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Assessing our rapidly changing world of energy

Alternative Energy

Stanford University’s Sally Benson long ago became involved with research about carbon capture and storage. The technology, still unperfected, is crucial if America’s vast coal reserves are to continue to be used without producing atmospheric greenhouse gases. Benson, right, now director of Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy — a hub for many of Stanford’s 200 faculty members involved in energy studies — agreed to an interview with Allen Best during the recent Vail Global Energy Forum about disruptive technologies, the boom in oil and gas production, and the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Allen Best: In the world of energy, what is the most feel-good story that you see?

Sally Benson: The really rapid growth of solar PV (photovoltaic). It’s extraordinary. It’s all around the world. In California, which I watch very closely, it’s amazing that in the middle of the day we are producing 7 gigawatts of renewable energy out of a total load of 25 gigawatts. Of that renewable energy, about 80 percent is PV on a typical day. Who would have guessed? And it’s getting very cheap.

Q. Why has PV solar done so well?

A. It’s a combination of things. There were some government policies primarily driven by Germany, which provided this very lucrative payments to home and business owners for green-energy production. That created demand. The Chinese responded with excellent supply-side management, learning by doing, and advantages of scale in building some big, big factories. There were also technological improvements.

Q. You talk about something happening here in Colorado influenced by things happening in two other continents. Is that the story of energy altogether?

A. Since the advent of liquid fuels, energy has always been a global story. Now we see this in PV and in batteries. We are all connected.

We are on the cusp of a real revolution in batteries much like we saw with solar photovoltaics beginning about 10 years ago. Batteries are poised to undergo dramatic improvements in energy density and in terms of the cycle life: How many times can you charge and discharge it?

There must be thousands of scientists at universities and industrial labs working as fast as they can, because there’s a big prize. This next generation of battery technology will be very profitable, because there will be demand both for transportation and for storing of electricity from renewables.

Q. What are the implications of improved battery storage to our electrical system?

A. Right now the sun shines in the middle of the day, six or seven hours, and the wind, of course, is even less predictable. The modern electricity system operates on demand. We turn on the light switch, we expect to see light.

In the short run, having batteries will also help with things like power quality. By putting good storage with the right kind of inverters, you can actually help stabilize the grid. But with storage, we could use solar energy at night. The harder problem is seasonal energy storage, and that’s a nut we haven’t yet cracked.

Q. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden says that we have figured out a lot about renewable energy, and now it’s a task of integrating it, which is what they’re doing at the new Energy Systems Integration Facility.

A. It’s a matter of figuring out how to deliver it in a way that provides all the same services and benefits. The way we produce energy today, it’s completely controlled by us. When you want to turn on the electricity, you turn it on. Our electrical supply from coal and natural gas plants is completely dispatchable.

With renewable energy, it comes and it goes. So figuring out how to take advantage of that in a way that delivers the same services that we’re used to will require a lot of integration of what is called demand response.

For example, today when we turn on the dishwasher, we assume it will come on. But if everybody else is doing the same thing, that puts a lot of demand on the grid. We probably don’t care whether the dishwasher runs now or is just done by the morning.

So creating technology to control not only the generation but also the demand would have a lot of benefits. We wouldn’t need so much generation capacity, because we could make better use of the generation capacity we have.

Q. Most people would say that the oil and gas boom in the United States is a good thing. Are there downsides?

A. There’s no doubt that it’s beneficial to the United States if we don’t have to import so much oil, because when we do we’re just sending money overseas, sending jobs overseas.

I think that for natural gas, to the extent that it can be used as a substitute for coal, that’s certainly beneficial for reduced air pollution. And if we don’t have much methane leaking, that’s good for greenhouse gas reduction. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas — over 30 times more potent that carbon dioxide. If it is leaking at a rate of 3 percent or more, the greenhouse gas benefits you realize from burning it, as compared to coal, go away.

It’s also a good thing if we have enough natural gas to export to other countries, particularly in Asia, that are very reliant on coal and have great air pollution problems. Gas would be vastly preferable to burning coal.

On the downside, with oil half the price of what it was, we know consumers tend to buy cars that are not nearly as fuel-efficient. When you buy a car with low miles per gallon, you are locked into a decade or more of inefficiency. There’s a long tail in terms of impacts.

Q. Do you think we can get a strong handle on the fugitive emission of methane from production and transport of natural gas?

A. I think so. A number of studies have shown that most of the emissions of methane comes not from many little leaks but instead from a few large sources. These are things such as valves left open as a result of human error. They are very fixable. With excellent monitoring, this is a very solvable problem.

