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Topic: Coal

[Episode #113] – Coal Plant Self-Scheduling

Owners of uneconomic coal plants in the US have tried many ways to keep operating, even when it is not profitable to do so, such as out-of-market subsidies and re-regulation (as we discussed in Episode #41), bailouts and wholesale market controls (as we discussed in Episode #70), and seeking capacity payments or other novel payments for alleged reliability (as we discussed in our trilogy of shows on decarbonizing power markets, Episodes #90, #97, and #105).

But there’s another tactic, variously known as “self-committing” or “self-scheduling,” and it happens when a utility that owns a coal-fired power plant elects to operate the plant no matter what the going rate for power is, even if that price is below its operating costs. Fully regulated utilities oftentimes can pass the costs of operation onto their customers even when they’re electing to run at a loss, without having to go to the trouble of asking for additional cost recovery from a regulator, or getting a legislator or wholesale market operator to give them a handout in one form or another. And it all happens more or less invisibly to customers and regulators. Only a researcher with a sharp eye and expert knowledge of what to look for would even detect these uneconomic operations, such as our guest in this episode.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #112] – Climate Science Part 11 – Climate Confusion

What do the various emissions scenarios published by the IPCC really mean? Is the worst-case RCP8.5 scenario “bollox,” as some have asserted, or it useful? Are we already doomed to experience seven feet of sea level rise and five degrees Celsius of warming globally, or is there still a chance that we can limit warming to two degrees? And if so…how likely is it that we can hit that target? How much can our energy transition efforts, both now and in the foreseeable future, do to mitigate that warming? Should our scenarios err on the side of being too extreme to account for unknown feedback effects and tipping points that may come in the future, or should we try to be as accurate as possible with our modeling, given the available data and scientific tools?

In this 11th part of our miniseries on climate science, we attempt to answer these questions and help our listeners sort out the various perspectives, from the tame to the apocalyptic, that feature in the current debates about our climate future. We hope that it will leave you with a much better understanding of what the climate scenarios really mean, how likely they are, and what the actual trajectory of climate change might be. We’re not out of the woods by any means, but our prospects may be better than you think!

View all parts of The Energy Transition Show mini-series on climate at: https://energytransitionshow.com/climatescience

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #111] – No Coal in our Christmas Stockings

New energy modeling on the U.S. states of Colorado and Minnesota offers some exciting and even startling insights: It can save everyone money to transition our power generation off of fossil fuels and onto wind, solar, and storage. And moving space and domestic hot water heating onto the power grid by switching to heat pumps, and moving transportation onto the power grid by switching to electric vehicles, will only increase the savings for all consumers—even those who don’t own a car will benefit from transitioning our fleets to EVs. In fact, the more we decarbonize, the more money it will save everyone, the more jobs will be created, and the closer we will get to addressing the climate challenge. Tune into this discussion with energy modeler extraordinaire Christopher Clack for all the exciting details in this special Christmas Day episode.

Geek rating: 6

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[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 #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 #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 #100] – Teaching Energy Transition

Full Episode

For our 100th episode, we thought we’d do a little something special: Interview professors from four US universities who are using the Energy Transition Show as coursework, and make the full show available to everyone, including non-subscribers. We ask these teachers about the specific topics they’re teaching, how they’re using the show in their classes, what concepts students find difficult, what misconceptions students have about energy, and how students are reacting to having study materials in podcast form. We also talk with two of the professors about their new energy transition textbooks, which are being published this year.

Guest #1:

Dr. Adam Warren is the co-director of the newly formed Advanced Energy Systems graduate program, a joint effort between NREL and CSM.  Adam is a Center Director within NREL’s Energy Systems Integration directorate.  His Center’s mission is to help partners meet ambitious energy goals while informing technology and policy research at NREL.  Prior to joining NREL, Adam supported PepsiCo’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in North America.

On Twitter: @CSMenergy

Guest #2:

Dr. Constantine “Costa” Samaras is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He directs the Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation and his research spans energy, climate change, automation, and defense analysis. Samaras analyzes how energy technology and infrastructure system designs affect energy use and national security, resiliency to climate change impacts, and life cycle environmental externalities. He is an affiliated faculty member in Carnegie Mellon’s Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, the College of Engineering’s Energy Science, Technology and Policy Program, and by courtesy, a faculty member in the H. John Heinz III College. Samaras is also an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the RAND Corporation. He has published numerous studies examining electric and autonomous vehicles, renewable electricity, transitions in the energy sector, conventional and low-carbon fuels, and was one of the Lead Author contributors to the Global Energy Assessment.

On Twitter:  @CostaSamaras

On the Web:

Costa’s faculty page at Carnegie Mellon

Costa’s research on Google Scholar

Guest #3:

Dr. David Murphy is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at St. Lawrence University. His scholarship examines the intersection of energy, the environment and economics with a focus on energy transition – broadly defined. His past work has included energy and environmental policy work for various agencies within the federal government, as well as net energy analysis work within academia. Much of Dr. Murphy’s recent research is focused on the energy transition, with a forthcoming textbook called “Renewable Energy in the 21st Century.” Dr. Murphy was previously a faculty member at Northern Illinois University and a research associate with Argonne National Laboratory.

