The Energy Policy Act of 2008

by Richard T. Stuebi

Betcha didn’t know that there was an Energy Policy Act of 2008, did you? Well, you won’t find any bill of that name. But, the passage of last week’s appropriately titled “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008″ is almost tantamount to an energy bill.

The Senate prepared a nice summary of the energy-related provisions that were stuffed into the bill during the chaotic process to get something passed promptly that would reassure the financial markets. I have yet to review all of the provisions, but it’s clear that many of them have favorable implications for a variety of clean energy technologies, inluding wind, solar, energy efficiency, hybrid vehicles, biofuels, and smart grid.

It’s nice that there has been at least one small silver lining to the dark cloud of financial implosions in the past few weeks.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

Blackout + 5

by Richard T. Stuebi

Over the weekend, an article in The Plain-Dealer reminded me that it has been five years ago since the infamous blackout that sent much of the Northeast U.S. and Ontario into the dark for a day or two.

Once the power was restored to everyone, U.S. and Canadian authorities quickly commissioned a Power System Outage Task Force, whose April 2004 report conclusively identified the root causes of the outage: a sequence of generation and transmission outages on a hot summer day at facilities owned and operated by First Energy (NYSE: FE) in Northeast Ohio.

At the time, pundits decried that the electric utility industry must make major changes — technologically and institutionally — to bring it from an early 20th Century analog design to the requirements of the 21st Century digital economy. Installed in an era without computers and before demands for inter-regional shipments of large quantities of power, the grid had not kept pace and was showing signs of inadequacy.

Calls became increasingly vocal for the adoption of a “smart grid” that would both improve power quality and increase the economic efficiency of the grid, by facilitating the widespread adoption of faster electric transmission and distribution switching and control systems, distributed generation devices (such as fuel cells and solar photovoltaics) and demand-reduction approaches (such as demand-response programs).

Calls also escalated for greater real-time coordination between the organizations operating neighboring power grids. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has jurisdiction over high-voltage transmission in the U.S., accelerated their efforts (albeit with limited powers to do so) to encourage utilities to adopt regional transmission organizations (RTOs).

Five years on, there has been some progress — but not nearly enough. RTOs now pretty much cover the country, but by and large they remain untested under crisis conditions, so it is unclear how effective they will operate in a crunch. Distributed generation remains a rarity, as the vast majority of power supplied to the grid still comes from central-station powerplants. Smart-grid technologies have not moved far off of the drawing-board — though Xcel Energy (NYSE: XEL) has recently announced a major pilot program for Boulder, Colorado.

Will we see another major power outage in the U.S. in the next decade? I’d bet on it. Bear in mind that the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) projects declining “reserve margins” — the amount of generating capacity over and above peak demands — in most parts of the country in the coming years.

Why? Due to uncertainties about future fuel prices, powerplant construction costs, regulatory rules for recovering generation investments, and new environmental requirements (especially carbon legislation), suppliers are reluctant to add new generating capacity, as they doubt their ability to earn attractive returns on major capital outlays. Meanwhile, economic growth (with only weak emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation) is driving ever-rising demand levels.

From this, I derive a simple formula: shrinking generation reserve margins + a slow move to the smart grid = future outages.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

"A Special Report on the Future of Energy" by Mother Jones

by Richard T. Stuebi

I’ve never been a fan of the periodical Mother Jones – it’s always seemed a bit too “alternative” for me. That said, I was recently given a copy of the May/June 2008 issue – a special report on the future of energy – and was surprised by the quality and balance of the articles.

I particularly found “The Seven Myths of Energy Independence” by Paul Roberts (author of The End of Oil) to be a compelling read. To him, the seven myths are:

1. Energy Independence Is Good
2. Ethanol Will Set Us Free
3. Conservation Is a “Personal Virtue”
4. We Can Go It Alone
5. Some Geek in Silicon Valley Will Fix the Problem
6. Cut Demand and the Rest Will Follow
7. Once Bush Is Gone, Change Will Come

I think many advocates are well-advised to really reflect on #7. Bush is unquestionably the bête-noire of all things environmental, but he’s only a part of the problem – and arguably not even the biggest part. Congress and the entrenched interests completely stymie good energy/environmental policy. A new President will help, but won’t be a simple cure-all, for what ails us in the energy and environmental arenas.

