Tipping Points: finding an energy and climate balance

Recently, I had the opportunity to deliver opening and closing remarks on day two of the “Tipping Points: Finding Energy-Climate Balance” Conference. The conference was hosted by the Atlantic Council, Ecologic Institute and the Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) network. Gathering the top leaders under forty years old from around the world, the conference explored “one of the most pressing challenges the Millennial generation is inheriting: how to balance mitigating and adapting to climate change with the need for secure and reliable energy to fuel our future.”[1]

To keep the conversation going, I am sharing a written version of my opening remarks and welcome any comments or follow-up questions. Big thank you to Sam, my fellow ELEEP alumnus for hosting this on his blog and to ELEEP alumni Catrina Rorke and Devin Hampton for their input.

Julia can be found on twitter at @Julia_JCo

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96 million.

Any guesses what the significance of this number is?

It is the number of barrels of oil and liquid fuels the world consumes each day.[2] That is enough to fill more than 6,000 Olympic-size swimming pools every 24 hours.

Oil, natural gas and coal account for about 80% of the world’s primary energy supply. Clean energy (nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, hydro) constitutes about 8% of the world’s energy supply. 80 to 8.[3] Biofuels and waste make up the remainder. Regardless of your fuel preference for energy, would you call this balanced?

That is what we are here for. To find balance. I, myself, have been on a search for balance: I am a green-hearted Californian, raised with a love of nature and the desire to prevent harmful effects on the environment and our beautiful planet. I also worked for ExxonMobil for a few years and saw how integral hydrocarbons are to everyday life and for powering the world’s economy.

Think about energy in our world and in our lives specifically. How many times did you use electricity this morning? Did you take hot shower? How many lights did you turn on? Did you make coffee? Did you charge your phone? Did you drive or hop on a bus? Here in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. and developed economies, we use electricity all the time. But some don’t.

Finding Energy-Climate Balance

An estimated 1.2 billion people, 16 percent of the global population, do not have access to electricity according to the International Energy Agency. That is a staggering number. Many of us are motivated by the need to bring clean electricity to disconnected areas, especially in sub-Saharan African and certain Asian countries, which are home to more than 95 percent of the 1.2 billion people mentioned above.

People disconnected from electricity need it and they need it now. They need it to access basic health and sanitation services, to work and study at night and power their progress to prosperity. Is it right to limit their energy choices and their access because of a problem (climate change) that they didn’t create? The economics, though, are changing quickly. Now we can light up those communities in a way that’s consistent with our efforts to fight climate change.

Even if you are more focused on your local community in the U.S. or Europe, growing populations are going to continue to use additional energy. How do we balance a changing climate with the need for secure and reliable energy for everyone in the world and a growing population? How does the business community factor into finding this balance? Who is going to pay for this? Or flipping the question, is there a business opportunity here, to make money?

Before diving into the numbers, it’s important to note that highlighting the dangers of climate change and fossil fuel emissions is no longer sufficient for promoting and paying for clean energy, especially today in the U.S. In fact, this can often have the opposite effect. If mitigating climate change is the primary reason for building a solar photovoltaic array for example, some may take offense and oppose the project on ideological grounds. If the goal is to advance clean energy, we must focus on the business case. No matter your political or philosophical leanings, nobody’s wallet will argue with choosing the cheapest form of energy to keep your lights on and your smartphone charged.

Change in unexpected places

A great example of this comes from Texas, the heart of oil country! A small town called Georgetown is one of first cities in America entirely powered by renewable energy. The Mayor is a staunch Republican who voted for Trump. When the power contract was up, city managers looked at the options and realized wind and solar prices were more predictable and didn’t fluctuate like oil and gas. The city now knows what their energy bill will be for the next 25 years. Georgetown’s Mayor joked that the decision came down to a love of green rectangles (money) and green energy.[4] Here, the business case won out over ideology and politics.

We are in luck because the cost of land-based wind power, utility and distributed photovoltaic solar power has fallen an average of 53% since 2008, per a U.S. Department of Energy 2016 report.[5] Not only has the cost fallen, but renewables represent a huge investment opportunity. The U.S. was the second biggest clean energy investor in 2016, with $56 million, an increase of 8% from 2015.[6] The total invested in global clean energy rose from $62 billion in 2004 to an incredible $329 billion in 2015.[7] Plus, the fuel for solar and wind-powered generation is free, it’s the sun and air.

I support the Department of the Navy’s Resilient Energy Program Office as a Booz Allen Hamilton Contractor. A few weeks ago, I ran a groundbreaking ceremony in Mississippi for a 6-megawatt solar facility on a naval base. One of the Public Service Commissioners said in his remarks that he couldn’t tell us what milk was going to cost tomorrow or next week, but he could tell us what the cost of fuel for the installed solar panels would be: $0. Once installed, renewables provide long term cost savings and more stable electricity prices.[8]

How do you think we should balance our growing need for energy and tackling climate change? Please leave a comment to keep the conversation going. Thanks!

