A Stuttering Energy Transition

Figure 1

The EIA (Energy Information Administration) data (see October 15 blog) clearly shows that the US is in the midst of an energy transition. It may not be exactly the one needed to mitigate climate change – but we’re certainly on our way there through some fortunate, market driven, intermediaries. In this case, the transition has mostly been from heavy reliance on coal to a dominant use of natural gas. Parallel to this transition we see a more welcome, not yet market driven, transition away from fossil fuels. Considering that the estimated lifetime of a power plant is about 40 years, we still have many coal power plants to retire, but we at least have time to do so. Such is the nature of a transition. However I don’t expect such a transition to be particularly smooth, consisting of regular replacement of fossil energy sources with less polluting ones. I expect it to be a stuttering transition that requires our full collective ingenuity. Let me try to describe here some of this stuttering.

Recently, the British government did the “right thing.” They announced changes in energy regulations (New York Times – 11/24/2012) that are intended to encourage use of alternative energy sources and nuclear energy while at the same time ensuring that enough power will be supplied to satisfy future energy needs. As reported, the changes increase the levies on consumers and business to help support electricity generation, based on low carbon sources to a total of £9.8 billion by 2020 from the present £2.35 billion. This is, by any other name, a carbon tax that is being collected on top of the Cap and Trade policy that they already share with the rest of the European Union, but with a specification of how the money is intended to be used. This should add about 2% to an average electrical bill. The British government is concerned that the European Union (EU) will raise objections because the EU is against any government support of mature technology (in this case – nuclear).

Direct solar energy, such as photovoltaic and photothermal, don’t show up in the American electricity production in Figure 1. Its share, while still too small to register, is growing fast. Figure 2 shows changes in cost per kWh (kilowatt hour) from 2005 with projections to 2031. The Figure also shows the projected intersection with projected average electricity cost around 2020. Figure 3 shows a major consequence of the price decrease: the global increase in solar cell production over the last 12 years. However, Figure 4, taken from the same source as Figure 3, shows the global distribution of the production effort in 2010. Close to half of the production has originated in the People’s Republic of China.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

This distribution and price structure has major consequences.

Solyndra, a California-based solar panel manufacturer, declared bankruptcy in August 2011 after having received $528 million in federal loan guarantee (Story in NYT – 11/30/2012). The loan guarantee was part of the 2009 stimulus package, designed in part to help create jobs in new, non-carbon-based, energy industries. It became one of the loudest focal points of the 2012 presidential elections and subject to congressional investigations that focused on the hazards of the government picking winners and losers in the alternative energy industries. The main reason for the bankruptcy was the sharp drop in price – partially created by the lower cost of Chinese cells, which flooded the market with considerable help from the Chinese government. Solyndra and the American taxpayers were not the only casualties. Figure 5 shows the stock price of one of the better-known American solar cell companies – First Solar. Those who bought the stock at around $50 in February, for example, didn’t do so well – for the same reasons that Solyndra went bankrupt.

Figure 5  

Did the Chinese do better? As it turns out, China’s manufacturing capacity in photovoltaics and wind turbines soared even faster than the world’s demand did, creating a large over-supply and a consequent price drop. Great for a global energy transition, but not so great for the manufacturers, their employees and the State and the banks that helped to finance them (New York Times 10/5 20012).  In the current situation, many of the manufacturers end up loosing $1 for every $3 they sell. The lower costs are still considerably higher per-energy unit when compared to the energy generated by the plentiful coal in China – thus contributing to a global energy transition, but not necessarily to a transition in China.

The dynamics of replacing coal with wind power (another form of solar energy that does show up in Figure 1) went through similar setbacks to those I have explored for photovoltaics. Since the numbers here were greater (and the manufacturers were located in more competitive states for the presidential election), the US has decided to impose 30% duties on Chinese turbines – thus increasing their price and most likely slowing the transition.

Since, to quote Governor Romney, Climate Change is being referred to as Global Warming and not American Warming, price competition in energy sources designed to remedy the situation should be welcomed as important contributions to a solution and not developed primarily as a job creation activity. The same holds for the aspiration, expressed by both parties, for energy independence.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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  30. Ludmila K says:

    Energy transition is an important subject because the present economic infrastructure is built around energy extraction and usage. The problem that I see with renewable energy is that even if it were possible to make a 100% transition to clean energy, it’s quite expensive as compared to fossil energy, and within a couple of years many people would then lose their jobs and would no longer be able to afford to pay for energy at all. In opinion, however, the consequences of increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are catastrophic.

