Batteries are ancient, by today’s tech standards. Benjamin Franklin is the first person we know of to use the term, and the first published science on the topic dates to 1791. The days of metal disks stacked in brine are long gone (except in middle school science class). Lead-acid batteries in cars and golf carts are still common and will be for years, given their low cost. But the focus here is on the next generation of large-scale systems. And the question is how these batteries – bigger and more powerful than anything we’ve known – can redefine and remake the world’s electrical grid.
You’ve likely heard the expression “lightning in a bottle”. Storing electricity at industrial scale is very much like that. Electricity moves fast. In copper wire or other conductors, it’s traveling at somewhere between 50% and 99% of the speed of light. And in grid operations, it has to be sold – that is, used – as soon as it’s produced. If it isn’t, grid and utility engineers run the risk of power plants disconnecting, since they’re only designed to run in a very narrow range of conditions. What this next generation of battery tech provides is a way to store that electricity and in doing so provide a whole basket of benefits – financial, technical and environmental.
Arguably the biggest single benefit battery storage provides is the ability to capture electricity from renewable sources. Obviously, the wind doesn’t always blow. And even when it does, that’s an issue in itself. In February 2017, the Danes powered their entire country for 24 hours on windpower. But if a wind farm produces more power than needed, the system operator must start shutting down turbines or face overloading the grid. And while the sun defines “predictable”, solar plants only provide power for so many hours per day. Large-scale storage means that intermittent, low-cost, and environmentally-friendly electricity can be stored now and used later.
Having large amounts of electricity in storage and ready to go at a moment’s notice is a financial boost for power companies. It means that utilities can sell back low-cost power from renewables to meet peak demand; when power sells for far more than it cost to generate. It also means that utilities can meet their own demand spikes without having to pay the often-bruising high prices electricity markets produce at peak demand.
There’s more. Energy storage can improve the system’s operating reserve. Like energy, the grid is always moving – more demand here, less demand there, big storms and equipment failures now and again. It’s a dance that never stops. Engineers and analysts meet these constant changes with machines and data to keep the system balanced. But they are never 100% correct in predicting what will happen on any given day. Having stored reserve power that can be deployed in seconds boosts the operating reserve, and in doing so, boosts grid stability. Improving stability can mean lower infrastructure investment costs. It can also cut the costs of “black starts” when generators go down. Typically, they have to be restarted with diesel generators, but battery systems for just this purpose have already been successfully tested.
So, what do utility-scale batteries look like? Imagine shipping containers lined up in an electrical substation, or row after row of gigantic desktop computer towers. The Hornsdale Power Reserve, in South Australia, was designed and built by Tesla. It uses lithium-ion batteries (like in your computer) and provides 129 MWh of power – enough to supply all the electricity for about 3,500 homes for an hour. These projects sound large, though total deployments to date are tiny – globally about 6 GWh through 2018. But there’s one simple fact that you need to remember. In 2010, commercial battery packs cost about $1,100 per kilowatt-hour. By December 2019, that price had fallen to $156 per kilowatt-hour, a drop of 87% – and nearly 50% of that total decline came in the preceding three years. With costs set to break the $100 mark by as early as 2024, batteries are increasingly likely to be included in energy infrastructure and development for years to come.
At MEC, our job is to keep tabs on energy use in the central Midwest, but why should that matter? Because the ways that people and businesses use energy can affect lives. Technology has yet to come up with a solution that moves people and goods without releasing some sort of air pollution, and air pollution affects human health. The problem is that every power source that can power a vehicle will create emissions and will have a carbon footprint, even electric vehicles. There are, however, many alternative fuel options that are far cleaner than gasoline and diesel. If you’re looking for a vehicle that produces less emissions, there are a lot of factors to consider when making your decision.
Let’s compare the different ways that the energy we use affects our health. In 2017 the emissions from vehicles on the road passed up the amount of emissions released from power stations. That switch has shown up as health problems, such as the increase of child asthma cases for families living near highways and railroads. That’s simply because vehicle emissions get concentrated in the air around the places that people and goods get transported. Transportation emissions are now the #1 source of greenhouse gases too, making it globally important to choose our transportation wisely. For the sake of our local and global health, we must decide to make transportation cleaner. The question now is how.
