Recognizing the Water-Energy Nexus

The following article was published recently on Wlley’s online journal Global Challenges. It serves as the prologue to a special issue on water and energy issues that was edited by Gustaf Olsson and Perer Lund. It discusses, in a personal way, my professional involvement with these strongly related issues.
Water–Energy Nexus
Global Challenges Special Issue on Water and Energy

Prologue: Recognizing the Water-Energy Nexus: A Personal Recollection
By Allan Hoffman

My first professional contact with water issues came in August 1999 when I was invited to represent the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), my employer, at a meeting in Amman, Jordan. The meeting was to plan a major Middle East water conference for later that year in Amman that would involve King Hussein of Jordan, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Yasser Arafat, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel. The motivation for the conference was clear—U.S. President Bill Clinton, assisted by King Hussein, was actively engaged in Middle East peace talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians and water was a principal issue in these negotiations. The planning meeting, to take place a few weeks later in mid-September, was to set the stage for a meaningful dialogue on water that would advance the peace process.

I remember well the moment I received the invitation because of my immediate reaction to Gene DeLaTorre, who delivered the invitation on behalf of DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Policy: “Why me? I don’t know a damn thing about water except what I read in the papers.” Gene, whom I had not known previously but subsequently became a good friend, gave me the three reasons I was targeted: I was a senior DOE official, an expert on renewable energy, which was recognized as part of the solution, and had considerable experience through my work on renewable energy dealing with senior officials in other governments. Not having a good reason to say no, and interested in doing what I could to help the peace process, I said yes and put myself on a fast learning curve.

That learning curve included lots of reading on global water fundamentals, the Middle East water situation, desalination, and meetings with former government and current think tank officials with experience in the Middle East. Less than a month after receiving and accepting the invitation I was on my way to Frankfurt, Germany to meet up with two scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) who would be joining me for the final leg to Amman. Unfortunately, one of the LLNL scientists missed the connecting flight to Frankfurt and had to take a later flight with a middle of the night stop in Syria. He also arrived in Amman without his luggage and attended our first meeting the next morning in his jeans and sneakers.

The majority of the participants in the planning meeting were water experts from Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, people who had been cooperating for many years and knew one another well. The PA delegation was led by Nabil al Sharif, the PA Water Minister and a civil engineering classmate of Arafat. The U.S. delegation was small, consisting of me and the two LLNL scientists, a Middle East water expert from the U.S. Department of State, and a former U.S. Congressman from Utah who was focused on U.S.-Middle East dialogue and was a moving force behind the planning meeting. In total, about fifty people participated in the two-day meeting.

My role was to bring an energy perspective to the meeting, in addition to the hydrologic expertise of the LLNL staffers and the political experience of the State Department representative. The meeting went well, reflecting the shared interests and perspectives of the water experts who had clearly worked together in the past, and I learned a great deal. In fact, my growing interest in water issues peaked when Nabil stood up at one point in the meeting to state that there would be no peace in the Middle East until the water issue was addressed.

Upon returning to the U.S. after the meeting, having concluded that water issues were much more important than I had realized, I resolved to learn as much as I could. Even though George W. Bush was elected U.S. President in November and Republicans took over the Executive Branch on January 20, 2001 (note: I had served as a political appointee in the Democratic Carter Administration in the 1970s), my senior status at DOE and control over most of my calendar allowed me the time to pursue my water education. Very quickly I realized that many of the things I had been saying in my public presentations on energy applied to water as well: there is no shortage of energy (water) in the world; what is in short supply is inexpensive energy (clean water) that people can afford to buy; energy (water) security depends on the wise use of the resource, whatever its source. This was my first realization of the close connection between water and energy, an understanding that I presumed other people shared. What surprised me, as I began to talk about this with people in both the water and energy communities, is that energy people rarely thought about water except as it was needed to cool thermal power plant exhausts and run through hydropower plants, and water people rarely thought about the energy needed to provide water services.

As I delved further into the nexus I came to understand the following: Central to addressing issues of water security—defined as the ability to access sufficient quantities of clean water to maintain adequate standards of food and goods production, sanitation and health—is having the energy to extract water from underground aquifers, push water through pipes and canals, manage and treat impaired water for reuse, and desalinate brackish and sea water to provide new fresh water supplies. Many aspects of energy production depend on the availability of water including hydropower, cooling of thermal power plants, fossil fuel production and processing, biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, and hydrogen production. The inextricable linkage between energy and water is clear, but hasn’t always been recognized.

