Everybody Hates a Blackout

Question: What’s the major challenge for getting people to accept that there’s a price to be paid for emitting carbon dioxide? 

Nate Lewis: Well, we have to ultimately have to have a price on carbon dioxide emitted to the air. Right now, when carbon dioxide is free to emit, we emit it like it ain’t going out of style. There’s no penalty to doing that like there isn’t a penalty to taking 10 newspapers out of the newsstand instead of one. So, that’s what people will economically do. 

But it’s more than that. In addition to pricing carbon dioxide emissions so as to level the playing field, we also have to have policies that level that playing field because there are hundreds of public utility commissions across our country. They all have different agendas.  Whether or not it’s renewable portfolio standards or just pure “saving consumers from rate payer increases in their electric bills,” or some other combination of making sure if you’re in Kentucky to buy homegrown coal powered electricity instead of renewable energy from another state. 

So, we have to work on how we justify to our public utilities commissions and to our rate-payers that we value our environment as much as we value our utility bills. 

Question: What would happen if we tried to use one of the alternative energies, such as wind, exclusively? 

Nate Lewis: This is true about any energy portfolio. Just like investing in a broad investment portfolio in the stock market when you choose some of this and some of that. It’s never the case that there’s one magic bullet that is going to all be our solar future, or all be our nuclear future. And so, you always have to mix and match. That being said, we do need to be careful about the difference between getting a little bit of something in our energy mix and getting a lot of that same thing in our energy mix. If we tried to use 50 percent of our energy coming from wind, well naturally the question arises, what do you do when the wind doesn’t blow that day? You can have some demand management, but if half of your energy is coming from wind, and there’s no wind that day, you have a black out and people don’t like to have blackouts. We now have 99.99 percent mandated reliability on our electricity system. Nobody likes it when the lights go out, especially when they’re not expecting it. 

So, to build a full energy system, we need to think about all the tools that we have. We need to think about compensating for the intermittency of the sun and wind with massive energy storage. We need to think about forecast pricing to make it more expensive to buy electricity on it on a day when we don’t have so much from renewables. We need to think about storage solutions. We need to think about not just advocating for individual pieces, we need to think about what it takes to build reliable, complete, sustainable energy system that can bring energy to people whenever they want it, wherever they need it. 

Question: Is there anything that scares a politician running for office more than the prospect of a blackout in his region? 

Nate Lewis: Maybe the prospect of a blackout causing them not to get reelected scares them more than just the prospect of a blackout, but probably not too much other than that. So, this is clearly an issue. And we do have technology gaps there. You will hear that we have all the technology we need; we just need the political will. We actually do have a lot of technology that we can deploy, and political will, will go a long way toward helping it get that out there. And it’s no excuse to say, because we can’t do everything, therefore we should do nothing. At the same time, we do need to realize that there are some things that we don’t really know how to do and we need to be doing R&D to develop them, so we have them when we need them. 

We need to find ways to make solar panels really cheap to install. For instance, something people can go paint on their roof, or roll out like carpet. So, we can deploy them massively.  We need to think about ways to store energy, so we can use renewables when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, and not always have to confine ourselves to just getting them on peak bright sunny days, or find ways to get energy from the Midwest at night to California when we don’t actually need it at night. So, we should be doing a lot of these installations that we know won’t be the whole answer, but at the same time, working on those gaps so we can fill in the pieces of the puzzle just in time for us to put it all together. 

Question: When examining the energy portfolio, from wave power to solar energy, is there one source that looks more attractive on a grand scale than others? 

Nate Lewis: On a grand scale, there are two different criteria. One is short-term costs. And in the short-terms costs, the cheapest renewable energy is hydro-electricity. On the other hand, we’ve done it pretty much everywhere we can do it. Then you have other options, like maybe wind. The fastest growing renewable, and it’s the next cheapest. And so if you’re looking at just a short-term cost, you get one picture. On the other hand, if you’re looking at the long-term resource and comparing that to how much humans have a thirst for energy, there’s only one really, really big card on the table, and that’s the sun. More energy from the sun hits the earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on our planet in an entire year. Nothing else comes close. 

In one year, more energy from the sun hits the earth than from all the energy consumed on our planet in human history. And that statement is going to be just as true in 100 years from today as it is today. This is why I say we can probably piece together an energy system with some wind, and some biomass, and some geothermal, and some tidal, and some coal, but there’s one big, big card that we have to play and it would be smart to try to play it, and that is to get our energy from the biggest source there is for our earth, and that’s our sun. 

Recorded on February 3, 2010

"When carbon dioxide is free to emit, we emit it like it ain’t going out of style."

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