FLASH FORWARD: Interview: Chris Nelder

John Shirley interrogates Chris Nelder about the future of Energy. Brock Hinzmann served as consultant on these questions.

Chris Nelder is the creator and host of the Energy Transition Show podcast, and a full-time digital nomad. Chris has written about energy transition for nearly two decades. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, as well as more than 200 articles on energy in publications such as Nature, Scientific American, Slate, The Atlantic, Quartz, Financial Times, Greentech Media and SmartPlanet. Prior to taking the podcast on the road full time, he headed the EV-grid Integration team for five years in the Mobility practice at RMI in Boulder, Colorado. He enjoys bantering with other energy geeks on Mastodon at   chrisnelder@mastodon.energy .

Q. Were you involved in NREL, where a lot of the alternative energy technologies were first invented?

Chris Nelder: Actually, no, I never worked at NREL. I would have liked to, but by the time I was interested in that path, I was already so late in my career that it just didn’t make sense for me to try to earn the academic credentials that I would have needed to be considered there. However, a senior (now  retired) NREL person encouraged me to try to find a gig with the Rocky Mountain Institute (now RMI), a clean energy think tank in Boulder, CO that might hire somebody with expertise but not the sheepskin. I did, and they hired me in 2015, and I worked there for 5.5 years, mostly on trying to overcome the hurdles to deploying high-speed charging infrastructure for EVs.

Q. What’s the Big Picture for you, regarding our energy present and our energy future? Eg, Will there be a “hydrogen economy”; as was once predicted? Are hydrogen cars ever going to be practical?

The “hydrogen economy” that was touted by everyone from the Dubya administration to Arnold Schwarzenegger, circa 2004, was never a serious plan or strategy. It was essentially just a vision promoted by the fossil fuel industry that they hoped would allow them to stay in business during and after the energy transition. But it never made any sense, energetically, economically, or any other way. The push for hydrogen now is much more targeted to specific end-uses, like decarbonizing industrial processes, electricity storage systems, and possibly some kinds of heavy transport, such as shipping. But no, not hydrogen cars. Fuel cell vehicles lost the race conclusively to battery electric vehicles years ago. Their best chance at building an industry was way back then, in 2004. That window of opportunity is now closed. Battery electric vehicles have run away with the market and there’s really no way for fuel cell vehicles running on hydrogen to catch up at this point.

Q. Unfortunately, a lot of other countries seem to take up alternative energy inventions faster than we do. Why is that? What can we do in the USA to get more sustainable energy onto the power grid, and in general use? Will it require vast government subsidies to fund alternatives?

With respect to the power grid specifically, one reason that progress is slower and harder in the US than in some other countries is that we’re a federalist republic! If you want to change the way the power grid is fueled, you have to go through 50 different regulatory commissions and thousands of utilities, each operating according to their own priorities and processes. In Germany, by contrast, you have one national market for electricity and one set of rules and standards, so everything from customer acquisition to permitting and interconnecting can be standardized. That’s why it is perennially cheaper to install a rooftop solar system in Germany, for example, than it is in the US. But as to the second part of your question, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS), and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the US has just put more than $3 trillion up for investment in new cumulative capital investments over the next decade, much of which will go toward the energy transition in one form or another. But a lot that isn’t “subsidies”–it’s money being invested into infrastructure, accelerating market expansion, and so on. Renewables like wind and solar are generally already competitive with fossil fuels on an unsubsidized basis. And a big chunk of money is going toward things like developing a domestic industry for green hydrogen production, EV production, battery production, and so on. So we’re about to see a major infusion of capital into all sorts of energy transition solutions, and I think it’s going to make a huge difference in the rate at which the US decarbonizes.

Q. What do you think of the new, up and coming microbatteries and alternative batteries? X-air and other alternatives.

I don’t actually follow the pre-commercial battery sector too much. There are so many different chemistries and technologies in development, it’s just dizzying. And most of them probably won’t ever become commercial, so I prefer not to spend my time watching them. But some will, for sure. I expect there to be a real bloom of alternate battery technologies over the course of this decade, and that’s going to enable all sorts of things that aren’t really practical right now. It’s important to remember that we only really started getting serious about battery R&D like a decade ago. And of course, there’s a huge amount of potential for other types of storage other than batteries. I’m particularly bullish on thermal (heat) storage. It’s another sector that’s really just getting started but remember, about half of all energy humanity consumes is used for heat! If we can develop commercial technologies that use heat—especially waste heat, and low-temperature heat sources—as heat, it would massively reduce the expected need for grid power and battery storage for grid power.

Q. Is fusion power a fairy tale? There has been some progress in recent years. If it comes, will it really making electricity production “too cheap to meter

Well, it’s a real technology, so I wouldn’t call it a fairy tale. But it’s nowhere near commercial yet, and I have no idea when (or if!) it will become commercial, let alone at the scale that would be needed to make electricity production “too cheap to meter.” Neither does anyone else. We’ll just have to let the scientists keep hacking away at it and see if they can bring it into a commercial reality. I think it’s worth continuing to invest in R&D on it, but until it’s commercial, it won’t even figure in my outlook.

Q. While solar power is itself clean once it’s set up, how do we get to  getting more power than it takes to manufacture solar cells and attendant infrastructure?