Other, indirect, linkages exist as well. Energy production and use can lead to contamination of underground and surface water supplies. If competing water uses limit use of waterways for transport of goods, rail and truck will require more energy to move those goods. Another critical linkage is that energy production and use are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, which have the potential to disrupt the hydrological cycle and impact global water resources long before other impacts are felt. By altering the timing of winter snows, snowmelt, and spring rains, climate change could overload reservoirs early in the season, forcing releases of water and leaving areas like California and the Himalayas high and dry in late summer. Coastal areas and island nations also face a serious threat from rising ocean water levels that destroy property and flood low-lying areas, causing salt-water intrusion of fresh-water supplies and putting the drinking water of millions at risk.

In June 2000 I felt confident enough of my growing knowledge to give a talk on water–energy issues to the Organization of American States: “Water, Energy and Sustainable Development”. This was followed by presentations to the World Renewable Energy Council in July and to an electric utility industry conference in March 2001. I also began to write on the subject and remember asking one of my colleagues, who was an accomplished writer, if it would be acceptable to use the word ‘nexus’ to describe the relationship—i.e., would it be easily understood? He said yes and so the phrase water–energy nexus was born.

During those early days at the start of the new century I was trying to generate some interest in DOE to explore this interesting connection, which I believed had relevance for several of DOE’s programs, but with little success. When the issue reached my new Assistant Secretary he dismissed the effort as ‘mission creep’ that would divert funding from other programs. Thus, to the best of my knowledge, my efforts constituted DOE’s only focused attention to the water–energy nexus at that time. Following several public presentations in 2003 and early 2004 the first real breakthrough came in August 2004 when I was invited to write a paper on water and energy security for the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, where I served as a technical advisor. This request came in on a Wednesday; the article was published the following week and quickly led to more speaking opportunities. One of the more interesting was a presentation in September to FERC, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, on the topic “Water and Energy Security”. Another opportunity was a plenary address to the 2005 Solar World Congress in August 2005 entitled “Water Security: A Growing Crisis”, which was also published as the lead article in the July/August 2005 issue of Solar Today magazine. There were many other speaking opportunities in the following years, including presentations to the National Science Foundation, Lockheed-Martin Corporation, the U.S. State Department, the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, the Brookings Institution, the Environmental Protection Agency, the IEA Working Party on Renewable Energy, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, the International Water Association, and others.

Another important step in recognizing the water–energy nexus was the realization, at a regular meeting of DOE and U.S. National Laboratory officials to discuss DOE’s research needs, that many of the Labs had an interest in the water–energy connection but were pursuing it quietly on their own using small amounts of discretionary funds. I did a brief overview of the topic at the meeting and an entire afternoon ended up being devoted to Laboratory discussions of their activities. What came out of that meeting was the organization of a coordinated National Laboratory effort on water–energy issues to be led by Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Both Laboratories had committed resources to exploring the linkage between water and energy, and LBNL, involved in State of California water efforts, even had a dedicated water–energy technology team called WET. Other important players were Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which years earlier had led studies on desalination, and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), supported by DOE’s Fossil Energy Program. The resultant coordinated National Laboratory team soon provided briefings on the nexus for senior DOE managers.

To illustrate how quietly these Lab efforts had been underway, I had close contacts with LBNL through my clean energy efforts, and was totally surprised to learn of WET. When I mentioned this to a close friend at LBNL he invited me to spend a day at the Berkeley Lab to get briefed on their water activities and to talk about mine. It was an illuminating day on both parts.

Another important step was a meeting in 2008 with Professor Gustaf Olsson of Lund University in Sweden. He had read some of my papers, was on a visit to the U.S., and, expressing interest in learning more, asked to meet. We had a lengthy conversation in which I offered to share more of my work and a collaboration was born that lasts till this day. The rest is history—Gustaf undertook to master this field and in 2012 published his important book entitled “Water and Energy: Threats and Opportunities”, which is now in its second edition.

While there was no specific support for U.S. water–energy nexus studies during the Bush–Cheney Administration (2001-2008), there was a growing understanding that energy generation was the major contributor to the growing threat of global warming and climate change that would have major implications for precipitation patterns, water supply, and frequency of extreme weather events. As a result the phrase water–energy nexus was beginning to be heard more often and conferences began to be organized around that theme. Fracking of oil and gas shales, to increase fossil fuel supplies, also emerged as a contentious issue, given its large water demands and its potential for contaminating water supplies. To address that topic I organized a session on fracking for the Ground Water Protection Council Annual Forum in September 2010.

Throughout this period I continued to speak and write, and was encouraged by the election of Barack Obama as President of the U.S. in November 2008. Unlike the Bush Administration, which effectively denied the reality of global warming, President Obama talked openly about the need for global cooperation in addressing climate change. This was reflected in an Executive Order issued shortly after his inauguration that called on the federal departments and agencies to work together in identifying the potential impacts of global warming on U.S. government programs. This was an exciting time in which staff from all over the government worked together on multi-agency teams to carry out the mandated study. As the principal DOE official with a background in water–energy issues I was assigned to three of these teams, and on one was joined by a staff member from DOE’s policy office. Within a few months a comprehensive study was delivered to President Obama’s office.