The distribution system, including the maze of delivery pipes, is a lot harder problem. In some places, we don’t even know where the gas distribution lines are located, because they were installed before good records were kept. The benefits of updating this infrastructure are huge, because of the potential for natural gas explosions, as have already occurred in many places across the country.

Q. Two years ago at this conference, you said that we have received an unexpected blessing in the form of natural gas production and that we’d better not waste it. What did you mean by that?

A. Natural gas provides us the unique opportunity for two things. One, it will make it easier to add a lot more renewables, because of the ability of rapid-start gas turbines (to ramp up when renewables drop).

There are other uses of natural gas, including for light-duty transportation. There’s may be a financial benefit, but in in terms of the greenhouse gases, it’s worse than gasoline.

The other thing is we make chemicals from natural gas. The chemical industry is an important one. We can make all kinds of fantastic materials. As we move into the future, we will see a materials revolution that will allow us to make things that are more recyclable, lighter and stronger.

Q. If we are to continue to burn coal, we must figure out a way to capture carbon from emissions and sequester it and, more importantly, do it at scale and on a global scale. Are you optimistic that we will get there? What will it take?

A. We’re finally seeing carbon capture and storage deployed by coal-fired plants. There’s now a plant in Saskatchewan, Canada, and another plant, in Kemper County, Mississippi, should be on line next year. By 2020, we will have doubled the amount of sequestration from about 14 million tons a year to just about 30. That’s a good thing, because we need a baseline of experience. And understanding the science of C02 storage has advanced tremendously.

The hard part is that it’s it still expensive. Carbon capture and storage is always going to be a more expensive way to produce electricity than burning natural gas using high-efficiency combined-cycle turbines. Nuclear power suffers from the same problem. Unless we have a high price on carbon emissions, it’s hard to make the economic case for C02 capture and storage.

We still can do much to decarbonize our electrical supply by expanding the deployment of lower-cost renewables.

But once we get past 30 to 50 percent reduction (in greenhouse gas emissions), we will absolutely need things like capture and storage if we are going to continue using fossil fuels. That includes natural gas.

It will probably be a couple of decades before we start seeing see carbon capture and storage playing a major role, and only then if there’s a policy that penalizes the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Am I optimistic? I go through days that I’m very excited about the new technology and days of being discouraged because we’re not moving nearly fast enough.

Q. Former Secretary of State George Shultz, one of your colleagues at Stanford, supports a revenue-neutral carbon fee. Do you see that fee as being necessary to create a level playing field for energy? Or can clean energy move on its own?

A. If you are a producer of energy resources or an electricity generator and you know that you were going to have to pay $20 a ton (for carbon dioxide) and it would go up every year for the next century, you would be motivated to find alternatives that will allow you to be competitive. It also levels the playing field. It says that if you put C02 into the atmosphere, you must pay the full cost of that, including the environmental costs of the damages caused by putting emissions into the atmosphere.

Right now, knowing the certainty that you will pay a price if you do this, it would motivate people to look at other options.

If you are collecting all these revenues, what do you do with them? That’s the revenue-neutrality part of it. A lot of people are concerned this revenue would go to the government and continue to grow the government and put a larger tax burden on the people. The idea of revenue neutrality is that you return the money to the people in some equitable way. British Columbia has a revenue-neutral carbon tax that is now up to $30 per ton.

Q. How much time do we have to decarbonize our economy?

A. We need to start now and make significant progress. We know with certainty that any delay makes the problem harder and harder as we go into the future.

This is a multi-decadal problem, but by 2050 we need to have made significant progress in terms of global emissions reductions, on the order of 50 percent. By the end of the century we need an energy system with no emissions. Many studies now suggest the need for negative emissions. The faster we can act and create real meaningful emissions reductions, the less we will have to rely upon more extreme negative-emissions technologies.

We will not solve this problem in 10 or 20 years. If it was just the United States, Europe and Japan, wealthy countries with energy systems where energy demands are probably going to be flat or, if we’re effective in our efficiency, we could have declining demand.

But those are the richest regions in the world. If you look at place like India, large parts of Africa and Asia, there are people with no energy access whatsoever. We cannot afford to live in a world where there are such huge inequalities in terms of access to information, quality of living, access to education, and all of that is reliant upon modern energy access.

