Things were looking pretty sunny for alternative energy sources back in 2005. Though still resisted by conservative politicians and allied voters, human-caused climate change was accepted as fact by the vast majority of scientists, many business leaders, and even the Pentagon. Energy security was a major concern for the armed services, given that U.S. troops were fighting and dying in Iraq, home to the world’s fifth largest reserve of oil—the substance that America was “addicted to,” according to President (and former oil man) George W. Bush. Against that backdrop, funding was pouring into top universities and associated laboratories engaged in carbon-neutral energy research, and Berkeley was among the top beneficiaries.
Under its director, Steven Chu, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) launched the Helios Project, an ambitious initiative to develop and deploy solar energy technologies. Then in 2007, Berkeley, LBL, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and oil giant British Petroleum (BP) established the Energy Biosciences Institute. Funded by $500 million from BP—which in the early aughts had taken to calling itself “Beyond Petroleum”—the institute dedicated itself to developing “cellulosic” biofuels.
The climate for alternative energy only got balmier in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president. Obama favored weaning the nation off our dirtiest fossil fuel (coal), and he promoted policies that encouraged the development of solar, wind, and biofuels. His moves coincided with widening disillusionment with the hydrocarbon industries as gasoline prices soared to over $4.00 a gallon in some parts of the country. Talk of “peak oil”—the idea that civilization teeters on the brink as petroleum production tops out, then enters a terminal decline—was rife.
Doomsayers aside, when Obama appointed Chu as U.S. Secretary of Energy in 2009, there was a sense that the nation had crossed an energy Rubicon—that we were moving inexorably away from the fossil fuels that had driven civilization since the late 19th century, and forward to the sophisticated, benign, and sustainable energy sources of the new millennium.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that bright energy future, something that disrupted the dreams of many would-be disruptors. It had been going on for a while—since the mid-1990s, actually—but few had noticed it or understood its implications. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t about a new, clean energy source. It was about a long-established and rather pedestrian one: natural gas. And it really wasn’t about natural gas per se; it was about how natural gas is obtained.
See, no one was talking about “peak gas” in the 1990s. There was plenty of it, even if extracting and transporting it at prices acceptable to an energy-hungry planet was a challenge. In many natural gas plays, the process of wresting the gas from its subterranean strata simply didn’t pencil out. Then a hombre named Nick Steinsberger rode into town. Actually, he rode into a central Texas natural gas play known as the Barnett Shale. Steinsberger was a young engineer brimming with both talent and ambition, who worked for Mitchell Energy, a firm specializing in the extraction of shale gas. The company ran numerous wells on the Barnett Shale, but they were guttering out. So Steinsberger was given a mission: Somehow, some way, squeeze more gas from the Barnett operation.
It seemed a fool’s errand. The Barnett field’s gas was located in what geologists call a “tight” formation: hard, dense rock that yields its bounty grudgingly. You had to drill down a couple of miles, then fracture (or “frack”) the stony matrix with a thick and pricey chemical gel, and then siphon up the liberated gas. Increasingly, the process wasn’t worth the cost or the effort. Still, Steinsberger was given a shot at figuring out a better way.
And he did just that. He simply diluted the gel, first by a little and then by a lot, as it became apparent that the watered-down goo worked as well as the unadulterated product. Eventually, he decided what the hell, and jettisoned the gel altogether. He injected water—a lot of water, spiked with some bleach and soap to keep things clean and slippery—down a test well near the sleepy little Texas burg of Justin. And voilà, the gas flowed like milk and honey. In fact, the well produced twice the gas of a gel-fractured operation, and at half the cost.
Further, Steinsberger’s technique worked for oil as well as gas. It didn’t take long before everyone in the industry was using the engineer’s new playbook.
These days, no one’s talking about peak oil. In the post-frack world, supplies of both natural gas and petroleum have increased dramatically, and their prices have spiraled downward. To a degree, hydraulic fracturing, combined with horizontal drilling technology, has freed the U.S. from the yoke of foreign exporters. In 2015, net imports of petroleum fell to less than 25 percent of the country’s consumption, the lowest level since 1970. These trends have disrupted energy use trajectories, if not policies, raising hopes for robust long-term economic growth as well as concerns about continued fossil fuel use in the face of ongoing climate change.
