Environmentalism Vs. Optimism

It’s a fine line to walk between being an “environmentalist” and being a renewable energy lobbyist or advocate. The connotation associated with environmentalism precludes an adamant environmentalist from maintaining consistent logic in the face of strong opposition. Such opponents are often unwilling to listen to one word out of an environmentalist’s mouth. Environmentalists are tree huggers, some say, and therefore have no place in the decision-making of wide-scale energetic dilemmas.

Smart Grid

Therein lies the dilemma inherent in renewable energy advocacy: while a renewable energy lobbyist or advocate may pursue a completely logical, economical, and tactical energy policy (for example: let’s build all new power plants with renewable energy since it requires no fuel input, and thus lowers our fuel imports), their logic is usually confounded with environmentalism and so it loses strength and efficacy. The result is a rejection of the renewable energy proponent’s ideas and logic.

Personally, I’ve found it quite challenging to make the distinction between being an environmentalist and believing in the benefits of renewable energy. Yet, this delineation is so utterly important, because in the field of renewable energy activism, one immediately loses half the audience if labeled an environmentalist.

Almost daily, I must field the incessant, but still cumbersome question: “You’re an environmentalist, right?”

 

Smart Grid - Infrastructure

No, not really at all. I’m a political philosopher. I’m an economist. I like logic. I believe in humanity. I believe in social progress. I’m a futurist, a forward thinker. I examine the present in the light of the past, and looking towards the future (to paraphrase Keynes). Sure I believe in some forms of renewable energy, but think other supposed renewable energies (ahem, corn-ethanol) are usurping the term for their own benefit; and in fact, use more energy than they create.

I have no problem acknowledging the importance of fossil fuels to the world economy.

Yes, I believe fossil fuels could become irrelevant one day. No, I don’t think renewable energy can completely replace conventional energy right now. But yes, I do think more and more people should be involved in energy decisions, thought processes, innovations, explorations. The more people involved, the better chance for creating new, innovative renewable energy.

When attempting to explain to my family, close friends, or other acquaintances what I do (which albeit is difficult because presently I work in several somewhat divergent fields), almost immediately I’m labeled an ‘environmentalist’.

This is usually how it goes:”So what are you doing right now; what is it that you do?” My typical reply: “Well, for example, last week I attended a conference discussing the technological innovations behind battery storage, in order for us to harness and use more renewable energy. Renewable energy is basically energy derived from the earth that does not require a constant input including solar energy, wind energy, or geothermal energy—though others certainly exist.”

The response: “Oh okay, I get it. So you’re an environmentalist.” “No”, I say, “I’m simply a logical thinker focused on the best, most holistic solutions for societies around the world. By using energy more efficiently, and deriving it more directly, we as mankind are moving forward. Renewable energy is not environmentalism; it is logical human progress.”

The most ironic part is that this thought actually comes from a self-preserving, almost selfish, prescience: I’d like my grandchildren to breathe clean air. I’m actually concerned about the extension of my bloodline more than the environment.

The simplest way I can describe what I do is to declare that I work in energy awareness. The more people I can convince to examine their own energy use, or investigate renewable energy technology, and the highly beneficial part they personally can play in the subject, the more successful I will be. I’m sort of a renewable energy lobbyist without the paycheck. There are several I.O.U.s out there that someday I may collect, if one day I’m associated with the progenitor of such efforts.

Renewable energy is logical energy because once built and installed, it requires very little human input or raw material input. In other words, no coal, oil, natural gas, or uranium needs to be trucked to a solar or geothermal power plant after it is built. This allows us to use our computer technology to very effectively monitor and control energy within localities; this will ultimately increase energy efficiency dramatically.

If, for instance, a computer system is in charge of controlling a solar energy power plant, it can precisely dispatch electricity across the grid as required; it can store excess energy in batteries, steam, molten salt, hydro-pumps, or fly wheels, as needed. That stored energy can then be dispatched when it is needed.