On Twitter:  @djmurphy04

On the Web:
Dave’s page at St. Lawrence University

Renewable Energy in the 21st Century (Online textbook)

Guest #4:

Dr. Dustin Mulvaney is a professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San Jose State University, one of the first six interdisciplinary environmental studies programs in the USA, founded as a result of the first Earth Day 1970.  His research focuses on the social and environmental dimensions of food and energy systems where looks at questions at the intersection of innovation, emerging technologies and environmental change. His research on solar energy commodity chains is synthesized in a new book entitled Solar Power, Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice with the University of California Press. Dustin has a PhD from UC Santa Cruz in Environmental Studies, and a masters of science in environmental policy studies and bachelors degree in chemical engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

On Twitter: @DustinMulvaney

Dustin Mulvaney’s Researchgate page

Dustin’s website

Guest #5:

Dr. Sridhar Seetharaman is the director of the Advanced Energy Systems graduate program at Mines.  Sridhar is the Professor and Associate VP for Research at Colorado School of Mines, and served, most recently, with the US DOE as a Senior Technical Advisor as an EWQ (merit based Exceptionally Well Qualified Candidate) and was responsible for Clean Water and Next Generation Electric Machines. He was until 2016 the Tata Steel / RAEng Joint Chair for Research Into Low Carbon Materials Technology and Director of Materials strategy for the HMV Catapult at WMG . He was prior to that the POSCO Professor of Steelmaking at Carnegie Mellon University and the co-director of the Industry-University Consortium, Center for Iron and Steelmaking Research (CISR). He was also an NETL Faculty Fellow.

Geek rating: 1

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[Episode #93] – Energy Transition in India and Southeast Asia, Part 2

This is Part 2 of our two-and-a-half hour interview with Tim Buckley, of the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, based in Australia. We featured Part 1 in Episode 91, in which we primarily discussed the future of coal fired power in India. In this second part, we expand on the India story and look more broadly at energy transition across Southeast Asia, and consider the outlook for coal, renewables, and nuclear power in China, Japan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Malaysia, among others. As he did in Part 1, Tim shares with us in this episode a fascinating set of data on the future of energy in Southeast Asia that is oftentimes at sharp variance with the projections that we hear from energy watchdogs like the International Energy Agency. Tim tells a much more hopeful story about energy transition in the developing world. For example: If you think that China’s building more coal plants means that its coal consumption is going to go up, think again! Energy transition is moving ahead, and will move ahead, much more quickly in Southeast Asia than any of our major agencies project, and that is great news for the climate.

Geek rating: 4

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[Episode #92] – Financing Coal Plant Retirements

The coal power sector in the US is continuing to shrink due to poor economics, but this doesn’t mean we’re retiring coal fired power plants quickly enough to reduce carbon emissions at a rate that achieves our climate goals. So what’s the best way to get rid of coal plants before they reach the end of their expected lifespans, particularly while the Trump administration and the Republican party continue trying to find ways to keep coal plants open? Democratic state Representative Chris Hansen of Colorado has proposed a solution: Refinancing the debt that utilities still owe on their coal-fired plants with cheaper, public bonds, and then shutting down the plants. It’s an idea that would retire coal plants and reduce carbon emissions, save utility customers money, create better investment opportunities for the utilities, and replace that power with cheaper, clean, solar and wind power. Everybody wins! It’s a powerful idea whose time may have come in Colorado, where fossil fuels still make up 78% of the state’s electricity mix, and major utilities in the state, like Xcel Energy, have declared their intention to transition to 100% clean power in the coming decades. Will Hansen’s bill have the right approach to help achieve those goals? We dive into all the important details in this episode and find out!

Geek rating: 7

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[Episode #91] – Energy Transition in India and Southeast Asia, Part 1

It has long been assumed that India, China, and other developing countries of Southeast Asia would power their vigorous economic growth for decades to come with coal. We heard over and over that China is building a new coal-fired power plant every three days, and about plans for multi-gigawatt sized coal-fired power plants in India. As long as coal was the cheapest form of power, addressing our climate emergency seemed like a lost hope.

But that nightmare is now evaporating thanks to the continuously declining costs for solar, wind, and battery storage. Although there are far too few policymakers (not to mention the major energy agencies, like EIA and IEA) who appear to be aware of it, the future of coal is fading by the day, as solar and wind take the lead as the lowest cost forms of power. And nowhere is this new reality more starkly evident than in India, where a remarkable pivot away from coal has been under way for about five years now, radically reshaping the outlook for India’s energy consumption, and stranding billions of dollars in investments in coal plants that will not be used as expected. At the same time, India is busily electrifying 18,000 villages, pushing forward on the electrification of transportation, and developing demand-side technologies that together are more likely to make India one of the world’s great success stories in energy transition than one of the world’s largest upcoming carbon emitters.

Our guest in this episode has been closely watching these markets for three decades, and is one of the sharpest observers of what’s happening in India and Southeast Asia. This episode is Part One of our two-and-a-half hour conversation with him, which mostly covers India and coal. Part Two of this interview will be featured in Episode 93.

Geek rating: 4

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