In my previous blog I outlined Google’s Clean Energy 2030 proposal for reducing carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy production in the US. As promised, I have gone through the proposal in detail and now offer my thoughts on what I like and dislike about it. As always, these issues are open to debate, and I encourage everyone to get involved, or at least to educate themselves on the subject. I will try to provide links for external sources of information where applicable. The first half of my comments are as follows, in no particular order:
- I like that the renewable energy goals are being achieved through three main areas: wind, solar, and geothermal. Nathan Lewis at the California Institute of Technology outlines the total energy that can be potentially captured from natural resources in a series of talks and papers. Of these, wind, solar, and geothermal comprise the three largest, although solar by far is greater than the other two. With that in mind, I think the goal with respect to wind is reasonable in that the technology is currently close to maturity and is cost effective. In my opinion however, the geothermal goals seem a bit inflated considering the level of investment that will be needed for widespread implementation of enhanced geothermal systems. Globally speaking, I think solar (thermal and photovoltaic) will be the best solution, but utilizing all of our mix of resources for a near-term national solution is advisable.
- Transmission capacity will certainly need to be expanded in order to support the increased production from remote and distributed sources, as noted in the proposal. However, the proposal should also take into account transmission efficiency. This is a major area for improvement, as transmission losses make up a large part of the 68% of electricity produced that is wasted, according to 2008 numbers. So while end-use electrical efficiency can be improved through technologies such as Google’s PowerMeter, we should also focus on smart-grid technologies and advancements in superconductors for increased supply efficiency. Perhaps this area is included in the efficiency measures taken to produce flat electricity demand?
- I agree that the personal vehicle sector will be the easiest upon which to impart change, but we shouldn’t forget the other 40% of the transportation sector where efficiency improvements can, and are being made. GE has made strides in locomotive efficiency, while large-scale implementation of hybrid trucks, fuel cell buses, and efficient passenger planes are all feasible within the next 20 years.
- I agree that the private sector will/should provide much of the funding for these initiatives, in addition to that which the government contributes. More than anything, the role of the government is most valuable in instilling an attitude with the public that these changes are necessary, and with that said, I think so far the Obama administration has done a good job showing that energy policy is a priority. This includes funding in all levels of R&D, including basic sciences.
- The proposal does not take into account the natural behavioral phenomenon I like to call “guilt-free purchasing” – the idea that if something is environmentally cleaner and/or more energy efficient, people may naturally buy more of it compared to their normal purchases. For example, if a futuristic newly established business knows that LED lights are more efficient, and that the electricity they are using comes from mostly renewable energy, they may install twice as many lights as are necessary to illuminate their showroom. In this sense, publicly speaking, if there is an idea that the electricity we use is clean, people will tend to use more of it, and care less about efficiency. The point I am making is that it is easy to push better efficiency when there are multiple drivers in addition to just cost, i.e. CO2 emissions from electricity generation. As a result, the efficiency measures in the proposal that keep demand constant over the next 20 years are based on today’s urgency. If and when the nation’s electricity is mostly from renewable energy, these efficiency standards will be hard to maintain, especially in a world where economic prosperity and energy consumption are so closely tied. The trouble with this notion is that it is very difficult to quantify. My comment then is that one must be cognizant of this phenomenon and perhaps include a time-dependent variable in the electricity demand calculations that account for this.
Part III coming soon with more comments...