Category Archives: energy

Dieseldammerüng

VWshirtART

image taken from despair.com’s latest t-shirt

Before we get to this message’s main event, I’ll throw another brief shoutout to Pope Francis. Sure, he leads one of the world’s socially most regressive organizations, but he seems to be pulling in the right direction, and ultimately, he’s not in fact that powerful — his level of authority is more Barack Obama than Stephen Harper, let alone Kim Jong-Il.

While there’s general awareness of the doctrine of Papal infallibility, it was only formalized in the 19th century, and has only ever been invoked twice. So it’s one of many late-arriving concepts we secular moderns commonly think has always been part the world’s most populous religion. A couple others include:
– having a personal relationship with Jesus (famously invented by German Pietists in the 17th century, and infamously rejected in the 19th century by their very own Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader: Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche), and
– original sin (5th century, and a Western Christian exclusive; Eastern Orthodox Christians scratch their heads at it…)
It was pretty cool that Francis gave a shoutout to Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his speeches, too; Catholics and Protestants don’t always get along, and it’s a sign of openness when one can refer to the brilliance of one’s competitors in the marketplace of ideas. My favourite-ever inter-religious example comes from the Christian “Acts” (“of the Apostles”), in chapter 26. We’re told how Saul [also the name of a Jewish king] was travelling on the road to Damascus after having persecuted the followers of Christ, where he’s confronted by the voice of God. In this dramatic, climactic moment, Jesus … quotes a line from a 500-year old Greek theatre play. Boom!! Mic drop!

Jesus says, “why do you kick at the goads?”, which is from a contextually-identical scene in Euripides’ The Bacchae, where a king [Pentheus] who is persecuting the followers of a God [Dionysus] is confronted by that God. It’s awesome stuff. (Adherents can take comfort that since this is already the third time (!) the author has told this story in his chronicle, he can probably be forgiven for adding a dramatic flourish, if only to avoid boring his audience.)

But enough sideshow, on to the main event!

Continue reading

Pondering a palatable pipeline…

I guest-hosted TWiE podcast episode 137 a few days ago, an episode devoted to the Alberta oil sands / tar sands. If you ask me (and I realize none of you have :) ) it’s well worth a listen!

The week’s guest was US energy analyst Robert Rapier, who had visited Fort McMurray on a Canadian government junket for journalists. He came back with a five-part essay on his experience, and some valuable, contextualizing factoids.

Shockingly, he showed data suggesting that the Alberta tar sands are now only slightly more greenhouse gas-intensive than “average” petroleum. (In other words, the emissions associated with turning the bitumen into usable oil, are only slightly higher than average.) Heavy oil extracted from California is actually worse!

This creates the situation where – for once – the Harper Government™ hadn’t drifted into fiction, in its years-long lobbying effort to prevent Europeans from labeling tar sands oil as a high-carbon fuel. I never saw that one coming.

Rapier spent time with the Pembina Institute as well, to try to get part of the other side of the story. For instance, though industry touts that it only uses one percent of the annual flow of the Athabasca river, seasonal variations are extreme; one percent of annual flow is equivalent to one-third of daily flow, at certain times of year. And while he wanted to visit nearby First Nations communities, that part of the visit got cancelled at the last minute. (Now, there’s the Harper Government™ I’ve come to know and love… to loathe.  :)  )

Continue reading

British Columbia hits 1,000 EV’s (and gov’t drops support)

image of Tesla Model S’s at a rally, from Consumer Reports

 

British Columbians have now purchased more than 1,000 plug-in electric vehicles. Add in low-speed neighbourhood electric vehicles and owner conversions, and the number will be a bit higher.

As of Jan 31, 2014 Polk research (now a division of IHS) had tracked 912 plug-in electric vehicle registrations in BC, representing about 1/6 of all PHEV registrations in Canada to date. British Columbia has about 1/8 of Canada’s population, so the numbers are largely in line with what we’d expect from the demographics.