Opposition to fracking has been widespread and founded mainly on fears of groundwater contamination. Shallow fracking can allow contaminated water and methane to penetrate aquifers, making the water unfit for consumption. Also, the practice of disposing fracking wastewater by injecting it into subterranean strata has been linked to earthquakes, primarily in Oklahoma.
On the other hand, there have been significant environmental benefits from the practice of fracking. Specifically, coal use has decreased in lockstep with the abundance of cheap natural gas (or it did until recently). This can be seen as a good thing. Coal combustion is a potent planet warmer, yielding twice as much CO2 as natural gas when burned, along with a witch’s brew of dangerous particulates and deleterious gases, including sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Ten years ago, coal-fired plants accounted for about half the nation’s electric energy; natural gas produced less than 20 percent. Shale gas has altered that ratio. In 2016, natural gas for the first time surpassed coal for power generation in the U.S., producing 34 percent of the electricity compared with coal’s 30.4 percent.
Further, abundant natural gas seems a certainty for the long term. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates there is enough recoverable natural gas in the United States to assure 86 years of domestic consumption using current technologies. For the short- to mid-term, at least, that’s good news, in terms of both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Thanks to natural gas, the air is much cleaner in the United States today than at the apex of the coal-burning power plant boom, and according to a recent U.S. EPA report, CO2 emissions decreased 2.3 percent from 2014 to 2015, due in part to the shift from coal to gas.
Natural gas may be “good” relative to coal, but make no mistake: It is still a major contributor to global warming. Substitute gas for coal combustion, and the biosphere will still cook, though perhaps at a high simmer instead of a boil. In the meantime, the abundance of cheap natural gas has stymied the development and dissemination of what could be truly sustainable and carbon-neutral energy sources.
“It’s challenging,” admits Jay Keasling, a Berkeley professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering and CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute, a research group that comprises several educational and research institutions, including Berkeley, LBL, and UC Davis. “Biofuels were hard when oil was $100 a barrel. It’s even harder at $50 a barrel.”
So in the post-fracking world, what is the way forward to an energy-secure, climate-stable world? Do we embrace the boons of natural gas without reservation, and assume everything will somehow all work out? If not, what sustainable energy sources are most likely to displace King Gas, and how can we best develop them?
At this point, says Severin Borenstein, professor of business administration and public policy at the Berkeley Haas School of Business and a research associate in the Energy Institute at Haas, all strategies have to accommodate abundant and relatively inexpensive energy. “The market thinks we’re in for a long run of cheap natural gas and oil,” says Borenstein. “Fracking is the biggest driver, but economics and technology are also a part of it. Electric vehicles are gaining some momentum, and if we start seeing some real progress in EVs, including more policy supports, oil could drop well below $30 a barrel. The Saudis see the future of oil as questionable, and they don’t want to be stuck with a lot of oil in the ground if things go wrong, so they’re pumping. They’d rather sell oil now at $50 a barrel than later at $30 or even $20 a barrel.”
And, again, those forecasts are based on current technology, which is advancing rapidly. “There’s a lot of cheap oil at today’s technology, and a lot of money to be made in improving that technology,” Borenstein says. “Extraction techniques are likely to only get better.”
If EVs put pressure on oil prices, however, the reverse might also be true. After all, high gasoline prices are considered requisite for any long-term growth in the electric vehicle market. Electric cars are expensive, and charging stations are, for now, few and far between. The only way to expand that network is to increase the demand by expanding the number of cars on the road. And that will be difficult to impossible if oil prices drop for years or decades. Consumers are not likely to forego their highly efficient—and comparatively cheap—gasoline or hybrid cars for pricey if fashionable EVs that have limited range and scant recharging options.
Indeed, another effect of the Fracking Age has been to highlight the fact that so many clean energy technologies simply have not materialized and perhaps never will.