Which brings me to another article in the issue: “Congress’ Top 10 Fossil Fools” by Chris Mooney, profiling the “foes and thwarters of renewable energy”. In his list, they are:

1. Senator Pete Dominici (R-NM)
2. The Southern Company (NYSE: SO)
3. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA)
4. Representative Joe Barton (R-TX)
5. Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) and “Coal-State Dems”
6. Representative John Dingell (D-MI)
7. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
8. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA)
9. Senator John Thune (R-SD)
10. Senator John McCain (R-AZ)

Probably no surprise that there are more R’s than D’s on the list, but I was really surprised at the omission of Senator James Imhofe (R-OK), and by the inclusion of McCain. Apparently, the League of Conservation Voters gave the impending Republican Presidential nominee a rating of 0 (that’s right, zero) last year “because McCain missed every single environmentally relevant vote”, including ones in which he could have been the tie-breaker to overcome a filibuster on the 2007 clean-energy bill. Alas, what could have been…

Other good articles in the issue include:

“The Greenback Effect” by Bill McKibben on why markets aren’t necessarily antithetical to the environment, but can be the driving force for environmental solutions.
“Breaking the Gridlock” by Jennifer Kahn on how the smart-grid could be the major enabler for energy efficiency.
“The Nuclear Option” by Judith Lewis – a reasonably fair and balanced view of the pros and cons of nuclear energy, without the expected hyperbole.
“Tar Wars” by Josh Harkinson, which paints a not-at-all pretty picture of what’s happening to the landscape in Northern Alberta as the tar sands are mined to make oil.
“Put a Tyrant in Your Tank” by Joshua Kurlantzick, profiling the bad guys leading many of the major oil producing nations – who are financed every time you fill up at the pump.

Lots of interesting nuggets to be found in the sidebar boxes too. For instance, did you know that 30% of the electricity supply at the infamous Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is provided by wind turbines?

Well worth spending $5.95 at the newsstand, pick up the May/June 2008 Mother Jones.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

The Other Solar Energy

by Richard T. Stuebi

Ten days ago, I attended a one-day symposium on climate change solutions at Oberlin College. Speaking at the symposium was John O’Donnell of Ausra.

Ausra is a leading player in the field of concentrating solar power (CSP), which utilizes mirrors to focus sunlight on a heating element containing a fluid to produce a steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity. In other words, solar thermal electricity – a field that was highly active in the 1980’s only to experience a 15+ year hiatus – is now coming back with a vengeance. Ausra claims that its CSP technology will soon be able to enable electricity production (in sunny desert climates, such as the southwestern U.S.) for about 8-10 cents/kwh.

Moreover, Mr. O’Donnell discussed how Ausra was working on integrating its CSP generation technology with thermal energy storage approaches, so that Ausra’s powerplants would be able to produce electricity not just when the sun is high in the sky — from 7 am to 6 pm — but over a time window more closely aligned to utility peak loads, which stretch from about 10 am to 8 pm. He made the interesting observation that thermal energy storage, using oils and molten salts, is many times more efficient and cost-effective than large-scale energy storage with batteries.

With all of the hype (much of which deserved) for solar photovoltaics (PV), it’s easy to forget about solar thermal approaches, and CSP particularly. Although not as universally applicable as PV, CSP can make a big dent in national energy supply, exploiting only a relatively small fraction of otherwise unusable desert land. In many cases, the gating factor for CSP deployment — just as has been the case for wind energy — will be the availability (or lack thereof) of transmission capacity to electricity load centers.

Mr. O’Donnell made the point that building roads in the U.S. was a local phenomenon subject to a patchwork of regulations and constraints — until President Eisenhower broke down the barriers with the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s. He further noted that high-voltage DC technologies now readily available — such as those offered by ABB (NYSE: ABB) — could transmit large blocks of power across the whole continent with losses of only about 11% (excluding the conversion facilities at each terminal).

We in the cleantech community haven’t talked much about it, instead focusing on the sexy/cool generation/storage/consumption technologies, but maybe it’s time to ratchet the discussion about the so-called “smart grid” up to another level.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.