Thursday, June 13, 2013

"All of the Above" Must Be Weighted by Common Sense

  • "All of the Above" is just a cliché if not tempered by an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of different energy sources, and a standard basis of comparison.
  • Renewable energy is gaining market share, but fossil fuels--especially oil and gas--will play crucial roles in the energy mix for decades.

Last month, Real Clear Politics and API hosted an energy summit in Washington, DC entitled, “Fueling America’s Future”. It was intended to provide a quick overview of most of the key technologies and issues associated with an all-of-the-above energy strategy for the United States. Going through the highlights of the webcast gives me an opportunity to summarize my point of view for new readers of this blog. I’d sum that up as “All of the Above”, with asterisks for the proportions and situations that make sense.

This slogan, at least in the manner in which it has been espoused by politicians in both parties, has attracted fair criticism for being overly bland and safe. I suspect that critique reflects a general sense that our energy mix has always been composed of all of the above, or at least all of the technologies that were sufficiently proven and economic to contribute at scale at any point in time. However, as both our technology options and choice criteria expand, our understanding of the evolving energy mix is hampered by metrics and assumptions that are overdue to be revisited.

The summit’s first panel examined the technologies of the mix, in a “lightning-round” format of five minutes apiece. The panel covered oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear and renewables, led by wind power.

The interim CEO of the main US wind energy trade association, AWEA, cited his industry’s progress in reducing the technology’s cost, increasing the domestic content in its US value chain from 25% to 67%, and expanding its market penetration. Mr. Gramlich was also surprisingly forthright about wind power’s continued dependence on federal subsidies, a point to which I’ll return in future posts.

He began with a statistic indicating that wind power was #1 in new US electric generation capacity last year. This is more than just a talking point, but it calls for some refinement if we’re to see an accurate picture of the changing US electricity mix. When most generating facilities operated within a narrow band of expected utilization, say 60%-80% of the time, comparing their nameplate capacities like this was satisfactory. Exceptions such as “peaking” gas turbines that only operate a few dozen or hundred hours a year were never the recipients of targeted government incentives.

Now, however, our energy mix includes technologies with effective utilization rates, or “capacity factors”, ranging from as low as 10% for solar photovoltaic (PV) installations in cloudy northern locations, to roughly 90% for nuclear power. Wind comes in around 20-35%, depending on site and turbine size. In terms of their likely annual power generation, new natural gas facilities actually led new wind farms by roughly 2:1 last year.

Given the enormous and largely unanticipated natural gas renaissance in the US, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. In my first blog post over nine years ago I posed a series of questions, including whether we were on the verge of an energy technology breakthrough. I had in mind something involving renewable or nuclear energy, energy storage, or vehicle technology. The shale gas revolution was already starting to emerge from obscurity, but I, along with most other energy experts at the time, remained oblivious to it.

The new head of the American Natural Gas Alliance described gas as clean, abundant and affordable. At least the last two points should be uncontroversial by now, backed up by market prices and resource assessments. We tend to think of gas as a bridge fuel to a lower emission future, but I think we’ll increasingly hear it called a “foundation fuel,” as Mr. Durbin did.

The spokesman from the Solar Energy Industries Association accurately referred to solar as our fastest growing energy source, though he didn’t explain how it would grow from 0.1% of US generation last year to more than 1% by next year. He alluded to a plausible inflection point based on policy and innovation, but his enthusiasm that solar was expanding rapidly outside California and the Southwest ought to worry us.

Until PV prices fall much lower than they have, a surge of installations in places like Vermont and Wisconsin means that taxpayers and ratepayers are paying more than they should to make that happen. And the global competition and “survival of the fittest” he touted has mainly resulted, not from capitalism, but from dueling government incentives for solar, especially in Europe and Asia. I’m much more positive about solar than the above might suggest, but like other renewables, it will cost less and achieve more for us in locations with high-quality resources.

