Are We There Yet?

We are supposed to be in an energy transition, to zero-carbon generation. Are we?

It’s hard, contemporaneously, to pinpoint the moment of a fundamental technological transition. Maybe it’s the day that Grandma dumps her landline for a cellphone.

But signs of a climate stabilization Rubicon? Maybe it’s the day that car dealers stop quoting MPG, miles per gallon, and start quoting GPM, Grams per Mile, measuring carbon dioxide emissions as a function of distance. Maybe it’s when the fuel pumps at tens of thousands of corner gas stations in the United States are ripped out, and replaced with fast-growing trees, to soak up ambient carbon dioxide.

There’s a good case to be made that our transition hasn’t started yet, that it will be a passing idea, like the Y2K bug or killer bees. Not every moment that seems historic at the time turns into a watershed moment, at least not promptly. The youngest of the astronauts who walked on the Moon are in their late 80s now; there could be none surviving by the time we go back.

And then, there are the signs that we are not turning a corner on cleaning up the energy system.

In 2023, the United States produced 2,505,249 million kilowatt-hours of electricity from burning fossil fuels, which was 3.1 percent more than the 2,429,732 million kilowatt-hours produced that way in 2000. In other words, renewable energy is growing but fossil energy is growing too, because it’s meeting new electricity demand, and because some nuclear plants have closed.

Optimists point out that more of the fossil fuel is methane, and less is coal, but in the transition, we’ve locked in capital investments in gas that will be only middle-aged by mid-century, when the goal is for reaching zero carbon. And natural gas isn’t carbon-free by a long shot, especially the way we’ve handled it lately. This country now has vast facilities for converting natural gas to a liquid and shipping it to Europe, to make up for Russian pipeline gas, but pipeline gas and LNG aren’t equivalent. The carbon emissions needed to liquefy the gas and ship it across the ocean, and then re-boil it into gas, reduce whatever carbon advantage that fossil gas has over coal.

The problem is much broader than electricity. As we supposedly transition away from oil and gas, U.S. production of crude is well over 13 million barrels per day, at a record high.

When global climate change first rose as a very public national issue, in the mid-1980s, U.S. production was in the range of 9 million barrels per day. At the turn of the 21stcentury, it was under 6 million barrels per day.

Even the threat of war-related price shocks (which are a mechanism for reducing consumption) seems to have receded despite one of the bloodiest Arab-Israeli conflicts that the Middle East has seen in decades, and the Houthi Movement trying to bottle up the Red Sea.

The United States is better off meeting its oil need with domestic production, rather than importing it, but if we were actually in an energy transition, consumption would be falling. The U.S. today consumes over 20 million barrels per day, up from 16 million barrels per day in 1985 and on par with the 20 million consumed per day in 2000.

Globally, the situation is worse. Coal use was at an all-time high, according to the International Energy Agency, and up 1.4 percent in 2023. It is declining in the United States and western Europe but rising in less-developed economies. The agency predicts that coal will see a global decline of 2.3 percent by 2026, largely due to growing renewable energy production in China. But China has had difficulty building renewable capacity and incorporating it into its national grid.

Global carbon dioxide emissions hit record levels in 2022 and almost certainly set a new record in 2023. Clear signals that we are in a transition would be a drumbeat of headlines about new reactors, new offshore wind farms and perhaps new large battery storage installations. Or maybe even better, entering an era when those things cease to be important enough to mention. Instead, lately we see cancellations.

Confusing Signs

There are lots of crosscurrents. Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, and two years later, the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility consortium, estimated that globally, power systems would have to add two new 250-megawatt power plants, running around the clock, to keep them charged. Some iPads might displace desktop computers, which would have used more energy, but many of the new devices were certain to simply be additional sources of load.

And overall, tracing electric load may be a poor way to track the drive for climate stability, because rising consumption could be a sign of progress. For example, if we could get 100 million electric cars on American roads in the next few years, each running 10,000 miles a year, they’d consume 400 million megawatt-hours, bumping up national consumption by about 10 percent, which sounds bad. But this would imply a substantial cut in carbon emissions compared to gasoline cars. The magnitude of the cut would depend largely on how much carbon-free energy we can add to the generating system.

And that is highly uncertain. In April of last year, California began to feel the effects of technical limits to how much solar its system could tolerate. The Public Utility Commission, reacting to distortions in how ratepayers of different income groups bore the burden of electricity costs, cut the compensation that the owners of rooftop panels receive for putting their surpluses back on the grid. If the PUC had not acted for that reason, it probably would have been forced into action by the growing mid-day surpluses. In either case, depending on who was counting, applications for new rooftop solar systems dropped between two-thirds and 85 percent.

