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[Episode #206] – Regulatory Capture in Texas

As we have discussed in previous episodes of the show (like Episodes #73, #177, and #198), state regulators and legislators can be ‘captured’ by the industries they are supposed to regulate and wind up serving those industries instead of the public interest.

Usually, regulatory capture is a form of corruption: The system isn’t supposed to work that way, but certain interests can manage to corrupt it. In Texas, however, that kind of capture isn’t a bug—it’s a feature.

In this episode, investigative journalist Russell Gold of Texas Monthly shares what he found after tracking down hundreds of documents scattered across dozens of offices around the state. Not only does the chair of the Texas commission that regulates the oil and gas business personally earn royalties from some of the very oil and gas leases she regulates, so does her family.

We also check in on the progress that Texas is making—and not making—to prevent the kind of grid blackout that happened during the February 2021 big freeze. And we ask where the limits to corruption in Texas actually are, and how rank and file voters in the state feel about it. It’s a sordid story, but an important one to understand, because it reveals a lot about the power of the oil and gas industry in the US.

Geek rating: 2

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[Episode #205] – Rebuilding the Grid from the Bottom-up

A tsunami of distributed energy resources (DERs) is starting to arrive on the grid. Customers are adopting millions of EVs, rooftop solar systems, battery backup units, and other devices that can dynamically respond to grid conditions. But most utilities are not engaging with this wave proactively. Instead, they’re being reactive, slow, and even resistant to allowing these devices to connect to the grid or participate in transactions.

As we rebuild and transform the grid in the course of the energy transition, we really need to think about how to accommodate DERs. There are manifold reasons to build a decentralized grid from the bottom-up, instead of keeping the conventional, top-down, hub-and-spoke architecture based on the large centralized power plants that we have relied upon in the past. So how do we do it?

Lorenzo Kristov has been agitating for this new architecture for years, frequently issuing white papers and expert testimony to get regulators and others thinking about what the future grid should look like. And his ideas are being taken seriously, because he was a lead designer of the locational marginal pricing (LMP) market on which California’s wholesale power system operates. He has deep expertise in wholesale market design, DER participation in wholesale markets, coordination of transmission-distribution system operations, distribution system operator (DSO) models, distribution-level markets, microgrids, energy resilience strategies, and whole-system grid architecture, among other things. And he has been walking us through his vision for the decentralized grid in previous episodes of our show: #10, #94, and #150.

In today’s episode, Lorenzo rejoins us to build on our previous conversations and share his latest thinking about how to make the new energy transition grid architecture happen. We discuss market design, architecture, procurement, regulatory issues, and related topics, making this episode deserving of a Geek Rating of 10.

Geek rating: 10

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[Episode #204] – Regulatory Reform

Whose job is it to lead the energy transition?

In previous episodes, we’ve talked about how markets can guide the transition, especially after targeted reforms. We’ve considered the role of regulators, and the problems of regulatory capture and corruption. We’ve asked how local community leaders and elected officials can lead the energy transition from the bottom up, and conversely, how local activists can hinder and undermine the energy transition. We’ve also looked at the role of governments, particularly where no one else seems able to meet a particular challenge, or where that challenge isn’t really anyone’s responsibility.

In this episode, we try to knit together these disparate threads with veteran regulator Audrey Zibelman, who has held senior roles at both utilities and regulatory bodies for more than 30 years. Audrey shares some deep thoughts about why regulators and governments will have to play much more creative, courageous, and ambitious roles in the future to contend with the challenges of the energy transition.

Geek rating: 10

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[Episode #203] – The Case for Climate Optimism

Why does so much media coverage of climate change emphasize the worst-case scenarios and the slow speed of the energy transition? Why don't more stories highlight how the energy transition is working and accelerating, reducing expected increases in carbon emissions and rendering the worst-case warming scenarios increasingly unlikely?

These are important questions, because reporting about the climate and the energy transition can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the media constantly asserts that climate change is unstoppable and that we’re doomed, people will feel discouraged and give up during a critical time in which we must make progress. Whereas by showing people how they can be part of the solution, they will do what they can and support leaders committed to addressing the problem.

It’s also important that we understand what’s real and likely, and what isn’t. An unfortunate number of stories about climate change have emphasized vague “tipping points” and “feedback loops” that might accelerate warming in the future. But those are unquantified and undefined terms referring to highly uncertain possibilities. Meanwhile, highly probable outcomes that would result from existing climate policies are barely mentioned.

So why is there so much media focus on the worst-case scenarios? A shred of uncertainty isn't a sufficient reason to emphasize the worst case above all else. Wouldn't it make more sense to focus on the likely outcomes of our existing policies?

In this episode, we're joined by a climate researcher and data analyst who finds reason for optimism on climate change. Hannah Ritchie is a Senior Researcher in the Programme for Global Development at the University of Oxford. She is also Deputy Editor and Lead Researcher at the online publication Our World in Data, which brings together the latest data and research on the world's largest problems and makes it accessible for a general audience. Her forthcoming book, Not the End of the World, will be published in January 2024.

In today’s conversation, Hannah explains what converted her from a climate pessimist to an optimist, and shares her insights into why stories of climate doom seem to be more popular. We explore a number of her data analyses that support her optimistic outlook. And we discuss why it’s important to give people hope that we can address the climate challenge successfully—not by merely adopting a pollyannish attitude, but by really looking at the facts, and understanding the progress that we’re actually making.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #202] – UK’s Green Day

On March 30th, in what some have dubbed its ‘Green Day,” the UK government released a package of plans to advance its action on climate and the energy transition. A centerpiece of the package detailed how the government’s plans will achieve the emissions reductions required in its sixth carbon budget.

