Big Goals, Small Planet: Pursuing Clean Energy in a Power-Hungry World

What is the right energy mix? That's the question posed by the third Energy Revolution session at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

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What is the right energy mix? That's the question posed by the third Energy Revolution session at the Aspen Ideas Festival. There were high-level points of consensus among panel members on what the future should look like, but also vigorous disagreement on how we will get there--or if we can get there at all.
 
The conversation was moderated by Andrew Revkin, environmental reporter and author of the Dot Earth blog for The New York Times. The panelists were Kristina M. Johnson, CEO of Enduring Hydro and former under secretary of energy for the U.S. Department of Energy; Tom Fanning, chairman, president and CEO of Southern Company; Lee McIntire, CEO of CH2MHILL; and Eric Isaacs, president of UChicago Argonne, LLC and director of the Argonne National Laboratory.
 
Achieving the Right Energy Mix
Overall, there was a feeling of optimism about America's energy future. There was general agreement that achieving a mix of roughly one-third nuclear, one-third fossil fuels, and one-third renewables by 2035 is a desirable goal. This would require a big rebalancing of the energy mix, which is currently about 80 percent fossil fuels.
 
But each panelist had different concerns about how to achieve that balance. When asked what worried her most about the future of energy, Kristina Johnson pointed to the nuclear piece.
 
"We can get there with renewables. We need government support, but we can get there," Johnson said. "But I'm concerned about nuclear. We're just now building the first new nuclear power plant in 30 years." Johnson said she was also worried about how we will achieve the necessary levels of carbon capture and sequestration associated with the fossil fuels portion of the energy equation.
 
Tom Fanning was much more optimistic about nuclear. Southern Company operates three nuclear facilities, each with multiple units, and is building two new units at its plant in Waynesboro, GA--representing the first new nuclear units built in the U.S. in the last three decades. Where Fanning urged caution was the role of shale gas plays in achieving the desired energy mix, declaring that natural gas isn't a panacea. He also stressed the need to build energy efficiency into the plan.
 
Johnson concurred that the first step is energy efficiency, saying that the U.S. consumes about 100 quads of BTU a year and should strive to remain at that consumption level through 2050, even as the economy and population continue to grow. (That's equivalent to a 1-2% decrease in per capita consumption each year.)
 
On the nuclear question, Lee McIntire said there's no way we can build enough plants to get to one-third nuclear, even though he finds nuclear an attractive solution. "As an engineer, I would encircle L.A. with nuclear plants, but engineers don't run the world."

"The reason is the elephant in the room, which is gas," McIntire continued. "It's very cheap, production will continue to get cheaper, and that will make it difficult to build nuclear."
 
Revkin reminded everyone that another aspect of the nuclear piece of the energy equation is a deep resistance to nuclear on the part of many citizens. On the other hand, Fanning said that nuclear can also be viewed favorably in some communities and regions, because it means economic development and jobs.
 
America Needs an Energy Space Race
All the panelists embraced the idea of the U.S. embarking on an energy innovation effort similar in scope to the space race. But they held varying views on how that race should be framed and funded.
 
When asked by Revkin what keeps him up at night, Eric Isaacs said it's the thousands of scientists at Argonne and elsewhere who don't have a long-term commitment of support. McIntire observed that energy is not a free market, so we need public-private partnerships, policies in place, and investment in long-term R&D. Fanning lobbied for a stronger role for the private sector, saying that government should be the primary player in early stages of energy innovation, and that companies should be allowed to manage the commercialization and scale-up of energy technologies.

Johnson responded that what's missing between scientists and companies is people who understand process engineering, in order to take energy innovations to scale. She pointed to Jay Whitacre of Aquion Energy, who spoke at Thursday's session on Inventing the Future, as an example of process engineering's key role in taking a new technology to scale.
 
Global Needs and Consequences Loom Large
The future of energy in the U.S. looks strong. We are on the path to achieving a cleaner, more balanced mix--and very likely to achieving some level of energy independence. However, our energy economy doesn't exist in isolation: The world is going to require 35-40 percent more energy by 2035.
 
McIntire said he is worried about the nexus of global warming and projected shortages of energy, food, and water around the world. "We can make very optimistic predictions that by 2035 we could be self-sufficient," he said. "But the world still has this nexus. It hasn't gone away just because we've discovered some gas."
 
Furthermore, even as the U.S. uses less coal, coal is still king. Revkin said that while shale gas has upended things in the U.S., coal is still the world's biggest, fastest growing source of energy. McIntire pointed out that the U.S. is producing as much coal as we did five year ago, just shipping more of it to China and Germany.
 
This led to a general call for more systems thinking on the part of policymakers and industry leaders because when it comes to global warming, the planet doesn't care where emissions are coming from.
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