Stationary Energy Storage

On the other hand, a conventional power plant such as a nuclear reactor, must run 24/365 at full capacity, wasting as much as 75% of all the energy it has created; or a coal power plant which is largely at the mercy of human error, takes many hours to power up and down; and therefore, cannot respond to actual societal needs.

To me, the former renewable energy technology is a significant step forward for human civilization. Though it may be shortsighted to immediately convert all power plants around the world to renewable energy, (since the technology keeps getting better (Moore’s Law), it does make sense to carefully begin implementing the technology within reason.

The Merriam-Webster’s definition of environmentalism is this: “a theory that views environment rather than heredity as the important factor in the development and especially the cultural and intellectual development of an individual or group; advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment; especially the movement to control pollution.” This brings up one more important point: renewable energy lobbyists must back away from arguing within a “carbon frame”, or arguing in favor of renewable energy in order to stymie the negative effects of carbon emissions. Arguing in this frame lays the game wide open for manipulation by advocates of “lower carbon emission” energies such as nuclear and natural gas.

I suppose I am guilty of having an emotional tie to renewable energy. I’d like my children and grandchildren to inherit a life similar to mine. I feel very fortunate to have been given a beautiful, luscious, hospitable planet.

I believe in space exploration but think colonization of another planet is far away. I think logically about the earth’s resources. Sure, I care about the environment but that comes after my first two core beliefs: I believe in humanity and progress. Conventional energies are no longer progressive, though at one point they were. Humanity must begin to bind together to coherently create new energies. This collective exploration and implementation must begin now.

Picture Sources:  James Provost & Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Portugal’s Renewable Energy Job Creation

Little introduction is needed to the debate about the Keystone Oil Pipeline which was postponed viaPresident Obama’s executive order. Nor has the controversial proposed pipeline been lacking in public commentary (over 1 million comments, some of which can be found here). The nexus between the overall health of the world economy, the future of the world’s energy supply, and sustained jobs is perhaps one of the most diabolical challenges of the modern era. It is thus imperative to step back and take a concerted, informed examination of this nexus.

The high price of renewable energy and the lack of concrete evidence of the industry’s ability to create jobs are cited as two primary reasons not to put forth stronger government policy during the current economic downturn. Many people argue: “renewables are great, but let’s wait until the prices come down”; or, “the creation of jobs is a myth and frequently exaggerated.” Fervent supporters of conventional energy argue that the Keystone Oil Pipeline is needed to create many jobs and energy today. But what kind of jobs will these be and will they be permanent? Although the pipeline will clearly create a large amount of short-term construction jobs, merely 35 permanent jobs are predicted by the US Government.

On the other side of the debate lies the opinion that the renewable energy industry can and does create jobs that are permanent and employ high-skilled laborers; high-skilled positions, in comparison to short-term construction jobs, invariably add more value to the economy. However, this claim is often arbitrarily made without concrete evidence. Where are the jobs? What constitutes a job in the renewable energy industry? How can these be sustainable after, for example, wind turbines have been completed? What does the renewable energy supply chain look like?

An interesting case to begin unpacking these complex questions occurs in Portugal.This country has surprised many, including European policymakers, by implementing a vast amount of renewable energy in a small time period (36% of the country’s final energy consumption is powered by renewable energy—one quarter of which is comprised of wind energy).

The Portuguese renewable energy economy may serve as a counterargument against the Keystone Pipeline because it offers concrete evidence that these jobs are highly-skilled and permanent. The construction of an oil pipeline offers a small amount of long term jobs because, once constructed, the pipeline is used to simply push conventional energy through. On the other hand, renewable energy technology requires maintenance, monitoring, training, dissemination, and other innovations. Such jobs are permanent and more numerous than conventional energy jobs.

The Portuguese example offers a clear picture of the renewable energy industry’s capacity to create and sustain jobs. A reasonable estimate of the amount of jobs created from the renewable energy and energy efficiency industry is 55,000-65,000 (in a country with only ten million people that is nearly 10% of the workforce).Though each country is unique and encounters its own set of problems associated with energy creation and supply, the data from Portugal offers some answers to the debate for or against renewable energy in a sluggish economy. Accurate data has been kept about the renewable energy sector in Portugal,
due partly to government policy and also to the utility EDP (Energias de Portugal), which was once government-owned before the 2011 “troika” of bailout loaners (ECB, EC, IMF).