With a Democratic Administration in place, I assumed water–energy issues would get increased attention and even some financial support. This proved to be naïve on my part as the new Democratic appointees to head the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) transferred me from my position in the EERE Policy and Budget Office to the Wind Power Program, where I was told that if I joined them I could no longer pursue my water–energy nexus activities. Rather than retire at that time, which I certainly could have done, I talked with people in the Wind Program and decided to serve as a graybeard in the newly established Office of Offshore Wind and help the program get started. I was and am enthusiastic about offshore wind as the most important emerging renewable energy technology.

This phase of my career ended with my retirement from DOE in 2012 and my decision to share my perspectives on renewable energy and wate–energy issues via my writing, of which this invited article is one part. DOE has also taken steps to formally recognize the nexus as part of its program activities via a study released in 2015. The issue is finally getting more of the attention it deserves.


[1] Blog, ‘Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist: Perspectives on energy and water technologies and policy’,

[2] A.R. Hoffman, The U.S. Government and Renewable Energy – A Winding Road. Pan Stanford Publishing 2016.

The Vulnerable Society

This article is on a topic I have touched on before in this blog – the vulnerability of our infrastructure. The purpose of the article is twofold: to gather in one place my various thoughts on infrastructure vulnerability, and to issue a call for action to reduce this vulnerability before our infrastructure is compromised and we have to pay an unacceptably high price. This concern is valid for the U.S. and for other countries highly dependent on infrastructure.


The Vulnerabile Society

This article is a call for action on an issue that has important implications for the U.S. – the fact that infrastructure on which we are highly dependent can be compromised by deliberate action by our enemies. I am not raising a new concern, but one that, despite some attention in recent years, is still not receiving the level of attention from public officials and the private sector that I believe it desperately needs. Failure to adequately address this issue can have dire consequences for our nation, and for other nations that find themselves in similar. situations.