    Recently we stepped over the 400ppm mark of carbon dioxide concentration in atmosphere. And it will stay there for thousands of years due to carbon cycle. The increase in thickness of earth’s CO2 “blanket” already has serious consequences on forces of nature that we don’t even fully understand. For example, ice in Greenland is expected to melt in about a decade and ice Antarctica shows early signs of melting. I am worried not only about the increase of sea level, which will definitely influence lives of people in most dramatic ways. Memories of Hurricane Sandy are still very fresh in my mind.

    Principles as dilution, increase in acid concentration and le Chatelier principle are part of the big picture. At the present moment, the ocean serves as a carbon dioxide sink, meaning that part of extra carbon dioxide released in atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean that in turn becomes more acidic. As species that are on top of food pyramid, we must make sure that the gentle balance between species and good habitat is kept, otherwise we won’t be able to sustain the same number of species as we do it now, leading to mass extinctions.

    On the other hand, “black ocean” or melted ice decreases local temperature of ocean and together with le Chatelier principle may have unknown consequences. Many ocean species that we depend on are not evolutionary prepared to live in such a stressful environment. The most famous species of the Arctic, polar bears, for many years now have suffered greatly because the increase of carbon dioxide leading to warmer temperatures means that they have less feeding time in the spring before the ice melts which in turn reduces survival rates. They are going extinct.

    Transition to natural gas is not an answer to climate change. Natural gas is non-renewable energy that produces carbon dioxide in high concentrations. Another problem associated with natural gas is fracking which brings new geographic areas to danger of land collapse and may contaminate drinking water. When Americans won’t be sure if their water is safe to drink or not, this won’t make many families happy and certain about their future. However, as mentioned in the beginning of the comment, our economy is built on energy extraction and usage, as a result of tempting short term gains.

    On other hand, some people think that climate change is a big hoax and green energy transition suffers from anti-advertisement. For example, recently I found a study on climate change which stated that more than 70% of republicans are against policies aimed to ease the effects of climate change. And some people don’t even purchase environmental friendly supplies on purpose because they think it is a big scam. This indicates that more investments should be made into advertisement of solar panels and other renewable energy technologies. Maybe more voices must appear in public discussions but for this more people must see the consequences of human energy usage on the global scale – they need to be educated.

    It is difficult to admit that all of us, people that live in the Western world, are the biggest carbon producers in the world. In the rhythms of our lives we are so used to little conveniences such as toasters, microwaves, extra computers and other electronics in our lives that we forget what strong collective impact we have on the atmosphere. Many changes must be made on the individual scale and it should start from each person who knows about the impact. Internet is a great tool for education and provides many options and tips for energy savings and options for transition. In contrast to many countries in the world, practically everyone in the United States has access to a computer, so in my eyes there is still hope for a fast transition to green energy.

  31. Adelina says:

    According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. and probably all developed countries are at the peak of an energy transition. Natural gas has become the major source of energy — outcompeting nuclear, hydro, petroleum, and coal as well as other types of fuel – and currently encompasses a relatively new gas, called shale gas, which is extracted from rocks.

    It is expected, according to EIA, that shale gas will comprise nearly fifty percent of the natural gas used by the year 2035. How efficient is extraction of shale gases by fracking and what are the negative consequences of this process – these are questions of high importance. Nowadays, state legislatures are working on controlling hydraulic fracturing for environmental and economic benefits.
    Hydraulic fracturing is a new technique used to extract natural gas from deep rocks by pressurized water. Decomposed organic matter releases gas trapped in rocks. Drilling rocks and applying small internal explosions causes them to fracture and opens the pathways for gas to be collected. Accurately and thoroughly conducted processes allow for efficient collection of highly valuable natural gas, which powers all of our daily life activities.
    Reliance on this new technique is of significant importance, since the U.S. in particular will no longer be dependent on foreign gas. Instead, it will autonomously regulate its own production. However, there are negative effects that arise from fracking. They include seismic activities associated with disturbances of the ground underneath, polluted drinking water — from chemically enriched water used in the fracking process — and gas leaks which can potentially lead to explosions.
    Out of ten thousands of energy stations with hydraulic wells across the U.S. only very few locations have actually experienced small earthquakes, with intensities being barely noticable. In this case, seismic activity is not really an issue. However, pressurized water used in fracking contains chemicals that are supposed to kill bacteria and dissolve mineral build up. Since natural gas companies do not necessarily disclose information about the amount and nature of chemicals used in water “cocktails”, it is hard to predict the extent of possible water and external leak contamination. Water contamination is also very rare because of shale’ locations at depths of thousands of feet underground. In contrast, drinking water is extracted at much smaller depths. Nonetheless, on very rare occasions, chemicals leak through into drinking water and pose a real threat to consumers. In some other instances, stored drilling and chemical fluids leak onto the surface and contaminate soil and nearby water.
    All these negative consequences should be taken into account when proposing state legislation. Currently, legislation promotes hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. by mitigating the adverse environmental effects they may cause. “As of March 2012, at least 137 bills in 24 states have been introduced this session that address hydraulic fracturing. At least six states—Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee and
    Utah—have enacted legislation.” (http://www.mde.state.md.us/programs/ Land/mining/marcellus/Documents/National_Conference_State_Legislatures_The_Fracking_Debate_A_Policymakers_Guide2012).
    Economic benefits of hydraulic fracking are apparent. With legislation taking place throughout the U.S. — controlling chemical usage, spill prevention and waste cleanup, gas leaks, and other drilling precautions – there will presumably be less hazardous mercury and greenhouse gas emission compared to coal mining. While fracking is being banned and limited in Europe, it will become the major technique of extracting natural gas in the U.S.