It’s an ironic situation that the major economies will need to use less energy and decarbonize quickly, while at the same time, other parts of the world will need to use more energy and emit more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s a hard thing to grasp — we’re doing one thing and they’re doing another — but that’s what will happen and what needs to happen.

denver post

19 Comments on "Assessing our rapidly changing world of energy"

  1. rockman on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 7:39 pm 

    “…carbon capture and storage. The technology, still unperfected…”. Uh? Texas is currently building the largest CO2 sequestration project on the planet. It’s going to pull GHG from the second largest source in the US. Not sure why they even wanted to take a shot at sequestration when the subject was solar.

    Otherwise the article did a fine job of repeating what’s been pointed out for years.

  2. Jack on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 8:54 pm 

    I concur that CCS technology has progressed beyond the “unperfected” stage, as shown by the construction of two CCS projects in Western Canada. One for a coal site and one for a multiple O+G site. However, regardless of the size of the new Texas CCS plant being built, there are limitations (infrastructure costs) as to how effective this technology will be, in light of the total amount of CO2 that needs to be sequestered just in North America alone. I have included an excerpt of an article that refers to research done by Vaclav Smil (

    “A 2008 article on CCS by author Jeff Goodell describes the challenge of transporting carbon best:

    “Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, Canada, argued recently in Nature that ‘carbon sequestration is irresponsibly portrayed as an imminently useful option for solving the challenge [of global warming].’ Smil pointed out that to sequester just 25% of the CO2 emitted by stationary sources (mostly coal plants), we would have to create a system whose annual volume of fluid would be slightly more than twice that of the world’s crude-oil industry.”

    Smil’s own words, to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions:

    “… we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation- storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build.”

    Based on this, one might not look so favorably at CCS as a large scale solution to the CO2 challenge…

  3. Perk Earl on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 3:50 am

    If you want a good report on the state of the world economy, watch the latest Max Kaiser at the link above–watch the 2nd half with some guy from Switzerland. He tells it like it is.

  4. Kenz300 on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 5:52 am 

    The cost of wind and solar gets cheaper and more competitive with fossil fuels every year.

    What Country Powered Itself Entirely On Renewable Energy For 75 Days?


    Renewable energy in Germany – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Quote –”

    Germany’s renewable energy sector is among the most innovative and successful worldwide. Net-generation from renewable energy sources in the German electricity sector has increased from 6.3% in 2000 to about 30% in 2014.[1][2] For the first time ever, wind, biogas, and solar combined accounted for a larger portion of net electricity production than brown coal.[3] While peak-generation from combined wind and solar reached a new all-time high of 74% in April 2014,[4] wind power saw its best day ever on December 12, 2014, generating 562 GWh.[5] Germany has been called “the world’s first major renewable energy economy”.[

  5. Makati1 on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 6:17 am 

    Kenz: Germany-“In 2013 coal made up about 45% of Germany’s electricity production”

    Share of fossil energy consumed 74.6% (2013)

    Share of renewable energy consumed
    25.4% (2013)

    Keep flogging the renewables, but Germany still imports most of it’s energy.

  6. Davy on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 7:19 am 

    Carbon capture is a complete joke of both the coal industry and the AGW’ers in denial that it is BAU itself that is the problem. It is 7BIL people that is the problem. No amount of carbon capture, which will only ever be a niche activity, can make a difference.

    This is now not a technological solution. Tech got us to where we are now. This now is the old fashion excess deaths over births for as far as the eye can see. This is now just the old fashion back to the land and simplicity of the old days per fossil fuels. BAU = denial. Denial is everywhere from the greenies to the brownies.

    I wonder who will blink first the brownies or the greenies. They both hold their technology sacred. What a crock of shit. At least the brownies could give a shit about our environment. The brownies are honest about their rape and pillage. The greenies want to try to be carbon lite while they rape and pillage. Have you ever heard of a nice rape? “OH, lady I am going to screw you nicely and not hurt you so maybe it will not be so bad.” Cat Piss folks.

  7. Dredd on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 9:35 am 

    “world of energy”

    It is said and fatal when humanoids do not know the difference between poison and energy (The Agnotology of Sea Level Rise Via Ice Melt).

  8. Dredd on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 9:35 am 

    typo “sad and fatal”

  9. steve on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 10:51 am 

    When you tell a liberal about our energy predicament they say no problem we will just have solar take over….When you tell a conservative they say anything from abiotic oil to if the liberals would just get out of the way we have 100 years of oil in Amerika!Sad…sad….

  10. Spec9 on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 2:16 pm 

    CCS definitely does work. But the question is whether it is financially sensible. All we do is build a few prototype plants which have massive cost overruns. Is it cheaper to build a CCS plant or to build lots of solar PV, wind turbines, geothermal, hydropower, tidal power, and storage systems that will completely back up any lulls in renewable generation. I think the latter may be cheaper. Just throw in a few more nuke plants for some baseload. And few natural gas peak error plants for emergencies.