Polk’s data doesn’t include the Toyota Prius Plug-in, Ford C-Max Energi or Ford Fusion Energi, however. Vehicle registrations for these plug-ins, is lumped in with sales of the regular hybrid versions. And through the end of 2013, these three models enjoyed Canadian sales of 594 units.

Assuming that BC represented 1/6 of these sales (being 99 vehicles) then British Columbia’s plug-in population has hit four figures. At the end of January, sales would have been on the order of 912+99 = 1011. And that doesn’t include any Prius Plug-in, C-Max Energi or Fusion Energi sales in the province in January.

Add probable sales in February to the mix, and we should be comfortably above the 1,000-car mark.

As always, my spreadsheet tracking plug-in sales in Canada and the U.S., and other related data, is at: www.tinyurl.com/CanadaEVSales

Continue reading

December: a podcast premiere

The nice folks at http://www.thisweekinenergy.tv/ (TWiE) invited me to guest on their podcast on their late November episode, Good News, Bad News, Ugly News. While most of their guests are leading experts in their fields, and I’m just a talkative and reasonably-knowledgeable former fuel cell engineer, I heeded Gore Vidal’s wisdom and agreed. :)

It being the first time my comments were being recorded for posterity (well… outside NSA headquarters, that is) I spent a few hours doing homework, researching the backgrounds of the energy stories we were scheduled to discuss, and refining / rehearsing a few talking points.

And in retrospect, maybe I should’ve gotten some vocal coaching instead. Listening to the podcast after the fact, I was struck by how high my voice sounded. I sounded a bit like Preston Manning, the high-talker who led Canada’s Reform Party (or, as he said it, the Re-foooorm Party) out of the political wilderness and into… well, I guess he led them around in the wilderness for awhile. :)

Fun fact: Preston is the son of long-time Alberta Premier Ernest Manning, who – in a twist that would have given Christopher Hitchens an aneurism – led the province six days a week, then spent Sundays leading the most popular radio show in Alberta: “Back to the Bible Hour”.

Manning may have set the precedent that former professional wrestler and Minnesota Governor (yes, Minnesota Governor) Jesse “the Body” Ventura followed back in 1999 when he guest-refereed a WWF match at their Summerslam pay-per-view while Governor. Ventura dismissed the backlash, arguing to the effect of “I work six days a week; what I do on Sundays is my own business”.

Another thing I discovered while listening the podcast was that the care I took to carefully compose my sentences meant that I wound up speaking those sentences. Clause by clause. Just like Captain Kirk used to do. On the old TV series. Never shall I mock. William Shatner. Again!

GCR

I had a couple pieces go up in GreenCarReports in December – the first being the usual monthly assessment of the Canadian EV market. While these pieces are generally about as exciting to read (and write) as financial statements, I was able to weave in a reference to the fact that – hitting a very rough patch after a string of gold and platinum records in the 1970’s – one of the members of Chicago suggested sarcastically that a recent album had gone “aluminum, maybe plywood”.

Henceforth, I’ll be trying to award an aluminum/plywood medal to the lowest-selling electric vehicle in Canada each month. Maybe one day they can add it as an 8th-place medal to the Olympics. That way, the athletes not in the running for the regular medals can have something to shoot for. :)

Speaking of last place finishes, the gold-o-phile Klippenstein investment account sank like lead this past year. Ah, if only I could shrink our life’s other problems half as effectively… ;)

It was classic: just like last time (late 2008/early 2009) I ran out of investible cash before the market ran out of “down”. There’s probably a lesson to be had somewhere in there, but I haven’t the patience to learn it. :)

My other GreenCarReports article featured some data that Waterloo-based MyCarma had passed along, about the effect of winter temperature on electric vehicle range. (It’s also the most popular thing I’ve written for them — at almost 8,000 page views, it’s as if the entire population of the French island of St. Pierre et Miquelon had read it. Canadians may know it as “that tiny island France owns just off Newfoundland”.)

