[Episode #110] – Death Toll for Petrol

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.

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #109] – Big Oil’s Climate Denial Machine

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.

Geek rating: 2

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[Episode #108] – Will Energy Transition Be Rapid or Gradual?

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.

Geek rating: 3

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[Episode #107] – Macro-Energy Systems

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!

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #106] – Transition in South Africa

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.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #105] – Can Competition Decarbonize Electricity?

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!

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #104] – 4-Year Anniversary Show

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.

Geek rating: 6

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[Episode #103] – A Return to Regionalism

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.

Geek rating: 4

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[Episode #102] – Transition as Wildfire Adaptation in California

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.

Geek rating: 2

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[Episode #101] – What We Don’t Know About Energy Transition

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”
  • energy efficiency
  • conservation
  • electrification
  • low-carbon fuels
  • 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!

Geek rating: 9

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