[Duke Energy Week extra #1] – Energy and Environment Education

This is a special, free episode of the Energy Transition Show with Chris Nelder, recorded on November 9, 2017, live from Duke Energy Week at Duke University.

What motivates students in the Energy and Environment program at Duke, what topics do they find the most challenging, and why are they interested in energy transition?

Geek rating: 1

Guest: Dr. Tim Johnson chairs the Energy and Environment department at the Nicholas School at Duke University.

On the Web: Tim Johnson’s faculty page at Duke

Recording dates: November 9, 2017

Air date: February 1, 2018


Thanks to Duke University for making this live taping of the Energy Transition Show possible, and to Leah Louis-Prescott, Elihu Dietz, and the rest of the awesome Nicholas School Energy Club for making it all happen and making us feel welcome and appreciated! You're a class act and you put on a great event.


The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments on these podcasts are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of Duke University, or any employee thereof.


Energy Week at Duke

Energy Week at Duke - Energy Transition Show taping

[Episode #61] – Climate Science Part 8 – Melting Glaciers and Sea Level Rise

In this eighth part of our mini-series on climate science, we tackle the subject of ice and melting, and how much sea-level rise it may produce. What if that viral story about a starving polar bear may not even have been accurate? What does it really mean when we say that a worst-case climate model projects 11 feet of sea level rise, and is that even a plausible scenario? What does it mean to say that sea ice is melting at the fastest rate in 1,500 years? How much sea level rise might actually result from ice shelves breaking off? And how can we relate the latest studies on melting glaciers and ice caps to degrees of global warming or meters of sea level rise? These aren’t easy questions to answer, but our guest in this episode has about as good a shot at answering them as anyone. His nuanced and deeply informed view of what’s happening to our glaciers and ice caps in this 90-minute interview is refreshing, thoughtful, and provocative, and offers an educational counterpoint to the usual simple projections of climate doom.

Geek rating: 4


[Episode #60] – Demand Flexibility

Demand response and demand flexibility—shifting demand to intervals where electricity is abundant and cheap, and away from when the grid is constrained or power is expensive and dirty—can help keep prices down, optimize the grid overall, and help us integrate more renewable supply into grid power while displacing more fossil fuels. Until recently, this has mainly meant doing simple things like turning off loads during the on-peak intervals of time of use rates. But now new technologies are coming to the grid, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the so-called Internet of Things, which could let us moderate loads and operate grid assets in a much more intelligent, precise, and dynamic fashion, taking grid optimization to a new level and reducing the need for peaking resources.

But this is all quite new, and how we’re going to implement it, and what it may require, largely remains to be seen. In this episode we’ll talk with Sara Bell, founder of Tempus Energy, and get a little insight into how some early pilots of these technologies are working in the UK and South Australia. We’ll also get an inside view of her campaign to revise the design of the capacity market in the UK, so that it actually benefits consumers in accordance with the law, rather than distorting markets in favor of fossil fuel incumbents.

Geek rating: 8


[Episode #59] – Lifecycle Assessment

When we need to compare the environmental consequences of energy technologies — between an internal combustion vehicle or an EV, or between a compact natural gas generator and a big wind farm — what’s the best way to understand the full picture? Should we just look at pollutant emissions? Or should we take a broad view, and consider the total lifecycle, including mining, manufacturing, transport and waste? The latter is what lifecycle assessment (LCA) is all about, and although it can be used to compare very complex sets of things in a helpful way, it can also be abused to suit an agenda.

To really be sure we’re comparing apples with apples, we need to understand the right ways and the wrong ways to do LCA. And then we need to think carefully about the implications of our research, and how to communicate them to a lay audience in such a way that they can inform policy without being misunderstood or misrepresented. It’s a tricky art, but our guest in this episode is an LCA veteran from NREL who can show us the way.

Geek rating: 6


[Episode #58] – Solar with Storage

Historically, thermal concentrating solar plants were the only type of solar power equipped with storage. But as cheaper PV systems became dominant, thermal solar plants fell into disfavor. Now solar PV systems are beginning to integrate storage based on lithium-ion batteries, and this storage isn't just used to supply power when the sun is down; it is providing grid stabilization services too, which only adds complexity to an already-complicated picture for the future of storage - confounding attempts to model how much storage we’ll need, and of what kind, and when will we need it. Is a large amount of seasonal storage required on a high-RE grid, as some analysts have suggested? Or will other technologies reduce the amount of storage we’ll need? And can we even forecast that need, years or decades in advance? We’ll delve into all those questions and more in this deep dive into combined solar and storage systems.

