the early days. Right now, if a utility-scale solar plant is producing more power than the grid can use, and there isn’t a storage system available to absorb the excess, the standard procedure is to curtail the plant — just turn it off. It hurts the revenues of plant owners, but at least it won’t damage the grid.

But now there are some new ways to the problem of integrating more variable renewables: Make them flexible! Instead of always running wind and solar plants full bore, or curtailing them, just turn them down a bit. Or make them completely flexible, able to ramp up and down at will, after deliberately providing enough room on their host grids to allow that.

Our guest in this episode is an expert on the subject who has helped the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO, think about new, flexible modes of operation for solar plants. It’s a very geeky and oftentimes technical interview, but we know the grid geeks who listen to this show will love it!

Geek rating: 10

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[Episode #86] – Is Transition Worth It?

Are investments in energy transition, especially for public dollars in the form of incentives or subsidies, worth it? Do investments in energy efficiency truly pay off, or does efficiency just make energy cheaper because we’re using less of it, encouraging customers to use more of it—a phenomenon known as the rebound effect, the backfire hypothesis, and the Jevons Paradox? Is public support for rooftop solar systems worth it, once we add up all its costs and benefits, or would it be better to support utility-scale solar projects, or something else entirely, like efficiency? Do wind and solar farms, and electric vehicles, always deliver climate benefits, or does it depend on the power mix of the grid to which they’ll be connected? And even if we determine answers to these questions, for how long are those answers valid?

These are all difficult questions, but our guest in this episode has investigated all of them, and she shares her insights at length in this wonky but accessible discussion. If you worry that the rebound effect might mean efficiency isn’t worth it, you definitely need to listen to this one.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #85] – Foreign Aid for Microgrids

If you wanted to build a standalone microgrid in Africa, powered by local renewable resources, and make it reliable enough to run a neonatal intensive care clinic, how would you do it? Work through a development bank like the World Bank to get funding? Work with the government in the host country to manage the funds and the project? Build it around lithium-ion batteries? Use Western contractors to do the installation?

In this episode, we learn how Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, helped create a successful project in Sierra Leone by doing none of those things. His experience is full of useful and surprising lessons, and offers a very interesting model for other aspiring renewable microgrid project developers. We’ll also talk with him about his insights on energy transition as one of its veterans, including his experience in trying to transition London to use more electric transportation, as well as his views on career direction and diversity in the energy industry.

Geek rating: 4

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[Episode #84] – Designing Climate Solutions

If you wanted to design a set of policies that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, right now, where would you start? How would you figure out which sectors of the economy to target in order to have the maximum impact? Which policies would you choose? How would you go about designing them?

And which sectors of the economy would you target in order to reduce emissions the most? Transportation, maybe? Improving the efficiency of our buildings? Would you believe those two sectors rank at the very bottom of the list?

In this episode, we interview one of the authors of a new book by Energy Innovation titled Designing Climate Solutions, which is like a how-to manual for climate policy, identifying the major sectors of the economy that we should target to eliminate as much greenhouse gas as quickly as possible, and the specific policies that can achieve those reductions. We guarantee you will find some surprises in this one!

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #83] – Revisiting Germany’s Energiewende

Germany gets a lot of criticism for its Energiewende (energy transition). For not phasing out coal quickly enough. For paying “too much” for solar early in the worldwide solar boom they helped create. Why are they phasing out nuclear at a time when the rest of the world is trying to maintain their existing nuclear capacity because it’s carbon-free? For having the highest electricity prices in Europe. Surely these are all signs that its energy transition has been a failure, right?

To the contrary: Germany’s energy transition is proceeding along on plan and on schedule; they plan to phase out their coal entirely in just four years; and they plan to run their entire grid on renewables. Germans’ energy bills are about on par with those of Americans, and the transition enjoys widespread popular support. Our guest in this episode directs a think tank in Berlin that aims to make the Energiewende a success, and explains why the critics are wrong.

Geek rating: 2

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