Welcome to the first entry in the “Black Swan Blog”. This blog will be used to discuss innovative, provocative, sometimes slightly crazy concepts designed to stimulate conversations and perhaps even concrete actions that will help us move the inhabitants of “spaceship earth” to a sustainable energy future.
By way of brief introduction, I have been involved with energy policy development and the exploration of innovation in energy use throughout my career. For more than 20 years I worked in the oil & gas industry where I had broad exposure to the technologies used in the development of natural gas, conventional oil, heavy oil, and tar sands resources.
On many occasions I have championed the use of leading edge technologies to enable business functions. I managed the building of one of the largest private wireless Wide Area Networks (WANs) in North America using spread spectrum technology. The result was internet access in remote rural offices that was exactly the same as that available in head office; a great success. But when I tried to extend this network an additional two miles in one location using a laser-based system there was a problem. Fog from a nearby river disrupted the laser almost every morning.
On another network segment we had to locate a radio tower in the middle of a field far from any power line. We installed solar panels and a wind turbine to provide the small amount of electricity required to power the site. Initially this worked well and was seen to be a great “green” success. But we found that on cold, windless December days the site would regularly shut down despite the fact that we had provided much more generation capacity than was required. In the end we had to pay the local electrical utility more than $20,000 to connect the site to the regional grid.
These experiences have not dampened my enthusiasm for innovation or risk-taking; but I have learned that every new “best idea ever” needs to be evaluated thoroughly before it is embraced.
So the “Black Swan Blog” will not only describe concepts that are far off the beaten track but will make sure that the potential limitations of those concepts are clearly spelled out.
Why the name “Black Swan Blog?” The “Black Swan Theory” developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb asserts that significant advances in scientific, cultural, and artistic endeavors are frequently the result of unpredictable “step-change” discoveries or unexpected behaviors on the part of inventors; these are revolutionary events rather than evolutionary incremental changes.
Vinod Khosla applied this theory to the problem of developing a sustainable energy future in a very thoughtful “White Paper” published in August, 2011. He asserts that only “Black Swan” energy developments have the potential to meet the demands of the 90% of the world that aspires to a standard of living comparable to that enjoyed by many living in North America and Europe (http://khoslaventures.com/presentations/Black_Swan_8_28_11.pdf).
I share Mr. Khosla’s belief that only “Black Swans” can make a significant impact on energy usage patterns. I also agree that the energy appetite of the developing world will be the biggest long-term driver for increasing energy demand. However, in the short-term I think that there are two more important factors that will disrupt the existing supply-demand balance, especially in North America.
The first and most immediate problem facing the North American energy supply is our complete reliance on coal-fired electrical generation plants. Figures published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) indicate that 45% of the electricity generated in 2010 came from these plants. It is a proven scientific fact that emissions from many of these plants contain harmful toxins such as mercury and arsenic that are impacting the health of Americans. The situation is essentially the same in Europe where more than 30% of electrical generation is based upon coal.
In December, 2011 the US Environmental Protection Agency released a new set of emissions standards that will make some of the 600+ coal-fired plants in the US obsolete (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/19/epa-coal-plants_n_1157506.html). More than 30 of these plants, representing approximately 4% of the total electrical generation capacity in the US will be permanently shut down. Many other plants will be out of commission for extended periods of time while upgrades to pollution controls are installed.
Even after spending upwards of $9 billion to reduce toxic emissions these plants will continue to be the #1 source of CO2 emissions in North America. If we ever decide to get serious about climate change most these plants will have to be shut down.
The second and longer term problem will be the increasing use of electrically powered vehicles in North America. While this is undoubtedly a positive development, the impact on our electrical generating system needs to be understood.
In 2011 the EIA estimated that 134 billion gallons of gasoline were consumed in the U.S. to power automobiles. This is the equivalent of more than 4.5 trillion KW-hours of energy – more than the total electricity generated in the US today.
In summary, over the next 3-5 years approximately 4% of the generating capacity in the US will be permanently shut down and another larger percentage will be unavailable for significant lengths of time as coal-fired plant pollution controls are upgraded. The entire coal-fired generation fleet is at risk because of its primary role in producing CO2 emissions. And even a small expansion of the electrically powered vehicle fleet in North America will put a significant new load on the system.
These are not problems that can be overcome easily. These are not problems that can be ignored and left for a future generation to solve. These problems are here and now.
Only “Black Swan” breakthroughs will allow us to maintain our current standard of living while enabling the developing world to continue to grow.
(To find other blogs in this series use the search function in the upper right part of the page and enter "Black Swan Blog")