The energy transition is an extremely complex undertaking, with every country, company, and individual taking action in various, largely uncoordinated ways, and often in pursuit of different targets. This has led some observers to warn that the transition will be messy, and its outcome uncertain. But is that really a problem, or just another challenge to be met and overcome?
In this episode, we speak with a researcher who has studied the history of technological innovations with a focus on the evolution of solar power. Dr. Gregory Nemet is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin where he teaches energy systems analysis, policy analysis, and international environmental policy. His research focuses on understanding the process of technological change and the ways in which public policy can affect it, and he offers some helpful insights on how the transition will unfold.
He suggests that we needn’t just plunge blindly into the uncertain future and hope everything works out, nor should we hesitate to proceed until we are confident that we have a workable plan. Rather, he believes we can have quite a lot of confidence about how to proceed, without knowing exactly what all the steps are, and without knowing exactly where we’ll end up. In any case, simply staying along our current course is not an option. We discuss the general discourse about the energy transition, where it is confused about the fundamental nature of this transition, and how it will unfold. Whether you’re a full-throated transitionista or a skeptic, this episode is guaranteed to be thought-provoking.
Many people don’t know their local utility could be actively working against the energy transition and in opposition to public interests. In this episode, we review the manifold ways some utilities used customer money to distort public perceptions of the facts, and to lie about their own anti-social activities. We’ll explore stories of how corrupt utilities haved blocked progress on the energy transition, refused to reduce their own emissions, and made it difficult for consumer energy resources to participate on the power grid. These elements are illustrated through reviewing several notable cases of US utility sector corruption, and hearing how activists are asking the federal government to crack down on their abuses. We’ll also learn how the public and consumer advocates can help prevent such abuses.
Why do so many decarbonization scenarios rely on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to play a major role in the world's energy transition portfolio when it really doesn’t even exist as a commercial technology? Why does the IPCC's climate mitigation strategy model countries as if they would implement the same policy for carbon pricing across all sectors, when we know that’s just not how the world operates? Why do models dodge attempts to reflect the fragmented, irrational, and irregular way that the world actually works, when we know for a fact that the transition is going to be a bumpy ride into a hazy future?
If globally coordinated carbon pricing never materializes, and CCS never has a real market opportunity as our integrated assessment models assume, where will that leave us in developing meaningful policies and taking action on climate change? And why aren’t other people asking this vital question?
In this episode, Dr. Ida Sognnaes, a Senior Researcher at the CICERO Center for International Climate Research, explains how the integrated assessment models (IAMs) used in IPCC reports are constructed, what assumptions modelers make, and how the very design of IAMs can bias them toward certain outcomes—including the role of CCS as a climate mitigation strategy. She also offers further evidence that the world is currently on a trajectory for between 2 and 3 degrees of warming by the end of the century, and shares her perspective on why the climate modeling community has been so reluctant to just say that plainly.
Why do people take a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitude toward hosting energy transition solutions like wind, solar farms, and transmission lines in their communities? And what can be done about it? What do project developers and community planners need to understand about why a community accepts or rejects energy transition proposals? Are there specific methods that have proven effective in earning a community’s support, and are there common missteps that are guaranteed to derail a project? And what is the role of building and planning agencies in guiding the development of community projects?
In this episode, Dr. Sarah Mills of the University of Michigan offers some answers to these questions. Not only has she researched these questions by talking to people in energy transition infrastructure host communities across the American Midwest and the Great Lakes regions, with a particular focus on rural communities, Dr. Mills also acts as the chair of her local planning commission, and tries to help local governments set policies around the development of clean energy by integrating it into their land-use planning, zoning, and other policymaking. Sarah Mills is a true expert in the field, and she offers important insights in this conversation that every renewable energy project advocate needs to hear.
As the energy transition proceeds and variable renewable power from wind and solar displaces conventional generators, strict operational limits for the grid's voltage, frequency, and inertia must be maintained. To do this, grid operators are increasingly procuring so-called “stability services” and making other enhancements to the grid that ensure stability.
In this episode, we take a close look at how Great Britain is undertaking this stability challenge by interviewing Julian Leslie, Head of Networks and Chief Engineer at National Grid ESO, which runs the transmission grid for the country. Not only does National Grid ESO operate the fastest-decarbonizing electricity network in the world, it has also recently achieved several important technical accomplishments for the first time in the world, including implementing cutting edge tools that allow accurate measurements of inertia across its system; using grid-forming inverters to provide synthetic inertia; and using synchronous condensers without an associated prime mover. And in another world-first achievement, the company has actually written the specification for using grid-forming inverters into its grid code.
Julian explains all of these technical concepts in today’s conversation and lays out the deliberate strategy that the company is taking to ensure that it can deliver on Great Britain’s decarbonization objectives while maintaining system stability and saving British consumers a great deal of money.
This is a highly technical episode with a Geek Rating of 9, so if you want to brush up on grid power engineering concepts first before listening to this one, you could start with our Energy Basics miniseries—in particular, Episode #126 about how power generators and the grid works—then move on to Episode #55 on voltage stability, and then Episode #153 on grid-forming inverters. Then return to this one.
