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Topic: Solar

[Episode #121] – Winning and Losing the Policy Game

Conventional thinking is that policy supports the advancement of clean energy gradually and progressively, with hard-won gains setting up further success over time. And sometimes, it does play out this way. But sometimes it doesn’t, too. Our guest in this episode, Dr. Leah Stokes of UC Santa Barbara, describes the policymaking around energy transition as a matter of “organized combat” between clean energy advocates and incumbents in the utility and fossil fuel sectors — a process of combat which produces winners and losers. And rather than be shy about that, she argues, advocates for climate action and energy transition need to learn from their opponents and get much more organized and serious about winning policy battles.

In this two-hour interview, we talk through the history of clean energy policymaking, and how it was rolled back or thwarted, in four U.S. states. Step by step and case by case, we can learn from her original research what the winning tactics are, and how to lock in victories when we win them. This episode is critical listening for anyone involved in policymaking, regulatory interventions, crafting legislation, or activism.

Geek rating: 3

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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 #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 #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 #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 #99] – Metals Supply in Energy Transition

Is the supply of certain key metals—like lithium, copper, nickel, and cobalt—and “rare earth” metals—like vanadium and indium—potentially a limiter on the progress of energy transition? Or is there enough of them to realize our ambitions? Are they being produced in a sustainable way? How will the geographic concentration of these metals affect geopolitics and trade as the energy transition progresses? How confident can we be about our assessments of their abundance? And how confident can we be about how much of them we’ll need in the future, given the rapid evolution of many of these technologies, and the many alternate ways of producing them?

Our guest in this episode brings all of these questions into a whole new focus, and shows why these questions can’t be answered with some back-of-the-envelope calculation. Instead of asking whether there is enough of these metals in the Earth’s crust, he says, or about how they are mined, we should be asking much more sophisticated questions about the chemical industry, the opaque, illiquid markets in which these metals are traded, and the geopolitical implications of their trade.

Geek rating: 1

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[Episode #98] – Why Building Transmission is So Hard

Building high voltage transmission lines has never been easy, but now it’s arguably both harder than ever, and more necessary than ever, as we seek to unlock the vast potential of wind and solar in the US and ship it to major population centers. But it’s not a business for the faint of heart, as we’ll hear in this incredible story by award-winning investigative reporter and author Russell Gold of the Wall Street Journal. His new book, Superpower, chronicles the story of Michael Skelly, a developer who spent a decade and a great deal of money trying to build five major transmission lines in the US to support the burgeoning wind industry, only to be undermined, deceived, shot down, and ultimately driven to giving up, by people who opposed the lines for their own selfish interests. It’s an amazing story and a great cautionary tale for any prospective transmission line developer, as well as a wellspring of crucial insights that will benefit all who work in energy transition.

Geek rating: 3

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[Episode #97] – How State Policies Can Drive Decarbonization

As we continue looking for ways to decarbonize our energy systems, we often have to decide whether it’s better to try reworking our market rules so that the markets will do a better job of procuring clean energy, as we discussed in Episode #90, or whether it makes sense to just mandate the procurement of clean energy resources. The former is a job for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), but the latter is the domain of the states. In fact, our guest in this episode, a senior attorney with NRDC and the Sustainable FERC Project, argues that because states are really the only ones with the authority to regulate energy in order to obtain a more environmentally beneficial outcome and combat climate change, their mandates are a necessary pathway to decarbonizing the grid. And that, to some extent, market price distortion is in the mind of the beholder.

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #95] – Powering the world with RE

Can we run the world on renewables alone? Various researchers have tried to model how a given country might run a grid using mostly renewables, oftentimes finding that carbon-negative technologies, advanced nuclear power, and even coal power plants equipped with CCS will be a part of the solution set. But no one has produced a comprehensive model that shows how we can run the world on renewables alone, while accurately modeling the weather and grid conditions at a very discrete scale, at hourly resolution, using data on the renewable resources in each region, and determining how that would work while selecting the least-cost resources… until now.

In this episode we speak with a researcher from Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland, one of an international team of 14 scientists who have spent the past four and a half years performing research, data analysis, and technical and financial modeling to prove that a global transition to 100% renewable energy is economically competitive with the current fossil and nuclear-based system, and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the energy system to zero even before 2050. This first-of-its-kind study outlines how the world could limit warming to 1.5°C with a cost-effective, global, 100% renewable energy system that does not use negative carbon technologies, and provides all the energy needed for electricity, heat, transport and desalination by 2050.

Geek rating: 6

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