Energy. In a very literal sense, absolutely nothing can happen without it. Everything that is or ever was on Earth would succumb to entropy and cease to be without the constant input of massive amounts of energy from the sun. All life depends on inputs of energy. All the accomplishments of humanity rely upon energy. The history of human civilization is very much a history of finding new sources and new uses of energy. Huge shifts in the organization of our societies came with the adoption of various forms of power.
Moving from human muscle power to animal muscle through domestication really opened up transportation and increased our agricultural output. Water power was the next energy source and fairly significant alongside muscle power but limited to locations of running water. Water wheels powered all sorts of mills and were vital in the early stages of the industrial revolution in powering factories. More than one town in Ohio, including my sorta hometown of Lexington (the disavowal is mutual) was built around someone seeing a river and saying “I’m going to build a mill there,”. It’s kind of funny that from here on out most energy production is essentially just about turning a wheel.
The next big leap, and this is a pretty huge leap, all things considered, was the development of the steam engine. Suddenly you didn’t have to be next to water to turn a wheel, you could turn a wheel anywhere! And what powered this marvelous wheel turning miracle? Coal of course! Burning mountains and mountains of coal. And that coal, combined with the steam engine, powered trains (knocking out those water powered canals), factories which no longer had to be built next to a river, and eventually all the wonders electricity could provide.
Turning mechanical energy into electrical energy was a huge progression in the search for constructive uses of energy but the actual source of the energy didn’t change that much, just the means of distribution. Electricity allowed energy to be transferred over great distances (once alternating current was worked out) and the production of energy, principally through the burning of coal, could be a more centralized process. The development of a viable means for producing, transmitting, and using electricity came alongside the proliferation of electric light which soon illuminated the country.
Coupled with the electrification of the world; oil, gasoline, and the internal combustion engine were the drivers of the next century of growth and development. The use of oil and petroleum products wasn’t new just as burning coal wasn’t new at the start of the industrial revolution. Kerosene derived from petroleum was the dominant lighting source for the latter half of the 19th century (replacing whale oil, those poor whales, out of work now) and it was kerosene that Standard Oil and Standard Oil’s successors (Chevron, Exxon, Marathon) were built on.
Things are rarely truly “new”, it is just the case that particularly useful purposes or slight improvements haven’t proliferated yet. In retrospect, this creates humorous anecdotes such as the dumping of oil in rivers before kerosene was developed or the dumping of gasoline (a byproduct of the kerosene refining process) into rivers before cars. Today, this seems like literally throwing money away but in the past, it was just irresponsibly disposing of industrial waste. We continue to dispose of fossil fuels today in an environmentally reckless way because it is not always economically viable to process them.
With the internal combustion engine came the proliferation of motor vehicles and oil as an energy source, in this case, powering motor vehicles. It had been used as a power source before then and in other ways still. Cars and trucks are quite useful in transporting people and goods long distances in short time spans. It changed how we work, how we live, and what we consume. The oil and gas boom (again, along with widespread electrification) helped create the longest period of global economic growth and prosperity in human history. But dependence on oil for our energy and transportation needs had limitations.
The 1970s were a turbulent economic time for all manner of reasons including the end of the Bretton Woods system and the limits of a Keynesian inspired economic planning and regulatory framework (also hippies, crazy times). But what brought the prosperity machine of the United States and the world to a grinding halt was the energy crisis where conflict in the middle-east and insufficient domestic production led to an oil shortage. Not something I remember of course, but it had a lasting impact on American and global politics and demonstrated the importance of a stable, abundant energy source to economic growth and prosperity.
For the United States and much of the world the response was to focus on the middle-east, keeping the peace and keeping all the OPEC member countries happy. Energy independence and increasing domestic production of oil became a common political refrain. Trying to secure that energy independence meant a lot more drilling but also investing in more alternatives like ethanol and renewables. France, whose energy production had heavily depended upon oil imports, took a different approach. France embarked on a mission of large scale nuclear power plant production with nuclear quickly becoming the primary source of all electricity in the country.
Nuclear is the latest in this series of energy revolutions. Today it seems almost an antiquity of a bygone era, something out of the 50s and 60s when it was still a curious sideshow to the threat of atomic annihilation. If you’re a bit younger, what we think of nuclear is more inspired by the Simpsons and the Fallout video game franchise. Or if you’re an elitist, you probably watched Chernobyl recently. The way the discussion is most often framed, wind and solar is the bright future of energy production for humanity while others insist oil isn’t going away and coal is coming back (any day now!). Nuclear is hardly in the picture. But its time hasn’t passed, in reality we have barely touched the surface of fission. The latest revolution in energy has only just begun. Human civilization is once again being reshaped.
Though it’s not often viewed in these broad, civilization defining ways, modern civilization is built on relatively cheap, abundant energy and the long history of energy revolutions. Cars, planes, phones, computers, air conditioning, refrigerators, the internet, agriculture, factories, everything that defines how we live is dependent on energy. And politicians aren’t oblivious, they know that every business and every person pays for their electricity or heating in one way or another.
Lowering the utility bill is good for their reelection chances. Sadly for us, politicians typically don’t have the vision or knowledge to make ambitious energy policy. They tend to be a bunch of lawyers and careerists, not futurists. But that’s what this book is for, instructing politicians on how to make policy that they can run on with confidence and win. That’s right politicians, I want you to be rewarded for making good choices!
Rather than bold strategies for investing in the future, what we usually see in political debates is what percentage of the energy supply should come from this or that existing energy source. Some think more wind and solar. Others advocate for more oil and natural gas. A few advocate the limitless potential of nuclear (such as myself) but apparently in Ohio they have to be bribed to do so. What’s more, the focus of these debates isn’t energy production itself, instead it’s the jobs created by energy production that are considered valuable.
