The Renewable Electron Economy
Since 2007, I’ve written a series of blog posts about the Renewable Electron Economy, which is, I believe, one of the more accurate ways of describing our next energy system. In this section, you can read the posts in sequence by clicking on the links to the right.
Our (Near) Future Energy System: the Renewable Electron Economy
Energy analysts, commentators, and political leaders have been converging on a practical, feasible clean energy system for the 21st Century, which I have labeled the Renewable Electron Economy (REE). Steps are being taken by the current US Administration, as well as a number of industrialized and rapidly industrializing nations to build parts of this energy system. A number of factors are contributing to this emerging consensus that we build a Renewable Electron Economy:
- We need to rapidly reduce our net emissions of greenhouse gases to near zero.
- We are dangerously dependent on a depleting source of fossil energy, oil, for transportation and agriculture. Oil deposits are also found in only a few places in the world, which creates trade and political imbalances, while renewable energy has a more balanced geographical distribution.
- Levels of local, visible and sensible (non-GHG) air pollution in rapidly industrializing nations (mostly China but also India) from fossil fuel use have been reaching levels that demand rapid action on the part of governments to maintain public health in the near future.
- Most of the world’s economies are in a “Great Recession” and, if one believes as did the economist John Maynard Keynes that government stimulus is key in shortening and ameliorating the effects of economic downturns, the building of the public works and infrastructure required in the Renewable Electron Economy are productive uses of tax-payer money and government debt financing to spur demand and incentivize private investment.
- In addition to economic stimulative effects that would jumpstart our economies, the building of a Renewable Electron Economy would help create a focus and sense of overarching purpose or direction for economic activity (productive investment and work) where one now may be lacking.
Briefly, the Renewable Electron Economy describes the transfer of most end-use of energy (transport, industrial processes, energy use in the home) to electricity and the generation of that electricity via renewable means. Additionally and importantly, clean, efficient methods of energy storage, like thermal storage, pumped storage, and various types of batteries are all key to creating a largely renewable energy system. A Renewable Electron Economy can be brought closer to realization by the use of highly efficient electrical end-use devices as well as the harnessing of natural energy flows directly (daylighting, natural and solar cooling and heating) where possible; the more efficiently energy is used, the smaller amount of new generation needs to be built to create a carbon neutral or carbon negative economic system.
In response to the hype surrounding the Hydrogen Economy that was receiving a fair amount of media play about 10 years ago, fuel cell engineer Dr. Ulf Bossel developed the concept of the Electron Economy based on engineering analyses of the hydrogen fuel cycle as compared to the use of electricity directly and via batteries. The substantial energy losses associated with the use of hydrogen as an energy storage medium (60-75% losses) are huge in comparison to the use of batteries or other electricity storage methods (10-25% losses) and would not improve much due to the energy required to isolate, compress, store, and then generate electricity in a fuel cell. Dr. Bossel concluded, as have other analysts, that we would need to build a lot less clean electricity generation (50-70% less) if we were to run vehicles and other devices directly off electricity rather than using hydrogen as a form of battery.
Furthermore, and in this there is even more widespread agreement, biofuels have shown themselves to be a potential nightmare if they become a major source of fuel for transportation and mechanical devices. Photosynthesis in most plants converts only 1-2% of incoming light into plant matter (biomass), which then needs to be further refined to run in internal combustion engines. In the end, including energy inputs, the energy yield of biofuels is much less than 1% of incoming solar radiation, while renewable electric generators are much more efficient: for example, photovoltaic solar panels are easily converting 15% to as much as 40% of solar radiation that falls on them to usable electricity, with more improvements in the pipeline.
The production of biofuels from purpose-grown crops rather than wastes competes directly with food production and forest preservation for land, water and other resources; by comparison renewable electricity generation has a much smaller total ecological footprint. We have already seen the near catastrophic effects of industrial biofuel production in Indonesia where higher-carbon forests are cut down to plant palm oil plantations. The demand of the wealthier countries for mechanical energy competes directly with the needs of less developed countries for food energy. Additionally, using the complex soil ecosystem over substantial portions of the earth’s surface as a funnel to push out the petajoules of energy required to run our vehicles and machines, is a recipe for ecological collapse. By comparison, the (large) country of Algeria, for instance, could via solar thermal or photovoltaic electricity generation deliver the entire world’s total energy needs.
Internal combustion engines, in which you burn biofuels, are also much less efficient and much more polluting than electric motors, which turn out to be marvels of energy efficiency. Most vehicle internal combustion engines are somewhere in the area of 20-30% efficient; the most efficient internal combustion engines are the multi-story diesel engines in some large ships which convert at best 50% of the energy in diesel fuel to mechanical energy. By contrast, mid-sized to large electric motors are around 90% efficient with some approaching 95% efficiency; taking into account mechanical losses and battery losses, an electric vehicle turns 65% of the energy input into it into locomotion while an internal combustion vehicle hovers around 20% efficiency or less. Biofuels also create local air pollution where they are burned which the consumption of renewably generated electricity does not. While the carbon emissions of grid electricity in some areas can diminish some of the environmental advantages of electric vehicle use, the future belongs to electric drive, the expansion of which should function as a stimulus to clean up the grid more quickly.
While there will be a role for specialty biofuels and hydrogen energy storage in certain applications, the Electron Economy analysis shows how we can maximize our use of renewable energy by using electricity generated directly from renewable sources or stored efficiently (less than 25% losses). I have added the word “Renewable” to “Electron Economy” to emphasize that Bossel’s and my intention is to encourage the most rapid implementation of renewable energy and that electrification in and of itself is only a part of the process. I have reviewed the other options for generating electricity using other low- or non-carbon emitting sources and, in my analysis, found that renewable sources are most readily deployable with the least amount of negative byproducts and risks associated.
Building the Renewable Electron Economy
Our current economic and policy environment is not currently oriented in such a way that all the elements of the Renewable Electron Economy are “assembling themselves” via the momentum of market forces but there are some promising starts. In California, where I live, the project of bringing electrified high-speed rail to the US has started through the combination of a state-wide proposition and bond measure and the help of economic stimulus funds from the federal government. Electrified rail is one of the long-standing but underappreciated technologies that will help us cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Electric cars are now being designed by most major car makers, led by the start-up Tesla Motors. Another start-up, Better Place, is now testing an interesting car battery swap system that may, if implemented, reduce the “range-anxiety” of electric car owners by allowing them to “refuel” within 5 minutes by exchanging their car battery. Energy efficient end use technologies in the areas of lighting, manufacturing and household appliances continue to progress in performance and affordability.
There is wide variation in the degree to which governments encourage the development of renewable energy generators and even a largely renewable electrical system: some governments like Ontario’s plan for a renewable electron economy while others post meager targets with little economic support for these goals. The combination of the economic downturn in combination with longstanding relationships with fossil fuel interests and infrastructure has put up some new hurdles to rapid build-out of renewables in some areas of the world. There is now almost universal acceptance of the desirability of being “green” in business, culture and government, though what constitutes that goal and how to achieve it are often in dispute.
In the “Policy” section of this website, I go into more detail about the different policy instruments and initiatives that will help spur the development of a Renewable Electron Economy over the long haul.