For some, their ideal chosen solution is to walk or bike more places, and to only shop for things in stores within walking distance of their house. But what if you need transportation? Remember that COVID shutdowns produced sudden, startling air quality improvements the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. As residents of Los Angeles and New York saw with their own eyes, less vehicles on the road immediately improved their air quality, even in heavily polluted cities. But the shutdown of society isn’t a realistic model for fighting climate change in the long run. Movement of people and goods still must happen. Are there cleaner solutions than what’s commonly used to move people and goods right now? The simple answer is yes. For a more complete answer, here are options that make sense for our health, the economy and the environment.
Electric vehicles (EVs), which plug in to an electrical supply to “fuel up,” are creating a lot of buzz right now, and rightly so. All-electric vehicles have zero emissions coming out of their tailpipes, so they appear to be the magic bullet for clean air around our roadways. Plug-in hybrids are also great, in that they make use of electricity as a primary fuel, but are equipped with a fuel tank as a backup for longer trips. EVs are great as urban or suburban family cars, transit buses, or local delivery trucks that rack up limited daily miles before returning to base to recharge. Plus, long-range batteries, fast charging stations, and new heavy truck technologies are under rapid development, so the list of compatible uses is getting longer by the day.
You may not realize that you can help your electrical grid become more efficient with the electricity being generated just by owning an EV and charging it at night. The electrical grid is set up to estimate how much power is needed, and then generate slightly more than that amount to provide for our electricity needs. Whatever electricity is generated at power plants either gets used, or it dissipates with non-use. If you charge an EV overnight, it utilizes that energy that would otherwise be wasted.
Biofuels are another cleaner transportation option available now. They come from farm-produced food commodity byproducts, they emit substantially less air pollution when burned, and they’re surprisingly less expensive than the worst emission producers, gasoline and diesel. Ethanol and biodiesel have been around for a while, and just like your cell phone, their design and our use of them has greatly improved over the last 20 years.
In the 1990s, car manufacturers started figuring out how to protect the insides of vehicle fuel lines from the extra corrosiveness of ethanol blends, which is basically ethyl alcohol (moonshine!) mixed with gasoline. By 2012, ethanol had busted into the mainstream, and most vehicle manufacturers now support up to 15% ethanol (E15). To save money and get a cleaner burn in your vehicle, look for the E15 label on pumps at gas stations. The added ethanol increases the octane, which is actually better for modern, more fuel-efficient engines. Plus, the more ethanol mixed into gasoline, the fewer harmful, carcinogenic gases get released into the air around it. All of this is why today most gasoline at the pump already has 10% ethanol in it. You can choose higher blends if your vehicle is rated to use them. Then it’s a matter of finding a local gas station where that blend is available to support your choice. When you’re buying a family vehicle and want the option of using high blends of ethanol (E20-E85), ask to look at “flex-fuel” options at your dealership. Typically, a flex-fuel vehicle will have a yellow gas cap, indicating that you can safely use blends up to 85% ethanol, wherever you should find them.
Biodiesel is another clean fuel option. It can be used in most diesel-fueled vehicles, and also supports the regional economy as a value-added farm product. It is a renewable fuel made from vegetable oils, primarily soybean and sometimes corn oil, but also from recycled cooking oil and waste fat. No, you can’t just pour the grease from your deep-fried turkey into your pickup. Just like petroleum, it has to be refined first, and biodiesel at the pump has excellent quality controls. Most diesel engines can use blends of biodiesel and petroleum diesel up to 20% (called “B20”), which can be found at some area fuel stations. It’s also an easy drop-in fuel option for farming equipment, heavy-duty freight engines, and industrial work trucks. Fortunately for companies with large industrial fleets, fuel distributors are ready today to bring biodiesel or ethanol blends directly to industrial sites.