Imagine if a marvelous new energy source was discovered, just a cube that produced infinite energy — something like the Tesseract from those Marvel movies the kids seem so enthusiastic about these days — and made that energy available in the form of electricity delivered wirelessly all across the world. This cube required no input to work, just set it and forget it. Would we consider this a good thing?
I certainly would, so would all the people around the world with limited and unreliable access to energy, and so would everyone who is tired of paying for gas at the pump or our electric bills. But for politicians and anyone who’s employment is tied to energy, this would be devastating. Why? Because there aren’t any jobs in making this energy!
Now, if we really cared about job production, we would find the most labor intensive way to produce electricity as possible. It’s brilliant really. I’d create so many jobs the unemployment rate would drop to zero. I’d be the greatest jobs creator politician in history. We’ll produce all electricity via stationary bike! You want your phone charged? Get peddling! Or pay someone else to peddle. Another job created, you’re welcome Ohio.
Yes, absurd examples in both directions. The first for its impossibility, the second for its sheer stupidity. But understand the second is not far off the mark for how politicians think. And perhaps not just politicians. There is an influential strain of thought in the country that values formal employment above all else. Let me make it clear: our civilization is founded upon innovating away more and more work and moving human labor to more and more productive uses. Jobs are not the end goal, life is.
Our politicians are thinking about energy wrong. They think about everything wrong. They think in terms of jobs and votes rather than in terms of wellbeing and people. We have to think in terms of fostering innovation. In doing more with less. Growing food requires energy. Building things requires energy. Making things requires energy. Transporting things requires energy. Health care requires energy. Living requires energy!
What do we want? We want things cheaper, we want to turn the lights on without worry about the bill, want a warm home in the winter and cool home in the summer, we want to live better and spend less. Lowering the cost of energy and making energy more abundant makes it cheaper and easier to do anything and everything. My very reasonable and 100% practical goal is to lower the cost of everything in Ohio and make everything better. Doing that, pushing the frontier of the possible, begins with energy.
In the words of the great musician/mathematician Robert Schneider and The Apples in Stereo from their song “Energy”:
And the world is made of energy
And the world is electricity
And the world is made of energy
And there’s a lot inside of you
And there’s a lot inside of me
And the world is made of energy
And the world is possibility
I literally could not have said it better myself.
How do we lower the cost of energy? There are a few ways of course, ways that even conform to basic economic principles, ones you might remember from high school. The first is to increase supply, spending more resources to produce more of what we want. The second is to lower demand (something we’re only mildly interested in, I’ll explain why later), using fewer resources to produce less because we don’t need as much. And the third is to innovate: improve technology such that it becomes cheaper to produce the energy, using fewer resources to produce more of what we want.
Let’s start with increasing supply. This section works under the assumption of essentially stagnant technology which is, oddly enough, how economists think about supply. Increasing supply is fairly straightforward, how it would be done is probably not far from what you would guess. We build more power sources. We build more windmills, more solar panels, more natural gas power plants, more nuclear power plants, maybe even some hydro-electric and geothermal power plants.
Not coal, more coal power plants would be a step back in technology and simply not economically viable. Coal has been rapidly declining in use as a power source for years now. This decline can largely be attributed to the increased usage of natural gas and, to a lesser extent, renewables like wind and solar.
Natural gas has represented more and more of our energy supply in recent years. The natural gas boom is mostly attributable to developments in the often government subsidized quest for energy independence. Improvements in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, opened up previously untapped reserves of natural gas and other fossil fuels. As prices skyrocketed in the late 2000s, these new extraction techniques became economically viable. Though we aren’t known for it, Ohio has long been a producer of oil and natural gas.The fracking boom has turned Ohio and the United States into a net exporter of fossil fuels. And a new abundance of supply dramatically lowered the price of energy.
Here’s the wild thing about natural gas though, it appears to be a bit of an incredible illusion. Natural gas has been far from profitable and much of it relies on government subsidy in both production and export. It’s not just government subsidy but private investors who have kept natural gas afloat with the expectation of profits that have so far not materialized. All in service of energy independence and the promises of low cost, high value gas.
The reality is that we are in a bit of an economic conundrum when it comes to natural gas. The fracking boom wasn’t just driven by improvements in process reducing costs, it was driven first and most by a demand boom driving up prices. But prices have since dropped. The production levels we’ve seen are not sustainable with the prices we’re seeing. And as the price of solar and wind power plummets, prices may not recover. What’s more, the aim of this book is how to make things cheaper. We don’t want prices to rise!
If we are going to continue to rely on natural gas as an intermediate energy source until the nation comes around to the reality of the crucial nature of nuclear power, we have to realize this will be a long-term loser. Anyone thinking about making large capital investments in natural gas infrastructure should hesitate, I think. Coal is dead and natural gas helped kill it, but natural gas is likely to be next on the chopping block (maybe after oil). And frankly, we should be glad because there’s another factor to consider: pollution.
Fossil fuels receive a massive hidden subsidy in that they produce pollution but do not pay the costs of pollution and pollution comes with a heavy cost. The primary costs of pollution are the health costs associated with polluted air and water and the costs of a changing climate from greenhouse gases. In terms of the human toll, some estimates put the annual deaths in the United States attributable to pollution at 30,000. Globally that number could be closer to 9,000,000. Air pollution can lead to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and asthma, among other afflictions. The costs in quality of life and in medical care are considerable.
Climate change, too, is wreaking havoc on the planet causing droughts, flooding, heatwaves, increasing storms, and driving extinctions. Destruction ranges from disruption of agricultural production to devastated cities and lost lives. Failing to take into account these sort of negative externalities is, in simplest terms, naive. When are you going to spend on something you should have a full accounting of what it will cost or you can’t make the best decision.
In Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days, the ship the protagonist chartered to cross the Atlantic in his race to return to London before the deadline runs out of fuel. In desperation, he has the crew dismantle and burn the ship as fuel to feed the engine. At least that’s what I’ve been told, I haven’t actually read the book. I have seen the Disney film Around the World in 80 Days, had Jackie Chan in it. Also had Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Turkish prince? Fun fact, that was Schwarzenegger’s last film role before becoming governor of California. Honestly, I can’t believe the reality we live in sometimes.
