Addressing the threat of climate change means executing a successful energy transition. But as the transition proceeds, we are increasingly having to confront the impacts of transition technologies, and consider the trade-offs of choosing those technologies over the conventional technologies that they are displacing - because nothing we can do is without an impact of some kind, and everything we build requires the use of raw materials. So the question of what is truly sustainable is beginning to take a larger importance in the formation of policies designed to advance energy transition.
But energy is still being taught primarily as part of the engineering discipline, leaving students from non-engineering disciplines in need of ways to learn something about energy, in order to help them be more effective in their work. Fortunately, professor Dustin Mulvaney of San Jose State University in California has a new textbook designed to address this need, titled “Sustainable Energy Strategies: Socio-Ecological Dimensions of Decarbonization.” It’s a very ambitious effort to survey many of the complex topics that are critical for people involved in energy transition to understand. In this episode, we talk with Dustin about why he wrote it, and we take a walk through each chapter in the book to understand the complex questions around what “sustainability” really means in the context of energy transition.
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.
[This episode has been released ahead of schedule to coincide with the publication of the paper it covers. Enjoy! --Ed.]
Is it really feasible to run the world on 100% renewables, including supply and demand matching at all times and places? Would doing so require vast amounts of seasonal storage? Are exotic new technologies like next-generation flexible nuclear power plants or coal plants equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS) equipment needed to balance out variable renewables at a reasonable cost?
In this episode, Dr. Christopher Clack offers a very detailed, deep critique of the 100% wind, water and solar model proposed by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson in 2015, and explains where the model falls short. We also discuss a recent paper by Jesse Jenkins from MIT and Samuel Thernstrom from the Energy Innovation Reform Project, which reviewed some recent papers on what “deep decarbonization” might imply for our future energy mix. This 90-minute, super-wonky chat over a few pints of IPA is guaranteed to leave you reeling…and hopefully, more informed about the best policy pathways to a mostly renewable future.
One thing is sure about energy transition: There is no one-size-fits-all approach. As our previous episodes on individual countries showed, there are different opportunities and challenges in each place…even each US state has to find its own unique transition path. In this episode, we have a wide-ranging talk with Dr. Benjamin Sovacool of the University of Sussex about a tiny fraction of his voluminous research on energy transition topics, with a focus on the speed of energy transitions, the ways that the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland are going about their transitions; his outlook for CCS technology and nuclear power; the potentials and pitfalls of nuclear power and the potential for distributed energy resources to displace nuclear; and we’ll surprise him with the first-ever Energy Transition Show lightning round, in which he’ll answer 15 key questions about energy transition (which were the subject of one of his books) in under two minutes!
Energy and water are inextricably linked: It takes energy to supply water, and it takes water to supply energy. And those processes consume vast amounts of both. Yet we have only really begun to study the energy-water nexus and gather the data that policymakers will need to understand the risk that climate change poses to both power and water. As rainfall and temperatures continue to depart from historical norms, forcing conventional power plants to throttle back or shut down, we may need to invest more heavily in wind and solar PV just to keep the lights on. Even more radical solutions may become necessary, like switching to more dry-cooled power plants, and desalinating brackish groundwater. Ideally, we would treat the challenges of the energy-water nexus in an integrated way, deliberately reducing our energy and water demands simultaneously as part of our energy transition strategies, but our governments aren’t typically set up for that, and much more basic research and analytical work is needed.