“Second-generation biofuels—fuels made from algae or cellulosic materials like agricultural waste and wood chips instead of sugar, produced at a scale that could compete with oil—haven’t yet panned out,” says Borenstein. “Wave power was an extremely exciting possibility 15 years ago. It’s still an extremely exciting possibility, and might remain just an exciting possibility for a very long time. Maybe it’ll be big one day, but who knows? Same way with nuclear fusion. Huge breakthroughs have been expected since the 1970s, and we’re still hoping for them.”
On the other hand, says Borenstein, “Anyone who said ten years ago that solar would be massively cheaper today would have been dismissed as a fantasist. But solar and wind are still facing a big challenge. Though they’re almost as cheap as natural gas on a kilowatt basis, they’re intermittent. Storage is the big sticking point. Costs for batteries have been cut in half in the last seven years or so, but they’re still very expensive. Too expensive, because you’ll want weeks of storage assured for any power source. You don’t want to worry if it rains or if the wind stops blowing for three days.”
What this all boils down to, he says, “is that it’s hard to predict technological breakthroughs. Ultimately what we need are systems that are resilient in regard to both success and failure—systems that recognize the real cost on society from greenhouse gases, but don’t necessarily push a specific solution.”
Richard Muller, a Cal physics professor and senior scientist at LBL, agrees with Borenstein that the heady promises of sustainable energy have floundered. But natural gas, he intimates, is a gift horse the size of a Clydesdale. We should be embracing it, not checking its teeth and criticizing its gait. Moreover, we need to consider natural gas in its proper context; namely, China.
“Any discussion on global warming that doesn’t prominently include China is not a discussion focused on solutions,” says Muller. “China is producing twice the CO2 as the United States, and despite all the hype about their progress in solar power, solar accounts for less than 0.1 [percent] of their energy production. Most of their electricity comes from coal.”
And China is expected to further increase its coal combustion by almost 20 percent in coming years, while natural gas utilization remains low. So to slow or stop the global growth of CO2 emissions, says Muller, we need to actively help China make the switch to natural gas.
“They’re trying to frack over there, but they’re generally failing,” Muller says. “I would like to see the U.S. negotiate furiously to give them serious help on fracking and developing natural gas for power production. They want to do it on their own, of course—it’s a point of national pride, and they’re worried about being dependent on us. But this one thing—shifting China to natural gas—would have profound effects on curbing CO2 emissions, far more than anything being done with biofuels, solar, or wind. Eventually, we’ll need to move to carbon-neutral energy sources. But in the interim, natural gas is vastly superior to virtually all other available options.”
Muller is also bullish on nuclear energy and is deeply irritated when the standard arguments are raised against it: that nuke plants are prohibitively expensive to build and maintain, that they’re vulnerable to catastrophic meltdowns, and, of course, that they produce radioactive waste. New-generation nukes are nothing like the antiquated reactors that melted down at Chernobyl, Muller insists. And while they’re expensive to build, they’re relatively cheap to operate, meaning that the cost of the electricity they produce is about on par with that of a typical coal plant after 20 years. Moreover, he contends, advanced so-called Generation IV plants “…don’t require active safeguards because they have virtually no meltdown scenarios. They can’t melt. This is intrinsic protection, because releases of radioactivity result from core meltdowns.”
Further, says Muller, advanced nukes are smaller, they can be modular in construction, and they produce very little waste. Once a centralized storage facility—such as the long-proposed and highly controversial Yucca Mountain site—is authorized, waste would virtually become a nonissue. (Muller currently is involved in developing a proprietary nuclear-waste stabilization and disposal system.)
Although nuclear power remains a contentious issue in the U.S., it is viewed far more favorably elsewhere, says Muller. “The big problem in the U.S. is delay caused when the Nuclear Regulatory Agency puts a plant on hold until one minor question or another is answered. South Korea is building plants that are as safe as or safer than ours at half the cost [because of a lack of regulatory red tape].”
Muller is confident the rest of the world—especially the developing world—will move forward with nuclear energy, benefiting regional economies and reducing global atmospheric carbon emissions.
