The Washington Post’s recent article on the “The rise and fall of the U.S. wind industry, in one chart” showed the correlation between the federal wind production tax credit (PTC) and annual installations of wind. When the credit is allowed to expire, installations plummet. When it is renewed, a boom period ensues. This has resulted in an uneven, “saw-tooth” pattern of wind growth that among other things generates anxiety about the future of the market. How, might you ask, does this compare to China – where wind capacity doubled for four of the last six years? Here’s one chart:
This week, MIT will host a presidential energy debate with senior advisors for the two candidates — Joseph Aldy (Obama) and Oren Cass (Romney). This post is part of a ScienceWonks series to raise awareness of the debate and critical issues facing our nation’s energy future.
Rhetoric about “getting tough” with China on trade is heating up during this election season as both parties try to articulate credible strategies for kick-starting the struggling U.S. economy. Not surprisingly, some of the most prominent recent examples of U.S. administration trade actions against China have been in the increasingly profitable clean energy sector, which totaled $263 billion globally in 2011. The U.S. is right to watch what China is doing on energy policy – and should continue to advocate for a level playing field – but perhaps in China’s impressive support for this industry there are also some lessons for a comprehensive U.S. national energy strategy. In this post, I will debunk some of the myths and miracles of China’s energy policy, making a case for U.S.-China cooperation (and healthy competition).
A few years ago, biofuels were the wonder kid of the low carbon economy. The US passed the Renewable Fuels Standard, mandating an annual ethanol production quota to be blended with gasoline. The European Union also integrated biofuels, in the form of biodiesel, as a way to meet its low carbon goals. With the US facing a monumental drought , worldwide concern over rising food prices, and new studies debating the climate benefits of biofuels, though, the honeymoon is over.
As the US drought has dragged on through the summer, the question of its effect on food supply and prices have grown. Now the issue has escalated to the point where corn farmers, meat producers, and biofuel producers are arguing about whether US ethanol quotas should be suspended. Ethanol quotas in the US, a product of the Renewable Fuels Standard, require almost half of US corn production annually be dedicated to fuel production. Given the lower expected yield of crops this year due to the drought, biofuel producers and meat producers are competing for access to a scarce product, leading to rising prices. The meat industry (chicken and beef) are asking for the US ethanol quota to be suspended to ease prices for food production. This would, of course, undermine the ethanol market and lead to lower prices for corn producer’s anemic crop this year.
Across the Atlantic, the European Union is also grappling with the food vs. fuel debate. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, a part of the UN) has voiced its fears that the coming year will bring a new food crisis reminiscent of the 2008 food crisis. Adding to the biofuels ‘fire’ is a new German study finding that biofuels do not attain the EU required decreases in greenhouse gas emissions. Given that the EU’s biofuels requirements are tied to greenhouse gas reduction targets, the German study raises serious questions over whether biofuels should continue to be a part of the EU’s climate change policy.
All this turmoil surrounding biofuels is certainly concerning, but brings to the forefront an issue that has haunted biofuels since they first gained popularity. In a contest over food vs. fuel, which one wins? At the moment the global food supply is being squeezed by the drought in the US, giving us a hint of the pressures to come from population growth. I think we are seeing the first big showdown over how to allocate agricultural resources to the competing interests of human consumption and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Although, with the German study invalidating some of the environmental rationale for biofuels, the contest may be moot in the end. It will be interesting to see how the US and the EU adjust their policies in the coming year. I’ll be sure to report on any updates.
Japan just announced what must be one of the world’s most generous subsidy scheme for renewable energy, with solar being supported particularly strongly with a feed-in tariff (FIT) of 53 cents/kWh. That is more than double the tariff offered by Germany, a country generally considered a world leader in terms of solar subsidies over the past few years.
As the article by the Chicago tribune points out, the Japanese shut off their nuclear reactors that accounted for around 1/3 of the country’s energy following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. The hope is that a generous system of feed-in tariffs will accelerate the deployment of renewables and reduce the country’s dependence on nuclear energy.
by Shreya Dave and Amanda Cuellar
Two weeks ago, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson stood before the Senate Science Committee urging the continuation of funding for NASA, not because space exploration is a national security concern and not because we need to establish a moonbase for economic reasons. He gave testimony before the Senate because we have a generation of future scientists in need of inspiration. In lieu of the video (which I recommend everyone watch) here’s the CliffNotes version: America’s space program turned children into dreamers; it turned dreamers into scientists, and its funding turned science into discoveries that we never saw coming.