Natural gas, or methane, the same fuel that cooks your food and heats your home, can be used in specialized “Near-Zero” engines that are made to burn it. Natural gas is a clean burning fuel with much lower emissions than plain petroleum diesel. It comes in two possible transportation fuel products: compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG). Both are available in renewable options. More on that later. Natural gas is widely available through existing pipelines, and fuel costs are lower and more stable than diesel. It’s a great option for heavy vehicles such as freight trucks, transit buses, and refuse trucks. And, because the engines are quieter than diesel engines, that 6 am trash pickup won’t disturb your sleep. CNG engines eliminate nearly all smog-forming pollutants—hence the trade name “Near-Zero” engines. While CNG is available to the general public at some area fueling stations and you can convert some cars and trucks to use CNG, it usually only makes financial sense for high-mileage vehicles or fuel-hungry service providers to use it. A number of our regional governments and service providers are already using CNG today.
Making natural gas more climate-friendly is a priority for many people and government agencies. The ultimate low-hanging fruit in reducing climate emissions is renewable natural gas (RNG) which involves collecting and then using methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane comes from sources other than just underground and a whopping 39% of natural gas vehicle fuel comes from renewable sources like landfill gas, which comes out of landfills whether it’s used or not. Other sources of RNG include wastewater treatment plants, food waste and agricultural byproducts. Available in both liquid and compressed forms, RNG is rapidly gaining market share because of its ecologically friendly procurement methods. Done right, RNG can even have a negative carbon footprint!
Which fuel heats your grill AND gets your kids to school? Propane (also called autogas for transportation uses). It’s yet another cleaner burning, low-emission fuel with notably quieter operation than diesel fuel. That makes for a much quieter ride, which drivers appreciate. Because of that stealthy quality, propane is a popular option for fleets of larger vehicles, especially school bus fleets. Propane on an autogas transportation contract costs much less than diesel, so school districts can save substantially on fuel costs. Switching to propane also means that students don’t have to breathe diesel exhaust while waiting for their buses. Propane is widely available, with distribution networks already in place nationwide. Like with CNG, you can convert some personal vehicles to run on propane, and though a bit harder to find than gasoline, it is available at some retail fuel stations. Not to be outdone by its gaseous counterpart RNG, renewable propane is an emerging product. As icing on the cake, propane engine manufacturers are actively developing their own version of a “near-zero” engine, expected to be available in coming years.
Though none of these options are ‘perfect’, they each offer substantial benefits compared to conventional fuels—lower cost, longer engine life, quieter operations, lower emissions, and economic benefits to the farm economy. Though no single alternative fuel captures all these benefits, there’s likely an option that’s almost perfect for your needs. When more people, businesses and government fleets embrace alternative-fuel options, the owners/operators enjoy lower costs, softer road noise and less air pollution. And with more investment in alternative fuels, research and development efforts continue to make every available option even better. Big picture: petroleum diesel is far and away the worst culprit in making our air harder to breathe. In order to cut down on the emissions released into the air by our transportation practices, it’s necessary for all of us to recognize and support any and all options. We can’t yet eliminate vehicle emissions, but moving in that direction is far easier than you might think.
For more information on alternative fuels and vehicles, check out the Alternative Fuels Data Center.
You have power.
Your access to energy would have cracked human credulity for most of our species’ time on earth. For millennia, we elbowed away the margins of night with the smoking glow of wood, grass or buffalo chips. Just 200 years ago, whale oil and candles lit the homes of a slowly industrializing world—for those who could afford them. For those who couldn’t, wood remained the main source of light, heat and cooking, along with the coal that drove that industrialization. Now, in an eye-blink of human history, we have become the beneficiaries of a world in frenzied motion.
The energy we use never stops moving. It hurtles from point to point at velocities approaching the speed of light. It slowly plows the oceans in ships big enough to dwarf the fever-dreams of Pharaohs. It is explosive coal dust shot into a furnace, feeding flames five stories high hot enough to melt platinum. It is water roaring 600 feet down a pipe, turning a generator the width of a small house 100 times per minute. It is mazes of pipes and conduits, steam and heat, toxic and explosive chemicals, all combining to refine Jurassic sunlight into jet fuel and gasoline. It is today’s sunlight knocking electrons out of their orbits and into batteries and wires. It is the fission of a single uranium atom unleashing enough energy to make a grain of sand visibly jump, triggered by a neutron moving 1.4 miles per second in reactor spaces unimaginably dense with such reactions. This frenzied motion never stops, only occasionally slows, and makes our world—food, music, lighting, medicine, communications, trade, everything—possible.
