Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Renewable Energy-Only One Piece Of The Puzzle

The other day I was attempting to help my 5 year old assemble a puzzle.  I suggested to him that it might be easier to start with pieces that have smooth edges and to work from the outside in.  As he is prone to do, he ignored me and promptly began force fitting pieces into places where they were not going to fit without the help of a sharp instrument.

It occurs to me that our society takes a similar approach when it attempts to tackle complicated puzzles like the energy puzzle facing the nation now.  Too often we approach the problem with our minds already made up as to the correct solution and we nudge and coax and eventually argue the pieces of the puzzle into place--usually with the same outcome as 5 year old Harrison who after repeated failed attempts to get a meaningful picture gives up in frustrated disgust!

There is a better way.  It starts with asking questions to identify the framework of the problem.  It proceeds with fact based discussion of possible solutions, examining their effects and likely outcomes--finding the edges that fit together.  It culminates in a coherent picture, one in which all the parts fit together without the benefit of having parts and pieces lopped off or distorted.

I attempted to make a similar point in a speech to the faculty, staff, and students at Farleigh Dickinson University this past spring on the occassion of FDU's Green Day.  That speech is posted below in the hopes that it will help us find "the smooth edges" so we can start to piece together this puzzle.

Farleigh Dickinson University's Green Day,  April 20, 2009
By Stephen E Morgan

Good afternoon and thank you to President Adams, the faculty and students at FDU for inviting me here today.

No doubt some in the audience are wondering why in the world your key note address is coming from someone who has spent his entire professional career in the electric energy delivery business.  After all, we are here today to celebrate Green Day- a day intended to commemorate FDU's venture into environmental sustainability.

Well, if you will indulge me, I will attempt to answer that question and perhaps raise, if not answer, others as well.

I became an electrical engineer decades ago, because after spending a few years in very undeveloped parts of the world, it seemed to me that the standard of living we have come to enjoy today is very much the result of ready-access to energy.  I believed then, and still do today, that much of the misery and poverty that exists in this world are exacerbated, if not caused, by lack of such access to energy.  One sure way to improve the quality of life around the globe will be the mechanization and electrification that our way of life has benefited from.

The problem with traditional energy supplies is that they generally do not exist in sufficient quantity and in suitable form where we need them to do work.  In fact, I prefer to think of all traditional energy sources as energy storage and transport mechanisms.  Adopting this view opens a window on a slightly different conversation than our society is having today.

First, we should recognize that all sources of energy on this planet are solar - the only original source of energy available to us - our sun, or someone else's.  When we think in these terms, it is easy to expand the list of energy storage and transport mechanisms to include direct solar radiation, wind and water - in all its forms - as well as the ones we traditionally consider.

Despite the rhetoric and the popular notions, each of these energy storage and transport mechanisms has problems - bar none.  The most obvious problems are those of environmental degradation, location, intermittency and physical hazards, just to name a few.  Our efforts, as responsible engineers, scientists, business people and yes, as consumers, need to be focused on finding ways to utilize the energy available to us in ways that mitigate or eliminate these problems.  That we have not up to this point is not surprising, since we have evolved into these problems from a very narrow perspective - immediate human survival.  Remember that very little has changed from the time the first human being discovered fire - except that we have found new things to burn and we burn a whole lot more of it!  At least until recently, the short term benefits of these energy sources have appeared to overwhelm the long term risks and costs.

In his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman writes that the convergence of climate change, rapid population growth and a world-wide emerging middle class are conspiring to make our world dangerously unstable - both biologically as well as geopolitically.1  He suggests and I quote, that, "if we want things to stay as they are – then things are going to have to change around here, and fast."  Meaning, if we want to protect our standard of living, in fact, our way of life in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development) nations then we need to solve the problem of energy supply for the entire world.

While I think there is ample room for debate as to how we find ourselves in this predicament, his larger thesis - one I think we can all agree on - is that we are here now and to get past these problems we need an honest, fact-based discussion focused on identifying and solving problems.  Rhetoric, even well intentioned principled rhetoric, will not get us there.  And we have to start with a robust definition of "the problem".

In the book, Friedman asserts that part of the challenge we are likely to face is driven by energy scarcity.  Lets be clear - there is more energy available than our existing and projected populations - even at l0B people can ever use.  Total annual average incident solar radiation on the planet is 1.7 x 10 14 kW -that's about 10,000 times the total energy consumed by all human activities in 1990 2.