This was awesomely cool to write, as it gave me the chance to shape the messaging around fairly new data about how EV range suffers in cold weather. Keeping with the Seinfeld references, I termed the phenomenon “range shrinkage”. :)

CT

Lastly, I wrote a piece for CleanTechnica on Ontario KO’ing coal, which earned a re-tweet from Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. (And a few other folks who don’t merit their own Wikipedia entries. ;) )

On the topic of KO’s, in 2013 Canada’s Liberal Party somehow recovered from Michael Ignatieff’s self-inflicted knockout punch, and ended the year leading in the polls, surpassing both the Conservatives and New Democrats. (The average of recent polls is currently running at 34-27-23.)

And considering how many “please-donate” mailings the Liberals are sending me (a former donor) I’ve got to think they’re for real. Only a few years ago, I practically had to pull a Fry to find out where to address a cheque.

While Stephen Harper’s character-assassins did a fine job on the prior two Liberal leaders, Trudeau is proving a harder target. As Spike Lee might say, “it’s gotta be the hair”. Worse yet for the Prime Minister, the Liberal leader has a well-known charity boxing record: if challenged on his plans to reform the Senate, the son of Trudeau could always turn around and quip:

“Look, I beat Patrick Brazeau into a bloody pulp [in the boxing match]. You think anyone else in the Senate is going to pull any shit after that?”

Heck, given how loose-lipped he is… he just might! ;)

November EV (and FCV) musings

It’s been a busy month — busy enough that though one in seven Canadians crossed the border for Black Friday, I wasn’t one of them. (Like a further one in three Canadians, I did my shopping online. Bought me some books — and by books, I mean books so nerdy Aya will despair for Leo’s future social skills.  ;)  )

Seriously, more Canadians expected to participate in Black Friday, than voted in the last federal election. This is how dark ages begin!!  ;)

On the EV side, I wrote a few pieces for GreenCarReports, though I wasn’t able to write something on BMW’s i3, which made me rethink fuel cell vehicles.

Basically, the i3 is an electric car with a 30-horsepower (25 kW) motorcycle engine strapped to it, to provide a bit more range.

If someone were to design a fuel cell car with a big enough battery to soak up all the relevant incentives, and strap on a 25 kW fuel cell stack for extra range, I wonder if that would be a way to drive FCV adoption?

You’d save money because the stack would be a lot smaller, and you could use one hydrogen fuel tank instead of two. (Since the super-high-pressure fuel tank is about the only component that isn’t used in other fuel cell applications, I’m guessing it’s a cost barrier.) Better still, the stack wouldn’t have to last nearly as long (maybe 2000 hours instead of 5000 hours) because it’d only be in use part of the time, which allows it to become cheaper still. (Adding durability costs money.)

The fact that you’d run 50%+ of the time on electricity would also circumvent the hydrogen infrastructure issue. If there are only a handful of hydrogen stations in town, and you know you’d have to refuel every couple weeks, you might be reluctant to buy a fuel cell car because of the inconvenience.

But if you mainly run off electricity, you might only need to refuel your hydrogen tank every couple months — and taking an occasional detour to refuel six times a year, probably isn’t that big of a deal for most people. That’s once per season, and maybe the dealership tops you up when you go in for your twice-yearly checkup.

So, in a word, I think a fuel-cell based i3 type vehicle (mainly electric, but using the fuel cell as a range extender) would accelerate adoption. As it turns out, the French postal service is investigating just such a fuel cell “range extender” solution.

Ah, it’s nice to be able to muse about these things, now that I’m not in danger of spilling any confidential info. Heck, I can even poke around patent records in exactly the way I was discouraged from doing!  ;)

As for my GreenCarReports contributions:

– I had a chance to practise my French a bit (and practise using Google Translate a lot more) when summarizing how the Quebec government really raised the bar in support of electric vehicles. Nice what you can achieve with minority governments who’re rather desperate to stay in power. ;)

– I did a boilerplate Canadian sales stats piece, and a more interesting one on WWF Canada’s take on the country’s electric vehicle progress.