Geek rating: 7


[Episode #57] – Climate Science Part 7 – Carbon Budget

In this seventh episode of our mini-series on climate change, we explore what carbon budgets really mean, and what they indicate about the pathways that might allow us to keep global warming below two degrees C.

Amid all the unavoidable uncertainty in modeling warming and the effects of our actions, what do we really know about how much warming we might see in the future? If it turned out that our carbon budget is larger than we used to think it was, would that change our policy direction? And which policy paths should we advocate?

Our guest in this episode, Dr. Glen Peters, is a veteran researcher on climate change whose current research focuses on the causes of recent changes in carbon dioxide emission trends at the global and country level, and how these changes link to future emission pathways consistent with global climate objectives. And after listening to this nearly two-hour conversation, as well as our previous six episodes on climate science, you will have a much better idea of how much warming we may yet expect!

Geek rating: 8


[Episode #56] – Blockchain in Energy Transition

The blockchain is one of the most discussed and hyped technologies, and it’s not just limited to crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. There are also plenty of serious people looking at how the tokens and distributed ledgers of blockchain technology might work in an energy context, and how they could help to enable new kinds of transactions and even whole new markets in energy - helping to accelerate energy transition by doing things cheaper, faster, and with greater security than conventional methods allow.

But these are very new ideas that are only just getting into the real development phase now, and understanding how they might work, and what their real potential is, is not easy. It’s a complex and largely abstract domain without much real-world experience to show for itself. And it has a dark side, too: The energy consumption alone of these new crypto-currencies is horrific. So is the blockchain going to turn out to be a huge new boon to energy transition, or will it turn out to be a bad idea that consumed a lot of energy without much tangible benefit?

To help us understand how the blockchain works and how it might actually benefit energy transition, our guest in this episode is enabling innovators to create new decentralized markets in energy, such as demand response, and creating new opportunities to bring low cost, low carbon and resilient energy to all. She is an expert in innovation, tech, communications, and environmental policy, and has a front-row seat in seeing how the blockchain is being integrated into energy markets.

Geek rating: 4


[Episode #55] – Voltage Stability

Energy transition on the power grid is much more complicated than simply replacing fossil fuel and nuclear generators with wind and solar generators. Maintaining high-quality, reliable power will require a lot more than simply adding batteries to a high-renewables grid. Engineers have to maintain stable voltage, current, and real power… which involves manipulating elusive factors like reactive power and frequency, while implementing technologies to compensate for various kinds of instability. It’s very technical, and we don’t claim to really understand it, but in this episode we’re going to take an initial whack at it anyway with the help of a systems engineer with ABB, in an attempt to understand a little bit more about the arcane art of power engineering, and in particular, voltage stability.

Geek rating: 11


[Episode #54] – Resource Limitations

How do we know at what level our consumption is sustainable, and when we’re in planetary overshoot? How do we quantify what the planet’s capacity is to meet human demands, and how much of that capacity is renewable, and how much of it is just being permanently depleted? And once we had a way to quantify that, what would we do with that information? Would we use it to inform our actions and avert overpopulation and disaster? Would we ignore it at our peril? Or would reality just unfold in some messy fashion along a default path somewhere in between? Is a deliberate transition to a sustainable energy system even possible?

Our guest in this episode created a scientific methodology called “ecological footprint analysis,” a kind of ecological accounting, to inform policymakers about our resource demands on the world as compared with Earth’s ability to meet those demands. Earth Overshoot Day, which the Global Footprint Network calculates every year, arrived on August 2, meaning “that in seven months, we emitted more carbon than the oceans and forest can absorb in a year, we caught more fish, felled more trees, harvested more, and consumed more water than the Earth was able to produce in the same period.” After listening to this discussion, you’ll never quite think of energy transition the same way again.

Geek rating: 2


[Episode #53] – Electrifying Heating

“Deep decarbonization” is all the rage in energy circles, but what does it really mean for actually retrofitting and remodeling buildings? Is it just about replacing oil and gas-fired boilers and furnaces with electric equivalents? Or does it actually mean something far more complex and interesting? Our guest in this episode is a registered engineering technologist in building construction technologies and an award-winning expert on the integration of the building sciences and health sciences who believes the best solutions come from an integrated design approach that takes all elements of buildings and human experience into account, not just how we heat our buildings. This lengthy, wide-ranging, and often humorous discussion covers everything from building science, to regional and national politics, to human physiology and psychology, to the ways that we teach architecture and building design, and much more…and it will leave you with an entirely new concept of what “deep decarbonization” really means. Plus: we finally delve into the arcane but important concepts of exergy and entropy.

Geek rating: 5