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On Should Electricity Distribution Utilities Build, Own, and Operate Microgrids For Their Customers?

There is certainly a role for new utility business models and engineering architectures in power production. Part of the problem we see currently is some utilities holding tight to status quo regulated business models with their mandated profit margins. In order to facilitate the growth of new power architectures such as micro-grids, but also other forms of distributed power and storage, the regulatory business models need to be challenged and evolved. 

There is an implicit bargain in utility business models, both for electricity and telecom, where the utility is required to serve all customers no matter how far away or unprofitable in return for regulated pricing and overall profit margins. This model did its job in the 20th century to electrify the country and provide phone service everywhere with great benefit to society.

Now these old business models are straining against the evolution of technology and pollution. Wireless cellular service has allowed telecoms to transcend traditional phone line service and the companies lobbied successfully to be not required to provide equal service everywhere. There are good arguments for and against this regulatory shift but some of the results are clear: service providers are now far more nimble to advance the technology and provide new services that are popular with customers, but at the same time certain geographies and populations are being left out because it is too expensive and unprofitable for providers to build infrastructure there.

A similar pattern is emerging with renewables and microgrids. Some power utilities are not even allowed under current rules to do things like provide rooftop solar to customers, and others would presumably have regulatory challenges in providing microgrids as well. There are many technical advantages to distributed power and microgrids, but they come with added upfront costs which need to be hashed out on a case-by-case basis. Good justifications for investment include improved reliability, fuel diversification, reduced GHG, local business arrangements, and others. But these evaluations are made more complex with tight regulatory regimes.

In my opinion we need to evolve the social contract that drove these 20th century regulatory regimes for the 21st. We need more thoughtful public-private partnerships that both allow the service providers more flexibility in the investments they want to make so the technology and business models can move forward, while at the same ensuring that the poor and less affluent are not left behind. Otherwise we will see wealthy areas served with high quality electric power and telecom capacity while the poor scrape by, like it is in the third world, and I don't think that is a result we desire.

September 16, 2014    View Comment    

On Plastic Bags, Nuclear Waste and a Toxic Planet

Both plastic bags and nuclear waste (at least most of it) are recylcable. Rather than banning these materials we should be seeking ways to incentivize their reuse. We do have serious waste issues that need to be addressed, but I am leery of simply banning things just because we don't like them. Nature is a zero waste system where the output of every process is the input of a new process, this is the model we should be seeking to emulate, not banning useful stuff.

Polyethelene plastics are worth their weight as fuel or can be recycled again and again. We have developed processes for recycling glass and aluminum that are highly effective, but it requires an investment in infrastructure and municipal processes for collection. Low grade plastics don't offer as high of an immediate financial return which makes the economics more challenging, but it is well within our technical means to capture plastics and put them to good use. Deposits on glass bottles have proven to be an effective means of incentivizing glass recylcing, perhaps a similar model could be implemented for plastic. If people saw plastics on the ground as having financial value they would surely be picked up.

Nuclear waste is a more complex topic that others can speak to more eloquently than I, but in principle today's nuclear waste is tomorrow's nuclear fuel. It may well take decades to get fuel reprocessing and breeder reactors to be commercially viable, but in the mean time it would seem to me that leaving the nuclear waste in dry caskets until the technology is ready is as good a solution as any. If we can effectively use the partially utilized uranium we already have on hand we would have centuries worth of fuel available.

September 3, 2014    View Comment    

On Can an Economy Develop Without Coal?

David, you aptly describe the challenge of attempting to move beyond fossil fuels. Coal in particularly is, and remains, the backbone of the industrial revolution. For all the effort being put forth from various corners no one has been to adequately describe how any country is able to leapfrog the use of coal in the development of industry. Going straight to wind turbines and solar panels may be adequate for home lighting but it is not a recipe for developing heavy industry, manufacturing or any serious energy intensive activities. Natural gas offers certain advantages but requires much more elaborate infrastructure. When starting from scratch coal is the natural starting point because it is relatively easy to work with.

You mention Japan and the Netherlands who developed despite having large resource bases, they made up for their lack of resources through aggressive imperialism. Sending their militaries, colonists and traders to bring resources back from foreign locations. Hardly a recipe for modern development, particularly if you don't have anything of value to trade but do posess coal. 

August 5, 2014    View Comment    

On Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn

Roger,

It reminds me of the investigations into using supercritical CO2 for turbines instead of steam. Sc-CO2 is a very interesting working fluid which I find encouraging in the pursuit of carbon utilization opportunities. 