Portugal’s crowning political and industrial achievement in the renewable energy economy occurred with the development of the “Wind Energy Industrial Cluster”, created in 2005 by a consortium of companies including Enercon, neo energia, Finerge, Generg SGPS, Sonae. The energy  cluster consists of 29 companies surrounding the core Enercon wind turbine factory manifested from the idea to transform an old industrial center, which had fallen into decadence since the 1980s, into a wind energy industrial center whereby all design, production, shipping—in short, all wind turbine construction, was confined to the area.

The ramifications of this innovative policy idea are numerous. Portugal’s impetus for changing their energy sources came from the fact that nearly 50% of its debt was tied to conventional energy sources. From the years 2004 through 2009, Portugal installed on average 500 MW of wind power, due in large part to the innovation, design, and manufacturing of wind technology in the industrial cluster. At the same time, renewable energy as a percentage of primary energy grew from 17% to 45% of total energy sources.

A Harvard Kennedy School paper estimated that $1 million in spending on energy will create 5 jobs in conventional energies and 17 jobs in renewable energy. Similarly, another study (by Pollin, Heintz, and Garrett-Peltier 2009: 30) shows that spending a given amount of money on a clean-energy investment agenda generates approximately 3.2 times the number of jobs within the United States as does spending the same amount of money within the fossil fuel sectors. In the U.S. In 2011 the wind industry accounted for 75,000 direct jobs (and this excludes thousands more indirect jobs).

Is it still fair to deem renewable energies too costly and without economic benefit in light of the Portuguese experience? With clear and unambiguous data, it becomes clear that renewable energy is among the only growing industries in a sluggish economy in Portugal. Perhaps some other countries may learn from this experience, and begin to understand that less importing of conventional energies must inherently mean a stronger balance of payments for its government.

The time is due to clarify our views about conventional energy and job creation. There is no better time to dissect the nexus between the overall health of the world economy, the potential increase in human health resulting from the integration of more renewable energy, and the creation of jobs. The Keystone pipeline will create jobs but let us understand that the bulk of these jobs will be short-lived. On the other hand, significantly increasing renewable energy in the U.S. will, without question, create permanent jobs which will undoubtedly power our economy forward into the 21st century.

 

United Nations Climate Goals

I recently attended the Technology Transfer Workshop at the UN as an observer. The name of the conference was “Development, transfer and dissemination of clean and environmentally sound technologies in developing countries.” This workshop was a preliminary discussion which will lead up to the COP post-2015 agenda. The discussion focused on the role of international institutions to facilitate Research & Development in promoting more rapid, widespread and global transfer of environmentally sound technologies. Lack of information flow, capacity building (including intellectual property) and international cooperation were cited as the main gaps in Technology Transfer (TT).

The intellectual Property (IP) regimes are built in order to exploit the positive externality that exists between the social values of disclosing inventions being greater than the direct value to inventors. Exclusive rights to inventors are meant to stimulate innovation, by offering compensation and protection for innovation in both the social and technological space. Tension arises when IP regimes butt up against sustainable development objectives because, for example, developing nations often face capacity challenges. This poses a significant obstacle to more ubiquitous spread of renewable energy technologies around the globe. The overarching question is how to achieve both innovation and incentive within the framework of international renewable energy policy goals?

Whereas invention and innovation are driven by the protection and profit from lucrative ideas and technologies, sustainable development often requires more rapid dissemination of these (i.e. renewable energy). For example, deductive reasoning extrapolates the most effective renewable energy technology is pertinent for increasing the use of sustainable energy, not only in developed countries (mostly protecting its patent rights and where it is affordable), but also in developing countries; such developing countries are usually without adequate access to power and where more polluting and expensive sources of energy must be used.

