Editor's Note: Roger Duncan retired March 1 as general manager of Austin Energy. This is a transcript of remarks he delivered in Austin, Texas at the 2010 Renewable Energy World Conference & Expo North America on Feb. 23. A video of the full Keynote Session is available .
I want to talk at a high level of what I think is going to be happening over the next decade in the future of energy systems and then end with what I think lies in our far future in energy.
The question is, what’s going to happen over the next 10 years in particular? I think at that time we’re looking at the need for tens of thousands of megawatts not only to meet new load growth but hopefully to start replacing some aging coal plants around the country.
Where is that going to come from? When you start looking at that in particular, not only the volume of energy needed but the particular generation characteristics needed to replace a coal plant such as we have here in Austin (and we’ve just gone through an exercise of what it would take to ramp down our coal plant by 2020 to about 60 percent capacity factor) I think it becomes clear that although all renewable energy is in a good position and is an expanding rapidly not everything is going to be in the forefront and the leader in grabbing that share over the next decade. So I’m going to tell you what fuels and technologies I think will not be meeting that need and then some that will.
There are going to be some coal plants built in the next decade. I don’t think very many around the country. The environmental characteristics obviously are the main stoppers. Clean coal technology, carbon capture and sequestration is certainly being worked on, but I think people will, if they’re candid, tell you there hasn’t been much progress on that for some time. There will be a handful of demonstration projects and the capture of the carbon coming from coal over the next decade but the technology’s not going to be commercially available in large volumes in this decade and the sequestration problem—the volume of CO2 that has to be sequestered—is just enormous. Things like enhanced oil recovery don’t even start to cut into the volume of sequestration that’s needed. So clean coal is not going to provide tens of thousands of megawatts, in my opinion, over the next decade.
Neither is nuclear and I’m an old anti-nuclear activist; that’s how I started my career. I’m one of the people who has switched opinions. I think that global warming is a much more serious concern than the handling of nuclear waste. Nonetheless, I don’t think you’re going to have more than a handful of new nuclear plants coming online by the end of this decade—maybe 10 or so. The construction cost is the main constraint. There’s also a workforce issue, just in the number of nuclear engineers to get these built. There’s not going to be tens of thousands of megawatts of nuclear power to come online to handle the baseload needs of shutting down old coal plants.
Biomass is growing and will continue to grow; it is a good technology. Austin Energy is buying the power from a 100 MW biomass plant coming online two years from now in east Texas. But again, the volume of electricity that we need nationwide; I think you will see biomass grow, but it’s not going to be in tens of thousands of megawatts. The 100 MW plant we’re bringing online will be one of the largest in the country. I think you’re going to run into fuel issues, the same as the biofuel industry did. So it’s going to fill a good sector, but it’s not going to be the major source in the next 10 years.
Which brings us to solar. Utility solar is growing and growing rapidly. We’ve gotten out of the kilowatt stage and the megawatts and now we’re into the hundreds of megawatts being developed and you’ll see large growth in the solar industry over the next decade; it’s going to have a strong niche. Again, I don’t see tens of thousands of megawatts being done in that timeframe. Beyond then, certainly, but in that timeframe solar’s going to take a good portion of the market, but also in dealing with shutting down aging coal plants the generation characteristics of utility-scale solar doesn’t match very well for the nighttime baseload needs of particular plants and that’s what we’ve run into here in Austin. Now distributed solar and PV solar is a different ballgame.
Where I think you’re going to get most of the new generation coming online will be a battle between wind and natural gas. Wind, the technology certainly is mature. The transmission system is the main bottleneck to delay the megawatts coming on board. But there’s no doubt that we are going to get 10s of thousands of new wind capacity brought online in the next decade. Again, for shutting down coal plants you run into a capacity factor issue. Natural gas is going to be a very competitive fuel with new shale discoveries coming online. I don’t think natural gas or wind is going to get a free ride over the next decade. Both have problems we need to deal with. Natural gas has problems from the hydrofracting that is producing all the new natural gas supplies that are being touted. You’re already seeing in some parts of the country shale fields being taken off the exploration market because of environmental issues. And I think the jury is still out on how sustainable the flows are from these new natural gas shale fields. I think you’ll find out from the Barnett shale field if they’re going to keep flowing at the rate they initially started at and what the economic recovery period is for some of these fields.
Wind will continue to face transmission issues. And frankly we’re doing better here in Texas under the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) than the rest of the country is so far in addressing that for various reasons. I think we will continue to have some siting problems that will come up on a regional basis. So those are the two industries that I think will be taking the lion’s share of the growth over the next decade.
But I also think that we’re beginning to approach a tipping point for solar photovoltaics. Solar photovoltaics are experiencing very high growth right now in terms of percentage growth, but it’s still a small piece of the overall energy market. You hear people talk, rightly so, that there’s a difference between new products taking off in consumer electronics like iPhones and such and then in the power generation field it takes decades to transition and bring on new technologies and so forth.
