January 24, 2013
Richter: Energy in Three Dimensions
"Energy Innovation 2010" keynote presentation delivered by Nobel laureate physicist Dr. Burton Richter on December 15, 2010.
(Richter's Keynote begins at 5:56 in the video below)
I have been asked by the organizers to be provocative at this discussion of energy innovation - the more provocative the better, I was told. So far, the talks have focused on the need for innovation to get the technologies of the future developed and deployed so that the issue of climate change can be effectively addressed. We all know that the country is not getting the action on the Federal front that the issue warrants, and thinking about how we might do better leads me to three questions.
1. Have we focused so exclusively on climate change as a justification for action on energy that we have excluded potential allies?
2. Have we emphasized ultra-green technologies that are not yet ready for the big time, and so had our desire for the perfect drive out the available good?
3. Have we pushed policies that are so narrowly targeted as to prevent much larger and less costly emissions reductions to be made in the nearer term than have been made with the renewables?
My answer to all three questions is yes.
Look first at the gridlock in Washington where we have:
Deniers - who believe it is all a conspiracy of some kind; they are not like to be convinced by environmental arguments
- Skeptics who think the climate issue is exaggerated and say the world will not come to an end tomorrow even if we don't run everything on wind and solar, and besides, there are all those others (China?), and they are not entirely wrong. (Remember, Waxman-Markey almost did not make it out of the House despite the Democrats big majority and if you can't convince your friends, you will have a very hard time convincing your enemies.)
Can We Broaden the Approach?
The energy debate so far has been almost entirely one-dimensional, focused only on climate change. But the systems that need to be changed to do something about global warming impact all dimensions of our society: our economy, our national security, and our environment (and environmental issues include more than just global warming). We will have an easier time getting around the blocks to energy action by working in all three dimensions where we may find allies ready for action, though their reasons may be different from those driven by concern about climate change.
Here are some things to think about:
Imported oil costs us about $400 billion per year - close to our balance of trade deficit. It would be very good for our economy to reduce our balance of trade deficit.
A 35-mpg standard in a single fuel vehicle will reduce our balance of trade deficit about $100 billion per year; 50-mpg saves about $200 b/y; an all-electric light vehicle fleet saves it all.
Might we have more influence in the Middle-East and other areas if we did not need their oil?
The military uses hundreds of gallons of fuel to get one gallon of fuel to the front; efficiency is good for national security.
- The Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard have said they will be customers for drop-in biofuels; a promise that says there is a market and so stimulates investment.
The one-dimensional focus of the energy debate on climate change has led to stalemate. A multi-dimensional approach might pick up support and lead to action.
All is not gloom, however - there is a fourth dimension with lots of good news. The states and industry are moving ahead even if Washington is not.
The Excelon Corporation plans to spend $5 billion in the next six years on efficiency and on increasing output of its nuclear power plants.
No new coal plants have been started this year because natural gas prices are so low.
NASA has let two contracts for airplane concepts that might cut fuel consumption in half (Lockheed-Martin & Northrop-Grumman).
California soundly defeated the ballot proposition that would have suspended its greenhouse gas reduction program.
Most of the counties that voted Republican in the CA senatorial campaign also voted against the proposition.
- Women voted 2 to 1 against it (good); males about even (not so good)
The states are coming together to do regionally things that Washington is unwilling to do nationally. There are now three regional compacts on reducing greenhouse gas emissions:
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative includes ten North Eastern and Mid-Atlantic states and has a cap-and-trade system
The Mid-West Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord includes six states and one Canadian Province
- The Western Climate Initiative includes seven states and four Provinces
Do not despair, but get on with a multi-dimensional approach to efficiency and energy change. There are many in government who may not accept a global warming argument, but who can be persuaded by an economic or security argument. Voters in the states are sending a message that may take time to get through, but get through it will, especially if we help push it.
It is easy to forget how long it takes a new energy technology to mature and become cost effective at scale and how much longer it takes to make a major penetration into the national infrastructure (the most recent PCAST report says 50 years).
We are pushing too hard on what is not ready and not hard enough on what is ready. For example, a recent study by NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) on integrating 35 percent of electricity delivery by wind and solar over the entire Great Plains and the West, half of the U.S., concluded that it could be done, but the system could not be made stable without having 100 percent of wind and solar capacity as an available backup. Why? Because sometimes there are periods of days when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine, and we cannot afford blackouts of long duration.
The backup is expensive and its cost is never factored into the cost of wind energy. A large amount of wind and solar also requires a major upgrade of the long-range high-power transmission grid, and approval of a large power line takes even longer than that for a new nuclear reactor.
When large-scale energy storage systems become available, and when part of the environmental movement will stop suing to block the transmission lines that other parts of the environmental movement want to distribute renewable electricity, perhaps wind and solar can reach the scale being promoted. Meanwhile, up to 10 to 15 percent of demand is all that can be reasonably done.
We cannot seem to stop doing things that make no sense at all. Hydrogen for transportation is an example. This is a waste of time and the program should be abandoned or sent back to the laboratory for the development of better catalysts and more efficient end-to-end systems. It makes no sense to use energy to produce hydrogen, distribute the hydrogen by an entirely new system, and put it into cars to be used by a fuel cell to produce electricity, when we can much more efficiently distribute the electricity and put it into batteries.