 

United NationsAlexandra Mallet defined the means of Technology Transfer, conventionally, as being the movement of goods and services. This, in turn, creates a donor/recipient (i.e. linear) conventional connection. During the most recent history of TT in this manner, the underlying assumption was that innovation and adaptation were fundamentally linked. Yet this assumption is more often than not wrong; there are many other non-linear impediments to the successful implementation of new technologies, especially in burgeoning industries.

At several points during the conference, the triple-helix (and once even the quadruple-helix) was cited as crucial to TT in RE. The triple helix is the combination of life-blood between the public sector, government and academia (with the quadruple helix including civil society). This seems to be a recurring theme in all renewable energy policy debates, and is thus revealing that even in the United Nations political sphere it continues to impede policy goals.

Errot Levy, Delegation of the EU to the U.S., highlighted the point that it must be more important to focus less on TT and more on impacts for the solutions provided. The point here is that social acceptance and local implementation severely overshadows technology—if locals don’t believe in solar energy because of a past failure, it will be difficult to even donate solar cookers. Finance schemes are utterly crucial to mend this tripartite dilemma.  Horizon 2020, an important financial instrument for such endeavors, spells out concrete ways of doing this.

The conclusion is that renewable energy technology and innovative financial instruments must be examined in tandem. In the absence of financial instrument capable of smoothing the flow and payment of technologies for developing countries, clustering technology and innovation centers can work. Examples of renewable energy innovation centers are the Portuguese wind energy cluster and Bonn’s (Germany) innovation technology center. In these cities policy goals spelled out ways to integrate business with civil society, government, and academia. The results are quite positive: Whereas Portugal, a poorer EU country, now has some of the most promising wind energy technologies in the world;Germany continues to spearhead its renewable energy policy goals through cutting-edge research from Bonn.

 

Kant and the Clean Energy Imperative

BalanceDo you shut the light off when exiting a public restroom? What are the ramifications of not doing this? Did you ever think by shutting off that light you’d be sparing the earth’s atmosphere from a few more ounces of coal emissions? Or perhaps you may have thought an extra kilowatt of energy saved today can be used by my grandchildren in fifty years.

 

Though saving energy for future use is not directly connected with renewable energy distribution, it will play a deciding role in its future success. That is because renewable energy, at the moment, cannot provide the amount of energy required to run the world. However, with more efficient use of our energy in transportation, industry, and personal use, renewable energy could power the world.

 

At the moment this world runs very inefficiently and much of the predominating thinking, especially in the United States, is not in line with saving energy to promote renewable energy. It is just not something that is thought of and discussed daily. This is evident in the various buildings, homes, and public areas lighted up during all hours of the night. Upon first visitng Europe, one is hard pressed to find a restroom not equipped with motion senser lights that shut off when they are unoccupied. This adds to the incremental saving of energy for society, and leads to a more efficient country, which ultimately will add up to a richer nation.

 

The saving of one parcel of energy, or increment of energy with the intent to save it for future use was named a negwatt. It was coined by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute who, in thinking of the physiological characteristics of human energy use, presupposed that humans don’t actually want to buy electricity they want to buy services that use electricity. At present these services are our Ipads, 3-D televisions, Androids, and Tivos. Saving energy, Lovins theorized, “may be the biggest goldmine in the whole economy.” (The Negawatt Revolution)

 

The energy services provider (or ESCO) of the future will sufficiently capitalize on these needs. Many ESCOS in the US are primarily government-owned entities which could constrain their individual ability to create innovative energy solutions for customers. Such services need to decouple increasing energy from increasing revenue. A  re-coupling should be made with increasing revenue with increasing energy services provided. Consumers of energy need to be aware of the energy needs, and daily should connect these needs to future financial stability, for their families and the whole of society.