The discussion on oil was more globally focused, based on BP’s forecasts and annual Statistical Review. Contrary to the widespread view of oil’s continued dominance, it has been losing market share over the last 40 years — including the last 13 years in a row — and stands at its lowest market share in the US since at least World War II.  The representative from BP linked this performance to oil’s concentration in transportation fuel, where it has been squeezed out by efficiency, low economic growth (and to some extent biofuels, which got short shrift in the session). At the same time, the growth of North American production, another dividend of the shale revolution, puts increasing pressure on OPEC. I’ll come back to this dynamic in future posts.

Wind and solar aren’t the only, or even the biggest, renewables, despite the attention they receive. I was glad to see hydropower–often the forgotten renewable–represented on the panel, though I was disappointed by the absence of geothermal power. Both are more geographically constrained, yet have features that wind and solar could only wish for.  Hydro generated nearly 7% of US electricity last year from just 3% of US dams, with significant potential for growth through retrofitting unpowered dams. The Executive Director of the National Hydropower Association quoted Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as saying, “Hydro is back.” That could prompt some interesting discussions.

I’m glad I wasn’t there representing coal, which must surely be the least loved energy source today. It continues to grow globally, with US coal exports playing a role, but the domestic US story is a “decline narrative” as the VP of the National Mining Association described it. He managed to find a note of optimism in the more efficient coal power fleet that will remain after 68,000 MW of old capacity retires by 2020, under pressure from various regulations and competition from natural gas. Unfortunately, efficiency alone isn’t sufficient. From my perspective, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the key to reconciling coal’s convenience and low energy cost with its high emissions. CCS wasn’t mentioned by name, but was only alluded to as “technology that does not exist.” That dismisses it too lightly, as I’ll explain when time permits.

The head of government affairs for the Nuclear Energy Institute spoke last in the lightning round on technology. (The subsequent panel on energy issues is worth your time, too.) He emphasized nuclear’s anchor role in the US electricity mix, with 12% of US generating capacity contributing around 20% of the electricity supply at a cost of 2¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Yet despite five new reactors under construction and a wave of license extensions, post-Fukushima the center of the nuclear industry is shifting to places like China and India. 66 reactors are under construction outside the US, mainly in the developing world, because that’s where demand is growing.

I’ve worked in various aspects of energy for more than 30 years, and for much of that time our energy mix and the forces that drive it have been in a state of flux. With that in mind, my recipe for “all of the above”  starts with what we have now, recognizes the inertia of existing fleets and infrastructure, and evolves as costs shift and our emphasis on environmental consequences grows.

Wind and especially solar will grow, but will add the most value when used with, rather than against the grain of their limitations. Nor will energy storage turn them into reliable, baseload energy sources like nuclear and coal, at least until it is much cheaper. The US natural gas opportunity looks transformative in a way that renewables don’t, yet, with value well beyond power generation. Coal will linger, but without effective CCS will remain vulnerable from many angles. Meanwhile, oil remains the indispensable fuel for transportation, which is the cornerstone of our global economy. Yet its indispensability will erode in increments each year, as EVs eventually grow from novelty to significance and new biofuels start to emulate oil’s trump cards of convenience and energy density. It’s a great time to be talking about energy, as it has been for the last nine years.

A slightly different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for your report and your reasonable commentary.

The Big Picture here is that "All of the Above" is really no more than useless marketing fluff. It was created by PR people trying to trick politicians to shoehorn in inferior alternative energy options onto our grid.

"ALL" includes unreliable, expensive, and environmentally destructive options, and why would any of those be acceptable?

The proper mantra is "All of the Sensible" and that should be our sole focus: what is sensible?

Geoffrey Styles said...

I think one reason "All of the Above" got traction is that it allowed politicians of all persuasions to use it while really meaning, "All of My Preferred". So for one group, it was renewables plus gas and begrudgingly oil but very little coal, while another group could use the same phrase but mean mainly oil and gas and perhaps coal, with a bit of renewables (or not.)

I do like "All of the Sensible", which I believe is courtesy of Michael Levi, though "sensible" is still very much in the eye of the beholder, and mine would probably look different than his.

Ed Reid said...


Regrettably, "Common Sense" is no longer common. Therefore, a decision not to abandon one energy source before there was an acceptable alternative would require uncommon sense.