“Wonderwerk.” Even the name of the cave seems fitting. There, about one million years ago, our homo erectus ancestors cooked their meal over a campfire. Not a wildfire, a campfire. It was planned, created, managed, and utilized for a specific purpose.
Fire control changed everything: warmth, safety, nutrition, access to harsher climates, and social and behavioral norms. The invention of the wheel was a mere game-changer by comparison; fire control changed the course of human evolution.
Fire control changed the course of human evolution. The invention of the wheel was a mere game-changer by comparison.
I’m sure there were naysayers, homo erectus ludditus (yes, I made that up) surely tisked those early adopters who accidently burned themselves or their campsites or their habitats. They were correct, of course. Fire can be both absurdly useful and absurdly dangerous. We know now that it produces GHG and pollutes the air with particulate emissions, carbon monoxide and dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and other nasty chemicals.
But homo erectus innovatus (yes, ditto) needed the benefits and — knowingly and unknowingly — accepted those costs. Eyes wide open they pushed forward with fire, begetting both our own species homo sapiens and, through continued innovation, every source and use of energy since then.
From the earliest waterwheels and sails to steam and electricity to natural gas and gasoline to nuclear power, they all started with a first campfire. And, with every innovation, we enjoy the benefits and accepted (knowingly or unknowingly) the associated costs and the risks. Homo sapiens — our societies, our economies, our species itself — cannot exist without energy.
Energy is indispensable; energy is compromise.
Reliable and affordable electric power, for example, has become fundamental to our economies and societies. But at a significant cost. Fossil fuels are reliable but create significant GHG emissions and pollute air, water, and soil. Hydroelectric power is GHG-free but disfigures natural landscapes and habitats.
Nuclear power is also GHG-free but requires extraordinary engineering, operational, and security measures to match its extraordinary challenges. And we still don’t have a permanent solution for its radioactive waste. And electric transmission and distribution lines — necessary but unloved — march across the landscape and through our neighborhoods.
This has always been true. But that environmental truth has not been recognized until recently: the Environmental Protection Agency has only been around since 1970. By way of contrast, the Industrial Revolution — creator of enormous benefits as well as enormous costs — had been chugging along for about 200 years by that time. America’s toughest soil and water pollution sites, usually left over from industrial activity, still dot the landscape from sea to shining sea. These “Superfund” sites were generations in the making and are and will take generations to remediate. At the time, though? “Just dump it!”
Economics call these costs “externalities”: side effects or consequences of an industrial or commercial activity that affect other parties without this being reflected in the cost of the goods or services involved. Simply put, externalities are someone else’s problem.
Externalities are someone else’s problem.
When it comes to reliable electric service, air, water, and soil pollution and GHG emissions have historically been someone else’s problem. (The big exceptions are nuclear plants, which by law must fund a decommissioning reserve for their eventual retirement. But that’s just the plant itself and not the spent fuel or other externalities.)
In retrospect, it is fair to ask: if we had recognized the externalities back then, would we still have done it? Would we have done it differently? Yes and yes, in my opinion, but with one major Ben Franklin caveat: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I like to think that we would have recognized the need for — and invested in — that ounce of prevention.
But for better or worse, we “just dumped it.” We maximized the economic and societal benefits and left the substantial environmental costs to then-future generations: us.
Renewable energy changes all that, right?
So does renewable energy change everything? Again, yes and no. Yes, because more zero GHG emission, zero air pollution power generation is a significant improvement. No, because significant trade-offs remain.
On the surface, renewables help minimize GHG emissions and pollution but struggle (even with expensive energy storage technologies) to provide reliable electric service. Intermittent resources like solar and wind power require “integration” — i.e., dispatchable resources and thus economic and environmental costs — to create a reliable 24/7 electric supply. Geothermal power generation is severely limited by geology and scale. Offshore resources like wind, wave, and tidal power still have their own cost and environmental challenges. And so on.
And renewable resources by their nature require enormous amounts of space and electric transmission infrastructure, much more than legacy resources of the same capacity. (Local rooftop solar and local energy storage may eventually supplant massive remote wind and solar farms as the most cost-effective solution but cannot keep the lights on today.)