 

Climate ChangeA recent article by Mads Greaker, et al. (A Kantian approach to sustainable development indicators for climate change )  examined the perils of global climate change under the lens of Kantian ethics. Among the thousands of pages of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical arguments lies the categorical imperative. In essence the categorical imperative, according to Kant, means that each person should, in each individual action, act according to a law that could be at once beneficial to the whole of mankind (“Act as if the maxim of your action was to become through your will a universal law of nature”). Greaker et al. expound upon this idea in relation to climate change ideologies:

“In the case of climate change, we interpret Kantian ethics that each person should act  according to a “universal law.                However, since the imperative “do not emit GHG” is an imperfect duty, there is no such thing as one “ideal” and sufficient global treaty on climate change. Rather, the sufficient global treaty has to be defined by the nation state itself before it can start to act as if this  treaty were in place. ” (Greaker et al.)

Similarly, other writers have explored Kant’s philosophy as it pertains to the global resources and theenvironment.

 

If more people thought in line with the energy categorical imperative, the implementation of renewable energy will be much smoother. Of course it is a difficult undertaking to alter large masses of human consciousness. This is where media and advertising come in. This is also where ESCOs, many being tied to the government, can play a pivotal part.

 

Many have already set up programs to encourage energy conservation and renewable energy, but public knowledge and understanding of such programs is severely lacking. Furthermore, evidence of successful cases is difficult to find. However, some examples are provided by Joan Fitzgerald in her book, Emerald Cities. In this book, cities across the continental US are studied to discover unique and individual energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions. Yet it is also revealed that many energy efficiency programs are not promoted properly and often misunderstood by the public. The information packaged in such robust policy plans, such as the National Energy Efficiency Program, are not easily disseminated to customers.

 

This renders public energy efficiency programs underutilized and over-scrutinized. Because people do not understand such policy initiatives, and the ESCOs largely fail to convey this energetic information, programs that will incrementally decrease household energy use may fizzle out. Misunderstanding leads to non-acceptance—something which easily kills new and emerging technologies. This will preclude the large-scale implementation of renewable energy which can only happen through decreased energy use and more knowledge.

 

A highly innovative company, or a well-informed investor, might play both sides of the energy efficiency and renewable energy coin. It might provide renewable energy at first, for instance building large wind farms, then offer energy efficiency programs in order to better adapt the intermittent wind energy into the grid. This would benefit both sides of its core business: providing energy to power customer’s luxuries and industries’ profitable businesses. The well-timed investor might very quickly reverse the paucity of financing in the clean energy industry—an industry forecasted to garner anywhere from $200 billion to $1 trillion in investmentthrough 2020.

 

Energy CertificatePerhaps it is a lot to ask for everyone to follow the categorical imperative when walking out of a public a restroom. I know I often fail to switch the light off because I simply forget—my mind is not trained to do that apparently mundane task. But maybe in several decades time, when renewable energy systems pervade the landscape, and utility bills are more directly tied to individualized productive energy services, individuals will begin to train their minds to conserve energy for economic benefit and future ancestor’s use

The Macroeconomics of Portuguese Renewable Energy

The high price of renewable energy and the lack of concrete evidence of the industries’ ability to create jobs are cited as two primary reasons not to put forth stronger government policy during the current economic downturn. Many people argue renewables are great, but let’s wait until the prices come down; or, the creation of jobs is a myth and frequently exaggerated.

On the other side of the debate lies the opinion that the renewable energy industry can and does create jobs that are permanent. However this claim is often made without evidence. Where are the jobs? What constitutes a job in the renewable energy industry? How can these be sustainable after, for example, wind turbines have been completed and operate nearly free of maintenance? What does the renewable energy supply chain look like?

An interesting case to begin unpacking these complex questions occurs in Portugal. This country has surprised many, including even European policymakers, by implementing a vast amount of renewable energy in a small time period. (The plan calls for Portugal (which has already surpassed the EU’s “20 percent by 2020” target) to generate 31 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, generating some 135,000 jobs). This has all been done in a tight economy (one might recall that Portugal has not been a rich country since its discovery of resources in the New World during the 15th and 16th centuries).

The Portuguese example offers a clear picture of the renewable energy industries’ capacity to create and sustain jobs. Though each country is unique and encounters its own set of problems associated with energy creation and supply, the data from Portugal offers some answers to the debate for or against renewable energy in a sluggish economy. Accurate data has been kept about the renewable energy sector in Portugal, due partly to government policy and also to EDP (Energias de Portugal), which was government-owned before the 2011 troika.

