People who want change have two options, and the “obvious” one gets a lot of attention. If you see a big problem and its bothering you, it’s natural (obvious is probably not the right word) to hope or want a powerful organization to use its capacity to solve it. This rarely works, because big organizations, including and especially our national and state governments, already have plenty of problems to work on. They already outsource most of their problems to smaller organizations.
The classical planning view would be that in an electric generation mix, higher capital cost/ lower fuel cost generators and higher fuel cost/ lower capital cost generators complement one another, resulting in a least cost generation mix. There are also other complementarities, e.g. overlapping science and technology needs (think enhanced geothermal and natural gas fracking). Likewise, there is a potential at least for shared infrastructure (think injection of bio-methane and later hydrogen from renewable sources into gas pipelines and distribution systems).
Ten years ago, Susan Davis introduced me to the notion of “both…and”, aka “both/and”. It may be a measure of cultural imprinting, or a slow paced intellect, that it took me some time to fully grasp the full meaning. “Both, and…” is another way of saying, “You are both right”, an observation Solarex CEO, Harvey Forest, was fond of making in the midst of heated debates among his management team members. But it goes further. It is essentially a call to integrate, not differentiate. And wouldn’t it be a relief just now if our Congress started to do a little more integrating and a little less differentiating.
The road to hell is paved, not only with good intentions, but also bad choices. Choices have consequences which require further choices. Getting it right once is easier than getting it right consistently and continuously, especially when the definition of “right” is shaped by changing circumstances. That's why so many businesses fail and so few survive over the long term. It’s not that the ones that failed didn’t plan. It is one thing to make a plan. It is another to execute the plan. When the planning and operational execution processes are decoupled, as they often are, eventual failure is almost assured. It is one thing to plan incremental product line changes and cost saving measures. It is another to anticipate and effectively prepare for longer term market shifts and competitive threats…especially when the related investments pay out over decades rather than years….
I’ve long treasured invitations to visit other countries. Getting out of the US about once a year is a gift of perspective that keeps giving over time. Inevitably, an overseas trip provides a reminder that all countries and communities face myriad technical, economic and political questions. Applying the chosen answers in each case is informed by individual histories and cultures.
In the US, our institutions have evolved over decades and centuries; if we are honest about it, not always predictably or with due respect for all affected parties. The same is true in other countries, but their critical junctures and directions of subsequent drift were different and are differently felt.
Technology tells you what you can do; economics…what you should do; politics...what you will do. Approximate oracles surely, but what are they telling us about our energy future these days?
In general, technology is telling us we have a proliferating number of new and excellent tools with which to change our energy infrastructure for the better. Listening more closely, it is telling us that innovation has never been easier, but to stop looking for breakthroughs. Energy breakthroughs these days are manifested by tipping points, not the brilliance of Nobel laureates. The apparent "aha!", on closer examination, usually turns out to be the product of twenty years of tenacity and scraping for funding, followed by a stroke of luck in the nick of time to head off a technology venture's imminent collapse.
"Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured, or far away."
Most will recognize the author as Henry David Thoreau. I find the quote particularly poignant as I embark on The IRES Network adventure. For many reasons, including the brilliant work of my companions, I am no longer keeping pace with them in renewable energy. For nearly forty years we've marched to a unifying beat. It is now loud and clear. The work of pursuing a vision is done. The work of fully realizing the vision is well underway.
Integrated planning and operation of energy systems is not a new idea. Ironically, it was more easily and (arguably) better accomplished in the past than in the present. For example, electric utilities invested to create an economically balanced mix of generation resources. The individual economic attributes of these resources were complementary. High capital cost, low fuel cost base load plants (e.g. coal and nuclear) provided the majority of the energy. They were complemented by plants that cost less per unit of capacity and consumed higher cost fuel (e.g. combined and simple cycle plant burning natural gas). Plants and transmission links were located to give the franchise area grid a highly reliable carrying capacity. All proposed generation and transmission projects were selected according to a goal of minimizing overall cost of delivered energy.
When we use the term “renewable integration” to describe IRESN’s focus, what do we mean? Integration with what? In what context?
IRESN has been active in certain major dimensions of renewable integration. They are:
- Project integration
- Infrastructure integration
- Money integration
- Societal integration
Without some examples, these terms don’t help much either. So, for example
Not knowing whether to change direction has consequences. Disruptions and trends in the world these days will determine how our energy systems need to adapt or transform…changes in technology, relative costs, and the competitive need at all scales of energy use to respond both opportunistically and strategically.
Imagine driving at 90 miles per hour in a blinding snowstorm. Obviously unsafe. No one would do it even if there were no other cars on the road. But our permanent energy data blizzard does tend to obscure the road ahead, and our current circumstances don’t allow us the option to slow down.