When it comes to renewable energy, the politicians are always asking, “Is this stuff for real?” Dr. Dan Arvizu has the answer and he shared it with a packed house at the World Affairs Council talk in Los Altos, Jan. 7, 2015.
Yes, renewable energy is for real. We don’t have to invent anything, we have the technology today to make the grid work with 80% renewably sourced power.
That was the message Arvizu delivered, a positive one for receptive ears.
Through wind, biomass and solar, there can be enough power to reach the 80% goal by 2050 and with some tweaks to make the grid a smart system, it can be reliably distributed. We still need some breakthroughs in storage technology to get to 100%, a challenge for the future.
So why isn’t it happening? According to Arvizu, the political will isn’t there to stand up to cheap fossil fuels, except perhaps in California with the leadership of Gov. Brown. Dr. Arvizu met with Brown who made it clear he wants to cut the use of carbon in half, which is important, as public policy is what will create the change.
The top three nations generating renewably sourced power in 2012: China with 90 Gigawatts, US with 86, and Germany with 71. For both China and the US, over half was wind power, but for Germany over half was solar. And he pointed out that Germany is the same latitude as southern Alaska! The good news is that the US has over 40 Gigawatts of solar in the pipeline, so we are moving in the right direction.
The other part of NREL’s mission is efficiency. Half of the energy produced from burning fossil fuels is lost as waste heat. Cars are inefficient. Buildings are inefficient. Surprisingly given its location, NREL’s headquarters in Golden, Colorado is a net zero building with 1350 employees, constructed at less cost than a similarly sized building designed to standard code. So it can be done without exorbitant costs. He did mention that it takes some adaptation by the workers. No space heaters tucked under desks!
Several time he referred to a slide calling for a Profound Transformation to take us from today’s unsustainable energy system to a future system that is reliable, efficient, carbon neutral, secure and resilient. His point was that we need to make that transition now, not 30 years from now.
After the slide show he entertained Q&A. Some highlights:
What’s the latest on battery technology? This will be a profoundly disruptive and important technology, but getting the price down is difficult.
Where is photovoltaic heading? Costs are coming down and the goal of SunShot (an initiative of the Dept. of Energy) is $1/W but the big challenges are the soft costs, all of the paperwork and permit costs.
How do you get people to value a sustainable future? His answer was a bit vague, but some folks just approach things differently. He gave a couple of examples. In Singapore, you have to buy a 10 year permit to drive a car and it costs $100,000. The result? People take public transit. In Sweden, a car registration costs almost as much as the car. In the US, we value “rugged individualism” so none of that happens which means sustainability also takes individual choice to make it a reality.
What changes can we ask for at the local level? Again, his answer was a bit off target, but still interesting. He told us about 5 utilities getting together to plan for future changes. This was notable in that they would even get together, and even more notable in that they would share confidential data. He was there so he saw it!
How will the grid work in the future? He had a lengthy talk about the distribution pipeline and the direction of energy flow, but finally settled on an interesting story. NREL is studying the impact of using car batteries to smooth out the energy flow in the pipeline. Toyota is asking should we build electric cars to supply energy during peak demand using cars that are parked, and the power companies are asking what will happen to the grid if car batteries are supplying power during peak demand? Hmmm, makes one wonder if NREL is getting funded by both sides for the same question?
Why didn’t you mention nuclear as an energy option? It’s in the mix, but they need to be held to the same high sustainability standards as all the other sources, and that is a problem for nuclear.
Final thought, renewable energy and energy efficiency make so much sense, let’s do it!
Written by Gary Hedden, Energy Chair, GreenTown Los Altos.