I have written about this issue in bits and pieces before, starting in 2013, and continually return to the subject because I see too little happening to address a serious and growing problem. That problem is the vulnerability to cyber attacks on our infrastructure, a problem that genuinely scares me. This piece will pull my thoughts together in one place and review my concerns, which are now shared by a growing number of people as more and more cyber attacks occur and their harmful impacts are identified. I will also point out out the ways in which I believe this vulnerability can be mitigated, although complete elimination of cyber threats is not realistic. However, it is my strong belief that we can and must do a lot better at reducing these risks than we are now doing. The price for not doing better is potentially very high.
Infrastructure has been defined as “basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise, or the services and facilities necessary for an economy to function.” The term is often used for the physical structures that support a society, such as roads, bridges, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, and telecommunications facilities.
A major concern is that most of our electricity supply today comes from large, centralized power plants that are poorly protected from attack, if at all, and most electrical power is distributed over above-ground power lines that form a highly interconnected grid subject to falling trees, storm damage, or sabotage. It wouldn’t take much to disable a portion of that grid and remove power from large numbers of utility customers. This concern is exacerbated by increasing computer control of the grid and its vulnerability to malevolent hacking. Given today’s level of protection against such hacking I am very worried.
It is important to emphasize that it is not electricity per se that is the valuable commodity but the services that access to electricity makes possible – lighting, heating, cooling, water services, manufacturing, transportation, and communications. Energy has always been critical to human activities, but what differentiates modern societies is the energy beyond human and animal power required to provide increasingly high levels of services. In the developed world we are totally dependent on these services and it is in society’s interest to provide these services in the most reliable way with the least amount of energy, to minimize costs and environmental and national security impacts. My growing concern is, that with steadily increasing electrification, including the electrification of transportation, and growing dependence on computer control and internet interconnection, that those many aspects of society that are dependent on electricity are increasingly vulnerable to serious disruption and blackmail. It is minimizing the risks associated with this vulnerability that must become a high priority focus of modern nations.
Another vulnerability, in addition to risks arising from cyber attacks, sabotage and military attacks, and one that has received some attention of late, is the impact that an electromagnetic pulse arising from a solar flare could have on our power systems. Interconnected power lines can act as a giant antenna that captures this electromagnetic energy and overloads the system and burns out power lines, transformers, and other equipment. This occurred in the 1860’s and burned out many telegraph lines. While physical components can be replaced it takes time, during which most people will be without power unless they have a backup generator. This is especially true for replacing the large power transformers in the system that are quite expensive and not routinely inventoried.
Still another area of concern is disruptions to the U.S. water supply, which have implications for public health, food production, and other public services. It is well known that after natural disasters one of the first infrastructure failures is that of the clean water distribution system. My growing concern is that we are not doing enough to make sure nobody is compromising or poisoning that water supply, which is largely unprotected. After 911 this topic began to get some increased attention from U.S. government agencies.
Another area of concern is telecommunications. Many of our communication systems today – telephone, television, Internet, GPS, weather forecasting, tele-education and tele-medicine – are dependent on solar-powered satellite links and any disruption of these links, whether inadvertent or deliberate, can disable critical elements of our society. These links provide unique and invaluable services, but the satellites are vulnerable to collisions with micrometeorites, disruption by solar flare radiation, sabotage and acts of war, and simply wearing out. And the number of links is increasing steadily as more and more satellites are placed into orbit.
It is well known that many public and private telecom networks are under regular cyber attack, by government-supported and private individuals. Many examples can be found, including the Stuxnet attack on Iranian centrifuges, the North Korean attack on SONY, recent ransomeware attacks, and the Russian attacks on U.S. and other national elections. The point is that we and others are highly vulnerable to cyber attacks, and unless we take steps to adequately protect our web-connected systems from these interventions I fear we will pay a terrible price. Too many of our public systems are now remotely controlled by wireless networks, and someone bent on doing damage and who is expert in hacking can make us hostage if our systems are penetrated. My concern is less with SONY than with our centralized electric utility systems that power our homes, businesses, hospitals, water supply systems, and many other aspects of modern life.
Is it difficult to provide this cyber protection? The simple answer is yes, for several reasons: the growing numbers of wireless networks and cyber hackers, the cost of counteracting malicious hacking, the availability of trained professionals to address the hacking issue, and what I have long considered a major problem – the inability to focus enough attention on cyber security issues.
Let me discuss each of these barriers in turn. Wireless networking is growing because it offers many advantages – reduced wiring requirements and related costs, remote operation and reduced manpower requirements, ability to monitor more variables continuously and control systems to a finer degree. Disadvantages arise when inadequate attention is paid to preventing hacker penetration into the network, thus allowing disruption of normal operations or allowing hackers to take control of the network. Also, the number of capable hackers is increasing rapidly. Many schemes have been proposed for restricting unauthorized access to a network, usually using passwords, but often these passwords are not adequate to stop an experienced hacker and most people are resistant to remembering long, complicated passwords. Many companies are also not yet convinced of the need to spend the money on sophisticated protection systems, and some may see the consequences of a hacking as less costly than the required investment.
Costs are inherent in any attempt to prevent hacking, ranging from software and hardware costs to labor costs. There is some indication that SONY, an electronics company, spent too little on protection costs by underestimating the potential threat to its cyber systems. It surely is a mistake it won’t make again, and the SONY experience, and others, should serve as wake up calls to other corporate and government bodies as well as individual consumers.
The trained manpower issue is a critical one. As has been noted in Congressional testimony, the vast majority of people available today to address cyber security issues are the ones who designed and implemented the current vulnerable information technology system. Should they be the ones to try and fix it, or do we need newly-trained cyber experts who are not so closely linked to today’s operating modes? Clearly there are people who have the requisite high level skills – think NSA – but are they available broadly on a global basis? Expertise in cyber security is already in high demand and will be in even greater demand in the future as more and more functions are digitized and the Internet-of-All-Things becomes a part of everyday life.
Finally, let me address the issue of focusing attention on cyber security issues. It has not been easy. I have personally observed resistance to addressing cyber security issues by the U.S. military and private electric utilities, largely due to lack of familiarity with required capabilities and associated costs. Fortunately, this is beginning to change now that the consequences of not being vigilant are becoming obvious.
Let me now tie all these concerns to our electric unity system. Today, and for most of the past century, it has been a highly centralized grid system where large central power plants distributed electricity radially via high voltage transmission lines and lower voltage local distribution lines. It was a ‘dumb’ system with little overall control and when one part of the grid went down lots of people lost their electricity supply until the grid problem could be fixed. Today we are developing a ‘smart’ grid with lots of electronic controls that allow isolation of problem areas to minimize the number of people affected, that facilitates transfer of power from one grid region to another, and that allows utilities access to consumer homes and businesses for better balancing of supply and demand. These ‘smart grid’ features offer many advantages to suppliers and consumers, ranging from improved energy security to reduced costs. The downside is that electronic networks controlling these various features of the smart grid can be penetrated by sophisticated hackers, and my impression is that until fairly recently utility executives were not paying sufficient attention to cyber security issues. We can hope that this is no longer the case, but we all know of utilities that have underinvested in protecting their systems – e.g., by not trimming back trees that could fall on and disrupt power lines during storms, and not putting more of their power lines underground.
The good news is that some federal and state government and quasi-governmental agencies are beginning to take the issue seriously. Reports are now available that address Black Sky Day possibilities, which are defined as “extraordinary and hazardous catastrophes utterly unlike the blue sky days during which utilities usually operate.”
An important example of this increased government attention was the release in January 2017 of the second installment of the Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review. These reports, started in 2013, survey the U.S. energy system. The first installment dealt broadly with the entirety of the nation’s energy infrastructure, which goes far beyond electricity to encompass natural gas and oil pipelines, storage infrastructure, and other facets. This one focused on electricity, the nation’s rapidly changing electrical grid, and the need for new action to protect against evolving cyber security threats.
The document noted the sprawling scale of U.S. electric infrastructure – 7,700 power plants, 55,800 substations, 707,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, and 6.5 million additional miles of local lines spread out from the substations. It pointed out that dramatic change is sweeping over the sector and that this “rapidly evolving system” is in major need of modernization and upgrades to keep pace
“There’s the weak-link issue for the whole system,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in an interview when the report was released. “The reality is, for a lot of rural, smaller utilities, it’s a very difficult job to have the kind of expertise that will be needed in terms of cyber, so we suggest for example, grant programs to help with training, to help with analytical capacity in these situations.” “The economy would just take an enormous hit” from a successful grid attack, he said. The report also pointed out that cyberthreats are not the only challenge facing the grid. It warned that extreme weather events triggered by human-caused climate change also makes the system vulnerable.
The bottom line is that the integrity and reliability of many important infrastructure systems are at risk and a national commitment to minimizing these risks is a critical need. The primary responsibility of elected officials is to protect the U.S. public, and indications to date are that not enough is yet being done to meet that responsibility with respect to cyber threats. Red lights are flashing but is this to be another example of where the U.S. response is laggard until a crisis erupts? The sooner we address the following issues, via public education, legislation, and public and private practice, the more secure our energy and energy-dependent systems will be:
– identifying protection against cyber attacks as a national priority by both the President and the Congress.
– enhanced education of the public about the threat and implications of cyber attacks.
– engaging the government and private sector in a joint effort to develop new barriers to cyber network penetration that take into account both privacy concerns and the needs of the intelligence community to identify and protect us against internal and external threats.
– the need to focus greater attention on training of an increased number of cyber technology experts, much as we did in the aftermath of Sputnik in the late 1950s when the need for more trained scientists became evident.
– acceleration of the trend to distributed power generation, to reduce the risks of outages on today’s highly interconnected grid system that can lead to widespread loss of power. Distributed generation, in a smart grid system, can isolate (‘island’) local sources of lost power and keep the rest of the connected grid functioning. Renewable generation sources are inherently distributive and fit well into this category.

