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8 Big Ideas That Could Pave the Road to Clean Energy

Leading thinkers offer visions of how to make our energy supply cleaner, more efficient, and more abundant.

Jan 19, 2010 6:00 AMApr 12, 2023 7:48 PM


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Some crises hit unexpectedly—for instance, hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami. The energy crisis is something very different: a slow-motion problem unfolding in fits and starts right before our eyes, often in foreseeable ways. We know that the population of the world (and of the United States) will grow, and that people will expect an ever-rising standard of living. We know that fossil fuel resources are finite. We also know that our current methods of energy generation have significant environmental drawbacks. In short, we have the luxury of preparing for the future now.

With that in mind, DISCOVER teamed up with the National Science Foundation to set up a series of briefings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Eight leading thinkers offered visions of how to make our energy supply cleaner, more efficient, and more abundant. Here we feature highlights from their presentations. None of these proposals require magical breakthroughs. All they require is action.

Lowell Ungar, senior policy analyst, Alliance to Save Energy

-Bright Idea: Treat efficiency like a fuel and make it the cornerstone of energy policy.

Energy efficiency is the first fuel and must be at the core of our nation’s energy policy. Energy efficiency is not a sideshow. It is the main show, and we’ve only begun to tap it. To achieve it, there are dozens of things you can do, many of them strictly personal and cost-effective as well. You have to know which kind of lightbulb to get. Can you install a ground source heat pump? What about tightening the walls of your home to reduce air leakage, thereby saving on heating and cooling your home? Your landlord may be choosing what equipment to put in, but since he might not pay the energy bill, he might not care how efficient it is.

You can also try to influence legislation to enact energy-efficiency policies. One such policy is the carbon cap. Current proposals are to set a limit on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions by issuing permits that limit those emissions to entities like power and industrial plants. These plants would be allowed to trade permits among themselves in a system known as cap-and-trade. By one independent estimate, a carbon cap bill would take energy demand—predicted to go up 15 percent over the next 40 years—and essentially hold it flat. Another policy would address building-energy codes. Buildings account for about two-fifths of the energy we use and are responsible for about two-fifths of the carbon emitted in this country. Right now building codes tend to say OK, can we get 1 percent, can we get 2 percent savings maybe? No, we need 30 percent savings. That’s a starting point. Then 50 percent savings, then more moving forward from that point.

Another important policy involves efficiency labels. If you go buy a dishwasher, you walk into the store and they’re required to post labels on every dishwasher they sell, telling you how much energy it is likely to use and how much that energy is going to cost you. Then you can make a choice as to whether you want to pay a little bit more for a better dishwasher because you’re going to get that money back in your utility bills.

If you want to buy an efficient house, good luck. Maybe 10 percent of the new homes in this country are labeled Energy Star for their efficiency. The foreclosure problem in this country stems not just from mortgages but also from utility bills. There’s good evidence that utility costs are the second-leading cause of foreclosure, but if you want to reduce those bills, you won’t often find easy explanations telling you how.

Ralph Masiello, innovation director, KEMA

-Bright Idea: Store renewable energy so we can use it when we need it.

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar need storage. It’s kind of funny; with all other commodities and manufactured products for the past 40 years, we’ve been on a kick to reduce inventory, but electricity has always been a zero-inventory product, until now. Our inability to store electricity meant that every time somebody in the house turned the light on or off, ultimately the source of electricity—the generation plant—had to wiggle up or down. But we’re at a cusp where we can start putting storage on the grid. This means that we can handle the fluctuations, the imbalance between demand and supply, with huge benefits.

Right now the price of energy ranges from negative $20 to $500 per megawatt hour, and that changes every five minutes. Think about that volatility. The stock market doesn’t move that fast. And what’s this about negative prices? When the generators are producing too much, the markets have to pay somebody to take the extra energy. So the ability to store it will help smooth the tremendous volatility we’ve got in prices today.

We’re not going to be able to store power in batteries for the 9 billion people who will be around in 50 years. We are going to have to figure this out as a fuel problem. The smart grid can help. Number one, front and center, we can use the grid to decouple the renewable power production from when we want energy. The sun shines only during the day, so it’s not going to help cool your house at night. And wind, in many parts of the country, is a lot stronger at night than it is in the daytime. We’re already in a situation in Texas where wind farms have to shut off in the middle of the night because they can’t get the electricity to the station. There’s not enough demand where the wind farms are, and the transmission pipes aren’t big enough, because there’s nowhere else to put it. Storage will level the load.

