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America's energy future
Host Madeline Brand talks with former Shell president, John Hofmeister, Pew's Phyllis Cuttino, and Maggie Koerth-Baker, author of Before the Lights Go Out, about how the natural gas boom could act as a bridge to America's energy future, helping to modernize the energy grid to better accommodate renewable power sources.
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John Hofmeister is the founder and chief executive of Citizens for Affordable Energy and former President of Shell. Maggie Koerth-Baker is a science columnist with the New York Times Magazine, science editor at Boing Boing.net. and the author of the book, “Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us.” Phyllis Cuttino studies clean energy at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Host Madeline Brand (MB): When we think about renewable energy, how much support should the government give to expensive and somewhat risky new technologies? Especially when the country is now in the midst of a natural gas boom? Phyllis Cuttino, who studies clean energy at the Pew Charitable Trusts, argues that the government needs to preserve America’s global competitive edge in clean energy technology. She says, since 2004, private investment in it worldwide has risen more than 600 percent.

Phyllis Cuttino (PC): Some of the fastest growth is coming from, certainly from Asia, but emerging economies from all around the world. So, if we’re going to have a jump in energy consumption of 47 percent, 85 percent of that is coming from emerging democracies. So, when we look at clean energy, we see not only clean energy as an opportunity to deploy here in the United States, but also to take all of those technologies that, frankly, the United States has largely innovated, and to manufacture them and to export them to other markets. Because, in a lot of markets around the world, distributed energy, renewable energy is already the cheapest and best option.

MB: So in some places like China and India, that is seen as a very attractive option? 

PC: That’s right. 

MB: I guess, in this global marketplace and global village we live in, what’s wrong with letting China and other emerging markets take the lead in developing new technology in this sphere? One could say, that they would benefit more from it because they’re leaping over to adopting renewable energy as a primary source anyway.

PC: Well, I think a couple of things. One, we did invent most of these clean energy technologies and we do have a stake in developing and manufacturing and exporting them. As I look out over the global sector, I can’t imagine that the United States would want to give up on clean energy, that we wouldn’t want to use our natural advantages to seize the economic and the national security and the environmental benefits that come along with clean energy. So, it’s a segment of our energy sector. It is a growth sector of the global economy. Why wouldn’t we, when we have natural advantages, want to capitalize on that?

MB: Well, a lot of people say that’s what natural gas is doing right now. It’s providing a cheap, clean alternative to fossil fuels. We already have natural gas. We already have the technology up and running for that. So, why invest in these other forms of technology when we’ve got plenty of cheap, natural gas?

PC: You know, it’s very interesting. We have made investments in natural gas. For instance, hydraulic fracturing is something that U.S. government energy R&D dollars helped to foster. So, I think when we look around, one of the phrases I hear often from people is, ‘Gee, we shouldn’t be choosing winners and losers. We should create policy that provides certainty for all forms of energy and we need diversity in our energy mix’. And, I think there is broad agreement that there are several things that need to happen for it to be done as cleanly as possible, as safely as possible, which is we have to have assurance that clean air is protected, that there’s clean water. Frankly, that’s one of the things that are really missing here in the United States. We have some good state policies, but at the federal level, energy policy, when it comes to clean energy, has been very episodic, on again, off again. That has an adverse impact on not only businesses, but also investors, inventors, you name it. 

MB: John Hofmeister is the founder and chief executive of Citizens for Affordable Energy – a nonprofit group advocating affordable and clean energy solutions for the United States. He is also the former President of Shell.

So you ranked these ten sources of energy basically on their affordability?

John Hofmeister (JH): Affordability and technological availability.

So, for example, hydrogen as a future energy carrier is technologically not really available yet at a large scale. So, that’s still pretty far out there, but it will be a robust source of energy in the future. But, in the meantime, the most affordable are clearly the traditional hydrocarbons, as well as nuclear, as well as hydropower.

I’m talking about oil, natural gas, and coal.  

The United States really has been endowed by nature with coal, oil and natural gas in a way that most parts of the world have not.

MB: It might come as a surprise that someone who supports the Keystone Oil Pipeline, agrees with Pew’s Director of the Clean Energy program, Phyllis Cuttino, that the U.S. should invest in research and developing clean energy. He wants a policy that will support a full mix of sources from oil to solar.

JH: What I propose is the creation of statutory authority by Congress, signed by the President, which would create an independent regulatory body that manages the future of energy supplies, the future of energy infrastructure, the future of environmental protection, and the future of energy efficiency for the nation. Not for the Democrats. Not for the Republicans. Not for the any particular special interest at all, but the interest of the American people. In other words, set the big rules on the energy infrastructure, the energy supply, energy efficiency, and the environment and then let the industry go do what’s necessary to produce the supply. Let the construction industry do what’s needed to build the infrastructure. Make sure the environmental protections from federal levels are fixed and adhered to and inspected and regulated and make sure we’re taking best advantage of energy efficiency.