Of course the issue of global warming and climate change must also be addressed for reasons that go beyond reducing vulnerability of our power grid to extreme weather events. However, that is a topic that is receiving extensive attention elsewhere and one I will not discuss in this article.

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An Update on U.S. Renewables

The following article appeared in the July 2017 issue of North American Windpower. It states that “The share of domestic electrical production by renewable energy has now greatly eclipsed earlier projections by the U.S. energy Information Administration (EIA)..”. This resonated with me because, back in the 1990s when I was in charge of the U.S. renewable electricity programs, I had many difficult discussions with the EIA about their continued underestimation of the anticipated deployment of solar and wind technologies.


U.S. Renewables Decades Ahead Of Schedule

The share of domestic electrical production by renewable energy has now greatly eclipsed earlier projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the SUN DAY campaign has revealed.

According to the nonprofit organization, in the EIA’s 2012 Annual Energy Outlook, the agency forecast that renewable energy generation would increase by 77% from 2010 to 2025 (from 10% to 15%). In addition, the share of total electricity generation from non-hydro renewables would grow from roughly 4% in 2010 to 9% in 2035.

If one assumes growth were to continue at about the same annual pace as during the 25-year EIA forecast period (2010-2035), renewables would not be expected to reach 19.35% until roughly the year 2057 – 40 years from now, the organization says.

The EIA’s 2012 report further forecast that wind capacity would increase from 39 GW in 2010 to 70 GW in 2035 and that solar would reach 24 GW of capacity in 2035.

In reality, says SUN DAY, citing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) latest Energy Infrastructure Update, which includes data for the first three months of 2017, wind generating capacity already totals 84.59 GW, while utility-scale solar capacity has reached 25.84 GW (not including distributed small-scale systems, such as rooftop solar).

Moreover, the latest issue of the EIA’s Electric Power Monthly (with data through March 31) reveals that renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar [including small-scale PV] and wind) accounted for 19.35% of net U.S. electrical generation during the first quarter of 2017. Of this, conventional hydropower accounted for 8.67%, followed by wind (7.10%), biomass (1.64%), solar (1.47%) and geothermal (0.47%). Combined, non-hydro renewables accounted for 10.68% of total generation.