As Americans, how does all this shake out? What drives our nation’s energy system today, and what will that system look like tomorrow? And what kind of future do we face as the consequences of this vast, and amazingly productive disruption become clearer? These are the kinds of questions this continuing series of short essays will try and provide some answers to.
We are Metropolitan Energy Center. Part of our mission is to present the best information available on energy, its principles, power and drawbacks, whether it’s heating your house or powering your car. We’ll be covering a lot of ground–from the grid to the feedlot, and from alternative fuels to solar technology. We’ll touch directly on the projects we pursue and probe larger questions of energy policy. We hope that in the process we can hold your interest, provide food for thought, and perhaps puncture a few myths about what new technologies can and can’t do.
Things are already moving fast, and we hope you’ll hop on board for this excursion.
Since January, there’s been a lot of discussion, analysis and 151-proof worry about the COVID virus – understandably. Viral impacts have produced (in less than six months) the biggest economic implosion since the 1930s, public health lockdowns spanning the planet, and a global death toll of (at this writing) 434,388, with nearly 116,000 of those confirmed deaths in the United States.
As you’d expect, there has also been a certain amount of silver-lining searching. It’s only natural – as human beings, we look for the lesson, or what we could have done differently or what we might gain in times like these. And with cars off the road and factories closing down, citizens of cities as remote from one another as Los Angeles, Beijing and New Delhi looked out the window and realized something truly strange was happening – the air was cleaner than it had been in years, even decades. This four-minute clip from CBS has visuals that I won’t try to convey via keyboard. For many, the spectacle of suddenly invisible (a.k.a. “normal”) air was startling.
With that kind of obvious impact, the next Big Question didn’t take long to surface: if substantially shutting down Normal looks like this, what kind of impact is it having on the climate? The early returns are in, and the answer is – not much. NOAA reports globally averaged CO2 content of 417.07 ppm (parts per million) for May – up from 414.65 ppm in May 2019 and 411.24 ppm in May 2018. There’s science behind this lack of change. Earth, in effect, breathes – this was Charles Keeling’s great discovery in the late 1950s. Atmospheric CO2 content rises and falls each year, bottoming out in October as most of Earth’s landmass hasn’t yet released carbon dioxide before the northern winter, and peaking in May before northern hemisphere forests have really begun to reabsorb it. This means that COVID’s clean air aftereffects hit just as seasonal CO2 growth approached its peak.
Early estimates are that pandemic shutdowns led to an 8% drop in anthropogenic CO2 output, and that it would take 20-30% reductions for at least six months to put a dent in atmospheric readings. As climatologist Katherine Hayhoe notes, imagine all the carbon we’ve put into the atmosphere as a pile of bricks. We’ve been piling them up for about 250 years, more or less, and cutting a slice from latest brick dropped on top of the pile doesn’t make that much of a difference. And we’re already seeing a rapid rebound in human CO2 output; “Things have happened very quickly”, in the words of one climatologist tracking current conditions as economic activity ramps back up again.
So if even something as disastrous as COVID can’t substantially alter the pace at which CO2 continues to pile up in the planet’s atmosphere, what will? And if all the efforts made to clean up our energy act to date haven’t materially changed things, what can? It would be easy to throw up our hands and assume that this spring’s lack of substantive results represents something permanent.
We are at an inflection point in how we produce and use energy and the pace of change is only accelerating. Coal, the dirtiest source of electricity, is dying in multiple major economies. June 10th marked 61 straight days that the United Kingdom didn’t generate one kilowatt from coal. COVID has cut demand, so that and an unusually sunny May are part of the story, but the UK’s power grid has fundamentally changed. A kilowatt of electricity cost as much as 600 grams of CO2 in 2012 – this spring, as little as 125. And this took place even as the country’s population grew from 64.5 million in 2012 to 68.9 million this year. In the US, electric output from all renewables surpassed electricity from coal for the first time since the 1880s, and coal has essentially collapsed as a utility fuel – from a peak in 2008 at around 23 quads (Quadrillion BTUs), it’s now producing around 12 quads, as the graph at the link above powerfully illustrates.
