The Transition: The Future of Energy

by Apr 18, 2013Smart Cities

Seth Rosenberg

Seth is a current dual MBA/MPA in Sustainable Management student at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He also works as Sourcing Manager for Tomato Sherpa, a new ready-to-cook recipe kit company in the Bay Area.

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Experts agree that smart cities of the future will run on clean and renewable energy, and the stabilization of our climate depends on it. The question of ‘why?’ is increasingly being replaced by ‘how?’ Although we have a long way to go, the planning (and implementation) process for this transition is already underway. Some exciting recent news and events help give us an idea of what the pathway to a sustainable energy future could look like.

Stabilizing the Climate: Assessing Risk and Discovering the Opportunities

On April 5th, Ty Cashman and Amanda Ravenhill led an informative and inspiring one-day intensive through Presidio Graduate School focused on the most current climate change science and solutions.

Among many accomplishments in a lifetime of scientific research, climate activism, teaching, and zen buddhism, Cashman is responsible for writing and helping pass California tax legislation that effectively jump-started the world wind energy industry by attracting over a billion dollars of private investment capital for the construction of the first large wind farms.

In addition to teaching several courses at Presidio and engaging in extensive climate activism work throughout the world, Ravenhill is an expert in biochar, a carbon negative waste-to-energy product and systemic solution to energy, food, climate and desertification challenges. She founded and runs The Biochar Association, an industry association for US-based biochar companies.

The four main questions driving the day’s participatory lecture were:

  1. Is it technologically possible to turn the corner to extremely low-carbon energy sources rapidly enough?
  2. If it is technologically possible, could the world economy afford to make the shift?
  3. What would the new carbon-free world civilization look like?
  4. How can we find our place in the solution?

Cashman and Ravenhill have hope that the answer to the first question is yes. Not only are renewable technologies getting more efficient and less expensive, innovative carbon capturing technologies are also emerging. But the window of opportunity will not last forever- we are likely the last generation with the ability to turn the corner.

With respect to the second question, according to the International Energy Agency the transition will take about $36 Trillion USD. Before you become discouraged by this number, think about the fact that this $36 trillion would save the world economy between $103 trillion and $150 trillion in fuel costs. Which points to the biggest take-away from the day: the transition will not cost us anything. But it will cost us exponentially to NOT take the path towards stabilizing the climate, and the longer we wait the less we stand to gain. Every dollar spent in mitigating climate change this year will cost almost $5 in 2017.

To answer the third question, the following six plans were used to help inform the discussion. Check them out for yourself:

For those interested in the truth surrounding our changing climate, whether it can be saved, and how quickly, Presidio blogger Judi Brown has written a lovely piece summarizing this exciting meeting of minds in more depth.

America’s Energy Future: Switch Film Screening, Expert Panel

Another fascinating event was put on by the Presidio Clean Tech Club and Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative. An expert panel and excerpts from the hit documentary Switch sparked a discussion of likely scenarios and practical realities surrounding the profound changes occurring in every energy resource area- fossil, nuclear, and renewable.

The event began with a 15-minute excerpt from ‘Switch’ (trailer available above) that explored the current energy system. Watching tours of some of the world’s largest coal and oil production plants, the audience is reminded about how hidden from everyday life our energy production tends to be. In the film, a Wyoming coal plant worker reiterates this point when he notes that most Americans probably don’t know that 40% of the United States coal reserves, and the 7 largest coal mines in the nation, are in the powder river basin of northeast Wyoming. If you are interested in learning more about the energy issues that drive our world, the creators of the movie have put together an extensive library of almost 300 videos organized by resource and topic.

Following the excerpt, panel moderator and Presidio Professor Darisuh Rafinejad, Ph.D. asked experts James Fine and Paul Fox to answer a few questions about the future energy landscape. James Fine, who holds a business degree from Wharton and a Ph.D. in energy resources, works as an economist for the Environmental Defense Fund. He recently helped design California’s new cap and trade program. Paul Fox is an Australian-born green tech veteran who works as a partner at the CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund. He has a lifetime of international experience that ranges from engineer to strategy consultant to CEO.

One of the panelists main messages was directed towards utilities: this transition is happening, we must make the structural changes now rather than later. Currently, subsidies and externalities bury the increasing marginal cost of existing energy systems. In California, where utilities don’t actually make money selling energy but rather in investing in infrastructure, the current revenue requirement locks them into the status quo. However, a new business model using market based rules and performance based incentives would help facilitate a transition to clean energy.

For these reasons, Fine is working with market leaders to change the structure of the system. With respect to smart grid deployment, Fine is adamant about making sure utilities are actually providing consumer and environmental benefits. According to Fine, Californians spend on average just 9 minutes a year thinking about energy costs, which is why we likely need what he calls ‘set it and forget it’ technology. He also encouraged Californians to think about who really needs a 15% reserve margin on a peak day, and who is paying for it.

Indeed, a transition to renewable energy will inevitably shift the peak load-demand response, one of the driving forces behind the energy system. But this does not have to happen at the expense of reliability. Fox pointed to an interesting phenomenon in Australia, where solar rooftops are actually cutting the tops off of peaks in power demand during the summer months. There is also evidence that solar users also tend to become more energy efficient in behavior. Fine argued that an effective price structure could be put in place to encourage off-peak consumption.

Although climate skepticism remains a political challenge, the recognition of the need for a transition to clean energy extends beyond conservative-liberal divisions. Moderator Rafinejad read an excerpt from a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece written by economists George Schultz and Gary Becker in support of a revenue-neutral carbon tax on energy producers. They argue not only for identifying the full costs of energy that is provided (including pollution), but also for eliminating the many forms of subsidy that run through the energy system.

The panelists agreed that we are nearing a tipping point in the energy industry. Looking to the future, they said, the ability to store energy will be a game changer.

Other renewable energy news and events

  • On Tuesday April 16th at Fort Mason in San Francisco, the Renewables 100 Policy Institute held the Pathways to 100% Renewables Conference, the first international conference in the U.S. focused on 100% renewable energy targets and solutions.
  • The Vote Solar Initiative released a report: “Economic and Job Creation Benefits of SB 43/AB1014- A California Shared Renewable Energy Program” The report suggests that a 1000-megawatt California Shared Renewables program created by SB43 or AB 1014 would result in up to 12,700 new jobs for Californians, $130 million in tax revenue, and $4.3 billion in economic activity for the state.
  • Union Station in Washington, D.C. will be powered entirely by wind for the next three years through Washington Gas Energy Services, a load of almost 19 million kilowatt hours per year.
  • First Solar set the world record for cadmium-telluride (CdTe) photovoltaic (PV) module conversion efficiency. The achievement of 16.1 percent total area module efficiency is a substantial increase over the company’s own 14.4 percent record from January of last year, and was confirmed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense announced its largest solar project to date at Fort Bliss. Slated to be completed in 2015, the $120 million project will provide 14% of the energy needed to run the facility.
  • The American Wind Energy Association announced that the 6,700 new wind turbines installed in the United States last year pushed wind to become top source of new electricity generation capacity in the country (42% of all new capacity). This 28% growth in the market puts total U.S. wind energy capacity at over 60 GW.
  • Portugal’s grid operator REM announced that the 70% of the country’s electricity this year has come from renewable sources.


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