During the past several decades, and most obviously in the past few years, the Portuguese economy has been stagnant. Economic growth was bolstered by joining the euro, but this was for the most part short lived and the country had to be bailed out by the Troika in 2011. Despite these economic woes, Portugal, through certain policies, initiated several renewable energy projects which have led to significant increases in GDP, job growth, innovative technologies, and local policy innovation in the renewable energy space.

One such project was the “Wind Energy Industrial Cluster” created in 2005 by a consortium of companies including (Enercon, neo energia, Finerge, Generg SGPS, Sonae). The idea was to transform an old industrial center, which had since the 1980’s fallen into decadence, into a wind energy industrial center whereby all design, production, shipping—in short all wind turbine construction, was confined to the area. The ramifications of this innovative idea are numerous.

Portugal’s impetus for changing their energy sources came from the fact that nearly 50% of its debt was tied to conventional energy sources. From the years 2004 through 2009, Portugal installed on average 500 MW of wind power. At the same time, renewable energy as a percentage of primary energy grew from 17% to 45% of total energy sources. From 2005 to 2010, the percent of Portugal’s energy from renewable sources grew from 17 percent to 45 percent.

Wind Energy Industrial Cluster______________________________________________

The Portuguese wind energy industrial cluster consists of 29 companies surrounding the core Enercon wind turbine factory. The cluster provides all products in the value chain for manufacturing and installing turn-key wind farms. This includes fiberglass factories. steel factories for turbine towers, transformer factories, electrical equipment and installation factories, crane companies.

A major component of ENEOP’s successful bid for tender is its commitment to install, in Portugal, an industrial complex to manufacture the components of the advanced ENERCON wind turbines. The ENEOP3 industrial complex, as planned by ENEOP and its subsidiary includes the opening of 5 new plants and a R&D and training centre in the Viana do Castelo region. This region enjoys an old industrial tradition whose economic activity has suffered from the restructuring of the 1980’s (http://www.eneop.pt/en/canais.asp?id_canal=105).

Due in part to the Wind Industrial Cluster, it is estimated that between 55 and 65 thousand people work in the renewable energy industry in Portugal (total population ten million). Of course job creation, especially in the field of energy, is very difficult to measure. However, in Portugal’s case where in the past nearly all their fuel was imported, it is fair to say jobs have increased substantially from the renewable energy industry—jobs that otherwise would be located abroad using foreign workers to bring fuel to the country. A recent study by NYC estimated that $1 million in spending on energy will create 5 jobs in conventional energies and 17 jobs in renewable energy.

Is it still fair to deem renewable energies too costly and without benefit to the economy in light of the Portuguese experience? With clear and unambiguous data, it becomes clear that renewable energy is among the only growing industries in a sluggish economy in Portugal. Perhaps some other countries may learn from this experience, and begin to understand that less importing of conventional energies must inherently mean a stronger balance of payments for its government.

Drilling Doesn’t Always Need to be Dirty

Also published on the Cleanedison blog.

At the Geothermal Energy Association conference (GEA) in New York, many compelling presentations conveyed the benefits of this relatively obscure renewable energy source. Its benefits go beyond simply limiting harmful emissions, which are largely associated with conventional energies. Geothermal energy supplies a consistent source of electricity, unlike some other renewable energies, which makes it attractive to investors. Despite high capital costs due to exploration of geothermal sources, operating costs for geothermal remain low. This is due to not requiring fuel after the power plant is constructed.

The high cost of renewable energy is a common argument against building such power plants in developed countries, and this misconception also keeps many investors away. Yet, at the GEA conference it was shown that even lesser developed countries, such as Kenya (202 MW of installed geothermal) and El Salvador(204 MW), have already begun to install significant amounts of geothermal. Furthermore, if the leveled cost of a power plant is taken into account, including capital and operating costs, geothermal energy is the cheapest source apart from wind; the latter being an intermittent source. One must wonder why many more developed countries have not yet taken to this kind of energy?