And it isn’t just a question of generating electricity. Large-scale battery storage, a long-time dream of clean power advocates, is expanding rapidly. 15 small-scale 9.95 MWh systems will support peak generation while smoothing out price spikes in Texas, and the state symbolized by the oil rig is already the nation’s leading wind generator. In California, PG&E is negotiating 1.7 GWh of storage with the state – more than ten times the power of the Texas sites mentioned above. Perhaps the single most striking change is the cost of solar energy; between 1980 and 2012, the cost of solar modules fell by a stunning 97%, and those costs keep dropping, just as solar cell efficiencies climb to as high as 47% in some experimental designs. Underpinning all of this is a simple, unignorable fact – renewables are now less expensive than fossil energy sources. Markets are responding – unevenly in some locations, swiftly in others but responding all the same.
The task that remains is immense. There is considerable doubt whether the goal of limiting further warming to 1.5 degrees C to avoid the worst of potential climate damage can be reached. There isn’t all that much time left. Lofty pledges of zero-emission goals by companies and countries by 2050 are fine, but we’ve already used up 1.5% of the time remaining between 2020 and 2050 to achieve those goals. And yet, for the first time, there now appear to be enough tools on the bench – technological and economic – to let us get started on meaningful work.
So, when we talk about someone employed in “clean energy”, what does that cover? Like “manufacturing”, many things. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines and tracks employment by sector, but it’s not the most user-friendly resource. So, while BLS notes that there were nearly 6,000 wind turbine service techs employed in May of 2020, it divides them among five different industries, ranging from utility construction to consulting to local government. Sadly, a BLS plan to categorize and track clean energy jobs begun in 2010 was abandoned in 2013 during a federal budget shutdown, and has never resumed.
More generally, clean energy jobs fall into four broad categories – energy efficiency (home upgrades or commercial building retrofits); renewables (solar, wind, biogas, or geothermal energy); grid and storage (electrical engineering, battery tech, and charging stations); and cleaner vehicles and fuels (hybrid and electric vehicle manufacturing or biofuel production). Altogether, more than 3.3 million Americans work in one of these fields, and it’s worth noting that energy efficiency alone employed more than twice as many people as all fossil energy sectors combined.
Like nearly everybody else, clean energy workers have taken a hit in this economy. About 147,000 jobs were eliminated in March, and April totals nearly tripled that. More than 590,000 jobs in the sector evaporated by April 30th, two months ahead of projections by BW Research. The same analysts now expect around ¼ of all green energy jobs to be gone by June 30th, some 850,000 in all.
Under the circumstances, this isn’t surprising. Homeowners are unlikely to invite insulation crews into their homes in the midst of a pandemic. Financial chaos means that banks are less likely to lend on large-scale clean energy deployments. Cities facing budgets collapsing under tax shortfalls are going to emphasize essential services before clean energy buildouts. And utilities are facing tumbling energy demand. IEA estimates that from February through April, global demand for energy dropped 6%, the equivalent of all of India. American energy demand is set to drop 9%, according to the same report.
Whatever the course of economic contraction and recovery, there are certain irreducible advantages to jobs in these industries. To begin with, they tend to be site-specific. Many renewable energy jobs are unlikely to be outsourced – those building and maintaining a thermal solar plant in Arizona, for example, are going to build and maintain it in that location for its useful life. The same holds true for energy efficiency professionals – the homes and buildings in the United States aren’t going to offshore themselves.