My point, now that I’m getting to it, is that the use of fossil fuels is very similar, metaphorically, to burning our ship as fuel for the engine. It will keep us going but it will eventually leave us in a far worse situation than we started at. I’m not saying we can’t do it, I’m saying we have to carefully account for the damage we’re doing. We can treat the ship as a free resource because we already have it but it’s not true, it has value and we’re sacrificing future value for present value at a very poor rate. We have to mitigate the damage where we can, adapt where we must, and prepare to spend a lot in the future to fix what we’ve done.
But there is a clear interest in the fossil fuel sector in ignoring these present and future costs and government officials seem more than happy to play along. Fossil fuel companies don’t want to have to pay the full cost of their product and government doesn’t want to upset the companies (their donors) or customers (their voters). They rely on the abstract nature of the public cost. It’s not easy to grasp that breathing particulates from car exhaust could be raising my chances of heart disease.
Let’s, just for a moment, review a tangible example of the cost of pollution and the benefit of eliminating it. From the 1920s to the 1970s, lead was a ubiquitous additive in gasoline. Wherever vehicles drove, lead was put into the environment. If you know much about the mid-20th century you’ll know it was a massive boom in motor vehicles. Everyone was driving. People moved to the suburbs because they could drive to work now. We built a massive highway network. It was great! But anyway, we poisoned generations of children (including many readers). Lead poisoning in children hampers brain development, it can lead to poor impulse control, lowered intelligence, and more aggressive behavior.
There was a surge in crime in the later half of the 20th century and there is statistically significant evidence (is it conclusive? Well we’ll be arguing about that for some time) that this was caused by the increase in environmental lead. When we phased out lead in gasoline in the 1970s, twenty years later crime dropped precipitously and has largely continued to decline. What’s the connection to something that happened in the 1970s to something that happened in the 1990s? Well, that’s the length of time for children born in the post-leaded gasoline era to become adults and supplant the generations exposed to lead.
There is still a lot of environmental lead in the United States we have to deal with. It’s in old houses and buildings (schools for instance), it’s in old water pipes, and it’s in the dirt still along roads that had high traffic before leaded gasoline was banned. I’ll be talking about this later. But we greatly reduced lead and spared tens of millions of children from exposure to our great benefit. This is an example of the damage pollutants can do and the benefits we can reclaim by eliminating them.
Even so, it’s tough for us to imagine all the costs to us of using polluting power sources. That’s what makes prices such powerful tools, they put costs and benefits into an easily quantified and straightforward number, dollars, that we can understand. The problem arises when the price doesn’t capture the cost, how do we judge properly? Luckily for us, economists and other analysts spend a lot of time turning those abstract costs into something quantifiable and putting a price tag on them.
One report from the International Monetary Fund places the cost of the fossil fuel industry in the United States that is not internalized by fossil fuel corporations at close to $700 billion a year. That is an incredible subsidy to an industry that isn’t even proving itself competitive in the energy market anymore. If we, the American people, are absorbing that cost every year on top of the price we’re paying individually on our electric and heating bills, shouldn’t we be getting something out of it that’s not killing us?
Natural gas has been and could be a key intermediary in transitioning to a cleaner, cheaper, and more limitless energy mix. I’m not averse to the idea of expanding natural gas production and investing in the infrastructure for extraction and export, but it would be foolish to support that sort of expansion without serious changes. Changes within the industry and in the energy market at large to make natural gas expansion both economically and ecologically viable for Ohio. Changes both regulatory and technological to make extraction and use cheaper while mitigating greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Without these changes and without a substantial increase in energy demand, Ohio’s nearterm pursuits should be focused on wind and solar power which are swifty becoming the cheapest energy around.
Wind and Solar
Wind and solar are not at all new energy sources. Windmills have been converting wind to power for centuries and we’ve been using wind and sails to power ships far longer than that! Solar, if we want to be really abstract, has been powering life on Earth since its beginning and truthfully is the source of nearly all of our power. Afterall, fossil fuels are just stored solar power from millions of years ago, all the food we consume to power ourselves is just converted solar power, and wind power is dependent on weather fueled by the sun.
But when we talk about wind and solar energy we’re talking about the conversion of that energy to electricity. This also has a surprisingly long history with some of the earliest instances of both solar and wind power to produce electricity coming in the 1880s. Ohio has a little historical significance here; famed Ohio born inventor Charles F. Brush built a wind turbine in 1888 to power his Cleveland home and laboratory. It was a monster of a turbine and horribly inefficient, but it kept the lights on.
Given that long history one might wonder why the technology has not come further faster and why we are just now seeing its widespread adoption. The reason is, as in all things, economics. Oil, gas, and especially coal were all cheaper, abundant, and had been in use longer so people knew how to utilize them without needing to make major investments in innovation for profitability (Brush’s wind turbine was wildly expensive but most first generation technologies are).
Even so, it’s interesting to think about the road not taken, to consider where we’d be now if our ancestors at the turn of the century had made just such a bold investment in alternative energy sources. The world might not have been as locked in to fossil fuels as we are now. The energy shocks of the 1970s which had been so globally jarring might have been far more subdued or not have happened at all. And global warming and pollution would not be or have been so severe.
Now back to our timeline. The economic calculus has changed dramatically since the 19th century; it’s changed a lot in the last thirty years. Demand for energy is ever growing, fossil fuels struggle to efficiently meet it and worse, they come at a grave cost, we’ve now realized, in devastating new weather patterns and negative health impacts. The cost of producing wind and solar power has plummeted thanks to major investments in developing both the technology and the production capacity following the energy shocks and the revelation that fossil fuels are significantly transforming our climate.