July 28, 2014    View Comment    

On Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn

Roger,

This is an interesting idea. Do you have any documentation for it?

Cornell University has a lake source cooling system that replaced a big load of air conditioners on campus, but they just use regular water.

July 28, 2014    View Comment    

On Daniel Yergin: US Oil Output Helping Avert Crisis

There is a distinction to be drawn between reducing carbon emissions and avoiding all use of hydrocarbons. I'm all for being efficient and judicious in our use of hydrocarbons and in particular of capturing and recycling them. But hydrocarbons remain the backbone of industrial civilization. The raw material by which we manufacture chemicals, plastics, steel, concrete, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, etc, etc, they are not simply fuels, we can't physically manufacture solar panels, wind turbines or nuclear power plants without hydrocarbons. This is what I mean when I say that we will never stop using them. We have an issue that is serious regarding carbon loading in the atmosphere, I do not dispute this, but I do dispute the oft-repeated argument that the answer to this problem lies in leaving all the hydrocarbons in the ground and opposing every instance of hydrocarbon development. I believe we need to move beyond the technology status quo and that the unfettered pollution of our atmosphere is unacceptable, but the solutions lie in advanced technology development.

When I was a kid growing up in Washington DC, the Potomac River, flowing through our nation's capitol was so polluted you could see feces in the water. We fixed that problem and it did not require that people stop defecating, it required advanced water treatment plants. We used to have a problem with acid rain caused by the sulfur from coal power plants. It was destroying the Adirondacks where I also spent a lot of time. We solved that problem too, and it did not requiring abandoning coal, in fact coal usage has gone up while pollution has gone down. Again, we did it with advanced technology, putting scrubbers on smoke stacks and as an added bonus the captured sulfur became a useful commodity product.

CO2 is a bigger and more difficult problem and requires holistic, systemic solutions, but it is solvable. We have countless sources of carbon emissions, some big, many small. Most of the small ones, autos for instance but also home furnaces, can be replaced by electric devices. For large sources of carbon emissions, some can be replaced by nukes and renewables, and for others we need an elaborate system of carbon capture. It is within our technical capacity to both build a continental scale CO2 pipeline infrastructure to move liquid CO2 around and also to reengineer our carbon combustion devices to make them more efficient and capture more effective. Beyond that we need effective land management practices that sequester carbon in the soil, there is great capacity there and it has the added bonus of improving agriculture, wildlands and habitat. At the end of the day we don't need to eliminate every last molecule of CO2 emissions, the earth has a robust carbon cycle, we need to bring our industrial systems into harmony with the Earth's natural systems and cycles.

July 25, 2014    View Comment    

On Why we Need CCS - Part 5: Bridge to a Sustainable Energy Future

I have had this debate before and I tend to look at it from a glass half full perspective. In fact I had an extended back and forth with the author of the paper you cited.

The process of producing SNG requires acid gas cleanup as an integral component, so the CO2 has already been captured and is being vented in fairly pure form. They just need to add on the pressurization components and the pipelines, but they do not need to add any scrubbers, they are already in place. It is exactly what they did at Dakota Gas.

I think we would all agree that using synthetic natural gas is far better for air quality than burning coal directly, so if you leave the CO2 emissions aside for a moment, it is a big improvement to upgrade coal to SNG. Now they just need to put the CO2 into a pipeline and the Chinese are serious about making progress on that front. 

July 25, 2014    View Comment    

On Why we Need CCS - Part 5: Bridge to a Sustainable Energy Future

Schalk,

Those Chinese SNG plants are basically CCS ready. They are modeled on the Dakota Gasification Synfuels plant which retrofitted CCS back in 2000 and has been one of the most successful CCS projects anywhere. Coal to SNG w/ CCS is pretty positive in my opinion.

July 25, 2014    View Comment    

On Why we Need CCS - Part 5: Bridge to a Sustainable Energy Future

Mike, coal is hardly dying in China. The article you reference merely says that there is a supply glut, and a slower growth in consumption, but its still growing. And coal use is growing by leaps and bounds throughout the world. Which also makes the claims that renewables have displaced any CO2 fairly dubious when energy demand is growing faster than the renewables build out and carbon emissions along with it.

We need all of these technologies, so arguing my pet tech is better than yours is silly in my opinion. None are mutually exclusive, we need them all to succeed.

