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March 22, 2007

The energy big picture

Category: General,Transmission/Storage – Dan – 7:44 am

I want to return to a theme I touched on a week ago in the “What’s the answer? Yes” entry. Too often we look at a potential solution like wind or concentrating solar power (CSP), and say “won’t solve the problem — it’s intermittent”, or “it only works in the desert”.

This issue touches directly on energy policy. We need to think of the energy big picture. And I’m going to argue that there are four components to that big energy picture: Sources, Transmission, Storage, and Use.

  • Sources – Wind, CSP, Photovoltaic — these are all sources. There’s a lot of data that shows that there’s plenty of environmentally benign energy to be had. For example, the TREC project (a Club of Rome initiative) shows that a CSP facility covering a fraction of the Sahara desert could provide power for the entire world. The challenge here is that these great CSP sites are far from the major population centers. This leads us to…
  • Transmission– Our current major power sources, coal and oil, are cost effective today in part because of elaborate transmission and distribution systems. The US is crossed by a network of pipelines, an electric power grid, and coal fired plants either are colocated with the mine or at the other end of a major rail line connecting mine to plant. Indeed one enormous energy use in the US is energy transmission. No energy strategy is complete without considering the investment required to get that energy to market.
  • Storage – As important as transmission is the ability to store energy for use when it’s needed. Why is gasoline a great transportation fuel? Because a relatively small and lightweight quantity can be stored easily in a gas tank until it’s needed. Indeed, you can think of fossil fuels as a giant tank of stored solar energy that, for the past century, we’ve been drawing down. The piles of coal outside a coal-fired utility, and the tanks of gasoline at your local filling station are all examples of functional and cost effective energy storage. The big challenge with many alternative energy sources is storage; it’s easy and cost effective to convert wind to electricity, but it’s not so obvious how to store it until it’s needed. As our energy strategy evolves, we have to address this storage challenge.
  • Use – Finally, the nature of delivered energy is important. Electricity is a wonderful and flexible energy medium, but without better batteries (a.k.a. chemical storage), it can’t power automobiles. There are industrial processes that require specific fuel sources. I cook, and believe me a gas stovetop is superior.

Much of the challenge to move to a carbon-free energy economy is how to evolve the current entrenched system to adapt to new cleaner sources, while addressing the new problems that arise with transmission, storage, and use. This will be a focus on ongoing posts.

1 Comment »

  1. […] energy, there’s constantly a focus on energy sources. But as I’ve discussed in the Energy Big Picture entry, it’s a matter of source, transmission, storage, and use. In this posting, I’d […]

    Pingback by » Energy uses - What’s the point anyhow? — April 7, 2007 @ 7:32 pm

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