Navigant Research Blog

Energy Efficiency Lags in the South

— May 7, 2013

After record 2012 temperatures, another sweltering summer looms in the southeastern United States.  And the region lags behind other parts of the United States in efficiency policies and gains.   Two recent reports that focus on energy efficiency efforts across the country offer different opinions as to why this is, but the causes may be more related than they first seem.

The first is an American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) study, Trusted Partners: Everyday Energy Efficiency Across the South, that focuses on four southern states: Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.  Researchers found that while consumers are interested in efficiency, they don’t necessarily want government-backed mandates pushing for efficiency.  The combination of strong resistance to government intervention and slow regional economic growth has led to a dearth of effective energy policies in these states.  While the researchers offer a number of recommendations, ultimately it’s about understanding the population and using trusted institutions to drive behavior change.  There are many hurdles to increasing energy efficiency in the South, but changing behaviors and attitudes is the first step toward reducing consumption.

The second study, by CO2 Scorecard, comes with slightly more divisive results.  The most eye-popping statistic from their research was that traditional Republican – or ”red” – states use 55% more energy per capita than “blue” (or Democratic) states.  Researchers for this study claim they examined all possible variables, and the results consistently showed a strong correlation between voting habits and energy use.

We All Benefit

Given the weight of each report’s results, it’s worth examining them further.  The four states in the ACEEE study are traditional red states; according to ACEEE’s 2012 State Energy Policy Scorecard, all scored poorly (Georgia was highest at 33rd and Mississippi came in dead last).  ACEEE’s study also found that Southerners are interested in efficiency.  But since energy prices are lower in the South than in other parts of the United States, incentives to use less are weaker.  Southern states also lack capital to pay for energy efficiency measures – at both the state and consumer level.

So how do you convince money-strapped consumers, utilities, and governments – in states that traditionally view government activism with suspicion – to spend time and money building up efficiency infrastructure?  I tend to agree with ACEEE’s findings that public education is the key to reaching these states.  Rather than a dirty, government-mandated word, efficiency can be presented as a commonsense approach that benefits everyone in the community and leads to cost savings – which can compound into more savings when scaled up.  Starting slow and gaining the trust of the people will open doors in the energy-hungry Sunbelt.


China Makes Strides to Curb Carbon Emissions

— April 26, 2013

China has now outpaced the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG).  With a power sector that relies heavily on coal and continued aggressive construction of coal-fired power stations, the country currently accounts for almost 50% of global coal consumption.  According to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, China’s carbon emissions increased 9% in 2011 to 7.2 tons per person.   This figure is only slightly less than the European average of 7.5 tons – though significantly less than the average American at up to 17.3 tons per person.

Realizing the need to address the country’s serious GHG emissions problem – especially with record smog levels in Beijing – the Chinese government is taking a number of steps.  It plans to add 49 GW of renewable energy capacity this year and develop an energy plan with the goal of gradually transitioning from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, such as hydropower and intermittent resources like wind and solar power.  In 2012, about 15 GW of wind and 3 GW of solar energy capacity were added.

New Lows

Most noteworthy is the government’s effort to curb CO2 emissions by initiating a new carbon emissions trading pilot scheme.  It is set to launch seven such pilots in various cities and provinces this year that are expected to eliminate at least 700 million tons of annual emissions.  The first pilot will be kicked off on June 17 in Shenzhen (southern China) to initially include 635 companies that were responsible for 38% of the city’s total GHG emissions in 2010.  This pilot scheme will create the second-largest carbon trading scheme in the world, after the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).  Beijing and Shanghai may soon follow suit, though neither city has scheduled a launch date yet.

It remains to be seen if the Chinese carbon trading program will be as successful as the EU ETS scheme, which has indeed reduced carbon emissions since it was initiated in 2005.  But will China, like the EU, eventually face the challenge of a growing surplus of allowances?  Recently, the European Parliament proposed to delay the release of 900 million CO2 emission permits in order to stop over-flooding an already saturated market (mainly caused by the economic recession, which has depressed emissions more than anticipated) – a decision that was narrowly defeated soon thereafter in a parliamentary vote because of fear of raising costs for businesses in a sluggish economy.  Earlier this year, permits traded at below €3 ($3.90) a ton – compared to €7 ($9.10) a ton last year and €25 ($32.50) a ton in 2008.  Shortly after the vote, carbon allowances dropped to €1.70 ($2.20).  It is clear that carbon trading can be fraught with problems, and the Chinese market will undoubtedly face its own unique issues in the years ahead.  Still, China should be able to draw upon the EU’s experience and its hard-won lessons.


Thinking Small, Nuclear Power Enters Distributed Era

— April 26, 2013

The nuclear power industry’s drive to deploy small, modular reactors (SMRs) took a significant step forward this month.  Nuclear technology vendor Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) formalized its funding agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for the mPower reactor project.  With $79 million of federal funds for this year (and a total of $150 million over the 5-year program), B&W plans to build a prototype SMR at the Clinch River site in Tennessee, owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

SMRs have gleamed in the eyes of nuclear power providers for a decade now, as the industry seeks a new model for economical, carbon-free power generation for the 21st century.  The Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 seemed to squelch the so-called “nuclear renaissance,” but many countries – including the United States, South Korea, Russia, China, and even Japan – are moving ahead with plans for small reactors that can be factory-crafted (thus “modular”) and assembled onsite.  Economies of scale have dominated the nuclear power industry for most of its life, with reactors expanding to 1,000 MW or even 1,500 MW.