In this second part of our IPCC Sixth Assessment report (“AR6”) Working Group III coverage, we welcome back our friend and AR6 contributing author Glen Peters of the CICERO Center for International Climate Research. Longtime listeners will remember Glen from his explanation of the ‘carbon budget’ in Episode #57, and on the various scenarios for global warming, what they mean, and the current trajectory for climate change in Episode #112.
Glen was a lead author of AR6 Chapter 3, titled “Mitigation pathways compatible with long-term goals,” so in this episode, we discuss the latest figures for the remaining carbon budget; explore the probabilities for limiting warming to 1.5 and 2°C, and we consider the changing views on the role of direct carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as parts of the climate toolkit. Glen also gives us a very helpful explanation of some of the new terms and metrics used in AR6, such as the Illustrative Mitigation Pathways (IMPs), the warming Classification levels (C1-C8) and the other policy scenarios.
This is super-geeky but essential-to-understand stuff for anyone working on climate policy!
The IPCC published the final part of its Sixth Assessment (“AR6”), the Working Group III report, on April 4, 2022. The IPCC's Working Group III report contains assessments of how the energy transition can reduce emissions in the context of an updated outlook for global warming. Together, the three reports of AR6 comprise over 6,000 pages of material, so we have chosen to focus our coverage on the Working Group III report, which we present in two episodes.
In this first episode on AR6, we speak with one of the lead authors of the Working Group III report, energy researcher Benjamin Sovacool of the University of Sussex. We discuss some major advances in AR6 over the AR5 report of eight years ago; the gaps between our national climate action ambitions, what is really needed to limit warming to 1.5 or 2°C, and some ways that those gaps can be closed; how market-based financial approaches can be harnessed to reduce carbon; the importance of equity and “just transition” strategies; the challenge of path dependency and technology lock-in; how political economy can inhibit taking action on climate; the roles that non-government actors and individuals can play in the transition; and the various ways of decarbonizing transportation and providing better low-carbon mobility.
Our second episode on AR6, Episode #173, will review the updated figures for the remaining carbon budget, and consider the pathways and probabilities for limiting warming to 1.5 and 2°C.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, policymakers and energy professionals alike have been challenged to figure out how Western countries could stop funding Russia’s war machine by halting imports of their fossil fuels. But, considering that Russia is the world’s largest exporter of oil, halting imports is simply not something that can be done quickly.
It is, however, something that must be done as quickly as possible. Numerous proposals and plans have been put forward to outline how various countries could displace the need for Russian energy exports. And generally, those proposals amount to accelerating the energy transition.
In this episode, we delve into some of those proposals and try to understand how much of a role they could play in displacing Russian fossil fuel exports, how long these measures will take, and how the entire global arrangement of trade and political alliances may have to be rearranged to accommodate them.
We tackle this huge topic in a two-hour conversation with three experts. To represent how Europe could proceed, we welcome back to the show Tim Gould of the International Energy Agency (IEA). To represent the UK perspective, we welcome back to the show Simon Evans of Carbon Brief. And to represent the US perspective, we welcome to the show Rachael Grace, Senior Director of Policy at Rewiring America.
Scholarship on the energy transition has given a good deal of attention to battery storage, because it can help make variable renewables more dispatchable over longer periods of time, and because it’s a core part of electric vehicles. Numerous models have projected that we’ll need a very large amount of battery storage starting several decades from now, when renewables approach 80% of grid power supply, meaning long-duration and seasonal storage will become more necessary.
But what if that isn’t true? Many of those models assume that heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) loads, which account for about half of total power demand, will need to be met by electricity stored in batteries. But what if we could provide heat directly, by saving or recovering waste heat, and then using it as heat, without going through the conversions (and energy losses) of converting heat to electricity and then back to heat? What if using waste heat and other low-temperature sources were actually a far more efficient way to meet those demands?
In this episode, we discuss thermal storage for the first time on this show, to understand the state of the art and its potential, as well as where much more research on thermal storage is needed. Our guest is Daniel Møller Sneum, a postdoctoral researcher from Technical University of Denmark, an expert on thermal and district energy who wrote his PhD about flexible district energy systems. We’ll only scratch the surface of the thermal storage topic in this episode, but we hope that it helps our listeners begin to learn about this important and badly under-studied sector.
We know energy transition is needed to achieve our climate goals - 1.5˚ or some increasingly dire impacts are on the table. We know the transition is technically possible, economically affordable, and pragmatically doable. We know the policies needed to get the transition done. We know the opponents of transition and how to win against them.
Despite all that we know, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the feasibility of energy transition from a historical and empirical perspective. Can the transition happen fast enough? For each fuel source? In every country?
Our guest in this episode, Dr. Jessica Jewell of the Center for Climate and Energy Transformations at the University of Bergen in Norway, has done extensive research on the feasibility of energy transition. She is also closely involved with the climate scenarios that have been used in the IPCC modeling and is exceptionally well-qualified to help us understand the feasibility question. We discuss research she has co-authored on the speed of solar, wind and nuclear adoption, as well as the speed of phasing out fossil fuels to see if those things are happening quickly enough to limit warming to 1.5°C. We’ll also ask whether the scenario modeling that has been done to date is really what is needed to get a handle on these questions, and how to improve it.