Decisions about space funding revolve around more than inspiring future generations to pursue science, but Dr. DeGrasse’s point speaks to the importance of motivation and awareness. Cliché as it may be, investing in the future provides returns over the long term and is also high risk, but its return is something we cannot sacrifice.
Not everyone who watches a space launch will become a rocket scientist but these momentous demonstrations of the power of technology and science affect people’s lives in different ways. Today, innovation in sustainable energy is compared to the Apollo missions; my parents’ MoonShot is my generation’s SunShot (achieving cost-effective solar energy). Energy and cleantech are buzz words, but I am continually shocked at the lack of awareness about energy issues. The energy challenge is present and requires new thinking, radical solutions, and an army of young scientists excited to make the next big energy discovery.
As our former President Bill Clinton stated eloquently: “It’s about time that we start turning trendlines into headlines.” Last week, a transformer in an NSTAR substation in Boston caught fire, sending billowing black smoke into the air and prematurely darkening the sunny evening. Power was then cut to 20,000 customers in Boston’s Back Bay, Theatre District, Kenmore Square, and South End to control the damage. These were the headlines.
For nearly 24 hours, traffic lights were on the fritz, residents could not charge their cell phones, and tourists were sleeping in hotel lobbies. More importantly, the experience reminded all of us of our daily dependence on electricity and just how integral it is to nearly every aspect of our lives. Many people for the first time thought about where their power came from, and, even more complex, which of their energy needs rely on electricity. Some people may have even asked what role a transformer plays in the grid. What didn’t make the headlines and may not have entered the national consciousness are the underlying interactions in the power system and their fragility. Increased consumption, dependence, and aging infrastructure – these are the trendlines that exist even after the power has been restored, yet they rarely make it into the national discussion on energy.
Whereas sustainable energy and power electronics may never be as cool as space exploration, I do not believe all hope is lost. Last weekend, at the MIT Energy Conference, we ran a program for high school students to teach them about energy from an interdisciplinary, real-world perspective. Given a little bit of prep time and a challenge with prizes, students were asking questions like “What are the costs of maintaining a natural gas power plant compared to that of coal?” and “How do we make widespread deployment of nuclear energy a reality?” These students, hailing from Teach for America schools in the Boston area, knew little, if anything, about energy stepping into the room at 8am and were explaining to “the adults” the difference between fuels used for electricity and transportation by 4pm, and they were enjoying it.
My conclusion: it’s not that people don’t care about the challenges faced by our future energy demands, but that people have never been given the opportunity to become aware.
Astronauts return from space and engage in outreach: they share their stories, they show people their pictures, they visit planetariums to give talks, they Tweet. These activities are not only required, they are embraced by the space community. Kids want to be astronauts in part because they make their field accessible. Where is the momentum, excitement, and urgency for the rest of science?
Last month at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, a panel that was discussing educating tomorrow’s workforce touched upon this point. In response to the question about its role in this ecosystem, ARPA-E simply said “inspiration.”
The energy challenge we face today and in the future requires the imagination, willingness and brain power of more than just an elite energy community. While ARPA-E does provide inspiration, we, as “energy people,” cannot sit back in our offices and labs and expect inspiration to spontaneously coalesce around the many pressing energy challenges. What we need, more than anything, though, is for players in the energy sphere to reach out to the public. Unlike the space race, facing the energy challenge depends on energy consumers to reconsider the value and use of our energy resources. It will require both changing perspectives as well as innovative technology. This is not a goal that scientists or the environmentally minded can reach alone, such shifts in the public’s awareness and mindset requires the engagement of the entire populace. This is why we need a space race to face the energy challenge. We need the excitement, inspiration, and awareness that a national focus on one goal can provide. We need for giants from the energy challenge to emerge as celebrities and drive excitement for the energy challenge. And we need the resulting public will to change our energy system in to a sustainable energy future.
In response to significant subsidies to domestic solar panel makers from the Chinese government, the US has imposed small tariffs on solar panels imports from China. Although this decision is seen as a small victory for domestic solar panel manufacturers, cheap panels are the foundation of the US’ large investment in renewable solar energy.