I'm not one to flog corporate green marketing stuff, but in this case I'll make an exception. I can't attest to the validity or accuracy of the presentation, but I've found the numbers being shared by Exelon, and their general attitude about green energy and stakeholder engagement, to be encouraging. You can see a good example here (note: link opens a large pdf). I'd be curious to hear what Joel Makower thinks about it...
I'm intrigued by two things in particular in this report: First, I'm pretty interested in their presentation of their carbon abatement cost curve (pages 3-4). I think they've done it in a funny way, and not necessarily the way I'd like to see (for example, they put some green power techs way down the curve but a closer look shows that net of incentives they should actually be much further up the curve). And as I noted to a colleague at the event, it's a bit funny that utilities like Exelon spent years talking about how cheap nuclear power is, but now that the government is actually willing to throw money at it, they talk about how expensive nuclear is, and gimme gimme gimme. But with those kinds of caveats, I really like this kind of cost curve analysis and wish it was a requirement for all major utilities. And note how crucial energy efficiency, existing nuclear plant improvements (not new-build), new natgas plants, and wind power (net of incentives) are for this utility.
Secondly, on their website, I'm gratified to see a clear indication that they see environmental strategy as an area where they can actually create a competitive advantage, not just something to be managed to avoid downside risk. I can't tell you if they truly believe that and act that way, but the message itself is very much in line with arguments we were making a decade and a half ago in the business sustainability movement. And it still holds true today.
John Rowe of Exelon spoke at the MIT Energy Conference, which is what drew my attention to the above literature. But Rowe's speech was also pretty interesting, coming out strongly for pricing carbon and against renewable energy standards. Below are some quotes I jotted down (apologies for any scribble-induced inaccuracies):
"Every $10/ton in the price of carbon to us is an extra penny per kwh we'll have to charge. It would cost us an additional 5-10 cents, from our current 11 cents per kwh average, if we were asked to do all new nukes, wind and solar [under a renewable energy standard, for example]. The public is willing to believe the [climate change] problem is real. Most people polled, however, didn't like carbon tax or cap and trade because they thought it would cost them money. But they loved the renewable energy standard, because they thought it was free."
"I support the renewable energy standard of Bingaman, but that's because he recognizes the limits of how far we can go. You run real risks when setting energy policy by mercantilism, we're not good at having Congress pick technologies. We need carbon cap and trade and a moderate level of support for specific policies. We need to harness the market. It's better at correcting mistakes than government is. But the market needs to be constrained by policy as well."
"The EPA has clear mandates to regulate carbon, mercury, coal ash, and new source performance. Coal-burning power plants have to navigate a labyrinth, it's an endless series of hammer blows on existing coal fleets. The EPA is frustrated that they can't synchronize these regulations, to shut down smaller less efficient plants and do more with newer cleaner coal plants, but they don't have the authority to do so. It's an expensive mess, which will reduce carbon, but neither effectively or efficiently."
"We can't make sense of nuclear with $5 natural gas. We need $8 gas and $25/ton carbon in the forecast for it to make sense... The key driver of change is the cost of natural gas. Gas you use to back up wind power became cheaper -- that's what made wind cost effective."
"Some significant portion can be solved by efficiency and upgrading nuclear plants. After that, the next thing is natural gas, replacing inefficient gas or coal. It's much cheaper than sexier things we would want to do. After that, wind, then new nuclear. Solar is still very expensive."
"One advantage these new technologies have is that they can be implemented smaller scale. As innovation happens, it's not as big of a problem for the utility. Nuclear plants take so long to build that the utility is really worried about picking a wrong technology. Nuclear's problem is that it's big and chunky."
"Every month or so I call up my friend Rahm Emanuel and ask him if it's time to push for a carbon tax yet. [He makes it clear it's not going to happen.] So it looks like cap and trade, if anything. In order to get to a bill that could work, you'll need to put in a price cap, some kind of $10-20/ton collar, with a real escalator in place. Need to put in a renewable energy standard like Bingaman's, with something similar for nuclear, and then you have a good start."
It's always fun to wander the exhibit halls and poster boards at tech-driven conferences like MITEC and ARPA-E. Here are some tech development efforts that caught my attention:
Low temperature solid oxide fuel cells -- research at the University of Maryland, to bring SOFC operating temps to around 400C. High conductivity electrolytes, and novel electrode materials. ...Although now that Bloom has solved all problems for SOFC forever, you have to wonder what the point is...
Geothermal electricity coupled with CO2 sequestration -- being researched at the University of Minnesota. Essentially using CO2 as the working fluid. I'm not sure how restrictive the geological and geographic requirements would be, however...
Nano-dipole PV -- research at the University of Toledo. This ARPA-E finalist is pursuing "fourth generation PV" in the form of "junctionless PV." This nanoparticle approach is at the very early stages, but they will be testing it with existing thin-film PV materials as well as some new systems like liquid PV, and enhanced photoelectrochemical cells.
Thermoacoustic cooling technology -- research at PARC looking to more than double the efficiency of traditional vapor compression systems for air conditioning.
Carbon labeling -- the Carbon-Efficient Supply Chains Research Group at MIT is working on developing methodologies and labels to be able to help consumers better understand the carbon impact of products they buy. First off? A banana! Why? I don't know... But it would be interesting to see some rating system that could be broadly applied at the retail level.
Microchannel reactors for Fischer-Tropsch -- We're seeing more efforts to capture syngas from distributed waste streams, but what to do with it when F-T based plants to generate liquid fuels are typically so big and expensive? New research into microchannel reactors might be able to bring economically-viable FT reactor scale down by 80-95%.
Higher power density flow batteries -- While flow batteries remain too expensive for broad use as a grid-scale energy storage technology, United Technologies Research Center is working on technologies brought over from PEM fuel cells to bring flow battery power density up 4x or better, which would thus significantly reduce system cost.