“Not only has renewable energy’s share of total domestic electrical generation nearly doubled in the past seven years – it has reached a level of output that EIA, just five years ago, did not anticipate happening for another four decades,” states Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “While one might conclude that EIA’s methodology is seriously flawed, it is also safe to say that renewables – especially solar and wind – by now providing almost one-fifth of the nation’s electrical production, are vastly exceeding expectations and breaking records at an astonishing pace.”

According to the group, this is clearly evidenced by comparing 2017 with 2016. During the first quarter of 2016, renewables provided 17.23% of total generation versus 19.35% in 2017, meaning actual generation by renewables is 9.70% greater than it was just a year ago.

In particular, solar (solar thermal, utility-scale PV and distributed PV) has ballooned by 34.1%, wind has expanded by 11.4%, conventional hydropower has grown by 7.7%, and geothermal has increased by 3.2%. Only utility-scale biomass has declined year on year (by 1.6%).”


The above report is based on data from the EIA as well as data for the first quarter of 2017 in the latest Energy Infrastructure Update by FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The EIA also reports, in a press release dated July 6, 2017, that “In March, and again in April’ U.S. monthly electricity generation from utility-scale renewable sources exceeded nuclear generation for the first time since July 1984. This outcome reflects both seasonal and trend growth in renewable generation, as well as maintenance and refueling schedules for nuclear plants, which tend to undergo maintenance during spring and fall months, when overall electricity demand is lower than in summer or winter.”

It is important to note the clear trend toward increasing amounts of renewable generation – “More than 60% of all utility-scale electricity generating capacity that came online in 2016 was from wind and solar technologies” -and the fact that solar generation on individual home and business roofs is not included in this analysis. All indicative of the clear conclusion that the U.S. Is on a path toward an energy future increasingly dependent on renewable energy, as is true in many other parts of the world.

Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord – A Tragic Mistake

It is hard to even know where to begin to respond to President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. This is not because it was unexpected – the Trump Administration has sent several signals through its appointments that acceptance of and actions to address global warming and climate change is not on its agenda. What is most striking and disturbing, in this author’s opinion, is the distortion of facts and outright lying that defined the President’s withdrawal statement, and the impact that this withdrawal will have on our country and its standing in the world. While the decision by the U.S. to withdraw will not stop other countries, and states and localities in the U.S., from continuing their efforts to reduce carbon emissions, it will slow down the global effort and is a tragic decision on three grounds – moral, economic, and national security. I discuss each of these below.

To me the moral argument is clear – global warming arising from the introduciion of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is a real physical phenomenon and is producing some positive but mostly negative climate change effects. And while countries such as the U.S. and China produce most of the gases that impact global climate its impacts are also felt by many others that had nothing to do with global warming – e.g., the island nations of the Pacific. If we accept the fact that in this world we are ultimately all in this together, and we all have an obligation to care for our fellow human beings, then we have a responsibility to be sensitive to these impacts of global warming. What seems to differentiate the Trump Administration from many of the the rest of us is summarized in a statement this week in the Wall Street Journal by two of President Trump’s top advisors, H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, who wrote: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

We each experience the physics of global warming when we step into an overheated car on a hot day – solar radiation from our high temperature sun passes through the windshield of the car and heats the upholstery, which heats up and in turn radiates energy, but from a much lower temperature source. This changes the frequency distribution of the reradiation so that while the sun’s initial radiation passed freely through the glass windshield, the radiation from the seat covers is now blocked from escaping by the windshield and the car heats up. In the case of global warming, the sun’s rays heat the earth and the oceans, which in turn reradiate at frequencies that are now blocked from escaping into space by the greenhouse gases introduced into the atmosphere. This creates the same heating effect for the planet as in the hot car situation.

It is important to emphasize that global warming is not an ideological belief but a phenomenon documented by physical measurements. The basic physics involves an energy exchange between the sun and the earth and what happens to that energy when it hits and is absorbed by the earth. The earth’s average temperature is determined by this exchange – the earth absorbs energy from the sun and reradiates back into space, and if something, such as volcano dust or greenhouse gases in the atmosphere disrupt this exchange the earth must change its temperature to remain in energy balance. Venus is an example of a planet where the balance has led to a very high planetary temperature, On earth the sun’s energy is absorbed by the continents and the oceans, leading to a subsequent complex exchange of energy of both with the atmosphere, creating the weather effects we call climate. Evidence of this energy absorption and exchange can be found in average air and ground temperature measurements, ocean surface temperature measurements and measurements of ocean temperatures at depth. It can also be seen in the expansion of water in the oceans when it is heated, leading to rising ocean water levels, in the melting of glaciers, in the migration of insects and animals in response to temperature changes, and in effects on weather such as changing precipitation patterns and increased frequency and intensity of storms. Well documented experimental observations exist for each of these impacts.

