The Future of Electricity
What the experts expect on energy and the environment
"It is feasible for the U.S. electric sector to first slow down the projected increase in carbon dioxide emissions, stop the increase, then decrease emissions while meeting an ever increasing demand for reliable and affordable electricity."
—Electric Power Research Institute
When it comes to energy, Americans want it all.
We like having safe, reliable electric energy around the clock. We want to use resources wisely and take good care of the environment. We definitely want to keep electricity affordable, while encouraging a strong economy.
It’s great to talk about all these national goals, but how will we achieve them?
Do this, do that, no, do something else. Everybody seems to have a solution.
Will the electric utility industry really be very different 10, 20, or even 50 years in the future?
Are big changes coming, or just a lot of little ones?
Two recent studies from highly respected institutions looked at just these issues.
The first study was commissioned by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). This nonprofit organization includes more than 800 scientists and engineers. These top professionals in their varied fields study every aspect of the electric utility industry from generating power to how people really use electricity in their homes and businesses every day. Since 1973, EPRI members have been working together to identify and solve practical problems, then share the information among themselves and provide answers to the public.
About two years ago, when discussions about climate change moved to the top of so many people’s lists, EPRI asked its members to consider a question: what kinds of technology do we have available today and what technology could we develop tomorrow that would allow the electric power sector to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next 25 to 30 years?
In February this year, EPRI released its report. It’s important to note that EPRI’s study does not say one approach is better than another. EPRI’s study does say that applying technology in each of these sectors offers opportunities for important changes.
In its assessment, EPRI named seven ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, using technology to:
1) Increase efficiency in homes, buildings, and industry
2) Add more large-scale power generation using renewable energy resources
3) Continue operating nuclear generating plants and add more reactors
4) Improve overall efficiency at new coal-based generating plants
5) Add “capture and storage” of carbon dioxide at new coal-based generating plants
6) Develop and use more “plug-in” hybrid electric vehicles
7) Add more small-scale, widely dispersed generation from nontraditional power sources, such as solar and wind
Steve Specker, EPRI president and CEO, says, “This analysis indicates that over the coming decades it is potentially feasible for the U.S. electric sector to first slow down the projected increase in CO2 emissions, stop the increase, and then decrease emissions while meeting an ever-increasing demand for reliable and affordable electricity.”
In most cases, today’s technology will need further development and many demonstrations in real-world situations because the problems to be solved are quite complex. Specker predicts it will take 10 years or more of very hard work to begin making a significant difference.
"Without a technological breakthrough that we do not foresee, coal, in significant quantities, will remain indispensable."
—Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Another report finds all that hard work will be complicated and expensive, and that coal will continue to be a foundation of our energy supplies.
That report, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came out in March, just one month after EPRI released its assessment of various technologies throughout the electric utility industry.
The MIT report focuses on the future of coal, but begins with an overview of the energy sector not just in the United States but all over the world.
The scientists who wrote the MIT report say that “national economies will need to have many options available for reducing greenhouse gases.”
They also say “the solution lies not in a single technology but in more effective use of existing fuels and technologies, as well as wider adoption of alternative energy sources.”
The MIT study describes the technology options that are currently and potentially available for the continued use of coal as a fuel source to generate electricity if new rules about carbon emissions are added.
The report says that making changes to how carbon emissions are handled will have two immediate effects. First, it will make using coal to generate electricity much more complicated than it is today. Second, it will make using coal more expensive.
If these changes become widespread throughout the electric utility industry, there will be a third consequence. Current patterns of coal use will change.
The MIT study is full of detailed descriptions about how technology could be used to meet new expectations about carbon emissions, and suggests priorities to achieve new goals.
The MIT study points out that there are many different kinds of coal, each with a different energy content, each more well-suited to a particular kind of power plant design. There are many different operating conditions, and technology to suit each kind of situation will have to be developed and applied. There is no one single best answer, but there is a need for many different good answers.
Bringing it together
Although the EPRI study and the MIT study had different goals, each points to a future in which we continue to rely on a variety of ways to generate electricity.
The EPRI study suggests that the percentage of electricity generated from various sources will change, with some increasing and some decreasing.
The MIT study specifically states that “without a technological breakthrough that we do not foresee, coal, in significant quantities, will remain indispensable.”
So, what’s likely to happen?
Technology will allow us to find better ways to get the absolute most from every energy source while also taking better care of the environment.
We are at the start of an exciting new era of super-efficient energy. Some of the changes will begin in our homes, offices, and businesses with new ways to reduce both energy use and energy costs.
EPRI recently announced a new energy-efficiency research project called Dynamic Energy Management (DEM). The lab in Knoxville, Tennessee, will experiment with new technologies in real-world situations. Next month, we’ll take a look at some of the devices and systems they’ll be putting to the test.
Next month: Smart Meters, Smart Appliances, and more
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: REPORTS ON ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Read the EPRI and MIT reports on the energy and the environment.