By John Karoly
Chicago, IL, USA
The Vail Global Energy Forum was held in Beaver Creek, Colorado in March 2012 under the auspices of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University and the Vail Valley Foundation. Participants and presenters, as well as panel members, included George Shultz - Secretary of State under President Reagan, Professors from MIT, the California Institute of Technology and a Nobel Laureate from Stanford University, the Director of the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, investment bankers and many others.
The two-day conference centered on key issues that affect world energy supply now and into the distant future. Following the opening keynote by John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado, George Shultz presented an overview of the key themes of the conference. First, however, he complimented the Governor for taking an intelligent approach to the natural gas “fracking” problem in Colorado; then he called for the abolishment of all government subsidies to the energy industry, other than for research and development. His overview set the course of the discussions to follow that addressed:
Government regulations and oversight, especially in the newly created natural gas “fracking” industry: This topic was debated at some length; participants recognized that regulations are required, yet felt that, as always, overregulation is an industry killer. It was suggested that the industry should get together and primarily regulate itself as the US nuclear industry has done, recognizing that accidents are more damaging to an industry than loss of proprietary know-how or loss by the sharing of technologies. The nuclear industry has done it, but the oil industry has refused because of the proprietary technology argument.
The “suddenly” developed, but truly abundant, source of natural gas in the US overwhelms all other sources of energy at the present time. The problem, thoroughly discussed, is the method of extraction from the ground. This industry is still in its infancy, but there are overwhelming reasons to recover methane from the ground. MIT presented data that showed the leakage from the wells (they examined thousands) is less than 2%. The majority of the leakage was due to flaws in the well construction. Furthermore, and contrary to some false information circulating in the media, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted are far less from natural gas using fracking than from coal-fired power plants. Conclusion: This industry should be properly self- and government regulated, information should be shared, fracking media composition should be disclosed, well construction should be improved, and then continue with the natural gas extraction.
Coal-fired power plants: Replacement of a coal-fired power plant with a modern natural gas plant reduces emission in the order of 60%. Furthermore, there are a fewer toxic gases released from natural gas power plants than from coal-fired plants.
The future of nuclear energy presented by Nobel prize-winning physics professor, Burton Richter: According to his assessment, modern nuclear power plants should have a fundamental place in the energy generation of the future since they generate electricity with virtually no greenhouse gas emission. Interestingly, he set the design objectives for nuclear power plants according to length of time after the power fails and based on how long the plant can survive without auxiliary power. To illustrate this point, the Fukushima plants had no time. Current designs are for a few hours. His objective is to have designs that provide for several days. He also noted an important point regarding regulation: The US Nuclear Regulatory Agency is very strong and independent of the utilities it regulates. In Japan, there was a very cozy relationship between the power generators and regulators. Furthermore, it was not comprehensible to him how the auxiliary electricity generators were placed at a location that was below sea level and that the regulators agreed to it! Hence the meltdown of the plants right after the tsunami hit. He said they knew this could happen.
Renewable Energies - Present and Future
MIT physics professor Ernest Moniz presented a bar chart that showed the world use of fossil fuels and renewable energy. He pointed to the towering bars of coal, natural gas and crude oil, and then to the very short bars representing renewable energy. He emphasized how even a small conservation in fossil fuel usage dwarfs the combined renewable energy generated. That said…
Wind Energybarely got a mention other than that it is a generator of surplus, or largely unusable energy, as the wind blows hardest at night when the least amount of electricity is needed, thus much of what wind generates goes to waste since we cannot store electricity.
Solar Energyhas a miniscule generating capacity today, has the advantage over wind in that it does not require huge transmission lines to take the electricity from where it is generated to where people live and the sun shines when electricity is needed rather than when it is wasted. Furthermore, new developments are directed to making solar or photovoltaic cells on thin flexible sheets, paints, etc., making them accessible and useable right where they are needed - where we live and work.
Electricity storage and Smart Gridsare important future developments. Renewable energy, like wind, needs storage that will also eliminate the need for stand-by duplicate fossil fuel plants. With cheap natural gas prices, a utility may not bother with renewable sources if the electricity cannot be stored. Smart grids, utilizing ever-increasing computerization and the internet will serve to measure and direct electricity from areas of surplus to where need develops. This could cut the need for new power plants and transmission lines significantly.
Future electricity/power generationis the subject of significant research being conducted at Stanford University in numerous specific areas, too numerous to elaborate here. Professor Nathan Lewis from Caltech is conducting research on energy from sunlight via artificial photosynthesis. But as Dr. Dan Arvizu, Director and Chief Executive of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), observed, the research he conducted or was part of 30 or 40 years ago is what has become commercially viable now, many years later due to the huge investments needed to bring new developments to market. Investment bankers also made their contribution to this topic, noting, among other things, that inventors always build their first installations in the US close to their labs to cut travel, but once the plant works well, the second and much larger and modern plant goes to other countries with cheaper labor cost. How we keep the second plant here is an important question.
Some interesting statistics were also presented: The price of crude oil, in 2010 dollars, was highest in 1863, decades before Henry Ford’s Model T automobile. It spiked up in 1980 and then in 2009, but it was still below the 1863 price. And another: World energy demand will increase 30% by 2035.
I left the conference thinking that the forces of economics, combined with the certainty of a technology that is here and ready, and a resource that is bountiful - natural gas - will make renewable energy take a back seat for some time to come. It will take a lot of effort to develop natural gas to its fullest: safe extraction, provide fuel for trucks, maybe cars, raw material for diesel, chemicals, etc.. Industries will relocate to this country to take advantage of this resource. And, good people and scientists, such as we met at this conference, will continue to labor in universities and national laboratories on the concepts that were discussed. Solar energy will find local uses in homes, and, with time, will be developed into a very significant energy source. After all, the sun shines and delivers an enormous amount of energy daily.