    Pless, Jacquelyn. National Conference State Legislatures “The Fracking Debate. A Policymaker’s Guide 2012”

  32. Margaret Delgado-Student says:

    Margaret Delgado
    Professor Tomkiewicz
    April 25, 2013
    A Stuttering Energy Transition: My response:
    I agree that the current and future energy transition applications will not be a smooth ride and will need to become a fluid global effort. If we can not find unity in reducing our Co2 emissions a catastrophic outcome awaits for us all.
    With that said, I would first like to discuss our environment and the current signs of climate change. Presently, Co2 levels are at a 397.34 ppm high, mostly due to our use of fossil fuels. This is amount is 30% higher than before the industrial revolution and have as remained at high since 1988 (keeping in mind that 350 ppm is considered the safe zone). This means we would have to reduce our emissions by at least half in the near future. Atmospheric changes like: Rising global temperatures on land and in the sea, hurricanes and other storms getting stronger and wilder – as we have recently seen with hurricane Sandy, permafrost thawing, glacial ice structures shrinking, the sea level undergoing thermal expansion, where warm water takes up more space that cold water), are all clear implications of what’s to come. (www.epa.gov)
    Although this is the situation, there are many global efforts that have been set forth, some more helpful to the environment than others. For instance, Britain has issued a carbon tax on top of its Cap and Trade law, which sets limits to usage and places tax on the fossil fuels used (New York Times: “To slow warming, carbon tax”). New York has just introduced electric taxi cabs that will be given a test run to see how efficient they are and if everything goes well Bloomberg plans to bring up their number by one-third by 2020 (New York Times: “Electric taxi experiment”) in conjunction to other environmental efforts such as the switch from coal to gas (mentioned above in Professor Tomkiewicz’s article). Portugal has reduced their dependence on fossil fuel by getting 45% of their energy from renewable sources like wind power and hydro-power (New York Times: “Portugal gives itself a clean energy makeover”) and other countries like Holland, the United Kingdom and Germany have completed plans to cut emissions by large amounts for approximately the next 40 years .
    The Problems with such efforts is not so much that they do not help at all. It is that the changes that are happening aren’t happening in unison, so their impact isn’t as fruitful. For example: China is still using coal as a major energy source which is responsible for approximately 30% the Co2 emission in the atmosphere. Another challenge seems to be that the transition is an expensive notion which is a political issue. For instance: Portugal’s clean air make over was not implemented without cost to its people. So Perhaps, the bigger picture is we need to find a realistic and long-term meeting ground, where decisions can be made for the global nation that all countries must abide by for the survival of life itself. Environmental dilemmas are a global problem; therefore the efforts in tackling this challenge must be a worldwide one.
    The changes we can make as individuals are also something that needs to be overviewed and organized. Even though many people feel like what they do may not make a sufficient impact on the environment, they are wrong. There are many things that we can do as individuals to reduce our own emissions and waste. Some are reducing waste, recycling, using less electricity (ex: air conditioning), driving less and traveling smarter, buying energy efficient products, using less hot water, planting a tree, and getting a report card from your utility company, so you can learn how to use your energy more efficiently (www.epa.gov). But overall, the thing we can do that tops all is communicating with those around us. Educating others on why they should make their own daily changes is essential toward this movement. If people learn the reasons behind the call for change, they too may be inspired to do the same. The point is we must start somewhere, the future depends on us.

  33. yones says:

    U.S. must change all its coal fired power plants to natural gas fired power plants in order to decrease the air pollution and create cheap electricity. Besides natural gas vehicles will be more important in the future in order to decrease the dependency on oil exporting countries.

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  37. Aromal says:

    A comprehensive information about energy transition. To ensure energy security we have to change from traditional sources to renewable energy sources. At the same time we have to care about climate change also. Thank you for sharing.

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  40. This is a reality. I hope we can all figure this out

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