  11. Spec9 on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 2:28 pm 

    Germany has been a pioneer but one needs to keep things in perspective. They have installed a lot of solar PV and it does work there…But they are at the same latitude as Alaska! So more southern places get a much bigger bang for the solar buck. Germany should have prioritized shutting down their coal plants instead of nuclear. The offshore wind is expensive but will provide high capacity factor renewable energy (sshould have done more of that and less solar).

    And their efforts have been very important because think of how much more leverage Putin would have had if Germany was completely dependent on Russia. Putin has probably been the best salesman for continuing the Energiwende.

  12. rockman on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 5:54 pm 

    Jack – You make some valid points. “…there are limitations (infrastructure costs) as to how effective this technology will be, in light of the total amount of CO2 that needs to be sequestered just in North America alone.” But that’s not what they said:”The technology, still unperfected…”. The tech is well known and readily applicable. How economic the process might be and if there’s sufficient motivation is an entirely different issue. We can reduced CO3 production in half this month: just forbid half the fossil fuel combustion. No “perfect technology” needed…just stop. Of course, economic considerations kill that “solution”.

    Spec: “All we do is build a few prototype plants which have massive cost overruns,..”. Maybe someone is but not in Texas…we don’t do crap like that. LOL. The Texas project is not a pilot project but a full scale huge undertaking. And it ain’t being done to save the climate…we don’t do that crap either. LOL. It’s being done for a pure profit motive. We are very big into crap like that. Remember Texas is the Saudi Arabia of low quality coal…lignite. Think what that asset will be worth not when the sequestration begins or even 10 years later. Think decades down the road as the other fossil fuels become ever increasing scarce.

    Consider the hype about the future of electrified transportation. Terrific: NYC, L.A., etc. have a lot of e-cars, e-trucks and e-trains. They’ll just sit there and rust without a huge source of electricity generation. More nuke plants? That ain’t happening anytime soon. Huge solar farms? Some pilot projects scattered here and there but nothing massive like the huge power plant we’ll be sequestering in Texas.

    Now add the strong financial incentive the Texas govt provided the wind industry. Again, to pound the point home again: our politicians are on record as not giving a crap about preventing AGW. And some of them are even proud of that position.

    As usual it ain’t personal…it’s just business. And the business is to make Texas the epicenter of the US economy decades down the road. Who else do you think understands PO and its implications towards future economic stability better then our politicians and TPTB?

  13. energyskeptic on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 6:12 pm 

    The giant oil fields that supply 80% of our oil are depleting more and more rapidly, especially the non-OPEC, market-driven fields which used techno-fixes of horizontal drilling to get the oil out NOW, which will cause much higher decline rates — CLIFFS — in the future (OPEC giants will decline less quickly because their quota system will lead to a higher URR). The point of which is that oil is the master resource and once it declines, coal reserves become resources, and there’s good reason to suspect Peak Coal is sooner rather than later for the same reasons as Peak Oil – the best quality, easiest, nearby reserves were exploited first. Patzek and others believe that as far as the peak energy of coal is concerned, we’re already past peak energy coal in the USA and world. We’re mining more but it’s a lower quality.

    No way when people are freezing in the dark that CCS will be used. Coal-to-liquids will consume half the energy in the coal just to make CTL and CCS would use up another 40% of the coal energy. Not going to happen. Rationing and hard times are likely within the next decade, unless a great depression can dampen demand down enough for the 1% to continue BAU at best a decade or less longer, because the giant oil fields will reach 9% + decline rates once they pick up steam

  14. Makati1 on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 8:24 pm 

    energyskeptic, the techie dreamers and the con flag wavers will take us into the abyss faster and faster. Buckle up! It’s gonna be a very rough and painful ride to the bottom.

  15. Speculawyer on Mon, 30th Mar 2015 12:01 am 

    Rockman: I’m not familiar with that Texas plant but I do see Texas being a special case where CCS may work. You’ve got lots and lots and lots of old oil fields which would love to have a mass amount of free CO2 that they could use in EOR. And I’m sure running a few more pipelines to carry that CO2 would be too hard considering all the pipelines that already criss-cross the state.

    But in most places, CCS would require drilling virgin wells just for the purpose of sequestering the carbon. Instead of being a desired thing, it would be a huge headache.