There has been alot of misinformation and disinformation proffered about this.We have done multiple shows addressing these
questions. One of them, Episode 184 which launched last October, looks at the Energy Returned on Investment (or EROI) of various energy technologies.The EROI is the energy produced by a technology divided by the energy that it took to make it. So if you have an EROI above one, you have a technology that delivers more energy than it took to make it. The latest and greatest harmonized data in the literature, which we explored in depth in that episode, show that solar and wind both have EROIs of at least ten, meaning that they deliver at least ten times as much energy as went into producing them. And the EROIs of both technologies are rising as they improve. Whereas the EROIs of oil and other liquid fuels deliver essentially less than half of the net energy of solar and wind. So if we want to have a society where it makes sense to keep investing in energy and it makes sense to power it in terms of economic growth potential, you have to do it with renewables. You have to do it with solar and wind, and you can’t keep doing it with fossil fuels.

As for the point about “attendant infrastructure,” this is another extremely complex area that armchair critics of the energy transition (and even a few analysts who should know better) have gotten completely wrong. Essentially they assume that all new grid resources, including variable generators like wind and solar, must be buttressed with all sorts of storage and other technologies in order to make them look and act on the grid exactly like inflexible power plants that are always on do, like coal and nuclear plants. But that’s not how anyone plans or procures resources for the grid actually think, and in fact it gets the problem exactly backwards. In addition to discussing this in Episode 184, we got into some of the more technical questions about it in Episode 188. But the bottom line is that we already get much more power from solar than it takes to manufacture it, and that the cheapest and most energy-efficient path to a fully reliable, 100% clean grid, is via wind and solar. Full stop. Anyone who says otherwise is peddling propaganda, not science.

Q. Windpower contributes (though I worry about killed birds). Wave power can be developed more (though I wonder about effects on oceanic ecosystems). Solar is working well in some areas. Is there a safe practical way to tap into geothermal power?

Bird kills from wind turbines are a real issue, although advances in wind technology are beginning to reduce that. And let’s keep things in perspective: according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, wind turbines kill about 234,000 birds every year in the United States, whereas cats kill 2.4 billion. But weirdly, you don’t hear the people making a big deal about this issue with wind turbines calling for people to stop having cats as pets! Just one example among many of ‘selective outrage’ that runs through the whole topic of the energy transition. If you’re interested in the state of the art on marine energy, you should listen to Episode 155—it’s all about it.

As for geothermal, a few companies are just starting to turn it into a commercial technology that can be deployed much more widely than the older versions of the technology allowed. They are doing it in a safe a practical way, and I’m bullish on it. But again – it’s really a sector that’s just getting started.

Q. Should we despair of ever reducing our carbon and methane production enough to subdue global warming? Tell me there’s hope! Lie to me if necessary!

Absolutely not! After all: “Fear is the mind killer.” So is despair. Although we still have a long way to go on the project of energy transition and reducing the potential for future global warming, we’re making real progress in turning this ship around. No lies needed! A decade ago, a lot of researchers thought that five degrees of warming (or more) was a “business as usual” scenario. Now, no informed person thinks that. The researchers I have interviewed on the podcast about climate scenarios, including several authors of the latest IPCC reports, say that we’re probably currently on track for somewhere between 2° and 2.5° C of warming this century, and that if we keep working at it, we can probably get under 2°. That’s because the energy transition is working! Sadly, this good news still gets short shrift in a lot of the popular press, where it seems that a good number of journalists just can’t resist the temptation to write up the most extreme scenarios in the most extreme way, leveraging every last bit of uncertainty to make their case, no matter how implausible those scenarios actually are. We still aren’t really getting much climate coverage that actually tries to tell us what’s likely, unfortunately. But I think that too is slowly changing.

In any case, yes, there is hope! Limiting warming to 1.5° C is starting to look pretty unlikely, but I honestly think we can limit it to 2°, and then who knows, maybe we’ll actually figure out how to make carbon capture and sequestration technologies  commercial. Which is not to say that everything is fine, or that we can relax our efforts. Much to the contrary. The world is already 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 Fahrenheit) hotter on average than it was before fossil fuel combustion took off in the 1800s; we’re already seeing a lot of damage due to climate change, and that will continue to worsen until we really get to net-zero emissions. We have a lot of work to do. But we absolutely can do it!

Q: What do you think of this Reuters report?

“WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday proposed sweeping emissions cuts for new cars and trucks through 2032, a move it says could mean two out of every three new vehicles automakers sell will be electric within a decade. The proposal, if finalized, represents the most aggressive U.S. vehicle emissions reduction plan to date, requiring 13% annual average pollution cuts and a 56% reduction in projected fleet average emissions over 2026 requirements. The EPA is also proposing new stricter emissions standards for medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks through 2032.”

The history of CAFE standards is so fraught with politics, it’s hard to even know what to say about it. These updated standards in many ways are just putting us back on the track we were on before Trump came in and tried to stop all progress on the energy transition and tilt the scales back toward fossil fuels however he could. Honestly, at this point, I’m not even sure how much CAFE standards even matter. My outlook is that EVs would have run away with the market for cars and trucks even without these updated standards. But these new limits probably will accelerate the transition toward electric vehicles.

Thanks Chris! You gave me hope!

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