– I also had a chance to write up some nifty apps — one from a cool Waterloo company — which can help people save money on gas, and/or choose more fuel efficient cars. Next time any of you buy a new car, ask if the dealership has the MyCarma dongle!

Note: they didn’t pay me to say that, but on the subject of getting paid, the Paypal transaction for my articles ran into the… double digits. Yep, there’re a lot more zeroes in engineering paycheques…  :)

Lastly, I saw my first reference to Fox News’ annual post-Thanksgiving “War on Christmas” coverage the other day, so put together a little post explaining how the first people to write Christmas as Xmas were, well, medieval Christians. And they did so because in Greek, Christ is spelled with an “X” (it provides the “Ch” sound). If anything, the use of Xmas points that faith’s faithful back to those first Greek-speaking communities who heard the Christian gospel preached — and I would imagine that would be a positive, not a negative thing. *

It all reminds me of a time in the mists of fuel cell years past, when I asked a colleague to give me a refresher on a particular piece of equipment. He was strangely reluctant, so I popped back to my desk and printed up the work instructions — only to find that I’d actually written them, years before.  :)

– – – – – –

* amusingly enough, abbreviations are actually a key tool for establishing that, while it took about 350 years for Christians to agree on what books went into the New Testament, the eventual winners of the battle-royal between Christian sects pretty much used the same edition after about 150 AD. (The ecumentically curious can go here for further reading.)

The person who composed this edition used a very particular set of abbreviations for key words — God, Jesus, etc. — which were faithfully copied in pretty much every orthodox text thereafter. These abbreviations don’t appear in the scraps of heretical texts we’ve found, so we know those texts belonged to different groups of worshippers.

Sadly, we only have scraps of those texts, because soon after the canon was officially settled, disapproved writings were put to use as kindling, as they so often are. And while that represents a literary / philosophical / theological loss, as an engineer who really loves curating and standardizing documentation sets, a very, very small part of me kind of knows where those book-burners were coming from…  ;)

The quest for the golden meme

https://i0.wp.com/photoinf.com/Golden_Mean/Stuart_Low/The_Golden_Mean/goldenmean.gif

Golden mean image sourced here.

It’s been a pretty good month, in terms of writing. Over at GreenCarReports, I had my piece on September EV sales in Canada, a Canadian Thanksgiving-centric story riffing on the country’s nationwide EV charging network, and discussed what our EV drivers do, to get through Canadian winters.

Topping that off, Corporate Knights will be running a piece of mine, in an upcoming issue!

Innovator’s Dilemma, Toyota edition

Coolest of all, though, was a Jeff Cobb story in HybridCars.com, which referenced my article on Toyota’s Innovator’s Dilemma with Electric Cars (GCR version here, bonus blog notes here).

HybridCars

It’s nice to think you’ve contributed to the public discourse, or helped “frame” the conversation around a topic one cares about. Even though you may well be one of several like-minded people who came up with the idea independently. :)

The surveillance state as an auto-immune disorder

Another example of converging memes — or maybe, just maybe, someone else reading me and liking my talking points — comes from The Guardian, which ran a comment-is-free column which included the line:

“The American body politic is suffering a severe case of auto-immune disease: our defense system is attacking other critical systems of our body.”

One of my mid-summer blog entries — The surveillance state is an autoimmune disorder — used imagery to that effect. To my elation, that piece actually got picked up by a few financial blogs, whose curators thought the metaphor apt.

“In this sense, [the surveillance state’s] behaviour maps to that of an immune system that has been hijacked by an autoimmune disorder, and is treating the body’s own cells as invaders. The main difference is that the surveillance state exists at the societal level, while autoimmune disorders exist at the individual level.”

…and we wrap up in “Bloom” County…

My biggest contribution thus far — the closest I’ve come to a “golden meme” — has been a line from the McKinsey piece I coauthored, which read:

“…an expansive transmission grid dominated by a few central power plants is vulnerable to disruption from both natural phenomena and human malevolence.”