The cost of wind and solar has fallen so dramatically, in fact, that it’s now the cheapest source of energy in the world by a respectable margin. The capital costs, the costs of constructing and installing solar panels and wind turbines, are consistently dropping. But the marginal costs, the costs of producing each additional unit of energy, are the real selling point for these renewables because they are effectively zero! After all, there is no one we need to pay to make the wind blow or the sun shine. Unlike fossil fuels which are formed within the Earth over millions of years and are increasingly hard to extract from the ground, the wind will never stop blowing and the sun will never stop shining (not for millions of years anyway). They are perpetual energy sources that require minimal maintenance once installed.
If our goal is to lower the price of energy by rapidly expanding the energy supply over the next decade, wind and solar is the way to do it. But there are a couple of hitches in this plan we have to deal with. The first is that wind and solar are not energy dense. The second is that wind and solar are not persistent sources of energy.
What do I mean by “not energy dense”? Well that there is only so much energy to be had in the area of one ray of light or in one gust of wind. Even if we had 100% efficient solar cells and wind turbines —meaning all the available energy in the light hitting a cell or the wind passing over a blade was converted into electricity— we would still require a tremendous amount of land coverage to harness enough energy to meet our present energy demands. Solar cells are something like 20% efficient which is good and improving every day but it’s not enough to replace fossil fuels in a timely manner.
To meet energy demands we have to build many turbines and install many square miles of solar cells. Some consider turbines and solar panels an eyesore, I think they look pretty cool and a sign of an ever more complex and vibrant society. Aesthetics are a relevant point of discussion, we’re allowed to care about that and not wanting a bunch of wind turbines filling up the skyline is just as valid a view as not wanting a bunch of smokestacks and smog. But the real point of consideration here is the value of land.
Blanketing the state with solar panels is not a good use of space. That land could be used for farming, housing/buildings, or the preservation (in Ohio’s case, more of the restoration) of natural habitats. There is an opportunity cost from the next best use of the land (natural habitats are a good use of land!) and given the low energy density of solar and seeing as Ohio doesn’t exactly have an abundance of sunlight, I can’t really endorse significant investment in solar farms in Ohio. If we were seriously concerned about the most efficient uses of resources it actually might make more sense for us to pay for the construction of solar farms somewhere in the American southwest where solar cells would convert more energy. Wind suffers much the same problem.
But fear not solar power boosters, for there is still another path for solar that, on balance, makes much more sense: distributed generation. Distributed generation or small scale generation—as opposed to utility scale generation with the fields of solar panels—is energy generation using smaller sources over a wide area. Essentially, rooftop solar (though rooftop solar can become quite large depending on the size of the roof). Solar panels situated on rooftops or in yards or small batches around a city or town is, I would guess, what most people think of when they think of solar power anyway, at least in Ohio. We don’t produce much solar energy in Ohio but a majority of what we do produce is small scale and distributed.
Rooftop solar avoids the land intensive nature of solar power, leaving land free for its next best use. Ohio has acres and acres of rooftop well positioned for solar power generation and it certainly is not going to a better use. And we do not have to stop with our existing rooftops. Building solar arrays over our parking lots converts that energy that would otherwise be heating your car or the pavement into electricity, cheap, carbon free electricity.
While Ohio is not exactly a sunshine state, that doesn’t mean solar cannot be viable here at certain levels. In fact our viable solar potential is much greater than our current solar capacity. And that’s an issue of governance, it’s intentionally poor resource management. Literally intentional as the massive bribery scandal and the pay-for-play nature of our state government unraveling before us is revealing. I’ll save building a functioning, non-corrupt government for a later section.
Now that we’ve discussed the basics of wind and solar, let’s think about what we can do to ramp up energy production from these sources within the limits of technology and opportunity cost. How can we take advantage of Ohio’s sun and wind in a way that reduces energy costs and makes Ohioans happier, healthier, and wealthier?
To an extent, it’s a matter of incentives. How do you incentivise consumers, localities, and businesses to invest in rooftop solar? How do you incentivise utilities to adopt a larger portfolio of renewables? How do you incentivise more companies to get into the manufacture of solar and wind technologies? There are thousands of ways and they’re mostly all some variation of taxes, subsidies, or mandates. I’m not going to say I don’t care how it’s done, some ways are better and some are worse and it depends on the specifics. I’m just saying making it happen isn’t the problem, all we need to do is decide to do it and that’s a matter of politics. For now, let’s continue our tour of why it’s perfect for Ohio.
See, Ohio is already well positioned to ramp up our production of solar power. Energy demand remains high. Demand for solar is going to increase as both a low cost energy alternative and a bit of well-intentioned conspicuous consumption for those who find it important to signal their commitment to environmental concerns (including individuals, corporations, and governments). That Ohio is underutilizing its solar potential compared to other states with a comparable amount of sunshine means that a great deal of high-efficiency square footage remains untapped. That, my friends, is a promising market. A great deal of unrealized demand just outside the price point and all we need to do is give it a little nudge.
And what of the supply, where will all these new solar panels come from, who will install them, how will we integrate them into our grid? Excellent questions. Did you know Ohio is home to the largest solar panel manufacturing facility in the western hemisphere? Well there you go, interesting factoid to keep in your back pocket. Despite what it feels like, Ohio remains a manufacturing behemoth and we are so well positioned to dominate the distributed solar generation industry it’s disgusting how hard the Ohio government has worked to hold us back.
There are dozens of companies in Ohio involved in every step of the supply chain of manufacturing solar panels. If Ohio begins to seriously pursue solar energy production, it will have no shortage of domestic suppliers of components to meet the demand. Now, a domestic production base means technical knowhow and a skilled workforce. Add to that Ohio’s research universities advancing solar energy like the Ohio State university. I’d call that the nucleus of a cluster. Still, nothing exceptional. Lots of places have solar panel manufacturing, research institutions, AND get enough sun (and government support) to justify large solar power installations.
But for the proliferation of distributed energy production with wind and solar, two obstacles remain: building out a grid that can handle a decentralized and intermittent power supply and building out storage to both regulate the grid and provide for constant energy throughout the day and night.