Is it a Reliable Energy Source?

Geothermal energy is a renewable energy found abundantly around the globe. The technology takes advantage of the earth’s subterranean thermal energy. It has been used to produce heat for humans for thousands of years (think Roman bathhouses). Using geothermal energy for electricity began in Italy in 1904 in a plant in operation since then.

Today, twenty-four countries around the world employ geothermal energy to produce energy on a large scale. Total geothermal energy used worldwide is estimated to be 11,224 MW (GEA 2012). The top four countries utilizing geothermal are the U.S.(3,386 Megawatts), Philippines(1,904 MW), Indonesia(1,222 MW), Mexico(958), and Italy(883 MW). These numbers are not small considering it takes 1-2 Megawatts to power 1,000 homes. Yet, geothermal electrical energy in the U.S.only accounts for about 3% of all its renewable energy sources. However, an additional 5,150-5,523MW are under commission or “in the pipeline” (GEA estimate).

 

How does it work?

Geothermal energy is, by the nature of the technology, completely dependent on unmovable resources—the location of reservoirs beneath the earth’s crust. Wherever geothermal reservoirs happen to lie beneath the earth’s surface, there is potential to tap into its energy. However, new research has allowed developers to use geothermal energy in many more places in the world because it is now possible to tap into reservoirs with much lower temperatures and still produce electricity (by using what is called a binary plant).

Three types of electrical geothermal energy exist: flash, dry steam, and binary (as well as some hybrids). In a flash plant, water and steam are separated at the earth’s surface, with the steam used to power a turbine, which in turn creates electrical energy. In a dry steam plant, steam already exists and thus a separator is not required. Binary geothermal plants, employing new technology, require much lower temperatures (300 Fahrenheit as opposed to 500+ for the others). In this type of plant, the hot water is used to heat another “working fluid”, (such as pentafluoropropane), which can reach higher temperature more easily than water. The evaporating water (or steam) is mimicked by these working fluids to drive a turbine the same as a conventional geothermal plant.

Geothermal technologies tied to production of electrical energy are not feasible in many parts of the world which are far away from hot water reservoirs. However, the constant temperature of the earth’s core provides another ingenious way to heat and cool buildings (thermal energy), using the same concepts. Geothermal heat pumps (GHPs) pull heat down from a building during the summer; while in the winter, heat is driven up. This system can be used in virtually every corner of the globe to regulate building air temperatures and to produce hot water.

Bringing Light to Africa

Geothermal KenyaIf Kenya can develop geothermal energy on a grand scale, the technology is most likely proven and financeable. The Kenyan government has been largely responsible for the recent success of geothermal development projects. Through the Geothermal Development Company, (an autonomous state-owned company formed in 2009), the government mitigates the risk of geothermal plants; financial risks often impossible for the private sector to absorb.

This helps secure much needed foreign direct investment, without which would stymie exploration and procurement. Another clever policy tool employed by the Kenyan government was setting the import duty on renewable energy equipment and accessories to zero. This lessened the burden of importing expensive parts from around the world for renewable energy plants.

Geothermal energy in Kenya already accounts for nearly 16% of its total supply. Africa was once considered The Dark Continent, but may soon be lighting up with help from geothermal energy and other renewable energy sources. Indeed, Kenya is an integral part to Africa’s energy revolution.

Drill, baby, Drill!

What if developed countries began to seriously consider geothermal as a reliable, efficient, and sustainable energy source? Unlike other renewable energies, such as wind and solar, geothermal energy is not intermittent; meaning that a geothermal power plant can replace a coal or natural gas power plant quite easily.

New policy tools can help alleviate the burden of upfront exploration costs for geothermal energy, as the government of Kenya has done. And although the U.S. government and other governments of developed countries with geothermal energy promote, and in some cases subsidize geothermal energy, it is often confused with other renewable energy technologies. The confusion lies in the assumption that geothermal energy is like wind or solar energy, and is thus relatively new and unreliable.  Whereas the reality is geothermal needs policy that can attract new finance schemes, while also pushing further technological research (research which recently helped develop binary plants).