In this episode, Dr. Simon Evans, Deputy Editor and Senior Policy Editor of Carbon Brief, rejoins us to review the highlights of the new policy package. Comprising over 3,000 pages across some 50 documents, the plans covered a wide range of incentives and objectives, including a new energy security strategy, guidelines for funding carbon capture and hydrogen projects, a revised green finance strategy, carbon border taxes, sustainable aviation fuels, mandates for clean cars and clean heat, major infrastructure projects, and much more.

After listening to this two-hour interview, you’ll know just about all there is to know about the state of climate and energy transition policy in the UK!

Geek rating: 6

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[Episode #201] – India Update Part 2

This is part two of our interview with Mohua Mukherjee, a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Previously, she was a development economist and project manager with the World Bank, working in over 40 countries.

In this second part, we dive into India’s use of oil and natural gas, and why it has continued to purchase these fuels from Russia, even as the West has implemented trade restrictions. We go on to explore India’s unique approach to transitioning mobility to vehicles that run on electricity and CNG. We highlight India's strategy for developing domestic industries in battery manufacturing, solar energy, hydrogen electrolyzers, and other clean technologies. We also take a closer look at India's astonishing progress in expanding electricity access to its vast population. We examine the challenges faced by electricity distribution utilities in the country, and their efforts to enhance efficiency. Finally, we address India's progress on its climate initiatives and the importance of ensuring a "just transition" as the nation reduces its reliance on coal-fired power.

Be sure to check out part one of this interview in Episode #199 for a review of India’s overall energy mix, including a close look at its use of coal, solar, and wind.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #200] – ETS Retrospective

To mark the milestone of our 200th episode, we’re taking a look back at how the energy transition has progressed since we launched this podcast in 2015. We revisit the “war on coal”, the concept of the “energy transition,” advances in wind and solar power, changing perspectives about the future of natural gas, “baseload” power’s fading role, the astonishingly rapid uptake of EVs, evolving views on nuclear power, and more!

We also take a moment to reflect on the Energy Transition Show over the last seven and a half years, and take stock of what we have learned. We consider how the media landscape has changed for podcasts in general, and why we are feeling more confident than ever about our focus and our business strategy.

And since this landmark episode is presented from our point of view, we’re turning the tables so that Chris is the guest, interviewed by Jeff St. John, one of our favorite energy journalists. Jeff is currently the Director of News and Special Projects at Canary Media, and he has been following and writing about the energy transition for about as long as Chris has, so he also has a broad perspective on how the energy transition has progressed.

So join us for this special retrospective episode with two seasoned energy transition observers!

Geek rating: 4

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[Episode #199] – India Update Part 1

This is part one of our interview with Mohua Mukherjee, a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Previously, she was a development economist and project manager with the World Bank, working in over 40 countries.

In this episode, we discuss the overall energy mix in India, and explore the dynamics of the coal power sector. We then take a deep dive into the solar power sector, including India’s innovative financing strategy leveraging a World Bank loan. Finally, we wrap it up with a look at the wind power sector.

In the second part, which will run as Episode #201, we’ll talk about India’s use of oil and natural gas, including why they are using gas for transportation. We’ll explore India’s investments into manufacturing clean technologies. We’ll review how their distribution utilities are improving access to grid power and improving efficiency. And we’ll end with a discussion about how India is taking a “just transition” approach to winding down its dependence on coal-fired power.

Geek rating: 5

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[Episode #198] – The Coal Trap

Why have coal-mining communities continued to white-knuckle their interests in coal long after it was clear the industry was well into decline and would never come back? How were politicians able to misdirect blame toward a “War on Coal” narrative rather than economic factors?

In this episode, Jamie Van Nostrand, a longtime lawyer who has worked both for utility regulators and utility companies, sheds light on these questions. In addition to his current role as a regulator, Jamie has served as a professor of utility law and regulation in several states, including West Virginia, the poster child of coal-industry denial about the energy transition. In Jamie’s 2022 book, The Coal Trap: How West Virginia Was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution, he explains how the politics of West Virginia, and the actions of coal industry proponents and lobbyists, contributed to a culture of denial about the need for a clean energy transition. This denial has come at a great cost to West Virginians, who have missed out on energy transition during a ‘lost decade’ and are now facing unnecessarily high grid power costs for many years ahead. Jamie shares his insights in this episode and explains how the situation in West Virginia can serve as a cautionary tale for other communities facing similar challenges. It’s a fascinating book, and Jamie’s explanations in this extra-long episode are illuminating.

Geek rating: 3

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[Episode #197] – Virtual Power Plants (VPPs)

Full Episode

The time may have arrived for Virtual Power Plants (VPPs) to fully realize their potential. In a VPP, groups of distributed energy resources (DERs) like EVs, batteries, and heat pumps can be managed to consume power when it is inexpensive, avoid consuming power when it is expensive, and even provide power back to the grid when supplies are limited.

While VPPs have been around for many years, operating commercially in places like Australia, the US power grid has not seen wide-scale integration. This is now changing because VPPs can help the grid do more with less - supporting new loads without requiring expensive new investments in grid expansion.

In this episode, Jigar Shah, Director of the Loan Programs Office at the US Department of Energy, joins us to share his vision of a much-expanded role for VPPs on the power grid and why he thinks the sector is ready to scale up. You’ll hear how a handful of VPPs and programs to support them have been launched in the US. You’ll also hear how the US Department of Energy is exploring ways to accelerate the development and integration of VPPs, including making financing available through Jigar’s office to support the adoption of VPP-enabled DERs under the Title 17 Clean Energy Financing program.

And because Jigar is with the Department of Energy, sharing information that should be accessible to everyone, we decided to make this one of our occasional lagniappe shows and put it in front of the paywall so that premium and free listeners alike can enjoy it. Hey free listeners, now you can see what you’ve been missing!

Geek rating: 8

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