“I have a vision, one which I think is likely, for 2040,” he says. “You fly to Nairobi, and it has electricity, abundant electricity, where 30 years before there were regular brownouts. You ask, what’s going on? And people point to a small modular reactor. When you visit it, you see [that] the need for security is minimal, because the fuel is underground. And when you read the label on the facility, it says ‘Made in China.’ And what that represents for us is another lost opportunity. We’re forsaking nuclear power, but China is leading the way.”
Not all pundits are convinced that alt-energy is dead in the post-fracking era, but most acknowledge there must be a congenial regulatory environment for it to thrive.
The Joint BioEnergy Institute’s Keasling observes that considerable progress has been made on developing a wide range of biofuels. Researchers can now create virtually any desired hydrocarbon from any sugar source, and are working to derive fuels from cellulosic feedstocks. But because cheap oil and inconsistent government policies preclude the profitable marketing of biofuels, there’s no incentive for investors to put up the money for the refineries that could produce such fuels on a commercial scale. At this point, says Keasling, the only way to get biofuels really moving is to refine the technology so “that the whole plant [including cellulose] can be used,” while also slapping a significant and globally honored levy on atmospheric carbon.
There are, however, intermediate steps that can be taken to nudge biofuels forward, says Keasling—such as a mandated-use directive to government agencies and departments. “If the Army, for example, mandated biofuels for all its vehicles, it could be a significant stimulus to investment.”
Like Muller, Keasling doesn’t really consider the U.S. the current prime mover in this or any other progressive and carbon-neutral energy policy. Trump, with his pledge to save coal, has taken much of the wind, so to speak, out of alternative energy. “But if China and Europe move forward with [aggressive carbon-marketing and other regulations], as seems possible, then it doesn’t really matter what the U.S. does for now,” Keasling says.
Except, of course, that it does. No matter how they’re parsed, U.S. carbon emissions are significant: almost three times greater than China’s on a per capita basis. More to the point, despite Trump’s isolationist turn, American policy is significant; it remains a semaphore that the rest of the world must acknowledge. The problem, says Steven Chu, Nobel Prize winner and former Secretary of Energy, is that a significant portion of the U.S. population is convinced that global climate change is a canard.
“Nor is there any evidence that more information to the contrary will sway all of them,” says Chu. “We see this reflected in the current administration, with appointments like Scott Pruitt to head EPA and Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy.”
The U.S. historically has subsidized many energy sources to one degree or another, says Chu. Over the past several decades, government support has swung from gas and oil to nuclear power, then to wind and solar, and now, regressively, back to the dirtiest fossil fuel: coal. Supports for coal are unlikely to change the long-term downward trend for the sector, and they certainly won’t hobble the surging fortunes of natural gas. They will, however, delay—likely for years—U.S. efforts to maintain greenhouse gas reductions, while ceding American leadership in alternative energy to, yes, China.
“I talk to people over there [China], and they see the current situation as a great opportunity to assume leadership,” says Chu. “They already dominate in solar, and they’re looking to do the same in wind. They’re also extremely interested in developing an EV fleet, and that corresponds with a determination to move away from coal as much and as rapidly as possible. If they can generate power from electrical sources other than coal over time, then a nationwide EV fleet makes a lot of sense. That would allow them to both reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.”
But just as there are climate change skeptics, so are there skeptics about most proposals for dealing with it. Foremost among them may be Vaclav Smil, professor emeritus of the faculty of the environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Smil takes an interdisciplinary approach to issues of energy, the global economy, food production, nutrition, and demographics. He has published 40 books and almost 500 papers and is one of Bill Gates’s favorite authors. Smil’s scope is catholic, and his message is not reassuring.
In his lectures, Smil pounds on several points: alt-energy hype aside, we are in a fossil fuel economy and will remain in one for a long time. Transition from one energy source to another always takes considerable time. Scale matters, and so does energy density. It’s always better to use energy rationally than to come up with new ways of using it. And innovation is, invariably, both exaggerated and overvalued.