Many skilled green energy jobs pay relatively well, can boost stressed economies and don’t require four-year degrees. Wind turbine techs, for example, exemplify this beneficial clustering. Wind turbines require regular service and maintenance, and wind farms are located largely in rural areas in the Midwest and southern Plains. Technicians tend to live in smaller cities or towns near these sites, supporting the local tax base. Median income for a turbine technician in 2019 was $52,910, which could go a long way in Russell County, Kansas or Alliance, Nebraska. And training for the field takes one or two years, depending on program and specialization. Median income for solar installers was lower, but in 2019 stood at $44,890 per year, and for insulation crews, median income in 2019 was $44,180,
The issue, at least for now, is that the three specific categories mentioned above don’t employ very many Americans – about 75,000 in all in 2018 and 2019, according to BLS. But broaden the focus, and green energy’s economic becomes clearer – and bigger. Wind energy’s total economic footprint alone is already substantial. In 2018, 530 plants in 43 states produced components – blades, nacelles, turbines, gearing and digital control systems. Outsourcing of some of this manufacturing is possible, but given the size and weight of components as turbines grow taller, is likely to remain largely here at home. Moreover, the Department of Energy estimates as many as 600,000 jobs in all subsectors of wind energy in less than 30 years.
This kind of job generation potential is what makes remaking America’s energy system so important to inclusive economic recovery. Utilities, states and cities are already beginning to implement plans to change how we generate and distribute energy in a carbon-constrained world. These efforts have been patchy and slow, and to date unlikely to meet even minimal Paris Agreement standards. But under the right circumstances, policy changes, like technological changes, can happen quickly. Emphasizing the very real benefits of more clean energy jobs may help speed that vital process.
So where, as COVID redefines economies and politics, is the renewable energy sector? What happens over the next few years – to technologies, investments, deployments and incentives – will determine multiple trajectories. These include the jobs of millions of people, how quickly carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans, and the possibility of stranded assets hampering any rapid, substantive switch from old to new.
If you’re thinking purely in terms of dollars and cents, the latest issue of Forbes has a fascinating article. A joint study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Imperial College London reviewed returns on energy investments starting in 2009. Combining German and French stock market data, the past five years showed returns of 178% for renewables and -20.7% for fossil energy. UK renewable stocks returned over 75%, legacy energy 8.8%. Here at home, where utility-scale renewable buildouts began later than in Europe, renewable returns were north of 200%, while oil, gas and coal stocks didn’t quite double. Renewable investments proved more stable over the same periods measured. But the same article notes that the biggest fossil energy shareholders – pension funds – are reluctant to disinvest from dividend-rich stocks.
Beyond that, an ostensible renewable energy transition is up against multiple countervailing factors – for starters $900 billion or more in potential “stranded assets” of global fossil energy companies. The oil majors have talked a good game for years now, but the numbers don’t bear out their proclaimed commitments to renewables. Exxon is now in court for, among other things, bragging on its green energy tech while spending less than ½ of 1% of revenues on renewable energy. In 2019, BP projected spending between 3% and 8% (at best) of capex on renewables, and in February the company dumped an advertising campaign highlighting renewables. And so on.
American utilities face the same kinds of stranded asset risks, though only 18% of utility employees view sunk costs in infrastructure as a top worry. But power plants can be ferociously expensive to build. Evergy’s Iatan 2 project, which went online nearly 10 years ago, came in at nearly $2 billion, with state-of-the-art environmental retrofits of the Iatan 1 plant adding to costs. It can take large projects like this decades to pay for themselves; securitizing early retirement of fossil fuel plants can blunt risks to utilities, but so far has only been tried in three states.
Even bigger picture – there’s a substantial inertia built into an energy economy created more than 100 years ago – a vast, complex system that works remarkably well to meet the needs of its customers. To date, renewables are still a small slice of total US electricity output. In 2018, natural gas generated about 35% of our electricity, coal about 27%, nuclear a bit over 19% and all renewables, including hydroelectric, not quite 17%, with niche sources making up the rest.
To be clear, renewable energy’s recent eclipse of coal in the US has been remarkable. In fact, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced the very day this was written that in 2019 consumption of energy produced from renewables passed that produced by coal, the first time per EIA that this has happened since before 1885. But a decarbonized energy economy is still decades away. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that to even approach climate goals, renewables must increase to around 65% of global Total Primary Energy Supply by 2050 – and we’re nowhere close to that yet. More on all of the above, COVID impacts and the state of play in our next renewable installment.
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