“The West Wing” and renewable energy

 

As part of my post-election therapy I’m watching every episode of The West Wing. For those who don’t remember the show, it’s a soap opera set in the White House of President Jeb Barrlett, a Nobel-prize winning economist played by Martin Sheen. His White House is filled with smart, hard-working, dedicated public servants just trying to keep the wheels on the bus while dealing with budgets, terrorist attacks, and unspoken love. It’s reassuring to listen to the President talk in complete sentences and actually hear intelligent discussions of important policies. Even the Republicans are smart and doing what they believe to be believe to be the best for the country.

In the episode “The Hubbert Peak” from season 6, which originally aired in November 2004, Josh runs into a Prius with a Land Cruiser. As penance for his environmental transgression he has a meeting with proponents of solar, wind, ethanol, and hydrogen power. Josh is miserable in this meeting and who can blame him: each of the proponents takes a zero-sum approach and tears down the other solutions. For instance, when the hydrogen supporter introduces himself, the solar proponent brings up the Hindenburg, to which the hydrogen proponent explains that it was the aluminum powder coating and not the hydrogen that caused the disaster. The wind proponent talks how they produce enough power in California to supply San Francisco with electricity, but it will take a million wind turbines to power the state. The hydrogen proponent jokes that the slogan could be “Breaking Wind, together”. When the solar proponent explains that it would only take 220,000 square kilometers, the others in the room react with “That’s a lot of space” and there have only been enough solar panels built to cover 10 square kilometers.

How have these solutions progressed in the intervening 13 years?

Wind

In 2004 the US produced 14 GW-hr, compared to 226 GW-hr in 2016. Wind now generates over 5% of electricity in the US and continues to grow quickly. Wind power is also one of the least expensive sources of electricity. Wind power is much more mature than it was in 2004. Government policies like the federal production tax credit (which already existed in 2004) have been instrumental in the growth of wind power.  should have brought up these ideas.

Though wind is cheap, safe, clean, and plentiful, two problems remain for wind becoming as dominate as coal once was.

The first is intermittency. The wind blows when the wind blows, which is not necessarily when we need power. The most obvious solution to this is storage, which is still too expensive to roll out in a big way. Diversity can help reduce the issue with intermittency the same way it improves a stock portfolio: if you get wind power from multiple wind farms that are far apart, the wind might be blowing at one of them even if the air is still at the other two. Also, mixing solar, and other renewables can improve the situation even more.

The other problem is that windy locations tend to be far removed from where power is needed. For instance, the five states with the most wind-power potential are North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, Montana, and South Dakota. None of these are states with a high population density. Three of these are among the five least dense states in the US and only Texas is above the national average. To take advantage of this potential will require a large investment in long-distance transmission, which is starting to happen.

Building a national HVDC transmission grid can efficiently move wind power from Kansas and the Dakotas to Chicago, San Francisco, and Miami, while at the same time decreasing the issues with intermittency and bringing jobs to poor parts of the country. Building this grid would be a national project similar to the one that Eisenhower undertook to build the interstate freeway system.

Solar

Since 2004 the growth in solar power has been meteoric and now supplies about 1% of the electricity in the US up from almost nothing in 2004. Josh and the others would have be justified in their lack of optimism about solar power in 2004, but they would have been wrong.

 

At the same time the cost of solar panels has plummeted, bringing the cost of solar power within shouting distance of fossil fuels.

Solar has the same problems as wind (intermittent and the best sites are far from where people live). A big advantage of solar is that it can be reasonably sited on any roof, eliminating transmission costs and loses.

Solar cell efficiencies have also improved over time, reducing the land needed. According to a 2008 analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, supplying all of the United States’ electricity needs with photovoltaic solar energy would require roughly 0.6 percent of America’s total land area or less than 2,000 square feet per person. Much of this space can be on top of homes, warehouses, and parking lots. For people who live in single-family homes, our roofs can supply all of the electricity that we use at home. Even in Seattle, it’s possible to build a small office building powered entirely with solar energy.

The same policies that have supported wind also have helped drive solar power. In addition, there are generous federal and state subsidies available for residential solar installations.

Ethanol

Ethanol production has also grown significantly since 2004, going from less than 4,000 million gallons to about 15,000 million today. About 10% of the gas we use in the US is actually ethanol. Almost all of the ethanol produced in the US comes from corn that could be used to feed people or farm animals.

Ethanol production is driven in part by federal policy, specifically the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires that 10% of gasoline be ethanol. This was a major point of another West Wing episode, King Corn.

For decades there has been a dream of cellulosic ethanol, taking the parts of plants that can’t be used to feed animals and making fuel. Conceptually the right mix of bacteria, yeast, enzymes, and environmental conditions might make it possible to turn what would otherwise be agricultural waste into fuel at a reasonable cost. So far no one has gotten this to work and I’m not optimistic they will any time soon.

Like most environmentalists, I’m not a huge fan of ethanol. We could produce about four times the electricity consumed in the US by covering the land now used to grow corn for ethanol with solar panels. Is that the best use for some of the best agricultural land in the world? But whether you like it or not, the ethanol industry has shown it can supply a significant fraction of the fuel needed to move our cars and trucks.

Hydrogen

Of the four solutions presented, hydrogen is by far the loser. Hydrogen has lots of challenges:

  • It’s hard to transport
  • It’s hard to store
  • You need energy to create it
  • Fuel-cells are expensive and fragile

Unlike wind and solar, which are energy sources, hydrogen is a way to store energy. Typically hydrogen is made by reacting methane and steam, creating hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide. In most cases you’re better off using the methane than converting it to hydrogen. It can also be creating by passing a current through water creating hydrogen and oxygen gas. In 2004 many thought we’d build massive wind farms to power the grid and the excess electricity would be used to manufacture hydrogen gas, which would be used to store the energy until it was needed, possibly in fuel-cell powered cars.

But even if you got the hydrogen gas for free, it is the smallest molecule in the universe and can leak out of very small holes, making it difficult to transport and store. You can store/transport it as a gas (but you’ll have to compress it, which takes energy and a strong tank) or as a liquid (which requires even more energy and an insulated tank). The fuel cells that “burn” the hydrogen gas are expensive and fragile. You can burn it in an internal combustion engine, but that’s less efficient than a fuel cell.

Research into less expensive and more robust fuel cells moved forward slowly. Research into better ways to store hydrogen didn’t move forward at all.

What did move forward is battery technology. The energy density of modern lithium batteries is more than twice as good as that from the nickel batteries of 2004. EVs also don’t need a new fueling infrastructure (we just plug ours into the electric socket that was in our garage). Interest in fuel cell powered vehicles and other aspects of the hydrogen economy have waned since 2004, but not completely died.

Conservation and Efficiency

What wasn’t discussed at all was conservation and efficiency, which have played a huge role in reducing the need for fossil fuels.

For instance, the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFÉ) standards  mandate the average fuel efficiency for each car manufacture. Since the Carter administration these standards have increased in fits and jumps, but over time have led to much more efficient cars than the market would have provided.

Appliance and equipment standards managed by the Department of Energy have saved “American consumers saved $63 billion on their utility bills in 2015 alone”. These standards reduced the lifetime cost of appliances, helping our economy and environment at the same time. The stimulus package was packed with energy efficiency programs, including  one that I work on for two years.

Josh/Sorkin missed an opportunity

Normally West Wing gets the policy right. Here the downsides of each of the solutions discussed were played for laughs, rather than education. Which is OK for a TV show, but I expect better of West Wing. In addition to the frustration, there should have been a discussion of the role that the federal government was playing in encouraging progress towards a cleaner future.

 

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