Owners of uneconomic coal plants in the US have tried many ways to keep operating, even when it is not profitable to do so, such as out-of-market subsidies and re-regulation (as we discussed in Episode #41), bailouts and wholesale market controls (as we discussed in Episode #70), and seeking capacity payments or other novel payments for alleged reliability (as we discussed in our trilogy of shows on decarbonizing power markets, Episodes #90, #97, and #105).
But there’s another tactic, variously known as “self-committing” or “self-scheduling,” and it happens when a utility that owns a coal-fired power plant elects to operate the plant no matter what the going rate for power is, even if that price is below its operating costs. Fully regulated utilities oftentimes can pass the costs of operation onto their customers even when they’re electing to run at a loss, without having to go to the trouble of asking for additional cost recovery from a regulator, or getting a legislator or wholesale market operator to give them a handout in one form or another. And it all happens more or less invisibly to customers and regulators. Only a researcher with a sharp eye and expert knowledge of what to look for would even detect these uneconomic operations, such as our guest in this episode.
What do the various emissions scenarios published by the IPCC really mean? Is the worst-case RCP8.5 scenario “bollox,” as some have asserted, or it useful? Are we already doomed to experience seven feet of sea level rise and five degrees Celsius of warming globally, or is there still a chance that we can limit warming to two degrees? And if so…how likely is it that we can hit that target? How much can our energy transition efforts, both now and in the foreseeable future, do to mitigate that warming? Should our scenarios err on the side of being too extreme to account for unknown feedback effects and tipping points that may come in the future, or should we try to be as accurate as possible with our modeling, given the available data and scientific tools?
In this 11th part of our miniseries on climate science, we attempt to answer these questions and help our listeners sort out the various perspectives, from the tame to the apocalyptic, that feature in the current debates about our climate future. We hope that it will leave you with a much better understanding of what the climate scenarios really mean, how likely they are, and what the actual trajectory of climate change might be. We’re not out of the woods by any means, but our prospects may be better than you think!
New energy modeling on the U.S. states of Colorado and Minnesota offers some exciting and even startling insights: It can save everyone money to transition our power generation off of fossil fuels and onto wind, solar, and storage. And moving space and domestic hot water heating onto the power grid by switching to heat pumps, and moving transportation onto the power grid by switching to electric vehicles, will only increase the savings for all consumers—even those who don’t own a car will benefit from transitioning our fleets to EVs. In fact, the more we decarbonize, the more money it will save everyone, the more jobs will be created, and the closer we will get to addressing the climate challenge. Tune into this discussion with energy modeler extraordinaire Christopher Clack for all the exciting details in this special Christmas Day episode.
Electric vehicles have many fairly well-known advantages over conventional, petroleum-fueled vehicles. But what most people are yet to realize is the massive energetic advantage an EV can have when powered by renewables over a conventional vehicle powered by oil. In fact, an EV powered by wind or solar can deliver six to seven times as much mobility as a typical car powered by gasoline. This startling finding implies that in the long run, oil prices would need to drop drastically for conventional cars to remain competitive with EVs running on renewables. In fact, the price of oil would have to fall far below the current breakeven price for producing it. In other words, it could mean the end of growth in oil demand. In this episode, we take a deep dive into all the numbers involved in this fascinating analysis by a veteran sell-side analyst with BNP Paribas. Oil producers and automakers ignore these findings at their peril.
More than forty years ago, Exxon began researching the potential effects of carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion on the climate. As far back as 1982, honest scientists doing respectable scientific work had realized that there was already a scientific consensus that a doubling of the carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere would produce average global warming of 3 degrees Celsius, plus or minus 1.5 degrees C. And they knew it would have significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and disturbances in the biosphere, accompanied by major economic consequences.
But then, after climate scientist James Hansen’s presentation to Congress in 1988, Exxon did an about-face. It spiked its own research and started working on climate denial. For the next 20 years its efforts were oriented around manufacturing doubt and lobbying to block federal action. Along with other companies in the fossil fuel lobby, Exxon spent considerable effort and money on a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public and policymakers about the risks of climate change.
Our guest in this episode is a veteran energy and environment journalist who, as part of an investigative team at Inside Climate News in 2015, pieced together the story of Exxon’s history of doing research on climate change, and then discrediting their own research in an effort to frustrate action on climate change and energy transition. If you’ve ever wondered why the public and certain elected officials continue to deny the reality of climate change, this episode is for you.
Champions of energy transition see it happening relatively quickly, emphasizing the advances that are being made in technologies, policy, and projects. While fossil fuel incumbents see a long, gradual process of energy transition, assuring us that demand for their products will remain strong for decades to come. So who’s right? Is energy transition going to be rapid, or gradual?
A new paper co-authored by Carbon Tracker, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and the Rocky Mountain Institute contrasts these narratives and scenarios, and identifies some key distinguishing characteristics that can help us understand where they differ, as well as clarifying their underlying assumptions and perspectives, using those insights to inform our outlooks. In this episode, one of the authors from Carbon Tracker explains the analytical framework applied to these contrasting narratives, and shares his insights about the impact of the energy transition on financial markets, domestic politics and geopolitics, and how incumbents will have to navigate the new reality of climate change.
Energy transition is a complex thing, involving technology, the economy, market structures, regulation, a changing climate, politics, and more. So why don’t we teach and study it that way, instead of in siloed disciplines?
In an effort to encourage more informed and collaborative work—across disciplines, and at appropriately large scales—a group of researchers at Stanford University has proposed a new discipline they are calling “macro-energy systems.” Its goal is to grapple with the challenges of studying large-scale energy systems, focusing on phenomena that occur over long time spans, large areas, and large scale energy flows.
In this episode, we speak with one of the professors behind the effort, who explains how bringing together a community of researchers from multiple disciplines to develop a lingua franca and some common frameworks can better equip all researchers to tackle the challenges of climate change and energy transition. She also shares her expertise on the state of carbon capture and storage technologies!
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.