The rise of wind and solar (in other places, not Ohio) is putting a tremendous strain on energy markets and the electric grid. The more energy drawn into the grid from these renewables the less we need of older power sources like natural gas and coal and so the fossil fuel plants have to reduce production. At least until the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing and then they have to ramp up production again. It is an inefficient and costly system that also happens to lock in fossil fuels for the foreseeable future (fossil fuels bad, ecosystem collapse, deadly pollution, etc.). And because under these conditions fossil fuel plants would struggle to make money, the government would be forced to further subsidize fossil fuels to guarantee the energy supply. It’s a mess and we got to clean it up.
If we can build out and integrate a great deal of energy storage capacity, these problems can, more or less, be solved, or at least be made far simpler to manage. Building a better battery; it’s a task researchers have been struggling with for decades. At long last the technology has come far enough that our loftier ambitions—all electric vehicles, efficient storage of utility scale electricity—are becoming reality.
The lithium-ion battery, the sort powering your phone, is what has brought us the farthest the fastest. It has its limitations; maintenance, overheating, storage capacity, and the cost. But it’s the most viable for more distributed storage and micro-grids because it stores a decent amount in a workable size (something you can put in a garage). These are the batteries that are most popular in the electric vehicle industry. Massive new production in lithium-ion batteries is putting a strain on the supply chain–particularly for cobalt–and will continue to do so for many years to come (a lot of combustion engine cars in the world to be replaced). If you have to make the choice between battery storage for the electric grid and electrifying the car industry, you focus on the car industry.
Something more utility scale would be using vanadium flow batteries which is a technology that was demonstrated up in Painesville not too long ago. These batteries are not as developed and mature an industry as lithium-ion batteries but are likely to be a crucial ingredient in building out energy storage in the near future. As a still developing technology, Ohio can position itself at the forefront of the industry. In fact I recommend we do so.
Thanks to Ohio’s involvement with the aerospace industry and the NASA Glenn Research Center, one area of storage technology we do have an experience advantage in is fuel cells. Fuel cells can be light, compact, and scale well. They convert their fuel (often hydrogen and oxygen or biogas) into electricity efficiently and quietly. The problem is the process of storing generated electricity in a fuel cell is indirect. We have to create the fuel.
At present, fuel cell technologies might find collaboration in Ohio’s natural gas industry a more fruitful endeavor. Producing hydrogen is one use we can put natural gas to and it can be done in a way that captures excess carbon and pollutants. That’s not our goal here, instead we want to integrate fuel cells into our dispersed solar energy generation networks. And this can be done, electricity generated through solar can be stored by producing hydrogen through a process known as electrolysis.
The task at hand then is to develop efficient systems of producing hydrogen using solar. Better if this can be done in a compact format. And it does appear as if that is quickly becoming a reality and with the help of Ohio institutions. We have to leverage Ohio’s advantage with fuel cell and solar technologies. We need to press forward into the development of a vanadium flow battery industry. Most important for securing Ohio’s place in the energy industry—and associated industries like transportation—moving forward is almost certainly throwing ourselves into the lithium-ion battery industry (perhaps trying to reduce cobalt dependence) or in developing similarly compact battery technologies. General Motors is investing in producing batteries for the future of the electric vehicle industry right in Ohio and that’s a good start.
The electrical grid—sometimes just called the grid (or the gridster, as its friends refer to it)—is that big network of power lines, power plants, and substations for producing and delivering electricity to meet our many electrical needs. Our electric grid is nothing less than a marvel of engineering. Ohio’s grid is inextricably tied into a far larger grid that effectively spans the continent of North America.
Alright, it was a bit of a stretch to say the grid spans North America. More accurately the continent is divided in two large grids, the Eastern and Western Interconnections. And only a tiny portion of Mexico is connected to these grids, it primarily serves the United States and Canada. Also much of Texas uses its own little interconnection with at least some of their aim being to avoid regulations on interstate commerce. Ohio is in the Eastern Interconnection where we somewhat share our electrical generation with the good people of Ontario to the North, the fine people of Nebraska to the West, the Yankees of Connecticut to the East, and Florida to the South. But aside from those caveats; one big, beautiful, interconnected grid of tens of thousands of miles of transmission lines and thousands of generators.
This grid provides hundreds of gigawatts of electricity to hundreds of millions of people; to homes, businesses, factories, schools, hospitals, bitcoin miners, and server farms. It is absolutely essential in meeting the basic needs of human life and modern civilization.
For most everyone, we see this reliable transmission of electricity as an absolute necessity. More than that, we’ve built our lives on its access being for the most part uninterrupted. Even short and infrequent outages are met with grumbling, anger, and complaints. Longer or frequent outages are seen, rightfully, as totally unacceptable.
Because our ability to store electricity for long or even short periods is extremely limited (we’re working on it!), electricity must be consumed as it is being produced. This requires a careful and coordinated balancing of supply and demand and that requires some excess capacity. We need to have the ability to produce more electricity than we typically expect in the event of spikes in demand or failures or maintenance at other plants.
It’s damn complicated. A wide variety of power plants have to be kept functioning under all sorts of conditions including extreme heat and cold. These power plants need maintenance and monitoring. These power plants need a reliable supply of fuel. These power plants need to be kept secure. Transmission lines need to be maintained, the electricity running across them carefully managed. The area around the transmission lines needs to be maintained and kept free of potential obstructions like fallen trees.
When something does go wrong, as it inevitably will, electricity suppliers need to be able to quickly locate and respond to the problem and they need to have the means on hand to deal with a wide variety of these problems. Because things will go wrong there has to be backups. Backup generators for critical infrastructure, readily available spare parts, and alternative power suppliers.
