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The Perils Of Falling In Love With Energy Technology

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Renewable energy and fossil fuel advocates have one thing in common – an unhealthy tendency to fall in love with a particular energy technology. Will nuclear power solve the world’s problems? Are solar and wind the answer to everything? Can natural gas save the day? What about biomass or clean coal?

Each of these technologies has a cadre of vocal advocates, but they are a bit myopic. The problem is that picking winners and losers based on such biases sells the country short. Technologies should be judged based on their ability to power the economy in a clean, safe, reliable, and affordable manner. Choices that ignore one of these core goals fail that basic duty.

No Single Energy Technology Is A Panacea Or Silver Bullet

Every technology has advantages and downsides. Nuclear power, for example, offers tremendous energy density, and carbon-free, 24-hour power. But any honest assessment of nuclear power will also show profound problems—cost, siting, waste, and nuclear weapons proliferation. Nuclear power’s future will only come about if these four issues are dealt with. A number of design ideas can help with each issue but none have been tested, much less deployed, at a reasonable cost.  So the proper role for a nuclear advocate is being a genuine problem-solver, rather than a one-note advocate.

Three Mile Island nuclear power plant site image via Nuclear Regulatory Commission

 

Different challenges arise with solar and wind. These clean energy technologies now provide the cheapest electricity ever offered. But they face issues with siting, variability, energy density, transmission, and more. Sound solutions exist to solve all these problems, and each has been demonstrated somewhere, but no one has combined them all into 100 percent renewable energy grid. Policymakers must listen to solar and wind advocates, but also demand tractable solutions to these challenges.

Natural gas is plentiful and cheap, and in the U.S., remarkably accessible for heating, electricity production, and chemicals. But densely located fracking wells threaten environmental destruction, and if more than 3 percent of gas leaks anywhere in the system—from extraction and compression, to distribution and use—gas is worse than coal for the climate. And even if gas leakage fell to zero, it still creates about half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal—not enough to protect the climate.

Coal is perhaps the most hotly contested energy technology today, benefiting from a centuries-old system that was quite literally built around the energy source. A coal plant can run 24/7, and the capital stock is already mostly in place. Calculations suggest enough coal reserves exist to power the world’s energy systems for many decades to come—but coal generates the most carbon emissions of any generation technology, and is increasingly being beaten in the markets by natural gas and renewables.

Other energy technologies similarly face biases, both in their favor and against. The key is to focus on public amenity: Energy must be reliable, affordable, and clean – then see what stacks up.

In Wyoming for example, home to 42 percent of American coal output, billionaire Philip Anschutz, who owns conservative-leaning newspapers and has donated millions to Republican politicians, is building America’s largest wind farm. This project will sell electricity to California via a new 700-mile transmission line, generate $8 billion in new investment, create hundreds of new construction jobs to replace lost coal mining jobs, and could herald a new economic boom for the state.

Wyoming wind farm image via Pixabay

 

But a prejudice against wind almost prevented this economic boom. Wyoming proposed a steep tax on wind power, seeking wind tax hikes from $1 per megawatt-hour to $5 (no other state taxes wind). “We don’t want more wind,” one state legislator reportedly said to a developer. “We want you to burn more coal.” Luckily, both the developer and Wyoming’s Republican governor understand that a good job is a good job, and if it comes from clean, cheap electricity production, so much the better.

Love Is Blind (On Energy Policy)

Falling in love with a particular policy can also create blindness: Are tax credits the solution, or should one prefer energy subsidies? Should government support basic research, or applied? Will carbon pricing aid disadvantaged communities, or simply raise their costs of living? Should new technologies access markets, or should they face barriers?

The intelligent way to answer these questions is, again, to test each idea against the same social goals—reliability, affordability, and cleanliness. Affordability requires technology innovation and exploiting the dynamics of the free market. Clean power requires policy that puts a real value on avoiding asthma and climate change.  Reliability requires alignment of both market forces and public values.

Of course, tensions exist between the goals: It may be cheap to burn coal in an old power plant, but it is certainly not clean, just as it seemed cheap for years to buy Mideast oil, until the Arab Oil Embargo laid bare our national energy security vulnerabilities. The best policies, though, hit all three goals.

For example, many states are transforming utility business models to compensate utilities for the services they provide—rather than for the electrons they produce or the plants they build—through performance-based regulation. This replaces capital deployment as the key metric for success, and focuses utility managers on providing core social goals. The utility uses whatever means makes the most sense to achieve that end, selecting from energy efficiency, generation, grid upgrades, purchased power, demand response, and so forth. Utility regulators would not have to make technology choices, nor do line-by-line oversight of utility expenditures.