Now, many believe that the future of nuclear lies in SMRs of under 300 MW that can be arrayed in multiple configurations, giving power generators more flexibility and, in theory, lower capital costs.

There are more than a dozen designs currently under development for SMRs.  Most of them are simply miniaturized versions of existing, light-water reactors; the mPower is a 180 MW “advanced integral pressurized water reactor” that could be deployed not only for supplying power to the grid but in more specialized applications, such as powering remote oilfield operations or desalinating water.

Arctic Nukes

“SMRs offer TVA an important new option for achieving clean, base-load electricity generation and we are ready to begin the work to understand the value of that option,” said TVA senior vice president of policy and oversight, Joe Hoagland, in a statement.

Increased safety is also a feature of SMRs, at least potentially.  NuScale Power, a startup principally backed by Fluor Corporation, said at an SMR conference earlier this month that it has developed an inherently safe system that, in case of a full power shutdown such as happened after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, will self-cool the reactor without the need for external power or water.  Essentially, the NuScale design uses a simplified set of water valves that flip open automatically in case of a power disruption.

“Because of the simplicity of the NuScale design, only a handful of safety valves need to be opened in the event of an accident to ensure actuation of the [emergency cooling system],” said Jose Reyes, the co-founder and CTO of NuScale, speaking at the Nuclear Energy Insider SMR Conference in Columbia, South Carolina.  “These safety valves have been mechanically pre-set to align to their safe condition without the use of batteries following a loss of all station power.”

The earliest applications for SMRs are likely to be distributed generation in remote places, including military forward operating bases.  A Russian consortium is constructing a barge-mounted SMR, based on the nuclear engines that power icebreaker ships, that can be deployed in some of the least hospitable places on Earth.  The idea of nuclear reactors powering oil and gas production in the Arctic is hardly a reassuring thought for environmentalists and diplomats, but it’s likely to become a reality in less than a decade.

The mPower prototype is scheduled to be up and running by 2022.


Facing an Uncertain Future, Advanced Biofuels Seek New Markets

— April 18, 2013

With a debate over the efficacy of the U.S.’ Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) reopened on Capitol Hill in Washington and policymakers in Brussels wrestling with conflicting reports about whether biofuels impact the environment and global food prices, it’s just another day in the in the office for the global biofuels industry.  While the questions remain the same, the temperature of the debate feels different this time around.

Last year, severe drought prompted the UN to urge U.S. policymakers to scale back or waive mandated volumes of corn starch ethanol production.  In January, a U.S. federal appeals court ruled in favor of the American Petroleum Institute (API), arguing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could not require refiners to buy credits for cellulosic fuel since there has yet to be any gallons produced commercially and at scale.

Meanwhile, across the pond, European policymakers are struggling to align alternative fuel ambitions with strict sustainability standards.  Progress has been clouded by recent reports complicating an already contentious debate over the land use impacts of increased biofuels production.  Clarity on the issue appears increasingly elusive.

These events have cast considerable doubt on the future of biofuels production in the United States and the EU, the first and third largest markets for biofuels respectively.  Current production offsets just 4% to 5% of petroleum consumption despite outsized ambitions from end-users like commercial airlines, defense, and ground transportation.  The mandates have been likened to filling a swimming pool with a thimble.

Shifting Gears

At the core of biofuel ambitions over the next decade is the commercialization of a host of conversion technologies targeting everything from agricultural residues to algae.  While conventional biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel derived from commodity crops are widely commercialized, advanced biofuels are still clawing their way toward commercial relevance.

First-of-kind biorefineries have come online in the past year with dozens more currently under construction, but the process has been slow, expensive, and arduous.  Navigant Research’s recently published study forecasts that just 9 billion gallons of advanced biofuel will be produced globally by 2020, a far cry from the lofty targets set by current mandates.

If the climate of uncertainty flowing from developments in Washington and Brussels persists, a mass exodus among advanced biofuel interests away from fuels production and toward bio-based products can be expected.  This migration is already several years in the making, but up to this point, most stakeholders have been content to hedge their bets in multiple markets.

Currently, the bio-based products market offers shorter runways to revenue than the fuels market.   In the low-margin, high-volume business of fuel production, profitability is predicated on economies of scale, which in many cases, are still a decade away for market interests.

By comparison, the bio-products market offers lucrative interests in high-margin, low-volume markets like food, feed, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, polymers, and paper.  Algae players are a key constituent in this group and are chasing high-value omega-3 fatty acid production.  Selling north of $2,000 a ton, omega-3s are a popular nutritional supplement, made more so by the increasing cost of seafood products due to overfishing.  By comparison, biofuels generate anywhere from $200 to $500 per ton.

The consequence of all of this is that advanced biofuels production at scale (for the sake of argument, greater than 7.5 billion gallons annually, or 1% of global petroleum fuel consumption) remains perpetually stuck on the horizon.  This will likely force policymakers to dial back biofuel ambitions to assuage public outcry for support of “snake oil.”  With Washington and Brussels jumping headfirst back into the debate, one wonders whether the biofuels industry has already reached this point.  Nevertheless, bio-based products and materials could provide a key stepping stone to advanced biofuels production profitability at scale.


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