Positive impacts of global warming include improved agricultural production in cold climates, new shipping routes through the Arctic, and the fact that changes in weather patterns produced by warming can bring rainfall to previously arid areas. However, these positives are strongly outweighed by the negatives: glacial melting and addition of glacial ice to oceans is raising sea levels, which causes property destruction and saltwater intrusion into fresh water sources, extreme weather events are more frequent and intense as the atmosphere’s energy content increases, previously fertile areas become less productive due to excessive heat and reduced moisture, hydropower and thermal power generation are limited by reduced water availability, water supplies are disrupted by changing rainfall and ice melt patterns, diseases carried by insects move into new areas causing health problems, and species disappear due to new and extreme environmental conditions. In addition, national security issues are raised for the U.S. (and others) when increased water scarcity around the globe leads to population migrations within and across national borders, creating international tensions. The U.S. Defense Departmental has recognized this possibility in its planning for possible situations that could lead to deployment of U.S. military forces.

Finally a word about jobs. The President in his remarks stated that our withdrawal from the Paris Accord would save American jobs. This is a falsehood that must be rebutted. As I carefully documented in a recent article (‘Jobs? Investing in renewables beats fossil fuels’) posted on the website, and subsequently reposted on my blog website “If a primary national goal is to create jobs in the energy sector, investing in renewable energy is considerably more effective than investing in fossil fuels. Solar and wind are no longer niche businesses, their widespread use addresses global warming and climate change, and their manufacture and deployment are powerful engines of economic growth and job creation.

The U.S. Congress must recognize this and put policies in place that accelerate their growth. Other countries recognize this potential and are moving rapidly onto this path, some even faster than the U.S. We must not be left behind as this energy transition unfolds in the next several decades, but we must also not forget the people who will be displaced from their jobs in traditional energy industries.”

The bottom line as I see it is that the President has lied to the American people about climate change and the potential harmful long term economic impacts of his policy. He claims to be acting in the national interest but the facts say something very different.

Adapting to Change – Never Easy

The attached article by Giles Parkinson (renew about the energy debate in Australia is reposted here because it illustrates a universal issue – resistance to change. This is certainly a characteristic of the global energy sector as it transitions from dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) to increasing use of renewable energy in its various forms. There are many vested interests in the energy sector and each will attempt to maintain its current status, but the coming change is inexorable, and forward-looking energy companies will position themselves to take advantage of these changes. Others resistant to change will eventually become footnotes to history, as has happened to so many other commercial ventures that have been overtaken by new technologies and associated events. Australia, because of high energy prices and a resistant utility sector, is going through this change a bit earlier than others, but we will all get there.


The great divide over Australia’s energy future
By Giles Parkinson on 22 May 2017

It was the head of the biggest electric network operator in the world, China State Grid, that summed up best the challenge of moving to a high renewable energy grid: It is not so much a technical problem, but a cultural one.

In other words, there are those who say it can be done, arguing that it offers a smart, cleaner and ultimately cheaper and more reliable alternative. And there are those who say it can’t be done, and are reluctant to adopt the new technologies and the new ways of managing a complex electricity grid.

In Australia in the past few weeks, we have been getting a clear signal as to which authorities fall into which camp, and the obstacles facing those who want to get on with the job and go with the technology, rather than fight it.

There is, inevitably, the politics, led by the federal Coalition, railing against the “reckless pursuit” of wind and solar and yet, at the same time, drumming up huge ideas for massive pumped hydro schemes, a sure sign that they see more wind and solar as inevitable.

And there is institutional resistance. The Australian Energy Market Commission, which sets market rules, last week released a document which painted a view of Australia’s energy market nearly as dystopian as Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, the one that prompted former president George W Bush to note at the time: “That was some weird shit.”

And so was the AEMC’s. Its full document is a thorough appraisal of the events of 2015/16, but the media release was another thing altogether: painting a dark picture of energy shortages, risky additions of wind and solar, lost inertia, reduced reliability and the threat of blackouts – comments that were readily picked up by the green-baiting Murdoch media.

Ivor Frischknecht, the CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, has said on several occasions in the last few weeks that it is clear that the technologies exist for transition to a renewables-based electricity grid. It is only old rules and regulations that are getting in the way and preventing it from happening.


It’s a view that is now widely shared. The CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia, in their ground-breaking Network transformation roadmap, speak of the critical important for rules and regulations to catch up with technology, lest the changes and cost reductions in solar, storage, and software becomes so rapid that the industry is unable to catch up.

Their two-years of research found a zero emissions grid could be put in place, based largely around renewables and with a special focus on consumer-owned solar and storage, and save consumers more than a $100 billion by 2050.

That would be at least some recompense to those consumers, who are clearly the biggest losers from the creation of the National Electricity Market two decades ago, and its failure to check the spending of the networks or the pricing power of the gentailers.

The consumers are now paying ridiculous prices from electricity still mostly delivered by now mythical “cheap coal”, and are facing even more rises in coming months.