The greatest new challenges and opportunities for our electric grid are the development of dispersed, renewable energy generation; and the advances of “smart grid” technology. The potential of these developments is cleaner, more reliable, more efficient energy production and consumption. The downsides are that dispersed, renewable energy generation makes managing the grid and keeping the proper amount of electricity flowing more difficult. A smart grid makes dispersed renewables easier to integrate. But the downsides of a smart grid, aside from the great cost of developing and deploying the technology, are questions of both privacy and security.
There’s no question of if we should do this. The benefits far outweigh the negatives. We will be reshaping, redesigning, and rebuilding our electric grid this decade, we’ve already begun. Now it’s a question of how well, how equitably, and how quickly we can deploy these technologies. It’s also a question of who is designing, building, and deploying them.
Building a better grid makes Ohio a better place to live and a better place to do business. Building a smarter grid would put Ohio ahead of the pack. If we commit to doing it faster and better than the rest of the world, we reap the benefits of a better grid before anyone else. But we also develop the knowledge and technologies for deploying such a grid. Integrating microgrids of batteries and solar arrays or windmills into a larger grid will be transforming the developing world soon. We can design, manufacture, and license the technology.
Now, I don’t think Ohio is especially well placed to jump ahead in the industry. Maybe it is, I don’t know (well researched book that this is), a lot of our energy utilities seem to be caught up in political corruption scandals and that can’t be good for industry competitiveness. But we are a big, industrial state which must provide electricity for a geographically diverse set of customers with a diverse set of needs and that has to count for something. And even if we aren’t the leaders of the industry, suppliers of technology, and exporters of energy know-how, we still have to build a better grid just to keep up.
We need a smart grid. One that places ample information about the state of the grid, energy demand, and energy supply at the fingertips of the managers and technicians. To do this we need to install sensors on transmission lines and substations as well as digital meters at recipient locations. These sensors and meters have to be able to transmit data back and forth with energy suppliers. Now we not only have an issue of deploying new grid components, we also require a reliable communications network for it to function.
Like every problem, I see this as an amazing opportunity for innovation and synergy (I have to see the world this way, I have to spin my life of relentless failure into something hopeful). The bandwidth demand of these technologies is tiny but connections still have to be widespread and reliable. The communications technologies necessary to facilitate these reliable connections are capable of much more than a few kilobytes of data. That leaves us with an excess of bandwidth.
Access to the internet and mobile networks is now just as essential to our lives as electricity and so the necessary coverage area is about the same (okay, you’re probably more interested in having cell phone service hiking in the woods than an electrical outlet). By building out our communications network with our smart grids we can share the cost and reap the benefits of both. It’s very much a win-win. I’d imagine it would use a combination of fiber, cable, and fixed wireless–whichever is most appropriate where–to build this smart grid communications network and that’s certainly technology Ohio should lead in (for more, see Communication). There are regulatory and market hurdles, vertical integration and all that, but I’m not troubled by that at the moment.
Once we’ve built this two-way communications network and deployed our sensors and smart meters, the smart grid will produce endless, uptodate information which can be analyzed by and train automated monitoring systems that will be able to respond better and faster, detecting patterns and anticipating problems that we never could before. And once the AI is trained and given access to all our homes and factories, nothing will stand in its way as it comes to dominate the world!!!! And that’s a good thing. It means fewer outages with cheaper, cleaner energy as it integrates intermittent renewables and microgrids into the larger network.
There is still the challenge of keeping the grid secure as we make it more connected to the larger world. There’s no secret to doing this, it’s just a matter of funding a cyber-security department and paying technicians. Consumers should be aware of the need for security and demand it from their suppliers. Government, too, should ensure the industry is sufficiently regulated for security.
Aside from smart grid technologies there’s nothing particularly revolutionary for me to comment on. Reducing construction costs and making more durable parts is more a process of slow experimentation through practice rather than something we can specifically target. Building mobile, temporary technologies that can be deployed during an outage while determining the cause of an outage and installing a more permanent replacement is one avenue and I’m sure it will be appreciated (well, how often do you notice when the power DOESN’T go out or only for a short while? So maybe not so appreciated), but it’s not drastically changing our lives. Marginal benefits but marginal benefits add up to quite a bit.
Perhaps burying lines will become cheaper and more convenient to do. It certainly would reduce outages from falling tree limbs. Wireless transmission of energy, maybe with tight microwave beams, would be very cool but really only useful where building traditional lines is difficult and where you don’t expect many organisms to be passing through. Plus I bet it would freak people out (not like AI, we’re all cool with integrating artificial intelligence into our grid! Y’all ever hear of Roko’s Basilisk?). Is there something revolutionary out there that I’m missing? Almost certainly. But whoever said this book was comprehensive? (ctrl-f “comprehensive”).
One can hope that developments in electrical grid technologies opens up the electric utility business to greater competition. A smarter grid is going to allow for more decentralized control. Small, cheap, energy producing technologies like solar panels and windmills and whatever else is coming down the line is going to reduce barriers to entry, so will batteries, microgrids, and the self-sufficient structures and communities they allow. That will open the market and it will be a good thing. Ohio has suffered long enough at the hands of oligopolistic energy companies that have no qualms about tampering with our government and regulators. Making the right grid investments isn’t just about cheaper electricity, it’s about having more personal choice in how we live and it’s about a better, smaller government. Who knew?
Whatever energy savings we get from efficiency gains in our grid or structures or appliances will be dwarfed by the global growth of energy demand from a growing population, economic prosperity, and ever more energy demanding new technologies (like bitcoin, I guess?). We’re going to keep living better and we’re going to keep building cool new things that make the world better (like laser cannons). Wind and solar will not meet our energy demands, fossil fuels will not meet our energy demands. The only energy source with the density, abundance, and efficiency to meet our long-term energy needs is nuclear. Nuclear fission at first but one day nuclear fusion.
