Flip the Old Energy Model Upside Down
Peter Meisen, Global Energy Network
Mankind has had access to electricity for
only 130 years. In just over a century, we have extended transmission
lines, refrigeration and lighting to over 5 billion people around the
world. This extraordinary feat has elevated three-quarters of humanity
out of the daily toil of our pre-Edison generations. Still, 25% of humanity
lives without access to electrical services, spending their days in labor:
fetching water and wood, preparing food, and farming simply to survive. We’ve
landed a man on the moon and launched satellites to explore the
universe. Surely we can electrify the rest of our world.
Since 1950, 2.5 billion people have become 7
billion; a global economy of $7 trillion is now $74 trillion gross world
product. Today’s impacts of burning fossil fuels by this population and
this global economy are felt distinctly on every continent and coastline and in
our shared atmosphere.
We need to flip the
old energy model - based on a hierarchy of choices - which
prevails to this day in many utility boardrooms
and national capitals. The priority order
has gone something like this (percentages are of
When we needed more power, we built large
hydropower dams (16%) or coal-fired (42%) or nuclear (14%) power plants.
Defined as centralized plants, their power is fed into regional transmission
grids. The high-voltage is stepped down into distribution lines that deliver
electricity to our cities and industries. As demand for energy increases from economic and population growth, the answer has
usually been to build more of the same.
The development of the jet engine also
brought a quicker and cleaner way to generate utility-scale power. Natural gas
(20%) has become the fuel of choice for new power plants that could be sited
and on-line within months instead of years. A few oil-rich nations still
burn petroleum (5%) to keep their lights on.
Renewables (4%) - solar, wind, geothermal,
biomass, small hydro and ocean energies (wave,
currents, tides, and ocean thermal energy conversion)
- have been considered a last priority. Called
"alternative energy," utilities have
argued that they are too costly, intermittent,
diffused, remote and insufficient to meet the
demands of our
Energy efficiency and conservation were an
afterthought. Energy efficiency is about improving on technology: getting
both heat and power from a power plant while using less fuel -- or developing
washing machines and refrigerators that use half the energy. Conservation
requires that people turn off the lights and their computer monitor and has
been dismissed as a 'personal virtue but not an energy plan.'
The world has now changed. Our addiction to fossil fuels for both power
and transportation is increasing CO2 levels at unprecedented rates.
A 'market price per ton of carbon' seems all but certain and will soon be
enacted and dramatically alter the cost equation for all fossil fuel producers
and consumers. The energy system of the 20th century will
cause tremendous disruptions in the 21st century.
A new energy paradigm is required, one that flips the old model upside
down. We propose that policy-makers, utilities and ratepayers
analyze energy choices in this
new priority order:
Conservation first: The watt that you don't need to generate
is the cheapest and cleanest energy of all. Conservation is a habit that each of us can
learn. By recycling, turning off the lights and turning down the
thermostat, or taking the bus or metro, we can collectively reduce the need for
that next power plant. During times of utility crisis, consumers have
responded with 10-20% cuts in use. We do know how to conserve -- and it requires constant education.
- Energy efficiency next - doing more with
less: Increasing the efficiency of a
power plant means getting more power from less
fuel or for an automobile, more miles
per gallon. Continuous
improvement in technology enables us to get the
same amount of work while using less energy, materials
and/or time. New businesses are
created by increasing energy efficiency - as examples:
combined cycle gas turbines,
compact fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid cars, energy
star appliances and automatic light sensors.
- Then we get to new power generation. Renewable energies get primary
focus in this new model. They have now become mainstream,
providing cost-competitive, secure and reliable power from rooftop photovoltaic
cells to grid-connected wind and solar farms. Brazil, Canada, Iceland,
New Zealand and Norway meet almost all their electrical needs from
renewables. These nations primarily use large hydro, allowing benefits to
agricultural irrigation, municipal drinking water, recreation and flood
- Globally, many utilities are now
incorporating large-scale wind, solar and geothermal power. Did you know
that using just 4% of the world's deserts could provide sufficient solar
radiation to power all the electrical needs of the world! Or that the
winds of the American plains could supply all the needs of the United
resources maps clearly reveal an abundance of clean energy potential on every
continent. There is no energy scarcity.
- Renewable energy at this scale requires a transmission grid to get
its power to market. The
grid acts as the freeway for electrons. Some of the optimal solar,
wind and geothermal sites are in remote locations, even neighboring nations,
and requires transmission access to deliver this clean energy for our daily
- Fossil fuels and nuclear are last in line. Natural gas is the
cleanest burning fuel. Compared to coal, natural gas emits just 25% of the
carbon dioxide and releases no nitrous and sulfur oxides or particulate
matter. In the context of climate change, natural gas beats coal hands
down. In the United States, most of the 150 planned coal-fired plants have
been challenged on the basis of future carbon costs and climate change concerns.
Many climate scientists assert that no new coal-fired plants should be built
unless their carbon dioxide emissions can be sequestered.
There are currently 440 nuclear power plants
around the world. Each one has a stockpile of radioactive waste that is
dangerous to humans for 25,000+ years (half-life of waste fuel). Of
global concern is Iran’s foray into the nuclear club, which is now being
followed by several Middle Eastern states. While nuclear advocates assert the
carbon-free fuel; the costs of construction, facility protection, operation,
decommissioning, waste storage and fuel security are higher than all other
options. Nuclear plants are essentially high-tech ways to boil water, create
steam, to turn a turbine and generate electricity.
We now have more elegant,
domestic and cleaner ways to generate and deliver
electricity to society going
forward. Remaining addicted to fossil fuels
is damaging to our environment and bad long-term
policy. It is unsustainable. Aggressive policies
that encourage conservation, energy efficiency
and linking renewable resources are the new priorities. It's
time for the annual $200 billion fossil fuel subsidies
to shift in favor of renewables. Flipping
our energy choices upside down will drive innovation
and investment towards a safer, low carbon future...
and just makes sense.
April 2010 Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org (619)595-0139