This makes sense, of course, when we realize that all we are doing, each day, is using the solar energy that has been stored for us over geologic time - and creating problems in the process!  The problem is not scarcity of energy, rather it is scarcity of energy in a form and at a location where it can be used to light, warm or cool our artificial environments, or do our physical work, without changing our closed biosphere.  I make this distinction because I believe that essential to effective problem solving is clear identification of the problem - otherwise we risk unintended consequences in arriving at solutions.  For example, there are people including Friedman who believe that we consume too much energy and that is "the problem".  According to International Energy Agency (IEA) data, on a per capita basis, the US consumes almost twice the energy of most industrialized nations and as much as 8 times the per capita consumption in developing nations 3.  Why? Because it's cheap!  On average, our cost for energy, in all forms, is one half to one third of what customers pay in the OECD nations 4.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (US EIA), the CPI adjusted price of electrical energy was the same as it was in 1960-nearly 50 years ago!During this period, consumption has grown nearly 10 fold, on average, and even more importantly, to people like me who operate electrical systems, the coincident demand has grown even faster.

The good news is that the growth rate in total energy consumption for the developed countries has actually been negative: -2.6 percent over the last 15 year period, while US consumption grew a modest 2.4 percent during that same period6.  Electrical energy consumption grew at a more modest 1.5 percent per year national average, far from startling and correlates to the general growth of the economy over that period of time.

Back to my question. Is consumption really "the problem" or is the problem the way we go about getting energy out of storage and to where we want and need it, that is the problem to be solved?

If we want to reduce consumption, there are relatively straightforward solutions.  Obviously, increasing the price as the other OEDC nations have done could work.  It worked for them and didn't crash or burn their economies over the post 1973 oil embargo period.  But that's not the reality we deal with. A recent survey of NJ residents, by the Rutgers Climate and Social Policy Initiative, led by Dr Martin Bunzl, suggests that even though nearly 85 percent of people surveyed believe that government intervention should be utilized to address climate change, half of that support disappears if their utility bill would increase by 20 percent.7

This implies that we want cheap energy and we want the right to waste it - but we don't want anyone else to do so.  The practical implication of Dr Bunzl's research suggests price is not going to be an effective driver to reduce consumption or demand sufficiently to make real progress.

Let's go back to my original thesis.  There is plenty of energy available and will continue to be so long as the sun shines.  It's just in the wrong place and in forms that require conversion - and the conversion and transportation processes impose problems in our biosphere.  Why haven't we identified new forms and new conversion processes that avoid these difficulties?

The answer again is price.  Our current appetite for cheap energy, quite apart from the damage and waste it creates, has made the development and deployment of new technologies, processes and mechanisms of transport and storage, uneconomic.  Couple that with a desire to prevent any more traditional Infrastructure from being built in "MY BACKYARD" and you can see we are in a stalemate.

Some have argued, naively, that all we need to do is find a way to utilize direct solar, wind and other more seemingly environmentally benign sources of energy and that will solve all of our problems.  In fact, maybe you saw the rhetorical exchange between Secretary of the Interior Salazar and Wyoming Governor Freudenthal a couple of weeks ago.  The Secretary was quoted saying that there was enough wind energy resources off the Northeast Atlantic coast to displace all of the coal fired power plants in service in the US.  The Governor said that "ain't going to happen. That potential is never going to be realized".

Who's right? They both are, but only as far as they go.  It is true that there are sufficient developable wind resources available to offset all of the fossil fueled capacity. It is not going to happen anytime soon.  Forget the issue of cost and even set aside any issues associated with environmental degradation caused by wind turbine farms.  There is an even more basic reality that will prevent large scale alternative generation from development and deployment - and that is its intermittency.

Here are the facts. The base loaded generator is called base loaded because it runs 365 days/yr 24 hours/day at relatively constant output and in the process, it creates thermal and inertial storage that enables the electric supply system to be stable.  I can tell you from personal, professional experience, that the supply and load must remain in balance at all times.  That balance is maintained REAL TIME through the inertial and thermal storage of those base loaded machines.  Each flick of a switch by a consumer- on or off - is taken up by that inertial capacity, instantaneously, at nearly the speed of light!

