Saturday, May 2, 2009

An Evening with Dr. Kutscher and Concentrated Solar Power

This past Thursday, Colorado Renewable Energy Society (CRES), brought in Dr. Chuck Kutscher from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to speak about climate change and the role that concentrated solar power could play in reducing global warming. He spoke for about an hour and below are some of the highlights.

He opened his presentation with a discussion on climate change and showed the audience a video from the 1950s (I think it was from Bell Labs) that spoke about the phrase "climate change." Then he showed a cartoon from 1983 by Mike Keefe of the Denver Post that spoke to "global warming." No matter how much the oil and gas industry would like to make you think otherwise, this problem of global warming (resulting in climate change) has been with us for over 50 years. The point Dr. Kutscher was trying to make is that scientists have been researching all types of climate data for quite awhile now and have been noticing irrefutable patterns. These patterns are that ever-increasing CO2 emissions have been contributing to increasing temperatures (see the James Balog's documentation of the rapid depletion of the world's glaciers here) which is leading to climate change (droughts, violent weather, rising sea water on the coasts, etc.).

After seeing Dr. Kutscher's presentation on the effects of CO2 emissions on the planet, I am no longer willing to give the dissenters the benefit of the doubt. No longer will I tolerate the "global warming denier" viewpoint or the "global cooling" viewpoint. We are at a critical point in human history, and if we don't start reducing or CO2 emissions NOW, we will go through an unbelievable amount of suffering and chaos. Do you want to suffer?

The presentation then moved into the solutions for reducing global warming. Dr. Kutscher didn't denounce "clean-coal" or nuclear. In fact he said, "We shouldn't take any option off the table." This is a smart philosophy espoused by the good doctor. As you may know, I blogged about the Energy Secretary, Dr. Chu, talking about investing in clean coal. I actually railed against him and any "clean coal" advocates because the technology is unproven. Also, can you really imagine a gas such as CO2 staying put in a rock fissure 100 miles below the ground? What happens when an earthquake trembles the rock and the soil around that CO2? Well, I may have been a bit hasty in my criticisms of Dr. Chu and clean coal / carbon sequestration advocates, because the intelligent way is to keep an open mind and never to be so intolerant as to take any technology off the table until it is thoroughly disproved by peer review. However, when Dr. Kutscher said, "don't take it off the table," he followed that up right away with the fact that clean coal technology won't be ready for at least another 10 years. If we started the process for a nuclear power plant, it would be up and running for another 10-15 years. Essentially, the current solution to our problems with burgeoning CO2 emissions are to use viable renewable energy solutions.

One of the renewable energy solutions that the doctor said is ready to deploy today, would be concentrated solar power (CSP). Simple put CSP is the act of concentrating the sun's rays onto a tube of liquid, which turns into steam and spins a turbine to create electricity. Replace the "sun's rays" with coal and you would understand how a coal-burning electricity plant works. Solar is clean, coal is not. Now it should be noted that we should couple any renewable energy production plants with aggressive energy efficiency and weatherization initiatives (like insulation, reducing demand-side electricity consumption, etc.). Various sources (can't find them now) have said that we could reduce our energy consumption by 40% if we made our homes and buildings more efficient. Wouldn't everybody like to save a buck and reduce consumption by sticking some more insulation in your home or building aerodynamic cars?

Anyway, the presentation went onto the benefits of using CSP now. It's a technology that has been studied for decades (a couple of CSP plants have been around for 20 years), it doesn't use much water for cooling, and it is easier, cheaper, and better for the planet to store heat (in thermal energy storage units) than it is to store raw electricity in lead-acid batteries (or at least until fuel cell adoption becomes cheaper and widespread). Another benefit of concentrating the sun's rays over burning coal is that the whole world uses 13 trillion watts and there is about 600 trillion watts of available solar power. 600 trillion watts of clean power.

Another interesting benefit the doctor brought up with respect to CSP is that if you build a gas or coal plant today you do not know what the price of gas or coal is going to be in 10 years. If you build a CSP plant today you will know exactly what the price of solar is in 10 years, free. All the cost of building a CSP plant is up front. Another interesting statistics was that if we put CSP plants on just 2% of the San Luis Valley (where most of the solid sun is in CO) land, we could power all of Colorado. Two percent. I wonder how much land Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and California would need? One last statistic the doctor provided was the cost of inaction versus action in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). The cost of acting today in the form of using renewable energy methods to reduce CO2 emissions is 1% of the world's GDP. The cost of inaction (insurance premiums due to natural disasters, crop loss due to drought, displaced people, etc.) is 5% of the world's GDP. I think it's time to act. It'll be cheaper, right?

Dr. Kutscher's presentation at CRES was well done, and provided factual evidence that demonstrated how urgent we must be in reducing our carbon emissions. I know the issues are complex, and going with clean energy production will cost a TON of money, but let's put it this way- if we can afford a trillion for a war in Iraq to protect the oil supply out of the Middle East, we can afford a trillion dollars to convert our energy supply to renewable sources. Right?

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Wishful Thinking

*Before adding PV, wind, or solar thermal to your residential or commercial structure, the first step is to analyze this structure's energy consumption through a professional energy audit. I'd like to see some public education on the importance of an energy audit for any structure. Remember Smokey the Bear's forest fire shtick drilled into our heads over the last few decades? How about something like, "Henry the House" desperately wanting to know how much energy he consumes and wastes throughout the day?

*With over 300 sunny days a year on the Front Range is it too much to ask for solar PV and thermal modules on every residential and commercial unit (after an energy audit of course)?


*How about affordable plug-in electric cars that go more than 100 miles on a charge with PV and wind powered recharging stations?

*Dreaming of companies large and small adopting business sustainability practices to maximize profits, reduce their carbon footprint, and enhance the lives of their employees and the communities that surround them.

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