Basically, if you have a few centralized power plants, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters can have catastrophic consequences if they strike at the wrong place(s). Ditto if saboteurs were to strike target those key bottlenecks. But if your grid is fed by thousands of locations spread across a wide geography, it’ll be harder to knock it offline, because no single bottleneck or node will be as crucially important as in a centralized system.

Bloom Energy adopted it as one of their key talking points, as evidenced on their website and elsewhere. Which I found annoying as a fuel cell engineer at one of their competitors… but which I found delightful, as a writer! :)

Their business resiliency page mentions natural disasters once, and disruption twice:

Bloom 1

A few select press releases (e.g. March 2012) also leveraged my work. Eagle-eyed readers will note the use of vulnerable … disruptions … human [intervention] … natural [disaster]. The talking point was repeated in numerous media outlets, as a quick Google search revealed.

Bloom 2

The earliest Bloom Energy story I could find which references the “distributed grid is less vulnerable to terrorist attack / natural disaster” factor is this Dec 2009 story from The Atlantic, titled Who Needs The Grid?

Bloom 3

Since electron-democracy was published in March 2009 — nine months before the article in The Atlantic — and, carrying the McKinsey imprimatur, would likely have been passed along to Bloom, I’m pretty confident that I know where that talking point came from.  :)

It’s possible that Bloom could have simultaneously come up with this phrasing and framing on their own (the meme equivalent of convergent evolution) and I’m okay with the uncertainty. In the end, it allows me to blithely assume that my creation has enjoyed its biggest success, in others’ hands. Kind of like how so many Canadian artists and athletes eventually move to the United States, I suppose. :)

Wiki-immortality!

APSC150 speech

My August Canadian EV car sales stats update went up recently. Which was cool.

Cooler still, I had a chance to wax poetic about sustainability, and my new-found optimism that we’ll avoid the worst of our dystopian horrors. I was invited to be a guest lecturer for an engineering course at UBC (APSC 150) where I had the privilege to slightly shape the minds of about four hundred first-year students. And show them how, here in the first world, #WeAreWhales. (The cryptic comment is described in the slide deck, here.)

Coolest of all, I’ve achieved a Wiki-immortality of sorts! I’m a Wikipedia footnote in the Tesla Model S article! Or, rather, one of my older GreenCarReports columns is. The one describing the vehicle’s Canadian sales figures for the first half of 2013. :)

Wiki Klippenstein

Of course, Wiki’s being the infinitely editable sites that they are, my fame will well be fleeting. Which brings to mind to Hindu parable of Indra and the ants, whose punchline was once majestically translated as “former Indra’s, all“. :) For all our works and purpose, pride and presence, in time’s great fulness we are all returned into the Void from whence we came.

A patent app mishap

FC patent apps

I hope that if/when this patent application gets granted, they update the title…  otherwise, someone at Samsung will have some ‘splaining to do!

Electron democracy

A long-belated companion to Steven Chu’s “Time to fix the wiring” essay I posted earlier, this is the white paper I co-authored for the same McKinsey & Company series. Given the roughly five-month delay in uploading this, I suppose “Time to post the writing” might be an apt subtitle… :)

Ever the stickler for citing sources (in university, while writing up a chemical engineering lab report, I once cited a colleague’s report I made use of, in my bibliography of sources – yes, I was a wild one) I was pleased McKinsey kept the footnote crediting the work John Robb and Jeff Vail.

Four years on, it’s encouraging to see how wrong the essay has turned out to be — because all the recent developments are for the better. It would be as if an investor bought a bunch of boring utility stocks for the safe, reliable dividends, only to discover at the end of the year that they got a bunch of capital appreciation as well.

