Monday, April 14, 2008

The key future energy assumption: Make no assumptions

Americans tend to focus on a single solution, a magic bullet.

With energy, that may be the wrong approach, according to many participants in the recent Blue Planet Summit.

(Photo: Microalgae that produce lipids that can be converted into biodiesel. Credit: Paul Roessler, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.)

You need to get all the energy you can any way you can,” said Martin Hoffert, a professor emeritus at New York University and an aeronautical engineer.

One of the themes at Blue Planet was the concept of a distributed energy future, one in which multiple sources feed people's energy needs. In some situations, the mix of energy production would be determined by local conditions.

Geothermal might work on Hawai'i and parts of Maui, but not so much O'ahu and Kaua'i.

Biomass might work better on islands with a lot of abandoned agricultural land.

In areas where ocean floors drop off steeply, ocean thermal energy conversion might be appropriate. On windy ridges, wind turbines. On sunny roofs, solar water heating and solar photovoltaic.

And so on.

Picking favorites is generally not a good approach, speakers said.

A pet technology, whether it's hydrogen, corn ethanol, solar, or something else, must not be the sole focus, said Eliot Assimakopoulos, business development manager with GE Global Research and Development.

What we've have to have a holistic...a portfolio approach,” Assimakopoulos said.

When the U.S. Department of Energy has selected a technology to support, it has often been disappointed, said Denis Hayes, chief executive officer of the Bullitt Foundation and chairman of the Earthday Network.

An awful lot of what the Department of Energy placed its biggest bets on are losers,” Hayes said.

The challenge?

How to move forward on all these things are once,” said Bill Parks Jr., deputy assistant secretary for research and development with the U.S. Department of Energy.

A policy:

There is no technology that you can take off the table...They all have to be there,” said Mark Brownstein, managing director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The reason for it:

It's hard to prejudge which technology will work and which won't,” Hoffert said.

Certainly one of the things that has to be on the table is the transformation of the current view of the electrical grid, or what former CIA director James Woosley called the “loaded-up, Balkanized electricity grid.”

One view of the traditional grid is an octopus, with the generation plant at the head, and tentacles going out in many directions to touch the consumers.

Not only is that not a good analogy for the future grid. There may not be a nice analogy for the future grid. Shucks, it might not be a grid at all.

Certainly, there would not be a single generation source, but many sources of power. There could be interdependence and some levels of independence among power users. What serves as a grid could be interactive, constantly assessing its condition and making adjustments.

Some power users—for instance those with large photovoltaic arrays—might produce more power than they use. The batteries in personally owned electric cars might serve as distributed emergency storage units for the community grid.

How society thinks about future energy will require a different way of thinking, Blue Planet participants said.

The key assumption: don't make assumptions.

Not so much envisioning a sole solution, but rather envisioning diversity.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate