Insights into the forces shaping our industry.
Beautiful Clean Coal: The Myth of Energy
We have arrived at a sad point in history where ‘facts’ are deemed subject to belief; i.e. not accepted as ‘facts’. For decades we have always had an objector viewpoint; e.g. ‘scientific’ studies showed that smoking wasn’t a contributor to cancer; deniers of acid rain and the ozone hole and now of course, those who simply ‘don’t believe’ the climate is changing with some contribution due to mankind. The belief that clean coal is a solution to our energy needs of the future; is simply another case of ignorance of facts.
Let’s start with a few facts:
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In the last 4-5 years, alternative energy sources have arrived at a level of efficiency and affordability to become the newest energy sources for most IOU’s and IPP’s (independent power producers). In 2016, there was an installed base of 7 GW of wind power. In 2017, that number was 29 GW. 2018 is predicted to be much higher than 2017’s level. With total generation in the US of roughly 4M GW…wind has a long way to go to take over that capacity. But the biggest barrier to the IOU and IPP community for wind and solar has been the fully loaded cost of generating electricity; compared to fossil fuels.The utility industry has been characterized by conservative business practices for decades. It should be conservative; changes to an industry that is distributing power over 750KVA power lines, needs to be structured and disciplined to ensure the safety for all of us. Coal was the first fuel source for large power plants and over the years it’s dealt with significant restrictions as it is fundamentally a barbecue grill on steroids. Coal outgases dangerous levels of Nitrogen, Sulfur and CO2 and it leaves a residue of ash that is very toxic; with arsenic, lead, mercury, barium, chlorine and more. The EPA has never designated it as a hazardous waste, but it cannot be disposed of safely. It resides in over 1100 huge surface pits across the US. In a recent lawsuit against TVA, the utility estimated to move its ash pit would require $2B in costs and 22 years to move it. Each year, the coal fired plants dump 140 million tons of ash into their surface pits. Coal ash will be the 21st century’s nuclear waste problem as we continue to add to the piles. Duke Energy recently settled a huge fine for its ash pit leaching into ground water.
In January of 2018, Xcel Energy released a report of an RFP for constructing 42 GW of generation capacity. It received 96 bids for wind alone, 11 bids for a combination of wind and battery storage and 152 bids for solar, and another 87 bids for solar and battery storage. Additionally, it received 30 bids for gas combustion turbine generation. The winner? Hard to say, let’s just compare the bids based on Xcel’s column of cents per kilowatt hour (kWh):
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And don’t be concerned about the lack of coal bids…they’re far higher than natural gas. And one of the issues I like most of all? If you look at any IOU’s annual report, you’ll see an expense line of ‘fuel costs’. For Duke’s Q3, that number was $4.9B. For wind and solar, the fuel cost number is $0.
And then we have the discussion of distributed energy resources (DER). DER is a fancy way of saying let’s not build a huge power plant and connect it to a grid and transmit the power over 1,000’s of miles. Let’s build at or near to the consumption of that energy (many of you may recall that this was the great debate between Edison and Westinghouse).
DER has been growing rapidly and it’s happening from two different protagonists.
1. The IOU or IPP
2. The end user
#1 is straight-forward…a large industrial customer wants to build a new auto plant; the IOU determines they can build a renewable energy power generation facility in closer proximity to the end user and still connect the customer to the grid as a baseline backup; OR… design the power plant with the ability to supply power back to the grid as well. 89% of utilities that responded to a survey by Lockheed Martin stated they are currently in process of designing distributed grid solutions. 76% of IOU’s believe it is very or somewhat important to develop a DER strategy.
#2 is what catches the news: Amazon builds a 3M sq. ft warehouse and contracts to build their own renewable energy source for the building. Many notable companies, Google, Apple, etc. have either directly built their own power facility, or contracted with an IOU to provide them 100% renewable energy. DER in this case is a capital expense and an asset of the user. On top of the energy source, the C/I (commercial/industrial) users also have implemented an energy efficiency plan and energy management process. 51% of the C/I respondents felt it was important to develop a DER strategy and 44% of them felt the development of DER implementation was not fast enough. Interestingly though, 65% of C/I respondents felt that involvement with the IOU is important for them. That last number is key.
The business community in the US has accepted DER as a logical strategy for meeting their energy needs. Much of this acceptance is tied to the fact that it’s cheaper in the long run for them; energy reduction, rebates, control systems that could have additional benefits, etc. But, the history of success of the IOU industry continues to capture loyalty with the C/I respondents that they’re not quite ready to walk away and go ‘off grid’ on their own. The reliability of an energy provider, safety, support and intellectual insight into meeting their needs now and in the future…the C/I respondents don’t want to break away.
In short…the fact of our current energy transition is fossil fuels are going away. For the conservationists, that’s a blessing. For the business owners, it’s a cost savings which can also be marketed as a conservationist strategy; if you wish.
Regardless, we are on a relatively rapid transition towards energy resources that will reduce our carbon footprint, lower our operating costs, provide clean energy with no hazardous waste stream. The energy market is in a huge renaissance, but beautiful clean coal will disappear as an energy source in the US. Breathe freely.
“The funny thing about facts; even if you don’t believe them, they’re still true”
-Neil DeGrasse Tyson
U.S. Energy Information Administration
Ted Konnerth, Egret Consulting Group’s founder and CEO, recruits on a retained basis, helping leaders in the electrical and lighting industry identify their next C and V-level hire. He is also the executive director for the International Retained Search Associates, allowing him to liaise with skilled recruiters around the globe. To learn more about how Ted can help your company attract talent view his biography, check him out on LinkedIn or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.