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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
For large corporations, especially those in the industrial sector, buying renewable energy, reducing consumption and becoming more sustainable are surprisingly difficult things to do. Industries like manufacturing, mining, construction, and producing raw materials like cement are all extremely energy intensive, and in many cases, there simply are no good alternatives to using conventional processes based on fossil fuels.
But that doesn’t mean that businesses engaged in those industries can’t find ways to start reducing their own carbon footprints, investing in renewables, investing in research and development into ways of doing more with less, and sharing their knowledge with their peers, in order to accelerate the progress of entire industries. In this episode, we talk with a company that might at first glance seem like an unlikely one to be pursuing sustainability efforts, but which is establishing itself as a leader in corporate sustainability strategies: Ingersoll Rand, a mid-sized manufacturer operating in construction, mining, industrial and commercial markets. You may be surprised at how much they are able to do to become more sustainable and integrate more renewable energy into their operations.
This episode features something a little different: Chris is the interviewee, and our guest is the interviewer. Dr. David Murphy, a professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University, returns to the show to interview Chris about energy transition in this live event, which was held at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, on February 13, 2018. This was a fun, loose, casual conversation that newcomers to the subject of energy transition should find very accessible.
Dave is working on a textbook about energy transition for his classes, and based on that work, he framed up our conversation around what he sees as some of the key principles of energy transition, which he identifies as follows: Foster resilience, save first, energize people, embrace fair market power, renewable and net energy positive, and match means with ends.
We’d like to thank Devin Moeller, a subscriber to the show and an instructor in the Department of Geography & Environmental Studies at UCCS, for organizing the event and inviting us to participate.
If you owned a building, or a long-term lease on a commercial space, would you rather shop for your own building infrastructure—things like HVAC systems—or would you rather buy it as a subscription service from a trusted utility or power provider? Our guest in this episode offers the latter, and it’s an intriguing model for how we might upgrade the equipment for commercial and industrial buildings. There are reasons why 68% of the HVAC equipment in commercial buildings in the US is nearly three decades old and in need of replacement, and those reasons are about the cost, complexity, and difficulty involved in that kind of procurement. Wouldn’t it be better if you could call up your local utility and ask them to upgrade your equipment, using their network of trusted and reputable equipment experts and installers, and then just paid them a small amount for the use of that equipment every month, rather than having to pay thousands of dollars for it up front and taking all of the performance risk upon yourself? From high-efficiency lighting, to HVAC controls and sensors, to other energy-consuming building equipment, Sparkfund offers a subscription approach to procurement backed by a no-risk guarantee, which could unlock a huge opportunity to improve the efficiency of our commercial and industrial building systems more quickly than we do under the status quo.
What are community choice aggregations, or CCAs, and why are they suddenly playing such a huge role in wholesale power markets? Since the first one launched in California in 2010, it was followed by Sonoma Clean Power in 2014, Lancaster Choice Energy in 2015, and both CleanPowerSF and Peninsula Clean Energy in San Mateo County in 2016. And now, in 2018, CCAs have taken a major share of power procurement in California, which is growing rapidly: There are now 16 CCAs across 18 counties in California, which currently provide about 12% of the state’s electricity, and by the middle of next year, they are expected to serve 40% of utility customers in California. They’re also spreading beyond California, to five other states, with another eight expected to launch in 2018 alone.
And while that’s great for local control of power procurement, it’s also causing concern: As customers have defected from investor owned utilities to CCAs in California, utility investment in large wind and solar plants in the states has crashed. And the state regulator is now worrying about whether future power procurement will be adequate, and whether CCAs will have sufficient oversight. But there is more to the story, and our guest in this episode is well equipped to address the many questions swirling around the role of CCAs in power markets, having been one of the people responsible for launching them!
Veteran energy researcher Jonathan Koomey rejoins us for another anniversary show! In this episode we talk about California’s new plan to obtain 100% carbon-free power; the potential for “peak gas” as utility-scale solar-plus-storage and wind plants beat gas on price in the US; the outlook for nuclear power in the West; how to know when the numbers you’re seeing aren’t right, and how to understand data; and the degree to which energy transition can help us stay below 2 degrees C of warming. We also discuss some of the confusing issues with energy data and how that influences our forecasts for primary energy consumption, and we’ll talk about the future need for climate modeling. It’s a wide-ranging, fast-paced romp through all sorts of geeky energy topics that definitely deserves its Geek Rating!