The wind does not blow all the time, nor does it blow with a constant velocity at any given point in space or time.  That means the generator output is continually going up and down.  In order to make such an energy supply system stable, we need to create energy storage that has the capability to respond instantaneously, at the speed of light, to changes in load or generation.  What is true about the intermittency of wind is true also for solar PV, tide, wave and other supposedly benign forms of energy.  Unless and until storage is available in significant quantities and distributed throughout the interconnected electrical system, alternatives will be limited and most assuredly will not be capable of displacing base loaded generation.  By the way, it does not need to be electrical storage - it can be kinetic or potential energy in mechanical, thermal, chemical or electrical forms.  In fact, I suspect it will evolve in all of these forms over time.  And if I were to predict the final outcome, it would look like and operate like a Hydrogen fuel cell.  That technology has been known for nearly two hundred years and the technological barriers have yet to be overcome so I, for one, am not holding my breath for the break through!

In the meantime, those who say shutdown all those other conversion processes need to understand what they are demanding.  I am not suggesting we just keep burning fossil fuels with abandon and not focus on replacing conversion processes with alternatives.  I am suggesting that those who think we can just jump to alternatives overnight do not have an adequate understanding of the physics involved or the very real operating problems involved.  In fact, I submit we may have too simple an understanding of the emerging technologies and their true impacts.

Even while we enjoy the fruits that access to relatively cheap energy brings us, we have precluded the development of new energy production, delivery and consumption technologies that promise, at least in part, to fix some of the problems we have created over the last couple hundred years.  Necessarily, we have had to turn to policy making instead of natural market forces to fix the problems and lower the barriers to new technological innovation.

We are seeing this awareness play out in our state and our country right now. New Jersey, under the leadership of Governor Corzine, has adopted an Energy Master Plan for the state that will require a 20 percent reduction in consumption and demand growth by the year 2020.  The EMP also requires that 30 percent of the sources of electrical energy be derived from renewable sources by then.  The Federal Government, under the new administration, is putting renewed focus on weaning our economy from fossil fuels, to enhance our security and to address the issues of global climate change, by suggesting more stringent controls on power production and auto emissions, for example.

Some of the improvements will need to come from mandated automotive, building and appliance energy efficiency standards; some will come from incentives, subsidies and market support for emerging technologies.  By far though, the biggest changes will have to come from us - consumers - in how and when we use energy and for what purposes.  We are starting to see that awareness in initiatives such as the Green Campus initiative at FDU and in general public awareness about sustainable growth in many sectors of the economy.

So our discussion comes full circle...  My engineering training and operational experience suggest to me that there will be no single path, no once and done solution to our energy issues.  We can and should challenge ourselves to find new creative ways that work in harmony with our environment to sustain our economy and our lifestyle, while improving the standard of living for the population of the entire planet.  While we might continue to expect to enjoy ready-access to relatively cheap sources of energy, we can not expect these changes to come without cost.

"Going Green" does not mean starting over.  It means purposeful, intentioned and thoughtful evolution to the sustainable energy storage and transport mechanisms of the future.  Our current energy sources and conversion processes will be here for a long time.  We need to remember that they enable us to move forward, by meeting current consumer demand, while we build new infrastructure, embracing renewable energy and more benign conversion processes. And we need new viable storage technologies to make that future possible.

In short, there is no energy panacea.  There are however, solutions to our problems that are well within our grasp and do not rely on esoteric sources of energy yet to be developed, but they do require an honest and fact-based discussion about what the real problems are and which solutions make the most economic sense and do the least harm to our biosphere.

It is the multifaceted, interdisciplinary approach to these questions, such as that embodied in the FDU Green Campus Initiative, which should lead us in this dialogue.

Thank you.

1Hot, Flat and Crowded. Why we need a Green Revolution and how it can renew America.
Thomas L. Friedman I
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
2Physics of The Earth and Solar System
B Bertotti and P Famella
Springer, 1990
3International Energy Agency (lEA) Statistics Division
Energy Balances of OECD countries (2008 edition),
Energy Balances of non-OECD nations (2008 edition)
4International Energy Agency (lEA) Statistics Division
5US EIA data www.doe.gov/fuelelectric
6International Energy Agency (lEA) Statistics Division.
Energy balance of OECD countries (2008 edition)
7Rutgers Climate and Social Policy Initiative
CSP climate attitudes survey• final report April 6, 2009

At the time this presentation was delivered, Mr. Morgan was the President and CEO of Jersey Central Power and Light Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corporation. JCP&L is the second largest electric utility in the state of NJ employing over 1500 people and serving 1.1M electric customers over about half of the land area in the state. The views contained in this speech are those of the author and do not purport to represent any views of FirstEnergy corporation or any of its employees.

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