    So, if it works in Texas then god bless and go forward. But I’m not convinced it will ever be a big thing when we can do other things like solar PV, onshore wind, geothermal, hydropower, offshore wind, biomass, tidal power, and other things that will be easier and cheaper than CCS.

    It is going to be tough but might have to leave that coal in the ground. If the scientists are right (and I presume they are), we are going to see more and more difficult climate conditions in the decades to come. Eventually, even the people down in Texas will realize that AGW is not good thing. Actually, ESPECIALLY the people in Texas will realize it as they deal with heat waves, droughts, sea level rise, etc.

  16. rockman on Mon, 30th Mar 2015 6:57 am 

    Spec – Quit correct about the Texas “advantage”. A little correction though: new CO2 lines will have to be built…can’t use the existing lines. The price tag for the pipeline for the new CCS project is $400 million.

    But that still leaves the strong financial incentive I mentioned. Texas is sitting on tens of $billions in coal assets that will be worth even more down the PO road. But as you say not all states will have the same magnitude of incentive. But there should be incentive enough IMHO. I suspect the biggest hurdle is the unwillingness of the politicians and TPTB to be honest with the public about the future. That’s the scare tactic needed to get folks to accept the cost of CCS as well as all the other approaches to the alts. But the same common problem IMHO: unwillingness to look beyond the next election cycle or quarterly earnings report.

    Don’t ask me why Texas politicians have such a different attitude. Maybe it’s as simple as our inbred need to see ourselves as independent of the rest of the country. Our big wind power build out required a lot of govt incentives as well as rate payers agreeing to get tapped financially a bit harder in the beginning. But still: we are the oil/NG epicenter of the US and you wouldn’t think our politicians and citizens would be such strong supports of alts. CCS actually makes more sense since it allows more ff consumption. Maybe part of the motivation is the strong belief that the Texas economy will continue to flourish while other large section of the national economy have slipped into doomer mode.
    Back to electricity. Based upon projections/hope the state anticipates a 30%+ increase in e- demand in the next couple of decades. We are already the largest e- consumer in the country by a wide margin…we really do like our air conditioners. Texas population is growing and has already allowed upping our seats in Congress. And given human nature when times start getting really bad in the US the swing voters always shift to the right. In Texas politics have always been a big focus especially when it comes to expanding the economy. And I wasn’t being sarcastic: except for a few liberal souls in Austin very few in Texas give a crap about AGW and its effect on the rest of the world. It really is just good business for Texas to start shifting away from fossil fuel today and where we can’t we’ll develop CCS. But that’s true for every state.

  17. rockman on Mon, 30th Mar 2015 7:16 am 

    Spec – “Actually, ESPECIALLY the people in Texas will realize it as they deal with heat waves, droughts, sea level rise, etc.” Just noticed that last comment of yours. Texas has always had devastating heat waves: that why we burn a lot of lignite: to run our AC’s. Droughts: much of the state has been in a semi-arid condition since we were an independent nation over 150 years ago. Which is why the state began building reservoirs more than half a century ago and continues doing so today. We also are using some of the many $billions in our “rainy day” fund (most of which is sourced from our ff industry) to mitigate water shortages. Sea level rise: we’re already dealing with submergences along some of our coastline as well a periodic loss due to hurricanes. We’ll just keep dealing with that problem as we have for decades.

    I’ve lived in Texas for more than 30 years. Went to grad school at Texas A&M, broke bread with many politicians and TPTB. And have dealt regularly with folks nearer the bottom of the pyramid then the top. As a whole “we” have no concern about AGW and, IMHO, never will as long as we get the net benefits of the dynamics at play.

    I do mean it when I say it ain’t personal…it’s just business. And understand what I mean by “personal”: we don’t take the problems of the world as personal – i.e. those ain’t our personal problems. Ours isn’t necessarily an attitude to be admired. But it is what it is.

  18. Davy on Mon, 30th Mar 2015 7:56 am 

    Rock said “we have no concern about AGW”. Maybe now Rock but in a few years you will but most likely it will be a BAU collapse of the systematic kind. Texas should be keenly afraid of this type of collapse having far too many people in a dry energy and water intensive state. Mexico to the south is a net negative because they will be collapsing along with Texas with hordes of migrants coming up North thinking it is better. Basically Texas is an example of intensive everything. Even the attitude is intensive, “Don’t mess with Texas”. Mother Nature and the grim reaper called Bottleneck will mess with Texas and soon enough. Nothing personal Rock just morning doom.

  19. Kenz300 on Mon, 30th Mar 2015 9:31 am 

    Wind Project Adds 200 Megawatts to Texas Grid

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