MB: It sounds like a really good idea and sounds like one that would really be opposed to by interests like to make a lot of money from energy, who probably wouldn’t want too see their market accessibility curtailed in any way by an independent governmental oversight board.

JH: You might ask the question: ‘Am I just dreaming about this?’ And, the reality is, I predict before this decade is over, that the American people will be experiencing increased frequency of blackouts where there’s no electricity. Increased frequency of gasoline lines, where there is not enough transportation fuel. Because, the path that we’re on will result in less, not more electricity production. The pain that the American people will be suffering will push Congress to act regardless of the arguments of the special interests who want to protect the status quo. I think it will be driven, in effect, by crisis. I think the crisis in inevitable. And, on transportation fuels, global demand is rising faster than global supply, so the inevitability of shortages is coming right at us.

MB:  No matter what you think about the idea of government subsidies for renewables or hydrocarbons, one thing is certain: unless we upgrade the grid -- the system that carries the electricity from the power plant to your home -- there can be no progress. The grid is not able to handle all these new sources of energy, says Maggie Koerth-Baker. She’s a science columnist with the New York Times Magazine and science editor at Boing Boing.net. She’s the author of the book, “Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before it Conquers Us.”

Maggie Koerth-Baker (MKB): One of the things I try to explain to people is that when you’re talking about infrastructure, short-term is 40 years. And, we haven’t even done the short-term things. What makes this really hard and makes me pessimistic, is not even in the political realm, but in the coordination issue. Because it isn’t a simple “drop in one solution, replace old solution, problem solved”, and it has to happen quickly, which is really the hard part.

MB: So, you’re pessimistic for a national cohesive system, but what if everything just becomes more local?

MKB: I think we’re going to see a lot of localized renewable energy, absolutely. I think that’s part of, actually the national level change that we need, is allowing more places to use the resources that they have access to, and to get those onto the grid. The thing is though, that what you want is for that local sources of energy to be part of this national network.

MB: Can you just describe how the grid has to operate differently to accommodate renewables like wind and solar? Versus the old standbys: coal, gas, oil?

MKB: Absolutely. So, to explain this, I kind of have to back up a minute and sort of explain how the grid works, itself. Because one of the key aspects here is that, the electric grid, in order to keep from getting a blackout, you have to have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand, and if that gets out of whack by even fractions of a percent, what you’re going to get is blackouts. So around the United States and Canada we have these centers where grid controllers work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, making sure that that balance is perfectly maintained. Now, they have connections with power plants, so they can call up a power plant and say, “we need you to produce less electricity, or we need you to produce more electricity”, and they do that to kind of balance out with whatever kind of demand happens to be at any given point throughout the day. What makes wind and solar a little bit tricky, is that they aren’t nearly as controllable as some of these traditional sources of power. You know if you’re talking about hydroelectric power, coal, natural gas, even nuclear to some extent, all of those things are things that the grid controller can call up whenever they need to. Whereas wind and solar, if there’s not enough wind or there’s not enough sunlight, you can’t produce more electricity from wind and solar. So they’re not as controllable as these sources of power that the grid kind of evolved to work alongside - and it’s not really a deal breaker. But, it does add another point of instability into this already unstable system, and the more instability you add in, the harder the grid controller’s job becomes, until you get to a point where you start having more blackouts then you would otherwise.

MB: So you’re saying that without updating the grid, creating a smart grid, a more digitally-enhanced grid, that we can’t really develop renewable energies because the grid just can’t handle it?

MKB: We can develop renewable energies, but not as much as we want them to. We can’t have them replace coal and natural gas or nuclear power at this point - we don’t have a grid that could do that. 

MB: So until we get our grid together, we’re going to be stuck at, right now we’re at 13 percent renewables?

MKB: Right. The experts that I spoke with think you could get between 20-30 percent before you’d really kind of start to have problems. It’s not a hard cut-off line. It’s not like at this point everything will go down, it’s just that it keeps getting harder and harder the more you add in. They think that somewhere between 20-30 percent is where things would get hard enough that you wouldn’t want to add anymore.

MB: And is anybody actually saying let’s do this, let’s address this grid problem money towards that?

MKB: In some ways, yes, people are. There’s not a clear unified movement to get this fixed right now, and that’s really part of the problem because it’s not something that one organization can do, because our grid is owned by lots and lots of different organizations and companies, and if you actually want to fix the thing you kind of have to get everybody on board.


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Global Energy and Innovations / Produced by Jocelyn Ford, Curt Nickish, Bianca Vazquez Toness and A.C. Valdez / Edited by Martha Little with additional production help from Flawn Williams / Web Producer: Philippa Levenberg / Photos via Flickr: pjmixer; djwtwo and AP photos: Bettmann/Corbis and Ajit Solanki.

Host: Madeline Brand/ Length: 51 minutes / Airdate: April 2013

This show was made possible through the generous support of Qatar Foundation International and the Stuart Family Foundation.

Click here to read a report on this show by our Ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, in response to the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting article published May 31, 2013.

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