Oil guru: 'smart' hoopla outpaced reality, Part II

IT likely to play ever-larger role in running grid

Phil Carson | Dec 20, 2011


In yesterday's column, we offered the first part of my look at a conversation between Pulitzer Prize-winning energy author Daniel Yergin and my colleague Marty Rosenberg, editor of EnergyBiz magazine, which hosts the 2012 EnergyBiz Leadership Forum set for March 19-21 in Washington, D.C.

In the prior column, Yergin discussed how global electricity consumption doubled from 1980 to 2010 and will double again by 2030. The author gave his take on smarter grids and on the need for "heavy duty technological innovation." We continue with his views (and my kibitzing) here.

As an author writing on energy, how does Yergin find the public appetite for energy-related discussions? Rosenberg asked him. (Hint: his answer may be useful to the power industry's own quest for involving its customers.)

Attention rises when there's a crisis, Yergin replied. His book, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (1991) was released during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and shot to the top of the best-seller list. Yergin's The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011) entered the picture during a time of ongoing economic stagnation.

"There's an interest among young people in energy that wasn't there before," Yergin added. "Clearly, the public is very interested in energy alternatives, green energy. Climate is an issue that has gotten a lot more people interested in energy. For a lot of people, it's a pocketbook issue. When prices rise, people are concerned with stability, with reliability. This is something that Americans are worried about. What does our energy future look like? That's one of the reasons they're interested in The Quest, because it gives you a framework for coming to clearer views on your own part in [that future]."

I'd jump in here to ask, rhetorically, whether that insight really does help the power industry. Do regional blackouts or storm-related outages really provide a platform for pressing grid modernization investments? Or does that seem too opportunistic? I'd like to hear from customer service and communications people on that question. It strikes me that a credible message should be consistently conveyed and if a crisis draws customers' attention, that message is in place.

Yergin and Rosenberg touched on the issues surrounding the power industry's fuel mix of coal, nuclear, natural gas and renewable energy. Yergin placed into context the power industry's current fascination with natural gas—touted by some as solving the power industry's concerns with both cost and lower air quality impacts—when he characterized the relationship over time as "turbulent and tempestuous." Natural gas' history of price spikes has repeatedly "burned" the power industry, he said. Natural gas advocates' enthusiasm aside, that history makes some utility executives uneasy.

"Is this time different?" Yergin asked, rhetorically.

According to Yergin, the U.S. currently is an exporter of coal, natural gas is becoming the default fuel for electricity generation and the country must partner with France and Japan if it pursues a nuclear future. Meanwhile, for many reasons, including the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and the high return on investment for energy efficiency measures, investment in clean energy alternatives has increased, he added.

All fairly conventional points, to be sure, but coming from another perspective in the energy sector.

One is tempted to combine the titles of Yergin's two most popular works with what appears to be one of his central themes. That is, that the quest for the prize will reward the players who innovate around clean energy. I believe the evidence reflects that the U.S. could succeed in this endeavor, but the pitfalls are deep and many, including a lack of focus on the future. Despite the fury of innovation taking place here, politically and institutionally, America is looking backwards at its once-great past and fighting change instead of leading it. That must change.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily


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A coal fired power plant is more useful than smart meter

In my opinion smart meters are primarily useful as a vehicle to delay generation investment and distribution system upgrades, as well as convenient aids in extracting extra short-term revenue from the end users by creation of time dependent rate schedules.

The idea that coal, the cheapest energy source, cannot be made "clean" with modern emissions controls is imbecilic. Natural gas merely reduces CO2 emissions, it doesn't eliminate them. Besides, unless all of earth sciences are lying to us, the CO2 levels in the Cretaceous was perhaps 15 times greater than at present. And what about the worst greenhouse gas of all, water vapor? Who regulates that? A carbon tax is a pretty stupid idea unless ALL of the carbon users participate; at this point it would merely serve to accelerate China's economic machine even farther beyond ours than it is.  

Eliminating 2 to 3 cent a KW power from a baseload coal station equipped with appropriate emissions equipment and replacing it with 10 to 15 cent a KW natural gas fired unit power is tantamount to sticking a knife into US industry and by extension all of the employees of that industry. If we're really trying to kill off the middle class, getting rid of their technical jobs is a good way to do it.

Until China and the rest of the developing world are willing to "fight the good fight" and reduce their coal consumption also, what is the point of the US crippling ourselves in an economic war? All that has been accomplished so far is to drive industry offshore and give China another source of cheap fuel. It's not like China isn't technically able to build commercial nuclear power stations, it's just that coal is cheaper and faster to do. And apparently they're not particularly interested in placing their national interest in the caring hands of the natural gas producers. So go right ahead touting the smart meter paradigm; I'm sure China's financial wizards are laughing all the way to the bank.

Interested Young People

I wonder how many of those interested young people are seeking degrees in engineering, material science, chemistry or any of the myriad of educational offerings that would lead them toward a career path in energy. Similarly, I wonder how many are seeking no degree at all or degrees in law, journalism, philosophy and/or political science.

We are bloody well covered with opinionated ignoramuses with no actual education or meaningful experience in the field of energy itself. Meanwhile, employment opportunities in the hard sciences and engineering go wanting.

Start somewhere

First, I think an informed electorate that "gets" energy's place in our prosperity is a good place to start.  Though your point is well taken on the dropping rates of enrollment in the hard sciences, I'd say that the industries affected, the proponents of the hard sciences, the schools and, yes, government, have roles in touting that path.

As for the "opinionated ignoramuses," hey, we need jobs, too!

Seriously, the other professions you list can be said to create more jobs and wealth than engineering. Let's not generalize. Some of the most effective people I've known in the sciences began with a philosophy degree. As for journalism, I've always touted the path I took: hard sciences (biology/geology) undergraduate work for evidence-based thinking.

Regards, Phil Carson