Other states will eventually face the same limits. Another sign of the times is when solar system salespeople chase customers down the aisles of Costco and Home Depot, and their ads choke your Facebook feed; the early-adopter market is saturated.

There are some stumbles on the clean consumption side too. Estimates of growth in the electric car market are much more modest lately. Hertz said it was selling off one-third of its electric cars and going back to gasoline models, because the electrics cost more to repair after an accident. In the recent Midwest cold snap, drivers were reminded that while the passenger space in gasoline cars is kept toasty by waste heat, in an electric, that energy is subtracted from driving range, and that even without that problem, cold batteries do not deliver current as well as warm batteries. These are questions that will give pause to car shoppers for a long time to come.

There are slowdowns elsewhere. Wind has room to grow, but faces long delays, partly because of constraints on transmission. And the amount of wind that the system can absorb is limited by its surges. Worse, peak wind is at night, a time when demand is low.

States on the Atlantic coast are pinning their hopes on offshore wind, partly because its production is more predictable, and tends to come at sunrise and sunset when differential heating and cooling of the atmosphere over the land and the ocean produces breezes. Sunset is a peak demand time, and, lately, a time when supply declines because solar drops off the grid. This would be the first time that the production from variable renewable sources synchronizes, at least in part, with demand. People planning offshore wind projects have the sense to realize that time of production may be just as important as quantity, a fact that promoters of solar panels do not realize, or at least do not choose to acknowledge.

But offshore wind isn’t looking too healthy right now either. Ørsted, the world’s largest offshore developer, has cancelled Ocean Wind 1 and 2, with a total of 2,248 megawatts of capacity. That is about as much capacity as a large twin-unit nuclear reactor plant, but would probably produce only about half as much energy, because the wind does not blow hard enough to make that much energy very often. The company cited “macroeconomic trends,” including rising prices for inputs like steel, supply chain problems, and higher interest rates.

New York cancelled two big offshore projects totaling nearly 2,000 megawatts because the sponsors planned to use a turbine that the manufacturer, facing tough economics and steep development costs, decided not to offer.

There will be a premium for wind, compared to current electricity prices. Joe Kaeser, chairman of Siemens Energy, said it was a “fairy tale” that net zero would come for free. He was speaking of Europe, where base prices are considerably higher because there is no shale gas boom. “We need to have more honesty about the cost of sustainability,” he told CNBC at Davos recently. “We need to be honest about what it actually is; if you want to be green, this is at a cost.”

The Nuclear Prospect

Meanwhile the first-to-be-licensed small modular reactor, NuScale Power’s cluster of reactor modules, immersed in water so that they would need no electricity, no extra cooling water, and no operator action in an emergency, hit a stumbling block when the lead customer, a consortium of public power agencies in the Western United States, said it could not find enough member agencies to fully subscribe the project. To people concerned about clean energy, the design was a thing of beauty. To the managers of small utilities who think their customers will have trouble paying a penny more than necessary, it was evidently an extravagance.

These trends are important. It’s not because the United States is the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter (it isn’t; it lost that title to China in 2006, as this country moved more and more to import carbon-intensive steel and other goods, rather than manufacture them here). It’s because the technologies and industries needed to decarbonize the world will probably be demonstrated here first. Then they will be adopted worldwide, not so much because they are mandated, but because they will be recognized as better than the older alternatives that they will replace.

That principle has been around for decades. As Ahmed Zaki Yamani, oil minister of Saudi Arabia from 1962 to 1986, is reputed to have said, “The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” (Although he may have cribbed the line from Don Huberts, head of a division of Shell Oil that was advancing hydrogen energy.)

The status of our transition to an emissions-free economy recalls the old comedy routine in which Noah, hammering and sawing at the ark in his driveway, is asked by a neighbor what’s going on. But Noah, who isn’t supposed to say, is circumspect. He replies, “How long can you tread water?”

The 20th Birthday of a Roadmap to Stability

This is a good moment to look at how we’ve been treading water, for at least 20 years. In August, 2004, when a line in a chart that traced emission reductions would have needed only a gentle slope to get us to zero by mid-century, two Princeton University researchers, Stephen Pacala and Robert H. Socolow published a paper that described the path to saving the climate, and dissected the problem into the equivalent of a pie chart. The chart had fifteen “wedges,” off-the-shelf strategies in different parts of the economy that would, in combination, get us flat emissions for fifty years, despite growing population and economic activity.

The “wedge” idea is now so firmly embedded in modeling climate solutions that a July, 2018 paper published by the National Academy of Sciences, examining the early retirement of some reactors during a slump in natural gas prices, was called “U.S. Nuclear Power: The vanishing low-carbon wedge.”

The wedges wouldn’t cure everything, the Princeton researchers said, but natural uptake of carbon dioxide into the oceans would take care of the rest.