July 25, 2014    View Comment    

On Daniel Yergin: US Oil Output Helping Avert Crisis

I am Green through and through and totally believe we need to clean up our environmental problems. I just happen to believe the answer lies in improving technology, and I will admit to being an optimist and enthusiast. Yes we have big problems, but identifying problems is the first step in solving them. I have to say I get tired of hearing endless doom and gloom from various quarters, I am much more interested in inventions and solutions.

For what it is worth I don't think we will ever run out of hydrocarbons, but that should not be interpreted as saying that we should extract them with no concern for the ecological consequences. But I also see the benefits of using hydrocarbons than many in the environmental community willfully ignore. We are not to going to stop using them so it is paramount to find practical solutions to their very real and damaging impacts.

As for sequestration I have recently come around to the view point of the value in using CO2 as a working fluid in producing hydrocarbons. A cutting edge avenue of research that I will be writing about soon is to use supercritical CO2 to produce the methane hydrates, leaving the CO2 in the hydrate formations. It is pretty exciting and promising stuff. 

July 25, 2014    View Comment    

On Why we Need CCS - Part 5: Bridge to a Sustainable Energy Future

Nathan,

There is CCS on chemical plants, ethanol refineries and and natural gas cleanup operations. True that is has not been deployed on steel or concrete plants. The main reason why the efforts have been focused on coal plants is because they are far and away the largest point emitters.

http://sequestration.mit.edu/tools/projects/storage_only.html

The choices of where to deploy are always driven by the economics. The plants where CCS gets implemented for purely commercial reasons are facilities where they are venting nearly pure CO2, and there are actually a lot of facilities like that. Hydrogen production, anything with acid gas cleanup (rectisol or solexol), ethanol refineries vent nearly pure CO2, any kind of coal to chemicals or coal to liquids. The EOR industry has traditionally captured a lot of CO2 from natural gas cleanup. If the exhaust is concentrated CO2 then capture is relatively cost effective and then it becomes a matter of finding a buyer that can pay for the pipelines and pressurization.

For the steel and concrete guys, to talk about adding amine scrubbers or some other heavy equipment that is extremely expensive and onerous is pretty much a non-starter and will surely make their plant uncompetitive when their product is a low margin commodity to begin with. The concrete industry is looking at other methods of recycling CO2 and advancing concrete technology to reduce CO2 emissions. Greater use of coal fly ash is among the methods as that greatly reduces the need for portland cement which is the part of the process that produces a large portion of the CO2. We need better technology than post combustion capture for these industries.

July 25, 2014    View Comment    

On IEA Executive Director Denounces Subsidy-Fueled 'Wasteful Consumption'

Joris,

I actually did not write this article, one of my fellow writers at Breaking Energy wrote it and was misattributed to me. There is a content sharing agreement between Breaking Energy and TEC and the articles roll through somewhat automatically. There seems to be a bug in the system because this has happened before. I am sure the editors at TEC will fix it today.

All that said, I was at the EIA conference and heard the speech in person. Ms. Van der Hoeven had a very convincing argument about resources being wasted, that had nothing to do with the relative costs of renewables. She simply pointed out that in the major MENA oil producing countries the consumption of oil and gas is heavily subisidized to the point that citizens are highly profligate and wasteful which is no good for anyone. Certainly a big part of the argument is to make more resources available for export and keep a lid on prices.

If the goal is to help the poor then direct payments to them to fund fuel purchases would be more effective than keeping the overall price down which benefits rich people than can afford to keep their air conditioners running when they are out of town on vacation. 

Ms. Van der Hoeven also argues that the USA has an indirect gasoline subsidy by having the lowest gasoline taxes, with end prices half of what they are in Europe. This is reflected in consumption habits where Americans love to drive big gas guzzling trucks and SUV's and Europeans tend to drive far more fuel efficient vehicles.

Personally, I find the argument that fossil fuels are not subsidized anywhere to be utterly unconvincing. It all depends on your definition of the word subsidy. As Americans we are fighting wars to secure access to oil and gas from MENA. You might not call that a subsidy, but it certainly amounts to a hell of a lot of tax dollars being spent to secure energy markets. And that is just one example of many indirect subsidies.

Again personally, I don't have a problem with appropriate subsidies. I think it is a perfectly appropriate role of governement to spend tax dollars or cut deals to keep important markets functioning. We do it in agriculture, defence, heavy industry, we fund research for science to develop medicines, and the list goes on. This is something that government should do, while at the same time we need to always guard against excess and corruption which is a constant threat. It is all about maintaining the correct balances.

July 25, 2014    View Comment