Canada’s Prime Minister made a statement recently that caused some problems in parts of Canada. The comment -- “We need to phase out fossil fuel…” -- has raised strong opposition in Alberta, the province that has largely powered the Canadian economy in recent years, based almost entirely on fossil fuel.
Confusing messages are being delivered. Science has told us that we need to REDUCE EMISSIONS. Emissions can be reduced in two ways: use less fuel or use it more efficiently. Politicians, almost uniformly, seem to have decided that the solution is to eliminate fossil fuel and replace it with renewable energy. This transition may be a lot more difficult, time consuming and costly than it may initially appear.
Ontario is perhaps one good example. A large expenditure in wind capacity seems linked to very high electricity prices in the very areas where the wind turbines are located. Germany has seen dramatic increases in electricity costs as the country has increased its use of solar and wind capacity to generate electricity.
The electric system seems to be a scapegoat, largely because in the US, it is the single largest source of emissions. Yet it delivers only a fraction of the energy needed to meet the total energy required.
Surely there is a better way to reduce emissions without producing disruptive cost increases and heavy restrictions on supply.
Our society has been built based on an ample supply of energy at a relatively low cost, and while this foundation has created waste, it has also delivered many of the benefits that have led to a high standard of living for a lot of people.
Several factors need careful consideration, and the key to a successful transition will require a change that can be achieved without dramatically altering either the supply or unit cost. Some of the concepts may include:
- Conversion of coal-fired energy sources to a cleaner fuel such as natural gas, nuclear or renewables
- Changes in our ways of using energy
- Widespread use of distributed energy resources
I will deal with each of these.
Conservation needs to be a first area of attack because it often provides the best value with the least disruption. Insulation, efficient equipment and appliances, well-designed buildings and facilities all make good sense.
Changes in our ways of using energy
There are some significant changes coming. Perhaps most significant is the potential to shift car ownership from individuals and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles -- UAVs. This concept, if successful, has the potential to dramatically change our use of energy for transportation.
Supply and Delivery
The supply and delivery of energy is where there may be significant gains available at a low cost. Energy comes in many forms – each with strengths and weaknesses. Coal, which drove the Industrial Revolution, continues to be a large source of supply, and is the largest single source of emissions in the US.
Converting coal-burning facilities to natural gas will reduce emissions by almost 50%. But new technology in natural gas generation of electricity can reduce it by about half again. With a simple transition to natural gas, this large emission source could be reduced by more than 75%, thereby reducing US total emissions by more than 20%. Surely this would be a great place to start.
But the opportunities do not stop there. The existing utility system has always been based on a large central generating facility, operated to “meet customer demand on a continuous basis.” Turn on your air conditioner, and a generator somewhere is waiting to increase capacity to deliver the energy needed to cool your home. This concept, while providing excellent service for more than 100 years, has resulted in a delivery system that is utilized, on average, to about 50-55% of its peak capacity. Transmission and distribution systems are designed to deliver peak capacity – a period that may occur for only a few minutes each year – if at all.
Widespread use of distributed energy resources
New distributed technology, including generation, storage and managed loads have created an opportunity to manage the demand, essentially reversing the current “generation follows load” concept to become a “load follows generation” concept. This transition would enable two opportunities: more energy delivered on the existing grid (by increasing the system capacity factor) and demand optimization to reduce loss by managing the delivery timing. These changes have the potential to improve the utilization and efficiency of existing generation and delivery systems, putting downward pressure on costs. The added energy capability will be badly needed as we slowly shift away from high-emission fuels in other areas such as transportation.
There needs to be a real focus on the target – and that is to reduce emissions, NOT necessarily get rid of ALL fossil fuels. In the long term, the result may be the same, but there are some important issues that need to play important roles in the path ahead.
- The cost of energy and the availability of supply need to be carefully managed if we hope to avoid potential disruption of supply or cost for people that rely on an ample and low-cost supply.
- The target is to reduce emissions, and there are big opportunities to do this quickly if initiatives are well-planned and organized.
- In the long term, the use of fossil fuels may be managed downward, but in the short term, the target must be a clear focus on emissions.
Time may become a precious commodity in this transition -- a transition that grasps the low-hanging fruit first is likely the ONLY feasible approach.