Indeed, says Smil, the planet remains in the 1880s in terms of energy production. He observes that the popular catechism for energy sources runs like this: In the 18th century, biomass (i.e., wood) drove the global economy. That switched to coal in the 19th century, then to oil and gas in the 20th century; and now we’re moving, however haltingly, to shiny new carbon-neutral sources—wind, solar, biofuels, and advanced nuclear plants.
That narrative provides a reassuring sense of inexorable progress—except it’s completely wrong, says Smil. To a very real degree, the world—particularly the developing world, where both the hazards and opportunities implicit in greenhouse gas emissions are greatest—remains locked into wood and coal. Much of rural Africa, Latin America, and Asia rely on wood as a primary fuel source for cooking and heat, driving ongoing deforestation. And, Smil contends, despite its progress in solar energy, despite its commitment to reducing greenhouse gases, “China is still investing in coal. You don’t walk away from billions in coal investment just because somebody says you should be green.”
China may be easing off its coal capacity. But India now is aggressively expanding its coal sector.
Further, Smil maintains that we’re deluding ourselves about the true energy savings of “sustainable” systems, because solar and wind power and EVs have high “embedded energy” costs that are ignored by their promoters. Modern vehicles with high miles-per-gallon ratings remain in a deep energy deficit because the electronics, plastics, and exotic alloys needed to construct them require vast amounts of energy and result in the release of megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
As for EVs, says Smil, they also have substantial embedded energy costs: for the electronics and advanced lightweight materials they require, and for the components used for their batteries. Indeed, each EVs battery pack represents particularly hefty energy—and carbon—outputs.
What about wind and solar? Again, says Smil, solar and wind farms take a lot of energy to fabricate and maintain. And such embedded energy costs are never tallied when their benefits are hyped. Ultimately, he says—agreeing with Borenstein—both are hampered by a critical Achilles heel: lack of viable storage. Wind turbines and solar cells only produce power when the wind blows or the sun shines. It’s either feast or famine, and there’s no effective way to store the robust quantities of electrical energy both systems can yield when they’re functioning optimally.
A rule of thumb for any effective energy system, explains Smil, is that it must be able to maintain three weeks of storage capacity. That’s not a problem with fossil fuel plants—you just have a big pile of coal or sufficient incoming natural-gas pipelines to hold you over. The same basic dynamic holds true for nuclear plants: Short of a meltdown, fission will continue in a controlled fashion, producing the heat required to generate the steam that pushes the turbines.
But despite all the effort and glowing announcements of incremental progress, says Smil, scalable and efficient batteries adequate to store the load of large-scale solar and wind facilities remain a will-o’-the-wisp. “We’re no closer to gigawatt storage than we were 100 years ago,” he says. “Innovation doesn’t solve all of our problems.”
Of course, not all energy researchers harbor such a bleak view. Ravi Prasher, director of the Energy Storage and Distributed Resources Division at LBL and a Cal adjunct professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, acknowledges that the storage research community is struggling. But he says that’s not due so much to hitting a technological dead end as it is to difficulties in defining the parameters of storage needs.
“Determining the specifications for an electric car is relatively easy,” explains Prasher. “Say you want a 300-mile range, and you want its operating costs to be more or less equivalent with a car with an internal combustion engine. You know what you have to do, and getting to that goal is fairly straightforward.” But the electric grid, says Prasher, is another matter entirely. It’s a system of myriad interconnected components that shift from hour-to-hour and region-to-region. This complexity increases, observes Prasher, the more alt-energy sources—and associated energy storage schemes—are incorporated.
“You have to plan for long-term and short-term storage, for day/night shifting, peak power loads, different power sources, and the needs of different regions,” he says. “We’re making enormous gains in implanting sustainable energy into the grid, particularly in California. There was a day in March when more than 50 percent of the state’s power came from solar. But it was in the middle of the day, and the wholesale cost of energy actually went negative when that happened—no one wanted the energy because demand was low at that particular time. If it had been available in the early evening when peak demands are high, of course, it would have sold very easily. But we didn’t have the storage for it.”
