Sustainability 2.0: Shiny Objects!
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- Mar 20, 2020 9:39 pm GMTMar 20, 2020 8:01 pm GMT
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Shiny object! Whether it’s the new car smell, the latest iPhone, or a smart thermostat, that tidal wave of dopamine is hard to resist. In fact, studies show that we may choose the new over the tried and true "even in a situation where we don't have any good reason to expect something to be better than before," says University College London’s Bianca Wittmann, lead author of a 2008 study.[i]
That neophilia – the love of the new – drives the innovation that defines our species. Neophilia also drives the consumption – and resultant waste – that defines our species. From our best to our worst, neophilia is a force to be reckoned with in every choice we make.
Take a bow, climate change. Mitigating and adapting to climate change requires intense innovation across our societies and economies, from de-carbonization at vast scale to behavioral changes for each one of us. That de-carbonization, in turn, requires thriving societies and economies: mandates and subsidies can win battles but balance sheets win the war. This is especially true in the power system: it would cost about $5 trillion to replace the US system alone.[ii]
Further, the electric system is both lock and key of that de-carbonization. Electricity is the default “fuel” for de-carbonization. It must remain reliable and affordable in order to drive economy- and society-wide electrification. At the same time, though, electricity must itself decarbonize. It is the defining challenge for electricity and a defining challenge for de-carbonization as a whole.
So far, neophilia has dominated the de-carbonization discussion, from renewable energy to batteries. New is expensive but exciting; new feels like progress. Legacy resources, by contrast, are seen as impediments. Coal-fired plants cannot be retired too soon. Natural gas-fired plants are perhaps necessary (but short-term) evils. Hydroelectric power is seen as a relic of the past. Nuclear, with its historical safety and continuing waste challenges, is often not even mentioned. Instead, more renewables, more batteries, and more “new” of all kinds is seen as the answer.
Much of that is necessary and appropriate: we can’t add renewables without adding renewables, so to speak. But each “more,” each “new” adds costs to that multi-trillion dollar system and thus the cost of electricity. Thriving economies and societies, the ones who will successfully mitigate and adapt to climate change, cannot afford prolificacy. In other words, we must resist unless we truly “expect something to be better than before.” Exciting or not, unneeded costs handicap success.
So let’s reframe those legacy resources, creating allies instead of assuming antagonism. Let’s optimize our multi-trillion dollar investment in the service of our larger goals. Let’s check our neophilia for a more nuanced, thrive-oriented de-carbonization strategy. Remember “REDUCE-REUSE-RECYCLE”? Burbank Water & Power applies it to our legacy resources as “REDUCE-REPURPOSE-REPOWER.”
Let’s put that in context. BWP began to de-carbonize with a head start and a handicap. Bravo: BWP was in 2007 the first municipal utility in the US to set a “33% renewables by 2020” goal. We’ve been doing this as long as anyone. Ouch: BWP was already fully resourced in 2007; each new outlay created excess energy that had to be sold into an increasingly saturated market. That drives up costs: the supply-demand curve does not make allowances for policy. At the same time, however, BWP has a typical legacy portfolio, including shares in large coal-fired, hydroelectric, and nuclear plants as well as old and new natural gas-fired plants.[iii] These assets are already built, nearly paid-for, and still operating reliably. Finally, like every other utility, BWP is figuring out de-carbonization – from renewable integration to conservation and energy efficiency to electrification – as we go. There is no roadmap.
So how has BWP made allies of its legacy resources? Let’s break it down.
It sounds simple: just turn down (or turn off) the coal, gas, and nuclear plants. It’s not. Most fossil-fueled power plants were engineered to operate at “baseload”, i.e. most efficiently at maximum output for months at a time. That means compromises at lower outputs, from lower efficiency to higher pollution, and very limited ability to turn down without shutting off. And restarting meant days, not hours or minutes. As a result, abundant solar mid-day leaves those assets a Hobson’s choice: they can run at a loss (and produce greenhouse gases and other pollutants) 24/7 to be ready when the sun sets and solar power switches off. Or they can shut down entirely, causing stranding investments and leaving reliability exposed to the sunset.