I’m not sure that’s going to be the case for distributed PV. Distributed PV is much closer to the characteristics of the consumer electronics market, and particularly when we have a couple of breakthroughs that are coming. There’s the conventional PV installations which are taking off at very high rates now and the costs are getting down in manufacturing approaching that $1 a watt manufacturing costs. There is also the idea that it is finally taking hold in mass production of the built-in photovoltaics on roofing materials. And some big players like Dow are starting to enter that game. When the roofing materials starts to get very close to the conventional roofing materials and it doesn’t make any difference whether it generates electricity or not in the cost, there’s an explosive market there when you think about the roofing turnover in this nation on an annual basis.
That, and because of nanotechnology advances we’re approaching a breakthrough in the mass area application of solar, reaching the point that an ink-like substance can be sprayed onto mass area surfaces and generate electricity. The combination of those things could lead to a really explosive growth of PV on a distributed basis. And it also will be the leader in what’s starting to be called “micro harvesting” of energy.
So I have very high hopes—not so much in the next few years—more toward the end of this decade and the beginning of the next decade that solar PV will take off. At some point—and as an old anti-nuclear activist, I love saying this—at some point solar PV will be too cheap to meter.
I think the biggest change we’re going to see and it will just start to emerge this decade but it will be in the future decades, is going to be on the building side. The current trends you hear the most talk about is zero energy buildings and the smart grid.
Zero energy buildings are a great concept. Here is Austin we’re changing our building code so all new single-family homes built in Austin starting in 2015 will be required by code to be net-zero capable energy buildings. We’re well on our way to meeting that target. I don’t think you can do that with commercial buildings and I have friends in California that are promoting zero-energy commercial buildings. I think the loads there are not going to be met by onsite generation. And, frankly I think the zero energy residential buildings are not going to stay zero energy very long when we start plugging in plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles and I think there are other loads that are coming on the residential side that we’re not thinking about yet. If you look at the history of building, you’ll see that we actually have been more efficient in our building over time.
Today’s modern home would be a zero energy building if we hadn’t increased the plug load from electronics and computers and all the other stuff that’s come online. I think there’s some major new loads pending out there. I think domestic robotics will come online as a major new load and eventually you’ll see even more in onsite manufacturing. If that sounds far out you need to Google 3-D printers and think about the consequences of that technology expanding in scope.
The smart grid will have an impact on reduction of loads. It’s perhaps being a little over-hyped in terms of the lasting consequence of smart grid. But it certainly is a game changer in terms of energy consumption on the site and giving residents control of their technology.
Micro harvesting is a term you will start hearing more of. More and more we’re developing the technologies where the actual materials—whether it’s in a house or a car or the paints or the coverings for appliances—are going to start capturing the ambient light and radiant energy and thermal shifts and mechanical movements and convert those to useful energy. It essentially can handle all of what we’re calling the “vampire loads” in the house. And the coverings on the cars and the materials will become both energy generators and energy storage onsite. You’ll also combine that with ubiquitous sensing. In the past few weeks there have been major announcements in the scientific community about battery-less radio devices where the sensing can operate without the need for storage of energy; just from the ambient energy around it. Fuels cells will come back, low power wind and so forth.
Let me end this with a thought that I’ve been pondering for the last few months, at least. I am wondering if we are starting to see the initial emergence of energy-sentient buildings. Energy-sentient buildings are buildings that start to not only generate but store and dispatch all the onsite energy potential of that building and communicate with the energy grid and communicate with the transportation sector and the Internet and so forth.
Now energy-sentient buildings are a very disturbing thought to some people and some people squirm in their seat and say “my gosh, he isn’t saying that buildings are going to become conscious, is he?” That’s an interesting thought and as a matter of fact one of the philosophers of consciousness theory, David Chalmers, has written an article “is a thermostat conscious?” He gets into a very interesting philosophic debate on the origins of consciousness and the role of thermostats and so forth.
One of the issues in the smart grid is that consumers are going to initially play with all their devices and cut their load and so forth, but they’re going to stop doing that after a couple of months. They’re going to need an artificial intelligence-type device to interface between the electric grid and their building to control and so forth that will expand as you get ubiquitous sensing, ubiquitous computers and so forth. Whether or not you think of the building as sentient in terms of relating to it and the computer as a person it will appear that way and whether it is sentient or not doesn’t really matter. If you want to think of the building just as a building and not conscious then you should do that; it will work for you, make you feel good. The building probably won’t mind.
But the key takeaway here is the buildings themselves become the drivers of the electric system. The building decision processes could start handling the decisions of how much load is needed, where it’s needed, where it’s stored, interfacing with the transportation system, interfacing with other communications vehicles and become the driver and decision maker for our electricity grid.