Ohio is no stranger to nuclear power. We’ve been producing it since the 1960s. There was a period post-WW2 where nuclear energy was ascendent. We had dreams then, big dreams of a brighter future, for all of us. But Chernobyl, Three Mile Island (and the timely release of The China Sydrome), the unfortunate but unavoidable association of nuclear power with nuclear weapons, and a whole lot of opposition from ostensibly environmentalist organizations ground nuclear energy expansion to a standstill in the 1980s. That and–probably more importantly–it just hasn’t been very cost effective to build nuclear power plants lately. Coal was cheap, oil was cheap, and now natural gas is very cheap.
When the status quo is cheap and the public is hesitant or fearful of embracing something different, there’s not a ton of incentive to invest in better, even when it’s a lot better. Had nuclear investment kept pace, we’d be living in a much different world. Had the world gone all in on nuclear energy the way France had after the oil-shock, global warming would require minimal consideration and hundreds of thousands or millions or tens of millions of lives could have been saved by the dearth of pollutants in the air.
That alternative reality is very plausible, something we easily could have had. I’m not going to hold that lost world against anyone, I get it. If there’s anything I’ve been forced to confront in 2020 it’s that it’s not on the most ill informed and fearful members of society to do the right thing, it’s on the rest of us who know better but don’t follow through. I don’t think the government and energy companies catered to the alarmists or environmentalists. It’s ridiculous to believe that this was the one thing they chose to listen to environmentalists about. I think they chose instead to do what was easy and what catered to short termism. And shame on them for that. Now we look ahead.
Nuclear power has been a boon to the United States and clean energy production. For decades it has been the largest source of carbon free electricity in the country and the world and now represents more than half of America’s carbon free electricity with hydro, wind, and solar making up the bulk of the rest. In Ohio, nuclear is around 15% of electricity production with the rest overwhelmingly being coal and natural gas. Ohio doesn’t produce much other carbon free electricity (hopefully we’ll change that soon) so nuclear is something closer to 80% or more of Ohio’s carbon free electricity.
Our nuclear reactors are aging, the average being thirty-nine years old. Improvements in operation have allowed reactors to operate for so long and to increase total output even as some nuclear reactors have been retired. The battles have shifted from building new reactors to keeping old reactors online. When old reactors are shut down they aren’t replaced by wind and solar, they’re replaced by natural gas, in some cases even coal or biomass which some environmentalists seem to favor (you’re burning forest for electricity, in what world is this good!?). This has inevitably lead to jumps in carbon emissions.
It will be difficult to achieve a carbon neutral world when we’re shutting down the biggest producers of carbon free energy. But it’s also true nuclear isn’t presently as price competitive as we like (maybe, they could be lying to get subsidies) and we can’t keep old reactors running forever. Ohio has two nuclear power plants both more than thirty years old. Both are Generation II reactors and both could be expected to run for over a decade longer. Also both were involved in a massive bribery scandal wherein their parent company paid into a dark money slush fund to get the Ohio legislature to pass a tax subsidy for the plants but that doesn’t seem important right this moment.
Generation II characterizes most of the reactors built in the United States. In the 1990s the industry progressed to Generation III nuclear reactors which incorporate improvements developed over decades of use. That’s how improvements are made, through experience. Generation III reactors are safer (not that our reactors aren’t safe) and more efficient though they haven’t proven much cheaper to build. But we’re not terribly interested in Generation III. The nuclear industry is a young industry, changing and improving quickly and still waiting for that combination of improvements that will unleash its full market potential. And that comes in Generation IV (or Generation III+, it’s a little arbitrary).
Let’s cut to the chase. How does nuclear power fit into Ohio’s plans for
world domination economic success? First, we need to keep our existing nuclear plants operating. Cutting out 15% of our electricity supply would raise prices and strain supply in the short term while in the long term we’d most likely end up building a bunch of less efficient natural gas power plants which will feel like a waste in twenty years when everyone is building out advanced nuclear power. More polluting natural gas would also worsen our air quality and contribute to global warming (both bad!).
“But Tim,” you say (Sir will do), “why don’t we just replace our nuclear capacity with safe, clean solar and wind?”. Foolish question. Nuclear is safer than wind and solar (I guess people are falling while installing them?) setting aside the safety record at Davis–Besse. But beyond that, if your goal is environmentalism, each additional unit of wind and solar should be used to replace coal and eventually natural gas in Ohio’s electric mix. Nuclear is an absolute necessity in a carbon-neutral, clean energy future because wind and solar need its capacity and reliability. As optimistic as I am about what a smart grid and storage capacity can accomplish, without nuclear energy, renewables will only serve to lock in fossil fuels to our grid for another century. Plus if we shut them down we have to go to all the work of decommissioning them and that will just get easier with time.
Beyond the economic and environmental arguments for keeping the plants operating, we need them as training grounds and sources of practical knowledge for the next generation of nuclear engineers. We learn and improve by doing. All advancements in nuclear have been heavily informed by the use and practical application of nuclear.
That brings me to my second point: nuclear is the future of global energy production; Ohio has to establish itself as a key supplier and innovator of new nuclear technologies. We want advanced nuclear for ourselves, of course. Cheap, abundant, and clean energy is desirable. But we also want to be a cutting edge developer and exporter of these technologies. We are not too late in the game to do that.
Let’s start by setting some goals. How about 25% of Ohio’s electricity generated by nuclear in 2035, 50% by 2050. Reasonable, doable. The first goal is best achieved with in-development Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). The advantage of SMRs is, well, that they are small and modular (it’s also good they’re reactors or there wouldn’t be much point). Making them modular means we can mass produce the parts and ship them to wherever the reactor will be used. The reactors are simpler to assemble and we reduce the time and cost of building them while, hopefully, benefiting from economies of scale in production.
That they are small allows us to move them easily, operate them in a wider range of environments, and operate efficiently at a smaller scale which meets a wider range of energy needs. Where we want to achieve the energy output levels comparable to older, larger reactors we simply string a series of SMRs together. We can easily add and remove capacity in this way. This greatly reduces the initial capital costs of nuclear which in the past have been prohibitive and led many ventures to fold before they were completed. Small modular reactors will make nuclear energy expansion price competitive with other sources of energy.