For example, BWP operates the Magnolia Power Project, a natural gas-fired power plant serving BWP and five other SoCal municipal utilities. MPP was state-of-the-art when it came online in 2005. Like other plants of that pre-renewable era, it was optimized for high efficiency, low emissions, maximum output, and steady-state operations. In the meantime, that virtue has become a liability: solar’s continued proliferation means that the lowest possible output (not the highest) and rapid acceleration (not steady-state) matter now. We’re making that extreme makeover happen at MPP with innovative technologies to double the plant’s turn-down and ramping capabilities. That means more renewables and less GHG, more cost-effectively than energy storage. Not bad for a 15-year old power plant.
That’s a big win: a legacy resource plus targeted innovation to optimize reliability, affordability, and sustainability.
Hoover Dam. It’s not the biggest dam in the world (or even the US) but it looms large in the American mind. It should: Hoover Dam is an extraordinary engineering achievement, a beacon of recovery from the Great Depression, and helped power our defense industry during World War 2.
Did you also know that it excels at integrating renewable energy? Neither did its engineers almost a century ago. Back then, no one had heard of renewable energy, climate change, or GHG. How can an octogenarian power plant be so good at something that didn’t exist when it was built?
Because we looked at Hoover through a new lens, repurposing it from an economic role to a reliability role, from power generation to renewable integration. The capability was always there. We just had to see it. Its engineers would be surprised but proud.
Other legacy assets repurposing too, playing roles that didn’t exist when they were built. For all its challenges, nuclear (like Palo Verde in Arizona) can be a reliable, cost-effective, and GHG-free baseload resource, helping drive the power system no matter what the weather. Natural gas-fired plants are being repurposed as renewable integration machines, filling in gaps for solar and wind. Looking forward, the natural gas system itself might even be re-engineered and repurposed for green hydrogen. Even legacy energy storage, originally designed for a never-realized nuclear-dominated power system, is highly effective at renewable integration. Los Angeles Department of Water & Power’s Castaic Pumped Storage Plant is a great example.
Reliability, affordability, and sustainability: repurposing legacy assets is a big win on all counts.
Jargon alert! Don’t worry. “Repower” simply means replacing one (older, more polluting) power plant with another power plant (new, less polluting) at an existing site. Utah’s Intermountain Power Project is a great example. IPP is a large, 1980s-vintage, coal-fired plant designed to provide reliable and affordable baseload electricity for LADWP, numerous smaller municipal utilities in Southern California like BWP, and a variety of Utah utilities. It has served that purpose well but, as a coal-fired plant, is environmentally challenged. Its days are numbered.
Why repower? IPP sits at the top of a big direct-current transmission line that brings electricity from the Utah desert to the electricity-hungry LA Basin. Unlike more common alternating-current lines, DC is more efficient over long distances but requires reliable “rotating mass” from a conventional power plant to operate. (This rules out batteries.) Fortunately, that’s only a portion of the line’s capacity. The rest can carry the area’s abundant solar, wind, and geothermal resources. Bingo: a renewable energy superhighway from a renewable energy hub to renewable energy-hungry Southern California.
But that doesn’t mean “same old, same old” for the repowering itself: quite the contrary. We are repowering IPP as a world-leading, green-hydrogen co-fired plant, using excess renewables to make GHG-free (or “green”) hydrogen. It’s not a sure-thing (innovation never is) but we’re planning 30% green hydrogen/70% natural gas when the new power plant comes online in 2025, increasing to 100% green hydrogen consistent with technology advancements and clean energy goals. Voila: Reliable, GHG-free rotating mass to drive large amounts of renewables to Southern California.
You guessed it: another big win, optimizing reliability, affordability, and sustainability.
The electricity industry will change more in the next decade than it has in the last century. That means lots of “new”: a neophile’s delight. At the same time, many legacy assets can be reduced, repurposed, and repowered for a progressive, cost-effective role too. That’s critically important: single-minded neophilia underestimates the need for reliable and affordable electricity in the fight against climate change. The right balance will get us there. Let’s get to work.
Lincoln Bleveans is a 25-year veteran of the global electric power industry. He is currently an executive at a progressive, vertically integrated municipal electric and water utility in Southern California. He is a frequent speaker and writer on energy, sustainability, resilience, and leadership and tweets regularly @bleveans. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, or other group or individual.
[i] https://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/newness-factor-weighs-brain/story?id=5243894. Italics added for emphasis.
[iii] For more on BWP’s power supply, please see our 2019 Integrated Resource Plan. https://www.burbankwaterandpower.com/images/administrative/downloads/CityCouncilApproved_2019_Integrated_Resource_Plan_DIGITAL.pdf.