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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
It’s the two-year anniversary of the Energy Transition Show, so we thought we’d take a break from the deep dives and just have a little fun skiing around on the surface for a change. Dr. Jonathan Koomey returns to the show for a freewheeling discussion about some of the interesting questions and debates swirling around the energy transition today, and hopefully help us glue together many of the themes that have emerged from our first 51 shows.
How do you go about an energy revolution? Is 100% renewables the right goal? How much seasonal storage will a high-renewables grid need? What will it cost? Is there a future for nuclear power? Or CCS? What should get the credit for declining U.S. emissions? How do we model the best pathways to a future of clean and sustainable energy? Can the IPCC modeling framework be fixed? What kind of carbon mitigation pathways should we be projecting? And how should we communicate the important messages on climate and energy transition? We tackle all these questions in one big omnibus episode.
Following the interview, Chris shares some of his reflections on Hurricane Harvey in an extended postscript, which we’ve made available in the free, abridged version as well as the full, subscriber version of this show.
Modeling the future of our climate is a complex task that not too many people understand. What do we know about how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) modeling actually works? Why has the modeling community decided to model emissions separately from socioeconomic scenarios? When we hear that the RCP8.5 emissions scenario is considered a “business as usual” scenario, what assumptions are we making about all that business? And are those assumptions reasonable? Is there a climate scenario that represents an optimistic view of energy transition over the coming decades? And if so, what does it assume about the energy technologies that we will switch away from, and switch to?
These and many other questions are answered in this two-hour discussion on emissions modeling by an expert climate modeler from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), who co-chairs the working group on future scenarios for impacts, adaptation and vulnerability indicators of the International Committee On New Integrated Climate Change Assessment Scenarios. It’s a wonktastic deep dive into an esoteric subject… and it just may leave you feeling a lot more hopeful about the prospects for energy transition, and for our planet.
Many outlooks for a mostly renewable U.S. power grid include a lot more high-voltage transmission lines. But is this a realistic hope, considering how few of these lines we’ve built in recent years, and the many barriers they always seem to face? One might think not, considering the many obstacles a typical transmission project has to overcome. Then again, we can always change the rules and invent new ways of siting transmission lines, because when there’s a will, there’s a way. Our guest in this episode is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and an expert in regulatory challenges to integrating more renewable energy into the nation’s electric transmission grid, as well as issues around siting interstate electric transmission lines and pipeline, and she’s going to help us sort it all out.