SMRs are smaller and safer but initially will not be a huge divergence from previous generations of reactor; the fuel will likely still be uranium, the coolant will likely still be water. When we look to 2050 we will likely have a much broader range of nuclear reactors at our disposal. These would be those Generation IV reactors that utilize safer designs, a closed fuel cycle, may operate at higher temperatures, and use new coolants like molten salt or helium. Some reactor designs potentially eliminate much of the nuclear waste we’ve produced over the decades (nuclear waste is not a big problem).
Another nuclear reactor approach which is less of a generational design shift and more a branching off is thorium fueled nuclear reactors. Thorium is more abundant than uranium, it’s safer, and potentially could prove cheaper if we get the processing down and build efficient reactor designs around it. It’s also far less weaponizable–which happens to be the main reason the US government stopped pursuing the technology in the 70s, idiots!–but most newer designs are intended to reduce nuclear arms proliferation anyway so no big deal. I believe thorium has potential but I’m not as optimistic about it as some of its boosters. Certainly worth looking into and certainly worth developing as an alternative. It’s good to have choices.
By end of century, I would absolutely expect nuclear fission to make up a majority of all energy production for electricity, industrial processes, and transportation (either charging electric batteries or producing hydrogen). Probably by 2075, maybe earlier if we really get the ball rolling. Wind, solar, and hydro are great, you can do a lot with them even if you’re trying to restrict their environmental impact. Maybe you can make them humanity’s main source of energy, it will be expensive and slow but maybe. Then again, why would we do that when nuclear is an option? Nuclear is the future.
And Ohio can be a big part of that future. We have existing nuclear power plants which establishes experience. We have nuclear engineering programs and good universities to continue teaching them and more we can expand to. And of course we have the industrial capacity and the energy demanded to create a functioning internal market for advanced nuclear reactors. It’s a good start. We aren’t the best positioned for this but this is a key industry we should commit to ASAP. China is already running with this, India is making big commitments, California or Texas are well suited to it too and god help us if we have to compete with a renuclearized California. This is a multi-trillion dollar market. Do not pass this up Ohio!
Type I Civilization
Type I Civilization, that’s the goal. Not familiar? A Type I Civilization on the Kardashev scale is a civilization that uses energy equivalent to the total amount of energy available on a planet from its parent star. So for us to be a Type I civilization we’d need to consume energy equivalent to all the sunlight that falls on the Earth. I suppose you could do that by building a sphere of solar panels around the Earth. Luckily there are slightly more energy dense alternatives that can get us there without blocking out the sun. There are Type II and Type III civilizations which involve using energy equivalent to that generated by an entire star and that generated by an entire galaxy.
It is a scifi nerd metric, to be sure. It tells us nothing really of the makeup or quality of the civilization beyond its energy consumption. Yet it is a metric I, arbitrarily, hope to live to see. And when we start extrapolating from current trends, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Nuclear fission is a young technology, much younger than wind and solar, and we’ve barely even started harnessing it. Nuclear fusion is next. Once the power of the sun is in our hands the possibilities are limitless.
When fusion is made economical and begins to saturate the market, the marginal cost of energy will fall to something very close to zero. If the marginal cost of energy becomes zero then the hassle of metering and rationing and charging customers becomes a completely unnecessary hassle. What then? The reality becomes that it is easier and makes more economic sense to provide energy to the whole world, free of charge. This would be done without power lines, without a grid, with technology developed in the 20th century by Nikola Tesla (the veracity of Tesla’s claim is, I believe, under question. Though my electrical engineering professor insisted it was quite practicable). Nearly infinite, free energy, on demand anywhere in the world. What an interesting world that will be and you and I might live to see it.
This subsection doesn’t have any relevance to the rest of this book. I just thought I’d share a bit of the distant future that I see, for fun. Ohio can have a hand in it, I’d like that to be the case, but it’s not an urgent concern. This future is out there and it’s for all of us.
You’re probably tired from reading this lengthy essay on electricity and I’m tired of writing it. You’ve probably forgotten what it is I’m on about and you’d like me to put it plainly. Say no more.
We all need energy to go about our daily lives whether it be to power our bodies, our phones, our homes, or our cars. Let’s make that energy as cheap as possible and let’s make it as widely available as possible. We should also produce it in such a way as to not slowly kill a whole bunch of us.
We can make this world of cheap and abundant energy a reality right here in Ohio. What’s more, we can export it to the world. Natural gas, which Ohio is a producer of, will serve as a stopgap and transitional power source for the time being as we work toward more sustainable sources like wind, solar, and nuclear. Once natural gas has fallen out of favor for heat and electricity it will still have some interesting using, perhaps in making hydrogen. In the meantime, we should do what we can to make natural gas a little more economically sensible and a lot less polluting by stopping methane leaks, capturing some of its emissions, and looking for alternative processes for gathering it.
Wind and solar are cheap and Ohio doesn’t use it enough. Western Ohio makes a great land for wind farms (but maybe we try and tweak designs to kill less birds and take up less space). Ohio is a huge producer of solar panels and we can produce many more as the country and the world adopts solar energy. An industry worth building up. As to solar in Ohio, well we have a lot of empty rooftops that would be ideal. Just don’t go wasting land on it.
Nuclear, the atomic wonder, all our feverish dreams of potential from way back in the 20th century. Let’s bring it back, but smaller, better. Small modular reactors can make nuclear competitive and we’ll need the energy density only nuclear fuels like uranium and thorium can provide to power Ohio’s reindustrialization. Tie it all together with a smartgrid and batteries. You’ve got yourself a whole new twenty-first century Ohio and the foundation for a powerhouse economy.
Completely achievable with Ohio’s existing resources. We have the people, the industry, the technology, and the knowhow. All that’s left is for a government that’s willing to rally the state and strive for more.