The Power—and Beauty—of Solar Energy

Utility power plants are many things—sprawling, expensive, often polluting—but one thing they are not is beautiful. Power plants are the engines of modern society, but we’d rather they stay out of the way. The Ivanpah solar thermal plant is something different. Soon to be completed in California’s Mojave Desert, Ivanpah will provide nearly 400 megawatts of electricity. It will do so with the sun, but the not the way you might expect. Solar photovoltaic panels—the sort usually seen on rooftops—convert sunlight directly into electricity. That’s elegant, but limited—each panel produces only a little bit of power, and that power stops flowing as soon as the sun disappears. The solar thermal technology behind Ivanpah—which is being jointly developed by BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy and Google—uses thousands of mirrors to reflect sunlight. That light is collected in one of Ivanpah’s three solar towers, where the intense heat transforms water into steam. That steam is piped to a turbine that generates electricity. It’s the same basic technology behind a coal or natural gas plant—only the sun provides the heat. Ivanpah also has the advantage of producing electricity on a much smoother curve than solar PV, which means it can keep generating power later into the day. But Ivanpah, which should go fully online before the end of the year, has something else: sheer beauty.

How to Use Behavioral Science to Encourage Energy Efficiency

I’d meant to put this up earlier, but I wanted to post this TED talk from Alex Laskey, the co-founder of the energy efficiency company  Opower. I’ve written about Opower a few times, most recently in this piece about the use of big data to reduce energy waste. What sets Opower is the way they meld psychology with technology. That was true from the very beginning of the company, back when it used peer pressure—essentially telling you how much energy your neighbors were using on average—to encourage energy efficiency. And it’s still true, as Opower employs sophisticated big data analysis to figure out how to cut waste, as Laksey goes onto describe here. Check it out:  

The Unintended Consequences of Exporting Natural Gas

The best intentions during an election campaign have a habit of twisting beyond recognition once a candidate is in power. I doubt when Barack Obama was teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago he thought that, once in the White House, his Administration would be responsible for one of the most chilling crackdowns on the freedom of the press in recent American history. And yet, after the revelation of the Department of Justice’s wide-ranging move to seize phone records of Associated Press reporters and a deeply disturbing investigation of the Fox News reporter James Rosen — seriously, read this — Obama’s legacy has been permanently altered. I also doubt that the candidate who in 2008 ran on a cap-and-trade plan and promised to make climate change a top priority thought he would go down as the driller in chief. And yet — without taking anything away from Obama’s very real accomplishments in supporting renewable energy and efficiency — that’s exactly what’s happening. Domestic oil and natural gas production have boomed under Obama’s watch, and even though he was hardly the cause (most of the new fracking is happening on private land largely outside federal regulation), neither had Obama done much to stand in the way, at least according to his increasingly frustrated environmental allies. Greens want Obama to stop the proposed Keystone pipeline and halt the expansion of fracked oil and natural gas, but as Obama begins his second term in earnest, that seems unlikely. (MORE: Why the Shale-Gas Industry Needs Regulations for Fracking) Take natural gas. For some time, gas companies have been pushing the federal government to make it easier to export natural gas in liquefied form to foreign countries. This is itself a huge turnaround. Less than a decade ago, domestic production of natural gas was so low that facilities were being built in U.S. ports to import foreign natural gas. The shale-gas revolution, made possible by fracking, changed all that. Now the U.S. literally has more natural gas than it knows what to do with, and the

The IEA Says Peak Oil Is Dead. That’s Bad News for Climate Policy

No one—aside maybe from survivalists who’d stocked up on MREs and assault rifles—was really looking forward to a peak-oil world. Read this 2007 GQ piece by Benjamin Kunkel—while we’re discussing topics from the mid-2000s—that imagines what a world without oil would really be like. Think uncomfortable and violent. Oil is in nearly every modern product we use, and it’s still what gets us from point A to point B—especially if you need to get from A to B in a plane. If we were really to see the global oil supply peak and decline sharply, even as demand continued to go up, well, apocalyptic might not be too large a word. And for several years in the middle of the last decade, as oil prices climbed past $100 a barrel and analysts were betting it would break $200, that scenario seemed entirely plausible. But there was an upside to peak oil. Crude oil was responsible for a significant chunk of global carbon emissions, second only to coal. Only the shock of being severed from the main fuel of modernity would be enough to make us get serious about tackling climate change and shifting to an economy powered by renewable energy and efficiency. We’d have to because we’d have no other choice, save a future that might look something like Mad Max. We’d lose oil but save the world. Increasingly, though, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. New oil sources, many of them unlocked by new technology—the Canadian oil sands, tight oil in North Dakota and Texas, ultra-deepwater oil in the Atlantic—has helped keep the supply of oil growing, even as greater efficiency measures and other social shifts have helped blunt demand in rich countries like the U.S. Oil isn’t likely to be cheap—a barrel of Brent crude is $102—and getting it out of the ground isn’t going to get any easier. But it’s increasingly likely that we will have more than enough oil in the future to keep the global economy growing and stave off any Mel Gibson-esque apocalypses. Indeed, a new assessment released

Energy Independence and Other Myths: A Q&A With Michael Levi, Author of The Power Surge

Michael Levi is my favorite energy wonk — and not just because we both had to endure waiting for hours in the cold outside the 2009 U.N. climate-change conference in Copenhagen. (Though he got in first.) Levi, the senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a smart, pragmatic observer of the energy wars — and he’s an excellent blogger. He knows how to cut through specious arguments on both sides of the energy-and-climate debate while keeping in target the bigger challenges facing the U.S. and the world. Levi has a new book out on the energy debate called The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity and the Battle for America’s Future. It’s one of the best analyses of the amazing changes taking place in the energy sphere today, touching on everything from fracking to climate change to the Keystone XL pipeline debate. I had a chance to talk with him about Canadian oil sands, the myth of energy independence and why we need a negotiated peace settlement to end the energy wars. We’ve seen other energy revolutions go through a boom and bust cycle. What makes this moment different? Two things make this moment special. The first is the diversity of changes that are happening. This isn’t just one isolated area. Today you’ve got booming production of oil, natural gas. You have oil consumption, rapidly falling, rising renewable energy. It’s not just one boom, it’s several at the same time. The other thing is that there are multiple forces driving the change. In oil it’s not just fracking, it’s expanded offshore drilling. In renewables, it’s not just one technology. It’s wind, it’s solar, both centralized and distributed. On the car front, it is everything from better traditional engines to electric vehicles and natural gas for long-distance trucking. So when you have multiple trends and drivers, the transformation is more robust. (MORE: State Dept: Build the Keystone Pipeline or Not, the Oil-Sands Crude Will Flow) Your point is that the best future for America is to capitalize