References

[1] http://www.actippingpoints.org/

[2] https://www.iea.org/about/faqs/oil/

[3] https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2016.pdf (page 7) biofuels and waste account for remaining 10 percent

[4] http://www.npr.org/2017/03/08/518988840/wind-energy-takes-flight-in-the-heart-of-texas-oil-country

[5]https://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2016/09/f33/Revolutiona%CC%82%E2%82%ACNow%202016%20Report_2.pdf

[6] http://www.eesi.org/articles/view/going-green-in-2017-the-case-for-renewable-energy

[7] http://www.eesi.org/articles/view/going-green-in-2017-the-case-for-renewable-energy

[8] http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/smart-energy-solutions/increase-renewables/renewable-energy-electricity-standards-economic-benefits.html#.WSCwCmjyvIU


Decarbonising Heat

Sam Hampton - Decarbonising-Heat-briefing-note

Iceland’s unique energy system

October 10, 2016 / Energy Policy / 0 Comments /

Last week I attended a study tour of Iceland with the ELEEP group. Basing ourselves in Reykjavik – along with 60% of Iceland’s whole population – we met with several large organisations including a major fishing corperation HB Grandi, Iceland’s largest bank Landsbankinn and national power company Landsvirkjun. From each of these we heard how their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies were developing since the financial crisis which had hit Iceland so hard, and which made the meaning of sustainable development very real for Icelandic business. We also visited a state of the art geothermal power plant owned by Reykjavik Energy and a hydropower plant which has been producing emissions free electricity since the 1950s.

Unique human and physical geography

Iceland has a small population of only 330,000 people – the equivalent of Coventry, UK – but is blessed with a wealth of natural resources and a unique culture. Being at the intersection of major tectonic plates, Iceland is well known for its natural geothermal pools, and explosive geysers.

It is only in recent decades however that Iceland has begun to harness its natural energy resources. Until the start of the 20th century, Icelanders used imported coal and oil for heating and electricity generation, until the first small scale hydro power station was constructed in 1904.  It’s transition to renewable energy began early though, with 12% of its energy being provided by hydro electricity even  in 1940.

 

 

Demand for electricity is growing rapidly in Iceland, and in response it has been building new hydropower and geothermal power stations.

The result of all this hydro and geothermal power is that electricity in Iceland is amongst the cheapest in the world, at only 5.5 US cents per KWhEncouraged by the national government, energy intensive industries have been attracted to the island, and we learned that 80% of the electricity supplied by Landsvirkjun is to industrial users such as ALCOA and Rio Tinto in the Aluminium industry. The result is that Iceland is now the highest consumer of electricity per capita in the world.

Iceland’s natural energy resources are helping it to recover from its devastating financial crisis in 2008. An argument could certainly be made that its volcanoes, geothermal pools and wild rivers underpin the rapid growth of the island’s tourism industry, which is now Iceland’s biggest export and growing by 20% per year. After all, the hot water in the famous Blue Lagoon is actually provided by a nearby geothermal power plant.

Looking to the future, there is significant potential for the energy industry to drive further growth, as only a fraction of the sources of renewable energy are currently being harnessed. A fellow alumni of ELEEP Ásbjörg Kristinsdóttir is currently leading a project to extend the Búrfell hydro power station by 100MW to a total of 396MW, and her company Landsvirkjun are also in the process of constructing a 90Mw geothermal power plant in Þeistareykir in the north of the country. Both will increase capacity and improve the reliability of supply to domestic and industrial users. Landsvirkjun also have plans to build Iceland’s first utility scale onshore wind farm to harness the country’s extraordinary wind resource. Something that we experienced first hand:

Landsvirkjun predict that wind power will complement its existing portfolio of hydro generation further increasing security of supply, as illustrated by this chart from it’s report on wind power:

Icelink

I recently wrote a briefing note on underwater interconnectors planned to connect the UK electricity grid to its European neighbours, including the 1000km long 1MW ‘Icelink’. It was fascinating to hear the Icelandic perspective on this project from Asbjorg, who had been the Icelink project manager before working on the new extension at Búrfell. Having completed a feasibility study and economic assessment, the decision whether to go ahead with the major project now sits with members of Iceland’s parliament (pictured right).

According to Ásbjörg, the decision is as much about the costs and benefits for the electricity market as it is about the symbolic connection of the isolated island to its neighbours.

Efficiency and emissions

With abundant supply of cheap, low carbon electricity, a number of participants on the study tour observed that many of the basics signs of energy efficiency were not being practiced in Reykjavik. Our apartment and the various industrial premises we visited were all lit by halogen or incandescent bulbs, and frequently overheated. For those of us working on efficiency as the first priority for tackling climate change, it was a strange cognitive adjustment to think that energy conservation was not as high a priority in Iceland where energy is cheap, clean and abundant.

