Energy 2018: What is Clean Energy?

From Scott Carlberg

Technology enables increasingly finer measurement of pollution and efficiency for people who make or use electricity. Sophistication of metrics change the way we can define what clean.

As we end 2018 we are reflecting on a few of the points we suggested to watch in the electric industry over the year:

  • Changing government role in the business and energy environment
  • More individual control over energy use; more teamwork, too
  • Deeper and more thorough understanding of what is “clean”

Over three blogs we will look at each point. Just a glimpse because each point has volumes that can be written. Each blog this week a look at this point in time. We’ll write more about these and other issues in 2019.

This is the third column –

A deeper and more thorough understanding of what is “clean”

The electrification of our homes and businesses is good for the Carolinas and its citizens. By electrification, we mean reducing dependence on hydrocarbons (oil and gas) in favor of cleanly created electricity. Be sure, “cleanly” is a pivotal word.

Coal has been the central player when people discuss electric generation pollution. The use of coal in the Carolinas is changing, though, as in so much of the country. For instance, Duke Energy is speeding up its retirement of coal plants. The company has an overview of the process here.

Natural gas has been received with great fanfare on the basis of its price and a better pollution profile than coal. Here’s a national statistic: In 2016, gas surpassed coal for annual generation for the first time, with roughly a third of gas being used in electric generation. Coal continues to fall as a fuel of choice. One report said that, “Cheap Natural Gas and Renewables Could Close Half of US Coal Fleet by 2030.” (Source) Natural gas is currently in plentiful and cheap supply, but it is a commodity, so supply-and-demand rules. There is price volatility, pipeline capacity restrictions during periods of high demand (think of the polar vortex several years ago). Exports of natural gas (as Liquefied Natural Gas) to higher price markets can raise local prices due to competition.

The definition of “clean” evolves when it comes to energy. Natural gas, which has been so positive to the electric industry and to the U.S. economy, is still a fossil fuel, so it has a carbon footprint. Natural gas has roughly half the carbon emissions of coal and is without the legacy of ash disposal.

Then there is solar. Carbon-free, too. In 2017, North Carolina ranked second, after California, in the amount of installed solar power generating capacity with over 4,400 megawatts. Consumers seem interested. The Charlotte Business Journal  reported, “Duke Energy customers have used new rebates offered by its utilities to install and connect more than 10.3 megawatts of rooftop solar to Duke’s N.C. grid so far this year. As Duke Energy Corp. prepares to offer about $12.4 million worth of rebates starting Jan. 2, there are signs that they are likely to be in high demand for 2019.” (Source)

Solar is deservedly seen as a largely clean source for electricity, but solar panels use possibly hazardous materials in manufacturing, and contain substances that require careful reclamation. (Sciencing magazine) Solar has had some people complaining about aesthetic concerns, or the amount of land needed for the resource.

Nuclear produces ample carbon-free electricity. Power production is robust. In South Carolina it was 58% of electricity. In North Carolina, 32% in 2017. However, nuclear used-fuel has been a source of concern for some but has been managed for years. Note that natural gas, now a go-to fuel by electric generators, those plants can be built quickly and the fuel is cheap today. If gas is used in place of nuclear power it adds carbon emissions.

One more thought about some kinds of fuels. Using current commodity market conditions to make future decisions about generation can be risky. It is a supply-and-demand issue. The price stability and availability of a particular fuel source, such as gas, is important to note. Prices can change, and radically in some cases. Recently, the current demand in electric load growth has been fairly flat, and that can mute price pressures. What happens, for instance, when electric vehicles add demand and more electric appliances are in homes? The need for electricity and the demand for a generation fuel can increase. We will blog about that in the future.

The bottom line: “Clean energy” evolves with technology and consumer engagement.

The big theme across our 2019 blogs is that customers’ interface with their electric service will change and consumer education is critical. When consumers do not know what is possible, or expected, frustration results. That is a problem. Check this quote from the World Economic Forum: “At present, most of us don’t know how or where energy is produced, nor do we know when it’s best to consume it.” The report says that most residential consumers may not even know what goes into the cost of power.

The electric grid is a victim of its own success. Customers have not had to think about the how the grid works. It is there when needed. If consumers don’t understand a system that’s been in place, just put on a seat belt for what is ahead. Change will demand more of consumers. Again, from the World Economic Forum: The electric industry is on a “…life-changing, fast-paced trajectory. As in many of these transformed areas, consumers stand at the center of a disruptive convergence of digital technology advancements; consumer engagement; on-demand, tailored consumption; and a decentralized infrastructure.”

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Check our first column that looks at 2018 and the role of government and business, click here.

Check our second column, that’s about the way consumers are gaining influence in the electric industry, click here.