Though on that note, I think fossil-fuel burning utilities are already a risky investment now, because renewables are already eroding their business model in some countries… and since renewables will get dramatically cheaper going forward as production scales up, the phenomenon will inevitably repeat itself around the world.  (Speaking of uploading delays, clearly I’ll have to get to part 2 of this series…)

When the essay was written (late 2008), grid energy storage seemed a long, long way from commercialization, so our assumption had been that large-scale hydro plants and smaller-scale fuel cell facilities would complement renewables’ intermittency.  (The EV / PHEV adoption rate is such that these are unlikely to offer any appreciable grid storage by 2030, either…)

With Germany’s announcement of a program to subsidize battery-based residential energy storage systems, enabling companies to ramp up production and get the economies of scale with which to drive aggressive cost reductions, it looks like fuel cells will face a lot of pressure at the residential scale.

As for the resiliency benefits of on-site power generation, that seems to have become a priority for many tech companies, in areas where subsidies for on-site generation are available.  (I could justify mild subsidies, because on-site generation minimizes the need to maintain or expand transmission infrastructure, which can be expensive.)

One wonders if some of these companies are worried that a renewables future will destabilize the grid: this is a “myth”conception, as many utilities point out.  I read somewhere that when Germany began its Energiewende — (renewable) energy transformation — the feeling was that the grid could only handle 5% intermittent renewables (ie. wind + solar). Then it became 10%, and then 20%. Then it became 40%. The latest I’ve seen is 60% with the possibility of 80% for continental Europe. As technology improves, that will only increase. Especially if/when electricity-to-hydrogen or electricity-to-natural gas technology matures, allowing for large-scale storage of excess, intermittent electricity.

On the fuel cell side, Bloom Energy seems to have become adept at acquiring subsidies market share in the on-site generation space, despite the fact that their technology is less efficient than combined-cycle gas turbines.  (That said, turbines are generally LOUD and therefore not suitable for on-site location.)  As such, when it comes to larger-scale on-site 24/7 fuel cell power generation, since Ballard isn’t in that game anymore, I root for the folks at ClearEdge Power, whose use of cogeneration makes it possible to achieve overall energy efficiencies of 90%+, even if only a portion of that becomes electricity. :)

 

– – – – – – – –

Electron-Democracy

By Matthew Klippenstein and Noordin Nanji

3 March 2009

The way electric power is generated and distributed will change substantially over the next two decades. Power will be democratized, as small-scale production at the individual and community level moves from niche to normal. The resulting “electron-democracy” will still have centralized power plants, but power grid activity will increasingly be dominated by innumerable incremental energy flows between small producers and consumers. This is likely to happen whether or not public policy mandates a shift away from dependence on fossil fuels.

Most centralized plants (hydro excepted) cannot easily adjust to demand fluctuations, leading to steeply discounted off-peak rates and the need to acquire additional plants for high-demand periods. More broadly, an expansive transmission grid dominated by a few central power plants is vulnerable to disruption from both natural phenomena and human malevolence.

In contrast, smaller-scale power generation can respond more nimbly to market demand, in a shorter time frame, with lower capital costs. Filling supplemental power needs with niche supplies rather than primary power facilities creates new generation options that that otherwise would be impractical. Finally, a grid fed by a broad, physically dispersed heterogeneous mixture of power sources would provide robust protection against disruption.1

Putting these strands together and looking forward, the distributed grid might look like this: intermittent wind and solar power generation would be complemented by load-supplementing fuel cell plants, in much the same way that peak power and base load power plants interact today. Electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and batteries would serve as grid energy storage when excess energy is being produced. The latter is analogous to the role of pumped-storage hydroelectric in current utility systems, where water is pumped from a lower reservoir to a higher one for later use in generating hydroelectric power.

Considering the intensifying pace of climate change, governments should play an ambitious role in the transition from today’s grid to tomorrow’s electron democracy. Governments could coordinate with local business to develop centers of excellence for distributed power in targeted industries. Mechanisms such as feed-in tariffs—which grant favorable rates for those generating power from renewables and clean-tech sources—could facilitate the development of these regional technology clusters. They would bring ancillary economic benefits as well.