Similarly, building a zero-carbon grid gets dramatically easier if policymakers took a results-oriented approach focused on optimizing the power system over prioritizing a specific technology or policy. The utility must “dispatch” efficiency resources to meet demand: wheeled power; fast-ramping but short-operating fossil, dispatchable renewables like hydro, biomass, and geothermal; and batteries, all in concert to offset wind and solar variability. Indeed, system optimization becomes the new utility business model in a 21st century power system, and the reward structure must point the entire company in that direction.

The clear lesson in both technology and policy is to set ambitious goals, inscribed in policy that rewards performance, and let the dynamics of the market work toward these ends.

By Hal Harvey

Hal Harvey is the founder and CEO of Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based energy and environmental policy think tank.

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Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on Aug 2, 2017

A very interesting and informative article, dealing with a hopeless problem.
Still I take the liberty to point to some missing information.
• Waste from civilian nuclear is only a problem in countries where “The Greens” have destroyed sensible solutions.
I have tried to analyse the problem at another post: http://wp.me/p1RKWc-LC
• If a rouge state wants to destroy the world using nuclear. Then there are other more easy ways and it will be foolish to try to utilize material from civilian nuclear.
It is easy to find horrific descriptions. But the realities are far from fiction.
Also here, I have tried to look into the difference between fear and realities. See http://wp.me/s1RKWc-68
• In what we usually call “The West”, nuclear has been tricked into a death-spiral of demands for more fictive safety.
If different sources of energy were to play on a level playing-field related to safety. Then the costs of nuclear would be much lower than all the rest.
On another post: http://wp.me/p1RKWc-11D I have tried to analyse why the costs are spiralling out of hand in the west, but not in Russia, Korea and in China.
• Germany has tried to “Go Green”. But they are in the process of failing.
Also here, I have tried to write a post: http://wp.me/s1RKWc-90
Hope, that I will not be labelled as one of the many: Just believing to have THE silver bullet.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Aug 3, 2017

any honest assessment of nuclear power will also show profound problems—cost, siting, waste, and nuclear weapons proliferation.

Any honest assessment of nuclear power will show that these claims are anti-nuke propaganda from the “Green” front for fossil interests:

1.  Cost is not an issue where political interference isn’t allowed.  China and S. Korea get their builds done on budget and on schedule; S. Korea manages it half a world away, at Barakah.
2.  Why should anyone worry about siting?  Any large facility requires acreage.  Wind farms make vastly larger areas unavailable for buildings because of the risk of thrown ice or pieces of blades.
3.  We can just sit on waste until we decide what to do with it, and the problem rapidly becomes smaller all by itself as it sits.  Every 30 years, about half of all the Sr-90 and Cs-137 in spent fuel simply goes away.
4.  No nuclear weapons state has ever made one from spent LWR fuel; all but one existing weapons state had nuclear weapons before they had nuclear electric plants.

Sid Abma's picture
Sid Abma on Aug 3, 2017

Natural gas is our cheap fuel today but using this fuel in an energy efficient way still has to come a long way. Natural gas can be consumed to near 100% energy efficiency, but today we are combusting and blowing into the atmosphere approximately 60% as hot exhaust. What a waste!
For every 1 million Btu’s of heat energy that is recovered from this combusted exhaust and is utilized, 117 lbs of CO2 will not be put into the atmosphere. This adds up to be big numbers.
In every 1 million Btu’s of natural gas that is combusted are 5 gallons of recoverable distilled water. That is a lot of water.

With the technology of Carbon Capture Utilization over 90% of the CO2 can be removed from combusted coal exhaust. This CO2 will be transformed into useful-saleable products. That is worthwhile.
There is a lot more that can be removed from combusted coal exhaust so that is does not end up in our atmosphere. Doing so creates a lot of jobs and saleable products. This is good for our economy.

I like what Hal says: The clear lesson in both technology and policy is to set ambitious goals, inscribed in policy that rewards performance, and let the dynamics of the market work toward these ends.

greggerritt greggerritt's picture
greggerritt greggerritt on Aug 3, 2017

This may be the most rational article ever seen on this newsletter. Nuclear power seems to require dictatorships to get built, as when the public is involved it fails becasue it has not ever proven to be safe or cheap. . I guess the commentators below do not like democracy

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Aug 4, 2017

Nuclear power seems to require dictatorships to get built, as

The people of France, Japan and S. Korea will be greatly surprised to learn that they were living under dictatorships when their nuclear fleets were built.

when the public is involved it fails becasue it has not ever proven to be safe or cheap.

No, when anti-nuclear ideologues and Green romantics are involved, they mess everything up.  That’s not “the public”, that’s a bunch of dishonest or just nasty people usually backed by fossil-fuel interests.

I guess the commentators below do not like democracy

The public doesn’t believe in anthropogenic climate change either.  Do you intend to force them to stop contributing to it anyway, or do you not like democracy?

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