Flip the Old Energy Model Upside Down

It’s almost hard to imagine. Mankind has had access to electricity for only 130 years. In just over a century, we have extended transmission lines, light bulbs and refrigeration to nearly 5 billion people around the world. This extraordinary feat has elevated three-quarters of humanity out of the daily toil experienced by our pre-Edison generations. Still 25% of humanity lives without access to electrical services – spending their days in labor, fetching water and wood, preparing food and farming simply to survive. In the past four decades alone, we’ve landed a man on the moon and launched satellites to explore the universe. How large a task, given our technology, to electrify the rest of humanity?

It is ironic that the very choices we have made to achieve our unprecedented prosperity may also bring about our downfall. In 1950, there were only 2.5 billion people and a global economy of $7 trillion. Today, we have 6.6 billion people and a $66 trillion gross world product. Burning fossil fuels in the first half of the 20th century at that time had a relatively small ecological footprint. However, today’s impacts are felt markedly on every continent, coastline and in our commonly shared atmosphere. The old energy model – based on a hierarchy of choices — to this day prevails in many utility boardrooms and national capitals. The priority has been something like this (percentages are of global electricity mix):

Build large hydropower dams (16%), coal-fired (40%) or nuclear (16%) power plants. Defined as centralized plants, their power was fed into regional transmission grids. The voltage was then stepped down into distribution lines which delivered electricity to our cities and industries. As the demand for energy increased because of economic and population growth, the answer has usually been to build more of the same.

With the development of the jet engine for air transport, the power industry found a quicker and cleaner way to generate power. Consequently, natural gas (20%) became the fuel of choice for new power plants that could be sited and on-line within months instead of years. A few oil-rich nations still burn petroleum (7%) to keep the lights on.

Considered last priority were the renewables: solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, small hydro and ocean energies (wave, currents, tides, and ocean thermal energy conversion). Called “alternative resources” by utilities, these resources have been marginalized for a variety of reasons. Utilities argued that renewables were intermittent, diffused, remote and insufficient to meet demands of our modern society.

Almost as an afterthought, energy efficiency and conservation were given lip service. Energy efficiency is about using better, smarter technology: i.e. getting more output from a power plant while using less fuel or having washing machines and refrigerators that use half the energy. Conservation of energy requires that people turn off the lights and their computer monitor and was dismissed as a ‘personal virtue but not an energy plan.’

But the world has now changed. Our addiction to fossil fuels for both power and transportation is increasing CO2 levels at unprecedented rates. It seems certain that a ‘market price per ton of carbon’ will soon be enacted and will dramatically alter the cost equation for all fossil fuel producers and consumers. We now realize that the energy system we built over the 20th century may now also cause tremendous disruptions in the 21st century.

A new energy paradigm is required, one that flips the old energy paradigm upside down. We propose that policy-makers, utilities and ratepayers analyze energy choices in the following priority order:

Conservation first: The watt that you don’t need to generate is the cheapest and cleanest energy of all. Conservation is a habit that each of us can embrace. By recycling, turning off the lights and turning down the thermostat, or taking the bus or metro, we can collectively reduce the need for that next power plant. During times of utility crisis, consumers have responded with 10-20% cuts in use. We do know how to conserve — and it requires constant education.

Energy efficiency next: This means doing more with less. Increasing the efficiency of a power plant means more power using less fuel, or more miles per gallon for an automobile. Continuous improvement in technology enables us to get the same amount of work while using less energy, materials and/or time. Entirely new businesses are created by increasing energy efficiency, for example, IGCC turbines, compact fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid cars, energy star appliances and automatic light sensors.

Then we get to new power generation. In this new priority model, the renewable energies get primary focus. In the past few years, renewables have become mainstream — providing cost-competitive, secure and reliable power into utility grids. Today, five nations meet almost all their electrical needs from renewables: Brazil, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway. These nations use primarily large hydro, whose benefits also include agricultural irrigation, municipal drinking water, recreation and flood control.

Denmark, Germany, Spain, Japan, India and the US are now incorporating utility-scale wind, solar and geothermal power. A little known fact: using just 4% of the world’s deserts, there is sufficient solar radiation to power all the electrical needs of the world! In addition, the winds of the American plains could supply all the needs of the United States. Renewable resources maps clearly reveal an abundance of clean energy potential on every continent.

It is critical to understand that renewable energy at this scale requires the transmission grid to get this power to market. The grid acts as the freeway for electrons. Some of the optimal solar, wind and geothermal sites are in remote locations, even neighboring nations, and requires transmission access to deliver this clean energy for our daily use.

Last in line are the fossil fuels and nuclear. Natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel. Compared to burning coal, natural gas emits just 25% of the carbon dioxide and releases no nitrous and sulfur oxides or particulate matter. In the context of climate change, natural gas beats coal hands down. In fact, many climate scientists assert that no new coal fired plants should be built unless the carbon dioxide can be sequestered.

There are currently 430 nuclear power plants around the world. Each one has a stockpile of radioactive waste that is deadly to humans for 25,000+ years (half-life of waste fuel). Construction, facility protection, decommissioning, waste storage costs — all are higher than all other options . . . and all nuclear plants are essentially high-tech ways to boil water to generate steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity.

We now have more elegant, sophisticated and cleaner ways to generate and deliver electricity to our society going forward. Remaining addicted to fossil fuels is damaging to our environment and bad long term policy. It is unsustainable. Aggressive policies that encourage conservation, energy efficiency and linking renewable resources are the new priorities. Flipping our energy choices upside down will drive innovation and investment towards a de-carbonized future . . . and just makes sense.