We are hopeful that by 2030, our energy system will be considerably less dependent on fossil fuels, particularly for electric power generation. Supported by a diverse array of renewables, our energy needs could be met with an overlapping set of complementary clean technologies. In doing so, we would strongly curb our global warming emissions. We would then be poised not only to stabilize the climate, but to transcend the Fossil Fuel Age entirely and open a new “Age of Sustainability” in our human story.

– – – – –

1 A closer examination of these topics is available from Jeff Vail (A Theory of Power) and John Robb (Brave New War) in their writings on “rhizome” at jeffvail.net and “resilient communities” at globalguerrillas.typepad.com, respectively.

Steven Chu’s “Time to Fix the Wiring” at four years

Former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s recent resignation — his farewell letter is here  — is no doubt celebrated in the fuel cell quarters as passionately (or more so) than it is mourned in the rest of cleantech.  Early in his term, Chu infamously argued (infamously, at least, to fuel cell enthusiasts) that fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV’s) needed four miracles for commercial success, namely:

  1. most hydrogen comes from natural gas (so why not just use that as a fuel?)
  2. improvements in hydrogen storage were needed
  3. fuel cells needed to improve
  4. there was no distribution system in place

While many of my colleagues were hostile to Chu — some more than others (an inside joke) — I was largely unfazed, as Ballard had by then moved on to “everything except automotive fuel cells” in light of the commercialization timelines.  (Which reflected points 3 and 4 above.)  And Chu seemed open-minded towards stationary fuel cells.  From the MIT Technology Review article:

“I think that hydrogen could be effectively a “battery” in the sense that suppose you had a way of using excess electricity–let’s say a nuclear plant at night, or solar or wind excess capacity, and there was an efficient electrolysis way of turning that into hydrogen, and then we have stationary fuel cells. It could effectively be a battery of sorts. You take a certain form of energy and convert it to hydrogen, and then convert it back [into electricity]. You don’t have the distribution problem, you don’t have the weight problem. In certain applications, you don’t need as many miracles for it to happen.”

Chu, ARPA-E, and solar

Many people have already written panegyrics to Chu’s departure, Climate Progress and Grist among them.  Even coming from the fuel cell industry, I think on balance he deserves a lot of praise for carrying out the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to fund next-generation energy research.  Even if he did get a bunch of things wrong, among them the prediction that solar needed breakthroughs to achieve commercial viability.

“But Chu noted that solar power, for one, is still far too expensive to compete with conventional power plants (except on hot summer days in some places, and with subsidies). Making solar cheap will require “transformative technologies,” equivalent to the discovery of the transistor, he said.”

In the past four years, it’s gotten there in Germany, is on the cusp in Australia, and is probably already there in several sunnier climes.  The cost-reductions in that industry have come almost exclusively from economies of scale and the nearly-universally-applicable cost-learning, or experience curve.

Mind you, given my political leanings, I’m generally supportive of government-driven industrial policy.  :)  Societies generally last a lot longer — centuries longer — than any individual businesses, so it makes sense that societies may want to fund projects with a payoff too far out for individual businesses to care about.  That said, I support the notion that “moonshot” projects should ideally have partial private-sector funding, so that business people have skin in the game, and can search out ways to commercialize achievements made on the way.

An intro to “Time to Fix the Wiring”

The above provides good context with which to revisit the essay Chu (and one of his underlings?  :)  ) wrote for a McKinsey & Company series on the future of energy, exactly four years ago today.  This was part of their “What Matters” umbrella, which covered energy, biotech and other topics.

They’ve since taken the series offline — I suppose they need to keep things fresh — but I was able to get permission from a McKinsey representative to reprint the essay below.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and in this case renewable energy has progressed far beyond his Olympiad-ago assessment.  Solar’s costs have come way down, as noted above; renewables may be now viable for 40% of a grid instead of  25% he cites, and some of the geothermal breakthroughs he discusses, can probably be borrowed from the shale gas fracking industry.

