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2023: Renewables? Yes. A Return to Reality? Yes, Please.

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Michael Smith's picture
Principal, KLN Group

If you have been active in the North American utility IT/automation markets over the last 30+ years, chances are that you have subscribed to a publication, read a research report, or attended an...

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  • Feb 14, 2023

This item is part of the 2023 Predictions and Anticipated Trends for the Power Industry - January/February, click here for more

2022 has been a year of reflection and, quite possibly, a shift in the movement towards renewable energy. The energy transition is very real and ultimately very necessary. The energy transition, however, is a classic case of “the devil is in the details.” Let me explain a few examples.

First is electric vehicles (EVs). As a resident of California, I am well aware of our governor’s mandate to end the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035. As someone who has been around electric utilities for over three decades (no, I am not an engineer), I also know that the explosion of EVs that this mandate will bring will also create actual, real explosions on the grid. The infrastructure to handle the additional load of millions of EVs simply does not exist, and getting the necessary infrastructure is a multi-billion dollar, multi-year proposition. There are no real answers as to how this infrastructure piece of the all-EVs-in-2035 will happen, and I haven’t even mentioned the challenges associated with the full carbon footprint of producing and driving an EV for the expected life of a vehicle.

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A second example is the aggressive build out of renewable energy with the concurrent shut down of nuclear or fossil-fueled baseload generation. One only needs to look to Germany to understand how serious a lack of real planning and engineering (as opposed to emotionally- or politically-driven planning) can be. Should the citizens of a first-world nation be foraging forests for firewood to keep their families warm in the wintertime? Well, no, but this is today’s reality in Germany. I think that California’s governor saw this, thought about his aspirations for a run at the White House in 2024, and quickly pivoted to praising nuclear energy (after years of dismissing it) and secured $1.1 billion in federal funding to keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant open for an additional five years.

It's Not All Bad News

So, while the industry continues to move deeper into the energy transition there are some bright spots that that show great promise and can help us move forward towards less reliance on fossil fuels.

First among these, I believe, is long duration storage, or LDS. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, the most common form of energy storage today, LDS can provide energy for up to 12 – 24 hours as opposed to up to four hours for lithium-ion-based storage; LDS performance does not degrade over time, and does not require any rare earth mining operations. Leading LDS solutions typically leverage “iron flow” technology, using readily available iron and water as its core resources. For grid-scale energy storage as part of a utility’s energy transition strategy, watch for LDS to grow in 2023 and beyond.

As second area of promise is the growth of microgrids, particularly for a utility’s commercial and industrial (C & I) customers. While the models for developing and operating microgrids still vary greatly, the promise here for C & I customers is that microgrids will provide added  flexibility, reliability, and resiliency for a number of different C & I energy needs. Combining different forms of generation (wind, solar, possibly even hydrogen) with energy storage in an integrated, intelligent configuration provides new possibilities. Consider intelligent charging for EV fleets, taking the strain off the grid while also enabling more flexible and resilient charging for fleets. Or how about intelligent scheduling of industrial processes that can take advantage of the availability of various energy resources via the microgrid? Microgrids will become an important piece of the emerging new energy model.

A third example is the use of gas in the energy mix. While this is controversial in some quarters, remember that the transition from coal to gas has been the key driver to the U.S. reducing its carbon footprint over the last decade. Gas in general needs to be part of the energy mix, but particularly in the C & I segment of the industry where some industrial processes require higher temperatures provided by gaseous fuels. Add to this the emergence of renewable natural gas (“RNG,” typically methane from different sources like landfills and farms) and reliably sourced gas (“RSG,” with certifiable clean production standards, such as reduced methane leakage), and the role of gas, especially gas produced responsibly in North America, becomes clear. Indeed, as one industry veteran recently said, “gas is not just a transition fuel; gas is a fuel in transition.”

A Suggestion for the Industry

While 100% renewable energy is a noble goal, and one that captures the attention of a lot of people, as an industry we need to ask ourselves if this is or should be the goal for the electric utility industry for the foreseeable future. I will join others in the industry in suggesting that a goal of 80 - 85% renewable energy is more in the range of an energy transition that is more realistic and affordable.

Most in the industry agree that the last 15 – 20% of moving away from fossil fuels to meet generation needs will be the most difficult and the most expensive phase of the energy transition. This also puts a utility’s customer base in peril during peaking events or other emergencies.

Of course, the wild card  in all of this is the recent nuclear fusion announcement from Lawrence Livermore Lab. While this holds great promise, it is years away from being commercially available, which is all the more reason to take a measured, realistic approach to the energy transition.

As I enter my 33rd year in the utility industry, the axiom that “there is never a dull moment” seems to be truer every day. Let’s all buckle in, do the math, and make the energy transition an operational reality for the benefit of all.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Feb 15, 2023

Thanks for good information about LDS. I would like to hear more about that. And good points about "renewable gas".  Microgrids are of crucial importance, especially in developing countries where giant grids, mostly fueled by coal and nuclear, have failed miserably, e.g. South Africa, India.


«Should the citizens of a first-world nation be foraging forests for firewood to keep their families warm in the wintertime? Well, no, but this is today’s reality in Germany.»

What utter nonsense! Where did you get this? The US should develop resilience similar to that of Germany. Please see this:

"This was supposed to be a winter of energy crisis in Europe. Beginning last spring, not long after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fear of gas shortages spread across the continent, along with fears of what might follow."

"All told, though, the worst has not come to pass. There were no blackouts, as experts were warning as recently as December. There was no significant mortality from the cold. Industrial production took some hits but didn’t disappear, and indeed, economic forecasters who were six months ago almost unanimously predicting a continentwide recession are now almost unanimously predicting ongoing, if limited, economic growth."

Germany has coped well. Admittedly, a relatively warm winter  helped, together with the foresight to store gas reserves from various sources made possible by rapid development of LNG import infrastructure, as well as non-Russian gas and renewable electricity imports by pipeline and cable. 
On the other hand, the situation was not helped by the catastrophic buckling of the French nuclear system, as well as that of Sweden.

Germany is planning for the long haul with additional LNG import infrastructure and build out of renewables. From the same article:

"What is perhaps most remarkable is that the European Union has not just managed to avert a crisis but has actually “turbocharged the green transition,” as The Economist recently put it, potentially enough to knock a full decade off the continent’s decarbonization timeline."

"In 2022, for the first time, wind and solar generated more electricity in Europe than did gas and coal, according to a comprehensive review by the European think tank Ember published in January. For all the talk of a coal rebound in Europe, by the fall the continent as a whole was generating less power from coal than it had the previous fall, before the invasion — and the 26 coal plants which were reactivated to deal with the crisis have been operating at only 18 percent capacity on average."

In short, Germany is doing well. While it would be wrong to cite any «silver lining» to the barbaric Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe is united and finding that life without Russian gas is unfortunate at worst, but highly tolerable, and even preferable for the foreseeable future.

Going forward, it is to be hoped that Germany restricts LNG imports to sources that do not emit massive volumes of methane during drilling and production activities such as those from the Permian basin.


As you say "“there is never a dull moment” seems to be truer every day. Let’s all buckle in, do the math, and make the energy transition an operational reality for the benefit of all."

Michael Smith's picture
Thank Michael for the Post!
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