An occasional feature on Energy Consumers of the Carolinas is “In My Opinion” (IMO). We pose a set of customer-oriented questions to various people involved in the electric energy discipline. This column is from a discussion with Travis Knight, Program Director, Nuclear Engineering Graduate Program and Professor, Mechanical Engineering at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Knight’s research and interests are in the areas of advanced nuclear fuels and materials, nuclear safeguards, nuclear fuel cycle, space nuclear power and propulsion.

Technology – Question: What technology do you see that is especially notable for electric customers, why?

Answer: The electrification of transportation is growing, and the country is not really prepared with the clean and reliable energy generation that will be required. As costs come down for electric vehicle technologies their use can transcend economics and the abilities to adopt them.

I recall seeing a few years ago that the average age of car was 15 years, maybe that is still true. That means there will be car replacements happening. With advances in technology, people may be adopting electric vehicles [EV] faster than I ever thought they would. As these vehicles come on board we could put additional stress on the grid, and we know the results of that, as was shown in California, the Northeast, and elsewhere.

Something that we should also consider with EVs is the environment and “pollution displacement.” Pollution can be out of sight and out of mind. If a clean EV is charged with carbon-emitting power like coal generation, there is still pollution, it is just not at the point of use. The pollutants such as greenhouse gases know no boundaries and contribute to a global problem. Electrification of transportation should consider so called “well to wheels” type analyses that look at the full energy chain from mining or drilling to point of use.  We have to consider the pollutants produced at each step and not just moving it out of sight.

We need a diverse portfolio of energy sources including fossil, renewables, and nuclear.  Nuclear power is by far the largest source of low carbon electricity.  We need that baseload power that is reliable, secure, operates 24/7 and is clean.

Behavior – Question: How do you see customer habits changing as technologies change?

Answer: Those people who have the means seem to be adopting new energy technologies. Some people are willing to spend a premium for what they see as “green”. Prices have come down on many technologies making them affordable to a wider market. Tesla has introduced a model at a lower cost, for instance. Some people are willing to make smaller investments in carbon offsets, such as  for plane tickets. I don’t follow this as closely.

I see this as a question about externalities: What are the external costs? Environment is one, for instance. In the electric bill for example, you are not paying for the ultimate cost of greenhouse gases or other pollutants on the environment and society.  When making these decisions about “green” technologies and options, consumers should be fully informed.

Education – Question: What kind of personal education and information would you advise electricity customers to pursue now? How would they find that information?

Answer: I have been interested in this topic for many years. I grew up in the 70s during the oil shocks and energy crises and definitely remember the pamphlets from what became the Department of Energy … how to save energy at your farm or house. A person had to be proactive to get energy information.

More and better information is now available just as the technology options are wider and better.  The challenge is to get folks to think about these issues in everyday decisions.   For instance, if you have to drive all over the county – use gasoline – for recycling, does it make a positive difference? Re-use is better than recycling, etc.

In the larger policy debate on matters like economic development, urban sprawl is another example. Economic development appropriately looks at more jobs seemingly in any locale, but we should also have constructive conversations about what ought to be developed and what stays rural.  Sustainability and quality of life needs to be a part of the conversation and consider the impact on transportation, water resources, open spaces, wilderness spaces, etc.

A lot of decisions I make about energy I do because of my personal knowledge of energy and technology, like using a programmable thermostat. I use sources of information such as the Energy Information Administration and scholarly studies on the subject. I have in my head what I should and should not do. This weekend, for instance, I put more insulation into the closets I made in the converted attic space.

Ultimately, the conversation about energy is important. If people are talking about it, it gets back to measuring what is good and making sure we are looking at the bigger picture.