Many of the renewable energy systems being promoted may eventually reach full scale, but they are not ready for the big time now. On the other hand, natural gas has become cheap with the new ability to exploit shale gas. A modern gas plant emits one-third of the greenhouse gases of an average coal plant (efficiency and chemistry). Changing all the coal-fired power plants in the country to modern natural gas plants would eliminate 1.4 billion tons of CO2 emissions annually, a quarter of our total emissions.
California's Million Solar Roofs project is to install 2 to 3 gigawatts of PV (photo-voltaic) capacity at a cost of 10 - 20 billion dollars. For 15 percent of the cost you could eliminate twice as much greenhouse gas by converting the Four Corners 2 GWe coal-fired power plant to natural gas. Even if PV were down to one dollar per watt, the coal-to-gas conversion would still eliminate more greenhouse gases for the same cost. Alternatively, you could build two nuclear power plants for the same money and eliminate five times the emissions.
Why not include in things that get credit for emission reduction those that are cheap, effective, and scalable now including efficiency, natural gas, and nuclear power? All those included now are solar, wind, geothermal, and small hydro. Are we trying to promote the Chinese PV and wind-turbine industries, or are we trying to reduce emissions?
As I said at the beginning, Washington gridlock has prevented any progress on sensible energy policy. There are four recent reports on how to proceed:
The National Academy of Sciences has re-issued its "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report first issued in 2005. It emphasizes education and innovation and says spend more money. I agree, but it said it before, it did not happen then and is unlikely to happen now.
- PCAST (President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) issued a report two weeks ago that says spend more money and base what you spend on a quadrennial energy review like the DOD's quadrennial defense review. If you are thrilled at the weapons and policies coming from the DOD reviews, you might like this.
The next two are more interesting:
The American Energy Innovation Council whose board has well known CEOs and retired CEOs, such as Immelt of GE, Gates of Microsoft, and Augustine of Lockheed-Martin among others, may have more impact. Its report, "A Business Plan for America's Energy Future", discusses the multidimensional energy challenge we face and recommends a new national strategy board made up of non-governmental people, a $16 billion per year innovation fund, and a better defined role for the federal government. It won't happen soon because of the money, but the CEOs of the Innovation Council should be influential and it has some interesting ideas.
The most unusual is the tri-partite report, "Post-Partisan Power" (I love the title and wish I had thought of it first). It is from the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings, and a new West Coast player, the Breakthrough Institute.
It says invest in education, overhaul the energy innovation system, reform subsidies, and do it all with subsidy savings, small fees here and there, and not adding to the deficit. Anytime Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute are on the cover of one report, it gets attention.
I don't think we will see a national cap-and-trade bill or a carbon tax until the politics is clarified by the 2012 election, if then. But we do not need them to begin to make large-scale progress. Tell industry what we want, not how to do it.
Justify programs in as many dimensions as are appropriate. A further increase in the automobile MPG (miles per gallon) standard can be justified on economic and national security grounds, as well as on environmental ones. The technology already exists with diesels or direct injection gasoline engines. The APS efficiency study I led said 50 mpg was no real problem for single fuel vehicles by early in the 2020s. If all cars were that way now, our trade deficit would be reduced by $200 billion. Do it!
Reject Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), and go instead for Emission Reduction Standards (ERS). Since natural gas is better than coal today and cheaper, it should be encouraged. RPS focus on a technology, rather than a goal, and the only allowable ones are wind, solar, geothermal, and small hydroelectric power. Government, and forgive me for saying so, environmentalists, are better off focusing on the goals and not how to reach them.
Tell the electric power industry to reduce emissions by some percentage by some date and then get out of the way. Changing all the coal power plants to gas power plants cuts CO2 emissions by 1.5 billion tons, a quarter of U.S. emissions. We will need solar and wind eventually so they need support, but not at the expense of limiting cost effective action today.
Don't be too-clever-by-half, as the Brits say. One "too clever" regulation is California's low carbon fuel standard. It requires that you count all the carbon in a mega-joule of each fuel, including the energy and emissions that go with making the fuel, and then reduce that amount by 10 percent by 2020. There are smart people who love this. It was adopted by California in April 2009; As of Jan 2010 eleven states were prepared to follow. The theory is that it forces emissions included in fuel production to be counted so, for example, if you use more oil from Canadian tar sands to make your gasoline, your carbon score goes up. But, emissions depend on both fuel and efficiency. I can do better by working the efficiency side: a diesel will reduce emissions by about 20 percent compared to a gasoline engine; a hybrid will reduce it by 50 percent. So why waste effort and money on the fuel side? Once again, say what you want done and get out of the way.
My last question for now is can environmental organizations, scientific organizations, business organizations, and policy organizations put together a coherent message that brings in as many allies as possible, starts large-scale action with things scalable and affordable today, and encourages the innovation we will need for tomorrow?
It will not be easy, but it is the only way we will turn things around.