That said, Prasher maintains, sustainable energy storage is by no means a lost cause. Progress is proceeding on lithium-ion batteries, the best battery candidate to date for grid storage. Also, he cautions against a rigid, one-size-fits-all orthodoxy for energy storage. Batteries are one component, but many other techniques offer promise as partial solutions that can support each other, ranging from hydrogen fuel cells to pumped-hydro and compressed-air systems. (With pumped hydro, water is pumped by solar or wind energy to a high-elevation reservoir during the day, then released to a lower reservoir at night, turning a turbine to produce electricity in the process. With compressed-air systems, alt-energy runs a compressor that stores air at high pressure in a subterranean cavern; when released, the air can also drive a turbine.)
Unlike Smil, Prasher believes that economically feasible gigawatt-capacity storage systems are not only likely—they’re being designed now. He cites Google’s new Bay View campus, a property that will use gigantic heat pumps to exploit the mean 65 degree Fahrenheit temperature of the ground 80 feet below the complex to store electricity for three large office buildings. Such a system will provide up to 95 percent of the cooling capacity needed for the campus, and will slash costs—and natural gas consumption—for heating in the winter months. Further, says Prasher, the system is scalable; it can be expanded to meet or at least assuage the needs of larger complexes—even cities.
Prasher thus envisions a kind of alt-grid “ecosystem” rather than a single solution—an interdependent and resilient web of nodes and connections consisting of a variety of energy sources and storage systems, rather than, say, a solar farm the size of Rhode Island hooked by a massive cable to a lithium-ion battery bigger than the Ritz. Under that scenario, transitioning to a sustainable and carbon-neutral energy sector sounds not only possible, but plausible—perhaps even inevitable.
Smil remains pessimistic. Ultimately, he argues, our energy and carbon-emission problems come down to one thing—or rather, 7.6 billion things: the global population. Not natural gas or nuclear power, not solar, wind, biofuels, or EVs are sufficient to satisfy the yearnings of soon-to-be 8 billion ambitious, social, and acquisitive hominids while also maintaining a livable biosphere. Population stabilization, in other words, could be our best path forward to a sustainable future. Failing that, he says, dramatic progress in sustainable energy use and reduced carbon emissions are more likely to come from behavioral changes than gee-whiz technological breakthroughs.
But, like weaning ourselves off coal, population stabilization and behavioral changes take time to effect. In the meantime, Muller points to the third leg of what he calls his “energy triad.” After natural gas and next-generation nuclear plants comes energy conservation. Muller deems it the “cleanest form of energy” and the lowest of the low-hanging energy fruit. Terawatts of energy could be saved simply by implementing rigorous standards on home insulation, LED light use, and office building designs that maximize efficiency.
“Conservation addresses both CO2 emissions and pollution in an extremely efficient manner,” Muller says. “China recognizes this and is vigorously pursuing energy conservation, and we should do the same, because the benefits, including financial profits, are enormous. The problem is that you have to invest money to make money in energy conservation, so implementation has been piecemeal and disorganized. That’s especially the case in the developing world. But even here there’s some progress. Compact fluorescents and LED use is growing rapidly in the developing world because people can’t afford electricity.”
Energy efficiency has long been a focus at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab—which, under particle-physicist turned conservation-guru Arthur Rosenfeld, led the development of user-friendly technologies such as compact fluorescent lamps and energy-efficient appliances and windows. Even now, the Lab remains one of the prime movers in improving energy efficiencies without forcing extreme self-abnegation on consumers. At the same time, LBL also supports the China Energy Group, which is engaging China on its energy strategies and options. And the Energy Institute at Haas is analyzing pricing mechanisms that could gently encourage consumers to conserve energy rather than squander it.
And Berkeley is not alone, of course. Retrograde policy detours aside, the whole world is striving toward a sustainable energy future.
But will that be enough, and will it be in time?
“We’re a resilient species, and we always seem to avoid falling off the cliff,” says Smil. “Despite the trouble we’re in, there’s so much slack in the system, so much inefficiency, that we could improve our situation simply by doing things such as eating less meat and foregoing 5,000-square-foot houses. We’d do a lot better if we were a little more rational.”