However, we learned on the trip that while geothermal electricity is renewable, it is not free of greenhouse gas emissions. While 99.5% of the gas released from geothermal bore holes is water vapour, 0.4% is carbon dioxide, meaning that for every kWh of electricity produced, around 50 grams of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. This compares very favourably to coal fired power stations which produce over 1kg/kWh, but presents a challenge for Reykjavik’s ambition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. According to Reykjavik Energy however, there is some potential for capturing and re-injecting carbon dioxide into deep geothermal bore holes, and at the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant we visited on the trip the company has already started to sequester 10% of its annual CO2 emissions.

Conclusion

It is not surprising that Iceland is becoming an increasingly attractive place for tourists from all over the world, with its outstanding natural beauty, tectonic activity and unique brand of Scandinavian culture. Having already completed its transition to renewable electricity, it is now seeking to further exploit its natural resources to support its sustainable development. For a group of young energy professionals it was a fascinating and awe inspiring place to visit. As a UK citizen, I hope that the Icelandic parliament do decide to go ahead with Icelink, and that we become increasingly connected – by more than just electricity.

Thanks go to the ELEEP members who organised the tour, and to the Atlantic Council for subsidising the trip.


1.5 Degrees – Really?

One of the stories which made headlines after the recent Paris climate talks was that the text included a commitment to  “pursue efforts to” limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C. This amendment to the agreed text was apparently led by a group of small island states, understandably fearing the consequences of a 2°C world for sea level rise and extreme weather events.

Nearly all reports from Paris were of an optimistic atmosphere, of agreement and hope for the future. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that climate science is becoming more irrefutable and the impacts of climate change are already being felt. One of the major differences between these set of talks (COP21) and previous international climate agreements which famously ended in strained efforts from world leaders, is that in Paris, the organisers were not aiming to produce a legally binding set of agreements, that would require unanimous support, and subsequent ratification. Recalling the arguments raging in the mid-2000s around the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by Russia, the USA and Canada, this seems like a wise move.

Instead, before the Paris talks, all UN states were invited to submit ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions‘ (INDCs), setting out their own nationally specific objectives regarding carbon emissions over the coming decades. In many ways, this meant that the hard work had already been done prior to the December 2015 talks. Of course, leaving these commitments to each nation (and in the case of Europe, the EU), meant that there were a wide variety of different metrics and measures used in these documents. China, for example, aimed to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 making a commitment for emissions reductions of 60-65% per unit of GDP, whilst other countries made commitments based on gross emissions, such as the 40% reduction set out by the EU by 2030, and the 26-28% reduction targeted by the US, by 2025. Even where gross commitments were made, it is very difficult to compare countries due to differences in baseline and target years used.

Nonetheless, whilst the Paris talks were in mid-flow, the UNFCCC managed (somehow) to combine these commitments, and make an assessment of what kind of climate-future the world’s nations were committing to. Making this announcement, Christiana Figueres (Head of UNFCCC), declared that the combined INDCS amounted to around 2.7°C warming. A far cry from 1.5°C. And of course, this calculation assumes that all the countries do go on to implement their commitments and achieve the levels of emissions reductions set out. Thinking about the 40% reduction in the EU, this will be far from easy.

It seems to me that there is a determined optimism in much of the conversation about climate change. A faith that we will somehow manage to take all the measures required to keep warming down below dangerous levels. I was lucky enough to hear Christiana Figueres speak in Oxford before the Paris talks, and I was struck by her positive, optimistic outlook.  Even when making her announcement about the 2.7°C commitments, she put a positive spin on this news, saying it was a real improvement on the 4-5°C predictions being made by many. Of course, you would want nothing short of this kind of optimism from someone in her uniquely difficult position, having to corral world leaders into agreement.

My concern however, is that followers of the agreement were left with an optimism that might border on complacency. Following developments via mainstream media for example, one might be forgiven for thinking that great progress had been made by our governments, and that climate change was going to be managed nicely by our elected superiors on our behalf. And yet it is not only those following climate change at arms length that seem to be in danger of this. At a recent meeting in the ECI, I was surprised to hear some of the Professors talking about a dearth of literature expanding on 1.5°C scenarios, and that the celebrations to mark the institute’s 25th birthday would be centred on a conference on the topic.

My personal view is that 1.5°C is entirely unrealistic. At best, the inclusion of this goal in the UN talks highlights the dangers of warmer scenarios, potentially instigating further action. But at worst, it detracts from the reality, that it is high likely we’ll see our climate warm by more than 2.5°C unless we take drastic, urgent action to curb emissions.