Dig deeper into the externalities of renewable power (and its soulmate, energy storage) and the picture becomes murkier: questions about life-cycle costs like mineral extraction and end-of-life recycling and concerns about impacts on landscape and viewscape and habitat and public safety. More broadly, there are real worries about missing the GHG forest for the renewable trees, so to speak, if broad electrification is endangered by concerns about long-term electricity reliability and/or affordability. As homo erectus first discovered, all energy is compromise. No matter what we use, how we use it, or what we use it for, there are social, economic, and environmental costs that come with the benefits we enjoy. We can’t “just dump it!”
So what should we look out for as we charge — with the best intentions — into the Age of Renewables?
We must learn from the externalities of the past (internalize them, if you will) so that, despite the best intentions, we don’t again maximize the benefits and leave substantial costs to future generations. Maximum benefit with minimum regret: that means organically defining problems and then applying solutions (and not the other way around), asking the difficult questions, and undertaking thoughtful planning.
An important caution: there are no easy or straightforward answers. The Age of Renewables is terra incognita for our species, the unknown places that the ancient mapmakers marked “There Be Dragons.” The electric power system is changing, technology is evolving, and climate change waits for no one. But neither physics, chemistry, or biology negotiates with policy or politics. Buckle up, homo sapiens innovatus: organic problem-solving, asking the difficult questions, and thoughtful planning is the best we have.
Maximize benefit; minimize regret. How?
Here are the questions that I am asking myself and my team right now:
What exactly is the challenge? Durable, effective solutions are predicated on accurate and comprehensive definitions. Analyze, debate, iterate, repeat until even the most skeptical agree.
Is the challenge driving the solution or the other way around? This is the “organic problem-solving” that I mentioned earlier. Fight the (very human) tendency to start the analysis with the latest and the newest and the coolest solution, especially in a rapidly evolving technology landscape. Instead, start with the challenge and work toward the solution. This is especially important in the context of renewable integration, where the excitement around energy storage (and batteries in particular) can drown out more effective but less glamorous solutions.
Can we wait? The electricity industry makes decisions and investments that are often measured in decades. That takes prudent planning. And technology costs continue to fall while efficiency improves. That compels patience. But climate change waits for no one. Wait if you can, take incremental steps when you need to.
Can the challenge be addressed with existing resources? Both economics and environment are usually better served by making the best use of what you already have. Examples of this sort of repurposing abound: Baseload-designed natural gas plants are being repurposed as load-following resources. At age 80-something, Hoover Dam is reinventing itself as a renewable energy integration machine. Think creatively across the value chain of your business. Perhaps there is a rate design mitigation (like time-of-use rates) to an operational problem (like mid-day solar overgeneration), for example. Maybe its a portfolio of complementary solutions.
What are the life-cycle costs? I can’t speak for homo erectus, but homo sapiens has a lousy track record on this question. Nuclear waste keeps piling up in temporary storage, lawyers make entire careers out of asbestos litigation, and that Superfund site map isn’t getting less “spotty” anytime soon. Do your homework with eyes wide open: from mineral extraction to manufacturing and transportation to disposal and recycling. Is it still the best compromise? Can we wait until life-cycle costs are reduced? Should we proactively mitigate and/or reserve against those life-cycle costs?
What are the “good neighbor” risks? Think about effects on your landscape, your viewscape, human and wildlife habitats, and public safety. Lithium-ion is the most popular battery chemistry at present but also a known fire risk, from the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 to the Arizona Public Service battery project explosion last July. Take a hard and sober look. Again, is it still the best compromise? Can we wait until these risks are reduced? Can we proactively take mitigation measures?
It’s about principled compromise, not compromised principles.
Northern Irish politician and Nobel Prize winner John Hume was talking about another seemingly intractable challenge — peace in Northern Ireland — but his words ring true in the Age of Renewable too: “It’s about principled compromise, not compromised principles.”
Energy is indispensable. Energy is compromise. And there is no playbook for the Age of Renewables: we are truly figuring this out as we go. Let’s do our absolute best to compromise wisely, with eyes wide open.
Lincoln Bleveans is a 25-year veteran of the global electric power industry. He is currently an executive at a progressive, vertically integrated municipal electric and water utility in Southern California. A frequent speaker at industry events, he is the author of “Like Water to a Fish: a Future of Energy Everywhere”, “Sustainability 2.0”, and other works on energy, sustainability, and leadership. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, or other group or individual.