Leaving aside whether that last point was correct, it’s worth looking at how many of those wedges we’ve put into practice, twenty years later.

Increase fuel economy for 2 billion cars to 60 mpg: very modest progress. Hybridization has created some 50 MPG Prius models, and raised the fuel economy of a lot of bigger cars by five or 10 MPG. Electric cars, not on Pacala and Socolow’s list, would represent progress toward the same goal if market penetration rose.

Decrease car travel for 2 billion 30-mpg cars from 10,000 miles to 5,000 miles per year: Very little progress. Young people in America have lower rates of car ownership, but they still have substantial car travel, through ride-sharing. (Also not on Pacala and Socolow’s list).

Capture CO2 at a Hydrogen plant: Still waiting.

Capture CO2 at a coal-to-synfuels plant: An idea rendered less attractive by persistently low oil prices.

Geological storage of CO2: Still a stumbling block for U.S. power plants, even if the other obstacles disappeared.

Nuclear power for coal power: Still a bright, shining idea.

Wind power for coal power, multiplying current capacity by 50: Modest progress. The U.S. grids have seen a growth in megawatt-hours generated, but it has become obvious that this can never be more than a partial substitution

PV power for coal power, multiplying capacity by 700: Ditto

Wind hydrogen in fuel-cell cars to replace gasoline in hybrid cars: Hydrogen and fuel cells nearly rank with fusion as being the miracle source that will be available in, well, the future.

Reduced deforestation, plus reforestation, afforestation, and new plantations: The idea persists, with a healthy market for “carbon offsets.” The market for carbon credit fraud is healthy, too.

Conservation tillage: Recent studies have cast doubt on how much good this would do.

This list was developed in the era of nickel-cadmium batteries. It does not consider batteries that can economically store carbon-free energy to replace fossil fuels in highway and stationary use. Progress has been small to moderate.

But the world’s grade on implementing these wedges: somewhere between C-minus and the-dog-ate-my-homework.

How Will We Meet Growth?

All of this is particularly troublesome because a window is opening for introducing more clean energy. Grid Strategies, a consulting firm that works mostly with wind companies, looked over the forecasts of grid planning agencies in ten regions, and concluded that, collectively, they are forecasting a 2028 peak demand of 852 gigawatts. Last year the same agencies were predicting only 835 gigawatts for the same year.

One measure of the transition will be how the higher peak is met. Solar is unlikely to help a lot, since in most areas, peak is around sunset in the summer. In others, it’s late at night or early morning in the winter, another poor time for solar. On-shore wind is not a great asset for meeting peak demand. Offshore wind is helpful for demand around sunrise and sunset, but its prospects are uncertain.

The power industry’s quick, cheap, default solution is fossil gas, but that commits us to years of carbon emissions. The cleaner approach is advanced nuclear.

The energy transition is something of a Potemkin Village, an impressive façade. Take, for example, Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, DC. Energy companies love airports, because they have lots of unused land, and if you need permits or leases, you’re dealing with only a single landlord. And airports love the extra revenue from spaces they can’t use for anything else.

In August, 2023, local executives and business leaders gathered at Dulles for a groundbreaking on an 835-acre solar project. The project has several virtues. It’s one of the few uses of a lot of space that is compatible with planes taking off and landing, because it’s low to the ground. And, of course, it’s highly visible; in fact, it’s hard to miss 200,000 solar panels spread over an area larger than 600 football fields. This gives the impression that Dulles is contributing to the conversion. Collectively, they will produce about 175,000 megawatt-hours of electricity a year.

But it’s dwarfed by another energy project at an airport; at Pittsburgh International, drillers have fracked under the runways and the terminal. Production there is running under the initial estimates, partly because the price of natural gas is down a bit from early projections, but in 2022, production was running around 8.54 million MCF, or thousand cubic feet, a year, enough to make about four times as much electricity as Dulles can. And that electricity is more valuable, because its production can be scheduled by grid managers.

The solar project at Dulles is news. The demise of the Carbon-Free Power Project, NuScale’s inaugural installation in Idaho for a group of western municipal power organizations, was big news. Hertz scaling back on its Tesla fleet was a moderately interesting news item.

The transition will be fully underway when the rig count, the number of machines in service for drilling new oil wells, shows consistent declines, or when a factory, a utility or an industrial park orders a new reactor, and it isn’t newsworthy.

The transition isn’t demonstrated by an announcement of the largest ever renewable project at an airport, when even among energy projects at airports, itself a rather obscure topic, the carbon-based work dwarfs the carbon-free work.

Maybe the day to celebrate is when old equipment that burns fossil fuels starts showing up on eBay like typewriters do now.