Yet, as Accenture points out in a separate report, these consumers now have the technologies to be masters of their energy destiny, driven by concerns about sustainability, energy independence and simple economics.

When the cost of solar and storage is likely to be half the cost of grid power, as some networks recognise it will be, the economic modelling behind this grid concoction has a major, major problem, one that rivals the disruption posed by the internet and digital technology.

And because this is a heavily regulated and essential service, the challenge is not just to the incumbents but the regulators and rule makers.

Accenture warns that unless the industry changes quickly, there will be hell to pay in their boardrooms, and consequences everywhere. To do that, they need the rules to be changed, and to be changed quickly.

The Grattan Institute added to those calls on Monday, saying that urgent market reforms and rule changes are needed to ensure reliability of supply. It is hard to find anyone in the industry who disagrees with this statement.

The irony is that it is the AEMC that is charged with making and adjusting these rules, which makes its position on the risks to energy security all the more galling for many, given it has done so little to make the grid fit for purpose, either rejecting new proposals, or kicking them endlessly down the road.

The Australian Energy Market Operator has grown so frustrated with the situation that in its submission to the Finkel Review it asked to be allowed to take responsibility of many of the rule changes itself, so it can rapidly adapt the markets to the changing technologies and dynamics.

This call is likely to be intensified under its new CEO, the reforming Audrey Zibelman, and it was notable that last week AEMO and ARENA teamed up to drive a pilot on the use of demand response, an obvious and relative cheap solution to dealing with peak demand, and a lot cheaper and cleaner than building new peaking generators.

Zibelman knows it will work, because she has seen it operating effectively in markets throughout the world, including the one in the US where she used to manage New York’s radical shift in energy policy.

“There is often skepticism about change,” she told RenewEconomy last week. “This (trial) is a good way to show this technology can work. And when we have done that we can get it into the market and modify the market rules. Technology is changing. We have to look at the market design, to ensure it attracting the right sort of investment.”

It just so happens that demand response has been one of many initiatives presented to the AEMC (way back in 2012) that were rejected or delayed, with the rule maker arguing that there was sufficient demand response in the system. Clearly not, given the enforced load shedding that occurred across the country last summer.

But demand response is just another example of the number of initiatives that the incumbent fossil fuel industry has managed to have killed or shrunk: think carbon pricing, high renewable energy targets, energy efficiency, emission limits and other mechanisms.

All could have made the market more efficient and delivered savings to consumers. The latest of these is the proposed shift to 5-minute settlements, a change widely acknowledged as crucial to level the playing field for battery storage, and remove the pricing power ruthlessly exploited by the coal and gas generators.

Like many of the other proposals, it will likely crimp the bottom line of the incumbents. So they are fighting it, keen to push the argument that any impact on their profit margins could have an impact on reliability and supply.

The equivocation over whether we have the tools to manage the energy transition appears to gripped the South Australian government too, whose state is surging past 50 per cent wind and solar and may find itself with two thirds of its demand coming from these two variable sources by the end of next year.

This is perhaps not surprising given the power interruptions of the last year, and the state election that looms next March. The bitter irony is that these events had sweet F.A. to do with the nature of renewables, but of the way the grid has been managed.

The major event cited in the AEMC report was a blackout in South Australia in November 2015, caused by a network fault during repairs to the interconnector to Victoria, and made significantly worse because of how a gas generator responded to frequency and voltage changes.

As the AEMC panel noted, the Torrens B gas generator was expected to reduce output to manage the frequency changes, but did the opposite.

The problem is being blamed on the governor response mechanisms for such plants, an issue raised by numerous analysts and which may be widespread across the country. It adds to concern about the reliability of gas and coal generators that are failing in the heat and at critical junctures in the market.

It might make you wonder why the AEMC and apparently the S.A. government is appearing to put all its eggs in the basket of gas generators, as it appears to have done by insisting only something called “real inertia”, delivered by large spinning turbines, should qualify for its proposed energy security target, at the expense of battery storage.

The draft proposal has stunned the industry. As a report from the CEC highlighted last week, the delivery of inertia can take multiple forms. Citing the same incident in South Australia in November, 2015, Tom Butler wrote:

“Those who advocate for the status quo because of the inertia provided by synchronous generators should be aware that these technologies are far from perfect.

“For example, they can become unstable at low power output. And there is simply no information available on how effectively these generators can respond to fast rates of change of frequency if they started operating before 2007.”

red flag twoIt reminds you of the transition from horse and cart to the automobile. For a while, all cars were required to have a human walk in front of them, waving a red flag, until someone woke up to the folly of the idea.

The hope is that the Finkel Review – due in just over two weeks – might convince more people that we can do without the waving of red flags. The change is upon us and it’s all OK. We just need our regulators and our politicians to catch up.