To facilitate storage, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the states will have to work through the policy issues. In essence, we now have a Chinese wall between two classes of assets: If it is a transmission asset, then the utility owns it and it is regulated by the government. But if it is a generation asset, it is owned by a merchant or investor who has assumed risk to produce energy—and it is deregulated. Storage would bridge the barrier. You put the energy into storage when it is cheap, and you take it out when it is valuable. But new regulations would need to address who owns the energy and how the revenue is generated, among other things.

George Huber, chemical engineer, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

-Bright Idea: Produce ethanol or other renewable fuels from biomass that we do not use for food.

The amount of biomass available from corn and food crops is very small; for biofuels to have a large impact, we must harness energy from nonedible plants, also known as cellulosic biomass—wood and wood waste, agricultural waste, and energy crops. You want to convert it as cheaply as possible and make the highest-value products. Here’s how: First you break that solid biomass down into liquid or gaseous products. Then you add catalysts to convert these broken-down products into a range of compounds. From such biomass, you can make all the same fuels that we make from petroleum today: gasoline, diesel, jet. In the future, when people go to the gas station, they won’t even know that they’re putting a biofuel into their car. This is a very near-term solution that we are going to see happening in the next 5 to 15 years.

My opinion is that we’ll first see cellulosic biofuels being done with forestry products because you can buy forestry products on the market today. We know how to harvest them. And then in the future, once we’ve demonstrated the technology, we’ll move on to other crops as well. Cellulosic biomass has a huge potential to make liquid transportation fuels. It does not compete directly with food crops, and it is the only renewable source of carbon that we have.

One technology we’re studying, called catalytic fast pyrolysis, produces gasoline-range compounds from biomass in a single step. We can take sawdust. We can also take agricultural waste. We can also take energy crops, and we can make gasoline. And we do this in one single reactor. We’re using very inexpensive catalysts to make a liquid product that already fits into existing infrastructure.

There is no new need for flex-fuel vehicles. There is no need for new pipelines. We are also making jet fuel from cellulosic biomass. The military is entirely dependent on petroleum-derived jet fuel to meet its transportation needs. So from a national security point of view, they’d like to look at alternatives.

Vivian Loftness, architect, Carnegie Mellon -Bright Idea: Use natural light, better airflow, and smart design to make buildings more efficient.

Buildings are perhaps the most significant player in carbon production. How can we make them more efficient? We need to embrace nature. The House buildings and Senate buildings in Washington, D.C., are designed around nature. They’re designed around daylight in the working spaces. They’re designed around natural ventilation. They predate electrical energy. They were and could continue to be amazing work environments.

Daylight can displace between 30 and 60 percent of all lighting energy in this country. The key is turning that light switch off and making sure that window is designed to distribute the light in that space. There’s a stretch because some of our buildings are too deep; we’ve also started to move our workforce into basements, which should be illegal. If you use daylight as your dominant source of lighting, work environments are so much more beautiful.

We should also be using natural ventilation, even through the cool seasons. In fact, we used to do that routinely. Every college campus that is more than 50 or 60 years old used to rely on natural ventilation as its only breathing-air system. In lecture halls and classrooms, we basically managed to educate intelligent people without having to have central air-conditioning and forced ventilation. Obviously you’re not going to open the window wide when it’s 10 degrees outside, but you can certainly use natural, free air to provide your breathing-air needs.

Passive solar energy can provide between 20 and 40 percent of our heating loads, and beyond that, we should shade America. In Sacramento the utility companies will plant a tree for you. You can pick out trees from a picture book, and the utilities will come and plant them in your garden. It actually reduces the peak and running electrical loads on the grid. We have to insulate and tighten to reduce both heating and cooling loads.

We should be using every watt of energy three times. We are pouring about 70 percent of our total electricity up the chimney, and that 70 percent is free heat. Actually, you could use that energy four times if you really got it right.

We also have to get America walking again. This is a building issue because it’s about where we’re putting our new buildings. We are increasing the mileage we drive every year to get to the same types of places; it’s time for us to infill over sprawl.