All in all, the essay is a reminder to environmentally and stewardship-inclined alike, that the clean energy sector has come  astonishingly far in four years.  I’ll delve into further detail when I continue my series on our renewable destiny. :)

—————

Time to fix the wiring

By Steven Chu

26 February 2009

Imagine that your home suffers a small electrical fire. You call in a structural engineer, who tells you the wiring is shot; if you don’t replace it, there is a 50 percent chance that the house will burn down in the next few years. You get a second opinion, which agrees with the first. So does the third. You can go on until you find the one engineer in a thousand who is willing to give you the answer you want—“your family is not in danger”—or you can fix the wiring.

That is the situation we face today with global warming. We can either fix the wiring by accelerating our progress away from dependence on fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, or we can face a considerable risk of the planet heating up intolerably.

The need to act is urgent. As a start, governments, businesses, and individuals should harvest the lowest-hanging fruit: maximizing energy efficiency and minimizing energy use. We cannot conserve our way out of this crisis, but conservation has to be a part of any solution. Ultimately, though, we need sustainable, carbon-neutral sources of energy.

It’s important to understand where we are now. Existing energy technologies won’t provide the scale or cost efficiency required to meet the world’s energy and climate challenges. Corn ethanol is not a sustainable or scalable solution. Solar energy generated from existing technologies remains much more expensive than energy from fossil fuels. While wind energy is becoming economically competitive and could account for 10 to 15 percent of the electricity generated in the United States by the year 2030 (up from less than 1 percent now, according to the US Energy Information Administration), it is an intermittent energy source. Better long-distance electricity transmission systems and cost-effective energy storage methods are needed before we can rely on such a source to supply roughly 25 percent or more of base-load electricity generation (the minimum amount of electrical power that must be made available). Geothermal energy, however, can be produced on demand. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) report suggests that with the right R&D investments, it could supply 10 percent of US power needs by 2050 (up from about 0.5 percent now).

Coal has become a dirty word in many circles, but its abundance and economics will nonetheless make it a part of the energy future. The United States produces more than half of its power from coal; what’s more, it has 27 percent of the world’s known reserves and, together with China, India, and Russia, accounts for two-thirds of the global supply. The world is therefore unlikely to turn its back on coal, but we urgently need to develop cost-effective technologies to capture and store billions of tons of coal-related carbon emissions a year.

Looking ahead, aggressive support of energy science and technology, coupled with incentives to accelerate the development and deployment of innovative solutions, can transform energy demand and supply. What do I mean by such a transformation? In the 1920s and 1930s, AT&T Bell Laboratories focused on extending the life of vacuum tubes, which made transcontinental and transatlantic communications possible. A much smaller research program aimed to invent a completely new device based on breakthroughs in quantum physics. The result was the transistor, which transformed communications. We should be seeking similar quantum leaps for energy.

That will require sustained government support for research at universities and national labs. The development of the transistor, like virtually all 20th-century transformative technologies in electronics, medicine, and biotechnology, was led by people trained, nurtured, and embedded in a culture of fundamental research. At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—part of the US Department of Energy and home to 11 Nobel Laureates—scientists using synthetic biology are genetically engineering yeast and bacteria into organisms that can produce liquid transportation fuels from cellulosic biomass. In another project, scientists are trying to develop a new generation of nanotechnology-based polymer photovoltaic cells to reduce the cost of generating solar electricity by more than a factor of five, making it competitive with coal and natural gas. In collaboration with scientists from MIT and the California Institute of Technology, yet another Berkeley Lab research program is experimenting with artificial photosynthesis, which uses solar-generated electricity to produce economically competitive transportation fuels from water and carbon dioxide. If this approach works, it would address two major energy challenges: climate change and dependence on foreign oil producers.

In the next ten years, given proper funding, such research projects could significantly improve our ability to convert solar energy into power and store it and to convert cellulosic biomass or algae into advanced transportation fuels efficiently. Combined, this would mean a genuine transformation of the energy sector.

The world can and will meet its energy challenges. But the transformation must start with a simple thought: it’s time to fix the wiring.

This article was originally published in McKinsey’s What Matters. Copyright (c) McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.