Daniel Nocera, chemist, MIT

-Bright Idea: Split water to generate hydrogen energy—but do it the cheap way.

Nature is the best solar fuel energy storage machine known, so let’s figure out how it works. Light comes in four photons, and then it hits the leaf, and it splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. A leaf makes twice as much hydrogen as it does oxygen, and then it stores the result as a solid fuel. So you’ve stored the sunlight in a fuel, and the energy is in the chemical bonds. Then you eat that fuel, and you get all the sunlight back out in a time-released way. So you are literally chewing the sun.

Our lab at MIT invented a process that splits water and performs photosynthesis cheaply, outside of the leaf. Lately we’ve found out we can use the Charles River as a water source. We can use waste streams as water sources. We can use the ocean as a water source. So you can generate hydrogen through artificial photosynthesis whenever you need it. I’m very interested in the nonlegacy world, especially Africa and India. Giving a little kid in Africa 500 watts of energy will change his life. And that’s not much energy.

Al Gore has been walking around saying: “Just use the technologies. They’re on the shelf. Take them off.” But he’s gone a bit over the deep end. Yes, we do have the technologies. I have photovoltaics. I can store hydrogen in a fuel cell and get all the energy out. I can build any number of systems for you right now, but guess what? They’re too expensive. The reason you need scientists like me to discover my little cobalt phosphate catalyst —the material that can drive photosynthesis outside the leaf and in the lab—is because I’m going to do it cheaply.

To take care of the average house in a day, you need 20 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is equivalent to only 5.5 liters of water. To drive that point home, I’m holding the amount of water in my hands that you need to power a very big house on the California coast. That amount of water takes care of that house as well as powering a fuel cell car around town. So that’s the future. There’s no way to stop it. Nature already did this 2-billion-year experiment and decided on this process, and it’s coming soon.

Brooke Coleman, executive director, New Fuels Alliance

-Bright Idea: Let biofuels compete freely with petroleum on the open market.

Sometimes people compare using advanced biofuels to the Internet boom. But no one had control of the Internet market before the Internet existed. The oil companies do have control of the liquid fuels market, however—so at the end of the day, what the biofuel folks are looking to do is to take market share away from probably the most powerful industry in America, and arguably in the world. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s policy driven.

So what do you need to do to solve the problem? You have to cut the knot by allowing these fuels to compete in the marketplace on a level playing field. Get flex-fuel vehicles on the roads that can run on any combination of biofuels. In the United States, people pretend it’s really difficult. It’s not. It’s less expensive than putting a seat belt in a car, certainly less expensive than air bags, definitely less expensive than stereos and a leather interior. Companies have to attract investment, build plants, and produce gallons ahead of the market, in time for these mandates to kick in.

Anybody who has lived in this country for the last 18 months knows that when petroleum prices go up and down, you have a variety of indirect carbon effects in the market. If we place controls on carbon in the future, we will have to score each fuel based on specific variables and assumptions that might make or break entire industries. We need to let renewable fuels out of the box so they can compete on a level carbon playing field. If you’re going to carbon-score them and compare them on a relative basis, treat petroleum and biofuels alike.

AGENTS OF CHANGE All of the ideas outlined above require rethinking how we generate energy, how we store it, and how we use it. These two transformative technologies could help bring about such radical reforms.

THE TRANSFORMER S. Massoud Amin, electrical and computer engineer, University of Minnesota

THE CONCEPT Self-healing grid In essence, this involves giving the grid an immune system. A self-healing grid is designed so that any problematic elements are quickly isolated and restored to normal operation with little or no human intervention. Such a grid might include a network linked to multiple energy sources, with sensors throughout to identify malfunctions and communicate them to nearby devices that would automatically take corrective steps. A perfect self-healing grid would eliminate inefficiencies and run forever without a glitch.

THE TRANSFORMER James D. McCalley, electrical and computer engineer, Iowa State University

THE CONCEPT Energy systems analysis Advanced computer models could be used to plan the mix of technologies, the means of distribution, and the environmental impact of our energy supply 40 years out. In that spirit, McCalley is planning for 2050 right now: He is researching optimal energy flow patterns, identifying infrastructure enhancements to realize that optimal performance, and forecasting the influence of the market on energy supply and demand. The energy sources parsed in his equations include solar, clean fossil fuel, geothermal, nuclear, and wind.

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